It’s Kairi who first alerts Ven that something is different. Not with the words she says, but the way she peers at him. She tilts her head and leans towards him, like he’s a sentence she can’t quite make out.
“You’re a pure light, right?” she asks. “Like me?”
They sit outside the Land of Departure, sharing a blanket Ven pulled off his bed and a motley of sandwiches Terra made for them. Each of them drink from a coconut that Kairi brought with her from Destiny Islands, capped off by adorable pink umbrellas she made herself.
“I guess,” Ven says with a shrug. “Why?”
She scrunches her nose up as continues to examine him. “You don’t feel like a pure light.”
“Maybe that’s because I was made into one. I wasn’t born like this,” Ven responds.
There’s a name buzzing around in the back of his brain. He sidesteps it, the same way he’s sidestepped it every single day since the war ended. There are less frustrating things to think of: the preparations Aqua and Terra spend all day making for their trip to the Realm of Darkness, seeing Lea and Isa before he ends up spirited away for who-knows-how-long, learning all the stories Chirithy doesn’t trust Ven enough to tell him, and eating lunch with Kairi. Caring about his friends.
“Rapunzel wasn’t originally a princess of heart, but she still feels like one. So does Alice, even though she isn’t a princess anymore. I don’t know why you’d be any different.”
Maybe it’s Sora. Ven goes to say that, but he doesn’t miss the brief flash of pain over Kairi’s face as she thinks the same. Before Ven can comment with anything other than a soft gasp, it’s gone, replaced by a serene smile. “I have an idea,” she says. “Can I dive into your heart?”
Ven nearly jolts. The name he refuses to think of pulses in the back of his mind, like a neon sign trying its hardest to shine to life. He breaks its cord and takes out the bulbs, but thinking of darkness doesn’t leave him in any better position than before.
The floodgates open. Vanitas’s voice, so encased in his memory that he can nearly hear it whispered into his ear, sounds so real. My home is in you, he had said. I was hidden deep inside you.
It’s easier if he isn’t there. It’s easier if Ven is alone, if Vanitas slunk back to whatever shadow he thinks is most comfortable and stayed there.
It’s easier if he doesn’t exist.
It’s easier, but it isn’t right. What else can Ven do but accept what the stubborn jerk wants?
He doesn’t know how a dive to the heart really works. He leans back and puffs his chest out, like more surface area will make Kairi’s task easier. “Go ahead,” he says, tapping his heart. Kairi answers not with a sentence but a smile as she summons her keyblade.
She taps his chest with the tip of her keyblade, and just like that, she’s gone. Nothing but a vague shimmer of pink light remains where she once was. Ven looks around just to confirm that she didn’t teleport anywhere nearby, but he's all alone.
He focuses within. Closes his eyes and tries to feel for someone else within his heart. He can’t sense anything different. There’s nothing but himself and the same thoughts he’s always had.
It takes a while for Kairi to return. When she does, it’s only when the sun hangs low on the horizon and Ven is slowly waking up after a spontaneous nap.
Kairi returns in the space of a single blink. He hears her giggle before he sees her. Both inspire him to scramble up with a frightened yelp. She giggles and pokes at his chest. “Sleepyhead.”
“I got tired waiting for you!”
“Sorry.” At least she sounds apologetic.
Ven pulls his legs towards himself as he shifts to face her. “So? What’s the damage?”
Kairi hums. Ven’s learned that she does that when she knows she’s about to say something that the other person won’t like. She chooses her next words carefully. “He… he isn’t nice. Vanitas. But he’s there.”
“Is he… content?”
Ven tries to dive into his own heart. He tries using his Keyblade to unlock his heart, only to be stopped by a panicked Aqua at the last second. He tries diving during his dreams, but all he gets for his efforts are a scrolling movie screen of memories for his troubles.
Then he leaves for the Realm of Darkness.
In the quiet of oblivion, where sleep borders the edge of death, Ven hears his voice.
Why bother with your armor here? You’re pure. Darkness can’t corrupt you.
Ven opens his eyes. He looks down at his feet where his sleeping image rests. There’s no sign of Vanitas anywhere in the stained glass, but his voice echoes all around Ven. It isn’t the rock-rumble of a growl that was his dying voice, but distorted all the same. Like he’s hearing it through a bottle, glass encasing him and leaving him frozen.
He sounds better than he did before, Ven thinks.
“Armor kinda helps with all the Darksides everywhere,” Ven retorts. His own voice is clear, steady, centralized. “Where are you, Vanitas?”
“I know that! Where is here?”
A laugh reverberates in the empty space of his heart. Here is everywhere, Ventus. Isn’t that what being the same is?
Ven grits his teeth. Of course Vanitas would throw Ven’s own words back at him. He feels like he’s being toyed with. In his own heart.
“I’m not here to play games, Vanitas.”
Who says this is a game?
“Can you just show your stupid face already?”
Vanitas heaves out a resigned sigh. It echoes off the glass of Ven’s heart station. It reverberates in his ears. You’re no fun.
Then he floats down, the same way he did when they last met here a decade prior. It’s hard to think that it’s been that long when Ven spent all that time lost in sleep. Or maybe they both spent that time lost in sleep. Ven doesn’t know, and it only makes him that much more frustrated.
Vanitas saunters up to Ven and folds his arms over his chest. His mask leaves Ven to stare back at himself. When he speaks, his voice finally sounds normal. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you.”
Vanitas gestures to himself. “There. You’ve seen me. Now get out.”
“You can’t kick me out of my own heart!”
Vanitas laughs. “Oh, so it’s your heart now? That’s cute. You can’t seem to keep your stories straight, Ventus. Are you sure you’re okay?” He steps closer. Ven doesn’t need to see his face to know the sneer that’s twisting it into something ugly.
Ven’s frustration reaches a breaking point. With a shout, he charges forward, keyblade in hand. Impulse and action rule whatever makes up his body here, with all rational thoughts trailing far behind. Some part of him knows this is a terrible idea, but it doesn’t stop him from surging forward.
Vanitas blocks the strike easily, almost lazily. He lets out an exaggerated yawn. “It’s only been a year and you’ve already gotten soft.” He shoves Ven’s keyblade away and swipes out a leg, catching Ven behind his quads and sending him crashing to the floor. Ven lands hard on his side. Phantom pain races through him and he gasps. “Pathetic.”
Ven rolls away before Vanitas can aim a stab at his face. He hops back to his feet and aims a Blizzaga right for Vanitas’s dumb mask. He drops into a puddle of darkness to evade it. Ven tracks the shadow with his eyes, preparing for the moment Vanitas will hit him.
Before Vanitas can jump out and strike Ven again, he’s torn out of his heart. The deep, empty blues of the Realm of Darkness replace the void of his heart station in the space of a single blink.
Aqua’s worried face comes into view, with Terra right behind her. “Ven?” she asks. “It’s time to get up. We need to keep moving.”
“Huh? O-oh. Got it. Sorry.” Ven gets to his feet and dusts his clothes off before activating his armor. As the metal snaps shut around his body, snug and secure, Vanitas’s voice echoes in his mind. Taunting him for using it.
It isn’t real, he thinks. Just a replay of what Vanitas actually said.
Time doesn’t flow in the Realm of Darkness the way it does in the Realm of Light. Even the clocks on their Gummiphones don’t work the way they should, set to an internal timer that not even Ienzo can figure out.
Still, they do with what they have. That usually means timing their rest cycles by the time outside this realm, back in the worlds where words like day and night mean something.
A few sleep cycles later, Ven tries again. He goes to the edge of his heart station and sits down, certain that Vanitas will seek him out before long. He bides his time by looking off into the distance, searching for the vague pinpricks of light that are the hearts connected to his own.
It isn’t long before he arrives. At least he’s forgone doing the echo trick. It was stupid anyways.
“I can think of five better things for you to do than sit there staring off into space like an idiot,” Vanitas says.
“Oh yeah? How many of those are fighting you?”
Vanitas laughs. It still sounds unhinged, the way it always has when he laughs loudly. “That was the first intelligent thing you’ve said in forever. Good job.” That’s followed by a series of sarcastic claps. Ven resists the urge to throw something at Vanitas, but only because he has nothing to throw.
“I’m not fighting you again,” Ven says. “And I’m not leaving until I have to.”
“If you want to waste your time, then go right ahead.”
Ven wonders, not for the first time, what it is Vanitas does here. He has to be aware of what Ven’s doing on the outside if he can snipe at him about his armor. “What else is there to do here?”
There’s something sincere in Vanitas’s voice. It hurts to hear. “Then why not leave? We can get you a new body. Even has enough replicas to fill a whole world. He’d let you take one.”
Vanitas comes to stand next to where Ven sits, forcing him to crane his neck up to look at him. Vanitas shakes his head no. “What? Why not?” Ven presses.
“You’d never understand.”
“Then help me understand, you big dope!”
Vanitas doesn’t. He just stands there and watches Ven’s connections twinkle in the distance until Ven wakes up.
It takes two more visits before Vanitas finally offers any helpful information. The first was wasted by Ven’s attempts to wheedle Vanitas into taking off his helmet. He was so tired of staring at his own reflection.
All he got for his efforts was a keyblade locked against his, and a fight he didn’t ask for.
The second time, the one he experiences now, seems to be going better. Ven’s temporarily given up on his mission to see Vanitas’s face. It helps that Vanitas is already waiting for him when he appears. He stands in the middle of the station, right over Ven’s hand. Ven wonders if that’s supposed to mean something.
“I was wondering when you’d drag your sorry self here.”
“I’m here now,” Ven says.
Vanitas doesn’t reply to that. All he does is watch as Ven comes to a stop in front of him. He’s eerily silent as he moves his head up and down, like he’s sizing Ven up. Ven tenses, but he doesn’t summon his keyblade. With any hope, Vanitas won’t start a fight.
Without another word, Vanitas turns and goes to the edge of Ven’s heart station. He sits down on the edge. Ven hesitates before following after him. When he’s reasonably certain that he isn’t walking into some kind of convoluted trap, Ven sits down next to Vanitas.
For a while, all they do is stare out into the black. Ven wonders how the inside of a heart can feel so vast and so empty. He usually feels anything but. Even in the Realm of Darkness, he has Terra and Aqua at his side. How could he ever be afraid when they’re here?
He wonders what the inside of Vanitas’s heart looks like. It can’t be the same as his. Vanitas has no bonds to watch in the distance.
If Ven’s feels this lonely, how much lonelier is Vanitas’s?
“It’s easier to feel you here,” Vanitas says. He points directly up. “In the Realm of Darkness.”
“Because you’re darkness?” Ven says. It comes out like he’s mocking Vanitas, and he thinks he is, a little bit.
“Because I’m darkness.” Vanitas doesn’t mock him back. Ven’s guilt taps him on the shoulder, reminding him of their respective situations. Ven, free to move around, to laugh and live and love.
And Vanitas, stuck inside a heart he once wanted - and had - as his own.
Ven doesn’t know if that’s what he still wants.
“When Kairi met you, she said you were resigned. Why not fight me for control? Why just sit here and wait for me to show up?”
Vanitas huffs out something that would probably be a chuckle if given by any other person. When it comes from him, it makes Ven strangely sad. “Okay. I’ll indulge you. Let’s say we fight for control. Let’s say you’re pathetic, which you are, and I win. The moment your pretty blue eyes flash gold, your little friends will notice that something is wrong, and they’ll beat me until I’m gone and you’re back.”
Ven’s mind sticks on pretty blue eyes. What the heck?
“Let’s say I’m pathetic, which I’m not, and you win,” Vanitas continues. “Then we play out the same thing that happened last time we tried to become one. You keep your personhood, while I drift off to the depths of your heart to sleep for another decade.”
Then: “I’m not in the mood for a nap. At least this way I get to sense a little bit of the outside world.”
“It still doesn’t sound very fun. I’d hate it if I were you,” Ven says. “I’d feel so trapped.”
Ven doesn’t expect what Vanitas says next.
“I’d rather be trapped and at peace than be free and hurt.”
Ven never stopped to think about it before, but it makes sense. Vanitas fed off negativity. Of course he’d feel it too.
The more Ven thinks about it, the sadder it makes him feel. He wraps his arms around his knees and rests his chin on top. “I’m sorry, Vanitas.”
Vanitas offers a shrug. “What was it you said in the Graveyard? That you didn’t ask to be sifted apart? Neither did I. The difference between us is that I chose not to whine about it.”
Vanitas is awful. He goads other people into being awful towards him.
Ven never stopped to consider why.
Things don’t change, not really. Vanitas doesn’t want to leave Ven’s heart. Ven’s pretty certain he doesn’t really want to stay, either.
But it gets easier.
Ven spends his sleep cycles diving down to the center of his own heart, where Vanitas starts to wait for him. Vanitas would never admit it, but Ven thinks he looks forward to their meetings.
He stops dreaming.
“Do you ever miss it?” Vanitas asks.
Ven laughs. “You dream for a decade straight and it starts to get tiring, y’know? Besides, I like this more.”
“I’m not lying, promise!”
Vanitas takes off his mask just to side-eye Ven. The reaction is so silly that it makes Ven laugh more. “Really, I’m not!” Ven adds. “You’re not so bad when you’re not being obnoxious or trying to kill me and my friends.”
Vanitas snorts. “I guess you’re not so bad, either. Provided you’re not being a pathetic worm or a complete loser.”
Vanitas is a stubborn jerk, but he really isn’t that bad. Ven falls quiet as he looks back out into the expanse of black that greets him.
There will come a day that he’ll be able to see the faint light of Vanitas’s own heart station, connected by a chain separate from the one forced upon them.
He looks forward to it.