Title: Once Upon a December
Author: Li the Twilight Knight
Location: St. Petersburg
Characters: Vexen, Marluxia, Lexaeus, Zexion, Larxene, Axel, Organization XIII
Ratings/Warnings: T, Character death
Summary: For what it's worth, we had our chance to live. And without fear, we shall face the bitter end.
Author's Note: Anastasia is not a Disney movie (Despite me thinking for so long that it was. Is this cheating?), but after much consideration, only Notre Dame beat this setting for being perfect. And I adore this movie. So, for the closure that a tiny part of me wanted… dasvidania, Renegades.


The portal closed behind them with a whisper, sounding irreversible and final. Beyond exhaustion and everything else, they knew that this would be the last world. There was no more strength left to spare on portals. Even their weapons would no longer come when called. If… When the Organization found them, they had no way left to defend themselves.

The portal had left them in a castle, a castle as grand as their own had once been. But everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, as if nothing had been disturbed for many years, and the irony was not lost on any of them. It could be a parallel to the fall of their own castle, the mistakes and choices that had led them in a loop, almost back to where they started. Shattered windows gaped eerily like jagged teeth, and fading paint only served to remind them of their own fading into Nothing.

They explored for a few minutes in silence. The faint flutter of relief at finding real beds and pillows, though dusty, was quickly squelched once again by the heavy feeling of impending doom that would not let them rest. And in the end, after so many worlds, none of them felt safe sleeping apart. They took as many pillows and blankets as they could carry and returned to the huge ballroom they had discovered, knowing that they needed to rest, just for a night, before attempting to flee again. Even if not by portal, surely there was somewhere out there that they could hide, and hope…

xXx

Marluxia lay awake, staring at the ceiling, where a tarnished chandelier covered in dangling crystals glittered faintly in the moonlight. He held up one hand experimentally, wincing at how clearly he could see through it. He could almost pick out the individual crystals, twinkling mockingly high above.

"You're not asleep?" Vexen's voice sounded nothing but weary.

Marluxia rolled over to look at him, unconsciously wrapping his arms around himself, a futile gesture to hold on to what was left of his being. It was a weakness he would have never showed before, but things were different now. "I doubt anyone will sleep much tonight. What sleep we get will be exhausted unconsciousness."

The Academic sat up, noticing the tremors that shook the Assassin. He reached over and tugged his coat free from where he'd set it aside, wrapping it around the pink-haired man's shoulders. "I don't know if this will help, but it couldn't hurt." Marluxia gripped the leather gratefully, staring thoughtfully into space for a long moment.

"Vexen?"

"Yes, Marluxia?"

Marluxia's teal eyes were bright, intense, staring right into his, and for a moment Vexen almost shifted away. But the whispered query that followed actually had him leaning closer to hear. "Vexen, if we could go back… Back to Oblivion, and the decisions we made. For you to bring us back… to run… Would things end up the same?"

Vexen knew what he was really asking, Do you regret any of this?, and he smiled wearily. "Yes, Marluxia. I really think they would. Now go to sleep, you insufferable idiot. You won't regain any strength staying up all night talking."

Marluxia actually laughed somewhat. "Whatever you say, dearest." Ignoring the answering 'hmmmph' he received in return, he laid back down, tugging the coat tightly around himself along with the blankets. There was nothing more they could say to each other; everything had already been said, many times over. But that last question seemed the most important, and knowing the answer, Marluxia could actually sleep peacefully.

I regret nothing…

xXx

Axel hated this. Hated the ruined castle and its air of finality. Hated the fact that he had waited too long, and had cut off all of his escape routes. And most of all, he hated the fact that, had he a choice and an opportunity to bring a certain bright-eyed boy with him, he would continue to live like this. The sense of freedom was addictive. After this, if the Organization didn't kill them, it would be almost painful to return to a static life in Never Was.

A conflict of interests, this whole thing. Torn between companions he had started out hating, and Roxas, the only Nobody he really liked. Trapped between living, and having a life. A catch-22 of epic proportions. Axel buried his face in the plush, slightly-dusty pillow and resisted the urge to scream.

xXx

Morning dawned bright and cold and clear, but no-one seemed willing to move, though they knew they must. It was Larxene who feebly piped up, "We can't stay here; they'll catch up…" But even she seemed in no hurry to actually leave.

A short distance from the others, Lexaeus sat leaning against the wall, Zexion tucked close to his side, one arm around his shorter lover. They hadn't spoken since arriving in this world, but it was okay. Everything was understood. It was Zexion who finally broke the silence, murmuring quietly, "We… didn't know that we wanted this. Perhaps what a Nobody really needs... is to be allowed an opportunity to live. We've come so far, and changed so much…"

Lexaeus hummed in agreement, but didn't reply. It was too late for theories and analysis. At the end, where they stood, none of it really mattered. Nothing mattered except the last few hours, minutes, seconds that they had with each other. Zexion said nothing else, simply pressing closer, seeking comfort when there was none to be had. They couldn't say 'I love you', and they refused to say 'farewell'.

xXx

They came for them that night.

Another attempt at restless sleep was interrupted by the dark portals that appeared along the edges of the room, seven hooded figures emerging to surround the weakened Nobodies. Marluxia was the first to stand, facing the hooded silhouette that all of them recognized as their Superior. He kept his head up proudly, every inch the fallen Prince of Oblivion in Vexen's billowing coat, not allowing any of his weakness to show. Vexen rose next, standing next to him, linking their hands. Larxene got up to grip Marluxia's other hand, and Lexaeus took hold of Vexen's, his other arm around Zexion. Axel stood silently at Larxene's other side, not linking hands, but not standing apart, either.

Xemnas gazed at them silently for a moment, then shook his head. "We have been searching for you, for so very long. Why would you run, when all that was required was to return to Never Was?"

"We panicked." Zexion said honestly. The truth was all they could offer; their only hope for salvation. "Everything had gone so wrong, and instinct told us to flee."

Xemnas seemed to consider this a moment, and then beckoned to them. "Come. We shall return to the castle. You are all on the brink of collapse, and we have so very much to ask you…" It could have seemed welcoming, a father accepting his disobedient children back after they attempted to run away from home. But the threatening way that the others hovered indicated that this was not a request, or a kindness. Their Superior was anything but gentle. No forgiveness awaited them in Never Was, only punishment.

"No."

From what they could see of Xemnas's face, a flicker of surprise marred his carefully neutral expression, just for a moment, at Marluxia's outright refusal. The Assassin took a deep breath, resolute. "We will not return with you. We will not kneel and beg for forgiveness." He had sworn to himself long ago, he would not allow them to take him alive. He intended to make good on that oath.

Xemnas regarded him with a calm expression. "This is how all of you... 'feel'?" None of them moved to deny the statement, and the Superior glanced at Saïx. "Then you will be given proper consequences. Treason and desertion are not accepted in the Organization." He stepped back, and Saïx smiled with something like sadistic pleasure as the others stepped forward. Six loyalists facing six renegades.

"I told you that we would always find you." Saïx said, as the Organization circled the ragged group. "There is only one punishment for traitors."

The renegades stepped back as well, moving to form their own circle, each keeping an eye on one Organization member. This was it. One last confrontation, one last chance. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and Darkness to Darkness.

xXx

Larxene was the first to fall, unable to summon her kunai or lightning, but fighting tooth and nail regardless. Luxord stood opposite her, watching her try to fight off the cards swirling around her. She reached for him, as if to claw at his eyes, but was cut off by a larger card, her cry of surprise abruptly ceased as the card bound her within it. Luxord held out his hand as the card shrank to a normal size, holding it between his fingers and looking for a moment at the image of a suddenly fear-stricken Larxene.

"Such a shame." he whispered, before neatly tearing the card in half. The two halves vanished into wisps of Darkness, the scream inaudible but somehow felt by everyone.

Lexaeus and Zexion stood facing Xaldin and Demyx, the choice of weapons giving them away despite their faces being covered. Zexion stared at the hooded Nocturne, seeing troubled blue-green eyes looking back at him. Demyx was so close to his own age, but so different.

"Why would you betray us?" Demyx asked softly, sounding conflicted. They were asking him to execute people who had been his companions, after all.

"You could not understand, Number IX." Zexion replied. "You have not experienced what we have." He found himself taking a step back, as Demyx swung the sitar into place and began to play. Two water clones appeared, each moving to grab one of the Schemer's arms and put a hand over his mouth and nose.

"I'm sorry." Demyx whispered, watching Zexion's eyes widen as he began to struggle, fighting to hold his breath. But he couldn't break the clones' hold, and reflex could not be fought off forever. Demyx winced. He wasn't cut out for this… To anyone ignorant of what was happening, it might have looked like the slender Nobody had fallen asleep, as his head lolled forward, his body still supported by the water clones. But his form slowly began to fade, dissolving back into the Darkness, and Demyx turned away, his expression melancholy.

Lexaeus had moved as if to help his partner, but Xaldin struck mercilessly. It took only one lance; the Hero too weakened from near-constant exposure to the Darkness to hang on. He dropped to his knees, gazing down at the lance pierced through where his heart should have been, and closed his eyes in surrender. Without Zexion… there was no reason left to fight. Let the Darkness take him, and end this.

"You knew the punishment awaiting you." Saïx said, staring at Marluxia. "A shame we couldn't have prolonged the hunt. It was actually entertaining."

"Game's over, Mar." Xigbar chimed in. "And Vexen! Who'd have thought this of you, really?" He cocked his gun. "But, seriously. Busted, guys. Nowhere left to run."

Nothing he could have said would have changed Xigbar's mind, so Vexen could only watch helplessly as Saïx, in some twisted form of revenge for Marluxia's attack against him so long ago in the Darkness, attacked brutally. Marluxia was so thin, so transparent and barely-there by that point, one blow was all it took. He turned to Vexen, a small smile on his face, and was gone, only the lingering scent of roses remaining. Vexen simply stared at where the Assassin had been, tangible and real just a moment ago, and now goneDarkness to Darkness… He didn't hear the shots, didn't feel the purple crystal bullets pierce his weakened being, and maybe that was a blessing. All he was aware of was numbness, the Darkness swirling around him, and then nothing.

Axel stared at Roxas, as the youngest gazed at him with betrayed eyes. He was the only one left. The others were gone, and it was just him. Him and the Organization. Him and Roxas.

"Axel…" Roxas whispered. "Why, Axel? Why would you do this?"

Axel laughed, though it sounded hoarse and forced. "Things… got away from me." He cracked a smile, and it looked more like a pained grimace. Roxas swallowed hard, raising the Oathkeeper, but Xemnas's voice stayed his hand.

"Hold on a moment, XIII. Perhaps it would be prudent to leave one alive, to explain to us what happened."

Axel's eyes widened, and he didn't dare to hope. Was this a second chance? He listened as Xemnas continued, "Bring him back to Never Was. We shall question him there."

Axel hissed in pain as Saïx grabbed his arm, hauling him towards a portal. This was it. His one opportunity. His chance to leave all fallen, ruined castles behind, and restore the Organization's trust in him.

Sorry, guys. But lies can't hurt the dead. I hope Roxas forgives me…

xXx

Two weeks later, he was walking through Twilight Town's Sandlot with Roxas. The Organization had accepted his story of what happened, both in Oblivion and after, though he wasn't allowed to go on missions by himself. He was essentially on probation. Not that that bothered him, if his babysitter happened to be the blond boy. Still, sometimes he wondered what the others would think, knowing that he had betrayed them after they were dead to save his own life.

He had been chatting with the blond keybearer he had missed so much, when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He had the oddest feeling of being watched, and as he looked around frantically, he could have sworn he saw Lexaeus's tomahawk.

"Axel? What's wrong?" Roxas asked.

"Nothing, nothing. I'm fine." Whatever he had seen was gone. But for whatever reason, he couldn't shake the feeling that they were still out there somewhere. Absent, but not forgotten.

So take the photographs and still frames in your mind.
Hang them on a shelf in good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial…
For what it's worth, it was worth all the while.

It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.

I hope you had the time of your life…

The End


All right, guys. I think I owe those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about an explanation.

Over on Livejournal, (and if you read my other Kingdom Hearts story, you've heard this before. XD) Silvestris, Abby-Sarajane, and Chigrima have written an absolutely epic fic titled "The Renegades", affectionately nicknamed the Plot Bunny of Doom. In honor of the finale, they held a contest for an alternate ending, and this is my entry. At this moment, having read those who've already entered, I like Nenja-Black and Crownedapple's chapters the best.

...I'm not the only person to kill them. Crownedapple killed them too, but I was probably more graphic. I wanted closure, and a happy ending would have seemed too deux ex machina. Thankfully, I haven't spoiled the real ending for anyone who wants to go read.

...I see Demyx as a gentle executioner. I deserve to be smacked. Especially since I personally am terrified of drowning. DX

...I need to be quiet now. The actual story meets the 2500 word limit, I swear! 2404!
Li