Disclaimer: I don't own anything.

Chapter Twenty

Dim Resolution

His face was blank, calm, unreadable. Demyx tossed the map from hand to hand, not showing anything, though his voice betrayed him. "No… no way…"

The pouring rain had slowed the damage, but it was obvious the whole place had been burning for quite some time. There was evidence that the structure had once been an ornate sort of… city… from the burning spires and charred swirls of woodwork, bridges crumbling into the stream below.

The highest tower, the one they needed to get to, was still burning; Axel could see the flames pouring out the window. Demyx let out a shaky sort of breath, like he'd been punched in the stomach. He set off running, down the shallow mountainside, and down into the burning village.

"You idiot! Where are you going?" Axel screamed after him, before following.


Demyx

The heat was oppressive; the wood was steaming where the rain hit it, and still most of the structures were openly burning. It was hard to breathe as I tore through the city, trying to find a way to the 'highest tower' that wasn't burning. Each breath hurt; I wasn't accustomed to so much hot air and smoke. I could hear, distantly, Axel screaming at me to stop, but I couldn't. To see my only lead torn up in front of me, to know, undoubtedly, that one small, necessary piece of the puzzle, not to mention our way home, had been destroyed, weighed heavily in my heart.

I had to keep moving.

I tore down street upon burning street, not seeing the scenery, the beautiful architecture. I didn't notice the absence of people. I didn't notice anything but the burning tower, burning, surely, much too hot for the delicate metal and glass to avoid destruction.

The staircase was alive with fire, wire and wood burning. Some numb part of my mind wondered who had built this whole place, and with what purpose? Why was there a whole empty city? Had the alchemist built it, or just lived here?

Immune to caution, my lungs protesting, I started up the stairs. My hands and arms were blistered from the heat; I was sweating like crazy. But I had to keep moving forward… I had to save the key…

The burning city looked like some gateway to Hell.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Before I could take another step forward, I was seized around the waist and thrown to the ground, all of the breath knocked out of me, bruising my chin on the stairs. I was being held down, and as much as I fought, the restraint was absolute.

"Demyx…"

I coughed, choking on smoke and common sense. He loosened his hold on me, but made it clear I wasn't going anywhere. While the fire weakened me, it strengthened him. His eyes seemed to glow. "It's over," I told him, still trying to draw a clean breath. "It's all over, okay?"

The flames were jagged and leapt still higher, seeming to consume us. Axel pushed the flames back, held them at bay, while I could feel consciousness slipping away, bit-by-bit. I'd always known that I had a lower immunity to fire and smoke than the average human, but I never thought it would bite me like this.

The hot air seemed destined to smother. I tried to draw low, slow breaths. My skin was slick with sweat.

"You're an idiot!" Axel yelled at me over the sound of pure destruction. "You're going to get yourself killed!" He reached a hand out towards me, but pulled it back, knowing that he was most likely to hurt me more in that situation.

I'd never much thought about our differing elements, but I guess they were here to bite us back now.

"I can try to clear the way for you, but you've got to move now, you hear me? Don't worry about it. I'll get the box. Just get out of here alive!"

Something seized me around the waist again, stronger than Axel's arm. I was abruptly silenced, and everything went dark.


The sudden lack of noise startled Axel; he couldn't even hear the sound of the fire. Hot air pressed into his body; he was nearly paralyzed, being held.

Not this bullshit again.

Everything was dark; there was just a sudden absence of all light, considering the situation they had just been in. The darkness only lasted a few seconds before the hold on him was released, and he fell to the ground with a spectacular thud.

Axel recovered quickly, standing up and immediately going on the defensive. All of the flames within a good twenty-foot radius had been extinguished, leaving the area dank and chilly. With a growing sense of apprehension, he found Demyx lying in a crumpled heap across the cleared area.

He immediately ran forward to check on his friend, only to be seized yet again. He found against the hold, but it had no beginning and no end; he had no choice but to remain motionless.

"Not so fast," came a smooth, soft voice. "I still need you."

He barely had to think to identify the voice. "You must be Xaldin's replica." Axel spoke without meaning it. He was set rather lightly down. Near the unconscious Demyx was the replica, dressed in the black coat with the hood up, his arms behind his back, so like Xaldin.

"A surprising deduction. Why is it that you don't think that I'm the real thing?"

Axel smirked. "Sora killed you."

"He also killed Xehanort."

"I suppose you have a point." He paused, weapons at the ready. "Is there a reason you're here?"

"My mission is simple," the replica continued, without turning. "I'm not to let you get that box."

"So you are a fake," Axel practically purred. "The real Xaldin would never take orders from Xehanort."

"If you know anything about my past, then you know that, at one point, I was a researcher along with him."

"…Yet you were also just like everybody else, seeking to create his own Organization." He smirked. "I suppose you don't plan on going without a fight."

"My exact orders are to kill you," the replica said in that toneless, slick voice.

"So you're after me, and not Demyx? I admit, it's nice knowing he's starting to branch out." Axel flawlessly summoned a chakram. "I hate to break it to you, but I'm the one at an advantage at the moment." He gestured to the fires still freely burning, just outside their small circle.

"Maybe you forget," the replica added, this time with a deadlier tone, "that fire cannot survive without oxygen."

Axel anticipated the action before it happened; he drew a deep breath, and felt a sudden deep squeeze all around them as the fire was smothered.

"Tell me," Xaldin continued quietly, "how long can you hold your breath?"

How was he supposed to possibly react? Time was ticking- he could tell. Axel had to think fast. The replica was right, though- without oxygen, how was he to fight? He only had his weapons, and a limited amount of time.

Axel had to think; his mind spun in circles. There was no way to just easily kill him.

"I'm sorry it had to end this way," Xaldin said bitterly, turning to face Axel fully, pulling off his hood to reveal that nearly identical face, with that same, hard-to-place distortion that the Zexion replica had.

Axel attacked the second that Xaldin did- his lungs felt crushed, and a wave of black threatened to overtake him.

He really is going to kill me.

There was a flash of steely silver, ink-colored blood all over the blade. And then the replica just fell, and said no more.

Drawing shaky, uncertain breaths, Axel looked up and found Demyx standing and holding his Keyblade, a dark expression on his face. "You do not hurt my friends," he said in a strange voice.

Still woozy from the lack of oxygen, Axel wondered if he was imagining things. Sure, Demyx had to abscond from his usual pacifist act on this mission, but so far Axel had never seen him just attack like this. It was unlike him.

Axel wondered if there were things he didn't know about his friend. Maybe he simply just assumed that Demyx was harmless. Weak. Often helpless.

But in this weak state, slightly dazed, he suddenly saw him as dangerous, for the first time since Axel had found out about Xehanort's soul.

The look softened, and Demyx changed back into his old self, the kind one, the helpless one. He rushed over to Axel, a smudge of the inky blood on his face. "Are you okay?"

Axel propped himself up. "I'm fine, now. I didn't think… you were…"

"It's fine." He paused. "Let's just get what we needed and leave, okay? I'll go to the tower. Just stay here and breathe."

"But what about the fire?"

Demyx looked confused. "What fire?"

Axel gave him a look. "You know, the one that's covered you in burns?"

Demyx looked at his hands. "Well, it's gone now."

Was it? Why was he still so dizzy?

Demyx gently eased him back down. "You lay here. Relax."

Axel stared up at the sky, knowing the message he'd have to pass on in just a few moments' time. He dreaded it. He was wasting too much time. Any second they had wasted might have caused the situation to go from bad to worse.

There was a sound of wood scraping on stone. A small smile crossed Demyx's face, tired and fleeting. "This is it."

Axel sat up, seeing his friend holding the box that they had come looking for. It was a simple wooden box, with nothing noteworthy to differentiate it from any other box of the type. It was the perfect place to hide something. Demyx gently eased it open, letting the lid touch the charred ground.

Inside, the two little objects glittered brightly in the dim light. The key looked exactly like the first, a thin silver piece of metal. The orb was nothing but a large marble, pale violet in color and glinting with something akin to fog.

"This is it," Demyx repeated, somewhat disappointed. He turned the key over in his hand. "No surprise. It was Xaldin's." He sighed and picked up the orb, which flashed a little more earnestly at his touch. He set the orb back into its wrappings and pocketed the key. "That's it, then. We just have to go back. I… I thought it would never end."

"Silly of you."

Demyx stood, wiping a smudge of the black blood off of his face. "Are you okay? …Ready to leave, I mean?"

"Wait, Demyx…" Axel trailed off, forcing himself to his feet. "Before we go back there, there's something you need to know."

He intuited danger, eyes gleaming in a strange way. "…What is it?"

But Axel couldn't find the words. "You've still got some of that stuff on your face," he said instead, reaching forward and touching him.

Demyx nearly flinched. "You were going to say something else," he prodded. "What is it? What's wrong that you were hiding from me before?"

"You've got to listen to me," Axel continued, dropping the act. "You've got to listen to me and be calm about it."

As expected, the note of anxiety in his friend's voice was prominent. "What happened?"

"It happened before I could stop it." He figured he'd get it over with quickly, like ripping off a band-aid. "I was on the beach with Bonny. They had Yuffie captive. While I was trying to get Bonny to free her, one of the soul-taking monsters attacked the ship… and her."

Demyx took in a breath. "So what you're trying to tell me is…"

Axel put both hands on Demyx's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Demyx. It took her soul."

Demyx blinked rapidly. "Are you… are you…" He pulled away. "Is this some kind of sick joke?"

"Joke…" Axel shook his head. "I'm not lying to you. I was there I saw it."

Demyx laughed painfully. "If you had been there, you would have stopped it. You would have saved her."

"I tried, I swear I did… she was my friend, too…"

For a second he looked like he might yell. But Demyx's voice was barely above a whisper. "…Was."

"Demyx, I'm sorry," Axel repeated numbly.

"God damn it all," Demyx muttered. He ran his hands through his hair. "But… she… you were… we were…"

"Come on, I'll take you back. She needs you."

He didn't move. "Did you… is it still…?"

"The monster's still alive," Axel continued, wincing as the shock coiled off of Demyx in waves. "But we've got to go back, Demyx. She's still hurt."

Something strange flashed in his friend's eyes. "You mean you just left her there?"

"I had to find you. Bonny had told me she killed you. And we needed you to heal her."

"So you left her with Bonny?" Demyx's faced was flushed. "She's probably dead now!"

Axel dared to touch him. "I'm sure she's alive. We've just got to go back."

His expression fell. "I guess… you're right."


Demyx

Nothing made sense anymore. Up was down. Black was white. And Axel had just told me that Yuffie had lost her soul.

It was like getting punched in the stomach, but it was much, much worse. Because this is what I'd feared, from the very beginning. Because this was a result of my carelessness.

I let Axel lead me back to the shore, numb with shock, unable to comprehend anything other than the ground in front of me.

What do I do in this type of situation? I'd never trained for this, either.

Now all I did was follow an endless list of tasks, all of it absentminded. Just take ten more steps. Ten more. Ten more after that. Maybe it would lead me somewhere.

That somewhere was the beach.

The sand was pockmarked with footprints, native and pirate alike. There were people of all types clustered on the beach, but I didn't see a single one of them.

I was waiting, waiting for the punch line, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

"Where is she?" Axel asked Bonny.

"In my cabin," the captain answered. "She seems to have stabilized, but her wounds are still pretty grave."

Axel kept a hand on my shoulder, leading me forward, leading me to the skiff that would take us across the water to the boat. I could barely feel anything other than the excess power of the still water.

We climbed up the ladder, giving the large hollowed out section a wide berth. I did see the blood, though. Her blood.

The captain's rooms were pretty much what I expected them to be- opulent, in an old-fashioned way, useless pretty things here and there.

She lay there, on the bed, her chest all wrapped up in white linen, stained partially with blood. Something in me threatened to break, but I had to hold it together, at least for the next few minutes.

"Light one of the lamps," I told Axel. "It's too dark in here."

She was only sleeping, I told myself. She was broken and she needed to be fixed.

I cleaned my hands, relishing the sting as I killed the germs. Gently, I unwound the bandages, sticking slightly with dried blood, and wondered if she could feel pain still.

Her skin was a tangle of gashes and claw marks. Even if I could heal it, it would never lay smooth again. The fabric of her bra was stained with the blood, and I had to look away, had to not think about it literally.

It was just another practice, just another petty injury that Aerith passed by me. This wasn't real. It was fake. My memory was altered- the perception, warped.

A pulse. Weak, substantial. Her lips were pale, waxy. I could see all the veins in her eyelids, could count them with a fingertips.

My throat felt swollen shut, but I had to keep breathing. Had to keep her breathing. I had to think. Antiseptic, then bones first, then blood vessels, then nerves, then skin. Axel numbly handed me what I needed without being asked. I looked at the thin white lines that were left behind, a web that I could trace. I gently pieced back the remains of her shirt to keep her warm, considered giving her mine. Axel took a blanket off a chair, and we both spread it over her.

I didn't know what to do anymore. Looking at my hands, covered in her blood, I just couldn't do it. I cried until my eyes burned and my chest hurt from the heaving.

Eventually, I became aware that it was raining again. Rain pelted on the thin glass windows. I wondered if it would break. I couldn't move. My body felt numb. Time passed, but I didn't know how much of it.

"We have to go back, you know," Axel finally said. He'd left me be for some time, poking his head in every so often. It had to have been hours I had been sitting here, but I couldn't bring myself to do anything else. "We have to go back. We have to find Sora and go home."

"We can't."

He seemed startled that I had spoken. "What do you mean? We have to get Yuffie back to Radiant Garden. Aerith should have a look at her… I mean, you're not exactly focusing right now…"

"The monster, though. We need to kill it."

"Demyx…"

"Axel."

"We were lucky to find it the first time. And that's because Xehanort wanted you to. He wanted Aerith to tell you what she'd seen." Axel paused.

I turned, felt my face burning. "What else am I supposed to do? This isn't exactly the time for a lecture." I gestured to Yuffie, breathing calmly under the blankets, unmoving. "She's gone, Axel unless we can find that monster. And it looks like we'll only be able to go home once."

"Xehanort sent that monster here. It's not going to be easy to find."

I stood at my full height, eyes flashing in a way that was almost terrifying. "Do you want her to be dead?"

"Of course not." Axel glared back at me levelly. "I know you must be in a lot of pain now, but we've got to find Sora. Maybe he can help her."

"I just can't leave, okay? Not like this. Not now." I started through the battered windows and out at the horizon at the mountains in the far distance. "I can't leave until it's dead."

"She needs to see them, Demyx. Sora and Aerith can probably figure it out."

"But this is uncharted territory. We don't know if there's another way to…" I exhaled, my eyes smarting.

He opened the wooden box that I'd somehow managed to carry up here, took out the small sphere, and curled the fingers of my free hand around it. "I'm going down to the beach to help out with the negotiations."

"What happened?" I asked, even though I could care less and was barely conscious that the words passed my lips.

"Captain Bonny and the chief are negotiating the tribe's freedom," Axel explained, clearly disinterested. "She doesn't seem too keen to find that fairy dust now, since she saw the monster coming from near it. She seems to think that there are more of them over there."

"A logical conclusion." I spoke listlessly. Something stirred in me- I was the Keyblade wielder, I should be handling this sort of stuff, not him. I stood, my knees trembling. "I should be out there. We can't leave this place in a mess."

"You're a mess."

"I know that. So?"

His eyes were sympathetic, but still as hard as flint. "So, you're most likely to hard the argument than help it."

I sighed. "How's it going?"

Axel shrugged. "About as well as can be, considering they're both hostile. No one's been attacked. Yet."

"Let me come down to the beach. At least until they've finished their arguments. I won't say anything, I promise." I just need to get out of here. For ten seconds, I needed to be useful, to know I could fix something. I needed to know that I wasn't useless.

Axel sighed, too. "I'm not sure how long it will take. She's lost a lot of blood. I'd like to just go, and we can deal with everything later."

He was right. I knew he was right. All I'd done all day was sit here and cry. I wanted to go home and rest; I'd been hurt today, too. This had to be the longest day of my life. "We'll stay out for the negotiations, and then we'll go home."

Axel ruffled my hair. "It's going to be okay, Demyx, I promise."

"Okay, Axel." There was honestly no point in arguing with him now; I just didn't have the energy. I wanted to lie down and sleep next to her. Maybe I would. Maybe I would crash from the low blood sugar. Might be a new experience. Too bad Axel would have to clean up my mess, but wasn't that always the case?


Have you ever lost something so deep, so vital, that by losing it, you don't even notice at first? You just keep on going like nothing happened, not feeling, just shocked to the point of recklessness. Then, very slowly, comes the pain. At first you're breathless. Your chest spasms. You can't breathe; your lungs are crushed. And then it's so sudden, so clear, that the one stable point in your life was gone; that the only thing you had to protect had been destroyed.

That's how it felt. I knew that I'd failed, made that fatal mistake. Everything was just a convoluted ball of mush; by choosing to find the orb instead of save my friends, I'd just tossed Yuffie's life aside like it meant nothing to me.

I'd had to make an impossible choice- pursue one empty lead, or go back and make sure everyone was okay. Somehow, I felt that both paths had just led me farther and farther from my goal.

We had the key. We had a way home. We just had lost something very vital.

Souls were something I'd studied in depth, and yet still I knew almost nothing. I knew how they came into the world, how they left it when the body was born and died. I'd learned how hearts could be ripped away and returned to the body, but not souls. This was a vital, missing piece of my training.

"I'm sorry," I said to her empty face, "I promise I'll bring you back."

How long could she be separated from her soul? Aerith had only been gone a matter of hours. Here Yuffie might be kept in stasis for an indefinite period of time, but the logistics were fuzzy- even if I did find and kill the monster, would her soul still return if her body were somewhere else?

And the monster. Was it here? We'd gone apeshit searching for the one that'd had Aerith, and yet, now, nothing. Axel was trying to convince me to leave.

I couldn't risk her life twice.

She did need genuine medical attention. I had healed the wounds, but I couldn't replace the blood she'd lost or give her the fluids she needed, or would soon need.

But once we left, there was no way to return… So even if I stayed behind to hunt the monster, I'd have no way to go home. And Sora had made it adamantly clear that I had to kill Xehanort.

My breathing crept towards hyperventilation. There had to be something I could do, some way to find her soul that didn't involve killing the monster. Would it be in the Lifestream? Did this world even have a Lifestream, given the fact that the people here were essentially immortal?

I had no answers to these questions.

I buried my head in my hands, wanting to rip out my hair. I needed to sleep, but had no time to. Would a fifteen-minute nap wake me up? Clear my head? Or just double-shock me to this whole situation?

I exhaled through my teeth, forced myself to stand, and went out onto the deck, trying not to see the blood flow through her pale skin.

Outside, it was cool and drizzly. We took the skiff over to the shore, which was sticky with footprints and places where boots had stuck. My own feet clung to the sand; my whole body felt heavy.

I was surprised that Axel let himself out in the rain like this after being in the water, but if his powers were already weakened, why not just go for it? He'd done this for me, left himself vulnerable. I should have been grateful, but I wasn't.

The captain and the chief sat on the beach, on a blanket, knee-to-knee. Behind each were several warriors- the pirates had guns, the natives bows. Each held their weapon at the ready, casually ready to attack the enemy, but the voices were relatively calm.

"It's that simple. You have your land, we have ours. We'll stay away from you, hunt on our own lands, if you do the same."

"You should leave," the chief replied calmly, but forcefully. "You go back to where you came from when they leave. Your way home has been found. You've caused more havoc than I can allow- kidnapping my daughter and leading to the death of an innocent girl."

I felt that same harsh twinge, but the conversation continued sinuously. "You don't come from this world, either," the captain countered, blue eyes flashing. "Why don't you want to go home?"

"My people have been here three hundred years. And in those three hundred years, I fear the land we have come from changed much, became a place where we can no longer live without encroaching on nature."

I thought back to the polluted industrial world, and wondered if that's what they were referring to.

"…Yet, in those three hundred years, we haven't once dared to approach the tree spirit colony. The spirits have much too much an influence over the world here." He was rational.

"Spirits?" Bonny spat- one of the pirates tensed. She waved a hand, gestured him down. "You mean the fairies? Are you kidding me?"

"Their dust is what sustains the vitality of the land, given that it's frozen in time. If you attack them, kill them, the land will die and we'll all starve."

"Well, I don't want the damn dust anymore."

"I should be glad. It wouldn't do you any good anyway." His face was grave.

"Excuse me?" She blinked.

"The dust. It would vaporize your body, unless you were but of the purest spirit."

Axel's eyes seemed somewhat glazed- I knew we were both trying to figure out the same thing. In the Neverland we were familiar with, the dust didn't kill all but the purest- it only made people fly. Had this world really changed so drastically since we'd last encountered it, three or so years ago? Had some war gone on, some darkness taken over, that had reshaped it in the way we now saw it? Where had Peter Pan gone, and Hook, and all the other characters that lived here? What changed it from a harmless jungle to the harsh woodland that was here now?

All these observations were made numbly. I knew it was time to step in. I cleared my throat, and everyone, looked up, startled. The warriors dropped their weapons when they saw that we were harmless. "We're here to help with the peace negotiations," I said in a dry voice.

"We don't need you involved any more than you have been," the chief said, clearly but kindly. "Go. Take care of your friend. We don't need you here right now."

I exhaled. "That's just it. We're leaving soon. And I'm kind of… obliged to see you through to relative peace before I go."

"I don't want anyone else to be killed like she was," Bonny spat. "I'm done, I've got what I want (or didn't get it, the point is that I'm through). I'll leave. We'll all leave. Try to find a place to fit in the modern world."

One of the pirates was scandalized. "Captain! Are serious?"

She turned to face him. "I am. I'm not about to go get that dust if it means we're just going to die anyway. We might as well go back. Nothing is keeping us here anymore."

He fell silent, but another one piped up. "We'll just get old and die."

"I was planning on returning with or without the dust. I'd just age anyway. Well, now that it's clear that this whole plan was fruitless, I see no reason to remain behind. I tire of this same old gambit." She shook her head. "I'm leaving. You all can stay, I don't care."

"Very well," the chief said. "You will release my family and leave immediately."

"Indeed," she said. They shook hands, ice white against copper.

In the semi-chaos that followed, it became clear that the pirates disagreed with their captain's decision. She told them several times that they did not have to follow, but a few agreed with her idea and went to leave with her.

Bonny gathered her things into just one steamer trunk. She told us that what was inside would set her up nicely for the time being, and neither of us bothered her. So, holding the tiny orb in hand, we joined her, Yuffie limp in my arms.

"Drop it on three," Bonny instructed. "If a bullet was enough to take the whole ship the first time, I see no reason why it won't take us all back."

"Are you ready?" Axel asked me. "Once we leave, we can't come back."

I exhaled- if there ever were a catch 22 situation. "Yes."

"One."

We'd never find the monster. We hadn't even tried.

"Two."

Chances are, this just sealed her fate, and I really just was killing her.

"Three."

With a bang and a great flash, everything disappeared.


I totally suck at these negotiations...

This chapter was long coming, so I hope its extra length was worth it (and the angst wasn't too much of a detraction XD). I wanted to post today because it's October 10th, and Nocturne's Return has been published for three years. Three. I know people that are younger than this damn fanfiction.

I want to thank all of you for reading with me, and sticking through when the story has crossed rough patches (and there were many of those). Since I first started, I've really grown as both a person and a writer, considering I was in my early teens when I started writing a very vague story about a Nobody that got his heart back. Well, KH 3D has squashed the canonicity of this story big time, but it's still a ton of fun to write!

I honestly hope that I'll have finished this series within the next year, but it's going to be a crazy, weird ass ride. XD

Thank you littlev123, Mystical Authoress, TheChel,and SoraIsMyHomeboy for reviewing last chapter!