Summary: Lost in the Rift, the warriors of 012 are on the run from gods old and new. As they stumble over delirious landscapes and desolate truths, the door of souls is their only chance to find home. But what will it cost to open? Post 012. Pairings will develop. Some expected, some less so. Note that while this is filed under Lightning as a main character, it's an ensemble cast.

Setting Takes place immediately post 012, with Cosmos being purified inside Shinryu.

Length: Plus (this) prologue, between 12 and 15 chapters.

Warnings et al: Spoilers for everything. Dissidia, IV through XIII-2, with links to the XIII universe generally. Not explicit, but heavily thematic and definitely for grownups. Also: pulp and angst and naughty bits and meta (oh my meta! And crossover!meta) prevail, so be warned if that's not your cup of tea. That's my one warning – everything else is fair play.

Legal: Square, if you really want to sue me for this really, what are your damages? Plus you own everything.

"Am I not a little unhinged already? I doubt it." – Samuel Beckett, Play.

Prologue: In the Desert, A Game of Chess.

Do you remember?

In the beginning, you had another name. In the morning of our wedding, I spoke it to the dawn, as is the way of the Lufaine. In the night of our wedding, I whispered it to the swell of your breast, as is the right of a husband. Once, the word fit so easily into my mouth, along with all the other things that a…man is called on to say. Words like "I love you", or "my son", or "please, don't harm my family."

A long time ago, I said them all. When I had lips to speak words, or flesh to suffer wounds or even desires, so to speak of.

It was a deeply trivial time.

And your name, your name is Cosmos now. It is a better name for one such as you, don't you think? Perfect congruence in a single word. Harmony unblemished: serene, indifferent, limitless.

But still, this is a mistake. This, now, is not how it's supposed to be. Should the dragon be appraised, his wrath shall be absolute.

The fault is partially mine. I fear the release of my experiments has had a series of unintended consequences.

A confound is introduced, and the phenomenon under investigation no longer submits to analysis. An iterative interrogation of human nature dissolves into a theater of the absurd, and then finally, to dust.

Yes, their presence in this world is my folly. What you have set into motion here is yours.

I speak all of this to you in your short slumber, so you cannot answer. But Cosmos, I do not know what you sought to accomplish here, who you were attempting to protect. You have seen these very warriors purified time and time again, watched in your grace as they burned and broke and were created anew.

Once, you even thought it quite beautiful. The first time, you smiled.

So the question must be asked.

Why Cosmos? Why did you do this now? And do you even know what you've done? I doubt it. Your sight was always so short.

You should be advised that you've accomplished nothing. Your power was insufficient, and the 'souls', as you always called them, of these avatars merely cling to the door of the Rift. I can hear them whimper, neither finally at rest nor strong enough to be returned.

Even with all the gifts you gave them, my once bride of light, they are wraiths. Do you not hear them? You were always sensitive to the cries of children.

There is no question that if they are left like this, they shall go mad. But then, what are six more mad voices, in a chorus of the insane? Nothing perhaps, to me. But in the absence of other evidence, I deduce they must have meant something to you.

Occam's razor is the truest of all possible blades.

I can come to no other conclusion than that you were making a request of me. We have grown apart, we two, but I believe I know what you want me to do.

Very well Cosmos. For the time that I once loved you, then very well. I shall call the favor. I will ask her to do this for you, but you must know that she will exact her own price, when the time is right.

I can pry the Rift wide enough to allow them passage. I will lend them strength enough to chance the journey.

Etro's door of souls opens.

Gaze upon it if you wish, but know to shield your eyes.

Somewhere, Kain Highwind wakes up.

The atmosphere around him is dry and gritty. He wants to sleep, but light - too much light - scratches his eyes. He feels like he should be remembering, remembering something, but he can't think. His thoughts are aimless, Baron's Red and White Feast balloons, floating low and fat in an empty sky…

Let's pop one mother, Kain thinks. Pop. PopPopPop!

Orphan sounds rain against his perception, and then fall away into silence. His mouth is open, and any attempt to close it fails. Teeth don't fit together right, and a tongue that should sit flat on the bottom of his mouth is curled and swollen at the gate of his throat. He can't breathe. Or rather, he's breathing, but it doesn't quite work. His lungs burn and rattle, and there's so very little matter how hard he sucks…there's only just a little…

There is burn pain and crush pain and the pain of laceration. If he tries to move, mouths of torn flesh gape and drool. Through slitted eyes he sees his right hand is destroyed, a wreckage of bone and fingers angled in all the wrong directions, but it's still nothing, really, compared with all the blood.

There is a lot of blood.

Now that he thinks about it, he can feel it, and it's coming from everywhere. Nostrils, abdomen, left thigh, groin. With each weakening beat of his heart, open arteries deflate. Hot wetness soaks through his doublet and pools between his armor and his skin, and it has currents and tides that breach the joints of his vambraces, ooze through the gousset joining cuirass to cuisse. And when it leaks from his gauntlets and soaks his scar-ruined hands, it looks like little dragons are breathing fire.

Just like in a fairy tale…Cecil used to like fairy tales…We told each other such stories…Harvey and I….

He's incoherent. There's no strength, for anything. To stand, to see, to speak. He is dying. He should be dead already.

"Kain. Kain." It's a nice voice that's calling him. Strong and female. Through a gaze descending into tear-softened blackness, he sees a cascade of red fabric. It's torn and stained with blood and carbon.

The scent of roses wafts through shattered nostrils.

Rosa, is that you? Kain struggles to move through an electric storm of pain. He can't tell if it's true, but his heart lurches anyway. There, he was never fit to touch her hand, but perhaps now, she has finally come to find him, to bear him back to Baron at last.

"Old friend, how we've missed you…" he thinks she might say. And then she'd kneel to tend him, and the robes of the Queen of his homeland would brush his face.

"I saved him this time Rosa. This time, I wasn't so damnably weak," he would reply, and mean it, and finally know that he is worthy and valiant and strong and does not need her anymore.

"Oh! Oh no…"

Another voice. Rydia? It would be nice to see her again, too. So nice, to see them all. He doesn't know why he stayed away for so long. Or why and from whom he's still asking forgiveness.

The world is going slow and still. He's sad he can't see the sky. And he wishes the voices would stop now, because he's trying to sleep.

"Somebody take off that helmet! He can't breathe!"

"Laguna. That's not the problem! He's bleeding to death."

Oh, Kain thinks, unsurprised. That seems fine. For some reason, he doesn't care. The high spires of Baron are calling him, and Rydia has come to lay his hair in braids like a man of honor, and Rosa is here to lead him back to summer, and it has been so, so long…

"Shit, that hand. Light, that's a massive crush…"

"We're going to lose him. Yuna, help me. This is going to take both of us…"

It's then that Kain feels someone lift his head. There are hands pulling his helmet away, and he feels the wind against his face for the first time in a century. They angle him up, and the fresh blood that was pooling behind his septum pours from his nostrils, bubbles over the older blood that has dried on decimated lips and drips in long, mucous-sticky ropes from his chin.

He can't force his eyes to focus on anything. Defeated, they roll back into his skull. The light is finally fading.

"Kain, you ass. Don't you dare die on me."

Four hands press into arbitrary points in his body. And wet, nourishing white magic flows through him, trying to close over leaking guts and split entera. He feels the tiny bones in his hand attempt to fuse, but the magic can't hold onto anything. Like a swift wind, it blows right through the hollows of his broken body. Bones stay shattered, the septic tear in his stomach still weeps and a part of him is satisfied at that.

He will finally get to go home.

It's well, really, Kain thinks. I would very much like to see the city, again.

"But it's not time yet," sounds a cold voice in his mind. He can't tell if it's his own delirium or another mocking god. Either way, its will is absolute. "That is not your path home, dragoon."

And why not?

"Because she wills it. Because I say. Now arise, Sir Knight."

And so with terrifying obedience, Kain bolts upright, only to double over again as whoever is healing him pours more force into the spells. The fingers of the magic find a seam in his skin to hold onto, and fold flesh over flesh until the wound in his stomach is closed and its poison drained; until collapsed sinuses re-wall, and there is oxygen in his nostrils, in his lungs, in the clean, new blood the magic has somehow conjured from nothing. There are bones in his right hand again. He can clench his fist around the neck of his spear. The world around him begins to spin again, to articulate and sharpen.

Kain's eyes refocus. Reality crashes against his shores. He remembers everything now, even though he's desperate not to.

The shriek of steel on steel, and Laguna's magazines finally empty.

The air quivering with the electric distortion of magic and Yuna slumped over her staff, unyielding, undancing, unmoving.

Tifa's quiet smile crushed from her face. Vaan lost to the skies. And Lightning…no. Lightning…

Except there she is. As inanely, stupidly alive as he is. And Yuna and Laguna too.

What? As Kain notes his surroundings, he feels sick. The realization sits on his mind, its implications brutal and mocking. He tried so hard to die a good, clean death. And failed. Again. Another loss in a game he keeps losing. How?

Panicked, he tries to stand and can't, crashing to earth in a cloud of what seems like sand. Its grit under his palms makes no sense, and he thrashes left and right, his eyes desperate for a familiar horizon. He finds none. After a long, quiet moment, arms that bear the strength and delicacy of wrought iron come around him and help him to his feet. From behind, another softer pair of hands brush blood soaked hair from his eyes, and the full realization of where he is, where they are, seeps into his mind.

Desert. The world Kain sees in front of him is desert. Sand on sky on bright on flat. And yet it's not quite a desert either. They stand on an island of sand hovering in a in a vast sea of nothingness. Above and below and beside them other islands drift, periodically breaking apart, periodically fusing together. A wasteland in three dimensions.

In the airless sky between, vultures take wing.

"Lightning," Kain says, wiping the dried blood from his lips. She is standing beside him, her arms caged around his waist. As her gaze flits up to acknowledge him, he notes the dirt caked on her delicate features, the scabrous burns that lace her arms. She nods, as if to say, We're here, it's alright. But it isn't. It isn't alright at all. Tearing his eyes from her face, he notices Laguna beside him, his left arm in a sling and his good right holding up an exhausted, ashen Yuna.

Violently, Kain curses the magic coursing through his veins. They've all suffered so much. And they wasted their strength on him. Guilt, as familiar to him as his own voice, cackles at him from the corners of his mind.

When Kain finally sets foot in the quicksand-silence, he can't keep the tremble from his voice. He locks gazes with Lagnua, whose careful smile is betrayed in every way by the slump in his shoulders, the edge in his eyes.

"My friend. Where are we? Where are the others? Why are we still alive?"

It's not that I don't remember. If there is one thing I do not lack for, my once and dead husband, it's memory. Perhaps I don't remember as much as you anymore. But what I remember, I remember well.

You are speaking to me now as if I cannot hear you. But the dragon's light is a living light, and while I am trapped here, I can share in his true omniscience. Once I am returned to my shell, I suspect I will be depleted of both knowledge and strength, but for now, I can listen. I can know your mind, or what is left of it.

Why do you ask why I did what I have done? The answer should be obvious. You always prided yourself on the length of your sight, but you never could see what was before you.

I am tired. I wish an end. At the time of our agreement, I did not know how long forever was. New power loves itself dearly, and dreams only dreams of endlessness. And oh, how I dreamed. How I dreamed that somehow through this perversion, we could be together - we three - wife and husband and son, as once we were. That my infant godhood would give me the chance to right that singular, insignificant wrong.

I suppose new power is much like new love in its omnipotence. Or, at least that's what I remember new love to be. Now, I truly know only grief. You are right in this one matter. We have made this world a theatre of the absurd indeed, and the subject that we mock and replay and reiterate is that grief. The script of our mourning is thin with repetition. Although you never saw it that way. To your mind, it was always an experiment. A scientific method to bisect a metaphysical duality. Harmony and discord, peace and power, the balance that consumes itself.

Oh my forgotten love. How brilliant you were. How mad. How very great a fool.

But I am not like you. I was never really like you. Our love was broken mirrors. We loved each other only by fracture. And the fruit of our union, if so he could be called, was doomed to be as broken as we. I know this now, by watching him. He who you sent unto this world like some infinite jest. He is as determined as you. As narrow and foolish and prideful. And yet just like for you, I was destined to die for him.

In many ways, we are both incapable of correcting our mistakes.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that we would come to this. It is not inevitable that we stay here.

I am bringing this to an end now, Cid-that-was. And the warriors I have asked you to send through Etro's door have cleared the stage for me to do so. The light I gave them is a gift, of sorts, to light their way home. A use for the crystals they cannot join to the dagger I will run through the heart of our son.

The part of me that remains a woman hopes they do not despise me for that as well.

The part of me that remains a woman hopes our son will forgive me, for what I must do.

But there's only a small part of her left now. So the regret is not so great, after all.

I can feel the dragon search my mind now. I must stop thinking on this or he will know. And the time is coming anyway, when he will slip my soul back into its shell, and I shall have to discover my resolve anew. But how I long for a voice to ask you this and a moment for you to reply. For the time that I once loved you, I would bid you answer.

This name of mine, what was it?

It's Laguna's idea to send out a scout to look for Tifa and Vaan. It's Yuna's idea to send Bahamut.

Kain is lying collapsed in the sand behind the rest of the group, his half-closed wounds still leaking blood. But even though pain coats his senses like the dull edges of sleep, he can't help but be amazed at what he sees; how it both is and is not like all the summons he has witnessed. When Rydia beckons the Feymarch, it's an act of unbridled domination. She clenches her fist, and the magic comes to heel around her. She opens her palms, and the Lord of all Waters replies. Rydia has atoms of storm in her blood and the forces of gravity in her hands, and when she brings her power to bear Kain knows that there is no sovereign in any world to equal her majesty.

But yet. If Rydia is the power of the Call, then Yuna is the beauty. The angle of her body as she arches her staff above her head is the twist of a ribbon in the wind. Summoning light the color of a golden afternoon is a woven skirt at her waist that spins when she spins. Green and blue eyes alight with gleam, and her arms as they turn are garlanded with bright.

It's as astonishing a thing as Kain has ever seen, and, for some reason, as sad.

Dry your eyes, my Lady, he wants to say, but doesn't, because he knows it won't help. Whatever troubles her is far beyond the reach of words.

There is no music, but yes, Yuna's dancing. And Kain would be reminded of angels if Bahamut didn't appear through a patterned tear in the sky to remind him of gods. He breaks the atmosphere with his coming, and even Yuna is pushed a few steps back as the force of the magic conjures wind from airlessness, sends lightning careening through impossible clouds.

"Well met, Hallowed Father," Kain offers in greeting.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kain sees Lightning bow her head in something like mourning and he wonders, for what seems like the thousandth time, what exactly connects all of them so deeply. Why what lends Yuna such grace should cause Lightning such grief, and why what shakes his core in awe seems to snap Laguna's head in fear. It's contradiction and concordance, and while it taunts his mind like a word on the tip of his tongue, Kain doesn't know whether ultimately, it means anything at all.

He wouldn't wager either way. He's gambled everything he has and discovered, for his trouble, he's no master at dice.

And so they watch Bahamut descend through the yawning sky to land in front of Yuna. If Kain weren't so delirious, he would swear he saw the First Sire of Dragons tilt his head in respect.

"Will you help us find them?" she asks when he's close enough to touch. In deference, she averts her eyes. "Please."

"We will, Summoner" the soundless voice echoes in Kain's mind like thunder, and he knows by the way that Lighting and Laguna press their hands to their ears that they can hear it too. "We can still dream here, in this Rift of Worlds, even though our dreaming is ended. And so we will help you, Spira's daughter, where we can."

"Thank you," Yuna bows. "Thank you so much."

"It is we who are thankful," the voice in Kain's mind is both gentle and terrible, filled with a calm prescience that yanks his soul in dread. "But beware Yuna, and beware your companions. Here, we are not the Lord of Dragons. Although we will try to keep him from you, if it is possible."

"What do you mean?" Yuna asks, but Bahamut is in flight before the words are out of her mouth. In his wake, there is only silence and a brisk, confused trade in glances between four disoriented souls who Kain is beginning to think are more like refugees than warriors of any kind.

Around them, the desert drifts, indifferent.

"Ok. Now that that's over and done with," Laguna finally says. "Does anybody have any idea what that was all about? Or what the fuck kind of dragon could be worse than a giant, mega-flare happy rogue GF?"

Lightning looks away. Yuna looks down. And for once Kain doesn't search the sky for his answers.

In the sand-scoured air between them, the question simply lingers, limp and quiet and dull.