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hindsight is crystal clear

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XION: I started having the strangest dreams.

ROXAS: Like nightmares?

XION: I can never remember. I just…wake up scared.

*

Xion opens her eyes and is greeted by a curved sheet of metal arcing over her body. She can only tell that it’s an arc because of the slits cut into it, for air maybe, which let in narrow strips of light. The light wavers across her skin when she raises her arm to touch the metal, feel the chilly steel, thick and lined with rivets. She’s not wearing her gloves. She’s not wearing her coat, either, and she can feel cotton pressed against her body but she can’t see her own clothes. She’s half afraid that if she lifts her head to look she’ll smack it against the metal shell.

When she spreads her hands out against the steel, the chill sinks down to the bones of her hand. She shoves, and the arc moves, shifting with a squeal of metal against metal, up and sideways like a coffin lid.

She gives it another shove and the metal falls away with a clang. When she sits up and grasps at the sides of the container she’s lying in, Xion realizes that maybe coffin isn’t too far off. The metal walls come up to the middle of her ribcage when she sits up, and the ends are rounded, so it looks like she’s laying in a long oval pod. When she climbs out on trembling legs, she finds that the lining looks like carved foam, soft heather gray hollowed out in a girl-shape. She remembers a gift shop in Twilight Town that packages their dolls the same way. Xion wonders if the person who nestled her in the pod did so for her comfort or just to keep her from shifting around.

The whole room seems to be made of the same metal as the pod, with light from a single bright work lamp hanging from the ceiling casting harsh shadows in all the corners. There are exposed pipes running along the walls—no windows—and a single heavy-looking door in the corner. Xion makes to move toward the door and nearly falls on her face.

Her shoes are huge. The backs are open so her heels hang out. The rest of her outfit is marginally better: she’s wearing a skirt, short and purple with little frilly eyelets along the hem, but at least there seems to be a pair of shorts underneath. She’s wearing two tank tops, layered black and white, with a big purple belt that nearly hangs off her hips to top it all off. She can’t recall if she’s ever shown so much bare skin in her life.

She kicks off the shoes—they’re silly and terrible for running—and pads barefoot to the door. Outside the door is a long corridor, also harshly lit, also made of metal, and at the end of the corridor is a set of stairs. Halfway up the stairs a shaft of natural light shines through.

It’s a porthole. Xion can’t see much through the thick glass, because there’s fog swirling up to obscure her vision outside, but she’s pretty sure she’s on a boat. If she squints she can see grayish water lapping against a hazy riverbank. She wonders where the crew is, or the rumble of the engine, or…anything.

The deck of the riverboat is made of the same thick steel as everything else here, but when she steps on it her bare feet catch on the tiny lines etched into the metal. Xion still hasn’t found anything that requires her attention—up here she can see that the boat really is moving under its own power, no crew in sight, but it doesn’t seem to need her help steering or anything—so she kneels down to inspect the etchings. It’s the same nonsense pattern of straight lines and sharp angles from the castle, and as far as Xion can tell it sprawls across the whole deck. She slips a little, getting back to her feet, and the skin of her knees catches on the lines and tears open. Just little scrapes. A tiny drop of blood rolls down her shin. She’s not used to seeing her own bare legs.

The door has let her out facing the…back end of the boat, whatever it’s called. There’s a handle; Xion’s pretty sure it’s for a rudder, even though as she watches the boat shifts its course slightly without the handle moving. She can’t see anything that might be powering the boat, no paddles or trails of steam. The water swirling out behind is gunmetal gray, like the sky, and the river stretches out behind for miles. She can’t tell if the mouth is in sight, because at the horizon there’s a massive cliff with a huge white waterfall.

Xion’s not sure how the boat wound up on the river with the waterfall to deal with, but she also has a sneaking suspicion that none of this is real, so she doesn’t let herself think about it for long.

As she walks around to the front of the boat, fog rises up from the water. The fog, strangely, is more colorful than the rest of the landscape, or at least the parts that Xion can see. There are clouds of white swirling around but when she looks closer, she can see full-color images flickering through the haze, at least until she passes the front of the wheelhouse. Then the white fog is too thick to see much of anything.

When she turns around, Xion can see clear back to the waterfall, shrinking away in the distance.

The etchings on the deck continue up in front of the wheelhouse, but Xion can see a break in the pattern halfway between the wheelhouse and the front railing: a large circle, a good eight feet in diameter, with a much curlier pattern inside. She pads over to the circle, careful not to scrape her feet on the rest of the pattern, and tries to resolve the lines into something coherent. There’s a picture there; Xion makes out a seashell, an ice cream bar, and a strange star shape enclosed in three smaller circles, then a hand gripping a Keyblade—her Keyblade, the one she shares with Roxas—attached to the body of a girl. The girl has a face remarkably similar to Xion’s. Her clothes even match the strange outfit Xion is wearing, down to the layered tank tops and frilly skirt and ridiculous shoes that are still languishing belowdeck somewhere.

Xion steps inside the circle to inspect the girl-etching. She has her eyes closed, and is curled up in one side of the large circle. The entire image is monochrome, just the flat steel of the deck, but when she crouches low Xion sees traces of paint, red and purple and white, that look like the remains of colors someone scrubbed away.

When she stands again, there’s a boy leaning against the front railing. He’s silver-haired and is wearing a yellow tank top and blue pants, all with entirely too many straps and belts, and he’s frowning.

“This is the bow of the boat,” he informs her, and points to his feet, which seems to indicate the entire front half of the ship. “The back end’s the stern. Just so you know.”

“I…didn’t ask?” Xion says, though with the shock in her voice it comes out more like a question.

The boy snorts. “You didn’t need to ask. This is all just your dream, anyway, so why wouldn’t I know all the questions you have?”

Which, she thinks, is a fair point, even if it’s not as polite as she’d hope her own dreams would be to her. “So if I don’t need to ask, why should I need you to answer?” she asks. “Shouldn’t I just know everything you can tell me?”

“It’s not that easy,” he says. He crosses his arms, and his ankles, looking bored by the conversation. “Just because you have the knowledge doesn’t mean you know it. It’s called subconscious for a reason.”

So Xion takes a steadying breath, because she doesn’t want to fight with someone who is possibly a figment of her own imagination, and asks, “Who are you?”

“Riku,” he says, and it’s a name that rings familiar in her ears despite her not knowing any Rikus in the Organization.

“Are you from my past?”

“Yes and no. That’s something you need to find out on your own.” He holds up a hand when she draws breath, and says, “Don’t bother. I know what you want to ask, remember?”

So Xion huffs and crosses her arms in turn, in a clear out with it, then pose, and Riku says, “You’re here to make a choice. I can’t tell you what it is, because you don’t know what it is. You’ll find out, and when you’re ready—“ he points to the back of the boat—the stern, she corrects herself, with a small curl to her lip “—the rudder will be there for you to determine your path.”

Xion opens her mouth again—how will I know, how are you here, and most pressingly where am I press against her teeth, but Riku cuts her off with a derisive laugh. “This river is everywhere,” he says. “It flows for everyone. It never stops. You can’t see what’s ahead, but hindsight is crystal clear, right?”

He winks.

 

Xion wakes up.

*

XION: Are you really okay?

ROXAS: This is getting weird.

XION: Huh?

ROXAS: Since when do you ever worry about me?

*

The next time she opens her eyes to find herself in the middle of the etching circle, Riku is gone. There’s only the shimmering fog, and the riverbank slipping past, and the chill against her bare legs. Xion misses her coat with a ferocity that curls nauseatingly tight in her stomach; it may be a uniform but its weight is comforting. Her sturdy boots, her thick pants, her creaking gloves, and her cloak are the only clothes she’s ever known.

And quick as a neuron firing, she’s wearing them. The buttery leather falls over her body in a familiar embrace. The perks of a dream world, she supposes.

Xion stretches her hands out in front of her to observe her gloves against the silver-fog backdrop, and behind her, she hears a groan of pain.

She turns, and—there’s another black coat sprawled out in front of the wheelhouse, another body, with windblown blond hair that she knows from her very first days of life—

“Roxas!” she yells, and runs to him.

He moans again when she draws near, rolls his head and flinches away when she reaches for him. He doesn’t look hurt but she calls for her Keyblade on instinct, to beat away whatever threatens him, to destroy the monsters that would hurt her best friend (those words drop warm into the middle of her chest like a sun-warmed stone, send ripples of happiness through her body), but when the Kingdom Key shimmers into her hand Roxas coughs and gasps “No!”

She dismisses the Keyblade, and Roxas slumps back down to the deck. “What’s wrong?” Xion asks, hands fluttering, because Roxas is in pain and she doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to help.

“You can’t have both,” Roxas says.

“What,” Xion says, because Roxas is many things but a riddler is not one of them.

“What you want and what’s best,” Roxas says. “You can’t have both. You have to choose.” And he coughs again, and flinches away from her, and his face is washed sickly gray. “Look,” he says, and points over Xion’s shoulder.

The fog still swirls thick past the bow of the boat, but in the distance, Xion sees a new shadow; a high, narrow land mass splitting the river in two. The right branch is still silver-mist void, but on the left—

A tall stained glass tower, green and blue and red and yellow, with intricate arches reaching up the sides, all the way up to the flat top where it seems nearly to kiss the sky. It’s barely visible, but illuminated, glowing from the inside, and against the clouds overhead Xion thinks she sees a pattern from the top of the tower, small colored circles and a curved red shape like the etching circle on the deck, the one with the sleeping girl.

“Save me,” Roxas pleads.

*

AXEL: You do know that. You’re a replica whose original purpose was to copy Roxas’s powers. So if you see Roxas’s powers getting weaker, while your powers are getting stronger… It could be that you’re robbing Roxas of his powers more than you oughta be.

XION: What can I… Then what should I do?

AXEL: You gotta think for yourself. ‘Cause I know you’re not just a puppet. We’re best friends; you, me, and Roxas, that is. Got it memorized?

*

The third time she finds herself in the circle, Xion rushes to the bow of the boat immediately. The glass tower is still there, looming closer now, and the fog still swirls thick in the second branch of the river. The water is still gunmetal gray, lapping at the bank, at the grass there sprouting-growing-dying too quickly to be natural. Rust creeps up the sides of the boat, burnt-orange flakes crawling higher and higher.

Xion turns away from the crawling decay and finds Axel leaning against the wheelhouse.

“Your ship’s not doing so hot,” he says, though from what Xion can see there’s no rust visible from his spot on the deck.

“Will it sink?” she asks. She wonders if a dream boat can sink. She wonders what it says about her that her dream vessel is falling into such disrepair.

“Nah. Won’t have time.” Axel gestures behind him, to the wall, towards the rudder Xion can still picture waiting at the stern. Her palms itch with the fear of wrapping around it. “Lucky for you. Captain’s supposed to go down with the ship, right? Guess if you’re the only real person on this boat it makes you captain.” Axel bows his head, glares a little at the etched angles on the deck. “Always thought that was a load of crap.”

Xion wants to laugh at that, at the notion of her being a real person, the only real person in this false dreamscape, but she can’t muster the energy. Her coat hangs too heavy on her shoulders with fake puppet vessel stitched into the hems.

“Maybe I should,” Xion says. “If I don’t, Roxas will—“

She doesn’t say die. There’s not a word strong enough for the complete annihilation of a Nobody.

“Do you want to?” Axel asks. “Is that what you want?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Xion snaps, and she’s gripping her hands so tight around the railing that she feels like her bones will split through her skin, but it doesn’t matter, does it. Not if this is the only place she’s real. Not if it comes at the cost of Roxas’s life. Riku—not the dream Riku but an older, sadder, cloaked Riku—hasn’t said so in as many words but Roxas’s life will fade as long as Xion clings to her own.

It’s what Vexen made her. A parasite.

“Of course it matters,” Axel snaps back; she’s never really seen him this angry, like he’s burning but not with the flames he calls to hand in battle. “You matter, Xion. What you want matters.”

She wants—

Xion curls in on herself, clutching at her own ribcage, at where her heart would be if she was real. “I want to stay with you two,” she says. The words catch thick in her throat.

“You can’t,” Axel says. “Stay, that is. But…”

He nods. Xion turns.

The fog obscuring the right branch of the river clears, just a little. Something blooms in the mouth between the riverbanks, a dark corridor large enough to swallow the riverboat twice over. Behind it stands—

The clocktower. It’s the station tower from Twilight Town, but crumbling, ruined, one of the hands missing and the face cracked in half. The bricks are pockmarked with dark spots and small craters.

“You’re good at running, Xion,” Axel says. “Maybe take some friends along next time, huh?”

*

XION: So, do you hate me for taking your friend away from you?

RIKU: Nah. I guess...I'm just sad.

*

This time there’s a man leaning against the starboard railing. His hair reminds her of Roxas, from the back, blond and mussed into spikes, but this man is taller and broader in the shoulders, not to mention that the sword strapped to his back looks like it might be bigger than Roxas by itself.

The single black wing is a notable difference, too, although Xion wonders if it would be rude of her to stare. She wonders if she can be rude in a dream.

She’s back in the middle of the etching circle, but even from her spot she can hear the groaning metal as the man clutches the railing with a death grip, so she makes her way over to stand next to him. “Are you okay?” she asks, leaning forward to try and get a look at his face. He’s very pale, with deep shadows under bright blue eyes that seem to glow in the haze off the water.

“Motion sick,” the man says. Xion recognizes him, suddenly—this is the same man who was lurking in the shadows outside the Coliseum in the dream-memories she has on nights she doesn’t dream on the river. “I never do well on boats.”

“I’m sorry,” Xion says, although she’s not sure what she can do. It might actually be her fault; this is her dream, after all.

The man shakes his head. “I’ll be okay,” he says. He loosens his grip on the railing and crosses his arms; in his left fist, the one Xion can now see, he’s holding a bouquet of blue and purple and red flowers. The stems are hidden under a shining golden claw. “If you disappear, it’ll hurt more people than just you,” he says. “Have you thought about that?”

“No,” Xion says, because she doesn’t really see a point in trying to save face in a conversation with her own subconscious. “What’s your name?”

The man shrugs. “Does it matter?” He stops to close his eyes and take a deep breath through his nose. Xion wonders if dream figments can puke. “Names don’t mean much without something behind them. Memories. Experience. Existence. If you stop existing, your friends won’t just lose your name. They’ll lose their memories of you. Everything that makes you who you are will be wiped away.”

Xion slumps over the railing to stare down at the water. The gray of the river looks especially unappealing today. “I know it will,” she says. “That…might be for the best. If they don’t remember me, it won’t hurt, right?”

The man shakes his head. “It will hurt,” he says. “Losing someone you love always hurts. It’s worse when you can’t remember what it is you’ve lost.”

“Oh.” Xion kicks one foot forward to dangle the tip of her boot over the edge of the deck. She curls her toes down into the sole and imagines the drop into the steely water. “Why is it like that?”

He shrugs again. “With memories, you can think about the good moments. Your friends would remember eating ice cream with you, and how much you liked the sunsets, and that time you burned the curry. If they don’t remember they can’t mourn.” He sighs and turns to hold the flowers out. “Do you know what these are?”

Xion straightens up and leans closer. The blue flowers are small, with rounded petals and small streaks of yellow near the center; the red flowers have wide petals and long golden stamens reaching out like hungry tongues. Marluxia would be able to tell her what they are, she thinks, but the only ones she recognizes are the thin purple blooms.

“Those are shions,” she says. “Like my name.”

The man nods. “Tatarian asters,” he says, “and red camellias, and morning glories.”

“Do you like flowers?”

“I have a friend who does.” The man withdraws his hand, leaning against the railing again, his wrists hanging limp over the side. “The flowers all have different meanings. Morning glories mean keeping your promises. Red camellias are about being in love and dying with grace.”

Xion swallows back the lump in her throat. “That’s weird. Those two meanings together, I mean.”

“Death and love? Not really.” He tilts his head, and Xion barely catches a glimpse of the corner of his eye tightening. “Shions mean I will never forget you.”

She looks back down to the water and tries to blink back the burning in her eyes. “Why did you bring those flowers?” she asks, voice quavering a little but she just—wants to not have to think about this, to not have to think about existence and the fork in the river and the glowing glass tower that looms closer every time she dreams. “And what’s your name? If you’re going to be arguing with me at least tell me your name.”

When the man rests a warm hand on her head, Xion closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. “My name’s Cloud. The flowers are for a grave.”

“Whose grave?” Xion croaks.

Cloud’s hand falls away, and he laughs a little. She opens her eyes to look up at him. It’s not a happy laugh, she thinks, not with the hollow look on his face.

“That’s the sad part,” he says, thousand-yard stare directed at something off in the fog. “I forgot.”

Cloud releases the bouquet. The flowers float down into the river, where they drift along on the boat’s wake, flourishing and crumbling and blooming again a hundred times while they spin along the current. Xion and Cloud watch them in silence until the fog rises up to take them.

*

XION: Yes, I certainly did. I'm on the verge of losing everything I care about. So please... Please Riku, tell me what I should do now.

RIKU: Go to Twilight Town. You'll find a girl there named Naminé.

XION: Naminé? What's she like?

*

illustration of xion overlooking the river, with the clocktower and station of awakening in the distance

Xion drifts, curled in a hollow between trees outside the haunted manor, and even before she’s fully asleep her dreams creep around her like a fog slithering into the corners of her vision. Falling asleep just feels like falling, for a long moment, and then she’s aware of metal under her boots and the fog swirls in a more familiar pattern and she’s in the middle of the etching circle again.

The whole dreamscape is steely gray and tarnished silver, so the streak of white and gold in Xion’s periphery catches her attention immediately. She turns to find a girl in a white dress, with long hair like spun gold and delicate blue sandals.

She’s like a negative print of Xion, almost, but more like the shape of the girl in the etching. Dark and light. Xion entertains a wild thought of stripping off her glove and laying her own deep brown hand on this girl’s milky arm.

“Hello, Xion,” the girl says. Her voice is high and sweet but—sad, almost. Like she’s been crying, or is about to. Xion thinks about laying her hand against the girl’s face instead, curling it around her cheek.

“Hi,” Xion says.

“My name is Naminé.” She offers a small smile. “It’s nice to see you, Xion.”

It’s Naminé’s phrasing that tips Xion off: not nice to meet you, but something more intimate. “You know Sora, don’t you?” Xion asks.

“I did. But…Sora doesn’t know me.” Naminé’s smile slips a little. “He won’t. He’s forgotten me. It’s not his fault.” Her hand reaches back, brushing against the port railing as if to steady her.

“I’m sorry,” is all Xion can think to say. “Why did he forget you?”

“He had to. I…made him.” Naminé bows her head, and Xion takes a step forward, her fingers twitching to reach out and offer comfort she’s never learned how to give. “I’m tied to his memories, which means I’m tied to you, too.”

“But I’ve never met you,” Xion says. It’s silly. She wants to meet Naminé.

“You will,” Naminé promises. “Soon. And I’ll help you with whatever decision you’ve made.” She lifts her head, just a little, and a small part of the smile slips back into place. “I’ve run from the Organization before, if that’s what you choose.”

Xion swallows. “What if I choose my other option?”

“Then you’ll need me.” Naminé takes a step forward, too, and nods to the river, the glass tower with the sleeping boy, the broken clocktower, to the rust creeping up onto the deck of the boat, to the split looming so close it pushes something high into Xion’s throat. She’d call it her heart if she had one. “You’re running out.”

“Of what?” Xion asks.

Naminé’s eyes crinkle. “Surely you know,” she says. “What this river is.”

Xion nods, because she does. She wonders if she did from the start.

Naminé holds her hand out, and says, “Are you ready?”

Xion takes it.

Naminé guides her around the wheelhouse to the stern of the boat. The rudder is waiting, rusting slowly, and the waterfall is just a speck in the distance, and arrayed along the railing, Xion’s phantom visitors are waiting. Towards port are Roxas, pale and woozy, and Riku—Xion’s Riku, blindfold and coat in place, frown tugging at his lips. To the starboard are Axel, arms crossed and head drooping, and Cloud, wing folded tight against his back and a narrow, sad set to his eyes.

Naminé squeezes Xion’s hand. The leather of her glove creaks when Xion squeezes back.

Then, Xion lets go. She strides toward the rudder, glad her coat hides the shaking of her knees, hand outstretched.

When she grabs the handle, the rust crawls faster toward her hand. The whole boat seems to groan while the sunset-orange reaches Xion’s hand, continues onto her hand, tracing burnt patterns across the black leather of her glove, her sleeve, her coat, leaving pearly metallic white in the spaces between the rust. Rust and dead salt, Xion thinks.

She takes a deep breath, tightens her grip, and pulls.