He'd been a gentle thing. Kind. With a smile that came easily and rarely faltered, and a heart of pure light.
Aqua looked at the boy in front of her. At his glare. His anger.
“You're not Ven,” she said.
He looked at her with something like exasperation. “My name is Roxas. Not anything else. Who's Ven?”
“Someone I once knew,” she said, not letting her surprise about his appearance show. “Someone I need to find and wake up.”
He scowled. “Are you going to try to kidnap me to wake him up, too?”
“What? Why would I kidnap you?”
He shook his head, as if explaining would be too hard. “What are you here for, then?”
“My friend is in that castle,” she said. “I'm here to get him.”
“There's no one here but us,” he said. “Organization XIII. Your friend isn't here.”
“You couldn't have found him,” she said. “He's hidden so that only I can get to him. Let me pass.”
“I can't do that,” he said, almost apologetically. “I'm guarding the castle. But if you wait, maybe I can ask-”
She held out a hand, and her keyblade appeared. “This was my world, before I turned it into this castle. Now, I have no problem letting your group keep it, once I'm done here. But Ven has been waiting for me for who knows how long, and I'm going to get him now.”
There was a moment where he looked astounded. “You have a keyblade?” he asked.
She nodded curtly.
His hands curled, and two blades appeared in them.
“So do I,” he said, but the way he said it made it sound almost like a question.
A beat passed, and then another.
“Do you know why I have them?” he asked.
She shook her head. “There are ways to give another person a keyblade. But you would remember.”
“I don't remember anything,” he said, and she had a sudden flash to when Ventus had come to live with them- the screaming when they'd asked questions of him, the blankness, that something had been done to him, and how forgetting was his only shield against whatever wound had been inflicted on him.
“I'll help you find your answers,” Aqua said carefully. “If you'll escort me while I find my friend.”
Roxas looked around the castle, at the empty fields around it with no obvious intruders.
“Fine,” he said.
She let the keyblade disappear. He followed suit with his, and she wondered how on earth he'd gotten two of them. She hadn't thought it was possible.
The castle was empty, and she couldn't help but wonder what he'd been guarding.
The rooms had twisted around themselves while she'd been gone, but this world remembered her, and she didn't have trouble finding the room where Ven was sleeping.
He looked the same as when she'd left him. He was sleeping, and his heart was gone.
Behind her, Roxas stopped at the door.
“Why is he here?” he asked.
Aqua picked Ven's body up. “I left him here while I searched for his heart. And then I was trapped. But I'm free now, and I think I know where to find his heart.”
She walked towards the door, and Roxas said: “He looks like me.”
“He does,” Aqua said.
“You said you'd tell me why I have the keyblades,” he added, not moving out of the way of the door.
“Sometimes,” Aqua said, hefting Ven's body over her shoulder, “if there aren't enough keyblade wielders, the keyblade will pick one. To keep the balance between light and dark. It picks someone with a strong heart.”
That drew a slow laugh from Roxas. “A strong heart?”
She nodded. “You must be a pretty special person.”
He shook his head. “I'm a Nobody,” he said. “I don't even have a heart.”
She looked at him. At the deep blue eyes, and the absurd hair, and the heart she could almost see, inside of him. The heart full of light. But not just light. Not anymore.
She put Ven down gently, and knelt to hold one of his hands. She looked up at Roxas. “You have a heart,” she said. “I'd have to be dead not to feel it.”
She pressed a hand against his chest, and he was so shocked that he didn't move away. Though there was no beat under her hand, she didn't let that dissuade her. It was a sleeping heart, after all.
“If you want to come home, Ven,” she said to him. “I'll be waiting for you.”
“I told you,” he said, eyes narrowing. “My name is-”
She grabbed his hand. “You're Ven. Ventus. You lived with me, and Terra, and Master Eraquis. Ever since Master Xehanort ripped the darkness out of your heart.”
“This, she said, gesturing towards the body lying beside her, “is you. Your body. This is where you belong. Can't you remember?”
And then, holding sleeping Ven's hand in her left hand, and angry Ven's hand in her right, she brought her hands together and closed her eyes.
When she opened them, Roxas was gone, and only Ven was left. He opened his eyes, and Aqua let go of a breath she hadn't known she was holding.
And then he practically threw himself away from her.
“What the hell?!”
He looked at her, and the look was not really lucid.
One keyblade appeared, to ward her off. His other hand crept up to his chest and rested there. Feeling the heartbeat. “What did you do?”
“I gave you back your body, Ven.”
“Stop calling me that,” he said. “I'm not-”
There was a fluttering of emotions across his face. Anger. Fear. Something like recognition.
“Aqua,” he said. “Your name is Aqua.”
He swayed slightly. She would have moved to catch him, but the keyblade he held was pointed quite clearly in her direction. His other hand moved from his chest to the wall beside him. Casually. Like he wasn't having trouble standing up.
“No,” he said, shaking slightly. “I don't want to remember.”
And that was when he finally collapsed.
“Would you still like me if I found my heart?” Roxas asked Axel, when he finally arrived at the clock tower and sat down. He was nearly an hour late and he wasn't even wearing his black coat.
Axel had been worried he wouldn't show at all. Xemnas had been keeping him busy.
Roxas handed Axel an ice cream like he hadn't said anything, and stared into the distance.
Axel turned to look at him. “What?”
“If I had my heart. Right now. Would you still be my friend?”
“Course,” Axel said.
“If I had my memories, too?”
“You'd still be you, right?”
Roxas was silent for a moment. “I guess,” he said.
“What if I wasn't me?” Roxas said, finally. “What if I wasn't who you thought I was?”
He wouldn't look at Axel. He just kept staring straight ahead.
“Well, who are you instead, then?” Axel asked, leaning back and taking another bite of his ice cream. “In this hypothetical situation.”
“Just- someone. Someone who'd done some bad things.”
“Just bad things?”
“Some good ones, too, I guess.”
“Well, then, I think we'd still get along.”
He looked over at Roxas. He hadn't taken a single bite of his own ice cream. It was dripping onto his pants.
“What's with the outfit?” Axel asked. “Did you go shopping?”
“No,” Roxas said. He finally took a bite of his ice cream. “Lost the coat. This was what I had.”
“It's not what I found you in,” Axel said.
“No,” Roxas agreed. “I guess it wasn't.”
The ice cream dripped some more.
“You going to eat that?” Axel asked. “Or are you planning to wear it for the rest of the day?”
“Huh? Oh.” Roxas took a bite of the ice cream, and another, until it was gone. “Hey, Axel- can I ask you another question?”
“If you could have your heart back, but you had to remember all the things your Heartless had done- horrible things- would you want it?”
Axel gave a strange look. “You're full of weird questions today.”
“Just- tell me?”
Axel sat up again, and put his ice cream stick on the ground beside him. “I still would. It's my heart. I want to feel everything in it. Even if it isn't nice.”
Roxas nodded. “Thanks,” he said. He stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to think about some things,” he said. “I'll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure,” Axel said. “Same time as always. Don't be late this time, okay?”
Roxas nodded, and walked around the corner of the tower.
Later that day, the Superior told everyone that Number XIII had gone missing again, and that he was to be apprehended if they saw him. Axel just kept his mouth shut.
He'd ask Roxas where he was planning on going. Tomorrow.
He smashed a mirror, and immediately wished he hadn't. Because while the mirror hadn't been helping him figure anything out, it had at least shown him who he wasn't. The face staring back at him didn’t belong to Vanitas, and that was as much comfort as he could expect, right now.
“Ven?” Aqua said tentatively from the other side of the room. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he said. “Is there a broom around here somewhere?”
She peeked into the room. “Somewhere, maybe. I'm not so sure we should be wandering around this castle, though. This Organization XIII doesn't seem very nice.”
He barked out a laugh at that. “No. They aren't.”
“You were part of them until this morning,” she pointed out.
“They aren't evil, either,” he said. “Just- it's hard to be nice when your entire existence has been narrowed down to the quest to find your heart.”
Aqua looked at him with a strange expression, like she didn't know what to make of him. Which was fair enough. He didn't know what to make of himself, either.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asked. “This can't have been an easy day for you.”
“I'm fine,” he said. And then, desperate for a something to talk about besides himself, he said: “Where have you been? Where's Terra?”
Aqua's face fell.
“Xehanort took him,” she said. “I tried to save him, but it was too late. The darkness took him.”
He was surprised at how angry that made him. It occurred to him, dully, that what he'd thought anger was, back when he'd had only half a heart, had been something more like righteous indignation. Real anger was uglier, and he almost felt like it was suffocating him.
The other half of his heart had had anger in spades. So it wasn't quite a new feeling, but it definitely wasn't one he liked.
“Stupid,” he said. “He should have known better.”
Aqua looked shocked at him. “Ven!”
“He should have,” he said. “Master Eraqus told us all about darkness. How it could corrupt people.”
“Terra was fighting it,” Aqua said. “He would have beaten it, if he'd had time.”
“Well, he didn't beat it.”
There was something lingering on the edge of his mind, a thought that wasn't quite ready. “Where is he now?”
Aqua just shook her head.
And he said: “I have to go back to the Organization. I have a couple more things I have to do.”
Axel waited on the clock tower again.
“The Organization is out to kill you,” he said when Roxas came, handing over an ice cream. “It would probably be safer if you didn't show your face around there again.”
“Yeah. I figured.” Roxas sat down, and added: “You could come away with me, you know.”
Axel took a bite of his ice cream. “And go where?”
“Dunno. Travel the worlds. Look for some people.”
Axel turned to him, face unreadable. “You're really planning to go?”
Roxas nodded. “Yeah. I- an old friend came to find me. She told me some things. And-”
He hesitated for a moment, then grabbed Axel's empty hand and held it against his chest.
Axel's jaw dropped.
“My name was Ventus,” he said, almost apologetically. “And I guess I wasn't a Nobody after all.”
He said: “Come with me, Lea?”
And Axel couldn't very well say no to that, could he?
“He's a Nobody,” Aqua said, staring at Axel. “You're bringing a Nobody with us.”
“The name's Axel,” the Nobody said, leaning forward and tapping his head. “Got it memorized?”
Clearly, he was insane as well as inhuman.
“He's my friend,” Ventus said, and for a moment it seemed like nothing had changed. It sounded like the old Ventus- innocent, a little naïve.
Aqua stared at him. “He doesn't have a heart. You can't be friends with him. You might as well say you're friends with a chair.”
Axel looked mildly offended. Ventus just crossed his arms, and Aqua wondered if he'd been this impossible before.
In any case, taking the Nobody with them was a terrible idea.
“He's going to double-cross us,” Aqua added darkly.
“Nah,” Ventus said. “I've known him for ten years. Since before he lost his heart. He's a good guy.” He gave her a grin, as if that statement had actually made any logical sense.
Aqua looked at the Nobody. He looked at her. They shared a long-suffering look, and she decided she did like him, crazy murderer or not.
“Fine,” she said.
They left the castle through a dark portal. Aqua didn't have armor, so Axel lent her his coat to protect her. It wasn't like the darkness was going to corrupt his heart, after all.
He looked funny, Aqua thought, in real clothing. More human. It was harder to think of him as a Nobody when he was wearing an awful brown and mustard-yellow shirt.
“What I can't figure out,” Ventus said, “is, who's Sora?”
“He was supposed to be your Somebody,” Axel said. “That's what the Superior told us all.”
“But I was never a Nobody,” Ventus said. “So who is he really? Why do I have some of his memories?”
“Your hearts are connected,” Aqua said, trudging through the darkness. “There's something about him- I feel like I've heard of him before.”
“Well, he did save the worlds from the heartless,” Axel said, somewhat helpfully. “Lots of people have heard of him.”
“When that guy tried to kidnap me- he said Sora was sleeping.”
“Yeah,” Axel said, running a hand through his hair. “He lost all his memories. One of Marluxia’s plots.”
They finally, finally, arrived at Twilight Town.
“This is where they're fixing him up,” Axel said. “Though I don't know why we need him. I mean, we have two keyblade masters now. Isn't that enough?”
“I'm not a master,” Ventus said. “I never passed the test.”
He made his armor disappear, and Aqua returned Axel's coat. Then they looked at the manor in front of them.
Touching Sora was enough to give him his memories and wake him up, and then they left again. They had a world to save, after all, and not enough time to do it.
“Can I ask you a question?” Aqua asked later, sitting down next to him.
“I guess,” he said.
She looked away, at the meteors shooting by. “Do you think of yourself as Ventus, or as Roxas?”
There was a carefully neutral tone in her voice, and her expression was reserved.
“They're both my name,” he said. “I mean, it's hard to pick one.”
She continued looking away. He could tell that it hadn't been the answer she wanted.
“I wasn't a whole person, as either of them,” he said, carefully. “When I was just Ventus, I was missing a lot of my heart, and a lot of my memories. I was only part of a person. The nicer part, but still only part. Vanitas was evil, but he was... more complete, I guess, than I was, in a lot of ways. And then, when I was Roxas, I didn't have any memories at all. I was a zombie. I didn't even know I had a heart, because I couldn't remember what having one was like.”
“That doesn't answer my question,” Aqua said.
“No,” he said. “I guess it didn't.”
He gave her a smile. “I'm still the same person, Aqua. You know I am.”
“Sometimes I look at you and I see someone else,” she said, standing up, face still neutral. “Not a bad person. But not Ventus.”
“It's been ten years,” he said. “I was sleeping for a lot of it, but I wasn't dead. You can't expect me to be exactly the same.”
“I should have come for you sooner, then,” she said, and walked away.
Aqua never looked at him the same after that, even after they did manage to save the world. For a long time, she didn't look at him at all. Some days, he couldn't blame her- on the days when he still woke up shaking, remembering what Vanitas had done- what he had done, while he was split in two. The Ven she had known wasn't the same person he was now. He couldn't be the person she wanted him to be.
Axel was the same as always, of course. That was a comfort, when things were weird. Sometimes Axel and Aqua had shouting matches about him, and at those times he walked as far away as possible, just so he couldn't hear them.
But as time passed, she looked at him again, and her smiles grew a little warmer. And maybe things never were the same between them again, were never as good as when he was just Ventus- but they were okay, again.
He wasn't the same person anymore, and he was going to have nightmares for the rest of his life. But he could live with that, as long as he still had his friends.