The badlands were cold at night. The boy crouched in the shelter of a column of stone and tried once more to light a fire. The flame sparked from his fingertips readily enough, but without anything to burn it died before providing more than an instant of warmth. The boy snarled wordlessly at his failure.
What did (the old man – show proper respect) Master Xehanort want from him, anyway? He was tasked to stay here all night and ‘practice’, fine, but practice what? Freezing to death? Would it kill him to explain what he wanted out of the boy for a change? Apparently it would. Not explaining it was doing a solid job of killing the boy, but somehow he doubted that was at the top of his Master’s priority list. If Master Xehanort had been interested in coddling his pupil’s weakness, he wouldn’t have – the boy tried not to think about it. Thinking about that day made him sick. He had enough problems right now without dealing with what happened when he got sick.
Instead he went back to thinking about his Master. The (stupid terrifying monstrous – he’s not that bad, if he were that bad you’d be in trouble, and you’re fine, it’ll be fine) old man couldn’t ever say a thing straight out. Oh, he’d blather on about his plans for hours, but actually instruct the boy? That was apparently beneath him. The boy would do it, would do whatever would get him back indoors where at least it was reasonably warm and out of the wind, if only (the horrible old man – don’t think about your master like that, you should be grateful to him – for what – for taking you in at all) his Master would tell him what to do!
The boy felt his frustration getting away from him, taking on a life of its own. Before it could escape, he grabbed hold of it in his mind and used it to fuel another attempt at a fire. This one finally caught. The boy leaned closer, all but falling right into it.
As he got warm for the first time in hours, his frustration vanished, and with it the fire. The boy swore and punched the ground. Why couldn’t he do this? It should be easy. Master Xehanort wouldn’t have set him out here if he couldn’t handle it (yes he would, he’d do anything – no, your Master knows what’s best). He could handle it. He had to. He wouldn’t be a failure, not like –
The sick feeling caught him too fast this time to avoid it. He doubled over on his knees, clutching his torso as though that would keep it all in, as though he could stop it. He was back there, here but back then, in the daylight that was worse than the darkness. The Heartless were all around – he didn’t want to fight – he did want to – he wanted to fight the wrong person – Master, please – why would you do this I’m not ready I don’t want to – I hate you I hate me I’m a failure I don’t want to succeed no no no I won’t do this for you I won’t – you can’t make me I’m scared you can’t make me survive – I’d rather die – I don’t want to die –
Then he wasn’t him anymore. He was standing, but he was on the ground, and for a moment he thought this was being dead, but he felt alive, just not right. Something was wrong inside. He didn’t know what he was.
His Master told him.
The boy uncurled himself slowly. He was back in the right time. It was dark and cold, and he hurt, but he didn’t feel sick anymore. He knew where he was again. He knew what had happened. Of course, that meant…
He looked up, and they were there. He couldn’t see them in the dark, but he could feel them. A bunch of little angers were skittering around in the shadows, there were a pair of confusions rooting on the rock beneath him, and a little further out a huge fear was lurking.
God, he hated them. He hated how he could feel them moving around like pieces of his own body. They shouldn’t be out there. They should be back in here with him where they belonged. He hated making them, hated the hollow they left, hated that he couldn’t stop them, hated his Master for making him this way, hated – the other boy, hated himself. He hated everything.
His hatred unfurled itself toward the starry sky. It was enormous, bigger even than the fear. That one would be a pain to hunt down in the morning. If the boy was still there in the morning. He was starting to run out of reasons why he should be.
He wasn’t going to fail (let that man beat him – disappoint him), that was one. He wasn’t going to give the other boy the satisfaction of being the only one left. He was going to get stronger, so he could take back his body. If what it took was staying out here all night with nothing but his emotions for company, then so be it.
If he got far enough away, he couldn’t feel them anymore. The boy slipped around the column away from his emotions and took off running, using the darkness to speed his steps and catch himself when his feet slipped on uneven bits of stone. As long as he was running he at least wasn’t cold.
The darkness couldn’t help him, though, with things he ran right into, and the ground in the badlands didn’t make any sense. It turned up or down abruptly, from the spells used in the long-ago war his Master said, and sometimes there were spars of stone that jutted out without warning. The boy hit one such spar full tilt.
He lay on the ground, trying to get his lungs to draw breath. When he could think again around the pain, he wondered if his ribs were broken and what he could do if they were. There was magic for healing, but he didn’t know any (holding back the most useful – pain makes you learn faster) yet. All he knew was fire, and that barely. If he was there in the morning, Master Xehanort might heal him (if Master Xehanort came back – he wouldn’t leave – everyone else does – not him you’re important to him) if the boy did well. If, that was, he’d learned how to do whatever it was his Master had sent him out here for in the first place.
He was no closer to finding his goal than he’d been at nightfall. And now there was a cluster of pains glittering in the night. The boy pushed himself carefully to his feet, trying not to feel the pain or if he did, not to care about it. He had to accomplish something.
Feeling around the spar he had hit, he found that it was woven among others like it, like a tree or a huge ice crystal. He remembered climbing trees and laughing (happily – childishly), and the ground beneath his feet felt wrong, too solid and not solid enough, like it would grab him and hold him down if he stayed there one second longer.
Climbing in the dark was tense and awkward, but as he did his ribs hurt less, and he felt less. Finding the next grip, the next place for his feet, took too much of the boy’s mind for him to feel anything at all.
He reached the top with a strange triumph in his chest, a savage elation that didn’t threaten to escape him at all. He reveled in it. Sooner or later, he would have to get down, but right then he didn’t care. It had taken him enough effort that even the night wind’s chill was for the moment pleasant. He grinned and looked up.
Then he stopped grinning. He’d come up without thinking about the reason why he avoided the night sky. The stars scattered across the sky were looking back down. The boy hated them. They hurt, the way they rubbed his face – ha! – in what he wasn’t. The dark was indifferent, but the light ached.
He shut his eyes on them.
The worst part was that the boy could feel, out there, the star where his light was. His light and his body were with the other boy, the boy he hated most of all. His Master (the terror – the wise man) had taken them away to somewhere else. He said the boy wasn’t strong enough to take them back yet.
The boy didn’t believe him. He felt strong, and more than that, he could feel his body and the other boy who lived in it. The other boy was weak. Weaker than he felt sometimes, when – the boy felt the sickness coming on again and jerked away from it. He didn’t want to think about those times. There wasn’t room up here for both him and his emotions.
The cold wind stopped being pleasant. The boy sulked. Why should he stay here when he didn’t have to? He wanted his body back. Maybe if he went and got it early, his Master would be pleased. The boy knew this wasn’t true, but alone on the spire he decided to pretend otherwise.
He would go where the other boy was, with the other Master that Master Xehanort sneered at, and the other students he had plans for. The boy could take his body back and pretend to be one of them, and then – when his Master chose – he could finish the plan from there. He could hide what he was; Master Xehanort said they were all fools. They wouldn’t notice a thing.
It took him a long time to work out how his Master opened the dark ways. By the time he managed it, the stars were starting to hide behind the dawn creeping toward the horizon. Good, the boy thought. If the stars didn’t see him, they couldn’t tell.
Maybe he would tell Master Xehanort where he’d gone. Maybe he wouldn’t. (If he was such a great Master, he’d know without being told – he’d be angry about you keeping secrets – so what?)
Aqua hated to get up early, but with Master Eraqus away dealing with Heartless down in the valley, someone had to make sure Ventus was fed and taken care of. She was already beginning to rethink her earlier certainty that she and Terra could handle everything necessary, and to regret her insistence, when Terra had offered to let her sleep, that they would do it together. She could still be dreaming, or working her way to full wakefulness at her own pace.
Heartless in the valley, she reminded herself. That was a danger to everyone. That wasn’t the kind of thing Master Eraqus could ignore, no matter what else was going on. And she wasn’t going to be a slouch while he was gone.
She met Terra in the corridor. Her fellow student was repellently awake and cheerful, and had been for some time, if the covered tray of food was any indication. It had probably taken him a few tries to make a good breakfast. Neither of them was any good at cooking.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Hrmf,” Aqua replied. “Morning,” she added grudgingly.
“You can go back to sleep if you want. You were up late again,” said Terra, looking at her with concern.
It was an extremely tempting prospect, but Aqua wasn’t going to give in so easily. She couldn’t get into a bad habit, anyway. Master Eraqus was only gone for a week, and when he came back, she would get up in the morning whether she liked it or not. “I’m fine. You just fell asleep early, again. Lazy.”
Terra smiled. “Who’s lazy? You’re the one who doesn’t wake up before noon.”
“Maybe if you went to bed after sunset, that would –”
A clamor suddenly erupted from Ventus’s room. For a moment, Aqua thought he was awake at last, but it wasn’t the sound of someone waking, even from a nightmare. She couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was furious.
She and Terra took off running at the same instant, the breakfast tray falling to the floor with a clatter as Terra pulled out his Keyblade. Aqua was a hair faster than her friend, so she was the one who flung the bedroom door open.
“Let me in, you selfish bastard!” shouted the dark figure crouched over Ventus’s still form. Heartless? No – or if it was, it was like no Heartless Aqua had ever seen or heard of. There was darkness curling up from its body, though, and Ventus was glimmering with light. “You’re nothing without me, nothing! Let me in!” Its (his? The voice was male) claws scrabbled at Ventus’s chest.
She’d been having problems with her aim in training, but when it mattered Aqua’s Blizzard spell hit precisely what she meant it to. It knocked the creature right off of Ventus and back toward the wall. The window was closed, Aqua noticed. It must have gotten here some other way.
Terra moved in after her, trying to block it into a corner away from the bed, but it was too fast. It vaulted right past him to Ventus again, as if no one else mattered. It didn’t even try for the door, though Aqua swung it shut behind her anyway.
“Get away from him!” Terra demanded.
The creature didn’t listen. It went right back to crouching over Ventus and yelling at him, though of course there was no response. “Give it back! You’re not even using it! Why should you get it if all you’re going to do is lie around and sleep! Give – it – ”
It drew an arm back, and suddenly there was a Keyblade in what Aqua now recognized as a hand. The creature – it really looked human, or almost, if it only had a face – prepared to bring it down.
“No!” Aqua sent her best barrier to cover Ventus at the same time as Terra caught hold of the creature, wrestling it bodily away.
Being pinned seemed to calm the creature down, strangely enough. Its Keyblade vanished, and rather than struggle against Terra’s grip, it turned its faceless head to look at the arms wrapped around its shoulders and torso like it had never seen such things before.
“Aqua, is Ventus okay?” Terra asked, breathing hard.
Aqua moved quickly to put her own body between Ventus and the creature, in case it escaped again. She checked the sleeping boy as best she could. There didn’t seem to be any real wounds on him, just a few pieces of ice from her spell, already starting to melt, and his shirt wrenched sideways and half-unzipped.
When she looked closer, the exposed skin over his heart did have marks on it, but they weren’t bleeding (or worse). They were just small curved dents in the skin, five of them, like the marks of fingernails. Perhaps they were fingernails. What kind of monster had fingernails instead of claws?
“He’s fine,” she said with a sigh of mixed relief and disappointment. Ventus was physically perfectly fine, but if whatever made him sleep so deeply wasn’t disturbed by this attack, she didn’t know how it could be disturbed.
“What are you?” Aqua added, focusing on the creature Terra was still holding tightly. The creature, now he was holding still, looked more and more human, like a boy about the same size as Ventus. Strangely dressed, but human. Even the smooth black surface where a face should be looked like it might be a mask instead of part of his head.
“Someone from the dark.” The voice sounded human, too.
Terra gripped the creature – the boy? – tighter. “Who are you? What were you doing to Ventus?”
He let out a snarl that brought Aqua’s Keyblade up into a guard position, though all he did was start to struggle, finally, kicking back against Terra’s legs and trying ineffectually to lunge forward. “I am Ventus! He’s not!”
Aqua blinked. That didn’t – it couldn’t – what? Meeting Terra’s eyes, she could see that her friend was just as confused. A madman? A madman with a Keyblade, with some kind of vendetta against Ventus of all people? That didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t be telling the truth, could he? And he didn’t sound like he was lying.
The – boy, almost definitely – took advantage of Terra’s shock to twist out of his grip, but rather than flee or attack, he backed away and drew his Keyblade again. “What did you do?” he said, sounding more like a child than a monster. And angry child, but still a child. “I can’t get back in. What did you do?!”
“What are you talking about?” They should probably just attack him. He admitted to being from the darkness, after all, and when Aqua focused her senses she could see it all over him, pure darkness such as the Heartless showed, with no light at all. But she didn’t attack, and neither did Terra. She wanted to know what she was doing. Master Eraqus would be disappointed if they didn’t think before acting.
“We didn’t do anything to him. What did you do?” Terra added to her question. He was leaning closer to the boy, getting ready to attack if he moved. Terra was always quicker to act against anything that sounded like darkness. It confused Aqua, sometimes, why he was the one who hated it more, when… But that wasn’t important right now.
“I didn’t! You did! You must have! Undo what you did right now, or I’ll make you.” It didn’t sound like an empty threat.
From the way Terra set his feet, Aqua knew it was time to get to hers. She did, Keyblade out and ready for the assault she expected, as Terra said, “Leave Ventus alone!”
“I can’t do that. I told you, I am Ventus. The real Ventus. That’s nothing, just a body that won’t admit it’s empty.”
“That’s not true!” The words burst from Aqua’s throat before she thought about them. Ventus was lost and hurt, but he wasn’t empty. She knew there was still something inside, if they could only wake it up. This boy-creature that said it was Ventus was just lying to trick and confuse them, the way all beings of darkness did.
“How do you know?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but she suddenly couldn’t find anything to say. She did know that Ventus was real, even if he was strange and hurt, but she couldn’t say how she knew. She just did.
“That’s what I thought.” The boy-creature clearly took her silence as a confession. He edged closer to her – no, not to her, to the bed where Ventus was still lying as though nothing was happening around him. “What’s it to you, anyway? It’s none of your business, just mine and – it’s mine. Undo what you did and leave me alone.”
On the last word, he lunged for the bed, ducking under the swing of Terra’s Keyblade. Aqua, however, was ready when he came: she caught his Keyblade on hers and flung him backwards with a sudden surge. She was pleased despite herself; she’d never been able to get that move to work before, but then, this was the first time she’d tried it on someone who didn’t outweigh her.
“We didn’t do anything to him,” she repeated. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know why you’re acting like you’re Ventus, but he’s my friend, and I’m not going to let you hurt him.”
Terra followed up on her attack, pinning the boy’s sword arm and holding him where he had fallen. The boy struggled, but if Aqua had enough strength in her shoulders to throw him back, Terra had enough strength and weight both to pin him down no matter how little he liked it.
“You’re not friends!” the boy-creature snarled. “That – he doesn’t even know you. You don’t even know him. You don’t know anything at all! Get away from my body!”
Aqua was about to give up on getting him to tell the truth and get rid of him, the way a Keyblade wielder should get rid of anyone who was so dark and threatening, when she heard a soft sound behind her. She turned to look.
Ventus stirred, mumbling something that sounded vaguely discontented. He shifted, looking uncomfortable, but his eyes didn’t open. Aqua couldn’t help but notice that even though he didn’t look like he was conscious of what he was doing, every tiny movement ended up with him closer to the strange boy-creature.
“Yes!” The boy-creature managed to get one arm free and reached out toward the bed, straining towards where Ventus’s hand now flopped over the side.
Their fingertips met.
Aqua wasn’t sure what she was seeing. The boy-creature had looked almost normal only an instant before: now there was pure darkness billowing out of him in thick black waves. It didn’t seem to be doing him much good; Terra was still holding him down easily. As for Ventus, he was glowing with a white light, faint compared to the darkness opposite but still bright enough that there was no way for Aqua to mistake it. It was like he was calling on power while still asleep, or like she was seeing his heart without trying.
For a long, tense moment she couldn’t breathe. They were all waiting, it seemed to her, for something that would happen any second now…
But it didn’t. Nothing happened, save that the dark boy dropped his outstretched arm with a snarl that sounded uncomfortably close to a sob. As soon as his hand slipped from Ventus’s, both light and darkness vanished.
“What…was that?” Terra asked, voicing the question that was on both of their minds.
The dark creature still had no face, but Aqua suspected that he was scowling up at Terra. “That’s your fault. I don’t care how you did it, just make it stop. Make him let me back in.”
Terra was scowling back. “You’re a liar. You’re not part of Ventus.” That was the tone of voice he used when he really believed something else, deep down, Aqua knew. She let him talk and busied herself tucking Ventus back into bed, well out of reach. She didn’t want to see that again. His light was so faint.
“How do you know? You never saw me before.”
“Ventus isn’t dark like you.”
“Not now he isn’t, stupid. How do you think you get something that’s just a shell wrapped around light?”
“He’s not just a shell!” Aqua exclaimed, unable to silence herself. Ventus was hurt and sick, but he had the purest light she’d ever seen. Someone with a heart like that just had to be real.
He started to laugh, and Aqua flinched. It wasn’t like real laughter, not like something shared with people. It was an attack all its own. The dark creature’s laughter jabbed at her, and she knew that he meant it to. “You’ve even gotten yourselves attached to it! There’s nothing in there but weakness, and you think that if you flutter around it enough, it’ll turn into a real boy! Well, too bad for you, there’s nothing in there I didn’t leave behind. Everything worth having is out here, and because of you I can’t get back where I belong!”
“That’s not true!” Terra shouted, but Aqua spoke over him.
“We didn’t do anything! If Ventus doesn’t want you back, it’s because you’re evil and rotten and – and full of darkness. He’s better off without you.”
At least the creature stopped laughing, though he did start struggling again, thrashing back and forth and completely failing to dislodge Terra. “You’re lying! You have to be! I’m the real one!”
No matter how evil he was, it was kind of sickening watching him cling so desperately to a lie. It was a lie. It had to be. Ventus was real. This was just a nameless, faceless creature of darkness that might be connected to Ventus but couldn’t be Ventus. They should get rid of it and then ask Master Eraqus what it had been when he returned. That would be the proper thing to do, she was almost certain. This creature was trying to upset the balance, so it had to be destroyed.
But she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. They didn’t know how it was connected to Ventus. What if destroying the creature hurt him somehow? Maybe they should wait. They were only students. The Master would know what to do. He could fix it.
To be completely honest with herself, she just couldn’t do it. It was more than sickening watching him: it was sad. Nothing should be that desperate to hold on to a lie.
While she was lost in thought, there was a sound from outside, a sound loud enough to echo through even the closed window. It sounded like there was something alive out there.
There had been Heartless in the valley.
Startled, Terra stopped trying to restrain the creature. It managed to squirm out from under him, but it didn’t attack. Instead, it looked up at the window with the rest of them.
Terra was closest, not to mention tallest. He went to the window and looked down at the forecourt. Aqua saw him go pale and swallow before saying, “There’s some kind of monster down there. It’s – I don’t know what it is, but it’s huge.”
Aqua suspected she was going pale herself. She wasn’t scared of a monster, but she’d only ever fought things as practice, with Master Eraqus there just in case. Now he wasn’t here, and if someone got hurt, it was for real. Besides, this wasn’t right. The castle should be safe from any kind of threat. It was their home, not a battlefield. How would a monster even get here?
There was one obvious answer, but the dark creature was backed into a corner again rather than attacking anyone or trying to escape. That didn’t seem right to Aqua: if he was responsible for the monster, wouldn’t he have some kind of plan for what to do when it arrived?
The monster roared below, and she felt a thump as it crashed into the castle wall. It would take a long time for anything to damage the castle, but they couldn’t just stand here and give it that time.
Terra turned away from the window. He was still paler than normal, but otherwise he didn’t look as nervous as Aqua felt. “You stay here with them,” he said. “I’ll handle it.”
“No!” She hated it when he tried to protect her from things. It didn’t happen often, which made it worse, almost. Aqua would rather he act foolish over little things than save it up for times when it might get him hurt. Someone did have to watch the creature in case he did something to Ventus, but Terra had been doing fine at that. He might as well keep doing it. “I’ll go; you stay and keep him under control.”
“That thing is too big for you to handle alone,” he said, illogically in Aqua’s opinion.
“If it’s too big for me, then it’s too big for you. I won’t let it get close.”
“If it does hit you, you’ll…get hurt. I can handle a few hits.”
“Not as many as you think you can! Anyway, you should –”
She was interrupted by the dark creature, oddly enough, who sighed audibly. “I’m not going anywhere. Both of you run along and save the day.”
“You wouldn’t have to go anywhere to hurt Ventus,” Aqua pointed out.
He sighed again. If he had a face, Aqua suspected that he was rolling his eyes. “I promise I won’t hurt him. I even promise I won’t unlock his heart. It probably wouldn’t work anyway.”
She exchanged a look with Terra. It went against the grain to trust the word of something so self-avowedly dark, but what choice did they have? The monster wouldn’t wait forever, and it was better to be two together than one alone.
Terra nodded; so did she. “Don’t leave this room,” she said as they shut the door behind them, as though that would deter someone with a Keyblade if he chose to break his word.
The boy-creature’s voice drifted out after them. “Where would I go?”
The chimera would keep those two busy for a while. The boy considered opening the window to hear them better but decided against it. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t have advance warning anyway.
He still felt sick. That had been a bad one. He’d been trying to keep things quiet – it wouldn’t do much for (his Master’s – their) the plan if he got linked up to his emotions too quickly. He hadn’t meant to get sick, but then again, he never did. It just happened, no matter how hard he was trying to feed his feelings back into themselves so they couldn’t escape. He’d never held on this long before. And this one hadn’t been inside with him, so there was that, at least.
He couldn’t even name all the emotions that had gone into the chimera. That didn’t happen often, only when he was too confused to even feel right. Now he felt completely hollow. Everything had drained out of him at once. There was nothing left.
It would all be coming back soon enough, but worse. He was going to have to do something about that before the light students started taking pieces out of the chimera. The big ones hurt worse, and from the feel of it this was a record-breaker.
He scowled down at his body. He’d been so close, so very close, and then it was like starting to step over a crack that suddenly widened into a gorge. There was something between them where there never should have been anything.
Now that there was no one to stop him, he sat down right next to the body and took its hand again. It was the same as before: everything he was tried to pour over the point of contact, to get home, only to be met by some kind of barrier he couldn’t cross. He leaned over, pressing forehead to forehead, heart to heart, hand to hand, and willed himself forward, down, in. The rest of the universe didn’t matter. The boy tried to shut it all out. There was nothing else. Just him and his body.
It wouldn’t go away. He could feel his heart beating. Both his hearts, the real one and the fake one he was stuck with, the one that didn’t work right. He could feel the warm weight of the blankets on him while he lay on top of them. He could even feel his own weight, the weight of the other body. But he couldn’t cross the last inch of distance to make them his own. There was something in between them, something that wasn’t his.
He tried again anyway. He let go of his grip on his heart and forced it forward across the barren unfriendly land between. He was strong; he could survive the distance.
He couldn’t. His hands and feet began to fade into curls of darkness, but there was nothing on the other side, no way for his heart to anchor itself, and the dark hung in the air where he left it. The boy let his heart snap back into the chest where it reminded the body what shape it ought to be. He was panting with (fear – cowardice) exertion, and he still hadn’t gotten anywhere.
It felt good, though, lying so close to where he belonged. Not good enough, never good enough, but when he was touching his body, his heart didn’t hurt anymore. The boy tried to focus on the place the pain wasn’t. It made it easier to think.
What was he going to do? He couldn’t get back into his body, it seemed. Not without help. He would have to give up and go back to the badlands. He would have to tell Master Xehanort that the other students had seen him.
The boy shuddered. His Master was going to be incredibly furious with him for this. He needed the boy, though, so he couldn’t be too bad. Or could he? The boy thought of the healing magic he had yet to learn. His Master could be very bad. He deserved it, of course he did, after failing and running off and endangering the plan and not trusting that Master Xehanort knew what was best, but that didn’t mean he was in a tearing hurry to be punished.
It might be better to be punished than to have to stay so close to his real body without being able to get it back. The boy considered this. Actually, he thought it really wouldn’t be.
He was decided, then. He would stay with his body as long as he could. They hadn’t killed him yet. He could get away from them if they tried. They really were weak, like the other boy had been.
Outside, the chimera howled its death, and the boy choked on air. It hurt, it hurt sickeningly, and the surprise made it worse. He could feel the pain striking him and turning around to fly out again, and he scrambled to hold on to it. He couldn’t let it go. He had to keep them from finding out that he was making the emotions, or they really would kill him, and even if he escaped he would have ruined the whole plan. His Master would never (stop hurting – forgive) stop punishing him for that.
He couldn’t hold on to it. He never could. It was only being with his body that had made him try. In the end, with a furious convulsion of his will he sent it away, back to the badlands he’d come from. He would (let the old man handle it – do it yourself, weakling) deal with it later. Maybe send it off somewhere else, somewhere it would be stronger than anything it met, somewhere no one could harm it.
Sending the pain away to a completely different world hurt in a new and different way. He wasn’t sure how he’d managed to do it at all. When it was gone, he felt hollow as usual, but of more than just pain, as though something else had seeped out alongside it. He felt dizzy without being sick, light and empty and, the boy realized, incredibly tired.
He couldn’t fall asleep. The students were coming back. He had to talk to them. Didn’t he? He had to say something, for some reason, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He had to make them do what he wanted. What did he want? He wasn’t sure.
Without a great deal of fuss, the boy slipped into unconsciousness.
Terra pushed himself up the stairs more quickly than he wanted to. His ribs ached, and a cut on his arm bled sluggishly, but he refused to let it slow him down. They’d left Ventus alone with that – whatever he really was – for too long already. So he kept going steadily up the stairs, even though all he wanted to do was sit down, just for a bit…
Aqua’s shoes clicked on the stone beside him. He looked at her and had to smile. There was stone dust and dirt in her hair, and her shoulders were drooping with exhaustion, but at least she wasn’t hurt.
And they’d defeated the monster. He still didn’t know what exactly it was: it didn’t look like any Heartless they’d studied, but what other kind of monster could it be? Perhaps when the Master returned, he could tell them. Master Eraqus could explain everything, Terra thought, his mind turning back to the bedroom and its occupants. It would all be less confusing if he were here.
Until he got back, it was Terra’s job – and Aqua’s too, of course – to make sure nothing bad happened to Ventus, and they might already have failed. The stranger had been left alone there for too long. He tried to coax more strength out of his aching legs.
He turned, surprised. He hadn’t noticed Aqua falling behind, but she was several yards back, leaning against the wall. Terra’s heart started beating faster again. “Aqua? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She shook her head with a smile. “Just tired. And I thought we should talk.”
“What about?” He turned back to her and copied her attitude. Just standing still was restful after running after and away from the monster for so long.
“About what to do next, with that boy, creature, whatever he is.”
“I don’t want to leave him with Ventus,” he objected. Just the thought of what they might find this time was enough to frighten him. He tried to quash the fear. A true Keyblade wielder shouldn’t fear anything.
“I know,” said Aqua. “Neither do I. But we have to decide now. What are we going to do with him if he’s still there?”
He knew what he should answer. A monster from the darkness had to be gotten rid of, just like the one they’d fought in the forecourt. A monster that was obsessed with Ventus, that insisted it was Ventus, was a threat too serious to ignore. There was no way of knowing what he might do, and Ventus was asleep, unable to protect himself. When he thought of the monster looming over Ventus, trying to pull his heart out or force himself in, Terra clenched his teeth in anger. If the monster hurt Ventus, Terra would – He caught himself and swallowed the rage. That was darkness. He should know better.
But if it was darkness to want to hurt the monster, then did that mean it was the wrong thing to do? Terra missed Master Eraqus desperately. He would know what Terra should do.
“We should…” he began.
Aqua nodded. She looked as conflicted as he felt. “I know. Whatever else he is, he’s very dark. Did you see, when he touched Ventus?”
“I saw.” It had been terrifying to see that much darkness, enough it seemed to overwhelm not just Ventus’s fragile light, but Aqua’s as well, if it turned her way. Terra couldn’t let that happen, no matter what he had to do. “He’s dangerous. And he wants to hurt Ventus.”
“Does he?” Aqua asked. “I’m not sure. He didn’t sound like he wanted to hurt anyone.”
“Just like he didn’t care if they got hurt,” he replied.
She said, “But he didn’t, did he? Hurt anyone, I mean. He was the one who really sounded hurt.”
“That’s true.” Terra thought again of the body he’d held on to while it thrashed and kicked and tried to get to Aqua and Ventus. It had felt like a real body, like a boy the same size as Ventus. It hadn’t burned him to touch or had strange things twisting under its clothing. Even the darkness it gave off when the monster touched Ventus hadn’t hurt him, though that was probably because of Terra’s own darkness. He wished it had hurt. He wished the monster had kept attacking them with its Keyblade. He wished, almost, the monster had hurt them. Then maybe he wouldn’t keep remembering how small and fragile the monster had felt.
“Aqua,” he said, looking down on the floor, “I don’t think I can…” It was stupid and weak and unbefitting, but the idea of attacking even a monster while it shouted and struggled to get away made him feel small and dead inside.
“I know. Neither can I,” she said unexpectedly.
“But then what do we do?” He felt like he could meet Aqua’s eyes again.
She was chewing on her thumbnail, the way she always did when she was trying to think of the answer to a question. “I guess we go back up there and see if he’s gone,” she said. “And if he’s not, we find somewhere to keep him until the Master gets back.”
At least that plan didn’t make him feel horrible just thinking about it. Besides, the Master would know better than they did what was the right thing to do. Terra said, “Where can we keep him?”
“Maybe in one of the cellars?” Aqua shrugged. “I know it’s not a very good plan…”
“No, it’s good. I like it.” He wasn’t sure whether he hoped the monster would be gone by the time they got up to the bedroom or not. As he levered himself back up off the wall, his ribs twinged and he winced more visibly than he meant to.
Aqua caught it, of course. “But first, let me heal you the rest of the way.”
“I’m fine,” he protested. Not that that would stop her.
“You are not! I have the energy to cast again, and I’m not hurt.”
She was tired, but Terra decided it was better to let her do what she wanted than to fight her on it and end up losing anyway. Then she would be even more tired. He wished he had her talent for healing magic. Then he could have healed himself. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t be sure a spell he tried to cast would do enough good to be worth the effort.
It felt good, not being in pain. He even felt less tired, though he knew it was an illusion. He led the way up the rest of the stairs as quickly as Aqua could keep up with him. (It was also as quickly as he could go.)
The bedroom door was still shut, not that that mattered. The monster hadn’t needed the door to be open to get in. Terra opened the door and stared.
They were touching again. In fact, the monster was lying on top of Ventus and looking no less asleep, from what Terra could make out. Ventus was glowing in the same fragile way he had before, like he might stop at any point but miraculously never did. What was different was the monster. Before, he had been an entire nightmare of shadow; now, his darkness was pulsing as weakly as Ventus’s light.
Aqua was the one who said what they were both thinking. “What happened?”
Terra just shook his head. Nothing else seemed different at all. If the monster had done something, it was something he couldn’t see or sense.
“We should move him,” he said. That was going to be easier than he’d thought. As long as the monster didn’t wake, they could put him somewhere safe without having to fight him. He approached the bed and rolled the monster off Ventus preparatory to picking him up.
He and Aqua both gasped. They hadn’t noticed with the darkness obscuring detail, but the monster’s featureless head had changed. In place of what he now realized had only been a helmet all along, there was a boy’s face surrounded by a mass of spiky dark hair.
“He looks like…Ventus,” Aqua said quietly.
“Yeah.” If not for the hair, they could have been twins. Just two boys, asleep.
Terra’s hands shook as he lifted the other boy more gently than he’d come into the room intending to. He thought of what they’d almost decided, what they’d almost come to do. The boy leaned unconsciously into the warmth of Terra’s body, just as Ventus had when he’d carried him up to this room not so very long ago. Terra thought about raising his Keyblade against this sleeping child.
His eyes met Aqua’s over his burden. They didn’t have to say anything. They both knew that there was no more question of getting rid of the boy, no matter how dangerous he turned out to be when he woke up again. (If, Terra couldn’t help thinking, he woke up again. Ventus hadn’t.)
“In another guest room?” Aqua suggested. There was another right next door.
“That’s kind of close…” Terra said reluctantly. He didn’t like the idea of carrying the boy down all the stairs, nor of locking him in a cellar, but it was probably a bad idea to let him be so near Ventus. Whatever he’d been trying to do, whatever had knocked him out, he shouldn’t have a chance to do it again.
“We can watch him.”
They should do that anyway. At least the guest rooms had chairs. “Okay.”
The boy settled easily enough onto the bed next door. Terra sighed as he stood and stretched this latest ache out of his shoulders. Across the room, Aqua finished bolting the window shut. It wasn’t likely to make much difference, but they both felt better if the room was as secure as they could make it.
That left only one question. “I’ll watch him first,” they said at the same time.
Terra chuckled. “You got your way last time,” he pointed out.
“You’ve been hurt,” said Aqua. “You should be resting.”
“I’m not hurt now. And you’re more tired, and you didn’t eat breakfast.” As if to confirm Terra’s argument, Aqua’s stomach growled.
She sighed and capitulated without much resistance for once. “Come get me in two hours, okay? Not more! You need rest too.”
“I will.” He had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Sitting was enough rest for him.
So much for that. “I promise.”
She left, but her voice echoed in from the hallway. “I’ll clean up the breakfast tray, while I’m out here. No argument!”
Since Terra had been the one to drop the tray, it should have been his job to clean it up, but he couldn’t bring himself to seriously argue the point. Instead, he settled down onto the floor and started stretching his complaining muscles before they cramped.
The boy woke slowly and resisted every step of the way. It was too pleasant a dream to want to leave, one of the dreams of the time before and a particularly nice one at that. He was warm and lying on something soft. Even in the dream, the hole in his heart hurt, but it didn’t hurt much, not enough by far to make the dream a bad one. He kept his eyes shut and snuggled deeper into the dream-bed.
He couldn’t remember falling asleep.
The boy’s eyes shot open as he sat up, pulse beating wildly, trying to place himself. He didn’t feel sick at all, so it hadn’t been that. He was – he looked around wildly – in a bedroom? Maybe he was still dreaming.
No, he’d been with his body. The other Master’s students had caught him trying to take his body back, and then he’d been sick, and they’d left him alone, and then – his stomach rolled, but he caught it in time and tried to think dispassionately about what had happened. He’d tried his best, but he hadn’t been able to get his body to let him in. And then he’d sent the pain away so he wouldn’t get caught making it, and then he’d passed out.
None of that explained why he was in a bedroom now, especially not a bedroom without his body in it. It didn’t explain why he’d woken up at all. The students really were (kind - weak) soft as well as stupid. He would never have let himself wake up.
The boy’s head snapped around as he cursed himself for a fool. He hadn’t even noticed one of the students, the boy, there, sitting in a truly hideous armchair and toweling his hair dry of all the inane things.
“Aqua!” the student called, turning toward the room’s only door. “He woke up!”
The boy tried to leap to his feet to defend himself, but his body refused to obey him. He felt hot and shaky all over. It was like being sick, he thought, or, no, it was like being tired. It was the way he’d felt when he’d run himself half to death, years ago, before (it got worse – he saved you) Master Xehanort came.
He wondered when the last time he’d eaten or slept was. Counting back, he thought that explained it. If (the old man’s sick idea of training – your disobedience) exhaustion got him killed, he was going to be very unhappy. And dead, obviously.
He could summon his Keyblade, at least. He held it in the closest thing to a guard position he could manage when sitting up was the most adrenaline could do for him.
The student ignored it like the boy was too weak to bother with. Unfortunately, he was right. It was an effort just to focus. He had to say something, to do something, before the student hurt him. It wasn’t like the muscle-bound lummox would have any trouble there.
The door opened, but before the boy could gather his strength to make a run for it, the other student was inside and closing the door behind her. As if the odds against him weren’t bad enough before.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” said the boy student.
The boy considered this statement on its merits. It was obviously a lie, but he couldn’t think what it was covering up. Why was he alive? Why had they put him in this room, on a real bed? What did they want from him? (They could have hurt him while he was unconscious. They wanted him awake to feel it.)
“What do you want?” He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He’d meant to say something crafty, some cutting insult that would make them back away or some appeal to their better natures that would have them telling him everything they knew, but all the words he could find were clatteringly obvious.
The two of them exchanged a look that they doubtless thought was subtle. Then the girl said, “That depends on what you want.”
The boy opened his mouth to tell them what he wanted. Suddenly, though, he couldn’t say for sure what it was that he did want. He wanted his body and his life back, but he’d been close enough to touch both and still unable to reach them. He wanted his Master to (leave him alone – praise him) accomplish his plans, but he’d run away from where he should be and thrown those plans in jeopardy. He wanted the ache of his missing pieces to go away, but he couldn’t tell them that.
He settled for, “I want you to stop looking at me like that!”
It didn’t help. They kept looking at him in just the same way: patient, as though there was nothing he could do to be a threat to them, no reason to bother being hostile. They looked at him like they pitied him. The boy hated being pitied and always had. Pity meant nothing, accomplished nothing. People acted as though being sorry made him less hungry, as though he should care what they felt about him, as though it made him better somehow to know that they were sad.
Master Xehanort never pitied him.
“I hate you,” he said. “I hate you! Go away!”
He meant it. He did. If he didn’t feel the lurch and swirl inside that meant he was going to be sick, that was just because he was tired.
“This is our home,” said the male student. “You’re the one who came here.” His voice was slow and reasonable.
The boy did not feel like dealing with reason right at the moment. “You’re the ones who kept my body in your home.” He could feel it again, barely a twinge unless he looked: his body was still very near. The students were clearly far too trusting, leaving him where he could – do what? He hadn’t been able to get back inside after all, just like the Master had said. They could leave him wherever they liked, and the boy wouldn’t suddenly become able to take his body back.
“You were unconscious. We couldn’t just throw you out.”
He sneered. Of course they could have. It wasn’t like he was much of a burden for the big idiot. “Not this body. My real one. You know, the one with my face on it?”
The girl was frowning at him like she had something to say. “But – you have a face.”
She indicated the boy with a sweep of her hand, and he realized with a sensation like tumbling over a waterfall that he had woken up without his mask on, had been sitting here all the while with the other face in plain view. There was even a mirror hanging on the wall, where he could see –
The boy thought on, on, on, and the mask slipped back from wherever it went almost quickly enough to keep him from seeing what the mirror showed. The room darkened a shade to his vision, and he wondered how he’d missed the brightness. He thought he’d gotten used to the dusky light that came through his mask. He also thought he never took the mask off. One of these was true.
“Why did you take it off?” he demanded, but even to himself his voice sounded weak.
The girl’s frown darkened to a scowl. “We didn’t! We didn’t do anything about any of the things you think we did. It was gone when we found you.”
“You’re lying. You’re lying!” She had to be lying. He couldn’t let her be telling the truth. He never took his mask off, not even when he slept. He remembered what he’d done before passing out, and he hadn’t taken his mask off then. They had to have removed it. Why would he take it off in his sleep? He wouldn’t.
He flung his Keyblade at her, but his arm was too weak, and she deflected it without seeming to notice. It hit the ground with a clatter. When the boy tried to call it back, something ached in his head like a sore muscle. Although he pushed through it enough to banish his Keyblade, doing so turned the ache to a stabbing pain. He wouldn’t cry out. He refused. But safe behind his mask, he bit down on his lip until the pain died down to a bearable level.
“We’re not lying!” The boy student sounded frustrated. Good, thought the boy viciously. It was about time he got with the program.
The girl student sounded almost as frustrated, but that didn’t stop her from pushing. “Why are you so upset? There’s nothing wrong with your face.”
“It’s not my face!” He had nothing else to throw, even thinking too meaningfully about his Keyblade hurt, so the boy threw his words as if they could keep the sick feeling from taking over him again. “It’s not! It’s just a face that came with this body that isn’t mine either! My body is over there,” he pointed in the direction that particular ache came from, “and I don’t care what you think, it’s mine and I want it back!”
It didn’t work. The boy felt sick again, not as bad as before, but still too bad to suppress. All his emotions were trying to escape, and then the students would see, and he couldn’t fight them off, not like this. He had to keep them from knowing, or (the Master’s plans would be ruined) they would kill him.
Crimson and emerald starbursts exploded across his vision as he reached for the emotions with his will, but he ignored them. He’d done this once; he could do it again. It was easier to feel what he was doing this time, but harder, infinitely harder, to actually pull it off. He heard himself choke on nothing, causing an explosion of noise from the students, but they weren’t important. What was important was shoving the emotions away again where they couldn’t get him killed.
He finished and drew a sudden deep breath: he’d forgotten to breathe. Everything hurt, and what didn’t hurt felt empty, but the emotions were gone. Someone was touching him. More than one someone? He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t care. It wasn’t like they could find anywhere to touch him that didn’t already hurt.
The boy shut his eyes and knew no more.
He was unconscious for a lot longer than before. Aqua couldn’t help but worry. Perhaps she was just in the habit, after worrying about Ventus so much. The two looked so alike, especially in their sleep. It was too similar in other ways, as well: she’d never heard anyone scream like that before Ventus.
She and Terra took turns sleeping, training, cooking, and watching. She spooned broth carefully into Ventus’s mouth that evening and made sure he swallowed; Terra did the same in the morning. Neither of them quite knew what to do about the boy from the darkness. In the end, they made an extra plate of the sandwiches they fixed for themselves and left it by the bed, in case he woke. He hadn’t been asleep for as long.
The sandwiches were starting to go stale when he woke up.
Aqua had gotten so used to sitting over a sleeping prisoner (guest?) that it took her a moment to understand what the shifting sound of cloth meant. In her defense, it was morning again, and her sleep had been troubled at best. Eventually the sound penetrated to her conscious mind, and she dragged her eyes up from her book to find the stranger sitting up, or trying to. He wasn’t having much luck.
That was probably bad. After sleeping so much, he should be full of energy, not struggling to pull himself into a sitting position. Aqua frowned. She wished she knew what was wrong with him. For that matter, she wished she knew what was wrong was Ventus. She wished it didn’t look so much like the same problem. She didn’t want any of what the stranger had said to be true.
At least he was less of a danger like this. “Are you feeling better?” she asked for something to say. She could see perfectly well that he wasn’t.
He startled and fell back onto the pillows. “What the – what’s it to you?”
That was a funny question to ask. He’d passed out twice now, once right in front of Aqua’s eyes, after having some kind of seizure. Why wouldn’t she be concerned at the very least? “You were asleep for a while,” she said to avoid getting distracted from the question. “Like Ventus.”
“I’m Ventus,” the boy said, weak but insistent.
That, Aqua couldn’t let slide. “He said he was Ventus, and I believe him, because he’s not a madman who broke into the castle.”
“Whatever. Believe what you want.”
She intended to. “Do you know what’s wrong with you? Or with him?”
“…Is that all you have to say?”
She was fairly sure he was just saying that to be annoying. It was working. She was trying to help, and he was being difficult on purpose. She would just have to change his mind somehow. She considered what he might be interested by. “Your mask didn’t come off this time.” It was almost weirder seeing him sleep with the mask on than with it off. Without it, he looked like a boy; with it, he could be any kind of creature trying to lull them into complacence before striking.
“It’s not supposed to come off,” he replied, sounding sulky and refreshingly childish. “Not coming off is what it’s for.”
She chuckled despite the seriousness of the situation. That had sounded almost normal, like something an ordinary boy who didn’t insist that his face wasn’t his would say. Maybe this stranger wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
“We made you some sandwiches,” she offered. He had to be starving by now.
She couldn’t see what he was thinking, couldn’t even guess, not with the mask on, but he prodded at the plate as though it was going to attack him. That was strange. Not bad, but troubling. It was just food.
Maybe he’d never seen sandwiches before. Did they have sandwiches in the darkness? It hadn’t been the kind of question Aqua had ever considered before. She added helpfully, “It’s bread with different spreads and meat and things.”
“I know what a sandwich is, stupid,” the boy said.
Aqua frowned. She didn’t think that was any way to talk to someone who was just trying to help. It wasn’t as though she had to do anything for him; quite the reverse, in fact. He could at least sound a little bit grateful. “Do you not want them?”
Almost too fast for her to follow, the boy grabbed the plate and yanked it onto his lap. Part of Aqua wondered how quickly he could move when he was well. The other part was just confused, and a little worried. “They’re mine,” he snapped.
“I was just asking,” she said. There was something strange about this boy, something that didn’t make sense, even beyond everything else. Maybe they were making a serious mistake having him here for a reason they didn’t even know yet.
He picked up one of the sandwiches in his gloved fingers (now that she knew he had a face under the mask, it was easier to believe that there was a boy’s body under the strange ropy fabric of his outfit) and turned it over, poking and prodding and – was he sniffing? – it as though it might suddenly grow a mouth and start talking to him, or do something even more outlandish. Aqua wouldn’t have been surprised if it had, herself. Stranger things had happened in the past day.
Apparently satisfied that the sandwich was all it purported to be, the boy started to lift it to his mouth – then stopped sharply and put it back down. Aqua couldn’t tell for sure, but she had a definite feeling that he was glaring at her.
“Go away.” That tone of voice was definitely accompanied by a glare.
She blinked. “Why?” Not that she thought her company was particularly welcome, but he hadn’t seemed to mind too much before.
The one-word answers were getting annoying. “That’s not good enough,” she said. “I’m here to watch you. I’m not going to turn my back the second you say so. Especially if you don’t ask nicely.”
“Fine. Please, o benevolent lady, go be a paragon of virtue somewhere else so I can eat in peace.” Somehow he managed to make “please” sound like a curse. It was almost impressive.
“I’m not keeping you from eating,” Aqua said. Then her mind caught up with her and pointed out that she wasn’t, but the mask probably was. It didn’t look like there was any way to eat through it.
She suspected that the boy was making a rude face at her. Whatever else the mask did, it certainly made it harder to tell for sure what he was thinking. Unfortunately for him, she didn’t care about being made a rude face at. This was getting ridiculous, and she was going to tell him so, since it seemed no one else had.
“This is getting ridiculous,” she said. “I’ve already seen your face – fine, the face you’re currently wearing,” she added, forestalling the boy’s protest. “It’s not going to surprise me. Take off the mask and have something to eat before you fall asleep again.”
He seemed to be thinking seriously about her words, and Aqua hoped she was getting through to him – then, in a flurry of motion, he and the sandwiches both disappeared completely under two layers of blanket.
“Really?” she asked the resulting lump. “This is your idea of a solution? You’re going to get crumbs everywhere!”
The lump of blankets radiated smugness. Shaking her head to herself, Aqua picked up her book again.
They kept feeding him. The boy wasn’t sure what to think about that. He’d been sure the first pile of sandwiches had to be drugged or poisoned or enchanted somehow, but he’d been too hungry to care. They didn’t seem to want him dead, and he could hardly feel worse than he already did. So he’d eaten them, and then waited for hours for the symptoms to set in, but nothing had happened. He hadn’t even started to feel queasy, the way he remembered feeling when he’d eaten something that was starting to go bad.
The girl student had left while he’d been waiting, to be replaced by the boy student and another plate of sandwiches, accompanied this time by a glass of some kind of fruit juice he’d never had before. There had been two plates, actually: one the student had eaten himself, and one he’d left in the exact same place the other one had been. The boy had watched from under the blankets (he was starting to like it there; they couldn’t even look at him, but he could watch them without their knowing), but he hadn’t been able to catch the student even looking at them. So he’d eaten those too. They hadn’t said he couldn’t, and he was still hungry.
He felt better after having eaten. There was nothing mere food could do about the huge and aching emptiness inside him, but at least he wasn’t hungry as well. The drink helped also: he hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he wasn’t.
He still felt weaker than a baby, and his mind felt like there were knives inside his skull whenever he thought too hard of magic, but he’d felt like that before. Being warm and fed as well was an improvement.
He still didn’t know what the two of them had planned for him. It was starting to annoy him. They hadn’t killed him. They hadn’t even locked him up, not really: this room was no kind of dungeon. They’d fed him. They hadn’t asked him more questions, or tried to touch him, or done anything at all to him.
He hated it. He wished they would do something already, so he could stop waiting for it to happen. The waiting was the worst part. The boy recalled that he always thought that, up until the waiting stopped. Then he tended to change his mind pretty quickly. There were (cruelties – punishments) things Master Xehanort could do that were far worse than the waiting, when the boy was clumsy or stupid or weak. Still, at least once a punishment had been chosen, the boy would know what was going to happen.
That didn’t mean he was in any hurry to get back, especially not when he was this weak. His Master had absolutely no patience for weakness. The boy doubted he could survive regular training right now, let alone punishment. So instead of trying to get away, he waited, watched, and tried to guess what the students had planned for him.
The students traded back and forth several more times over the course of the day. Every time they switched, the one who was arriving brought some kind of food and drink, which they left where the boy could get to it. After a few more meals, he did start to feel sick, in the unfamiliar way that meant he’d eaten all he could. He took the food under the blankets anyway and sought out somewhere to hide it. It was just as well he didn’t want to sleep, because the pillowcase was unlikely to be comfortable anymore.
The boy started feeling tired by late afternoon, but he refused to sleep. He’d already slept more than he needed. Anyway, he wasn’t going to sleep with someone in the room, watching him. They might be stupid, but he wasn’t. If he fell asleep, there was no knowing how he would wake up. They could do something more to him, like they’d already done.
The girl student was watching him again, but she had clearly decided he wasn’t a serious threat. He hated that she was right. She’d tried to talk to him, but he’d pretended to be asleep. She hadn’t done anything but gone back to sitting in that horrible chair and working on some kind of metal trinket.
Now she was tired, fumbling with her tools and blinking too much. The boy saw his chance. He could get away and find somewhere safe from their power, if he was lucky and careful.
He hated taking his mask off, but this was important. She would be sure to believe he was asleep if he did that, and as long as he didn’t look at the mirror, he could handle it. So he took his mask off and let some hair poke out from under the blanket. He tried to relax, to look like sleeping bodies looked. He even snored a little. But all the time, he watched her from under the covers.
She looked at him a few times, but it took a while for her to stop trying to work. She yawned more and more often. Then, at last, she laid her head down on her arms and shut her eyes.
The boy waited. She didn’t snore, but she sounded asleep.
He twitched the covers back, making just a little noise. If she was faking it, or if she woke, he could pretend to still be sleeping. She didn’t move.
Standing up was far more difficult than it had any business being. The boy hadn’t realized just how tired he was while he’d been lying down. He clenched his teeth and took a step as quietly as he possibly could, then another, then another still.
The door was shut, of course, but it opened smoothly. There was still no sound from where she was asleep behind him. He swung the door closed as carefully as he could manage, but the sound of it clicking shut seemed impossibly loud in the nighttime silence.
He was out. He’d done it. The boy realized he hadn’t thought about what to do next. He hadn’t really thought he would succeed. Now he had, and he needed (somewhere to stay – to go back where he should be) a place to sleep.
There was only one other room in this place that he knew of for sure. He let the ache guide him to the right bedroom. There was his body, just the way he’d left it, lying on the bed like everything was safe.
That bed wasn’t any safer than the one he’d left, but there was space under it: nice, dark, defensible space, where no one could see him unless they looked, and they wouldn’t look. The boy scooted in, slipped his mask back on, and promptly fell asleep.
It had been less than two days, and already the schedule they were keeping was starting to bother Terra. He hadn’t spent so little time with Aqua since she’d first come to live at the castle, and that had been years ago. Even when they were fighting, which wasn’t often, there were always meals and training whether they wanted to see each other or not. Now one of them was always watching the boy from the darkness while the other slept, ate, or trained. Even if he stayed in the room when it was her turn, the boy was always there. They couldn’t really relax.
Master Eraqus was coming home today, he reminded himself as he rolled out of bed. He would sort everything out, and things could go back to normal.
When he walked into the guest bedroom, it was obvious that something was wrong. Aqua was slumped over the table, and the bed was empty.
“Aqua!” He lifted her as carefully as he could. She blinked slowly and mumbled, and Terra breathed again. She was just asleep.
“Whadizzit?” He could see her realize where she was and jerk into full wakefulness.
“You fell asleep. Are you okay?”
She brushed his hands impatiently from her shoulders. “I’m fine. Is -?”
“He’s not here.” Terra had no idea if the boy had just fled in the night, or if he was somewhere around, lurking, waiting for a chance to strike. “He can’t have gone far,” he added to make Aqua feel better, hoping it was true.
It didn’t really work: her mouth tightened and her eyes dropped just the same. Still, her voice was even when she said, “Go check on Ventus, in case he’s in there again. I’ll start looking.”
Every time he went into Ventus’s room now, Terra felt a short spike of mixed fear and hope. The boy who said he was Ventus had woken up already, twice, so didn’t that mean Ventus should be waking up too? What if one day Terra came in and someone was there to greet him? On the other hand, he kept half-expecting to see that devouring darkness again, this time completely consuming Ventus’s faint light.
This time, like every other since the dark boy had arrived, he saw neither. Ventus was asleep still, motionless as ever, but the darkness was nowhere to be seen. It was just the same as always. Terra came close enough to pat Ventus on the shoulder. “Hey.” It was silly to talk to someone who couldn’t hear, but he wanted to believe that it helped, somehow, to remind Ventus that there was something here besides the quiet of an empty room.
…It wasn’t so quiet, today. Someone was snoring softly.
Terra listened closer, but the noise wasn’t coming from Ventus. No matter how little it made sense, it sounded like there was someone else in the room.
There weren’t a lot of places to hide, and even fewer where Terra could imagine someone falling asleep. He bent and looked under the bed.
How he’d gotten there Terra didn’t know, but it was certainly the strange boy curled up under the bed, apparently sleeping soundly. He had his mask on, but it didn’t seem to be making him uncomfortable. Despite the mask, he looked even more like a normal boy this way.
Not wanting to wake him, Terra went out into the hall before he called, “Aqua! It’s all right, I found him!”
She came at a run, already looking frazzled. With how quickly she arrived, she must have been checking the other bedrooms. “Where? Is Ventus - ?”
“He’s fine. He’s under the bed,” Terra said, then realizing that this was somewhat confusing, he added, “The – boy is under the bed. Sleeping.”
“What in the world was he doing there?” Aqua asked. Terra didn’t answer; he didn’t have the faintest idea either. “Well, as long as nobody’s hurt, I suppose… Do you want me to take another turn, since I fell asleep instead of watching?”
“I’m already awake,” he said. “You go eat. Or finish your nap.” He smirked a little. Now that the crisis was over, he could appreciate how rare it was for Aqua to be the one making a mistake for once.
She hit him, not hard. “You hush. I’ll get you both – you all – breakfast. And clean up the kitchen before Master Eraqus gets back and sees that mess you made.”
“You made at least half the mess!” Terra protested, but he was smiling as he said it, and so was she. This, at least, was close to normal.
When he went back into the room, the snoring had stopped, but Ventus was still the only person on the bed. Terra shrugged, shut the door, and flopped down on the rug. The boy under the bed had untangled himself from his own limbs. With the mask it was impossible to tell for sure, but it looked like he was watching him.
“What are you doing under there?” Terra asked. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.” Given a choice between sleeping under beds and sleeping on top of them, he preferred the side with pillows every time.
“Your friend fell asleep,” said the boy, ignoring the question. “You’re not very good at this, are you?”
“Good at what?” Terra privately hoped the boy would answer. At least then someone would know what they were doing, which was more than Terra did.
He gestured sharply at Terra, Ventus, and the room. “Keeping dangerous prisoners or whatever you think you’re doing. Messing with my head.”
“We’re not,” Terra began, but he didn’t know how to go on. The boy was a prisoner, though he hadn’t escaped when he could have. He was dangerous, or he would be if he weren’t sick or hurt or whatever was wrong with him. They were trying to keep him. As for messing with his head, from the sound of it someone else had already done all the messing there was to do, but the boy didn’t seem to believe that, and Terra didn’t know how to prove it.
“Why are you in here?” he asked again. “And why under the bed?”
There was a long silence. “…It feels better closer to my body,” the boy said, sounding like the words were being dragged out of him. “And I don’t know how you expect me to sleep with someone else in the room.”
Terra wanted to say that Ventus should count as someone else, but no matter how the boy from the darkness was or wasn’t connected to Ventus, someone who had been asleep for so long without showing any sign of waking didn’t count in the same way as Aqua did, even if she had been asleep at the moment. Instead, he said, “Are you going to come out?”
The strange boy considered it in his mind, then without another word he scrambled backwards out from under the bed, so that Ventus was between him and Terra when he stood up again.
Terra stood likewise, watching him. He looked healthier, and that meant more dangerous. But the boy didn’t move toward Ventus nor toward Terra. Instead he turned insolently toward the bookshelf and started reading the titles of the books out loud. “ ‘Fiat Lux: An Intermediate Guide’, boring and useless, ‘History of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’, useful but boring, ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’, boring and useless and dishonest… Do you have anything that isn’t incredibly stupid?”
“It’s not dishonest!” Terra said, more hotly than he knew he should. He was very fond of that book for reasons he didn’t feel like even thinking about in the presence of someone with so much dark power, in case now that he was well the boy could pick the thoughts right from Terra’s mind.
He laughed, and Terra wondered if his thoughts really had been overheard, but the dark boy only said, “Well, then it’s stupid. Which would you prefer? It’s a lie either way.”
“It’s not,” Terra insisted. Despite himself, he remembered seeing the book for the first time and thinking…something far more similar than he wanted to think of. The book was true, though, or it could be. About the light, it was true. He knew that now.
About the darkness, though…Maybe this boy just didn’t know any better. Maybe he could learn. Maybe… Terra shook himself mentally. Someone with so much darkness in them and no light that he’d been able to see couldn’t understand, no matter how much he told him. There were people like that.
“Get out of there. We’re going back to your room,” he said harshly. It wasn’t a good idea to let the dark stranger be too close to Ventus. And maybe then he would shut up.
“What if I don’t want to?” the boy rejoined.
Terra opened his mouth to say something angry, then shut it again. He wasn’t going to let this wind him up. He was stronger than that. He wasn’t going to make the dark boy go anywhere, either, not when he was leaning back and practically daring Terra to hit him. That wasn’t the kind of person he was.
“Then don’t,” he said eventually. “Be bored here.”
“Bored here or bored there? Such choices.” The boy shrugged as though he didn’t know Terra had almost gone over there to drag him back by force, or as though he did know but didn’t care. “Might as well go there, then.”
Terra gave up on understanding him. At least it wouldn’t be for much longer.
“Not much longer?” the boy said, and Terra realized he’d spoken aloud. “You mean you actually have a plan for getting rid of me other than death by boredom?”
“Master Eraqus comes home today,” Terra said shortly, opening the guestroom door and holding it until the boy went in. “He’ll decide what to do with you.”
At least after that the boy was quiet. Terra tried not to think of it as too quiet.
The other Master arrived in the middle of the afternoon. By that time, the boy had had enough time to think of the right answers for all the questions he was likely to be asked, and then enough time after that to worry about the questions he hadn’t thought of.
What if Master Xehanort had already spoken about his lesser colleague about him? What if the other Master knew what the boy was and what he was for? What if his Master arrived with him to find the boy and take him back?
The boy wasn’t sure how he felt about the possibility. These people were noxious and naïve and confusing, but they’d fed him and given him a bed and left him more or less alone. It was a stupid thing for them to do, but if they wanted to invite their eventual destruction into their home, that was their affair. He wasn’t about to complain.
They were probably just acting this way because they were only students and didn’t know any better, the boy decided. They didn’t have the authority to make decisions. When their Master got here, he wouldn’t have that problem.
He would have run, if he could have, but when he reached for the power he’d barely learned to harness, the power to travel, there was nothing there but pain blistering down his nerves. Most of his power was like that, even after having slept and eaten. Maybe he was broken. Maybe trying to force himself into his body had broken something inside him even more than it already was.
The boy tried not to think about it. Instead, he thought about more things he might say, if he was asked. Having something to concentrate on made it easy not to feel. That whole day, he didn’t once feel sick too badly to suppress.
Then the other Master returned.
It was the boy student sitting with him again. The boy heard the footsteps before he did: two sets instead of one. He sat up and tried not to feel anything at all. The door opened.
The other Master wasn’t as old as Master Xehanort, the boy thought: his hair was still mostly dark, his shoulders unbowed, and he moved like a skilled warrior. His Master was the greater and more powerful of the two, of course, but while this Master might be a fool as Master Xehanort said, he was no weakling. The boy couldn’t hope to defeat him, or even hold him off. He would have to convince him.
And he would have to be very convincing indeed, for the boy noticed that his guess had been right: this Master had the confidence his students lacked, and he meant to use it.
The boy swallowed. He could survive this. He could. A strong fool was still a fool, and these students were soft because their Master was soft.
“Master Eraqus!” exclaimed the boy student, standing to formal attention. Behind his mask, the boy sneered. Master Xehanort never expected such posturing (only total obedience – only due respect).
“Terra,” said the other Master, “it is good to be home. Aqua has told me what occurred in my absence. This is the being in question?” He looked at the boy. The boy looked back, grateful for the mask that made it impossible for the man to read his eyes.
“Yes, Master,” said the Terra student.
“And what do you have to say for yourself?”
The boy had prepared a story in case he had a chance to explain himself freely. It was even mostly true. “Great Master,” he began, since flattery was seldom a bad thing, particularly of someone like this, “I don’t mean any harm. I came looking for my body, because it was taken from me and I want it back. That’s my right. I didn’t hurt anyone.”
The other Master frowned. The boy tensed. He’d already said something wrong. But the Master only said, “You refer to Ventus.”
“I am Ventus!” The words leapt out of his mouth without permission. He choked back the rest, all the things he wanted to say to the person responsible for trying to hide his body from him and making it impossible for him to go back where he belonged. There wasn’t any point in saying it. It wouldn’t save him, and the other Master knew anyway.
“My students have told me of your claim,” said the other Master heavily. “They do not know what happened to injure Ventus, as I do. If you came from Ventus, then you are his darkness, an abomination that should not exist, nothing more.”
The boy made himself breathe deeply. He wouldn’t fear. Fear was defeat, and he was going to win. “Please, Master, that’s not true. He doesn’t remember my life before then, but I do. I remember everything. Doesn’t that make me the real one?”
He shouldn’t have phrased that as a question, no matter how obsequious he was trying to be. The shake of the other Master’s head took away his fragile hope. “No. You are only darkness, a shadow. Light is the true self. But I see you are feeding on Ventus for sustenance. You cannot continue to exist!”
The boy dove off the bed just in time to avoid most of the white fire that flashed from the other Master’s Keyblade, suddenly in his hand. The man might be old, but he was fast: the boy felt something like burning chain wrap around his right ankle as he fell to the floor in a tumble of bedclothes.
There was no preventing that pain from escaping, nor the fear that followed. The boy didn’t care to try. He struggled to get free of the blankets, bleakly aware that there was no way he would be in time, not if the other Master was that fast to draw. It wouldn’t matter anyway: there was nothing he could do against that much power and skill, no way he could escape for long enough to travel in the darkness. But he was going to die on his feet this time.
At first, he didn’t realize that he hadn’t screamed. It was his voice, familiar to him as his own face. Then the others turned away from him, even the other Master, and he remembered that his voice, like his face, wasn’t his anymore. It had been his body, the other boy, who had screamed.
The other Master turned back to him almost instantly, but that had given the boy time to scramble to his feet. His burned ankle complained bitterly at being stood on, but he ignored it. That pain went to join the other. They were outside somewhere, doing him no good, as if they ever had.
“What did you do?” The other Master hadn’t looked angry before, but now he did.
The boy refused to back down. “I didn’t do anything. What did you do?” If he was going to die, he might as well stop groveling.
The Aqua student had run for the scream. She ran back, looking pale. The boy was glad. Anything he could do to hurt them before they killed him, he was glad of. “Master, it’s Ventus! He’s – in his sleep, he was grabbing at his leg! There was a burn!”
For a moment, the boy was as confused as any of them. Then he realized: this close, at least, the connection between him and his body went both ways. It was still his, and not the other boy’s, if the other boy even really existed.
The other Master worked it out too, if the way his gaze went from his student to the boy’s injured right leg was any indication. It didn’t seem to make him any less angry, though. “What have you done to Ventus? Undo it at once!”
That was so ridiculous, the boy couldn’t help laughing. “I never did anything to my body! There’s nothing to do or undo, except whatever you did to shut me out! If it weren’t for that, my body would be perfectly fine – better, even, since there would be enough of him to open his eyes.”
He managed to draw his Keyblade with only a small throb, not even enough to need suppression. “So go on, kill me. Kill Ventus. Do you believe me now?”
Both the students looked pale now, though the Terra one showed it less. They’d probably never even seen someone die before. Neither of them was ever going to be a Keyblade Master if they stayed that easy to shake. Their Master, however, was as hard as stone. He raised his Keyblade, light glittering on the end of it. There was nowhere else the boy could dodge to.
The boy tried not to think of his own Master, but it happened anyway. Little guilts went tearing out of him to somewhere too far away to be of any use. He was going to fail again, completely, and there would be no second chance this time, no way of being useful enough, strong enough, good enough. (He was glad to spoil the old man’s fun – He was a miserable failure – He was going to get away.)
It was the Aqua student. The boy didn’t bother looking at her. She didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the next - last - five seconds of his life.
But her Master did, and he was looking at her instead of bringing his Keyblade down, though the boy didn’t understand why.
“He’s been here for days, and he didn’t do anything wrong, when he could have. And Ventus is – he didn’t do anything wrong either. Isn’t there anything else we can do?”
The boy stared at her. What was she thinking? How could she argue with her Master like that? He wondered if he would get to see her punishment before he died. The prospect didn’t make him as pleased as it should. He wished he could see her angle. She couldn’t be stupid enough to think she could just get away with disrespect like that, so she had to have some kind of reason to think it would be worth it. What did she want him alive for?
The other Master was shaking his head, but he didn’t look angry the way she deserved. The boy wondered if he was reading the other Master wrong. It seemed likely, since he actually answered her, “It isn’t human, Aqua. Beings such as this upset the balance by their mere existence. That balance must be maintained at any cost.”
“That’s not true!” The boy didn’t care about disrespect. There was nothing this Master could do to him that he wasn’t going to do already. “That doesn’t even make sense. You didn’t kill the other boy when Master Xehanort brought him, and if I’m unbalanced, so is he. You don’t really care about the ‘balance’ at all, do you? You just hate me for existing.”
That looked like it hurt the students, at least. The boy was glad. They deserved to be hurt, them and their light. His stomach rolled, and a whole battalion of hates and angers formed outside. For a moment, the boy didn’t care about the students and their Master. He just felt hollow again.
“It isn’t my fault I got split in half,” he said. “It’s not.” He wished he weren’t lying.
Now it was the Terra student who was talking out of turn. “Master, please?” The other Master looked at him, too. From the way he dropped his eyes to the floor, he at least seemed aware of how much trouble he was going to be in, once the boy was dead.
The other Master looked at the boy even more closely than before. The boy felt as though he was being stripped of all his armor at once, down to the skin and beneath. Maybe all Masters could do that. He looked back, though he didn’t have the trick of it. He wasn’t a coward like the other boy. He could look back.
With a flash of light, the other Master’s Keyblade vanished.
The boy stared. What had happened? Had the other Master decided that a quick death was too merciful? That would be like a Master. Or was he really as soft, and as much of a fool, as Master Xehanort had said? Confusions sprouted at the edges of the boy’s awareness. He wasn’t dead, but now the tension was back, and he loathed the tension.
“Perhaps it would be in haste,” said the other Master. “Very well. If you both speak for it, then I will hear what it has told you. Go to the hall. We will speak there, and I will come to my final decision.”
The students left in a hurry, leaving the door open behind them. The boy tried to follow, but the other Master’s hand closed on the back of his neck with a grip like a vise. “Whatever you have done to their minds, I will find it out. Do not so much as attempt to leave my sight. And get rid of that. It is not yours to bear.”
The boy banished his Keyblade obediently. His death was only delayed a little while, that much was clear. This Master liked to toy with his prey as much as his Master did.
He would make of that little while what he could.
Aqua nibbled nervously on her thumbnail. The grand hall had never felt this formal before: it was their training hall on ordinary days, the meeting room when guests came, but today it was a courtroom, and she wasn’t sure who was on trial.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have spoken up. A Master knew better than a student what was a threat to the light and what to do about one, and it was presumptuous to act as though she could possibly know something that Master Eraqus didn’t. But, in the same way she hadn’t been able to do it herself when the boy had first arrived, she couldn’t watch him be destroyed.
Now she was going to have to explain why. She tried to get her thoughts in order, but it was difficult to explain even to herself.
Master Eraqus arrived before she’d come to any kind of helpful conclusion, dragging the boy with him. Looking at the boy, how he stumbled over his own feet, Aqua remembered at least one reason to take care of him: he was hurt. No matter how it had happened or what the hurt caused, he was hurt and tired and couldn’t take care of himself.
“Very well,” said Master Eraqus. Aqua and Terra stood to attention. The boy, of course, didn’t. “Tell me everything that happened while I was away to make you believe that a creature of darkness has a place here.”
So she did. She recounted as much as she could remember, down to the word, and Terra filled in for her when she stumbled, or when they got to a point where she’d been asleep. The boy didn’t say anything the whole time, just stood there and watched. It made her uncomfortable, the way he just stood there. And watched. It was as though he didn’t care what happened to him, as though none of this had anything to do with him anymore.
“…And then you returned, Master,” Terra finished.
Master Eraqus looked soberly down at the boy. “And on this basis, you would offer him sanctuary here? A nameless, faceless creature of the darkness?”
“I have a name,” the boy insisted. It was the first time he’d spoken in at least an hour.
“A name you stole is not yours to bear.”
“I’m not the thief!” said the boy. “He is!”
“And he has a face,” Aqua added. “Under the mask. He looks a lot like Ventus.”
“That’s not my face.”
“Then whose is it?” Master Eraqus asked. “Did you steal it from some other victim?”
“…I don’t know,” the boy said. “It just…happened, like this body happened. I took off the mask, and it was there. I didn’t steal it! I didn’t ask for any of it!”
Master Eraqus looked at both her and Terra sharply. “And you believe this?”
They both nodded. “He said it wasn’t his face before,” said Terra. “And he was upset that we saw it. Really upset.”
“Show me.” The boy didn’t move. “Show me at once!”
To Aqua’s surprise, rather than making the mask disappear the way he’d made it appear before, the boy simply reached up and tugged it off his head. Underneath was the same face she’d seen before: Ventus’s face, with someone else’s black hair and someone else’s yellow eyes. The boy looked defiant, but she thought he was scared as well. She didn’t really blame him. She was scared for him.
It was even easier, with the mask off, to remember that he hadn’t acted like a monster after that first day, and even then he had been as much a boy as a monster. He hid under the blankets to eat and snuck out of the room to sleep under Ventus’s bed and made quiet whimpering noises in his sleep, like he was in pain.
“Master, please,” she said again, “isn’t it what we’re here for, to take care of people the darkness hurt?” Master Eraqus could help him, surely. He knew so much.
She thought for a moment the boy was going to say something stupid, but he kept silent. Instead, Master Eraqus said, “One chance, no more. And since you vouch for him, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on him and tell me if he wastes that chance. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master!” she and Terra chorused eagerly.
Master Eraqus looked the boy in the eyes for the first time. “And you? Do you understand that if you put any of my students in danger, you will have proven that you are nothing more than darkness?”
“Then I grant you sanctuary of this castle and land, by the power I bear and the power I guard. So long as it is safe with you, then you are safe with it.” Aqua watched as Master Eraqus drew his Keyblade and tapped the boy lightly on each shoulder. She had seen this done before, but not for a long time. When the Keyblade glowed, she flinched despite herself, expecting the boy to be burned as he had been before by the power of light, but he made no sound.
He took a few steps toward them, his face blank and lost looking. Aqua smiled encouragingly and reached out to pat him on the shoulder.
Before she could even touch him, he recoiled so violently that he almost fell. The lost look left his face, but the wariness that replaced it was just as worrisome. Aqua wondered if there was something he didn’t understand after all.
“She’s not gonna hurt you,” Terra said. Aqua looked over at him: where she felt mostly confused and a little worried, Terra looked mostly worried and only a little confused. She wondered what he knew that she didn’t.
The boy scowled. “I know that.” Still, Aqua didn’t try to touch him again.
Instead she said lightly, “So is there something we can call you other than Ventus?”
“Why not Ventus?” Without the helmet on, it was obvious the boy was pouting.
“Because we met him first, and he introduced himself first, and we can’t change his name while he’s asleep and can’t give permission, or he won’t know who we mean when he wakes up.” He was going to wake up. Aqua was sure of it. Everything could be fixed, in time.
The boy muttered something about their changing his name without permission, but Aqua looked at Master Eraqus’s stern face and knew that this was an argument she was going to win, one way or another. She didn’t want the Master to have to step in and settle it right after she and Terra had promised to handle the boy. “You can talk to him about it when he wakes up, but until then, don’t you have any other name at all?”
The boy looked everywhere but at her. “I guess. He gave me a name when I got split.”
That sounded promising. “What was it?”