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Big Brother Instinct

Chapter Text

Light streamed down through the treetops. Leaves rustled softly in the breeze, the only sound breaking the peaceful silence. The forest barely seemed real sometimes.

The flow of time seemed more like a dream. The sun never truly set, night never fell, and the seasons never changed. Even Twilight Town grew brighter and darker with the passing hours, though it never completely lost the softer illumination that the town was named for. They could have been in the forest for weeks or months. There was no way to tell for certain how long it might have for the other worlds though. Only the occasional visit from Merlin broke up the routine.

The Secret Forest wasn't that bad of a place. The peace and almost drowsy feeling would make anyone feel calmer.

Not that either of them were exactly on vacation. Between the attempted magic lessons which mostly involved attacking flying furniture and sparring sessions, they managed to keep quite busy.

Lea stared across the small glade at his opponent, assessing the danger without consciously noticing. She was shorter and younger than him. But she was visibly fit, her muscles surprisingly toned for someone who spent her entire life either hanging out on a tropical island or being kidnapped by various people. Training had only made those muscles stronger, letting her actually put some power behind her moves now. And while her weapon looked delicate, flowery, and impractical, she held it confidently. She was balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to move quickly in any direction including up. And she was watching him just as closely.

His opponent was built to be quick and nimble, making up for her lack of height and general mass with speed, jumping, and a sheer stubborn refusal to back down.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

Grinning, she asked, "Not planning to start without warning this time?"

"Nah. It won't catch you off guard if I try that trick every time."

Fighting back a few giggles, the red-haired girl said, "So you'll just cheat later. I guess that it would be too much to expect anything different from a guy who keeps getting beat by children."

"Teenagers with Keyblades," he replied. "Not exactly the same thing as kids playing with wooden swords."

"With Sora and Riku, there's not much difference."

Chuckling slightly, Lea said, "You still haven't answered the question. What's the problem, Kairi? Where's the girl who didn't even hesitate to dive right into a dark corridor?"

Mentioning their first meeting still caused a stab of guilt, but not as strong as it once did. And he could actually discuss it without being compelled to apologize yet again. Even better, she didn't flinch or grimace at the reminder. The casual and relaxed atmosphere between them remained in place. He would consider that progress for both of them.

Kairi gave a few practice swings of her Keyblade. Her movements were smooth and fluid. Even if it took time for her to build up her strength and endurance with the weapon, she'd shown a knack for the technique from the first day. Using the Keyblade came naturally to the girl. Her mind and instincts knew what to do; it just took time for her body to catch up.

"Ready when you are," she said.

He held out his hand. Unlike when he first started, his Keyblade materialized in his grip without resistance. He gave it a quick spin. Even now, the heft and balance felt wrong to him. After wielding his pair of chakrams for years, the longer weapon felt awkward in comparison. Practice had helped. As had the fact the hilt and guard took the form of his chakrams, the blade itself in the shape of flaring flames. But it wasn't enough to make his new fighting style feel natural. He kept falling back on movements that he would use with his old weapons and while some worked with the Keyblade…

Well, no one ever claimed that his idea to pretty much bully his way into getting a Keyblade would be easy

Without giving the slightest indication that they were starting, Lea lunged forward. But Kairi rolled out of the way. She returned to her feet and spun around in one smooth motion. She swung the Keyblade around, meeting his block hard enough to jolt through Lea's hands.

Definitely stronger than when they started.

"What happened to no sneak attacks this time?" she asked, aiming a strike towards his side.

Twisting to avoid bruised ribs, Lea said, "Real fights aren't fair."

Spinning his Keyblade in his hands, he slipped into a series of swings that mirrored how he would try to slash a Heartless with his chakrams. Kairi easily shifted between blocking, deflecting, and dodging his strikes. By now they were familiar with each others' usual strategies.

"Real fights aren't fair," he repeated between the clangs of weapon strikes. "Most opponents are going to be bigger—" Another sharp hit from Lea. "—stronger—" A swing that met only air as Kairi rolled out of the way. "—and tougher than us. Which means—" He barely blocked a fast strike from her. "—don't fight fair."

Jumping back, Kairi grinned and shouted, "Light!"

Bright glowing orbs shot out of the end of her Keyblade, the surprising move catching him in the chest and knocking him flat on his back. Lea groaned as he rolled back to his feet.

"We agreed no magic for this one," he complained.

"And you just told me not to fight fair." Kairi did look mildly apologetic as he rubbed his chest, the impact still stinging. "Besides, you're just jealous that you can only do Fire spells."

"When you're that good at something, you don't need a bunch of extra tricks," he said.

Kairi chuckled slightly before looking at him in concern, asking, "Are you all right to keep going? If I hit you too hard, I can use Cure."

"Nah. I'm good. We can keep going."

The fight resumed. Lea's height should have given him a significant advantage close up and his tendency to throw his Keyblade meant that he could fight at a distance even without magic, but Kairi seemed to spend half her time leaping into the air and pulling off quick combos that didn't let him use those advantages. Other than a particular spinning leap that she'd started using recently, most of her attacks reminded him of fighting Sora. Or Roxas. Or… or…

Unfortunately, they were both extremely familiar with each other. They knew what types of attacks to expect from the opponents. Which meant that their sparring sessions tended to last a long time due to them dodging and blocking each other.

Hopefully they would be just as good at avoiding attacks whenever they were forced into real combat. Kairi didn't have as much experience in a real fight compared to training and it turned out that he wasn't quite as durable as he was as a Nobody. And Xemnas, Xehanort, and the rest of the new version of the Organization XIII would not go easy on them.

"My, the two of you are showing vast improvement."

The sudden voice made Kairi freeze in surprise and Lea nearly hit her head before he could stop himself mid-swing. Letting his Keyblade dematerialize, he turned his head. Merlin walked into the glade. The old man didn't seem that concern about how ruthlessly they'd been fighting.

Then again, holding back during practice wouldn't help either of them survive a real fight. They both needed to be prepared.

Breathing hard, Kairi said, "Riku and Sora better watch out. Before long, we're going to give them some real competition. We might even have to save them next time."

Lea gave a breathless laugh as he scratched the back of his head. He didn't have any illusions about them being experts, even with their training. But at least they could defend themselves with their new weapons. Lea could use his Keyblade finally. And Kairi could combine her new fighting skills with her Light, Cure, and Fire spells.

Merlin might be responsible for her learning the first two spells, but Lea made certain that Kairi could perform Fire magic.

"Well, while I would prefer to give both of you more time," said Merlin before looking mildly distracted, "though time is relative in this place… and technically you already have more training than Sora and Riku possessed when they began… Regardless, I have been asked to bring you both back. Apparently there's been some interesting developments. So even though this forest doesn't truly have a night or morning, I suggest you both get some rest and I will bring you back when you wake up."

Letting her Keyblade dematerialize, Kairi tucked her hands behind her back and asked, "Is it about Riku and Sora? Did they find Master Aqua and the others? Did they learn something about how to help Naminé and Roxas?"

Her innocent question sparked something deep in Lea's chest. Maybe it was due to the fact that he spent about a decade without a heart or maybe the heart that he started forming as Axel somehow combined with the one he regained as Lea, though he should probably ask Ienzo if that was even possible. Regardless, his emotions always seemed to hit him harder and more intensely than they used to before he became a Nobody. Or maybe he was just more aware of them after their long absence. And after the numb emptiness, he didn't take even the most painful feelings for granted.

The heavy sensation in his chest? The sharp pain that served as a constant companion, a combination of grief, guilt, and regret over losing Roxas tangled up with countless doubts and fears? As bad as it was, he preferred it to feeling nothing.

But not all the feelings were bad. Kairi bringing up the possibility that they could be close to getting his best friend back sparked something warm and bright in his chest. Something that briefly quieted those doubts and fears. Something that she, Sora, and even Riku seemed adept at causing in those around them.

Hope.

"I am afraid that I don't have any details," said Merlin. "But I am quite certain that you will be better prepared to face it with a proper night's sleep. Or at least some sleep, even if there isn't an actual night here."

Crossing his arms and leaning against the closest tree, Lea said, "I suppose if waiting this long for news didn't kill us, one more 'fake day' won't hurt anything. If it was bad, they would have told us already. And honestly, a nap sounds nice."

"And here I thought Sora was the biggest lazy bum around," said Kairi with a wry smile. "I guess Axel wants the title."

"I can spend my vacation however I want. And I think sleeping would be a great way to spend it."

He kept his tone relaxed, but Lea couldn't keep his thoughts from wandering. One more day. Maybe it wouldn't be anything to do with Roxas. They were trying to save a lot of people, after all. Riku and King Mickey updated them on progress when they dropped off the new clothes. Lea knew how many people they were looking for out there. And it might turn out to be impossible to get his best friend back without turning Sora into a Heartless again. But the kid could pull off miracles when he tried. Sora promised to find a way to bring Roxas and Naminé back. And there was something about Sora that, even when you're on the opposite side from him, you wanted to believe in him.

It was his eyes. His trusting and earnest eyes, both too innocent and too insightful. When Sora looked at you with that much determination and faith, anything that the kid said seemed possible.

They were the same eyes that Roxas possessed. The eyes of the amnesiac half-pint that Xemnas and Saïx tossed at Axel to deal with, who he took care of and practically raised during that brief year. Sora and Roxas honestly didn't look alike, but Lea appreciated that small similarity. It reminded him that Roxas wasn't completely gone.

Though it did make him wonder why he kept latching onto children.

Sora was a nice kid, one that Axel could respect and like to an extent even back when he was observing him in Castle Oblivion. Sora's heart was too big for his own good, the kid bonding with almost anyone instantly. Riku seemed to have some sense in his head and anyone who could keep the Organization running in circles for so long was definitely impressive. Not to mention that Riku was brave and determined enough to drag himself out of darkness by pure stubbornness. Both of them were also stronger than they looked. And Kairi was a bright, patient, and forgiving girl. One that just wanted to be strong enough to stand with the people that she cared about. She wanted to be able to protect them in return. Who wouldn't like a kid like that?

But even with the Organization, he took the youngest member under his wing beyond what he was ordered to, teaching Roxas about the world and trying to keep him safe even as the other members grew more hostile. He tried. He tried so hard, but Lea knew that he messed up so badly with him…

Lea's family was never close, what little family that he once possessed, even before he lost his heart and Radiant Garden fell to ruin. But he remembered being an only child and spending all his time with Isa instead of parents that barely seemed to remember his presence. The closest thing to a sibling that he ever had was the slightly older boy that he used to consider his friend.

So how did he end up hanging around with a bunch of kids like he was the big brother of the team?


Whenever they had some spare time between magic lessons, sparring, and general training, Kairi always seemed to find herself drawn to the cliff edge. The beautiful view of the landscape always seemed to relax her. It was different from staring out at the ocean, something that she'd done countless times during her childhood on Destiny Islands. It was different, but still peaceful and nice.

Because time didn't flow like normal, the sun didn't move through the sky. It always remained near the horizon. Kairi liked to think that they were stuck in a constant morning, the golden light too pretty to be anything else. But Lea mentioned that he preferred sunsets, so she suspected he viewed it as an eternal sunset instead.

Kairi smiled slightly, shifting on the rock that she'd claimed as a seat. When they first arrived and started training together, everything was a little awkward between them. Not just because of Lea's difficulties summoning and using his Keyblade, which initially meant that she accidentally hit him a lot while sparring. No, the awkwardness came from their past history. From Axel kidnapping her to use as bait for Sora.

But she gave him a second chance even as she remained on guard for the first few "days." And with more time getting to know him and seeing how different he was from that first meeting, Kairi gradually forgave him and grew more comfortable around the man. It took even longer for him to stop apologizing all the time and relax enough to start joking around with her during practice. They managed to settle into something friendly. It wasn't quite like being with Sora and Riku, but there was a similarity to it.

She did miss the two of them. No matter how hard that they tried to reach each other, they always seemed to be pulled apart. Even when Riku and King Mickey visited briefly to drop off new clothes, it wasn't enough time. She missed the days of playing on the island, splashing in the ocean, and staring at the horizon together as the sun set on another peaceful day. She missed having her best friends around. She was tired of being left behind or on the sidelines. Kairi looked forward to being able to stand with them as an equal again. And someday, when everyone was saved and the worlds were no longer in danger, she wanted to go back to that beach with them.

Funny. Once, they wanted to go off together and have adventures. Just the three of them on a raft. Now, she would be just as happy to be back home. As long as they could be together, it didn't really matter where. She just wanted to be with them.

"I know that look."

She glanced up as Lea stepped away from the tree line. She still didn't know how any of them could actually fight while wearing the long black coats. Kairi certainly didn't try running around the island in a full-length dress, after all. Not to mention that the thick leather-like material always looked way too hot to be comfortable, no matter how much protection that it offered against the darkness. But even when the three fairies created the two of them new clothes, Lea kept the black coat. He claimed that it made him memorable.

Kairi suspected that he wore it because Roxas wouldn't remember him wearing anything else and he was the one that Lea wanted to recognize him.

"What look?" she asked quietly.

"You're thinking about Sora and Riku. You miss your friends. And probably worrying about them too." Lea sat down next to her. "But those two are tougher than they look. Kind of like you. And you heard Merlin. You'll get to see them tomorrow."

"And if the news is what we think it is, you might get to see Roxas then too."

Lea looked away, scratching the back of his head. But a small and wistful smile tugged at his mouth, doubting and yet hopeful. Even a blind person would see that he missed his best friend as much as she missed hers. It might even be the reason why he requested that she should call him "Axel." Just like wearing the black coat, it was something familiar from his time with Roxas.

In the end, for all their differences, she and Lea were surprisingly similar. They both just wanted to be with their friends again.

"You know," he said, clearly trying to steer the conversation in a slightly different direction, "I halfway remember that someone mentioned that, before you ended up on Destiny Islands, you used to live in Radiant Garden?"

Kairi nodded and said, "I was very small when everything happened. When all those Heartless swarmed out, attacked everyone, and…"

"And Radiant Garden was left in ruins," he said.

"Hollow Bastion." She turned her gaze back to the horizon. "I don't even remember much about what happened. I was too little. I remember it being dark. People were screaming and running. And I remember being scared and I couldn't find Grandma. And... something happened... But then I remember waking up on the beach, the bright sun and the cool waves replacing everything that frightened me before. Everyone assumed that I was washed up by a storm. I didn't know how I got there and I couldn't tell anyone what happened. I still don't understand it honestly. But however it happened, it kept me safe and led me to my best friends."

Shifting slightly, Lea said, "Several of the original Organization XIII used to live at Radiant Garden before becoming Nobodies. All the original apprentices of Ansem the Wise, for example."

"And you?"

Grinning, Lea said, "You got it. I was close to your age now when it all went wrong, but I used to live there. I might have even seen you at some point."

"Funny how things work out, huh?"

"Master Yen Sid would probably comment on destiny while Sora would talk about hearts being connected," said Lea in a dry tone that caused Kairi to giggle. He smiled at her reaction. "But I was just thinking about how Sora and Riku remind me of a couple of boys that used to live at Radiant Garden back then."

Leaning forward, Kairi said, "Oh? Really?"

Chuckling slightly, he said, "Yep. One was impulsive and excited to meet new people. To make new friends and be remembered. Honestly, looking back? He was a weird kid." He chuckled again at the memory. "But if someone had handed him a Keyblade and tossed him in a Gummi Ship, he probably would have reacted the same way Sora did and eagerly jump into the role of hero. The other boy was calmer. He was smarter and more sensible about things. But he wasn't above teasing his friend. But if the younger one ever got into trouble, he would do everything in his power to protect him. And they were always getting into some kind of trouble. Usually because the younger one came up with a crazy idea like sneaking into the castle while the older one tried to be the voice of reason even as he joined in. And to get them some ice cream afterwards. But they did everything together. They were—"

"Best friends?"

"Back then, yes," he said, growing quieter. "And everything seemed so simple in those days."

Kairi stared at him silently. The wistful and longing hints threaded through his voice made her think that these were more than just some boys that he occasionally saw back then. They meant something to him beyond the similarities to Sora and Riku. Maybe Lea was friends with the pair growing up.

"Maybe they got out of Radiant Garden in time," she said gently. "Several people ended up places like Traverse Town, right? Maybe they're out there somewhere together, still getting into trouble."

"They got out." His eyes dropped to the ground and his shoulders slumped. "But that wasn't necessarily a good thing for either of them. A lot happened to both of them. Mostly bad. It changed them. And eventually they were driven apart."

Lea wasn't talking about a couple kids that he was friends with growing up. This was too personal. She could feel it. And the realization hit Kairi suddenly. One of those boys was him.

It was hard to picture the man as a kid. To picture him as someone that innocent and carefree, who got into mischief with his best friend and didn't have to worry about Heartless, darkness, or losing those he cared about. Someone who didn't serve as the Organization's assassin and who hadn't resorted to kidnapping in a desperate plan to regain someone. She could barely imagine Lea before all of that.

He would have been like any of the kids she grew up with. He could have been like Sora, Riku, Wakka, or any of the others who played on the island with them. In another life, what kind of person would he have grown up to be?

"But if we can get Roxas and Naminé back, then we can fix anything." Lea's voice came out a little firmer now. "Bringing them back is supposed to be impossible, but we're trying anyway. We're not giving up on them. And if I can keep my promise to bring him back… I can get Isa back too…"

The last few words came out so quiet that Kairi wasn't certain if she was meant to hear them, especially since his eyes drifted back towards the eternally-rising sun. Or the setting sun.

"If I've learned anything over the last couple of years of watching Sora meet people on dozens of different worlds," she said slowly, "it's that friends can find their way back to each other. The connection between can bring them back together, even when it seems impossible." Something in her seemed to push further, offering a few words that seemed to flow out of Kairi while coming from someone else. "Even when distance, time, and lost memories try to fray those connections, they can still find their way back. Long separation and forgetting isn't enough to completely destroy those chains binding hearts together." The words that felt like Naminé fell silent, but Kairi continued, "Maybe there's still hope for those two boys to find each other again."

Lea chuckled quietly and said, "You, Sora, and the others have always been good at hope. And corny speeches about it and friendship."

"I guess you've heard all of this before."

"Yep. Got it memorized and everything." Rubbing the back of his head, he added, "But thanks for reminding me. Makes it easier to be patient…" Then his mood seemed to darken again. "I just hope that if— when we get Roxas back, he'll want to see me."

"Why wouldn't he?"

Kairi honestly couldn't believe that Lea would think that for even a moment. He'd told nearly as many stories about his time with Roxas as she did about growing up with Sora and Riku. She'd heard about countless sunsets spent on the clocktower, eating ice cream, and answering the most unexpected questions from the young Nobody. She'd heard the affection in his voice for his absent friend. And the loneliness. He clearly cared about Roxas and missed him. And from those stories, she couldn't imagine Roxas not being equally thrilled to see him again.

"Last time that I saw him… The last few times that I saw Roxas, we didn't part on the best of terms," he said. "I… messed up with him. A lot. Secrets, lies, and half-truths. Tricking and manipulating him. Hiding things. Important things. I wanted to keep him shielded from the worst of it, to keep him the good and innocent kid that he was for as long as possible. Especially when the Organization treated them…" Lea trailed off briefly with a confused frown, shaking his head. "When they treated him like a replaceable tool. I wanted to keep him safe and to keep things the way that they were. To keep us together. But all I managed to do was break his trust and hurt him. Repeatedly. By the end, Roxas was almost as furious with me as he was with the rest of the Organization. Maybe more."

His eyes were locked on the ground now. Kairi wasn't even certain that he remembered her presence as he kept talking, his voice growing more strained with each sentence.

"Then Roxas was tossed in that digital Twilight Town and I was ordered to drag him back or destroy him. And seeing him in that place, so happy… and he didn't know me… and he had this perfect life, a life that he deserved, and I didn't belong in it… and I knew that it wasn't his fault, that he didn't forget me on purpose, but… it hurt and I didn't know why it hurt because I wasn't supposed to feel…" He took a shaking breath. "The last time that I saw him... I tried to burn him to a crisp while he tried to take my head off with a pair of Keyblades."

His hands tightened into fists as they rested on his lap. Tension filled his tall frame, like a spring wound too tightly. His shoulders shook slightly from the strain. Something in Kairi ached at the sight, wanting to fix it.

"I did a lot of things to you. To Sora. To other people that didn't deserve it. Things that I can never apologize enough for doing. But at least with you, I got the chance to tell you how sorry I am," he said, finally acknowledging her again. "But with Roxas, I never did. I never told him that I was sorry. For the secrets. For the lies. For everything wrong that I did to him. Let's face it. That trio of kids from Twilight Town, the digital versions that he knew for a week, were better friends to him than I ever was." Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he said, "He'll probably be more eager to see those kids than anyone. The real ones. I wouldn't be surprised if he wants nothing to do with me."

Frowning slightly, Kairi reached up and smacked the back of Lea's head. The yelp of surprise and the grimace that she received in response was a definite improvement. Even the accusing glare was better than the guilt and doubt trying to drag him under.

As if a Princess of Heart would let someone fall into such a dark place without trying to stop it.

"Look, I don't really know Roxas." Kairi crossed her arms, her voice firm. "He's not Sora, just like Naminé isn't me. They are their own people. But there are similarities. Like how siblings can have similarities. And if Roxas has even a small piece of Sora in him, then he'll forgive you. It might take time to fix things, but…"

She shifted positions, leaning forward so that her elbows rested on her knees. She tried to arrange her thoughts properly, needing to get the words right.

"You're here. You don't have to be, but you are. You sacrificed yourself as Axel to help Sora. And instead of deciding that was enough and using your second chance to start a new life, you immediately tried to help us as Lea. Even before there was a plan to bring Roxas back, before anyone even considered the possibility, you apparently decided to get a Keyblade and even charged in to save Sora again. You're trying your best to help. To be a better person. And even now, even though you're scared that he'll hate you, you want more than anything for Roxas to physically exist." Smiling gently, she said, "You've made a lot of mistakes and that means something, but everything that you've done since then means something too. Despite everything that happened, Sora forgave Riku without hesitation. Because he knew that Riku was sorry, he knew that Riku was trying to fix things, and because they were best friends. If Roxas is anything like Sora, he'll give you another chance. You two were best friends. He'll want you back. Got that memorized?"

The soft chuckle came out a little choked and ragged and her glimpse of his eyes looked a little shinier, but Kairi didn't mention it. And she didn't look at Lea directly when she thought she heard his arm move, reaching up to wipe something away. Emotions seemed to hit him hard and could overwhelm him. An apparent side effect of having a complete heart again after years without one or only the fragile start of a forming one during his time as a Nobody. Strong or unexpected feelings were just things that would take practice to handle again.

At least it didn't seem as bad as the time early in their training. Something triggered an unexplained reaction of shock and sorrow in him, causing Lea to drop his ice cream and heart-broken tears to stream down his face for a moment. Neither of them understood what caused it and Lea seemed determined to pretend that it didn't happen. This time, however, the reaction was more controlled and calmer.

"And if Roxas decides to be stubborn," she continued, trying to lighten the mood, "then I'll knock some sense into him with my Keyblade."

Lea's quiet laughter sounded a bit more authentic. And when he shoved her shoulder in a playful manner, one similar to how Sora or Riku might have a few years ago, Kairi knew that he was all right again.

"I don't care how well training is going for us. If Roxas was here, he'd knock us both flat with his Keyblade in under a minute."

Chapter Text

Some mistakes could never be undone.

In the pursuit of science, he let himself be tricked. Or maybe he tricked himself. He didn't recognize the path that he was following back then. All that he knew was that Ansem the Wise suddenly told the apprentices to drop their research while Xehanort whispered just a little further and they would have their answers. They didn't recognize the shadows already surrounding them even as they willingly stepped deeper into them. They listened to Xehanort, following him as their humanity seemed to be scoured away with each test subject and with each experiment.

Then they investigated the deepest darkness at Xehanort's coaxing and lost their hearts completely. What followed made their past experiments pale in comparison.

It wasn't a single mistake, but a long series of them that spanned a decade. And he couldn't undo them. But perhaps he could atone for them a little.

Ever since he woke up whole, memories of Axel taking advantage of his battered state to burn him to oblivion still tormenting his mind, he knew that he needed to fix things. It was a second chance. An opportunity for redemption. And when they snatched him up because the real Organization XIII needed his research and his replicas, he accepted the role and became a secret traitor within their ranks in order to make up for those mistakes.

A dangerous endeavor. He knew the fate of those who went against the original Organization XIII. Even without their fiery assassin and "fixer" to handle such problems, betrayal would be met with harsh and terminal punishment. But it was a risk that he accepted.

He lost his heart again, but he sacrificed it for the right reasons this time.

He didn't need his emotions or his heart to achieve his goal. Even without the guilt, the shame, and regret, he would not deviate from his course of actions. His memories were enough to keep him focused on his intentions to repair his past mistakes. And not having a heart made Vexen a much better actor when it came to hiding his plans and motivation.

Though apparently he did not hide them perfectly before that point. Otherwise, why would yet another member who wished to atone approach him? One who knew how to make a difference, but was too tightly bound by his role as a chosen vessel for any direct action. He could only give Vexen the information and keep as much suspicion off him as possible. The plan could hardly be called a plan at all. But it was enough for him to accept the offer and become a Nobody once more.

Vexen's current laboratory was nothing compared to the setup that he once possessed at Castle Oblivion, but he had enough room and equipment to create the new models of replicas. He had finally perfected his creations. But the most important part about his new workspace was the privacy.

"You know that they aren't going to be happy when they figure out what you're up to," said Demyx, leaning against a counter as he tuned his sitar with not-quite-nervous energy. "How long do you think that you can hide this?"

"Long enough for you to sneak everything to our old comrades."

Vexen carefully wrapped the small figure in a white sheet. Two of his most recent models of replicas, the most human and stable versions of his work, had been removed from the pods and rested on a worktable. They were blank slates until more data was added in the form of memories and hearts, real or programmed. Until then, the replicas appeared as pale, hairless, sexless, featureless, and lifeless dolls to the uneducated eye. It would be easy for the ignorant to not realize how difficult it was to create an artificial body that could adapt physically to match the inputted data to the point of matching a natural human on the molecular level. All the biological processes of life, the internal organs, the genetic material within actual cells… Unlike his first few models of replicas, these would be stable and indistinguishable from any other human.

His first functional model to reach completion, No. i, wasn't nearly as complex, but he still considered it as an amazing accomplishment. One that Vexen didn't get to see reach its full potential. Not merely because of his unpleasant immolation at the hands of Axel, however.

All recollection of No. i and the replica's time as an active entity might have disappeared upon its destruction, a side effect of its existence being purely built on an unsteady foundation of stolen memories, but evidence remained. His original notes, mission reports, and even Lord Xemnas's detailed description about reconfiguring No. i into something deadlier (and less able to hide its inhuman nature) in a final attempt to have the replica absorb Roxas's remaining power. All of that written material was turned over to Vexen so that he could perfect the final products, ensuring that the replicas could be completely human and flawless.

It also gave Vexen a glimpse of how No. i developed and eventually malfunctioned without his oversight. Such a shame that the complete erasure of his creation could have possibly been prevented if he had survived to tweak and modify the replica when the problems developed.

The Superior believed that recreating No. i, specifically based on the point in time right before his final modifications and her battle against Roxas, would make an ideal vessel to finish out their ranks. An empty shell with the ability to wield a Keyblade and all the power that it would have absorbed by that point would certainly be useful for the upcoming battle. And a little reprogramming to make it more obedient and perhaps even having it imprint on one of the more loyal vessels to perfect the job. In that state, it would not have a heart of its own and they could instead program a simple one that would be easily overshadowed by Master Xehanort. Based on the data provided by their experiments in San Fransokyo and the strange world of toys with hearts, it should work.

Such a shame that Vexen had different plans in mind. As did, surprisingly enough, Saïx. The Organization would not expect what was coming.

They had already claimed one replica and gave him an imitation heart, downloading the information from their Riku Replica from Castle Oblivion and tweaking the design to be a bit more cooperative and loyal. He was already operating as planned, carrying out missions on other worlds. And other replicas already held the hearts that Master Xehanort had chosen. But the Organization would not be claiming any others.

Vexen moved to the second replica and wrapped it just as carefully. Sneaking one replica out without anyone noticing the loss was feasible. Attempting a second was the very definition of foolhardy. But he was aware that due to Roxas and Naminé's unique natures, they might not have reintegrated with their Others fully. And Vexen theorized that the pair could still exist to an extent and may be retrievable if provided with new physical bodies, something that Saïx implausibly considered as well. Sneaking out two replicas might be dangerous, but hindering Master Xehanort's plans while simultaneously assisting the Keyblade wielders made logical sense. The risk versus reward ratio proved it to be the most rational course of action for his goal of atonement.

And in the grand scheme of things, Vexen was hiding something far more treacherous in his laboratory than a pair of waiting replicas.

"I know that you are taking a tremendous risk, my old friend," said Ansem the Wise, resting his hand briefly on Vexen's shoulder. "Thank you, Even. I am certain that these will greatly assist the others."

He knew that he should feel pride at his master's words, guilt and regret over his past actions, nostalgia at the use of his old name and a sense that he didn't deserve it any longer, and dozens of other emotions. But Vexen gave up his heart a second time in order to infiltrate the new version of Organization XIII. His emotions were gone. Not even the fear of what would befall him if this treachery came to light remained, though Vexen had no inclination to let them destroy him or reduce him to a mindless Dusk. Self-preservation wasn't an emotion; it was an instinct. He felt nothing.

But he remembered how he felt when he decided on this entire course of action: the guilt over his past actions and how his original mission to help people with his studies had fallen apart long ago, the desire for atonement, and the resolve to repair the damage at any cost. And Vexen remembered his respect for Master Ansem, his companionship with Aeleus and Dilan, and his fond affection for bright little Ienzo. It didn't matter that Vexen could no longer feel those things. He remembered and he used those memories to continue.

And to push back the darkness that Master Xehanort tried to drown them in. The chosen vessels were more strongly affected by what he was doing to them, their personalities and motivations becoming corrupted into reflections of his own. Not enough to completely erase them or else Saïx wouldn't be able rebel even the small amount that he did by passing along his idea to Vexen and keeping attention away from the scientist. But more than enough to ensure that they couldn't escape or disobey. But even as one of the spare vessels, Vexen could notice the fainter influence on himself now that he knew to watch for it. And he remained thankful for how faint it was and that it was merely his influence rather than Master Xehanort's heart.

"Be grateful that I am valued here more for my vast intellect rather than physical prowess. For my purposes, it is far better that I was 'benched' from a more active role," said Vexen. "The lack of close supervision and the access to all the necessary data is the only reason that we have a chance. And not having that man's heart inside me due to not being one of the chosen provides me with a little more freedom than most."

"And I'm completely off the radar." Demyx grinned. "This will teach them to underestimate me. Secret mission time. And best of all, no fighting."

Vexen ignored Demyx pumping his fist in the air and his victorious expression. He had plenty of practice ignoring his antics when necessary. Instead, he handed a disk to Master Ansem and a pair of small folded clothes. While he recalled Naminé wearing a white dress, it was far easier to sneak away the Organization's black coats. They already prepared smaller sizes for the Dark Riku Replica, as Luxord once described him. At least the replicas would have something to wear once activated.

"Take these with you, please. Maybe Ienzo and the others can do some good with data on that disk." Inclining his head respectfully, Vexen said, "It contains all my research."

His work on the Replica Program. His observations on Naminé and her unique nature. His collected data on Sora and Riku from Castle Oblivion. The more limited data on Roxas. The reports that Xemnas shared with him, originally intended to help his work rather than for Vexen's more personal goals. Detailed descriptions of No. i, the original Riku Replica, and the new version. A written assessment of the members of the real Organization XIII that he'd identified and studied so far. Every experiment, test, theory, and study that he'd worked on for the last decade.

It was his life's work, all gathered together on the disk. It looked so small to hold so much information, but he managed to collect it all. The guardians of light should be able to find something that could help them. Should the worst come to pass, Vexen might still be able to help people even if he was destroyed for his betrayal.

"Are these things going to be heavy?" asked Demyx, studying the wrapped figures suspiciously as he let his sitar vanish. "I mean, I don't want to hurt my back or anything, but I doubt you'll let me make two trips."

"They each possess the approximate mass of a half-grown adolescent, yes. But you are capable of carrying the weight. And once you deliver the replicas and Master Ansem to Radiant Garden, I highly recommend keeping a low profile. Find an isolated world and hide. And if the Organization locates you, lie and claim that you are on assignment from me."

"And if they know that you aren't on their side anymore?" asked Demyx, picking up the first replica and balancing it on his shoulder.

Vexen gave him a flat smile and said, "Then you were fooled by a superior intellect and are completely shocked by my unforeseen betrayal." Taking a few steps forward, he said, "If I can develop some capacity for acting, then you should be able to demonstrate the same with a little effort."

"So when it all goes wrong, they'll put all the blame on you and they'll just think I'm an idiot," said Demyx. With a grunt of effort as Vexen helped him get the second wrapped figure on his other shoulder, he added, "I guess that's better than being a Dusk."

"I wish that you would come with us, Even." Ansem the Wise reached for him once again. "You could come home with us."

Taking a step back, he said, "When they realize that the replicas are gone, they will search for me. I can't make the search easy for them nor can I lead them to you. But do not concern yourself over my welfare. With my mind and a head start, I should be quite capable of evading pursuit."

Ansem the Wise didn't look completely convinced, but he quietly nodded his acceptance and pulled the hood of his black coat into place. Demyx gave Vexen a crooked smile before a dark corridor formed.

"Master Ansem," said Vexen, making the pair pause before stepping through, "I have no right to ask anything of you. Not after what we did. But when you see Zex— Ienzo… Please tell him that I am sorry. He was a child and Xehanort was a charismatic man that Ienzo looked up to. That I looked up to… But I was an adult, I was partially responsible for watching out for the boy, and I was smart enough that I should have seen through Xehanort's intentions before he turned our ward into a Nobody. I was a blind fool and a failure in the end, but I failed him most of all."

He once cared about the bright and intelligent boy that Master Ansem took in, the youngest of the apprentices. He wasn't always the best when it came to dealing with people, even before he lost his heart, but Even did once care for all of them in his own way. But then they were led into darkness, gave in to the darkness, and then were consumed by it. And at least Ienzo should have been protected from that fate by his elders.

Vexen couldn't feel the guilt and regret anymore, but he knew that it would be squeezing his heart if he had one. He knew what he should feel. Just as he knew that the look on Master Ansem's face meant that he shared similar guilt and regret. If Vexen never got the chance to speak to the youngest apprentice again, he should at least send his apologies while he still could.

"I will pass the message to Ienzo," said Ansem the Wise solemnly. "But I await the day that you return and can speak to him yourself, Even. And so that I can properly apologize to you and the others for my own transgressions."

Something faint flickered in his chest. Something warm and soothing. Something that Vexen would have assumed to be emotions if he didn't know better.

After everything that they did to the man… despite their crimes and betrayal of their master… even after anger and revenge consumed him for a time… Ansem the Wise still seemed to care about his fate. And hoped to see him again.

Bowing his head respectfully, Vexen said, "Perhaps. Farewell, Master Ansem. And once again, I am sorry."

The dark corridor vanished, leaving Vexen alone. He looked around silently at his laboratory. His specialized equipment, his pods holding halfway-constructed replicas, his notebooks of observations, his computer… Everything that he could possibly need to research whatever topic that sparked his curiosity. He could study without limits, experimenting and testing with no regard for rules, permission, or morality. Once, this place and the opportunities would have been his greatest dream as a scientist.

But those days were long past. Experience had taught him better.

Selecting a large beaker of clear liquid from the counter, Vexen calmly poured the liquid on every surface in the room. When he ran out, he found the bottle of the more concentrated form of the chemical that he normally stored in a locked cabinet and continued. He took extra care to saturate the computer system. Then he picked up a second beaker with a different chemical solution.

With his powers focused on ice and Demyx specializing in water, no one would immediately tie them to this particular act.

Vexen dropped the beaker, the glass shattering as the two liquids met and ignited. The expected chemical reaction. And the initial spark set the rest of the carefully-spread chemical ablaze. The laboratory was instantly engulfed, destroying all remnants of his research as Vexen fled the inferno through his own dark corridor.


Aqua knew that she should already be standing respectfully in his study to greet Master Yen Sid.

Actually, what she should be doing was returning to Ventus. The very first thing that she wanted to do as soon as it truly sank in that she was back in the realm of light, that she finally made it home, was to keep her promise. She was supposed to come back for Venus sooner. Every part of her urged Aqua to race to the transformed Land of Departure and retrieve him.

But without her Keyblade, she couldn't travel between worlds like she used to. Master's Defender protected and served her well during her time in the Realm of Darkness, but it was still Master Eraqus' Keyblade and not her Stormfall. They weren't in sync enough for her to transform it into a glider form and reach the Land of Departure. Not to mention that her armor was gone and traveling that way without protection was foolhardy. For now, she was dependent on the other Keyblade wielders and their strange vehicle called a Gummi Ship.

And even though she claimed to be fine, they didn't believe her and practically forced her back to the Mysterious Tower with them. Riku and Mickey did need a chance to rest and recover after what happened, guilt stabbing her whenever their movements included a wince. And Donald and Goofy were very quick to fuss over her and the others while Sora flew the strange craft towards their destination.

To be honest though, once they brought her to one of the bedrooms that seemed to manifest as soon as it was required by someone, Aqua suddenly felt all the years of wandering through the dangerous and timeless landscape. The weight of it hit almost without warning. She practically passed out instantly on the bed, truly sleeping for the first time since she fell into the Realm of Darkness. Aqua slept for what must have been hours, sprawled across the soft quilt while a lamp glowed gently and kept the shadows at bay. Her dreams were filled with Terra and Ventus. She should have immediately gone back for Ventus, she should have figured out a way to borrow the Gummi Ship herself, but not even guilt and worry could change the fact that her exhausted body demanded rest and forced her into slumber.

And when she finally woke, three familiar fairies descended on her with a warm breakfast and promises of new clothes in the near future. Sleep, food, and cleaning off the worst of the grime with the provided wash basin helped her feel human again. Not completely like herself, but at least a little better.

She was in the realm of light once more. It wasn't a dream or hallucination. It was real.

Aqua sat on the edge of the bed, trying to motivate herself to go upstairs and speak to Master Yen Sid. Flora had told her that Master Yen Sid would like to speak with everyone whenever she was ready before the fairies had withdrawn to give her some privacy. Aqua knew that she should go up there and that the sooner she spoke with him, the sooner that she could return to the task of finding her friends. Terra and Ventus were her responsibility and she'd failed them both for far too long. She needed to get moving and yet Aqua hadn't moved since the fairies had left.

She couldn't wrap her head around it. Being back. Being herself.

Part of her still expected for the shadows to swallow her up. She couldn't stop remembering how it felt, the darkness sinking into her… corrupting her thoughts and emotions. She remembered the way it felt as it tried to smother the light in her heart. She remembered how the darkness, the sorrow, the misery, the fear, the hopelessness, the resentment, and the anger took over until that was all that was left. She remembered how the darkness felt on her skin and inside her, how it looked as it wrapped around her, and how it smelled as it filled her lungs.

She never wanted to experience anything like that again.

What would Master Eraqus have said if he could have seen her a few hours ago? Twisted by darkness until she was no better than the vicious creatures born in that horrible place? Would he have even recognized her in that state? His student and newly-named Keyblade master? If he'd lived long enough to witness her fall, to see her succumb to weakness and fail his teachings so thoroughly… She wasn't certain that she even deserved the title of "Master" when she'd failed everyone.

Terra…

Ven…

Taking a deep breath, Aqua hardened her resolve and slowly pushed herself to her feet. She'd rested long enough. She couldn't let fear paralyze her. She was in the realm of light again. She was safe. But her friends were still in trouble and Aqua couldn't stand around while they needed help.

After they were safe… Once her friends were home, she fulfilled her responsibility, and she redeemed herself…

She could worry about herself once the others were safe.

Holding that thought close, Aqua quietly slipped out of the bedroom and climbed the spiraling staircase until she reached the door at the top.

Inside, Master Yen Sid sat behind his desk with a calm and stern expression. The others spun around and grinned at her arrival. Riku and Mickey looked less exhausted and battered than the day before, though Aqua still felt the same stab of guilt for what she did to them. Donald and Goofy waved at he as she slipped in. And Sora's smile practically seemed to glow, the boy folding his hands behind his head in a familiar manner.

It was almost eerie how much he reminded her of Ventus.

"Aqua!" he greeted cheerfully. "Are you feeling better?"

"I am. Thank you, Sora." She smiled warmly. "All of you. I am grateful for what you've done for me. I just wish that I could have returned to help you sooner. I have only heard pieces of what has occurred in the time since I was trapped, but it sounds like you have faced more challenges than you deserved."

Riku and Sora were so young to be charging into the Realm of Darkness and similar heroics. Her grasp of the passage of time might have been a little fuzzy lately, but it truly didn't seem so long ago that she saw them as small children on the Destiny Islands. And even now, she couldn't ignore how young they were. Sora was clearly around Ventus's age and Riku wasn't much better.

Well, surely their master was confident in their skills and experiences if they were allowed to attempt something so dangerous. She could only imagine how many years of training and studying that the pair must have undergone to reach that level. She'd spent over a decade learning from Master Eraqus and Aqua knew that he would hesitate to send even her into the Realm of Darkness unless there was no other option.

"We are most fortunate to have you safely returned," said Master Yen Sid. "Much has come to pass in your absence, Master Aqua."

Leaning closer to Mickey, Goofy said, "Yeah. Did you know the king is a Keyblade master now?"

"Riku too," said Sora proudly, wrapping an arm around his friend's shoulders. "He passed the Mark of Mastery exam right before he and King Mickey went looking for you. I guess we should be calling him 'Master Riku' now. What do you think?"

As the older boy ducked his head in embarrassment, shoving Sora playfully even as he bit back a grin, Aqua could only stare. Riku couldn't be older than sixteen or seventeen. Master Eraqus always said that he would never consider subjecting anyone younger than eighteen years old to the Mark of Mastery exam. The responsibility was too great and the trials too difficult. Was it the current threat that accelerated proceedings so much or had Riku started his training at an especially young age, giving him a slight advantage? When did Master Yen Sid find these young Keyblade wielders?

On the other hand, Riku and Sora had demonstrated quite clearly that they were skilled and experienced at both combat and facing the darkness. They'd both faced her in the Realm of Darkness and came out with their lives and hearts intact. Not to mention that even finding a path into such a place without succumbing to the darkness in the process couldn't have been easy. Perhaps she should judge them on their competency rather than their ages.

No matter how much they reminded her of Ventus, igniting her protective instincts while also making something in her chest clench.

The door opened, interrupting her thoughts as two more people joined them. One was a tall young man with a mass of spiky red hair. His black coat reminded Aqua strongly of the two strangers that she encountered in the Realm of Darkness: one kind and one cruel. The second figure, chatting excitedly with the man even if she had to crane her neck to look up at him, was a girl wearing a pink outfit and a smile. Her reddish-brown hair, her blue eyes, her beautiful necklace, and the strong light that Aqua could feel radiating from her all seemed familiar. She looked completely different from her companion, with the young man both drastically taller and about a decade older, but they seemed surprisingly in sync with each other.

"Kairi!" shouted Sora, the name enough for Aqua to abruptly recognize where she met the girl years ago.

Her face lighting up at his greeting, Kairi launched herself at the teenage boys and wrapped her arms around their necks in a group hug. Riku apparently didn't expect her act, but Sora was beaming. The trio started laughing in their shared embrace. Aqua couldn't help smiling at the rapid words tumbling from Kairi and Sora. He seemed to be describing dozens of worlds while repeatedly stating how much he missed her and wanted to show her everything. And Kairi was talking about how hard she'd been training, how much she'd learned about magic and how to use her light in new ways with her Keyblade, how Axel taught her a trick to keep people from kidnapping her, and how amazing everyone's new clothes looked and asking what Riku did to his hair. But as much as she was telling him, she still sounded a little calmer than Sora as she spoke.

Riku eventually broke off the embrace to clasp the pair on the shoulders and said, "We've all been busy apparently. Sora and I found Master Aqua in the Realm of Darkness. And Kairi and Axel finished their training."

"Though Sora is still working on the Power of Waking," muttered Donald.

Sora gave him a half-hearted glare before the boy, Donald, and Goofy chuckled at each other. Aqua found herself smiling, enjoying the warmth of friendship coming from them.

"He'll get it." Mickey nodded his encouragement. "I believe in him."

Leaning against the closest shelf, the tall man said, "He's always had a knack for pulling off impressive tricks and getting new powers out of nowhere. I've been around long enough to know that much." Scratching the back of his head briefly, he added, "And sorry that we're late. Merlin dropped us off in Twilight Town and I don't know what you've done, but I can't open a dark corridor to the tower. We had to take the train. So I think that you owe me munny for the tickets, Master Yen Sid."

"Most of our enemies make use of corridors of darkness to travel between the worlds," said Master Yen Sid solemnly as Aqua tried to comprehend someone speaking to the retired Keyblade master in such a manner. "In order to ensure that this place remains a secure sanctuary for all the guardians of light, I have used my magic to block those paths from reaching into my domicile. Though perhaps it would be prudent to use the corridors of darkness sparing, Lea."

Tilting his head in confusion, Sora asked, "How do you still use those, Axel? Ienzo said that the rest of them couldn't do that anymore."

"Stubbornness, talent, and a refusal to accept not being able to do it after I woke up," said the tall man with the uncertain name. "Though I suppose having a lot of anger at my old boss probably helps too."

"But if Lea truly intends to continue and accept the risks of traveling those paths, that particular magic is only protecting the tower itself. Beyond the threshold, there is nothing to keep him from using the corridors of darkness." If Aqua didn't know better, she would almost think that Master Yen Sid was enjoying the look on the red-head's face. "Though I don't suppose he considered the possibility after his first attempt to directly enter my study failed. He does seem to have a preference for the dramatic."

Glancing aside and scratching the side of his head, the tall man gave a self-deprecating chuckle. Kairi giggled at his reaction even as she tried to smother it with her hand while Donald and Goofy went into full laughter.

"He isn't wrong," said Goofy. "Axel does seem to like making an entrance."

"I apologize," Aqua interrupted. "Is your name Lea? Or is it Axel?"

He stiffened briefly at her question. Then he shrugged awkwardly, still not meeting her eyes.

"Technically, it's Lea. But when most of these guys first met me, the name was Axel and they aren't that great at change. I mean, I did tell them to memorize that name. So for most of these guys, I don't care too much which one they use now. Axel or Lea." A finger tapped his temple. "Got it memorized, Master Aqua?"

"There seems to be a lot that I need to memorize," she said. "I have missed so much. What has Master Xehanort done in my absence? Since he took… Terra?"

Everyone exchanged uncomfortable looks. Then they began to explain. It was mostly Mickey and Master Yen Sid who spoke, but Riku brought up a few things as the story unfolded. A story of how a young amnesiac Xehanort, the old man's heart in Terra's body, was taken in by Ansem the Wise and made one of his apprentices. How they studied the mysteries of the heart. How curiosity became pride became arrogance, leading Master Ansem and his six apprentices down a corrupting path. And how Ansem the Wise tried to turn back only to have the others betray him, too deep in the darkness and plunging deeper still. And then their hearts were lost to it.

After her time in the Realm of Darkness, Aqua had a rudimentary understanding of those shadowy monsters. Heartless, Mickey had called them when he briefly found her there before they were separated once again. Creatures spawn from darkness. Specifically the darkness that dwelled in hearts. Mickey managed to explain that much. When someone lost their heart to darkness, a Heartless was created.

But despite that scrap of knowledge, Aqua couldn't help feeling lost when they started talking about Xehanort's different… pieces or something.

"Hey, guys," interrupted Lea. "I might be wrong, but I think our rescued Keyblade master doesn't have a clue what you're saying now."

"Oh." Mickey smiled sheepishly. "Sorry about that. I guess we forgot some basic information. She's been gone for so long. Let's see…"

"I've got this," said Lea, stepping away from the shelf that he'd been leaning against for most of the conversation.

Crossing his arms, Donald asked in a suspicious voice, "You?"

"I might not be one of the original apprentices, but I did work for Ansem the Wise for about a month and a half before everything fell apart. Granted, he was so busy trying to figure out what was going on with his other apprentices and what they were hiding that he barely noticed the two of us poking around, but I still picked up some stuff. And can any of you honestly claim to know more about Nobodies than me?" A slightly wistful expression drifted across his face as he briefly glanced at Sora. "Besides, I have experience answering questions and teaching people about stuff."

No one argued with him. At most, there was a momentary look of sadness from Sora and Kairi before the pair nodded.

"Very well, Lea," said Master Yen Sid. "You may explain this part of the tale."

He gave a brief nod before a confident grin overtook his face. Then he approached the center of the room so that all eyes would be on him. Aqua knew a born showman when she saw one.

"Now, the way that things are supposed to go is that you've got your heart, which has your emotions, your memories, your connections and bonds to other people, your personality, and basically everything that makes you somebody. Then you've got the driving force that keeps you alive and going. Call it your soul, your spirit, your will, your life, or whatever. Ansem the Wise wasn't as consistent on that one since most of his focus was on the heart. And then you've got your body, which does the helpful job of containing your heart and soul. You need all three to be a living and complete person," he described. "The natural way that it is supposed to go is that you're alive and running around, doing whatever it is you decide to do with your life, until one day your body can no longer contain your spirit. Maybe you got too old or too sick or you tumbled down some stairs and broke your neck. Whatever the case, it's gone and there's nothing left to animate your heart and body then. The driving force is gone and you're dead. That's how life and death is supposed to work. But Ansem the Wise and the others wondered what happens when something else is lost instead. Like the heart."

He crossed his arms and leaned against the desk, his back to Master Yen Sid. Donald looked like he wanted to say something, probably about how it was disrespectful to ignore the retired Keyblade master's presence like that, but Lea was still talking.

"The lost heart becomes a Heartless. Doesn't matter if the heart fell to darkness naturally, if it was stolen by another Heartless, or someone artificially introduces a lot of darkness into the heart somehow. Like experiments in a creepy basement where they dragged off kids and people that no one would miss." He shook his head, as if trying to banish a particular train of thought or memory. "They got really good at creating Heartless artificially and Emblem Heartless like that are particularly useful for collecting hearts. But most Heartless don't retain much of their original personalities or appearances. I can only think of two off the top of my head. Xehanort's Heartless, who went around calling himself 'Ansem' because apparently he wanted to add identity theft to his list of past accomplishments along with his earlier possession of this Terra person and then Riku. The other one was Sora after his girlfriend used her light to wish him back to the right shape."

"Kairi's my friend," interrupted Sora. "And I was only a Heartless for about five minutes."

Aqua pretended not to notice that both he and Kairi looked a little pink, that Riku and Donald were smothering chuckles, and that Lea was smirking. Kairi marching over to kick Lea in the shin with her boots and his good-natured laugh and apology were a little harder to ignore.

It was a clear reminder of how young most of them were.

And no, she wasn't thinking about how she reacted when Zack asked her for a date when she visited the Olympus Colosseum. Not at all. She buried that memory.

"And when I was a Heartless," continued Sora, still showing the hints of a blush, "I was a little Shadow and they look nothing like a person."

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but you were technically still a Heartless after that. Kairi just managed to fill in the missing pieces with light," he corrected. "Vexen could probably explain how better than me. You looked, acted, and sounded like yourself, but you were a Heartless when you beat Fake Ansem the Body-Snatcher, when you locked the door with Mickey and Riku's help, and your entire time in Castle Oblivion. Though I guess you still don't remember that part."

"You can't be serious," said Sora, looking overwhelmed.

Lea responded with a breathy chuckle, but the smile that he gave Sora held too much loneliness for Aqua to call it a true smile.

"Trust me. You were a Heartless for a year, even if you weren't a normal one. Otherwise your body wouldn't have been running around all that time as an amnesiac zombie with a Keyblade."

That cryptic statement seemed to make the room feel more somber. Riku looked away, guilt flickering over his face. Kairi tried to give him an encouraging smile as Lea buried his hands in his pockets. But after a moment, he seemed to push past whatever was hanging over them and continued.

"Anyway, that's what happens to the heart when someone loses it. But that still leaves the body and soul. When a particularly strong heart, regardless of how much light or darkness is in it, turns into a Heartless, occasionally something happens. There is still a body and a will to animate it left over, so sometimes it continues to live. You end up with something that isn't meant to exist. A creature without a heart, rejected by both the light and darkness as being wrong and unnatural. Which is why they form in places where the two are balanced instead of wherever that person lost their heart. Places like Twilight Town, Castle Oblivion, or—"

"The Land of Departure," interrupted Aqua, remembering what Master Eraqus taught her about her home.

Shrugging, Lea said, "I guess. But anyway, those beings without hearts? The leftover pieces? Those are Nobodies. Most are pretty simple and act on instinct like how Heartless do if there's nothing powerful controlling them. Only instead of seeking out the darkness in people's hearts, they are drawn towards the hearts themselves. Because even the simplest of them can tell that they're incomplete and know what they're missing. That they aren't meant to exist. They know that they should have hearts and that they don't. And they'll do almost anything to try and fill the void."

Wrong and unnatural. The description sounded accurate. Beings without hearts? Alive, but empty and hollow? How could something like that even form? Something in Aqua rebelled against the very concept. As bad as the Heartless might seem, spawned from darkness and little more than monsters, they at least had hearts. They were hearts. But those Nobody things went against everything that Master Eraqus taught her about the worlds.

Aqua shivered. What was worse? Darkness consuming the heart or not having one at all? She didn't want to face either fate.

"But just like the Heartless, a few Nobodies get to keep their old shapes and look like they did as humans. They even get their memories funneled over from their Heartless. Those are the most dangerous ones. Xehanort's Nobody goes by the name of Xemnas, which was just his stolen name of 'Ansem' with the letters rearranged and an X tossed in. Then he collected the Nobodies of the other apprentices and did the same thing to rename them. Rearranging the letters and adding an X."

"Adding the Recusant's Sigil," muttered Sora, scowling briefly.

Lea's brow furrowed briefly in confusion at his words. Then he shook his head and continued, his tone showing hints of anger or frustration over what he was describing.

"Xemnas gathered up the Nobodies who managed to hold onto their old human forms and called them Organization XIII. Sometimes they even purposefully turned people into Heartless in the hopes that they'd have strong enough hearts to come back as Nobodies. He took those confused and disoriented new Nobodies in and gave them a purpose. And without hearts, you need a purpose. Something to fill the numb emptiness. Because all you have left is the memory of emotions and sometimes not even that. Memories that are particularly strong emotionally are… fuzzy. Like looking through fogged up glass. You can make out the general shapes and such, but it isn't easy to pick out any details and you're separated from it. So maybe you remember being someone's friend, but maybe not the specifics and you're disconnected from it. Like it happened to someone else instead of you."

He shifted slightly, as if trying to get more comfortable and failing. Aqua had a feeling that when he volunteered to explain things, Lea didn't really think through exactly what he would end up talking about.

"So yeah, Xemnas managed to get them to follow him by promising hearts of their own. Even those who didn't really want their old hearts and all the past emotional drama that they could remember, they still wanted hearts of their own because they wanted to stop being incomplete, empty, and numb."

Something in the way that he described Nobodies, too personal and too intimately aware of the experience, made a connection in Aqua's head.

Lea. Axel.

Rearranged letters and an X.

Oh…

"And he lied," said Sora, unable to bury the righteous fury in his voice. "He lied to all of them."

Lea glanced at him and said, "He planned to give us hearts all right. But turns out they would all belong to the old guy." He turned his attention back towards Aqua. "And he kept some rather important facts secret. Nobodies start out without any hearts. They don't have to stay that way. Xemnas tried his best to keep us without hearts. The Organization spent all their free time in a dark and empty city, discouraged from interacting with people and bonding. And were continuously reminded that Nobodies can't feel. So whenever they thought they felt something faint, they blamed it on remembering emotions rather than actually feeling anything. Or believing that they were tricking themselves, that it was all in their heads. Which caused them to bury those feelings and double down on the apathy and cruelty, trying to be the emotionless creatures that they supposedly were. Ironically, for a bunch of people who wanted hearts, all we were doing was smothering the start of the newly-forming hearts."

He kept switching between "them" and "us." She didn't think that he really noticed that he was doing it. But Aqua knew that her suspicions were right. Lea, or rather Axel, had been a Nobody. She was suddenly thankful that she kept her discomfort with the concept to herself.

"And no one thought to mention another interesting fact." Lea stepped away from the desk. "Turns out that if a Keybearer takes out a Heartless and releases the heart, then the two halves can find each other. And that person can be recompleted. Which would have been nice to know before… well, it doesn't matter. Except it means that Xehanort also came back and is a creepy old man again. Meanwhile, Ansem and Xemnas apparently joined the fun with time travel, but don't ask me to explain that part."

"And several members of Organization XIII didn't get a proper second chance at life as their original selves because Xehanort grabbed them again to use as vessels," said Riku darkly.

Glaring at the ground like it personally murdered his entire family, Lea nearly growled, "He's half-possessing them. Xemnas or Xehanort or whatever you want to call him? He's got his claws into them. Into Isa. And no one noticed what he was doing until it was too late. I didn't see why he was changing…"

There was so much history that she was missing. Aqua could feel it. Just as she could still feel an uncomfortable amount of darkness in Riku. There were so many pieces of the story that she didn't know. She barely knew how Sora gained his own Keyblade; she certainly didn't do anything to give him that power when she met him as a child and it was rarer for a Keyblade to select someone unconnected. Not impossible, but rarer. But even if she didn't know everything, she'd realized something important about all of them.

"I suppose that we all have people that we need to find," she said quietly.

Terra.

Ven.

She'd failed them both for so long.

"We found you," said Sora. "We'll save everyone else too. All of them. You'll see."

"I know where Ven's body is hidden," she said slowly, "but his heart…"

Sora, Donald, and Goofy perked up suddenly, looking excited. But before Aqua could question them, a strange melody began to play and Sora started digging at his pocket. Aqua didn't know what the flat rectangle thing he pulled out might be, but it seemed to be the source of the music. Sora pressed something on it and the noise stopped.

"Sora," greeted a voice from the rectangle. "I was hoping that you might be able to come to Radiant Garden. We've had some… unexpected developments that could help."

"You mean you're close to getting Roxas back?"

"First, we would like to get some more current data on you and the state of the hearts within you so we can compare it to what Ansem the Wise recorded months ago," continued the voice on what was clearly some type of communication device. "But yes, we are hopeful that Roxas will be in a body of his own shortly. And if that goes smoothly, Naminé should follow."

More mysterious remarks. More names that meant nothing to her. But where parts of the previous conversation had darkened his mood, Lea had stiffened at Sora's question and looked like something knocked the wind out of him when the voice answered. There was a small, disbelieving, and yet hopeful smile on his face.

But then Kairi threw herself at him in a clearly unexpected hug and Lea was left off-balanced in more than one way. There was a brief flicker of something on his face as he looked down at her, like he was trying to remember something, but the expression disappeared after a second. The girl laughed slightly before releasing him.

"I told you," said Kairi. "Now you'll see Roxas again."

"Guess I'll need to find some ice cream as a 'welcome back' gift then," he said with a nervous-sounding chuckle.

"Wait, is that Lea?"

As Sora turned the rectangular object around to face them and Aqua glimpsed a young man near her age on it, Lea waved and said, "Hey, Ienzo. Guess you've been busy. I'd ask how you managed to figure this out, but I have a feeling that its complicated."

"You never had the patience for long explanations. But if you could come with Sora, that would be helpful," said the newly-identified Ienzo. "Among other necessary components such as a compatible vessel, we require a way to awaken the hearts within Sora enough for them to find their new bodies."

"But that sort of sounds like you would need the Power of Waking then," said Goofy.

Crossing his arms, Donald said, "Told you that you should have been focusing on that, Sora. Master Yen Sid said it was important."

"We may have a way to work around that," said Ienzo. "Any attempt to mechanically extract the hearts could prove as dire for Sora as what caused him to become a Heartless in the first place. Certainly not an ideal situation when we want both of them. But with the right 'spark' to serve as a catalyst, those hearts might wake up enough to guide them into their own bodies. Sora, you claim that sometimes you feel Roxas' emotions in response to certain stimuli, such as when you are in Twilight Town or you see those three children that he knew in the digital version of the town?"

"Hayner, Pence, and Olette," he said with a nod.

Aqua tilted her head in confusion. She was completely lost now. Sora… had more than one heart?

"We're hoping once we get more current scans of the state of those hearts, we could try awakening at least Roxas using… Well, someone that he cared about. And while I was gone before I could know Roxas very well," said Ienzo, briefly glancing to the side uncomfortably, "from what I can gather and from what Dilan recalls observing, Roxas was closest to Axel."

"And you think that will be enough to restore him?" asked Riku.

Nodding on screen, Ienzo said, "We'll try with Roxas first. And if that is successful, we can move on to preparations to attempt the same with Naminé."

"That's great. We'll be there soon," said Sora before turning off the device and turning towards Master Yen Sid. "I guess Riku and King Mickey can help Aqua bring Ventus back. Or at least his body." Scratching his head, he asked, "Where did she hide him anyway?"

Finally able to contribute something to the conversation again, Aqua said, "I used Master Eraqus's Keyblade to transform our home, making it difficult to navigate and impossible to explore completely. Searching through it is pointless. Some rooms and floors you can find, but others shift and change and adapt. I'm the only one who can find my way to the room where I hid Ven. He's safe in the Chamber of Waking."

A startled laugh made her glance at Lea as he said, "Castle Oblivion. He's in Castle Oblivion? I didn't see that one coming. Guess we know what Xemnas was looking for now."

"So we know where his body is now," said Goofy, "and we already knew his heart's inside Sora."

"Wait. His heart is where?" she asked.

"How many hearts are you carrying around in there?" muttered Lea, staring at Sora.

Standing up, Master Yen Sid said, "Very well then. Riku, Mickey, Aqua. You will go to Castle Oblivion and retrieve Ventus's body from where it slumbers. Sora, Donald, Goofy. You will go to Radiant Garden with Lea and Kairi to see what can be done to help with regards to restoring the hearts to these new vessels. Perhaps a few lost allies will return to us soon."

Aqua smiled to herself as everyone quickly formed a line as soon as the former Keyblade master stood and the casual atmosphere became more focused as he gave them instructions. For the first time in a long time, the path to helping Ven seemed clear. Even with her confusion and remaining questions, she felt confident. She was closer than she'd been in years. She would have him back soon.

Chapter Text

Xemnas stared coolly at the burnt husk that was once a laboratory constructed for the sole purpose of producing replicas for their plan. All the equipment was blackened and warped by the now-extinguished flames. The computer was melted beyond recognition, the data upon it beyond their reach. And the pods holding the incomplete replicas were destroyed. Nothing could be salvaged.

All that work… wasted.

"It's exactly how we found it," said Xigbar from behind him. "The lab's been torched, the replicas are toast, and our mad scientist is missing. Don't know if Vexen was annihilated in the fire or if he ran for it or…"

Stepping forward, Saïx said, "Vexen would never abandon his research. He has always viewed his studies as vitally important and puts his work above all else. Including his own heart. If he is not here trying to salvage his projects, then Vexen has most likely faded a second time."

Xemnas closed his eyes briefly. They intended to use the replicas to fill their ranks. And while the one that mimicked Riku seemed to be working out, they intended to include another. But the spares were gone. And without Vexen, there would be no more in the future. That left them with only twelve darknesses currently.

He knew that his completed self would be displeased when he heard the news.

But they had a few options. They could still achieve the destined conflict and initiate the Keyblade War. This was a minor setback. Nothing more.

"Inform Demyx that his presence is required," he said, opening his eyes once more.

There was a reason that they kept him even when the replicas made his presence redundant. He was not the ideal choice, but he was already partially influenced and would easily be converted into a chosen vessel. Perhaps with Master Xehanort's heart in him, Demyx's lack of motivation would be less of an issue.

Besides, they didn't need him to last very long or put up much of a fight against the guardians of light. He just needed to survive long enough during the conflict to serve his role so that the χ-blade could be forged.

Crossing his arms, Xigbar said, "Haven't seen him in a while. I guess he got distracted and wandered off to play his sitar."

"We can search the more familiar worlds for him," said Saïx. "It shouldn't take long to find him."

Xemnas nodded silently, turning his gaze back towards the blackened remains of the laboratory. The scent of smoke and ash still filled the air even though the flames were gone. He narrowed his eyes at the stench. Fire reminded him too much of Axel.

Whether purposefully or inadvertently, he disrupted their plans again and again. Luxord would describe him as a wild card. How many times did he behave in unpredicted ways and destroy the carefully-set plans?

Assassinating Vexen at Castle Oblivion brought the Replica Program to a standstill. Hiding the more rebellious thoughts and behaviors in the Keybearer's Nobody allowed Roxas to slip completely out of their control. Failing to retrieve or execute Roxas as ordered allowed him to rejoin the Keybearer and Sora awoke, the boy troublesome to guide and manipulate. Chasing after wild ideas of freeing Roxas and abandoning the Organization left them yet another member short just when their assassin could have been of the greatest use. Kidnapping the Princess of Heart distracted the Keybearer from their goals and delayed proceedings until they claimed possession of the girl instead. Destroying himself fighting Nobodies only to use his remaining strength to help the Keybearer reach the World That Never Was led to the destruction of the rest of the original Organization XIII. And charging in to prevent the Keybearer from becoming a vessel forced them to look to other options to fill their ranks.

Again and again, Axel's behavior disrupted and delayed their progress. Xemnas would have certainly never expected Axel, the one that he relied on to deal with problems and traitors in the past, to become the greatest traitor of them all. But apparently he was destined to bend to the will of the young Keybearer and his Nobody. In fact…

They knew that the guardians of light intended to restore their lost members in a similar manner to how the Organization were using replicas to contain time-traveling hearts. But none of them could create replicas to house the hearts within the Keybearer. Not even Zexion possessed the necessary knowledge. If the guardians of light wanted replicas, they would have very few options.

If anyone would be able to guess the location of the Organization's new research facility due to past experience within their ranks, who would risk anything to obtain a vessel for the Keybearer's Nobody, and who would cover his act of stealing a replica or two by burning everything to the ground, it would be Axel. Such actions would suit the traitor perfectly.

"All of the pods were occupied before," said Xemnas. "Do all of them hold burnt remains or are some of them empty?"

Saïx stiffened at the question, but Xigbar instantly started counting. After a few minutes, his remaining eye widened and his eyebrows shot up.

"Well, I'll be," he said. "That's a nice catch there, boss. Two little peas are missing from their pods. You thinking someone grabbed them before torching the place?"

Xemnas narrowed his eyes. One missing replica was manageable. Perhaps the guardians of light would simply include Roxas instead of Vanitas's other half. But a second replica could make it possible for them to reclaim Number XIV for their side, assuming that some fragment of that failed experiment remained within the Keybearer. And the guardians of light were less concerned about destiny and may decide to bring more members than they should. The χ-blade could not be forged with eight lights and twelve darknesses.

This situation needed to be dealt with.

"Inform Maluxia and Larxene that I have a task for them and the Nobodies under their command," said Xemnas. "The two of you will split up and search the closest worlds for any sign of Vexen or Demyx. We will operate under the assumption that they are missing rather than destroyed. We need to locate either one of our old members or retrieve at least one of the missing replicas." He ran his eyes across the destroyed room once again. "Have Luxord check Port Royal and the seas surrounding it. He is familiar with the world and Vexen spent time there recently. Perhaps he fled there to preserve his existence. That would be preferable to losing his expertise at Axel's hands a second time."

"You believe this to be the work of Axel, Lord Xemnas?" asked Saïx.

Nodding slowly, he said, "Indeed. Axel has the motivation to take our replicas, he has a history of annihilating Vexen, and he is the type who would cover his crimes with fire. This is precisely what a traitor of his level would attempt."

Saïx didn't respond and Xemnas wondered not for the first time over the years if he should be more suspicious of his loyal chosen vessel. Before the Organization, Saïx and the traitor were friends. Those bonds could be a problem.

But as always, Xemnas dismissed the thought. Saïx was meant to be one of the chosen from the start. It had been etched. Carved into his flesh right before he lost his heart, a half-grown youth fighting against the inevitable and being injured for his efforts. Destiny left nothing to chance. As soon as Xemnas realized that the teenage Nobody bore the Recusant's Sigil across his face, he knew what role Saïx was meant to fulfill and began focusing on shaping Saïx into the ideal vessel. Slowly and subtly, his influence settled on him over the years as he isolated and manipulated the Nobody's thoughts and behaviors. And when the faintest hints of a heart began to develop despite Xemnas's best efforts, jealousy and resentment filled it and gave him a firmer foothold. Other emotions were snuffed out before they could form. By the time that he truly became a vessel, Saïx couldn't resist his role even if he tried.

With the darkness and foreign heart in his body to bind him and the way his berserker state left him beyond rational thought, Saïx would be well-suited for the upcoming battle. He was the perfect chosen vessel.

Perhaps Saïx was once close to the traitor, but he would not betray the Organization. He couldn't. Not anymore. Their hold on him was too strong now. His loyalty was ironclad.

Saïx was more likely to slaughter Axel on Xemnas's order than to betray them.

"We'll get looking then," said Xigbar. "And what are you going to tell Master Xehanort? A couple missing replicas, a couple missing teammates, and one burnt-out lab? Doesn't look good."

"Yes, what are you going to tell him? That you failed to keep control of your Nobodies?"

Xemnas barely spared a glance as the armored figure walked in. Vanitas may control the Unversed and may be one of the chosen vessels, but his obsession with his other half was pitiful. After all, Xemnas did not spend his time trying to reclaim his Heartless. Vanitas's personal vendetta was bound to cause issues eventually.

"As if," said Xigbar, rolling his eye. "And if you want to talk about failures, I heard some pretty interesting rumors of what happened to you in Monstropolis. Kicked out of the entire world by the locals?"

"Enough." Crossing his arms, Xemnas said, "This is a minor setback. Nothing more. If we cannot handle this issue in a timely manner, then we will bring the problem to the others' attention. But for now, we will deal with the situation the same way that we would in the original Organization XIII."

"Got it. That's why you want Marluxia and Larxene," said Xigbar. "Just because we're down one ruthless assassin doesn't mean you don't have options." He chuckled quietly. "Those guardians of light are going to have a rough time."

Shaking his head, Vanitas said, "Whatever you say. I have more important matters to deal with."


 

Whenever he visited Radiant Garden, Sora was always impressed by seeing how much the place had improved since the time before. Leon, Cid, and the rest of the Radiant Garden Restoration Committee (formerly known as the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee) did amazing work. He could barely recognize it as the same place as the Hollow Bastion that he first encountered. There was so much life now. There were people, flowers, repaired homes and businesses, and the automated defense mechanism to keep them safe from Heartless. And if Cid's contraption wasn't enough to handle the problem, then Leon, Cloud, and Yuffie were always ready to knock the Heartless out of Radiant Garden the old-fashioned way.

And if that still wasn't enough, Sora was only a quick trip in a Gummi Ship away.

"Look at this place," said Kairi, her voice soft as she stared at everything. She kept close to him as they walked, her expression a little uncertain. "I haven't been back since… it was Hollow Bastion."

Sora knew what she meant. She hadn't been there since he released her heart from inside him and he was turned into a Heartless in the process. Since this place was nearly drowning in darkness.

"Didn't you used to live here when you were a little girl?" asked Goofy. "Did it look more like this back then?"

Quietly, she said, "I'm not sure. Those memories are… fuzzy."

"It looks pretty close to me," said Lea.

He'd seemed slightly on edge since their arrival, though trying to hide it under a casual façade. Sora wasn't completely sure how he had recognized what he was doing, but he suspected it was from the memories that Roxas had finally shared with him during the Mark of Mastery exam. But Lea was definitely uncomfortable being back on his original home world. Maybe it was because he was old enough to actually remember living there and what caused it to fall to ruin in the first place. Which was understandable since it felt strange sometimes for Sora to be back on Destiny Islands after everything, like he didn't quite fit in the way that he once did. Or maybe Lea was stressed out and worrying that it wouldn't work and they wouldn't get Roxas back after all.

Sora wasn't worried. One way or another, Roxas was coming back. He would exist. Sora wouldn't give up until he was his own separate person.

"Almost exactly how I remembered this place," continued Lea. A slight smirk appeared. "Though I doubt we'll need to sneak by Dilan and Aeleus to get into the castle now."

"You used to sneak in?" asked Sora.

"All the time as a teenager. We got pretty good at it too. Remind me later and I'll show you some of the best shortcuts and ways around the castle."

Donald muttered, "Were you always trouble?"

The tall staircase that led to the castle added to the impressiveness of the structure. But they didn't even need to climb it. Sora remembered the path that wrapped around to a side entrance, a door on a balcony that led inside. It was there when the castle was still mostly ruins. And while it was less obvious now, Sora could easily find it and he remembered that it would be faster to reach the secret underground lab.

The place had a lot of secrets hidden inside.

Through the doorway was a set of stairs the eventually gave way to a miniature maze of wide corridors. Sora didn't even hesitate. It hadn't been that long ago that he wandered around down here the first time. He remembered the twists and turns, the hallways that branched off only to circle back the main passage again, that lay under the castle that led to an ordinary-looking door.

Someone had straightened up the study since the last time he'd been there. Everything looked organized and neat, perfectly arranged on the desk and shelves instead of scattered. The schematics and notes remained scrawled on the wall, but the portrait was gone. Maybe moved or maybe destroyed. Sora doubted that anyone wanted to keep around a picture of Xehanort. Or apparently Terra's body possessed by Xehanort. Either way, he didn't think that the former Nobodies would be eager to see his face again.

And on the far wall, the secret entrance open, was the narrow walkway that led to the main section of the lab. He never went down further, but he could glimpse mechanics and robotic things over the edge of the walkway. Things that Sora couldn't possibly name or describe. But the exposed staircase leading further down into a darker and deeper basement was new. He knew that there were other places farther down, places below the castle that were still filled with powerful Heartless, but this was something else. He didn't remember seeing this staircase last time. When did they open it?

"Don't even think about going down there," said Lea when he noticed Sora eyeing it, his tone allowing no argument.

Apparently deciding to argue anyway, Donald asked, "And why not?"

"Because I know what they used to do down there."

And that was certainly ominous.

Part of Sora practically screamed that he needed to jump off the walkway and go investigate immediately. It was in his nature. He climbed, explored, and searched anywhere that he could on every world that he visited. That was how he found the most amazing things to collect and met the most interesting people. Part of him wanted to see what he would find down there.

But Sora wasn't an idiot. He remembered what he read on those scattered sheets of paper, the reports written by both Ansem the Wise and Xehanort using the man's name. Experiments on people's hearts. The creation of the Emblem Heartless. Reading about it was bad enough.

Not to mention that Lea seemed even more on edge, keeping on the side of the walkway farthest from the exposed staircase. And Kairi was so close to Sora that her arm kept brushing against him, though he wasn't certain she noticed what she was doing. Whatever was down there, they clearly wanted nothing to do with it.

Maybe poking around down there wouldn't be the best idea. At a minimum, he would wait until this was over and they had Roxas back.

Without another word, Sora turned away from the view and hurried the rest of the way into the secret lab.

"Hey, Ienzo," called Sora. "We're here."

Looking up from the computer, Ienzo said, "I though that Dilan was going to escort you down. He and Aeleus went to wait for you near the entrance."

"We didn't exactly come in the main door," said Lea.

"Still sneaking into the castle?" he asked. "I thought you outgrew that habit."

"Sorry," said Lea, glancing to the side as he scratched his head. Then a little quieter, he added, "For everything."

"Still apologizing to everyone?" asked Kairi.

Shrugging, Lea said, "There's a lot I'm sorry for. And it turns out that guilt isn't as easy to ignore with a heart."

"Just remember we're still good, Axel. I just got you to stop apologizing to me and we don't need to go back to that."

After a moment, Ienzo said, "I won't lie and say that what happened was pleasant, but I wouldn't be here and whole if you didn't do it. We'll call us even."

"I can work with even."

While Sora let the two former Nobodies work out whatever complicated history that they needed to, he started craning his neck and examining the room. The computer and the large teleporting laser thing that he used to visit Tron still looked the same. But now the center of the room was taken up by the three weird and uncomfortable-looking chairs, the kind that could recline back until it looked more like a table, various wires running between them and the computer. On the side of room closest to the computer was a single empty chair with a weird thing attached above that looked like a light bulb, one shaped more like a ring than an orb. But even with it turned off, Sora suspected it was more than a weird lamp. And on the side of the room closer to the teleporting laser was two more chairs.

Those chairs were occupied.

He couldn't make out much detail about them. The figures wore the Organization's black coats with the hoods up, mostly blocking their faces from sight. But Sora could tell that they were close to his size. And when he tried to glimpse anything under the hoods, one looked a little familiar. Roxas. The second, however, seemed blank. Like it didn't have a face. And neither of the figures were moving or even breathing.

"Are those the replicas that everyone was talking about?" asked Goofy.

"Indeed."

Sora's head snapped around at the unexpected and yet familiar voice. One that he never expected to hear again.

With a slight groan of effort, an older man stood up from where he was kneeling out of sight on the far side of the computer. Pale blond hair and beard, a red scarf over a lab coat, and an apologetic smile, Ansem the Wise stood there as if Sora didn't see him disappear in an explosion from his self-destructing invention at the World That Never Was. He was there, alive and whole. And apparently in good enough shape to be crawling around and hooking up wires.

"It is good to see you again, Sora," he continued.

"Wait, is that… Ansem?" asked Lea, frowning in confusion. "I haven't seen you in years. Ever since you 'disappeared' and the others stopped hiding what was happening."

"Actually, we have encountered one another more recently than that. Though I don't suppose you recognized me in my disguise. Unsurprising when I barely dealt with you directly when you and your friend tried to break in as children and I spent only slightly more time around you during your short stint as an apprentice."

As Ansem spoke, Lea's eyes narrowed. Confusion shifted towards recognition before giving way to anger. His posture stiffened, making him look even taller than normal.

"DiZ," said Lea, practically hissing the word. "I know that voice. DiZ."

He nodded, his expression grave. Kairi put a hand on Lea's arm, clearly seeing the same thing that Sora did. The former Nobody's body language had turned aggressive. Like he intended to start swinging a weapon at the older man or set him on fire.

"You know, I forgave Riku for his part in things. He just wanted to help his best friend. I get it," said Lea sharply. "But you? You were worse. Look at what you did with Naminé. You used her like everyone else did. You acted friendly towards her, but only until she served her purpose. Then you tried to have her destroyed. At least Riku had enough of a conscience to let her go. And you tossed Roxas in that fake town with fake memories." His hand opened and closed into fists a few times, like he was considering summoning his Keyblade. "You took him away and made him forget everything. And you didn't care what that did to anyone. His short existence was filled with secrets and people lying to him, but you made Roxas's final days complete lies."

"And for that, I doubt that I will ever forgive myself," he said, bringing Lea up short. Ansem continued, "I let anger and revenge consume my thoughts and twist me into something that I can barely recognize. I was a blind fool. But none of that excuses my behavior or treatment towards Roxas and Naminé. I saw them as means to an end; a way to achieve vengeance against those who betrayed me. Because they were born without hearts, I didn't see how cruel that I was treating them. I didn't see how cruel I was being towards innocents. I claimed that Nobodies had no feelings even when anyone with eyes could see the truth. Naminé could feel. Roxas could feel." He shook his head. "I caused them both so much grief and pain. And I cannot take any of it back. But perhaps by helping to restore these children, I can begin to atone for some of my crimes."

"Master Ansem is helping me." Ienzo took a small step forward. "Even with my studies and research, he is still the expert when it comes to the mysteries of the heart. Bringing back Roxas is not a simple task and his knowledge has been much appreciated."

Lea didn't immediately respond to his words and Kairi kept a hand on his arm. But some of the aggression melted out of him. At least Sora didn't think he was about to attack anyone anymore.

"There's nothing wrong with a second chance," said Goofy. "People make mistakes, but they can change."

Glancing towards the small figures in black coats, Lea said, "If it gets Roxas back, I can try to move past what you did back then. But if you ever hurt the kids again, any of them, I promise that I won't feel any guilt for what I'll do to you. Got it memorized, Ansem?"

Ansem the Wise nodded solemnly and the tension in the room seemed to evaporate. Lea's posture eased and Kairi released her grip on his arm. Sora took a deep breath and tucked his hands behind his head, trying to figure out how to get things back on track. If they didn't hurry, then someone else would show up and they would end up with more awkwardness again.

"So how did you get here, Ansem?" he asked. "Does it have anything to do with where the replicas came from?"

"It is a bit of a long story, but in a way. Xehanort pulled me from the Realm of Darkness to reveal any secrets that I might yet possess. But thanks to a trio of children from Twilight Town and one of my old apprentices, I escaped."

"Hayner, Pence, and Olette," guessed Donald.

"They and Even helped me to get away. And with Demyx's assistance, Even sent me and a pair of replicas here. It seems that Xehanort's forces are not quite as united as they seem. At least a few are seeking redemption as well, offering what little help they can to repair past mistakes. A deadly risk, but a courageous and difficult one."

"Vexen and Demyx rebelling? I didn't predict that one," said Lea, crossing his arms. "So let's get to the important part. How do we do this? How are we getting Roxas out of Sora without turning the kid into a Heartless? Ienzo explained the general idea, but I think it would be helpful to hear a couple more details."

"Of course." Ienzo gestured towards the replica with some actual features. "Using the information that we had previously and the data that Even provided, we know how to adjust the replicas to be more individualized. The digital Twilight Town included thorough and detailed data on Roxas and Naminé due to their time there, however brief it might have been. One of the replicas now has the information about Roxas downloaded." He gestured absently at the other replica, the plainer one. "We're leaving the second alone until we are certain the process works. We only hooked it up to run some basic diagnostics."

"She's not an it," snapped Lea quietly before blinking and shaking his head slightly.

Clearly not paying attention to the interruption, Ienzo continued, "First, we'll get those new scans on the hearts. Deep and thorough scans. That could take about half an hour or so, depending on how smoothly things proceed. We can't exactly stop the process in the middle. Then, depending on what we find, we'll try to isolate Roxas's heart from the others. That should make his heart easier to separate from Sora. At that point, we'll have Lea attempt to spark a reaction from Roxas's heart. That part may take a little improvising, but an emotional connection should help guide him out of its current state. In theory, if the reaction is strong enough, his heart will instinctively be drawn towards the more compatible and empty body."

"In theory. Keep in mind that this is something beyond anything that we have encountered before," said Ansem the Wise. "Roxas and Naminé were rather unique and few people could shelter another's heart, let alone so many. We are in unexplored territory."

Eyeing the man suspiciously, Donald asked, "This isn't going to hurt Sora, is it?"

Sora couldn't hide the small smile caused by the protective tone. No matter how much he and Donald butted heads, half their conversations consisting of teasing and good-natured arguments, Sora knew that Donald and Goofy would always have his back. They were friends and they watched out for each other. They stood together against even the worst odds, united no matter what happened or who they faced.

All for one and one for all.

But Donald and Goofy definitely had moments when they would get especially protective of him, worrying about Sora more than normal. He couldn't quite explain it, but those moments reminded him that the pair were actually older than him without making Sora feel like a dumb kid. It was… nice.

Even if it also reminded him how little he'd seen his parents the last couple years.

"We have no intention of harming Sora," said Ienzo. "We will be closely monitoring his condition the entire time. And to minimize stress during the procedure, he will be unconscious."

"So the sleepyhead get to spend his time snoozing while someone else does the hard work." Kairi smiled at him as she gently teased Sora. "That sounds about right."

As Lea, Donald, and Goofy smother their laughter, Ienzo said, "If everything goes smoothly, then we can repeat the process with Kairi to retrieve Naminé afterwards."

"Do you have any questions, Sora?" asked Ansem the Wise.

Yes, he had a few. Like what they were going to do about the third heart inside him. One was Roxas, one was Ventus, but no one knew who the third might be. No one except maybe Sora. He'd glimpsed a black-haired girl who looked like a younger Kairi, both in his dreams and in the confusing rush of memories that Roxas shared. The memories surrounding her seemed faded and fragile, disconnected from everything like shattered links of a chain, but Sora could make out that his Nobody cared about her. Whoever she might be, Sora suspected that she was the unknown heart. And she deserved a life of her own too.

But they only had two replicas. They didn't have enough vessels for everyone yet. And until they did, Sora didn't want to remind everyone and make them feel guilty about not being able to help her. They didn't have any choice other than to wait.

It would be nice at least to know her name though.

Sora shook his head, not asking the questions buzzing around his head. None of the questions were vitally important for the moment. And he didn't want to make Roxas wait any longer than necessary. He wanted to meet his Nobody for real, face to face.

Ansem the Wise gestured towards the empty chair. This was it. Kairi smiled reassuringly as Sora sat down.

The small expression warmed him, like a bright light inside him. But she'd always been a shining light for him even before he found out about her being a Princess of Heart. Even growing up, she was bright, warm, and happy to share her affection with those around her. He'd missed seeing Kairi and her smile. He'd missed being around her and Riku, each of them pulled in separate directions for months at a time. They were meant to be together, the three of them. Even as Sora made new friends, they couldn't replace Riku and Kairi.

Thankfully his heart had enough space for everyone that he cared about.

Sora shifted slightly. He was right. From the moment he saw it, he knew. The chair wasn't even slightly comfortable. Couldn't they have put a cushion or something on it?

"Just try and relax," said Ienzo, adjusting the attached overhead light while Ansem the Wise started typing on the computer. "There's nothing to worry about. Worst case scenario, nothing happens and we'll have to try again after some minor changes to the plan."

"We'll see you when you wake up." Donald smiled. "Sleep good, Sora."

Grinning, Goofy added, "Sweet dreams."

The light came on and a warm pale glow washed over him. It moved down him in weaves, like the ocean lapping against the beach. And it felt warm. Soothing. Sora smiled at the sensation. It reminded him so much of lying on the beach back home, napping in the sun. The drowsy feeling was already pulling at him gently, coaxing him to drift off.

He didn't resist the impulse. He embraced it. Sora let it pull him under, the boy focusing his thoughts on Roxas in case it might help. Sleep swallowed him, Sora falling deeper within himself.

It was a familiar experience.


 

Riku walked slightly behind Aqua on the path, keeping even with Mickey. While the two of them had grown fairly adept at using corridors of darkness over the last couple years, they couldn't try it with her. The fairies hadn't finished any protective clothing for her yet and her heart shouldn't be exposed to that much darkness. Not after her time trapped in the Realm of Darkness and the way it tried to consume her. But Mickey had a couple extra Gummi Ships at his disposal and Sora had collected enough gummi blocks in his travels to build a whole fleet, which he was happy to share while commenting that he'd love to see what kind of Gummi Ship that Riku would design. They had plenty of options on travel and they chose one that would be more comfortable for her.

Not to mention that it would be easier to bring back Ventus's sleeping body in a vehicle rather than carrying him.

The path through the gloomy and unnerving place, a world balanced on the edge between darkness and light in a way that so few did, was a familiar one to Riku. The twisted and strange castle ahead of them was equally familiar. During the year that Sora slept and Naminé rebuilt his memories, link by link, he'd returned to Castle Oblivion repeatedly. At least until DiZ moved everything to the old mansion in Twilight Town. Riku suspected that he still had those cards buried in the pocket of his old black coat, the only way that he could reach the right room and bypass the problems of the other floors. Sora, Donald, and Goofy may not remember what happened inside, but Riku would never forget Castle Oblivion.

This was the place where he took his first few steps towards accepting his inner darkness instead of fighting against it or letting it control him.

"Golly, I can't believe that Ven has been here the whole time," said Mickey. "We must have visited almost every floor at some point. And I don't know how much Organization XIII might have explored. But no one ever found a hint of where Ven was."

"Then the transformation of our home served its purpose." Aqua summoned her Keyblade to her hand as Riku came up beside her. "I wish that it didn't have to last this long. I promised to be back soon, but I'm not even close." She shook her head with a rueful smile. "Ven is never going to let me hear the end of this."

Smiling slightly, Riku said, "He'll forgive you for the wait. He slept through most of it. But once we get his body and free his heart from Sora, nap time is over."

Aqua took a deep breath, closing her eyes. For a moment, she didn't move. Aqua was as still as a statue, her free hand pressed against her chest. Then she breathed out slowly and brought her Keyblade up.

Her motions smooth and practiced, Aqua spun and twisted the Keyblade in a complicated pattern. Light shone. Then Riku glimpsed a forming Keyhole as the sound of something unlocking echoed through the air, through his body, and through his heart. He was left blinking as she lowered her arms, the light fading away.

A shape composed of light and color, like the ghost of an image, ran up the building. Riku barely had time to see a picture of another building overlaying the existing one before Castle Oblivion began to shift. Clicks, creaks, and grinding sounds filled the air as the structure moved in unnatural ways. The turrets that poked out at right angles turned. Walls lengthened and shrank as the new dimensions settled into place. Everything moved like clockwork pieces to fit the projected image.

Then a blinding light flared out, nearly blinding. Riku recovered his vision first while the others still shielded their eyes. And he couldn't help staring at the transformation.

Warm sunlight streamed down on grass and the stonework under his feet. Distant grassy mountains surrounded them while he glimpsed flowing water at lower elevations. And the bright castle barely resembled the dark and foreboding thing from before.

The change was as amazing as seeing Radiant Garden after witnessing the ruins of Hollow Bastion.

"The Land of Departure," said Aqua, the words whispered in relief and joy. "A place to learn. A place to grow and heal. A place of safety. The home, sanctuary, and training grounds for any Keybearer who needs it. Our home."

"You learned about the Keyblade here?" Riku paused, trying to remember what Mickey told him. "From Master Eraqus?"

She nodded and said, "I spent most of my life here. We always knew that we intended to be Keybearers someday. Terra and I spent hours in the library, reading about the history of other Keyblade masters, the remaining records about the Keyblade War, descriptions of different worlds, various techniques with Keyblades, obscure and complicated magics, and of course tomes and tomes about light and darkness." She gestured towards a path. "And down there we would spar and practice the different fighting styles, honing our skills so that we could defend the light against any threat. It… was a good life. Eventually, Ven joined the two of us. And he fit perfectly with us. Like it was always meant to be the three of us." Aqua shook her head slowly. "I miss them so much."

"Ven will be back with us soon," assured Mickey. "Then we can start working on a plan to rescue Terra."

Still looking at the transformed landscape, Riku said, "Must have been nice having someone teaching you all of this."

"What do you mean?" she asked. "Didn't Master Yen Sid…?"

"He'd already retired from being an active Keyblade master when Mickey got his Keyblade," said Riku. "And other than the two of them, there weren't a lot of other Keybearers around at the time. Sora got a Keyblade a couple years or so back and I got my own after that. And most of what we know is self-taught or stuff that we picked up from the people that we met in our travels. Master Yen Sid tried to give us a more structured foundation by making us relearn things during the Mark of Mastery exam, but it went wrong almost immediately."

Smiling, Mickey said, "At least Kairi and Lea got some actual training. Merlin is really smart and knows his stuff when it comes to magic. He originally taught Donald. And I know that he helped Sora a little when he started out."

"But Merlin isn't a Keyblade master," she said.

Riku shrugged and said, "You work with what you have. And it's better than dumping the pair in the middle of a Heartless swarm and hoping that they figure it out. At least they'll learn some spells and can practice against each other first."

Aqua stared at him, her expression a mixture of shock, pity, and something else. Then she shook the worst of it off and turned back towards the castle.

"Come on," she said quietly. "Ven's waiting. And he's been waiting long enough."

She started heading inside, leaving Riku and Mickey with no option except to follow. But as he reached the door, something began to prickle against the edges of his awareness. Something that put Riku on guard. The closest way that he'd ever been to describe it was a smell, though it also resembled a feeling like the hairs rising on the back of his neck. He'd been especially sensitive to it since he lost possession of his body to Ansem a couple years ago.

Darkness.

Riku inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent. There was a strong source of darkness close to them. Pure and concentrated. And while darkness wasn't inherently evil, that much outside the Realm of Darkness did not bode well. It wasn't a Heartless. It was different.

Pure, powerful, and aggressive darkness.

Riku met Mickey's eyes. And, thanks to a strong friendship forged by adversity and loyalty, they didn't need to say a single word. Riku passed the warning along silently and the pair allowed themselves to fall back from Aqua. She was focused on returning to her friend and didn't notice that they were following at a distance now.

He called his new Keyblade to his hand, a flatter and broader weapon that his heart had identified as Braveheart the moment it became his. Mickey did the same with his own Keyblade. They followed Aqua down the bright and beautiful corridor, but they were on guard. They knew that they weren't alone.

Bringing Ventus back wasn't going to be easy. There was going to be a fight. The only question was who their opponent would be and when they would strike.

Chapter Text

Aqua's worries and thoughts about the newest generation of Keybearers, young people with only two years of experience at a maximum and almost no formal training who were expected to carrying impossible burdens, fell away as she stepped into the throne room and saw Ven at the far end. Still sleeping exactly where she left him so long ago, the boy not even a single day older than before. While it felt like months in the Realm of Darkness to her, she knew that over a decade had passed. But he hadn't aged. And that familiar sight made her heart clench and her throat tighten.

"Ven," she whispered before breaking into a run.

She raced across the length of the room, reaching the trio of thrones in what felt like a heartbeat. The chamber and the thrones were a remnant of an older point in the world's history from before Master Eraqus's stewardship, but it was the safest place for him. Safer than hiding him in his own room. Especially once she transformed the castle.

"I'm sorry that I took so long," she said quietly.

Even knowing that his heart wasn't present, Aqua couldn't help ruffling his hair gently. Soon. They would wake him up soon.

"Well," said a voice that made her blood freeze, "that was a neat trick. No wonder we couldn't find him. But I suppose that I should thank you for bringing him back out again."

Her head snapped up. Perched casually on top of the throne was a familiar and unwelcomed figure. Dressed in black with thin red lines that traced out musculature and his face hidden by a reflective black helmet, he hadn't changed from the last time that she fought him either.

When he tried to possess Ventus, forming the χ-blade. When he was defeated, but at a cost. When his actions left Ven without his heart.

He was darkness, anger, and hate incarnate.

"Vanitas," she snapped.

A swing of her Keyblade sent a Blizzaga towards him, but he was just as fast and agile as he was a decade ago. He leapt from his perch, flipping over her head.

"Too bad Venty-Wenty is still napping," continued Vanitas, landing lightly on the floor. "I was hoping to spend some quality time with my brother."

Aqua gritted her teeth. Everything about him made her skin crawl. But at least she was now between him and Ven's sleeping body. She wouldn't let him near Ven again. And if that meant fighting Vanitas one more… Well, at least she had time to recover first. She wouldn't let this monster hurt those she cared about ever again.

Wait. Where were Mickey and Riku?

"Thunder!" shouted Riku, leaping through the archway that overlooked one of the twin staircases and catching an unsuspecting Vanitas with a powerful Thundaga.

From the other side, Mickey jumped through the other archway from his hiding place on the stairs, which was a difficult stunt based off Ven's attempts years ago. Mickey attacked Vanitas in a brutal aerial combo that Vanitas could barely escape.

As Vanitas broke free, Riku and Mickey took up position on either side of Aqua. She smiled despite herself. Riku was young, but she remembered fighting alongside Mickey in the past. Even if things felt personal against Vanitas and that she should be the one to deal with him, she couldn't help enjoying the way that he tilted his head, reassessing the odds.

"You're not as stealthy as you might think." Riku's Keyblade, held high parallel to his head, moved in tiny circles as he glared at his opponent. "I could smell you the moment that you arrived."

"The wandering king and the little boy who lost his Keyblade to someone never meant to wield one," said Vanitas, his tone mocking. "One who failed to save anyone for over a decade and the other who dove into darkness and now fears it. Not exactly the most promising people that you could have brought, Aqua."

Throwing up a Barrier around Ven's body to protect it, Aqua said, "Three Keyblade masters? Sounds promising to me. Not that I need any help against you."

Aqua moved fast, sending Blizzaga after Blizzaga after him as quickly as she could summon up the magic. Only a couple managed to land, but it was enough to let her close the distance. She swung fast. Not as hard or crushing as Terra's blows, but she wasn't weak.

But Vanitas wasn't weak either. Nor was he dumb.

The moment her Keyblade swung through him, an afterimage left behind, Aqua realized her mistake. She only had a second to brace herself as he materialized above her, swinging down and—

—a purple fireball knocked Vanitas halfway across the room. Aqua spun around to the source of the Dark Firaga, Riku running forward with a determined look. Mickey kept pace, clearly unsurprised and unconcerned by the casual use of darkness that had left her speechless.

How? He was using darkness. How was it not corrupting him? That's what darkness did. But he wasn't being consumed by hate and rage even as he actively called on it. It wasn't possible. Master Eraqus warned them. Those who did not resist it were lost to darkness.

But Terra… Terra wasn't…

Aqua knew that Terra wasn't like that, even when darkness let Xehanort in. And Riku clearly wasn't succumbing.

"Embracing your darkness then?" asked Vanitas, rolling to his feet just in time to block Riku's swing. "We might have room for you to join us. You do have a connection to Ansem, after all."

"You don't get it."

Riku smirked as Mickey flipped over Vanitas in order to land a blow to his exposed back, the pair moving perfectly in sync with one another. Aqua forced herself to push aside the confusion and overwhelming thoughts swirling in her head, reminding herself that she couldn't stop in the middle of a fight. No matter how much her view of reality was being disrupted. As Riku continued to speak, she sent a Blizzaga low.

"I'm not scared of my darkness. Not anymore. It's mine."

He swung hard. And when Vanitas tried to dodge, he slipped on the ice and left himself open to Riku's follow-up strike.

Vanishing into the ground like a shadow, Vanitas moved through the darkness to avoid a third hit. Aqua cartwheeled away to avoid retaliation, if only barely. And Mickey met his reemergence by firing pulses of light from his Keyblade.

"It's my darkness, just like it's my light. It isn't either one or the other," said Riku. "It's both. My heart has both, just like everyone else. I don't fear the darkness, but I don't reject the light either."

Vanitas lunged, but Riku met each strike with a block. And it left Vanitas too distracted to avoid mirrored attacks from Mickey and Aqua, knocking him further across the room and away from the thrones.

And away from Ven.

"And you can run back to Xehanort and your fellow lackeys," said Riku, "and tell them that we're sick and tired of your games."

"We won't let anyone else get hurt," added Mickey.

Glaring at the smooth and featureless helmet, Aqua said, "And you will never have Ven. My friends will be safe."

She slipped into her Spellweaver technique. Spinning, graceful, and brutal Keyblade swings rained down on him. Icy magic accompanied each impact. Her assault was ruthless as she kept knocking him off-balanced. And as her power began to wane, she unleashed a near-explosion of cold and ice.

Vanitas landed hard. And when he got back up, there was something vicious in his body language.

They'd made him angry. They'd made it personal.

He moved, blindingly fast. A streak of darkness. Aqua couldn't react before he hit her. Again. And again. And again. His Keyblade hit her from every angle, battering her body and leaving her with no breath to cry out in pain. Only Mickey leaping in with an aerial combo broke off his attack.

Gritting her teeth as Mickey and Riku kept him diverted, Aqua summoned up as much magic as possible and cast Curaga. Healing magic was trickier than elemental magic. Cure spells weren't instant fixes, but they were ideal for battles. They took large amount of magic to cast, but there was no charge time like Healing Light. Cure spells reduced pain, restored her strength, and sped up healing. It didn't completely erase her new bruises, but it was enough for Aqua to rejoin the fight.

She dove back into the fray, her Keyblade hitting her opponent solid. For everything that he'd done to her and her friends, for all the harm that he had caused, she fought back with all her strength and magic. If it was anyone else, Aqua would pity Vanitas as three Keyblade masters rained blows down on his head. For every one that he blocked, the clash of metal echoing through the large room, two more hit solid.

But when Master's Defender swept through him again without contact, Aqua shouted, "Scatter."

The trio dove out of the way of his retaliation, if only barely. His ability to leave behind an illusion as a distraction was dangerous. And annoying.

Maybe it was her imagination, but Vanitas didn't look quite as steady as he straightened up. The slight tilt of his head, however, made him seem less concerned about how the fight was going for him.

"Me against three Keyblade masters might not be completely fair," he said as a dark portal of some kind opened behind him. "Fine. Keep his body for now. I'll see my brother again soon enough." Backing into it, Vanitas added, "I doubt your friends will be quite as lucky as you."

Riku's eyes widened in horror at his words.

"Sora? Kairi?"

Vanitas didn't even have to remove his helmet for Aqua to know that he smirked as he disappeared into the darkness. The portal vanished with him, not a single trace of the darkness remaining.

Riku yanked out the rectangular device, the Gummiphone, that they'd all been provided before leaving the Mysterious Tower. But when he tried to contact someone, he clearly failed because his worry became something bordering on controlled panic.

"Sora isn't answering," said Riku.

A grim expression briefly overtaking his face, Mickey said, "We have to get to Radiant Garden."

"A dark corridor would be fastest, even if it still takes time to travel that way," said Riku. "But we can't take Aqua and Ventus that way."

Mickey shook his head and said, "Go. Help our friends. I'll pilot the Gummi Ship back with Aqua and Ven."

Riku nodded and threw up a hand. An identical dark portal formed, the boy using the darkness as naturally as Vanitas did. Aqua shivered, unable to help herself even as she noticed that she didn't feel the same malevolence in it as she normally did in the close presence of darkness. And without hesitation or fear, Riku ran into the shadows.


Being back in Radiant Garden felt deeply uncomfortable. Lea wasn't certain how the others could stand it, living here as if the past decade never happened. Even walking along the familiar stone streets made him feel like his skin was too tight, too constricting, and too entrapping. There were too many memories haunting every corner, as if he would run into a young and human Isa at any moment and they would sneak off together to some high perch to watch the sun set and the stars come out. Being inside the castle, back in the underground and hidden lab, only put him more on edge. He knew Ienzo, Dilan, and Aeleus planned to fix up the place, but why would they go back down to that spiral staircase to the containment units for subjects?

No. Cells. Just call them what they were. Prison cells for people dragged in for experiments on the heart.

Most of the earliest of them were volunteers. People who trust the man, who needed help and hoped that he could provide it, who needed the money, or had nothing to lose. That didn't make what happened to them any better.

The subjects after Ansem the Wise ordered the experiments ceased were collected more carefully. Drifters. Loners. Troublemakers. Runaways. Orphans. Those were the types of people that the other apprentices were secretly experimenting on by the time he and Isa were foolish enough to become apprentices as well.

There was nothing down there now but empty cells, horrible memories of screams and trapped test subjects, and the Chamber of Repose where Xemnas would sneak off even after Maleficent took over the place. They would be better off if they sealed off that entire section of the castle and never looked back. Poking around down there in the first place was what eventually led to Lea and Isa ending up as Nobodies.

Going down there in the first place, becoming apprentices… All because of Lea's stupid idea.

And he didn't know what Kairi might remember or how involved she might have been with the experiments in the basement, but she had been ill at ease when she saw that spiral staircase. Maybe some fuzzy memories of childhood remained or maybe she could actually feel the darkness, misery, and suffering that happened down there. Who knows what kind of stuff that a Princess of Heart could pick up on?

He didn't like being on this world and being reminded of how things would never go back to the way they were when he and Isa were kids. He didn't like being in this castle and reminded of those screams, the darkness, and the nameless girl in a cell who disappeared before the worst of it happened.

And he absolutely didn't like being back in the lab and being reminded of the other apprentices dragging him and Isa in, the pair of them not understanding what was happening. Why they were forced into black coats, a test to see how much darkness the material could protect against and withstand before it was too much. Better to lose the nosy teenagers to the experiment than a member of the newly-formed Organization, after all. And it was easy enough to dispose of the pair afterwards. He hadn't understood the cold emptiness in their eyes and hadn't realized that their empathy and humanity was gone. He and Isa hadn't seen the danger until they were in the secret laboratory. And by then, no amount of struggling and fighting back could free them from Aeleus's— Lexaeus's strong grip.

The memories of the experiments themselves were thankfully blurs, but pieces remained. Isa's previously-struggling body collapsing on the floor of the lab, blood on his face as he disappeared. A sharp pain wrapping around his battered heart before ripping it out in this very room. Those pieces remained crystal clear.

Lea didn't like being in this room. Not now that he actually had a full range of emotions again. And not when he kept encountering people who caused even more uncomfortable feelings. Like Ansem the Wise.

But if it meant getting Roxas back, Lea would stay there as long as necessary.

Lea took up position near the two replicas, finding a spot close to them without getting in the way. Even with their hoods hiding their faces, it felt right to stay near. Not just the one resembling Roxas already, but the other small figure too.

One hand stayed buried in his pocket, his fingers brushing against the small objects. The only things that he really possessed anymore. The only things he found worth keeping. Even through the glove, he could feel the textures. Staring at the pair of replicas, he felt the thin wooden ice cream stick that Roxas left behind and the smooth seashell, one that he didn't exactly remember finding and yet couldn't bring himself to toss away.

Focusing on the replicas and the contents of his pocket made it easier to ignore his memories of the place. He could handle this. He just needed to keep his mind on the present.

Glancing up momentarily to check on progress, Lea noticed that things seemed to be going smoothly. Ansem the Wise and Ienzo were leaning over the computer, their expressions serious as they concentrated on their work. Serious, but not worried. And Kairi, Donald, and Goofy were clustered around Sora with slightly anxious looks on their faces. The previous reassurances that it wouldn't harm the kid hadn't erased their concerns completely. If Lea had to guess, he was fairly certain that she wanted to take his hand and was only hesitating due to the white light washing over him, Kairi not wanting to interfere with the procedure. Sora was sleeping peacefully in the chair, not a care in the world.

He honestly spent a surprising amount of time unconscious.

Everything was going smoothly. Lea's free hand settled briefly on the replica's shoulder, squeezing it gently through the thick material of the black coat. His best friend would be back soon.

A sharp blaring alarm tore through the calm. His head snapped up. Something was wrong. Dozens of possibilities flashed through his mind in an instant. And the sudden frantic typing didn't bode well.

Not now. Please not now. They were so close.

"What's going on?" demanded Donald in his nigh incomprehensible accent, his tone an equal mixture of anger and worry. "What's happening?"

His voice grave, Ansem the Wise said, "Something has abruptly taken the automatic defense mechanism for Radiant Garden offline. The primary control system at the Restoration Committee's headquarters is down and we are unable to bring it back up at this location. I suspect that there's physical damage from an attack because we are also receiving numerous reports of swarms of Heartless and lesser Nobodies appearing without warning."

Lea stepped away from the replicas, already not liking where this was going. The timing could not be a coincidence. The Heartless and Nobodies wouldn't suddenly strike, taking out the mechanical protection for the city in a targeted attack. And not just when they were attempting to free one of the hearts inside Sora. This was planned. Someone was commanding them.

It wasn't a coincidence. Someone didn't want them bringing back Roxas.

"Waking up Sora in the middle would be ill-advised," said Ienzo. Worry took over his expression. "Maybe after the scans, when we wouldn't risk disrupting anything but not before. I don't want to tempt it unless we have no other option."

Lea met Kairi's eyes. He knew that look of resolve. It was familiar. Painfully familiar in a way that he couldn't remember properly, but made his heart twist and ache in his chest. And looking next to her, he saw similar stubbornness and protective anger mirrored on Donald and Goofy's faces.

Well, all right then.

"Keep working on fixing up Sora and Roxas," he said firmly. "That's your job. Our job is dealing with Heartless and Nobodies attacks. Kind of goes with the whole 'guardians of light' thing. We'll keep everyone and everything out of here."

Kairi nodded and said, "We'll keep them safe."

Summoning up a magic wand and shield, Donald and Goofy stepped forward. They didn't have to say a word. They were going to protect the kid, no matter what.

Lea knew the feeling.

"Do what you can. We'll be back soon for whatever I need to do to nudge Roxas awake," he said, meeting Ansem the Wise and Ienzo's eyes firmly. "Just keep going."

And with that, he turned and walked out of the secret lab with his improvised defense team. But his thoughts immediately turned to the fact that this would be Kairi's first real combat experience.

While both Lea and Kairi started their formal training at the same time, they weren't exactly equals when it came to using a Keyblade. He would be the first to admit that she had the natural talent for it. From the moment that she summoned the flowery and delicate-looking weapon, Destiny's Embrace, he knew that the teenage girl didn't struggle the same way that he did. She could pull off tricks that he could scarcely imagine, things that made a Keyblade unique compared to other weapons. Maybe it was because of being a Princess of Heart, not a speck of darkness in her, but her Keyblade responded far more easily to her heart and intentions than his did.

Then again, why should he expect a weapon of the heart to come as naturally to someone who spent over a decade without a heart?

But it was more than that. From the first sparring session, Kairi demonstrated a knack for fighting with it. As Lea struggled to adjust to the strange heft and length of the Keyblade compared to his familiar chakrams, Kairi moved instinctively. Each swing, each strike, every block, and even the way she would roll across the ground to dodge an attack or her tendency to leap into a flurry of vicious strikes before landing on the balls of her feet at the end of a combo… They were too practiced and instinctive. And too familiar.

Honestly, watching her fight was like watching a slightly-less experienced Sora fight. Or Roxas. Or… someone…

Regardless, Kairi shared the exact same combat style as Sora from the start. Both Lea and Merlin had quietly theorized that since her heart was inside Sora when the boy initially learned to wield a Keyblade, she subconsciously picked up the same skills. It was only a matter of getting her body into shape to make use of those skills properly.

And apparently being a Princess of Heart gave her a natural affinity for Light and Cure spells. She learned them fast and it took very little time for her to gain more powerful versions of the spells. Kairi learning to use Fire magic, however, was something that Lea would proudly take full credit for.

Kairi was a capable Keyblade wielder. Lea would never argue against that. He'd spent too much time in that timeless place nursing bruises during their training to doubt her capabilities.

But while he knew her strengths, Lea also know that she wasn't a master any more than he was. She wasn't Sora or Riku or even Donald and Goofy. And there was a huge difference between practice and reality.

Kairi might have a natural talent when it came to the Keyblade and its various abilities, but Lea possessed more combat experience. He knew how to fight different types of Heartless, and later Nobodies, in groups of various sizes. He knew how to adjust to different battlegrounds, knowing when to get a wall at his back for defense and when to avoid being cornered. He knew how to instinctively dodge when something appeared in his peripheral vision. He knew how to fight when his life was on the line against foes trying to kill him. He knew how to fight without thinking and how to think while fighting.

And more importantly, he knew the Organization. He knew their strategies and fighting styles. He knew them. Some of the new members were less familiar, but the original members were his coworkers for years. And he knew how to handle them.

Facing any of the Organization XIII, new or old, would be a dangerous first challenge. Kairi was being dumped in the deep end.

Lea hoped he was wrong. He hoped they weren't facing someone from the Organization and it was actually something minor. A few stray Dusks stirring up the local Heartless population, maybe. But the timing was too suspicious. And it would be smarter to assume the worst.

"Listen," he said as they reached the study, causing Kairi to stop before pushing to door open, "I need you to promise me something."

Tilting her head slightly, Kairi asked, "What?"

"Our job is to keep anything from getting down to the lab and our friends. No matter what." He scratched the back of his head. "Best case scenario would be that we go out there and take care of the problem ourselves. But if I tell you to fall back, all of you come back through this door and you seal it with your Keyblade. Merlin and Riku explained how it worked, remember? You make certain that no one comes through. If I tell you to run, that's your job. Got it memorized?"

"And what about you?" asked Donald, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

"Kairi is better with the Keyblade's more interesting tricks, but I'm better at fighting."

"Maybe if you don't use a Keyblade, you are. In sparring, we're about even," said Kairi, hands on her hips as she glared up at him.

Why was she so tiny? Why were all the other Keyblade wielders so small? Half of them were teenagers, but even King Mickey was short.

"Regardless, if things get serious, the three of you need to fall back and seal the door. And you don't let anything through. You're the last line of defense."

Taking a step forward, Goofy said, "You're not coming with us?"

"If we have to do that, someone will have to cover the retreat." When he noticed everyone giving him worried looks, Lea smiled reassuringly. "But it probably won't come to that. Like I said, it's just in case things get a bit messy. Having a backup plan is just common sense. But if I tell you to go, I need you to run immediately. No arguing and no hesitating. Promise? Keeping our friends safe is too important."

Not just Sora, though he was good kid and certainly worth protecting. But with Roxas so close to returning, he couldn't risk anything happening. And he wanted to keep Kairi safe too.

He had friends now and a heart to care about them. And the capacity to hurt when something happened to them.

And he'd already lost so much.

Kairi hesitated, her hand coming up to her chest as tension filled her entire body. But then she gave a short nod and her expression shifted to something determined. Her hand shot out and her flowery Keyblade materialized. Lea reached over and clapped her shoulder, giving her a proud grin.

"But you have to promise too," she said, making him pause.

"Oh?"

"Promise me that no matter what happens, even if we have to go with your backup plan, you won't get yourself killed. Both you and Sora told me what you did in Betwixt and Between to help him. You don't get to do that again."

"Trust me, once was enough," said Lea. "But if it makes you feel better, I promise I won't die on you. I still have to see Roxas again, right?"

"Right."

Then, smirking slightly as he summoned his own Keyblade and balanced it on his shoulder, Lea said, "And try to keep count. Let's see if you can beat up more Heartless than me."

The attempt to turn things casual and relaxed again, to disperse the uneasy atmosphere that the more serious conversation created, worked as Lea hoped. Kairi shoved his arm away while the ghost of a smile tugged at her mouth. Then, taking a small step forward, she shoved the door open.

Chapter Text

Sora plunged down, diving deeper inside himself. His memories of these dives into his heart were always hazy and vague during his waking hours, but he remembered in his dreams. And these visits were always different and unique.

But a few things remained constant.

He spotted the bright stained-glass glowing through the darkness, Sora approaching it fast. He twisted in midair, letting himself land lightly on his feet. He already knew the colorful design. He knew it showed himself on Destiny Islands, portraits of Riku, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy joining him. But he only spared the beautiful image a moment's notice.

He was looking for someone.

Sora closed his eyes. He wasn't alone. No matter what it looked like, he wasn't alone in this place. There were others within his heart. Waiting. He needed to find them.

Without moving a muscle, he reached out for them. Roxas. Ventus, The black-haired girl. He reached for them and silently called to their hearts. He reached for the connections between his heart and others. Faint whispers filled his ears. And when he felt something shift, Sora opened his eyes.

A short distance away from the edge of his stained-glass platform, close enough that he could easy cross it with an air slide or by gliding, was another platform. The stained-glass image was mostly green, but Sora couldn't make out much about the design at his current angle. He would need to be higher or closer. But he did see someone standing on it.

For a brief moment, Sora thought he was looking at Roxas. The blond boy looked a lot like him. But the clothes weren't quite right; his jacket was split down the middle between black and white and he had some kind of armor covering his shoulder. But more importantly, he didn't feel right. Sora couldn't describe it any better. He felt different.

Ventus. The boy standing there, eyes closed and slumped as he slept upright, was Ventus. Sora knew it without a doubt.

"He slumbers the deepest of us."

Sora turned. Behind him, two more platforms had appeared in the darkness. While a reasonable distance from Sora's stained-glass circle, the new pair of platforms were nearly touching each other. They didn't look identical, but the designs were primarily reds and oranges that reminded Sora of sunsets. And on each platform was a figure dressed in black coats, their hoods down to expose their faces.

One was the black-haired girl, the one who looked like a younger Kairi. She stood on her glowing stained-glass surface like a sleepwalker. The second figure, a familiar blond boy, stared at him with half-lidded and drowsy eyes.

"Roxas," whispered Sora.

He gave a groggy smile and said, "Unlike you, I'm not a sound sleeper."


Kairi forced herself to remain steady when they stepped out and a dozen Soldier Heartless scurried along the wide corridor towards them. She knew the subtype, from descriptions and foggy memories from her heart resting inside Sora. But she'd only ever faced Shadows when she briefly fought alongside Riku in Organization XIII's castle. After that, she only fought Lea and Merlin's enchanted flying furniture. This was a real fight and they were stronger than Shadows.

But she could do this. She wasn't weak and helpless. She didn't have to stay behind and be protected all the time.

Her fingers tightened on Destiny's Embrace. Then, glaring at the closest Heartless in its yellow eyes, she jumped forward and hit it in the head.

Her body knew the combos. Her arms swung fast and hard, her Keyblade knocking the Heartless back and forcing her to keep moving forward to continue the attack. Then, the abruptness stunning her, the Heartless disappeared into fragmenting darkness and a vanishing heart.

She couldn't stop though. Kairi twisted, knocking back a Soldier as it leapt towards her face.

Lightning rained down all around her, Donald casting Thundaga. Goofy covered the perimeter, spinning like a top as his shield sliced through his opponents. And flames continued to flicker out of the corner of her eye. Lea kept shifting between more traditional attacks and using strike raid techniques with a fiery element. The four of them cut through the Heartless without hesitation.

Then Kairi heard a sound and a few more Heartless, a mixture of Soldiers and tall metallic minotaur-like creatures, materialized. A moment later, twenty pale figures appeared out of thin air to join them. Nobodies. Some were Dusks, but others…

"Reapers and Ninjas," hissed Lea. "Not good."

Gritting her teeth, Kairi leapt at a white and flowery shape floating in the air. But then it abruptly changed its shape to something vaguely humanoid and swung a scythe. The handle caught her in the middle, knocking the air out of her. Then it flung her into the closest wall. She hit hard. Pain exploded across her back, but Kairi couldn't even scream.

Tumbling to the ground and coughing weakly, Kairi only managed to dodge roll out of the way because things tended to get rough during sparring and she knew better than to stay still. The scythe still almost sliced her before Goofy slammed his shield full-force into the Nobody and knocked it away. The flame-engulfed Keyblade flying into its head drove it further back.

"Kairi!" shouted Donald, the Curaga washing over her and easing the pain of forming bruises.

Shoving herself to her feet, she croaked, "I'm fine."

"Don't let them surround us. Keep them away from the door," said Lea. "And the Ninjas clone themselves. Watch out for that."

Spotting one of the minotaur-like Heartless charging towards Donald, Kairi shouted, "Light!"

Orbs of light fired rapidly from her Keyblade slowed the Heartless down, but not enough to stop it. The delay gave them enough for Goofy to jump in though. He unleashed a powerful combo with his shield against the metallic figure. Donald took advantage of the situation to pull an ether from his pocket.

Seconds later, the Heartless was entombed in ice. Which quickly shattered when Kairi went after it with a spinning aerial combo.

Breathing a little harder as she landed, Kairi glanced around the corridor. There didn't seem to be any fewer opponents than before. And more were scrambling and scurrying in from the side halls. She couldn't tell how many Heartless and Nobodies were swarming towards them now.

This wasn't going to be easy.

Blowing her hair out of her eyes, and being thankful that she decided to cut it before all the fighting started, Kairi dashed towards a greyish Nobody. The Ninja slashed at her, but the girl rolled out of the way of the knives. She followed up by swinging her Keyblade at its legs. The Nobody fell to the ground as it lost its footing. But before she could follow through on the attack, two Soldiers closed in on her.

"Fire!" she shouted.

Flames swirled protectively around her Keyblade and body before flaring out at the Heartless around her. Lea, appearing next to her without warning, sent a brief wall of fire to knock back those she missed. Her Fira spell might be good and she could control how it manifested, but Lea was still the expert when it came to Fire magic.

"You miss fighting Merlin's furniture yet?" asked Lea, taking up position at her back.

Grinning to herself, Kairi said, "Why? Getting tired?"

"Nah. I'm good. Don't let them gang up on you though. These guys are meaner than his temperamental footstool."

An angry and frustrated shout from Donald preceded a particularly vicious Thundaga. Soldiers, Dusks, and one Ninja jolted violently before bursting into darkness and nothingness. Goofy slammed his shield into a flower-like Reaper Nobody, destroying it. And swinging his Keyblade down from his unorthodox shoulder-bracing hold, Lea knocked a minotaur-like Heartless back before following up with a combo of spinning strikes that imitated a very different weapon.

Kairi couldn't help being aware of exactly how much more experienced they were than she was. Even Lea was better at fighting, even if it was with his chakrams.

But she refused to give up. She wouldn't back down. She was going to protect Sora.

No matter what.


Sora had a million questions. There were so many things that he wanted to ask his other half now that he had the chance. He knew so little about his Nobody now that he thought about it.

Anger and a sense of betrayal from the so-called unfeeling Organization members when they only saw Roxas instead of Sora. Desperation and a self-destructive attack by Axel to protect Sora because of how much the boy reminded him of the Nobody that he missed. A photograph of a friendship from a programmed world. Glimpses in dreams and visions, fights that didn't physically happen and admissions in the deepest realms of slumber. And a confusing collection of feelings and memories that didn't belong to Sora.

It wasn't enough to really claim that he knew Roxas as a person. But it was enough for Sora to know that he wanted to know him better. He wanted to be his friend.

Sora had a million questions. But now that he was standing in front of his partially-asleep Nobody within his heart, the one that came from his mouth wasn't any of the ones that he originally planned.

"Where's all the whispering coming from?"

"You hear them?" murmured Roxas.

Sora nodded. Soft, faint, and constant whispers came from all directions in the darkness. They'd started when he tried to locate Roxas within himself and hadn't stopped since. Some barely audible and others distinct enough to make out words. And familiar. He knew these voices. And now that he was paying attention, they seemed to be growing clearer.

"Hearts," continued Roxas in a drowsy voice. "Hearts connected to your heart. And hearts connected to our hearts. The voices are your friends and ours."

He listened closely. Roxas was right. The loudest were his best friends. Sora could pick out their voices from among the others.

Riku. Kairi.

Donald. Goofy.

And there were others. Dozens. Perhaps not as strong and loud, but he could still recognize their voices. And the harder he listened, the easier it was to identify the different people from his past.

Hercules. Ariel. Jack Skellington.

Tron. Jiminy. Mulan.

Woody. Buzz. Leon.

Belle. Stitch. Peter Pan.

Joshua. Simba. Rapunzel.

Pooh. Jack Sparrow. Cloud.

Aladdin. Neku. Tinkerbell.

Mike. Sulley. Mushu.

Anna. Cid. Genie.

Lea. Merlin. Aqua.

So many whispering, distant, and familiar voices. His friends scattered across numerous worlds. And yet he could hear them. Inside his heart.

"Reach out. You can feel them," murmured Roxas. "You can feel the connections."

Listening to the voices whisper, Sora focused on one in particular. His hand moved until his fingers brushed against an invisible gossamer thread that he was certain wasn't there a moment before. He gripped the thread gently and the voice became crystal clear.

"One more smackeral of honey should do it…"

Sora grinned and whispered, "Silly old bear."

"…Sora?"

Startled by the response, Sora let go and lost his connection to Pooh. His voice returned to a soft whisper in the darkness.

"They're louder when they think about you. Or us," mumbled Roxas quietly. "Or when you reach out for them. And when your heart calls to theirs, sometimes they can feel it. Even if they don't realize what it is they feel."

Well… That was interesting. He knew that his friends gave him strength and that they were a part of his heart. But he never imagined that he could do a trick like this.

He couldn't wait to tell Riku and Kairi.

Grinning to himself at the thought, Sora turned his attention back to Roxas and the girl. They both slumped on their individual stained-glass platforms, resembling sleepwalkers without the walking part. They swayed in place, their breathing slow and even. Even Roxas' eyes were groggy and unfocused. They were truly asleep even as Sora spoke to them.

"Uh," said Sora quietly, taking a step in the direction of the black-haired girl, "don't take this the wrong way, but… Who are you?"

"No one," she murmured.

"Xion," answered Roxas in the same moment.

Smiling, Sora said, "Hello, Xion. It's great to meet you."

She gave a quiet hum and there was a faint hint of a smile on her face, but didn't respond further. She continued to sleep. But at least he had a name now. That was more than he had before. Maybe one of the others would know who Xion was.


The dark corridor opened in the middle of Radiant Garden, Riku's running feet hitting the decorative stonework without pause. The castle loomed overhead. And somewhere in there, his friends waited. He regretted not trying to open the corridor inside. But the architecture had changed so much with repairs and he wasn't certain where inside he would come out. He didn't have the time or patience to try narrowing down an arrival point to a specific room when it would easier to arrive somewhere more open and to just run the rest of the way.

But within seconds of arriving, Riku was forced to jump out of the path of a dozen charging Mechanitaurs. Large, strong, and metallic, the Heartless acted as a single unstoppable unit. And when they didn't hit Riku, they smashed through a stack of crates and didn't even slow down.

Then he noticed the screaming.

He ran towards the sounds. Considering the kind of person his best friend was, there was a decent chance that Sora was already in the middle of the chaos. As he turned down a different street, Riku spotted more. More Heartless. And Nobodies. They were only Dusks, but even those could be dangerous.

Radiant Garden shouldn't be swarming like this. They were supposed to have defenses. It should have been safer than most worlds. Vanitas's parting taunt rang in his ears.

He found the source of the screaming, a man and two kids tucked in a corner between two buildings. A swarm of Soldiers were creeping towards them. The man looked like he was trying to defend the children with a wooden plank from a busted crate. But the desperate look in his eyes meant that he knew his chances were slim.

The man probably remembered the first time Radiant Garden fell.

Raising his Keyblade up, Riku sent a Thundaga crashing down from the sky. The electricity jolted through the Heartless, the creatures spasming and twitching wildly before exploding into darkness. The cringing kids, probably no older than eight, glanced up at the sound and the man smiled in relief. Riku twitched his head.

"Go. Find somewhere safe," he said.

They started to obey, stepping away from their corner. But then they froze, their expressions shifting to horror.

Riku spun, his Keyblade catching the leaping Dusk in midair. A couple more jumped from the shadows despite losing the element of surprise. But a tall figure appeared out of nowhere and tore through the pair.

"Hurry," ordered the man. "Head towards the Restoration Committee's headquarters. You'll be safer there."

This time, the trio nodded and managed to start running. And Riku had a moment to actually pick up a few more details about the new arrival. The brown hair, the thin scar across his face, the black jacket with the stylized red lion head on the shoulder and the fluffy collar, and what looked like a gun-blade-thing… Riku recognized the description from Sora.

"Leon?"

The man glanced over. His eyes landed briefly on Riku's face and his Keyblade. Then he nodded.

"I guess it was about time that I met the famous Riku," he said. "Sora talks about you all the time. You and Kairi."

"I heard plenty of stories about you too." Riku smiled. "Thanks for watching out for him in Traverse Town."

"It didn't take him too long to find his way. Especially once he met Donald and Goofy. But we are all grateful that we met him," he said. Glancing over his shoulder, Leon said, "Since you're here, we're trying to get everyone to safety while Cid gets the automatic defense system back up. The Nobodies attacked and destroyed the primary computer for the system before we drove them back. Could you lend a hand? We still need to clear out the market and we're stretched thin protecting everyone."

The impulse to continue towards the castle was strong. Vanitas's words and an uneasy feeling that he was running out of time gnawed at the back of his mind. Sora and Kairi were in danger.

But Sora and Kairi were Keybearers. Sora was practically a Keyblade master in all but title. They could defend themselves. No matter what was after them, they could fight back.

All the people in town, however, were vulnerable.

It wasn't really a choice. He couldn't do anything else. But that didn't keep him from feeling as if he was abandoning his friends.

"You know the place. I'll follow your lead," said Riku.

He needed to get it done fast. They would track down everyone, herd them towards a more defensible position, and take out any Heartless and Nobodies in the way. And once they were safe, Riku could continue towards the castle.

Hold on, Sora and Kairi. He would be there as soon as possible.


Breathing hard as he slashed his way through yet another Reaper, Lea refused to miss being a Nobody. He never wanted to go back to that. But as he was being forcibly reminded, being human had a couple disadvantages. Especially in a fight. He wasn't quite as strong or durable as he'd been the last several years. And his endurance, while decent after constantly sparring with Kairi, had definitely taken a dive.

And the Heartless and lesser Nobodies just wouldn't stop coming.

For every enemy that they took down, a couple more arrived to take their place. Sometimes Lea would clear them some space with some more widespread Fire magic or Donald would call down a few Thundagas. That duck definitely loved his destructive offensive spells. But keeping the end of the corridor clear was vitally important and something that they'd managed so far.

Barely.

Throwing his Keyblade through a Soldier, Lea glanced over. If he was running out of steam, then Kairi was on her last legs. She was still fighting though. A little slower and a little sloppier, but still going. The girl was a vicious thing for someone with no darkness. Years of frustrated helplessness was being channeled into each strike.

Donald and Goofy were backing her up, showing off their own vast experience. Goofy was quick with his shield to cover her back. And even if the court magician was a bit stingier with his healing spells, Donald kept her from getting too hurt. Not to mention that the occasional Curaga would keep her from completely running out of energy, the spell also restoring strength. Lea hadn't needed to jump in for a while. The pair were doing great at keeping her from being overwhelmed by the continuous waves of enemies.

She was also managing to keep an eye on him even with all the fighting. When she saw Lea get hit particularly hard by an attack he couldn't avoid, Kairi would immediately use Cura on him.

And no matter how good that he might be at fighting, Lea couldn't avoid everything. Especially since he was trying to handle the Reapers and Ninjas before they could get near her. They were almost as vicious as the Organization members in charge of them. And they loved playing with sharp objects. As durable as his black coat might be, he'd collected several tears in it and a couple cuts (half-healed and no longer bleeding thanks to Kairi's magic). Most of the slices ended up his left arm because he still instinctively kept trying to block attacks with a chakram that wasn't there.

"This is getting annoying," said Kairi, sweat-streaked hair sticking to the side of her face. "And I've lost count."

Giving a breathless laugh, he said, "That's fine. We'll call it a tie."

"There's more Nobodies now than Heartless," said Goofy. Smashing a Dusk with his shield, he asked, "Do you think they're running out?"

"We can only hope," said Donald.

A wave of the wand and a Waterga spell swirled protectively around the duck before launching at the closest enemies. Every impact splashed almost explosively before hitting more enemies. Lea had no interest in Water spells, but he could appreciate the effectiveness.

And the Nobodies weren't instantly replaced. Part of Lea, the optimistic and completely in denial part of him that had kept believing that he could keep Roxas safe even as everything kept falling apart back then, hoped now that Goofy was right. He wanted to believe that they were reaching the end of it. They might be close to winning. They might actually be running out of Heartless and Nobodies for the moment.

But a more cynical part suspected a more unpleasant possibility. Especially with Reapers and Ninjas lurking around. Someone was directing them, waiting to show their faces. After everyone was worn down by the fighting, that's when they would make their move. He knew that they wouldn't fight fair. If they were involved, he would see them soon.

"All right. That's enough," said Kairi, breathing hard. Raising her Keyblade above her head, she shouted, "Light!"

Rather than the compact glowing orbs shooting out in targeted attacks, several bright beams of light slammed down from above. Intense and almost blinding, the huge pillars of light spun around her. And everything they encountered was vaporized. By the time the attack ended and Lea managed to blink the spots from his vision, the lesser Nobodies were gone and the corridor was empty.

"If you could have done that when we first met," said Lea quietly, "that first meeting would have gone very differently."

Looking wobbly on her feet and exhausted, Kairi grinned and said, "Thanks."

An all-too-familiar sound preceded the formation of a corridor of darkness. And two figures stepped out. Two figures that Lea halfway expected.

"Larxene," said Donald, glaring at her.

Sounding equally unhappy with their arrival, Goofy said, "And Marluxia."

"The two of you are back working for Xemnas and the rest of the Xehanort's Hearts Club?" said Lea, taking a step forward as he slung his Keyblade on his shoulder. Placing himself between his current teammates and his old coworkers, he added, "Whatever happened to your attempted coup? Decided you prefer being storage tanks for the old guy's heart?"

Crossing his arms, Marluxia said, "I do find it interesting that you took the path of a traitor, Axel. Especially this openly."

"Jealous that I'm better at it than the two of you were?"

Lea knew that this wasn't going to be a fair fight. Not when he was already out of breath, tired, and sore from fighting. Marluxia wasn't put in charge of Castle Oblivion because he was weak and he was smart enough to take any advantage, including using a human shield. And Larxene was vicious and cruel, knowing exactly how to cause pain with her blades and her words. She had a tendency to say something at just the right moment to off balance her opponent and then slice them down. And both of them were blinding fast and deadly.

Maybe once he would have been able to take them on, one at a time. It was his plan for handling them in Castle Oblivion if Sora didn't finish them off first. Back when he was at full strength and not worn down, he would have stood a decent chance. But even back at Castle Oblivion, fighting against Marluxia would have been a closer match than he would have preferred. And in his current state, and in Kairi's current state, the Nobodies had the upper hand.

"I don't know. The gig got us a power boost from the boss while you look like something the Dusks dragged in," said Larxene. "Not to mention that you got yourself annihilated because you wouldn't stop moping over losing that braindead loser that you were babysitting. So please tell me again. Which of us came out ahead, Axel?"

Lea's fingers tightened on his Keyblade.

"Now, we were ordered to pick up some missing replicas," she continued. "But that doesn't mean that we can't take a moment to visit some old pals."

His eyes settling on a barely-standing Kairi, Marluxia said, "There you are, Naminé. Causing trouble once again."

"Kairi," said Lea, his voice even and emotionless. "Backup plan. Now."

As soon as the words left his mouth, Lea swung his Keyblade down and put as much power as he could risk into forming a wall of flames. And, gritting his teeth, he held it in place.

It wouldn't last for long. He knew that. It was too big, too hot, and too powerful for him to keep it up. But it would buy them time. It would give Kairi, Donald, and Goofy a chance.

Run. Lock the door.

He couldn't spare a look, but he hoped that they obeyed.

Larxene and Marluxia would not get past him. They would not get the replicas, Roxas's one chance to return. They would not hurt Roxas, Kairi, Sora, and the others.

The wall of fire vanished, a powerful slash of a scythe extinguishing the flames like blowing out a candle. Marluxia twisted his pink and green weapon, Graceful Dahlia, in his grip. Grinning viciously, Larxene summoned up her collection of knives, Foudre, in a crackle of electricity.

Eight knives and a scythe versus one Keyblade.

He was really regretting not having a chance to restock on potions after their training. Without Kairi or even Donald to help with Cure spells, he knew this wasn't going to be fun.

Pushing that thought down, Lea spun his Keyblade in his hand. He wasn't going to back down. No matter how unevenly matched they might be. There was too much at stake.

"I don't know if you've heard," he said slowly, "but the name's Lea."

Chapter Text

"I know why you're here," murmured Roxas.

Taking a step forward, Sora said, "You do?"

"You want me to exist," he said quietly, swaying on his feet. "You told me that. The last time we met. That I deserve to exist."

Sora nodded. Just because Roxas came from him didn't make him any less deserving of existence. He had his own thoughts and memories. And his own emotions. Sora had felt them. Sora wasn't Roxas. For whatever reason, they were separate from each other in a way different than the other Nobodies and their completed selves. Maybe it was because they existed as the same time as each other, letting them grow in different directions. Or maybe it was because Roxas didn't have Sora's memories, meaning that he didn't just continue from where Sora left off.

They were different. They deserved to be separate people from each other. They deserved their own lives. Roxas deserved more than resting in Sora's heart forever.

He deserved to live, meet people, have friends, experience things, explore, and grow up. He deserved to exist.

Sora believed that. He believed that with all his heart.

The whispers in the darkness, the thoughts and feelings from the hearts connected to them, seemed to be growing louder. But Sora couldn't let himself be distracted now. He needed to share the good news.

"Well, we figured it out. Mostly Ienzo since he understands computers and I… don't," explained Sora. "But we've got a body for you. And it'll even look like you because of the stuff that he got off the computer about the other Twilight Town. We're going to put your heart in the new body and then you'll get to live your own life. Separate from me. Isn't that great?"

A few whispers were growing very loud, barely qualifying as whispers at all. And Sora couldn't ignore them. Not when he heard what they were saying.

"Hold on. I'm coming for you, Sora and Kairi. Just hold on a little longer."

Riku?

"I shouldn't have left. He told us to go, but I shouldn't have left him. But I have to keep Sora safe and— Donald, stop it. I don't need another ether. I'm fine. I could have stayed. I should have stayed."

Kairi?

"At least they won't get through the door to Sora. She sealed it. Kairi, just take the ether. You've used enough magic for now."

"Gawsh, I hope Sora wakes up soon. We need help. Those two didn't look happy to see us."

Donald? Goofy?

What was going on? Everyone sounded worried. What was happening? What was wrong?

"Thank you," Roxas murmured, not reacting to the whispers around them. Maybe because they were only connected to Sora's heart instead of his. "But I can't leave. I can't leave Xion behind. I won't abandon her."


Lea cringed at he barely blocked the scythe with his Keyblade. Marluxia was definitely physically stronger than he remembered. Each impact rattled through his body. But it was safer to stay close because it was harder for Marluxia to swing his scythe properly. There was no room to maneuver, which was why Lea decided to go for close quarters in the first place.

Unfortunately, he couldn't stay close and focus on Marluxia for long because there was another psycho trying to slice his throat.

The briefest flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and Lea instinctively threw himself to the side, Larxene slashing only through his coat instead of his flesh beneath it. Knives clenched between her fingers, she went after him at blinding speed. Fast as lightning and crackling with it, forcing him to dodge and twist. A line of burning pain flashed across his left side as she landed a blow, cutting him even through the thick material.

But as fast as she was, Larxene couldn't dodge the Keyblade to the face.

He couldn't enjoy her hitting the ground though. Scythe spinning like a sawblade, Marluxia dashed up and down the wide hallways. Dodging left and right, Lea managed to avoid him. But it limited his movements when Larxene recovered.

Lea ducked, the thrown knives passing so close that he could feel the electricity crackling through his hair. He even heard a slight crack of stone behind him, the knives imbedding in the wall before dissolving and returning to her hands. She definitely hadn't grown any weaker since their last encounter.

Then, briefly hearing something and having no chance to react, a sharp pain sliced across his back and knocked him to the floor.

"I expected better from you, Axel," said Marluxia in an unfeeling tone, answering the question of what hit him. "Have you truly fallen so far?"

"I didn't think he could get anymore pathetic." Larxene laughed. "Maybe we should just put him out of his misery."

Her voice was too close to the door. To where Roxas, Kairi, and the others were. Gritting his teeth, Lea flung himself up and threw his Keyblade in the same painful motion. Firaga Slicer. A streak of intense flames sent both Organization members dodging.

New cuts throbbing sharply from the movements and panting from the effort, Lea noticed that the door was gone. Literally gone. Only a blank wall remained.

Nice work, Kairi.

"Looks like he still has a little fight left after all," said Larxene. "It's almost adorable that he thinks he can protect anything."

"I don't know," he said, breathing hard. "You haven't gotten any of the replicas you're after yet. Looks like I'm doing fine."

Though he wouldn't say no to a Cure spell or a potion. That would help.

Marluxia raised a hand towards him. Pink petals materialized in the air, hundreds of them suspended across the entire width of the corridor. Then, with only the faintest ghost of a smile, he closed his hand into a fist.

Lea barely managed to incinerate the first wave of petals, but there were too many of them and some tore through his black coat like razors. Sharp pain sliced across his body as they flew past. Like a hurricane of knives. Lea could only duck his head and try to protect his face with his left arm. A few still slipped past.

But the moment that the assault ended, Lea swung his Keyblade, catching Larxene in the gut in the middle of her attempted sneak attack. Blinding speed couldn't overcome predictability.

As she coughed, bent over and trying to regain her lost breath, Lea wiped his cheek. Blood from the new scratch, right beneath where his markings used to be, smeared across the back of his glove. He could feel cuts everywhere, most of them thankfully shallow. The one on his side and the long one across his back were the worst, burning and throbbing with every move. He couldn't tell how badly they were bleeding, but he didn't think it was too much.

He'd dealt with worst.

On the other hand, he'd also essentially died before, so that probably wasn't as reassuring as it should be.

Marluxia moved unnaturally fast, practically teleporting as his scythe flashed. Only an uncoordinated jerk of the Keyblade blocked it from slicing through his throat. But the blow still knocked Lea back a few staggering steps.

Gritting his teeth, Lea spun his Keyblade over his head. Fire swirled around him like a cyclone before flaring out. And twin shouts of pain announced that he managed to hit his marks.

He felt himself wobbling slightly as the flames dispersed. He didn't quite pull a repeat performance of his stunt from Betwixt and Between. He didn't put his entire being into the attack. But he'd exhausted his ability to throw around fire. He wasn't going to be able to create even a spark until he could recover for a couple minutes. Not unless an ether decided to appear out of nowhere.

Actually, he didn't think he would be able to fight much longer, with or without fire. He felt completely exhausted. His muscles protested every movement. He could hear pounding in his ears and feel it in his chest. And even holding his weapon was a challenge now.

There wasn't any way to deny it. Lea had hit his limit.

Shrieking in fury as she shoved herself back to her feet, Larxene shouted, "You absolute freak. Look at what you've done."

Sections on both her and Marluxia's coats were still smoking. Part of Marluxia's sleeve was scorched away, revealing a serious burn on his right forearm. Another burn ran along the right side of his neck down to his collar. And part of Larxene's face was red and painful-looking. But the best part was that, while most of her hair was normally slicked back with only two small sections free, one of the locks of hair had been burned off. Several blonde strands lay on the ground at her feet.

Smirking, Lea said, "I'd call it a vast improvement."

Snarling wordlessly, Larxene threw a hand above her head. He felt a brief prickling, static collecting in his hair, before his world exploded into bright and deafening pain.

Awareness returned seconds later, Lea sprawled on the ground with his muscles spasming from the dissipating electricity. Ow

That must have been at least a Thundaga-level spell. More likely Thundaza.

Heart or no heart, he'd ticked her off.

Ears ringing, black spots dancing across his vision, and everything hurting, he didn't want to move. He wasn't certain that he could. Even breathing hurt.

Sorry, Roxas. He tried. He tried so hard…

"Let's meet again in the next life."

"I'll be waiting."

"…Silly. Just because you'll get a next life…"

No.

He couldn't give up. He was getting his friend back and he would see Roxas again.

Raising his head slightly, Lea spotted his Keyblade lying next to him on the ground. And no matter how much it hurt and how much easier it would be to give up, he reached. His fingers tightened around the hilt. Then, taking a shaking breath, he pushed himself to his knees.

Ow… Yep, his body was definitely complaining about that. Lea quietly told it to shut up.

"You're still not getting through," he said, startling the two Nobodies from where they were studying the now-blank wall.

Raising an eyebrow, Marluxia said, "You truly do not know when to admit defeat."

"I've got too many reasons to keep going," he said, using his Keyblade to climb the rest of the way to his feet.

Roxas. Kairi. Sora. Even Donald, Goofy, and Ienzo.

Ansem the Wise's safety wasn't quite as high on his priorities list.

He couldn't heft the Keyblade on his shoulder. He couldn't escape, opening a dark corridor already harder as a human. He couldn't even straighten up out of his exhausted slouch. But he was standing, his ears had stopped ringing, and his vision had cleared up. And even better, his muscles had stopped spasming.

He could work with that.

Lea took a step forward, somehow managing not to stagger. And then another. And then one more, feeling a little steadier.

"You're not getting the replicas back," he said firmly, as if he wasn't on the verge of collapse. "Give me one reason why you two are still hanging around, wasting your time. Did you just miss me that much?"

As if responding to his words, a dark corridor opened up. And an unwelcomed presence stepped out.

"Xemnas," he snapped.


The stairs up to the castle never seemed longer.

Between Riku and Leon, they managed to shepherd people from the market to the relative safety near the Restoration Committee's headquarters in record time. The broken door and the loud insults directed towards the computer inside should have been a bad sign. But the grumpy man, Cid, was making progress towards repairing the system and the newly-identified Yuffie and Cloud kept the Heartless and Nobodies at bay. And that was enough for Riku not to feel guilty when Leon assured him that they had it covered now and told him to go.

As Riku reached the top of the stairs, a trio of Dusks materialized in front of him. But before he could take a single swing at them, spears abruptly skewered them.

"This grows tiresome."

Two figures in guards' uniforms guarded the front entrance. One wielding the levitating spears and the other held a huge and colorful axe sword, the pair were clearly defending the castle. Once, Riku knew them as Xaldin and Lexaeus. But after his last visit to this world with Mickey, he knew that their proper names were Dilan and Aeleus.

And, like Lea, they clearly retained some remnants from their time as Nobodies.

"The others are in trouble," said Riku, not bothering with anything resembling a greetings or explanation.

He didn't have any evidence or proof beyond Vanitas's taunts. But he could feel it. Deep inside him. The sense of foreboding and the way that it felt like he was running out of time. His friends were in danger. And Riku needed to reach them.

Glancing at him with a confused frown, Dilan said, "We didn't even know that Sora and the others had arrived. But then again, Lea always was good at…" He shook his head. "Do you believe that they are with Ienzo in the lab?"

Riku nodded and said, "Without a doubt."

"Then we will escort you there," said Aeleus. "Though I am certain that everyone is unharmed."

"After all, we have been guarding the castle since the arrival of the Heartless and lesser Nobodies," stated Dilan. "How many of them could have gotten past us?"

That hope vaporized when they opened the door and six Mechanitaurs charged out.


Lea glared at Xemnas as he marched forward, the powerful Nobody managing to look both emotionless and absolutely disgusted at the same time. Lea knew that he was about to monologue. He never could resist talking and giving grand speeches. But if nothing else, it would give Lea a chance to catch his breath and maybe recover a little strength and a few sparks of his fire.

"There was a time when I trusted you to deal with traitors," stated Xemnas. "And now, your betrayal outstrips them all. What pitiful words do you have for your superior?"

Smirking, he said, "Well, let me think about it. How about 'you were never my superior.'"

"Ah, ever the rogue pawn. Knocked from the board early in the game. Utterly useless and forgotten. There is a reason that you were left behind when we collected members for the real Organization XIII."

"Because you couldn't get your claws into me like the others before I stopped paying attention to you," snapped Lea.

Now that he wasn't fighting for his life, it was getting harder to ignore his injuries. Even the smaller and shallower cuts were starting to sting. But the pounding in his chest was slowing down.

Stopping a short distance away, Marluxia and Larxene taking up position on either side of him, Xemnas said, "You were not worth the effort. There were far better and more useful options."

"Face it. The only reason that they made you a so-called 'guardian of light' was because they needed enough people to reach their seven," said Larxene. "Destiny or whatever was just desperate and you were the first disposable body that came along. If half their Keybearers weren't missing or gone, do you honestly think someone like you would deserve a Keyblade?"

Lea tightened his grip on his Keyblade. The Keyblade that he practically bullied his way into getting. The Keyblade that he'd spent so much time struggling to summon. The Keyblade that still felt unnatural to wield.

"Though with the replicas that you stole, I suppose they will no longer be dependent on a lesser option to fill their ranks." Xemnas crossed his arms. "Your presence is superfluous."

"You know," Lea said sharply, "I can't help noticing that you don't have a Keyblade. Ever wonder why? Xehanort's will in Terra's body? You came from two Keybearers and yet you don't have one. Why is that?" Giving him a vicious grin, he continued, "Can't be because you're a Nobody since Roxas had two of them by the end. I think it's because you rejected your heart, emotions, and connecting with people. All of it. You're still rejecting it even now. And that's apparently what you need to use a Keyblade. Maybe I'm no one's first choice for a future Keyblade master, but I've still got one. Guess that makes me better than you."

The slight tightening around Xemnas's eyes suggested that the observation struck home. Which was all that Lea needed to see to continue.

"That's why none of you have killed me yet. If I was so 'superfluous,' I wouldn't be here. But without a Keyblade to unlock the study, you're not getting through. I'm not even sure if you could try smashing through the walls with it sealed like that. You need me alive to get your replicas back. Because I have a Keyblade and you don't. And you wouldn't go to this much trouble unless you had no choice." His hand briefly pressed against his side, Lea hissing quietly at the pain from the wound. After a moment, he continued, "Without the replicas, you don't have your precious thirteen darknesses."

"It is easy to forget that you are smarter than you look," said Marluxia.

"Outwitted you two at Castle Oblivion, didn't I?"

Uncrossing his arms, Xemnas said, "Yes, we would require a Keyblade to unseal the path down to the laboratory. But despite your betrayal, I can afford to be generous. You have a few options before you, Axel. The simplest and the one with the least amount of pain is for you to unseal the door. In exchange for the return of the replicas, you may keep your pitiful existence at least until the final battle."

"No deal," spat Lea venomously. "I'm getting my friends back. Roxas. Isa. All of them. You can't have them."

Xemnas gave a quiet, emotionless chuckle. Lea ignored it. He was too busy focusing on keeping steady on his feet.

"You still have no idea. You do not recall her. I assumed that was the purpose of the second stolen replica, but it is not truly surprising. Her existence was fleeting. Some would consider your ignorance as a kindness." Rather than clarifying anything, Xemnas continued, "Perhaps this arrangement would suit you better. An exchange. The replicas will be left alone and your missing friends can be restored, but you will surrender your heart and take their place among our numbers."

Resisting the urge to shiver as a chill wrapped around his heart at the idea of becoming a Nobody again, Lea said, "Not going to happen."

"What if we just dump you in the middle of the most vicious Heartless we can find? I doubt you'll keep your heart for long in the shape you're in," said Larxene.

"And then what?" Lea straightened up as much as possible. "I'll reform as a Nobody somewhere and immediately take a dark corridor out of there before you figure out which world I ended up on. And I'll just go back to helping out the other guardians. The lies that Xemnas told the first time won't work now that I know the truth and I won't give anyone a chance to jam some old man's heart in me. And I don't need emotions to know that I'm better off helping Sora than siding with you."

"That's assuming that you don't end up as a Dusk," muttered Marluxia. "Perhaps your heart and will were strong enough as a child to let you keep your form, but that does not guarantee the same remains true now."

"Still won't help you out with your thirteen darknesses. Last time I checked, you're not recruiting Dusks for the job."

Once, the prospect of being turned into a Dusk seemed like a fate worse than nonexistence. Mindless, pathetic creatures with no sense of identity or self. A few humanoid Nobodies, those who were rejected as unsuitable to don the black coats and join the Organization, met that fate. Xemnas's power of nothingness allowed him to reduce those Nobodies to Dusks, both a way to get rid of unnecessary complications and a warning to the Organization members to keep in line.

Once, the threat of being turned into a Dusk was enough to force Axel to try dragging Roxas out of that illusion back to the Organization, something that he knew wasn't safe for his friend any longer. But he'd wanted his friend back and he didn't want to succumb to that fate.

That threat hanging over his head caused him to do several things that he didn't like. Not everything that he did wrong, but enough.

He should have been a better friend, but he feared Xemnas's threat more. Being a Dusk, watching another friend drift away and change into something that he barely recognized, seeing his friends get hurt and helpless to change what was happening, his friend leaving him behind, forgetting and being forgotten… He was afraid of so many things and made so many mistakes back then without even realizing what he was feeling.

But now he knew. He knew that losing everyone, desperately trying to save them only to hurt them worse in the process and still fail to save them, was worse than anything that Xemnas could ever do to him. Even being reduced to a Dusk paled in comparison.

His grip tightened on his Keyblade, Lea took a deep breath. At least Xemnas and his tendency to monologue had bought him some time. He didn't have much strength left, but perhaps it would be enough. Everything still hurt and he could only imagine how much worse it would feel once he was done. What he was about to do was stupid, but he honestly didn't have any better ideas. Escape, even by the dark corridors, was beyond him at the moment. This was his only real option.

Kairi would never forgive him for breaking his promise though.

Well, if nothing else, he could knock that smug expression of Xemnas's face.

I'm sorry, Roxas. I really wanted to see you again. I wanted to tell you how sorry that I am. For everything. But if this keeps you safe, if it keeps everyone safe, then this is what I have to do.

For once, I'm going to do the right thing. You'll be safe and free of them.

"Tick tock." Larxene shifted the blue-and-yellow knives between her fingers, electricity crackling along the blades. "Which is it? Open the door or give up your heart? We're waiting."

"I think," said Lea, scrounging up what strength he had left, "that I'll go for a third choice."

He swung fast as he lunged forward, the movement pulling sharply at his injuries. And the Keyblade—

—stopped, caught by Xemnas before it could hit. Lea hadn't even seen him move. The Nobody hadn't even flinched as his hand closed on the glowing flame-like part of the Keyblade. Xemnas seemed completely unconcerned about what just happened.

Okay, he knew that the attack wasn't the strongest, but that was just insulting.

"So be it," said Xemnas. "The final option. One worthy of a traitor. What was it that both you and Marluxia stated in Castle Oblivion?"

Bearing the faintest hint of cruel smile, Marluxia said, "Traitors will be eliminated."

With a sharp motion, Xemnas both wrenched the Keyblade away and shoved Lea, forcing him to stumble back several steps to regain his balance. The Keyblade clattered to the ground before dematerializing.

Energy gathered around his hand, Xemnas clutching it close before spreading his arms wide. Empty shadows rose up like a dome. Lea's breathing hitched as he recognized what was happening, hundreds of red lights materializing around him.

Then they began firing.


Sora tried to think of a solution. If Roxas wouldn't leave without Xion, then they would either have to wait until they found another replica and save all three people at once or Naminé would be the only one waiting.

He didn't want to make her wait. She did so much for everyone and Sora hadn't thanked her yet. She deserved a real life of her own, just like the others.

But Ienzo and Ansem the Wise already prepared Roxas's body. It would be easier to use the second for Xion and at least save two people today.

And he couldn't help feeling that something was wrong. The whispers kept filling his ears. His friends were in trouble. He needed to hurry and get back to them.

"I'm sorry, Roxas. I really wanted to see you again. I wanted to tell you how sorry that I am. For everything. But if this keeps you safe, if it keeps everyone safe, then this is what I have to do."

Wait. He knew that pained and exhausted voice.

"Axel?"

"Axel?"

Both Roxas and Xion raised their heads. Worry filled their sleepy voices. Roxas was blinking blearily while Xion's eyes fluttered open for the first time since Sora's arrival.

"For once, I'm going to do the right thing. You'll be safe and free of them."

"That's Axel," said Roxas, sounding more aware than before.

Frowning, Xion murmured, "He's hurt. He's in trouble."

"He needs us," he said.

They were right. Sora reached for him, trying to connect to the heart calling out to Roxas. His fingers wrapped around the invisible thread. But rather than hearing his thoughts and emotions in the form of a voice, Sora was hit by a wave of loneliness, regret, fear, and pain. Enough pain that he immediately let go, gasping and shaking.

What was happening?

"We need to help him. We need to get out," said Roxas, a flutter of panic in his voice. "We have to wake up."

"But Xion's body isn't ready." Sora walked closer to the edge of his stained-glass platform. "It's hooked up to the computer and everything, but Ienzo didn't fix it up yet. And I don't know anything about computers."

He didn't, but Sora abruptly realized that he knew someone who did. Someone who knew everything about computers and wasn't that far.

Sora reached out for a different connection, a different heart whispering from the darkness. He wrapped his fingers around it. And Sora silently called for help.


In the middle of overseeing the currently running [HeartDiagonsticScan] program and attempting to interface with [RGDefenseVers7.1] program, which operated from a secondary location on a separate server, Tron abruptly paused.

We need your help. Find a way to make Xion's body ready for her. Please.

There was no immediately obvious source for the strange compulsion. It wasn't input from an User. Nor was it some aspect of his programing being triggered. The new directive was too vague and imprecise to be either.

But it was important. Tron could feel it.

Sora.

His friend.

Tron wasn't certain how he knew that unusual source of input came from Sora, but he held no doubts. Besides, it was completely illogical and based on emotions rather than concrete facts. Which were all the traits that he associated with Sora, Donald, and Goofy.

His friend needed his help.

Time passed slower for Users outside of the grid. It was a basic fact. His brief hesitation would have been impossible to notice. But it was enough time for Tron to make a decision.

A quick search through the data banks revealed no results for "Xion." But Tron found a single reference to the term in [ExternalHarddrive] regarding an entity labeled No. i in the reports. Full data was recorded and available, including a comprehensive schematic.

Activating the recently-accessed [ReplicaProgramVers3.2] and noting the procedure used to upload [RoxasDataForm] into [ReplicaUnit1], it was simple to extrapolate what Sora needed. Tron transferred the data from the [ExternalHarddrive] to [ReplicaUnit2] and initiated the synchronization process.

Not even a full second would have passed for the undoubtedly-confused Users, but Tron had completed his role in the unusual task. Now it was merely a matter of allowing the upload to complete.

He hoped that wherever Sora was, that his actions had helped him.


Agony.

Collapsed on his hands and knees, one arm curling around his middle protectively, and gasping for breath, Lea barely even noticed when the onslaught ended. Sections of his coat steamed. His ribs felt badly bruised to the point that one might even be cracked. He weakly clung to consciousness.

And part of him knew that Xemnas didn't use his full power. Otherwise he would be dead.

The Nobody was toying with him like a cat with a mouse. He didn't see any threat. He simply wanted Lea to suffer a little longer.

"I will leave the traitor to you," said Xemnas, addressing the others. "If you can persuade him to use his Keyblade, then so be it. But if not, then the loss of the redundant guardian will suffice. Break his will to fulfill our desires. Or break his body, heart, and soul the rest of the way until nothing is left. Either result will serve our purposes."

"Not… going… to do the… icky job… yourself?" gasped Lea.

"You're not worth my time," he said. Lea heard a dark corridor open, but he couldn't raise his head to look. "I will see if the others were more successful at locating our wayward members."

The dark corridor disappeared. Lea then heard footsteps approach lazily. He couldn't move. He didn't have any physical strength left. Staying on his hands and knees was all that he could manage.

The edge of the scythe slipped under his chin and Lea was forced to look up. Marluxia stared at him coldly, a sharp contrast to the painful-looking burn on his neck. But the expression reminded him that Axel wasn't the only member of Organization XIII to be called an assassin.

"This is your last chance for a merciful death," said Marluxia. "Unseal the door and you won't feel the blade when it snuffs out your life."

"Not… happening," he said, forcing the words out even as his ribs ached with every breath. "The kids… are safe. You... won't have… them."

Marluxia gave a small smirk and said, "I was hoping that would be your answer."

"Me too," said Larxene. "This way is much more interesting."

Then, with far more force than someone her size should be capable of, she kicked Lea across the floor.


Ienzo typed frantically, trying to determine what was going on. His efforts to communicate with the Radiant Garden Restoration Committee's computer system, something that the apprentices were only allowed minimal access to due to the members' understandable distrust, had been abruptly interrupted by something accessing the Replica Program and beginning an upload into the second model. And he couldn't figure out who could have hacked the system or how they bypassed their security prog—

He froze. A snippet of a strange and scarcely-believable off-hand remark, one that Leon shared when the young man found the apprentices back in the secret lab after their return. An encounter that did not go smoothly, but ended in less violence than expected. Leon related a tale that Ienzo had dismissed as an absurd attempt to anthropomorphize technology.

After all, Ansem the Wise's invention could only digitize and transport real object and people into carefully-prepared programs. Not into the main operating system. And computer programs were not truly sentient. Not the way that Leon described in his story.

But if Nobodies and replicas could develop hearts over time, then what were the limits? Who was he to claim what was impossible?

"Can you regain control, Ienzo?"

He looked up from the screen. Ansem the Wise was checking on the conditions of the three still figures to ensure that nothing else was happening. They couldn't let any harm befall them. Sora and the replica for Roxas remained unchanged. But the spare replica, still connected to the computer, was showing signs of physical alterations. Beneath the black coat and hood, it was growing less doll-like. More human. A more natural skin color, facial features, and even traces of hair.

Black hair. Not Naminé's pale blonde.

They didn't dare risk unhooking the replica in the middle of the process. It could damage it beyond their ability to fix. And Vexen and Demyx risked too much to bring the pair.

"I'm afraid that I am locked out, Master Ansem. I think that this might be Tron's work."

"Tron? Was that not the security program for the operating system?"

Nodding, Ienzo said, "And recently, Tron has also been serving as the new administrative program for the system. What Sora lacks in technical expertise, he makes up for with his ability to make friends in even the most unexpected places."


"Okay, Tron should be getting Xion's body ready for her," said Sora. "But how am I supposed to get you two out? We don't have time for Ienzo's more complicated method. And I still don't have the Power of Waking."

"You never lost it."

The quiet voice made Sora turn around. Still slumped and unconscious on his platform, that voice belonged to the only other person present.

Ventus.

"It sleeps," he continued, his voice so similar to Roxas and yet distinct, "until someone needs it… Call to it…"

Sora took a deep breath and closed his eyes, Kingdom Key materializing in his hand. If the power was in him, then he would find it. Too many people were counting on him.

"I am calling," whispered Sora, "with all my heart."

He felt his feet float off the stained-glass platform, a sensation that would have bothered him more before his experience with pixie dust. Warm and bright power flowed through him, his body turning a lazy backflip through the air. Sora opened his eyes and saw two glowing keyholes forming. One above Roxas and one above Xion, the pair blinking and looking more aware with every second.

They were waking up.

For a moment, Sora wondered if he needed to free them one at a time since he only had one Keyblade in his hand. But he let his heart and instincts guide him, just as he had so many times before. His Keyblade pointed down. A thin beam of light shot out and hit the stained-glass image of himself before reflecting back up as two beams.

The twin lights hit the pair of keyholes in the same instant. The identical sounds of something unlocking echoed around them. Sora watched the two figures dissolve into identical bright orbs of light before shooting up. The freed hearts vanished into the darkness above.


Ienzo was still in the middle of trying to figure out what Tron was doing, trying to figure out what No. i in Vexen's notes might be and why the schematics were being uploaded into the second replica, when a pair of bright lights flew out of Sora's chest. They shot across the room and sank into the waiting replicas.

For about a heartbeat, no one moved. Ienzo and Ansem the Wise stared in stunned silence. He didn't even dare to breathe. Then, without warning, the two small figures leapt up and raced out of the lab. A couple seconds later, Sora sat up and ran after them.

Ienzo exchanged looks with Ansem the Wise, neither of them completely certain what was happening. Then, at a slightly more cautious pace, they followed.


Lea tried to push himself back up, even if only to his hands and knees. If those two were going to kill him, he wanted to face them. His arms shook with the effort. He could barely breathe without gasping from his battered ribs. He felt half dead.

But, the thought giving him a vicious and vindictive grin, he'd managed to recover enough power for one final trick.

Larxene grabbed his hair and wrenched his head up. A minor pain in comparison to the rest, but enough to make him hiss. She didn't react when he weakly grabbed her wrist. Not until he scorched through her glove, making her yelp and jerk away.

Hopefully that and the other burns on the pair hurt.

"You truly don't know when to stop," said Marluxia darkly.

He never did. Though this time, Lea doubted he would go out in an impressive blaze of glory, taking out countless enemies in the process. Then again, it would be hard to top that moment.

With an offhanded motion, Marluxia used the scythe to flip him onto his back. Lea gasped as the impact on the deep bruises and the long cut exploded in renewed pain. A boot landed on his stomach and pinned Lea in place.

"I could have told Lord Xemnas that you would not change your mind," said Marluxia, raising his weapon high. "You never understood the concept of loyalty. You were never on anyone's side except your own."

No. Not true. Not anymore.

He was on Sora's side. Kairi's side. Roxas's side.

The guardians' side.

Isa's side.

His friends' side.

And honestly? Despite the pain, exhaustion, and how it was ending, Lea didn't regret trying to protect them. He had plenty of regrets, but not protecting his friends.

When it became clear that he wouldn't respond to them and that there was no point in drawing things out any longer, Marluxia and Larxene exchanged glances. Then the scythe swung down and—

Clang!

Right above his neck, the sharp edge of the scythe hovered motionless. Blocked. By two familiar shapes. One a shiny black and the other pale with some brighter colors near the end. Twin Keyblades stopped the scythe from hitting.

Familiar Keyblades.

Lea's throat tightened as he looked further up, looking at a short hooded figure.

"Leave our friend alone," he said, his voice low, angry, and dangerous.

Roxas.

Even with his hood up, Lea recognized him. His best friend.

Safe.

Real.

Alive.

Roxas shoved the stunned Marluxia back and away. And the moment they were clear of Lea, he unleashed a storm of ruthless and blindingly-fast combos that the Nobody couldn't keep up with. Roxas drove him back, fury filling every blow.

Then Lea saw a second hooded figure attacking Larxene with another Keyblade. And a sharp pain pierced his heart and head, something broken and fragmented in him trying to respond.

I know you. I need to remember. I know you. Let me see. A face. A name. Please let me remember.

"Curaga!"

The barely understandable accent and the wave of healing magic were both very welcomed. It pushed back most of the pain, slowed or even stopped the bleeding as the wounds started healing, and his energy began flooding back. Lea couldn't resist breathing a sigh of relief. The deeper cuts and bruises weren't gone yet, but the improvement was immediately noticeable.

Though the magic didn't touch the new pain as he tried to remember. He needed to remember this person. They were important.

A gloved hand reached down and carefully pulled Lea to his feet. Goofy helped to steady him when it took a moment to regain his balance even with his returning strength. Then, after giving him an encouraging smile, Goofy rejoined Sora and Donald as they took up position on one side of the corridor. Lea glimpsed Kairi on the opposite side.

Clearly someone unsealed the door when Marluxia and Larxene were distracted by trying to kill him.

Then the two short figures knocked both Marluxia and Larxene to the ground before jumping back, placing themselves between the Nobodies and Lea.

"I think you should go," said Sora, the sharp edge abruptly reminding Lea of exactly how dangerous the cheerful and friendly kid truly was.

Goofy added, "That's right. You're not welcome here and there's a lot more of us than there are of you."

"Not so tough without all those Heartless and Nobodies, are you?" said Kairi, looking a little less worn out than earlier.

Pushing back his hood, though Lea still couldn't see his face from behind, Roxas said, "We won't ask again."

Marluxia's eyes ran along the line of Keyblade wielders and allies, a calculating look on his face. Then he gave a short nod.

"We have nothing left to gain here," he said solemnly, a dark corridor forming behind the pair. "And Master Xehanort would not wish to risk the loss of any more vessels before the appointed battle."

Taking a step forward, Donald shouted, "Go on. Scram!"

Acting completely unconcerned by their numbers or their obvious anger, Marluxia turned and stepped through the shadowy portal. Larxene hesitated a moment, narrowing her eyes at Lea. She looked rather disappointed that things were interrupted, probably still holding a grudge over everything at Castle Oblivion and wanting at least someone to suffer. Then she rolled her eyes dismissively.

"Fine. Who cares? You won't survive the final battle anyway." She backed her way towards the dark corridor, never looking away. "Keep your broken tinker toys, Axel. I hope your prize was worth the effort."

As she slipped out of view into the shadows, a chill raced up Lea's spine. There was something wrong with her words. Even as Roxas and the second figure turned towards him, their postures relaxing and smiles forming, he couldn't get past the bubbling dread.

Broken tinker toys.

Broken.

Why "broken"? Why?

The dark corridor wasn't closing.

Dread solidified into realization. Lea lunged and shoved them both down, a task that took some actual force even if he caught them by surprise. And as the pair hit the ground, something struck his chest hard, driving the air from his lungs and making him stagger back up straight.

Time seemed to move too slow, almost stopping, everything slipping into a confusing haze. His thoughts staggered.

He saw Larxene, leaning out of the dark corridor with her arm outstretched in a throwing position. A startled look shifted to vindictive pleasure. She pulled back and the shadowy portal finally vanished.

Lea tried to reclaim the air knocked out of him, tried to breathe, but his body didn't respond right. Something was wrong. Blinking, he barely noticed that his hand had drifted up until it brushed against something. Several somethings. He looked down.

Oh… That's… not good…

Four knives, buried to their hilts and electricity crackling across. In his chest. Not centered; mostly on the left side. Angled down and pointed towards the center though. Not even a perfect straight line across.

Made sense. Wasn't facing Larxene straight on. Bent over and twisted slightly to push the pair. Made her aim crooked. Probably ribs in the way too, messing it up.

The knives dissolved into static and nothingness as time began moving again. Or felt like it was moving again. It still seemed strange.

And pain finally hit. Sharp and intense. And deep. Each beat, unsteady and struggling, made it worse.

He stumbled back a step, trying to gasp for breath. People were shouting his name. Both names. Sounded strange. Like he was underwater. Then his legs collapsed under him. Falling backwards.

Hands grabbed him, slowing his fall. Landing on his back. He blinked, vision going fuzzy. Thoughts going fuzzy. But two faces above him.

Roxas and… Her hood was down, knocked off. Not Kairi or Naminé. A reflection. A shadow.

His mouth tried to move, tried to form their names. But he couldn't get the sounds out. And he couldn't remember hers. Wanted to. Needed to. Broken memories, sharp and fragile.

And he couldn't breathe. Trying hurt. Gasping weakly, but…

Copper. He could taste it. In his mouth. In his throat. Choking on copper.

Bad sign. Couldn't remember why. His thoughts scattered, fragmenting. Everything slowing down, unwinding, coming apart.

Tired. Pain growing distant though. Sound disappearing. Except an unsteady and slowing beat. Vision darkening around the edges. Couldn't see Roxas or her anymore.

Couldn't be fading again. Nobodies fade. Humans didn't. They…

Couldn't breathe… Growing harder… to try…

Maybe he could… close his eyes… rest a moment… And then… he could apologize…

Rain? Something wet… falling on his face…

Chapter Text

He was… Where…? Not supposed… to go… Can't leave yet…

Something… pulling him away…

His thoughts thick and sluggish, he couldn't seem to remember what happened or how he ended up there. Or any real detail about anything. And yet the lack of memories didn't seem to bother him much. He felt calm.

And, as they gradually came into focus, his surroundings were peaceful and bright. And quiet.

Everything around him was slowly settling, becoming more real. Or maybe he was the one becoming more real. Either way, he could start to see.

The horizon extended in all directions, completely flat and endless. A thin layer of water covered the ground and reflected the sky perfectly. All he could see around him was the bright shade of blue and the white clouds drifting past. He could barely tell where the earth ended and where the sky began. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

As he turned his attention down, he absently noticed that he couldn't see his body. Only sparks of light, floating up like tiny embers. As if he'd dissolved into sparks. Or tiny stars. And they kept brightening and dimming, as if they weren't truly present in this calm and quiet place. As if they were barely real. As if he was barely real.

Being nothing more that sparks of light should have bothered him more. Not quite existing in this place should have bothered him more. And even his lack of memory should have bothered him more, tiny fraying threads of identity slipping through his grasp.

But the calm, the quiet, and peace made it hard to be concerned.

What was he supposed to do? Stay here? Go somewhere? There was nothing to offer a single hint on what he should do. Maybe if he just waited…

Hold on… No. He was supposed to… find someone? Two? More? He needed… He needed to find them. To find them and bring them home.

That thought seemed to pulse through him, warm and solid. His hands tightened into fists. Did he have hands? He didn't see them, but he felt like he had hands. Like he had hands, a body, and a purpose. He needed to find them and bring them back. Details about who that he was searching for didn't seem to come to him, but that didn't matter. He wasn't going to stop until he found them.

"Go on… You just keep running," he said slowly, breaking the silence. "'Cause I'll always be there to bring you back."

The words felt familiar. A promise. He grabbed them tight. His determined focus on his promise grounded him. He felt solid. Real. He held onto the promise with all his might.

Then he felt something, far away and yet connected to him. A rush of energy and strength. The ember-like sparks around him, that were him, steadied. No longer floating away or drifting. They condensed, brightening into a single light. And a distant pulsing beat filled his ears. Or at least, what felt like ears.

So far away… Whatever was happening was so far away. But… he was far away. Far away from himself, the connection thinned and weakening. Part of him was back there.

And so were the people that he needed to find.

He reached for that part of him, the broken and distant part of himself. And he held tight. Staying here wasn't an option. He didn't belong in this quiet and peaceful place where the sky met the sea.

He needed to find them. He needed to make sure that they were safe. He was going to follow that frayed connection, that distant beating sound, and the rush of strength back to them.

A new sound began to form as a shadow fell on him. Dread washed over him even as he turned. He caught a brief glimpse of a towering wave of water before it hit hard enough to drive the air from his lungs.

Oh. He had lungs again. Not the best timing though.


Donald knew, from the moment that he saw the thrown knives buried in Lea's chest, that the man was dying. The location and the depth of the blades left no doubts. There were too many vital organs there.

And, as he'd made certain to drill into Sora's head when the boy first learned Cure a couple years ago to make certain that he wouldn't become reckless, some things couldn't be healed before it was too late. Mortal injuries could kill before magic could fix the damage.

But that didn't stop Donald's voice from joining the others as he collapsed, Roxas and the black-haired girl sounding terrified as they grabbed Lea, slowing his fall. Even the just-arriving Master Ansem and Ienzo reacted to the sight, though they called out a different name than the others. No one was unaffected at seeing one of their numbers mortally wounded. Shock and horror claimed everyone.

No matter how much he might be annoyed by the former Nobody and even if he still held some suspicions in general about him, Donald didn't want Lea to die. But there was nothing that they could do as he gasped weakly on the ground, his expression pained and confused.

"No," whispered Sora, shaking his head.

The broken way he said the word made something in Donald's chest twist. It was like what happened with Flynn Rider. Or what happened with Will Turner. He hated seeing Sora hurt and he hated innocent people being killed. And this time, there wouldn't be a cursed ship in need of a captain nor Rapunzel's impossibly-powerful magic.

Her healing magic was on an entirely different level, pulling off miracles that no one else could match. Some rare people naturally had a form of magic that defied all logic. Just like Merlin and his rule-breaking time magic. Maybe Rapunzel could save Flynn, but there would be no miracles this time.

"Axel," begged the black-haired girl quietly, her fingers digging into his coat. She and Roxas leaned over the weakening man, their eyes wide and desperate. "Axel, please."

His voice shaking, Roxas said, "Don't fade again. Please don't fade."

Children. No matter how capable and strong that they and Sora might be in combat, Donald couldn't forget. That's what they were. Desperate, scared, and heart-broken children. Crying children, tears starting to streak down their faces and falling onto the former Nobody.

They deserved better than to watch someone they clearly cared about dying in front of them.

This was wrong. But there was nothing that they could do to stop it.

Ansem the Wise finally shook off his momentary stunned state enough to leave the doorway. It only took a few seconds, but it felt longer. So much was happening so quickly and yet Donald felt like he was trapped by Stopga.

"Why isn't anyone doing anything?" asked Kairi shakily, managing to get past her own shock and starting to raise her Keyblade.

"Because even Curaga won't help." Sora's voice sounded lifeless and empty. "Not in time…"

This wasn't right. But he couldn't do anything.

Besides, while he could use Cure spells, Donald was always better at offensive spells. Sora turned out to be more balanced with his magic, but Donald's strength was using it aggressive. Like Thunder and even Flare spells. It better suited his temperament and he had a knack for it, even picking up a few more powerful (and dangerous) spells from some books that Merlin didn't know he'd read. He only knew Cure spells because having at least some form of healing magic was common sense.

But not even a Curaga would have heal multiple stab wounds to the chest in time to make a difference.

Seconds. That's how long. Less than sixty seconds. It didn't even take a full minute from when Lea hit the ground for the weakening gasps, the pained and choked struggles to breathe, to go silent.

This was wrong. Completely wrong. But he couldn't do anything.

Kneeling next to the prone figure suddenly enough to make Roxas flinch defensively, Ansem the Wise pressed two fingers to Lea's neck just below the jaw. Trying to find his pulse. And when Ansem's eyes squeezed shut after a moment and his expression turned grave and regretful, Donald knew.

He knew what it meant just like he knew what it meant when Sora stabbed himself in the chest with that accursed Keyblade of Hearts to save Kairi years ago, giving his friends a reassuring smile before vanishing and giving Donald nightmares of that day even now. He was helpless then to stop Sora and he was helpless now.

No matter how unfair it was or how much it was hurting Sora, Kairi, and the other kids, there was nothing that he could do.

There was nothing…

…Aw, phooey.

Donald started frantically digging through his pocket for a mega-ether. He was going to need it.

There were so many reasons why this wasn't going to work, starting with the fact that he didn't have any more effective healing spells than different variations of Cure. But he also knew that he wouldn't forgive himself if he didn't do something.

Besides, a spell like Healing Light wouldn't be fast enough. There wasn't much time between when breathing and the heartbeat stop and when someone was completely dead. Just a few moments of leeway.

There was almost no chance that it was going to work, he was going to end up useless for the next few hours, but apparently Donald was trying anyway. He was the only one present who could. No one else even had a chance of pulling it off and maybe he would be lucky.

Not that he'd ever been lucky a day in his life, but there was a first time for everything.

"Donald?" Apparently Sora had noticed that he was up to something. "What are you—"

"Being an idiot," he said.

The mega-ether felt invigorating, almost making him think that he could make this work. Normal healing spells already took up a large chunk of his magical reserves. This was going to be exhausting.

Raising his wand and gathering up ever scrap of power that he could muster, Donald shouted, "Curaza!"

The vast amount of magic getting used so suddenly left him light-headed and wobbly. Why couldn't healing magic be as easy as offensive magic? Donald felt exhaustion flooding in. He wasn't even going to stay awake long enough to find out if it did any good, was he?

Groggily, Donald hoped Goofy or Sora would catch him when he collapsed. He didn't want to fall on his beak.


The impact of the wave sent him down, down, down… Too deep to be possible. He struggled against the current, but it kept dragging him deeper. The water grew colder and darker.

But when the burning in his chest forced him to open his mouth, even knowing that he would drown, the water vanished. And he was left coughing, his body sprawled limply on a smooth surface.

Lea had an actual body again. A tired and half-drowned body, but a body nonetheless.

And a name.


Ansem held his breath when Donald abruptly cast his spell. A glow of green briefly wrapped around the still and silent figure before sinking in. Even if he wasn't a magic user himself, Ansem recognized how powerful of a spell that the magician just cast. And when Ansem felt a slow, weak, and unsteady pulse under his fingertips where he couldn't find one before, he smiled shakily.

"There you go, Lea," he said softly, moving his hands to put pressure on the wound as the ragged and choked gasp returned. The return of a heartbeat would also mean that bleeding would resume. "His magic might just give you a fighting chance after all. If you can hold on long enough for the spell to do its work, you might pull through."

Roxas stiffened at his voice. He'd already been on guard when Ansem kneeled down next to them, not wanting to move or loosen his grip on Lea with the arrival of a stranger, but now he clearly recognized Ansem for who he once was. His actions as DiZ had returned to haunt him once again.

Anger, distrust, and hurt briefly flashed across the boy's face, intense enough that Ansem half-expected the reappearance of his dual Keyblades. He deserved such actions. But Roxas's eyes glanced back towards Lea and his concern for the young man won out, burying the anger beneath.

"Can you help him?" asked Roxas, sounding more vulnerable than he probably intended. "Will he be all right?"

The black-haired girl, the one that seemed faintly familiar and caused him a migraine when Ansem looked at her, added quietly, "Please?"

Ansem turned his attention back down to the young man. He may be a student of the heart, focusing on its mysteries and how light and darkness interact within it, but he'd learned some about the limits and fragilities of the physical body. Mostly so that he could understand how one might affect the other.

Not to mention necessary knowledge when some of his less ethical experiments towards the end risked physical harm to the subjects, but he didn't want to dwell on those dark days. Not the way that he started sliding towards more dangerous thoughts back then and how not even turning back before he went too far spared himself or others from a cruel outcome. He couldn't think about it or the countless people who were lost because of his arrogance or blindness. Not now. He needed to focus on the present and the person who was still within his ability to help.

If only Even had come back with them. His expertise would be greatly appreciated. He always had a talent for studying biology and such. That was probably how he was able to eventually create the replicas.

Despite the fact that Donald's powerful healing spell managed to give him the strength for his heartbeat and breathing to resume, Lea wasn't out of danger. Even greatly accelerated healing took time. Based on the location and probable depth of the wounds, he was dealing with at least a punctured lung and probably some damage to some major blood vessels. There even could be damage to his physical heart. With those types of injuries, there should be more visible blood than what was trying to seep between Ansem's hands, making him suspect that he was mostly bleeding into his chest cavity or his lungs. Which would explain why his weak breathing sounded so choked and strained. And what wasn't internal bleeding might be hidden by the black coat.

A small kindness, even if not for Lea. The children were already worried enough without seeing larger quantities of blood.

Ansem took all this information in within a couple seconds. Lea was clinging to life on borrowed time. Even the accelerated healing could only work so fast to fix the wounds before the damage, the shock, and the blood loss…

Focus. Prioritize.

His labored breathing and the bleeding were the primary concerns. Healing someone's lungs or even their physical heart took a little longer because the organs couldn't just hold still during the process. They needed to stabilize the young man until the Cure spell healed him enough. Judging by the types of experiments that his apprentices performed after he ordered them to drop the entire line of study, dangerous experiments that went farther and into far crueler territory, the lab might still hold supplies that could be used to treat the physical body. They wouldn't want their subjects to expire too soon, after all. At a minimum, there should at least be a few hi-potions that could be used for more localized healing of the more severe injuries and gauze. He just needed to survive long enough for the spell to do its work.

But if Lea's will and heart were strong enough to allow him to linger as a Nobody back when he was merely a teenager, then perhaps he would be strong enough to survive until his physical body healed.

A teenager. He was only a teenager during his short-lived time as the man's apprentice, even if Ansem barely spent any time around him or his friend. The reminder that Lea, Isa, and especially Ienzo lost their hearts so young sent another spike of guilt through Ansem. Even was right. They were his apprentices and should have been protected from such a fate. They should have been kept away from Xehanort. But Ansem never saw the danger hidden within the amnesiac young man until it was far too late. Nor the danger within himself.

He pushed the guilt away though. He couldn't dwell on it now. Not now.

The sound of racing feet carried over the ragged and choked gasps, causing Ansem to look up. Past a worried Kairi crouched at Lea's feet and past Sora and Goofy crowded around a quietly snoring Donald. Riku, Dilan, and Aeleus came charging down the corridor only to stop once they caught sight of them.

Finally looking back at Roxas, Ansem said, "I will do everything that I can to help him. I cannot promise anything more than that, but I will try to help your friend." Then, turning his attention back to his apprentices, he said firmly, "Aeleus, help me move him to the lab. Ienzo, if you know where some medical supplies might be stored, retrieve them." He knew that the youngest of his apprentices had lingered closer to the study and would likely have the best idea of where to find such things after so many years. "Dilan, please take the others up to the library."

"We're not leaving him," Roxas snapped, eyes still bright with tears even as he glared.

Reaching for his arm and causing him to flinch slightly, Kairi said, "We can't help Axel. We'll just get in the way. I'm worried too. I promise. And I hate waiting around and doing nothing, but we need to let them take care of him."

Roxas closed his eyes before reluctantly letting go of his grip on Lea's coat as the black-haired girl did the same. Then he and the two girls pulled back enough to let Aeleus crouch down next to the still figure. Ansem did his best to maintain pressure on the wound as his apprentice carefully gathered Lea in his arms.

"Nobodies?" asked Aeleus gently.

The black-haired girl, who still caused Ansem a headache when he focused on her, answered quietly, "Larxene."

"She tried to hit us as she left," said Roxas. "But Axel… He…"

How foolish Ansem had been to once think that this boy didn't have emotions. That he couldn't feel or truly care. But Ansem could not address the children's clear guilt. Not if they wanted to stabilize Lea's condition. So, leaving them with Sora and others far better at offering comfort, he and Aeleus hurried back towards the lab.


He didn't immediately start moving after his near drowning, lying limply and coughing up what remained of the water. He focused mostly on breathing and letting his racing heartbeat slow back down. And a few more memories began to solidify in his head. He still didn't know how he ended up in the strange empty place of water and sky, what had happened before that, or where his friends might be. But he had a name and a few more details than before. And he had a solid, exhausted, and half-drowned body. So… progress?

Though he should probably start trying to figure out where he'd ended up now.

Lea reluctantly pushed himself to his hands and knees. As soon as he opened his eyes, he knew that he was somewhere drastically new. He seemed to be somewhere dark and vast. The water and the crystal blue skies were long gone. No stars overhead and no lights in the distance. The only source of illumination was beneath him.

Slowly climbing to his feet, Lea studied the surface carefully. He was on a large circle, a platform that appeared to be on top of a tall column in the middle of the emptiness. There was plenty of room to walk around, but it would be a deadly fall if he strayed too close to the edge. But more interesting was how the floor seemed to be made of stained-glass with light shining up from below.

The illuminated image showed a couple of familiar faces. Perched on a wall, an old frisbee dangling from his fingers, was a stained-glass version of himself at fifteen. And sitting next to him with a bemused expression, as if on the verge of delivering a dry and teasing remark, was a similarly young Isa. Both of them looked exactly as they did as teenagers. Yellow bandanas and blue jackets instead of black coats. They were children instead of Nobodies.

It was everything that Lea missed about childhood. All the good parts condensed together without the shadow of later events staining his memories of those happier times. The background even looked like Radiant Garden, though with a yellow tint as if the stained-glass was attempting to mimic a sepia effect.

"I should probably question this more," he murmured.

Lea couldn't bring himself to worry about his strange surroundings anymore than he worried when he was in the previous place. He kept staring at the stained-glass picture at his feet. Isa looked so different. The scar across his face, a souvenir of the sixteen-year-old trying to save Lea when they realized that there was something wrong with the other apprentices and only managing to lose his heart first instead, was nowhere to be seen. His eyes were a brilliant shade of green rather than a disconcerting gold. And while the angle of the picture hid them, Lea knew that his ears wouldn't show any sign of being pointed.

There were so many signs that something was wrong. Physical signs and behaviors. Signs that he wrote off as just side effects of being Nobodies. Lea didn't realize what was happening in front of him. He didn't see how much his friend was changing. He knew Saïx was more distant and less concerned about their past history together except as a reason to remain united on their goals. He knew that they were drifting apart, even as Axel helped him climb further up the Organization regardless of the cost. But he didn't recognize how deeply Xemnas had sank his claws into Saïx. Not until it was too late.

He lost his friend and didn't even realize it until long after the fact. Maybe that was why he'd gone so far and caused so much pain when the possibility of losing Roxas and… and… and the girl…

Well, even if his memories of her remained slippery, he knew that she existed. She was there. A black-haired girl. And he'd seen her recently. But he couldn't quite remember where or when…

Regardless, Lea knew that his desperate efforts to keep Roxas and the girl only caused him to lose them more painfully. He'd failed them. Just like he failed Isa.

He quietly walked around the edge of the tall pillar, his gaze drifting between the glowing stained-glass floor and the endless darkness surrounding him. Lea didn't know what he should do now.

"What do you seek above all else?"

Lea jumped at the unexpected words. They seemed to echo from all around him, coming from no specific direction, but they also seemed to fill his head without passing through his ears. He knew that he should be suspicious of unknown voices in weird locations. But he couldn't bring himself to worry.

He turned and spotted three mirrors arranged in the center of the stained-glass circle. Mirrors that weren't there a couple seconds ago. Again, he should probably question that more. Lea found himself drawn towards the mirrors.

None of the reflections were quite normal. They showed different versions of himself.

On the left, the mirror showed Lea wielding the Keyblade in a huge swarm of Heartless. Powerful and giant Heartless. He cut through the enemies effortlessly, using the weapon and generating fire with equal ease. Nothing could touch him. Lea could barely believe what he was seeing. Even on his best day, he was never as strong as the version he was watching.

"To become stronger and gain new power? Is this what you seek?"

The mirror on the right showed Lea with a grim smile. One foot rested on a battered and limp figure sprawled on the ground. It took Lea a moment to recognize the man as Xemnas, broken and fading away from his injuries. After everything that he and the other versions of Xehanort had done, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing him suffer for his actions.

He deserved it.

"To enact revenge for past hurt? Is this what you seek?"

Lea turned his attention to the final mirror, the one in the center of the trio. Once again, he saw a version of himself in the reflection. This one was perched on a ledge, a small and relaxed smile on his face. Sitting next to him was Roxas and… the familiar black-haired girl. And on the other side was Saïx— no, not Saïx. His eyes were green and warmer than they'd been years. Isa was sitting with them. All four of them looked comfortable and happy.

"To recover what was lost? Is this what you seek?"

"Yes," he whispered, reaching for the mirror. "I want my friends back. More than anything."

As his hand touched the smooth glass, all three mirrors dissolved into light. And at the same instant, new panels of stained-glass materialized at the edge of the platform. They appeared one after another. A walkway formed, stretching forwards and upwards towards somewhere new.

And lacking any better options, Lea followed the path slowly into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Though he rarely needed to handle the task personally during the last few years, his rank within the original Organization XIII allowing him to assign such matters to other members, Saïx knew how to perform reconnaissance.

He arrived in a small town, the weather rather warm without quite reaching the temperatures of Agrabah. Keeping either in the shadows or on the rooftops, Saïx managed to avoid the eyes of the locals as he studied everything. Most of the buildings were older, but in good condition. Colorful paper banners stretched between the buildings, decorative patterns cut into the material. Occasionally he would pass close enough to some of the homes to hear the sizzle of cooking or to pick up the scent of something spicy. Most of the inhabitants seemed to be humans, though he'd glimpsed a hairless dog running around and begging for scraps.

If Saïx happened to drop a piece of bread from lunch and the dog gobbled it up, that was merely a coincidence.

In what seemed to be the town plaza were almost a dozen musicians scattered around, most of them wearing brightly-colored suits and broad hats. Music filled the air; various songs and instruments blending together harmoniously. In the center of the plaza was a bronze statue, one old enough to have oxidized. The statue depicted a man with a guitar.

It wasn't enough to definitively tell if music and musicians were important to the entire town, but they were certainly valued within this particular plaza.

Saïx wandered away from the plaza and the crowds. Stealth was something that all Organization members possessed, so it was easy enough to move around without trouble. There was no reason to worry. He maintained a low profile despite his clothes not fitting in, keeping out of sight. He continued his mission, but without much intent behind his actions. Saïx searched without intending to find what he was sent to find. He let the music fade behind him.

Until he heard sitar music ahead of him.

Tucked into a little corner, not far from a painted sign advertising that the inhabitants made shoes, Saïx spotted a hooded figure quietly playing a blue sitar. He couldn't see the face under the black coat. And the hooded figure didn't notice Saïx's presence. He just kept playing softly.

Foreign emotions slithered around inside him, trying to spur him forward. Saïx felt a strong urge to grab the figure and drag him back to the Organization, to collect the potential vessel so they could fulfill the prophecy.

But not his emotions. Not his urge. They didn't come from Saïx's heart. They belonged to someone else. Uninvited, unwanted, and all too familiar.

Saïx forced himself to turn away, to not look closer at the figure. He couldn't disobey a direct order, but he didn't know for certain who the hooded figure might be. He couldn't see the person's face as he played the sitar. There was a chance that it was some random stranger. And as long as there was a chance, Saïx could leave the hooded figure alone without disobeying.

He could have this small rebellious freedom. An act that belong solely to himself and not from the person that he'd been twisted into becoming.

He was supposed to look for Demyx or Vexen and bring them back. He did not see them in this world.

He edged away from the sitar-playing "stranger," moving carefully to avoid attracting attention. But even as Saïx summoned a dark corridor in a shadowy corner, he was still close enough to witness an older woman charge out the door, shout "No music!" at the top of her lungs, and throw a shoe hard enough to knock the hooded figure off his feet. Saïx forcibly ignored the yelp of surprise and distress and how familiar it sounded as he slipped away.

Returning empty-handed meant that he'd failed, which sparked sharp stabs of anger, frustration, and disappointment in himself.

Not his. Not him.

Saïx had grown better at distinguishing between what came from himself and what came from outside influence. From that foreign and dark heart that they'd forced upon him instead of returning his own heart as promised so long ago. He couldn't ignore or escape the impulses and emotions and he couldn't keep them from influencing his own thoughts and decisions, but he could at least tell the difference now.

Before, Saïx couldn't see what was happening. The effects were too slow and subtle at first to notice, creeping into his mind and behavior. But they were there from his very first moments as a Nobody, already digging their way into him. It took years for that outside influence to reshape him. And since he wasn't supposed to have a heart or feel anything, Saïx couldn't recognize someone else's emotions burrowing into him like parasites. Not until that brief reprieve when he was recompleted and his heart was the only one in his chest, his emotions the only ones that he could feel and nothing unnatural to color his thoughts and memories.

A brief moment of freedom after his destruction as a Nobody and before Saïx became a chosen vessel.

It didn't last long. As soon as they realized that he was awake, Xigbar remarked vaguely about how he grabbed him from Radiant Garden for a specific purpose and a teenage boy with white hair who stabbed him in the chest with a Keyblade. But that short span of time was enough for Saïx to see the past few years with clearer eyes.

He saw where he grew disconnected from everyone even as his loyalty and obedience to Xemnas came to the forefront. He saw where slight jealousy and hurt over Axel's behavior were fed by that foreign influence into something toxic, becoming darker, colder, and sharper. He could finally see how they tied puppet strings on him and slowly tightened a noose around his neck.

And he finally saw what Axel saw when he looked at Saïx. He saw nothing but the tiniest fragments of Isa buried beneath the years of corruption and influence.

Clear-headed and free of outside manipulations, Saïx could abruptly recognize his own emotions. He'd felt as a Nobody. But even those weren't completely his emotions. Positive ones were suppressed while darker ones were strengthened and redirected towards more appropriate targets.

He could recognize his fury at Axel for his betrayal and abandonment, his hatred for Roxas and later Sora for taking away his friend, and other negative emotions cultivated by that outside influence. The rage, jealous, and hurt were fed and coaxed into something vicious, cruel, and spiteful.

He was upset. Saïx could admit that much came from himself. But the extremes that he went to with his actions, the cold cruelty towards the others, was nurtured by outside forces. He still wanted to lash out at Axel, Roxas, Sora, and everyone for what happened, but Saïx could also recognize that he'd already been lost by the time that Roxas joined the Organization and that the Keybearer was the only reason that Axel didn't end up the same way.

When the Keyblade struck his chest, Saïx lost his heart for a second time. But he kept his new realizations and awareness. He recognized the unnatural sensation of another person's heart and emotions influencing him, trying to re-tie those puppet strings.

He knew what was happening this time and, in some ways, that was worse than his previous ignorance. Those emotions filled the numb emptiness, but they weren't him. They weren't his emotions. But they felt like him and he had to struggle to remember what his true self should feel. He needed to remember because he had a new purpose. After he lost his original purpose and goal, watching it splintered and fray away with the passing years until he was completely adrift, he'd finally found a new reason to keep going. One that he couldn't let slip away.

Saïx might have told Vexen that he was trying to atone and that was true. But he knew that, whether or not someone else was influencing his actions, everything that he'd done was unforgivable. Redemption was not something that he deserved.

But his actions… Bringing Vexen back into the fold, providing him access to all the research possible, suggesting that he smuggle the replicas to the guardians of light… He wasn't doing it to stop Master Xehanort or to help Sora and his friends. He wasn't doing it to save all the different worlds or to prevent everlasting darkness.

He did it because he wanted to give Lea his friends back.

He stepped out of the dark corridor, fully expected to be alone upon his arrival at the Badlands. But Saïx nearly tripped over a limp figure on the ground immediately. His clothes covered in dust and blood matting his hair on the side of his head, likely caused by the blow that knocked him unconscious, Vexen clearly didn't manage to evade the Organization permanently.

"Looks like I had better luck than you did," said Xigbar, stepping around Saïx.

While not in as bad condition as the scientist, Vexen clearly didn't go down without a fight. Frost still clung to Xigbar's black coat in places and Saïx spotted flecks of ice in his hair.

"Found him in Halloweentown," he continued. "Vexen seemed a little reluctant to come back, but I managed to persuade him."

Keeping his voice even and trying not to wonder if Vexen had let slip his involvement, Saïx said, "As long as one of the potential vessels was retrieved, Lord Xemnas and Master Xehanort will be satisfied. Continuing to search for Demyx would be a waste of time and energy that could be better used for more productive ventures."

Shrugging, Xigbar said, "Whatever. As long as we're back on track, I don't care about the particulars. Not like Demyx would be anyone's first choice anyway. You can keep looking for him or give up. As for me? I'll take Brainiac here to see the boss and get him off the bench properly."

Xigbar reached down and grabbed Vexen's wrist. And treating the limp Nobody like a bag of garbage, Xigbar dragged the unconscious scientist behind him as he walked away. Saïx stared in silence. The next time that he would see Vexen, he would be one of the chosen vessels and a foreign heart would be jammed in his chest.

Such was the risk of their attempt to seek atonement.

Saïx turned and walked away. The tall stone cliffs only possessed a single narrow canyon that allowed passage through, long shadows reaching down. The dry and hot world wasn't as effective a headquarters as the World That Never Was nor Castle Oblivion. But those locations had been compromised. And the small and hidden off-world lab for Vexen's work wasn't practical as a gathering place even before its destruction. The Badlands and the Keyblade Graveyard beyond it would have to do. There was no shelter and far too much dust, but the location was secluded and it would serve as the location for the final battle. Which made it ideal for the real Organization to use in the meantime.

He didn't know what Vexen would reveal once it happened. Perhaps he would be able to keep silent about Saïx and his role. But did it truly matter? They couldn't risk disposing of one of their chosen vessels right before the final battle. And he did not expect to survive until the end anyway. They wouldn't care about his action as long as he fulfilled his role during the clash between darkness and light. And he wouldn't be able to resist when the time came, so he would fulfill that role.

There was nothing that they could do to him as punishment if they ever learned of his small rebellion. In some ways, it was a reassuring thought. They needed him alive and in fighting shape. And after… Well, he wasn't even certain that he would come back a second time. How could he expect to be recompleted when there barely seemed to be anything left of Isa? More and more of himself seemed to wear away, eroding over time under the corruptive force burying deeper into the cracks and breaking him apart.

As Saïx stepped out from under the shadows of the rock formations, he spotted two more of his teammates. Empty potion bottles in their hands, Larxene and Marluxia were trying to treat various burns. Part of Larxene's hair was even burnt away. It didn't take a genius to realize the cause.

"I don't suppose that you retrieved either of the replicas for Lord Xemnas," he said, his tone even and emotionless.

"For once, the guardians of light took unexpected precautions. Their Princess of Heart sealed the door with a Keyblade," said Marluxia, unconcerned by the failure. "Not even the Superior could gain access. There was no opportunity to access the replicas before they made use of them. Roxas and Number XIV have been restored."

Laughing harshly, Larxene said, "At least Axel didn't get to enjoy having his tinker toys back for long."

"You destroyed them already?" asked Saïx. "I highly doubt that Roxas fell so easily. For all his flaws, he was never weak."

Roxas and the other Keybearer, the one that only existed in mission reports and in none of their memories, could not be gone. Not after he went to such lengths to give Lea back his friends. He needed to give Lea back his friends.

It was the only thing that Saïx could do for him. He couldn't make up for everything that he'd done, but Saïx had wanted to at least do that much.

"Well, that was my original plan," she said, wincing as she poured another potion on the burn on her wrist. "One little parting gift as we left. But instead of a few knives in their backs when they weren't looking, someone decided to play hero. Axel really didn't get any smarter after getting his heart back." With a vicious smirk, Larxene said, "We didn't get the replicas, but at least they're down one guardian of light. Looks like the traitor finally got the fate that he deserved."

Saïx stiffened, maintaining a neutral expression solely from practice and a naturally stoic personality. He couldn't have heard her right. She had to be wrong. Or lying. It couldn't be true.

"Are you claiming that you seriously wounded him as you retreated?" he asked evenly.

"I'm saying that he's dead." Larxene grinned cruelly, far too pleased with herself. "Humans don't exactly survive four knives in their chest. After all the trouble that traitor caused, he was dumb enough to get killed over those two tinker toys."

Only allowing himself to close his eyes for a moment, no more than a long blink, Saïx said quietly, "I see. Once you have finished treating your injuries, it would be prudent to inform Lord Xemnas of this development."

"While he knows some of what transpired, you are correct. We will speak with him shortly," said Marluxia.

"Really? I expected a more interesting reaction over Axel getting himself killed." Larxene shook her head. "I knew you were cold, but now you're just boring."

Saïx didn't say another word, turning around and walking back towards the rocks at a calm and controlled pace. But the moment that he was in the narrow canyon, tucked out of sight and shadows blanketing him, he collapsed against the stone wall.

Eyes pressed shut and his breathing hitching slightly, Saïx was trapped in an internal struggle with himself. Lea was dead. His friend was dead. And it was his fault. Lea died protecting the replicas that Saïx encouraged Vexen to smuggle out. If Saïx didn't try to make amends, then Lea would have been fine.

It was his fault.

Anger at Lea's betrayal and abandonment, vindictive pleasure at him bringing such a fate upon himself as "a deserving punishment," and satisfaction that they were moving towards their goal boiled and swirled inside Saïx. He felt pleased that Lea was dead. He felt like Lea deserved it. He felt it.

But it wasn't him. Saïx could feel it, but it wasn't him. He wasn't supposed to feel this way about his friend being killed. These weren't his emotions.

They belonged to Master Xehanort's heart.

When Axel destroyed himself to help the Keybearer, Saïx focused on blaming Axel for dying from his own mistakes. He focused on the act of betrayal. He focused on how Roxas (and thus Sora) caused the entire thing. He focused on that instead of the loss itself. But he knew looking back that he was hurting from that loss even in his denial.

But this wasn't a denial of his emotions. This was feeling something that wasn't him.

He shouldn't feel this way. He shouldn't feel good that Lea was gone. He didn't want to feel this way. Not when it was Saïx's fault. The utter wrongness was nearly suffocating.

"I'm sorry, Lea," he said shakily.

And maybe, beneath the foreign and intruding emotions, there was something else. From the same place where his jealousy and resentment once bubbled up. Grief, guilt, self-loathing, and hurt sparked out of those tiny fragments of the person that he used to be. Those faint, painful, and faded feelings were real. He wasn't supposed to have a heart of his own, only a version of Xehanort's, but Saïx could tell those quieter and painful emotions didn't come from someone else.

The pain was his. It was buried beneath the unnatural and unwanted feelings invading him, but Saïx was mourning his loss. But even that much felt wrong, poisoned by the corruptive influence into something darker. Just like how his jealousy was twisted into something sharper. More damaging.

His fragile new purpose had shattered. His faint hope flickered out like a candle flame. Lea was his oldest friend and the only fragment left of the past. And now he was gone. There was nothing left. Resisting felt pointless.

He should just accept his fate.

Saïx forced himself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly, but even that seemed to take more effort than it was worth. But he couldn't stand around all day. Not when he was one of the chosen vessels and should be happy about the loss of one of the guardians of light. He couldn't allow himself to be affected.

He pushed himself away from the stone surface, letting his expression slip into something empty and cold. All inner turmoil vanished beneath calm features. He let himself slip back into his old role. He let himself fall back into familiar patterns, becoming the person that Xemnas spent a decade shaping him to be.

He gave up.

Saïx stopped fighting against the darkness in Xehanort's heart, something that he'd been doing since they took his own heart a second time. He lacked the willpower or hope to continue. He let it consume him, corrupting him into a proper and loyal vessel. An obedient puppet who no longer fought the strings.

He would fight the final battle. He would be destroyed in the process. And that would be the end of it. Saïx would be gone just like Lea was gone now. A fitting end for what he'd done and what he'd become.

He walked away, trying to ignore how even in the choking darkness inside him, a tiny spark of Isa continued to hold on. And it mourned deeply for his friend and the mistakes that cost him everything that he had left.


After a short climb, the walkway disappearing behind him and ensuring that he had no option except to move forward, Lea reached another stained-glass platform. It was just as large as the other one. But the illuminated image was drastically different.

Lea studied it closely. He saw a picture of himself, dressed in the black Organization coats and bearing the familiar marks on his face, sitting on the clocktower in Twilight Town. His surroundings even shared the same warm shade of orange as the sunset. The image of himself looked so relaxed, wearing a calm and drowsy expression with his eyes half-shut, as if he was ready to doze off at any moment. Perched next to him on the ledge, with a sea-salt ice cream in his hand, was Roxas. The teenager leaned against him slightly, staring off towards the horizon with a content look on his face. But on the other side…

A large section of the stained-glass floor was gone. Shattered. The broken glass looked razor sharp around the jagged edges of the hole. Sharp enough to slice to the bone. And while the rest of the surface had light coming through the brightly-colored glass, the opening only exposed the deepest shadows. It was impossible to ignore the damaged section. The hole left behind by the loss was too big to ignore.

"What do you fear most?"

Once again, the strange voice that came from everywhere rang through his head. And while there were no offered choices this time, so many answers came to Lea.

He was afraid of being forgotten. He always had been, even as a child. His parents barely noticed or remembered his presence most of the time anyway. No matter what he did, his family barely paid any attention or spared a thought about him. He could disappear overnight or even for a couple days with Isa and they never seemed to notice his absence. So yeah, he definitely had issues when it came to being forgotten by the people who did seem to care about him. He just wanted to be remembered.

He was afraid of being forgotten. Or forgetting someone important in turn. Because he knew how much it hurt to be forgotten and never wanted to cause someone that same pain.

He was afraid of losing his heart again, of that numb emptiness and not caring about anything. Not caring about his friends. Or hurting people who didn't deserve it and not feeling a thing. Becoming nothing more than an emotionless weapon that only mattered when someone used him to advance their plans. Losing more and more pieces of himself until there was nothing left except that numb emptiness that could never be filled. He was afraid of being nothing more than the Organization's assassin, taking out targets without hesitation or regrets because nothing mattered. It didn't matter who he took out or who chose the target. Nothing mattered and he felt nothing.

He was afraid of losing his friends. There were so many ways to lose them. Physically losing them or watching them be twisted into something that he couldn't even recognize.

He was afraid of not being able to protect them. Of trying so hard to protect them, to help them, to save the people that he cared about… and then failing. Watching them slip away despite everything that he could do.

And he was afraid of being the one that hurt them. Not just his friends being hurt, but Lea being the one to do it. Of causing them pain. Of breaking his friends' hearts. Or fighting them, attacking them and nearly killing them. Of causing them suffering and grief.

He feared loss. In all its forms. Loss of memories. Loss of emotions. Loss of friendship and trust. Loss of the people that he cared about, both through abandonment and death. Loss caused by his own actions, by the actions that he didn't take, by his weaknesses, or by his countless mistakes and failures.

"What I fear the most has already happened. Everything that I'm afraid of has already happened," he said quietly. "I've faced my fears already. I've already lost everything once. And it hurt. But I'm still here."

His words didn't cause a response from the mysterious voice and nothing new appeared. That didn't leave him with very many options. Not knowing what else to do, Lea took a cautious step towards the ragged hole. A loud and sharp sound rang out, causing him to jerk back out of fear of further breaking glass.

No… That wasn't more glass breaking under him. The sound was wrong. Backwards…

He stepped forward, refusing to flinch when the noise struck again. This time, he spotted it. Rising out of the dark chasm, slivers of glass reattached to the jagged edges. Each piece connected to the next.

Like links in a chain, whispered something that was probably a memory of Naminé. It sounded like something she would say.

And the closer that Lea came, the more broken slivers of colorful glass returned to repair the damage. He kept moving forward, causing the image of another black coat to form. The repairing picture showed another small figure. Another kid holding sea-salt ice cream.

Part of him knew who it was. The girl. The black-haired girl, like a dark reflection of a younger Kairi or Naminé. A girl that he'd seen recently, though he couldn't recall when. A girl that he knew… That he cared about…

Why were his memories slipping through his fingers like smoke?

The final broken pieces of colored glass fused into place, completing her face. And as he saw her bright blue eyes, lost memories came rushing back with the speed and force of a tsunami. Lea dropped to his knees gasping, one hand pressed to his temple while the other clutched at his chest. It hurt. It hurt so much and everything was jumbled together, but it felt right.

It hurt, but it felt good. The flood of memories left him unable to do more than kneel on the floor, gasping and finally remembering. He welcomed it.

Xion.

Sunsets. Covering for her with Saïx. Ice cream. Watching her collapse without warning. Laughter. Reading Vexen's research and learning the truth. Innocent questions. Knocking her out to bring her back. The clocktower. Barely stopping the disguised teenagers from being tricked into destroying each other. Best friends. Attacking her in front of the mansion in order to drag her back again. Seashells.

Xion.

A pleasant warmth in her and Roxas's presence. Comfortable companionship and compassion. Worry, guilt, and regret. Sorrow and loss.

Xion.

He'd forgotten her. He'd forgotten one of his best friends. How could he do that?

He lost Roxas and Xion so close together. He thought all the pain, anger, and grief came from losing Roxas. But all those emotions in his newly-developing heart back then were for both of his missing friends.

Even without being able to remember her, Lea felt her absence.

"I've missed you," he said, his breathing finally calming back down. Climbing shakily to his feet, Lea whispered, "I've missed you both so much."

His recovered memories settled back into place, the empty spaces filled by the young girl once more. And the pain in his heart that had been his companion for so long had eased a little.

"Roxas… Xion… I promised… to bring you back."

The stained-glass image, intact and whole, reminded him of watching sunsets together. He missed those days. And he missed his favorite half-pints.

He was going to keep that promise. He would get them back. And Isa. One way or another, he was getting his friends back.

"When even memories are gone, can the heart notice the absence left behind?"

Lea stiffened. That wasn't the voice from before, even if it was trying to mimic the style of phrasing. But it was familiar. Intimately familiar.

"Can the heart grieve for a loss that it cannot recall? Or does the heart ever truly forget? Judging by your reaction, the answer seems pretty obvious."

Lea turned and saw… himself. Or not quite. The height, the black coat, the red hair, and a dozen other details were all identical. But there was something off. He wasn't staring into a mirrored image of himself, the figure casually walking along the perimeter of the platform.

Then he saw the markings under the doppelganger's eyes.

"Figured it out yet, Lea?" asked the smirking figure.

He nodded and said, "Axel."

"Bingo. Got it in one." He turned to face Lea directly. "Not quite like the Roxas and Sora scenario or the situation with Naminé and Kairi. More of an echo than a different person. But you can't really escape the past."

"Then what are you?"

"You," said Axel simply. "Or I guess another way to put it is… I'm what you actually fear the most. Yourself."

He resumed his casual pacing around the perimeter. Lea kept turning, keeping his eye on his doppelganger. He didn't trust him.

"I'm the guy who would get to do all the icky jobs. And you did plenty of them over the years, helping Saïx make his way to the top. How many innocent people lost their hearts just in case they might end up a powerful Nobody or Heartless? And more hearts lost meant more for the kids to collect for Kingdom Hearts. So many lives ruined or lost, just because someone told you to do it. But what did it matter to a guy with no heart of his own? And what did it matter when it came time to slaughter everyone in Castle Oblivion? People that you spent over a decade working alongside? Sora and Riku may have handled the majority, but you would have finished the others off too if necessary. You did with Vexen. And you used the replica of Riku to do the same to Zexion. But what does it matter? They were Nobodies. They weren't supposed to even exist in the first place. And even if they were people, it wouldn't have made a difference. You didn't care. Not really. You were exactly what a Nobody is meant to be: an uncaring, emotionless, and deadly monster." He shook his head, but Axel continued his lazy pace around the platform. "Number VIII. The flurry of dancing flames. The Organization XIII's favorite assassin. A remorseless killer."

"Last time I checked, I haven't been with the Organization for a while," said Lea, trying to keep his voice bored and uninterested. "That's not who I am anymore."

"Do you think that you've changed then? Because even when you try to do something good, you somehow manage to make a mess of it. You try to help Saïx for years so that you two can find that girl. But after a decade of no progress, that missing girl seeming more like a fleeting dream than an actual person, and him growing more distant with each passing day, it's a lot harder to put in the effort. Especially when there are these two kids you're hanging out with that are there and aren't some distant and impossible goal. And then Xemnas got a complete hold on Saïx, making him his loyal slave. Because he was alone. You were all that he had left after all those years and then he lost even that much. What did you think would happen? And even when you're trying to protect and keep Roxas and Xion, you did it in the most selfish way possible. It didn't matter what they wanted. Only what you wanted. What you thought was right. And in the end, you hurt them both. Your lies, your secrets, and your mistakes. You hurt them and lost them, despite all your selfish and cowardly attempts to keep control of the situation. Those kids deserved a better friend than that."

He shook his head at Lea. His expression looked so disappointed.

"Sheesh, do you even know what happened to Xion? You barely managed to beat her in that fight and dragged her back to the castle before collapsing. Which left her completely helpless and surrounded by a bunch of Nobodies who couldn't care less about her or Roxas. You practically gift-wrapped her for Xemnas. What do you think he did to her? It couldn't have been anything good since you forgot all about her after that."

"Shut up," he snapped. "What do you want?"

Axel stopped, turning to face Lea again. The Nobody gave him a smirk that didn't seem to reach his eyes.

"Do you actually deserve a Keyblade? After everything that you've done, after everyone that you've failed, do you truly believe that you're worthy to wield one? Because from the second that you decided that you needed one to find Isa, you have never believed that you deserve one. Not in your heart," said Axel. "Honestly, I'm surprised that it hasn't disappeared completely. And if you aren't worthy of a Keyblade, how are you planning to keep all those promises that you keep failing at? Or did you give up on that finally?"

Taking a step towards him, Lea said, "I'm getting them back. All of them. Roxas. Xion. Isa. Give me a little time and I'll figure out how to find that missing girl too. Now either help me or get out of my way."

"There's a little fight. I was wondering where it was. If you're not willing to fight back, you might lose more than your Keyblade around here. If your heart gives up, the rest of you won't last long either. You might end up back where you were before. The place where the sky touches the sea? You slip back there and you're not leaving a second time," said Axel. He summoned his chakrams, Eternal Flames, and twirled them in his hands a few times before casually resting one on his shoulder. "Better get moving, Lea. You've lost enough already. Wasting your time here isn't going to help anyone. Make sure that you fight hard enough not to lose anything else."

Axel turned and walked away, fading like an illusion. And where he stood a moment before, a new path materialized. Once more, it led upwards and forward into the shadows.

A little more surprising was when figures began forming along the path. Black creatures of darkness with glowing yellow eyes. White shapes that twisted and floated like empty husks in the breeze.

Shadows and Dusks.

Heartless and Nobodies.

His hand shot out, but no Keyblade appeared. Nor did his chakrams. He didn't have anything to keep them at bay. He was unarmed and vulnerable.

For a moment, Lea felt his breathing hitch and a chill wrapped around him. Fear hit him hard, instinctive and visceral. His hand rose protectively to his chest as the closest Shadows started edging down the path towards him. Searching for him. Searching for his heart.

Not again. He couldn't lose it again. He wouldn't go back to that empty numbness. He wouldn't let them take it.

Then, pushing down that fear, his hand tightened into a fist. No one would take his heart a second time. He wasn't helpless. And maybe his weapons weren't responding, but he didn't need them. He didn't know where he was and he didn't remember much about recent events. Even the odd and beautiful place where the water merged perfectly with the sky seemed more like a fading dream now. But he knew that his friends weren't here and those Heartless and Nobodies were blocking his path.

And nothing in the world would ever stand between Lea and his friends.

"I made a promise," he said. "And you won't stop me."

Taking a deep breath and focusing as much of his strength as he could risk gathering, Lea snapped his fingers. And they burned.


Though much of the castle had changed since the days of Hollow Bastion, the library at least seemed familiar. And not just from that brief visit about two years ago. Part of Kairi felt like she was in the room a long time ago. Back in those hazy days of childhood. Perhaps she and her grandmother visited the castle once or twice, though she didn't know why they would. She would like some fond memories to counterbalance the more negative fragments.

The library itself was a cozy space. Windows ran along one wall, letting sunlight stream in. Tall shelves of books nearly formed a maze. A reading chair had been tucked under a short staircase and brought a smile to Kairi's face that she couldn't quite explain. But the small couch and armchair in the room weren't present when the place had been Hollow Bastion. She would have remembered them. She approved of the change though. The whole room felt safe and comfortable.

They needed comfort.

Unease hung over all of them to an extent. On the way up to the library, Kairi did her best to give a brief summary of what happened. But even explaining about the Heartless and Nobodies showing up, about Larxene and Marluxia arriving, and what happened after was a struggle because her throat kept tightening up with guilt and worry. But Sora and especially Riku had no idea how things had gotten so bad. They needed to know what happened and they were quick to hug her in the hallways.

But she couldn't even start unraveling the mysteries of the sandy-blond boy, Roxas, and the black-haired girl. All that she knew was that Roxas kept his distance from Riku while keeping between him and the girl and that both of them looked absolutely miserable from guilt. When Dilan left them in the library, it was almost a relief to have the brief distraction of trying to settle somewhere comfortable to wait.

Sora and Goofy and nestled Donald on the couch between them, wrapping him in a thick blanket that they'd found. Only his beak and his hat poked out of the cozy cocoon as he snored softly. He hadn't stirred since he cast that spell, but his friends were keeping an eye on him. Kairi already knew how much effort it took her to cast Cura. She couldn't even imagine attempting Curaza.

Riku was leaning against a bookshelf. He'd taken over the task of talking after a while, quietly explaining what happened while he, Aqua, and King Mickey were gone. The transformation of Castle Oblivion into the restored Land of Departure, seeing Ventus for the first time, the sneak attack and fight, and Vanitas's parting remarks. He even described splitting off from the others and taking a dark corridor to Radiant Garden. He told the story carefully, filling the silence and letting his audience focus on that instead of the heavy fear looming over their heads. He kept them distracted from their current worries.

She ended up standing near another shelf, taking up position almost directly between Riku and the crowded couch. She didn't lean against it. She merely stood there, her arms tucked behind her back. Kairi couldn't help feeling like she needed to stay close to both of her best friends. And if either of them needed her or if she needed them, they were only a couple steps away. Part of her did want to grab Riku and drag him closer to Sora though.

And squeezed together in the arm chair, unable to hide their unease and concern, were the two people in black coats. She knew that the boy was Roxas; there was no one else that he could be and her heart seemed to recognize him from that brief moment that they connected across different worlds when she was struggling to remember Sora. But someone else had claimed the second replica. The black-haired girl. Kairi felt a warm and comforting feeling that she suspected meant that Naminé was fine with how it turned out though. But that still didn't answer the question of who the guilt-stricken girl with Roxas might be.

Kairi didn't miss the similarities between herself and the girl. Other than her hair being black, she looked exactly like a younger version of Kairi. They could be sisters.

At least the mystery girl had convinced Roxas to sit down. He'd originally been pacing around the library, frustration and worry consuming him. And everything about his body language screamed how much he wanted to lash out. Kairi half expected him to start attacking the shelves with his Keyblades by the time his friend took his hand and pulled him over to the arm chair. Her close presence seemed to help him a little, calming him and at least keeping his internal conflict from becoming an external one.

Riku's story came to a close as he reached the point where he arrived at the castle, leaving him to trail off awkwardly. There was no polite way to describe what he found. The aftermath of a battle, with Lea on the ground and…

Kairi shivered at the memory.

Please be all right, Lea. I don't want to lose a friend.

"I suppose that's everything," said Riku, shifting his position against the shelf. "I guess you guys succeeded in getting Roxas. And…"

He looked at the black-haired girl, grimacing briefly as he rubbed his head. He'd been doing that a lot, Kairi realized. Whenever he looked towards her since he arrived, he'd been acting like he had a headache starting.

Or maybe like he was trying to remember something that he'd forgotten.

Shaking his head, Riku said, "Sorry. I feel like I know you, but I just can't… I feel like the memory is fighting me. I can't…"

"You can't quite remember," she said, with a sad and sympathetic smile. "I know. I knew it would happen. Everyone forgot about me. It isn't your fault, Riku. And you and Naminé were really nice to me when you knew me." She shifted slightly, staring down at the ground. "My name's Xion. And I was… I was just a…"

"Xion," said Roxas firmly. "You were always Xion. One of my best friends."

Rubbing his temple and wincing, Riku said, "I… I think I'm starting to remember you a little. You were… with Organization XIII. I think we fought once. And you… didn't always look like you?"

"If you were with the Organization, does that mean you were a Nobody?" asked Sora. "I mean, you look a little like Kairi, but Naminé is kind of her Nobody."

"She was a replica," Riku said suddenly, his eyes widening. "I remember. They wanted to have another Keybearer, so they had a replica imprint on Roxas and start absorbing his abilities. And through him, she absorbed some of Sora's memories. She looks like Kairi when she was fourteen because she formed from Sora's memories of Kairi during that time."

Xion nodded and said quietly, "My very existence was built on a foundation of someone else's memories of another person. Nothing about myself was truly mine. I had even less reason to exist than the other Nobodies. And when I… stopped existing… not even memories of me remained behind. Everyone forgot about me. Riku. Roxas. Axel…"

Now both of the teenagers in black coats looked even more miserable than before. Kairi desperately wanted to hug them and Sora's expression suggested that he wanted to do the same.

"He'll be all right," said Goofy gently. "He's strong. And he has Donald's magic and Ansem the Wise helping him."

Roxas and Xion managed weak smiles at his words, but it didn't quite reach their eyes. The fear and uncertainty buried any hope that Goofy's assurances tried to spark. They might want to hope. They might want to believe that everything would be all right. But they couldn't. Kairi could almost feel the reluctant resignation coming from the pair.

They were assuming the worst. They couldn't help it. Until someone gave them definitive proof that Lea would survive, the fear and dread wouldn't loosen its grip on them. They didn't dare believe in anything better. They were simply waiting for even the slim possibility of their friend's chance of survival to be snatched away.

They were so scared of losing him and so certain that they would.

She hoped that someone would arrive soon and prove them wrong, giving them news that Lea would be all right. Dilan went back to the front entrance to wait for Aqua and King Mickey while the rest of them were down in the lab. The place gave Kairi chills, but part of her still wished that she was back down there. At least then she would know what was happening. Ansem the Wise, Ienzo, and Aeleus were all trying their best to…

She shivered. Every time she closed her eyes, Kairi saw Lea with those knives buried in his chest. Saw him collapse, struggling to breathe. And then he stopped. Everything happened so fast. Too fast for her to truly comprehend it.

She froze and she hated it. She should have tried a Cura, even if it wouldn't have been enough. She shouldn't have left him alone to fight, even though she promised. She should have done something. She thought that she was done being useless as her friends got hurt.

Kairi knew that she wasn't being fair to herself. Sora, Donald, Goofy, Roxas, and Xion were all there with her and none of them were able to prevent what happened. She shouldn't blame herself.

And she wasn't the only one with misplace guilt. Kairi could feel it radiating from everyone in the room. She knew her friends too well. They were all wondering "what if I was faster?" or "what if I tried something else?" But the ones who were blaming themselves the worst were Roxas and Xion. Kairi didn't have to know them as well as she did the others to figure out that much. After all, Lea was hurting trying to protect them.

But she also knew that, given a second chance, Lea would have the exact same thing.

… He was going to be all right. Lea would be fine. Roxas and Xion might be too scared to hope, but Kairi believed with all her heart.

"I am so sorry," said King Mickey as he hurried into the room, startling everyone. "We tried to get here as quickly as we could."

Goofy looked like he wanted to jump up and greet the king, but Sora managed to grab his arm and force him to stay seated. Otherwise they would have probably knocked Donald to the floor in the attempt. Kairi wasn't certain if that would have been enough to wake him though.

Riku's reaction was subtler, but his posture relaxed and a relieved smile formed on his face. He wasn't about to run over and scoop King Mickey in a hug, but he was happy to have his friend there.

A moment later, Dilan arrived with Aqua and helping her carry a sleeping teenage boy. And Aqua stiffened when she spotted Roxas. She and King Mickey briefly glanced between the two, eyes widening. No one could miss the similarities. Not even when Roxas scowled uncomfortably at Ventus's face and Xion openly stared in confusion.

Unfortunately, the identical faces of the two boys was a mystery that would have to wait for another day.

Since she was the only one who didn't seem to have a complex history with anyone in the room, Kairi stepped forward and said, "All right. This is King Mickey, Master Aqua, Dilan, and I assume the sleeping boy is Ventus." She gestured at each person as she introduced them. "And this is Roxas and Xion. Everyone already knows Riku, Sora, Donald, and Goofy."

"Dilan told us what happened," said Aqua gently. "I'm sorry that we weren't here to help."

Wiggling off the couch so that they could drop Ventus off and let him nap next to Donald, Sora said, "It isn't your fault. You needed to help your friend. And no one could have guessed this would have happened."

"Xion?" Mickey tilted his head in confusion. "I'm sorry, but I don't know…"

"She's a friend of Roxas," said Kairi. "We had a bit of a change of plans and she ended up with the second replica." She smiled softly, her hand touching her chest and the comforting warmth there. "But I think Naminé is actually all right with this."

"We'll figure out some other way to bring her back soon," said Sora. "And after helping Roxas and Xion, I think I know how to wake up Ventus."

Roxas, apparently hitting the limits of his patience, abruptly stood up and resumed his earlier pacing. Agitation and nervous energy seemed to buzz through him. His hands kept opening and closing at his sides, like he wanted to summon his Keyblades. Like he wanted something that he could physically fight.

"Roxas," said Xion. "That isn't going to help."

Crossing his arms briefly, he said, "We shouldn't have left. We should have stayed down there. We left Axel with that man. We can't trust him."

"Master Ansem and the others are trying to help Lea," said Dilan. "Despite what you might think, he is not going to harm Lea if you're not there to supervise."

"I don't trust him."

"I know that you're lashing out because you're worried," said Kairi quietly. "We're all worried about Axel. But he'll be all right, Roxas. You'll see."

Smiling sadly, Xion said, "You know what he'd say. He's tough."

That remark brought a small and wistful smile to his face and some of the tension eased out of Roxas's shoulders. As if the words brought back a familiar memory. Maybe not completely reassuring or comforting in the face of current circumstances, but familiar enough to distract his thoughts for at least a moment.

New footsteps came echoing down the hall. Two sets, though the louder and heavier footsteps nearly drowned out the other. Kairi watched everyone (with the obvious exceptions of the sleeping Ventus and Donald) turn their heads, the entire room focusing on the doorway. Xion stood up and claimed a spot next to Roxas. With the arrival of Aqua and King Mickey, there was only a handful of people that it could be.

Both looking more worn out than when she last saw the pair, Ansem the Wise and Aeleus stepped into the library. Master Ansem didn't stray far from the doorway. Kairi suspected that he was trying to give Roxas some space. His unease and distrust for the man was hard to miss and Ansem the Wise couldn't hide his feelings of guilt whenever he glanced in the boy's direction. Aeleus, on the other hand, approached Roxas and placed a hand briefly on his shoulder. Even with the man trying to be comforting, however, the impact momentarily unbalanced Roxas.

"How is he?" asked Kairi.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Ansem said, "He's alive. He's breathing a little easier and his heartbeat has stabilized from what it was before. His injuries aren't completely healed, but his condition has improved. We have done what we could to help him and the magic is doing its work." He briefly met Roxas's eyes before looking back towards the rest of the room. "The rest is up to him."

"Can we see him?" asked Xion. "Please?"

"We moved Lea to one of the unused spare bedrooms," said Aeleus. "I can take you."

"There are other rooms. For the rest of you to spend the night." Ansem the Wise smiled gently. "It is the least that we can offer."

Nodding, Sora said, "That would be great. Donald probably won't wake up for a while and could use the rest."

Almost as if responding to his words, the duck grumbled in his sleep and shifted in his blanket cocoon before resuming his snoring. Donald's change of position also managed to cause Ventus to lean against him, but the boy didn't really show any signs of awareness. The pair were just napping without a care in the world. Goofy could only chuckle at the two of them.

"Kairi," continued Sora, "how about you go with Roxas and Xion to see Axel? If he's resting, we don't want to crowd him. The rest of us can try to wake up Ventus."

She nodded instantly to the idea. For multiple reasons. Not only did she really want to see Lea and make sure that he was doing better, but she also didn't want Roxas and Xion to face this alone.

"Only if Riku promises to keep an eye on everything while we're gone," she said. "I can't leave you boys alone for long."

Kairi meant it as a gentle tease, something to lighten the mood a bit. But Riku always took things too seriously. He nodded solemnly at her words. Some of it was his natural personality, but some of it seemed like guilt.

She understood the feeling. The feeling of failing and someone else paying the price. But Kairi knew it wasn't her fault for going when Lea told her. Just like it wasn't Riku's fault for not being faster.

Aeleus gestured for them and turned back towards the corridor. Roxas and Xion didn't even hesitate before hurrying after the man, Kairi right behind them.

Unlike the hallways in the lower parts of the castle, these seemed brighter and airy. Occasional windows let in natural light and even the walls were constructed of a paler stone. Nothing about it felt like Hollow Bastion.

But it still felt familiar. More hazy memories of her childhood? Why would she visit the castle when she was small? The more she thought about it, the more that she believed it had to do with her grandmother. Perhaps she should question Ansem the Wise about whether or not he once knew her grandmother. But regardless, it was a mystery for another day.

Aeleus led them up a staircase, though Kairi vaguely remembered the place having numerous elevators and transportation platforms during the days of Hollow Bastion. Maybe they were gone after the renovations or maybe the stairs were closer. Either way, it didn't take long to reach their destination.

It was another hallway, much like the ones that they'd passed before. On each side were a few doors. But while all the other doors were closed, the one that Aeleus paused at was open a crack.

"Thank you," said Kairi softly.

Aeleus nodded in acknowledgment before meeting their eyes, focusing on each of them briefly. Then he turned and headed back in the direction of the library.

Roxas, hesitating for a moment with an uneasy expression, cautiously pushed the door open. It was a reasonably-sized guestroom, but not particularly fancy considering that it was part of a castle. There was a bed next to a window, a mildly-worn armchair and a small table in the corner, and a bookshelf along one wall. The dust clinging stubbornly to a few corners and crevices suggested that someone had tried to clean it after abandoning the space for years and missed a couple spots in the process. Which seemed accurate. At least someone had straightened up before they needed to make use of the space.

As they slipped inside, Ienzo looked up from the notebook in his hands. He'd claimed the armchair and table as a workspace, but he didn't seem to mind the interruption. He even gave them a small and weary smile.

"I had a feeling that someone would be checking on him shortly," he said.

While the pair spared him a brief glance, Kairi knew where the majority of their attention would be. They crossed the room almost instantly. Roxas and Xion crowded around the bedside, their eyes not leaving the occupant. She couldn't help staring as well.

There was one small comforting sign; Kairi tried to focus on it. Lea's breathing, while still labored and sounding exhausted, no longer came out as choked gasps. It didn't remind her of someone barely rescued from the sea, struggling for air past the salt water in their lungs. He didn't sound like he was dying

But, lying in bed with a quilt pulled over most of him, Lea didn't look healthy either. His face was too pale, he was too quiet, and his body was too still. His coat was gone, removed and draped across one corner of the table while his boots were tossed under the bed. And even with the blanket tucked around him, Kairi could see more injuries than she expected. Thick gauze wrapped around mid-chest, hiding the stab wounds that she knew were there and carrying the faint not-quite-minty scent that even the most expensive potions seemed to possess. Thinner cuts, already half-healed and no longer bleeding, decorated his body and especially ran up and down his left arm.

He still couldn't stop trying to block attacks with a chakram that wasn't there. That realization made Kairi want to both laugh and cry. Lea would do it during sparring occasionally, raising his left arm to block her attacks. But without his old weapon, she would end up hitting the limb. "Old habits die hard," Lea would remark while rubbing at the stinging arm. He ended up with several bruises until she started watching out for that particular mistake and pulling back some of the force when he did it.

In addition to the cuts and general lacerations, bruises seemed to cover most of his exposed body. Most of what wasn't hidden by the gauze or the quilt was discolored and swollen. The darkest and most painful-looking ones peeked out from under the bandages, his ribs and chest angry shades of dark purple and blue. His torso was essentially one giant bruise. But his arms had round marks the size of her fist, like someone pelted him with rocks. She remembered seeing similar bruises on Riku and Sora after their fight with Xemnas, the pair remarking that they were just a little slow at deflecting and not elaborating further. The edges of the smaller bruises on Lea showed hints of a pale green shade from Donald's magic speeding up the healing process, but they still looked painful.

She was ignoring the old and faded scars for now. He'd spent too many years fighting not to have some. And at least the ones that she could see were faint and relatively small.

Even before Larxene's knives hit him in the chest, the fight had been brutal on him. Most of his body was hidden beneath the blanket and bandages, but it was still bad enough. On the other hand, Kairi remembered seeing some vicious-looking burns on the Nobodies as they retreated. He went down swinging.

Taking Lea's hand carefully in hers, Xion stiffened and said, "He feels cold. Axel never feels cold."

"Blood loss," said Ienzo gently. "That's part of the reason that we brought him back up here after his condition improved. The lab is chillier. And an actual bed with blankets would be warmer and more comfortable. Losing that much blood isn't ideal, but as long as he is kept warm and is given some time, the healing magic should take care of it in due course."

"How is he really?" Kairi kept her voice soft, hoping that Roxas and Xion would be too distracted to listen. "How bad is it?"

Keeping his words equally quiet even as his voice revealed some of his concern, he said, "Considering that he's no longer bleeding into his lung and the healing spell helped mend where one of the knives managed nick his physical heart before he…" He breathed out slowly, trying to sound steadier and push down his stress. "His situation has improved. Drastically. He's not out of the woods yet. But if nothing major happens over the next few hours, his condition should continue to improve. I am not a medical doctor and what I know came from spending time around Vexen growing up, our systems were not designed for in-depth examinations of the physical body since that was never our focus, and the last time that we checked, reestablishing a proper medical facility in Radiant Garden is still an ongoing project. So we have not been able to provide expert and experienced diagnostics and treatment, but we've done what we can to help Lea. And I'm… cautiously optimistic about his chances of recovery. For all his faults, he is not one to give in easily."

Despite the more concerning part of his quiet explanation, the last words were enough for Kairi to release some of her tension.

"Thank you. For helping him and for telling me."

Ienzo gave a small nod. Then, turning his attention back to the others, he raised his voice slightly,

"If you're going to be here for a few minutes, I think I'll step out for a moment and take care of something. I trust you can keep an eye on him for a little while."

Kairi could see what he was doing. He wasn't as good at lying as he might think. He was making excuses to offer them some privacy. Ienzo was letting them have some time with Lea alone. It was a kind gesture.

As Ienzo stepped out into the hall, Kairi turned her attention back to her unconscious friend and the others. Roxas stared at Lea silently, his eyes a little too dull and heartbroken. And Xion gently rubbed Lea's hand between hers, trying to warm him up.

"He's going to be all right," said Kairi. "You'll see. He just needs some rest and time."

"I don't like feeling helpless." Roxas shook his head. "I wish that we could do something."

"At least we have experience waiting for someone to wake up," said Xion.

Kairi could empathize with Roxas's quiet distress. She didn't like feeling helpless or waiting around either. She'd spent too long doing nothing while those she cared about placed themselves in danger again and again. They all needed a distraction. Something to do to feel useful. She…

Her eyes drifted towards the black coat draped across the table. Considering how many half-healed cuts there were on Lea, including some rather deep ones that she didn't want to think about because they would make her remember that awful moment where he'd gone completely silent and lifeless until Donald's spell, Kairi knew that the black coat had to be looking a bit ragged by now. She might not be able to do much to help him, but she knew that he seemed reluctant to switch to his new clothes and she'd picked up a few creative and practical skills over the years. Including sewing. Maybe she could at least repair some of the damage.

But when she picked up the black coat in order to examine how bad the tears might be, two small objects tumbled out. He must have tucked them into his pocket. Kairi frowned in confusion before reaching for them. Out of all the possible items for Lea to be carrying around, they just seemed particularly odd and random.

A worn ice cream stick with the word "winner" printed on it. And a Thalassa shell.

"He…," said Roxas slowly, taking the ice cream stick from her, "kept it?"

Taking the seashell, Xion said, "But he couldn't even remember me… Why?"

If the two of them needed to blink rapidly to prevent tears, Kairi pretended not to notice and didn't say a word.

Chapter Text

Ventus slept in the soft, warm, and comforting light. He'd been there for a long time. So long, in fact, that his existence before this place almost seemed like a dream. He liked the calm and gentle protection. It made him feel safe.

When his heart was torn asunder, the brand-new light called out to him, healed the damage, and let him survive. And years later, when he shattered his heart on purpose, he returned to his sanctuary and fell into his deep sleep. Ventus stayed there, was welcomed there, as the splinters of his heart gradually fused back together.

The light was from a heart. Sora's heart. Sora's heart sheltered him and saved him repeatedly.

Sometimes he would dream. Of warm beaches and calm seas. Of playing with a white-haired boy and a girl with reddish-brown hair. And later, of fighting monsters with a Keyblade. And of seeing other worlds and strange animals. But mostly he slept too soundly to notice much.

Ventus wasn't alone. Never was. Others joined him in the safety of Sora's heart. A bright light without a single shadow, hiding within the person that she trusted most until she was freed. Two young and newly-formed hearts, already filled with pain and sadness as they returned to where they originated from. And even when they left, Ventus was still wrapped in the warmth of Sora's heart. He was never alone.

Though, part of him felt lonely. He was missing someone. More than one…

Still, it was peaceful, comforting, and safe. After the pain of his heart breaking twice, Ventus didn't want to wake up.

Occasionally, something would make him stir. A word or a voice that would reach him even within the depths of Sora's heart. But he always drifted back into his endless slumber.

"Ven?"

Someone… calling him? He knew that voice… But it was so far away…

"Ven, please…"

He felt his awareness creeping back. For the first time in ages, he felt like his eyes were trying to flutter open. Part of him wanted to continue his endless sleep, but the rest of him want to return to that voice.

She was his friend. He missed her.

"Come back to us, Ven."

He thought that he glimpsed stained-glass and fluttering dove wings. Then he heard the sound of something unlocking before a blinding light engulfed him.

When it faded, Ventus felt heavy and sluggish. And aware. He felt…

Awake.

His eyelids resisted initially, feeling gritty and stiff, but he opened them. He forced them to obey. And while everything started out blurry, Ventus blinked a few times and everything came into focus.

Right in front of him, giving him a watery smile, was Aqua. It was really her. Exactly how he remembered her. And the moment that Ventus met her eyes, her smile brightened further and she pulled him into a hug. He quickly returned the embrace, holding tight in case he was dreaming.

He'd missed her while he slept.

As nice as it was to sleep in Sora's heart, Ventus missed the young woman. She was one of his best friends and one of the most important people in his life. She was always there for him. Her and Terra. Aqua was the voice he heard, the one calling him back. And he was back with her after so long.

Eventually their embrace ended as Aqua pulled back. But only enough to let her reach up and cup his face with her hand.

"Good morning, Ven," she said warmly.

Smiling back and leaning into the contact, Ventus said, "Good morning, Aqua."

There was so much more meaning than what the words themselves could hold. Years of emotions, the heartache of separation, the feeling of missing the other, the joy of reunion, and reassurances that they were together once more and wouldn't be separated again. Their voices expressed the depths of their unbreakable bond, the one represented by the Wayfinders that she crafted out of colored glass and metal. It was friendship, but also the closest thing to family that Ventus could recall.

The only dark cloud on the bright moment was Terra's absence. He was still in trouble. He needed their help. Ventus could feel it.

Not all his friends were back together. His family wasn't whole.

But they were one step closer.

"Ventus," called another familiar voice, causing Aqua to move to one side.

He finally started noticing his surroundings a bit more. Ventus was sitting on a couch in a library. Beside him was a pile of blankets that seemed to be snoring. He saw a few more people in the room, some of who were familiar either from dreams or from long ago. But there was one person who held his attention.

A boy with brown hair smiled at him. For a moment, all that Ventus saw was Vanitas's face, causing him to stiffen and nearly summon his Keyblade. But the expression was too bright, too open, and too friendly to be his other half. And there was a connection between them, soft and gentle. Then he realized where he recognized the voice from. Ventus remembered hearing it in his dreams.

It wasn't Vanitas.

"You're Sora," he said quietly.

This was the boy that save him twice over. Sora was the source of the warmth and light that Ventus spent so long surrounded by. His newborn heart healed him when Ventus was torn in half, filling in the damage with his own light. And he was the one who sheltered Ventus in his heart for years, protecting his sheltered heart and giving him time to heal again. Even with them now separated, Ventus could still feel a faint connection to the other boy's heart. Like an invisible rope ready to pull him up if he should fall.

But for the first time, he was physically seeing Sora.

He might look like Vanitas, but he was completely different. He wasn't the one who tried to possess Ventus and forge the χ-blade.

He was Ventus's second chance.

"It's nice to finally meet you properly, Ventus," said Sora, still beaming at him.

Grinning in return, he said, "Call me 'Ven.'"


"Please take a seat," said Ienzo, pulling up the correct program on the computer.

"Why?" Xion shifted uneasily as she stared at the indicated chair with the attached scanner. "What are we doing down here?"

Ienzo could understand her and Roxas's unease. He only knew Roxas for a short time and Xion seemed to cause him only the faintest sense of déjà vu and a vague headache. But he knew enough to guess that they would be suspicious of his request. Even coaxing them away from Lea's bedside and down into the lab had been a minor miracle. They had been used and betrayed by the Organization enough times in the past to be hesitant about former members asking them to do things.

Not to mention what happened earlier. They'd both paused uneasily in the corridor as he led them towards the laboratory, their eyes flickering towards the slightly darker stain on the ground that hadn't completely been removed yet, before the pair followed him inside. Ienzo was thankful that he'd decided to come down and clean things while Roxas and Xion visited Lea. Even with most of the bleeding being internal, it would have been an unpleasant sight for the teenagers. At least the worst of it was gone by now.

And to be honest, Ienzo didn't enjoy seeing it either. Vexen was the one who enjoyed studying biology and Zexion only helped him write down test results on the subject. He didn't like seeing blood and serious injuries.

It wasn't much of an issue when he was a child, obediently recording while Even and later Vexen performed different experiments. At first, he had trusted his guardians too much to truly question his actions and Even kept him away from some of the more morally-ambiguous ones. Then later, he had lacked the capacity to care because he and the other original six apprentices had tossed aside their hearts.

But now, after spending over half his life without a heart or believing that he couldn't feel, the sight could finally bother him. He could properly empathize. He could feel sympathy. And he could feel pity, horror, and concern to degrees that he struggled to process. Witnessing pain, suffering, and severe injuries was almost more than he could handle with his lack of experience when it came to matters of the heart.

Even with the complicated nature of his past with Lea, Ienzo had hated seeing him in that condition.

"I know that much has happened in a very short span of time," said Ienzo. "But both of you have recently had your hearts removed from Sora and transferred to the newest models of replica bodies. Furthermore, Xion's body was configured at the last moment. I want to give you both a brief examination to ensure that nothing went wrong during the process. To ensure that your hearts are intact, unharmed, and integrating properly with the new vessels. And to make certain that the replica bodies are stable and have adapted the way Vexen's research states that they should. I want to make certain that any possible issues are caught and corrected early, before they can cause serious problems."

"Like making sure that I won't start absorbing memories or hurting Roxas by being around him?" she asked, cautiously sitting down.

Pulling up all the schematics concerning No. i so that they were displayed next to the scanning program, Ienzo said, "Your original body was one of the first successful replicas that Vexen created. The newest models of replicas are meant to be indistinguishable from humans. Especially when provided with an appropriate heart. Your new body is not designed to mimic or absorb Roxas's power because it was not created for that purpose. The problems that you are describing will not happen. But we can double-check if that would reassure you."

"It won't hurt her, right?" asked Roxas.

The question reminding him of how Donald asked the exact same thing concerning Sora, Ienzo said, "Not in the slightest. The scans won't even be as invasive as what we attempted with Sora earlier. The entire process will be painless. She can even stay awake during it. At worst, it will be a little boring."

Trying to smother a yawn, Xion nodded and settled back in the chair. Ienzo typed in a few adjustments into the program, recalibrating the system. He didn't need the same parameters that he'd been using earlier. When he tried to adjust the program to give them a more thorough look at the extent of Lea's injuries…

"Have either of you noticed any symptoms or side effects so far?" asked Ienzo, shaking off that train of thought and starting up the scan. As the light moved up and down Xion, he continued, "Unexpected weakness? Light-headedness? Dizziness? Unexplained pain or numbness? Physical or emotional? Anything that might indicate a problem?"

Fighting back his own yawn, Roxas said, "I guess I feel tired. More than I should be."

"Me too," said Xion. "Is that bad?"

"It's been a stressful and exhausting day, so that could be part of it." Ienzo watched the screen carefully as the results started appearing. "The relocation of your hearts and adjusting to your new physical bodies would likely be very draining on your energy. Hopefully, a good night's sleep will help with that."

Rest would do them a world of good. Calling the day "stressful" was an understatement.

A lot had happened in a very short span of time. The surprise invasion of the Heartless and Nobodies into Radiant Garden. The awakening of both Roxas and the unexpected Xion. And the fallout of the battle.

When they had brought Lea's unconscious body into the laboratory and Aeleus managed to settle him into one of the chairs, altering the configuration until it was flat like an exam table, Ienzo had tried to not look. He pulled out the gauze, rubbing alcohol, and half a dozen hi-potions from where they had stored them away before focusing on adjusting the scanning program to collect data on the physical body. He had looked once, when Master Ansem and Aeleus managed to ease Lea out of his black coat. Ienzo saw both old scars, a deep one in Lea's lower side and a burn scar that reminded him too much of what he saw on Even as the man tried to recover after his recompletion, and new wounds that turned his stomach. He didn't look up from the screen again.

Ienzo saw the damage, but only as a clinical display in a digital format. He couldn't bring himself to look at the real version again, gasping and choking behind him. He'd focused on the computer screen as Master Ansem and Aeleus did their best to stabilize Lea before the energy from the Curaza that kickstarted his physical heart again wore off. Ienzo had monitored the state of their patient, noting the damage to the left lung, several major blood vessels, and the minor laceration to the physical heart and that the healing magic was barely keeping pace with the blood loss for a while. He observed the computer screen while the others cleaned and dressed Lea's injuries, pouring hi-potions into the deepest wounds in the hopes that it would help fix the internal damage that threatened to kill him. He didn't look up until long after the balance started shifting and the patient's condition finally began to improve.

He hadn't looked because it reminded Ienzo too much of assisting with experiments in that same room in his early days as Zexion. Especially since, while most of the subjects ran together in his mind since he didn't care back then enough to pay close attention to their faces, he did remember a few specific people who were dragged in. And after growing up without a heart, Ienzo didn't think that he would be able to keep his emotions under control if he started dwelling on those days or how much the situation reminded him of those experiments. He hadn't looked because he needed to keep calm. He wouldn't have done anyone any good if he was drowning in overwhelming emotions.

He shook his head slightly. That was over now. There was no one bleeding out. No one was hunched over an unconscious figure, examining the damage carefully. No one was in pain or dying. He was fine. He wasn't a child anymore. He couldn't let his thoughts remain trapped there, continuously circling around the topics that upset him. He had too many responsibilities that needed him. He needed to focus on the present.

"Everything appears to be in order," said Ienzo, looking over the scans for Xion. "Your heart and body are both in good condition. Despite the lack of preparation ahead of time, your heart has integrated properly and your body is registering as identical to a regular human. I may not be Vexen, but I believe it would be safe to assume that you are stable and healthy."

"And I won't hurt Roxas?" she asked.

Ienzo shook his head and said, "Not at all, Xion. There is no hint of the power mimicking or draining abilities found in the previous models. Other than being a Keybearer, you are no different than any other real teenage girl."

Xion smiled shyly even as she blinked away a few hints of tears, looking a little overwhelmed. As if that handful of words meant everything to her, more than Ienzo could possibly decipher. Both he and Roxas helped her out of the chair before the boy took her place.

"You're a lot different than I remember you," said Roxas as the scans started up again.

"We didn't have long to know each other," he reminded. "And regaining our hearts affected some of us more strongly than others."


Riku wandered the halls quietly. The castle had changed drastically since the days where Maleficent led him around Hollow Bastion. He could almost pretend that it was a completely different place.

The last few hours had been intense. Some of the events, he'd expected. Retrieving Ventus's body with Aqua. Waking him up. Even Roxas's return was something that he knew was coming. But everything else…

Remembering Xion hurt. Not just the physical headache. That was fading as he remembered her more. But the memories of the unusual Keybearer, her face depending on who looked at her, broke his heart. He remembered how fragile her existence was, how she absorbed memories and strength that didn't belong to her and that she didn't even want, and how nothing about her brief life was fair. But even when they needed the stolen memories to wake Sora up, Riku and Naminé let her make the decision to return to Sora.

But the choice was never a true choice. Not when her very existence threatened to destroy Roxas and every stolen memory left her increasingly unstable. They could give her time. They could let her spend a little longer with her friends. But the final outcome would have always been the same, regardless of the path she took. Everything about her was tragic. And while Riku didn't cause her circumstances nor did he force her actions, that didn't stop the guilt.

Xion had more freedom to decide her fate than Roxas did in the end, but it was still only the illusion of freedom.

Her return wasn't the only issue that filled his thoughts. Guilt gnawed at him for different reasons. Reasons far more recent.

When Vanitas made his parting taunt, Riku only worried about Sora and Kairi being in danger. He didn't think about the threat that the citizens of Radiant Garden might be facing until he saw the attacking Heartless and Nobodies. He didn't think about the various apprentices in the castle being in danger. And he didn't even consider the possibility that Lea would nearly die.

He only worried about Sora and Kairi in that moment. He instinctively thought of them and no one else even crossed his mind until afterwards.

And now they were dealing with the fallout.

Sora, fighting back yawns after freeing three hearts in one day, had disappeared briefly with Goofy after Riku mentioned seeing Leon. He came back looking reassured, but no longer hiding his yawns. Sora, Goofy, and a still-snoring Donald then vanished towards Master Ansem's offered bedrooms.

Mickey had gone up to see Lea earlier. Now that he wasn't in any immediate danger of dying, they had time for a more effective spell that would help with the damage to Lea's ribs. Riku knew from personal experience that, magic or no magic, bones took longer to heal and needed more work than other injuries. And there was no way that all of those knives went between the ribs. Some would have gone through them. Hence why Mickey volunteered to try adding Healing Light to Donald's earlier magic.

Aqua and Ventus had withdrawn somewhere to spend time with each other after so long apart. They deserved a chance to catch up in private. And it was probably better to keep Ventus away from Roxas for the time being. No one had the energy to deal with their identical appearances or what it meant. They could try sorting that one out later.

Ienzo, Dilan, Aeleus, and Master Ansem were somewhere in the castle, though Riku wasn't exactly certain where. Or maybe the apprentices had gone out to help the rest of the people now that the Heartless and Nobodies had been pushed back. He knew that they'd been trying to keep their distance and not bother the other residents of Radiant Garden. Too much guilt on one side and too much distrust on the other. There was a reason that the defense systems remained under the control of the Radiant Garden Restoration Committee and the former Nobodies weren't allowed direct access. It was a cautious second chance, but the past wasn't being ignored. And Riku doubted anyone outside the castle knew about Ansem the Wise being back. He was probably keeping a low profile. Regardless, Riku didn't know their exact locations, but he suspected they were keeping themselves busy.

He knew where most of the people were. But not everyone. Which was why Riku was wandering the halls alone.

He allowed himself to focus solely on his oldest friends and only remembered the others when confronted with evidence that Sora and Kairi weren't the ones truly in danger. He wouldn't make the same mistake again. He wouldn't let their friends slip from his thoughts so easily a second time. He needed to reassure himself that everyone was safe before he could allow himself to relax.

He knew that someone should check on Roxas and Xion again, but Riku also knew that he wasn't the best choice. He held too much responsibility for what happened to them. He ensured that they ended up disappearing into Sora's heart for so long. It was the only way to wake Sora up and he knew that he would do it again, but their complicated history meant that Riku wanted to keep a little distance until things settled more. Now wasn't the time for him to accidentally spark Roxas into a rematch duel. It was why he asked Mickey to explain to the pair about everything that was happening, with Xehanort and his time-traveling and possession plan, the seven guardians of light and thirteen darknesses, his intentions for Kingdom Hearts, and the rest. The king didn't have any history with Roxas and Xion, complicated or otherwise.

And since he'd taken everyone else into account, Riku needed to check on one last person. And somewhere around here…

The sound of running water pulled his attention to a door, the only one in the corridor that was cracked open slightly. Riku pushed it the rest of the way and found Kairi bent over a sink. A familiar black coat was in her hands as she scrubbed at the leather-like material, staining the water a diluted shade of red.

"Kairi?" he asked gently.

She looked up. Her blood-shot eyes sent a stab of guilt through Riku. She'd been tossed into a deadly fight without him or Sora around. Even if she didn't seem injured, it was still a lot to expect of her. And now she was crying over a sink alone. They should have protected her. He was supposed to protect his friends.

"I was going to try fixing this," she said slowly, "but I thought I should clean it first. The material doesn't exactly stain like fabric does, but…" Kairi glanced back down at the black coat. "It doesn't want to come off after drying. It's sticky and flaking, but it doesn't want to come off. But it needs to come off."

She scrubbed some more, further discoloring the water. He couldn't see it easily on the black material, but the blood showed up perfectly in the sink. There was something wrong about this. Sweet, bright, and caring Kairi with blood on her hands.

"I thought," she continued, still staring down at the black coat as she scrubbed, "that when I learned to fight, when I could finally protect my friends, I would stop feeling helpless. Like something made of glass. I wouldn't be left behind. I wouldn't be stuck waiting while my friends keep running into danger. I would be able to do something to help."

Riku kept quiet, patiently waiting. He knew Kairi. He grew up with her and Sora. And he knew how to read her during conversations. She didn't need the reassurances that immediately rose up at her words. At least, not yet. The pause and silence weren't meant for him to respond. She was trying to find the right words to continue. Right now, she needed support and an audience to listen. Any other form of comfort would only work after she finished spilling her thoughts and emotions.

The only way to help her was to wait until she was ready.

"The fighting didn't scare me. Not really. Not after I got started. Even when I got hit, it hurt, but I could handle it. I would have been fine. But he told me to run. When the Organization members showed up, Axel told me to run. He made me promise." Kairi's fingers tightened into the material. "I should have stayed. I could have helped him. Maybe I could have done something to help him. Maybe…"

When she trailed off this time, Riku said, "You told me that Larxene's knives hit him after the rest of you made it back out there. He had backup and it still happened. It was bad luck, Kairi. It wasn't your fault. No one could have foreseen what happened."

"It still feels like it's my fault," she said. "Once again, I'm fine and one of my friends got hurt."

"We all end up worrying over someone and feeling helpless eventually."

Like when he saw Kairi's body and her heart was missing. Like when Sora lost his memories and slept for a year as Naminé repaired the damage.

"I wish I could tell you that it stops when you get strong enough," continued Riku gently. "I wish I could tell you that it gets easier to handle seeing people you care about in trouble. But it doesn't. All we can do is protect what matters when you can. And when that's not enough, you save them."

He hoped that something that he was saying was making a difference. Because no matter what she was feeling right now, he believed in Kairi. Just like he believed in Sora.

"And if there's one thing that I know without a single doubt, I know that if any of us ever needs help, you'll be there to save us. How many times have you saved me? Or Sora?" Riku smiled at her. "What happened today wasn't your fault. And Axel is going to be fine. So please don't blame yourself for something that no one could have predicted. We can't change what happened. But next time, we'll be more prepared for their tricks. And we'll protect our friends."

Riku stared down at the black coat, absently taking note of all the torn cuts. There was evidence of older pieces of damage, places where someone apparently repaired the old rips by melting the edges together. The sight was enough to stir his curiosity briefly. Riku couldn't keep the random thoughts from distracting him. Did all the Organization members have ways to fix the black coats or did they have a stash of new ones to replace them with? Were there closets of these outfits hidden somewhere in the World That Never Was?

"I still wish that I could do more," she said. "I'm trying to be stronger and I want to protect my friends. Not just save them after they get hurt or lost in the darkness. I need to help keep my friends safe instead of always ending up as a stupid and helpless damsel in distress."

"You're not stupid or helpless. And by the time this is over, you'll know it too." He shook his head. "I don't have all the answers, but I know that you're stronger than you believe. People tend to underestimate themselves."

Riku made that mistake, seeking out power from dangerous sources. He was too impatient, too overconfident, and too foolish. And even with his overconfidence, he didn't recognize his own strength and believed that he needed something to make him stronger. And in his arrogance, he was tricked and ended up falling to darkness.

He forgot why he originally wanted to be strong: to protect what matters. And it took a long time to recover from those mistakes. It took time to find his current balance. To find a way to use his darkness without letting it engulf his light. To take that darkness and make it behave as the natural balancing force that it was meant to be.

But Kairi wasn't like him. She was better than that. Not because she was a Princess of Heart. Because she was smart, brave, kind, and strong. And she never forgot that friends could help.

"Don't underestimate yourself, Kairi. And don't blame yourself. You didn't do anything wrong."

Smiling weakly, Kairi said, "As long as you promise not to blame yourself either."


Aqua wasn't certain how long she and Ventus talked. Hours. They talked about everything that happened. His time in Sora's heart. Her time trapped in the Realm of Darkness. And what she knew of Terra's fate. Then they talked about the past. About memories of happier days in the Land of Departure. Small things. Trivial things. Everyday things. Things that they both missed.

They talked until the sun set and the stars appeared through the window, pausing only briefly to eat. It wasn't a very organized or formal meal, everyone randomly selecting something before vanishing back to where they were before. No one else was in a good state for prolong conversation or social interaction. She was content to spend the hours with Ventus. It was reassuring to see and hear him again.

But even though he'd spent nearly a decade asleep, Ventus started yawning and blinking blearily. And eventually he dozed off on the bed, curling on his side rather than sprawling like a lifeless doll. He was properly sleeping rather than what he was doing before. Aqua couldn't help smiling at his peaceful and content expression. But as much as she wanted to follow his example, Aqua could only ruffle his hair gently before slipping out of the room.

Her footsteps echoed quietly with each step. The shadows seemed too deep and too long, reaching for her. She couldn't sleep here. Not like this. Not with the silence and endless shadows of the night. She fell back on the habits that she developed in the Realm of Darkness. She kept moving.

Aqua briefly paused at one of the other bedrooms, checking on them. Two teenage girls had claimed the pair of beds, sharing the room.

The dark-haired girl, Xion, shifted in her uneasy sleep. The quiet distress compelled Aqua to tug the blanket over the child more firmly. She didn't dare do more and risk waking the girl. She was still mostly a stranger to Xion, after all.

The second bed held Kairi, her light shining like a beacon to Aqua's senses. She didn't physically see the light from her heart, but she felt it. And it seemed to chase away the unease that the shadows caused, if only for the moment. The sensation of pure light helped remind her that this was real and she was truly out of the Realm of Darkness. Aqua appreciated the feeling.

Finding out that Kairi was a Princess of Heart, someone with no inner darkness, explained so much.

Aqua paused briefly to look at the black coat draped over a chair, a larger copy of the outfit that Xion wore even in her uneasy sleep. Somehow Kairi managed to track down a needle and durable thread to sew the tears. Aqua could see the neat and careful stitches. But she could also sense the protective spell woven into the material from those stitches, joining the power already in the black coat.

There were plenty of jewelry and accessories with spells of protection and to increase strength. Some places even sold bespelled armor and trinkets. That wasn't unusual. Aqua put spells on the Wayfinders the same way, researching the methods in the library at the Land of Departure.

But she knew that Riku and Sora didn't get the same training that she did. They didn't have the same resources and upbringing to draw upon. She also doubted that Kairi was taught how to perform that type of magic. It was subtler and required more concentration than more combative spells. Aqua wasn't even certain that Kairi intentionally did it. It almost seemed like she instinctively poured her light and her desire to protect into the material as she repaired the coat.

Instincts and natural talent forged in the fires of adversity and necessity. It was something that all these children seemed to share.

Aqua brushed her fingers across the repaired cut, muttering a soft spell. She repeated the same gesture on the other rips. When she lifted her hand, the stitches had almost melded seamlessly with the leather-like material. Everything was solid and in one piece, impossible to unravel. But Kairi's protective magic remained in place.

And with that small task accomplished, Aqua reluctantly slipped out of the room and resumed her silent wanderings through the castle.

There was darkness in this place. Not just the shadows and the night, but true darkness. She could feel it. Everything felt bright on the surface, but deep down…

She shivered as she moved through the empty and silent corridors. Riku's darkness, as much as it made her question more things than she wanted to consider, didn't feel malicious. But this particular form just felt just as deadly as the most dangerous corners of the Realm of Darkness. Only the multiple floors of the castle kept it at bay, leaving her with only the faintest sense of it unless she concentrated. Or unless she was foolish enough to go seeking it.

Something happened here. Something happened that allowed the darkness to seep into the very stones in the deepest part of the castle. She could ignore it on the higher floors, but she was gradually moving down…

Aqua knew that she should turn around. There was no reason to wander towards the lower portions of the castle. She didn't like the presence of normal harmless shadows anymore, let alone the more volatile darkness. The type that swallowed you up, sank into your skin and into your heart, and tried to snuff out the light within you. Aqua wanted nothing to do with it.

It wasn't recent. There was no true source of the darkness. She could tell that much the closer she came. There was nothing down there that she could defeat or banish. It felt like an echo, but one that could still seep into her skin. She despised the sensation.

But she felt something else. Something familiar drawing her forward. Aqua couldn't resist it. Somewhere in the smothering darkness, something was calling for her.

Aqua found a study with a narrow corridor hidden inside. And while that apparently led to another room filled with scientific equipment, she instead wandered down to a wide and open space and found a long spiral staircase plunging down. One that seemed to go on forever.

The further down that she walked, the more oppressive the atmosphere seemed to grow. Past misery, fear, and pain hung like a fog over the place. Something horrible happened here years ago and left its mark, like a metaphorical scar. It was a miracle that Heartless weren't continuously spawning from the darkness that pressed down on her.

She kept finding herself rubbing her arms, trying to combat the phantom sensation of darkness seeping into her again. It wasn't happening.

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, light flickered on. And while it banished the physical shadows, it did nothing for the unnerving feeling. Aqua wanted to escape the sensation. She wanted to turn and race back up to the rest of the castle. She wanted to escape this place and the choking darkness. The smartest decision would be to go. It's what she would tell Ventus and Terra to do in the same situation.

But just as the oppressive and ominous darkness sparked off feelings of dread that she couldn't ignore, Aqua couldn't turn back. Something kept pulling her forward. So she let it.

May your heart be your guiding key.

She followed the hallway silently. At first, the doors lining the corridor seemed innocent enough other than the electronic locks and chains. Until she glanced in a couple of the small rooms. They were tiny spaces with only a narrow cot in each one. But there were marks on the walls and rips in the fabric of the cots, as if someone or something clawed desperately to get out. Aqua shivered as she realized that they were cells to imprison people. Or Heartless. Or both.

No wonder this place felt so dark and corrupted. At least the worst of it was isolated far underground. She wouldn't be able to stay in the castle if the whole building felt like this.

But what could have happened in this hidden and buried place?

Aqua began walking a little faster. She couldn't leave yet, no matter how much she desperately wanted to get away from this unnerving place. But she couldn't stop until she found what was calling to her. The best that she could do was hurry.

The familiar and bright feeling brought Aqua to a door different from the cell doors. One locked by someone. But that was not really an issue for a Keyblade master. Aqua summoned Master's Defender in a flash of light and opened the door.

The greyish-white room briefly reminded her of the transformed Land of Departure, Castle Oblivion. There was even a throne, sigils, and chains that glowed across the floor and walls. But she only gave it a moment's notice before her focus fell on the pile of armor on the floor.

Her armor. The armor that she'd sent with the possessed Terra to protect him as she fell into the Realm of Darkness in his place.

And resting next to her armor was…

Aqua let Master Eraqus's Keyblade dematerialize. Then she reached down and picked up her own.

Stormfall.

The name seemed to echo through her, familiar and welcoming. This felt right, her heart and Keyblade perfectly in sync. It was a part of her.

She might be able to change the appearance and abilities of her Keyblade, but the natural state and name were reflections of her heart. When they were in harmony, the Keybearer would know its true name. The Keyblade would reveal it to its true owner. And occasionally the Keyblade would change its default shape and name to reflect how the person grew or changed over time. In many ways, it was a part of growing up.

As the heart changed, so did the Keyblade to mirror it.

But while Rainfell once became Stormfall, it hadn't changed this time. Stormfall still reflected her heart. It still recognized her.

Despite everything… Despite losing her friends for a decade… Despite her time in the Realm of Darkness… Despite her heart being briefly engulfed by darkness… Stormfall still recognized her.

She was still Aqua. Terra and Ventus's friend. Master Eraqus's student. Keyblade master.

Aqua blinked back tears. Holding her Keyblade, her Stormfall, felt wonderful and right. Like a broken part of her was complete again.

Taking a deep breath, she dismissed her Keyblade. Both the weapon and armor disappeared in a flash of light. But they weren't gone. Only out of sight until she needed them. Aqua could still feel her Keyblade and armor with her. After wandering the Realm of Darkness for so long, she had them back.

Somehow, the shadows didn't bother her as badly as she returned the way that she came.

Chapter Text

Roxas was fighting, his Keyblade flashing through the air. He was at Twilight Town, near the train station. Near the clocktower. And his opponent was an armored figure. Strong, but not strong enough to stop him. Each of his strikes were fast and vicious. He put as much power into each blow as possible.

He wanted to stop. He needed to stop.

This was wrong.

He couldn't stop. His body kept moving automatically, moving through the combos instinctively. He needed to stop, but Roxas couldn't make himself stop.

Then his opponent, the armored and inhuman figure, shattered apart. Roxas glimpsed Xion in the center. Why her? Why did he fight her? She smiled sadly at him before falling, dissolving into light before she hit the ground. Roxas could only stare in horror, dropping the Keyblade.

No, no, no… He didn't mean it. He didn't want to hurt her. She was his best friend.

"Xion. I'm sorry. Please. Don't leave me."

Come back. He had to get her back.

His chest ached, like something was wrapped around and squeezing his ribs. It hurt. Why did it hurt so much? He wasn't the one that faded away without a trace. He was fine. She was the one who…

But he wasn't fine. So many things seemed to be swirling in his head and twisting in his chest. He couldn't identify them all. He didn't have the words to describe the sensations. He felt awful and he couldn't even explain it in his head.

Colors seemed to melt and blur around him, like his horrified tears were washing away his surroundings. The train station and clocktower disappeared like smoke. Twilight Town became Betwixt and Between.

Abruptly Axel materialized in front of Roxas. But something was wrong. He was…

Sprawled on the ground. Weak. Exhausted. Hurt.

Fading.

Roxas saw blood and he saw Axel slowly dissolving into nothingness.

Horror, guilt, and worry choked Roxas as he collapsed to his knees. Not him. He couldn't lose both of them. He couldn't lose his best friends.

It hurt. It hurt so much.

Roxas reached for Axel, trying to stop the bleeding. Trying to stop the way he was fading away. But right before he could touch him, something slammed Roxas back and away.

The warmth and light wrapped around him, protectively and yet trapping him. He realized that it was a heart. Roxas was inside someone else's heart.

But he couldn't be there. He needed out. He needed to help his friend. Please.

He could still see Axel. Outside. Roxas was separated like there was a glass wall between him and the world, but he could still see his best friend.

His fading and bleeding best friend.

Were there always knives in Axel's chest? Did he see them before? He couldn't remember.

"I just wanted to see Roxas," said Axel quietly.

"I'm here, Axel. I'm right here," he screamed, trying to reach him.

Trying to be heard. Trying to let Axel know that he was there. Trying to help his best friend.

But no one could see or hear him. Roxas was useless. Powerless. He couldn't do anything except watch.

And Axel was fading because of Roxas. That thought screamed through his head. It was his fault. All of this was his fault.

"Axel! Xion! Please," he begged. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."

But Xion was gone. Gone because of Roxas. Gone because Roxas destroyed her. Gone forever and it hurt. It felt like something sharp kept stabbing his chest.

And Axel was disappearing too. It was Roxas's fault. He was disappearing because of Roxas and he was helpless to stop it.

"I'm sorry. I'm here, Axel. Please hear me. Just hold on. I'm here. You can't go. Don't go. I'm right here. I'm sorry."

Words tumbled out of Roxas, desperate and frantic. But no one could hear him. He was safe and warm in Sora's heart, protected even as everything that he cared about was taken away. And he couldn't change what was happening. He couldn't stop it.

Axel's eyes closed.

He couldn't stop it.

Roxas couldn't catch his breath. His throat and chest felt so tight. It hurt. Everything hurt.

He couldn't stop it.

And, the last bits of strength that was holding him together snapping like threads, Axel vanished and

Roxas's eyes snapped open as a wordless cry tore out of his throat. Breathing hard and his chest pounding, he didn't know what was happening or where he was. His wide eyes darted around. Not the white walls of the World That Never Was. Not his room in Twilight Town— not his room, not his, never his, fake, fake, it was fake

But the disorientation and confusion gradually faded as his breathing finally began to slow and even out, the pounding in his chest and head easing. He blinked rapidly, trying to stop the burning in his eyes as he ignored the slight dampness on his face. And with extreme effort, Roxas forced his fingers to loosen their tight grip on the blanket.

He was in the castle at Radiant Garden. In the room that they said he could use while they were on the world. He and Xion ended up making use of the rooms early, weariness forcing them. It was still dark, so it was still the middle of the night.

Xion was safe. She was a couple rooms away, sleeping and alive. And Axel was in the castle too. He… He wasn't… He wasn't all right exactly, but he wasn't gone.

Both of them were alive.

Roxas reluctantly closed his eyes. It was the middle of the night. Exhaustion weighed him down. He should sleep. He would force himself to sleep.

At least until morning. It would only be a few more hours. Hopefully the nightmares would stay at bay at least that long.


Lea was breathing hard and his head was swimming by the time he stumbled onto the new platform. He hadn't put all his strength into his attacks; he wasn't that desperate yet. He wasn't on the verge of fading away. But he was exhausted.

Burning his way through that many enemies wasn't easy. Not without something to channel his power through, something to focus, control, and direct the magic more efficiently than what the normal human body could manage alone. There was a reason that magicians like that duck used wands and most of the Keybearers used their Keyblades. And why even as Axel, he didn't normally burn someone alive with a snap of his fingers unless they were already weakened and he had plenty of energy to spare on a little showmanship. It took a lot of power and was wasteful to do it that way. Maybe some people could manipulate magic on their own, especially for more delicate and intricate spellcasting, but he needed his weapons to do the job right.

He would be fine though. He just needed a minute to recuperate a little. He could handle this.

At least the Shadows and Dusks were gone.

As he managed to catch his breath and the feeling of being drained began to ease, he started examining the stained-glass. Once again, Lea found himself looking at a picture of himself. He had his Keyblade slung over his shoulder, his body sitting in a relaxed position with his free arm resting on his knee. But his eyes were closed and his head leaned forward, indicating that he was asleep in the picture. The background faintly resembled the face of a red-tinted clock. But there were no hands on the clock image and instead of numbers, there were circles with familiar faces arranged around the edges of the platform. Isa, Roxas, Xion, a slightly lighter-haired version of Roxas that he recognized as Ventus from years ago, Sora, Kairi, Riku, and a girl that he once knew when she was hidden deep below the castle in Radiant Garden.

Okay, maybe there were only eight circles rather than twelve, but the design still reminded him of a clock more than anything.

Waiting to find out what the deal would be for this platform since apparently all of them had a gimmick, Lea slowly walked towards the center. He still felt exhausted though. Not just from the fight up the path. He'd been growing tired the higher that he'd climbed since the moment he arrived. He wasn't certain how much farther he could go without rest. And this didn't seem like a smart place to take a nap.

"What are you willing to give up to reclaim something lost?"

A transparent figure rose up from the stained-glass. The black coat suggested that he was looking at Saïx, but his eyes were a warm green shade and his expression seemed too relaxed and at ease. The image was Isa. Lea knew it without a doubt.

"Would you sacrifice your heart to bring back someone without one?"

Another ghostly figure formed in front of him. A smaller shape, but dressed the same. The sandy blond hair, a shade between Ventus's blond and Sora's darker brown, and his blue eyes made Lea's chest ache. Even transparent, it was good to see Roxas again.

"Would you sacrifice your body to bring back someone without one?"

Something about that question felt wrong, tugging at his recent foggy memories, but Lea was distracted by the arrival of a third transparent figure. Black hair and blue eyes, Xion looked exactly the way that he remembered.

He remembered her. Lea still couldn't forgive himself for forgetting her for even a moment.

"Would you sacrifice your life to bring back someone without one?"

Lea stiffened as the questions truly sank in. What would he give up to get back something that he lost? They were asking him to choose. He could bring back one of his friends. But at a steep cost.

If he based his decision on what he could afford to lose, none of the options were good.

Surrendering his heart terrified him, but it would be the easiest in some ways. He'd dealt with it before. The empty numbness and the loss of emotions were familiar. And Nobodies could form new hearts over time. He knew that now. And at least as a Nobody, he would be around.

Losing his body would leave him as a Heartless, a mindless and instinctive creature who would blindly attack any heart it could find. He wouldn't be like Sora or Xehanort's Heartless. He wouldn't remember anything. There would be nothing left of his identity.

And losing his life… Well, that was self-explanatory.

But if the question was who to bring back rather than what he would prefer to give up…

"I can't choose between them." Lea shook his head. "Don't make me choose."

He promised to bring them back. He yelled the words at Xion, but he meant the promise for all his friends.

Isa, his oldest friend from childhood and practically family growing up. Roxas, his first friend in over a decade and the person who made him feel again when he thought it was impossible. Xion, the person who made him admit that he had best friends again and who was important enough that he missed her even without those memories.

He couldn't choose between them. How could he? How could he bring back one while condemning the other two to be left behind?

Wait… The voice didn't ask him to choose. It only asked what he was willing to sacrifice to bring them back.

And for them… It wasn't even a real question.

"Everything," he said, his voice steady and firm. "My heart. My body. My life. If it brings back Isa, Roxas, and Xion, I would sacrifice everything. I want my best friends to be safe and whole again. Even if I'm not there… with them…" His hands tightened into fists at his side, his resolve hardening. "Losing them hurt more than fading. More than losing my heart in the first place. More than anything else that's happened to me. I know what's important now. I know what matters. If this is what it takes, then fine. I accept. I'll fight for them with all my heart, face any threat, and pay any price for their sakes. And if I have to give up every piece of myself to bring them back, then that's what I'll do. I may not have the strongest heart. But for my friends? I'll be strong enough!"

A solid shape materialized in his fist, his fingers wrapped around it as the Keyblade appeared without warning. Lea startled back. He didn't mean to summon it. And… it felt different than before. Sturdier. More solid. And for the first time, the heft and balance felt right in his hand. Natural. Like it was a part of him. Like the Keyblade—

Flame Liberator

—belonged with him.

Wait? What was… Was that its name? The knowledge was suddenly in his head as abruptly as the weapon had appeared in his hand. Now he understood what Kairi and Sora meant when they said that they just knew the names of Destiny's Embrace and Kingdom Key. And why they laughed when he suggested giving their Keyblades cooler names.

They didn't pick the names. The Keyblades already had them. His just apparently decided to wait until a more dramatic moment before sharing that little tidbit with him.

The transparent figures of his friends wavered like a guttering candle. Then they dissolved into sparks of light and floated upwards. Lea could only stare as they disappeared into the darkness above.

"It isn't a real trade, you know. You can't get them back that way. It's a test, the answer reflecting the limits of your resolve."

Lea's head snapped around. Walking calmly across the stained-glass, Axel grinned. Chakrams in hand, his expression was that of a man looking for a fight.

"But at least you finally got your head straightened out," continued Axel. "Well, your head and your heart. Kind of hard to wield a Keyblade properly when you spend half your energy fighting yourself. No wonder you had issues." Tightening his grip on the chakrams, Axel said, "Though about that 'fighting yourself' thing—"

Lea threw himself to the left as the chakram flew through the air, nearly taking off his head. No warning. But then again, fights were never fair.

Axel moved blindingly fast, closing the distance between them, but Lea was just as fast. The Keyblade parried the second chakram before twisting into a sharp strike to the Nobody's side. He pushed forward the attack, moving into an aggressive combo that left Flame Liberator as a glowing blur.

Despite his weariness, Lea didn't stop. He shifted between strikes and blocks and back again, twisting and dodging the round weapons that spun and sliced around him. As vicious and brutal as Axel might be in combat, Lea knew every move intimately. He knew exactly how to avoid the attack and how to counter his opponent. There was nothing that Axel could do that Lea hadn't tried a thousand times himself.

And for the first time, wielding his Keyblade felt natural and right. Every movement was precise and controlled. Lea fought instinctively, without conscious thought of how he held or swung Flame Liberator. He didn't have to concentrate to remember that his weapon was different than what he'd spent decades learning. It was an extension of himself, Flame Liberator spinning and flashing through the air with each swing. This was how a Keyblade wielder was meant to fight.

Metal clanged as they clashed, each impact jolting up his arms. Even though he was using his Keyblade more effectively and knew how his opponent would fight, Lea had to pay close attention. Axel possessed two weapons and could block with one while using the second to strike. And Axel's strikes had a decent amount of power behind them.

But he was making progress. Whenever Lea managed to get past Axel's defense, the doppelganger grunted in pain. Lea aimed for this opponent's sides, the upper arms, and as close to the wrists as possible. He knew from experience that hitting those spots hard enough could disarm or at least hinder someone's ability to use those chakrams in a fight. And the more damage that Axel suffered, the better chance that Lea had at taking advantage and winning this fight.

He could do this. He could wear Axel down and injure him enough to beat him. Even with his increased strength and durability as a Nobody, Axel had his limit. Lea knew that better than anyone.

Lea didn't have the energy to spare for any fire-based attacks, not after his efforts against the Heartless and Nobodies on the way up, but he was strong enough to keep fighting. Axel wouldn't kill him. Lea would get past him and go back to retrieving his friends somehow.

But why wasn't Axel using fire with his own attacks?

Leaning back to avoid a chakram nearly slicing his throat, Lea twisted his Keyblade into a slightly different grip. He faked a swing at Axel's face before Lea spun low, his boot shooting out to meet the side of his opponent's knee. With a snarl of pain, Axel hit the ground. Then, to make certain that he stayed down, Lea brought his Keyblade overhead and slammed it on Axel's chest.

Breathing hard, Lea stared for a moment at his opponent in case he still tried to get up. Unlikely, but he wasn't taking any chances. Then Lea stumbled back a couple steps before collapsing to one knee. His Keyblade dematerialized as his strength seemed to pour out of his body.

"What's going on?" he muttered, trying to catch his breath.

Coughing briefly, Axel raised his head a little and said, "What did you expect? You were fighting yourself."

Well, when you put it that way, it made sense. No wonder he felt completely exhausted and his body was starting to ache. He'd essentially beat up himself. Lea wobbled slightly in his crouched position, but managed not to fall.

"You still don't get it. You don't get what I am," continued Axel.

"Me," he said, letting out a slow breath. "All of my mistakes. Everything that I've done wrong."

"Not quite. I am you. But a specific part." Axel pushed himself up to a sitting position, giving Lea a surprisingly sympathetic look. "Yes, I'm the part of you that laughed at the idea of manipulating everyone in Castle Oblivion to suit your needs. But I'm also the part that continuously compelled you to join Roxas and Xion on the clocktower every sunset. And the part that made you go out of your way to protect and help them. I'm the source of the subtle pain, the guilt, that came from each lie to them, each secret that you hid from them, and every time you broke their trust 'for their own good.' I'm the reason it hurt to see Saïx drift away. I'm why it hurt when Xion ran away, intending to sacrifice her existence to return to Sora and save Roxas from what her presence was doing to him. And I'm why it hurt so much when Roxas looked at his best friend and didn't know you. Good or bad, I'm the part of you that felt."

He gave a breathless chuckle. Then he shook his head, Axel's expression one of clear bemusement.

"Don't you see?" he said. "I'm the part of you that used to be Axel's forming heart before you were recompleted."

"You sure that we're not like Roxas and Sora then?" asked Lea.

"There's no 'we.' Not really. Axel's heart joined yours, the one that you lost originally over a decade ago. Axel and Lea were never separate people with separate memories and experiences the way Roxas and Naminé were, so the two hearts didn't stay separate. They combined seamlessly when you reformed. Otherwise you would have ended up with emotional maturity of a teenager. Same deal with the others, which is why Ienzo doesn't have the emotional responses of a little kid."

Lea considered making a comment, some snarky remark about maturity or something. But he was too tired to bother. Unable to maintain his balance, he let his exhausted body lean back until he was sitting on the stained-glass surface.

"The only reason I'm here," continued Axel, "is because you needed to accept a few important facts. And the only way you were going to do it was if someone literally told you to your face. Besides, you do better when the problem is something that you can physically face and fight. You're so stubborn that you needed yourself to show up and literally knock some sense into your thick head."

Lea tried to chuckle, but it came out as a series of coughs. One hand covered his mouth through coughing fit while the other went to the floor, bracing him and keeping him upright. He was so tired. Where did all his energy go?

"You messed up. You were selfish and hurt your friends," said Axel. "Over and over again. You lost almost everyone because of your selfishness and mistakes." Axel smiled, drawing one leg up so he could rest his hands on his knee. "But, despite everything, you also managed to love them even as a Nobody."

Something about Lea's expression startled a moment of laughter out of his doppelganger. It took a moment for him to compose himself again, but Axel eventually shook his head.

"Even if you're out of practice with emotions, you know there's a difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. And you loved those two half-pints enough to grow a heart. And yes, a decade of being a manipulative, ruthless, and scheming assassin for the Organization meant you didn't always do the right thing. But you love Xion and Roxas. And even after everything, you care about Isa wherever he is buried under what Saïx has become."

Axel stood up, acting as if the fight never happened. That was completely unfair.

"You have a second chance though. Your Keyblade and your heart are on the same page now. You're strong enough to survive what's happened. You know what you want and you have the resolve to go after them. It's time to go back. It's time to see your friends again." Giving Lea a glare, he added, "Just make sure that you don't mess up your second chance. You can't be selfish this time around."

Lea's exhaustion began hitting him harder. His limbs felt heavy, pulling him down. His arm slid along the floor against his will, causing Lea to slowly collapse until he was lying on the ground. He should do something; he should get back up. But he could already tell that wasn't going to happen. His muscles might as well be made of jelly and his body ached too much to try moving. He could barely keep his eyes open. What was wrong with him?

"Just drop the riddles and tell me," said Lea, struggling to keep his eyes open. "What am I supposed to do? How do I get them back? What do… I…need to…?"

Axel smirked as he started to glow. Sparks floated off his figure, the doppelganger slowly dissolving away. The bits of light sank into Lea, warm and soft.

"Follow your heart back to them," said Axel as he blurred and faded. "And open your eyes."

Lea wanted to argue that his eyes were already open, but exhaustion was doing its best to take care of that issue. As one final attempt at resistance, he managed to briefly lift his head and push himself up with one arm. Then, as consciousness attempted to abandon him entirely, Lea collapsed again. But the stained-glass didn't catch him. The surface vanished beneath his body and… he… fell…

Chapter Text

Awareness returned slowly. Everything ached. Most of it wasn't sharp and intense. The pain had dulled past that point. But it was everywhere. He was half-convinced that his hair hurt. And his body felt weighed down. He didn't think he could move even if he wanted to.

Briefly he wondered what hit him. Then, disjointed memory slithering out of the mental fog, Lea remembered. Almost everything hit him.

Heartless. Nobodies. Larxene and Marluxia. Xemnas.

But there was something else… Something good that happened right before his memories and consciousness began to fragment and splinter, shortly before he passed out…

Eyes still closed, he gradually noticed things beyond the dull aching of his body. Like a faint glow against his eyelids. Maybe a candle? Or a lamp? There was something soft under his head. A pillow. And occasionally he heard a rustle of paper. Like someone turning a page of a book a short distance away. Wherever he was, Lea wasn't alone. There was someone with him.

Part of him didn't like the idea of some unknown person looming over him while Lea felt too weak to move, let alone defend himself. But he wasn't a Nobody in Organization XIII. Things were different now. There were people that he could trust. Whoever was there, he was safe. His friends wouldn't let anyone dangerous near him in this state.

Besides, the sound was far enough that the stranger wasn't within arm's reach. They were at least a few steps away. Maybe it would give him a couple seconds if they turned out to be dangerous anyway.

As consciousness seemed to solidify, Lea began picking out more details than "everything hurt." The cut on his back and the one on his side had lost the sharpness that he now remembered from before he passed out, dulling to throbbing aches. The deeper lacerations in his chest were a little worse. Breathing agitated his battered ribs. Were they cracked? Maybe. Bones took time to heal, even with magic. But they could just be seriously bruised instead. He wasn't eager to poke at them yet and find out. He felt other bruises, faded enough that they barely hurt as long as he kept still. But as bad as it was, someone had definitely used Cure or some potions to start the healing process.

The slight chill, especially on his arms as they rested on the blanket, told him that someone took his coat and gloves. Probably around the same time that they added bandages around his torso. Firmly wrapped, but not tightly enough to hinder his breathing.

So he was in a bed, his injuries had been carefully taken care of, and now someone was even watching over him as he rested. All of that added up to support his earlier conclusion. His friends were keeping him safe.

As tired and aching as his body might feel, Lea knew that he could relax. He didn't have to be on guard or try to force his exhausted limbs to respond. He wasn't in any danger. He was safe. He could take his time and recover. Lea could let himself rest.

He could remember some of what happened. Fighting the Heartless and Nobodies. Telling Kairi to lock the door. Larxene and Marluxia. Xemnas and his stupid attack. He even remembered that someone stormed back out to save him from getting decapitated by Marluxia's scythe. But everything after that was more fragmented. Lea knew that he got hurt and passed out. And he remembered seeing two people… Two people that he'd desperately wanted back… But he wasn't certain that part was real. It felt more like an impossible fantasy.

He kept his eyes closed, breathing slowly, and barely on the edge of consciousness. Everything was calm and quiet, only the occasional rustle of pages turning to break the silence. It would be so easy to doze back off. Sleep would be a nice way to avoid the dull aching pain for a while.

But after an uncertain amount of time in his drowsy state, new sounds caught his attention. A door creaking slightly as it opened. Then cautious steps. Sturdy boots, but light footsteps from someone not wanting to be noticed. Lea then heard someone setting something small down. The book?

"The hour is quite late," said Master Ansem quietly, allowing Lea to identify the first stranger. His voice came from the direction of the turning pages. "It might even be more accurate to describe it as exceptionally early."

"I couldn't sleep."

The soft response made Lea's breathing hitch momentarily. Roxas. It was real. He was back. It wasn't a dream.

Unless Lea was still dreaming.

Cautious footsteps approached the bedside, but Lea didn't dare open his eyes and look. He couldn't risk the possibility that he was dreaming or hallucinating or imagining Roxas's presence. He couldn't risk shattering his fragile heart by destroying that hope. He couldn't risk waking up, losing his best friend yet again.

Something inside him seemed to whisper coward.

Yep, Lea responded to that voice at the back of his mind.

"He is past the worst of it," said Ansem the Wise. "He's healing and needs rest to properly recover, but Lea is out of any true danger."

Well, that was good to know. He still felt like someone dropped a skyscraper on his head, but at least it wasn't worse.

Keeping his voice gentle, Master Ansem said, "By this point, I am less keeping watch over his condition and more keeping him company in case he regains consciousness sooner than expected."

And based on the earlier sounds, catching up on his reading.

"Since I'm not sleeping," said Roxas, sounding hesitant, uncomfortable, and tense, "I could stay with Axel for a while. If you need to get some rest, I mean."

"I will admit that the late hour is not as easy to handle at my age as it once was." There was a slight sound of something scraping across the floor, like a chair, before Master Ansem continued, "One of the downsides of growing older, I'm afraid. If you would prefer to spend the night here rather than your room, I'll give you some privacy."

A few more footsteps and the quiet creak of the door opening again.

"Wait," said Roxas. The room was silent for a few moments before the boy went on. "I… I want to… Thank you. For helping him."

"After everything that I've done, I could not stand by when I had the power to help. And Roxas? I cannot begin to express my regret and shame over my past actions towards you, Xion, and Naminé." Ansem the Wise let out a slow sigh. "I will not ask for your forgiveness nor do I deserve it. And I did not help your friend because I thought it would make you forgive my past crimes towards you and the others. But you should know that I am sorry. For everything."

A moment of silence followed. No one moved or spoke.

Then Master Ansem quietly said, "Have a good night, Roxas."

The footsteps died away, the man withdrawing from the room. Lea listened to the stillness and silence for a couple minutes, listening for any sign that Roxas remained. It was too quiet. Was he gone? Was Roxas ever there? Or was it all a cruel dream born from desperate hope and wishful thinking? The longer the silence stretched, the more that Lea doubted himself. Maybe Roxas was still gone and he would never see his best friend again.

He refused to open his eyes. He couldn't look, his throat already tightening as the pain in his heart joined the rest of the aches. He didn't dare open his eyes and see what he already knew to be true. He couldn't bear the pain that would come when he shattered his fragile fantasy with a lonely reality. There was no one there. There was never anyone there. It was all in his head, a useless wish from a stupid and selfish young man who should have known better. They were gone. They were all gone. Gone, gone, gone

The mattress creaked, the edge bending under a slight weight. Roxas. Instead of the chair that Ansem the Wise abandoned, he was sitting on the edge of the bed next to Lea.

If he could feel the mattress move from the boy's weight, then Roxas was solid. He was real. It wasn't a dream.

Lea wanted to open his eyes. To say something. He should say something. But now that he had the chance, when he finally had the chance to do and say everything that he'd waited so long to tell the kid, he couldn't.

Memories of everything that he'd done wrong hit him hard. He remembered the lies and secrets. He remembered attacking Roxas. And he remembered the uncomprehending expression on the boy's face, not recognizing Lea and not trusting him. And Roxas shouldn't have trusted him because he never did anything to deserve it.

Lea couldn't bring himself to face Roxas just yet. Maybe he could just stay like this, on the very edge of exhausted sleep with the kid safe and alive. He could enjoy the relief of having Roxas back without facing the intimidating question of "what now?" He spent so long wanting his friends back that he never had time to consider what would come after.

Or when he did, Lea could only imagine it ending in the kid hating him for what happened and wanting nothing to do with him. But that line of thought had resulted in Kairi smacking him in the head, so he should probably avoid it.

Another small creak, the door instead of the mattress, and he heard more cautious steps. Apparently everyone was up and about tonight.

"Xion?" said Roxas softly, his weight abruptly vanishing from the bed. "Are you okay?"

Sniffling slightly, she said, "I'm sorry. I can't sleep."

The way her voice cracked and sounded completely miserable broke Lea's recently-restored heart. He wanted to do something to help her and yet felt paralyzed by the very idea. She sounded like she was on the verge of tears. Not yet full-on crying, but close. Lea could never handle girls crying. He didn't know what to do.

"Come on," coaxed Roxas. The mattress bent again, the two kids sitting on the edge. "Nightmares?"

"Yes…"

Quietly, Roxas said, "Me too. At least when we were in Sora's heart, we didn't dream. Or we dreamed about what Sora was doing. We couldn't have nightmares." He paused before asking, "Was it about when… when you disappeared?"

There was a pause. While Lea's eyes were still closed, he suspected that she nodded.

She sniffled again and said, "It wasn't your fault, Roxas. I was draining the life out of you and we couldn't both exist. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave, but it would be worse if I lost you. I absorbed too many memories from everyone and could barely tell who I was anymore. And then Xemnas did something to me and it made it even worse. Only one of us was going to survive. All I could do by then was choose how it would end. And I wanted to end it by fixing everything that I was ruining. Which meant I had to go."

"But I didn't want to do it," he said, his voice unsteady. "I didn't want to hurt you. But I did… I destroyed you…"

That's what happened? Lea barely stopped them from fighting to the death once, the pair sent on rigged missions and tricked into seeing the other as dangerous Heartless. He barely realized what was happening and got between them in time. But he stopped them. He kept them safe. But not the second time. Apparently Roxas ended up destroying his best friend against his will.

Next time he saw him, Lea would burn Xemnas alive for putting the kids through that.

"Because I didn't give you any choice," said Xion, struggling to keep her voice down. "I did everything possible to make you fight me. And I had to actually try or you wouldn't fight back. But you were so weak at that point. And I was afraid that I would accidentally destroy you instead. And it was awful and I hated it. I hated trying to hurt you. And I didn't want to disappear either. I didn't want to leave you and Axel. But we couldn't… All the options were horrible. I just wanted the three of us to be together, but I was ruining everything. I had to give Sora his memories back. And I had to save you from me."

"It wasn't fair," he muttered darkly.

"Maybe not. But it was better than letting you disappear instead. No one remembered me afterwards. I wasn't even meant to exist. I wasn't real."

"You were real." Roxas's words were firm, allowing no arguments. "You are real. You're my best friend, no matter where you came from."

Unable to resist any longer, Lea's eyes cracked open slightly. It was a relatively small room, a plain bedroom with only a couple pieces of furniture. He was right earlier; someone brought in an expensive-looking candlestick to provide a gentle light. The sky was dark outside, at least based on what he glimpsed through the window. Dawn was still a long way off. And two teenagers sat on the bed with their backs to him, Roxas wrapping one arm around Xion.

They were both there. Safe. Alive. Real.

"It hurt," continued Roxas. "It hurt watching you disappear. Even as I was forgetting, it hurt. And I was so angry at Organization XIII. All of them. I tried to destroy them and Kingdom Hearts because I thought it would bring you back. And when I completely forgot, I was still furious at all of them. I was so angry at everyone connected to Organization XIII. I think that it affected Sora when I rejoined him. Even if we didn't combine properly and he didn't get my memories then, Sora's anger with them seemed almost personal even before they went after Kairi."

Roxas shook his head, his entire posture agitated and tense. Xion leaned in a little closer to him.

"Do you remember much about what it was like in Sora's heart?" asked Roxas.

Xion shrugged and said quietly, "A little. I was sleeping pretty deeply. I remember it being bright. I felt warm and safe. But I couldn't really notice much else. Not until I started waking up at the very end. I didn't even dream."

"I didn't go to sleep immediately in Sora's heart. I… resisted. I didn't want to disappear in the first place. I wanted to stay me and I was still angry at everyone," he said. "I stayed awake. I could see and hear what Sora did."

Roxas drew his legs up and folded his arms across his knees, slumping forward until he could rest his chin on the limbs. Lea watched his shoulders rise and fall as the boy took a deep breath to calm himself.

He should say something. He should let the two of them know that he was awake. But Lea could only bring himself to watch them silently, a tight pressure squeezing in his throat, in his chest, and behind his eyes. He could scarcely believe that they were back, even with what he could see and hear. He wanted to believe and he mostly did, but part of him didn't dare risk shattering the illusion.

"I saw him fight Xaldin and even Demyx. I saw Sora beat them and they faded, but I was too angry to really care," continued Roxas. "But then Sora ended up in Betwixt and Between, trying to reach the World That Never Was. And Axel…"

His voice cracked slightly, reminding Lea of how Roxas sounded a moment ago when he discussed attacking Xion. When he described destroying her.

"I was still furious with him. Because of all the lies and secrets and everything. And the last thing that we did was fight each other. But he showed up and started fighting alongside Sora, trying to help him. To help me. And even then, I was angry and hurt and frustrated with him and the entire situation."

His voice came out strained as Roxas spoke, as if it was physically hurting him to recall the past. But he kept going, the words starting to tumble out faster as he went.

"And I didn't stop being angry at him until he… he… Axel used some kind of huge fire attack, like a wide-spread limit break. And it worked. All the enemies were gone and we were safe. But he was on the ground, weak and not moving. Like today. Suddenly I wasn't angry at him anymore. At Sora, yeah, and I even managed to attack Sora afterwards because I was furious and everything hurt and everything I was feeling was too much to bear and I needed someone to blame for what happened... But right then, everything that Axel did that hurt in the past… It didn't seem to matter as much because my best friend was fading away and talking about wanting to see me and I couldn't do anything, couldn't tell him that I was there, that I was inside Sora trying to make him hear me, and I couldn't… I couldn't…"

Lea's fingers tightened on the quilt, guilt churning in his stomach. He remembered that day. Far too vividly. Lea remembered lying there, too weak to resist how his body was breaking down into scraps of nothingness. He remembered exhaustion, fading awareness, and regret. It barely hurt by that point. He'd been in pain earlier, but not then. Even with the guilt, regret, and the sense of failure trying to drown him, all those emotions that he wasn't supposed to feel and could barely identify, he remembered feeling relief that he wasn't alone. He remembered looking into Sora's eyes, thankful that the boy stayed and yet wishing that it was his best friend with him during what he expected to be his final moments. He'd wanted to speak to Roxas in that moment, to apologize and tell him that he never wanted to hurt his friend. He'd tried to spot his friend somewhere in Sora's sympathetic gaze, hoping despite everything.

But he didn't think. Even as he hoped that somehow Roxas knew that he tried to make up for past mistakes, Lea never thought about how it might hurt him.

Why did he keep hurting his friends?

"I destroyed you, Xion. And then Axel faded away in front of me," continued Roxas in a shaking voice, "because he tried to save Sora. To save me. And now… He was trying to protect us. He was hurt protecting us. I can't… Why does this keep happening? Why do I keep hurting my friends?"

The miserable and guilt-stricken note in Roxas's voice and the way Xion reached up to wipe at her face proved to be the final straw. Despite his nerves and the dozens of different emotions rising up like a flash flood, Lea knew that he couldn't keep quiet. He couldn't let them sit there, hurting and upset. Not when they were blaming themselves when it was his fault. He was the one who messed everything up. He's the one who hurt his best friends so badly more times than he could bear to count.

"I'm sorry," he rasped, his mouth and throat feeling dry and rough as he forced the words out.

Lea started pushing himself up on his elbows as the kids' heads snapped around in shock. His body complained loudly over the decision, his entire torso practically screaming at the attempted movement. Lea promptly ignored it and continued anyway. Gritting his teeth with effort to sit up, he vaguely noticed that when the quilt slid down, it exposed plenty of gauze and multi-colored bruises all the way down his torso. No wonder everything hurt.

Hopefully whoever patched him up didn't steal more than his coat because he was already feeling exposed and he didn't want to risk the blanket falling any further down if the rest of his clothes were gone. That could get embarrassing for everyone. Well, depending on how much they'd learned about the concept of public decency and the importance of clothes beyond "always wear the coats, it's a rule, they protect you from the dark corridors, got it memorized?"

Twin voices, somehow managing to shout and whisper at the same time, called out in unison, "Axel?"

He couldn't respond, the attempt to push his battered body up taking too much of his focus and breath. Moving had been such a bad idea. But when his arms started shaking from the effort, Lea was abruptly surrounded by kids crawling all over the bed.

There was a few moments of chaos, arms and black coats all around him, supporting and repositioning him carefully. Then Lea felt them settling him back again. Xion had moved the pillow behind him so that he could sit up slightly, cushioned against the headboard. He couldn't help breathing out a sigh of relief as the aches eased once more. But now there was a worried teenager crouched on either side of him, the bed creaking as they shifted.

There were worried, teary-eyed smiles on their faces. His chest ached for a different reason than the deep bruising and partially-healed cuts. He didn't want them to cry and they looked to be on the brink of that.

"Should I check my pillow for seashells?" he asked with a small smile. The watery laughter from the pair loosened up the knot inside Lea. A little quieter, he said, "I'm sorry, Roxas. And I'm so sorry, Xion."

That seemed to shatter the girl's fragile composure, a broken sob tumbling out of Xion as the tears started pouring down her face. Lea started silently panicking; he didn't know how to handle a crying girl.

Then she flung herself at him in a clumsy hug. Lea bit back a hiss of pain when Xion ended up hitting the battered bruises and bandaged cuts, pain blossoming across his torso from the impact. Like being struck by a Thundaga again. Realizing her mistake, she cringed and tried to pull back, but Lea's left arm had already snaked around her and hugged her close. Pain or not, he just got her back; he wasn't letting go that easily.

Lea started reaching towards Roxas, part of him desperate to reassure himself with physical contact, before he froze. His right arm hanging in midair, doubts began to gnaw at him. He slowly started lowering his hand. After everything, he couldn't assume that… that Roxas would forg—

Roxas buried his face into Lea's shoulder, gentler than Xion's frantic first attempt and yet just as desperate. His shoulders shook with silent tears as Lea wrapped the other arm around the boy.

He held his half-pints close as they cried into his chest. It wasn't a dream; he could feel them. Roxas and Xion were safe, alive, and real. He had them back. He could feel them in his arms, warm and breathing. He could feel their bodies shake with half-smothered sobs and he could feel tears as they cried against him. Lea could feel their heartbeats pounding on either side of him. And no matter how much it hurt, Lea dug his fingers into their coats and hugged them even tighter.

Right now, as selfish as it might sound, he needed the physical contact. It was the proof and reassurance that Lea desperately craved. He needed the certainty that it provided.

He had them back. Despite everything, despite how impossible it should have been, he had them back.

It was too much. Lea felt too full, everything overwhelming and intense.

The guilt, the old sorrow, regret, and the various forms of emotional hurt were familiar enough that he could have pushed it down and buried the sensation. Pain, whether physical or emotional, was something that he could handle. Something that he could ignore and push through. For those emotions, he could control his reactions to an extent.

But the others left him feeling like he was drowning. The sheer relief, the joy at having them back, and the indescribable warmth felt wonderful, but the feelings were too strong. He couldn't contain it all. The good and the bad, it was too much. Lea could barely handle the intense, powerful, and terrifying emotions that threatened to split him apart at the seams.

He wasn't even certain when he'd started crying.

As a child, Lea was a bit of a crybaby. Almost anything could spark off a flood of tears, big or small. He couldn't help it. Other kids teased him over it and his parents barely noticed either way. But one day, Isa decided to fix it. He grabbed a random marker and drew upside-down tears on the younger boy's cheeks. He explained that the marks were a magic charm, the drawn tears falling up into his eyes so that the real ones would stay put. And of course the four-year-old believed the wise and knowledgeable five-year-old's words. After all, Isa was older and lived down the street from the weird old man that everyone claimed was a wizard, so it made sense that he would know cool magic charms like that. Why wouldn't Lea trust him? The belief was strong enough that it worked; Lea's crying spells became rarer.

But now, after years of being unable to shed tears, his heart was back. He could feel and didn't worry if that occasionally meant crying. But right now, he felt too much. More than he could bear. Both good and bad, the emotions fill his heart until the pressure threatened to break him apart. And the only outlet to relieve the pressure was crying.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice rough and choked with tears. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Sobs shook him as Lea offered them apologies, holding Roxas and Xion close. He was sorry for lying to them. For the secrets. For fighting them at different points, trying to force them to stay when everything kept falling apart. For not running away from the Organization with them when he had the chance. For forgetting Xion. For being upset when Roxas forgot him. For taking so long to bring them back. For hurting them in countless ways, even when he didn't mean to. For never doing the right thing for the two of them. For making so many mistakes. For being a selfish coward when they needed him. For failing them over and over again.

The simple words kept tumbling out, repeating endlessly. Lea kept apologizing, always finding more reasons to tell them that he was sorry. He could practically hear Kairi begging him to stop. And when he couldn't think of anything specific, he continued anyway. He couldn't stop apologizing any more than he could stop the tears. Eventually the words gave way to silent sobs, but in his head, he was still trying to apologize. It would never be enough. He could say the words for a thousand years and it would still not be enough to express how sorry that he was.

Everything kept coming out in an uncontrollable stream. He couldn't stop.

It wasn't the first time that his emotions had overwhelmed him to the point where he could barely handle it. Not long after he was recompleted, when Lea went out to search the town for their missing Isa and Braig, the entire situation had abruptly sank in. All of it. Not being dead, but Roxas still being gone. Isa missing without a trace. Years of guilt, horror, sorrow, regret, and loneliness washing over him within the span of a few minutes. He'd barely managed to stagger into a tiny alleyway and collapse in a corner before the emotional breakdown hit him full force. Lea remembered shaking and gasping in the relative privacy of that dark corner, struggling to withstand wave after wave of intense emotions trying to drag him down. Emotions that he could barely remember or comprehend. Emotions that he was too out of practice to resist. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think, and couldn't move. And the sharp, twisting, and painful sensation in his chest had made him desperately want to claw out his newly-reclaimed heart just to make it stop. Lea had remained crumbled there for an unknown span of time before he could regain control of himself and resumed the search, not breathing a word of the experience to anyone. After all, he didn't have time for it when there were so many people who needed to be saved.

There had been other instances where his emotions had tried to consume him, but that first one had been the worst. The one where he had no control. And it had taught him that sometimes all that he could do was ride it out. Even if it didn't feel like it during the moment, his heart could take it.

And riding it out was what Lea tried to do now. He held tight, hugging the quietly crying teenagers close and refusing to risk letting them slip away. And after a while, the sobs that shook his frame violently enough to hurt began to ease. The tears gradually slowed, drying on his face. He didn't dare let go long enough to wipe them away. Lea was left feeling emotionally drained, hollow, and exhausted. His head ached and his breathing continued to hitch for a few minutes after, causing sharp spikes of pain through his chest, but the overwhelming crying had died down.

He could finally appreciate their presence.

The kids weren't crying as hard anymore. It was the softer, more tired version. Roxas had curled against Lea's side at some point, but Xion's face was still pressed against his chest. Some of the tension had melted out of them. Lea's desperate grip on the pair began to loosen, though he kept his arms around them.

In the Organization, there wasn't much physical affection displayed due to the "we're not supposed to have feelings" thing. Maybe ruffling their hair or a playful shove, but not something like an actual embrace. And no one really taught Roxas and Xion that it was acceptable. But they came from Sora and memories of Kairi, two of the most hug-y people that Lea knew. In fact, the only reason that he wasn't horribly out of practice with hugs himself anymore was due to Kairi's fondness for nearly tackling people with her hugs once she warmed up to someone enough. Roxas and Xion seemed to be adapting to the concept of him hugging them close quite easily.

The fact that this was probably their first hugs ever tried to stir up more guilt, but Lea was too focused on the present at the moment.

He tried to remember how to comfort and reassure someone who was crying. The half-pints might be winding down, but he needed to do something to help. He was supposed to take care of them. Vague memories of when he was very young and upset, seeking out comfort at his closest friend's house since even then he knew that his parents would have nothing to offer, caused Lea to start rubbing small circles on their backs with his thumbs. Isa's parents did that a couple times when he stayed over, the gesture oddly soothing. He honestly had no idea what he was doing. All that he could do was hope that it worked similarly for Roxas and Xion and at least helped them a little.

They were safe. Both of them were safe, alive, and really back. Roxas and Xion were finally back again. It wasn't a dream or a hallucination or wishful thinking. He could feel them. They were real.

This was real.

It wasn't easy, but they were here now. After betraying the Organization, after fading away, after waking up in Radiant Garden when he expected everything to be over and realizing that he needed to do something with his second chance, after forcefully joining Sora and company, after bullying his way into getting a Keyblade, and after fighting off everyone to keep the replica bodies safe… After everything that he'd gone through, Lea had his friends back.

"Why you gotta cause me so much trouble?" he whispered in a rough voice.

Stiffening slightly, Xion muttered into his chest, "Sorry."

"Don't apologize. Either of you." Lea tightened his embrace on them briefly. "You two were worth it. You're worth any amount of trouble."

For a while, they remained there without saying another word. Crying that much could be exhausting and he barely had the energy to be awake in the first place. Roxas and Xion remained curled against him on either side, sprawled onto of the quilt in their coats and boots, while his arms eventually relaxed enough to rest lightly against their backs. Lea listened to them breathing, felt their twin heartbeats, and did his best to reassure himself that his best friends weren't about to disappear again. He was so tired and sore. He felt utterly drained and wanted nothing more than to drift off, safe in the knowledge that they were all right.

But there were at least one or two issues that needed to be dealt with first. As much as he wanted to avoid it, they needed to talk.

"How much do you know about what's going on?" asked Lea.

Shifting slightly so that he could look up at Lea, Roxas said, "We know some. They tried to explain what's happening. Like Xemnas lied. They explained some stuff about him, Xehanort, and the weird plan with a bunch of lights and darknesses that are supposed to fight and the new Organization XIII all being Xehanort's hearts in other people? It didn't make much sense, but I probably missed something. I heard enough to know that we'll have to fight them soon."

"No," snapped Lea, the force in his voice startling both of the kids and himself. Taking a slow breath and trying to sound a little calmer, he continued, "No, you don't have to do anything. This is important and I need you to understand what I'm telling you right now. This isn't Organization XIII. You both have a choice. You don't have to fight. You two can choose what you want to do next and no one can force you. I won't let them. Honestly, I'd love to toss you both in Twilight Town and let you eat ice cream on the clocktower until this all blows over. I'd love for you to be safe. But I can't make you do that either. I can't be that selfish." He took another deep breath to steady himself. "You've been ordered around all your short lives, mostly by people who couldn't care less about you, your wellbeing, or what you want. You've been fighting since you were a couple weeks old. But no one will make you risk your lives or control you like that again. It has to be your decision. No one else's. Got it memorized?"

No one immediately responded. But he could feel both of their heads move, the pair exchanging looks across him.

"But won't they need us?" asked Roxas slowly. "Something about seven guardians of light?"

"Well, as far as I know, they were planning to wake up a kid named Ventus," he said.

Scowling slightly, Roxas muttered, "They already did. And he looks like me too. It's weird."

Chuckling quietly even as it made his chest ache, Lea said, "Yeah, it's a little weird. Don't know how that happened. I guess him camping out in Sora's heart for so long had some side effects."

"It's still weird."

"Not his fault though." Lea managed to move his hand slightly, rubbing the boy's back briefly. "I met him once. A long time ago. Knew him for maybe an hour. He was nice and we ended up as friends." When Roxas shifted uneasily, he continued, "But like I said, I didn't know him for very long. And we certainly weren't best friends. It'll be nice to see him again, but he wasn't the one I joined the guardians of light to bring back."

Man, was he sounding corny. Though Lea had to admit that he'd been sounding that way since he woke up. He was going to blame exhaustion and possibly blood loss. Or maybe Larxene's Thundaga frying his brain.

"But with Ven back," he continued, "that gets the count up to seven. Sora, Riku, Kairi, King Mickey, Aqua, Ven, and me. You two can stay out of it if you want. Like I said, you can make your own choice. We've got it covered."

"But you can't," said Xion, twisting in his grip so that she could face him. "You're hurt."

"I volunteered for the job," he said. "And I'm not done. There's something that I still need to do."

"No," said Roxas. "You can't do this." He shook his head. "Not when you… You didn't fade like before, but you stopped breathing and it was wrong and you didn't start breathing again until Donald used that powerful spell to heal you and…"

"You scared us," said Xion in a small voice.

He took a shaking breath. After what he just heard, Lea was a little unnerved himself. He knew that he was hurt pretty badly, but what the kids were describing was… bad. He stopped breathing? Definitely cutting things closer than he would have preferred. Roxas and Xion might only have experience with Heartless shattering into darkness and Nobodies fading into nothingness, so they didn't have the right frame of reference for what happened, but Lea knew what it meant. He almost died. Permanently.

He definitely owed the duck a thanks.

"I'm fine. Let me nap a few more hours and I'll be ready to go," he said evenly. "You can't get rid of me that easily."

"What if we go instead and you stay here? That's what best friends do, right? They help each other," said Xion.

The idea of staying behind while Roxas and Xion risked their lives sent a chill to his core. Lea couldn't bear the idea. Not when he just got them back. Not to mention what might happen to Sora, Kairi, and the others if he wasn't there to watch their backs. If he couldn't force Roxas and Xion to stay somewhere safe, he could at least stay close enough to protect them.

"I'm not staying, but you two can come with me as backup if that's what you want. You know. Watch each other's backs." Lea took a deep breath before letting it out slowly, his ribs complaining the entire time. "Besides, I have to go. I'm not leaving Isa behind again."

"Isa?" asked Roxas.

"When he became a Nobody and Xemnas started getting his hooks into him, he started going by 'Saïx.'"

He felt both of them stiffen and sit up, looking at Leas with confusion, anger, and hurt. He couldn't blame them.

"I know Saïx hurt you two. He was spiteful, cold, and cruel to both of you, but he was worse towards Xion. And I'm sorry that you had to go through that. You didn't deserve it," he said slowly. "I don't expect either of you to forgive him. You don't have to. But… Isa was my oldest and closest friend for a long time. And as you said, friends help each other."

"But Saïx was awful," said Roxas sharply. "Don't you remember what he used to say about Xion? And he—"

"He was awful," Lea interrupted. "He's cold, uncaring, ruthless, and everything that you would expect of someone without a heart. And if you gave him a reason or if he was ordered to, he would kill you without hesitation." His eyes briefly flickered down to his right side, gauze and bruising disguising signs of the older injury from sight, before he looked back at the boy. "But it could have been me that ended up like that instead."

After a moment of stunned silence, Xion asked, "What do you mean? You're nothing like Saïx. You were always nice to us, helping us, friendly, sweet—"

"Do you know why no one else in Castle Oblivion made it back?" he interrupted again. "Why they were destroyed? Because that was my mission. I went there to make sure that no one else survived. Riku and Sora took out most of them, though you can't blame them when everyone kept going after the two of them, but I incinerated Vexen and convinced a replica of Riku to take out Zexion. And I would have slaughtered the others if necessary. I would have annihilated people that I'd known for years. Without hesitation."

Both of the kids were sitting up now, staring in wide-eyed shock. They had pulled away enough that he was no longer holding them. Lea pulled his empty hands onto the blanket, folding them across his lap. He hated this, but they deserved to know. No more secrets or lies. And that meant telling them exactly what kind of person that he was. Even the pieces that he'd tried to hide from them.

Even if it drove them away.

Lea looked down, unable to meet their eyes. It was easier to stare at the colorful bruises and gauze than them. He didn't want to see their expressions. He didn't want to see the moment shock turned to distrust and hatred. Or fear.

"I could have ended up exactly like Saïx did. Twisted by whatever corruptive influence that Xemnas and company specialize in and with Xehanort's heart jammed in my chest. I was already heading in that direction. I could have been another of his vessels when the time came. It could have been me running around with yellow eyes, pointy ears, and blind obedience. The only difference between us? You."

"What?" asked Roxas.

"Spending time with you and later Xion? All those sunsets spent on the clocktower, talking and laughing and… And being your friend? Turns out that none of us Nobodies really knew it, but we could regrow hearts. And being around both of you helped me… I started feeling again. I started acting like who I used to be before. You saved me."

Hands suddenly slipped into his, startling him into looking up. Lea wasn't expecting the sad and sympathetic expressions from them. He didn't expect them to…

This should make him feel so many things, but Lea was still too exhausted and emotionally drained from earlier to feel anything other than relief. Somehow he wasn't driving them away with his confession of the darker elements of his past.

After a moment, he continued, "But no one saved Saïx. He was alone and now… I don't know if there's anything of Isa left." Lea shook his head slightly. "Saïx was awful, but Isa was my friend. Maybe it won't work and he's too far gone. I don't know. If he is… Fine. Xemnas still doesn't get to keep him. But if there's even a small chance that even a shred of Isa is still in there, I owe our friendship at least one more chance. I have to at least try and save him. And if I can get him back somehow, I don't expect anything from you two. You don't have to talk to him, spend time with him, or even look at him. If you want nothing to do with him, that's perfectly fine. Saïx hurt everyone too much for me to expect any different. You don't owe him a thing. You don't even owe me anything. I pulled some pretty bad things on you too."

Lea closed his eyes briefly. He was exhausted, but he had to get this out.

"But I can't just give up on Isa," he said quietly. "Not again."

"You'll always be there to bring us back," said Xion quietly before leaning back, gently tugging his arm back around her. "All of us. All of your friends."

Following her example, Roxas curled back up against Lea's side and said, "He's important to you. He's a jerk, but he was your friend before he was a Nobody. I still want to hit Saïx in the face and I can't promise what'll happened afterwards, but we'll help you get him back."

"Thank you," said Lea, some of the tension melting out of his body. "I didn't think you'd want to help with this, you know."

"You've done a lot for us." Xion snuggled a little closer, sounding drowsy. "And like Roxas said, this is important to you. He's important to you. Saïx… Saïx wasn't nice to us, but maybe he… Maybe he can change. Maybe we can try and give him another chance. And if you're going to try and save him, then we want to help you. Let us help you, please."

He smiled and said, "I don't know how I ended up lucky enough to have you two as friends."

Yep. He was apparently very sappy and corny when he was tired, battered, and overwhelmed by everything. Hopefully he would sound more like his old self in the morning.

They slipped back into silence. A comfortable and tired silence. Lea knew that he should try to lay back down properly instead of staying propped up against the pillow and headboard. Sleeping sitting up like this would leave him stiff in the morning. But the bruises would already do that and it really wasn't worth the effort to move again. Not when Roxas and Xion were curled against him and acting like they wanted to fall asleep too.

Though he did wish that could pull the blanket a little further up without disturbing them. It was a little chilly.

"Axel?" said Roxas. "Or, uh… Do we… What do we call you now?"

Xion mumbled, "I think some of them called you 'Lea.' Should we do that too?"

"My name is Lea," he said. "But you can still call me 'Axel.'"

Because he'd always been Axel to them. They'd never known him as anything else. They liked Axel. And he didn't want them to think of him as a different person than their friend, even if he was trying to do better now that he had his heart back. Hearing them call him "Lea" would feel strange.

Honestly, if someone knew him as Axel first and he liked them enough, then they could keep calling him that. Hence why he stopped correcting Sora, Kairi, and the others. New people or people who annoyed him too much in the past had to stick with "Lea."

"Okay," said Roxas quietly. "Axel's good."

"Glad to hear it." His eyelids heavy and noticing how tired they sounded, Lea said, "Try to get some rest. It's the middle of the night still. And I personally would like a little more sleep."

"Mmm-hmm… Night, Axel," murmured Xion softly.

It was hard to tell which of the three of them dozed off first. But it didn't take long for all of them to fall asleep, Lea's arms curled around the kids protectively.

Chapter Text

Donald woke up, still groggy, to find Goofy's foot in his face.

Sadly, this wasn't an uncommon occurrence. With how much the three of them traveled together, with all the different worlds that they visited, they'd long since settled into a general sleeping arrangement. One that worked regardless of location or how little space that they might have.

It started when they were forced to nap in the cockpit of the Gummi Ship, parked out of sight of any enemies that might be roaming the lanes between worlds. But there was only so much room in the cockpit and the chairs, while comfortable enough during flights, were not designed to sleep in. Their best option was to pile a bunch of blankets and such together and use the result as a makeshift bed. And the best way to make use of the available space and blankets…

Well, there was no dignified way to describe it. They regularly ended up sleeping in a tangled pile together, practically cocooned in blankets. And even when they camped out in a tent bought from the Moogles, they somehow ended up in the same arrangement. After a couple of years, the trio were used to napping in cozy piles together. And Donald had grown accustomed to the fact that the other two tended to toss, turn, and migrate around in their sleep.

Yawning, he glanced around blearily. The three of them were piled on a large bed. While Donald managed to keep his head on the pillow, Goofy ended up lying upside down in comparison and Sora was draped sideways across the bed. The kid was practically dangling over the edge and snoring quietly. Sora could sleep almost anywhere.

After a moment of wondering if he should try waking someone up to ask what happened, Donald decided to tug the blanket up a little higher. Then he rolled over so that he was no longer facing Goofy's feet. It was still dark, the others were sleeping comfortably, and a couple more hours of rest would be nice. And it wasn't like finding out the result in the middle of the night would change whether the spell did any good.

He did hope that it worked. Even if logic told him that the chances were too slim to have helped in time, he hoped that Curaza worked.

But he could wait a little longer to find out whether he should be happy or if that tiny hope was dashed. He was still tired and sleep still felt too tempting.


When Kairi woke up to find the other bed empty, she immediately had her suspicions of where to start looking. So, after combing out the worst of the tangles from her hair with her fingers and smoothing out her skirt, she slipped out of the room to track down Xion. She wanted to make sure that the girl was all right that morning.

Besides, she should drop off Lea's coat.

It didn't take long to wander her way back to the correct room. And she didn't encounter anyone else in the corridor. One of the perks of being an early riser.

The door was open a crack, so it was easy for Kairi to slip inside silently. And just as she expected, Xion was there. And so was Roxas. But the scene made her pause, the sight warming her heart.

The two of them were curled up on either side of Lea on the bed, his arms curled around the pair. He was propped up slightly, but his head had slumped to the side until it rested against Roxas's hair. Lea was still asleep, just like he was the last time that she saw him. But his new position suggested that he'd woken up at some point. Probably whenever Roxas and Xion joined him.

His complexion looked healthier. And while she could see more of his injuries now that he was sitting up, the bruises showed far more yellow and green with only the worst of them peeking over the bandages still that dark purple shade. He was healing.

Smiling briefly, Kairi quietly set the black coat back on the table. Then she crept back out of the room.

It didn't take long for her to return to the bedroom that she'd been staying in the night before. She dove into the wardrobe in the corner, finding linens and similar supplies in a lower drawer. She gathered what she needed and hurried back down the corridor.

Maybe it was a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but Kairi felt better as she carefully pulled a soft blanket over the trio. Lea's head shifted slightly, his brow furrowing for a moment. But when she softly shushed him, trying to sound soothing and reassuring, he relaxed and settled back down as she gently wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and tucked it around Roxas and Xion. She remembered him being a light sleeper during their training while she, like Sora, could sleep through almost anything. But even half-asleep, Lea apparently realized that he didn't need to worry about her. The two younger ones snuggled closer to Lea and his arms briefly tightened around them, but everyone seemed content with the warm blanket.

The entire scene was too adorable and sweet for words. And, thanks to the new Gummiphone that Jiminy provided to her and several of the others, she could now capture the cute moment as a photo for future enjoyment.

With them properly taken care of, Kairi slipped back out again. Since she was up anyway, maybe she could hunt down some breakfast. She was certain that everyone would appreciate having a proper meal when they woke up. Maybe she could drag Sora into helping. From what she'd heard, he'd picked up some cooking skills during his most recent travels.


Carrying a small collection of medical supplies, Ansem headed towards their makeshift recovery room. He could have asked one of his apprentices (did he deserve to even call them that anymore?), but it felt like something that he should take care of himself. After all the harm that he'd done in the past, he would seize any opportunity to help.

While the door was open slightly, he pushed it open further with a creak. Ansem caught a glimpse of Roxas and Xion sleeping next to Lea, all of them tucked under a blue blanket, before the younger pair's heads shot up and the young man started blinking blearily. By the time Ansem set his supplies on the table, Roxas was already standing in front of the bed. His posture was protective. Ansem would almost call it aggressive except the boy wouldn't meet his eyes.

He hadn't the night before either. Not when Roxas came in, his shoulders hunched and tense as he claimed that he couldn't sleep. Not when Roxas offered his thanks, staring at the floor as he spoke the words. Not when he listened to Ansem's apology, remaining still as a statue, blank-faced, and silent throughout. Apparently Roxas chose to handle the internal conflict of his justifiable anger and his gratitude by avoiding eye contact and keeping his distance.

If that was what Roxas wished, then Ansem would accept it.

"Good morning," said Lea, slowly pushing himself up. "Did you come back for some more light reading?"

Raising an eyebrow, Ansem said, "I am assuming that means that you were awake at some point last night."

"Maybe slightly. But I'm wondering why you're waking me up now." Pushing the blanket down a little, Lea said, "I was rather comfy."

"While they used several powerful potions and healing spells on you yesterday, I thought it would be prudent to check on the condition of your injuries. At a minimum, some of the bandages might be in need of changing."

"I'm fine," he said, though the rainbow of bruises told a different story.

"Axel," said Xion, shuffling off the bed even as she glared at him. "You're hurt."

Chuckling quietly, Lea said, "All right. I'll let him look me over. How about you two go get cleaned up? I'm sure there's a couple showers around here. Kairi could probably help sort everything out. She's smart and is usually on top of things."

"She and Sora were in the kitchen when I last saw them," said Ansem. "From what I gathered, they intended to prepare some breakfast. Though Sora seemed to be splattering a surprising number of eggs in the process."

"There. You see? You can get a couple showers and something to eat while I get a quick check-up," said Lea with a slight smile towards the kids.

Shifting uneasily, Roxas asked, "You sure you'll be all right?"

Ansem could read between the lines. Roxas was asking if he would be all right alone with Ansem. Despite being thankful for his help and even asking for that help in the first place, Roxas still didn't completely trust Ansem. Perhaps that unease would never truly fade. He wouldn't blame Roxas. Not after everything that had happened.

"Just make sure you save me some food," said Lea. "I'll meet you down there later."

The children hesitated a moment longer, exchanging uncomfortable looks. Then Xion slipped her hand into Roxas's and pulled gently. Then, giving Lea one last look, the two children reluctantly left.

Lea watched them leave the room, something briefly flashing across his expression. As if he was having second thoughts about letting Roxas and Xion leave his sight. Then the look was gone. A confident smile returned to his face as Lea pushed himself to the edge of the bed, his legs dangling off.

"Let's get this over with then," said Lea.

Nodding briefly, Ansem reached for bandages and asked, "How are you feeling?"

"A little sore, but I've felt worse."

While specific injuries had thicker layers of bandages, they had wrapped his entire torso with gauze in order to protect and stabilize the damage. So before he could properly examine them and see how they were healing, Ansem needed to unwind the outer layers.

"Do you remember what happened yesterday?" he asked. "Do you remember much of what occurred?"

"Let's see. Fought some Heartless and Nobodies. Fought Marluxia and Larxene. Fought Xemnas."

Stiffening briefly, Ansem asked, "Xemnas was here?"

"Not for very long. He kept the visit surprisingly short. He insulted me, I pointed out that he's a loser, he tried to offer a deal, I tried to attack him, he shot a few hundred lasers at me… You know. Pretty typical."

Lea tried to shrug casually, but winced part way through the gesture. Ansem finished pulling away the outer layers of gauze and paused to decide which of the more serious injuries to inspect first. After a moment, he chose the long cut along his left side.

"Then I ended up getting stabbed," continued Lea. "And after that, I passed out and had some weird dreams."

"You're lucky to be alive." Ansem glanced briefly at the thicker bandages on Lea's chest. "Those blades caused some rather grave injuries."

Hesitating slightly, Lea said, "The kids mentioned something like that."

"You could have died," he said gently. "If Donald didn't use Curaza on you in time, we would not be having this conversation."

"Not the first time that's happened to me."

Eyes dropping briefly, Ansem said, "No. I suppose it wasn't."

He remembered speaking with his apprentices briefly upon his return, touching on the delicate subject of their return to humanity. Apparently they carried the injuries that ended their existences as Nobodies when they awoke with their restored hearts, the damage generally healed to non-lethal levels. Not surprising when the Nobodies shared the same bodies as the originals.

Ansem remembered the way that Ienzo rubbed his throat uneasily as he described in vague terms what happened. He remembered Aeleus mentioning a scar from Riku's sword, the teenage boy not yet having reclaimed his ability to use a Keyblade. And he remembered the description they gave of the partially-healed burns on Even that left him weak and fragile after being recompleted, eventually becoming raised red scar tissue that covered a large portion of his chest and his back from where the fire burned Even from the inside out.

Ansem saw similar burn scars on Lea's chest, almost a starburst pattern on his sternum. Even if he didn't have the talent for magic that some did, Ansem understood many of the basics. It was harder to burn yourself with your own conjured fire, but there were a few circumstances. Using too much power. Being too tired or weak to control what you created. Using too much of yourself to power the spell. Or purposefully turning it on yourself.

But his suspicions on what destroyed Axel lay with a different old injury. A wide, rough, and discolored scar wrapped around Lea's right side near the bottom of his ribcage. On the opposite side and lower than the one that Ansem was currently examining. While the new cut was shallow enough that it was essentially healed by now, the old one had clearly been a deep wound. Like something tried to slice him in half from the side, a sharp and thick blade that would have gone in at least six inches. The scar ran slightly further in the front than the back. If the blade was swung into him, Ansem would suspect it came from behind or else the angle would have been awkward. He could only imagine the damage that it did originally.

Noticing Ansem's gaze, Lea said, "Nah. That didn't kill me. It hurt, but that wasn't what got me."

"Would it be too personal to inquire what happened?"

"Not much of a story," he said after a moment of hesitation as Ansem reached around for the bandages on Lea's back. Perhaps not having to meet the older man's eyes would make the explanation easier. "Kidnapped Kairi, lost her, found her, lost her again. Then Saïx had her and they stuck her in the castle. At that point… Does it count as kidnapping her again if I was trying to get Kairi back from someone who kidnapped her from my kidnapping or does it end up circling around to rescuing?"

"I suppose it depends on your intentions at that point," said Ansem, pulling away the gauze from the young man's back.

While the diagonal cut remained red and unpleasant-looking, it seemed to be scabbed over enough that the injury shouldn't need fresh bandages. If it left a scar, it should be a thin and faint one.

"Well, my kidnapping rescue attempt didn't go smoothly. I didn't make it close to where they locked her up before… Before they stopped me the hard way and I had to retreat. Nobodies are a bit sturdier, so it didn't kill me immediately and I managed to pour a few potions into the wound. Of course, Sora came charging through Betwixt and Between while I was still trying to catch my breath and I had to save his neck. That's what took me out. I didn't have the energy to spare after my earlier encounter and I ended up burning myself out. Literally. Fire exploding everywhere."

Which explained the burn scars on his chest. Though Ansem suspected that if using up all his energy in an uncontrolled fiery explosion didn't end the Nobody, the previous wound would have likely done the job eventually.

"And if you could, don't tell Kairi about that whole mess." Lea grimaced slightly as he continued, "I know how she'll react. She'll blame herself. Even though I'm the one who kidnapped her in the first place. In fact, just don't tell any of the kids. They don't need to hear about what happened before I ran into Sora in Betwixt and Between."

"At least you didn't experience the same fate this time," said Ansem. "Most of your injuries seem to be healing nicely."

Only the worst ones left. Taking the gauze off Lea's chest was a little more difficult, the discolored bandages sticking and causing the patient to inhale slightly as they pulled away. But Ansem's efforts exposed the four deepest cuts and the still-dark bruising. It would be too much to hope that the damage would be gone, but at least the injuries were improving. No sign of infection, which made sense considering how many healing spells and potions were applied, and the cuts weren't seriously bleeding. Only seeping slightly after he pulled away the bandages.

"Ouch," muttered Lea, eyeing the damage.

"Considering that one of the knives hit your physical heart, this seems to be healing well," he said. Cleaning the cuts, pouring another hi-potion on, and applying fresh gauze, Ansem continued, "The lacerations should be nearly gone within a day or two at this rate. But the ribs… Well, there's only so much I can assess from an external examination when it comes to the internal damage. Would you be willing to come down to the lab so that I can attempt a more accurate examination of the injury?"

"No," said Lea, a little too fast and forceful.

Nodding slowly, Ansem said, "Then I'll give you my best diagnosis based on what I can see. Please bear in mind that I do not specialize in the condition of the human body. That was always Even's strength."

Since he couldn't use technology to aid him, that left Ansem with only what he could detect externally. Perhaps it would have been wiser to see if there were any medical doctors within Radiant Garden who would be willing to aid them. But he didn't know how he would go about locating such a person and even attempting such a thing would reveal his return. Ansem wasn't quite ready to face the rest of the population of his home world after everything that happened. Perhaps he didn't plunge the world into darkness, but he laid the foundation of that disaster in place. He would face judgment for his crimes and failures someday. It was only right. But he needed to wait until the current crisis had passed and he had done everything possible to atone.

Besides, if Lea was uneasy going down to the lab to examine how the internal damage was healing, there was a decent chance that he would be equally uncomfortable with seeking out the assistance of a stranger.

Checking his pulse was less stressful this time. Ansem could feel the heartbeat, steady and even. Not the weak and fragile thing that he felt before. Nor the silent stillness during that brief moment where death nearly claimed the young man. He pressed lightly along the ribs, not feeling anything out of place or giving under the careful pressure. Lea hissed as he touched one spot close to the cuts, but mostly bore the examination quietly.

"Any trouble breathing?" asked Ansem.

Shaking his head slowly, Lea said, "Not since I woke up. Like I told you. Everything is a bit sore, but I'm fine."

"I have to check. The knives damaged a couple of your ribs, punctured a lung, and grazed your physical heart. None of those injuries should be taken lightly."

"Oh…" Lea blinked a few times, looking uncomfortable. "Right. Roxas and Xion mentioned that I… I stopped breathing."

"For a moment or two, your body had no breath nor heartbeat. I did not exaggerate when I claimed that you are lucky to be alive. I was uncertain for a while that you would survive even with the healing spells."

After a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, Lea coughed awkwardly and said, "Yeah, well… I'm tougher to get rid of than that."

"Indeed," said Ansem. "And you're a courageous young man. I know that this happened while protecting Roxas and Xion. What you did required bravery and a strong will. Even if it also lacked a certain amount of self-preservation and regard for your own life that is a bit distressing."

"In my defense, I wasn't crazy enough to fling myself in the line of fire as a human shield. I was trying to push them out of the way and just didn't get clear myself in time."

Lea shifted slightly, causing him to wince. Even if the injuries were healing nicely, he would probably remain sore for a little longer. The ribs were still bruised or possibly fractured. The exact extent of the remaining damage depended on how effective King Mickey's Healing Light proved to be. Bones always took the longest to recover. But regardless, they were improving.

"Without magic, I would have predicted at least a month for the ribs to heal completely. But with all the spells they've used on you…. Perhaps a week? Maybe a little more or a little less."

"I doubt that Xehanort and the others will wait that long. And I'm not sitting this one out. But I've fought in worse states," said Lea.

"Then I at least recommend taking it easy for the rest of the day. Nothing strenuous at all. Try to rest as much as possible today. Give your body a chance to recover." Ansem stepped away briefly to pick up the black coat and handed it over to Lea. "And are you certain that you don't want a more thorough examination? The equipment is waiting in the lab and it wouldn't take long to activate the systems."

Wincing as he slipped one arm into the sleeve, Lea said, "Nah." After pulling on the other sleeve, he added quietly, "It's not exactly my favorite place." With the coat back in place, the worst of his injuries were hidden from sight. He stood up slowly and said, "Besides, I need to track down the kids and some breakfast."


"I can't believe that you can cook all of this," said Kairi, gesturing towards the dishes scattered along the table, "but you can't crack an egg."

"Come on." Sora laughed even as he complained, too happy to be with all of his best friends again to really care about her teasing. "It's harder than it looks. Even with Little Chef's help learning how to cook and bake and stuff, I can't master everything."

"You can flambé, but not crack an egg," said Riku, not quite hiding his smile.

Sora grinned as they started passing around the food. Granted, most of the dishes were actually intended to be desserts rather than healthy breakfast foods, but most of Little Chef's recipes were intended for fancy dinners. At least the baked sweets could theoretically be considered something for breakfast. And he did include some of the fruit-based dishes. Those were healthy, right?

The formal dining room did make his slightly uncomfortable though. Not because of the fanciness or anything like that. Sora recognized the location as a transformed version of the chamber in Hollow Bastion that once housed the manufactured Keyhole. It barely resembled the room, the machinery and thick pipes long gone and the entire space now bright and airy. The walls were white with gold filigree adding a decorative touch to the space, the long table built out of a dark wood took up a large chunk of the floor space, and the paintings of different parts of Radiant Garden lined the walls. It was beautiful.

But Sora knew it was the same place. It was where the Keyhole was created with the hearts of the seven Princess of Heart. And where he fought a possessed Riku. And where Sora returned Kairi's heart. It was where Sora became a Heartless and inadvertently created both Roxas and Naminé.

But if his friends didn't notice where they were, Sora wouldn't mention it. They would have a nice breakfast together. With all of his friends.

Well, several of his friends. Aqua and Ventus had claimed one end of the table, the young woman smiling at him despite the slight circles under her eyes suggesting that she didn't sleep well. She was also pushing some of the fruit dishes towards Ventus. Donald was practically inhaling the food in front of him, the chairs next to him occupied by Goofy and King Mickey. Riku and Kairi were next to Sora, helping him set the table.

Sora knew that he wasn't quite as talented as Little Chef when it came to cooking. But he liked to think that he had a knack for picking up new skills. And after letting Little Chef use his hands to cook dozens of times, Sora knew how to do it on his own.

But he still tended to be too rough with the eggs.

"Good morning?"

Sora's head twisted around at the greeting. Xion waved shyly as she and Roxas stepped into the room. They still wore their black coats, raising the question of whether or not they actually possessed other clothes, but their wet hair suggested that they'd found the showers. And while Roxas kept glancing at Ventus uneasily, he and Xion looked less tense than the night before.

That must mean that Lea was doing better.

"Do you want to join us for breakfast?" asked Sora with a grin.

Gesturing towards a few empty chairs, Kairi said, "We have plenty of food. Just pick out whatever you want."

"Thank you," said Roxas awkwardly.

"For everything." Xion rubbed her arm briefly before slipping into her seat. "You've done so much. For all of us. I never thought that I… I would be here."

His smile a little guilty, Riku said, "You deserve to be here. And we were happy to help you both. That's what friends do."

"You barely know me," said Roxas. "And the last time we saw each other, I think I broke your wrist."

"You broke his wrist?" Xion stared at him. "Why?"

"I was angry and he was trying to stop me. And I won that fight," he said.

"You hurt my wrist. I never said you broke it. And I don't think you won that. Which of us ended up unconscious at the end?" asked Riku.

"Because you cheated. And that wrist was definitely broken."

"Hey, save the rematch until after we're done with Xehanort and his crazy scheme," said Lea, stepping into the room.

Her face lighting up with surprise and delight, Kairi yelled, "Axel! You're awake!"

She launched herself up from the table and ran across the room, moving a lot faster than she ever did when they were kids racing on the beach. She'd picked up some speed over the last couple years. Sora recognized one of her incoming tackle hugs. But Kairi abruptly stopped in front of Lea, stumbling slightly with a panicked expression, before wrapping her arms around him in a far gentler embrace.

Smirking slightly, Lea patted her back and asked, "Miss me already?"

The sound that she made was somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. And while Kairi was grinning when she pulled back, her eyes were a little shiny and wet. Then, without warning, she smacked his arm.

"Ow," said Lea in a deadpan tone.

"You jerk. You promised that you would be fine." Kairi hugged him again and said in a wavering voice that made Sora's chest ache, "You promised."

"I am fine. A little sore, but alive and apparently being hit by a Princess of Heart. How did you manage to find one of the few spots without a bruise?" he asked, reaching up to ruffle her hair slightly. She tried to duck out of reach without letting go. "But I did keep my promise. Despite Larxene, Marluxia, and even Xemnas trying their best, I didn't get myself killed."

"Wait, Xemnas showed up?" asked Sora.

"He didn't stay long," he said as Kairi let go and stepped back. "Only some minor monologuing."

They headed over to the table to join the others. Lea claimed a chair next to Roxas and Xion, the pair already smiling at him expectantly. Sora noticed that he moved a little stiffly as he slowly sat down, but he seemed happy enough to reach for the closest plate.

After staring at Lea the entire time with a confused and thoughtful expression, Ventus's eyes suddenly widened and he said, "Wait… Lea?"


Ventus technically knew that he'd been asleep for a decade. It just hadn't really sank in properly yet. And it was easy to forget sometimes. A lot of the people around him were new friends. Others like Mickey hadn't aged enough to be noticeable beyond having more confidence and maybe maturity. And Aqua looked exactly like she did the last time he saw her. Combine all that together and it wasn't surprising how easy it was to forget how much could change during the time that he was asleep.

But when the tall red-haired main in a long black coat walked into the room, Ventuas was hit by a strange feeling of déjà vu. He knew him. The longer that Ventus stared at him, the more that familiarity gnawed at him. But he couldn't seem to place how he knew the man. Even the girl, Kairi, calling him "Axel" didn't clarify things.

And suddenly, it hit him. Like being struck by a Thunder spell. For a brief moment, Ventus didn't see the man gingerly settling into a chair. He saw a red-headed teenager near his own age with a yellow bandana around his neck and a couple frisbees in his hands.

"Wait…," said Ventus slowly. "Lea?"

He stiffened before turning his head towards Ventus. He looked a little startled.

"You… you remember me?"

He didn't sound like he could believe it. Like the idea that Ventus could remember someone from a couple weeks ago was completely stunning. Which was a little weird since his memory wasn't that bad—

No, wait. Not a few weeks. It had been years. About a decade or more. Ventus needed to remember that.

But even that amount of time wouldn't be enough for Ventus to forget.

"Of course I remember you," said Ventus. "We're friends."

Lea smiled slightly as he ducked his face down, scratching the back of his head. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he turned and gestured towards the similarly-dressed teenagers next to him.

"Right. Ven? These are my best friends, Roxas and Xion," he introduced. "Guys? This is Ventus."

Grinning, he said, "Call me 'Ven.' And this is my friend, Aqua."

"I'm glad that we can be properly introduced," said Aqua.

Both of the strangely-dressed teenagers nodded politely, but they looked a little uncomfortable. The boy looked frustrated, like he wanted to say something sharp and was forcing himself to remain silent. Ventus found him to be a little eerie. The similarities between Sora and Vanitas was unnerving enough. But Roxas was like staring into a mirror.

"You were the other heart inside Sora," said Xion quietly. "I think I remember… a little?"

"It's strange." Aqua tilted her head slightly. "I am still not quite certain that I fully understand about Nobodies and how either of you came to be, even after the explanations."

"To be fair, Roxas and Xion were rather unique cases," said Mickey.

"But I do not understand why Roxas resembles Ven so strongly," she continued.

Nodding, Ventus said, "We could practically be twins."

While Ventus contemplated the possibilities of the practical jokes that they could pull by simply trading clothes, the uncomfortable expression on Roxas's face shifted to one of confusion. A look mirrored by Xion. The pair exchanged brief frowns, silently questioning each other. Then they both turned towards Lea.

Speaking in unison, Roxas and Xion asked, "Axel, what are 'twins'?"

The question startled Lea into a bark of laughter, one followed by some quieter chuckles and rapid blinking. His eyes looked a little shiny even as his shoulder shook slightly from his laughter. The sound wasn't a fully happy chuckle, but something a bit more complicated. There was happiness in the noise, however. But eventually, the laughter ended and a wistful smile spread across his face.

"I'm sorry," he said finally. "I… I didn't realize how much I missed this." Lea coughed briefly before he continued. "Twins are siblings who are born at the same time. Sometimes they look alike, but not always. And before you ask, siblings are usually people who share the same parents. Siblings, like brothers and sisters, are usually raised together. Older siblings usually try to help watch out for the younger ones and keep them out of trouble. The good ones do, at least."

The two of them nodded thoughtfully at his careful explanations. They both seemed more relaxed as they listened to their friend speak. Like it was something normal when very little around them was familiar.

"And," asked Roxas slowly, "what are parents?"

That question caused most of the people around them to wince or cringe. How could they not know what parents were? Even with Ventus's spotty memories of anything before his arrival at the Land of Departure, he knew what parents were. What kind of upbringing would result in a teenager not knowing about parents?

"Parents, like mothers and fathers, are the people who raise you," explained Lea slowly. He sounded a little more awkward and hesitant with this explanation. "Some kids are raised by the people they are born to, but some parents aren't technically related to them. Families are complicated like that. But yeah, basically parents are adults who raise kids. Parents take care of them, teach them, keep them safe, and love them." Frowning briefly with a distant expression, he shook his head and said, "Some people are better parents than others."

"Oh." Xion's brow furrowed with thought. After a moment, she asked, "Does that… make you our parent?"

His expression lighting up, Roxas said, "She's right. That sounds like you."

Ventus struggled to smother his laughter at Lea's wide-eyed stunned expression. Others were less successful at keeping quiet. Someone let out an actual squawk. Lea mostly looked mildly panicked as he stared at them.

"What? Come on. I'm not your parent. I mean, I'll admit it, I did have to teach Roxas how to eat, how to talk in full sentences, and how to stop acting like a zombie. And I answered all of your questions about everything. And I kept trying to keep you two out of trouble when Xion had problems with her Keyblade or when Saïx was being an idiot or—" Lea broke off suddenly, burying his face in his hands before dropping his head on the table. His voice partially muffled, Lea groaned, "I am a dad. How did that happen? Who thought this was a good idea? What about me screams 'role model' to anyone?"

Roxas and Xion gently patted his back sympathetically while Kairi giggled at his antics. After a couple minutes, Lea's shoulders started shaking again with quiet laughter. It was abruptly easy for Ventus to picture the outgoing teenager that he met a decade ago in Radiant Garden. Maybe things hadn't changed that much after all.

"If it makes you feel better, I've always questioned who in Organization XIII thought it was a good idea to put you in charge of watching them too." Riku crossed his arms with a smirk. "Though I suppose none of the others would make good babysitters either."

"I don't know if you're their father or guardian or simply best friends," said Sora, "but I think you're doing a great job helping them, Axel."

Raising his head slightly, Lea said, "Uh-huh. And when was the last time any of you visited your families?"

Sora and Kairi ducked their heads in embarrassment while Riku glanced to the side awkwardly. Goofy chuckled briefly before patting Sora's shoulder.

"And before I forget," said Lea, his expression briefly turning serious, "I apparently need to talk to Donald Duck."

Eyeing him suspiciously, Donald asked, "Yeah?"

Nodding towards him, Lea said, "Thanks." Then, looking away, he muttered awkwardly, "For saving me and everything."

Looking equally uncomfortable and awkward, Donald glared down stubbornly at his plate and grumbled, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just eat your breakfast."

Lea reached for one of the warm crepe suzettes that Sora made. A bit sweet for a breakfast food and Aqua already scolded Ventus not to eat too many when there were plenty of food options with fruits, but they were absolutely delicious. Maybe Ventus could sneak away a few for later. Assuming that Lea didn't eat them all.

Or, judging by how Lea moved a couple crepe suzettes to their plates, Roxas and Xion might eat the rest of them.

"Can we ask one more question?" asked Xion right before taking a small bite.

Lea nodded and said, "Always."

"You mentioned something earlier," she said. "What are families?"

"Yeah, you said something about them when you were talking about mothers, fathers, parents, brothers, sisters, and everything," added Roxas. "Are families like those?"

"Kind of," said Sora. "Parents and siblings are part of a family. And so are grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles…"

He trailed off as Roxas and Xion's faces grew more and more confused. Aqua gave them a sad look.

"Families are complicated." Lea sighed tiredly, dragging a hand briefly through his hair. "But basically, families are close groups of people who care about each other. Real families love each other, take care of each other, and even if they occasionally fight and argue, they know that they can always depend on each other."

"How is that different from best friends?" asked Roxas.

"In a lot of cases, family members are related. And yes, immediate family members tend to be your parents and maybe your siblings. But sometimes the people that you're related to don't act like family and you end up making a new family from other people in your life," he explained slowly. "For example, you might end up with someone who is practically like an older brother in every way except sharing the same parents. Families are complicated and sometimes the line between the closest best friends and family can get a little fuzzy. But what makes people family with each other is the emotions involved. It depends on how you feel about each other."

Pausing a moment, Xion said, "If it depends on how you feel about each other, I guess that's why they didn't talk about families in Organization XIII. But having a family sounds nice."

"I still don't understand the difference between a family and best friends," said Roxas. "They still sound like the same thing."

Glancing over at Aqua, Ventus said, "Sometimes they are."

Chapter Text

"It is a shame that all of our friends could not be here. But our seven guardians of light have united. And then some."

"Axel said that we didn't have to join, but me and Xion aren't going to let him go without us."

"We are thankful for your assistance, young ones. And given time, I know the others will soon stand with us."

"Yeah. We'll find a way to bring back Naminé and Terra. I still have to thank her."

"But today, you recuperate. On the morrow, you journey to the fated place."

"Yes, Master Yen Sid."

"Wait. Does this mean… this is our day off?"


Aqua stared up at the bright stars, enjoying the calm and quiet. While she and Ventus could have gone back to the Land of Departure to spend this final day before the battle, it didn't seem right. They couldn't go home yet. Not without Terra.

So they'd stayed at the Mysterious Tower. It was beautiful outside. The stars broke up the endless darkness enough that it didn't feel oppressive. Aqua could sit on the stairs next to Ventus without feeling anxious.

He was safe. They were both safe. There was nothing lurking in the shadows, preparing to attack.

"We're going to get Terra back tomorrow, aren't we?" said Ventus quietly.

Aqua said, "Maybe. We'll try."

"But from what everyone said, he might not be… Terra anymore."

"I don't know."

There was a chance that their friend would be there. But it might also be Xehanort using Terra's body as a hollow shell. Aqua could remember when she fought Terra in Radiant Garden and didn't see her friend in his eyes. She remembered the utter wrongness of someone else staring back with his face.

"But," she continued, "no matter what's happened to Terra, we'll get him back. We'll find a way."

She pulled out her Wayfinder and held it up, letting the starlight stream through the colored glass. Aqua could still feel the charm that she cast over them, connecting the Wayfinders and their owners together. Somewhere out there was Terra and his Wayfinder. Maybe he no longer held the physical object, but that didn't matter. The feeling remained the same. They were still connected.

He was still their friend. And they would find a way to bring Terra back.

Movement out of the corner of her eye drew Aqua's attention back to Ventus. He held up his green Wayfinder, mirroring her pose. He smiled wistfully as he stared at it.

"I made Terra a promise once," he said. "To be there when he needed me. And I won't let him down. We'll save him together."

Aqua smiled and reached over to ruffle his hair. He laughed quietly at the gesture. She'd missed that sound and his bright smile. It warmed a part of her heart to have him back, happy and safe.

"Tomorrow," said Aqua firmly. "We'll find a way to get Terra back. And afterwards, we can go home. All three of us together under the same stars again."


Saïx didn't know what compelled him to go to Twilight Town. He held no particular fondness for the world and he possessed no reason to be there. But when Master Xehanort declared that they would give the guardians of light one more day to appear at the appointed place for the battle before they started targeting the New Seven Hearts to force their hand, he chose to spend that final day visiting Twilight Town.

The view from the clocktower of the town, the hills and forests beyond the walls, the winding train tracks, and the golden-orange sky of the early twilight looked faintly mesmerizing. Saïx could see why someone would seek out the location every day. Especially someone who enjoyed heights as much as Axel always did.

As much as Lea always did.

It didn't hurt as much now to consider now. Saïx felt like his head was filled with fog, leaving him dull and numb. Darkness swirled inside him, foreign emotions and impulses from that strange and foreign heart. He didn't resist, but he felt disconnected from himself. Like he was a passenger in his own body.

It was easier that way. And it didn't really matter anymore.

Lea was gone. He was dead and it was Saïx's fault. But that pain was buried beneath the darkness pouring from that twisted heart.

What brought him here? Why did he come to this place on what he expected to be his last day of existence? Because Saïx would not survive the final battle. He knew that. Why did he choose to visit Twilight Town?

Faint voices and the sounds of a departing train drifted up to him. The clocktower loomed over the plaza and the surrounding landscape, the highest point in the entire town. Perhaps a Nobody could survive from such a height if they managed to catch and slow themselves on the building's architecture. But a direct fall from where Saïx stood near the top would be just as deadly for him as it would be for a human.

He stepped up on the ledge, staring down at the cobblestone below. Why did he come to this world? He could have gone anywhere. He could have gone to Radiant Garden if nostalgia struck that hard. Was he even still capable of being nostalgic? Regardless, of all the places that he could have gone, what brought him to the highest point in Twilight Town?

Because this place meant something to Axel. To Lea.

Movement caught his eye, drawing Saïx out of his dull and listless thoughts. There was someone down there. Dressed in black and moving cautiously to avoid attracting attention, he knew a former Organization member when he saw one skulking around. And yet he didn't know her.

Even at this distance, Saïx could tell that she was a teenage girl. One with short black hair. He kept staring at her as a headache started pounding behind his eyes. He didn't recognize her. He didn't know anyone who looked like that and yet she was somehow familiar. Familiar, yet wrong. She was supposed to look different. Saïx stumbled back a step and off the ledge, rubbing at his forehead as he fought against the stabbing migraine. Who was she?

A pale featureless puppet, identical to the incomplete replica that Vexen showed him during a progress update, stood in the middle of the round room. It wore a black coat, as if the blank shell actually belonged in Organization XIII.

Realization and memories struck through the blinding headache.

Number XIV.

No. i.

Xion.

The teenage girl moving carefully across the Station Plaza was Xion. But not the blank mannequin-like entity that he always saw before. She was a person.

Was the black-haired girl what Axel saw back then? Was she what Roxas saw? Did they always see a teenage girl where he saw only a faceless puppet?

No wonder Axel and Roxas didn't understand his distain for their fourteenth member and he didn't understand their fascination with her.

It also cast all his past actions and remarks towards her in a different light. Treating a strange faceless puppet, as inhuman as a Dusk, the way that he did was one thing. But behaving that way to a girl, one who looked close to the same age as the prisoner that he and Lea met beneath the castle in Radiant Garden so long ago, was somehow… different…

Perhaps he would have still behaved the same way back then if he saw her face, but perhaps not. It might have changed things.

Something dark and twisted in him bubbled and boiled in his chest as he continued to stare down at her. Something that pushed down the earlier reaction to her new appearance. Jealousy and hatred filled his throat like bile, raw and burning.

Xion pulled his friend away. Her and Roxas. She and Roxas were the reason that Axel left him behind, abandoning their friendship for those children. They were the reason that Axel turned against the Organization and then destroyed himself. And the replica body now housing her heart cost Lea his life. He was gone permanently this time. There would be no second chance. Lea was dead. Because of her. Her and Roxas. Xion didn't deserve to exist. Not when she ruined everything.

He should destroy the girl. Saïx could feel the dark impulse scorching through the mental fog. His hands tightened at his sides. Xion deserved it. She deserved to suffer for the crimes that her existence had wrought. She deserved to be destroyed.

But something held him back. Saïx couldn't bring himself to attack, to lash out and strike her down, even as dark and vicious impulses tried to spur him forward. Impulses born only partially from the foreign heart. He wanted her to pay too. But he remained frozen in place. He couldn't bring himself to act on those violent thoughts. He simply stared as she disappeared through a dark corridor.

Once Xion was gone, Saïx turned away. Destroying her now would have threatened Master Xehanort's plan. He couldn't risk it. That must be what stilled his hand.

There was no other reason why he would let Xion leave unharmed.

None.

He should leave. There was no purpose in remaining in Twilight Town any longer. Saïx shouldn't have come in the first place. There was no point. There was nothing left for him here.

He had nothing left anywhere.

Saïx summoned up a corridor of darkness and stepped through.


The warm sand under him, the calm waves washing up the beach, and the bright sun slowly sliding towards the horizon all felt like home. The island didn't feel as small and suffocating as it once did, just as his parents no longer seemed as stifling and restricting as they did to a fifteen-year-old who desperately wanted to go beyond the limits of the shoreline. After traveling so far and seeing so many places, Riku could appreciate the comfort of coming home.

He'd visited his family for a little while, just as he knew Kairi and Sora did. But even if he no longer rolled his eyes at his mother wrapping a hug around his neck, he didn't linger long. He loved his family and he did enjoy their company, even if they had a harder time now relating to their nearly-grown son who had seen far more of the worlds than they ever would, but Riku needed a little privacy and had withdrawn back to the familiar beach where he used to play.

He'd wanted to be alone to have a heart-to-heart with his replica. Or rather, the heart of his replica.

Riku didn't know if his replica had joined him when he nearly drowned in the darkness after the swarming Demon Tower swallowed him or if that was merely the moment that the replica made himself known, waking up to help Riku as much as he could. Sora made it sound like he barely noticed the hearts that he'd once contained unless they stirred in their slumber. Perhaps the replica had been sleeping within for a long time. But now he was awake and Riku could feel that he wasn't alone.

His replica didn't want to fade away into darkness. Not alone. Not when he had another choice, to stay and help. And so his heart latched onto Riku's and he promised to stay with Riku to face what was coming.

"But I'm not done yet. Got one last thing to see through."

It was easy for Riku to figure out what his replica wanted to accomplish before he disappeared completely. He could practically feel it. They all had at least one person that they wanted to protect, someone that they cared about. Even the replica without a name of his own…

Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but Riku hoped that they could create a new vessel for his replica. A new body for him and one for Naminé. He deserved to have his own life, just like Naminé, Roxas, and Xion did. And he deserved a chance to see Naminé again. After tomorrow, Riku should talk to Ienzo and the others about the project.

"Are you going to stay here alone all evening?"

Riku glanced over his shoulder. Sora grinned at him, hands tucked casually behind his head. Kairi stepped around him and reached a hand out.

"We just finished visiting with our families," she said. Kairi smiled at him. "Do you want to come sit with us? Or was Sora right and you need some more time to yourself?"

Riku smiled and took the offered hand, letting her pull him to his feet. They didn't race to the sturdy hut, up the staircase, and across the bridge to the islet. When they were younger, he and Sora would have turned it into a race. Everything was a competition between them at one point or they managed to turn it into one. But now, Riku was happy to move at a more leisurely pace alongside his friends and reclaim the usual spot by the paopu tree.

After a few minutes passed in a comfortable silence and the sky began to change colors, Kairi said, "Tomorrow… I don't know what will happen. But the future doesn't scare me. For once, we'll all be there and ready. We'll face it together."

"Together," said Sora, nodding firmly.

Smiling and leaning back against the rough bark, Riku said, "Together."

He knew that tomorrow would be dangerous. Lea's injuries already demonstrated the risks of facing any of their opponents, let alone all of them at once. But they'd already faced impossible odds more times than he could count. And he wouldn't be alone. Sora, Kairi, Mickey, and all the rest of them would be there. And that was enough to make him believe that everything would turn out fine.

Sora's optimism was clearly infectious.

"A lot of things have changed over the years. We're stronger than we used to be," continued Riku. "Strong enough to protect each other."

"It'll be nice to protect you two for a change." Kairi smiled distantly as she stared at the horizon. "But let's be careful and not need to rescue each other. Getting kidnapped repeatedly isn't actually that fun."

Chuckling slightly, Riku said, "Sounds like a good plan."

As the two of them turned towards their third member, Sora gained an indignant expression and asked, "Why are you both looking at me like that?"

Crossing his arms, Riku said, "Because you have a history of taking huge risks to save people."

"Like stabbing yourself with a certain Keyblade of Heart?" added Kairi.

"Which is why," Riku continued, "we want you to be careful and not put yourself in that kind of danger. Even for us. I want all of us to make it out alive. And that means we have to be smart about this."

"They know that you'll do anything to help your friends." Kairi smiled sadly. "They've tried it before and they'll probably try it again. We can't let them manipulate us like that. We have to be careful and not step into whatever traps or tricks they come up with."

Shaking his head, Sora said, "I can try being careful, but I'm not going to stand by and do nothing if someone is in danger and I can help. Especially if they're my friends. If they try to take either of you, I am not holding back."

His answer didn't surprise Riku. He wouldn't be Sora if he said anything else. He and Kairi would just have to make sure that things didn't become that dire.

A corridor of darkness materialized in the middle of the islet, causing the trio to leap to their feet. But before they could summon their Keyblades or even decide if they needed them, a familiar black-haired girl stepped out and the portal vanished. Her hands buried in her pockets, Xion blinked in surprise before smiling.

Her resemblance to a younger version of Kairi was still a little uncanny. Almost like he'd stepped back in time to the day that they finished their raft, the three of them innocently dreaming of sailing away to explore beyond their familiar island and with no idea of the dangers that lurked in the darkness.

"Oh, am I interrupting something?" she asked. "Sorry. We just wanted to go to the beach today and this was the first one that we thought of."

"We?" asked Riku.

She pulled one hand from her pocket to wordlessly point behind them. Riku turned. Two figures had claimed a section of beach not far from where Riku had been sitting earlier. He hadn't even noticed their arrival. Lea was sitting on the small stone wall on the edge of beach while Roxas poked at the sand with his foot, keeping close to where the waves washed up. Maybe he found a seashell or maybe he was just curious about the ocean.

"What are those?" she asked. "They seem familiar…"

Riku turned back to find Xion staring up at the bright yellow, star-shaped fruits in the tree above them. He hadn't realized that he'd been gone from home long enough for several of the fruits to be ripe. Then again, he already knew that time could be a little fuzzy in the Realm of Darkness and he didn't even stay home for long before the summons about the Mark of Mastery exam arrived.

His parents would probably prefer him to stay longer between dangerous journeys that they barely understood.

"Those are paopu fruit," said Sora. "I'm pretty sure they only grow on Destiny Islands. I haven't seen them on any other worlds yet."

Smiling at Xion, Kairi said, "You know, there's a legend about them. They say that if someone shares a paopu fruit with someone else, their destinies become intertwined. They'll remain a part of each other's lives no matter what. Our friend, Selphie, thinks it sounds romantic."

"Romantic?" Xion frowned in confusion. "Does that mean it's like that kissing thing?"

Crossing his arms and leaning back again, Riku said, "Not necessarily. I mean, yes, many people treat it that way. Half the married couples have stories about including a paopu fruit as part of their proposal. But it can be for other important people in your life. I think I remember one of the younger kids that you sometimes babysat for mentioning that his parents shared one with him when they adopted him, didn't they, Kairi? They wanted to show him that he was finally home."

As Kairi nodded in confirmation, Xion stared up at the tree with a thoughtful expression. Then it shifted towards determination, her eyes bright and animated by an idea. Without warning, she leapt at the tree trunk and started shimming up. Despite how awkward her black coat should have made the stunt, Xion managed to climb the tree quickly and effortlessly. She grabbed two of the largest fruits from the top. Then she slid down until Xion reached the section of the trunk that curved and she dropped to the ground.

"Here," she said as she handed one of the ripe paopu fruits to Sora. "I remember how important they both are to you and how much you hate it when they're gone. You want them to be part of your life forever, right?"

Oh, yeah. She was originally created from Sora's memoires of Kairi, but they were still Sora's memories. Apparently even after giving those memories back, Xion remembered some things about Sora.

Sora looked a little pink as he muttered his thanks. He probably couldn't quite forget the more romantic implications that some people attached to the story. He could get pretty flustered over things like that when they involved him personally. It was part of the reason that Riku used to tease Sora about his crush on Kairi when they were younger. It was funny.

And it still was a little funny now.

Clutching her own fruit close, Xion jogged over to the bridge. Then she dropped over the edge, rolling as she landed, and bounced back to her feet on the sand without losing or squashing the paopu fruit. Riku watched her hurry towards the rest of her friends.

She'd come a long way from how she was when Riku first encountered her. Xion seemed happier and increasingly more comfortable with herself.

Considering her tragic history and Riku's hand in even part of it, he was glad that she was getting this second chance.

"So," said Kairi, pulling his attention back, "do you want to try it?"

Blinking in surprise, Sora asked, "Try what?"

"Sharing a paopu fruit. The three of us." She stared at them, though Riku couldn't seem to decipher her expression. "No matter what happens, I want to be a part of your lives. And I hope that you feel the same way."


He'd promised to go to the beach with them. What felt like a lifetime ago, he promised that all three of them would go to the beach together on their next day off. He suggested the idea to distract and cheer them up after the brief scare where Xion nearly fell from the clocktower. Though at the time, none of them would admit to the fact that they could be scared or cheered up. And at the time none of them realized how much worse things would get. By the end, that quaint dream seemed as impossible as the idea of even seeing each other again.

But now, despite how long it took and how hard it was to reach that point, they could finally fulfill that promise.

Lea shifted his position slightly, only feeling the slightest tinge of pain that he could easily hide. Most of the bruises had healed enough that they didn't bother him too much. Lea still felt a little achy in general, but even that should fade by morning. The only injury that he might need to be careful of would be the bruising around the four deeper cuts, where the hopefully-no-longer-fractured ribs were still healing. It wasn't ideal for an upcoming fight. Lea knew it would hinder his maneuverability somewhat. But he'd tried to follow Ansem's advice to take it easy all day and he at least felt better.

Which was why Lea felt content to sit on the edge of the beach while Roxas poked at the sand with the toe of his boot. Not to mention that both of his now-overprotective friends had insisted that he rest as much as possible on their day off. A bit of a change from where they once teased him about wanting to sleep during his day off in the past.

Maybe someday he would show the kids how to properly enjoy an afternoon on the beach. There weren't really a lot of beaches where he grew up in Radiant Garden, but Lea knew the basics. Roxas and Xion had never built sandcastles, played in the waves, tossed around a frisbee, or… or did anything normal kids did growing up…

"Axel! Roxas!" called Xion, jogging over with something yellow in her arms.

Smiling at her, he said, "Hey. Get done with your errands?"

"Yep. I picked up plenty of potions and elixirs for all three of us. And a surprise."

"That thing you're carrying?" asked Roxas as he walked over.

She shook her head and said, "No. This is a paopu fruit. Riku, Kairi, and Sora were telling me a story about them."

Lea glanced towards the small islet. The trio were sitting on the curved tree. And while the distance and angle made it harder to tell, it looked like they were eating something.

"What kind of story?" he asked.

"They said that if someone shares it with someone else who is really important to them, then they'll always be connected. They'll be part of each other's lives forever." Xion glanced down, hugging the yellow fruit to her chest. "I kind of like the idea."

Of course she would. A superstition that would guarantee an unbreakable bond? A way to prevent their friendship from being ripped asunder? Something to ensure that nothing would keep them apart forever? Another way to ground her existence into reality, making certain she and Roxas wouldn't be swallowed up into another person since it would be harder to be a part of Lea's life if they disappeared again? He could see why she might want that.

And if he was honest, even if it was just a story, Lea liked the idea of having something extra to keep his half-pints together and safe.

"I'm guessing that means you want to try out the magic star fruit trick then?" he asked. Lea reached over and ruffled her hair. "You two won't get rid of me that easily. I told you. No matter what happens, you can always count on me to bring you back. But if you want us to try this paopu fruit thing, I have no problem with it."

Xion grinned before sitting on the edge of the stone wall next to him, Roxas squeezing in to take his place between them. She broke off one of the "points" on the star-shaped fruit before passing it down to Roxas. He mimicked her action, claiming his portion of the yellow fruit, before handing the remaining chunk to Lea.

With the first taste, Lea felt relatively certain that the people of Destiny Islands didn't serve paopu juice as a drink. Unlike some fruits, nothing started dripping down his face with the first bite. The outer skin was soft and the inside was moist, but there wasn't a lot liquid in the actual fruit compared to some types that he'd tried. But the flavor was actually delicious, the fruit pleasantly tangy and just sweet enough without crossing the line. Lea found himself taking a second and third bite before he even realized what he was doing. He worked his way through his larger portion of the fruit, avoiding the long and flat seed in the middle.

"That's not too bad," he said as he finished it off, Xion and Roxas already done with their smaller pieces. "Not as good as ice cream, but probably healthier."

Digging into her pocket, Xion said, "That reminds me of my surprise. I used a Blizzard spell on them earlier, so they should still be cold."

Three sea-salt ice creams were pulled out with a triumphant smile. The sight made Lea's throat tighten momentarily as she passed them out.

He'd always loved the sweet and salty flavor as a kid. They had been his favorite snack, one that he tried to reserve as a reward. When he first became a Nobody though, the taste had seemed dull and bland. He couldn't appreciate and enjoy them anymore. He'd only kept eating them out of habit, but even that indulgence grew rarer over the years until months might pass between them. He didn't start noticing the flavor again until he introduced Roxas to sea-salt ice cream. And that was the point he started eating them regularly again.

Because he finally had someone to eat them with again.

Tasting the familiar sweet and salty flavor sparked so many powerful memories and emotions, making him blink rapidly as his eyes burned. The sound of waves and the strong scent of ocean salt on the breeze didn't quite line up with the nostalgia hitting him, but watching the golden sky shift towards orange and red reminded Lea of all those sunsets spent together.

Eating ice cream with Roxas and Xion at sunset… He'd missed this.

"Axel?" asked Roxas.

"Hm?"

Reaching into his pocket, Roxas said quietly, "We found a couple things that fell out of your pocket yesterday. I thought you might want them back."

Frowning in confusion, Lea held out his hand. Both Roxas and Xion handed over the familiar trinkets. The worn "Winner" ice cream stick and the smooth seashell that once dwelled in his black coat. A parting gift from Roxas and a gift that he could now remember coming from Xion.

He still hated himself for forgetting her. How did that happen?

"Thanks," he said with a smile. Lea returned his small treasures to his pocket where they belonged. "There are a couple things too important to lose again."

Judging by their grins, Roxas and Xion seemed to suspect that he didn't meant the "Winner" stick and the seashell.

Chapter Text

It was the dawn of the final day. The appointed hour was near at hand. He'd been working towards this moment for most of his long life. The younger version of himself lurking around was proof enough of how long Xehanort had been planning and preparing for this new Keyblade War.

And he'd gone to some rather impressive lengths to put all the pieces into place. For some people, manipulating and possessing Terra would have been challenging enough. Coaxing the young man to embrace his inner darkness by driving a wedge between Terra and Master Eraqus at a key point would have never worked if Master Eraqus didn't have such a blind spot for his old friend that Xehanort used to his advantage. Shifting his heart and will into another's body took planning and power to achieve. But regaining strength and youth in his old age was well worth the effort. The side effect of that possession causing amnesia was a slight hinderance, but even that wasn't enough to derail his life's work.

While Master Xehanort now possessed all the memories of his past and his various components, with the exception of the memories formed when his heart traveled forward in time, he'd spent about a decade scattered and unable to properly remember his ultimate goal. That led to a few… side goals being formed. But his subconscious remembered enough to keep making progress.

The amnesiac apprentice version of Xehanort using Terra's body, with Xigbar's prompting, followed his subconscious urge to seek out darkness. And that led to him splitting into his Heartless and Nobody while also creating the first few members of Organization XIII. Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness, remembered more of his true goal since Terra's remaining influence was nearly nonexistent in that form. He was sent back in time as a heart with the knowledge to prepare his younger self and to cultivate darkness for this day. Xemnas, his memories still a fragmented mess, mostly focused on his own goals. But he remembered the importance of Kingdom Hearts and he remembered enough to start preparing the Organization members as future vessels.

Now he was whole again. His younger selves were brought forward to their future, his present, as hearts to inhabit replica bodies. A far more effective method of filling his ranks that he could have never predicted when he first conceived his plan so long ago. Other versions of his heart from the past were placed within Terra's restored and empty body and within the carefully chosen Organization members. He even brought Vanitas's heart forward in time from before his failed attempt to create the χ-blade, letting the boy reform his body out of darkness the same way that he did originally, just to provide another vessel. Xehanort had shattered and scattered himself across time and worlds… just to reach this moment.

But it would be worth it. There had been a steep price to pay. And soon the decades of work, the lives and worlds that he destroyed, and his own personal sacrifices would finally come to fruition. The moment that he held the χ-blade in his hands, all of it would be finally worth it.

Before the final battle could begin, however, he needed to deal with a minor issue that had been brought to his attention. Hence why he was spending his last few hours approaching the tall stone columns that the real Organization XIII had been using as a gathering place recently. But rather than perching upon the top, he neared the bases of the towering structures.

Hands tucked behind his back, Master Xehanort strode forward to where two figures waited. A few of the vessels were of lesser quality. Secondary choices or even tertiary. They carried versions of his heart, but the Nobodies still carried their original personalities and thoughts. His heart could influence and change them to an extent, but they weren't him. They weren't as reliable as the empty replica vessels.

"You summoned us, Master Xehanort?" asked Saïx evenly as he stood next to Vexen.

Nodding slightly, he said, "Yes. Recent problems have been brought to my attention and it seemed prudent to handle any potential issue before the upcoming Keyblade War."

The dawn light caused the stone pillars around them to cast long and deep shadows. So even while they were surrounded by light, they were engulfed in darkness. And soon, far more would be engulfed, the worlds returning to the darkness from whence they came. And their destruction would inevitably create something new. Something untouched and perfect, just waiting for someone to shape and mold.

"You mean the loss of the replicas," said Saïx evenly. "An unexpected turn of events, but not beyond salvaging. The thirteen darknesses are in place and the guardians of light should have enough members. Everything is proceeding as planned."

"We may be prepared for today's clash, but the loss of the replicas exposed a deeper concern," he said with a slight edge to his words. "I missed the signs of corruption rotting away at the core of the true Organization. Not until it became blatant."

Master Xehanort glared at the two of them. Vexen stared at the ground, already chastised for his mistakes before being turned into a proper vessel. For the moment, he was docile and obedient. He had too much self-preservation instinct and too much influence from Xehanort's darkness to be anything else currently. Saïx, on the other hand, met his eyes without hesitation. But there was a new dullness to his gaze.

"Vexen shared a rather disappointing story when Xigbar brought him in. One that he was reluctant to share, but one that he could not hide when I… pressed the matter. Apparently he is responsible for the theft of the replicas and the destruction of the laboratory where the others were kept." Xehanort watched for any sign of a reaction from his audience. "I have already taken steps to ensure that there will be no further rebellion from that quarter and that Vexen will not be foolish enough to attempt escaping a second time."

Eyes still downcast, Vexen tugged at his upper zipper and exposed part of his chest. Beneath his black coat lay extensive burn scars across his skin. But more important was the red and raw Recusant's Sigil newly carved into his flesh. With Xehanort's heart resting in his chest and the symbol etched into his skin, Vexen would be far more amicable and obedient than before.

What was more concerning was when one of his chosen vessels had both and still managed to rebel without being noticed.

As Vexen pulled the zipper back into place and hid the damage, Master Xehanort continued, "I have also been informed that you played a part in what transpired, Saïx. Something else that he was reluctant to share, but I doubted that he could pull off such a betrayal alone. But I did not expect such treachery from you."

With the restoration of his memories, Master Xehanort remembered his existence as Xemnas. And he remembered Saïx's loyalty. Unsurprising with the sigil carved into his face from the moment he became a Nobody and with over a decade of gradual influence shaping him. He and Xigbar were his most entrusted members when he was Xemnas.

And perhaps that certainty of Saïx's loyalty led to some overconfidence on his part, giving him a bit too much leeway. Master Xehanort did not pay enough attention to the Nobody and that lax behavior allowed this rebellion to fester. He should have considered the possibility. Especially since Saïx once shared a friendship with Axel and those annoying connections had a habit of causing problems.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself after such a blatant betrayal?" asked Master Xehanort.

His eyes still dull, Saïx said, "I made a mistake."

"By turning against me and attempting to forestall destiny?"

"Failing. I made the mistake of failing."

The Nobody's neutral expression remained listless. Practically lifeless behind his eyes. Something was broken. Saïx didn't have enough spirit for further rebellion.

Ah, yes. Marluxia and Larxene reported a certain fatality during the failed attempt to retrieve the replicas. If those strangling bonds of past friendship were responsible for Saïx resisting the darkness planted inside him, then that should no longer be a factor.

The bonds of friendship were an annoyance, but also a weakness. A vulnerability. One that Xehanort's chosen vessel was experiencing firsthand.

But just to be certain…

"Can you give me a single reason," asked Master Xehanort calmly, summoning his Keyblade and swinging it in a move faster than his age would imply, pressing the edge against the Nobody's throat, "why I should not strike you down where you stand?"

Without flinching or showing any sign that he cared about the weapon threatening him, Saïx said, "This is the dawn of your Keyblade War and you need your thirteen darknesses. With the replicas gone and Demyx missing, you have no spares left and no time to seek out replacements. If you want to forge the χ-blade, you need me to fight today."

He smirked before dismissing his weapon.

"Clever boy. You do realize that you and Vexen will be closely watched and controlled during the battle, correct? There will be no chance of changing sides."

"My allegiances will remain steadfast until death," said Saïx.

"That may be sooner than you think."

"I am aware, Master Xehanort."

Appearing in the darkness, Vanitas approached the small gathering. The dark figure with a smooth helmet had been a vessel that Xehanort had carefully groomed for his entire existence. He ripped the darkness from Ventus's heart and, when that darkness wasn't quite enough, he spent the next few years crafting the creature into a better fit. Like refining and forging the strongest steel from raw iron ore. Weakness and imperfection were driven out of his creation. He did not hold back on his efforts. Nor did he allow any outside influence near Vanitas. He could not risk introducing even the smallest spark of light to his pure darkness.

Vanitas was created for a single purpose. He was meant to be pure and perfect darkness to serve as one half of the χ-blade.

And he failed in that purpose.

Well, technically this version of Vanitas hadn't failed yet. He would eventually return to the past, would combine with Ventus for a brief moment, and would then shatter apart. Vanitas couldn't change his failed destiny. He wouldn't remember any of this when he went back. He was trapped in his role.

But even if he was destined to ultimately fail, Vanitas remained loyal and obedient. Even his moments of independence were centered on trying to perform his one purpose of creating the χ-blade, either as a vessel for Master Xehanort or by clashing and combining with his other half. He could never be anything other than a weapon.

Useful traits.

"Ventus is approaching," said Vanitas without preamble. "I can sense him."

Master Xehanort nodded and said, "Then we better go to greet our guests."


Lea had briefly wondered how everyone would get to their destinations. Only some of them had the protective clothes and capacity to create dark corridors. And it would be smarter to save their energy for the fight instead of generating portals. Roxas and Xion didn't even let him create one when they visited Destiny Islands the day before, the pair instantly volunteering to do it themselves when they decided what to do for the evening of their day off. And Lea knew that all the guardians wouldn't fit inside the cockpit of Sora's usual Gummi Ship.

But then Riku brought the one that he used earlier when they went to grab Ventus's body and King Mickey loaned another Gummi Ship (because of course he would have plenty of the things). An ugly green-and-brown-splotchy-looking thing, but with decent shields and weapons. More importantly, it had enough room for Lea, Roxas, and Xion and that was all that really mattered.

Lea also discovered that while he could steer and maneuver the thing relatively well, Roxas and Xion apparently shared a natural talent for piloting. Or inherited the skills from Sora. The line between the two options was rather narrow. Regardless, with Roxas piloting and Xion firing, the trio of Gummi Ships managed to weave their way through the surrounding maze and past the Heartless ships without too much damage.

Sora mostly cleared the path for the other two Gummi Ships, but his half-pints did a good job handling whatever he missed.

His first impression of the Badlands was that at least any fighting wouldn't risk property damage or getting some innocent random person hurt. The desolate landscape stretched out before them before eventually giving way to stone cliffs ahead. Dry brown dirt without a hint of vegetation surrounded them, the wind stirring the dust in thick clouds. It wasn't quite as hot as Agrabah, but just as dry and dusty.

"It's time," said King Mickey solemnly. "The Keyblade Graveyard is up ahead."

Aqua, Ventus, Donald, and Goofy nodded firmly. Their group kept loosely together in two vaguely straight lines. Sora took front and center with the king and Ventus on his right. Donald was on his left. Behind Ventus was Aqua while Riku took up position near King Mickey. Lea kept Roxas and Xion carefully positioned between him and Goofy. And slightly ahead of him and to his left was Kairi, watching the landscape suspiciously.

Good. Lea was half-expecting a sneak attack too. Even if there weren't many places for one to hide.

Sora abruptly startled and said, "Someone's coming."

It took a moment, but Lea spotted the figure approaching through the thick dust. More and more details became obvious as he drew closer. An old bald man with a short white beard walked slowly, his hands tucked behind his back.

The infamous Master Xehanort had apparently decided to grace them with his presence.

He stopped a reasonable distance from them, far enough that no one could attack each other yet. Well, not without using some flashy magic spells. But close enough that Lea could see the moment that Master Xehanort noticed his presence. The old man's smirk melted into a frown. The slight widening of his eyes suggested some surprise. But then his smirk was back, masking his previous reaction.

Lea smirked back. Looks like someone made the mistake of assuming that he was dead before seeing the proof. Well, if they weren't expecting him to be around to fight, that might give him and the others an advantage.


Kairi tried to ignore the way the hairs on the back of her neck stood up when Master Xehanort's eyes briefly passed over her. There was something unnerving about the man that sent a chill to her core. Worse than her brushes with Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness. Worse than Xemnas. Something about him disturbed her on a deep level.

"Legend has it that darkness once covered the world," he recited solemnly. "We know so little about the Keyblade War. Only that it was just the beginning. If ruin brings about creation, what then would another Keyblade War bring? When the darkness falls, will we be found worthy of the precious light the legends speaks of?"

Moving too fast for her eyes to see, a tall figure abruptly materialized on Master Xehanort's right side. Kairi barely kept herself from flinching at his speed and arrival. Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness, crossed his arms as he stared down at their group.

"Or will all of creation be instead returned to the shadows?" Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness, continued the speech smoothly. "Today, we will recreate the legend and see."

She saw Sora grit his teeth a short distance away and Riku's posture shifted into something more aggressive. Master Xehanort might ultimately be responsible for so much suffering, but the humanoid Heartless started things for the three of them. He was the one who plunged their home into darkness, scattered them, and even possessed one of them. It was easier for the three of them to blame Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness.

Appearing just as suddenly with blinding speed, practically teleporting, Xemnas took his place on Master Xehanort's left side. And for someone with no emotions, he looked rather surprised when his eyes locked on Lea. Surprise that quickly vanished behind a more neutral expression. Only the slightest scowl crossed his face to betray the truth. Even when his gaze moved towards Kairi, she knew that his quiet anger was directed towards Lea.

Lea's smirk only widened in response to the hostility.

"But first…," said Xemnas slowly. "Your light shines far too brightly. Your numbers have created a grave imbalance. That light must be extinguished in order for the truth to be seen."

He glanced briefly towards the old man and Master Xehanort gave the smallest hint of a nod. A ghost of a smile flickered across Xemnas's face, a ruthless and humorless expression. Then Xemnas disappeared, moving impossibly fast.

Something suddenly grabbed Kairi's right forearm, wrenching her away from her friends while twisting her arm at a painful angle that she couldn't escape. Too far up and back, almost pulling her weight off the ground. She heard Xemnas's voice right behind her, saying something about "motivation," as he dragged her away and twisted her limb further. She heard her friends shout in shock and horror.

It was too fast. Too much was happening. But Kairi—

"Are you sure about this, Axel?"

"Look, you said you wanted to protect yourself, right? And we both know how many people have tried to kidnap you before."

"I told you that I forgave you."

"Not the point. This is about keeping it from happening again. And trust me. It doesn't matter how powerful or invulnerable they are. Anything that remembers being human will react instinctively to certain threats. Including fire. So we're going to practice until you can do the spell without thinking. Someone grabs you without warning? You hit fast, hard, and hot. No hesitating. And with as much power as you can, even if you risk some damage with the backlash. It's better than letting the Organization get a hold of you again."

"But how are we supposed to practice that without you getting hurt?"

"If you're doing this right, it'll probably sting a little. But I can handle it, Kairi. I've been playing with fire for years. And you have a good handle on that Cure spell now. It's more important for you to master this spell and to commit it to muscle memory. It needs to instinctive. Just… don't mention this to Merlin. I don't think he'd approve of the idea."

"…All right. If you're not going easy on me in sparring, then I guess it's fair not to hold back on you with this either."

"Good. Now, whenever someone tries to grab you, as soon as they do it, don't think. Don't hesitate. And don't hold back. You lash out with everything you have."

—was already reacting.

Summoning Destiny's Embrace in her nondominant hand, she ignored the pain and the vindictive monologuing to swiftly swing the Keyblade up. She wouldn't hit anything at her current awkward angle, but she didn't need to aim.

Within seconds of Xemnas grabbing her, Kairi shouted, "Fire!"

Flames swirled around her like a burning cyclone before flaring out, impossibly hot and intense. More flames than she could easily control. And while it certainly wasn't strong enough to hurt the Nobody, Lea was right about the lasting effects of human nature because the unexpected appearance of fire at close range startled Xemnas enough for his grip to loosen for a second. And that was all that she needed; Kairi was already flinging herself away, breaking free of his hold and falling straight into a dodge roll in the same motion.

With her increased distance from the attempted kidnapper, Kairi rolled to her feet just in time for Lea to force himself between Kairi and Xemnas, his Keyblade drawn. Sora was only a couple seconds slower since he had a few more steps to take. But neither of them needed to defend her. As soon as he realized that his attempt had failed, Xemnas returned to Master Xehanort's side with the same blinding speed as before.

"Are you all right, Kairi?" asked Sora, turning towards her now that the threat had pulled back.

Ignoring the minor burns starting to sting on her arms, the result of diving through her own Fira-level spell, she said, "I'm fine." Kairi then glared at Xemnas defiantly. "No one is kidnapping me this time."

"Or ever again," said Lea rather smugly. "Nicely done, Kairi."

"It's not over." Riku summoned his Keyblade. "Look."

Demonstrating the same impossible speed as the others, two slightly smaller figures materialized in front of Master Xehanort. One wore a smooth black helmet, concealing anything else about himself. There was nothing to identify him by. The second shared the same white hair and facial structure as so many of them, allowing Kairi to figure out that he was a younger version of Xehanort.

"No matter," said Master Xehanort. "There is more than one way to snuff out a light."

The figure with the dark helmet said, "Only when your hopes have been broken by battle upon battle can the key be claimed by Kingdom Hearts."

His voice… It was so familiar and yet so utterly wrong. Could the others hear it? And something about the figure made her uneasy. Like his existence was wrong on a fundamental level.

But Master Xehanort still felt worse to her. More malevolent.

"And break you is what we shall do," said the young Xehanort. "It has been etched."

Darkness started swirling around Master Xehanort and the others. Kairi and a couple others took an uneasy step back. Roxas and Xion summoned their weapons. The darkness started pouring upwards, provoking the guardians to shift into more combative stances. The sky turned black from the forming shadows.

Then Heartless started raining down from above. In impossible numbers.

"Look at how many there are!" shouted Sora in horror.

Kairi edges her way closer to Lea while Xion and Roxas did the same. The three of them had come to a quiet agreement earlier. They would stay close to him. They would watch his back and make sure that he didn't get hurt again. He seemed recovered from before, but they weren't taking any chances.

Needless to say, none of them mentioned their little agreement to Lea.

"Okay, gang," said King Mickey, summoning his Keyblade. "Get ready!"

As Heartless, Nobodies, and a third type of creatures with a new sigil surrounded them, the rest of the guardians summoned their weapons. The others edged their way closer to certain companions, breaking down into smaller groups: the trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, the duo of Riku and King Mickey, and the Aqua and Ventus pair. Then, as Kairi took a deep breath and braced herself, they charged.

Chapter Text

Fighting Heartless and Nobodies, the aggressive creatures previously described by the others, was a new experience for Ventus. But after the first dozen or so, he figured out that it wasn't that different from dealing with the Unverse. And even if it had been over a decade since he traveled the worlds, Ventus knew how to handle those.

He and Aqua moved together, covering for each other instinctively. They leapt, spun, twisted, and dodged around hundreds of creatures. Ventus switched between magic and physical attacks without thought. He barely touched the ground. Speed and agility were always his greatest strength. He tore his way through the Heartless, Nobodies, and Unverse alongside Aqua and her magic.

It was nice fighting next to her again.

There were others moving in and out of his line of sight, also fighting the hordes of enemies. Each of them demonstrated a different style or strategy, but everyone was effective. And clearly experienced at cutting them down.

Riku and Mickey were fast and deadly. They seemed to mostly focus on singular larger enemies, cutting down the giants among the swarm and keeping them from going after the others too much. Riku wielded his weapon from a higher angle than Ventus and augmented his strikes with darkness-laced fireballs. His moves were familiar, something Ventus felt like he'd seen countless times in his dreams. And while Riku kept low, Mickey went high. He wielded his Keyblade like he was a bouncing ball of destruction, bouncing and spinning as Heartless, Nobodies, and Unverse shattered under his assault.

The close group of Lea, Kairi, Roxas, and Xion were performing a rather complicated dance where they tried to defend each other as they moved around the battlefield. They focused more on keeping each other safe than taking out as many opponents as possible. Though they were certainly doing a good job at that too.

Lea, with a Keyblade of his own now and wasn't that a surprising development, seemed to rely mostly on spinning moves and copious amounts of fire. The other three leaned towards aggressively bashing away at anything they could reach. Xion would throw around Blizzard spells occasionally and both Roxas and Kairi made use of different types of Light spells to clear out some space, but they seemed to prefer physical attacks.

But it was the remaining three who seemed to be the most in their element. Sora didn't even hesitate as he moved. Wherever he went, the aggressive creatures disappeared in droves. He destroyed them with almost no effort. He was a natural at it. When they were close, he would perform a combination attack with Donald or Goofy. And they barely needed to communicate their intention. They knew how to fight as a team better than anyone. Ventus was actually a little impressed.

"We need to take them out in groups," shouted Donald.

Smashing away with his shield, Goofy added, "Yeah, look at 'em all. They just keep coming."

Then the trio managed to do something even more over-the-top than the rest of their tricks. Something that caused Aqua to grab his arm and start dragging him back. When this was over, Ventus was definitely going to ask how Sora managed to create a magic rollercoaster.


Once Sora summoned up some magically-constructed rollercoaster to deliver chaos on the remaining Heartless, lesser Nobodies, and Unverse, Lea felt a little superfluous. Not to mention in the line of fire. As Sora rode it on glowing tracks that wrapped around the battleground, he rained down fire and colorful lights that exploded and he left very little untouched. Everyone made a break for the crevice through the cliffs to avoid accidental injury. It would be safer for them to have a thick stone barrier between them and the friendliest person in history who was currently vaporizing the enemy.

Lea did his best to catch his breath silently as they settled comfortably on the far side and listened to the sounds of destruction. He didn't need to make anyone worry, even if that fight shouldn't have tired him that much yet. While the rather liberal application of Cure spells from overprotective Keyblade wielders meant that he was in relatively good condition after the fight, he couldn't ignore the slight twinge that he'd managed to agitate into returning. Which was annoying after he woke up that morning feeling better. He also couldn't ignore how he couldn't manage certain movements without wincing, something that hadn't improved overnight like he had hoped. These things were barely enough to hinder him, but enough to remind Lea that he wasn't fully recovered yet.

But he had not intention of showing it. Kairi, Roxas, and Xion were already trying to protect him and being rather obvious about it. No reason to make them worry more. The three of them sticking close did have the nice side effect of making it easy to watch over them though.

Yes, Kairi was tougher than she looked and both Roxas and Xion had been swinging Keyblades longer than he had. That didn't mean he would risk letting them get seriously hurt.

"Master Riku?" said Ventus, the title making the white-haired boy jolt in surprise. "Do you know how to do what Sora's doing right now? With the magic rollercoaster?"

Smiling slightly as the explosions reached a crescendo, Riku said, "That specifically? No. Sora, Donald, and Goofy have a knack for the flashier moves."

The sound of fighting fell silent, indicating that Sora's magic rollercoaster of destruction had finished. And possibly hinting that there weren't any more targets for him either. Lea used the lull as an excuse to look over the kids again. No obvious injuries, even Kairi's minor burns from her earlier stunt already healed with a Cura, and everyone still with plenty of energy. Good.

After a couple moments, Sora, Donald, and Goofy jogged through the crevice through the cliffs. Unsurprisingly, the kid looked ready to go a few more rounds. There was a reason that Sora could charge his way to the top of Castle Oblivion and through any obstacle without hesitation. He was stronger than his bright and friendly demeanor would suggest.

King Mickey turned as they arrived and, as if he hadn't already glanced over them to make sure the same way that Lea did, asked, "Is everyone okay?"

Various members of the group nodded their assurances and Lea gave him a quick thumbs up. No one was hurt and they still had a decent supply of potions and elixirs. None of them had fought any of Xehanort's lackies yet, but they were still in good enough condition for those upcoming encounters.

Which would include Saïx. He had to be here somewhere.

"Come on," said Sora. "Let's go."


Something out of the corner of his eye caught Ventus's attention. A shape of a person glimpsed through the dust. And Ventus knew that motionless silhouette.

"Terra!" shouted Ventus before breaking into a run.

He saw Aqua with his peripheral vision, trying to grab him, but he was already out of reach. It was Terra. Ventus couldn't even think of anything else. His friend was back. All other thought or caution fell behind as he ran.

"Ven," she shouted after him.

Scrambling to a stop in front of the tall and lethargic figure, Ventus grabbed Terra's wrist. He didn't react, but Ventus didn't care. He could only smile up at his friend.

"Terra!" he shouted brightly. "We found you."

Listless and slow, Terra blinked and turned his face towards Ventus. His blue eyes seemed blank and empty compared to what Ventus remembered.

But it was all right. They found him. Ventus would help Terra and everything would be fine again. He knew it would be.

Aqua came up beside Ventus, one hand hovering in front of her chest anxiously as she stared at their long-absent friend. Her expression held an equal amount of hope and suspicion.

Quietly, she said, "Terra, please say you're in there."

He turned slightly to look at her. But there was something off about Terra's expression. Ventus couldn't quite explain it. The way Terra was looking at he just seemed different.

Without warning, Aqua grabbed Ventus's shoulder and yanked him back. And kept dragging him back, her grip firm and desperate. Ventus tried to pull free as the others finally caught up.

"What gives, Aqua?" he asked as she finally let go and moved her arm protectively in front of Ventus.

Voice firm and cold, Aqua glared at the young man and said, "I know that you're not him." Shock and realization hit Ventus as she continued harshly, "Now let our friend go."

Stupid, stupid, stupid. He knew what they told him about what happened to Terra. He knew. And he didn't even consider it when he saw his friend.

Terra lowered his head with a smirk, no longer pretending. Because he wasn't Terra. His hair turned white, the change moving from the roots to the tips. And his body language shifted into something completely different.

Ventus fell into a combative stance and he saw the others mirror him. They didn't summon their Keyblades. Not yet. But they were preparing themselves.

"He is their thirteenth," said Mickey.

When he opened his eyes, Terra's familiar shade of friendly blue was gone. All that Ventus could see were golden eyes that belonged to Master Xehanort.


Aqua was raised to oppose darkness. To distrust it and those that sought it out. Master Eraqus taught all of them that lesson and most of her recent experiences only strengthened that mindset.

Not all, but most.

Which was why, when she saw Master Xehanort's eyes staring back at her from Terra's face and darkness started swirling and gathering around him, an unnerving chill ran up Aqua's spine even as she wanted to attack the monster controlling her friend.

"Today is the day you all lose," announced Not-Terra.

Glaring, she snapped, "What?"

"Before you even face the thirteen, every last one of you will be torn heart from body," he continued as he summoned his Keyblade. "But fear not. The χ-blade will still be forged."

Never. Aqua's posture settled into the same combative stance that kept her safe for so long in the Realm of Darkness. She would never let him forge the χ-blade. And she would never let him harm her friends.

Staring Not-Terra down, Sora said, "We're not going to lose to you."

Not-Terra smirked. Then he moved, too fast to see. A flash of motion out of the corner of her eye and she turned. But not fast enough. She barely had a chance to glimpse a figure that appeared before he swung. A Keyblade too fast to see. And something flew back, knocked away at similar speeds.

She finally turned enough to see. To comprehend what happened in the timespan between one heartbeat and the next.

Not-Terra straightening out of his strike.

A small shape tumbling to a stop past the others.

No…

It… couldn't be… Cold, numbing shock washed over Aqua as she tried to understand what she was seeing.

The small, silent, and motionless figure lying crumbled on the ground… Was he even breathing?

Ventus… He hurt Ventus…

"Ven!" she shouted.


Sora felt something ache sharply in his chest before tearing away roughly, making him gasp. Even after separating, he remained closely connected to everyone who once rested in his heart. The bonds tighter than even those he shared with Riku, Kairi, and the others. And when Ventus was hurt so badly—

how badly? He couldn't feel him like he should

—he felt some of the backlash.

And protective anger bubbled up in response.

Summoning his Keyblade, he shouted, "That's it!"

He charged towards the white-haired man, the one who wasn't the real Terra, with every intention of knocking the stuffing out of him. Even if he tried to block with his Keyblade, Sora intended to just fight back. But Not-Terra caught his swing with a Dark Gravity spell and trapped Sora's weapon. Yanking did nothing to free it.

Then Not-Terra shifted and the Dark Gravity spell flared out, sending Sora flying. And unable to twist around the right way in time, he crashed roughly on the dirt and knocked the wind out of him.

Ow. He was normally better with aerial recoveries.

As Sora tried to drag some air back into his lungs, he saw Not-Terra quickly turn his attention towards Kairi. Then he launched himself at her, moving fast enough to leave a dust trail. Not imperceivably fast, but too fast to dodge.

Too fast for Kairi to escape. Sora saw her freeze for just a second. Not long. Too long. The hesitation gave Not-Terra enough time to swing and—

Lea flung himself between the two, Keyblade up to block the blow. But Not-Terra's strength overcame the unexpected obstacle. He hit hard and knocked Lea flying sideways, crashing through a boulder without slowing down until he slammed into the cliffside.

"Axel!" yelped Kairi in shock and worry, echoed by two more voices.

A pillar of light slammed down, barely missing Not-Terra's smooth dodge as Roxas shouted in fury. A twist of the Keyblade as he spun and Not-Terra managed to hook an attacking Xion with it before slinging her into Roxas, knocking them both tumbling.

Then Not-Terra turned back towards Kairi with a bored expression. But by then Sora was on his feet and running.

"No," shouted King Mickey as Sora raced by him and Riku. "Sora!"

He didn't slow. Even when he realized that he wasn't alone, Sora didn't slow down.

Sora dove, tackling Kairi to the ground away, just as Goofy blocked Not-Terra's downward swing. The impact knocked the man through the air and back. Sora felt power building as Donald raised his wand, glowing lines forming along the ground. Reddish-white runes that practically burned with power.

Goofy hit the ground and rolled back to his feet. Horrified worry flashed across his face as he reached towards his friend in a futile gesture.

"Donald," he called, "don't!"

Aiming his wand, he shouted, "Zettaflare!"

Staff glowing in Donald's grip, he fired a huge column of red-white light that quickly blinded Sora. The boy could feel the ground shaking under him as the powerful spell seemed to engulf Not-Terra. The blast continued for several seconds, loud and bright, before gradually fading.

Ears ringing and blinking back the spots in his eyes, Sora carefully pushed himself to his feet and pulled Kairi up. They stared in awe before smiles spread across their faces. He knew that Donald was powerful when it came to magic. But even their best combos didn't look like that.

Then the staff tumbled from his grasp, Donald quickly following as he collapsed limply in the dirt. No strength or energy left. Like when he cast Curaza. Perhaps even worse. Sora's gut twisted at the sight of the lifeless figure.

This was wrong. Everything was going wrong.

King Mickey and Goofy ran to Donald, looking over him worriedly. Aqua reacted similarly, taking up position at her friend's side.

"Ven…" she said quietly as Riku joined her, checking of Ventus.

Sora glanced back. Kairi, Roxas, and Xion clustered around the slumped shape. Lea, barely healed from before, was once again on death's doorstep.

Or perhaps he'd crossed the threshold this time. Maybe all three of them had.

"This can't be real," he whispered.

Darkness began swirling a short distance away from the scattered group. A spiraling and thrashing tower of Shadows, a Demon Tower, burst out of the ground. It swirled and twisted overhead. Sora could only stare in stunned horror.

A sharp yank on his shoulder and Riku was suddenly in front of him. When did he move?

"Pull it together, Sora," said Riku firmly. "We haven't lost them. They still have their hearts. But we have to protect them."

Expression hardening as he regained his determination, he nodded and said, "Right."

They weren't gone yet. He could still save them. He could still protect them. No matter how bad it looked or how his heart ached, there was still hope.

Taking up position next to them, Aqua said, "We stand together."

Riku and Sora nodded, tightening their grips on their Keyblades. All three of them ran until they were between their friends and the thrashing shape of the Demon Tower.

"Mickey, Goofy," said Aqua, "Kairi, Roxas, and Xion? Watch the others."

King Mickey said, "No, we should all get to safety while we still can."

"It's too late for that," said Riku, shaking his head.

No way to retreat. No escape. No second chance to get this right. They would either find a way or they would fall. And Sora refused to consider that things would get worse.

The Demon Tower swirled and thrashed more wildly, forming a full-on cyclone. A storm composed of darkness and Heartless. They could only stare in horror as it grew. Sora could feel the darkness washing over them.

"It can't be…" Aqua shook her head slightly as the words came out in a small voice. "No…"

Sora glanced at her. She looked completely overwhelmed and pale. Her grip on her Keyblade loosened. She was staring at the swirling darkness, but she didn't seem to actually see it.

Then, not moving or reacting in any way, Aqua let the Demon Tower dashed forward and swallow her into the twitching mass. Something in Sora's chest jolted sharply.

"Aqua!" shouted Riku.

But it wasn't over. The Demon Tower continued its predatory assault, lashing out and swirling across the landscape. It swallowed up Ventus. Roxas and Xion blocked the first attempt with magic, but it twisted around to snag them from behind. Kairi dove to shield Lea and both of them were engulfed. King Mickey and Goofy only had time to look briefly surprised before they and Donald disappeared into the aggressive dark formation.

And with each one that was taken, Sora felt like pieces of his heart were being ripped out.

Glimpsing a flash of pink within the twitching mass, Sora lunged at the lashing tendril. He reached desperately and Kairi reached back. But their hands barely missed and she disappeared into the swarm, the Demon Tower rejoined the monstrous cyclone. Becoming something worse. A Demon Tide.

Gone. All of them.

Sora gasped, struggling against the loss and the pain in his heart. It hurt so much in so many different ways. All those connections, nearly ripped out until they were fraying and raw.

His Keyblade fell from numb fingers, clanging to the ground as he screamed in pain and heartache. He collapsed to his hands and knees as all strength poured out of him.

Running over to him, Riku called, "Sora!"

"They're gone." Staring at the ground, Sora said miserably, "Kairi, Donald… Goofy, the King..."

Ventus, Roxas, Xion… All the pieces that once belonged in his heart…

"Gone forever." He raised his head, blinking back tears. "What do we do? Without them… I…" He saw Riku's expression grow from worried into determination, but Sora's head dropped again. "All my strength came from them."

My friends are my strength.

Sora believed that with all his heart. He always felt stronger with them. Even when they were far away, he could feel them. But now there were gaping wounds where they should be and it left him feeling weak, vulnerable, and broken.

"Alone," he said, shaking his head, "I'm worthless."

He couldn't protect them. He couldn't keep his friends safe. He failed them. He forged all those strong and deep connections with people, letting them nestle deep. And the loss hurt so much.

Riku, crouched beside him, remained silent.

"We've lost," said Sora as tears streaked down his face to land in the dust. "It's over."

Out of the corner of his eye, Sora saw Riku start to reach for him. But then his hand dropped to his side and curled into a fist beside him. Then he slowly stood up.

"Sora," he said firmly, "you don't believe that. I know you don't."

Posture straight and tall, Riku marched forward towards the swirling dark cyclone as Sora slowly looked up. A tendril of swarming Heartless broke off, the Demon Tower spiraling towards them. Riku planted his feet firmly and stabbed his Keyblade forward with a yell, striking the Demon Tower and blocking it.

Darkness and Heartless streamed past them both of them, split like hurling a boulder into the path of a river. Sora stared at his best friend as he faced the impossible. Then Sora's expression shifted into one of horror as darkness started coiling around Riku.

No. Not him too.

Sora reached in a futile gesture, but it was too late. The Heartless and darkness consumed Riku, another painful stab to Sora's heart, before the wave washed over Sora.

His existence became nothing except roaring noise, shadows, and chaos before dissolving into nothing…

Then one of the faint connections to his heart— they weren't severed, merely damaged and strained to the verge of splintering— flared up. A heart, almost lost and yet not gone as it shone impossibly bright, reached out to his and anchored him. It kept him from disappearing.

…Always a part of each other's life…

Kairi?

Then awareness slipped away…

Chapter Text

It was silent when Sora began to stir. Or perhaps not complete silence. A faint breeze rustled his hair, the smallest sound imaginable. Flat on his back, he opened his eyes to the sight of beautiful blue skies, sunshine, and soft white clouds that drifted lazily across his vision. Everything felt impossibly calm and peaceful.

Sora slowly sat up, noticing that the ground rippled at the motion. Not, that wasn't right. It was water rippling. He felt the coolness slightly under his fingertips. The ground was covered in the thinnest layer of water, perfectly reflecting the sky. He couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. He continued to stare at his surroundings as he climbed to his feet.

"Where am I?" he asked.

Not that he could truly expect an answer. He was alone in the empty and endless place. And the only sound other than his voice was the wind and the quiet splash of his footsteps.

"Can't stay away, now, can you?"

The young-sounding and friendly voice brought Sora up short. He craned his neck, searching for any sign of the source.

"Hello?" he called.

A bright light caught his eye. High above, the ball of light came darting and twirling down while making a wordless and childish sound. Sora watched as it drew closer. When it reached ground level, the light flared out and revealed a small creature.

If Sora had to describe it, he would say it looked like a living stuffed animal. Or maybe a Dream Eater. It was shaped vaguely like a bipedal feline with an oversized head. The short fur was light gray with black stripes and its eyes were literally stitches of blue-gray thread. It wore a gray cape and pink change purse dangled around its neck.

It looked like something that Selphie would have loved to hug.

"The name's Chirithy," it greeted. "And this is the 'Final World.'"

"I'm Sora. What's the… 'Final World?'"

Gesturing with its stubby paws, Chirithy said, "There's nothing else beyond this. You've wandered here more than once before on your visits to the Station of Awakening, but… I let that slide. The edges of sleep and death touch, and one can't help the occasional crossover."

Sora tilted his head slightly. Something about what it said struck a chord.

"Wait, 'death'?"

Did Chirithy mean that Sora stumbled into somewhere like the Underworld at Hercule's world or Davy Jones's Locker at the Caribbean? Or did Chirithy mean that Sora was…

Nodding, Chirithy said, "Yes. The natural end for those whose hearts and bodies perish together. But some persist and arrive here."

"My heart and body perished?" Sora briefly touched his chest, trying to wrap his head around the idea. "Um, does that mean…"

"Something is holding you here, refusing to let you go. You're hanging by a thread."

"What about my friends?" he asked.

Chirithy shook its head and said, "I haven't seen any of them since Lea briefly appeared when his life nearly ended, being pulled away before I could even approach. No one else arrived with you. And if they're not here, they're either gone forever," it explained, causing Sora's head to drop, "or they're clinging to the world you came from."

Sora's head jerked up. His friends might be alive? Or partly alive? Or at least holding on? Or something? Hope reignited his determination. If there was a chance, he would take it.

"I'm going back!" he declared, summoning his Keyblade as he turned and started to leave.

"Whoa, whoa! How exactly?" called Chirithy, drawing him up short. "You can't just wander out like your other visits."

Turning back, Sora asked, "Huh?"

"I told you. The other times you came here by your own choice. This time is very different." Chirithy gestured with its stubby paws. "To become your old self and return to the real world, you'll have to piece yourself back together in this world first."

Sora's eyes drifted down and horror washed over him as he finally noticed something that had been nagging at his subconscious since he woke up. After they visited numerous worlds, he'd grown used to his body being transformed in various ways. Like becoming a merman, a toy, or a monster. Donald's magic naturally camouflaging them to fit in and not draw suspicion. But now he was transparent as a ghost. He felt fine, his hand brushing across his body frantically. But he wasn't even there.

"Ah!" he yelped, unable to help himself. "Why am I in pieces?"

"What? No, not literally, of course. You're conceptually in pieces. On the inside, who knows, but on the outside you're just fine."

He relaxed, letting his Keyblade dematerialize. He wasn't completely clear on everything and there was plenty about what was happening that he didn't even pretend to understand, but Chirithy didn't think it was too bad. And the little creature felt trustworthy.

"Oh, okay," he said calmly. Sora tucked his hands behind his head. "You kinda freaked me out there."

Slumping tiredly, Chirithy muttered, "Oh, boy…" Shaking its head and straightening, it continued, "Usually, only a heart can reach the Final World. But since you've clearly retained some kind of form, that can only mean your body was cast into this world as well."

Sora nodded once and said, "Okay, so… then if I can find my body, that means I'll be able to go back?"

"Precisely. But there's a lot of you to find. You're going to be busy."


Her arrival in the calm and beautiful place felt strange. She knew what caused it, even if she'd been sleeping deep within her Other's heart. Her dreams of Kairi told her exactly what happened. But she didn't know what this place was supposed to be. She didn't know why it made her feel sleepy, both similar and different than curling up in Kairi's heart. But she knew what brought her there and she could still feel the faint connections.

The links in the chains of memories that she could touch, manipulate, rearrange, strengthen, and repair.

She let her mind drift as she floated in the peace and silence. No body. Just sparkling and glimmering lights that drifted together and apart in an endless cycle. A heart without a home, but not returning to Kingdom Hearts where all hearts gather. Lingering. That's the best way to describe it. She was lingering.

The peace and quiet were so complete and it was so easy to lose track of her surroundings that it took a while for her to notice that she wasn't alone. Not just other lost hearts lingering, though they were scattered around. There was a boy. Translucent, but familiar.

"Sora?" she called.

Taking a few steps towards her, he asked, "Yes?"

"It's me, Naminé."

Jolting suddenly and leaning forward, he said brightly, "Naminé?"

"I'm so glad that you managed to hold on to who you are."

He kept his shape. He kept his awareness. He kept his memories, identity, and sense of self. Some of the hearts that arrived in this place did, but not all. Some were just lingered in a dream-like state, barely recalling who they once were. She could tell that much from her earlier observations of the sparkling lights. But she managed to hold onto herself and Sora managed to cling to even more.

"Why are you here?" he asked.

Wishing that she could fold her hands across her lap, Naminé said, "I was in Kairi's heart, but then we were struck by a powerful darkness… and I woke up here."

"And Kairi?" asked Sora, unable to hide his concern.

"I can feel her heart. She's fighting with all her strength to keep you from fading away."

Naminé could feel it. She was Kairi's Nobody after all, no matter how unusual she might be. And she had a talent for tracing the chains of memories and the connections woven through Sora's heart. She couldn't possibly miss Kairi using their shared bond to anchor Sora's existence in place.

Head bowing and his hand curling into a fist at his side, Sora said, "So, the reason I retained my form in this place…"

"It's because she's holding you together," she finished. "Go to her."

"I'm trying. But… what about you?" Sora took a step forward and spread his hands wide. "I can't just leave you stuck here."

"It's okay," she assured. "Really. Kairi is where I came from. So once she's safe again, Kairi is where I'll return."

He smiled sadly and said, "Naminé, I know that I'm supposed to thank you. The datascape doesn't count. I need to say the words myself. But…" Sora shook his head. "Not like this. You can't tell me you're okay with this. It isn't fair that you, Roxas, and Xion had to spend so long in our hearts. Trapped and unable to experience the world. It wasn't fair you had to go back after you existed separate from us."

Naminé felt a wave of warmth at the mention of Roxas and Xion. Even when she truly believed that they belonged with their Other, she felt bad about how it happened. Xion was erased even from memory and Roxas didn't have even a choice on whether to return or not. But now that they had bodies again, they could have a second chance at life. They could have the lives that circumstances stole from them. And she couldn't be happier for them.

"I know how much you're hurting, Naminé," he continued. "Only existing inside someone's heart. Spending so long thinking that you didn't even deserve to exist. I… felt that pain through Roxas."

"He's the one who had a life before. The one who had something worthwhile to lose," murmured Naminé. "Him and Xion. That's… not me. I never had much outside of Kairi's heart. There was nothing for people to truly miss. When I returned to where I belonged, no one was hurt."

"Wrong. What about me, Kairi, Donald, and Goofy? We cared. The King? Roxas and Xion too. They miss you. And someone that we both know what let you down. He wants you back."

Did he mean Riku? Sora always believed in the older boy. And Riku was someone that people could depend on. Or did he mean the Riku Replica from Castle Oblivion? The one that still tried to protect her even when he knew all his memories of her were lies that Naminé implanted?

No, Sora couldn't mean him. Sora didn't remember what happened there. But thinking about him and wondering what became of the replica left her feeling wistful.

Naminé, wishing that she had a mouth to smile with, said, "Sora. Thank you."

"Well," he said with a bright grin, "then I'm gonna save Kairi so at least you'll be free of this place. After that, Ienzo, Ansem the Wise, and everyone will figure out how to find or make a replica for you too. Okay?"

Sora's firm declaration warmed her. And if the sparkling lights that currently composed her shone a little brighter, Naminé could tell for certain.

There was a reason that, even before they could meet, she knew that she wanted to know him. There was something warm and bright about him and the way that his friendship with people never wavered. He never gave up. Not on himself and not on those he cared for. It was hard to feel lonely and useless when he chose to be your friend. He was always one who tried his best to help and protect the people who needed him. And that in turn inspired those around him to do the right thing in return.

As he turned to go, an idea sparked and Naminé called out, "Oh, wait!"

"Huh?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder.

"While shifting through memories, I spoke to Terra, the Keyblade wielder you've been searching for."

As Sora turned back towards her, Naminé thought back about that brief encounter. A chain of connections. From Sora to a sleeping heart within him to Terra. It wasn't much, but he could affect the world in ways that she no longer could. He could help them. If she could reach him again, that is.

"He has a strong will and it keeps him tethered to the realm of light," she explained. Pausing as she considered what exactly it would entail, Naminé said, "I'll try tracing that connection. Maybe that'll be enough to tip the scales in the other direction."

Kairi had listened to enough of the discussions that Naminé had vague ideas of how hearts could travel through time. If Sora and the others made it back, they would end up before. Sora at least didn't have a body afterwards; he stumbled into this strange and beautiful place of lingering hearts. He would have to go back at least a small amount of time. And while he might be able to cling to the memories of this beautiful and peaceful world, the rules of time travel would probably ensure that Sora and the others wouldn't remember what caused the problem in the first place.

Perhaps they would remember that they died or nearly died, but they wouldn't remember what killed them. Not properly. Not if she understood it correctly.

They would march right back into the trap again without outside help. Naminé hoped that she could provide that outside intervention.

Tilting his head with a confused expression, Sora asked, "Huh?"

"Umm… Let's just say I've got your back?"

Smiling at her uncertain tone, he said, "That part of you? It reminds me of Kairi. Thanks, Naminé." Then Sora suddenly panicked, arms flailing slightly. "Oh! That's not the official thank you!"

"Uh-huh," said Naminé, struggling not to chuckle at him.

Rubbing at his nose with a short laugh, Sora said, "Well, see ya!"

And with that, he slowly walked away as Naminé started reaching out for that connection. She could help them. If she could trace that connection to Terra, maybe she could get them the help that they needed.

She'd done enough harm in the past with her powers. She wanted to do something good.

"Be careful," she called softly, even if Sora was out of range.


It took time. Wandering around the weird world took time. In some ways, it wasn't as empty as it appeared at first glance.

Sora visited the lingering hearts scattered across the gorgeous landscape. Some were aware enough for a conversation, but others barely noticed. But he could at least spare them a moment as he gathered his pieces.

His pieces. He didn't now what he expected when Chirithy mentioned collecting his pieces, but copies of himself moving in endless loops of past moments certain wasn't it. Sora chased his pieces across the mirrorlike water and up the white angular structures that he found. More pieces than he could count. But he kept collecting his pieces until his transparency became a distant memory.

He smiled as he looked over himself, his body normal and solid once again. Then the return of the same childish sound made Sora look up. The ball of light came fluttering down like before, flaring briefly as it became Chirithy and drifted the rest of the way down.

As it regained its balance upon landing, Chirithy said, "I see that you found them all."

"Yup," he said with a proud grin.

"Then isn't it time that you left?"

Crossing his arms and voice dripping with sarcasm, Sora said, "Oh, thanks."

"What?" Spreading its stubby arms, Chirithy said, "I'm doing you a big favor here, you know. Don't push it."

Unfolding his arms again, he said, "Hey, Chirithy. You still look like you, right? You're not just another heart that wandered into this place. Would you like me to help you find your pieces?"

It only seemed fair. After all the help that Chirithy offered, it seemed wrong not to help it in return. Sora didn't want to leave a new friend behind. Not if he could do something about it.

Shaking its head, Chirithy said, "Oh, I don't work like that."

And that was interesting. Sora folded his arms as he thought about it. If Chirithy didn't need to find its pieces, it could probably leave if it wanted to. But it hadn't. There must be another reason why it was hanging around the Final World. There must be a different reason that Chirithy stayed.

"So, like… you're waiting for someone to rescue you? Someone special?"

There were several lingering hearts like that. Searching for someone or waiting for them. Why should Chirithy be any different? If it was staying when it could leave, then maybe the reason was because of someone else.

Tapping its chin with its paw, Chirithy said, "Mmm… sort of?"

"Well, tell me who," said Sora, his hands dropping to his sides. "I'll find them. It can't be that hard." Cupping his ear and leaning in close, he grinned and said, "Huh?"

Waving its paws frantically in front of itself, Chirithy said, "Uh, no no no no, that's okay. He doesn't remember the past." Chirithy briefly shook its head before giving a tiny bounce, trying to look cheerful. "Besides, I'm sure that he's much happier with his new friends." It paused before adding thoughtfully, "But I'll wait. He'll arrive here one day."

Part of Sora wanted to change its mind. He wanted to help the small creature, so much like a toy or a Dream Eater. But he could also tell that Chirithy had made its decision.

"Okay." Sora crouched down and said, "I'll be back to visit you then."

It couldn't be that hard if he'd stumbled there on accident multiple times. And that way Chirithy wouldn't be alone all that time, waiting for its friend.

"What?" yelped Chirithy, flailing in surprise.

"You and me are friends now."

Paws curling in on itself, Chirithy said softly, "Really? I've missed having friends."

Sora smiled as he straightened up. He would need to come back and visit as soon as possible. Once he rescued his other friends, they finished dealing with Xehanort, and the worlds were safe, he would need to come back to make certain that Chirithy didn't feel lonely.

His hand briefly touching his chest, the thought of his missing friends making his heart ache dully, Sora forced himself to brighten again and said, "Well, see ya 'round. And thanks."

He turned and started walking away. But a sudden realization made Sora stop.

"Huh?" asked Chirithy.

"Um…" Sora turned his head back and scratched it sheepishly. "Could I get a hint how to save the others?"

Holding its arms out, Chirithy asked, "Seriously?" It slumped briefly before straightening. "Are you a Keyblade wielder or aren't you? Haven't you already learned how to restore someone's heart after it's been lost?"

"Restore their hearts?" he muttered thoughtfully. Scratching his head, Sora asked, "Is that the same thing as… the 'Power of Waking'?"

With an uncertain tone, Chirithy said, "I'm not sure, but… give it a shot?"

"No," he said quietly, his tone contemplative. Sora's hand drifted up to his chest again. "This'll take all my heart."

He remembered Hercules's advice. He knew what he needed to do. He needed to find his friends. To follow the frayed and strained connections that were nearly torn out of him. And somehow, he knew how difficult it would be. He could feel it on some deeper level. But he would put everything into his effort. He wouldn't let them down.

"Okay," he said firmly.

Summoning his Keyblade, Sora aimed towards the water. A shimmering Keyhole formed on the surface. With a beam of wonderfully familiar light, his Keyblade transformed it into a gate. One similar to others that he'd opened to reach other worlds. Sora vaguely noticed that the act cracked the hard white surface underfoot, letting the water drain away. Then a pillar of light shone up from the gate in a nearly blinding flare.

"Look for the light in the darkness," said Chirithy.

Sora turned back towards Chirithy with a smile, but only for a moment. Then he walked into the pillar of light. And right before he disappeared, he heard Chirithy's parting words.

"May your heart be your guiding key."


Out of the corner of his eye, Sora saw Riku start to reach for him. But then his hand dropped to his side and curled into a fist beside him. Then he slowly stood up.

"Sora," he said firmly, "you don't believe that. I know you don't."

Posture straight and tall, Riku marched forward towards the swirling dark cyclone as Sora slowly looked up. A tendril of swarming Heartless broke off, the Demon Tower spiraling towards them. Riku planted his feet firmly and stabbed his Keyblade forward with a yell, striking the Demon Tower and blocking it.

Darkness and Heartless streamed past them both of them, split like hurling a boulder into the path of a river. Sora stared at his best friend as he faced the impossible. Then Sora's expression shifted into one of horror as darkness started coiling around Riku.

No. Not him too.

Sora reached in a futile gesture, but it was too late. The Heartless and darkness consumed Riku, another painful stab to Sora's heart, before the wave washed over Sora.

His existence became nothing except roaring noise, shadows, and chaos before dissolving into nothing…


Sora drifted back towards awareness, floating through the darkness towards a distant light. The sensation felt familiar. It took a moment to recognize it, but he'd done this once before. Back when he carried Kairi's heart inside him. When he saw a memory from Kairi's childhood about her grandmother telling the little girl a story, he reached that memory by traveling like this. It was the exact same experience.

But there was a stronger and more recent memory holding his attention now.

"Riku!" Sora flailed wildly, trying to swim or control his movements in the emptiness. "Riku! Answer me!"

He reached out, the light growing closer. Sora reached for the light with his hand and for Riku with his aching heart. He felt an odd sensation of strain. And then the light engulfed him.

When the brightness faded and Sora blinked his vision clear, he found himself somewhere completely different. But familiar. He knew the soft clouds with buildings standing on them. Bright, almost golden clouds strong enough to stand on.

"This is Herc's world. Is Riku here?"

Behind him was the path down the mountain. But that direction didn't feel right. Sora walked up the stairs, listening to the sound of his footsteps. It was too quiet. The last time that he visited, Heartless attacked every five minutes. Now Sora could only stare in confusion at the emptiness.

"There's nobody here," he said quietly.

"Gee, I'm here."

The boy startled at the voice even as he recognized it. Jiminy popped out of Sora's hood, hopping to the boy's shoulder and then to his cupped hands.

Brightening, Sora said, "Jiminy! You're okay."

Gesturing slightly, he said, "Well, 'okay' might be a stretch, but what are we waitin' for? We need to find the others."

"Right," said Sora, smiling at him before tucking Jiminy back into the safety of his hood.

Perhaps the cricket was generally quiet and merely observed events, but it was nice to have him there. It felt reassuring not to be alone. Yes, several of his friends might be missing and in danger, but Sora wasn't alone. And as long as he wasn't alone, he would find a way.

Sora climbed the stairs until he reached the courtyard of Olympus, home of the gods. Part of him still expected to be attacked by an entire herd of charging Heartless like his first arrival. But the silence and emptiness remained constant. There was nothing in this place. Sora didn't see anything unusual or different from his other visits besides the lack of foes.

Until he glimpsed a transparent figure, one barely visible and easily missed, hanging in midair. A limp, still, and lifeless figure floating on his back like a drowning victim. And when he saw the shape, Sora recognized who it was instantly.

"Riku!"

Sora dashed towards the floating figure of his friend, but drew up short when darkness swirled just above Riku. Then an unfamiliar Heartless materialized beside the limp figure.

It was a large black Heartless with the shape of a roughly humanoid torso. It wore a black robe which faded into white tendrils at its base, the draping sleeves ending in pink points. A tall and pointed headdress covered its head and long neck with a criss-crossing design, ending in a flair at the shoulders that almost resembled white hair or feathers. The Heartless' glowing yellow eyes peered through a skull-shaped mask. A heart-shaped hole cut through its chest rather than the Emblem that Sora expected to see, the gap bordered by a bright pink design on its robe. Three chains dangled from under its robe, ending in pink spikes that hung at alternate heights. And in its hand, it wielded a grey staff with a black headpiece, which also featured a heart-shaped hole through it.

The Heartless stretched a hand over Riku's chest. And, Sora's breath hitching at the sight, a shining heart floated out of Riku's chest and chains materialized around it. Riku's heart. It had Riku's heart.

Then the Heartless pulled the heart into the shadows forming in the hollow of its chest before both the shadows and heart vanished from sight. And in that same moment, the transparent figure of Riku disappeared as well.

Something in Sora screamed no. He wasn't going to let this happen.

As the Heartless tried to flee, Sora chased after it. Further and further, along the different paths that stretched across the clouds and through the rooms of the ornate buildings. And when the Heartless dove through a dark portal, Sora immediately followed.

It deposited them at the gate at the very top, near the spot where Sora fought the titans alongside Hercules, Goofy, and Donald. And apparently the Heartless either ran out of room to run or decided that escape wasn't going to work because the creature abruptly turned around and attacked.

This part he could handle. Fighting Heartless was something that Sora knew how to deal with. This particular Heartless quickly revealed itself to be primarily a magic user, demonstrating a wide variety of elemental powers. And when he got close for an attack, the Heartless floated backwards out of range while leaving behind a series of afterimages to serve as decoys. It was annoying and the spells hit hard, but Sora had been fighting Heartless for years.

He was fast. He was strong. He was agile. And Sora had a very important reason to fight. His friends were in danger and no force in any world could stop him from saving them. Starting with the powerful Heartless that took Riku's heart.

Follow the connections to his heart. The hurt and frayed connections. Find them before they were truly lost.

As Sora finished another vicious aerial combo with an aggressive flourish, the strike knocked the Heartless back. Another dark portal formed and the creature moved towards it. Driven off by the fight, but not defeated. It released the heart as the Heartless fled through the portal, the chains shattering.

Running towards both the portal and the freed heart, Sora shouted, "Hey! Wait!"

But his words didn't do any good. The bright heart, no longer bound in chains, flew up as it faded from sight. Horror washed over Sora until Jiminy hopped back on the boy's shoulder, the cricket straightening his hat as he landed.

"There's no need to worry, Sora," he reassured. "He'll return to the place he fell, like you did. We gotta focus on rescuing the others."

Taking a deep breath and relaxing, Sora said, "Okay."

He had a plan now. Chase the Heartless down and keep it from taking his friends. Find the hearts connected to his own, tracing the strained and wounded connections back to their sources. If he could find and protect them, then he could save his friends.

A quick Cura and Sora dove after the escaping Heartless.

Chapter Text

Sora found himself freefalling through darkness. The sensation reminded him of when he dove into the sleeping worlds. And below him, Sora glimpsed stained glass circles.

Representations of hearts? Or worlds? Or perhaps the hearts of the worlds? But there were shadows pulling across the colorful stained-glass images. Something dark and vicious trying to gain a foothold.

"That scoundrel must of fled into one of those pools of shadows that're down below us," said Jiminy.

Looking at the cricket on his shoulder, Sora asked, "Where do they lead?"

"Well, I think they may be portals to other worlds."

"Okay," he said, the second opinion confirming his assumptions. "Maybe that's where we'll find the others."

"If we hurry," said Jiminy.

Sora nodded and tried to aim for the closest stained-glass platform. And did his best to ignore the feeling of strain that seemed to be forming. His heart shouldn't ache. Not like this. It felt wrong. But he ignored it. He had more important things to focus on.

His friends were in trouble.

He landed on a wooden deck of a ship, the scent of sea salt in the air. Sora instantly recognized the Caribbean. And floating above the deck was the transparent figure of Aqua, limp and still while lying in midair. Then the Heartless from before stole her heart, wrapping it in chains before hiding it from sight. Which was all the reason that Sora needed to attack.

This time, the Heartless summoned a pack of the local varieties. And while Sora tried to focus on his primary target, he found himself blocked and delayed by the weaker opponents. It was really hard to ignore someone slinging an anchor at him. He rained down blows on the creatures, breaking out a few Thundagas to clear the crowd. And once Sora built enough power up, he unleashed a Thundaza that shattered several of them. And when a few survived the magical assault, stringing together a few physical combos helped reduce the Heartless population.

He remained light on his feet, dancing around his opponents instinctively. He moved as if he was coated in pixie dust and gravity barely touched him. But as effortless as his movements might be, each strike was powerful and ruthless. Kingdom Key carved through them. And when he reached his true opponent, he didn't hold back.

It took longer to beat the creature down until it released Aqua's heart. But he did. And like before, the Heartless escaped through the dark portal and Sora could only snarl as he dove after it.

A pattern quickly emerged. He dove through the darkness, ignoring the strange strain and pressure. Ignoring the ache in his heart. He plunged towards the stained-glass images and the shadows spilling out of them. The hearts of different worlds. And with increasing pressure and effort, Sora forced himself to follow the powerful Heartless into those worlds.

Each world that he reached, Sora found the Heartless trying to claim the heart of one of his friends. Goofy in the frozen maze in Arendelle. Donald in Monstropolis. King Mickey in the marsh of Corona.

Some places, the Heartless summoned more of its kind. In others, it brought forth the Nobodies that lurked in the world. And far too often, it would move away from Sora while leaving behind afterimages that his Keyblade passed right through. Anything to delay or distract Sora away his main target. But no matter what tricks it tried, Sora refused to let it escape with his friends' hearts.

In the toy store, in the world of living toys like Buzz and Woody, Sora reclaimed Ventus's heart right before the Heartless fled yet again. He watched the heart disappear back to where it belonged even as he growled in frustration. Why couldn't that Heartless hold still for five minutes?

As Sora took a step towards the portal, he heard a familiar sound. A dark corridor opening. He spun around, not yet summoning his Keyblade even as he fell into a combative stance. And when he recognized the figure that stepped through, Sora grew more tense.

"You," he snarled.

Staring at Sora with disdain, the young version of Xehanort raised his hand and said, "All that gallivanting through the Sleeping Worlds and yet you learned nothing."

"What?"

Closing his eyes and letting his hand drop, he said, "Dream by dream, you nearly buried yourself in the dark of sleep." Young Xehanort opened his eyes and stared firmly at the Keybearer. "And now you're at it again?"

Sora straightened out of his stance. Young Xehanort hadn't come to fight. Sora could tell that much. He was there to monologue. All forms of Xehanort loved to talk. Too bad not a single one of them could give a straight answer. But if Young Xehanort wanted to talk in circles like always, ignoring the tall shelves of toys, then he wasn't going waste his energy trying to attack. Last time, Sora's Keyblade kept passing through him while Young Xehanort monologued as he teleported around the store. When he started walking towards Sora this time, the boy didn't even flinch.

"The Lich you've been fighting? It's not like other Heartless," described Young Xehanort, his approach causing Jiminy to gasp in fear and dive further into Sora's hood. "It exists to usher hearts down to the depths of darkness."

That sent a shiver down Sora's spine. The thought was horrible. What Young Xehanort was describing would have been his friends' fates if he didn't free their hearts. And could still happen; the Lich was still free and hunting while a few of his friends remained unaccounted for. Even as Sora knew that he needed to go after the creature, the young version of Xehanort stopped in front of him.

"If you chase it," said Young Xehanort, pointing at Sora, "you will condemn your heart to the same abyss."

Sora glared at him, stiff and unflinching. He clenched his fist to his chest.

"You're wrong," he said. "My heart is strong."

Strong, but aching. Aching since he chased Riku's heart to Olympus. An ache that Sora continued to purposefully ignore.

Lowering his hand, Young Xehanort said, "A diamond is strong, but it can still shatter under pressure. Everything has a limit. Especially a heart." He shook his head briefly. "What do you think the Power of Waking is? It's for traversing hearts to reach worlds. Not for traversing worlds to reach hearts. There's a high price to pay for wielding such power foolishly."

Young Xehanort tilted his head as he studied Sora. He stared as if he could see through the boy to his deepest level.

"Perhaps your heart will withstand the strain of retrieving one more of your 'friends' in this manner. But not two of them. Not after everything that you have already done to your heart this day. Saving a second will cost you everything that you have left. And you brought too many companions for the Keyblade War. Even if you destroy yourself and shatter your heart in the process, you will not be able to save them all. You will fail and fade away."

As he turned to leave, Sora snapped, "So what? You're worried about me now?"

"No. There's no saving you." As Young Xehanort walked away, a dark corridor formed. Glancing over his shoulder, he added, "You've paid the price. And it lies at the bottom of the abyss."

Young Xehanort vanished through the dark corridor. Sora reached out towards it instinctively, even knowing how futile it was.

"Wait!"

Sora ran a few steps towards the dark corridor, but it closed before he could do anything useful. As he expected. He slowed to a stop as he felt Jiminy poke his head out of the hood.

"Sora," said Jiminy. "You heard what he told you. That if you try to save the rest of our friends, you'll…" His voice trailed off, unable to complete the thought. "Do you believe him?"

Sora wanted to say no. He wanted to believe that it was all a lie. Xehanort and all his variations were liars and he knew that. It would be easy to decide those ominous words were a lie.

But he could feel the strain. He could feel the pressure. He could feel the ache that refused to fade. And he could feel the strength being taken with each one. Not his physical strength, but something deeper and more vital. Sora could feel the damage building.

He would break. Sora could feel it. And while part of him accepted the danger if it would save his friends, the rest of him rebelled against the horrible thought that it wouldn't be enough. That he could put all his heart into it and he would still fail them. He wasn't strong enough.

Kairi. Lea. Roxas. Xion.

If Xehanort was right, he could save one and survive. And if he didn't worry about his own survival, he could retrieve two of them. But no matter what he did, at least two of his friends would be lost. Dragged down by the Lich into the darkest abyss. And if he didn't do anything at all, the Lich would claim all four.

It wasn't fair.

Sora knew that he didn't have the strength to pursue and save their hearts alone. He needed help. His heart called out to all those hearts connected to his own, asking for the strength to save his friends. His heart was connected to so many people across so many worlds; at least a few of those connections must be strong enough to let him do what he needed.

One of those connected hearts responded. The oldest and strongest connection. Forged almost a lifetime ago. Sora's light shared with another, healing a gaping wound and then later healing broken fragments. A heart that dwelled within him for over a decade.

Ventus.

Sora felt a flood of offered strength and wordless encouragement. Perhaps enough strength to keep going. Perhaps enough strength to survive long enough to save the rest of his friends.

He hoped.

"Doesn't matter what he said. It doesn't change anything. Our friends need us," said Sora before diving through the dark portal.

He angled his body as he plunged, trying to streamline himself to gain a little more speed. Sora felt the pressure and resistance, like his heart was trying to move through thick mud. He felt that ache worse, just as it had before. But he could also feel Ventus's offered strength holding him together.

For now.

Sora dove towards another colorful stained-glass platform with pooling shadows, plunging straight into another familiar world. Golden-orange sunset, a tall clocktower gently chiming the hour, and warm cobblestone under his feet. Twilight Town.

And as soon as he saw the Lich plucking Roxas's heart from his translucent form, Sora sent a Firaga right at its face. By now, Sora knew most of its standard moves. And even the swarms of Nobodies that it summoned, Samurais and Assassins, barely gave him pause. His focus remained solely on his main target. Time was a limited luxury now.

And once Sora beat down the Heartless again, continuing the pattern as before, it released Roxas's heart and fled Station Plaza. But even as the freed heart disappeared back where it belonged, Sora felt another surge of strength. Support and power coming through another close bond, wrapping around his aching heart and holding it together. The connection to the heart of his past Nobody.

Like Ventus, Roxas reached out to offer his help.

"A few more," muttered Sora as he plunged through the dark portal.

He didn't recognize the next world that he landed in. Warm sunlight streamed down on grass and the stonework under his feet. Distant grassy mountains surrounded them while he glimpsed flowing water at lower elevations. And a bright castle lay before him, golden chains strung along the structures. He stood in a courtyard with the aforementioned decorative stonework arranged in a circle that connected to the stairs up to the castle door. And at the foot of the stairs, the Lich extracted Xion's heart.

The fight was shorter that some of the earlier ones. The Lich didn't summon other Heartless or Nobodies. Instead it relied on its magic and slipping away using its afterimages. It caused enough trouble to ensure that Sora cast Cura, but not enough to truly hinder him. And at the end of an aggressive aerial combo, it surrendered the stolen heart and sought refuge.

Xion's heart added her strength to that already offered by Roxas and Ventus. Holding Sora in one piece. Keeping his heart together. Just as he once sheltered their hearts, now they protected him. Sora knew that he could keep going.

As Sora dove towards another stained-glass platform, Jiminy called, "That's the last one. He must be hiding there."

A quick look proved that his observation was right. It was the only one still sprouting shadows. That world must be the Lich's current hiding place. It was the only option.

Sora landed in a city, the skies dark and the buildings covered in lights. San Fransokyo. He only managed a brief glimpse of a translucent Lea floating lifelessly in midair. Then the Lich snatched the heart and summoned the local Heartless.

The larger and stronger Heartless took too much time and effort to defeat. But they were also too powerful and dangerous to ignore. Both for Sora and for anyone that lived in that world. But Sora had long since learned that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And when he finally shattered them into darkness, there was nothing to stop him from reaching the Lich.

This time, Sora didn't hold back. He didn't hesitate. He didn't give the Heartless any means of escape. No matter how it tried to slip away with its distracting afterimages, Sora stayed close. When it tried that trick, he glided after the Lich and continued his strikes. He never stopped pressing the attack. The blows against the Heartless never ceased. It wouldn't flee again.

The Heartless couldn't reach the dark portal this time. Sora finished with a particularly strong blow and the Lich finally shattered. And Lea's heart disappeared upwards, returning to where it belonged.

Peering out of Sora's hood, Jiminy said, "Well, Sora, I'd say we've been to every world that we can visit."

"But we're one short," he said quietly. "Where's Kairi's heart?"

"Gee, I wish I knew."

He couldn't find her like he did the others. That much was clear. But Sora remembered what he heard before. His memories of what sent him to the Final World might be indistinct and increasingly fuzzy, but he remembered speaking to Chirithy and Naminé. If Kairi kept him from being completely lost to death, then he should be able to follow her.

His hand drifted back to his chest and his strained heart. Follow the light. Follow Kairi. He could do this.

Sora didn't find himself in the same darkness as before, falling towards the hearts of various worlds. He was gliding towards a distant light. Moving through the darkness towards the bright and faraway point. He didn't feel the strain of something holding him back this time. Nothing holding and pulling and trying to break him apart. It felt more natural and right.

Gliding towards the bright and distant light, he momentarily didn't realize what he was staring at when he glimpsed something ahead of him. It was a figure. Not a translucent one like the others, but truly whole and safe. And smiling at him.

"Sora," she greeted.

Beaming at her, he shouted, "Kairi!" He reached out to her as he glided close, taking Kairi's hand as they spun around each other. "I found you."

Joy bubbled up even as relief washed over Sora. She was safe. Kairi was all right. He'd found all of them. All of his friends. He couldn't remember what chain of events stole them away, the memories slipping between his hands when he tried to grasp them, but he'd saved them. He couldn't even describe how happy he was.

Hands slowly releasing, they turned and resumed their flight towards the light. But Sora couldn't help sneaking glances at her and smiling. Did sharing the paopu fruit with her and Riku help ensure that he would find her, making it easier? Sora didn't know if it helped, but he was thrilled that Kairi and the others were finally safe.

"You see?" said Kairi, looking back at him. "I had no doubts that you'd pull through."

Smiling, Sora said, "The light in the darkness. It was you." He already knew from what Naminé told him, but it felt right to say the words. "You're the one who kept me from fading away."

Her face briefly scrunching up with thought, she said, "All I did was believe that you wouldn't."

He chuckled with the brightest grin possible as he looked at her, unable to stop smiling even if wanted to. Only Kairi would act as if it was that simple. And perhaps for her, it was.

"I feel strong with you, Kairi," he said, causing her to look away.

Sora knew that she was blushing. Even with the surrounding darkness, the approaching light streaming towards their faces casting strange shadows, and Kairi looking away, he knew that he saw that faint blush momentarily. Because he'd reacted the same way whenever Riku would tease him about her.

That felt impossibly long ago.

Kairi's hand slipped back into his grip and floated forward. As if pulling him along.

"The others are ahead," she said. "Come on."

His friends. They were almost there. They were almost back together.

But for how long?

Sora knew that what he'd done to retrieve his friends damaged him. Badly. He knew his heart and he could feel the aching pain. He could feel the cracks nearly causing it to splinter and shatter apart. Roxas, Xion, and Ventus were holding the pieces in place. And if they let go…

He remembered Flynn, his skin pale and gray as he lay on the floor of the tower. He remembered Anna, frozen solid as Elsa clung desperately to her and wept. He remembered Will Turner, a pained expression going slack and his body limp as the rain fell and Elizabeth begged. And he remembered Lea, sprawled on the ground as ragged breathing fell silent.

Noticing his silence, Kairi said, "I told you, Sora. You're safe with me."

"Yeah," he said, giving her a grin as he tried to banish those negative thoughts.

When they reached the light, it engulfed both of them. Flaring up to a blinding level. Sora stumbled as they landed on solid ground. Barren, dusty, and dry ground. The Badlands. They were back.

"You okay?" asked Kairi.

Straightening up even as he kept holding her hand, Sora said, "Yeah. Thanks, Kairi."

She smiled at him, her expression bright and warm. As bright as everything else about her. Only then did Sora turn and notice everyone else. All his friends. Safe. Alive. Whole. Sora couldn't help laughing with relief.

"It did work," he said.

Bouncing slightly on his feet as he spoke, Donald said, "Of course."

Leaning in, Goofy added, "Now point us back at those guys."

So they also remembered that something bad had happened. It wasn't just Sora. But did they actually remember much else? Did they remember exactly what happened? Part of him doubted it. That would be too simple. That entire sequence of events remained stubbornly out of reach of his memories. Rather like his time in Castle Oblivion and his first meeting with Naminé.

Sora gave a slow nod and said, "Right."

As if his word was the necessary signal, the others started heading for the chasm through the cliffside. And while Donald and Goofy remained at his side, waiting for him to take the lead like normal, three others hesitated. They met his eyes. Ventus, Roxas, and Xion stared at him with mirrored expressions. Their eyes held too much heavy knowledge.

They knew. Everything. He could see it in their eyes and feel it in the power that they were still sharing with him. The power that they had to still share. They knew what he'd done, what he'd risked. And they knew the cost that he would eventually pay. Just as he knew. He could feel it, deep down. They knew how this would end.

But not yet. Not until it was finished. As long as they shared that strength, he would keep going. For as long as he could.

Sora begged them silently not to tell anyone else. He didn't want to worry the others. He didn't want to see the moment of guilt and realization in everyone's eyes.

Roxas gave him a slow nod, sealing the agreement without a word. They would keep his secret. Then they hurried after the others. Ventus jogged after Aqua and Roxas and Xion reached Lea just as he paused to turn back towards them. Sora watched a moment longer, his hand drifting back to his chest before clenching into a fist. He took a deep breath and then took off running.

They weren't done yet. He had to keep going. At least until Xehanort was stopped. Whatever came after, Sora would accept it. His friends were worth the cost.


Something out of the corner of his eye caught Ventus's attention. A shape of a person glimpsed through the dust. And Ventus knew that motionless silhouette.

"Terra!" shouted Ventus before breaking into a run.

He saw Aqua with his peripheral vision, trying to grab him, but he was already out of reach. It was Terra. Ventus couldn't even think of anything else. His friend was back. All other thought or caution fell behind as he ran. They didn't matter not even the strange prickling sensation at the back of his mind that whispered how familiar this felt.

"Ven," she shouted after him.

Scrambling to a stop in front of the tall and lethargic figure, Ventus grabbed Terra's wrist. He didn't react, but Ventus didn't care. He could only smile up at his friend.

"Terra!" he shouted brightly. "We found you."

Listless and slow, Terra blinked and turned his face towards Ventus. His blue eyes seemed blank and empty compared to what Ventus remembered.

But it was all right. They found him. Ventus would help Terra and everything would be fine again. He knew it would be.

Aqua came up beside Ventus, one hand hovering in front of her chest anxiously as she stared at their long-absent friend. Her expression held an equal amount of hope and suspicion.

Quietly, she said, "Terra, please say you're in there."

He turned slightly to look at her. But there was something off about Terra's expression. Ventus couldn't quite explain it. The way Terra was looking at he just seemed different. And it kept sparking an uneasy sense of déjà vu.

Without warning, Aqua grabbed Ventus's shoulder and yanked him back. And kept dragging him back, her grip firm and desperate. Ventus tried to pull free as the others finally caught up.

"What gives, Aqua?" he asked as she finally let go and moved her arm protectively in front of Ventus.

Voice firm and cold, Aqua glared at the young man and said, "I know that you're not him." Shock and realization hit Ventus as she continued harshly, "Now let our friend go."

Stupid, stupid, stupid. He knew what they told him about what happened to Terra. He knew. And he didn't even consider it when he saw his friend.

Terra lowered his head with a smirk, no longer pretending. Because he wasn't Terra. His hair turned white, the change moving from the roots to the tips. And his body language shifted into something completely different.

Ventus fell into a combative stance and he saw the others mirror him. They didn't summon their Keyblades. Not yet. But they were preparing themselves.

"He is their thirteenth," said Mickey.

When he opened his eyes, Terra's familiar shade of friendly blue was gone. All that Ventus could see were golden eyes that belonged to Master Xehanort.


Aqua was raised to oppose darkness. To distrust it and those that sought it out. Master Eraqus taught all of them that lesson and most of her recent experiences only strengthened that mindset.

Not all, but most.

Which was why, when she saw Master Xehanort's eyes staring back at her from Terra's face and darkness started swirling and gathering around him, an unnerving chill ran up Aqua's spine even as she wanted to attack the monster controlling her friend.

"Today is the day you all lose," announced Not-Terra.

Glaring, she snapped, "What?"

"Before you even face the thirteen, every last one of you will be torn heart from body," he continued as he summoned his Keyblade. "But fear not. The χ-blade will still be forged."

Never. Aqua's posture settled into the same combative stance that kept her safe for so long in the Realm of Darkness. She would never let him forge the χ-blade. And she would never let him harm her friends.

Staring Not-Terra down, Sora said, "We're not going to lose to you."

Not-Terra smirked. Then he moved, too fast to see. A flash of motion out of the corner of her eye and—

A loud crash threw up a thick cloud of dust directly in front of Aqua and Ventus. It took a few moments before she could make out anything through the disturbed dust, but she saw Not-Terra's figure. Weapon raised and too close to Ventus. Far too close.

But there was another figure between them, weapon locked against the man's Keyblade. Coppery armor with a white cape. Familiar armor. It pressed hard against Not-Terra's Keyblade, Xehanort's Keyblade, with its own Keyblade. A weapon that she'd seen before briefly.

Aqua knew what she was seeing. It was impossible though.

"Who are you?" asked Not-Terra.

The armor pushed back harder against the man's weapon. Enough that Not-Terra was forced to take a step back to keep his balance.

Then, in an even, emotionless, and familiar voice, the armor said, "Got you, Xehanort."

It pushed back hard, forcing Not-Terra to leap up and back. Trying to get some distance. He landed solidly, panting slightly and staring with wide eyes even as he maintained a combative stance.

But she was only partially paying attention to the white-haired figure. Aqua couldn't look away from the armor. She knew that armor. She knew that voice. She even knew the Keyblade, so similar to Earthshaker. Her head knew it wasn't possible, but her heart seemed to believe.

"Terra?" she asked uncertainly.

Not his body. Xehanort stole that long ago. Not his heart. Didn't feel right either and his voice didn't hold enough emotions. But the armor seemed to contain a part of her friend. She couldn't deny it.

"This is impossible," said Not-Terra.

Stalking forward, the armor stated, "How I've waited for this moment."

The animated armor, Terra's armor, stopped a short distance away as Not-Terra prepared himself for attack. Then it snapped it's arm out and the Keyblade formchanged into something resembling a whip. The transformed weapon lashed forward and wrapped around the blade of Not-Terra's Keyblade.

Unsurprisingly, Not-Terra didn't relinquish his weapon. He tried to brace himself and pull free. The armor responded by twisting and yanking both Not-Terra and his Keyblade up, tossing them in the air. Only then did Not-Terra release the weapon and regain some control.

He twisted in midair before launching himself at his opponent. He dove towards the armor, clearly intent on destroying it personally.

The armor further formchanged his weapon, transforming the Keyblade as it began a shotlock. One that Aqua also recognized. She knew that shotlock and she knew that particular form for the Keyblade. Ultima Cannon. A giant blaster that the animated armor aimed towards the diving Not-Terra. The shocked and horrified expression on his face was appropriate. After all, Not-Terra couldn't change his trajectory in time to avoid the bright and powerful blast.

Aqua knew that she shouldn't take nearly that amount of pleasure from Not-Terra's scream of pain. But it was hard to scrounge up much sympathy for the source of so much suffering.

Not-Terra was knocked back by the beam, but managed to twist around in midair before summoning back his Keyblade. The animated armor charged forward before leaping up to meet him. Both combatants struck out in a swift and vicious series of blows, metal clanging as weapons clashed against each other.

Staring up at the scene with wide eyes, Ventus shouted, "Terra!"

He lunged forward, intent on helping somehow. But worry, a sickening feeling that something horrible happened to Ventus not that long ago, and a faint sound behind her that triggered a sense of danger ensured that Aqua reacted instantly. She grabbed his arm. Perhaps a bit roughly, but at least it stopped him.

"No, Ven," she said, tone firm.

Turning back towards her, he said, "But—"

Aqua directed his attention back towards the cliffs behind them. The approaching sounds quickly covered the fading noises of the retreating fight. Ven gasped at what she'd feared were coming.

"Them first," she said.

Hundreds of dark shapes came flying over the cliffs and stampeding through the narrow chasm. A second wave of Heartless to finish what the first assault failed to accomplish. Master Xehanort wanted them worn out and weakened before the true battles began. Perhaps even a few members extinguished completely; he did complain that they brought to many guardians of light.

The ground shook, making Aqua stumble. Darkness pooled on the ground, nearly liquid and foreboding as it seemed to deepen. Then a flailing tower of Heartless erupted from the pool. Aqua's breath hitched momentarily as she recognized it as something that belonged in the deepest depths of the Realm of Darkness. She'd fought such things before.

But Sora was already summoning his Keyblade and glaring at the Demon Tower without hesitation. And despite his age and lack of formal training, Aqua somehow knew that he could handle it. That somehow he was meant to do it. So Aqua swallowed her pride and surrendered control, two things that she found more difficult than she expected.

"We'll hold off the others," she said.

Shouting over the noise, Sora said, "Okay. We've got this."

Chapter Text

Lea knew what they were doing. The real Organization XIII was doing the exact same thing that Larxene and Marluxia tried a few days ago. They were throwing as many Heartless and such as possible at the guardians in the hopes of wearing them down. And as soon as the guardians of light were exhausted and vulnerable, that was when Master Xehanort's followers would strike.

It was a good plan. Beat them down with sheer numbers. Wave after wave of Heartless, some scattered Nobodies, and the strange creatures that Ventus hurriedly identified as Unversed at one point. Eventually someone would make a mistake. He could see their logic. Lea might have tried the same strategy in their position.

But none of them were giving up yet.

Once more, Lea found himself in the middle of a cluster of protective Keyblade-wielding teenagers. The rest were spread out, but his self-appointed bodyguards kept close. He did appreciate the gesture and help. But mostly he appreciated that he could keep track of them easier that way.

They'd gotten more coordinated on how they split up the job of giving him backup. Xion had perfected a high-level Reflect spell at some point, the transparent shield similar to the one he'd glimpsed Aqua using. Lea kept finding it around him at regular intervals. Xion cast that spell whenever she thought he might get overwhelmed. Kairi's continuous use of Cura helped with the hits that he couldn't avoid and his general strength. As much as he wanted to deny it, he knew that he wasn't up to his normal energy levels. And the larger Heartless never had a chance to get close before Roxas drove it back. The boy channeled all his understandable anger and frustration into every swing. And occasionally the kids would team up together to pull off a combo attack, clearing out large chunks of the enemy from around Lea.

He was mildly surprised when Roxas, Xion, and Ventus worked together on a large clump of Nobodies approaching through the stone chasm. Apparently Roxas had set aside his discomfort with the other boy either temporarily or permanently. Or at least enough of that unease was gone that they could compliment each other's fighting styles. It was honestly a relief. There were enough complicated and uncomfortable issues. It would be far easier if at least some of Lea's various friends could get along.

When they got Isa back, he couldn't imagine how awkward that would be.

When. Not if.

None of them had much of a chance to catch their breaths though. The second wave of Heartless were just as numerous as the first. And Lea doubted that Sora would be able to summon up another magic rollercoaster to tear through them.

Not that Sora wasn't already doing an impressive job. While everyone else focused on the task of maintaining the perimeter and keeping more enemies from spilling over, Sora, Donald, and Goofy were in the center of everything. The trio were dealing with the nightmarish amalgamation.

Lea didn't know of a better way to describe the Demon Tide except as a mass of smaller Heartless clustered together. A swarm of Shadows that travel in waves and narrow twisters that thrash and lash out. It twisted and swirled through the air before diving into the ground through patches of darkness, bursting out somewhere else to attack from a new angle. The thing moved like something between a serpent and a thin cyclone. And Sora, Donald, and Goofy managed to corral the thrashing mass of Heartless while the rest of the guardians remained on the outskirts.

And then Sora's Keyblade turned into a pair of arrowguns. Because apparently that was a trick that he picked up somewhere. Almost like that weird suit of armor turning a Keyblade into a whip.

Once again, the trio demonstrated their expertise when it came to facing these sorts of things. Aqua might have used a Keyblade longer and Lea had years of experience dealing with Heartless during his time in Organization XIII, but Sora was the expert at fighting powerful and vicious Heartless in situations like that. And whenever Lea looked up from his own spinning combos, he would spot the boy pulling off some rather impressive acrobatics.

Did gravity actually mean anything to him anymore? Between chaining together long air combos and his new air-stepping trick, Sora didn't seem to touch the ground nearly enough. He could probably even give Xigbar a run for his money and the Nobody's whole deal was manipulating gravity and shooting people.

Eventually, the Demon Tide plunged into the ground and the immediate area was darkened to shades of red and black. Then it rose back up, a whirling tornado of Shadows spinning around a glowing, dark, and deadly-looking orange core. And Sora didn't even blink as he focused on the appealing target at the center of the orbiting mass. He slashed at it, his Keyblade a blur.

Then another Reaper swung a scythe at Lea's throat and he was forced to pay closer attention to his own fight instead.

Though Lea was admittedly not great at that. Especially since paying attention to his surroundings had kept him alive in several sticky situations in the past. So he couldn't help grinning when he spotted Riku and Kairi working together on a couple opponents. The older boy seemed rather impressed by her skills and proud of his friend's achievements. All their training had paid off.

Lea tried to ration his fire-based attacks. The fighting could last a while and he might need something in reserve. But even with the help of Kairi's Cura spells, Lea's energy was starting to waver far too soon. The still-healing damage to his ribs complained with every twist, dodge, and wider swing of his Keyblade. He could keep going, but he needed to rest the next time they got a break in the action. Or else he would be useless for the upcoming battles. He would be useless if he needed to protect the kids. Lea needed to be cautious about not burning through his strength too fast and becoming a hinderance.

It might have been smarter not to come and to leave everything to the other guardians of light. They had enough members. It might have been smarter to focus on recovering instead of diving right back into combat. But Lea refused to let any of them handle things alone. Not his half-pints that he just got back. Not Kairi. Not Ventus. Not even Sora. He wasn't going anywhere.

As Xion called down Thundaga and cleared another clump of Heartless, Lea spotted Sora jumping back and landing lightly on the ground. The boy glared up at the swirling mass, clearly frustrated by the Demon Tide's refusal to shatter to pieces like a proper opponent.

"C'mon," he said, the words coming through clenched teeth.

Almost as if responding to his complaints, the swirling mass began to worsen. Growing. Lea felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising.

"Something's wrong," said Goofy uneasily.

Eyes widening, Donald shouted, "Look out!"

The Demon Tide yanked in other Heartless from the surrounding area, pulling them away from where they were fighting the other guardians. Some were drawn in like the victims of a powerful Magnega. Others were snatched up by smaller clusters of the creatures in the form of spinning tendrils, miniature versions of the Demon Tide's previous form. But regardless of the method, all the Heartless were coming together and transforming into a monstrous storm. More of a force of nature than an actual opponent.

Lea absently noticed that Roxas and Xion were edging closer to him. But he couldn't look away from the swirling vortex of death.

"What now?" asked Goofy.

Looking up, Donald asked, "Sora?"

As if asking the boy what his plan was. As if Sora would naturally know how to handle a giant storm made of Heartless.

And Sora, confident and determined, shouted, "I'll stop it!"

Keyblade raised, he charged forward even as Donald and Goofy yelled after him. Sora kept running, deflecting away the first clump of Shadows without breaking stride. Then, weapon raised, he leapt in the air towards the deadly mass.

Light flared. Too blindingly bright. Lea winced and ducked his head, trying to shield his eyes from the sudden flare of light.

He blinked away the worst of the glare just in time to see Sora landing on the ground and looking up. Lea's jaw dropped as he followed his gaze.

Keyblades. Hundreds of them. Keyblades ripped from the stone and dirt of the Badlands. The remnants of ancient battles and countless deaths. Keyblades with no wielders left. They filled the air, shining like new and racing overhead as everyone watched. The Keyblades from all over the area began condensing into a tight stream circling the Demon Tide.

Weapons of light forged to combat the darkness, called upon once more to fulfill their purpose.

No one spoke. They could only stare in stunned awe. No one could possibly know how to respond to the sight.

Except Sora. He laughed briefly before leaping up and riding the stream of Keyblades. As if jumping on a swarm of weapons of fallen Keyblade wielders and using them to fly through the air was the most natural thing in the world. They watched as Sora rode the stream of Keyblades towards the eye of the storm. No sign of hesitation or fear. Then he started hurtling the glimmering weapons at the swirling mass.

"Okay, now that's just cheating," muttered Roxas, startling a laugh out of Lea.

"Don't be jealous, Roxas," he said in a mildly teasing tone. "Pretty sure it isn't a competition on who can use the most Keyblades at once. Besides, you were the one who started duel-wielding them first. Sora's probably just trying to follow your lead."

With no one else left to fight, everyone was drawing together even as they stared up at Sora working his way towards the glowing core. Roxas and Xion were pressed close and nearly touching Lean. Riku was framed by his friends, King Mickey on one side and Kairi on the other. Aqua's hand had drifted back to Ventus's shoulder. As if she needed the reassurance that he was present and safe. Lea couldn't blame her for that. He knew the feeling. But even as they edged in closer together, they were all looking up at the impossible sight above them.

They watched Sora throw the strange Keyblades at a rapid pace, beating the swirling storm back. Driving the clumped Shadows and the glowing core further back. Then with a final shout, Sora tore through the dark orange core. What remained exploded out of existence above them.

Landing lightly on the ground, Sora looked back up at the shining Keyblades. They lingered in the air overhead briefly before shattering into glimmers of light. Their departure just as mysterious and unexplained as their arrival.

As the other guardians broke into a run to join him, Riku shouted, "Sora. Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he said with a short nod.

"What was that?" asked King Mickey, voicing the question on everyone's minds.

Hand clutched to her chest as she and Ventus still stared at the sky in awe, Aqua said, "Keyblade wielders… from long ago."

"It's the light of the past," said Ventus, his smile almost nostalgic for some reason.

And apparently that was all the explanation that Lea was going to receive on the topic. Well, it wasn't the weirdest thing that he'd ever heard. Sora getting help from Keyblade-wielding ghost? Sure. Why not? Stranger things happened to the kid almost on a daily basis from what he'd seen.


Everyone's attention was still towards the sky, the stunned awe not yet gone, when Kairi noticed something. A new figure approaching through the dust. Shorter than some of the others, but not the one that seemed to radiate pure darkness more so than the others. It wasn't the boy in the mask, unnerving in his absence of any light in a way that mirrored her own absence of darkness. This was someone else. She could tell that much.

"Look!" she called, pointing at the figure with a sword balanced on his shoulder.

Something about the silhouette felt familiar. That didn't stop Kairi from settling into a combative stance. Keyblade not yet summoned, but perched on the balls of her feet. Perfectly balanced to either move into a strike or a dodge. Whoever it was, she was ready for them.

Stepping forward and nearly growling the words as he mirrored Kairi's stance, Lea said, "Just send out the Big Bad."

The dust finally settled enough that Kairi could make out further details on the figure. The shoulder-length silver hair and the dark blade, Soul Eater. Both unmistakable. It was like stepping back in time, when she was hidden in Sora's heart as he fought his way through Hollow Bastion.

And she wasn't the only one who recognized him. Riku visibly startled and gritted his teeth. The darker version of her friend, the one that must have come from another point in time, came to a stop. Then he chuckled and adjusted the blade balanced on his shoulder.

Fury in his voice, Riku snapped, "You!"

"The Organization's been using hearts," said King Mickey, taking a step forward. "Ones Xehanort got to in the past and has influence over. So, that must be you from when Ansem had control of your heart."

Voice quiet and full of regrets, Riku said, "Yeah. How could I forget?"

Kairi wished that she was closer to him so she could put a reassuring hand on his arm, but she couldn't reach him. And it didn't seem wise to relax her guard at the moment. Not with the darker version in front of them, chuckling in a way that screamed arrogance and pride. Far worse than Riku ever seemed during their childhood on Destiny Island.

A brief wish that they could go back to those innocent and simple days flashed through her mind before disappearing.

"I'd say that was our finest hour," boasted the darker version of her friend's past.

Giving the smallest head shake, Riku said, "Wrong. My hour of weakness."

"You sure?" he asked tauntingly before lifting his sword towards the sky. "How about we find out?"

Darkness came off him in waves. Growing thicker with every second. Then a pillar of it erupted skywards. The darkness took shape, shifting into a giant humanoid form with glowing pale eyes. Kairi shivered as the darkness mimicked a huge effigy of Master Xehanort. It looked over them with its arms outstretched as the skies darkened once more.

"A real test," shouted Dark Riku mockingly, "for the Mark of Mastery!"

"What did you say?" he snapped back.

"We gotta make sure you're not blundering your way towards a second failure," said Xigbar, arriving through a dark corridor next to Dark Riku.

He didn't even glance up at the towering shape of darkness. Xigbar just grinned at them. Not a friendly one. He grinned like a predator when presented with vulnerable and easy prey. After being kidnapped so many times by different people, Kairi was well-acquainted with that look. And judging by the glare that she glimpsed Aqua wearing, the Keyblade master didn't appreciate it either.

"Blundering?" said Lea, managing to pull the attention away from Riku and towards himself instead. "I'll have you know we failed with style, chief."

"At least you admit it," he said. "Though I'm surprised to see you here, Axel. Last I heard, you got yourself killed over a couple kids for the second time in a row."

Xigbar smirked at Roxas and Xion as the pair drew closer to Lea. He didn't even seem fazed by their twin glares.

"You two kiddos really cause a lot of trouble for everyone, don't you? And for the people who like you, it tends to be fatal trouble. You didn't think that Axel destroyed himself for Sora's sake back then, did you? As if," he scoffed. "That was all on you."

As Roxas and Xion summoned their weapons, Lea grabbed their shoulders to stop them and said, "First, don't worry about me. Haven't you noticed yet? I tend to bounce back from things." He gave Xigbar a predatory grin of his own, making it clear that he didn't appreciate the attempt to provoke his friends. "So don't go making the same mistake everyone did after Castle Oblivion and thinking I'm gone too soon. You can't get rid of me that easily. And second, the name's Lea. Got it memorized yet?"

Shrugging slightly, Xigbar said, "Well, if you guardians think you brought the goods, you'll have to prove it to the old man one last time. 'Course, he still thinks there's a couple too many of you, so he shouldn't be that disappointed if not everyone makes the cut." He clasped Dark Riku's shoulder as he turned to leave, the gesture almost supportive and encouraging. "Kid, take it away."

As Xigbar vanished, Dark Riku shouted wordlessly and the darkness swelled in power around him. The shadowy form of Master Xehanort lost its distinctive shape. But then hundreds of Shadow Heartless started raining down from the sky. And when they landed, they tried to clump together into smaller versions of Demon Towers. Dark Riku disappearing into the darkness almost felt like an afterthought.

Sounding exasperated, Sora said, "This again?"

Everyone summoned their weapons and immediately started fighting against them. Not complicated combos or powerful spells. Just straightforward and basic attacks. The Shadows weren't particularly strong, after all. It was the numbers that were the problems.

But not the only problem. The guardians were showing signs of weariness. There was a sluggishness to their movements that wasn't there before. It was harder to fend off hundreds of Shadows and the growing numbers of Demon Towers. Kairi knew that they were flagging after handling the first two waves of the creatures from before.

And the hundreds of Heartless kept raining down. The numbers kept increasing faster than they could destroy them. The guardians started slowly moving back-to-back.

"This isn't good," said King Mickey.

Her voice firm and controlled, Aqua commanded, "Form up. Now!"

It didn't take much effort to follow her directions, settling into a circle formation. It was better protection for them, allowing everyone to cover each other's backs as the numbers kept growing. They needed that. Everyone was getting tired. Kairi's arms ached and felt like they weighed a ton. She vaguely noticed a short and quiet exchange between Riku and the king, but most of her attention was on the fight. Everyone needed to concentrate on it.

Kairi didn't know how they were going to get through this many enemies. It reminded her too much of defending the secret lab with Lea, Donald, and Goofy. And she remembered that ending in a limp body lying on the ground, bleeding and dying.

"I'll try and break through," shouted Aqua. "Everyone, get ready!"

Smashing a couple Shadows, Ventus yelled, "Alone? That's crazy. I'll help!"

Kairi dashed forward to destroy a Heartless of her own. Then she jumped back in formation. Three more Shadows were already taking its place.

"Two is no better," she said. "Then you'd both be overwhelmed."

Taking out a pair of his own Shadows with a twist of his Keyblade, Lea added, "Yeah, splitting up's a bad idea."

"Then does anyone have a good one?" asked Roxas. "Because they aren't slowing down."

They really weren't. The Heartless kept raining down. Shadows scrambling on the ground were beginning to resemble a dark ocean of the creatures. And more and more of the Demon Towers were rising up on all sides. There was no end in sight.

"There's too many!" shouted Goofy.

A larger Demon Tower formed in front of them. Growing larger and stronger as the thin spiraling figure turned towards them.

Panicking, Donald yelped, "We're finished!"

She glimpsed Sora gritting his teeth before Lea tried to move in between some of the younger Keyblade wielders and the diving Demon Tower. She braced herself and—

Light.

A bright pale green light burned through the dark clouds. The orb of light plunged towards the ground, landing in front of them with an intense flash. The explosive light blasted away the Heartless and shook the ground beneath Kairi's feet. She could feel the power radiating off it.

But eventually the light dimmed, and everyone could stop shielding their eyes. And what was left standing in its place was Master Yen Sid, his back towards them as he faced down the swarm of Heartless. Everyone shouted in name in unison, completely shocked by his arrival.

Hands glowing, Master Yen Sid raised and spread his arms. Pale, glowing, and transparent walls formed and blasted away the Heartless. Driving them back and even cutting a path through the mob.

"Go, my young champions," commanded Master Yen Sid. "I will hold them all here for as long as I can."

Moving towards his former teacher with a worried expression, King Mickey said, "We're not gonna leave you behind."

Donald and Goofy exchanged brief looks, clearly not happy with the idea either. Then, with a quick nod, they ran towards the front of the group. Only when they took up position right behind Master Yen Sid did they turn and meet Sora's confused expression.

"You guys go on," said Donald.

"Me and Donald will stay here." Sounding certain with their decision, Goofy said, "The two of us'll back up Master Yen Sid."

Quiet and worried, Sora said, "Donald… Goofy…"

Donald smiled up at him proudly. Rather like how Kairi's adopted parents did when she told them about her plans to train with a Keyblade, even if they didn't quite understand.

"You're a half pint by yourself, Sora."

"Don't worry," reassured Goofy. "We'll catch up with ya in just a bit."

Sora looked like he wanted to ask them to come. She was familiar with his current expression and knew exactly what he was thinking. He never did like leaving his friends behind. And yet circumstances kept ripping him away from those he cared about again and again. He didn't want to leave Donald and Goofy behind, uncertain what might happen to them and how long it might be before they were reunited. Sora almost looked like he was afraid that he might never seem them again at all.

But then he let his outstretched hand drop and he took a deep breath.

"Okay."

"We'll regroup later," said King Mickey, trying to sound reassuring.

The path had started shrinking, letting the endless mass of Shadows draw near again. But Master Yen Sid sent another flash of power through the barrier. The sea of Heartless parted again as the flare of magic cleared the path once more.

"Make haste," he ordered.

No one needed further encouragement. The guardians ran, following the safe route through the swarm as quickly as possible.


Xion bit her bottom lip. She should say something. She wanted to say something, and she knew that Roxas wanted to say something. He saw the same things that she did. And he would probably bring it up soon. He didn't hold back as much as she did. Xion knew that she could simply wait and let him bring up the problem.

Well, one of the problems. The slightly more immediate problem. Not the looming problem with Sora that he wanted the kept quiet for now. The other one.

But this wasn't Organization XIII. She didn't have to be afraid. It wasn't like when she couldn't use her Keyblade or Roxas was losing his strength. Weakness and vulnerability wouldn't make someone disposable.

And besides, it wasn't about her. It was about Lea.

The group had made it past the Heartless and the dark overcast skies. Now the sun was back out, beaming down on the flat and dusty landscape. They no longer needed to run. So everyone had settled into a cautious walk, remaining on guard as they moved even if the pace had slowed. They didn't see any immediate threats; their surroundings seemed empty except for the increasingly-thick patches of dull and rusting Keyblades embedded in the ground on either side of the "road" with the occasional small boulder to break up the monotony. But their enemies could appear through dark corridors. Empty surroundings meant nothing. They wouldn't have much warning if there was an attack, so they needed to stay alert.

Her current attention, however, was on Lea.

He was upright and walking. And he was trying to act normal. But Xion was watching for signs of trouble. He was a little too slow and his posture slightly slumped. His breathing was too heavy. She knew that he had more endurance than that. And when he thought no one was looking, his hand would drift up to press at where the knives had hit him a couple days ago. She spotted every wince.

Lea was still healing. He was hurt and the drawn-out fighting without a break had taken its toll on him.

When she spotted a decent-sized rock next to the path, Xion decided that enough was enough. She marched over to Lea and grabbed his arm.

"Wait," she said, loud enough that the others turned to look. When Lea gave her a questioning glance, Xion pushed him until he was forced to sit on the rock and said firmly, "Rest, Axel."

"I'm fine," he said, though Lea didn't immediately try standing back up. "Just a little sore. It's nothing to worry about."

"She's right," said Riku. "They want us to arrive exhausted. Too exhausted to keep up with them. Don't let the Organization control everything. We have a moment and we should take this opportunity to catch our breath."

Ventus nodded and said, "It's not like they can start their Keyblade War without us. And we could probably all use a quick break."

Everyone slowly relaxed, settling into a loose circle. Sora and Riku started talking with Kairi, showing her some movements with their Keyblades. Xion suspected that they were teaching her a few new tricks. New attack moves or how to perform higher-level magic, maybe. The king was encouraging Aqua and Ventus to sit down and rest properly, though the young woman seemed determined to remain on guard. Xion and Roxas sat on the ground next to Lea. They pulled out their stash of items and started sorting out what they had left.

"It's really not that bad," said Lea quietly. "The cuts are more or less healed. All that's left is some bruising and my ribs."

"None of which makes it easy to fight." Roxas handed Xion one of his extra hi-potions and continued, "Are you sure that you don't want to go back to Radiant Garden? We don't want you to get hurt again."

Xion added, "No one will blame you if you need more time to heal. And Roxas and I can free Saïx for you."

"Of course we can," said Roxas, though the tension in his voice suggested that any rescue attempt would involve plenty of violence against him first.

Lea reached over and ruffled their hair. Neither of them could help laughing a little at the gesture. Then he gave them both a reassuring smile before leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.

"I appreciate the offer, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm right where I'm meant to be."

Xion nodded, not even slightly surprised. Nothing could ever stop him when Lea was determined to do something and especially when it came to his friends. But at least he could rest and recover a little before they continued forward. And they did have a plan. She, Roxas, and even Kairi would stay close to him when the fighting started in case anything happened. They would keep him safe.

Her attention drifted towards Sora, the Keyblade wielder currently explaining to Kairi how to upgrade her spells to Curaga. Xion didn't remember much about what happened earlier. But she knew that things went wrong, that he did something to save them, and that there was a high cost. She could feel the damage to his heart as Xion shared her strength with Sora, helping to hold him together. Just as she could feel Roxas and Ventus doing the same thing.

She didn't know how things with Master Xehanort and the rest of the Organization would end, but Xion did know what would happen to Sora. It was as inevitable as her own fate back when she was in Organization XIII. One way or another, she would have ended up losing her existence. Sora's fate was set in stone. She didn't know how to fix things. What they were doing for him was a temporary measure, not a permanent solution.

Xion swept her gaze across the resting guardians. How many would survive the day? How many would fall?


After their short break, the guardians resumed their trek across the dusty landscape. Broken, dull, and rusting Keyblades lined both sides of their path, silent testimony of those who fell long ago. They had been jammed into the ground and left there for the dust and wind to wear away at them. An ancient battlefield and a forgotten graveyard all in one.

They came to a crossroads. And almost feeling like he was responding to a silent signal, Sora and the others stopped. Something was about to happen. He could feel it.

Then he gasped slightly, spotting the thirteen figures approaching. Only Master Xehanort wasn't wearing a black coat, positioned in the back and at the tip of the V-formation. Other than a couple shorter ones, the members in the black coats looked identical with their hoods up. Though Sora suspected that Lea, Roxas, and Xion could spot the differences. But other than Master Xehanort strolling forward with his hands tucked behind his back, Sora couldn't identify anyone specific.

Not until one stumbled briefly, slipping out of the perfect formation for a moment when he caught sight of Lea. It almost seemed like he wanted to stop moving and just stare. But that moment passed. He resumed walking, but his steps were stiff, hesitant, and awkward until the entire group came to a halt on the far side of the crossroads.

"There you are, Isa," said Lea under his breath.

"Today," announced Master Xehanort solemnly, "we join these other wielders and leave our mark on fate." Straightening, his gaze moved across his audience. "I have waited patiently," he continued, raising his hands, "but together, we shall unlock the Keyblade War's secrets."

No one responded to his declaration, the old man phrasing it like they'd agreed to his crazy and dangerous idea. They just silently glared at him.

He summoned his Keyblade, a dark and spiky thing with a creepy blue eye near the tip. Something about its gaze sent an uncomfortable shiver down Sora's spine. It felt like the Keyblade was watching him.

"Now we forge it."

Master Xehanort raised the weapon towards the sky.

"The ultimate key…"

The old man twisted the weapon around as it began to glow, gathering power.

"The χ-blade!"

He slammed the blade down, dark lines spreading across the ground. Then the shockwave hit them, making the guardians stumble and stagger. The impact tossed the dull and rusty weapons into the air before they fell everywhere, the clanging of metal almost deafening.

Stone pillars and segments burst out of the ground. They rose to staggering heights, coming together to form the walls of a growing maze. They were old walls. He could see carvings on them, worn down and faded from the passage of time. Master Xehanort was resurrecting an ancient structure. A large stone platform carried the Organization skywards, moving higher than the rest of the maze. And a rock column lifted Master Xehanort even further until he towered over everyone.

"Here we go," said Sora quietly.

But the shifting stone wasn't finished quite yet. The shaking underfoot, which had begun to fade, but had not stopped. The guardians had been scattered a bit by the previous shockwave and the falling discarded Keyblades. And before they could draw back together again, new walls slammed up between them and cut the Keyblade wielders off from each other.

"No!"

Sora slammed his Keyblade against the walls, but the damage was practically nonexistence. He was alone. All his friends were separated, making them easier targets for Organization XIII to pick off one at a time. A smart strategy, but a frustrating one when he was on the receiving end.

He couldn't go back. He couldn't smash his way through the walls and reach his scattered friends. His only option was forward. All he could do was head deeper into the maze and hope that he could find the others along the way. And hope that they would be strong enough for whatever the Organization threw at them. Sora knew that they weren't weak, but he couldn't help worrying.

"Hold on, guys. I'm coming."

Chapter Text

He was alive. Lea was alive.

The thought pounded through Saïx's head, sharp and loud. Pushing through the hopelessness and apathy. Shoving back the foreign emotions of hate, rage, frustration, and eagerness to achieve Master Xehanort's goal. The thought found that tiny and dim part of Isa buried in the darkness, feeding the fragile spark that had refused to go out. He clung to the single thought desperately as Saïx stumbled through the dark corridor at Xemnas's command.

Lea was alive. They hadn't killed him.

Saïx didn't get his best friend killed with his attempt to help.

"Perhaps I was wrong, but I was under the impression that the required components were thirteen darknesses and seven lights," said Vexen dryly. "I saw more Keyblade wielders than the established limits. Did they lack the mental capacity to properly count?"

The scientist's words pulled Saïx out of his continuous mental loop. Xemnas had brought the pair of them to one of the larger chambers in the stone maze. The other members of the real Organization XIII were scattered throughout the structure. All of them waiting to clash with the guardians of light.

Including Lea.

"It is better for them to bring too many members than for the guardians to fail to collect enough," said Xemnas.

Keeping his tone even and calm, Saïx said, "It would appear that Larxene and Marluxia exaggerated the extent of their success." Crossing his arms, he continued, "I suppose that is what happens when you rely on the efforts of those who have rebelled and betrayed you in the past."

Saïx met his withering glare with a cold stare of his own. There was no point in pretending that Master Xehanort didn't share his and Vexen's treachery with the others. Xemnas knew exactly what they did. He knew that it was only the foreign and darkness-filled heart jammed into Saïx that forced his current obedience.

"You still think that you can help your 'friend.' You believe that we will allow you that much freedom a second time," said Xemnas, almost mockingly.

Dropping his arms to his sides, Saïx said, "I know what is to come. We must clash with the guardians of light. You and the others have ensured that we have no choice in the matter. We will clash with them, regardless of my loyalty or lack thereof."

"There is a difference between a simple clash to forge the χ-blade and a true battle. And it would be very easy for you to let the guardians win."

Saïx didn't say a word, neither confirming nor denying Xemnas's statement. But his silence was enough.

"Such a simple and painless fate would not suit a known traitor. Neither you nor Axel and his friends," he continued. "Do you know why I brought you both here?"

"Because you wanted to put us in the path of specific guardians," said Vexen. "Those that we would either be the most effective against… or who would cause the most pain if we were to face one another."

"Correct. Unless they become especially lost in the maze, the first group to find you shall be the one with your fellow traitors. And you will fight them. You will also destroy a few of them completely, if you are able. Body, heart, and their very existences. They did go to the trouble of bringing spares, after all."

Saïx clenched his teeth, but he managed to keep silent. There was nothing that he could say that would help the situation. He would be facing Lea. And possibly Roxas and Xion. A cruel decision meant to cause Saïx and Lea the most pain possible. Killing Lea was something that Saïx refused to consider, but forcing Lea to destroy him would hurt his friend. And if Roxas or Xion should strike him down, that act could damage Lea's friendship with them. No matter how things turned out, someone would suffer.

All he could hope was that Xemnas would leave him enough room to slip between his commands. He could only hope that there would be a loophole for whatever Xemnas intended.

"If the Superior would recall, I am not the most proficient when it comes to the combative arts and my last encounter with Axel did not end well," said Vexen. "Nor did it last long."

Giving them both a cold and merciless stare, Xemnas said, "The final outcome of your battle does not matter. Your fates do not matter. Master Xemnas merely requires that lights and darknesses clash in combat. Victory or defeat makes no difference. What I require is that those who betrayed the Organization and those that betrayed me pay for those actions. And there has only ever been one punishment for traitors. The two of you, Axel, Roxas, and Xion must suffer for your crimes. Destruction of several of those guardians would be preferable, but I will settle for Axel falling at the hands of someone that he considers a friend."

His words held no heat or fury. They were cold and detached. But there was something in his eyes that revealed Xemnas took all the disrupted and ruined plans very personally. He'd been prepared to an extent for Roxas and Xion to be difficult to control, likely due to their connection to Sora. But Axel had always been beneath notice. His repeated disruption to long-term goals hit harder because of how unexpected they were.

"The heart is such a fragile thing. Easily wounded and slow to heal. Perhaps death itself will be a balm to the pain of being struck down by you, Saïx."

Xemnas lifted his hand, letting an orb of crackling nothingness form in his palm. The sheer absence of existence was a power somewhere between light and darkness, a wrongness in the world. The summoned power grew until it was nearly the size of his head. But his golden eyes never left Saïx.

"And you will fight to your fullest abilities," he continued firmly. "Your obedience is guaranteed, even if your loyalty has crumbled like sand. The heart in your chest. The Recusant's Sigil carved into your flesh." Xemnas stepped closer to Saïx, the orb crackling with energy. "And the Berserk form that leaves your mind hazy, indistinct, and disconnected from battle rage that grips your body. No rational thought, resistance, or hesitation. A perfect weapon that can be directed towards any target that I choose." He gave Saïx a cold grin. "I believe you would be more useful to the Organization if you remain in that state for the foreseeable future."

Xemnas slammed the orb of nothingness into Saïx, making him gasp as the unpleasant sensation poured into him. Unpleasant, uncomfortable, and empowering. Nobodies were composed of nothingness and Xemnas had dominion over nothingness. Saïx could feel him strengthening and manipulating the essence of his nonexistence. It felt wrong in a way that he couldn't properly describe.

It would be easy for Xemnas to twist and drain away every shred of sentience until Saïx turned into a mindless Dusk. That had happened to others who were not chosen for the original Organization XIII. Not many, but enough that they knew it was possible. But that's not what Xemnas did now.

Instead, Saïx felt like every nerve was burning. Xemnas pushed more and more power into him. Too much for him to contain properly. His skin felt too tight, old scars stretched tight until they were nearly splitting. His thoughts grew cloudy, his vision darkened, and his mind dulled. His breathing and the pounding in his chest raced. Too fast and loud.

Awareness slipped away. Time had no meaning. A heavy weight settled into his hand. His claymore, Lunatic. An extension of himself.

Destroy. Slash. Burn. Crush. Stab.

There was no Saïx left. All that remained was destructive violence and aggression given shape.


The sounds of fighting drew Sora through the maze. He ran through the dusty paths until he turned a corner and spotted a larger chamber up ahead. Several figures dashed and jumped around the open space. And three of them were targeting a familiar figure.

"Riku!" shouted Sora as he ran towards him.

Glancing over his shoulder without lowering his Keyblade, he called back, "Sora!"

They couldn't spare time for any further words. Not with their current opponents. None of them were particularly easy ones. But they were all far too familiar.

Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness, mostly levitated above the battlefield. Summoning dark orbs of energy to fire lasers or surrounding himself in those spheres to generate a damaging barrier as he rushed to attack. He almost seemed bored; his arms crossed in front of his chest through most of his attacks. The lack of his Heartless bodyguard, the Guardian, was a small comfort.

Xigbar was more focused on the fight. Firing his arrowguns at the pair and teleporting around the chamber, occasionally floating upside-down as he shot at them and ignored gravity. Some of the energy arrows would home in on Sora and Riku. Larger energy arrows would fire in a wide-spread shot that would then linger on the ground, ready to explode if they came too close. Occasionally Xigbar would fire into portals, the shots emerging from other portals to hit them at unexpected angles. Sora quickly decided that his worst one was when he would land in the center of the chamber and combined his arrowguns into a large bow. He fired an energy arrow into the air, opening a spatial rift that rained down countless arrows of dark energy which slowly expanded outward to the edge of the room. That one was a pain to avoid.

And dashing around mirroring several of Riku's moves and a few of Ansem's tricks was the younger, more arrogant, and darker version of Sora's friend. Dark Riku had discarded his black coat at some point, wearing the dark purple and skin-tight outfit that he wore when Sora faced him in Hollow Bastion a couple years ago. He remembered that day with far too much detail and those memories served Sora well in his current battle. Everything about him was almost painfully familiar. Dark Riku even used a three-hit combo so much like the one that Riku had used back when they were swinging toy swords at each other on the Destiny Islands, granted with a finishing shockwave instead of just jumping up and hitting Sora with his feet.

The battle only lasted a few more minutes before Xehanort's Heartless apparently grew tired of toying with them. He threw out a hand and darkness climbed up the walls, sealing the chamber. Then he floated upwards with the clear intention of leaving.

"Wait!" shouted Riku, charging forward before leaping after the humanoid Heartless. "Ansem!"

Jumping up alongside him, Dark Riku glared and snarled, "Where are you going?"

A vicious kick sent Riku crashing to the ground. Ansem turned briefly to smirk before vanishing into darkness. Sora barely noticed his exit beyond that, already running towards his downed friend. The impact must have at least knocked the wind out of him.

"Riku!" he shouted.

Xigbar, recognizing an opening when he saw it, fired at the pair of them. Sliding into place in front of Riku, Sora dropped into a guard position and deflected multiple shots with his Keyblade. He didn't waver even as he heard Riku climbing back to his feet.

"Hey," called Xigbar, "let's speed it up. Keep the line moving."

Sora glanced over his shoulder and met Riku's gaze. He responded to the silent question with a short nod. Sora then raised his eyebrows questioningly and Riku's head twitched to one side. Then they both grinned, years of close friendship making the wordless exchange possible.

Two Keyblade wielders. Two opponents. The easiest and fastest way to handle it would be for each of them to pick a specific target and stick with it until they fell. And Sora let the older boy pick.

Riku against his dark doppelganger. And Sora against Xigbar.

Sora ran, twisting slightly to avoid the shots. He no longer needed to split his focus on multiple opponents. Riku would handle that problem. He wouldn't give his darker past the opportunity to get past him. All Sora needed to worry about was the sharpshooting Nobody.

Xigbar tried to teleport away to find a new angle of attack. His fighting style worked better at a distance, after all. But Sora had already reached him and didn't give him the chance. Once vicious combo immediately connected to another, Sora stringing them together as fast as he could. And when Xigbar managed to finally break free, he sent three Thundagas after him to keep the Nobody in place long enough to close the distance again. Somewhere in the middle of his fast-paced attack, Sora managed a quick Curaga for himself. But he never gave his opponent a chance to recover or retaliate.

There was no need to divide his attention now. No need to worry about anyone else on the battlefield. He knew that Riku had his back. He could make Xigbar is sole focus. And Sora could be brutal on his opponents when he put his mind to it.

While Xigbar managed to get a few more trick shots, they weren't enough to turn the tides. And at the end of a particularly aggressive air combo, Sora sensed something give way. As Riku and the younger version continued to fight somewhere behind them, darkness shot up from Xigbar in a thick column.

When the darkness dissipated, Xigbar collapsed to his knees and muttered, "Figures. If I had a Keyblade, it'd be different…"

"Like you're actually worthy to use one," said Sora.

"Oh, I am worthy."

Confused and slightly surprised by the assertion, Sora asked, "What do you mean?"

Xigbar slammed one of his arrowguns into the ground. Using it to steady himself, the Nobody slowly climbed to his feet with extreme effort. While his personality always rubbed Sora the wrong way, Xigbar wasn't weak-willed.

"The old coot promised to bequeath me his," said Xigbar. "Why else do you think I would ever put up with all his nonsense?"

Sora knew what kind of harm that a Keyblade could cause in the wrong hands. He knew that Terra, Aqua, and Ventus all had their lives torn apart because of a single Keyblade wielder whose curiosity led him into the deepest darkness. A Keyblade wielder was meant to protect. To protect the different world and the people who lived there. They were supposed to help. Master Xehanort was the opposite of everything that a Keyblade master was meant to be, causing so much pain, fear, and loss.

And Xigbar with his own Keyblade…

"It'd be wasted on you," he said quietly.

Giving a short chuckle, Xigbar said, "As if."

Visibly struggling, he used darkness to teleport to the top of the wall. Sora stared up at Xigbar, the Nobody smirking as he clutched at his arm. He took several staggering steps backwards. His one remaining eye never blinked.

Realizing a moment too late what was about to happen, Sora instinctively reached up in horror. But Xigbar took his final step backwards, letting himself fall. He disappeared over the far side. Choosing to end things on his own terms. Sora's hand slowly fell.

The abandoned weapons dissolving into scraps of nothingness banished any doubts. The Nobody was gone.

Sora spared a brief moment of regret, not exactly comfortable with someone purposefully ending their own existence like that. He'd done something similar when he stabbed his chest with the Keyblade of Heart to free Kairi's heart, but it was different witnessing someone else dying by choice. But he tried to take comfort in the fact it wasn't truly the end. He'd already seen that Nobodies could reform as their completed selves. Maybe Xigbar would be a better person once he regained his own heart. And with that last hopefully thought, Sora set the matter aside for the moment.

The battle wasn't over. And his time was limited.


Xigbar stumbled, still clutching his arm and everything hurting. Sora was a lot tougher than the kid looked. He'd known that before, but every fight only made it more obvious. He was going to be sore for a while and his stockpile of hi-potions turned out to be a smart investment. He'd ended up cutting things closer than he'd originally intended. A few more hits and he might have actually been destroyed. And being recompleted would take time that he couldn't spare currently. Things were happening fast now.

Thankfully, while strong and stubborn, Sora wasn't the brightest kid to ever swing a Keyblade around. He wasn't exactly stupid, but he was too trusting and too willing to take things at face value. It's why everyone could manipulate and lead him around with their plans so easily. The problem was that just because you could get him to do what you want to an extent didn't mean that he wouldn't barrel right through your plan anyway with sheer power, determination, and far too many friends.

But regardless, he didn't always think things through. And he'd clearly bought the whole dramatic death scene. Not even pausing to wonder how someone with such control over his own personal gravity could possibly fall to his demise. He just accepted it without question.

Seriously, Xigbar destroying himself by falling from a great height after spending half the fight floating upside-down shooting at the kid? As if.

It did work out perfectly for Xigbar though. He could patch himself up a bit and let Master Xehanort finish up his scheme. The whole mess would reach its inevitable and predicted conclusion. And with a little patience, he could then move on to the next stage of his long-term plan. All he needed was to collect a certain black box and wait for a few familiar faces.

And if Xigbar was good at anything by now, it was being patient.


Riku had fought with himself a lot over the last couple of years. But normally that fighting was metaphorical rather than literal.

Not always though. Unlike Sora, he actually remembered Castle Oblivion. And the fact that he'd had multiple literal fights with himself was probably a testament of how odd his life had been since they left their island.

This fight was definitely one of the more literal versions. The younger and darker version of himself was everything about Riku's past that he wished that he could forget. He was a reminder of every mistake. He even wore the same dark skin-tight outfit and carried the red, purple and blue blade shaped like a curved demonic wing, Soul Eater, that Riku did during the worst point in his past.

Dark Riku was fast. Blinding fast. His Soul Eater would slice at Riku during familiar combos or in lunges at lightning speed. And he used darkness far more directly than Riku currently did in combat. He would send out a pool of darkness that would generate claws that reached up to grab Riku. Or he would leave behind dark mines that exploded after a while. And sometimes when he was extra vicious, Dark Riku would just crash down on him repeatedly before finishing off with a shockwave of darkness.

But as strong as he might be, Riku was physically older and stronger than himself at fifteen. The last couple years of fighting and his growth spurt combined with Braveheart turned out to make an impressive difference. And while he didn't have quite as many flashy tricks as Sora, Riku had developed a few combos of his own.

Most importantly, anything that the younger version of himself tried, Riku was already familiar with it.

Not that Dark Riku wasn't holding his own. He refused to back down. Rather like Riku himself. He was stubborn and ruthless. Only quick reflexes and a couple of Curagas kept Riku out of trouble.

He'd almost forgotten about the other half of the battle. Other than the occasional stray shot flashing over their heads, Xigbar's attention remained on Sora as the younger boy gave him not even a second to rest. Riku didn't even realize that they'd finished until Sora suddenly dove into the fray, unleashing a vicious combo that Dark Riku didn't see coming.

Sora knocked him back, Dark Riku not expecting or bracing himself for the surprise impact. And before he could recover, Riku took over with his own combo. They trapped him between the two of them. And any remaining resistance that Dark Riku might have mounted was demolished between their combined efforts. A few moments later and something gave way.

Darkness shot up like a pillar from Dark Riku, leaving him staggering as it eventually faded away. He stumbled and gasped as darkness and nothingness seemed to flake off. Riku watched him look down at his hand and the way he was starting to come apart.

His voice shaking and struggling, he said, "You're not… real…"

Riku's eyes widened. Those words and that tone felt familiar, but in a different way than before. It didn't trigger memories of Hollow Bastion. They came from another time and place.

"Huh?" said Riku quietly, unable to word his confusion properly.

Hunched over and gasping, he continued, "I'm… the real one…"

"Aren't you my past self?" asked Riku. "From when Ansem possessed me?"

He felt something shift in his chest, leaving the comfortable place nestled in his heart. It slipped out of Riku. His replica's heart. A barely real figure, slightly glowing as he floated next to Riku. Almost like a ghost. Riku couldn't help startling when he felt the impossibly light touch on his shoulder.

"No, you beat Ansem and you're still here," said Riku's replica. "This guy…" He started flying towards Dark Riku, shouting, "is me!"

The Riku replica's hand stabbed into Dark Riku. The darker figure threw his head back and screamed as more darkness spewed out of Dark Riku. All that Riku could do was stare in stunned horror as the darkness slowly peeled away to reveal a limp figure in a black coat with the hood up.

"I knew it," he continued, hand still buried in his target's chest. "It's a replica. A soon-to-be empty vessel. I've been waiting for a chance like this."

He shoved his way into the replica. Darkness cocooned the figure once again and swelled around them. Then Riku's replica burst out the far side with the limp and ghostly figure of Dark Riku tucked under his arm.

One heart given shape carrying another.

Riku's replica looked aback as the body tumbled to the ground. All distinguishing features had faded away. The vessel empty and abandoned.

"Hey!" shouted Riku. "What are you doing? Take the vessel."

The replica remained quiet for a few moments, not looking directly at him. Riku noticed Sora drawing a little closer, a small frown on his face.

"No," he said finally, turning slowly. His expression was calm and accepting. "The world already has you. There's someone else who needs the replica more." He smiled wistfully. "You know who I mean."

"Naminé," said Riku with quiet realization. "You're saving her."

Riku's replica stared silently, his face completely content and accepting of his fate. The edges of him started to grow indistinct. The figure of Dark Riku under his arm was already disappearing, dissolving into light.

"Take care of her," he said.

"You can't…" said Sora. "That's not…"

Some strong and childish impulse rose up in Riku. And when he opened his mouth, he inadvertently found himself echoing the words that Sora shouted on a pirate ship years ago when Riku said something equally unacceptable.

"You're stupid!"

Both Sora and the replica stiffen, blinking in surprise at the outburst. Neither of them expected such a thing from the mature and level-headed teenager. Nor did Riku. But since he'd already said it, he kept going.

"Just because the world has me doesn't mean that it doesn't need you too. It doesn't mean that Naminé wouldn't miss you and want her friend back. Just because you share my face and some of my memories doesn't mean we're the same person."

"Yeah," said Sora. "Roxas and Xion… They exist because of me just like you exist because of Riku. But they are their own people and deserve to exist just as much as I do. And you deserve to exist just as much as Riku does."

Nodding, Riku said, "We can find a vessel for Naminé afterwards. They have Vexen's research and they should be able to make a new replica. And you should be there to greet her the moment that she has a body of her own." He took a step closer. "Take the vessel now or I swear that we'll stick you in Sora's heart. We both know that there's enough space in there."

Sora frowned slightly at the idea, but it managed to startle a laugh out of the replica. He released what was left of Dark Riku and the pieces dissolved away. Possibly returning to the past, depending on how the Organization created him. He vaguely noticed that the darkness sealing the walls of the chamber disappeared at the same time as Dark Riku. But after he let go of the other fading heart, Riku's replica nodded slowly.

"All right. I suppose that I have no choice," he said, his form trying to dissolve into particles of light the same way. "And I never did like the idea of letting myself fade into darkness alone."

Then he sank into the limp shape on the ground. Light flared up and Riku shielded his eyes. When it faded, the figure in the black coat was climbing clumsily to his feet. On the surface, he looked the same as the person that they'd been fighting. The only real difference was that he was wearing the black coat again instead of the skin-tight outfit. But his expression and the way he held himself were different than the aggressive person from before. Riku approached carefully, reaching out a hand to steady him when his replica stumbled.

"How do you feel?" asked Riku.

Giving an uncertain smile, he said, "A little tired. But… not too bad. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that neither of you would just let me go. I… think I'm going to stay. If you don't mind another you hanging around."

"Of course, we don't mind. And it wouldn't be another me. You're you and no one else. With your own heart, goals, and even a friend or two who would miss you if you disappeared."

"Naminé?"

"Yes. And me," said Riku. "After everything that's happened, I hope you can consider me a friend."

The uncertain smile grew a little steadier as the replica nodded. Riku gave him a grin in return before glancing towards Sora.

"Go help the others," he said. "We'll catch up after…" Riku trailed off for a moment, realizing the issue of finding the replica a name of his own was a subject that would need to be addressed sooner rather than later. "After my friend had a chance to catch his breath and we're ready to move."

"I'll be fine," said the replica, still reminding Riku of how he would push himself so much when he was young and still did to an extent. "It's not that bad."

Sora smiled and nodded. Then he took off running towards the unsealed door, heading back towards the rest of the maze. Riku watched for a moment before turning his attention back to the replica.

"Are you sure you're ready for this?" he asked. "Do you have a weapon?"

Riku didn't know if he'd be able to improvise and provide him with one if the replica didn't have a weapon already. Maybe if he'd known ahead of time, he could have come up with something. He gave Kairi a weapon to use in the World That Never Was, something that he came up with during the long year waiting for Sora to wake up and with DiZ building virtual worlds as part of one of his possible revenge plans. But creating a programmed Keyblade in the digital version of Twilight Town and then pulling it into the real world for later use took time to accomplish. Time well spent since the digital version kept her safe until Kairi could summon a real one, but Riku wouldn't be able to arm his replica the same way.

Holding his hand out, Riku's replica closed his eyes. After a moment, something manifested in his hand. Riku briefly thought it was Soul Eater. The colors and basic shape were the same, but the once curved wing was now straight and the tip had been shorn off. And the handle wasn't like the sword's hilt. It had changed. The guard was composed of one angelic wing and one demonic wing.

It wasn't the familiar sword. It wasn't Soul Eater. Not anymore at least. It was his old Keyblade.

Way to Dawn.

His broken Keyblade. The one that formed around the shape of Soul Eater when he finally became worthy again to wield a Keyblade. The weapon that he left buried on that distant shore in the Realm of Darkness.

"You left it for me," said the replica. "Even if it is broken, I can probably make it work. At least enough to be useful in a fight."

Maybe a broken Keyblade didn't behave like a normal one. Maybe it didn't mean anything. But Riku knew that Keyblades did not stay in the hands of anyone except those who were meant to have them. Anyone who didn't have the right quickly found the weapon disappearing from their grasp. And his replica was holding the broken Keyblade without any effort. As if it belonged with him.

Well, if Sora's Nobody could naturally summon a Keyblade, was it that surprising that his replica would gain the same abilities eventually?

"All right," said Riku. "Let's not make Sora wait too long."

Chapter Text

He didn't have to go far down the pathways of the worn and dusty maze. A few minor twists and turns and Sora stumbled right into the middle of another battle. Across the open chamber, King Mickey leapt and dodged the vicious attacks from the Nobodies. Sora saw him holding off Xemnas, Marluxia, Larxene, and Luxord all on his own.

Sora knew better than to underestimate the king.

"Your Majesty!" he shouted.

King Mickey glanced over as Sora joined him. The boy summoned his own Keyblade as the king called his name in return. But that was all that he had time to say.

Xemnas rose above the battlefield, arms spread wide. He sent out thorny vines of nothingness to enclose the area. Apparently, he didn't want anyone else joining in.

Like Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness, it quickly became obvious that Xemnas wasn't putting his full effort into the fight. Sora was forced to dodge and block the Nobody's blades of glowing red nothingness. He slashed and stabbed at the Keybearer. But Sora knew that Xemnas was capable of far worse. He remembered the hundreds of lasers that surrounded and fired down on him and Riku. Xemnas was toying with them.

The others were trying harder. Larxene and Marluxia made the entire battlefield a death trap. One flashing across like lightning and the other practically a spinning blade of destruction. Only Luxord was more subtle with his cards.

And while the burns were healing and harder to spot on the pair of them, the damage to Larxene's hair was easier to spot in the brief seconds between her strikes. Lea certainly made a lasting impression on them.

"Mickey! Sora!"

Glancing back during a momentary break as he used an air slide to slip between combatants, Sora saw Riku and his replica on the far side of Xemnas's barrier. Sora really wished that he'd asked more questions because he wanted to know where he came from and why the replica's heart had been inside Riku before. But it seemed more important at that moment to let the two of them talk. Besides, the explanations would take more time than they could spare.

He could still feel the strength of his friends wrapped around his heart, steady and strong. But Sora knew that Roxas, Xion, and Ventus could only last so long. He couldn't afford to squander the time that they were giving him.

"More companions? How quaint," said Xemnas. "Perhaps it is time to even the playing field and match your greater numbers with more powerful strength. And if anyone deserves that power, it should be a member of the Organization that has never betrayed me."

He held up his hand and drew back in the barrier of thorny vines made of nothingness. He twisted it, a shapeless mass of potential. Then Xemnas sent it into Luxord, making him stiffen as he was filled with power. Xemnas added more of it into him, manipulating the inherent nothingness that composed all Nobodies. Luxord slumped, gasping as he slowly raised his hands.

Xemnas gave a short chuckle as the other Nobody tried to handle the exhilarating rush of strength. Then he disappeared from sight, abandoning them completely.

"Xemnas!" shouted Riku, he and the replica running over to join the others now that the barrier was gone.

Laughing as he stepped forward, Luxord held up a card and said, "Exactly what I needed." He twisted the card between his fingers before flashing an entire deck. "Two of a kind, a king of hearts, and an ace? Not what I'd call a winning hand. Perhaps you'd like to shuffle things around a bit."

The playing cards glowed red briefly before Luxord flung the entire deck all around him. The cards instantly grew to the size of a sturdy door and encircled the dusty battlefield. Then, holding a final card in his hand, Luxord threw it at them.

"Sora!" shouted King Mickey, "look out!"

He leapt forward, deflecting the card with his new Keyblade, Star Cluster. The impact stopped the card in midair, but apparently triggered a trap. A sudden gust of wind grabbed at him, dragging him forward with the strength of a tornado. The spell pulled at King Mickey relentlessly and then at Riku and the replica when they dove to grab him. The card absorbed all three of them and returned to Luxord's hand in the blink of an eye.

"No," yelled Sora.

Sending the giant cards spinning around them with a brief gesture, Luxord said, "Sora, one final game. The rules are simple. All you have to do to win is find me among those cards and strike me down."

He snapped his fingers with a grin. A flash of light and Luxord vanished from sight. Larxene merely rolled her eyes and pushed back her hair, the scorched section refusing to behave properly.

"You and your stupid games," she complained, electricity dancing between her knives.

Tightening his grip on his Keyblade, Sora muttered, "Don't worry. I'll get you guys out."


They'd been close together when the walls went up and divided everyone. Aqua was thankful for that much. She couldn't imagine how worried she would have been if Ventus was separated from her. They might be wandering a maze built of ancient walls that Master Xehanort summoned from the ground, but at least they were together. At least she knew he was safe.

She'd always been protective of him and even Terra. Perhaps sometimes a little too protective, if she was completely honest with herself. But after everything that had happened, after failing to protect him last time led to him slumbering in Sora's heart for over a decade, and spending so long separated from everyone that she cared about, Aqua wanted the reassurance that he was close and safe. She wanted to know without a doubt that she would lose anyone else.

"Do you think that the others are all right?" asked Ventus quietly.

Apparently, he shared her worries about losing people they cared about.

Smiling encouragingly, she said, "I'm sure they're fine. They have all proven themselves to be very capable Keyblade wielders. All we need to worry about is making our way through this maze."

Ventus was a capable Keyblade wielder. So was Terra. And she was a Keyblade master. That didn't keep them safe. Aqua did her best to ignore that thought and the slowly growing shadows. The daylight hours seemed to be passing too quickly.

"Shouldn't we have found something by now?" asked Ventus after a little longer. "We've been walking for a while."

Before she could respond, they turned a corner and the passageway opened up into a large chamber. They cautiously entered the wide and open space. And after they stepped a little closer, Aqua recognized the two waiting figures who had already abandoned their black coats. One was Vanitas and the other—

"Terra!"

Aqua threw her arm up to block Ventus as soon as he shouted their friend's name. She understood the impulse. She truly did. But she really needed him to be more careful. Aqua couldn't explain why, but it felt like something horrible had already happened because of his instinctive need to run to their lost friend.

"Look closely," she urged, keeping her voice firm and strong. "That's not Terra."

Voice low and steady, Ventus said, "Maybe not, but I'm still going to keep calling his name. We have to light his way home."

"Ven…," she said softly as Aqua lowered her arm.

"Hey, guys," shouted Vanitas. "Feeling a little left out here."

The Keyblade wielders both glared at him. Aqua might be starting to question the idea that darkness was always corruptive and dangerous, Riku clearly using it without succumbing somehow, but that didn't mean that she trusted someone made of pure darkness. Especially after all those violent encounters with Vanitas, attacking and mocking her whenever he saw her. And not after his actions led to Ventus shattering his heart and ending up inside Sora for over a decade.

Though Aqua was willing to admit that someone born out of darkness wasn't inherently as bad as someone who purposefully plunged their heart into the deepest shadows like Master Xehanort. The Keyblade master chose to become what he was and betray everything that he was meant to defend. Any crime that Vanitas performed happened because Master Xehanort tore him out of Ventus. It all went back to him.

His expression hard, Ventus said, "Vanitas. You're coming home too."

"Huh?" he said, sounding mildly confused. "But my home is in you." Gesturing as he spoke, Vanitas said, "You know what'll happen, right? I'll just disappear inside of you forever. Don't you have any love at all for your own brother?"

Shaking his head, Ventus said, "We're not brothers. We're the same. Two halves, torn apart and scattered to the winds. I suppose that still makes you my responsibility." He took a small step forward. "And you were eager to join me the last time I saw you. You wanted us to fight and then forge the χ-blade, remember?"

"That hasn't happened for me yet, Ventus. You know what we've done to fill our numbers. Various members traveling from the past as hearts? Ring any bells?" Raising his Keyblade and pointing it at them, he continued, "Besides, I'm not sure we can join together properly anyway. It would certainly take more effort now. After all, can you be quite certain that after you shattered your heart, that you put yourself back together exactly like you were before? That we'd fit together the way that we're meant to? Or would I have to tear and rip away at both of us to return?" Vanitas shook his head the smallest amount. "No. It can't just be us anymore. It'll take all seven lights and thirteen darknesses to do the job now. And once I help forge the χ-blade here, I will return to the past for our destined encounter."

"With no memory of any of this," reminded Ventus. "And it still ends with me shattering both of our hearts. I only survived because of Sora. As for you…"

Lowering his weapon with a sharp jerk, Vanitas said, "If that is what it takes to fulfill my purpose, then so be it."

"If you don't care what happens to you," said Ventus, his voice growing into a shout, "then go back to where you came from! Return to the past and be done with it."

His tone low and dangerous, he said, "Hmm… Make me."

"If it is darkness that you're looking for, Ventus," said Not-Terra, sending a shiver up Aqua's spine, "then I have more than enough to go around."

Vanitas turned his head briefly. Even with his helmet, he was obviously annoyed by the interruption. Aqua didn't care. Her attention turned towards the person wearing Terra's face. She summoned Stormfall to her hand and pointed it at him.

"Stop," she snapped. "Quit using our friend for your games."

Smirking, Not-Terra said, "A Keyblade master wielding your key in anger?" Mockery filled every word. "Shameful."

What would Master Eraqus say if he saw you now?

He didn't even have to say the words for Aqua to hear the implications. She could feel Not-Terra's taunting and the brief feeling of shame washing over her. That wasn't how her master would expect her to behave.

Not just the danger of uncontrolled anger and rage leading towards darkness, though she knew Master Eraqus's thoughts on that. She wasn't ready to take the same step that Riku did. She knew that she couldn't wield darkness without falling to it and being corrupted again. She couldn't risk letting it sink into her again.

But it was more than that. Anger would only lead to her making sloppy mistakes. And that could get her killed. Or Ventus.

She slowly lowered her weapon to the ready position, taking a deep breath. She would not let him push her into impulsiveness. She wouldn't let him be the one in control here.

"We have unfinished business," she said, calm and even. "I fell into darkness and for ten years I wandered through the dark realm. Now… I'm finally here." Aqua closed her eyes, taking another slow breath. "And I want only one thing, with all my heart."

She opened her eyes. She focused on the silver-white hair and the yellow eyes. The pieces that didn't belong to her friend.

"Xehanort… I'm casting you out of Terra forever."

With that firm declaration, Aqua swung her Keyblade back up. Then she charged forward, Ventus keeping pace. The ringing clang of metal and the jarring sting up her arm from the first impact of weapons felt very satisfying. But not as satisfying as when she twisted around Not-Terra and sent a Blizzaga at his back.


Finding Luxord among his large ring of giant playing cards before he ran out of time in each "round" was tricky enough. But trying to play the Nobody's game was a lot harder when Sora needed to dodge lightning bolts, razor-sharp petals, and various blades. Larxene and Marluxia refused to hold off just because Luxord wanted to be creative with the fight.

But Sora had a keen eye. Useful for spotting hidden items and enemies across dozens of worlds. And even a flash of movement in his peripheral was enough warning when he needed to dodge. He could also spot the small twitch of the cards that would reveal Luxord's location.

He could only get in a few hits at a time. After that, Luxord would disappear among his cards again. But the short and quick combos worked better than a spell at wearing him down. And while he wasn't opposed to striking the other two when they got too close, his main focus was on taking out Luxord and getting his friends back first. Sora whittled away at the Nobody while trying to avoid getting stabbed or sliced open.

And like the first two, something eventually gave way.

Darkness erupted out of Luxord like a pillar, spewing towards the sky before dying gradually away. The cards in his hands tumbled to the ground as Luxord gasped, staggering to one knee. Nothingness streamed off him. Sora knew what that meant. He'd seen it several times by now. The Nobody was fading away.

The large circle of cards moved in, forming a sturdy barrier to keep Larxene and Marluxia out. Apparently Luxord wanted this final conversation to remain private and uninterrupted.

Meeting Sora's gaze and keeping his voice firm, Luxord said, "You were born for these sorts of games."

Pulling out a final card, Luxord threw it with practiced ease. Sora caught it in his hand automatically. Only after he realized what happened did he actually look at what he was holding.

"What's this?"

Sounding worn out, Luxord said, "A wild card. You've earned it." Breathing heavily and his head bowed, he continued, "Hang on to it. Could turn the tables."

Sora briefly wondered if Luxord knew what the Keybearer had already done. Or if he at least suspected. Luxord always seemed a bit more aware and insightful. That was Sora's impression of him, based on admittedly limited experience.

But if Luxord knew what Sora had sacrificed and what price that he would eventually pay, there would be no straight answer.

"Play ya again someday," said Sora kindly, "when we're just guys."

A hopeful wish, but one that he suspected would never come true. But it was better to hang onto that hope. It was better not to give up.

Luxord chuckled quietly as he raised his head. He didn't seem to mind the fragmenting nothingness coming off him or his imminent destruction. He was ready to be recompleted.

"I should like that very much, Sora."

With those final quiet words, Luxord dissolved away. One small playing card lingered long enough to release King Mickey, Riku, and his replica. Then it disintegrated alongside the protective wall of giant cards.

But Sora couldn't spare a moment of relief. The very moment that the defensive circle broke, Larxene dashed in and forced him to raise his Keyblade to protect himself. She slashed rapidly at him, her knives almost as fast as her Thunder spells. Her vicious assault continued uninterrupted for several seconds until a dark figure slammed into her and knocked Larxene away.

Rolling to her feet, Larxene's eyes widened as she saw who hit her. Riku's replica glared at her, the broken weapon in his hand never wavering as he held it overhead.

"I thought the brat was on our side," she snapped.

"Wrong one," said the replica. "I'm not traveling through time. I'm not from the past. I'm the one that belongs here and now." He continued to glare at the two Nobodies. "I remember you. I remember Castle Oblivion and how you treated Naminé."

Twisting the scythe in his hands, Marluxia said, "I see. You're the replica that Vexen was testing. Even after all this time, you're still clinging to a promise that is as fake as you are."

"That tinker toy? I thought she broke him," asked Larxene with a laugh. "And he's still trying to play hero for the little witch. She really made a mess of him. It's pathetic." Electricity crackled between her knives. "I mean, you do know that half of your memories are Riku's instead and the other half are fakes that never happened, right? None of those memories are actually yours. Vexen just whipped you up in a lab as a science project."

"That was a long time ago. I've forged my own path now," he said. The replica held the broken weapon above him the same way that Riku always held his sword and later his Keyblade. "The memories of the Destiny Islands and that life might be false. But I remember Castle Oblivion. Those memories are real and mine. No one else's. And I don't need that promise to be real in order to protect Naminé from people who hurt and used her for their own purposes."

Once again, Sora seriously regretted never cornering Riku, King Mickey, or Lea and forcing them to give a thorough and in-depth explanation of what happened at Castle Oblivion. He was missing a lot of context and background information. And he was getting seriously frustrated by it.

Giving a sharp grin, Larxene said, "Fine. If the puppet wants to play, I don't mind breaking you properly this time."


The walls were tall, thick, and sturdy. Walls meant to withstand the test of time and any outside force. And they weren't new walls, even if Master Xehanort had just raised them a short time ago. No, these were worn and eroded away. By wind and by time. These walls had been built long ago before they sank below the ground, buried by the dust of hundreds or even thousands of years.

Probably thousands of years. The Keyblades that had been stabbed into the ground were rusty and dull by time as well. The evidence was clear. They'd been left in the dirt for a long time. They'd been left there long enough for the weapons to lose their shine, turning into lifeless and empty relics of a distant battle.

First the walls were worn away by the elements and buried deep. Then some time later, the first Keyblade War was fought and the Keyblade wielders had fallen, leaving their weapons behind. And those Keyblades were left to rust away undisturbed until Master Xehanort created his stone maze.

Of course, another possibility was that the Keyblade War destroyed the city completely. Demolishing everything until it was a wasteland. Then the Keybearers could have fallen in battle and left behind their weapons. But the walls didn't look damaged by fighting. Just worn away by erosion. It seemed far more likely that the city was abandoned long before the battle instead.

But was it originally meant to be a maze? Xion could see carved patterns and designs, even if they'd been worn away by the ages. Would someone go to so much trouble to make a stone maze look attractive? Or were these walls originally part of an ancient city, with real buildings and such, that were rearranged when Master Xehanort pulled them up?

Xion knew what she was doing. She knew that she was mentally doing reconnaissance like she and Roxas used to do back in Organization XIII. Studying her surroundings for clues and useful information, as if she would be writing up a report to submit later about a new world. It was something familiar and easy to do. She didn't even have to sneak around or battle Heartless between observations. The familiar and simple task felt oddly reassuring.

They'd managed to stay close when the walls went up. She, Roxas, Kairi, and Lea. They were almost split up, but Roxas managed to dodge roll closer in time. But it was just the four of them and the rest of the guardians were somewhere else in the maze. They'd been walking for a while, following the twists and turns. But she hadn't seen anyone else for a while.

Not their friends. And not the real Organization.

Xion knew that she should put away her Keyblade—

Replica Kingdom Key

—but something about the whole situation felt wrong. She felt like they were in danger and she just couldn't see it yet.

There were no branching paths. No alternate ways to go. The maze didn't feel like a maze. It felt like a twisting and turning hallway leading to a single location.

It felt like someone was herding them into a trap.

And judging by how quiet everyone was acting and how guarded they remained as they walked, the others felt something wrong too. Their eyes were continuously scanning the high walls, as if one of the Organization would drop down and attack them without warning at any moment. Kairi's hand kept opening and closing, as if she wanted to summon her Keyblade too. She wasn't as used to fighting as much as the others and yet her instincts were pushing her to be ready. The younger Keyblade wielders had formed a loose triangle around Lea, but he seemed on edge too. She didn't doubt that at the first hint of trouble, fire would be flying.

Something would happen soon. She could feel it. Xion didn't know what it would be, but it would be bad. And she had a feeling that none of them would like it, regardless of how prepared they were for whatever was going to happen.


It felt strange to be on the side with the greater numbers for once. After having hundreds of Heartless continuously thrown at him, it was a nice change. Two Nobodies against the four of them. And all four of them were turning out to work extremely well together. Riku and his replica ended up mirroring each other a lot and King Mickey had experience working alongside the newest Keyblade master in a variety of ways. And Sora could fit himself into almost any dynamic in a short span of time. It was how he'd fought together with his various friends across dozens of worlds. He'd always been quick to adapt. But it did make him miss having Donald and Goofy with him.

He hoped that they were all right. It still felt wrong leaving them behind.

But with Riku and his replica focusing on Larxene for the moment, Sora and King Mickey tried a light-based combo attack against Marluxia. The king had a talent for Light spells. And when that combo sent the Nobody staggering, Sora took advantage of the created opening to press the attack. A series of sharp strikes, ducking beneath another swing of the scythe, and a quick combo before moving close for a finishing move. Then something gave way.

Darkness erupted up in a towering column, lasting only a moment or two. The pink-and-green scythe clattered to the ground before dissolving into petals. Those petals immediately drifted away in the breeze. Gone without a trace.

Marluxia collapsed to his knees with a quiet grunt of pain. He could only stare at his hands as nothing peeled off them.

"Oh…," said Marluxia, sounding quietly surprised and yet pleased. "So, now it all comes back to me."

Sora vaguely realized that the king had moved to support the others against Larxene, but he couldn't bring himself to look away. Even if it wasn't true death, it felt wrong to turn his back on what was happening. No one deserved to disappear alone. Staying to bear witness felt like the least that he could do. He watched Marluxia press a hand to his head with a soft sound. One that he didn't expect from the Nobody.

Curious and hopeful, Sora asked, "Hey, is that a real laugh?"

Marluxia looked up. His expression seemed oddly open and stunned by something. Like he didn't expect to laugh like that. Or maybe he was surprised by whatever caused his quiet laughter.

"Yes… My heart," he said softly, touching his chest, "is remembering how to feel."

His heart. The small budding heart that Nobodies could regrow if given a chance. Not the dark one that Xehanort placed in all thirteen of them. Marluxia could feel his own heart now.

"Really? That's good," said Sora, feeling quietly satisfied.

"And now, I am on the cusp of reclaiming my identity…" Marluxia smiled tiredly. "My purpose for being…" The nothingness pulled off in larger fragments, his time running out. "Thanks to you, Sora."

And with those quiet words, Marluxia dissolved away. Free of Xehanort's heart and his influence. Soon to be recompleted and whole once more. Maybe he would be a better person when he returned. Sora could only hope.


The replica knew that he wasn't as strong, as fast, or as tough as the others. Physically, he was still a fifteen-year-old version of Riku. And while still durable and sturdy, the broken weapon in his hand was shorter than what he typically used to fight and didn't have the power in it that a proper Keyblade would. He was at a disadvantage in every way.

But he remembered Larxene's cruel nature. He remembered how the Organization used Naminé, leaving her too cowed and timid to make her own decisions for so long. He knew that they'd preyed on her loneliness and fear. He knew that she forced the quiet girl to use her abilities in ways that she knew were wrong. On Sora and on himself. And even if Larxene didn't do everything alone, she'd hurt Naminé enough that he couldn't let it slide.

And if he was perfectly honest with himself, Larxene did enough stuff towards him too that the replica rather liked the idea of having a hand in her defeat. He may not remember it happening and only heard about it later from Naminé, but Larxene was the one who suggested rewriting his memories to match Riku's in the first place.

But the replica knew that of the four of them, he was weakest link. He was the most vulnerable and easiest target. He knew that. And Larxene could see it too. He knew she could.

She was hard to hit, moving too fast and casting down Thundaga-level spells across wide areas. Driving them away and giving her room to dash around to slice at them. Larxene was putting everything that she could into her attacks. Her slashes were almost frantic. Because she knew that she'd been backed into a corner with no possible escape and with only her speed and ruthlessness to protect her.

The replica knew he was the weak link and he knew that she was desperate. Desperate and angry, wanting to take at least someone down with her. But he wasn't ready when Larxene managed to flash up, around and behind. Then her foot slammed into his back.

He crashed and tumbled across the ground, his weapon bouncing briefly before disappearing. As he tried to regain his breath, he heard her laugh before the king forced her to dodge. His hands tightened briefly into fists as he pushed himself to his knees. He heard the others fighting Larxene, trying to bring the speedy and vicious Nobody to a halt. He waited like a coiled spring, listening to them. Waiting until she—

There.

He threw himself to his feet, already swinging even as he summoned the weapon to his hand. The strike connected low. Hitting the back of her legs and sending her crashing down. He followed through with the motion, twisting the weapon around for the rest of the three-hit combo. Only when she rolled away did he notice that the weapon in his hand felt different than a moment before. Heavier and longer.

He spared a brief look and realized that he wasn't holding the broken remnant of Riku's previous Keyblade. The entire length had been restored to the weapon, though the colors had shifted. Silver, lavender, pale blue, a light shade of red, and cream. The general shape matched Way to Dawn, the general shape of the bat wing and the softer bird wings mixed together to represent something more balanced. But it seemed like a lighter reflection in comparison. The paler colors reminded him of Castle Oblivion and Naminé. But most of all, it wasn't Riku's hand-me-down weapon. The Keyblade—

Dawn's Reflection

—belonged to the replica and no one else.

"They're just handing Keyblades out to any loser, aren't they?" snarled Larxene.

Glaring back at her, he snapped, "And Xehanort is jamming hearts into any weak vessel he can grab."

And that sent Larxene slashing at him. But now they'd managed to corral her between the four of them, limiting her ability to dodge. Every time she tried moving out of the way of one of them, it brought Larxene in range of the others. Powerful combos and spells beat her down.

The replica didn't get in the final blow. He got in several, especially after his new Keyblade materialized. But he didn't manage to land the last one. Sora knocked her back, followed with a rapid combo, and finished by sending a Firaga towards her.

Darkness shot up like a pillar from her. When it dispersed, Larxene was left standing and breathing shakily. She looked towards her hand. The replica could see the fragmenting pieces of nothingness slowly coming off her.

"Are you kidding?" she snarled.

Gasping, Larxene wrapped her arms around her middle. As if trying to hold herself together. She fell to her knees, still struggling to breathe.

Hopeful and encouraging, Sora said, "You're going to be recompleted."

Still gasping and panting, she snapped in a frustrated tone, "I didn't ask for your garbage opinion."

For a group that spent all their time trying to claim hearts of their own, it was rather ironic that Larxene would be that upset about the prospect of becoming a complete person again. On the other hand, he knew from experience that getting beaten up that badly couldn't be that fun for her. She straightened slightly and glared at him.

"I lost!" snapped Larxene, sounding as if she would be shouting if she had the strength. "To a bunch of losers like you!"

The replica couldn't help bristling slightly. He'd never been fond of insults. Like loser. Or fake. But at least he restrained himself from shouting at her like he once might have.

Then, her voice growing calmer, quieter, and gentler, Larxene said, "But…" She sank back down, relaxing. "Could be worse." Looking towards the sky, she said, "Become that geezer's heart tank? No thanks."

Nothingness tore away from her in fragmenting pieces. A Nobody coming apart, her ending nearly upon them.

"Then why help him?" asked Sora.

Larxene turned her head with a short humph. She remained quiet for a few seconds before finally answering.

"I was really just along for the ride."

"With?"

Eying Sora for a minute, Larxene raised a finger to her lips and said in an almost teasing tone, "My secret."

As she dissolved away, the replica couldn't help wondering if that friendly and playful side at the end were hints of her old self coming through. It felt completely different than any of his past memories of her. But unless her completed self ever sought them out, he might never know.

"Everyone all right?" asked King Mickey.

Quick nods and thumbs up were exchange. Riku cast Curaga and Sora passed out a few hi-potions. Any minor injuries were healed, and their energy was restored. The replica even took a moment to tuck away a hi-potion in his pocket. Better to be prepared. There were still several dangerous foes lurking in the maze.

"Let's get moving and find the others," said Riku.

Chapter Text

The plan to keep together and find the rest of their friends didn't last long. The path led them to a four-way intersection. And since they'd come from one direction, that left three other paths. And there wasn't a single indication of which way to go or what they might find in any of the three directions.

They could try staying together. But that risked them choosing the wrong way. And Riku wasn't certain how much time that they could waste. The shadows were already stretching, the afternoon passing towards evening at a faster rate than it should. There was a feeling of urgency that he couldn't quite shake.

"We'll have to split up," he said. "We each pick a direction and hope we can find the others or a way out of the maze."

"There's four of us and only three paths." Sora gestured at the maze. "At least two of us will need to stick together."

Taking a step forward, the replica said, "I told Riku that I'd stay to help him. If no one has a problem with that, I would be happy to watch his back for a little longer."

He glanced over at his replica. It still felt strange. He didn't realize that he'd been that short a couple years ago. Riku hadn't realized how young he'd looked back then. He wasn't really certain how he felt about that. At the time, Riku remembered feeling practically grown up and mature as he faced everything. Now he was forced to face the fact that he, Sora, and Kairi were barely more than children who were tossed into the middle of it. They'd met those challenges head on and come out victorious. And yet Riku couldn't stop thinking about how young his replica looked, standing there dressed in his black coat and wielding a pale Keyblade of his own.

They'd faced impossible situations and paid steep prices in order to save multiple worlds. Hearts were lost, bodies were stolen, and harsh realities were exposed. They'd sacrificed pieces of their childhoods. And none of them really noticed because at fourteen and fifteen, they didn't know how truly young they were. Only looking backwards could Riku see it.

Was that what the king saw the first time he met Riku? A half-grown child who ended up in a situation that he should have been protected from instead? Someone who made mistakes, but who made them partially because he was in over his head and trying his best? Maybe. But Mickey somehow managed to protect and support him without ever making it seem like he didn't respect Riku. He treated him as a friend and an equal despite his age.

None of them were the children that they used to be. They weren't the trio of teenagers who dreamed of sailing on a raft to explore beyond their familiar islands, innocent and ignorant of the deadly scheming of a man who would tear worlds apart to satisfy his curiosity. Circumstances had forced them to grow up and become something different than before. Being Keybearers came with responsibilities and dangers that none of them could ignore.

He couldn't change the past. And he couldn't keep the replica from facing similar challenges and dangers. The most that Riku could do was help keep him close and safe. And maybe when this was over, he would help the replica have a life of his own. Maybe he could have the last few years of childhood that Riku never did.

"I don't mind you coming with me," he said. Glancing at the king and Sora, Riku asked, "Will you two be all right alone?"

Mickey grinned and said, "Don't worry."

"Yeah," said Sora. "We can handle it."

Riku nodded. Then, hesitating briefly, their small group broke apart. Mickey to the left, Riku and replica to the right, and with Sora taking the middle path. He still didn't like it. Being forced to divide felt like they were playing into the Organization's hands. They'd separated the guardians once already. But without any better options, they'd just have to hope for the best.


He turned a corner and Sora found himself running into another large and open chamber. Four figures were locked into combat with each other. Keyblades clanging against each other and magic flew through the air.

"Aqua!" he shouted as he ran out to join them. "Ven!"

The pair called his name back and then they exchanged quick nods. But they couldn't spare more time. Not-Terra and Vanitas didn't even pause their attacks.

Not-Terra seemed content to go after anyone who came within range. Both him and the Guardian. Rather than protect Ansem, the dark and powerful Heartless had apparently decided to safeguard this version of Xehanort. And just like every other encounter with the Guardian, Sora found it an annoying and frustrating barrier between him and his target.

But while Not-Terra seemed fine with targeting any of them equally, Vanitas seemed less concerned about Sora and far more focused on Ventus and Aqua. He almost acted like the battle was personal with them, though it was difficult to tell with his mask. He targeted the two of them whenever possible and was brutal with his attacks.

Eventually Vanitas decided to stop being as up close and precise. The wind pulled and yanked at Sora, like a gathering storm. Then a tight twister of dull Keyblades started swooping through the air, Vanitas riding on top the same way that Sora rode a shinier version earlier. Vanitas kept bring the formation down to barrel through them, which was very difficult to dodge and too massive to truly block.

But then he tried to be creative. From on top of his spiraling stream of rusty Keyblades, Vanitas fired Blizzard shards. And those were something that Sora could handle. With some clever timing, Sora deflected the frozen chunks back up at him and briefly stunned his opponent.

He didn't wait for Vanitas to recover. He barely waited for the deflected attacks to reach him. Sora was already airstepping up to him using the chunks of ice. He knocked Vanitas completely out of the attack with an air combo, sending him crashing to the ground and the summoned Keyblades flying out of sight.

And Ventus was immediately on him. Fast and agile, Ventus attacked the downed Vanitas. His unique backhand style made his combos unlike anything that Sora had ever seen. He beat back at Vanitas, driving him towards the closest wall with the clear intention of limiting his movements by cornering him.

When Ventus's Keyblade passed straight through the dark figure, an afterimage, his eyes widened in shock. But there was no time for any further reaction. Vanitas crashed down on him, causing a shockwave and knocking Ventus roughly to the ground. Aqua shouted his name when Ventus didn't immediately bounce back to his feet, but both Not-Terra and the Guardian pressed the attack on her and forced Aqua to cartwheel away. She couldn't help him.

Sora, however, could do something about it.

Vanitas tried to turn. Maybe he caught a glimpse or sensed something, but he wasn't quite fast enough. Sora's Keyblade connected with the front of Vanitas's mask, earning a grunt of pain, a cracking sound that Sora felt on impact, and the satisfying result of Vanitas sliding back several feet. And before he could recover, Sora cast Thundaga.

The bright flash of lightning gave way to a column of darkness nearly identical to the previous instances. And when the spewing shadows faded, Vanitas remained standing with his mask cracked along the right side. As Aqua continued to throw spell after spell at Not-Terra at the other side of the chamber, Sora watched the damaged portion of the mask crumble away. And then he gaped in absolute shock at the familiar sight gradually exposed.

"Your face…," he whispered, stunned.

It was like looking in a mirror. Different hair and eye colors, but Vanitas shared his face. People always claimed that Roxas resembled him somewhat, but that always seemed more like the resemblance of a sibling. But Vanitas was identical other than his black hair and yellow eyes. Meeting his gaze made something in Sora's chest ache in a new way.

Was this how Ventus and Roxas felt when they first saw each other?

Gesturing towards his chest, Vanitas said quietly, "I'm the piece of Ventus that was taken away." His hand left his chest to gesture towards Sora. "And you're the piece Ventus needed to be whole again. So… why shouldn't you and I look exactly the same?" He gestured towards his chest again this time with both hands. "You define me, Sora, the same way that Ventus does. We are brothers who, together, make a greater whole."

"Then why won't you stand by our side?" asked Sora. "Instead of with darkness?"

"Because I am darkness. And I do stand by your side. I'm the shadow that you cast. How much closer could I be?"

Growing unexpectantly frustrated and angrier about the situation than seemed reasonable, he said, "But I did—"

"But I didn't ask for this," interrupted Ventus, holding out his hand to halt Sora. "To be shifted apart, nice and neat. We should be free to choose. Not just light," he said, touching his chest before pointing towards Vanitas, not just darkness. We decide what we are."

It wasn't fair. It was wrong and not fair. He wanted to grab his doppelganger and shake him.

Still calm, Vanitas said, "But… Ventus, I did decide who I am. You see?"

"And what you are is darkness?" he asked sharply.

They stared quietly for a moment at each other. Something in Sora rebelled strongly at the entire conversation. At the entire situation. The feelings of injustice and frustration washed over him in waves. It left him angry and he couldn't seem to push it down. He didn't know why this was hitting him so hard. The entire thing felt wrong in a way that he couldn't explain.

Maybe it was because he was staring at his own face as the shadowy fragments flaked off. Maybe that was why it felt so personal. He didn't like Master Xehanort using people like this, but it just seemed to hit harder when Sora saw his own face. He barely knew Vanitas and yet he couldn't help thinking that he deserved better than this fate.

"What I am is darkness," said Vanitas, as if that was all that he could possibly be.

Taking a small step forward, Sora asked, "But do you have to only be the worst parts of darkness?"

"What?" he asked, looking startled by the question.

"Darkness can be dangerous, but it isn't the same thing as being evil. It doesn't have to hurt and destroy. We're meant to have some darkness in us, just like we're supposed to have some light. That anger and rage can be used for good. It can be used to protect others, to guard the light, and to give you the drive to face challenges. I've seen it. Riku embraces his darkness to fight alongside us and Axel can travel through dark corridors. They use darkness, but they do it to help their friends." Sora took another step forward, his hand clutched tightly to his chest as his heart ached. "Just because it is easy for darkness to corrupt someone… and just because it can overwhelm and consume them… It doesn't mean something good can't come out of it. If you don't let it control you, it doesn't have to be a force of destruction and suffering. If you're our shadow, then you belong with us. Shadows can't exist without the presence of light." He pulled his hand away from his chest, extending it in Vanitas's direction. "If you're darkness, that doesn't mean you can't choose what kind of darkness that you want to be."

"Sora," said Ventus gently, "it doesn't matter what we say to him. He's returning to the past and won't remember any of this. We can't change anything for him."

He knew that Ventus was right. That was how the time travel worked. And yet part of Sora felt like his words made a difference. The frustrated fury and hurt in his chest had eased and a feeling of calm acceptance had settled back over him. He felt like what he'd said had affected things the smallest amount and that he was truly heard.

And Sora knew to listen to his heart.

Vanitas stopped staring at him with an odd expression, instead choosing to lean back his head and grin. Darkness poured out of him, swallowing the figure from sight. When the darkness faded away, he was gone. The heart had returned to the past. Doomed to follow the same path towards his destruction in complete ignorance of his final fate.

Sora couldn't ignore how unfair it felt to know that.

A loud crash yanked Sora and Ventus's attention back to the ongoing duel between Aqua and Not-Terra. No matter the lingering emotions that conversation with Vanitas caused, there was no time to dwell on it. The Keyblade War wouldn't stop for them.


After watching the shadows grow long as they wandered along the relatively narrow and twisting pathway of the maze, Lea was caught a little off guard when the stone walls suddenly gave way to a large and open chamber. He knew what it was meant to be. Master Xehanort wanted a Keyblade War. And in order to have a war, he would need a battlefield to contain the fighting. He should have expected the maze to eventually open into something wider.

He'd known that he would be facing familiar faces. Lea even thought he'd prepared himself for it. The two waiting figures dressed in black coats weren't really that surprising, especially when he'd already seen them with their hoods up earlier. This part was something that he fully expected. But despite everything, his heart ached sharply when he saw Saïx holding Lunatic, his eyes glowing yellow from his Berserk state.

The uncomfortable wave of guilt at the sight of Vexen and remembering how coldly he'd destroyed the Nobody didn't help either.

Not coldly, temperature-wise. He'd literally burned Vexen from the inside-out, even showing off by not bothering to channel that power through his weapons like normal. It had honestly been an absolutely brutal way to go. And judging by the expression on the Nobody's face, Vexen wasn't exactly pleased to see Lea either.

Yeah, this wasn't shaping up to be good at all.

But as unpleasant as it was to dwell on Vexen and his crimes again him, it was easier than looking at Saïx. Especially in his current unnerving state. Lea always hated how his Berserk form affected him. The sight brought back painful memories.

It was certainly useful during a fight. It left him stronger, faster, and more aggressive. Rather reminiscent of a feral animal. He was more dangerous in that state in almost every way. It was a powerful tool in battle.

But Saïx barely recognized friend from foe when he fought. And his memories of his time in that form were always fragmented, hazy, and indistinct at best. Most of the time he barely remembered anything at all.

Lea hated seeing Saïx in his Berserk state in the past. But after his attempt to kidnap-rescue Kairi from the castle in the World That Never Was ended with Lunatic buried deeply into his side, Lea despised what it did to him even more. He hated what Saïx became when he activated that ability.

His mind and body bound to the power of the moon. The loss of control and his consciousness held hostage. Rather like how the moon commanded the tides, the influence overwhelmingly powerful and undeniable. The effect was worse at night and during the full moon, but that didn't mean that daylight would spare them.

No matter what fragments of friendship that might still exist between them, it didn't matter. Not in that state. Lea had the scar to prove it. Saïx might not even recognize him anymore.

Saïx moved forward a few steps, dragging his claymore along the ground behind him. His body behaved unnaturally. Like he was being yanked along by strings. Like Saïx was a full-size marionette. Or like he was one of the lesser Nobodies, a Berserker being pulled along by its own weapon. An empty shell that only looked like his friend. The awkward movements, the glowing eyes, the empty expression, and the way the thin scars across his face had stretched to the point of nearly splitting open all combined together until he was barely recognizable.

"Isa… What did they do to you?" asked Lea softly.

Her voice quiet even as she edged closer to Roxas, Xion said, "Someone is making him act like that."

"You sure? That's what he does in a fight sometimes. He might be doing this himself," said Roxas.

"I know another puppet when I see one. And right now, he's not really in control."

Roxas moved closer to her, their shoulders almost touching. Meanwhile, Kairi reached over and touched Lea's arm briefly in a gesture of reassurance. None of them were comfortable with what was about to happen.

Taking a deep breath, Lea said, "Isa, look at me. You don't have to do this. We're here to take you home. And I'm not leaving without you. But I really don't want to fight you."

"You're wasting your time, Axel," said Vexen with the familiar bite of condescension. "You already know that his current state has an established negative effect on his mental faculties. And at the moment, 'want' is not a luxury that either of us are allowed."

"Would it help if I said I'm sorry about what I did to you at Castle Oblivion, Vexen?" he asked. Lea spread his arms. "And come on, you don't want to fight me either. I heard you were trying to even help us out earlier. You sent the replicas and Ansem the Wise to Radiant Garden, right?"

"Whatever grudge that I might hold against you for my initial and painful destruction only adds to my current desire to drive an icicle through your chest. But it is not the source of that impulse. Master Xehanort has ensured that neither of us are capable of any further form of rebellion. Self-preservation, guilt, and any other loyalties have been currently cast aside. All that we are capable of wanting is what he wants. And what he wants is for us to clash with the seven guardians of light."

Vexen raised his shield. There was a gleam in his eyes that gave Lea far too many uncomfortable memories. The brilliant mind combined with dark and dangerous impulses could be a terrifying combination if caught on the wrong side of it.

"Though there is also a strong desire to remove some of the excess members permanently and I suppose my own grudge makes the idea seem appealing, yes. And admittedly, with the darkness of his heart and anything resembling restraint buried, it is hard to deny my scientific curiosity to see how far I can push any of you before your hearts are lost. I already collected data Lea's limits from previous experiments years ago," he said, ignoring how it made the young man flinch, "but what about a heart of pure light? Or those housed in my latest versions of replicas? I never did get to properly test them."

"And… Vexen has gone full mad scientist," muttered Lea, summoning his Keyblade and balancing it on his shoulder. "Great. Between him and Isa being in his Berserk state, none of this is going to be fun."

"Think we can handle them?" asked Kairi.

Shaking his head, Lea said, "One is my oldest friend and the other is the guy I already murdered once. This whole thing is just icky all around. And I doubt that either of them will go down easy, even if Vexen isn't the strongest opponent usually."

Marching forward, Roxas said, "It's all right, Axel. We can handle this part instead."

"If we beat them," said Xion carefully, "they'll be recompleted. Just like you were. It's the best way to help them right now."

"And don't worry. I beat Saïx on my own before and I wouldn't mind doing it again." Roxas summoned his Keyblades. "You don't have to fight these two, Axel."

"Then perhaps I should reduce the variables," said Vexen.

And with that ominous statement, Vexen slammed his shield to the ground and ice formed in a thick line racing towards them. Sharp icicles stabbed up violently, forcing them to dive out of the way or get skewered. And Lea had been stabbed enough recently. But the forming ice didn't stop. It thickened and the icicles merged together until they formed a thick wall. The barrier rose up within seconds. As tall, thick, and sturdy as the stone walls of the maze.

Then Lea realized with dawning horror that Roxas and Xion were on the other side of the newly formed ice wall. Vexen had split the battlefield in half and kept the two half-pints on the other side.

"No," he snarled, spinning his Keyblade to slam it against the wall in a quick explosion of flames.

But if it did anything to melt the ice, it wasn't enough to notice. Unless he wanted to put a lot more energy into his fire, he wasn't burning through. And Lea couldn't risk exhausting himself trying. The logical decision would be to wait and find another way to reach them.

And yet Lea couldn't bury the panicking feeling as he struck the wall with another fiery attack.

"Roxas! Xion!"

"Axel, move!"

Kairi's shout yanked him out of his mounting panic, Lea instinctively flinging himself to the side just as the blue blade stabbed into the ice where he was just standing. He scrambled further away as Kairi grabbed his arm and pulled at him. The pair continued to back away as Saïx yanked his claymore out of the wall and turned back toward them.

"Isa, please don't make me do this," he said, fingers tightening on his Keyblade. "I really don't want to fight you."

He would. He would do it. It was the only way. He'd fought his friends before and knew that he could go through with it. But as hard as it was even back then, it was easier to fight his friends without his heart. Now he could only imagine how much it would hurt.

Her voice a little unsteady, Kairi said, "I don't think he's listening."

He knew that she was right. Saïx hadn't reacted to his words. He stared at them with glowing yellow eyes, twisting his weapon around for a better grip to attack. Lea saw his posture shifting, preparing for a proper battle between them. Because this was never going to end differently.

"I'm sorry," said Lea quietly.

Then he twisted, dodging the strike that he'd seen coming. Lea moved as Saïx swung rapidly. The Nobody left a trail of bright blue energy in his wake. Not actual fire, but close enough in appearance and threat level to be worth avoiding. Lea couldn't seem to get enough distance. The claymore kept barely missing.

"Light!"

Several orbs of light shot out of Kairi's Keyblade. Saïx stumbled to the side from the impact, finally letting Lea get some breathing room. He definitely needed to maintain some distance between him and Saïx. Letting him get too close and then making the mistake of taking his eyes off his opponent for a moment was how he'd nearly been cut in half. While that didn't immediately kill Axel, Nobodies tending to be a bit more durable, a very human Lea wouldn't survive a wound like that. And he'd had enough near-death experiences recently. He needed to avoid that.

Not to mention that if he died, Kairi would probably find a way to yank him back to life with her Princess of Heart powers just so she could kill him again.

Focus. He needed to focus.

He needed to deal with Saïx first. He and Kairi would fight Saïx until they could defeat or at least disable the threat. Then he could find a way back to Roxas and Xion. As soon as he stopped the Nobody, he could make sure the half-pints were safe.

He wouldn't lose them again. They wouldn't disappear. They would be safe.

After her magical attack, Kairi had apparently become Saïx's main target. She dodged and dove as the Nobody repeatedly slammed his claymore. And when Saïx got too close, she sent a Fira directly towards his face.

Lea threw his Keyblade, burning and spinning before slamming into Saïx's chest and returning to his hand. Another throw, but Saïx deflected it with his claymore. Then the Nobody was closing in again.


"Axel!" shouted Roxas, slamming both Keyblades against the towering wall.

They weren't supposed to leave him. They were supposed to stay with Lea and keep him safe. What if he was hurt again? What if they found him on the ground again, bleeding or dissolving away into nothingness? What if Saïx completely destroyed him? They couldn't protect him. They needed to get back.

"Roxas," said Xion, causing him to spin around.

She was staring nervously at Vexen, Keyblade held in front of her. They couldn't forget about him. Just because Lea was facing Saïx without them didn't mean they could ignore the obvious threat. Neither of them really knew Vexen or what he was capable of since he'd been destroyed early on, but they wouldn't underestimate him.

"No. i." Vexen's voice was cold, but very intrigued. "I had such high hopes concerning your potential. You were my most promising model of the Replica Program at the time. But thanks to Axel turning against me, I was denied the opportunity to see a demonstration of that potential in a practical setting. A little experimentation is certainly in order."

Stepping forward and glaring, Roxas snapped, "Her name is Xion."


The three of them against Not-Terra and the Guardian wasn't exactly easy. No longer dealing with Vanitas improved the situation, but he was still a powerful opponent. Fast and vicious. He would break out ferocious multi-hit combos, launch several dark projectiles at them, or would rely on his Heartless defender. The Guardian might burst out of the ground to attack or slam down to generate dark spikes before disappearing from sight once more.

But at least they were making better progress than before. One of them could deflect and distract the Guardian while the other two focused on whittling down Not-Terra's strength.

The Guardian was a unique type of Heartless that Sora had never encountered anywhere else except protecting Xehanort's Heartless. With its grey-black, muscular, humanoid body, a pair of long and crooked antennae emerging from the top of its head, its glowing yellow eyes, and its sharp teeth, the creature looked like an intimidating and powerful opponent. Which was completely accurate. There were bandages that crossed at different places across its head, its neck, its upper back, and its chest just above the heart-shaped hole in its lower torso. And its shadowy tail often seemed to connect into the shadow created at Not-Terra's feet, giving the impression that it was his shadow. Just as it used to do the same thing with Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness.

Yes, Sora knew this Heartless quite well. He'd been fighting it off and on since he was fourteen.

Sora found himself being the distraction for the Guardian the most out of the three of them. Ventus and Aqua focused on Not-Terra. Possessing their friend made it personal for them and he was willing to let them take the lead.

Aqua threw a Blizzaga at him to slow and stun him. Then she followed up by firing a salvo of rainbow-colored orbs, a shotlock called Prism Rain. And with that final attack, something gave way and darkness spewed up in a thick column. When it faded, the figure in the center collapsed limply to the ground. They waited a moment to make certain it wasn't a trap. But when he didn't move, Ventus and Aqua ran towards him.

"Terra," they shouted in unison.

They dropped down beside him and carefully pulled him into a slumped kneeling position. Both of them leaned in close, their faces wearing mirrored looks of concern.

"Aqua…," he gasped out, his voice completely different than before. "Ven…"

Terra. That was Terra's voice. The real one. Sora could feel it.

Quiet and pleading, Aqua said, "Terra, please…"

He was making small, pained, and struggling sounds. Terra was fighting back. Trying to reach them.

"Come back," begged Ventus. "Terra."

Terra clutched his head. Eyes clenched closed and gasping desperately, he was struggling against some intangible force within him. The darkness inside him or one of Xehanort's hearts. There might not be any real difference between the two. Ventus and Aqua let go of him, but remained close.

"Terra," called Sora. "Your friends are here!"

He didn't seem to hear the words, too wrapped up in the internal fight. Gasping and clutching his head. Struggling to hold on.

Then he threw back his head and screamed. Dark chains materialized and wrapped around Ventus and Aqua, yanking them away from him. Darkness pulled under Terra as more chains emerged from it. Another chain coiled around Sora, pinning his arms to his sides and jerking him back as well. He could already feel bruises forming. The chains pulled the three of them up. Suspending them in the air. They were left dangling there, the bindings tightly wound around their chests and arms.

He heard Ventus and Aqua calling Terra's name as he staggered below them, clutching his head. Glowing dark power pooled at his feet and radiated out.

Groaning as he struggled against the painful pressure, Sora shouted, "You have to fight the darkness!"

Terra suddenly stopped staggering. He straightened and slowly pulled his hand away from his face. And the expression had shifted drastically within a handful of moments. Whoever it was staring out of those eyes, it wasn't Terra. He was gone again.

"You'll never be able to break these chains," said Not-Terra firmly. "They're our bonds."

He stretched out a hand and the chains holding Ventus and Aqua started thrashing. Whipping them wildly around. They were yanked sharply in every direction, matching Not-Terra's hand gestures. Sharp and rough hand motions to match the brutal movements of the pair through the air.

Not-Terra shouted, "You have no power over me!"

He laughed mockingly as he thrashed them about like a toddler flinging his toys in a tantrum. But unlike a child with his teddy bear, there would be consequences for the victims. The forces involved were deadly. Perfect for snapping someone's neck. Sora struggled against his own bonds, panicking over what was happening to them.

"Stop, Terra," shouted Sora desperately, shaking his head. "Please, stop it!"

The violent thrashing finally stopped, through he was under no illusions that his words did any good. The chains gradually raised the two limp and barely conscious figures slowly higher. They looked dead, but Sora knew they weren't not yet. The strength that Ventus had been sharing with him had slowed to a trickle, but it was still there. The chains raised them even further. Higher and higher.

Cold and firm, Not-Terra said, "Farewell."

"No," shouted Sora desperately as they came to a stop, dangling impossibly high over the battlefield.

Not-Terra smirked, hand still raised. Ventus was barely conscious, but he managed to speak. Quiet and fragile words that Sora barely heard, carried to him by the wind.

"Terra… I kept my promise…"

The chains around the two of them went limp, letting gravity take over. Ventus and Aqua fell and—

A dark shape erupted into view. The Guardian. Racing forward. The Heartless reached them, carefully catching Ventus and Aqua in its arms. It flew above the battlefield while gently transferring them into one arm, gripping the chain in the other hand. The Guardian stared back at Not-Terra with burning yellow eyes.

Not-Terra gasped in surprise, looking between the now-missing dark pool below him and the Guardian. Like he couldn't comprehend what was happening. As if he couldn't understand why the Heartless was rebelling. Why it was no longer floating loyally at his side, the obedient guard dog that it had always seemed like. Not-Terra could only stare and grit his teeth.

Still glaring at Not-Terra, the Guardian crushed the chain in its hand to free Ventus and Aqua. The chains shattered, quickly followed by the ones holding Sora. He dropped to the ground with practiced grace. His arms and chest were sore from the bindings, but nothing that a Cure spell wouldn't fix. Then he watched the Guardian gently set Ventus and Aqua down. It stared at them in a way that could only be described as almost caringly.

Heartless didn't act like that. And Sora knew that when Heartless acted unusual, that meant he should pay attention.

"How?" shouted Not-Terra in stunned fury, causing the Guardian to look back up at him. He shifted to a more combative stance. "You fell to the dark—"

His words were cut off by the Guardian materializing behind him, grabbing his head in a way that covered his mouth. Then the Guardian lifted him bodily from the ground. Not-Terra struggled at its grip as the Heartless fumbled with its other hand, clawing at the bandages that crossed its mouth. A couple tries and it managed to tear them free.

No longer permanently muzzled, the Guardian coughed and gasped a few times. Then it sighed, relaxing with its new freedom.

Then the Heartless spoke.

Slow, quiet, and breathing hard, it rasped, "One day… I… will… set… this… right…" The Guardian held Not-Terra out at arm's length, forcing him to look it in the face. Sounding a little stronger and more certain with each word, the Guardian said, "One day… I will set… this right…"

The voice, the strange behavior… Sora didn't know for certain, but he had his suspicions. Heartless collect and claim hearts. He knew that. But it looked like one of those hearts regained the will to be something more than an instinctive and aggressive creature. A powerful will reunited with a heart for a single purpose. Sora couldn't prove it, but his heart knew who was speaking.

Firm and determined as Not-Terra wiggled in his grip, the Guardian said, "I will return to this land…" Not-Terra suddenly stilled, as if recognizing the Heartless for the first time. "And protect… my friends!"

Something bright shone within the Guardian. Terra's heart. Sora summoned his Keyblade, aiming towards the stolen body. Technically this wasn't something that he'd ever been taught to do, but he'd always been good at instinctively knowing these things.

"Terra! Now!" he shouted.

A beam of light shot out, hitting Not-Terra in the back and driving a startled gasp out of him. Terra's heart abandoned the Guardian as an orb of light. The Heartless dissolved into darkness as Terra's heart flew towards his own body. Just as all the hearts of his lost friends returned to their bodies when Sora chased the Lich across worlds to retrieve them. Hearts always want to return home. And between Terra's heart and the beam of light from Sora's Keyblade, the combined powers drove Xehanort's heart out. The remaining darkness spewed out and Terra landed on his feet.

Terra. No one else. Brown hair and clear blue eyes, without a single trace of the previous possession.

Terra looked down at his hands in shock, flexing them a few times. As if he couldn't believe that he was himself again. Then he looked up suddenly and ran to the prone Aqua and Ventus.

"Aqua!" he called. "Ven!"

Aqua started sitting up as Terra reached them. Her expression remained a little wary as he carefully pulled Ventus into his arms.

Cautiously hopeful, she asked, "Terra… Is it you?"

She leaned over closer, searching his expression for something. Searching for something that only she knew and would recognize it. He looked up at Aqua and smiled.

"Yeah," he said, quiet and thankful. "You never stopped lighting my way back."

Sora kept back to give the trio some time for their reunion, but he could see tears forming in Aqua's eyes as she smiled. She quietly cried happy tears as she stared at their long-lost friend. Restored to himself after over a decade. And when Ventus groaned softly, Aqua and Terra looked down at the smaller figure in the young man's arms.

Looking up at Terra with an awed smile, Ventus said, "You're here…"

"I heard you too, Ven," he said, his own tears forming. As Ventus sat up, Terra said, "You found me, just like you promised."

Then he pulled Aqua and Ventus closer. He held them in a tight group hug, the three of them sitting on the ground. They embraced for the first time in over a decade. Sora watched them with a smile, practically feeling the joy and relief radiating off the three of them. They were crying softly, too happy and tired to move now that they were back together.

"Thank you," whispered Terra, holding them protectively close.

Speaking gently, Sora said, "Aqua and Ventus need rest." The trio of Keyblade wielders slowly looked up at him. "Terra, look after them."

They all needed to rest. Even Terra. He still looked a little unsteady from his return to his true body. Between that and how much the other two were flung around, a chance to recuperate a little would be good for them. Sora started to leave even as Ventus climbed clumsily to his feet.

"No, Sora. I'm going too," he called as he tried to follow.

Ventus didn't make it too far before he stumbled, still battered and exhausted from being tossed around like that. Sora stopped and turned to face him. Aqua and Terra reached towards Ventus worriedly, though they were too far to touch him or help. Not unless they wanted to stand up and move closer.

"That's what he wants," said Sora. "For us to make a mistake. Put ourselves in danger."

Then Sora stepped a little closer, his hand drifting up to his chest. Now that Ventus was recovering from being tossed around, his shared strength had returned to Sora. Not as strong as before, but still there. Ventus, Roxas, and Xion. All three keeping him together. But Sora could feel that support weakening slowly. They only had a finite amount of strength. It wouldn't last forever. But they were trying to buy him more time.

Keeping his voice low so that the others didn't overhear, Sora said, "And besides, you're already helping me. You know that, Ven."

"But it isn't enough," he said, quiet and regretful. "What we're doing? It isn't enough. It won't last."

"It'll last long enough for us to finish this."

He smiled at Ventus. Calm, comforting, and reassuringly. Being upset about what they couldn't change wouldn't help him and would only waste what little time that he had left. Besides, saving his friends was worth the cost. He went into it with his eyes open and his mind clear. He wasn't tricked and he didn't regret his decision. If it kept them safe, then Sora was fine.

"Sora, go," said Aqua reassuringly, still crouched beside Terra. "We'll catch up with you."

Terra nodded in agreement, one arm resting on her shoulder and the other still half-raised to reach towards Ventus. As if he still needed the reassurance of physical contact to be certain that this was real.

Grinning, Sora said, "Right. I've got this."

Then he turned and disappeared back into the maze. He wasn't done yet.


Sora might have looked like he was alone as he ran along the twisting pathways of the stone maze. He might have even believed that he was. But it had been a long time since he was ever truly alone. There were too many connections to his heart. And he'd spent too long as both a refuge and a prison, containing those with nowhere else to go.

Even after the others had left, something still remained.

With the exception of the Seven Princesses of Heart and Ventus due to purely artificial means, all hearts contained some darkness naturally. Some people were filled with darkness, presenting tempting targets for the Heartless if those people weren't actively controlling them. But others, like Sora, only held the tiniest among of darkness in their hearts. Barely enough for the smallest Shadow. He was just too bright for anything more.

Sora's bright and open heart. A haven for the lost, the broken, and the ones in need of protection. Plenty of other hearts found sanctuary within his light. Both Ansem the Wise and Ienzo scanned the light in his heart to find the others. Roxas, Xion, and Ventus were nestled in that light until they were retrieved. Even Kairi briefly dwelled there, though she'd left years ago.

No one ever searched the shadows of Sora's heart for anyone imprisoned there.

To be fair, it was only recently that there was anything resembling a heart tucked into the small shadows. Before that, no one would have recognized the jagged pieces for what they were. Only broken fragments that were dragged in with Ventus's damaged heart over a decade ago, like how someone might track in dirt on their shoes and leave it scattered on the carpet. Sora invited Ventus into his heart, to heal and recover in his light. The shattered remnants of a darker heart found shelter in the faint shadows, unnoticed and weak.

He didn't heal quickly. He wasn't like his other half. The light couldn't help him, too harsh and intense to bear. He needed darkness to repair the damage and there was barely any that he could use. He could only hide in the small shadows, hurting in his broken state. Because being shattered and incomplete hurt.

He was less than a ghost. He barely had any awareness for years. No real memories, thoughts, or sense of self. Only whatever dreams that trickled down from Sora. Pieces of the boy's life. Dreams of running on a beach in the sunshine, of swimming in the ocean, of laughing with a red-haired girl, of playfully sparring with a silver-haired boy, of smiling and relaxing, and of loving parents taking care of the boy. He dreamed of family, friendship, and home.

He didn't know it then, still too broken and fragile to know anything beyond the pain and those pleasant dreams. And he certainly preferred the dreams to the pain. But those dreams? He didn't know it, but those dreams of Sora's life were glimpses of all the things that he'd never had before. All the things that he was denied and no longer remembered being denied.

Couldn't risk any light forming in Master Xehanort's perfect pure darkness, after all.

He rested in the faint shadows of Sora's heart, dull and barely sentient in his damaged state. He was trapped, but safe and protected. But any healing was impossibly slow.

Until Hollow Bastion. Until the Keyblade of Hearts stabbed into Sora's chest. Until the darkness flooded in and left a Heartless where the boy should have been. Suddenly there was enough darkness present for the shattered fragments to start knitting back together.

He regained a sense of awareness. But he wasn't completely himself again. Not yet. He was more like a wild animal rather than anything truly intelligent or rational. An angry, aggressive, and dangerous animal that reacted like one. Calmed and soothed by familiar and pleasant dreams that trickled down from Sora. And lashing out in response to threats to himself, to the boy, or to anything that belonged to him.

Maybe friendship, caring, or empathy were traits associated with light, but aggressive possessiveness? That was something that could easily come from darkness.

Sometimes when Sora was in danger, he leaked through. His power and his aggressiveness. A dark and vicious form that clawed at enemies and scrambled on all fours. As animalistic as him. It never lasted long, but he could drive away the threats to Sora, to the boy's friends, and anything else that belonged to the boy or him.

It made Sora, Donald, and Goofy uneasy the first few times it happened, but they eventually accepted that it didn't seem to hurt him. They called it Anti-Form, assuming it was connected to Sora's brief time as a Heartless combined with the ability to use Limit Forms. And as long as it didn't seem to harm Sora and it could even be useful, they were willing to let it go. They didn't poke around and find out about him.

He didn't completely reclaim his sense of self and his previous memories until Master Xehanort's attempt to claim Sora as a vessel. They plunged the boy's heart into the deepest darkness. Dangerous for Sora, but comforting and invigorating for him. Even after Riku pulled Sora back out, he'd healed enough to know the truth.

Vanitas remembered who he was, what his purpose was, and how Master Xehanort forged him to fulfill that specific role.

And if that had been all that he remembered, only his existence from the moment Master Xehanort tore the darkness from Ventus's heart to give it a separate identity until that existence ended with his heart shattered to pieces, Vanitas might have gone back to how things used to be. He might have remained loyal to the old man. Forging the χ-blade would have remained his only purpose. With only those memories, Vanitas might have continued as before.

But he'd already grown and adapted by the time those memories returned. Those memories were no longer the only ones. They weren't the main forces shaping him. Almost twelve years immersed in Sora's life through those dreams, seeing what it was like to have a family, friends, and people who cared… Seeing how a proper teacher or master should treat someone… It left an impression. They were all things that he'd never had or experienced before. Things that he'd been convinced were unnecessary and signs of weakness. But after he spent so long in Sora's heart, Vanitas had repeatedly witnessed the undeniable power that came from friendship. He'd have to be blind to miss it.

Sora was everything that he'd once believed to be weak, useless, and foolish. But Sora had proven that all those things were what made him strong. And that they were things worth fighting for.

Vanitas remembered a life completely different than his own existence. And with that new insight, he understood. He understood how Master Xehanort used him. How the old man manipulated, mistreated, and betrayed him with every action. He understood because he could see how things could have been instead.

And because of those glimpses of Sora's life through those dreams, Vanitas learned to want more. He wanted to be more than a tool for Master Xehanort's plan. He wanted to be more than part of the χ-blade. Greed came naturally to darkness and Vanitas wanted more.

Anger and fury also came easily to darkness. And Vanitas quickly discovered how much rage and hatred he could direct towards Master Xehanort. He wanted revenge. Trapped and imprisoned in the shadows of Sora, Vanitas wanted to make Master Xehanort suffer for what he'd put him through.

And thankfully, the boy was determined to face the old man and the real Organization XIII.

He still protected Sora, wrapping the boy in darkness and power when he was hurt. But the change wasn't as wild or animalistic. Not after Vanitas regained himself. The boy had more control when it came to calling on that power and the change left him upright and wielding a weapon. Rage Form. Vanitas kept Sora safe and alive as he drew ever closer to the showdown against Master Xehanort and the others.

Besides, after so many years, he refused to surrender the boy. Vanitas wasn't a fool. He knew it wasn't caring or concern; he was merely possessive. Sora was his vessel.

It did feel strange to see himself confronting Sora. But it wasn't really himself. It was himself from the past. The version of Vanitas that still remained loyal to Master Xehanort. The version who couldn't understand how to be anything more than what the old man made him. A tool. A weapon. Pure darkness and an essential piece of the χ-blade.

And perhaps his past self wouldn't listen or remember Sora's words, but Vanitas heard them deep within the boy's heart. He listened to what Sora said. And he knew the boy well enough to know that Sora honestly wanted to help. Vanitas might have been dragged into the shadows of his heart, but Sora would have probably invited him like he did Ventus if he'd known. A strange thought that Vanitas didn't know how to handle.

As Sora ran deeper into the maze, Vanitas contemplated the boy's words. The ones that he'd offered the past version of Vanitas. The words that he shared with his opponent in an attempt to help.

He was darkness. Vanitas accepted that. But what kind of darkness did he want to be? And was he only darkness? Maybe once, but he wasn't the same as he was before his heart shattered and the fragments were imprisoned in Sora.

Vanitas pushed the questions aside. Those answers could wait. Master Xehanort's plan was still proceeding forward and they were running out of time. Sora's heart was cracked and barely holding together. On the verge of breaking apart. They needed to hurry. Vanitas contained too much hatred, rage, and spite to accept the old man succeeding. The χ-blade could not be forged. Master Xehanort could not win.

And that meant that Sora couldn't fall. Not yet. Vanitas wouldn't accept it. The old man would pay for everything that he'd done to Vanitas and everything that the man denied him in order to create his pure darkness. Sora couldn't disappear until after that. If Vanitas couldn't personally assault Master Xehanort, then he needed Sora to destroy every piece of the old man's legacy.

Strength from Ventus, Roxas, and Xion bound the bright parts of Sora's heart together, holding the deep cracks in place. Vanitas watched carefully. Gauging the progress of the damage and their waning power. Part of him wondered if he should do something else. But Vanitas knew that it wouldn't buy them much extra time and he didn't want to waste his strength.

Besides, Vanitas's heart was healed. Completely. He should be pleased about what was happening.

The boy and the old man would soon clash. He knew that. And whether he won or lost, Sora wouldn't survive much longer. He wouldn't die. At least, not the normal way. He would simply come apart. And there was a chance that Vanitas's heart would be freed in the process and he would be able to form a new body out of darkness and negative emotions.

If it worked, Vanitas wouldn't be clinging to the dreams and memories of another. He would have his own existence again. He could have anything that he wanted and would have no obligations to anyone. No orders and no destined role. He wouldn't need Ventus, Sora, or the boy's friends. Vanitas wouldn't need any of them.

So why did the thought of leaving cause an aching feeling? Perhaps he wasn't completely healed after all. Or maybe he just didn't like the idea of surrendering something that was his. That must be it. He didn't want to give up Sora, the boy's friends and family, and all those pleasant dreams of a wonderful life because Vanitas was possessive, greedy, and selfish. Even if Vanitas could never truly have those things for himself, he didn't want to give up even the illusion of them.

Possessive, greedy, and selfish. What more could someone expect from darkness?