Actions

Work Header

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 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 with the hesitation, 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 other's' 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 somehow 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 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 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 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. 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 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 drove 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 even 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 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 version 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' 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' 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 than 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. 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 for 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' 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 memorized 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.

Rarranged 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 several of 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' 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' 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 to 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' 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' 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' 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' 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 has 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 spent only slightly more time 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' 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' 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' 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' 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 form 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' 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'— Lexaeus' 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 other 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.

Lighting 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 couple 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 words. 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' 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 go 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' 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. But 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' 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 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' 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' 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' 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 taking 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. 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 either toying with him like a cat with a mouse. Or 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 wanted 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 nothing 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…

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 heartrate 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. 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 on 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 eye 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 bring 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 there was 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 once his breathing evened back out. 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 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 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 drag 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 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. Par 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 show 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 missing 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 once 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 he 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.