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like some pitch moon

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Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.

"I have made," Lea announces, with the wind whipping dirt and grit over his face like fingernails scratching at his skin, "a terrible mistake."

"Was it the fire pants?" Kairi asks, referring to Lea's black denim jeans, which do, in fact, have flame embroidery up the left leg. She's standing close by, fixing the stabilizing bandages around the fingers of her right hand. "Because I said they were a mistake when you bought them."

"No. They're cool." Lea adjusts the straps on his wrist-guards, bends down and does the same for the padding on his shins, checking that nothing is getting untucked from his boots. "I meant, getting into this whole business. That was the mistake. Can't take it back now, though."

Kairi's gold-and-floral Keyblade flashes into her hand, as she gives Lea a cheeky grin. Cheeky, but a little shaky. "It took you this long to get cold feet, mister 'oh-I-can-totally-become-a-keyblade-master-in-five-months'?"

"Look, it's important to set aspirational goals," Lea says, tugging at his shirt to make sure that its tight weave won't easily loosen. His particular combat specialty—liberal application of fire—doesn't mix well with loose-fitting clothing or trailing strings. "I'm just a late bloomer." He squints up into the sky, which is overcast, and is taking on a sickly, bruise-violet hue. The wind is picking up, whistling angrily through thousands of Keyblade handguards, shrieking between their teeth. Lea pulls his yellow bandana up to cover his nose and mouth. "Think this party is about to get started?"

Kairi swallows, nods. As a Princess of Heart, she can probably feel the pressure of thirteen hearts irradiated with darkness from across known space. "They're close," she says. "Not... not nearby, though. I think through time." Traveling through temporal rifts, classy, not like the plebs limping in on two Gummi Ships shedding pieces of warp drive as they broke atmosphere. Interspace is in bad shape right now. Probably something to do with a cataclysmic battle sending ripples through local time ahead of the actual event, shearing the world-walls into pieces, you know. Hah, they might not be able to get home even if they do win.

(Lea's and Kairi's hands are shaking, and they both notice the other's at the same time, and notice each other noticing, and turn away, putting their backs together.)

"Remember the plan?" Kairi asks, hopping lightly on the balls of her feet to stay limber and touching the back of her head, where her hair is tied into a firmly-woven braid.

"Move fast, hit hard, don't engage too long, don't get cornered," Lea lists, tucking his fingers into his palm with each item until only one is left. "Umm…"

"Work together," Kairi says insistently, glaring at his extended pinky.

Lea flicks it in quickly, leaving his left hand a fist. "Right, yeah. That stuff."

Riku—Master Riku, 'scuse him—had something in mind and was the one who proposed that they split up into smaller pairs or trios. Sora was with Donald and Goofy, of course, who had refused to stay home even though they weren't invited to the Keyblade party; Master Aqua and Ventus wouldn't be parted, which was fine; Riku and the King had been a team for months; and Kairi and Lea had been training together long enough to pick each other's movements up easily. Splitting up was the easiest way not to get herded in and hammered at while outnumbered two to one, but each one of them going at it alone seemed dangerous.

Lea cracks his knuckles and summons his Keyblade to his left hand, holding it loosely and spinning it in his fingers with the guard. Kairi takes her stance, behind him.

They wait for the hammer to fall.

At the first sign of movement, Kairi casts Aeroga around herself, both for protection and to clear the dust and dirt from blowing into her eyes. She wishes they'd thought to get goggles. She would have shielded Lea, too, who can't cast any non-Fire spells above the first level, but they had already learned how bad of an idea it is to surround a fire-user with a shield made of wind. That was an explosive lesson.

The shield goes up just in time—a volley of dark missiles slams in seemingly out of nowhere, crackling against the Aeroga and leaving whiffs of ozone and smoke. Kairi is already whirling, her Keyblade arcing a curve of light that bisects a dark ball of energy into ultraviolet static and clips a black-coated arm—she ducks and feels the momentary weight of Lea's foot pushing off her back as he launches toward her foe, who has jumped back in a moment's flash—Kairi whispers an incantation and slams Destiny's Embrace into the ground, and a circle of jagged ice crystals explodes outward from her blade, covering the ground for fifteen meters in every direction.

Lea lands the way they've been practicing: with a fireball aimed at the ground ahead of him to blast a spot safe for him to land on. The seeker they've been fighting doesn't. He doesn't land at all, in fact.

(She calls them seekers, like Master Aqua and Ventus do, because it's shorter than "one of thirteen," less abstract than "heart filled with darkness," and less opaque than "Xehanort, I guess, an unidentified one." It's easier, to just assign them a neutral noun, to skate around engaging with the fundamentally troubling idea of each person both being and not being Xehanort. Maybe it's cowardly. Kairi can deal with that moral dilemma some other time.)

Kairi looks at Lea for an explanation; he's squinting up into the air, which is now empty except for wind and twisting dark clouds. "One minute I was hitting him, the next he was gone," Lea explains, his voice slightly muffled from under his bandana.

"Xigbar?" Kairi draws the back of her hand shakily across her forehead. The suddenness of their attacker's departure unnerves her worse than the fact of the attack.

Lea shakes his head. "No bowcaster. Those didn't look like his bullets, either. Plus he's more likely to snipe us from a dis—"

Simultaneously, they catch the implication of Lea's sentence and duck down into low stances; Kairi cancels her Blizzard Trap to improve their mobility and they draw back-to-back again. "From a distance," Lea finishes, in a lower tone. "I think they're just sweeping to find all seven of us."

Kairi almost corrects him—all nine of us, with Donald and Goofy—but thinks better of saying something like that aloud. She can hear her Aeroga rustling Lea's hair at her back. "What should we do? Move?"

"Well, we're actually clear of most of the Keyblades right here," Lea points out in an undertone.


Kairi stops—she feels a rumbling in the earth, through her soles. There's a sound in the air she can't quite identify; it's not close enough, or defined enough, or loud enough for her to place it, but it sets her teeth on edge. Like a faint, discordant wind chime. A dust cloud picks up at the near east horizon, some particles large enough to reflect tiny flecks of light.

No—not dust...

"Oh, I just had to fucking say it!" Lea curses, and Kairi doesn't even have time to remind him he owes another hundred and fifty munny to the swear jar, because he's grabbing her by the upper arm and breaking into a run, his long legs launching them forward, and she stumbles and gasps before catching her footing—

Oh. Oh, that's what it is.

It's a cloud of rusted, dead Keyblades, flying at the two of them like a dust storm, one where the dust is enormous sharp pieces of metal.

Kairi can run for longer than Lea, but not faster, and they're making an easier target by sticking together—"Split up!" she shouts, and they separate from one another, Kairi veering to the right and Lea to the left. Her Aeroga is fading, and she can hear the sinister clinking of the pursuing swarm, and she counts in her head—one… two… three… four… five… six… seven—skids to a halt, and barks out "Reflega!"

The hexagonal lattice of shimmering lines forms a dome over her just as the volley strikes—pounding, snapping against the shield, slamming, slamming, breaking, crashing, splintering into shards—

Kairi summons her strength and counter-breaks the Reflega, with all the combined force of the blows it had absorbed; it shatters like glass and slams outwards in a concussive blast that, for now, stops the storm. Broken shards of steel fall around her like rain and another seeker is on her—trading heavy blows with her with a Keyblade that moves too fast for her to discern its design, beyond an impression of red on silver—her foot twists on a steel splinter, and she goes down, curling her spine in and pushing the air out of her lungs in a hard whuf!—it hurts as she hits the uneven sharp spikes, but she managed to land in a way that doesn't puncture her ribs—whoever she's fighting is falling on her and she jams her Keyblade up into his gut and hisses "Magnera!"

Thousands of jagged metal shards shoot towards him as if shot from a cannon.

Including several that Kairi had fallen on—she flings herself to the side, rolling away and scrambling to get distance, but several still slice her arms and back. A tiny splinter goes straight through her upper arm and scrapes against the bone inside before exiting in a larger and messier hole, and though she strangely feels no pain, it washes a dead-chill through her shoulder. The seeker she's fighting has managed to fall away from the Magnera's centerpoint, has backed up several meters. His coat is riddled with tiny tears that, as Kairi watches, slowly stitch themselves together. She cannot tell if he is bleeding. She can't tell if he bled at all.

(One summer, when Kairi was little, she had caused a scene by refusing to play or go through the seaside shack, insisting that Sora and Riku not go near it, even at the cost of not playing by the paopu tree. She couldn't explain what it was, only that, when they went near, she felt an acute sense of dread, and this strange half-vibration. The other kids played in and around it, heedless of her growing fear. It wasn't until a week later that Kairi was vindicated: a swarm of wasps had taken residence in one of the inner walls, and they had begun to get aggressive, such that a few of the adults had to go in at sunset and smoke them all out.

This is what it feels like, to be in the presence of this seeker: a slow-burning dread, a pressure at the edges of her senses that something is stirring nearby, that she can't see.)

The Magnera dissipates and the mass of metal at its center drops to the ground with a crash and a sound almost like a splatter, a sound as if all the rain in the sky dropped at once instead of falling over hours. In the puff of dust that rises, she sees the shape of a hood, head and shoulders. He isn't moving. Kairi stares at him, for a moment, unsure of the sudden inaction—is he going to attack or what?—and suddenly feels a doubling of that pressure, this time close enough that she tastes something at the back of her mouth like oil. She pitches forward—


a Keyblade crackling bright-blue with ozone flashes in a confused corner of her vision as she completes her dodge—

she comes to her feet and locks Keyblades with the newcomer, who is (both thankfully and disturbingly) much closer to her own height.

Where on earth is Lea? she thinks—

"Duck!" someone shouts, and six months of intensive training and burns on her back drops Kairi to the ground before she can even think, and a searing-hot wash of flame from her left bursts across where she had been by a fraction of a second (she smells her braid singeing). The seeker is driven back and she sees his heels skid in the dirt—caught off-balance, that's good. Kairi pushes herself up as she feels someone land behind her—Lea.

The seeker Kairi had first engaged with—the larger one, whose movements are vaguely familiar in a way Kairi could place if she had time to think—he's across from Lea now, whose back is to Kairi, whose back is to his. She's facing the second seeker, the one much closer to her height. He pulls his hood back.

"Welcome to the end of time, Princess," he says, and based on his hair, his face, and his Keyblade, Kairi hazards a guess that this is the youngest Xehanort, the one who stalked Sora and Riku through their Mark of Mastery exam. "So glad you could make it."

"Glad to be invited," she retorts, he hands twisting on the grip of her Keyblade.

"I should hope so. What is about to transpire here will change the very nature of the World, forever. I'm sure you'd like to… leave your mark."

"We're going to stop you!" Kairi snaps, taking a step forward, but a light touch on her left wrist from behind surprises her into stapping back. She can't turn all the way around to see him, but she perceives a slight shake of his head: Don't get riled.

The young Xehanort smirks, and Kairi's knuckles tighten again; there's something about their clear closeness in age that makes his absolute self-assurance more abrasive. "I'm so sure. In any case, I believe it is time for this to begin." He gives a pointed nod to the other seeker, and Kairi, unable to help herself, whirls around, thinking that he might be about to jump at Lea—

But the other figure hasn't even drawn a Keyblade again; instead, he reaches up and pulls his hood back, and Kairi sees light-blue (but a blue much lighter than what she had seen through the bars in the World that Never Was, streaked with gray and nearly white, the winter-blue of sun's reflection on snow and not the summer-blue of the August sky—)

Before she can do anything—can say anything, can even remember the fear in her throat when her hands were softer and her arms were weaker—there is a hand in the small of her back, and Lea is saying something, slashing his Keyblade across the ground—

And a wall of fire erupts between the two of them, blazing hot enough to hurt her skin even though Kairi has been pushed twenty feet from its edge.

"Lea!" she screams, even though part of her knew this would happen, knew it from the moment they had stepped on the battlefield, that despite his talk about keeping their cool, Lea was probably going to do something stupid.

Lea turns, makes eye contact with her through the curtain of orange and blinding-bright yellow—his green eyes strike through it like the points of a laser—and all she can catch is the motion of his shoulders up and down. A near-apologetic shrug.

Sorry, he says, but she can only read his lips, his image swimming in the heat-ripples, because the howling of the fire sucks away all sound. This is personal.

It's at times like this Lea really knows he has a heart. Primarily because he can feel the whole fist-sized thing slamming away in his throat right now. Feels like if he coughed hard enough, with the right timing, he could sick it up. What a riot.

(His fingers ache from how hard he is gripping his Keyblade's hilt, his knuckles creaking like a rusted doorhinge being slowly pushed shut.)

(The taste of too-dry, too-heated air triggers sense-memory: an enclosed space, blue-gray concrete walls and a floor of lapis-lazuli tiling, intricate design, and this same fire-circle spell that had flared out of his veins in response to a spark not felt in ten years. A spark of something-like-anger, when he had seen Roxas's eyes focus on him in the first real way in seven days.)

(Like that day, Lea is not sure he has any hopes of surviving this fight, and like that day, Lea is not sure he cares even a little bit. Which is saying something a bit more, this time, since now he has the capacity to care and is actively neglecting to.)

"You got something to say to me, or are we just going to get into it?" Lea snaps, eyes fixed on him—on Saïx.

(His hair is so much lighter now. His Claymore looks different: he holds it reverse-grip, at its usual awkward-seeming angle; the spikes seem to swim in the heat-haze. Its silver is stained eclipse red. No—it took Lea a moment to realize what Kairi had already seen—his Claymore has become the focus for a Keyblade, its familiar crest and handle now twisted and fused in a way that resembles the large tarnished-silver blade that Oldest Xehanort carries. But it's still roughly the same shape, size, and weight.)

"No?" Lea challenges, still not moving. "It's gonna keep being like that, huh? Is this just to look cool, or do you seriously not have anything to sa—"

It's on "to" that Saïx strikes, bursts forward in the blind-fast motion he always begins with, his Claymore pushing forward in a thrust that pulverizes the air before it. There was no hint before this strike, no twitch of a foot or twist of his sword. Saïx never begins attacking. He either is, or is not, in motion. If you don't want to be wrapped around the crest of his Claymore, you better not be standing and talking when he strikes.

Lea, who had been doing just that, is gone by the time (a second and a fraction) it takes for Saïx's Claymore to reach him. Or, to reach the space where he was.

(The thing is, Saïx likes to hit you when you don't expect it, and everyone knows you least expect it when you're talking, and most people stop talking once he pulls the Claymore out. Not Lea. Talking, in addition to being a great steam shunt for the pressure building up in his heart, not that that's important, provides a flurry of obvious openings. Please hit me. I am totally asking for it. Hit me. Hit me right now. I dare you. Hit me. Hit me.)

Lea, in the air—Saïx, turning as he pulls his Claymore in along his body—Lea slashes his Keyblade, the flamed steel seems to lengthen with the motion, brighten, then snap in two, sending a barrage of flame towards Saïx—Saïx, turned facing the missile, already has his Claymore held broadside across his chest, and pushes it out to block the blow—Lea lands, his right foot strikes first, a wheel-like pattern stamps into the dirt beneath it, before he pushes off to his left, puffs of dust rising with each step.

Saïx's head whips around, tracking him—Lea isn't making much distance between them, just lateral movement—and then he is in motion again, this time not with a forward thrust, but with a low-left-to-high-right diagonal cut upward. Hard angle to evade: Lea catches the motion as the swing begins, twists facing it midstride, and falls backwards, his feet leaving the ground—torso going flat as a spike on the Claymore's crest just snags on his shirt, tearing a thumb-length hole—Lea's hands come down behind his head, to the ground, forming a back-bridge for the barest fraction of a second before his feet come off the ground and up with the momentum, smacking Saïx solidly below the elbow (it can't be knocked wide, not with the force of his massive weapon traveling that inexorable arc)—Lea completes his back-handspring, skidding backwards slightly on both heels, another circular pattern printed in the dust where his hands palmed the ground.

He doesn't dare hope his kick had hurt Saïx's arm that badly. If he were a heavier guy, he could have broken the elbow, with that angle and enough torque. But it was just a glancing blow. The problem is that Lea's magic specialty—fire—is magnitudes less effective in an open-air environment, and his combat specialty—burns, tearing cuts, thrown projectiles—is useless against someone who is difficult to distract or disable with pain. Good thing Lea didn't just blow off a team member or anything.

Lea opens his mouth to say something—something sassy, if he could manage it—but he nearly bites his own tongue off because Saïx has not needed much time to shake out whatever damage that kick did to his arm, Saïx is on him and that Keyblade carries the weight of his Claymore and more, and it is all Lea can do to parry. Parry is the wrong word, though. He can't block these blows, only slap them at the right angles, right momentum to keep Saïx moving past him, always past him at fractions of an inch, and Saïx is really in it now, the berserk momentum that rolls his eyes back in his head and makes him swing that massive thing at twice the speed he should, and Lea is parrying, and parrying and—

He slaps a fireball into one strike that slips through Saïx's handguard and sizzles into the ground beneath them, that mandala pattern burning into the dirt beneath them, and Lea pulls, wrenches his Keyblade away with a shriek of metal and double-Fire Dashes away a short distance, pausing only to take a knee and slap the ground into another burned-circle pattern, and this time when Saïx leaps at him to lock blades (the impact wrenching at him, jarring his shoulders like death), Lea forces a fierce smile, one that is nothing but teeth and fire.

He says nothing, just snaps the fingers of his free right hand, and his Mine Cross—the four circle-stamps connecting with each others' magics—flare into light, intersecting here in the center where he'd lured Saïx with a false retreat and reengagement—Saïx's berserk-blank eyes swim back into focus now, too late—

The explosion flares magnesium-white, bright like a star. Lea desperately retreats—it's hot enough that it hurts Lea's exposed skin even through Lea's natural fire resistance and the protection of three Firaga Bands (one on his left wrist and one per ankle, tucked beneath his boots and leg padding). Lea can't believe he pulled this hit off. He's prepared this spell weeks in advance. The flare is fading now—time to quickly assess the damage and see wheth-

something flickers in a corner of Lea's vision, and he turns in time to see a smear of blue-white against tan against red against tan and tan and tan and it's only now sinking in that it feels, in his chest, like he was just struck by an eighteen-wheeler, it's only enough time to realize he is airborne and moving very fast when suddenly

he hits a patch of Keyblades and goes straight through it, his back slamming through them like the weight and momentum of falling from the top of a tree and hitting branch after branch after branch after branch after branch after branch after branch on the way down, every hit knocking more air from his lungs and



washes chill through him like ice touching his lower teeth.

(His left side. His ribs feel cold. He's. holding his Keyblade out. But. It doesn't match, for a second, in his head, what he's feeling. He dismisses his Keyblade—he feels its weight and texture trickle out of the fingers of his left hand like sand, sees a glint of light in the corner of his vision—but his eyes don't see it leave. The blade, in front of him. He's not holding it, but it's still there.


That's not his Keyblade.

It's too dark a red.)

Lea inhales and it's a mistake. He has made yet another terrible mistake. His lungs expand and his left lung slices itself further open against the Keyblade—the one that isn't Lea's, because Lea's isn't that dark a red—the one that is sticking through his middle left ribs—the one that's that dark a red because that's the color of Lea's blood—(well, that's the color. of everyone's blood. isn't it.)—the one that he just slammed through and stuck on like a butterfly on a thumbtack.

(There's one other time he has felt pain like this, and it was the time Axel tried to go back for Kairi, tried to counter-counter-kidnap her back because for once in his life he wanted to clean up his messes — when Saïx had tried to stop him and they had fought, and he had ducked under the blows that become predictable in their anger when Saïx is berserked, knocked him to the floor, knocked his eyes shut — when he had turned, after a long moment, and something had slammed into him, into the floating ribs on his right side, shredding the bottom of his lung and half his guts with his own treacherous bones — an impact that didn't break him so much as it broke the world around him, it was a pain so real in a way things had not been real in ten years — Axel had turned, slowly, as if in a nightmare, to see Saïx, not berserked any longer, with a grin across his face that was at once entirely alien and yet familiar, as if it had been pulled off of someone else's and pasted on. It wasn't until Axel had died and re-lived as Lea, and dived into that ripple of time to save Sora, that he knew it for real, but by then the point was moot. He knew that day, that hour, when he'd put his hand into his side to hold himself together and felt his own pieces cutting him inside. Whatever was under Saïx's skin was not the person he used to be.

Axel had heard Kairi screaming indistinctly, as if through water.)

Lea hears Kairi screaming very distinctly, you know, through air. But she cuts off abruptly. He can't really turn to see her, and she's not in his field of vision. She must be held up fighting someone. Lea's fire barrier ought to be burnt out by now.

He blinks against the sand in the air, against the graying of his vision. Even blinking hurts, as though the minute motions of his eyelids are jostling him against the blade in his ribs. The images he sees seem jerky and jittery, an undercranked camera. He can't seem to splice them all together right.

Saïx approaches with no real hurry. How far did he throw Lea, that he needs to walk over here for that long? Lea raises his empty right hand, tries to grip the large blade protruding from him, as if he wanted to pull it out, but the second his fingers touch the metal, his side comes alive with pain again. Like the blade itself was full of his own nerves. Part of him now. He'd screamed, he realizes belatedly, through clenched teeth when he'd touched it. His hand pulls away with his fingers and the brown leather palm of his fingerless glove stained a slippery red.

"Did you really think you stood a chance?" Lea shifts his gaze a few degrees past his hand; Saïx swims into focus in the middle ground. He did take that Mine Cross full-on. Lea hadn't missed. Half the hair on his left side is burnt off; his coat is in tatters and completely blown away on his left side, exposing his left arm—dangling useless and brown-black-blasted like a rippling sea, red waves cresting in places. A long white glint where the blast burned straight through to the bone of his elbow and forearm. (It's horrifying to look at, if you weren't used to looking at burns.) Ah good, Lea thinks hazily, third-degree full-thickness. Wouldn't have settled for less. The burns extend slightly up the left side of Saïx's face, the skin peeling angry and red, but it looks like his arm took the brunt of the blast.

(Disjointedly, Lea remembers there is an Elixir in his pocket. On his left side. He can't move his left arm without agonizing pain. Maybe he can sneak it out with the right—

oh, he can't drink an Elixir with a giant blade still in his body. Not if he doesn't want to take it with him as a souvenir.)

Lea remembers that Saïx had asked a question. "K-" —god, it hurts so badly to speak, but he forces it, the vowels barely voiced — "kinda…"

The long Keyblade in Saïx's right hand drags furrows in the ground behind him—he still holds it like his Claymore. The spiked crest less uniform now, the spikes more undulating, stained black-brown at the edges like tarnish on silver. (That might be Lea's blood, also.) The blue, piercing eye opened in the center where there once was a star. Tiny details jump out at Lea like little separate glimmers on a sea at night. Saïx finally stops a short distance away.

"You've failed," he says.

Lea has—

(—he lets his right hand fall to his chest, the one stained with his own blood. His hand, that is. Well, his chest is stained with his own blood, too. There's not much in Lea's immediate radius that isn't.)

—an idea.

"Yeah—" Lea chokes out. He feels something wet on his chin, and tastes copper. It's starting to feel less and less like he is getting oxygen with the shallow breaths he can take. "Yeah—I fff-ail'd." Consonants are harder than vowels, paradoxically. He almost has to swallow them. "Wha's new?"

Saïx's eyes—Xehanort's eyes—rove over Lea's chest, take in his wound, the state of his face, the struggled way he speaks. "I should thank you," he says, and Lea's skin crawls, because for a second he had a full-sense memory of Xemnas speaking in the Round Room at some meeting—they overlap in his ears. He makes himself stare at the still-unhealed burns on Saïx's arm. It's easier than meeting his face. "I never thought you, of all people, would have such a strong light. It's actually fortunate we were never able to seed you." (Lea's throat clenches.) "I think these hearts were meant to clash." (His left hand balls into a fist, irrespective of the pain this shoots into his shoulder.) "The χ-blade will be that much stronger for it."

"Sure…" There's not much left of the word after Lea forces the S. "Just…" A ragged, gasping breath — he forces it in. Tears well in his eyes, hot, stinging. "Do me a… one favor. Old… timessake."

"Why." Saïx says it dull, cold, like the disinterested flat of a kitchen knife.

Lea blinks, the action squeezing a few tears from each eye, leaking down the sides of his face at pathetic angles. "If..'f he's in there… jus' can I… say…" Another labored intake of breath that cuts off into a cough, that triggers a gasp of pain.

"'Goodbye?'" Saïx prompts. Lea nods, just barely, enough to make his point. "Hm." He seems to be pondering this. He lifts his Keyblade and stares coolly at Lea from across its edges. "That's not unreasonable. But there's a problem." His right arm blurs, a motion Lea can't even catch—

and the Keyblade, Saïx's huge Claymore-sized thing slams square into Lea's left hand, spearing it a foot into the ground, he can feel his left elbow snap cleanly the wrong way back, and it wrenches an agonized, single scream out of him, a long one, ah god, ah god

Saïx leans in close, taking a knee to make sure he can stare Lea straight in the eyes as he finishes screaming, and he says, coolly, "Nothing you can say now could possibly reach your friend. He's dead. He's been dead f—"

A flash.

A sound, not of steel sliding into flesh, but of light splintering, the sphere-hum sound a Keyblade makes when it engages a lock.

Saïx, with a look of the profoundest confusion Lea's ever seen, looks down.

Lea's Keyblade is buried in his chest to the hilt. There's a strange circle of light cresting outwards. The blade is not protruding from his back. It's impossible to say exactly where it went.

"No shit," Lea says. By comparison, it's almost conversational. A lot less labored. Not at all like he'd been crying. Saïx's gold eyes widen. "For starters, Isa knows I'm ambidextrous."

The Keyblade blazes white-hot in Lea's hand, and it burns away the world.

"Incredible," comes from behind Kairi, and she whirls to block yet another blow from the youngest Xehanort. "It's finally happening. Not the way I thought it'd go, either."

Kairi slashes a blow with her Keyblade that would have sliced his coat from hip to opposite shoulder if it had connected, but he's already pulling back. His words are empty to her, meaningless, another attempt to distract her from the only voice that matters.

Thrust to the empty space to his right. Kairi does, and hits an arm as he materializes in —

Five steps backwards, fall to one knee, cast Aeroga. Kairi will do this, and when she does, it will redirect a whip-strike that flies out wide in the wake of her powerful wind shield —

Stand still and don't move. Kairi did, and missed a slash that would have taken her at the neck.

Kairi has been doing this for less than a second. Kairi has been doing this for an hour. Kairi doesn't know which of the things she's done have mattered yet.

Namine whispers, step left and turn, and Kairi remembers that Xehanort will tell her that this day is a glorious one, that she should be proud that her heart's strength will temper the X-Blade the way fire tempers steel—she will swing for him—

At the same time, she remembers the completely contradictory fact that Xehanort will never have said any of this, because when he opened his mouth to speak, he instead lunged for a thrust to her solar plexus, with the sure and true knowledge that she will not have moved because he had seen her feet go flat when he spoke to her before traveling backwards in time to a vulnerable moment —

His Keyblade whiffs past her, and his eyes go wide.

As she blade-hand chops down right on his wrist with the hand not holding her Keyblade, and his fingers fly open, and the sizzling blue-corona Keyblade of his own clatters almost pathetically against the ground, a single time, before dematerializing.

None of that happened, though.

Because now Kairi remembers that he has pulled back in time to the point that Lea's Keyblade had entered Saïx's heart and the wall of fire around them had burned immediately to cinders, when she had tried to sprint to Lea's side and Xehanort had jumped in front of her to block the way.

This time, he is not smiling. Or rather, because of this, he had never smiled in the first place.

"What have you done," he demands, his voice cold.

For a second, she sees herself as he sees her: an afterimage burned into his eyes that he cannot escape, that he sees before him even when his lids shut. A stupid, foolish, weak girl (who overlays with a memory that he hasn't had yet, that he snatches from the twisting ribbon of his future: a stupid, foolish, weak woman who had shattered the X-Blade on these very grounds) who cannot be there, and here, and there, and there all at once, yet is. She seems unset in this world, invert—she casts a shadow brighter than herself.

(To travel through the currents of time, you must give up your body. Once you arrive, you can only move according to the laws of time. And there must be a version of yourself waiting at your destination.

Kairi hadn't realized the significance of this at first, when Yen Sid had explained it. But at night, she looks in mirrors, and sees another her: a girl with blonde hair, the one who had helped her escape captivity, held captive inside her.)

"Your mistake," she says, calmly, though her head buzzes frantically with a thousand blinding potential timelines growing and being cut away all at once, "is thinking that you can get away with using people and throwing them away. That it's something you can do if you think you have a good enough reason. That they won't find a way to defeat you in the end."

This version of Xehanort is too young to have met Namine. To have even heard of her. To never be told about her by an older self who didn't think she was worth mentioning, a discarded relic of some traitorous subordinate's scheme. The mistake was in thinking that only Sora's memories could have been of worth, and that with Namine returned to Kairi, her powers had been neutralized, become an afterthought.

But Namine has given up her body. She is moving only according to the laws of time. And she is always already within a version of herself when she arrives at her destination. All Kairi has to do is remember the future that Namine has seen. To receive her own memories, from the future currents of time.

Kairi fights/fought/has fought/will fight this youngest incarnation of Xehanort for what seems like years. Flickering back and forth within the same few crucial minutes of time, as he tries, with increasing desperation, to find an opening she does not already remember.

The mental strain on her is incredible. Namine cannot afford to discard any memories, in case Xehanort tries to do the same thing twice. Kairi can't remember this much time in a coherent way—it is like trying to hold a sculpture of sand in the air without causing it to crumble and spill into a billion disconnected grains.

But it doesn't matter. Now Kairi remembers.

She's already defeated him.

She defeats him when Namine will fall silent. When she stopped and a Keyblade will have had slammed into her back, and she feels a sick oil-black touch against her heart —

And with a connection made between Xehanort, Seeker of Darkness, and Kairi, Princess of Light, Namine—the pale shadow between the two—pours the collected weight of every single memory of every single timeline of this encounter into Xehanort's corrosive, acidic heart. Not experienced sequentially, the way he did, but all at once, the way Kairi has.

He will freeze.

Kairi had screamed. The clash between their hearts was creating an enormous pressure, one that set her teeth on edge. Worse than the pressure she felt from Saïx's heart earlier. This was like having her brain crushed flat against the walls of her skull.

Namine was pushing that pressure away, even as Kairi senses her being hurt by it—even as Kairi remembers. Namine doesn't survive this.

Namine had never promised this to anyone. Namine didn't owe this to anyone. Namine didn't need to do this.

This isn't for my promise, Namine says. Everything is going to be alright. You need to stay conscious for another fight, or everything is lost. I kept that memory hidden from you. Kairi felt her own lips twitch into a smile that isn't hers, even as tears well in her eyes. I don't know if my soul… my heart will survive being part of the X-Blade if it gets broken later. But… I'm glad. Maybe the tears aren't Kairi's either. I'm glad I was born, Kairi. I'm glad I had a reason to exist.

Namine's presence has—had—is faded from Kairi's heart.

Everything is moving in the present tense again. Kairi blinks. She is holding the searing electric-blue shaft of Xehanort's Keyblade in her bare hand, folded against her side; her own Keyblade is hovering in the center of a spreading hole in Xehanort's body, a hole that looks like a candle burning away paper. He is fading.

"This is not even a setback," he spits, even as he dissolves. "This is part of the plan, too. You haven't…" His burning, golden eyes are the last things to fade, before his Keyblade trickles out of Kairi's hand like water.

For a long moment, Kairi just collapses to the ground, on her butt, exhaustion and incomprehension taking her over. She can't remember how long this has been. She can't remember what she had been doing before she fought the youngest Xehanort. She…

"Oh," she says suddenly, with terror and urgency. "Lea."

It's the perfect day. You really could not have asked for a better day. You can't remember the last time there was a day like this. You could live in a day like this forever. The sun is overhead. The wind is in the east. It rustles the scarf at your neck, slightly. Your legs swing slightly where you sit, perched on one of the outer walls of the Fountain Court, looking up toward the castle. The sky is the same faint lavender of the early touches of sunset. The gentle hiss of the fountains is behind you, spitting water upward.

You're glad. You can't remember the last time you were this glad. You turn to your right. Your ice cream is on the verge of melting all over your right hand. You fix it with a long lick that takes the drippings off. It's just as sweet (and salty) as you remember. He's there, next to you, his legs not swinging but braced against the wall. Playing it safe. You laugh. Don't fall off, you say. You're glad. He looks the way you remember—blue hair cut short, blue eyes, a blue ice cream not melting in his left hand. It's the perfect day.

I won't fall off, he says. Lea. You know, we're not supposed to be here. He says it with a sly grin, like it's a joke. It is a joke. A ritual. You're never supposed to be there. You feel a touch suddenly, shockingly, cold on your hand. The ice cream's dripping again. You lick it off. I'm glad, you say. I missed this, you say. It's fine, he says. I'm here.

You could say something else, but you don't. There's a warmth in your chest, or something like it, a tight feeling. It's the perfect day. You really could not have asked for a better day. You can't remember the last time there was a day like this. The sun is overhead, the wind is in the east, rustling your hair, slightly. It seems like it's gotten long. Your hair. You can't remember the last time you got it cut. Maybe you ought to. You turn to voice this to him, about your hair, but you see the ice cream about to drip again and lick it. Your hand is still really cold where it had touched earlier. Your knuckles hurt a little from holding the stick so hard. Think it's time to break in again? you ask. Not because you really want to move. It's a joke. A ritual. You've said this so many times. You ready? he asks in return. The wind blows his hair back as he looks at you, the sunset behind you. (The sun sets in the west, right?) Nah, you say. It's fine like it is. I missed this.

Even talking is hard. It breaks something in the mood. The silence. Your hand practically burns with cold, the kind of cold that feels hot. The ice cream again. You lick it. It's just as salty (and sweet) as you remember. You look over. His is melted entirely. You don't remember seeing him lick it once. You want to ask if he's not hungry, but the silence seems to swallow your will to speak. Your chest is tight. You don't know if this is happiness or sadness. The feeling of a heart being full. He glances back, sees you looking as though you want to say something. I won't fall off, he says, as if to reassure you. I won't fall. Even if you shouldn't be here. He looks the way you remember. Your legs swing. They're long. You look a way you can't remember. Like your hair being long.

It's fine. You're glad. You can't remember the last time you felt this glad. Even with your hand burning cold from the ice cream. It only hurts a little, but like summer should hurt. From a heart being full. The sun is low. The sky is purple. The same. It's the same, like how he's the same. That sameness couldn't be taken from you. From your memories. Lea, he says. You shouldn't be here. Even though he is on your right, you hear him at your left. It's a joke. A ritual.

You lick the ice cream. It tastes salty. It's the perfect day. You really could not have asked for a better day. You can't remember the last time there was a day like this. You could live in a day like this forever. From your memories. Lea, he says. You shouldn't be here. Kind of pushing the joke a little. It's only funny if there's space between. Your hand burns. You go to lick the ice cream. but you've licked it down to the stick. Your chest feels tight. Overwarm? Maybe you should take your scarf off. You can't remember the last time you've ever taken your scarf off. The sky is purple. The sun is dark. It's beautiful. You're glad. It's fine.

I'm here, he says. His mouth is moving, at your right. You hear him at your left. You're not supposed to be here. It's fine. You lick your ice cream. It's as salty as you can't remember. It's the perfect day. You really could not have asked for a better day. You can't remember the last time there was a day like this. You could live in a day like this forever. You could live forever. From your memories. From his memories. His mouth is moving, his legs swinging, but he seems static somehow. The silence. It goes on not being broken. Your hand hurts. You lick it. You taste blood. It's as salty (and sweet) as you can remember. The feeling of a heart being full. It's fine. You're glad.

(something seems… slippery. sliding. like a foot sliding on ice. but not in the sense of touch. if a sense of sight could slide, that's what it feels like. if an ear could hear a sound that slides. if you could think a thought that slides. the way you could slide down a wall, if you fell.)

Don't fall off, you say. The words are heavy. Your chest is tight. You aren't sure you said it with your mouth. His mouth is saying I won't fall off. I'll fall, he says, at your left. You go to lick your ice cream. The stick is wet with the last traces. You drop it. Your knuckles hurt where they grip it. It's melting cold-burn on your hand. The sky is purple. The sun is in the south. The sun is dark. You can remember the last time there was a day like this. You could live in a day like this forever. From your memories. You're glad. It's fine. It's the perfect day.

Lea, he says at your left. He's not saying anything at your right, where you are looking. Where you have been looking this entire time. I fell. He's right there, at your right. His legs are swinging. I fell. You're not supposed to be here. Lea. He looks like you can't remember. You're not supposed to be here. Lea. You're glad. You're not supposed to fall.

(something is sliding in your sight, in the shape of it all, like wallpaper bubbling. something sliding behind the shape of the world. bulging outward like a canvas painting pushed from its back side. like the palm-shape of a hand behind a curtain. like a face from under a shroud.)

You want to say his name. Lea. You can't remember. You're not supposed to be here. You can't remember how you got here. I fell. You can't remember the last time there was a day like this. Wake up. You can't remember the last time there was a day. Lea. You can't remember. Wake up. You can't. Your knuckles hurt. The world is sliding. You can't retrieve his name from your memories. From his memories. He can't remember his name. Why do you know this. Something about the sliding, about the thoughts that slide. Like oil over water. Like your chest is tight. LEA.

You make yourself slide. Slide with the oilwaterthoughts, along the worldshape's curve. You wrench your head aside, wrench it to the left. Towards his voice. Towards the side that has your heart. A heart that's full—no. That's not why your chest is tight. You force a breath in. You force your jaws apart and take it in, break that deafening, muffling silence, and the air pulls your lungs open and something inside you tears—or was already torn—and the pain tears, tears the world wide open past that bubbling, that rippling, that curtain, the shape behind it, and he is there, he looks a way you can't remember at all, his face is gouged with a wound that looks both fresh and old, gouged red between his eyes bleeding red for the blood, black for the blood, the oldness of it, his face that you have and have never seen this way before and he is screaming, he has been screaming, he has been screaming this whole time every word that you have heard until now past the sliding of the world a hand on your shoulder on both your shoulders shaking you LEA YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE LEA WAKE UP LEA WAKE UP LEA WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP and your hand clenched knuckles hurting around something burning white hot red hot slashes upward through the world tearing it like paper as you scream IS-

He breaches the surface, a name in his lungs choked out by something in his lungs that isn't air and isn't water. The surface. A surface? Not water. His hands come down on semi-solid ground. It's getting more solid by the second, if that's possible—Lea lurches to a knee. It feels like he is climbing out of a pit of quicksand. He coughs, retches, but whatever was in his lungs seems to evaporate into the air when it leaves his mouth, a feeling and taste like oil. He coughs again and this time he tastes his own blood. It tastes like something he recognizes, a real thing, and the realness of it makes the rest of him feel more real.

He blinks, and it is pitch black. Blinks again, and he can see his own hands. His Keyblade is in his right hand, his knuckles clenched white around it and split, bleeding. Blinks a third time, and something of his surroundings seems to resolve. He's on his hands and knees in what appears to be knee-high black water, except it has none of the texture of water. Lea doesn't know how he can see anything—there's no light source, wherever he is. He's not sure he's seeing with his real eyes.

The memory of what he saw (if he was seeing it for real) and felt (if he was feeling it for real) rises up in Lea's mind like vomit up a throat, and he surges to his feet, the water now ankle-high, only to stagger and jam his Keyblade into the floor (into the ground? the sand?) so he can lean on it and scream, a raw, broken sound, into the ground, into nothing, really. He needs to scream. He just needs to scream this out. Retroactive emotions.

(Lea, he thinks, and his thoughts still feel fouled up, oil-slicked, you can have hysterics later. Not now. Get it out and get going.)

He feels a sinking, like a man walking on water slipping under, from faith stricken, and he wrenches his Keyblade out free, sloshes a foot forward until he can slam it on the surface like dry land, pulls his other foot out like a boot from mud and slams it down, staggers sideways and backwards. Like a seaman on land again, like he's dizzy, getting real footing again. He shakes his head to clear it. It feels like he has to think twice as hard, like he's holding his body together from the outside.

He's standing on some kind of platform, supported by nothing he can see to the sides or above. Perhaps a pillar. Lea turns, looks behind him, suddenly. No one is there—there's a strange cutoff, like the top of this round pillar has had a large chip taken out of it on that side. A smooth shape around the edges, like the black water (solid beneath his feet now) is trickling over the edge, leaking into nothing below.

Lea hears, he thinks, something move.

Lea's voice shakes when he forces it out. "...Isa?" No answer. No sound. He looks around him, once to the right, and then, a quick, gotcha!-whip, back to the left. No movement. His jaw clenches for a second. "This is not the time to play hard-to-get, Isa!" he snaps. It doesn't echo. If anything, the air here seems to eat sound. Anxious to fill the silence, Lea keeps babbling while he looks around. "I'm on a really tight schedule here, you know—" There seems to be another pillar some distance away, a bit taller. It looks like there was once a bridge leading between them, judging by the broken shard of glass panes sticking out from analogous positions on the round edges of the platforms. The more Lea looks, the more he makes out the outlines of scratches, gouges, cracked-away stone or glass or whatever this is. He looks down at his feet. The black oil-water-something seems to be obscuring something on the surface of the pillar. A design, maybe. A mosaic?

This is reminding Lea in a disjointed, roundabout way of a dream he had the night after Yen Sid passed him a Keyblade. There had been a bunch of weird symbolism and stuff. He'd dismissed it as dramatic nonsense when he woke up. But there is something recognizable about this—the close horizon, the sourceless light and the dark non-sky, the sense both of standing on a height and of incredible depth.

Lea swallows.

Is this…?

"...your heart?" He finishes the thought aloud. There is no sound in answer except for the faint waterfall-hiss of the black water spilling over the jagged edges of the platform into the emptiness below. Or, whatever this substance is. Blood? Oil? Oobleck?

Lea sinks to a knee and touches it with his hand. His fingers brush something that feels still warm, like a corpse that hadn't yet cooled. It has that kind of visceral repulsion. He has to fight the urge to recoil. It feels like touching unfamiliar skin.

If Lea came up from under this substance—in it?—then maybe that has something to do with where he is.

"Isa!" he calls one more time, his voice cracking with the strain such that it barely increases his overall volume. The patheticness of the sound infuriates him somehow. "Answer me! I know you're—"

RIGHT HERE, a voice(?) snarls out of the darkness, at Lea's right ear, and a hand (or some limb?) slams Lea down by the nape of his neck, slams him so hard he bites through part of his lip, grinds his face into the glassy floor and into whatever thick oily film is pooled on its surface.

Lea doesn't even have time to scream.

The darkness fills Lea's nostrils and he can't breathe through his mouth because his lips are all tangled up in his teeth grinding into the floor and he can't breathe —he gets that sense that whowhatever is doing this to him might be saying something but he can't hear it—his only chance is to do something stupid fast enough that it buys him time, so he thinks, Fire, and punches his split knuckles, the ones clenched around his Keyblade, into the black film, and it turns out that yes, darkness is, in fact, flammable.

Not as much as Lea would have hoped, though: there is a brief flare of light and heat as some sort of top layer burns away, but the burst of heat and light is enough to startle back what's holding him, and Lea bucks backwards, slamming the back of his head into what feels like another head, and in the confusion he gets a knee under him—

—scrambles out and after an impression of feet and knees scrabbling for purchase against/in the oil-slick darkness pooling everywhere, Lea has his Keyblade held across his body before him, his right hand trembling violently—

(because his left feels strangely weak, a ghost-echo of pain—like at the back of his mind he knows there's some reason he shouldn't be able to use it—)

The trembling of his right hand makes the teeth of his Keyblade jerk erratically, like the flames they resemble, an optical illusion that sets the edges of his vision on fire.

Lea's voice fails three times in his throat before he manages his name.

"...Isa?" he whispers.

(and this time, the air doesn't eat his words into silence, this time he hears his voice flicker in bursts of sound all around him like birds darting from cover—)

It's him. It's Isa.

(at the corner of Lea's vision, a pale line shows at the edge of the platform, as though the thick, greasy film of black that covers it has been drawn back ever so slightly.)

It's Isa, even though his face is barely recognizable, a mess of blood and bruise and black like rot; the X-shaped wound that seems healed on his physical body has gone gangrenous down here in the deep. The right side of his face is utterly obscured in purplish-black, and the eye on that side is shot all red through the sclera.

It's Isa, even though his hands twitch with a frantic rabidity, as though aching to close around a throat.

(the jerkiness of his movements reminds Lea of the Dusks, who you had to make sure to forget were still people.)

It's Isa, even though his eyes seem unfocused and unseeing, but—

(but they're his, they're his eyes, that clear and piercing blue-green like malachite crystal, the ones you could find in the crystalline caves where they formed from the old mountain runoff—)

It's Isa.

Even if Lea wishes it weren't.

"Oh, god…" he hears himself say, and he doesn't mean to but oh, god.

Isa's body vaguely looks like him—what Lea might think of as him, anyway, given they spent ten years with aging bodies but frozen hearts, not truly one another and not really dead—but—rising from his exposed skin at sites like wounds are tendrils, something like what Lea might call stems rising above him, the blackish-purple of a corpse's tongue, running through his arms, his back, his neck—

the lower half of his face, from cheekbones to chin, is bound all over with crisscrossing roping strands that look like tendons—Lea realizes his jaw muscles are straining in irregular patterns because he's trying to open his mouth and can't against the tension—

and above him, where the strands of coiling darkness meet and twist, they're pouring into a figure that Lea has seen before, seen attached to another person and in an unreal space, a figure seemingly without skin but just blackened flesh and silvery sinews holding it together—the huge-armed beast with a gaping cavern for a torso—what Riku called the Guardian once, and only once, because he wouldn't speak of it again afterwards.

It, Lea realizes belatedly, can only be the manifestation of Xehanort himself, an empty, ugly, parasitic thing, and when it moves, Isa's limbs twitch analogously. (Lea's brows knit together and his grip tightens on his Keyblade, tightens until the knuckles whiten, even though this doesn't help the shaking one bit.) Isa rolls seemingly-sightless eyes onto him, and the Guardian turns its head to regard Lea with opaque, gold-burning eyes. Isa's jaw twitches, his teeth grinding together, and although Lea hears nothing he could call a voice, his mind, unbidden, strays backwards to what he saw and felt while he was drowning under the surface of that darkness—

(lea you aren't supposed to be here)
(you'll fall)
(i fell)

(i'll fall)
(you fell)

(you aren't)

— bursting and flickering through his mind in a way that feels both organic and alien, and Lea flinches backwards, and the Guardian clatters its own teeth, and a voice—huge—explodes between Lea's ears, in his skull—


"What else is new?" Lea shouts, but he is grinding the butt of his left hand into his ear, into the side of his head, because it hurts, it hurts—


The Guardian has no lips. But it seems to smile.



"SHUT UP!" Lea screams, and he slashes his Keyblade before him down to a side-held posture, ready to launch at the thing that holds Isa—

—but the name "Axel" draws echoes out of him, memories staining like ink bleeding into paper, and beneath Lea's feet, the darkness ripples outward like the tolling of a bell—

(the name's Axel got it memorized so you memorized it 255 days since i first joined the organization will destroy you've changed I'm not the one who's changed you've changed you and i both miss someone someone everyone everyone always thinks they're right the name's Axel A-X-E-L that's their leader X-E-M-N-A-S got it memorized don't forget I'll never forget you—)

and the ripples echo back into him in kind, a flood of foreign images—

(believe me I try all the time when we made our plan everything changed you and me you ready Axel will stop at nothing to turn you into a Heartless pitiful Heartless pitiful pitiful mindlessly collecting pitiful pitiful mindlessly pitiful collecting hearts Kingdom Hearts where is my heart where is my heart where is)

Only a sudden flare in his hand, his Keyblade heating in it and scorching the flesh of his palm, jolts Lea back to a sudden self-awareness, and he whirls and flings his arm instinctively towards the first movement he sees, so he catches the hand of the Guardian—but really, when you think about it, it's the other way around, because the length of its massive hand encompasses the shaft and teeth of Lea's Keyblade the way you could hold a toothpick between the meat of your thumb and ring finger—


—and it throws him the length of the platform, and Lea skids on his back, and has a sudden terror that he'll fall off the edge—

(i'll fall)
(you'll fall)
(you fell)
(i fell)

crazily, half-delirious, feeling like he is swimming, Lea rolls to his side and kicks his leg to skid against the platform, and feels something catch at his ankle—


—feels the whiplash-crack of the Guardian yanking his ankle and pulling him in a wide arc to slam down on the other side of the platform, his back slamming into glass—

(his pain ripples out and echoes again, the feeling of a Claymore shuddering into his floating ribs, the strike ending the world around it, his own weapon turning against him under another hand, Roxas Sora Roxas Sora slashing over and over but it is not their wills that swing it, it is not their hands that guide it, it is him, it is his anger, it is his fury, and it is his chance to end it, it is his chance to die and dying's not so bad, watch this and the fire ignites under his skin, that not-named not-known thing warming his chest is finally burning bright, and dying's not so bad, dying is the last time he ever felt lucid, his hands his own, his eyes his own, but where, where was it)

It keeps happening, Lea keeps getting these floods of sensation that aren't his, Lea keeps getting this feeling like his mind is a deck of cards being shuffled into another in someone else's hands, speaking of hands, the one's still got his ankl-


The Guardian flings him again, this time in an arc that sends Lea directly into the floor in a heap. This time it has let go of his leg, and Isa backs up, so that the crumpled ball that Lea currently is can be surveyed coolly at a distance. The Guardian has no cheeks, so this is impossible to tell, but Lea gets the vague sense of a grin widening.


Oh yeah, Lea vaguely remembers something about that.


(He spits blood and hopes that it's not, like, real blood.)


"Then why do you care," Lea tries to say defiantly, but it comes out like a half-breathed mutter, because it's all he can get out. Gotta focus. To lose focus here is a death sentence. Well, losing focus anywhere where you're fighting a guy could be a death sentence regardless, so what does Lea know.

Keyblade. He needs that thing. He's holding that thing already, that's a start. Based on the way Lea's vision keeps blurring, fuzzing, he'd hazard he has maybe a single Firaga left in him that he could cast without killing himself.

(watch this)

No, focus.

Lea stands, his legs shaking, favoring the ankle the Guardian had seized. "Don't worry, Isa." (Isa's name sends a flurry of ripples through the floor, the air, but all indistinct and confused, coming in like radio static.)(something brightens again out of the corner of Lea's eye, and he can't afford to take a better look but he has a feeling about it—) "I'll kill that thing for you."

The Guardian's response is to cross its arms mockingly.


And this next—Lea knows that he's fighting, but—the explosion of violence shakes this heart, dislodging memory after memory, and it's like thinking if your thoughts were a sandstorm—Lea has to rely on his sense of momentum to trust that his body (or what he perceives as his body) is still moving—

—it lasts an eternity and Lea is making no progress trying to hit him through the images battering his mind—the torque on his arm of a weapon half as heavy as him or of chakrams spinning at a speed that would wrench his wrists a hundred and eighty degrees if his fingers stopped moving for a second and the scent of blood and the acrid smell of fire—he might be taking the wrong tack with a full-out physical assault and so an opening—an overswing—comes and Lea shoots a leg out and slides under to sweep Isa's feet and the two of them go down in a tangle—

This is, as it turns out, a mistake. Lea's not a good grappler—too-long limbs—

(and the contact between them sets the darkness screaming, a tumult and clamor of images and sensation)

—Lea tries to grab at the sinewy cords on Isa's arms that bind him to the Guardian, but they cut into Lea's fingers like steel wire, and Isa's hands have gone around Lea's throat, the thumbs digging into his windpipe, and at the touch, something explodes behind Lea's eyelids—

( Isa's anger is an open hand that slaps him with the force of every time Axel had turned from him, a stinging collision of images of his own—Axel's own half-alien face shadowed by an unfamiliar contempt—)

in panic, Lea's hands lock around Isa's wrists (and he summons a memory of a white blot of oblivion pointed at him by the Superior, of "failure to retrieve Roxas will be considered treason against this Organization") and he casts that last Firaga he had left in him, a fireblast at his own throat. Isa does not recoil away even though his hands to the elbow are charring—Lea can feel the vibrations of him screaming despite the bindings on his mouth because his grip has slackened—no, he has let go, air shrieks into Lea's throat with a force that pierces, and Isa—Lea's hands still clamped around his burned wrists—begins striking every exposed part of Lea's face and shoulders he can hit—

( a hit, a hit, a hit again from his own Claymore, that had slipped from his fingers in an overcharged overswing, its handle in Sora's white-knuckled hand, every time it hits is a knife of his own self-hate, if he could kill his self he would but the joke was that he already had, a hit from Saïx's Claymore when the world broke around him, broke his ribs, broke his faith, a wound so profoundly deep that the scar stayed there when his body reformed as human—)

the blows are only a fraction as powerful as they could be because Isa can't get much swing on them due to Lea clinging to his wrists, and as soon as Lea realizes this, it seems Isa does too, because he twists his hands around to clasp Lea's own wrists, both their hands locked around as if holding each other—Lea yanks himself forward suddenly against Isa's weight and smashes his forehead into Isa's nose, and the audacity and surprise of it breaks their grip on each other, and Lea skids backwards and his Keyblade flashes into his hand—

( Go on. )
( You just keep on running. )
( But I'll always be there—)
( and this memory strikes on memory, they double like crossed eyes, a body in Axel's arms, light as bird bones, battered—a body in Saïx's arms, Axel, bruised nearly to mincemeat—)
( (why did he fight, for something so inconsequential, for a tool at the end of its usefulness?) )
( To bring you back. )

Lea's hand falls open and his Keyblade sputters out like a candle.

There is a moment of sudden, ringing silence. Silence in the air. Silence in his head. Not the muffled, sound-eating silence from earlier—just. quiet. Neither of them move. Isa's burned hands—two pale hand-shapes of unburned skin at his wrists where Lea's were—are still up near his nose. Lea has collapsed to his knees, the upper part of his shirt burned through from his Firaga, his chest splattered with blood dripping from his busted nose and bitten tongue.

His mouth feels numb. But Lea manages to speak. "I'm tired, Isa," he admits. "I'm tired of hurting you. I don't—I don't want to do this anymore. H...heh…" He had never made a sound that sounded less like a laugh. "Who… who did I think I was kidding? I don't know how to save you. I don't know how to save anyone. I couldn't—I couldn't even save those kids." Bitterly: "Who was I kidding, about saving the world?"


Lea had almost forgotten the Guardian was even there. Once the two of them had started fighting hand to hand, it had stopped interfering. Maybe it just enjoyed watching this. (Sick. All of it, just fucking sick.) It folds its arms. It seems smug.


Now that Lea has stopped moving, he realizes his breath feels stiff, shallow. His left hand still has that strange numbness. Maybe the wounds he's taken in the outside world have finally begun to reach him here. He may just be dying, now. He swallows. It tastes like blood. He doesn't know whose.

"I wanted… I wanted to save you." Lea's eyes feel hot. He blinks, and there are tears. Real tears, from-the-heart tears. The tears he hasn't let himself cry for months. "I thought maybe wanting it was enough, but…" He hates hearing himself, his voice wavering and pathetic through his tears. "I'm sorry." His voice cracks. "I'm sorry I wasn't better. I'm—I'm sorry I… c-couldn't do better."

It doesn't really matter anymore now, though. Now that he hasn't done better.

The world is ending anyway.


Lea feels a grip on his throat, but it isn't to choke him. The Guardian has extended itself forward, massive arm reaching towards him, and is turning his face up to meet its awful, hell-bright gaze. To watch the light leave his eyes, maybe. He squeezes them shut.


"Just do it already," Lea mumbles, and he thinks the Guardian must now be scant centimeters from his face, because something seems to be brightening through his shut eyelids.



...Lea heard that. Not with his brain, either. With his ears.

His eyes fly open.

(Since he had closed them, something has shifted in the scant light in this space, which is to say, that scant light has gotten less scant and is getting less and less scant by the second. That sliver of pale brilliance where the oily, slick-black darkness had drawn ever-so-slightly back from the edge of the pillar is now more than a sliver, now a crescent, brightening as it draws towards Lea where he kneels in the center of the platform. Brightening behind Isa, throwing a corona of silver-blue behind him, silhouetting him.)

"Stand up."

Somehow—with his hands? that had been at his face, after his nose got smashed? or with his jaw muscles alone? his nails?—the mask, the cage, the muzzle of tendon-like tendrils that had been lacing Isa's mouth shut have snapped, like so many wires. His face is a mess of blood (but so is Lea's, they're both not winning any beauty contests anytime soon) and for what might be the first time in here, his eyes are locked on Lea, focused. Lucid. His right eye drips red from his tear ducts. His left—well, Lea can see a single, clean track on his cheek through the blood on that side, so—

"Stand up," he says again, in a voice that is barely a whisper, a voice that sounds like it has not been used in years—his eyes, lucid, focused, are pleading, and as Lea meets them, that memory-flicker bursts through him again—

(at twelve, getting thrown to the ground, some playground kid twice his size laughing until he leaped around his throat from behind—)
(at fourteen, getting thrown to the ground, that newcomer kid—the one with the weird wood sword and a foreign name and a face that ripples a thousand echoes—grinning and extending a hand—)

you always

(at fifteen, crawling towards him, the both of them thrown to the ground, the floor of the castle's security vault, on the day the sky split and the shadows seethed, crawling and whispering his name—)
(a thousand missions, returning with bruises, with scratches, sometimes broken bones—)
(at twenty-five, lying unconscious with hands upturned as though he had been holding someone, disappearing from his room the moment he was awake—)

stood up.

...Right. Right. Lea's face hardens. It had never mattered before, whether he would win. Lea had never cared about surviving. He had never stayed down before. So why… Why start now?

Isa mouths, "Lea—" and then two massive hands clamp down on either side of his face.


The Guardian has forgotten about Lea entirely for the moment, its focus on this moment of betrayal, gripping Isa's head like it means to pop it like a grape. From what Lea can make out of Isa's expression, it twists, as though the Guardian's words cut him.


"Hey," and Lea pushes his right leg up, wavering on it, "Isa."

The Guardian whips its head towards him, taking its hands off Isa's face as it brings them up as though to guard—but Lea has not drawn his Keyblade. "Isa. Hey."

"Wh…" He sees Lea moving as if to stand, but—he doesn't look like he understands. His eyes are blurring out again, like a person on the verge of fainting. That head-press probably wasn't good for him. Or the, you know, direct-to-consciousness feed of negativity.

"Hey. Isa. Come here. I can't get up." Conversational. "Like you asked me to. I'm kinda wiped."

The Guardian looks at Lea, looks down at Isa, looks at Lea, looks down again. Isa grips his head with one hand, forces in a haggard breath—"I—you—"

"You can move, right?" Lea is sweating. He hopes it isn't visible. He had had an idea, an idea that might be worthless, entirely futile. But, here's the thing, or the things, really: one, Isa had called to him, really called to him, asked something of him that was real and not faked or force-fed, choked out by that thing eating him from inside. And two, well—

If the world was ending anyway, what did it matter if he threw his life on the line one more time?

"I…" Isa wavers, as though it hadn't occurred to him. "Y—yes?" He takes a step, tentatively—


Isa stops, his left foot already a step towards Lea, where he is on his knees in the smothering blackness. The band of light has nearly reached Isa's heels where it slowly burns towards him from behind. The Guardian seems enraged, but not more enraged than it is confused.


One string, a single tendril binding Isa to the beast, extending from his left wrist into the indistinguishable mass that binds the Guardian to him, snaps. It breaks with the loud, discordant twang of a guitar string snapping. Lea feels something like a pressure wave burst through and past him.

(a memory of someone else speaking, this time: he put his existence on the line, and won what he'd been longing for—)


(the light is touching Isa's heels now, but the darkness stirs around Lea—he feels one tendril lash itself around his ankle and bind it down. Now he really does need help to rise.)


"I did!" Lea calls out, and it twists his stomach around a knife to recall, but—"I did! And I threw Roxas away, too, because I was scared! I used and threw away everyone around me, trying to figure out something I should have known from the start! Roxas, Namine—" a gap, as though he'd said another name, but blanketed by static—" you… The Organization… because I didn't want to look inside myself. Because what I'd done all those years — it could only be forgiven if I'd had no heart, right? No conscience…"

Another string snaps away from Isa's left forearm. "Lea?" he asks. His eyes are wide.

"I couldn't save Roxas… I couldn't save anyone if I didn't save myself first. No—I'm not the one who saved myself." Lea blinks away a fresh waves of tears. "He… that kid… he saved me. For no good reason."

And that was it, really. Lea had gotten lucky. The truth is, all good in the world is undeserved. The random side-effect of someone else's convenient selfishness. "I'm not here to save you because—because I'm, like, a good or better person. I should have done more. I should have done a lot more for you. So—here I am."


"Yeah, I just said that, dipshit!" Lea yells—

"He just said that," Isa growls, and like a bridge span snapping—pow-pow-pow-pow-pow—five more tendrils snap, freeing Isa's entire left arm, and he swings it across his chest, grabbing a thick handful of the ropy strands binding his right arm, doubling over with the strain. His left arm bleeds that black ooze. Where it drips onto the parts of the platform that glow with blue-silver light, it burns away.


The Guardian is agitated. Very, very agitated. Its "voice" comes faster and faster, and more desperately. As Isa yanks against the strings coming off his right arm, they cut into his hands.


"So what?" Lea's knee is trembling but the glutinous black strings strain against his legs, yanking him down harder the more he tries to stand. "So what if you don't deserve it? I don't deserve it either! Who's checking? The world is ending anyway, right?!"


"Isa, what was it that you wanted?" Lea reaches out; the light has almost reached the halfway point of the platform, burning towards Lea. He reaches desperately, towards Isa, whose feet shift and stagger as he wrenches against the thing coming out of him. "You wanted your heart back, right? You wanted to feel even if it hurt! Even if it wasn't perfect! You were brave enough to care!"

One strand rips free in Isa's hand, taking a strip of flesh with it.

THAT IS ENOUGH! The Guardian reaches towards Lea as if to strike him, but paradoxically, the less it is connected to Isa, the more restricted its movements seem. YOUR FRIEND WILL FADE INTO THE DARKNESS, AND YOU TO OBLIVION!

Two, three more strands; a gout of blood—not darkness, but real, red blood—pours from the wounds in a wet splatter.

"Even when we were Nobodies—even when we were marked—" because the Recusant's Sigil was powerful, it broke memories the way it broke up their jumbled-up names, Axel was Axel even though he knew that wasn't the way he was born—"even then, you remembered my name, Isa. You held onto it…" Lea stretches his hand out, even though it is nearly numb from being held out so long.


"The world is ending anyway," Isa whispers, and with a surge of strength, he pulls his arm forward, and with it comes the rest of the Guardian—like yanking a root system out when pulling a single weed. It tears the right side of his body to ribbons, and with a soft cry, he collapses prone.

The Guardian, untethered, lets out a shockingly real, shockingly human scream, a sound that pierces. Lea feels the solid part of the platform beneath him spiderweb-cracking like glass. But as it screams, it dissolves in the air, into pieces, until nothing of it remains. What is left of the darkness pooling on the surface of the platform begins draining through the cracks.

"Isa!" Lea shouts, tries to get to his feet, but collapses, a wave of vertigo crashing through his skull. He can barely see. "Isa!" A loud, crunching sound echoes through the air—the grinding sound of the platform beginning to break up beneath them.

"Lea," he hears, and he forces himself to blink. Doubling, tripling, doubling, the sight of Isa resolves before him. He is not far away, but both of them seem unable to move. Cracks splinter, meet, part, race through the glass beneath the both of them. "Lea. I'm…" He stretches out his left arm, crawling it forwards as far as he can stretch, finger by finger. Forces, through his ruined face, an unpracticed smile. "I'm ready. Let's… let's go."

With everything he has—every last piece of strength in him—Lea flings himself forward, and slaps his right hand over Isa's left. Isa turns his over, palm up, to grip Lea's at the wrist; Lea mirrors him.

"Let's go together," he says, and squeezes his eyes shut. He feels something warm flash into the fingers of his left hand—something that pulls his left arm back, as if to point at something, he feels…


A more sensible person—someone who had a stronger sense of priorities, someone who could tally up what she was seeing and do the brutal calculus of victory against long odds, of one life versus potentially infinite—would have spent a moment to mourn, and then left Lea for dead.

But if any of them had been given to that sort of math in the first place, they wouldn't even have shown up, as thirteen clearly outnumber seven, and Kairi would not be Kairi without a persistent faith in the impossible.

"Come on," she whispers, her teeth clenched hard against the stomach-turning reek of blood and burned flesh, holding the shattered, splintered remains of Lea's left hand into what she hopes is close to the proper alignment, "come on, come on…" Her Curaga works sluggishly, or maybe time just seems sluggish after her fight with the youngest Xehanort. Her palms are pressed flat against Lea's palm and the back of his hand, holding it all in place, the green glow of her spell slowly pulsing like a drowsy heartbeat. "Come on come on come on—" a mantra to keep her thoughts too busy with healing this injury to dwell on the more pressing problem that Lea has an entire Keyblade coming out of the lower half of his sternum, teeth-end first. (Not that handle-end would be better—no, don't think about it.) She can't sense if he is breathing. She can sense that, somehow, his light is still burning, a candle whipped to frenzy by the wind. Not dead. Not dead. Not yet.

The glow fades from Lea's hand; exhausted, Kairi drops it, reaches into a pocket, crams a blue-gel Ether into her mouth, and chews frantically, bursting the gummy-like outer layer for the concentrated dose within. And grimaces. She hadn't wiped her hands. The Ether's medicinal menthol taste has an unpleasant copper tinge, and she tries not to think about whose blood was stuck to it. She swallows—presses the back of her hand to her mouth to make sure it stays down—and then grips his twisted elbow and wrenched shoulder.

The blade in his guts must be keeping his bleeding stopped up now, and his breathing must be shallow enough to keep him from aggravating the wound with his motion. If Kairi can work her way towards his worst wounds, maybe she can come up with a way to get that thing out of him and heal him without 1. him bleeding out the rest of the way, 2. her exhausting her magic to a dangerous extent, or 3. them wasting enough time and drawing enough attention that another seeker might come to pick them off.

"Heal," Kairi whispers, and her Curaga sets to mending Lea's mangled arm. She glances at the blood-stained Keyblade protruding horribly from Lea's chest again—she has no idea how she can heal a wound of that magnitude even if she could get him free. A hole in his chest probably wouldn't close all the way, even with a Curaga, and then he'd still die. It probably needs Curaza, which only Master Aqua knows, and she's at least a kilometer away—

As Kairi feels Lea's twisted elbow righting itself under her grip, something shifts in the corner of her eye, and she whips her head around to see—Saïx's body, which had been lying prone where he fell, is burning away, dissolving like the youngest Xehanort had when Kairi defeated him. It looks like ink sinking into and staining a page, only in reverse. Did Lea prevail? Oh god, will he wake up just in time to bleed out? A bead of sweat trickles directly between Kairi's shoulder blades; her fingers tighten in his arm. Feels healed. She lets go, fumbles another Ether out of her pocket—

Her exhausted fingers juggle it, and it falls against the ground and bursts. The volatile inner medication is already evaporating—she frantically shoves her hands in her pockets, but she can only count the smooth bubbles of Potion bottles—was that her last Ether? Is she out?

Frustration, tears, well up—in a single moment, the enormity of where she is, what she is doing, what the stakes are, and what the price is for mistakes, all flash before her eyes, and she doesn't know what she is going to do—

"Fffffffffffuck!" she spits, screwing her eyes shut as the tears begin to flow nonetheless. Ugly. An ugly word for an ugly feeling.

"Geez, I really am a bad influence," she hears a weak voice from beside her, and she scrubs at her eyes, opening them to see Lea, face almost gray from blood loss, slitting one green eye open to look at her.

Kairi gasps, "Lea, you—you're ali— Lea, I don't know if I can—"

" 'S an Elixir in my left pocket." He shifts his arms. "Oh…" he mumbles, seeming to realize he can use his left hand. "Can you… knock the… cut the…" He gestures limply at the blade protruding from his chest.

"I…" Kairi stares at it with mute horror. "You mean—the teeth?" If she did that, then it might be possible to push the Keyblade's straight shaft back out—maybe that would work. Lea blinks in a deliberate way. "O-okay," she says, summoning her Keyblade to her hand in a flash. She should argue with him about this, but the urgency of time and place is making her strangely open to Lea's insane logic. She goes to a knee, whispers, "Sorry," and swings her Keyblade as hard and precisely as she can. If she wavers, she won't cut it clean through, and instead knock the blade sideways in his wound, possibly through a lung or his gut or—

The top two handspans of the Keyblade come off with a clear, metal-on-metal sound, overlapping with a single, agonized sound that is Lea screaming through his teeth. "It's great, 's great…" he hisses, possibly to comfort her. Or just to be sarcastic.

What he does next—

Kairi watches him pull his feet beneath him, slowly, set them and prepare to put his weight on them. His eyes seem distant, like he is gathering strength—she sees him mouth, as if to himself, Stand up, and then—

And then, he forces himself to stand, in one singular burst of strength. Stand up and off of the broken-off shaft of the Keyblade he had landed on—it draws through him and suddenly he staggers forward, free—blood begins pouring from it, dark blood, and he grabs the Elixir in his left hand and slams it into his chest, triggering its spring-loaded topical release mechanism right into his wound instead of tossing it above him like one normally does with Elixirs. Kairi watches, frozen, because she cannot believe she is actually seeing this with her eyes, as Lea groans through his teeth, the Elixir's potent magic forcing his ribs together and apparently replacing enough of his lost blood that color begins to leak back into Lea's cheeks. He pants, coughs, sucks in a breath, lets it out in a forcible whoof, and sucks in a much larger breath, his chest expanding with it, and then he opens his hand, the magic glass of the Elixir's holder having evaporated.

"Okay," Lea says, after a long second, "I can't believe that worked." He looks up. "Your mouth is open."

Kairi hastily shuts it. "You—"

"—I mean, this is only going to keep me on my feet for like, a few hours, but I think I'll deal with that later," Lea says, flexing his fingers and wincing. Then he winces again, much harder, as Kairi slams into him for a hug. She buries her face in his chest, heedless of the bloody mess they both are. She feels him stiffen for a moment, before he returns the hug. "...Sorry," he says. "For worrying you."

"Don't ever make me do that again," she says, muffled by his shirt. And maybe by some tears.

"Not in the plan," he says.

"You never stick to plans," she says, pulling away and scrutinizing his face. His face is slightly different—settled, in a way it never was before. Like a heavy burden has lifted. "What… what happened?"

"I…" Lea pauses, his eyes distant. Places, hesitantly, his just-healed left hand over his heart, and shuts his eyes briefly. When he opens them, they sparkle playfully. "Would you believe I solved a problem without violence?"

This forces a laugh out of Kairi like an unexpected but friendly punch. "You? No!"

He laughs too. "How about you?"

"I—" Reality crashes in on her. Kairi's face drops. "Namine… Namine's gone."

"Oh..." Lea's face also drops. They both seem to suddenly remember where they are and what's going on. "So—hey, wait." He frowns. "It's been five minutes, I'm critically injured, and no one else has been by to murder us."

Kairi and Lea both look at each other. "Someone's in trouble," they both say at the same time.

"Should we run for it?" Kairi asks, glancing at Lea's… at his everything.

Lea pulls off the remnants of his scarf, now so soaked in his blood that its yellow has turned brown, and throws it to the ground. "I've got some juice left. Oh, and Kairi?"

"Yeah?" She dismisses her Keyblade, preparing to sprint in the direction they know Aqua and Ven were assigned.

Lea reaches into his pocket and presses what feels like a loose assortment of pebbles into her hand. "You put that where it belongs for me, okay? In case I don't make it out."

She opens her hand, and it's seven hundred and fifty munny.

Night in the sockets rounds,
Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes;
Day lights the bone;
Where no cold is, the skinning gales unpin
The winter's robes;
The film of spring is hanging from the lids.

-—Dylan Thomas, "Light breaks where no sun shines"