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            It could have been worse, Vanitas reflected.

            He could have been trapped in one of those odd “gummi ship” things with Sora for hours on end. According to Donald the damn things ran on “happy faces”. Because of course they did.

            What Vanitas had was anything but a happy face. It would have been one thing if he and Sora were exploring a new world together. Then, at least, he might have the comfort of getting to laugh when Sora inevitably made an ass of himself being reckless. But, no. No, it had to be a world that Sora had been to already, with a bunch of locals that he was already friends with.

            And of course it had to be a world that Vanitas had already been to, too.

            Radiant Garden had seen better days. Vanitas had been there, in its better days, as had Aqua, Terra, Ventus, and apparently Kairi. And so had the old bastard, which Vanitas was reasonably sure was the reason why those better days had long since passed. He wasn’t sure how to ask.

            Who to ask, though, seemed more reasonable, if he could work up the nerve attention span. Upon their arrival Sora had paraded him in front of what had once been a rag-tag group of people with unclear goals and good hearts, but was now more commonly known as the “Radiant Garden Restoration Committee”. A wannabe ninja, a prettyboy with a gun for a sword, an old pilot, a flower girl, a bartender, and yet another emo kid whose sword was definitely compensating for nothing at all. What a crew.

            “And this is Vanitas!” Sora declared, smiling brightly.

            The old pilot – Cid, Vanitas begrudgingly decided he ought to remember – raised an eyebrow. “Sora, I distinctly recall asking you to bring your boyfriend and girlfriend next time you visited us. This kid looks like neither of them. I assume.” There was a teasing tone in his voice but Vanitas still bristled at being called a “kid”.

            Sora rubbed the back of his head, sheepishly. “Yeah, well… we’re not really here to visit. Master Yen Sid sent us on a mission here. Is something wrong?”

            “No more so than usual,” the prettyboy – Leon, Vanitas thought, though that sounded made up – said. “We still have a pretty bad Heartless infestation.”

            Sora frowned. “But I thought I sealed the Keyhole?”

            “You did, but our world’s heart was damaged,” said the emo – Cloud, his name was Cloud. “So… we’re still getting Heartless.”

            “Which is really throwing a wrench into the whole rebuilding the town thing!” added… Yuffie? The loud one. Yeah, Yuffie was her name, Vanitas was pretty sure. “Cause, yanno, we kill them, they come right back, and all?”

            “Oh, I get it!” Sora said, beaming. “So since we have Keyblades, they won’t come back!”

            “That’s the plan,” Cid said. “’Course we understand that you probably can’t get them all. Until the world’s heart heals, Heartless are just going to be a fact of life here.”

            “But, ideally, the two of you will be able to thin the numbers enough that we can expand the borders of the town,” Leon concluded.

            Sora turned to Vanitas. “What do you say, Vanitas? You feel up to fighting Heartless?”

            Vanitas rolled his eyes. “You say that like I have a choice.”

            Sora frowned, confused. “But… you do have a choice. You know your limits better than I do, so if you don’t think you’re ready to handle them, I’m not going to hold it against you.”

            Vantias glared at him. “Fuck off. Just point me at them.” He ignored the slight gasp from Yuffie and the widening of the others’ eyes; apparently they’d never heard someone swear in front of Sora before. Not his problem.

            Cid coughed. “Well, anyway, if you two’re ready, we’ll head out to the outskirts. I’ve got this cart.” He jerked a hand towards a four-wheeled vehicle behind him. “It’s no gummi ship, but it gets the job done. Let me know when you want to head off.”

            With that, the meeting seemed to be over, and Sora started going through his pockets, apparently checking his supplies or something, Vanitas didn’t care enough to be sure. He’d already went through his own loadout prior to arriving, as was his custom. It wasn’t possible to be over-prepared. The rest of the group set to their own preparations, but to his confusion Leon walked past him, saying “Nice jacket” as he went. Nonplussed, Vanitas could only stare in confusion. Leon smirked, and Sora grinned.

            “I’m ready,” Sora announced. “How about you, Vanitas?”

            “I’ve been ready,” Vanitas ground out, with just the faintest edge of irritation. “Can we just go?”

            Cid nodded. “Mount up.”

 

 

            “Whyyyyyyy do I always do this to myself?” Yuffie groaned. Her head was stuck over the back of the cart, where she wasn’t in danger of hitting her head if she lost her lunch. The cart was motorized, with Cid sitting in the front. Cloud, sitting next to her, patted her back with a rueful smile.

            “Is she okay?” Sora asked, concerned.

            Cloud shrugged. “She gets motionsick really easily. I used to be the same way when I was younger. But she’ll be okay, right, Yuffie?”

            “I wish I was deaaaaaaaaaaad!

            “She’ll be fine,” Cloud said, smiling at Sora.

            Sora raised an eyebrow. “Are… you okay, Cloud? You seem a bit more…” he trailed off, trying to find the proper word.

            “Cheery?” Cloud asked, smirking. “Yeah. I guess so. It takes a bit of a weight off. Sephiroth being dead. And I have you to thank for that, Sora.”

            “Well, of course! You’re my friend!” Sora said, beaming. Vanitas tried very hard to resist rolling his eyes, but ultimately caved to temptation.

            “Still. I don’t have to wake up terrified someone I care about got killed again,” Cloud said. “Because of you. And… Aerith has been helping with that.” He looked down, flushing a bit, and smiled. Vanitas successfully resisted the temptation to gag.

            Sora’s eyes widened. “Really? Congratulations, Cloud! How long…?”

            “There’s, uh, not anything official yet,” he backpedaled. “But we’ve been… talking.”

            “Talking is good!” Sora said, with a broad smile.

            Tifa, on the other side of Yuffie, shifted slightly. Sora paid her no mind, but Vanitas caught the look on her face, before she schooled it back into a neutral expression.

            Jealousy was easy to recognize. To his mild surprise, there was a jolt of pain in his heart, even though he himself hadn’t been hurt. Maybe it was that “sympathy” thing Kairi had yelled at him about. Questions for later.

            Cid glanced back and sighed a bit. “You okay, Cid?” Sora asked.

            “Huh? Oh, yeah. Just seeing all you kids go through this sort of stuff makes me miss Shera, is all. My wife,” he explained at Sora’s confused expression. “I couldn’t find her during the Fall, and I had to get out with the kids, so I couldn’t look for her. I haven’t seen her since, and… well, I try not to think hard about it. But I miss her.” He leaned back and sighed. “She used to make the best g – Sora, cover your ears.”

            Still confused, Sora put his hands over his ears. “She used to make the best goddamn tea you’d ever drank,” Cid finished, motioning Sora to uncover his ears. “There’s a chance she’ll show back up here one of these days, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. It’d just hurt more.”

            “Show… back up?” Vanitas dared to ask. Obviously the “Fall” was whatever calamity had befallen Radiant Garden since he’d been dead.

            “Well, Sora and the rest have destroyed a lot of Heartless and Nobodies,” Tifa said. “And when you destroy the Heartless and the Nobody…”

            “The Somebody comes back to life!” Sora said, nodding in understanding. “But I thought that was just the powerful Nobodies that kept human form?”

            “Yeah, we thought so, too,” Cid said. “But, people keep randomly showing up in pillars of light, ever since Riku and the King pulled Aqua and Ansem the Wise outta the Realm of Darkness. And it’s all people from before the Fall, so that’s gotta be what’s happenin’ to them.”

            “That’s why we’re having such a problem with the Heartless,” Tifa said. “Our population’s growing in fits and spurts, and we need more construction to keep up with everyone. We’re not at the breaking point yet, but building well ahead means we need more room to build in.”

            “Oh, I get it,” Sora said. “Every time you build more stuff, you have to go further out from the centre, and further towards the Heartless.”

            “Exactly. And we can’t make much headway without Keyblades to put them down permanently,” Cloud said.

            “So… you literally just need us to kill all the Heartless?” Vanitas asked.

            “Well, I don’t think you’ll be able to get all of them,” Tifa said. “More always show up. But if you can push them back a bit, it’ll give us a bit more of a chance to expand Tron’s defensive system. Then it’s easier to keep them out.”

            “That’s just gonna be life for the foreseeable future,” Cloud said. “Could be worse. At least there’s still stuff for all of us to do.”

            Tifa rolled her eyes. “It’s not like there isn’t stuff we’d rather be doing, Cloud. I want to set up that bar, Aerith wants that orphanage and school, and I know you still want to arrange that mail service. We’ll need it someday, especially if we keep expanding.”

            “Yeah, sure,” Cloud said, but smiled warmly.

            “It’s just the group of you doing this?” Vanitas asked. Maybe they were more capable than they looked.

            “Mostly, although Dilan and Aeleus help out, too,” Cid said. “We take it in shifts. Leon has the day off today, by which I mean there’s other sh – stuff he’s trying to sort out.”

            “Turns out it’s not that simple trying to set up a community,” Tifa said, amused. “Not bad for how antisocial he used to be as a little kid.”

            Vanitas noticed that Sora was beaming at him. “What?” he demanded.

            “Nothing!” Sora said, but his expression didn’t change.

            Cid drove them out along roads carved into the walls of a canyon, coming to a halt in a large clearing. “Oh, here!” Sora said.

            “Yep,” Cid said, nodding.

            “You’ve been here before?” Vanitas asked.

            “Yeah. Fought off, like, a thousand Heartless here!” Sora said.

            “…of course you did,” Vanitas said, condescending. Obviously Sora was exaggerating. He stood up, and stepped off the back of the cart, summoning his Keyblade as he went. “Let’s get to it.”

            “Wait, but you don’t know anything about fighting Heartless, do you?” Sora said, scrambling after him.

            Vanitas rolled his eyes. “‘Stick pointy Key in Dark thing.’ It’s not complicated.”

            “Yeah, but there’s specific ones that–”

            “No time,” Cloud interrupted, unsheathing his massive compensation joke. “They’re here.”

            As he spoke, Yuffie, Cid, and Tifa jumped out to join them, and a black cloud of swirling limbs hurled out of the other end of the clearing.

            Vanitas’s breath hitched in his throat, and he swallowed, then grinned.

            Dealing with other people was complicated.

            Dealing with Heartless was not.

 

 

            “Why! Won’t! You! Go! Down!” Vanitas shrieked, swinging his Keyblade wildly at the Heartless before him. Every time, his strike would bounce off of its large body, and he was getting very frustrated.

            And also, very surrounded. Three more of the things had manoeuvred themselves around him as focused on the one. A stab of fear laced through him, and he almost wished it would manifest as a Flood, if only so they had something else to target. The Heartless started to close in, seeming to prepare for a charge that would splatter him –

            Until one of them exploded into pieces, revealing Sora standing behind it. “Vanitas!” he called. “This way!”

            Vanitas ignored Sora’s outstretched hand, but took the opportunity to escape. “What the hell was that?” he gasped, panting, trying to get his fear under control; something else his Unversed had made easier.

            “Those ones are invulnerable from the front, you have to hit them from behind,” Sora explained. “…I woulda told you about them if you’d listened,” he added, quietly.

            Vanitas glared at him. “…Fine. I’m listening now,” he said, gruffly. “Explain.”

            “Okay, so, we call those Large Bodies, and they’re a pain,” Sora said. “They move around really fast, so even if you get behind them, it’s hard to stay there. Some of them even breathe fire, which is real annoying.”

            “…You call them ‘Large Bodies’?” Vanitas asked, confused and slightly disgusted.

            Sora frowned. “Yeah, what? It’s what they are.”

            “What fucking idiot came up with that simple a…” Vanitas trailed off at the indignant look on Sora’s face.

            “Look, I was fourteen, okay? I’d like to see you do better. What were your Unversed called?” Sora said, with just a hint of bitterness.

            Vanitas thought about Red Hot Chilies, Hareraisers, Jellyshades, and Spiderchests. “All their names were awesome,” he said, defensively. “Look, just… tell me more about the Heartless, okay?”

            Sora smirked. “All right.”

 

 

            Vanitas collapsed to his knees, panting. The Heartless had been satisfactorily pruned, and he was exhausted. Beside him, but not too close, Sora was also just as tired.

            Vanitas’s pulse, however, was still pounding in his ears. The Heartless had left, there was nothing to fight, but he was burning with the need to move, the need to fight, the need to do something. Adrenaline was a bitch, and he couldn’t push the tension out as an Unversed anymore.

            “I think that’s it for now,” Cloud said. Vanitas hated the fact that he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. Stupid perfect blond palm tree. “Everyone all right?”

            “I’ve had worse!” Yuffie announced, a hand pressed over a cut on her upper arm.

            “That doesn’t mean you’re not… sheesh,” Tifa muttered.

            There was an engine sound, and a motorcycle slid into view down the road they’d arrived on. It pulled to a stop in front of them and its brown-haired riders both climbed off.

            “I see we missed the party,” Leon quipped, as Aerith rushed over to Yuffie.

            “You’ll get your chance later,” Cloud said, smirking at him. “Did you take care of her?”

            “Your bike or your girl?” Leon replied, matching his smirk.

            Cloud reddened. “She’s not my… I mean, we’re not… She’s… I’m…”

            Leon laughed and clapped him on the back. “Calm down, Cloud. The bike’s fine.”

            Sora caught the way Aerith was blushing as she healed Yuffie’s cut and beamed. Vanitas caught the way Tifa was grimacing and felt that stab of pain in his heart again.

            Yuffie seemed to notice Tifa’s reaction as well. “Hey, Aerith, I’m fine now. Wanna go check on the boys?” she asked, smiling.

            “Hmm? Oh, yes. You’re sure you’re all right?” Aerith asked.

            “Pffff, yeah, fine! Go on! They look like they’re about to fall over!” Yuffie said, waving her away. Aerith crossed over to Cloud, and once her back was turned, Yuffie’s grin faded somewhat. She turned to Tifa and sat down beside her, murmuring a question lower than Vanitas could hear.

            He shook himself. No time to be caring about other people’s shit, he had to get himself under control. To calm himself down before –

            “Vanitas, are you all right?”

            It happened in seconds. Looking back he was at least proud of the fact that he didn’t summon his Keyblade and threaten her.

            As it was, his reaction still left something to be desired.

            “Get away from me!” he shrieked, roughly shoving Aerith’s hand off his shoulder and spinning around, dropping into a defensive stance, Instinct told him that what had touched him was a Heartless, a monster, something that meant him harm.

            But when his eyes finally focused, all he could see was a twenty-something girl in a pink dress, looking mortified.

            “Vanitas? It’s all right, it’s okay. The fight’s done. We’re safe.” Sora didn’t try to touch him, spoke calmly and gently. But there was still a problem.

            “I, can’t, calm, down,” Vanitas choked out, in short gasps through clenched teeth. “Something’s, wrong, with, me.”

            Sora’s eyes widened. “Okay. Um, I can get you to a place where I know for a fact we won’t be in danger. Would that help you?”

            “Can’t, hurt.”

            “Cloud! Do you mind if I borrow your motorcycle?” Sora asked, looking at the blond man.

            Cloud, correctly reading the situation, didn’t make a joke. “Can you drive a motorcycle, Sora?”

            Sora shrugged. “I could drive the lightcycles in Tron’s world just fine. It’s the same principle, right?”

            Cloud sighed. “Not exactly, but–”

            “Cloud, please? It’s an emergency,” Sora insisted.

            Cloud looked from Sora to Vanitas. Vanitas was starting to shake. “All right, go. We’ll catch up.”

            “Thanks!” Sora said, and motioned Vanitas over to the motorcycle. “Aerith, we’re really sorry about this!”

            “It’s fine, Sora,” Aerith said, quickly (a little too quickly, in Vanitas’s opinion. Fuck. He didn’t need to be noticing things like this.) “Is he going to be okay?”

            “I hope so,” Sora said, grimly. “We’ll be at Merlin’s if you need us.” He pulled Vanitas on to the bike behind him, wrapping the other boy’s arms around his waist. Vanitas was still to shaken to protest, all his energy focused on not breaking down. Sora gunned the engine, and the two rode off in the direction of Radiant Garden.

            “Shit. I hope the kid’s going to be okay,” Cid commented.

            “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have touched him,” Aerith murmured.

            “Hey, no it’s not. He was wound up from the fight to begin with. You weren’t here, you didn’t know,” said Tifa, placing a comforting hand on Aerith’s shoulder.

            “Tifa’s right,” Cloud said. “That kid… he reminds me a lot of me when I was younger.”

            “Meaning he needs help and is too proud to ask for it?” Yuffie teased, but her face was still serious.

            “Meaning, something got broken, and he’s not sure what to do to fix it,” Cloud replied.

            Leon nodded. “Then it’s a good thing he’s with Sora. But what’s there at Merlin’s that could possibly help?”