Title: Passing Grade
Disclaimer: Not mine
Summary: Side story to Burning Heart. Lea takes his Mark of Mastery Exam. Why did he agree to this?
A/N: Welcome back, me.
A/N 2: The idea for this fic has been in my head for years, ever since I wrote "Surprise", and as soon as I started to plan it out, I immediately thought of Harry's defense exam from Bobmin356's HP fic "The Power of the Press". Sadly Bob passed away from cancer in April of last year, but I would still like to thank him and his wonderful wife Alyx for inspiring this fic. If you are looking for amazing Harry Potter fancition, Bob's account in still on fanfiction.net, and you can find it on my favorite author's list there.
Xavier was a dead man.
Lea wiped the sweat (and a bit of blood as well) from his forehead as he crouched down in the limbs of a tree and tried to plan his next move. Below him, in the shadows of the undergrowth that covered the forest floor, he could hear the Heartless rustling about, likely trying to figure out the easiest way to get to him.
He looked down. The moonlight filtering through the thick canopy prevented him from seeing the Heartless, but his senses told him clearly that they were there.
"I'm keeping my heart this time, thank you." he said, and the rustling stilled for a moment before starting up again.
Lea gnawed on his lip for a second before he looked up and in the general direction of his goal. He had to reach the small shack at the center of the forest, alive, with all limbs still attached and his heart still planted in his chest, to pass his Mark of Mastery exam and be named a Keyblade Master.
Why had he agreed to this again?
Axel would have just burned himself a path through the forest, but Xavier had shot down that idea quickly during the trip out here. No fire, he had said.
"If I see you use fire, I will fail you. You lean on it too much as it is."
He had also said no to using Proud Flame's glider form to just fly to the shack.
"This exam is to prove to me that you're worthy of being a Keyblade Master, not to prove if you can fly. I already know you can do that."
They had stood on the edge of the forest just after daybreak, and Lea hadn't been able to see or sense anything in front of him. Just a forest, with a canopy so thick that almost no sunlight could penetrate it, and with so much ground cover that he would have to wade through litter and short growth up to his knees.
"You have 24 hours to cross five miles of forest and make it to the center." Xavier had told him as they stood by the edge of the trees, preparing to start. "You must keep yourself alive, and that includes by finding food and water when necessary, while keeping your heart safe. I will be waiting for you at your goal. Try to keep damage to the forest at a minimum. Your time starts now. Begin." Lea started for the trees, but then:
"Lea." Xavier had called out suddenly, and Lea had turned and looked at him, surprised by the seriousness of his tone. "Be careful. I'll be nearby at all times, watching you, so don't hesitate to call out if you get into trouble that you can't handle. I'd rather have you fail and try again later then lose your heart a second time."
Lea had tossed him an easy grin. "It's just a forest, right? What's the worst that can happen?"
Xavier's gaze hadn't wavered. "This is the forest where Eraqus and I took our Mark of Mastery."
Roxas had mentioned that a few years ago, that Xavier had told him that Xehanort and Eraqus had been forced to make their way through a Heartless infested forest to pass their Mastery exam. So that meant... Lea looked back towards the trees and shivered as the shadows seemed to move as he stared at them.
"I will be watching." Xavier had said, and then he had suddenly vanished. Lea had blinked at the spot where he had been just a second before, and then he had started for the trees. It was just a forest, right?
It was twelve hours in, and Lea estimated that he still had about three miles to go. He'd made good time at first, but the further he got into the trees, the less light had reached him, until finally, he'd been swallowed by the gloom. The temperature had taken a sudden drop, followed by the first wave of Heartless. That had been followed by a second wave, then a third wave, and then a fourth, and they just hadn't stopped coming since.
Lea fished an elixir from his pocket, downed it, and sighed as his depleted magic levels rose and the various cuts and scratches he'd received from the last wave healed. He needed to get down from the tree. Half of his time was up, and he had over half the distance to go still. He threw the bottle down to the ground and smirked at the thunk! as some unfortunate Heartless took it straight to the head. Well, it was time to get moving again. Damned if he was going to have to have Xavier come pluck him from the tree like a scared kid.
A quick Confuse spell set the Heartless to attacking each other, and Lea had to smirk again as the rustling from below went absolutely crazy as he jumped down. He cast Meteor as he landed, and the resulting explosion cleared the path in front of him and stunned the rest. Time to go. Thunder Surge carried him forward several feet before the Heartless could shake off their daze, and he took off at a quick jog towards the center of the forest. He would at least be able to get a short distance before the next wave came and -
A group of Gigas Shadows appeared in front of him and promptly began trying to flank him.
"Gather!" The Magnet spell scooped up five of the eight and began spinning them around in the air. He threw a quick Thundaga spell in to pile on the hurt and launched himself at the free one closest to him. A few strikes from Proud Flame put an end to it just as the Magnet spell came to its own end and released the dazed, but still moving, shadows. A quick Aeroga finished them off, and he Thunder Surged at the two that remained, knocking them back and taking a significant chunk of their health. Two quick Strikes Raids then ended the group.
He didn't wait to see if more portaled in. If he fought every Heartless that he came across, he knew he'd never make it out of the forest. There were just so many of them. The world's keyhole had been sealed away by Master Limahl decades ago, but that hadn't been enough to prevent them from overrunning the world's occupants. Only two people native to the world had escaped it: Master Eraqus and Master Terra. Xavier had explained during the flight over that Master Limahl had visited the world so long ago to try and find why the Heartless, which had been rare then, where so prevalent on this one world.
He'd found the source; the greed and selfishness of the few members of the ruling class, and the absolute misery and poverty of everyone below them. The darkness and negative emotion had called to the Heartless like a beacon, and they had feasted on the hearts they had found. With no way to stop the invasion, Master Limahl had taken one of the few lights he'd been able to find: four year old Eraqus, who'd been willingly surrendered by parents too poor to care for him. Years later Eraqus had found five year old Terra living on the filth encrusted streets and had taken him as well. When a teenaged Terra had come back looking for his origins, he'd found only deserted, ruined cities and towns, with Heartless the only occupants.
It explained why the Heartless were so keen on getting him, Lea thought as he outran another wave, of regular shadows this time. It had been over twenty years since they'd last seen a living person.
Tiny claws raked across his ankle, slicing through the leather of his boot, bringing Lea out of his thoughts. As sad as the whole tale was, it was too late for the world's people, and unless he wanted to join them, he'd better pay attention.
Dozens of glowing yellow eyes peered at him from the underbrush -
- and vanished with the force of the ice spell as it whirled out around them, killing them all instantly. A second wave, this time of Darkballs and Possessors, appeared to take their place, and Lea nearly groaned.
He was going to kill Xavier for this.
He pulled Proud Flame back for a second, and launched himself towards the first Darkball, with the keyblade pointed out in front of him. He struck it dead center and exploded into wisps of darkness that quickly dissipated. He then changed direction and went for the next Heartless, one of the Possessors. They barely had any health to speak of, but their strength was in their ability to possess inanimate objects and move them at will.
Too bad for them they were surrounded by living plants and animals. Thank the heavens the nearest ruins were over a dozen miles away.
The Possessor fell in one hit, so Lea changed direction a second time, and he took out three more Heartless before the Sonic Blade attack ran its course. A Darkball came up to his right, and he felt its coldness brush against his shoulder, but he jumped back out of the way and fired off a Thundaga Shot straight in its face. A second Darkball moved in, and Lea howled when it clamped its freezing, pointy teeth down on his upper left arm. He swung Proud Flame and planted the end of the blade right between its eyes. It released its grip and backed away, but the others began to move in closer. Well, if they wanted to play that way...
All of the remaining Heartless were dragged in towards him by the force of the Zero Graviga spell, and he spun around in place in a Windcutter attack, killing most of them and scattering the few that survived. A few quick keyblade strikes finished those off, and no more appeared to replace them.
His senses informed him that no more Heartless were in the immediate area, so he unzipped his coat a bit so he could pull it down to look at his shoulder. There were several puncture wounds, each one blackened and oozing a dark mist, and he winced at the sight. Darkballs weren't poisonous, were they?
He tapped Proud Flame against the injury, wincing at the pain that shot down his arm and into his fingers at the touch. "Heal." The Cura spell did its work as the drops of green healing magic worked over the wounds, closing them and dissipating the mist. He sighed as the pain faded with it, and then he shrugged his coat back on and zipped it up before he started forward again. The clock was ticking.
A few hours later, the first feeble rays of sunlight peeked through gaps in the canopy, down upon where Lea sat huddled by a small stream, drinking handfuls of water. A set of temporary wards kept the Heartless a bay while he took a quick respite. He was shaking slightly as he drank; he had nearly drained his magic reserves dry again, and a quick check of his pockets showed he only had a couple of ethers and a single elixir left. A quick nap would refill his magic quickly, but he had nothing to wake him, and he didn't want to sleep thought his deadline.
He sat back on the grass aside the stream and idly scratched at his head. He was dirty, sweaty, tired, muscles that he hadn't known existed ached, and why had he decided that taking the Mark of Mastery exam was a good idea? It was only a title, right? He rested his head in the palm of his left hand – his right was still firmly holding onto Proud Flame – and huffed out a breath that blew his sweaty hair away from his face. He would have to wait for his magic to recover naturally a bit then; he wanted to save his limited supplies for as long as possible, as there was no telling what was waiting ahead.
Ooooh, there had better not be a Darkside waiting near the shack.
His stomach growled then, and he raked his hair back from his face and stood up. He had set up the wards around the stream so he could get a drink without getting mauled; he hadn't been thinking of food, and he grimaced at the mistake. A quick look around in the weak light didn't show anything edible, but just a few steps outside his wards, he spotted what looked like some kind of berry bush, and he stepped closer to look. A closer glance confirmed it as a small blackberry thicket, and he could easily see the bunches of berries hanging from the branches. The lessons in nutrition and wilderness survival that Xavier had drilled into his head told him that it wouldn't be enough, with all the energy he'd been burning, he needed protein as well, but it would do for now. He had no time to hunt down a small animal, kill, butcher, and cook it, especially since they avoided the Heartless at all costs. And since the Heartless were attracted to him, that dropped his chances of catching an animal to nearly zero.
He stepped up to the edge of his ward and reached out to locate any Heartless. None were in the immediate area, so... He dashed out to the bush, grabbed as many handfuls of the berries as he could, and then dashed back inside his wards. He plopped back down at his spot by the stream, and ignoring the sticky juice leeching between his fingers from his hasty grab, he began feasting on his find. It wasn't much, and he finished quickly, and he went back for a second trip. That was enough to quiet his stomach, and he inched over to a nearby tree and leaned against it. Now to wait.
Loud birdsong in his ear made him jump, and he raised his head and rubbed at his grainy eyes to look at the sky. The light shining down was noticeably brighter, and he kicked himself as he jumped to his feet. How long had he been asleep?
"Damn it!" He dropped his wards, and ignoring the Heartless that slithered out of the shadows after him, took off running towards in the direction he was supposed to go.
He crashed through the brush, not at all caring about the racket he was making or the Heartless that were chasing after him. He didn't want to fail and have to go through this again later. A Triple Blizzaga cleared a path ahead of him, and he pushed on through it. He was not going to fail.
Lea stumbled as he waded through the dense undergrowth, and when he straightened, he felt relief flood his heart at the sight visible through a break in the trees: a large clearing, with a small shack in the center. Xavier was sitting outside the shack's open door, his feet propped up on a weathered wooden crate, looking straight in Lea's direction. Lea felt the giddy smile spread across his face; he had made it within the time limit! He was going to pass! He was going to be a Keyblade Master! Okay, so he's made a few mistakes and had drained his reserves dry a few times. Things happened, right? And besides, he was still young and somewhat inexperienced. He was sure that Xavier hadn't been that great at first either, and -
Lea saw Xavier sit up in his chair in alarm just as hiw own senses screamed in warning. A weight slammed into him from behind, knocking him to the ground, just as a group of Invisibles swarmed all over him. He had just enough time to realize the irony of the situation as he sensed Xavier running towards him. Claws raked across his back and shoulders, tearing holes in his coat and the shirt he wore under it, digging for his heart. He swung Proud Flame wildly, which knocked a few back away from him, but they were quickly replaced by others. He sensed Xavier running towards him, and he raised his other hand and managed a Thundaga spell. The Invisibles flinched back away from the power of the spell, and it cleared just enough space for him to start dragging himself away. An Aero spell pushed them back even further, and he staggered to his feet and pointed Proud Flame at the massive group that was surging towards him.
The Heartless were blown back as a massive fireball erupted in front of him. The Mega Flare spell sent him skidding back across the ground a few feet as most of the Invisibles were destroyed instantly by the force of the spell. Fire erupted on several of the nearby trees, while the ground cover was incinerated instantly. Lea dashed towards the remaining Heartless, finishing them quickly, before he let Proud Flame drop to hang at his side. A wave of his hand smothered the fires, and he looked around the burnt space as he tried to catch his breath. The ground was scorched, the undergrowth was gone, and several tree trucks were blackened and charred, their limbs stripped bare of leaves.
Lea swallowed as the gouges in his back made themselves known then -
- and sighed in relief as they closed and the burning pain faded. He looked around and felt that relief wither and die as he saw Xavier standing at the edge of the clearing, keyblade out, looking at him. He had... he had just...
Lea hung his head as he realized what he had done.
"Lea," came Xavier's voice, and Lea sighed heavily and plodded through the short distance between them. He had disobeyed instructions. He had used fire. He had failed. His heart felt heavy as he dragged his feet across the scorched ground, and he paid no mind to the warm sunlight that fell across him as he stepped out of the trees and into the clearing. He heard Xavier dismiss his keyblade as he came to stand in front of him and waited for the hammer to drop. He had failed, he had screwed up, and he waited with slumped shoulders for Xavier to tell him that he would have to try again.
Xavier's hands came down on his shoulders. "Congratulations, Master Lea."
Lea froze and looked up at Xavier, who was wearing an amused smile. "What?"
"You passed. You made it to the shack within the time limit, alive, with your heart still in your chest."
"But.. but I used fire! And you said you would fail me if I did!"
"I did say that, but I needed to know if you would break the rules when the situation called for it. You refrained from using fire through the forest, only breaking my directive when you had no other option. You did what was needed, not what you had been told. Blind obedience is what led to the Keyblade War, and it was a mistake that you managed to avoid, so again, congratulations, Master Lea."
Lea just stared at Xavier with wide eyes, and the other Keyblade Master – Holy hell, he was a Keyblade Master now! - laughed and pulled him in for a hug. Lea just stood there, shocked into silence, until Xavier began to walk him towards the shack.
Lea looked at him. "I really passed?"
Xavier smiled again as they walked through the doorway into the shack. "You did. You did very well, and I daresay that you did better than Eraqus and I did, especially when one considers that you were on your own, while he and I went in together." He pointed him to a table with a few chairs, which was the only furniture in the small space. "Sit down and take a rest. Which you've had some time to recharge, we'll head home. I'm sure you'd like to tell Isa and Roxas the good news."
Lea felt the smile slowly appear on his face as he sat down. "Yeah. Yeah, that'd be great."
Xavier remained by the door. "I'm going to hunt up a meal. Stay here, and I'll be back soon."
Lea nodded. "Alright."
Xavier went out the door, and Lea leaned back in the chair and folded his arms behind his head. He looked up at the peeling paint on the ceiling above as his smile widened. He put his feet up on the rickety chair just in front of him and closed his eyes, feeling the thrum of the wards around the shack that kept the Heartless at bay, and waited for Xavier to come back.