Lucas reaches for the needle not out of want, but need; his hands swim through the darkness, thick, as if by their own volition.
He touches the needle’s thread-thin base, first brushing lightly against it with his fingers, and then finding his grip upon it. His arms shake with a weariness that hasn’t quite reached his body yet.
Light leaks from his fingers with the consistency of water, tangible and flowing from the gaps in his hold. It lights up the cave around him in flashes, and illuminates the faces of his friends and family in flickers of whip-like clarity. He watches their expressions – grim and accepting – as they slow and slow until the world around Lucas has stopped in its tracks.
Lucas feels something start at the tips of his fingers, like limbs falling asleep. But it spreads, up his arms and through his chest, through his navel and down to his toes, and to the crown of his head like a glass filled full with liquid light. He only wonders for a moment what this feeling of fullness is, and then the answer comes to him as if it was there all along: the Dark Dragon. He acknowledges the Dark Dragon’s power resting calmly in his body with a nod, understanding.
He thinks about the world. He thinks about skies and seas, mountains and canyons, a world so wide he can’t see the end of it, that he couldn’t walk around if he tried. He thinks about Tazmily, about the Sunshine Forest and Mt. Oreander, about Snowcap Mountain and Saturn Valley, Tanetane and everything from one end of the Nowhere Islands to the other. And he thinks beyond that, about so much world that, were it not for the power still running stream-like inside of him, he would be reeling with dizziness.
Lucas feels it happen as he imagines it, feels the world under his feet shift to fit that shape. The world knits itself together like cloth from his mother’s old loom, spreading out from a single point until the pattern is complete. He allows himself to close his eyes – everything feels so right for once – and miles above his head a sunflower field finishes blooming.
When he opens his eyes, the cave itself is unchanged, exactly as it was in his memory. Still damp, charges still going off on the walls and ceiling, purple and pulsing. Though light has stopped seeping from the needle, he still holds it, firm but not too tight, and without its pulsing illuminating the cave like lightning he can see more clearly. He looks again at his company inside the cave.
Everybody is in their place, same as he left them.
But the Dark Dragon’s power still hasn’t left him. He still feels it there, no longer running to him from the needle but coiled inside of him, still filling his body so completely that everything under his skin must have been light.
He allows his mind to wander. He remembers searching for Ionia’s pickles, flying in Lydia’s white box, concerts and omelets and smiles and everything else that rests in his heart alongside that warm, white power. And a thought strikes him, unbidden.
He can do anything.
His eyes shift over to Duster, to his right foot turned slightly outward. His leg is bent, as it always has been. Lucas can’t remember a time where Duster didn’t have his limp, where he didn’t run while dragging his foot behind him as if it couldn’t keep up. Lucas wonders if it will work – it will, he immediately feels more than thinks, the ringing of a bell in the back of his head – and as he imagines it, it happens.
With a crack, Duster’s leg is forced back in to place. The noise of it echoes through the cave. Lucas feels his leg and heart suddenly crunch as if broken and he is miles from there, caught in the wave of change as he watches Duster’s life shift to fit his unbroken leg-
-he’s so distant, so enclosed that he hardly even feels the need to share his name, because people do things to hurt one-another without exception. Why should he trust you, Lucas, when you’ll just do the same, just make the same mistakes over and over again and never reconcile? He helps retrieve the egg but just as quickly withdraws into himself, because he is happy that way, and loyalty is worthless and nonexistent and even family members maim each-other you’ll do that too someday-
-and it takes a moment for the pain to catch up with him. Lucas almost cries out, but he bites his lip and holds it back.
The pain in his chest is far worse than his leg, which burns if Lucas dares try to move it. He leans on the needle like a cane and his heart pounds; every heartbeat is like being punched, a soreness that only seems to spread and makes it hard for him to breathe. But he does, forcing every breath until he feels he can continue without his lungs banging against the walls of his ribcage.
Lucas looks around, ears ringing. Duster is no longer in the cave - he never traveled with them.
He feels as if he’s done something horrible, but Lucas forces the feeling back inside himself, as physically real as the power still just below his skin.
Lucas brings himself upright again, though shakily, standing lightly on his now-mangled leg. It feels like it’s been twisted in all directions at once, and the rest of his body is still quivering, but he looks toward Kumatora regardless, who remains frozen despite Duster’s absence at her side.
He sets to work undoing her unhappiness. It is far more layered than Duster’s, many small events against one large, and Lucas has to unfurl them one by one, like methodically peeling off the petals of a flower. Her grief is in the overbearing knowledge of her own mortality. It is paired with every Magypsy death: every parent so different from her that she stumbled through her own self-discovery and reeled in confusion at their passing, so painful Lucas can feel it even before taking it on himself and-
-there’s this terribly cruel person standing in front of him, so uncaring of human life that she laughs and laughs and laughs at everybody’s pain, silly humans! Why should she help these people who cannot even help themselves? The Princess of Osohe has no need to care for others, no need to care if the world starts or ends, no need to fret or worry when she can be happy here in her castle where everybody is dead and nobody dies, and she laughs again, all the ghosts laughing with her and Lucas can’t make it stop-
-it’s like a great weight, so unbearably heavy that Lucas’s knees buckle and his leg responds in kind with a fresh fire-like blast of pain. He feels a thousand pounds heavier, as if this sadness and grief was a Clayman strapped to his back, too late for renewal at the assembly line and melting in to a mass of mud and stray thought. It was covering him in mud, crying out softly and sorrowfully while trying in vain to hold itself together just as Lucas barely manages to not fall to his knees. His eyes sting and his teeth clench to swallow a scream, his body shaking near-uncontrollably.
Kumatora, like Duster, has vanished from the cave, but Lucas still hears her laughter threatening to shred his eardrums to pieces.
Only his grip on the needle, a crutch of light still bright and clear as ever, keeps Lucas from falling completely. He uses this vicegrip to pull himself up once again, forces all this weight on to his entire body despite his right leg still throbbing as if constantly being compacted and his chest stinging as if he’d been electrocuted. He makes it to his feet, though still hunched over, and while he can barely feel it through the white noise in his head and the body-wide impression of being crushed alive, the Dark Dragon’s power is still there.
He feels like there’s hardly anything left of him besides that energy and all the pained weight he’s taken on. What he’s been doing is wrong. Definitely wrong, the most wrong he’s ever done in his life. More wrong than crying at home or beating up animals, even more wrong than failing to stop his brother-
His eyes move to his last companions in the cave, like his entire face is being held and led to face there. Flint and Boney despairing, Claus dead; it’s so obvious why they’re unhappy.
It happens before Lucas can stop it-
-all that’s left is this semblance of feeling, only sadness. Flint, Dad, what are you doing? They’re doing terrible things to this village, to this island, why are you sitting there and watching it happen? Will you find happiness this way? That peddler’s promise of happiness seems nice, he thinks he can buy in to it, thinks he can bet on this one last thing when he has nothing else to lose because even if he fought against that monster, it wouldn’t save anybody, wouldn’t bring Hinawa back. Lucas screams at him from behind: please recognize him, he and Claus exist and they can all cry together, why-
-Claus rises, bloody-bodied and tear-stained-
-the dog is growing older, and has nothing to protect. Boney feels it, his bones aching, eyes growing weaker and weaker until he only has vague shapes and other senses to guide him, though the soft feeling of Lucas’s fingers through his fur offers some comfort the few times he returns. Flint doesn’t pet him anymore, no longer returns affection in anything more than the tiniest degrees, so the two of them stay in the house where a family once lived and watch every time the earth shakes and the sky turns red and are happy in their solitude as the world shifts, too much for a dog to handle, just too much for even Lucas’s tears to keep him from passing-
-he turns to look at Lucas, for just a moment, though through all the grime of death Lucas cannot read his expression-
-he is filled with it, it’s all that’s left, hate hate hate HATE HATE why did you stop me, Lucas, I could have prevented all of this! Why are there so many things to hold me back? Why is there death, and suffering, and unhappiness?! Lucas cries, tears mixed with breath, but Claus hears nothing but that secret cruelty he has harbored for years, thorned and hating, and Claus runs to the Pigmask army as it forms so he can fill the void in his heart formed by death with more and more and more of it until it seems like he’s happy, he honestly believes it, and fights Lucas with a smile because how dare he-
-and he vanishes with the rest of them, his family extinguished like a final breath.
He is weightless for an instant, clear-headed and terrified, until his body catches up with him and Lucas falls to his knees outright. The weight from before increases a hundredfold, as if the cave itself has collapsed and left him buried beneath the rubble, as if nothing had ever been okay and nothing ever would be, as if every happy memory he had must be some kind of lie because everything hurt so much that his every thought circles back to pain.
Lucas is so weighed down that he cannot rise, despite his body still being filled with the Dark Dragon’s power and despite his hold on the needle remaining firm, his clenched fists now held above his head. The cave is empty. He has never felt so alone in his entire life.
It happens before Lucas can even imagine it, can even conceive of his own unhappiness undone. He sees her out of the corner of his eye, hands bruised, clothes torn, body blackened as if by fire or lightning strike, having just barely survived the confrontation that killed her. But he would recognize his mother anywhere, even through the haze of pain and lifetimes of unhappiness piled on top of his own.
“M-mom,” he manages to say, though he almost chokes on his words.
“Lucas, you can’t.”
But he tries; there must be something he can do to make everybody happy, some way to fill and displace all this weight he has taken that shouldn’t exist, shouldn’t be forced on anybody. He tries to dig deeper, to go even further back: what if Porky didn’t imprison anybody, or make anybody pull the needles? Time shifts, and Porky imposes his own darkness on the world, uncleansed.
And if Porky never comes? Some other disaster takes his place, some other villain or plague. And if those are averted? An internal despair, heartbreak; something always happens. No matter how hard Lucas pushes or how far back he goes there’s always this bubbling unhappiness he can’t quite scratch loose. He sobs, tearless, unable to wrap his mind around it.
“You can’t get rid of unhappiness completely, Lucas,” Hinawa says, still behind him. Despite what Lucas has done, her voice is blameless; Lucas doesn’t dare turn to face her.
“…Why not?” Lucas finally answers, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “Why is that such a bad thing?”
“It’s just the way things are.”
He remembers that that’s how the Magypsies justified their deaths, as well. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and his stomach churns in response. His body creaks like a statue trying in vain to shift positions.
“Mom, no, that can’t be it. There has to be more to it than that. I…I’m sick of that answer.”
Hinawa is silent, and every second of noiselessness from her leaves Lucas even more breathless, even more pained, slipping even further to the ground.
Hinawa finally breathes in, surprisingly clear, and answers: “We might not like it, but it’s something we need.”
Lucas says nothing. He grits his teeth.
“You’re being stubborn, Lucas.”
“You have to set things right,” says Hinawa.
“I don’t want to be selfish, though,” replies Lucas. “I don’t want to anybody to feel like this.”
“But you’re not selfish, Lucas.” Lucas can hear the smile in Hinawa’s voice, the only part of her unhindered by his own pain or her own changed fate. She embraces Lucas from behind, and Lucas can smell the rot and singed hair, but her touch sends shivers up his spine and warms him through the chill still crushing him down. “You’re anything but that.”
She releases her embrace and gently grabs Lucas’s sides, lifting him as if he were nine years old again. The gesture, somehow painless, cuts through all the unhappiness that has been bearing itself down physically upon him. She sets Lucas back on his feet - it hurts, but he is standing.
Lucas looks down at his hands. “I don’t want to do this,” he says, but he swallows his bile, takes a steadying breath that stabs at his insides, and remembers.
It is far less effortless to re-impose events than it was to erase them. He feels his mother torn from him as he reenacts that rainy night in his memory, feels himself as the fang that pierces her heart. But afterwards he turns last to see her smiling as she dissolves in to needle-light.
A little bit of the weight is lifted. Lucas breathes in. It is a sharp breath, but lighter. He sets out fix his mistake.
Next is Claus – battered body, rebuild after rebuild, years of senselessness. Lucas feels as though he pushed his twin off of the cliff-side himself, like her performed every surgical cut. But Claus, dead, and Flint and Boney return to the cave, three candles reignited in a gleam of flowing light. And even from where he stands, Lucas can see Claus’s smile, and Flint and Boney look toward Lucas with faces brimming in solemn confidence, the family reunited.
Then, Kumatora – Lucas is the gnawing urgency, the uncertainty, every instance of hesitation that formed her understanding. And the Kumatora that reappears in the cave is, despite her fiery nature, full of warmth and empathy.
And finally, Duster – there is a terrible crack, and Lucas is the force of gravity, the twisting and startling impact that shatters Duster’s leg. And Duster forms in the cave once more - limp more obvious to Lucas than ever as his own leg stops hurting - but kind-hearted and loyal.
Lucas feels unhindered again, painless and weightless and like he and this power can accomplish anything, and he hates it.
He leans his head against his hands, unmoving, and begins to cry. He allows himself to cry as loud and hard as he wants, tears pooling at his feet and reflecting needle-light. He cries until he can cry no longer.
He feels much better afterwards, though he sniffles for several minutes even after his tears have ceased. He wishes he could wipe his eyes, but his hands are still bound to the needle.
And in that moment, great serenity seems to wash over him. It is so immense and sudden that Lucas looks left and right for its source until he realizes that it is once more the Dark Dragon’s power inside of his body, still just as vast as when this all began. He feels it once more pulsate beneath his skin, and it seems content, as if saying, “Yes. Good. You have done well; it is time.”
Lucas manages to find a tiny smile somewhere inside of himself, and finally lets the last needle shoot off in to the sky.