-Cursum Perficio-

A Psychonauts Fanfic by Digitaldreamer

Chapter Twenty: Connections

--

Hi guys!

So um... it's been a really, really long time, huh? Ahahaha... oh God, please don't stab me.

I'm really sorry this took me pretty much forever to get up. Long story short, I had a very, very busy senior year involving a lot of drama, changing relationships, depression, Tales of the Abyss, .hack/G.U., me getting into art college and moving to a big city annnd a whole bunch of other stuff. It was busy times... and for awhile I had no interest in this fic and decided to just leave it for a bit. Which... totally sucks for you guys and I'm really, truly sorry about that. On the bright side, taking that year off meant when I finally came back to this fic, I felt much more enthusiastic. Not only did I write a ton of new content, but I also revised every chapter!

Yes, that's right, I revised every chapter. I added new content, editted out a lot of the over-the-top angst, tightened up plot stuff... you know you love it. If you ever want to reread this fic, I would highly encourage it since I worked really hard!

I also made a soundtrack! Yes, that's right, I have a ton of music that can be set to various dramatic scenes, sooo I figured I'd stick it all into a big zip file and upload it. If you want to download it, the link is in my profile. ...I'm aware a soundtrack is horribly pretentious, but I'm an art student, so really, how much more pretentious can I get?

I really hope you guys are still reading this... I really am sorry for keeping you all waiting. I feel really bad because I got a ton of new readers and I have let them down horribly. So yeah... I apologize. Really, the only way I can make it up is by... well, finally finishing this damn thing. The good news is we've only got four chapters to go counting this one! It was originally three, buuut when I wrote this chapter it ended up being 43 pages long! So I split it into two. The good news is that means the chapter after this one is already written, yay! And this is already a good twenty pages, so yay!

Umm, let's see... many thanks goes to my boyfriend for encouraging me to keep up with, PsychoDirector, Lyre-13, and LKB for inspiring me and keeping me interested in the fandom (as well as letting me borrow some epic characters from PsychoDirector for some scenes in the rewritten chapters), and finally to Lord Pancake. He gets his name bolded because I borrowed (read: Stole and mutilated) his awesome character Spinoza Galochio for some flashbacks and stuff. So yeah, many props to all of them... especially Pancake. Pancake, I am so, so sorry for the horror you experience upon seeing I mutilated your character.

Um... right, I don't have much more to say, other than once again I'm really sorry. I really hope you all enjoy this, and please, please drop me a review to let me know what you thought, alright? Or you can just yell at me for taking so long, that works too.

Annnd here we go!

Suggested listening music is Letter - From The Lost Days (Track 22 on the soundtrack) from Silent Hill 3 for the flashbacks, Kingdom Hearts Above The Rising Falls OC Remix by sephfire (Track 21) for Nereus mind annnd A Song of Storm and Fire (Track 11) for various fight scenes.

--

"That was quite a stunt you pulled there, boy."

His father's frigid tone sifted through the inky fog, the first thing Nereus became aware of besides the dark. The second thing the ten-year old was aware of was pain, an awful, staggering pain that shot through his body, drawing a groan from his dry, cracked lips.

"Mngh... father?" The boy mumbled, forcing open one sapphire eye. "Where... am I?"

"Stupid boy, you're in my healing caravan!" A loud voice to his right suddenly exclaimed, a glance revealing it to belong to the white-haired, bespectacled man Nereus knew all too well.

"The healing caravan?" Nereus repeated weakly. "Why?" He tried to sit up, then let out a yelp of pain and flopped back down. "What..." He trailed off as he gazed down at himself, observing the bandages binding nearly every inch of his thin frame. "That girl..." He whispered, eyes widening as the memories suddenly came forth. Flashes of gleeful faces cackling down at him, flames licking at his flesh, a teary-eyed girl wielding a torch, the talons of fire reaching for him...

"Yeeeees, that's right. NOW the stupid child remembers," The healer sneered. "Quite fortunate for our family's powers... were mine not so advanced, our little heir wouldn't be looking so pretty anymore. Lots and lots of scarring. Even now... something tells me you may want to stick to long sleeves."

"You're fortunate we arrived when we did," His father said grimly. "A moment longer and the Aquato curse would have taken you." He would have seemed concerned, were it not for the hint of danger in his tone.

Nereus bit his lip and cast his gaze to the floor. "I... I'm sorry father. Thank you for saving me."

A heavy silence fell over the room for a moment. "I told you not to get involved."

Nereus swallowed. "I know. I didn't mean to."

"You deliberately disobeyed me." His father's voice rose, rage burning in his dark eyes.

"I-I know, I'm sorry. But there was that girl, she was in danger, I couldn't--"

"A nonpsychic girl!" His father hissed. "She meant nothing to you, she was just another one of her filthy kind!"

"But if I didn't save her, she could have died!" Nereus exclaimed.

"She should have!" The hiss had become a roar, sapphire eyes flashing. "But no, she didn't, and instead you were the one who paid the price! Not just you, but our entire family! We can never go to that village ever again!" A heavy hand reached out to press against Nereus' burnt front, drawing a cry of agony from the boys lips. It was if he were being burned all over again, that staggering pain surging through him like flames. "Do you not see!? This is how that foolish race works! It would be no different anywhere else, and this is something you must learn! You must destroy them before they destroy you, do you understand!?"

"Ahhhhh! Yes, yes, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, stop!" Nereus cried out, tears of pain coming to his eyes as he writhed, body arching in an attempt to get away from their cause.

"No, I don't think you do!" His father snarled. "You deserved to be burned at that stake! Did you see the curse!? Did you see the hand of Aquato! Do you understand why we do what we must do!? Do you understand NOW!?"

"Y-yes, please, I-- AHHH!" The boys cries became a full on scream as nails dug into blisters, sapphire eyes widening as his world suddenly flashed.

The campers eyes were wide with awe as they stared up at him over the fire, jaws slack. The flames crackled as he pushed the goggles from his eyes as dramatically as he could, just like in the comic books.

"My name..."

"Start's with a D!"

"...Is Razputin! But everyone calls me... Raz!" Pain surged through his body and his father was still yelling but Nereus was deaf to it, his sapphire eyes still wide as the mark at the back of his neck, the mark of Aquato, burned far worse than any pain his father could ever inflict. The pain suddenly picked up in intensity again and the boy squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth, the world flashing away again.

"You have a water phobia?"

"No! Well... yes. See, my family has this problem with water. Some old gypsy curse about how we're all supposed to die in water... if you can believe that." Even with the nonchalant tone in his voice, he felt a shiver run up his spine as he glanced back at the lake. He did his best to keep that fear off of his face.

Flash!

"Ah yes, I heard you grew up in the circus... but why would you wanna burn all these happy memories here?"

"If they were happy memories, I wouldn't have run away. My dad... he hates psychics, and he knew I was becoming one. So he--"

Flash!

"Remember, Razputin, your talent will always set you apart. Sometimes isolation is a good thing, it can lead to... important discoveries."

Flash!

"I-I wouldn't go in there, darling, that's a real party killer right there. ...Darling?"

Flash!

"When are you going to just shut up and kiss me?"

His face grew hot. "I can hear that."

"I know."

She was far too close, jade was meeting amber and she was just far too close and he could smell the flowery scent of her hair as she leaned closer and she was just far, far too close, and was this--

Flash!

The water was rising.

The water was rising and his heart was hammering through his chest as he raced through this course from hell, the scent of rotting meat hitting his nose as he scrambled across squishy, uncooked beef, a flaming mace zipping over his head.

"You used to like to play catch with me!" His father sneered, and Raz let out a shout as he nearly missed a jump, his fingers narrowly grasping at a trapeze made of bone-

Flash!

"Oh son... I could never hate you. I was only trying to protect you... and our family has many enemies. I only wanted you to be happy, Razputin..."

Flash!

He was on the stage and his heart was hammering in his chest yet again, but for a different reason, as Agent Cruller stepped forward, a small green uniform held in his arms.

"Son... we do not normally ask this of someone so young, but it is clear to us all that you are not average. So... will you join us, Razputin? Will you be... a Psychonaut?"

Flash!

Nereus collapsed against the bed as his father fell silent, both panting for breath. The healer stood at the edge of the caravan, his expression nervous.

"Weelll... this is awkward. I'm uh... gonna leave you two alone, then..." He said slowly, edging out the door. "Just uh... call me if you need me..." With that, he was gone.

Nereus and his father sat there for a few seconds, saying nothing. Finally, his father spoke. "Do you understand, Nereus?"

The blond said nothing, just gave a small nod.

His father was quiet for another moment, then mirrored the motion. "Very well then. Rest for now... I will return later." With that, he turned and left the caravan.

Nereus let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding as he stared up at the ceiling. "...Wow," He whispered, sapphire eyes wide even as his body quivered with exhaustion, shuddering from the memory of pain and loss, of unbridled pride and joy, of love...of a feeling of being so perfectly connected to someone. "So that was you... wasn't it, Razputin?" He bit his lip again.

"So while I was nearly burned alive... you were achieving what you've always wanted," He murmured. The blond let out a sigh, then closed his eyes, a small smile coming to his face. He knew he should be bitter... but somehow, he couldn't be.

"Well... as long as one of us is happy..."

--

Raz said nothing as the reel ended, just stared at the blank cavern wall where the images had been. He swallowed and shoved his gloved hands into his pockets, trying his best to ignore the way Oleander's eyes were on him and the way his heart seemed to sink.

"Well... I guess this explains the whole issue with nonpsychics a bit," Oleander commented gruffly.

Raz snorted. "Explains it? Maybe a bit, but it's not like having to deal with a few crazies is an excuse for wanting to kill all of them."

Oleander looked at him for a moment. "So him having a traumatizing near death experience while you were off having the time of your life on top of an abusive childhood isn't an excuse, but my childhood passes as enough to excuse my little stunt?"

Raz winced. "I... you were different... you weren't as bad..."

Oleander snorted. "Maybe... but doesn't that just make the blondie worse off and more deserving of your help? Even after all that, he was still thinking of you and was just happy you were happy," He pointed out.

The teen stared at him open mouthed for a moment, then bit his lip and glanced down at the floor. "It's... different," He muttered lamely.

"Right. Of course it is."

The two stood in silence for a moment, then Raz gave a sigh. "Look, let's just keep going, alright?" With that, he held the Sword of Vritra up and began walking briskly ahead.

"Alright, fine. Whatever you say, maggot." Oleander shrugged, then followed.

The two walked without a word between them for awhile, though occasionally they would slip and stumble through the dark. In spite of the rugged terrain, it wasn't enough to keep Raz's mind off of the way his heart seemed to have sunk into his stomach out of guilt.

Why should he feel guilty? Nereus had done so many things to him, there was no excuse... surely everyone couldn't expect him just to forgive and forget! He couldn't! After everything between them, their families, everything, there was just no way. Yes, they had their similarities, but that was all. There was no connection between them beyond a bad one, and even if Raz was expected to help Nereus, he didn't have to like it.

In spite of these insistent thoughts, none seemed to stand up entirely to that single memory of Nereus smiling, looking so happy simply because Raz had been happy...

Raz shook his head. No, that didn't mean anything. Nereus' "care" for him, their connection that he insisted upon, had been a twisted perversion, nothing more.

Nothing more.

And still something his chest pulled him onward, calling him, leading him towards something that Raz just could not explain. With every step this feeling grew stronger... and bit by bit his strength seemed to sap, the weight that seemed to be pulling him down growing heavier and heavier...

-Razputin... Razputin...-

After what seemed like ages, a glimmer of light was finally spotted. Raz squinted against it, then grinned. "Hey! I think I finally found a way out!" He glanced back at Oleander. "You ready to get out of this place?"

"Wha? Oh, finally!" Oleander was huffing as puffing behind him as he stumbled over rock after rock. "Damnit, I'm not as young as I used to be..."

"You okay there, coach?" Raz asked, brow furrowing. "You want to take a break?"

Oleander scowled. "I'm in better shape than you'll ever be, soldier! Now stop yapping and get moving!" He snapped before stomping onward, grumbling under his breath. "Stupid kids, gloating over their youth... you'll see eventually..."

Raz grinned and shook his head before following Oleander towards the light.

When he finally stepped out of the cavern Raz winced, shielding his eyes. After that darkness, even the twilight sky seemed bright. Fortunately, within a few moments his eyes adjusted and Raz dropped his arm...only to gape in horror at what he saw.

They were everywhere. A sea of reptilian soldiers that stretched as far as the eye could see. Just beyond them, the great gate of the castle loomed in the distance, but the mass of liquid-like bodies and shimmering armor made it seem much farther. Hundreds of glowing eyes immediately fixed upon them, weapons poised.

"Well," Raz commented in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. "That's kind of not good."

"Yup. Probably around a thousand, I'd say," Oleander drawled, almost sounding bored. "Depressingly cliché."

"Yeah. Well, that's not too bad, it could be worse," Raz shrugged. "It's only a thousand."

"Yup. Kind of expected it."

"Mm-hmm," Raz shifted into a fighting stance, shrugging the Sword of Vritra off of his shoulder and flashing a cocky grin. "So, what do you think, Coach? Do you think you can handle this?"

Oleander snorted. "Please. I was fighting these numbers for a warm-up long before you were born," He said, glancing over at the boy and smirking.

"Oh, I know. I just wanted to make sure you'd be able to keep up with me in your old age," Raz jeered.

"Was that a challenge, Maggot?"

"Damn straight."

Oleander grinned, his glass eye flashing as he fell into his own fighting stance. "Bring it, kid."

Raz nodded, then glanced towards the army. "Alright, let's go!"

With that, both parties charged. They met in a cacophony of steel and flaring psychic energy, bursts of shimmering blue and violent flames of orange flitting through the air. Raz and Oleander blew through the ranks as if they were nothing, both working in perfect rhythm. Snapping jaws were held at bay with a shimmering sword, great lances shattered with a single psychic blow. When one fell, the other was there, holding the swell at bay. For them it was no trouble, they had many years of practice, after all.

Enough that they apparently felt the need to turn it into a competition.

"Ninety-eight!" Raz counted out loud, slashing a beast as he passed it. The resulting slice sent it collapsing in his wake as he slid across the ground, the stony earth slick with the dark liquid the creatures seemed to be composed of. The teen twisted around in mid-skid, blocking a blow meant for his neck, then cleaved the head from his attacker's shoulders. "Ninety-nine!" He called out, levitating over it's body as it fell.

He used it's back as leverage to leap to another opponent, impaling it before it even had the chance to cry out. "ONE HUNDRED!" He called out as he tugged his sword loose, the creature's body splashing into nothingness before him.

"One hundred? Psssshtt!" Oleander snorted as he ducked to avoid a blow, sending a slew of bright psiblasts forth as he did so. "That makes one hundred and TWELVE!" He said with a triumphant grin.

Raz shot him a look out outrage. "That's no fair!" He cried as number one hundred and one screeched before him.

"It's totally fair!" Oleander grunted as he kicked and took out yet another. "You have the height advantage!"

"You have psychic powers!" Raz cried as he ducked and rolled across the earth, a lance shattering the ground where he had stood.

"You have a Goddamn sword!" Oleander shot back.

"Yeah, and I don't know how to use it!" The teen exclaimed as he leaped back to his feet, jabbing at another creature.

"Whiner!" The coach cried as he leaped into the air, then slammed his psychic fist downward, sending multiple creatures flying into the air with a burst of energy. "Ha! That's one hundred and TWENTY!"

Raz scowled as he turned back to his own opponents, closing his eyes and grumbling as he placed both hands upon the hilt of his sword. He then twisted in a circle, sending a spiral of fire flying outward, destroying several of the beasts at once.

It was true, Raz had absolutely no idea how to use a sword. He was a decent marksman, he was pretty good at hand to hand combat, but when it came to this sort of thing he was clueless. However, with this sword... in a way, it didn't even feel like he was the one controlling it. The blade moved for him, guided his hands and body in the way they should go. All Raz could do was follow the sword, which was alright, since it seemed to know exactly what to do.

In spite of this, however, it did not change the fact that Raz and Oleander were severely outnumbered. It seemed for every creature that fell, five more took their place. Each seemed to never tire, never falter, never waver, their movements mechanical and smooth as well oiled machines. Raz and Oleander, however, did tire, and as time went on their movements were not so precise. Oleander would start moving a bit too late, or perhaps Raz's guard would come up a little slower than he meant.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, Raz and Oleander had moved to the point where the castle gates were a mere hundred yards away. With a final slice the last beast fell, leaving the two Psychonauts standing in an empty, liquid-soaked wasteland, panting for breath as blood and sweat ran down their faces.

"And that," Raz grunted as he leaned on his sword, breathing heavily. "Makes five hundred."

"Damn... guess that means we're even," Oleander panted.

"Huh..." The teen gave a barking cough, then spat out some blood and wiped his mouth. "I'm... amazed you were able to keep up."

"Yeah, I still got it," The coach murmured, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a gloved hand.

"Yeah... we don't have a winner, though. Too bad there wasn't just one more," Raz shook his head, then hefted his sword up on his shoulder and turned towards the gate. "Ah well. Come on Coach, let's get out of here."

The instant he took a step forward, there was a great sound from behind him, like water being sucked down thousands of drains. The teen paused, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand on end as the sound stopped after a few moments with a 'pop!'. "You have to be kidding me..." He muttered as he turned back.

He had thought there had been a huge army before, but in comparison to this, that had been child's play. Where there had once been a thousand, there were now millions, so many that you could not tell where one creature began and another ended. They may as well have been a single teeming mass of dark water, millions of sapphire eyes fixed upon the pair of Psychonauts nearly upon their doorstep.

"You just had to say it, didn't you, kid?" Oleander growled as he fell back into a fighting stance.

"I... oh man..." Raz sputtered, his breath catching in his throat. "There must be..."

"Millions," Oleander finished grimly.

Raz gave a weak nod. "I... there's no way... I don't have time... we're so close..." He shot a glance back at the gate, his jade green eyes wide. It was so close... but if they both made a run for it, there was no way they'd get there before getting taken down.

Oleander stood in silence for a moment, glancing back at the gate as well. He then looked to Raz. "Well, what're you still standin' here for, Maggot?"

"What?" Raz sputtered, looking down at Oleander.

"Are you really that dense, kid!? I'll hold 'em off, you go on ahead!" Oleander growled.

"What!? NO!" Raz cried, shaking his head violently. "You have to be kidding me, there's millions of those things, there's no way you'd survive!" As he said this, the creatures seemed to be humming to life, a collective snarl rising up from among them.

The coach snorted. "Idiot, I'll be fine. You're the important one here, if you die, that's it."

"But... but... this mind is different, what if you..." Raz shook his head again. "Can't... can't you just go with me? Maybe if we both just make a break for it, we..." He trailed off, looking desperate.

Oleander just stared at him for a moment. "Come on Maggot, suck it up. You have to keep going and you damn well know it. Besides..." He glanced up at the gate again, the moonlight reflecting off of it. "That door'll only open for one, anyway."

Raz frowned. "What do you mean?"

Jaws snapped and tails twitched, lips pulled back to reveal needle sharp fangs.

"Come on, do you really think those things are gonna sit there and wait for us to have a whole damn conversation!? Stop yammering and get moving!" Oleander snapped, shoving Raz towards the gate before turning back to the army before him.

Raz stumbled forward, then glanced back. "But... Coach..."

There was a great roar, and as one the army charged.

"Razputin... just promise me one thing," Oleander said as the beasts rose up against him, leaping into the air and becoming a looming wall of dark water, shimmering blades, and gnashing teeth. "I don't care what happens in there, what you find... but you damn well better come back."

Raz swallowed thickly. "...I will. And you better come back too... or I'll kill you, you hear me!?" He said, hands clenching into fists at his sides.

Oleander grinned. "Good. Then go!" With that, he charged towards the looming beasts, a ferocious snarl upon his lips as he leaped into the fray.

Raz grit his teeth, then turned and began racing towards the gate, his tattered trenchcoat and scarf whipping out behind him as he ran. His arms pumped, sweat running down his face, jade eyes fixed upon that silvery white entryway. With a flash of orange, levitation gave him an added burst of speed, his breath coming out in short puffs as the ornate entryway loomed ever closer. Closer and closer as he ran faster and faster, the sounds of the din of battle and Oleander's cries growing nearer and nearer. Still, he forced himself to ignore them as he leaped for the great steps, drawing closer and finally--

"GAH!" The teen let out a cry as his toe caught at the tip of the first step, sending him sprawling across cold, aged silvery marble. He let out a groan as he slid across the stone, leaving blood in his wake. He then forced himself back to his feet, casting a panicked glance towards the creatures behind him as he did so.

Jade green eyes widened at the sight of the wall of gnashing teeth and blades nearly upon him, and with a shout Raz turned back towards the gate and leaped up towards the steps, trying to ignore the way to combined chill of the beasts seemed to be sucking him in. One step, two, three, and then five more, he was going to make it! He reached out for the door, gloved palm stretching out to touch it...

And then quite suddenly with a snarl one beast separated itself from the pack, it's eyes gleaming with murderous intent, maw wide, lance aimed for his heart, talons grasping for the teen's thin frame. Raz spun to face it, his fist clenching around the hilt of his sword as he realized he was far too late...

There was a loud WHUMPH! as small, but powerful arms suddenly took him and shoved him aside, sending him flying towards the the gate. There was a loud rumbling noise as the gates seemed to come to life at Raz's touch, stretching open as if they were the yawning jaws of a great beast, the white light within for him and him alone. However, Raz took no notice of this as he fell backward, his eyes instead fixed upon the one who had taken the blow for him.

"Coach!" He cried, jade green eyes wide as he gaped at the man who had been the first teach him. Shredded khaki material and blood shot through the air as talons and a shimmering lance met flesh, a terrible roar filling the air. Yet even through all this, a dark brown eye and a glass one met his, a scarred, blood-spattered face stretching into a grim smile.

"Remember, you promised, kid!"

Raz let out a scream, gloved hand stretching out for his teacher as he fell through the shimmering doorway, as if he could do something, anything! Gloved fingers reached desperately for that khaki army shirt, as if he just caught that he could pull Coach Oleander through... but just before he could touch him, the older Psychonaut vanished in a burst of dark green psychic energy.

"NO!" The teen shouted as he fell with a thud, blood-soaked clothes and battered frame skidding across the floor. The beasts just outside gave a shriek and charged towards the door as Raz fell, still reaching and grasping... and then with a loud BANG the gates slammed shut, unforgiving.

There were thousands of smaller bangs and crunches as number upon number of creatures swarmed against the gates... and then after a few moments all fell silent, save for Raz breathing heavily in the dark.

And once again, Raz was alone.

--



Outside, in the cold mountain air, Oleander suddenly jerked as if he'd been struck, his eyes flying open for a moment. He gave a heavy cough, spitting blood out onto a gloved palm as his other hand flew to his chest. "What..." He trailed off. Without warning, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and with a groan the wanna-be drill sergeant collapsed in the snow.

Milla's eyes fluttered open at the sound, her emerald gaze flitting from Raz to the Coach's bloodied form. "MORRY!" She shrieked, causing Ford and Lili to jerk out of concentration as well.

"What the... what happened!?" Lili asked, her eyes wide as she stared at Oleander.

Ford frowned, reaching out and taking his pulse. "He's still alive... just barely. But how..." He trailed off, glancing between Raz and Oleander.

Milla's brow furrowed. "Ford?"

The old man scratched his chin. "Earlier... it felt almost as if mine and Razputin's minds synced up for a bit, as if..." He trailed off again, then looked to Sasha. While the others had noticed Morry's condition, Sasha remained as he was, eyes fluttering behind his sunglasses, a dark blue glow flaring around him in his trance. Milla glanced at him as well, concern upon her face.

"Sasha?" She asked, reaching out as if to shake him. Immediately, Ford reached out and stopped her.

"No, don't touch him. Right now... it'd be dangerous for both of them."

"Both of them?" Milla and Lili repeated, both looking confused.

Ford shook his head and waved it off. "You'll see. Now you two go back to helping Razputin. I'll keep Morry warm and make sure he doesn't die either, alright?"

"Are you sure you don't want me to help?" Milla asked.

"Oh no, I can handle it. Besides... he'll need you more than Morry does right now," Ford said, nodding to Raz. At Milla's confused look Ford just smiled. "You'll see." Milla stared at him for a moment, then nodded and placed her hands on Raz again without another word, going back into a trance. Once certain she had done this Ford turned to Oleander's unconscious form, frowning.

"What on earth did you two get into after me? And more importantly... does it get worse from here?"

--

Raz wasn't sure how long he lay there, barely supporting himself with shuddering arms, his heavy panting echoing through the room. His green eyes remained fixated on the door, his knees shaking. After awhile, his arms gave way and he slumped, a light clatter echoing through the area as his face pressed against the chilly, marble-like surface of the floor.

"God... I sure hope he'll be alright..." The teen muttered.

"I believe you are underestimating Morry, Razputin," A deep, accented voice rang through the air.

Raz's eyes widened and he pushed himself up on his palms, craning his neck backwards. "Sasha!?" He sputtered.

The German Psychonaut towered above him, hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket, that same old stubborn strand of hair hanging in his face. "That man can shake off being hit by a bus, I assure you he will be fine," He stated, a smile flitting across his pale face for a moment.

Raz smiled back for a moment, in spite of himself. "I... guess you're right."

"Of course I am. Have I ever been wrong?" Sasha asked, quirking an eyebrow at him.

"Well, there was that one time--"

"Okay, okay, enough of that. No time for talk, you have places to be," Sasha cut in. He held out a gloved hand, which Raz accepted, and pulled the boy to his feet.

As Raz stood, he glanced around the room for the first time, his jaw dropping at what he saw. This place was huge! The walls stretched high above them, a gorgeous, shimmering white stone that was covered in various exquisite carvings that seemed to display a never-ending battle between heaven and hell. The circular, marble floor was decorated with several beautiful statues at key points, angels with eyes that peered into the very depths of your soul, demons that snarled as if your mere glance was enough to enrage them, fearsome dragons that howled towards the heavens. Chandeliers and candles hung from a nonexistant ceiling, their dangling chains seeming to vanish into the endless night sky above them. Thousands of clear glass stairs, coiled their way around the airspace above the floor, some going straight up, others dipping downward, some finishing at doorways while others simply tapered off or began in midair. They had no railing or any sort of support beneath them, they simply floated in the air, as if suspended by their own accord.

It was a bit mind-boggling, to say the least.

"Wow... and this is only the entryway?" Raz breathed.

"So it would seem," Sasha murmured.

"This place must be huge..." Raz muttered, his hands clenching into fists at his side. "Where do I start?"

"Well... I suppose we ought to start with the only staircase that begins here," Sasha stated, gesturing to the shimmering glass steps before them.

"Guess so..." Raz said. He took another glance at Sasha, whom nodded, then took a deep breath and made for the stairs.

The instant his foot touched the first glass step, everything changed. The entire room seemed to flip, causing Raz's stomach to flop as his head spun. Up became down, left became right, colors twisted, inverted, changed and ran as if the marble were paint diluted by water. Stairs flipped and twisted, coiled around each other like snakes, chandeliers shattered and changed into new forms.

When the room was finally done with its metamorphosis, Raz groaned from the spot on the stairs where he he had fallen. "Oh God...what was that?" He groaned, sitting up and rubbing his aching head.

"Surely you did not expect this to be so easy," Sasha quirked an eyebrow at him, though he seemed a little ruffled as well in spite of his attempt to appear calm and collected.

"I guess you're right..." Raz grumbled as he glanced around. "This is Nereus' mind."

"Indeed... I would expect nothing short of a labyrinth awaits us," The German agreed.

Raz nodded. "Guess so... might as well get started." With that, the two began to make their way up (or rather, down) the spiraling staircase, the shimmering images of the ever-changing entryway reflecting upon the glass steps.

After making their way up the stairs, the two found themselves in a hallway filled with ornate doors of different sizes. Some were tall and wide, others tiny, some crammed together as if they were some sort of freak siamese twins, while still others seemed to be fading out of existence. Some were placed upon the floor, others on the ceiling, each carved with different markings and colors.

"Alright, now what?" Raz muttered.

"Well... I suppose you must choose a door," Sasha stated.

"Me?" Raz repeated, blinking.

The German gave a sigh. "Surely by now all the 'follow your heart', 'the door only opens for you' and 'you know the way' nonsense has sunk in. You cannot be that oblivious," He drawled, adjusting his sunglasses. In spite of this, he was smiling, though why Raz didn't understand.

"Oh..." Raz huffed and looked away as his face turned red. "I-I got it. Really."

Sasha's smile widened. "Then choose."

Raz nodded, then stepped forward, frowning as he looked at the doors. He then closed his eyes and allowed his hand to drift before him, reaching not only for a doorknob, but for something more, like grasping for strands of psychic energy with his mind and yet different.

He began to step past the various doors, fingertips brushing over polished, carved entryways. He could catch strains of twisting emotions from each one, intense feelings of anger, hatred, pain... so much pain. Voices whispering bits of memories that did not belong, the soft sounds of a lone boy singing...

"Cursum perficio, cursum perficio..."

Finally Raz paused before a single door, his hand hovering over the knob. "Here," He said simply. "This is where we need to go."

"Are you certain?" Sasha asked, walking over to him.

"Verbum sapienti, eo plus cupiant..."

-Razputin, Razputin...-

Raz nodded. "I'm sure. For now... it's the only one that will open."

"Alright then, open it," The German Psychonaut nodded back.

Raz smiled, then turned to open the door... only to let out a yelp as the hallway quite suddenly turned on its side and dumped them through the doorway!

"WHAT THE HEEEEELLLLLL!?" Raz cried as he and Sasha fell through a sky, shattered as if it were a mirror, tinted with the colors just before a storm. Green and yellow clouds rushed past on shattered pieces of glass, various chains hanging from them. Coiled in these chains were none other than a variety of mangled corpses, their faces shrouded by tattered cloth.

The two Psychonauts finally landed on a glass-like suface, hitting it with a loud "Thud!" and a squeak.

"Of course," Sasha muttered as he got to his feet. "You had to choose to be haunted by the villain whose mind would only make sense to Salvador Dali."

"Who?" Raz repeated as he stood as well, looking confused.

"You don't know who... why am I even bothering to wonder, of course you don't know who Salvador Dali is," Sasha groaned, putting his face in his hands. "When we get out of this I'll have to educate you on some proper culture."

"Wha?" Raz blinked. "I'm cultured! I read comic books all the time!"

"And therein lies the problem," Sasha drawled, brushing a strand of hair out of his eyes.

"Hey!"

"Enough of that, Razputin, focus," The German stated, gesturing around them.

Raz glanced around, frowning. "...It's a broken sky. Full of dead people," He observed, grimacing as he looked away from one of the more gruesome bodies.

"Very good. Now the question is, how do we move on?" Sasha murmured.

The teen's brow furrowed. "Good question." He glanced around...and then his eyes finally fell upon an ornate doorway floating high above them, a single piece of the shattered sky floating before it like a doorstep. "Well, there's the exit... the problem is, how do we get to it?" He wondered aloud.

Sasha frowned as well, glancing around the area. "Well... I believe there are enough pieces here to create a pathway, we merely need to move them."

"Moving the sky... right, that doesn't sound weird at all," Raz said, folding his arms and rocking back on his heels. As he did so, he bumped into one of the hanging corpses, causing him to yelp. "Gah!" He flailed on reflex, his gloved hand knocking the shroud from the corpse's face.

The instant he did so, one of the pieces of sky gave a loud creak, as if protesting... and then quite suddenly it drifted across the dark expanse of nothingness as if it were a ship sailing across the sea. The darkness rippled as it came to rest a bit closer to where Raz and Sasha were.

Raz blinked. Sasha blinked.

"Hm..." Sasha frowned, then reached out and flicked his fingers. "Strange, my telekinesis isn't working... Razputin, would you remove the shroud from that corpse over there?"

"Huh? Isn't that kind of disrespectful?" Raz asked, making a face.

"They're mental corpses, it hardly matters," Sasha pointed it.

"Ugh..." Raz reached out and twitched his gloved fingers, averting his eyes. The shroud was pulled from a corpse nearby, and another piece of the sky suddenly sailed forward, moving towards Raz and Sasha... only to hit the piece of sky that had moved earlier and bounce back as if it were a bumper car.

The German Psychonaut frowned, then glanced back at Raz. "Razputin... replace the shroud on our friend, would you?"

"Er, sure..." Raz flicked his fingers, picking up the shroud up with telekinesis and replacing it. The first shard of sky quickly moved back to its original place, and the other shard, now with nothing in it's path, moved and came to a stop before Raz and Sasha.

"Compelling..." Sasha murmured, adjusting his sunglasses. "If they aren't moved in the proper order, then they stay where they are. However, if done properly, they may create a path to our door."

"You mean it's a puzzle?" Raz asked.

"Indeed."

"Aw man," Raz groaned. "These things are bad enough in video games."

"Yes yes, whine whine. Would you kindly remove that shroud from the corpse over there?" Sasha asked, gesturing.

Raz grumbled, but did as he was told. Another corpse was unveiled and another piece of sky sailed into place. They carried on like this for awhile, Raz doing as Sasha told him, occasionally backtracking as the order of the pieces grew slightly more confusing. Finally, however, the last piece was put into place.

"Ugh..." Raz muttered as he stepped across the pieces of the sky. "Right, I'm never doing that again." With that, he wrenched the door open and stepped through.

"Indeed," Sasha agreed. He took a glance back at the room for a moment, at all the un-shrouded corpses, their faces twisted in agony, dead blond hair hanging limply over rotting eyes... then shook his head and stepped through the door.

"...Weren't we just here?" Raz wondered aloud. The two once again stood in the hallway full of doors, the little boy's voice ringing eeriely throughout them.

Sasha frowned as he stepped through the door. "Razputin, slash this door with your sword. Hurry!" He said.

"Wha?" Raz sputtered, then yelped as Sasha grabbed his arm and pulled it upwards. The sword materialized as if on reflex, its flames leaving a great scorched gash across the door's surface. It was rather fortunate that he did too, as a moment later there was a tinkling noise, like thousands of bells... and quite suddenly the doors changed! They simply erupted from the sides of the hallway as if alive, caught in a whirlwind and spinning. Raz let out a yelp as the doors sped past him and around him... only to settle into different places in the hallway, drifting into their spots like feathers on the wind. Once they had finally settled, there was the sound of a lock clicking open.

"...Well then," Raz said as he glanced at the door with the gash across it, which now lay upon the ceiling. "That was a very good idea, I'll have to admit."

"Of course," Sasha shrugged.

"So... I take it that lock clicking meant another door is open?" Raz glanced up at Sasha.

"I would assume so," The German Psychonaut stated, taking a cigarette from his coat pocket.

"Right... so that means every time we go into a room and do whatever needs to be done there, this hallway changes and another door unlocks. We just keep doing that until we get where we need to go?"

"So it would seem," Sasha drawled, lighting the cigarette with pyrokinesis.

"Greeeaaaat," Raz muttered. "Sounds like fun. Now all I need are the cards made up of my memories and a girl popping up in my head made up of figments of my past."

Sasha stared blankly at him.

The goggle-headed boy groaned. "Nevermind, it's a video game analogy. Stupid Chain of Memories," He grumbled, stalking ahead. "Anyway, let's get going."

-Razputin, Razputin...-

And so they did just that. Sasha and Raz made their way through room after room, solving puzzle after puzzle, avoiding one hazard after another. The rooms changed and differed drastically, some crafted entirely of crystal, while others were the sort of dungeon-like rooms one would honestly expect in the mind of a man whom seemed to take such delight in torture. They found an hour-glass shaped room filled with a constantly looping stream of time, forever transforming dozens of doves from eggs to newborns to full grown creatures and back again. They found a room made of nothing but cogs and wheels like a clock, though when they were activated they were actually revealed to be a music box. They found rooms made from liquid, rooms filled with forgotten circus attire that echoed eeriely of Raz's own mind. They found giant tarot cards, chess pieces, strange shapes of the occult, a room of eternal night.

In spite of all these differences, each of the rooms had their similarities. They all echoed of nothing but sorrow and pain, a ringing loneliness that nipped at the back of one's mind and could never be quieted, even with others talking as loudly as they could to drown it out. There was pain and sorrow and hurt, and occasionally a bitter sadness, touched with a sweet tang that lingered on nothing more than a longing to know if this was what joy was.

And always, always, there was the boy singing.

"Post nubila, Phoebus..."

The words hung in the air in a soft broken melody, the whispers of a child who knew nothing and saw everything as something of wonder, searching out the light within the darkness with tiny fingers, searching, always searching, unaware of the darkness closing around him.

"Iternum, iternum..."

Always searching.

"It's weird..." Raz commented as he and Sasha made their way down yet another hallway. Portraits of what Raz assumed to be Nereus' various ancestors lined the walls, some covered by dusty sheets while others were ripped, as if their canvas' had been clawed apart by some sort of monster.

"What is?" Sasha questioned, glancing over at the teen.

"Just... all of this," The teen nodded, gesturing to everything. "Why am I here? Why am I so involved in all of his memories? It's just... it's weird. It's not even like he's hating me, it's just..." The goggle-headed boy trailed off, brow furrowing.

Sasha nodded grimly. "It makes it difficult, doesn't it?"

Raz nodded. "Just... I mean, I can't forgive him for what he did, but I..." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter, whatever it is between him and me. It doesn't change what was done."

"No, it does not... but at the same time, however, I don't think in the end that will matter," Sasha said.

"What do you mean?" Raz blinked, glancing up at Sasha.

Sasha frowned as he flicked some ash from his cigarette. "It is only a theory..." He began slowly. "But I believe you and Nereus are connected, have been connected, and will always be connected. Your powers come from the same source, your psyches are perfectly aligned in the collective unconscious, you are gathering your psychic powers from the same core...it sounds foolish, but you are complete opposites, and in that sense you are exactly alike. You sync together perfectly, as if you are two halves of the same whole... I've never seen anything like it."

Raz's brow furrowed. "Sounds like a bunch of crappy Chinese philosophy."

The German Psychonaut chuckled. "Perhaps... I cannot believe I am even suggesting this, honestly. You seem to have the effect of making me consider things I would ordinarily consider nothing more than childish fairy tales."

Raz grinned. "And that's a bad thing?"

"Perhaps, perhaps not," Sasha shook his head and almost smiled. "In a way... I believe these connections are not so farfetched. I am here, after all, even if by all sense I should not be, correct?" He quirked a brow at Raz.

The teen nodded. "Yeah... and Ford and the Coach were here too..."

"Indeed," Sasha nodded. "I am starting to believe that perhaps such connections are not as farfetched as I once thought. At any rate, I believe... in a way, Nereus has always been searching for you, and unconsciously, you have been doing the same. You need each other to exist, to balance each other out. Your minds are connected in a way that I have never seen before.. like two sides of the same coin. Without him... I am starting to suspect you would not exist either, simply because your psyche is so dependent upon his." At Raz's frown Sasha chuckled, "Do not worry, I'm sure you'll find a solution somehow... but don't be so hasty to think that destroying each other may be the only answer."

Raz frowned. "I'm not sure I understand..."

"I did not expect you to... nor do I expect myself to understand either." Sasha shrugged. "My time with you has made me realize something... perhaps there are things out there that truly cannot entirely be understood."

"Wow." Raz's eyebrows shot up and he grinned. "Who'd have thought we'd ever hear Sasha Nein saying something like that?"

The dark-haired man gave a small laugh at that. "Indeed, who would have seen such a thing coming? Then again, everything about you has been quite unexpected. You seem to have a talent when it comes to this sort of thing, Razputin."

Raz glanced up at his mentor and smiled. "You really think so?"

Sasha smirked. "Are you fishing for compliments now, Razputin?" At the teen's blush Sasha chuckled. "Do not worry about it... of course do not let this go to your head either." Sasha quirked a brow at Raz, whom cocked his head to the side as he listened.

"Razputin, please understand... you are important to all of us. Do not underestimate your own worth," The German Psychonaut murmured, putting his hands in his pockets and gazing ahead as he continued to walk. "It feels strange to be saying such a thing... but after watching you come upon so many obstacles and surpass them, watching you change and grow... I am proud to refer to you as both my greatest student and my friend. In fact, if I were completely honest... to me, you are something like a son."

The teen paused in his walk, eyes wide as he stared at Sasha's back. "Wow... Sasha... I..." He trailed off, then shook his head and smiled. "Thank you, Sasha."

Sasha shook his head, trying his best to not acknowledge the small smile on his face. "At any rate... personal confessions aside, I do believe we have reached our latest door." The dark-haired man came to a stop before yet another entryway, this one just as ornate and beautiful as all the others the pair had come across in their journey throughout the castle. Unlike the other doorways, however, this one was scratched and torn. Deep gouges were clawed into the slick, dark paint, revealing the plain wood beneath it.

Raz frowned at the door for a moment, then glanced up at Sasha, whom nodded. Shrugging, the teen grabbed the golden doorknob and turned it.

The door swung open into a small room. The walls were deceptively bare and white, whereas the floor was made of bits of dusty earth and patches of dry, long dead grass. In spite of this, the room was oddly warm in comparison to the dead chill that had permeated throughout the rest of the castle, as if the grass had merely been killed from too many days spent in the warm summer sun and not enough rain. Somehow, this description seemed oddly fitting, especially when one considered the other contents of the room.

-Razputin... Razputin...-

"A... swingset?" The goggle-headed teen blinked in confusion as he stepped out onto the deadened grass. Indeed, erected within the room was a tall swingset, the chains rusted and the metal dulled, as if it had not been used in years. A nearby slide had the same unused, forgotten look to it, and the merry-go-round definitely looked like it had seen better days. The swings swayed gently in a nonexistent breeze, the merry-go-round spun weakly... it all carried the sad air of lost childish happiness, of innocence long forgotten.

Suffice to say, it was a bit of a change from the morbid discoveries Raz and Sasha were used to.

"What on earth..." Raz muttered as he traced his fingertips along the rusted bars of the swingset, catching traces of loneliness, pain, and... laughter? He looked to Sasha, brow furrowing. "What is this place?"

As he spoke, a child's laugh could be heard softly echoing through the room, causing the hair on the back of the teen's neck to stand on end.

The German shook his head, brow furrowing. "I... cannot say I know. This is quite different from out previous endeavors." He glanced around, eyes finally settling on a small, cracked memory vault curled up under the slide. "Perhaps that could provide some assistance?"

Raz's eyes fell on the sleeping memory vault and he sighed. "Again?" He walked over to the slide and knelt down, the dead grass prickling at his knees. After a moment of hesitation, he patted the vault gently on it's top. "Hey little guy, you want to come out?" The teen said, trying to sound gentle. The vault flinched, then peered up at him with watery eyes, whimpering. Raz offered a small smile and patted it again. "Relax, I'm not going to hurt you," He murmured gently. The vault gave a low whine, casting it's gaze to the ground as it opened it's mouth to reveal a tattered, beaten reel.

The young Psychonaut took the reel and stood, shaking his head. "I just don't get it... for such a creep, the mental entities in Nereus' mind sure do have a lot of personality," Raz commented as he walked over to a rusty-looking player.

Sasha shrugged. "I... really have no idea. This place is... different."

Raz snorted. "No kidding. Anyway, let's take a look at..." The teen paused as he blinked at the title. "'Friends'? ...Nereus had friends?"

"Well, I doubt he was that abnormal. It was certainly a ridiculously popular and overrated sitcom," Sasha commented dryly. Raz quirked a brow at him. "Oh come now, Razputin. Just play it."

"I could have sworn Ford said you didn't have a sense of humor during this sort of thing..." Raz muttered. With that, he popped the reel into the player and it began to play.

--

It was four years before Nereus was aware he had a sister.

It had not been long after the incident in the town. Shiny pink burns still covered the boy's pale frame, eliciting whispers and comments all throughout the Galochio camp. Nereus chose to ignore them, his pale blond head held high. What did their comments matter? They didn't. Nereus had been enduring such things all his life... why should a few more bother him? He was well aware that he hadn't made a mistake... right?

No, no, it could not have been a mistake. Even if those people had been wrong... there had to be some good out there somewhere, wasn't there?

...Wasn't there?

He was starting to wonder. All he had known so far had been this camp, his training, and the sneers and glares of the rest of the family. All that he had known were whispers in the dead of night, murmurs of how he did not properly fit his role, cold eyes gazing down at him... this was all he knew. Was this all there was? Was this really it?

Was this the world?

No, no, that could not be right... he had seen the world. He saw it flashes through a different set of eyes, saw a great gleaming buildings and hundreds of people so much like him, saw eyes that judged but felt confidence that was not his, felt pats on the back and words of encouragement, so foreign to his ears, from adults he did not know. He felt agony that made him want to cry as others gazed at him with disdain, as others looked down on him, as he fought and fought and no matter how many times he was hurt he kept going. He saw a pair of amber eyes and felt a small hand slip into another, and though he felt a pang of jealousy he also felt... warmth. Love.

He saw the world through the eyes of Razputin, these flashes and moments happening more and more often, small treasures that filled his heart with warmth... and little by little, Razputin became his world. Razputin became his hope, his escape, his light, his everything.

What were the Galochio sneers in comparison to that smile?

It was this thought that kept him going as the boy made his way past various run down caravans, ignoring the way his body ached from yet another rough day of training. His bare feet padded over beaten down grass, his white tunic covered in dirt and bits of dried blood. Hardly fitting of his place, but the ten-year old didn't care. His current focus was on his caravan and getting a few hours sleep before he was roused for some other terrible practice. Perhaps he'd be lucky and he'd even dream.

The blond was pulled from his thoughts by a soft cry. Blinking, he glanced around. Again he heard the sound, followed by the 'crack!' of something swishing through the air and another yelp, this time clearly in pain. This was not abnormal for the Galochio camp, and so Nereus nearly turned away... but again he heard the cry and felt something in his heart twist. 'Razputin wouldn't walk away.' Sapphire eyes narrowed and Nereus followed the noise, stepping through a maze of caravans and tents, heading past the more ornate ones belonging to him and his father and towards the run-down tents, where the cooks and other lower members of the clan lived.

He finally ended up behind one of the cooking caravans... however, upon hearing someone yelling, he ducked into the shadows as he focused on the scene before him. There seemed to an elderly woman clad in a plain brown robe, her graying hair tied back and a variety of tattoos covering her body. She stood over a small child, her expression one of anger as she tapped a switch against her wrinkled palm. "What did you think you were doing!?" She snarled, her voice heavily accented. "All that we asked you to do was a simple cleaning job! One would think that even a pathetic child like you could manage that!"

The child gave a whimper from the ground, her long blonde hair falling over her face as it bowed low to the ground. Her dress was gray and tattered, her thin pale body covered in bruises. "I... I..."

"Silence!" Again the switch came down, striking the little girl's lithe frame and eliciting a yelp of pain from her. "Who said you have the right to speak, cursed child!? You should have been happy to even have been allowed to work in the kitchens, you non-psychic brat!"

Nereus' eyes widened. A non-psychic? In the Galochio camp!? He had never heard of this... this was insane. What was he was supposed to do?

The girl gave a sob as she curled up on the ground, blonde hair rubbing into the dust. The woman gave a scowl as she stepped around the tiny child. "Insolent girl... a non-psychic, born into our family! From the head of the family, at that! You were meant to be the heir's servant, his tool! Now look at you! You are worthless!" With this words the switch came down three more times, heedless of the way the little girl shrieked and cried out for mercy. "You have no right to be in anyone's presence! You are no child of ours!" With that, the switch flashed down a final time.

And was quite suddenly stopped by a flash of blue energy.

The woman's eyes widened and she let out a shriek of outrage. "What's this!? Who is there!?" She snarled, glancing around. "Anya, if you are toying with me again it will be your hide I beat next!"

Nereus' eyes narrowed as he stepped into the light. He couldn't just watch anymore... not after everything he had heard. "My lady, is it really wise to be speaking to the Heir in such a tone?" He hissed, allowing the blue glow around the switch to dissipate.

Her face went pale. "L-Lord Nereus!" She gasped. "I-I... my apologies." She bowed low, but even in the shadows Nereus could see the way her face twisted. She did not appreciate bowing to him. "I... I was told you were still training today, sir, and as such I assumed you would not be gracing us with your presence today..."

The blond quirked a brow at her. "I have finished my training today. My father has not given me any instruction that says I may not wander around my own camp," He drawled. He glanced from the woman to the girl, expression stony and far too serious for a ten-year old.

"I... of course, sir," The cook murmured, straightening and forcing a smile. Her eyes nervously went from Nereus to the girl at their feet. "If... if I may ask, sir... perhaps I may suggest that you continue on your stroll? You needn't bother yourself with the dirty servants quarters, sir... especially with such a disgusting sight as this." She glared down at the girl.

Nereus glanced down at the girl, frowning as she glanced up. He locked gazes with her and his eyes widened. One of her eyes was similar to his... but the other's white pupil dilated at the sight of him.

"What are you doing!?" The woman shrieked, kicking the girl. "Do not gaze at the heir with that disgusting thing!" She glanced back to Nereus, forcing a smile. "My dear boy... perhaps now would be a good time to leave? After all, I am certain you have much to do, and there is no need to trouble yourself with this..."

"And leave you to continue abusing this girl?" The blond quirked a brow.

The cook scowled. "Do not speak of things you do not know. I was merely punishing this girl... surely you understand," She glanced at his back, smirking. "'Spare the rod, spoil the child', after all... you know that quite well, don't you, my Lord." The title was sneered this time.

Nereus merely glared back. "I do believe she has been punished enough for now, my lady. Now then... I do believe you should leave my sister alone." At these words he glanced down at the girl again, expression softening.

He had a sister... he had never known.

The woman's eyes widened. "You... you're not supposed to know that!" She gasped, face paling. "G-get away from her! Get away or I'll--"

Nereus quirked a brow. "Or what? You'll tell my father? Won't you get in trouble for being the one who let it slip?" He drawled.

The cook gasped, stepping back. "I... I..." She stuttered, sweat running down her face.

"I think it's time for you to leave, my lady," The blond stated calmly. "That is, unless you'd like to be the one to face my father's wrath."

"I... I..." The woman stuttered... then turned and ran. "You had better keep quiet about this! And stay away from her, she's a disgusting creature!" She called behind her as she ducked back into the caravan.

The instant the door closed Nereus knelt by the girl's side, sapphire eyes shadowed as he gazed down at her beaten form. He had a sister. He had a sister... and no one had ever told him? Why? Just because she wasn't psychic? That wasn't right... she had it just as badly as he did, if not worse. The blond shook his head, now was not the time for thinking. He had more important things to worry about. But what to do? She was shaking and hurt... he didn't know how to deal with someone like that. What would Razputin do? The blond frowned, then took a deep breatth. He glanced to the girl, extending a hand towards her and hesitantly placing it on her shoulder.

The instant he did, the blonde yelped and curled inward. "G-get away, I'm sorry, I won't--"

Nereus put a finger to her lips, causing her eyes to widen. "Shh... I'm not going to hurt you," He placed a hand on her shoulder again, trying to keep his voice gentle. "Relax... that woman is gone now."

The blonde shivered for a few moments, then hesitantly opened her eyes and gazed up at him. "You... you're... I'm not supposed to... you're--"

"I know," The boy silenced her again. "Do not worry... no one will know. Now tell me... what is your name?"

His sister shuddered again, biting her lip. Finally, she spoke, her quivering voice hesitant. "I-Inoue. I... I'm Inoue."

Nereus gave a small smile, pulling her close. She smelled like sweat, blood, and tears, her hair was matted and a complete mess and tangled in his fingers... but he didn't care. She was family... and unlike everyone else, who needed him for his powers and nothing more... she needed him for him.

It was what Razputin would have done, after all.

"Inoue, hm? I'm Nereus... and I'm going to protect you. I promise."

And he did. Or at least... he had tried. He did what he could to watch after his younger sister, always visiting her in secret between his training. He would care for her wounds and hold her, reassure her, tell her she was loved... it wasn't nearly enough to be a proper relationship between brother and sister, it wasn't nearly enough... but they made do with what they had.

It was this that kept him going for another year... but even so, it was lonely. He had those gazes at Razputin, he had those occasional moments with his sister, but that was it.

He was around eleven when that too began to change.

It was a beautiful day in the Galochio camp. The family had settled in a beautiful field in the Romanian countryside, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it. The women chattered happily together in quick bursts of a strange language, the men laughed as they worked, the children rushed this way and that through the long grass, playing all sorts of games.

All but Nereus, whom sat alone. His knees were pulled up to his chest as he gazed across the field, sapphire eyes dark. The wind tousled his silvery blond hair, white tunic billowing slightly. He had finished his training for the day and now found himself with very little to do besides sit and stare into space. The other children were playing, but they seemed to take no notice of him.

"Do you think we should invite him to play? He's all alone over there..." He heard one boy whisper and perked up slightly. The boy looked like he was around five and his short blonde hair was a mess, his teeth not much better off. He was clad in a tattered and dirty blue leotard.

"I've never seen him before..." A girl said. She looked no older than six, her long blonde hair billowing around her, her dark gray dress swirling around her knobby knees.

A third shook his head, picking up their ball. He looked like he was around Nereus' age and was gazing at the lone boy warily, his long dirty blond hair sticking greasily to his head. "Don't go near him. Don't you idiots know? That's the Heir. The vessel of Indra," He hissed.

The other two gave gasps and turned to gape at Nereus, then quickly looked away, only to glance back again. "Him? But he looks so... normal," The younger boy whispered. "I heard the Heir was so amazingly powerful..."

"Of course he looks normal, you moron. But he's powerful... he spends every day training, that's why you don't see him. He has to, you know... he's connected to that Aquato, the vessel for Vritra,"

Again the younger two gasped. "Aquato!?" The girl yelped.

"Yeah," The older boy nodded solemnly. "That's what my mom told me. That's why he has to stay away from everyone else, why he has to train... he may be the next head of the family and we may have to listen to whatever he says... but he's cursed. My mom says we're not supposed to go near him. He's dangerous."

"W-we'd better stay away!" The younger boy exclaimed.

"Y-yeah..." The younger two cast nervous glances at Nereus, then took their ball and scampered away.

Nereus' blinked as they left, then sighed as he let his gaze drop to the dirt again. "Cursed, hm?" He murmured quietly, then gave a sad, bitter laugh. He had heard it before... the other children had always been hesitant to play with him, and it had been a few years before he had finally learned exactly why they all avoided him. The connection he treasured so much, his only respite, was also the thing that marked him as an outcast. He felt like he should have cried. He would have, if he were younger. But after so many years... he was beginning to be able to tell himself it didn't matter, that he didn't care. By this point, he was almost able to believe it.

Almost.

The blond gave a shuddering breath as he put his head in his arms. It didn't matter. It didn't. He didn't care. It didn't matter... all he had was his connection with Razputin, it didn't matter, it shouldn't, it--

"Hey, what's wrong?" A childish, cheery voice suddenly broke Nereus' train of thought as a hand was placed on his shoulder.

The blond jumped and grabbed the wrist on his shoulder by instinct, eyes flashing. "Don't touch me!" He snarled.

"O-ow! H-hey, that hurts!" The owner of the hand yelped, similar blue eyes widening. Nereus blinked as he took in the sight of a boy no older than him, clad in a plain gray, turtle-necked t-shirt and shorts. His blonde hair was a mess, sticking up in all directions, and there was a dirty bandaid stuck haphazardly to his cheek. Overall, he looked completely and utterly harmless.

Nereus glared at him for a moment, then huffed and released the other boy. "What do you want?" He muttered, looking back to the ground. No one ever spoke to him... usually children just gawked at him and moved on. Why on earth would that change?

The other boy took his hand back and rubbed his wrist, flashing a smile. "Er... well, I was helping my mom with her fortune telling stuff, right? And I was trying to be helpful... she's so nice! Always telling me 'You're such an idiot!' or 'You stupid child!', she's great! So anyway, I was helping my mom set up--"

"What does this have to do with you coming to talk to me?" Nereus asked bluntly, but went ignored.

"And I tripped, because I do that a lot, and screwed everything up. I told my mom I was sorry and she was so understanding, she said 'You stupid child! Go and bother someone else!' sooo I decided to go try to help everyone else around camp, but everyone said the same thing and told me to go away. So I came out here and I saw all the other kids playing and they all called me 'Moron', which is really funny since that's not my name and I tried to tell them that but I don't think they understood. Sooooo then I saw you all by yourself and I wondered why you were by yourself so I decided to come and see why!" The giddy child finally finished his long-winded explanation without taking so much as a breath and beamed.

Nereus stared at him. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, rather unsure of how to respond. "How did you..." The eleven-year old shook his head, then looked away. "Whatever. I don't care. Go away."

The talkative boy frowned. "But you didn't tell me why you're here by yourself!"

"I frankly do not care. Go away," Nereus said coldly, putting his head in his arms again.

"Awww, come on, don't be like that!" His visitor whined, plopping down on the rock next to him and poking him in the side. "Why are you all by yourself?"

"Go. Away." Nereus growled, his voice muffled by his tunic sleeves.

"Come oooonn!" The other boy poked him again. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, now go away." The child's victim said stiffly.

"Aw, come on!" Poke.

"No."

"Come ooooon!" Poke, poke.

"No!"

"Pleaaase?" Even more poking.

"Would you stop that!?" Nereus snarled, slapping the other boy's hand away. "I am alone because I'm cursed, alright!? Is that a good enough answer for you!? I'm the Heir!" His voice rang through the air, sapphire eyes flashing dangerously even as they burned with tears that had begun to well up. While he had been able to hold them back earlier, saying his situation aloud was enough to bring all those painful feelings to the surface. "Didn't your stupid mother ever tell you about me!? There, now you know, I'm the monster connected to the Heir of Aquato! Are you happy now!?" His voice cracked at the end as he trailed off, panting after letting loose that explosion of emotion.

The other boy blinked at him for a moment. "You're the Heir?" He asked, cocking his head to the side.

Nereus let out a shaky breath. "Yes. Now go away. I'm sure that's what you want to do anyway. Wouldn't want to catch the curse or anything," The blond mumbled as he looked away.

"Why would I want to go away?" The boy's voice spoke of innocent confusion, as if he simply could not understand why someone would want to leave Nereus alone.

The blond bit his lip as his throat constricted. Why wasn't this stupid child leaving!? "Because... I told you already, I'm cursed. I'm bad. Go away," He said, trying to keep the tears out of his voice. He just wanted the other boy to go away so he could properly cry undisturbed.

"You're bad?" The boy blinked, then shook his head and put his hand on Nereus' shoulder again, ignoring the way the other boy tensed at his touch. "I don't think you're bad... heck, you're the Heir! I think that's cool!"

Sapphire eyes widened and Nereus looked back at the boy, brow furrowing. "You... think it's cool?"

The other boy nodded, beaming. "Of course! You're awesome! I like you!" He declared, azure eyes sparkling.

Nereus stared at him. "You... like me?" He repeated, the words feeling foreign on his tongue. "W-why... no one... you must be lying," He said, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Are you playing a joke on me? I assure you if you are, you will sorely regret it." He hissed, hands clenching into fists even as he struggled to blink the tears away. He had seen the other children do it to each other, why wouldn't someone do it to him?

"A trick?" The boy blinked, then laughed and shook his head. "No, of course not! Why would I play a trick on you? That would be mean, especially to someone who I want to be friends with!"

"...Friends?" Nereus repeated. His eyes were wide with shock, which was enough for a single tear to slip down his cheek,

The strange boy blinked again. "Huh... why are you crying?" He asked, reaching for the other boy's face.

Nereus batted his hand away and shook his head. "I-I... I'm not..." He looked away and swiped at his face, then looked back, brow furrowing. "A friend... why would you want this from me?" He asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" The other boy beamed. "You're cool and I like you, so now you're my friend! Yay!" He declared, throwing his arms around Nereus.

"Wha?" The eleven-year old sputtered and tried desperately to shove the other boy off. "Let go! I didn't agree to this!"

His self-declared 'friend' just laughed. "What's your name?" He asked, hugging Nereus tighter.

"Nereus. Now let go!" The blond snapped, still fighting against the boy's hold.

"Nereus? That's cool! My name's Spinoza!" The cheerful boy grinned.

"Spinoza..." The blond struggled for another moment, then went still, considering. To be hugged... it felt very soft and a bit annoyingly warm, and it didn't help that the other boy, Spinoza, was sticky with God only knew what. Even with all that, it wasn't so bad. Maybe he could handle this after all. On the other hand, this boy was annoying, so Nereus opted to give another growl and struggle some more. "Get away from me!"

"Okay!" Spinoza grinned and pulled away, azure eyes sparkling with glee. "I like friends! I have tons of them! We all hang out and they call me names and throw things at me and we all laugh and it's great!" He said brightly.

"...Somehow, I don't think your definition of 'friends' is the proper one," Nereus pointed out as he glared at Spinoza's ridiculously happy and oblivious face. He was still trying to work out how exactly he was going to tell this boy off.

"Hahaha, maybe!" Spinoza laughed. "But that doesn't matter, I can tell we're gonna be different! We're gonna be best friends, Nereus!"

"I never said..." Nereus trailed off, then sighed and ran a hand through his hair, giving a small smile. Well... he didn't have anything better to do for the moment, did he? "You really are not very bright, aren't you?"

Spinoza giggled. "Haha, what does that mean?"

"...Never mind."

And quite suddenly, Nereus had something unheard of... a friend. He really had no idea why it happened, or why he put up with it. Spinoza was annoying. He was ridiculously bright and peppy, and to say he was not the sharpest tool in the shed was the understatement of the century. There were times when Nereus would get fed up and call him names out of pure frustration, and Spinoza would simply laugh. The boy had no sense of the concept of personal space, he gestured wildly when he talked, and wherever he went, some sort of horrible disaster was sure to be caused by his clumsiness. How Nereus had managed to live in the Galochio camp for eleven years and not noticed the walking train wreck that was Spinoza was a miracle. To put it simply, Spinoza was as different from quiet, brooding, graceful Nereus as day was to night.

Yet somehow... this annoying, stupid idiot made Nereus something he had thought was impossible... he made Nereus happy. Spinoza would visit Nereus whenever his lessons were over, he would help to tend awkwardly to the other boys wounds (even if he did give hugs afterwards that tended to cause more harm than good to Nereus' back), he would cause Nereus to smile and even occasionally laugh, make the other boy's face hurt from using muscles that were rarely used... he did everything he could. And Nereus in turn found himself opening up to this other boy, who was so very different from any other Galochio he had met. He slowly began to open up to Spinoza about his thoughts, his memories, his dreams... he even spoke to Spinoza about Razputin. And though Spinoza was occasionally a bit too dense to understand... he listened. He listened intently, struggled to focus, to understand... and for that Nereus was grateful.

To have someone who looked at him with more than just disdain, who treated him like more than just Indra's vessel, who didn't beat him for daring to enjoy his contact with Razputin... it was so much more than Nereus could ever hope for. He couldn't possibly have asked for anything else.

And so when a year passed and Nereus suddenly found a poorly wrapped package thrust into his hands from behind one of the tents, he was very confused.

"What is this?" The blond stared down at the shapeless mass, which had been wrapped in scraps of ugly wrapping paper of all sorts of different designs. A string had ever been tied around it in some sort of hideous monstrosity that might have been a bow.

"It's a present!" Spinoza beamed. "I even wrapped it with real wrapping paper, see! I got them from the garbage!" He declared brightly.

Nereus made a face. "I suppose that would explain why some of the paper feels a tad slimy, then."

"Come on, open it up!" Spinoza flopped down on the dirty ground, sending a cloud of dust into the air, and clapped his hands together excitedly.

The blond sat down beside him, frowning. "Alright..." He tugged on the string for a few seconds, then simply gave up and flicked some water from the bottle he'd been drinking from, forming the liquid into a small blade and slicing through it. He then did the same thing with the paper, peeling it back as his sapphire eyes widened.

"...Goggles?" Nereus blinked as he pulled the object from the wrapping, the blue lenses reflecting in the afternoon sunlight.

Spinoza nodded enthusiastically as he clapped again. "Yeah! I knew you'd like them!"

The other twelve-year old looked confused. "Why..."

"Well, you keep telling me about that Raz guy, right?" Spinoza grinned.

"Yes..." Nereus said slowly, glancing around and hoping no one else would overhear this.

"Well, you were telling me how cool he is, right? How nice he is and how brave and awesome and how much you like him!" Spinoza rambled. "Anyway... I remembered you saying he had a pair of red goggles... and I thought it sounded sooo cool, because who else wears goggles on their head? And then when we were in that one town a few weeks ago I saw these in a shop and I was all 'Oh hey, I should get those for Nereus', soooo I did!" The blond beamed.

His friend blinked at him, then looked back at the goggles. "I see... but why?"

"Because you're always telling me how cool he is... and how different he is from everyone here. How he actually tries to help non-psychics, how he does so many great things..." Spinoza scratched his head and shuffled his feet as he glanced at the ground, clearly feeling a tad nervous about getting into such serious subjects. "I'm not very smart and I don't know very much... but I know what you have to do later on, Nereus... or at least what everyone expects. And I know training for the Heir is really hard... so I figured maybe with these... no matter what happens, they'll help you remember Raz... and the kind of person you want to be."

Nereus stared at him, eyes wide. "Spinoza..." He gasped. "You..." He glanced down at the goggles, tracing a finger along the edges of the lenses. "I... that was very..." He shook his head and smiled, pulling the strap over his head and letting the goggles fall around his neck. "Thank you, Spinoza."

His friend smiled back. "You're welcome!"

The blond stood there for a moment, then frowned. "But... I don't have anything to give you--"

"Oh, don't worry! I got some for me too!" Spinoza grinned and pulled a pair of square goggles from behind his back, these ones with purple lenses. He pulled them over his head, struggling a bit with the elastic strap and nearly getting tangled in it before finally letting them settle on his head. "See? Now you have goggles like Raz's to connect you to him... and I have goggles to connect me to my best friend!" He chirped.

Nereus stared at the things. "...Those are the stupidest things I've ever seen," He declared bluntly, watching the way tufts of blond hair got stuck halfway underneath the lenses and still struggled to pop up, while others stuck even more haphazardly around them.

"Hahaha, you think so?" Spinoza laughed and scratched his head. "Maybe... but it's the meaning that matters, right?" He gestured to the lenses. "With these, I'm with you always."

His friend blinked, then glanced down at the goggles. "Yes... you... and Razputin." With those words he reached down and pulled the goggles up onto his head, smiling as he glanced over at Spinoza's and watched them glisten in the sunlight, knowing full well his were doing the same thing.

"Always."

--

To Be Continued...

Annnd that's it. Check in for an update in two weeks guys, I'm gonna do my best to keep up with this!

Please, please leave a review and tell me what you thought, I really want to see if people are still reading this!