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Ventus is happy. Of course he is. He’s always the one who gets to feel things like that, while Vanitas is left with the dregs.

Ventus couldn’t even kill him right. That’s what Xigbar says, anyway, when he finds Vanitas slumped over in the middle of the Keyblade Graveyard and kicks him in the side until he comes to. Vanitas wishes he’d let him sleep, but it’s not like wishing’s ever done him any good.

“That kid was always more trouble than he was worth,” Xigbar tells him in that annoying way of his, like he’s talking to an audience that isn’t there. It pisses Vanitas off. “And you were always the same. You’re supposed to be gone. Zippo, zilch, nada. What are you still hanging around here for?”

“Please. Like that band of idiots was going to be enough to take me down.” Sure, maybe technically they were enough, but it’s not like he’d ever admit it to Xigbar. Vanitas felt it, the moment he was about to fade away, the darkness losing its hold on him for just one single second.

But then something grabbed him between the ribs, a tether to his poor excuse for a heart. Just the way that Sora once kept Ventus from falling completely to pieces, back when he wasn’t able to hold himself together.

How annoying, to think that Vanitas was ever as weak as Ventus.

And even worse, the darkness is back, sour as ever on his tongue. Vanitas still feels the same pull he always did towards the light. He’s better than any compass; he only points in one direction. He always knows where Ventus is.

“Whatever you say, kid. They were certainly enough for the old coot. He’s a goner. So that leaves me to finally get back to what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Vanitas jerks his head up. “What?”

Xigbar shrugs expansively. “You heard me. Xehanort’s dead with a capital D. And I got my own irons in the fire. So you’re free! No Master to order you around anymore! Pretty cool, right?”

It’s hard to imagine a world with Xehanort gone. No: it’s impossible. Xehanort’s always been the one to show Vanitas what to do. How to claw his way back to being who he’s supposed to be. The only way he’ll ever be whole.

Vanitas presses his hand to his face. The helmet’s gone, nothing left but a few cracked shards clinging to his skin.

There’s never been a time when Vanitas hasn’t felt empty. That’s all he is, after all; the hollow places that Ventus left behind. But before, he was an arrow strung in a bow. He knew where he was pointed. He always knew he’d be something more someday.

For a strange moment, he wonders if this is what that useless wooden toy felt like, when Vanitas broke it in two and cast it aside. Isn’t that all he and Ventus are, anyway? A toy that was broken and never mended?

They could’ve become something more. Vanitas shouldn’t have to feel like this, but no: Ventus didn’t want to be a weapon. Ventus wanted to stick around with his dumb little friends. When Vanitas finds him again, he’s going to wring his neck.

“Yeah,” Xigbar says. “Them’s the breaks. Sorry! I don’t have time to sit around dealing with that look on your face, so I think I’ll be going now. Have a nice life. Or don’t. No skin off my nose either way.” And with that, he sets off in the direction of what looks like exactly nowhere.

But hey, Vanitas can’t blame him. That’s exactly where he’s headed too. The thought makes him laugh, just as cracked open as the remains of his useless excuse for a helmet.

Somewhere out there, Ventus is smiling and laughing. Vanitas can feel it just as strongly as always, Ventus’s joy taunting him with the pale echoes that Vanitas gets. A song he can’t help but hear through the wall, but never well enough to figure out the lyrics.

So Ventus is happy and Vanitas is alone. Ventus has his friends back and Vanitas has nothing. Just the way it’s always been. Just the way that someday, it will never be again. Someday, they’ll only ever be the same thing.

-

Vanitas follows the light. What else is he going to do, hang out in this desert and wait for something to kill him?

Xehanort is gone, but so what? He doesn’t need Xehanort. He doesn’t need anyone but Ventus. And Ventus isn’t here.

He’d try the Land of Departure first—surely that’s the happiness Vanitas felt, Ventus finally back with his little pathetic friends at last—but that’s not where the insistent tug beneath his ribs leads him.

He always knows where Ventus is. He always did. He always will.

Radiant Garden’s changed. Vanitas wishes he’d gotten to see it in its Hollow Bastion days. It’s nice to know that even a place as bright and perfect as Radiant Garden can fall, given half a chance.

The bailey is still a mess. Apparently the castle where a bunch of gullible scientists managed to launch this whole world into darkness at Xehanort’s direction isn’t on the top of the restoration list; go figure. But that’s where Ventus is, perched on a stone ledge overlooking the ravine below, eating some of the ice cream those kids can never shut up about.

Ventus looks over his shoulder. Vanitas is sure he didn’t make a sound as he approached. Of course it doesn’t matter. They’re connected. Ventus can’t do anything but know that Vanitas is here.

Their eyes lock. Vanitas can feel the fight brewing, like the air just before a storm hits. For the first time since he woke up, everything feels right.

“Want some?” Ventus asks.

Vanitas is so thrown by the question that he nearly stumbles. He has his hand out, ready to summon his keyblade, but instead it just hovers in the air. “What?”

Ventus waves his ice cream demonstratively. “I never got a chance to have any the last time I was here, and it’s actually really good! Have you tried it?”

“I don’t care about your stupid ice cream.”

“Okay,” Ventus says, just as annoyingly genial as he was back in the Keyblade Graveyard. “How are you here, anyway? I thought we got you pretty good.” The pervasive smile on his face falters a little. Vanitas always used to feel so satisfied when he was able to make Ventus’s face fall. This isn’t satisfying. There’s no point if Vanitas isn’t messing with his head. “You know, I was kind of hoping you might not be gone. We never really had a chance to talk.”

“Let me guess,” Vanitas says. “Right as I was in the middle of fading away, you were thinking about how you’d miss me if I wasn’t around to kick your ass, and so your stupid heart reached out to mine and wouldn’t let it go. That sounds about right, doesn’t?”

“Maybe.” Ventus takes another bite of his ice cream. “I don’t really get how this stuff works.”

“Well, it’s not really my problem. I’m here. You won’t get rid of me that easily.” Vanitas felt it, the moment before he should have finally disappeared for good: Ventus’s light, stronger than anything, dragging Vanitas back. Refusing to let him be nothing. So at least he could do one thing right after all.

“So you don’t care about ice cream and you don’t care about how you got here. Fair enough. Then what do you care about?”

Vanitas didn’t exactly have a plan for how this conversation should go. Whatever Ventus thinks, they’ve done all the talking they’ll ever need to do. They did it ten years ago.

He assumed they’d fight. That’s what he came here for. He’s good at fighting Ventus. It’s all he ever wants to do. Most of Xehanort’s plans were bullshit, and a pain in Vanitas’s ass, but fighting Ventus was the one thing he never minded.

And he got used to it. Right now, it’s the only familiar thing in the world.

He’d definitely rather fight than sit here and listen to Ventus ask questions he can’t answer.

“I don’t care about things. That’s not what I was made to do.”

Ventus shrugs, like it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other. “Sure. You were made to be the χ-blade, I guess,” he says. Ventus has that edge back, the one he had when he told Vanitas he’d rather die together than let them forge the blade. “How’s that working out for you?”

Vanitas doesn’t summon his keyblade. He stalks forward, draws his hand back, and hits Ventus in the face. It stings. It always hurts a little when he hurts Ventus, like bruising your own knuckles in a punch. Ventus drops his ice cream, and draws on him, just like Vanitas wanted.

His expression has gone hard, but Vanitas knows him. He can see the hurt lurking underneath, like Ventus somehow tricked himself into thinking he’d get anything else but this. His own fault for saving Vanitas in the first place. Vanitas will make sure he gets what he deserves.

“It’s working out great,” Vanitas says. “I don’t need some old man to tell me what to do. I never did. I can grind you into dust just fine on my own.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ventus says. He wipes at his mouth, where he’s bleeding just the slightest bit. “I thought things would be different with Xehanort gone, but if that’s how you want it to be, then fine. You’re on.”

The best moment is always when their keyblades clash for the first time. It’s like their hearts are pressed together, like the only thing that’s separating them is metal. Vanitas knows what true joy feels like, the pale empty shadow of it he gets from Ventus; this is the closest he’s ever come to getting any of it for himself.

After that it’s the same as ever: strike, parry, block. They’ve always been each other’s perfect match. Even when Ventus was weak, he always knew how to get in under Vanitas’s guard.

“Is this what you want?” Ventus asks, and for a moment, Vanitas doesn’t hear him. He’s too busy watching Ventus, the distorted mirror of his movements.

“You know it is,” Vanitas says. He lunges, and Ventus dances back, light on his feet in a way that Vanitas has never quite been able to mimic. “Someday we’ll be one. No matter how many times I have to beat you to make it happen.”

That catches Ventus off guard, for some stupid reason. He stumbles. Hasn’t Vanitas told him enough times? Ventus might be someone, but Vanitas is nothing like this. Xehanort was full of shit, but he wasn’t lying about that. If Vanitas ever wants to be anything other than himself, becoming Ventus again is the only way that’s ever going to happen. So it doesn’t matter what Ventus wants. This is the way it has to be.

Vanitas’s keyblade catches the edge of his lip while Ventus is standing there like an idiot, only trying to get out of the way at the very last minute. Five seconds too slow, Ventus knocks the blade away with his own. He’s still staring. It makes Vanitas itch for the helmet back. “Is that really it?” Ventus says, like he didn’t just royally fuck up, like Vanitas couldn’t have struck him down right now if he’d felt like it.

“What else could I possibly want?”

“I thought maybe you just wanted to fight. I figured you missed it.” He grins, like the fool he is. “This is fun, isn’t it? I didn’t realize it at first, but I’m having fun!”

Yeah, sure. Even for a broken excuse of a person like Vanitas, this probably counts as fun.

Ventus’s lip is bleeding worse now, and it doesn’t make Vanitas feel satisfied. He’s never satisfied. He’s only ever empty, and hungry, and jealous—he thinks about it, sometimes, what it would be like to be Ventus’s blood, to flow through his veins, to fill every part of him. He wants that more than anything, he wants to bend Ventus’s ribs back and crawl inside. He doesn’t want to fight him for fun. He wants to force Ventus to take him back. He’ll bleed him dry if he has to.

“Vanitas,” Ventus says, his voice unbearably soft. “Come on. Really. What do you want? There’s more to the world than just—”

Vanitas laughs, wild and unruly like he always feels around Ventus. “Than just you?” he says. “No, there isn’t. Not for me. What do I want? It’s only ever been you, Ventus. I want to fucking devour you. I want to see the world the way you do. I want it to be bright. You’ve always had everything, the light and the laughter and your friends—is it so wrong that I’d want to have that too? You are everything I’ve ever wanted. The only thing. You’re the world itself. I can’t be anything if I’m not you. What I want is for us to never be apart.”

They stare at each other, panting, and Ventus wipes the blood away. “Then you should come back with me,” he says, sticking his chin out. A challenge. “To the Land of Departure. There are plenty of empty rooms. Aqua’s training me and Terra to become real Masters, and we’re going to have a bunch more students soon. It’s safe there. It could be a home for both of us.”

He doesn’t get it at all. As if that could ever be enough. What, he thinks they can just be roommates, like that will do anything to stop the endless hunger gnawing its way through him? “Yeah,” Vanitas says. “I’m sure little Master Aqua would just love to have me as a student. Did you forget the part where I tried to murder you and all your little friends? Because she sure won’t.”

“No, I didn’t forget.” Ventus lowers his keyblade, like he thinks they’re done or something. “But that’s over now, isn’t it? And she’d say yes if I asked. She’s not very good at saying no to me anymore, after everything that happened,” Ventus says, so matter-of-fact. Vanitas always knew there was a manipulative streak in there. Good for him.

“Well, I’ve got better things to do,” Vanitas snaps, so he doesn’t have to think about that’s over now. It can’t be over. Vanitas won’t let it be. This dance of theirs, it’s forever. This ends when they’re one instead of two, and not a second before.

“Okay,” Ventus says. “I guess I’ll leave you to it.”

He walks away, just turning his back on Vanitas like he has nothing to fear. Like he doesn’t know that of course Vanitas doesn’t have better things to do—he doesn’t have any things to do. What’s the point of a shadow without its light?

Well, Vanitas’s light is walking away from him like he’s nothing. And the worst thing is that he’s right. That’s what he wanted to tell Vanitas, isn’t it? That he has nothing. That he’s empty inside. As if Vanitas hasn’t known that, always, from the moment he was named.

-

Vanitas stays for a while. He’s not going to follow Ventus like some sort of trailing puppy. He might not have much in the way of plans, but he can do better than that.

So he gets a room at a hotel where the woman in pink at the desk smiles at him cheerfully no matter how often he sneers at her, and he hangs around.

He watches people go about their business. They’re working so hard to put this city back together. As if it won’t always hold the shadow of what was done to it. When you break something as badly as Radiant Garden was broken, those cracks never really fade away. Vanitas knows that better than anyone.

He’s not waiting for anything, especially not Ventus. But after a week passes and the idiot still hasn’t showed, he finally stops by the castle proper, the parts of it that are actually in use.

Xehanort lived here once. Or part of him did, and honestly, what’s the difference? They were all of them the same when it counted, and they all ended up the same too: gone. And Vanitas is still here.

But the chunk of Xehanort that lived in this castle kept notes about a lot of things. He might have had Terra’s body, but with any luck he didn’t have Terra’s brains. Becoming Ventus again, doing it right this time—if anyone knew how to make that happen, it was probably him.

It’s embarrassingly easy to slip past the castle’s pathetic excuses for guards, and then Vanitas goes hunting in some of the more out of the way basement corridors. It’s not hard. He just follows the lingering remnants of misery. Xehanort held prisoners here once, and like calls to like.

Vanitas doesn’t really know what he’s looking for. It’s not like he’d know what to do with a computer if he found one. But the stench of this place is intoxicating. It’s familiar. So Vanitas wanders, directionless, until he stumbles over a young man sitting on the floor, sorting through a cardboard box full of junk.

He barely glances up at Vanitas. “Oh, hello,” he says, absently. He goes back to sorting.

Vanitas, as usual, is cursed to be surrounded by idiots. “Hello?”

“You’re Vanitas, aren’t you?”

“How do you know my name?” Vanitas demands.

The young man shifts, and finally looks up properly. “Demyx told me about you,” he says. “Not you, specifically. In the general sense. All of you. Ah, I’m sorry. My name is Ienzo.”

“That pipsqueak is still alive?”

“Very much so. He was supposed to help me clean up today, but I believe he’s overslept again.”

Yeah, no surprises there. “What, don’t you care about me barging into your precious castle?”

“It’s not mine,” says the young man with a shrug. He brushes some of his hair out of his eyes, completely unsuccessfully. “Are you looking for something?”

“Aren’t you going to call all your little guardian of light friends? You’re with them, aren’t you?”

Ienzo blinks. “Why?”

“Because I could kill you right now, that’s why,” Vanitas says, stalking forward. People like this piss him off more than anything. The ones who don’t understand what it means to be scared.

Ienzo gets to his feet, but he holds his ground. As if that’ll help. “I’ve died once already,” he says evenly. “I can’t say I relish the prospect of repeating the experience, but it holds no fear for me now.”

Liar, liar, liar. Vanitas can tell, the closer he gets to him. He’s breathing shallowly. His heart is pounding. He’s probably terrified out of his mind, but still, he doesn’t move, even once Vanitas really is close enough to kill him.

He lets the moment stretch, but Ienzo still doesn’t bolt. “Nah,” Vanitas says, finally, taking a step back. “You’re no fun. This place is a bust, anyway.” He sticks his hands in his pockets and turns away from him. This was a bad idea anyway, the kind of stupid shit Vanitas comes up with without Ventus to guide him.

“I could help you,” Ienzo offers to Vanitas’s retreating back.

“What makes you think I’d ever need your help?”

“I know that Xehanort left his mark on many of you. I know what it means, to be betrayed by him. I made the same offer to Demyx,” he says. “To help him regain his heart, or any pieces of himself that he felt were incomplete. Though he was not particularly interested.”

“Why?” This is what Vanitas doesn’t understand about any of them, all the people who Sora’s light has touched. They’re always making bad decisions like this: offering mercy to a creature who could never hope to accept it. Reaching a hand down into the abyss, and pretending like there’s anything there that could grasp it. Like they’ll get anything for their trouble but scars. “I literally threatened to kill you two seconds ago. And now you want to help me?”

“I, better than most, understand the cost of change,” Ienzo says, like that makes any fucking sense at all. “It’s a difficult thing, to discover new facets of oneself. But I have found that it is never too late. Even if you feel that all you are is a void, I don’t believe that’s true.”

And isn’t that exactly what Vanitas came here for?

Vanitas sneers at him. “What would you know about it?”

“Just an observation.”

This was always going to be a bust. There’s one route to being whole, and it abandoned Vanitas here, just like everyone else. “I’ll pass,” he says. “I never had a real heart in the first place.” Just the shadow of the one that will be his, someday.

“If you’re sure,” Ienzo says. He pulls something out of the pocket of his lab coat. “At least take this. Ventus mentioned it might be useful for you to have one.”

The phone, it turns out, has Ventus’s number already programmed in. As if Vanitas is going to give up and call him. “What, was Ventus here?”

“He called a few days ago,” Ienzo says. “He may have told me to be on the lookout for any intruders in the castle. I used to be quite adept at sensing darkness. I suppose that particular power still lingers.”

It should be annoying, to think that Ventus is keeping tabs on him like that. It is annoying. It gets under Vanitas’s skin and itches. But there’s warmth there, too, the kind that comes with knowing he isn’t forgotten.

He ditches the castle and he doesn’t call. But Ienzo probably does, because the next day, hanging out on one of the roofs overlooking the square, Ventus finds Vanitas again.

Vanitas knew that Ventus was in this town an hour ago. But he didn’t go find him, some small petty act of defiance. Like maybe his life is less of a joke if he’s not always the one following in Ventus’s wake.

As if just sitting and waiting for him is any better.

It never gets any easier, seeing Ventus for the first time after a long stretch without. Vanitas never realizes how parched he is for the sight of him until he can finally drink his fill, making himself sick with it.

“Hey,” Ventus says, sitting down next to him, either not noticing or not caring about the way that Vanitas is staring at him. “You got new clothes, huh?”

Wasn’t like there’s been much else to do around here. Vanitas was bored, and also tired of the weird looks he kept getting, so sure. He bought new clothes.

Well, “bought” might be overstating things a little bit, but he has them and they’re his now, so whatever.

He shrugs, and Ventus laughs, reading Vanitas’s silent shrug better than he should be able to.

Ventus kicks his legs over the edge of the roof, squinting into the sun, head propped up on one fist. Looking at him makes Vanitas feel antsy, and all the more so because he can’t figure out why. Here Ventus is, vulnerable as anything, and if Vanitas is itching for something it should be to put a hand on his back and shove him over the edge, to show him what he gets for putting his guard down like that.

Like Vanitas would ever do that. It’d be too easy. But he should be doing something, and he’s not.

“What are you even looking at?” Vanitas demands. Ventus’s eyes have gone unfocused, staring out towards the town square with the fountain.

“Nothing.” Ventus shakes himself. “Just thinking.”

Vanitas squints. “It does look kind of familiar, doesn’t it.”

The sun’s nearly dipped below the horizon by now. The look Ventus gives him then puts it to shame. “You remember it?”

“Yeah. Not much.” Vanitas’s memories of being Ventus aren’t very useful. They’re like a bowl that’s been smashed, half the pieces swept away. No hope of putting it back together because most of it isn’t even there anymore.

But there was a fountain just like this, once. He remembers that.

“I used to sit there and watch the water,” Ventus says.

“And then one day, like an idiot, you fell in. I remember some kids saw you. They helped you out, and then they never let you live it down.”

Ventus laughs. “And we were always friends, after that.” He turns to fix Vanitas with a look. “And what do you mean, I fell in? We did. Both of us.”

Vanitas opens his mouth to say something biting, something about how only Ventus would be stupid enough to do something like that, but the look Ventus is giving him won’t let him. The look and the way his voice curls around we, that one word stealing all of Vanitas’s.

The sun finishes setting, but Vanitas has always been able to see well in the dark. Ventus probably doesn’t, but still. Neither of them look away.

“This is nice,” Ventus says eventually. He wraps his arms around his knees. “Isn’t it?” He sounds unsure in a way that’s utterly and terribly familiar. They’re both of them broken, after all. Just playing at being whole people. Even Ventus never healed quite right.

“Like I would know,” Vanitas says, and Ventus grins at him like he said yes.

Ventus stays until he starts to shiver, and Vanitas lets him leave without a fight. He’ll have plenty more chances to get what he wants. He can wait. He’s waited all his life, after all.

And the cool stillness of the evening was so nice that Vanitas couldn’t bear to shatter it. He knows he’d never be able to piece it back together again afterward, and Vanitas has seen enough broken things in his life.

-

Ventus keeps stopping by after that. For a few minutes or a few hours, and he just keeps talking at Vanitas like he’s a person. Like he thinks they’ve reached some kind of equilibrium. He puts up with anything Vanitas throws at him, because apparently unless you threaten his friends, Ventus doesn’t have a care in the world. What a joke.

But he remembers the same things that Vanitas does, those scraps of who they once were forever out of reach. So it’s not so bad. After all, the only thing Vanitas is doing these days is killing time.

Vanitas never gives in and calls him. Mostly he just looks at the pictures Ventus posts. It’s a reassuring kind of ache, like prodding at a loose tooth. This is who he could be; this is who he’ll be someday. Soon enough. Just a boy smiling at the camera, his heart finally full.

He asks Ienzo about the memories. About what it means that he and Ventus share them, that they weren’t cleanly split in half. Ienzo listens, and nods, and asks him about his past in what Vanitas, disgusted, realizes is an attempt at small talk.

In the end Ienzo just fobs him off on Namine, suggesting he pay her a visit, and Vanitas isn’t about to scare the shit out of her. What a perfect way to get every last remaining guardian of light on his case. Vanitas wouldn’t mind cutting his teeth on them, but he can’t help but picture the way Ventus would look at him if he did, his eyes gone hard.

He’ll settle for terrifying Demyx once in awhile, when he falls asleep in the labs that Vanitas walks through as he leaves. Larxene was right; no one else in the world has that satisfying a shriek.

There’s no real reason for Vanitas to come to the Land of Departure. He’s doing fine at keeping himself entertained between Ventus’s visits. But he’s just following his nature, isn’t he? Shadows are drawn to light. Xehanort talked about shit like that a lot. Natural laws, the kinds of things that were true whether you wanted them to be or not. Truth and wanting, in Vanitas’s experience, are entirely separate universes. You can want all you want, but the truth won’t budge. In the end, what you want doesn’t mean shit in terms of what you get.

That’s what he’s thinking about, mostly, as he’s loitering by the gates and ends up having to duck out of the way to avoid a gaggle of useless idiots tearing past him.

It’s the usual crowd—Aqua and Terra and Ventus, of course. Kairi’s with them too, and Ventus’s lookalike, and the tall goofy looking redhead that Ventus fought once, right before Vanitas found him. He ruffles Ventus’s hair, and Ventus laughs and shoves him, and they keep walking like that, effortlessly happy. Nothing like the conversations Ventus and Vanitas have, always teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Vanitas is such an idiot. So, he and Ventus talk sometimes now, and he thinks that makes them—anything. He thinks that makes him anything except for the same damn thing he’s always been, empty and useless and incomplete.

Ventus has plenty of friends who aren’t drenched in darkness. He doesn’t need Vanitas for shit, not the way Vanitas needs him. Ventus has just been following his nature. He’s just been being kind.

But hey. The losers are all gone. Vanitas might as well go have a look around.

They even locked the door to the castle, which is just cute. Guess they forgot there were some less than reputable keyblade wielders still lying around.

Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe little Venty-Wenty really has been keeping the fact that his darkness didn’t have the decency to fade away a secret. The better to not bother his real friends with it.

This place is just as boring as it ever was. White walls, gold accents, how much more obvious can you get? Xehanort liked it here. He talked about it a lot before he ever dragged Vanitas along on that last visit. With disdain, sure, but there was respect trapped underneath it, light peeking through. Vanitas can always see that kind of thing. How could he not? It’s fucking blinding.

Xehanort worked so hard to bury the parts of himself that still liked this castle and Master Eraqus and what both of those things stood for. He did it well enough that he was able to cast this place into darkness, to scar Eraqus’s face, to strike him down that final time. So maybe Vanitas did learn a few things from him in the end.

He steals an apple from the kitchen and a practice sword from a closet that must be passing for an armory, and settles down in the chair that Ventus slept in so peacefully for those ten long lonely years.

It’s not very comfortable. But he waits there anyway, like waiting for the sunrise on a cold gloomy morning.

And ah, there it is, Ventus coming over the horizon, running into the hall and skidding to a stop when he sees Vanitas there, sitting with his legs thrown over one arm of the chair and his back against the other, tossing the apple. Once he’s sure Ventus is looking at him, he takes a bite.

“Forget something?”

“Uh—yeah. Just the book I was going to read when we got there, I’ll catch up later—what are you doing here?”

“Don’t tell me you missed me,” he says. He can feel them bubbling under his skin, the Unversed and all the ingredients that go into making them, ugly and bitter. “I won’t believe you.”

“I thought you said you weren’t interested in coming back here.”

Vanitas takes another vindictive bite of the apple. It tastes different than he’s used to. Food hasn’t ever really tasted like much of anything at all. But the apple’s sweet. Maybe there’s something in the dirt out here. “Yeah. Why would I be? You’ve got a place here. I don’t.”

“If you want me to talk to Aqua—” He’s got good reflexes, Vanitas will give him that. Fast, just like Vanitas is. He ducks well before the apple can hit him in the head.

Vanitas laughs, uproariously, at the expression on his face. All that fire over a piece of fruit. Must be nice. “Master Aqua? I don’t think so. I think maybe I should get rid of her.”

The sound of a keyblade being summoned is always so satisfying. Ventus is really glaring now. Vanitas shifts, so his legs are against the back of the chair and his head’s hanging from the seat. Ventus is just as pathetic upside down. “And maybe I’ll just burn this old place to the ground. How’s that sound? No good memories here, right? It’d be better off as ash anyway.”

And this is always Vanitas’s favorite: Ventus attacks him first. To protect his stupid precious home, sure, but it’s Vanitas he’s attacking, Vanitas he’s thinking about, Vanitas who rolls off the chair and meets Ventus’s strike lazily, the sound of the clash ringing through the empty hall.

This is how it’s supposed to be.

“Aqua has never done anything to you,” Ventus is saying, as if Vanitas really cares about that.

“And what’s she done to you? Fed you cake when you were too broken to eat yourself? Chased you around and told you to go running home like a good little boy? Face it, Ventus. She doesn’t understand you. None of them do. I’m the only one.”

Ventus aims a blow at his wrist and Vanitas dances out of the way, getting behind him before he can blink. Ventus might be fast but Vanitas will always be faster, with darkness running through his veins. “Is that seriously what you think?” Ventus asks. “Does that make me the only one who can understand you?”

Obviously,” Vanitas says, sneering as Ventus tries to kick him in the knee. He thinks of Sora, the incomprehension on his face when Vanitas faded away. Nothing at all like the way Ventus was looking at him: like he got it. The only person in the world who ever could.

And this isn’t right anymore: Ventus isn’t angry at him now, as if Vanitas didn’t just threaten to tear the life he cares so much about to pieces. He looks sad. It just makes Vanitas want to cut him to ribbons, to see if he’ll keep that dumb look on his face when Vanitas makes him bleed.

He stops playing around. It’s not fun anymore. He goes for Ventus’s weak points, gets his feet out from under him and shoves him to the ground, his cute little keyblade falling away with a clatter.

Ventus stares up at him, wide-eyed, and he still doesn’t have the decency to look afraid.

“Someday you’ll give me what I want,” Vanitas says. “You’ll join your heart with mine, and we’ll be together again. That’s the way it has to be, no matter how long you think you can put it off, no matter who else you think matters to you. But until then, I guess I can have some fun.”

Vanitas puts the length of his keyblade against Ventus’s throat and bears down, his hands pressed against either end. Ventus pulls in a single ragged gasp of air before he chokes, cut off, his hands scrabbling against the blade until they meet Vanitas’s. Vanitas is expecting the sting of his fingernails, some useless attempt to free himself while Vanitas watches him writhe. Instead he gets Ventus’s fingers wrapped around his. Not aggressively but tenderly, like Ventus isn’t starved for air, like he isn’t making a pathetic whining noise high in his throat, in a way that makes Vanitas feel—he feels—

His fingers go slack, and Ventus yanks Void Gear right out of his hands, pulling back and swinging and catching Vanitas right in the face before he can do more than blink.

Vanitas scrabbles back. He reaches his hand out and calls and for an awful, terrifying moment, a moment like an endless fall, nothing happens. And then everything is fine, and his fingers close around the solid weight of a keyblade.

Except Ventus, in his stupid fighting stance—why’d the old man never teach him to hold his keyblade right?—is still holding Void Gear. And when Vanitas looks down, he’s got Ventus’s sorry excuse for a keyblade clutched in his hand, held in a proper grip for what must be the first time in its history.

Vanitas doesn’t even know its name, but it feels right in his hand. Like it belongs to him.

Well, of course it does. It belongs to Ventus, doesn’t it?

“Are we done now?” Ventus asks, his voice cracked to pieces. Vanitas feels a familiar curling warmth at the thought that he did that. “I think we’ve both had enough. Don’t you?”

That’s always the problem with Ventus: he thinks words like “enough” actually mean anything. Vanitas rushes at him, and when he knocks Ventus over both of their keyblades go flying. Vanitas doesn’t care about that. All he cares about is making Ventus listen, making him understand. All Vanitas is is darkness. A shadow. He isn’t anything without the light. “If you leave me behind, I’ll be nothing.”

“That’s not true,” Ventus says, through gritted teeth as they roll across the marble. Vanitas gets the upper hand eventually; he always does. Ventus’s wrists are thin underneath his hands.

“Didn’t we already have this conversation?” Vanitas asks.

“You can be whatever you want,” Ventus says. “You can decide. But it’s not like—you don’t need me.”

Vanitas bares his teeth at him. “Like you would know,” he says. “You never missed me, did you? You were happy to be rid of me. All the ugly feelings you couldn’t deal with. Well, too bad, because you’re stuck with me. Even if you’d rather ditch me for your shiny new friends and your rusty old ones.” That’s the reason Vanitas didn’t fade away, wasn’t it? The light. He needed it and it needed him. They couldn’t get rid of each other if they tried.

Ventus’s are wide, but he meets Vanitas’s gaze. He’s still not afraid. “I missed you,” he says. “I didn’t know, okay? No one ever told me, but...I knew that something wasn’t right. There were these moments, sometimes, when—they looked at me. Aqua or Terra or Master Eraqus. Something bad would happen, and they’d look at me like I should be doing something I wasn’t. Terra broke my leg once on accident when we were training and—I wasn’t mad. It hurt, but the hurt didn’t mean anything. I didn’t understand why I should be upset. I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how. I had to learn.”

“Good to know you weren’t always such a crybaby,” Vanitas snarls, but he feels oddly numb. He can imagine it well enough that it might even be a memory: Ventus, blank-eyed, staring down at his own bleeding leg, Terra and Aqua looking on in horror. Ventus looking up and smiling at them, because he wanted them to stop looking like that, but it only made it worse.

“I did miss you,” Ventus says. He’s gone limp under Vanitas’s hands, his breathing steady. “Even when I didn’t know your were gone.”

Vanitas stares down at him. At his stupid blue eyes and the determined look on his face—probably picked that one up from Sora—and the splotchy bruises already starting to appear along his neck. The ones that Vanitas put there. There’s something fascinating about that. Vanitas can’t look away.

He lets go of Ventus’s wrists. Ventus barely even gasps when Vanitas touches his throat. He tilts his head instead, letting Vanitas in, and like almost everything Ventus does it pisses him off in this horrible itchy way, a kind of anger that fizzes inside him until it feels like something else. Vanitas could kill him right now. He could wrap his fingers around Ventus’s bruised throat and squeeze and never, ever let go. Let his friends find him again in that same chair. But here Ventus is, his eyes nearly closed, his pulse utterly steady under Vanitas’s touch. He isn’t afraid. Vanitas would know if he was afraid. Vanitas only feels what Ventus feels, something like a cool rush of water, like the ocean on a hot day. Tranquil and calm.

The way he’s touching Ventus isn’t curious anymore. Vanitas doesn’t have a word for what this is, for the way his hand lingers against the heat of Ventus’s skin, for the twisting ache in his gut when he remembers that he’s the one who did this to Ventus. He bruised him, he marked him, he broke him—

“It’s okay,” Ventus says, in a voice so low Vanitas feels it beneath his fingers more than he hears it.

“It’s not okay,” Vanitas snaps. His eyes are hot. He hates it. “Nothing is ever okay, not for me, not for us, apparently we were both fucking broken, and why are you just lying here, anyway—”

“Shut up,” Ventus says, and leans up to kiss him.

Vanitas sways forward, his hands hitting the floor with a smack, as Ventus cups his neck and his cheek and pulls Vanitas down to meet him.

It’s warm, and soft, and steely underneath. Everything that Ventus is, everything that Vanitas has ever wanted to be, all the things he’s never been able to have. Ventus’s heart, the core of who he is, given like a gift.

Ventus leans up and Vanitas falls back, sitting on his heels, and they don’t break apart. It’s just like Vanitas thought it would be. Being one. Someone gasps, and maybe it’s him, or maybe it’s Ventus, but how could it possibly matter? Ventus’s cheek is soft beneath his hand and his mouth is wet and his nails are gentle against Vanitas’s scalp.

Vanitas should want to eat him alive. But this is close enough.

They pull back slowly. Vanitas feels shaky on his knees, like if Ventus pushed him he’d just tip over. He brings his fingers to his mouth. It’s warm. Has he ever felt this warm before, lit like a lantern from within?

“You okay?” Ventus says, and it sounds like he’s about to laugh. It’s enough to get Vanitas’s eyes to focus.

“Obviously,” he says. He shoves at Ventus’s chest. “Do that again.”

Ventus rolls his eyes, but he does. He wraps one arm around Vanitas’s back and puts a hand in his hair and kisses him like he doesn’t ever want to let go, like no one and nothing exists but them. All the things Vanitas has ever wanted, handed to him in an unfamiliar shape.

Vanitas gives up on getting his knees to work and just lets Ventus take his weight. And Ventus does, with nothing more than a squeak and a reproachful bite at Vanitas’s lip, and then his jaw, and then his neck, in what clearly isn’t reproach anymore.

Somewhere in the cavernous halls around them, a clock chimes.

“I should go,” Ventus says, like he’s not still on the ground and clinging to Vanitas. Well, someone’s clinging, anyway.

“Yeah,” says Vanitas. “All your little friends will start to worry about you, won’t they?” The words don’t have the same bite he wants them to have. He feels warm and malleable in the wake of Ventus’s hands on him, like he could curl right up and go to sleep like a cat in a nice patch of sun.

“Here.” Ventus summons his keyblade, and presses it into Vanitas’s hands. “Keep it for now, alright?”

Vanitas sits up. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

Ventus shrugs. “I hear it’s pretty good for taking out Heartless.”

“What, am I supposed to let you keep mine?”

“If you want.” Ventus puts his hands behind his head, perfectly at ease. Some of that familiar irritation is starting to crawl its way back into Vanitas’s skin.

Traitorously, he wants Ventus to make it go away again. Vanitas stares down at the keyblade in his hand instead. “Why?”

“You always know where I am, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. We’re the same. It only makes sense.”

Ventus tilts his head to the side. “Master Eraqus told me once that a keyblade is more than a weapon. It’s a part of you. Something you can’t ever really be separated from.” He puts his hand to his chest, looking painfully earnest for a moment. “So if you have that with you, then I’ll always know where you are.”

Vanitas’s grip tightens. “Whatever.”

Ventus just smiles blithely at him. Vanitas realizes, abruptly, that he’s doing it on purpose to get under his skin. “And I expect it back in good condition.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Vanitas stands up. He summons Void Gear and shoves it at Ventus, not thinking about it too hard. Not thinking about much of anything but the warmth in his lips, across the back of his neck, lurking in his ribs. “Try not to break it.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Ventus says, with utterly annoying and totally misplaced sincerity.

“Promises, promises.” Vanitas turns away then, because shadow or not, he’s not sure he can take the look on Ventus’s face right now. That dawning ray of cautious hope.

-

If he goes to Radiant Garden he’ll end up at the castle, and if Ienzo tries to talk to him right now Vanitas doesn’t know what he’ll do. So he goes to Twilight Town instead, the only place he can think of that matches how he feels. Vanitas has only been here a handful of times before. He always hated it. This place is suffused with the kind of light that felt like a taunt, a constant reminder of all the things Vanitas couldn’t have.

It still reminds him of that, but Ventus’s light seems less out of reach anymore. Vanitas’s lips are still warm with it. He growls at nothing in particular and sits down in the place his feet have taken him, some sort of playground for kids.

He holds out his hand, and Ventus’s keyblade appears in it. Wayward Wind, which Vanitas didn’t know was its name until about five seconds ago, when he idly wondered and heard the answering whisper in his ear. This keyblade belongs to him just as much as it does to Ventus. There’s no other way he’d ever be able to know its name like that.

It’s a stupid name. A stupid keyblade, too, just like its owner—who else would willingly give something like this up?

If Vanitas had any sense he’d yank Void Gear back to himself right now. What could Ventus do about it? Take his own keyblade back, sure.

And then they’d be just where they started. Separate again.

He thinks about what Ventus said. About always knowing where Vanitas is. He can’t imagine what it would feel like to not always know where Ventus is, to not have the constant steady knowledge, living in him like a second heartbeat.

He hopes Ventus appreciates it.

Wayward Wind looks just like that fake sword Ventus used to have, a useless piece of wood with Terra’s name clumsily carved into it. A pathetic toy that got what it deserved when Vanitas snapped it in two. He could do the same to this keyblade. See how Ventus likes it, having his heart shattered into pieces again. Maybe he’d be pissed. Maybe he’d finally go for Vanitas’s throat instead of pretending like they can be friends.

Maybe he’d understand, finally, what it meant that they were broken. Maybe he’d listen to Vanitas. Maybe they could be together again, the way they were supposed to be. Ventus-and-Vanitas—what shape would their heart take then? That fucked up excuse for a χ-blade, that wasn’t what they were supposed to be when they joined. If they did it right this time, they’d make something new entirely. Vanitas is sure of it.

He has Ventus’s keyblade in both hands, poised over his knee. It’d be so easy to bring it down, to splinter it beyond repair. It would be worth the bruise.

But for some reason Vanitas’s hands waver. He thinks, unbidden, of Ventus lying still beneath him, calm and unafraid. How angry it made Vanitas, until the moment Ventus kissed him and all his anger abruptly found a new a shape. He’s used to anger, but he wasn’t used to that.

Vanitas sags forward instead, resting his head against his knee, his eyes squeezed shut. He doesn’t understand. It was so easy before. He always used to know what he wanted.

This tight hot feeling behind his eyes just makes him think of what Ventus said, about learning how to cry.

Why would he want to do that? Why wouldn’t he just accept the light as the gift that he was given, the stupid boon that Ventus got just for being himself, and not Vanitas? Tears have never done Vanitas any good. If Ventus wants them so bad, he should keep them for himself.

“Hey, loser.”

Vanitas looks up. He runs his arm across his eyes and snarls, but the assholes who interrupted him don’t have the good sense to leave. There’s a kid pointing some kind of blue bat at him, flanked by two people who are obviously his lackeys. Vanitas knows the type. “What the fuck do you want?”

“You look like you could do some damage with that thing,” says the kid, so cocky it makes Vanitas bare his teeth. “You’re new around here, aren’t you? I’ve been gone for awhile, but I haven’t been gone for that long.”

“What’s it to you?”

“I’m the protector of Twilight Town, that’s what,” the kid says, with the kind of embarrassing bravado that would be more appropriate on Sora and his merry band of idiots. “It’s my job to keep this town safe.”

“Oh, do I not seem safe to you?”

The kid looks at him for a long moment. He doesn’t answer. “Want to go a few rounds? I’ve been training. I figure it’s time to test my skills against a real opponent.”

“Seifer’s the best,” says Lackey Number One, pushing her hair behind her eyes.

“Sure,” Vanitas says, levering up to his feet just a bit faster than anyone from this dinky little town would be able to, without darkness to help them. It makes Seifer grin like someone who has no idea he’s about to get his ass kicked. Vanitas smiles back, the way he used to grin at Ventus from behind the mask when they fought. He really could use the chance to blow off some steam. “I’m an expert at squashing pipsqueaks.”

“No way,” says Lackey Number One tersely, cutting her hand through the air.

“Seifer’s gonna beat you to a pulp, y’know?” Lackey Number Two adds. He’s clearly not the brains of the operation.

“We’ll see about that,” says Vanitas, and he launches himself at Seifer, covering the ground between them in no time flat.

Seifer deals with it well enough that it really makes Vanitas wonder what the hell he’s been training against, in a sleepy little place like Twilight Town.

He holds his own pretty well, but in the end he’s got a bat and Vanitas has a keyblade, even if it’s Ventus’s. Vanitas doesn’t go easy on him, exactly—but every time he thinks about hitting the kid when he’s down, something stops him. He’s sure it must be the keyblade. Some of Ventus’s goody two-shoes nature must have rubbed off on it somewhere along the way, and now it’s messing with Vanitas’s style.

“That all you got?” Seifer says from the ground, panting, because Vanitas is just standing there like an idiot instead of finishing him off.

Eventually they call a halt. Well, what happens is Lackey Number One intervenes, because Seifer is still trying to get up and it obviously isn’t happening. “Let’s call it a draw,” she says.

Vanitas laughs. “I don’t fight to a draw. I won.” Not like it was hard, but it’s invigorating nonetheless. Vanitas spends so much of his time fighting Ventus, or thinking about fighting Ventus—but fighting this guy wasn’t anything like fighting Ventus at all. He didn’t even have a keyblade, and he doesn’t mean anything to Vanitas. He’s just some jerk who needs to be put in his place. What could be more joyfully uncomplicated than that?

“Not bad,” Seifer says, as if he didn’t just need two people to get him up off the ground. “We should go again sometime.”

That manages to startle another laugh out of Vanitas. What a riot. “Sure,” he says. “Why not? I always have room in my schedule to crush you.” This is fun. Is that the right word for the way this feels, something light and airy bubbling underneath his skin? He’ll have to ask Ventus.

“Hey,” Seifer says, grabbing his arm as he turns to leave.

Vanitas looks back over his shoulder. “Let go of me if you want to keep that hand.” Seifer raises an eyebrow, and doesn’t move. Punk. He’s lucky Vanitas is in such a good mood now. “What do you want?

“You look like a guy I kind of know,” Seifer says. “I thought you were him at first. You his brother or something?”

“Let me guess,” Vanitas says, good mood vanishing all at once. He jerks himself out of Seifer’s grip and elbows him, sending him stumbling back a few steps. “You mean Sora.”

“He’s the strongest guy around here,” says Lackey Number Two.

“Except for Seifer,” says Lackey Number One.

“I thought you’d be at least as strong as him,” Seifer says. “That’s why I had to fight you.”

“And?” Vanitas asks, sneering. “How do I measure up?”

“You’re way less of a pain in the ass, that’s for sure,” Seifer says. “Sora might be the strongest guy around, but he’s just as annoying as Hayner.”

“More,” says Lackey Number One.

“Definitely more,” says Lacker Number Two.

It’s like being caught off guard in a fight. Vanitas is the shadow; he’s the spaces Ventus left behind, everything he and Sora aren’t. It never once occurred to him that given the choice, someone might prefer him. “You’ve got that right,” he says. “That guy never stops getting on my nerves. His friends are even worse.”

“If you see him, tell him I wants a rematch,” Seifer says. “Last time we were in a fight together, he had to save me. I’m not about to let that stand.”

Sora had to save you? Embarrassing.”

“Shut up,” Seifer says. “I’m stronger now. I’ll beat him fair and square.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Vanitas says. “If you ever expect that to happen, you better keep training.”

“Oh, I will. Next time I fight you, you’re going down.”

Vanitas rolls his eyes.

“So you’ll tell him?” Lackey Number One asks, narrowing her eyes. Apparently the only one who noticed that Vanitas never gave an answer.

The truth is on the tip of his tongue. That Sora is missing in action with no decent hope of return. He could spit the words out no problem, and he knows they’d probably sting, whatever noises these three make about being annoyed by him. Sora makes that kind of impression, even on his enemies. Ventus has always been the same.

“Sure,” Vanitas says. “I’ll tell him.”

As he walks away, he thinks that the strangest thing is that the words felt true in his mouth.

-

Vanitas doesn’t know why he’s here. He’s never liked Destiny Islands, and certainly not this dinky little play island where the kids are always running around, falling on their asses in the sand and crying for their parents. This place is a joke.

Ventus liked it. Ventus Ventus, the Ventus that existed before Vanitas was pulled out of him. The we that Ventus likes to talk about, as if that means anything when if Ventus got his way, they’ll never be that again.

Vanitas leans back against the lone tree on this island and holds up Ventus’s keyblade to the light, squinting at it. It didn’t feel strange when he used it to fight Seifer, if you can even call that a fight. He wonders if it should have.

Void Gear has always felt angry. Half the time it almost hurts to hold. Wayward Wind isn’t like that; it feels alive and warm and happy in his hand.

Abruptly, Vanitas wonders what Void Gear felt like in Ventus’s grip. If it hurt him. If it’s still hurting him, but he’s holding on anyway.

Ventus is stubborn. It’s the kind of thing he would do.

Everything sharpens all at once, Vanitas’s heart giving an extra thump, the telltale sign that Ventus is nearby. He grins at nothing, out at the endless ocean. Not like there’s anyone here to see it.

Wayward Wind vanishes, and for a disorienting moment Vanitas doesn’t realize what happened, until he hears Ventus’s laugh. He turns. Ventus, coming across the bridge, is already holding it wrong again, spinning it in his grip like the idiot redhead is always doing.

“Get bored without me?” Vanitas asks. He tries to sneer, but it doesn’t quite work.

Ventus tosses his keyblade and catches it with a flourish. It’s the kind of flashy trick he should’ve grown out of years ago, but the sight fills Vanitas with the kind of longing he’s been familiar with ever since he came to be. “Just making sure you were taking good care of it,” he says.

“Give it back,” Vanitas says, feeling abruptly cold with the loss. He hadn’t realized how nice it felt, to hold a piece of Ventus in his hands.

Ventus spins it again. “If you want it, come and get it.”

It doesn’t occur to Vanitas until later that he could have just summoned it straight out of Ventus’s hand. Now, he just shrugs and tackles Ventus, who goes down laughing into the sand.

The keyblade vanishes at some point, dismissed so that Ventus can get better leverage to knock Vanitas over. He doesn’t stop smiling, not even when Vanitas knees him in the stomach or elbows him in the ribs.

Eventually Ventus pins him down with both forearms across his wrists, and Vanitas could throw him off if he wanted. He could.

The bruises he left on Ventus’s neck are yellowing now. They catch and hold Vanitas’s eyes, and he can’t move at all.

He told Ventus what he wanted. He’s been telling him forever: he wants to be whole.

He wonders if after that, if he’ll still be able to hold Wayward Wind, to feel its warmth that he never even noticed until it was gone.

“You did take good care of it,” Ventus says. Vanitas can feel his breath on his cheek. “I could tell. I could feel it.”

Vanitas stares up at him. He thinks about the moment when he considered breaking the keyblade, breaking Ventus’s heart. Ventu’s expression grows pensive, watching him back. “I overheard Master Eraqus talking to Aqua, once,” he says. “She had trouble summoning her keyblade for a few months. We were always taught that the strength of a keyblade comes from our heart. They’re connected. Aqua couldn’t understand how her own heart could be out of reach. And Master Eraqus shook his head, and he told her that keyblades take on the characteristics of their owners. They learn from the situations you put them in, and they grow, and change. Just like people do. And that if Aqua couldn’t quite reach her keyblade just then, maybe it was because it was in the middle of changing, and growing up. Maybe she just had to wait, and be patient, and treat it and herself kindly.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me,” Vanitas says.

“No, I don’t think so. After all, it worked.” Ventus dips his head, so Vanitas doesn’t have a chance to ask if he’s talking about Aqua’s keyblade or about something else. Instead he lets Ventus kiss him. He threads his fingers through Ventus’s hair and thinks about never letting go.

Ventus drags him up by his hands and brushes sand out of his hair and then pulls Vanitas to sit beside him on the tree, moving so fast that Vanitas feels completely caught up in his orbit. He wonders if this is how it feels to travel between worlds with the keyblade armor on, insulated and safe from everything else.

Ventus stands up, balancing precariously on the tree. Vanitas thinks, idly, about knocking him off, but Ventus would probably just laugh. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get one of the fruit!” Ventus hops up, reaching uselessly, shaking the branch Vanitas is sitting on as he does it. Vanitas rolls his eyes, and teleports up to the top of the tree. He grabs one of the star-shaped fruit there, and hops down to Ventus’s side.

“Cheater,” Ventus says without heat. “Give it here.”

Vanitas holds it above his own head for a moment, mostly just so he can bask in the warmth of Ventus’s glare, and then he lets him have it. “I don’t see what’s so special about some stupid fruit.”

“It’s a paopu fruit.” Ventus cradles it in his hands, smiling down like it’s something special. “There’s this legend. They say that if two people share one, their destinies become intertwined. They’ll always be connected.” He leans against Vanitas then, tucking his head onto his shoulder. When Vanitas looks down, all he can see is Ventus’s tufts of fluffy blonde hair. He’s trying to hide his expression. As if it matters. Vanitas always knows what he feels. And he’d recognize longing anywhere.

“What, you wanna share one?”

Ventus looks up at him then, sudden, the expression on his face so bright it’s almost blinding. “Well?” he asks. “Want to give it a try?”

Vanitas rolls his eyes. He holds up the paopu fruit, close enough that he could take a bite if he wanted. Then he winds his arm back and throws it as far as he can, into the sickeningly picture-perfect ocean.

“I don’t need some stupid fruit to tell me we’re connected,” he says to Ventus’s face. He’s wearing his stubborn pissed off look again. Vanitas has always liked that look, the particular set Ventus gets in his jaw when he protecting the things he cares about.

It softens at Vanitas’s words. And Vanitas likes this look too. “You know,” Ventus says, “that was almost sweet.”

“Shut up,” Vanitas says, and Ventus laughs, and leans in closer against his side. “It’s true.”

Ventus twines his fingers through Vanitas’s. “You’re right,” he says. “It is. And even if it wasn’t, I’d make it true. I promise. I won’t ever let go.”

They sit like that, wrapped around each other. Vanitas never feels balanced on a knife’s edge with Ventus anymore. He only ever feels like this: comfortable, like for once his skin actually fits.

-

Vanitas feels it like a tug, like twine wrapped around a rib, a pull so sudden and all-encompassing that he doesn’t even realize he’s opened up a corridor of darkness until he’s already there, by Ventus’s side.

“What are you doing here?” Ventus asks, like one of them is always asking, except this time his voice is ragged. He’s panting. There’s blood dripping down his cheek and covering his shirt. The huge fucking Heartless he’s fighting takes another swipe at him. He puts his guard up too slow, but it doesn’t matter, because Vanitas is already there, blocking the blow.

They’re back at the Keyblade Graveyard, because of course they are.

“Saving your sorry ass, apparently,” Vanitas snarls, and the Heartless attacks them both again. Ventus isn’t much help. Who knows how long he’s been out here, fighting alone. “What did you do to piss this thing off?” he demands.

“I just—” The thing knocks him back—it just looks like a person, but ten feet too tall and with hair even more unruly that Ventus’s. “I felt like there was something I needed to find here, something I remembered—or someone, I don’t know. And then this thing was here!”

“And you were too stubborn to get while the getting was good.”

“Shut up!” The Heartless slams it’s hand down, knocking them both back. Vanitas teleports in midair and lands on his feet, but Ventus goes flying, hitting the ground with a thump. Vanitas gets in a vicious hit at the creature’s face, hard enough to stun it, and vanishes, appearing again at Ventus’s side.

“You idiot,” he snaps. “You’re going to get yourself killed. That’s not happening if I have anything to say about it.”

“What,” Ventus says, and his tone is unreadable, even to Vanitas, who should be able to read him like a book. “Only you get to do that?

“Yes,” Vanitas snarls. It’s something he’s always known, that Ventus will die by his hand or not at all, except that doesn’t feel right either, not anymore. Vanitas doesn’t understand anything anymore.

Well, he understands one thing: the Heartless that wants to take Ventus from him is going to die. Right now. “Leave this to me,” he says. “And stay out of my way.”

He summons his keyblade—Ventus’s keyblade—any keyblade—and when he opens his eyes, he has Void Gear clutched in his right hand and Wayward Wind in his left.

They both feel right there. Comfortable.

Ventus stares at him. “Since when can you do that?” he asks. “I tried to get Roxas to teach me, but he said he couldn’t. Something about—having two hearts.”

“Maybe I’m just that good,” Vanitas says, and he turns, because the Heartless is staggering to its feet. Two hearts, huh? That sounds about right. He’s got them both in his hands, after all.

He launches himself at the Heartless, and rips it to fucking shreds, piece by piece. It could take five minutes or an hours; Vanitas certainly can’t tell. It collapses into itself in that dissatisfying way all Heartless have, leaving nothing behind.

Vanitas figured it was going to be like that when he disappeared. It’s only Ventus’s fault that it wasn’t.

Ventus is still on the ground. That probably isn’t good. Vanitas was worried he’d have to stop him from trying to fight, that Ventus’s keyblade would slip away from him in the middle of an attack. Now he’s more worried that it didn’t.

He falls to his knees at Ventus’s side, barely feeling the impact. Ventus is still bleeding. Vanitas didn’t realize how much. He’s got a hand pressed to his stomach, and when he looks up at Vanitas his eyes are glassy. It hurts to look at him, a phantom ache; not just from his wounds but from something else.

The thought must hit both of them at the same time, the moment their eyes meet: Ventus couldn’t stop him if Vanitas tried to join their hearts now. He’s so weak. It might be the only thing that can save him.

He fought Ventus here once. He took his heart and made it his own, just for a little while. It would be fitting.

“Guess you’re getting what you wanted, after all,” Ventus says.

“Shut up.”

Ventus’s eyes are slits. Vanitas wonders if he’s still seeing anything at all. “I won’t fight you this time,” he says. “It’s okay.”

“Shut up, why do you always think everything is okay?” Vanitas clenches his hands into fists over his own thighs. If he was someone else—if he was Ventus—he’d know what to do. He’d know what to say. He’d know how to fucking heal him, but Vanitas never learned those kinds of spells. He never cared.

His hand is on Ventus’s collarbone now, fingers splayed along his neck. The bruises are gone; now the Heartless has marked him instead. Vanitas wants to kill it all over again.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

Vanitas’s hand twitches. He can feel Ventus’s breath under it, unsteady and weak. “What?”

“Being you again.” He turns his face into it as Vanitas’s hand creeps up to his cheek. “There was always something missing. I think maybe that’s why I was always looking at the stars. I knew part of me was out there somewhere.”

For some reason that’s what gets its claws in Vanitas’s stomach, tugs at him until it feels like he’s the one with his guts spilling out. Ventus, sitting on his windowsill with his dinky little telescope, peering out into the endless black. Looking for something. For someone.

Vanitas used to look at the stars too. They must have been looking at the same thing.

Vanitas knows what it means to want something. That’s all he is, after all; yearning, longing, the emptiness that Ventus left behind. It’s his name. How much clearer could it be?

All he’s ever done is want. He wants to be one with Ventus again. He wants it so badly it aches, a bruise that’s never left him. He wants it like water, like sunlight, like blood.

He wants it, and it’s right here in front of him, so why can’t he just reach out and take it?

He’s so close. He can already feel it in all the places he’s touching Ventus, his hand against his cheek, Ventus’s fingers clutching at his side. That thin veneer of difference between them is fading away. Vanitas sways forward, just as hazy with it as he was the first time they kissed. It’s everything, like always, like lightning snaking up his veins. All the things Ventus is thinking of right now: how it felt to kiss Vanitas, the steadying shuddering rightness of it, like stuck gears finally interlocking. Vanitas going pliant against him, softer than Ventus expected, like warm metal under his hands. He keeps that memory close; Vanitas leans into it, falls forward another inch.

The moment they were split, the raw and bloody ache of it. A hand reaching out for nothing, for Vanitas, before it fell away again, before Sora caught Ventus, and they were torn apart forever.

Ventus staring at himself in the mirror much later, widening his eyes until they burned. Willing himself to cry, to be right, to not scare his friends any longer.

They do understand each other, he thinks, they think together: there were empty spaces inside them, and they both grew up around them, hollow inside.

They can be filled now, they think, he thinks, they’ll finally be together again, but—

Vanitas jerks back, far enough that they’re not touching at all anymore. Ventus makes a soft pained noise, like the loss hurts him just as much as it’s always hurt Vanitas.

He sucks in a dizzying breath. Vanitas thinks about what Ventus said to him, the first time they joined. That his friends were a part of his heart. Vanitas doesn’t have friends; that’s not who he is. But the empty spaces inside him have filled up anyway, with something warm and aching and vital.

He doesn’t need friends. But he has Ienzo, who was stupid enough to treat him kindly because he saw something of himself in Vanitas; and Seifer, who was smart enough to show him the respect he deserved, who looked at him and saw something more than Sora, not less; and he has Ventus, always Ventus, the only person who will ever understand him. Who was broken the way that Vanitas was broken, and who pieced himself back together, and who wants the same thing for Vanitas. Who promised to never let him go.

If Vanitas joins with him, he’ll never have that again. And he’ll never have the chance to go back to Radiant Garden and teach that idiot Ienzo to put his guard up, and he’ll never kick Seifer’s ass into next week the way the kid deserves, and he won’t be able to protect Ventus like this. Not really, not from inside him.

He won’t be himself anymore. Whoever he and Ventus would be then, it won’t be the person he is now.

What a strange thing to realize: he’d miss it.

Vanitas punches the ground. He’s shaking. Not so badly that he can’t pick Ventus up, holding him close to his chest, one arm beneath his legs and the other against his back. Ventus hangs like a ragdoll in his arms, his head tucked against Vanitas’s shoulder.

His breath is damp on Vanitas’s neck, and Vanitas can feel what Ventus feels, cradled in Vanitas’s arms. The thunderous echo of safety and warmth and comfort. “Idiot,” he says.

“Maybe,” Ventus says, the word distant, barely there at all. “Your idiot, though.”

“Well, you’re not dying on me yet,” Vanitas says. “You’re not getting off the hook that easily.” He opens up a portal, and holds Ventus tighter.

He’s betting a lot on Aqua not striking him down the minute she sees his face, and in the end it’s probably only the fact that Ventus is in his arms that saves him. Her face is drawn, mouth set, but she gives Vanitas terse instructions about where to take Ventus, a small cot in what passes for the Land of Departure’s infirmary. She orders him around after that, for bandages and antiseptic and things that Vanitas begins to realize she doesn’t actually need. She probably just wants him out of the room.

Or she knows how much he needs to keep his hands busy. To not think.

Finally, when Vanitas creeps back into the room one last time, Aqua doesn’t immediately send him off again. Instead she sighs, and rests her arms on the cot and her forehead on her arms. Ventus, beside her, is breathing steadily.

“How are you even here?” Aqua asks. She sounds tired. “They said you were gone. Ven said he’d found you, when we asked where he was running off to all the time, but...I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. I didn’t understand how you could have survived.”

Vanitas jerks his head in Ventus’s direction. “What do you think?”

For some reason, that makes her smile. “Ven’s pretty special, isn’t he?”

Vanitas turns away. “Definitely compared to the rest of you, sure,” he says. “I’ll be going now. Wouldn’t want to be in the way of this touching reunion.” If Ventus wakes up and sees him and Aqua fighting—

If he wakes up and asks why Vanitas didn’t take the chance, laid out right in front of him—

Better to be nice and out of everyone’s hair, now that he knows Ventus is safe. That’s all.

“You should take Ven back to his room,” Aqua says. She’s not even looking at him. “I’m wiped.”

“Did you not hear what I just said?”

“Usually when you talk, I try not to listen.”

“You’re really going to give me run of the castle?”

She raises her head. “Are you going to do anything to it while Ven is here?”

Maybe she’s smarter than he’s ever given her credit for. Vanitas snorts, and shakes his head. “Someday that stupid optimism is going to get all of you killed.”

He picks Ventus up again, and even in sleep, he curls into Vanitas’s chest like he belongs there.

“Thank you,” Aqua says. “For bringing him home. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But the next time I see you, I’m not going to be so nice.”

“I’d expect nothing less.”

Vanitas has only been there once, but his feet carry him to Ventus’s room with no trouble at all. He sets him down on the bed, and stares at him.

He hasn’t been in Ventus’s room since before all this started. The urge to look around should be overpowering, but it just doesn’t seem so important, not with Ventus himself lying on the bed, eyes closed and skin pale. The perfect opportunity to go through his things, dig up all his secrets; but none of that matters if Ventus doesn’t open his stupid blue eyes.

Vanitas curls up beside him, head on his chest and hand over his ribcage, feeling the way it rises and falls. Heartbeats are common as dirt. They’re all the same. Except not Ventus’s, not now, beating steady beneath Vanitas’s ear.

He falls asleep like that, to the music of Ventus’s pulse. It sounds familiar, like an old song he heard once, a long time ago.

-

He wakes up to a hand in his hair, scratching gently at his scalp. His face is tucked into the warm curve of Ventus’s neck, and Vanitas never wants to move again.

“You’re heavy,” Ventus tells him, totally unconvincingly. His hand doesn’t leave Vanitas’s hair.

“Well, I dragged your sorry ass all the way back here after you tried to get yourself killed, so you can deal.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ventus says cheerfully. “Thanks for that, by the way.” His lips are soft against Vanitas’s forehead. Vanitas feels warm all over, like metal gone molten. He feels what Ventus feels, and right now they feel just the same.

“You owe me.”

Ventus snorts, the movement jostling Vanitas enough that he looks up. Ventus isn’t smiling, exactly, but he’s not frowning either. There’s something contemplative on his face. He cups Vanitas’s cheek.

“I meant what I said, you know,” he says.

“What, you were just going to give up that easy?” Vanitas sits up, anger suddenly electric under his skin. “Come on. I know you’re better than that.”

Ventus sits up too, though it’s a bit of a struggle. Vanitas digs his fingernails into his palms to stop himself from reaching out to help. “Let me guess,” he says. “It wouldn’t count if you didn’t have to fight me for it?”

Vanitas crosses his arms. He looks away. “You don’t understand.”

“Then help me understand,” Ventus says, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “All I’ve ever wanted is to understand you.”

And that’s not true. Of course it’s not. That’s what Vanitas wanted, to live inside Ventus, to understand him from the inside out.

They understood each other perfectly, for just a single moment. And then Vanitas shattered it.

Ventus has always been able to know him just like this, on the outside looking in. He’s never needed Vanitas under his skin. But he would have accepted it anyway. He would have welcomed him in with open arms.

“I guess it’s not so bad, being me,” Vanitas says. Not anymore. “I’m not ready to give it up just yet.”

When Vanitas sneaks a look back, Ventus is grinning at him. “Shut up,” Vanitas says, preemptively, and Ventus just laughs, and gathers him up in his arms. “I think Aqua is going to kill me the next time she sees me.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

“I really don’t think that’s going to work.”

Ventus just squeezes him harder. “You’ve been getting to know other people, haven’t you? You can get to know her too.”

Maybe. But he’s still more interested in Ventus than anyone else. Vanitas thinks that will always be true.

“Hey, Vanitas.”

“What?”

Ventus’s thumb is so soft on the skin under his eye that Vanitas barely feels it. “Green looks good on you.”

Vanitas stares at him.

“You didn’t notice? It was different when you woke up. I guess I really have been rubbing off on you after all, huh?” He pulls out his phone, turning on the camera so Vanitas can look at himself. He’s right. Vanitas’s eyes are a muted green, all traces of yellow gone.

Now that Vanitas looks, he can see the difference in Ventus too. His eyes still have blue in them, but there’s a different character to it now: blue like the sea at storm, not the endless aching sky that hangs over Destiny Islands.

They’re not the same; they still don’t quite match. But they changed each other after all.

He wonders which one of them matches the eyes that Ventus used to have. If either of them do.

Probably not. Neither of them are that person anymore. They haven’t been for a long time.

“Vanitas,” Ventus says again. He’s laying back down, arms behind his head, looking up at Vanitas the way he used to look at the stars.

“Yeah?”

“What do you want?”

Vanitas looks down at him. At Ventus with his soft blonde hair in complete disarray, his sea green eyes and the little wrinkle between his brows, the one he always gets when he’s concentrating.

The answer is the same as it’s always been, but the shape of it has changed. “You,” he says, and he isn’t laughing now. He doesn’t feel wild or unruly but anything but calm, like the ocean at rest. “I want to be with you. Like this. By your side.”

“Yeah,” Ventus says, and this time he understands. His smile would’ve hurt Vanitas to look at once; now he mirrors it, not the way a shadow does, but like a moon reflecting light. “I promise. We’ll never be apart.”

Vanitas tucks his head into the crook of Ventus’s neck and nods. He believes him. After all: Vanitas feels what Ventus feels, but right now it doesn’t matter. They feel the same thing, just one step out of time. Not in disarray but in harmony, like two gears interlocking. The same safety that Ventus felt, cradled half-dead in Vanitas’s arms; trust and warmth and something else insistently growing in the last few empty spaces they each have left.