"In helpless prayers, the hope lives on.
As I've come clean, I've forgotten what I've promised.
In the rays of the sun, I am longing for the darkness."
At first, any chance sight of Ven out of the corner of Lea's eye sent his heart into wild flutterings of hope that quickly plunged into abysses of despair. This lasted about a week, before the sight of Ven no longer immediately triggered all the feelings in Lea's heart that were aching to get free. The more time he spent around Ven, the clearer it became that he was not the one from before. The way he spoke was different, the way he dressed was odd, the way he carried himself was completely foreign. Even his sense of humor was different. While this was at first a painful dissonance, it eventually became easier for Lea to accept that this was a different person, albeit one with His face. Lea's memories of Ven from years ago helped with this―it gave him something else to focus on when he was around him.
Unfortunately, he was around Ven rather often. Since Lea was the only person around whom Ven had ever met before (except for Sora, but that was a can of spiritual worms nobody really wanted to open), Ven tended to stick pretty close to him. Granted, their acquaintance had been brief, but apparently the experience had had a profound impact on Ven.
One day, between missions, while they were exploring Disney Castle on Ven's request, Lea decided to ask about it.
"Hey, Ven," he said, as they passed a topiary with the enormous likeness of the King.
"Yeah?" said Ven. The attentive, happy look he gave Lea made his heart twinge.
"I'm not complaining or anything, but how come you and me spend so much time together?"
"Because you're my friend," Ven answered.
Lea shook his head. "But you have lots of friends, right? Sora, for sure, since he's everyone's friend."
"I dunno," Ven said, looking away, "it's just kind of weird to talk to him in person now. Talking to someone with your heart isn't quite the same."
"I'll take your word for it. But you've gotta have other friends than me, right?" Lea persisted.
Ven thought about it. "I guess," he said. "Yeah, I guess I have lots of friends all over the place." This seemed to brighten his demeanor. "I never really thought about it that way." His face grew serious again. "It's just . . . different. You were the first friend I made out in the worlds. The first friend I had who wasn't Terra or Aqua. I thought those two were the only friends I needed, and when they left . . . I was scared I'd never be able to make other friends. After I met you, though, it was easy." He looked over at Lea and smiled and Lea's heart melted. "It kind of means a lot to me."
Lea looked away and rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, well. Just don't go telling everyone. I don't want them to know I have a soft side. They'll walk all over me!"
Ven snorted. "A soft side? You? They'd never believe it."
"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?"
In answer, Ven only laughed, and Lea couldn't help but to join in.
They were down in the Gummi Hangar, exploring the quiet machinery. Up until then, their conversation had trended more towards the inconsequential and light-hearted.
"What was he like?" Ven asked abruptly.
Lea looked over, puzzled. "What was who like?"
"Axel." Ven clarified. "What was he like?"
"Well," Lea said, considering, "he was a lot like me. Maybe more selfish. No, a lot more selfish. He didn't exactly have his priorities in order. Why do you ask?"
Ven shrugged. "Just curious, I guess." He kicked a loose stone into the deep abyss through which Gummi ships exited the world. "I've heard some stuff about the Organization. I . . . didn't really believe that you could have done those things."
"Well, I did." Lea said. "And like most of us, I didn't care at first. After a while, it all started to get on my nerves, and I started really wondering about why we were doing all that stuff. A lot of us did." He smiled wryly. "Most of us didn't survive wondering."
Ven looked over at him, astonished. Lea hastened to add, "Not that I'm advocating that kind of thing! Really the only reason I made it out mostly alive was because my top priority was saving my own skin." His nose wrinkled. "It still kinda bothers me."
"But you didn't have a heart then, right?"
"Not exactly, no. It kind of . . . grew in. I didn't realize that that's what was happening, but thinking back on it, it makes sense." He chuckled. "Right up until the end, I kept on pretending I didn't have a heart, even when it was the only thing that could explain what was going on."
Ven suddenly turned to face him, looking up into his face very earnestly. Lea was taken rather off guard. "I don't blame you." Ven said. He put a hand to his own chest and looked at the floor. "My heart was fractured into light and dark. Seeing what the dark part did, with only a little bit of a heart . . . I can't imagine what it would be like to not have one at all."
"Not actually all that difficult." Lea said, tousling Ven's hair and walking past. "Come on, our day off's almost over! There's still something I want to do."
Ven trotted along behind him, excited. "What is it?" he asked.
Lea grinned. "You'll see."
"Wha―? Where are we?" Ven was enchanted, his eyes wide with wonder.
"Destiny Islands." Lea answered, leaning his back against the crooked tree behind him. "Sora, Riku, and Kairi are from here."
"Really?" Ven looked around, his gaze eventually settling on the setting sun. "Why'd they ever leave?"
Lea shook his head. "You can get tired of any place if you stay there too long. Didn't you ever get tired of your home?"
Ven's face fell. "Yeah. I did."
"Kind of. My home . . . isn't there anymore."
"Tch. That's tough."
They stayed quiet for a while, Lea leaning against the tree and Ven sitting on its trunk just to his right. The only sound was the soft sighing of the waves lapping against the sandy shore and the light wind in the island trees.
"Lea?" Ven asked.
"Why does the sun set red?"
The question struck like a hammer-blow. Lea stared straight ahead, his heart swarming over with feelings he had no name for. For quite some time, he could not formulate an answer. There was a great deal of pain associated with the feelings, and he was struggling to fight it down and contain it.
"Couldn't tell you." he answered at last, his voice curiously flat. "Never stopped to wonder."
"Oh well." Ven said, turning back to the setting sun. "I'll ask King Mickey. Maybe he'll know."
"Probably," Lea said, pushing himself off of the tree. "Well, we'd better head back. It's getting dark."
Ven hopped off the tree and landed with a crunch in the white sand. "Okay." As Lea was opening the portal to the darkness, he asked, "Hey, Lea? Next time we have a day off, can we come here again to watch the sun set?"
Without turning around, he answered, "We'll see, Ven."
He didn't know whether to be overjoyed or distraught.
Fortunately for Lea, it was around this time that a perpetual business settled over the Keyblade wielders. Heartless were becoming ever more common across the worlds, and not a day went by that the fate of some world or another didn't hang in the balance. The monsters were everywhere, swarming over the worlds like cockroaches, and it was up to the Keyblade wielders to exterminate them. Usually, by the time Lea got home after a mission, he was too exhausted to do anything but wash the gore off of himself and go straight to bed.
Meanwhile, Beast had recovered admirably and, after a week of rest and recuperation, had returned to Belle and his castle. Lea moved back into Yen Sid's tower as soon as Beast was gone, with the complaint that Traverse Town was swarming with Heartless and he could hardly go a single night without having to wake up to kill some of them. While the defenses around Yen Sid's tower were not optimal, they at least kept the Heartless out of his sleeping area.
As such, Lea saw very little of Ven―or of anyone, really. Lea and Kairi had become proficient enough with their Keyblades that Yen Sid had deemed them fit to go on missions by themselves, albeit to the less infested of the worlds. Such was the scale of the Heartless invasion that even with five Keyblade wielders (Ven was still re-training) each working alone in separate worlds, they seemed to scarcely dent the population of Heartless. After some time, there grew a little tradition of eating together when possible―whether breakfast or dinner, whether at the crack of dawn or the dead of night―just because there seemed to be no other time for any human contact.
About a week after his first solo mission, Lea dragged himself to the common eating area still dressed in his gore-stained clothes, his hair matted and blackened from the blood of the Heartless. He flung himself down into a chair and stared vacantly at the ceiling for a long moment, waiting for the gears in his brain to engage.
Someone set a tray of food down in front of him, which seemed to get the process started. Lethargically, he looked over to see who had brought him dinner―Kairi sat next to him, her own tray before her, and gave him a wan smile.
"Long day?" she asked.
"Mmph," Lea replied, only just then realizing that his mouth was full. He hadn't even noticed when he'd started eating.
Kairi laughed, although it was clear that she, too, was exhausted. "Seems like there are only long days, recently."
Across from them, Sora and Riku seated themselves. "Hey," Sora greeted Lea.
Lea swallowed down his food―either it actually had no taste, or he was currently incapable of such delicate sensations as tasting. "How'd it go?" he asked.
"It was okay, I guess." Sora said.
"That bad, huh?" Riku joked, nudging Sora with his elbow.
"Hey!" Sora cried. "I guess it was all fun and games for you, huh?"
"Sure," Riku replied, with a toss of the head. "We had a parade."
Lea made a sound of disgust, shaking his head. "I don't know where you two get the energy to joke around like that."
"They can't help it, Lea. It comes as naturally to them as breathing."
"Yeah!" Sora agreed. "Besides, it makes things easier, knowing that at the end of the day, I can come back here and laugh with my friends."
Lea stood up abruptly. "Well. It's been fun." he said. "But I think I'm going to get some sleep before I have to go out and do all this again tomorrow." He walked out amidst puzzled good-nights, choking on the loneliness welling up from his heart.
It really would make things easier, if he could go home and laugh with his friends.
It was too bad they were all dead.
Ven had asked Lea to show him around Cinderella's world, and Lea had not been able to say no. The pain in his heart was well worth the joy and wonder on Ven's face. As before, they talked mainly about the world around them, or the past, or their upcoming "rematch" that neither one could be bothered to set an actual date for. Lea figured that Ven, like himself, was actually much too busy and exhausted to bother with shenanigans like good-natured contests of skill with old friends. Certainly, if Ven had challenged him right then and there, he would have been able to rattle off about six excuses to postpone the contest without even thinking about it.
"Lea?" Ven asked.
"You never run out of questions, huh." Lea said, smirking at Ven.
"Those portals you make. What are they?"
Lea looked away very quickly. "I guess you could call them an artifact from my time in the Organization. One of the first things we were taught was how to control the darkness. We could use it to get from place to place, world to world, in almost no time." He scratched the back of his head. "I guess it stuck with me when I got recompleted."
"Wait," Ven said, "you can open up portals to the darkness?"
"Yeah," Lea answered, wondering where Ven was going with this. "What about it?"
"Like, the actual Darkness?"
"No, the other one." Lea rolled his eyes. "Yes, the Actual Darkness. Got it memorized?"
Ven's face lit up like a fireworks show. "We could find Aqua!"
Terror clenched Lea's heart in an icy grip. "Wait, we could do what now?"
"Aqua!" Ven insisted excitedly. "She got lost in the darkness. Even Master Yen Sid doesn't know where she is. He said it would be almost impossible to find her from here. But you can travel into the darkness! You can help me find her, Lea!"
"No, I can't." Lea snapped. "The darkness is huge, Ven. It's enormous and dangerous. You think there are a lot of Heartless here? You haven't seen 'a lot of Heartless' until you've wandered around in the darkness for a few hours. I'm talking millions, here, kid. Even if we could stick around in there long enough to look for your friend without getting killed, the odds that she's still alive after all this time are slim to none."
Ven shook his head adamantly. "Aqua's a Keyblade Master. She got her Mark of Mastery. She's still alive." He put a hand to his heart. "I can feel it."
"In your heart?" Lea sneered. "Listen, Ven, hearts don't know anything. They're morons. All they do is lead you astray and cause you pain. Your heart tells you Aqua is still alive? Your heart is only telling you what it wishes was true!" He found himself unreasonably furious. "She's dead, Ven! She got lost in the darkness and the Heartless killed her. They wore her down to nothing and then they killed her when she got too weak to fight. And they'll do the same to anyone who goes looking for her!" He turned his back to walk away, pausing to say over his shoulder, "I'm sorry, kid. She's not coming back."
"You're wrong." Ven said quietly. Lea paused, but did not turn around. "I know Aqua's still alive. My heart knows. Even if she―if she did get swallowed up by the darkness―people have come back from there before! I came back. You came back!"
"It's not the same," Lea said, shaking his head.
"I don't care!" Ven cried. "And I don't care whether you help me or not. I'm going to find her, even if I have to look for the rest of my life!"
Lea turned around, every part of him aching with a pain he couldn't quite place. He smiled at Ven. "Well jeez, kid, if it means that much to you, why didn't you just say so?" He shook his head and sighed. "It's an icky job, but hey, I'm used to picking up the icky jobs."
Ven's eyes filled with a sudden bright hope. Lea felt like he'd been stabbed. "You'll help?" Ven asked, helpless optimism dripping from his every word.
"Of course I will." Lea declared flippantly, and rustled Ven's hair. "What are friends for, after all?"
To his surprise, Ven embraced him, squeezing him around the middle until he could scarcely breathe. After a moment, Lea gently put his hands on Ven's shoulders.
"All right, let go, kid. You're gonna squeeze me to death like that."
Ven let go and took a step back, wiping his eyes surreptitiously. "Sorry," he said.
Lea put a heavy hand on Ven's head. "Don't apologize." he said. He wasn't sure how he could be in so much pain and still be standing, much less talking in this normal-sounding voice. "Come on. We should be getting back. We can start searching tomorrow, after we're done with our missions."
"All right." said Ven; then, as Lea was opening his portal homewards, "Lea?"
"More questions, Ven?" Lea joked.
"Don't mention it," he replied offhandedly, but in his heart Ven's gratitude made all the pain seem somehow worth it.