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From The Ashes

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I.

Death is easy.

I feel beautifully hollow; a crystalline shell of myself as I lay, suspended in nothing. Floating is peaceful, soothing. For the first time, there is nothing to fight. For the first time, I do not need to be strong for anything or anyone else. There’s only me, alone, stuck somewhere between light and darkness. This could be home, and I would be perfectly content with that.

But there’s something missing.

Something is devastatingly cold--sub zero. There’s an absence where a fire used to burn, and discomfort starts to spread through me. It’s not especially unpleasant, akin to a pinch or stubbing a toe; mildly annoying and yet, livable. This could be it, I think. I could stay here, forever. I could be okay here, restful, drifting aimlessly through the void. I could lay this way forever and never have to think, move, or feel again. This would be such a good place to lay my head down, finally.

But I cannot shake the thoughts of fire, searing through my veins, lighting me up like a shooting star in the night sky. There’s a brilliance in the fire, a burning daydream that is infinitely more appealing than this hazy nothingness. I think about reaching out, trying to take hold of the fire, but there is an apathy bleeding into my brain, rushing over me. I lose sight of the fire, and that’s okay. I simply do not have the will to care.

This is how it ends, and that’s alright by me.

A bolt of light slams into my chest and pounds me into the floor. My eyes fly open.

The room I’m in is white, made purely of blinding light. I look around, searching for the source of the impact.

I have very little time to wonder much else though. Memories come flooding back and it takes every bit of my concentration to take them all in. A little girl with blonde hair. A home in Radiant Garden. A man, a godfather, a pilot, caring for her. Other children, a girl with dark hair and eyes. Her presence is a smile, a silly sort of kindness. A boy with blue hair and cyan eyes. His presence is darkness, overwhelming as I shoulder the weight of it. A boy with golden hair and blue eyes, a would be prince charming. He is the light, but barely a player in this story. And then, a pair of emerald green eyes. A cat like grin.

‘I want everyone I meet to remember me. Inside people’s memories, I can live forever.’

‘Got it memorized.’

That voice!

Axel!

I choke on the air that floods my lungs as I sit up straight. The light is gone, but the fire is burning. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. A real heart, pumping blood and life through my body. I’m sore. My body aches in new and divergent ways. My back hurts from the fall…but where did I fall from? And where did I fall to?

I look around and the answer to the latter of the two questions comes easily.

This is the cleaning shed I woke up in, nearly a dozen years ago, in Transmute City. I am no longer a nine year old girl with inhibited memories. Instead, everything is restored. I remember death, both times. When the Neo Shadow took my heart in Radiant Garden, and when I begged Roxas for release in The World That Never Was. I died.

Shit, I died. So, what the fuck am I doing here? I place a hand to my chest and count the beats.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

I didn’t have a heart. For eleven years, I had nothing. I was empty, a husk. A Nobody. But I feel what beats beneath my palm and I know this isn’t a phantom sensation. Have my heart, my body and my soul, all found their way back to one another? Or were the past eleven years just some sort of fucked up dream?

I look myself over, in the light that creeps through the cracks in the door to the shed. This body is mine, without a doubt, clad in a black coat that I never wanted to adorn in the first place. My items belt is missing. That’s not a surprise. Saix threw it into a portal that led to who knows where, when we fought last. The thought of him makes my skin crawl. I want to shed this coat and those it represents, the way a reptile sheds its skin, but I know where I am. Transmute City. Home. Why does my journey always begin here?

Regardless, it’s going to be cold as hell outside of this shed, I’ll need this coat to keep warm.

Warm. Fire. Axel.

Fuck. A tear slides, hot and heavy down my cheek as I stand, reaching for the door.

I remember the two of us sitting at the clock tower, in limbo, or whatever the hell that was, I remember us promising to find each other. But I am not patient enough to sit around waiting for him to come save me. Right now, all I need is to get the hell out of here and find a way to get to another world. If he’s searching, where would he be? Twilight Town? Radiant Garden? The Destiny Islands? My thoughts are erratic, and I haven’t even left this fucking closet yet. I heave a sigh and curse, just to prove to myself that I still have a voice.

“Fuck.” Well, at least I can still say my very favorite word.

I need to get to a Gummi Ship, unless…

I think about Twilight Town. Visualizing the clock tower, the weight of my legs dangling from it, the feeling of the wind rustling my hair. I picture the beautiful orange sky, the sun, always on the brink of rising or setting. I swear, I can feel the world’s very essence, curling in the palm of my hand. I wave my hand. A whole lot of nothing happens.

Well, apparently, dark corridors are off limits to me now. Guess I really must have my heart back. The thought of it should make me giddy, borderline delirious, but right now, there’s so much, I cannot even process this joy. Axel isn’t here. I need to get him back. That’s what matters. Not my fucking heart. Not my voice. Not my body. Him.

I open the door to the shed and am met by a penetrating cold. It’s snowing in Transmute City, something that rarely happens, despite how bitter the weather always is. For the most part, the world is constantly dry. Just chilling and dark, but now, with white fluttering through the sky, there’s something about the air that almost twinkles with rebirth.

I’ve become such a fucking sap.

As fast as my legs will take me, I dart toward the Gummi Repair Shop. I can pick the lock on the back door. If I can just sneak in through there and take off with one of the ships Amaya is working on…yeah, it’ll be bad for business, but I think my very presence will be worse for Del and Amaya than a missing ship.

It’s dark, the only source of light that crept through the shed must’ve come from the street lamps. It’s cold, but otherwise quiet. No sign of Heartless or Nobodies in sight. For a moment, I think I’m safe.

But only a moment. I hit the ground, knees shaking, holding myself up on all fours. Fuck. Struggling to take a breath, my eyes dart around. What the fuck knocked me—

Oh. Nothing. Just my ragged body, failing me. What a joy. I choke as I sit back up on my haunches, assessing myself. Under the street lamps, I can see a very clear gash in the abdomen of my coat and…

Oh, hell.

Blood is crusted to the fabric, it’s starting to heal into my skin. Gingerly, I try to tug at it, an attempt to free it, but the pain is excruciating. I see spots, it feels like needles are pressing into my flesh. My hands ball into fists as I try to stand upright. Come on, Rueki, power through, I urge myself. With great effort, I stand and take another step only to wind up with my hands pressed to the side of a building while I struggle to catch my breath. I’m alive, that in and of itself is no small feat, but I’m exhausted. I may very well be whole again, but my being has taken the kind of beating that one does not just recover from. I’m not an empty shell anymore, able to exert itself in the extreme, I’m lucky I even woke up at all.

The cold wind pierces me, whipping my hair in a spiral. I just need a minute. Just gotta sit down, drink a potion. I’ll be fine if I can just—

My world bleeds together like watercolors, my head starts to fall back, but I clench my fists so tight that my fingernails bite into my palms. The stinging sensation is a momentary distraction, but one that keeps me awake, nonetheless.

“Fuck.” I whisper again, blinking back the exhaustion that starts to flood through me. Maybe I need more than a moment to rest my tired shell. Maybe I need to flat out nap. The very thought of sleep fills me with warmth, and before I can even stop myself, my body works on instinct, legs taking me the place I was trying so hard to avoid going.

My home.

The bathroom window doesn’t lock. I can sneak in there, take a shower, get a few hours of sleep, I’ll be in and out before Del or Amaya wake. It’s fine. They won’t even know I’m there. Everything is going to be alright.

My tired body doesn’t move fast enough, and by time I have hoisted myself up onto a trash can and have crawled through the tiny bathroom window—how my wide hips manage to get through, I am unsure—I am beyond thankful to be met by an overwhelming heat. Heat. Fire. Axel.

My hands start to shake as I pull the window back down. I try to convince myself the feeling of being gutted has everything to do with my bodily injuries and not his absence.

Now isn’t the time. I’ve got to keep my mind off of him until I can actually do something productive. Whatever this second chance at life is, I’m not bringing the crippling panic attacks into it with me. Those are going to stay in the past, no matter what it takes.

I’m so fucking sick of crying.

As quietly as I can manage, I shut the bathroom door and turn the light on. Inside of the bathroom mirror, I’m finally able to assess myself fully. The corpse of a woman stares back at me, with skin too pale and shadows too dark beneath her visible, sea green eye. My bangs hang over one eye, as always, but there is debris intertwined in the golden blonde tangles, not just of my bangs, but the rest of my hair. A ponytail didn’t help salvage anything, and I know it is going to take at least an hour to work out the knots. Dried blood is crusted to the corners of my mouth, and down to my jaw, covering the mole beneath corner of my lips.

But this isn’t even the worst, I know. I look down at where my coat has started to fuse to my skin. I try pulling at it again, just slightly and have to bite down hard on my lower lip to keep from making any noise. The last thing Del or Amaya need is to come running into the bathroom after hearing me scream, only to see me bleeding out on the floor.

My entire body trembles as I struggle to catch my breath. No more playing nice, this has got to be like ripping a bandaid off, right? I look around the bathroom and grab a hand towel off of the rack, before setting it down on the sink in front of me. This will be a hell of a lot easier with two hands, I decide, as I pull Survivor off of my arm. It feels old, heavy, like it is on the verge of shattering. I suck in a breath. Oh please, no. Not this, not the weapon he gave me. The coat is destroyed, but please…

Very carefully, I set the claw on the fluffy area rug Amaya had placed in this bathroom years ago. It’s old, dirty, surely they won’t notice whatever stains my weapon transfers onto it. Satisfied that Survivor hasn’t crumpled to dust, I look down at the wound on my abdomen. It almost looks as though it is mostly healed, which means this is going to be a bitch and then some. I run the hot water in the sink, counting the seconds that water trickles, like sands in an hourglass. Come on, faster. Can’t wake Del or Amaya up. Once the water warms up, I place the edge of the towel into it, allowing it to get wet. And then, I pat the soaking towel against the parts of my skin that the leather is fusing to. Anything to free it up.

It takes effort, patience, and more time than I want to spend, but the edges start freeing up. I turn off the water and ball up the dry edge of the towel, before shoving it into my mouth. I take a deep breath through my nose, pinch my eyes shut, and on the exhale, I tear the coat.

The pain shoots through my core, and I swear, it feels as though I am skinning myself. My eyes cross, and I cry out, though it is muffled by the gag that the towel created. Tremors shake my body, and when finally, the last of the coat is freed from my skin, my head falls back, in pure relief. I shed the coat quickly, letting it drop in a heap on the floor. Fortunately, it appears that the only unhealed wound is the one on my abdomen. The rest of my body looks like it has been painted with white scars crisscrossing all across my limbs.

Focus, Rueki, I remind myself. I need to dress this injury. I need to clean it and guzzle a Potion like my life depends on it. Because it very well might. And I know exactly where the Potions are. In a cupboard in the kitchen. Fuck.

I step on the heel of my boot to yank it off, and then, do the same with the other one. This will be quieter barefoot.

I know exactly where to step, which floorboards to avoid so that I don’t make a sound. Nothing about this tiny house has changed, and there’s a brief feeling of comfort from that. With the lights still out, I reach out to open the cupboard, when suddenly, a sound perks my ears up. The slightest brushing of bare feet against carpet. If I wasn’t on my toes, paused, mid reach, I’d have missed it.

But then, there’s someone charging at me. A body crashes into mine slamming me into the countertop. I exhale sharply, eyes going wide. In the darkness, the figure is only a silhouette and panic courses through me. No. No. Not again.

I grab the figure’s head and bring my knee up, slamming their face against it. They cry out, a broken grunt of a sound and throw a punch. It’s poorly timed and ill placed though. I catch their fist in my hand and deliver a blow of my own, a kick straight to their abdomen. They huff.

“Damn!” I know that voice, somewhere in the clouded state that my adrenaline has put me in, I recognize the speaker. But I don’t hear sounds, I don’t see shapes, my mind puts me inside that wide open hallway that Saix and I stood opposite. I don’t think that whoever this is, probably isn’t a threat. I charge at them the way I would the Luna Diviner, and take them to the ground. I fly through the air and tackle them, my whole body feeling like absolute hell. But my mind is screaming fight or flight, so loud that I don’t register the pain. Hovering over the figure, I slam my fist down straight into their face, when suddenly, a light comes on.

“Del!” The light blinds me. I blink back spots. It is as though I have been ripped straight from the safe comfort of darkness, too abruptly, I cannot adjust. But I pause, just for a second, and somehow, that is all it takes to thrust me back into reality.

“Del…” I’m straddling his torso, my arm cocked back to deliver another blow. Beneath me, his nose is definitely broken, his lip is split. Amaya stands at the doorway, at the light switch, eyes wide with horror.

“I thought you were an intruder.” Del chokes.

I fly off of Del, eyes growing huge. Suddenly, the pain in my abdomen is too much to take. A cry rips from my throat and I crumble, to the ground onto my knees. My Nobody body was stronger. With darkness coursing through me, I was explosive, with unrivaled stamina. Even before I knew I was without a heart, I guess I just never realized how tiring being human is.

Breathe. In one, two, three. Out one, two, three.

Fuck. My body starts shaking. I curl in on myself, knees to my chest as I fall to my side. This hurts, this fucking—

Dammit!

“Rueki!” Amaya is at my side, trying to help me up. “Del, grab a Hi-Potion!” She orders.

“Fuck, okay.” Del’s voice sounds like he’s underwater, but I hear him fumbling through the cupboards.

“Jeez, Rueki, this wound is infected, what did you do?” Amaya gasps, as my body flattens out against the ground. “Del, get the alcohol out of the cabinet, too.” She orders. I go to shake my head, to try to beg her to stop. This is only going to hurt worse, soap will be fine…maybe… But before I can even form words, Del hands her the bottle of alcohol and she pours it over the gaping wound in my middle. A scream tears from my lips as convulsions shake me. I’m spasming on the floor, in her arms, and I wonder if this pain is going to kill me.

“Hell, Rueki.” Del whispers as he comes skidding over to me. I feel his hands on the back of my head as he tilts me upward. It is with great effort, I am sure, that he fights through the spasming and tilts a Hi-Potion back into my mouth. It is all I can do to swallow it, but instantly, the tremors stop. My breathing is still shaky as the phantom pain lingers on, but I know the reality of the situation is that my wound is probably closing up right now. Completely clean.

“I told you she wasn’t dead.” Amaya whispers, rubbing my arms, soothingly.

“It’s not like this is much better.” Del murmurs, taking my hand in both of his. He’s warm, but not the kind of heat that I need to radiate off of another. My stomach twists.

“I did.” I choke out, my voice sounding ragged after the scream. Two sets of green eyes find mine as I cough. “I died. Didn’t stick.”

“What do you mean it didn’t stick?” Amaya chokes out.

“Maya, come on. Calm down.” Del urges, voice surprisingly even keel.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want you guys to find me, I tried to be quiet. Del, you usually sleep like the dead.” I say.

“Get her another Potion.” Amaya orders.

“Amaya, it’s not gonna be good for the baby if you keep freaking out like this.” Del says, looking from me to Amaya, and the weight of his words come crashing into me. My eyes go wide.

“Baby?” I’m not sure how I didn’t feel the warmth of Amaya’s pregnant belly pressing into me before, but certainly, I realize it now. She’s barely showing. She looks like me after a cheeseburger, which isn’t fair, but also not the point. What bothers me most, is that I visited here right before I died?

Which begs the question, how long did I spend in limbo?

“You’re pregnant?” I choke.

“Not the point. Come on Del, get her a Potion or so help me!” That’s all it takes to send Del scampering back over to the cabinets, my hand now cast aside on the floor.

“Maya, how long has it been since I was here?” I ask.

“Come on, Rueki, you know that.” She urges as Del comes to kneel beside us. This time, I push myself up and take the Potion out of is hand. I ache, from head to toe, but that’s about all it is, is an ache. This, I can live with.

“Maybe she doesn’t…” Del looks to me with nervous eyes. “Rueki, it’s been almost seven months, what happened? And where is Axel? Is he hurt too?”

His name, falling from Del’s lips sends me over the edge. Panic shoots through me, tears streak, an unending stream as they fall down my cheeks. I try to brush them away, but the more I try, the faster they fall, and before I know it, I’m having a different series of convulsions. Shaking with agony as Amaya pulls me into her arms. Del wraps himself around my back, and together, the hold me as I weep, hysterically.

They care for me, my friends. Del fetches me a pair of sweatpants and a holey sweater that I left behind, and it is both comforting and disturbing that my friends haven’t gotten rid of my clothing. Amaya brushes out my hair, gently, making faces at the mess it is.

“You’re going to need a haircut, Rueki. I can’t get all of the tangles out.” She says, her voice gentle, on the edge of breaking.

“Fine. Whatever.” Is my response. I sit silently, trying so hard to swallow my tears, trying to forget about the very new and very raw pain that seems to imminate from my core at the incantation of Axel’s name. Del hands me clothing, Amaya cuts my hair, a straight line with kitchen scissors, nothing compared to the sleek, salon haircut I got with Shiki in Shibuya. I watch broken, golden strands fall to the floor and try not to feel like I’m falling apart. She finishes by trimming my bangs to the corner of my mouth and quickly ties my hair into a braid. Del looks away as Amaya helps me change clothes, and eventually, Del scoops me up and carries me to the couch. I offer no help, the pull of gravity is so intense, and my body, even after a Potion, is broken. His arms are warm. Not warm enough.

I want to feel scorching heat dragging lazily across my skin. I want to feel my name burning upon the lips of the person I love the most. I want to feel the security that only a blazing fire offers me. I want my eternal right, my payment for all of the suffering, all of the hell I have endured. This is not my privilege, this is my entitlement. I deserve something, anything, to make up for what I have lived through, I shouldn’t have to hurt any more, I’ve done my fucking time.

I hate the tears that fall as I blink up at the ceiling. Del and Amaya press endlessly for information. They beg for answers that I do not want to offer. They yearn to shatter the illusion that I am trying so hard to keep in tact for them. I don’t know who the truth will crush more, them or me. But then, Del does what he is so very good at doing.

He pushes me one step too far.

“Fuck, Rueki, we’re trying to help you, but you’ve got to level with us! This affects us all now, come on, have a heart!”

The room goes cold as I see a desperate look to retract his words, flash through his eyes.

“How dare you?” Amaya whispers to Del, face contorting. I snort.

“No, no. I mean, I get it. After all, I didn’t have a heart for ten years.” I mutter. My friends are suddenly very quiet. Del looks at Amaya for answers that she doesn’t have. Amaya looks at me, nimble fingers straying delicately to her stomach.

“I’m sorry, I was being a jerk.” Del whispers. I shrug, looking away from them and back to the ceiling.

“You were right though. Well, kind of. I mean, when you called me a cold bitch. I wasn’t cold hearted though, Del. I was flat out heartless. I’ve got all my memories back now. I remember my life, my childhood, and most of all, the night my heart was snatched from my chest and my body found its way here. Kinda funny, it just took dying to bring everything back.” My thumb absently traces a knotted, angry scar on my thigh. Everything is eerily still, and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’d rather this, than the tears, the screaming, the need to explain.

But in the end, an explanation is what falls from my lips. I skim on nothing, I start from the very beginning, from my earliest memories of bedtime stories with Cid, of playing dolls with Yuffie. Of the blond boy, Ventus, my Prince Charming. Of Isa, who was once polite to a fault and grew up to be the absolute bane of my existence. Of Lea.

Don’t leave me, Lea.

I relay, in graphic detail, every grizzly experience with Organization XIII, of watching Zexion fade at my own hand, at Larxene grabbing me by the hair and electrocuting me. Of Luxord manipulating me to murder, of Demyx, dying after he set me free. Of losing Roxas, and then, letting him go, just to keep him safe. Of Axel, endlessly about Axel, about the pleasure and the pain. Of Saix, tearing me apart.

Of limbo, and then, of waking up in a shed. And coming here.

I’m not certain Del is breathing by time my story is done. Amaya is sobbing so hard that her shoulders heave. And I care, I genuinely do, and I feel dirty beyond compare. I have soiled the beautiful memories that the three of us have, of playing, laughing, growing up, so codependent, of growing apart and then returning, with smiles lighting our faces. The darkness I cast with my very presence, I know will overwhelm them, and that hurts, more than I have words for. These two that I love, these two, my family. They will be safer when they discover I am so tainted, they have no choice but to cast me aside. I love them enough to let them go.

“Del, last time we talked, you said you could handle the darkness. So, enjoy, you two. Handle this.” I whisper, bitterness creeping into my words like bile.

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Amaya’s fists are clenched and shaking. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. She can’t even meet my eyes, but that doesn’t stop the words from pouring out of her lips. “Heart, no heart? Does it even matter! You’re acting exactly like you always have, Rueki. We’re not your kids, you don’t need to push us away the second things get bad, how many times are you going to do this before you realize it always leads to trouble for all of us? You think Del and I are completely helpless? You think we don’t have access to a Gummi Ship, where we can get away from any danger that might come our way?”

I blink as I look at her, trying to process her, trying to buy this new, much angrier Amaya. She’s not happy with me, she never is when I pull this card, and she’s right, I do it all the time. But I’ve never heard Amaya even raise her voice until now. I look at the slight bulge in her otherwise flat stomach and wonder how much of what she’s saying is the hormones talking.

“You don’t understand the kind of danger…you see every fucking scar on my body. They did this to me because they were pissed at Axel. They punished me because he defied them. And they wanted me alive. Can you even begin to imagine how bad things could get for both of you? They don’t need you, they don’t want you. You’ll be collateral damage, they won’t even think twice.” Because how utterly daft could she possibly be? How little can she value her safety? She doesn’t want to play the damsel, that’s fine, I get it, but neither of my friends are equipped to handle this hell. “You’re being an idiot. You’re about to have a child, how many more risks do you want to take?” I snort.

“Exactly! We’re about to have a child!” Oh? We, as in her and Del? “We’re about to be raising a person, creating a life that will need to learn to grow up to be strong and smart and kind and good. Don’t you realize, Rueki, if we can do that, we can shoulder one more burden.”

“We’d do anything for you, Rueki.” Del nods, his sandy hair flopping.

I think they’re a bunch of fucking idiots. I chew the inside of my cheek, wondering what I can say to push them back, wondering how I can prove to them that this is above what they can handle. But I look at the two of them, Del with the determined optimism that I am certain he never will shake and Amaya, who is being so incredibly brave, but her hands are trembling. I know this is taking incredible courage, I get it, and it’s not like I’m not proud of her. I’m not who I was, I’m not utterly unsympathetic, but it changes nothing. I love these two far too much to put them in the kind of danger they seem to think they can handle.

“I’m leaving in the morning. Don’t try to stop me, or I’ll sneak out while you’re asleep.”

They both know I’ll have trouble moving on my own. They both know I clearly cannot sneak through the house without waking either of them. They both know that in my pajamas, with a weapon that is about to fall apart and a litany of scars all across my body, some from barely healed wounds, I am in no position to be doing any type of traveling.

But they still sleep on the living room floor, right in the way of my path out.