Disclaimer: I don't own anything.

Chapter Twenty-One

Paradox Unfolding

Soon my vision evened out; we were back on the endless road at the edge of the industrial city. Yuffie was heavy in my arms. I was on the verge of nervous collapse.

"Just hold on for another hour," Axel told me. "Another hour, Demyx."

Just nine more steps, I told myself, and then nine more. Because ten was too high a number for me to remember.

That hour seemed to last an eternity. The road stretched on and on, and she got heavier and heavier. But I couldn't put her down or even let her go. This was my fault; I had to carry the burden, the utter, breathtaking guilt.

We reached a small forest outside the city. It was sunny out, and physically hot. The light shone dimly through the trees.

"Stay here," Axel instructed me. "Rest. Breathe. I'll try to locate Sora."

I nodded, too worn down to protest.

Lying with my back against a tree, and her head in my lap, there was endless room in my mind to just think. Here she was, just a soulless body, the part that made her really Yuffie just simply gone. Vanished. I was tethered; my thought processes couldn't stray from that idea, and all it entailed.

There has to be some way to help her. We know nothing about the natures of these soul-takers. Do they devour the souls, or just take them, to be set free at any time? Did the soul just return to its body, or did it have to be purposefully placed there? How much time did she have? How much time did I have?

Between the worrying and the guilt, I fell asleep.

As I slept, I didn't dream. It was a moment of pure escape, free from everything. I had been so physically worn out that I was surprised I had made it this far. I might have slept for another couple hours or maybe a day, but Axel roused me only a few minutes later.

"Demyx. Wake up."

The air tasted like something sharp and oily. I had to blink several times. "Did you find him?"

"I found someone."

The bright light of midday burned into my eyes; I had to squint. The figure I saw standing next to Axel was slim and small and definitely not Sora. "Kairi?"

"We were so relieved to know you were back," she gushed. "Sora was so worried."

I sat up, feeling the imprint of tree bark against my spine. I blinked again and noticed she was no longer next to Axel, but crouched next to me, her expression grave. Everything came back to me fiercely. Despite my spot in the shade, the sunlight seemed to cut like knives. Kairi examined Yuffie, taking a pulse, a temperature. My throat felt swollen shut. "Do you know anything?" I asked, barely able to speak.

Kairi shook her head, her eyes glittering with tears. "I… almost didn't believe Axel when he told me… But after what happened to Aerith…"

"I know. I…" I was starting to lose control again. I took a breath to center myself. "Do you at least think Sora knows anything?"

"He might," she admitted, "But we're so much more familiar with hearts and how to retrieve them, not souls. Yet I'm sure he knows more than I do…"

"So where is he? Did he leave?" I could understand why he would leave, but the fact that he would leave while we were apparently vanished into the abyss stung a little more.

"No. He's been searching for the key. Where were you?"

"It's a long story," Axel told her, tired and somewhat defeated. "But we have the key."

I took the item out of my pocket and handed it to her to prove it. Kairi took the key from me, holding it to the light, as if it would dissolve into nothing. "Where did you get it?" She asked. "Where did you go?"

"Neverland," I said softly. "But not the one you're thinking of. It's a long story… I don't quite understand it myself… Look, can we find Sora?" It was a miracle I could still think clearly.

She seemed to understand. She should have. I was still too deeply in shock to comprehend what was going on. "He was still doing reconnaissance, and looking for you guys… well, now we know what happened." I felt my eyes smarting, but there were no tears. Kairi frowned. "Let's go to the rendezvous point."

Axel helped me ease Yuffie off the ground and into my arms. Her skin was still warm to the touch, almost too hot. My own skin was below temperature. I wondered how long it would take for it to really hit me- probably when there were no other options.

I wondered if this was all some large, disproportionate nightmare.

As Kairi led us across the countryside, I could feel Yuffie's weight in every step. She wasn't even heavy; actually, she was quite small. I used to be able to pick her up and throw her over my shoulder like it was nothing. Now, with my own body so heavy, I felt like I would collapse and bring her down with me. Maybe I would.

"Demyx," Kairi asked suddenly, "Are you okay?"

Physically, I was fine, or fine enough, if that's what she meant. "I'll be alright," I told her dismissively.

"Let me carry her for a while," Axel offered. "You look terrible."

"No. I'm fine."

They both stared at me. For a long time, none of us spoke. "We're almost there," Kairi said finally, her voice full of bitterness. "It's getting dark. They should be getting back soon."

We went up an embankment and found the ship there, heavily covered with leaves, a bit south of where we had originally landed. There were remains of a fire near it, and places where leaves had been moved or grass slicked down.

"How long were we gone?" Axel asked. "It couldn't have been very much more than…"

"A few days," she finished curtly. "Three or four. Wait here." She pulled a handle on the hull; the bottom swung down to a ladder. A minute later, she came back out, holding a pillow and a blanket. We laid Yuffie down on her makeshift bed. She looked as if she could be sleeping, but the irregularity of her breathing exposed the truth. How much longer could her body cope without a soul? Aerith had gone nearly a whole day, but Yuffie hadn't had nearly the same spiritual training. Could she really be fading after such a short amount of time? This was supposed to be an eventual process.

What was I supposed to tell Leon, Cid, and the others? It was my entire fault, and I knew it; having basically killed their Yuffie, would Leon would kill me too? I could only be so lucky.

Kairi gave me a quick examination, too. She made me drink a sweet-smelling liquid that made me feel sick. It wasn't the mild tea that Aerith made for blood loss. "It's been some time since you were hurt. This will fix anything since then," was the excuse.

We all sat there for some time. Time seemed to pass so quickly. I couldn't sit still, despite my mounting exhaustion. I took to pacing; counting each step until Axel finally seized my arm and said, "If you don't calm down, I'm going to make Kairi sedate you." His expression was serious.

"I just can't sit here and do nothing," I told him. "She's just wasting away the longer we wait. I have to go out there. I have to do something."

"I wouldn't make you wait like this if I actually knew where he was," Kairi said. "I haven't seen him since morning."

"Use your watch. Do something."

Axel squeezed my arm more tightly. "You're getting frantic. Just breathe, okay? Can you do that?"

I sat on the ground. "Why are you all so calm?"

Axel opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted when we all heard the distinct sound of footsteps on dry leaves.

"He always was such a graceful hunter," Kairi remarked dryly, a small, sad smile on her face. She raised her voice. "Sora?"

"I'm here," he called back, pushing back branches and stumbling into the clearing. "I'm back… Guys?" He saw us, made eye contact. Sora looked the same as ever, his sleeves knotted up, his jacket full of burrs. "You're back. How…?"

I got up. "That's not important right now. I need your help. Please."

He saw how bedraggled and tired we looked; my bloodstained shirt, the dirt smudged into our faces. "What…?" He noticed Yuffie, lying on the pallet on the ground. "What's going on here?"

"We found another one of the monsters," I told him. "The world we found… it had one. And it got her."

It took him a moment to comprehend what I said. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. I knew… I knew the moment I…" I couldn't speak anymore, and shook my head.

Sora gave me a startled look, and ran over to her- like Kairi, he took Yuffie's pulse, but also held his hand above her face, above her heart. His look was uncharacteristically grave.

"Please tell me you know something." The note of hysteria rose in my voice without my knowledge. "You can save her. Right?"

"Demyx, I…"

"Please." Axel grabbed my arm again. I tried to shrug him off, and failed.

Sora's eyes were, dull, defeated. "Did you kill the monster? Is it still out there?"'

"We only had one chance to come back. There was no time when she was physically dying," Axel explained in a dull voice.

"I don't know, Demyx. I wish I could tell you what you wanted to hear, but I don't know."

It was like I'd been punched. I was so sure he'd know more than I did; but why would he? He'd been so trained to deal with the heart.

Sora stood up and rested a hand on my shoulder. "It's not hopeless yet," he told me, trying to be soothing, though I had seen something crack in his eyes. The first casualty. "Aerith could know something."

"If she had," I said quietly, "You think she would have told me."

The trip home was morose. We'd accomplished what we'd come here to accomplish, yet we'd lost something in its place. Maybe they hadn't known her as well as I had, but I could feel the even mixture of pity and grief through the thin gummi walls. I couldn't stand to be in the same room with these people; I hid in the bunkroom, fighting for sleep, desperately needing to sleep, but unable to find it. I drifted for a long time, semiconscious, huddled under the thin blanket, neither present nor gone.

I was only roused completely when I heard the cabin door slide open. I forced my eyes open. "Kairi?"

She shut the door behind herself and sat on the bunk across from mine. "How are you doing?"

"I'm… fine," I told her, because there weren't enough words or notes to define the ocean of grief that was mine to tread.

Her eyes were empty, staring at the thin carpet that covered the floor. "You don't believe Aerith can save her, do you?"

"It would have to be a miracle," I replied, equally as lightly. "She's gone, Kairi. There's nothing I can do." My voice broke. Shattered.

Kairi shook her head, fighting tears. "I'm so sorry, Demyx. I knew how much she meant to you."

She was going to make me cry, too. I drew a deep breath to center myself, tightening the blanket on my shoulders. "It was my fault," I told her, the confession rolling around the small room. "I made a choice. It was my fault."

Kairi looked up at me. "How could you say that? You love her. How is it your fault?"

My voice had dropped practically to a whisper. "Because I chose the mission over her." So blunt.

"I can see what you mean." Kairi sighed. "Back before all of this, when we were just trying to stop the Heartless, Sora had to make decisions like this all the time. He could look for his friends, like he wanted, or he could keep traveling and trying to save the World. He had to weigh our lives and safety with that of countless others."

"Was someone ever killed because of it?" I asked. "What if this is all useless, a distraction, and the keys mean nothing? That means she would be gone for nothing."

"You can't blame yourself."

I laughed darkly. "Tell me, then, what I can do."

"You can't give up hope." Her gaze was fierce. She stood up. "We're going to be there soon, okay? Don't get too comfortable."

Back home, it was cloudy. There was no feeling of rain, but it felt like the sky would collapse any second.

I had no idea how to face what was ahead. Facing the guilt alone was crippling; what about these other people whose lives I'd just turned upside down? This was exactly what Leon had feared.

I couldn't get over it. She used to be so there; all the time, no matter what, Yuffie had always made time to be with me when I needed. The one instance she'd needed me, I hadn't been there. So stupid.

If she had died, it might have been more of a relief than having her soul taken. At least if she was dead, her soul would have at least gone on, but this, this meant that wherever her essence was, it was most likely being tormented.

I had to do something. It was driving me crazy, the physical lethargy and knowledge that I couldn't just accept this information. There had to be something, anything I could do. Sora could unlock gates to new worlds; he had to be able to bring me back there. I'd learn how to do it myself, if it killed me.

The ship touched ground surprisingly lightly, like nothing else had changed. I set the blanket aside, trying to will my body to move. My feet felt made of cement. It would be easy just to sit here forever and just wait, but action had to be taken immediately.

I forced myself to stand and hobbled out into the hallway, down the open hull and onto the grass. It was like no time had passed at all.

Had it been only four days? It felt like four lifetimes.

The ground felt too soft, almost unreal to me. I stared up at the sky, its usual violet hidden by clouds.

Well, it was true. There was no point sitting here and feeling sorry, though I couldn't help it. Her existence right now was stranger than anything we had encountered- physically living, but otherwise dead. It was a paradox, a piece missing from the puzzle. If I couldn't fix this, any way, I didn't know what I would do.

Axel came out and stood besides me, watching the sky, too. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to.

"How come it is that you stay?" I asked, still looking at the sky. "Why do you even care anymore? You have what you want. Why didn't you just leave after we killed Xemnas?"

"I admit that it crossed my mind," he confessed. "I don't know. When I'm not fighting against something, I have no purpose. I'm not cut out for normal life. I don't want one."

"Would you say that if we still hated each other?"

"I never hated you."

"But you did think I was a nuisance."

Axel gave me something between a smirk and a smile. "That's true. But you were."

"I know. So what changed your mind? Why did you give up pursuing Roxas and the light when you became human?"

He sighed, like I couldn't possibly understand. Then the strange half-smile was back. "Wouldn't you like to know?" He patted my shoulder, a gesture everyone seemed to think was comforting. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it now."

Axel was in some peculiar mood. "Right. The task at hand."

"They're not going to blame you," he said in a low voice. "You didn't do this to her."

"It is my fault."

"Please don't start this. I'm really not in the mood." His expression softened. Sometimes, when I was with Axel, I felt like I was with a perfect stranger, and a dangerous one at that. "Let's go," he continued. "Sora will bring her down soon. Let's just focus on breaking the news first."

"We never should have left this world," I said suddenly.

Axel laughed. "Now you tell me."

Aerith, Leon, and Cid took the news in a surprisingly accepting manner. Cid simply left the room. Leon denied that it was my fault; given how Yuffie was, it was inevitable. I didn't get it. I wanted him to fight me, to give me some sort of distraction from this. Even more enigmatic was Aerith, who simply nodded as if she knew. Maybe she had sensed it somehow.

The grief in the room threatened to smother. Sitting amongst them as they mourned and waited was impossible; even worse was when they brought her in and Aerith told us what I already knew- there was no way to fix this that she knew of. All we could do was hook her up to a nutrient drip and hope.

After a while, I just couldn't take it. I had to get out of here. I told them some bullshit story about how I was going to go help Sora. Axel was the only one who could call me out, but they all gave me a break.

I walked, no destination. I needed to keep moving to keep the unavoidable from consuming me. Gradually, I broke into a run. I had to get away- so far away. Times like these I hated my natural ability to run. I wanted my lungs to feel like they were on fire. I wanted my muscles to burn. I wanted to run until I collapsed, but I couldn't. I forced myself to keep moving until I was in the suburbs below the castle, the one that was still in ruins from the first soul taker attack.

I knew who lived down here. He was so completely irrelevant that I needed to talk to him, at least to help clear my mind.

The door of the little house opened before I was even able to touch the knob. "Ah, Demyx. You're late, as usual." Luxord, of course, was there. I didn't question how he knew I would show up, despite it being unplanned. I was used to Luxord's strange ability, even though it had come to encompass seeing both the past and the future. "Come on in," he continued. "Xigbar just stepped out."

Dazedly, I went into their small home. I realized I'd actually never been invited over here before. Previously, the few times we had met up, the meetings had taken place in dusty old pubs. Luxord seemed to be channeling that vibe here. The paneling of the small room was dark, with only a few candles burning for light despite the lamps that hung above our heads. The furniture was sparse, but comfortable- a sofa against one wall, a coffee table made of some dark wood, a card table, a few chairs of varying type, a recliner, and a chest of drawers. There were no pictures, no mementos of daily life.

"Have a seat," Luxord said, gesturing towards the card table. "Shall I make you a cup of tea?"

"No, thank you," I said numbly, though I did sit. The weak chair creaked a little, but held.

Luxord disappeared into the next room, presumably the kitchen, and came back a few moments later with two mugs. "You're looking poorly," he explained.

There were a few moments of dead silence; he leaned back comfortably, completely at ease, feeling no need to make conversation. He knew what I was here for, even if I didn't.

I took a sip of the tea- chamomile, sweet with a sharp undertone. He'd put a little alcohol in it. I nearly laughed. If only it would be that easy to get drunk. Immune to most poisons, alcohol did nothing for me, unless it was a heavy enough quantity.

"I heard what happened," Luxord said, and his look was genuinely sympathetic. "I express my sincerest condolences."

I sighed. "Thanks. I just don't feel like talking about it right now."

"Indeed. We can sit in silence for as long as you like." I could feel him counting the seconds, though towards what was a mystery. I downed the rest of my tea, even though I wasn't thirsty.

And then it occurred to me. He'd know something, even if it were as simple as her fate. That's what he was anticipating. Why hadn't I thought of it earlier? "Hey," I said slowly. "You know a way to get her back… don't you?" I tried not to feel the hope, but it was explosive. Corrosive. I suddenly really wanted more of the tea, even if it wouldn't do a thing.

He smiled that Cheshire smile of knowing more than anyone. "I was waiting for you to ask," he admitted. Then the smile fell, and his eyes became strangely haunted. "I know what you're thinking, Demyx. It's not easy. It'll be fatal to both of you if you fail."

"Both of us?" I paused. "And what exactly is your plan?"

"Have you ever heard the story of the Aborigines, and how they believe we're all connected by dreams, because all of our hearts and souls are fundamentally connected?"

"It sounds vaguely familiar."

"The theory is relatively simple. If we can put you in a deep enough state of unconsciousness, you can go down there and try to find her soul, which would have gone there if it had no place else to be. The body was alive, so it simply fled, into the Dreamscape."

"But how?" This was all so confusing. "Her soul was taken. It's not in some part of the afterlife. Her body would be dead."

"You don't understand me," He said calmly. "Regardless of placement, every spirit can reach the Dreamscape. You pass through the top layers every night, when you sleep. Considering she's been taken, she's most likely trapped there."

The reasoning was clear to me- kind of, anyway- but still it was a hard leap. "How do you know all of this? And what if it doesn't work?"

He stared me down, in that unblinking way.

I plodded on. "You know the future. What are the chances that I can bring her back in time for both of us to survive?"

His eyes narrowed, and he sighed. "Very, very slim. I'd say one in a thousand."

I shook my head, and tried to avoid the brunt of the impact. I couldn't let this chance elude me. I had to do this. I had to let her live. But on a bigger scale, I was needed for this mission. I couldn't afford to die.

Were millions of lives worth losing one, despite how precious it was? "What would it take?" I asked sharply.

"Well, you would have to be sedated. Unconscious enough to be lucidly aware in your dream without ever having practiced."

"And what would that take?"

There was a pronounced silence. Luxord didn't usually embellish his bad news, so it had to be specifically unnerving. "A type of poison."

I exhaled. "Then it's useless. I'm immune to most poisons."

"That's the kicker," he admitted. "I assume you're not immune to cyanide?"

"Cyanide?" If the dosage was just right, it would kill me like anybody. "Are you making this up? How would cyanide help us?"

"I'm shocked. You're a healer. One of the symptoms of cyanide poisoning is being comatose."

I shook my head. "No. You said I'd only have to be sedated. If the poison has moved swiftly enough to induce a coma, I'd be basically dead."

"That's what I just told you."

I laughed, feeling tears burn in my eyes.

Luxord let me have my moment of hysteria, but moved on. "There was a time, back right after I joined the Organization, when they experimented with this. Zexion supposed that we might find our humanity in the Dreamscape. He tried to go down there, using me to slow time so the poison wouldn't kill him. The experiment was a failure, but we found out that there was something down there." He downed the rest of his drink. "It's a sort of world that nearly touches the Lifestream; an in-between of an in-between, if you will. That's why I supposed she was there."

"But when Aerith's soul was taken, it came back when the monster was killed. So it had to be physically inside the thing."

"Not necessarily. It might just be the tie with the living world, the thing that brings the soul back." He shrugged. "Mind, that's only a theory.

I was trembling. I had to do this, but poison… a poison that would kill me… "How long would I have?"

"It took about ten hours, when I was there, before Zexion's vitals began to fail. That's roughly two days in the Dreamscape."

"It's such a risk. She might not even be there."

"I completely understand if you don't do it. It's only logical."

I took a deep breath. "How long would it take to put this together?"

He paused, somewhat surprised with me. "You should talk to Sora about this first, at least gather his opinion."

"No. We have to act now. She's dying, Luxord."

He was silent.

"Please, Luxord. Haven't you ever loved anyone like that?"

For a moment, I thought I had pushed too hard. His eyes narrowed, and I thought he might hit me. A minute later, he sighed. "Let's go now."

This update took years, and I apologize. Hopefully, swift sailing into the new arc! I've tons of inspiration. You can thank Doctor Who for that XD.

I hope the explanations weren't too convoluted and unimaginable- they made sense to me, but if there's something you'd like to critique, feel free as always.

A big thanks to TheChel, littlev123, Mystical Authoress,and SoraIsMyHomeBoy for reviewing last chapter. I hate whoring for reviews, but I'd like to know that people still read this, considering it's going to be a massive endeavor to finish it.

As always, thanks for reading, and more to come (though hopefully soon)!