Sleep finally came easier for Aqua.
Though her first instinct when she woke up was to be on the defense – to tense her muscles and have her mind primed on her Keyblade, in case she needed it. But she reminded herself that she was safe in a bedroom in Yen Sid’s tower. Stone walls surrounded her, the sun finding cracks through the window curtain to shine its light.
Aqua knew who was standing right outside her door this very moment, and it would barge in if she was ever in trouble. She was going to be okay from now on.
A quick shower before getting dressed, she fussed with her clothes and blindly brushed her hair. Ventus used to help her do this, noting the consistent mistakes she made: how her corset wasn’t straight, how her sleeves were twisted out of place, or how tossled her hair looked. It was too embarrassing to let any of the other wielders find out she didn’t have her life under control, so she needed him to help her look untroubled by her nightmares. Being able to do it alone was a sign of improvement, at the very least.
Of course, it would have been easier if she used a mirror. But she refused to even look at one anymore, covering the only one in the room with a dark sheet, and never building up the courage – even a poor excuse of one - to take a peek. In her mind, she knew that it would just be a reflection. That it wouldn’t say anything or wink at her. Or attack.
It was funny to think that she was incapable of believing her rational thoughts, but logic wasn’t very comforting anyway.
What did console her was knowing she slept better now, and she felt so much more rested in comparison to the weeks before. All thanks to who was waiting outside for her to finally show her face.
She turned the knob of the arched wooden door that led into the hall. Standing right there, against the wall with a long cape that hung by the ankles, was his armor. Feet in a wide stance, the armor rested its hands on the hilt of Terra’s enormous Keyblade, teeth perpendicular to the floor. The helmet hung over, as if it had been staring down at the ground all night.
Ventus had said out loud she had trouble sleeping before. So, every night since it joined their group, the armor took position right here, standing guard over her room.
“Good morning, Terra-Spirit,” she said, gently closing the door behind her, a smile spreading on her face. She craned her neck to look up at it.
This certainly wasn’t the best she could hope for.
Most of the time, she wished she could pull the helmet off, falsely hoping to see Terra’s face under it. She wanted her best friend back. To hear his raspy voice every morning, still trying to wake up, like how it used to be in a previous life. If she was going to be honest, she missed hearing him wish her a pleasant morning, and she wished the armor would do the same. To give her a sense of normalcy, at the very least. But the armor didn’t have much to say.
At best, the armor was just a remnant of what Terra left behind – a desire to protect those most dear to it. But it didn’t remember what she liked to eat, or what made her angry. Without any memories, it was barely an entity that resembled the person she grew up with.
She spent years regretting her last conversation with Terra, in the middle of a wasteland, telling him that he wasn’t capable of containing or confronting his darkness. Telling him that he would go astray again. Because the armor didn’t have memories from that moment, she wasn’t able to apologize for those rash comments. If she hugged the armor, it couldn’t feel her.
It was a lie if she said that it wasn’t painful. Too many years have passed with her regretting how she never told Terra that she fell for him, hard, and how the time spent in the Realm of Darkness never really changed those feelings.
Now this was the best she could have. Terra’s actual whereabouts were unknown.
But the armor, at least, had a sincerity she always knew Terra to have. The desperation to keep her safe from harm, throwing itself in the way of any Heartless she came across, with the kind of force and power that was a mere taste of what Terra was capable of becoming. Impressive, flashy, powerful.
Not to mention it barely left her alone. It followed her everywhere she went, all through the castle, or to any world she traveled to. Whether she was around others, or whether she was by herself – the armor was there. It was dedicated to her orders in such an astoundingly loyal way. Almost like it needed her around just as badly as she needed it to give her peace of mind from her nightmares. Its diligence even made her wonder if there were things Terra felt that he never expressed.
The helmet turned to look at her, creaks ringing from the metal grinding. She continued, “how was your night?”
It nodded once. That was its usual answer. It always had a pleasant night guarding her bedroom door. It reached out to her with one gloved hand, its covered fingers sweeping through her hair until it was satisfied with its progress. She must have not brushed it well enough, and the armor had learned the way she liked to style it.
She walked ahead, heading down stone-laid stairs toward the direction of the dining room for breakfast, the armor’s shoes clanking behind her, Keyblade in one hand. It was endearing, how closely it followed her. Like a puppy, and it was just enough to make her smile. It was a blessing this way.
They found this blessing a mere two days after Ventus woke up. They had traveled to the Keyblade Graveyard, with Sora at the helm of his gummi ship. Seeing the way Ventus’ armor was designed nearly possessed him, and he kept going on and on about fighting a man, or a ghost, in armor that took residence in the middle of a wasteland.
She didn’t know what to make of it at first, but she was desperate enough for any clues as to Terra’s whereabouts. She allowed herself to hope (falsely, for sure) that this would lead them to him. Or that this was him. Ventus was even desperate enough to get excited.
The Keyblade Graveyard, dry, windy, and dusty, was not the reunion place she would have chosen. Coming here was the same as peeling a healing wound.
But what really unsettled her was how often Sora pulled up more examples of what made this thing, this hollow armor, so dangerous. Strong, intimidating, and ruthless. Ventus gobbled up all the storytelling, but Aqua was apprehensive.
It wasn’t that Terra wasn’t capable of being this way in battle. But she doubted he would ever attack Sora.
Then again, she attacked him, too, even when he tried to reason with her. Even when he gave her his sympathies. She was simply too angry to care about what she was doing anymore, convinced she would never leave the Realm of Darkness, thinking that it wasn’t worth the gamble to put stock in false hope again.
She believed there was no one in the world who understood the amount of pain she went through, damn it all. There still wasn’t a living being who knew what it meant to sit in the dark for thirteen years.
Aqua didn’t really know what she expected when she finally saw the armor, sitting on its knees, leaning on Terra’s very own Keyblade. It was still and quiet, like a statue. Maybe she was expecting someone else’s armor, or that Sora made a mistake.
But it was there. Terra’s armor, pieced together as if there was a body inside. Left behind as if it was assembled and then forgotten, like a toy that was outgrown.
Ventus gasped, turning to look up at her as if waiting for a cue to act. She started to sprint forward, but Sora gripped her by the arms.
“It could get really ugly,” Sora said, his tone almost too serious even for him.
Yes, he posed a danger to her when he was someone else. When someone else had golden eyes and white hair. When someone else lifted her by the throat and wanted her dead.
“Terra…” she began. He was and would always be the introspective, friendly boy she had teased all her life. “He’d never hurt me.”
She wrestled from his hold, and ran forward, dust blowing up with every step she took until she slid on her knees to face the armor directly.
“Terra?” She eyed for any sign of movement. It was so still, it might as well be dead. Dust and dirt collected in the folds of the metal, caking the cape and Keyblade.
It shuddered first, creaking heavily. She looked for a pair of blue eyes with long eyelashes, hoping against hope that it would immediately remove the helmet and show her a smiling face she’d been desperate to see. Instead, she gazed only at a reflection of her own.
It wasn’t a voice, but a moan, floating upward in what sounded like an echo chamber. The first giveaway that no, this thing wasn’t even human.
It reached for her aimlessly, not unlike the way Xehanort did in Terra’s body, confused by what he was looking at. Before he grabbed her.
No, she shouldn’t compare this to a monster. She held the gloved gauntlet with both of her hands and laid it down on her lap, its open palm facing upward. The fabric was dense and rough – where she expected some give into flesh underneath, the glove was stiff and bloated. As if it was filled with so much air that it could burst.
Footsteps approached behind her. “Terra, is that you?” Ventus asked, breathing hard.
The armor let its hand rest on her lap, but it turned its attention to the boy.
Ventus…. I carried the name Terra once.
Sora was on her other side, a witness to something he barely understood. “Once?”
It wasn’t like she really grasped what was happening either.
I am but residue, thoughts left behind at the moment of disunion. I wear what I felt on that day, in that moment. What I aim for is to destroy him. Xehanort…
The words carried very little emotion, like it was a robot programmed only to know one thing. But they stung all the same.
Here, this thing waited for someone to come. Just like she did all those years. It thought about the injustices of its circumstances, much like she did. She dealt with her own hatred, and took it out on Sora and Riku when they didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t as though she didn’t understand what Terra must have felt, facing Xehanort all alone. Of course he would be angry. Of course he would want revenge.
But the sound of such contempt was ugly, and she wasn’t foreign to such hideousness. She would never want Terra to be the same as her.
“You don’t sound like Terra at all,” Ventus said, half-disgusted but mostly disappointed, his face slowly melting into sadness. He’d been dying to see his best friend ever since waking up, and this was the first time he looked forward to a trip after sulking for so long.
She had to agree. Terra was the kind of person not to get carried away by his emotions, sure. But he felt strongly and wore his heart on his sleeve. This thing was cold and distant, as if it was barely aware it was even real itself. It used language she’d never hear come out of his mouth. But it named the both of them without any prior knowledge.
A Terra-but-not. With some memories, but not really. Terra probably didn’t have enough time to hold onto something substantial when he became possessed, so this armor wouldn’t know the first thing about what they used to share together. How precious a simple recollection is in keeping people close.
She stroked the gloved hand with her fingers, feeling how rigid it was.
“When Terra was fourteen, he took a serious injury. This was before you came to us, Ven,” she said, unsure whether she should smile. “We were sparring outside, and you know how Terra gets really carried away with trying to overpower me, swinging like a madman at times. He tripped on himself and fell down a slope. He used to fall all the time, and that was never a big deal. Usually just a scrape on the knee or the elbow.”
She shrugged her shoulders, caressing the glove absentmindedly. “But not that day. He broke open his scalp, and-” She shook her head, and tears started to fall. “I couldn’t heal him. I had to find the Master. I thought I lost him that day.”
She stopped, holding the gauntlet in a steady grip. “And eventually, I did lose him,” she croaked. “But I’m glad you’re here,” she said to the armor.
At first, it didn’t reply, letting its hand be cradled on her lap.
Among a field of fuschia and sunlit flowers, you picked weeds. A basket laid by your side, filled with corn and peaches.
She snapped back to reality, breathing in the arid aroma of the desert. If the armor only remembered what Terra thought at the moment of his possession, then this was his last memory of her before it was over.
It was typical of her to take care of the gardens and to mind the food. Typical, but normal. It may not have been a very unique memory, but she understood its significance. It was the smaller things that happened every day, that she never noticed to be important before, that made her remember home. Surprisingly, she missed these the most.
Remembering the mundane must have been what it was for him, too.
The armor finally enclosed her hand in its own, lifting a knee up and helping her stand.
I swore an oath I would correct my wrongdoings. I swore to face him and take back what was mine. I long to feel and to know again, but I cannot receive absolution without your acceptance. Allow me to accompany you.
“Of course you can join us, Terra-Spirit,” Sora said, laughing. He rubbed his nose and reached his hands behind his head. “Though I wish I knew it was as simple as talking about flowers to calm you down, sheesh. I probably wouldn’t have been beaten up so badly last time,” he muttered under his breath.
“Sora said you’re really strong and scary,” Ventus said to the armor. “But I want to see it for myself. Can you hold out your arm and lift me up?”
Without hesitation, the armor extended its forearm, which he wrapped his arms around. It lifted him up high enough that his feet dangled with no effort - no muscle in need of practice or conditioning.
Ventus laughed, impressed by the feat of strength. “Xehanort’s gonna get what’s coming to him,” he said with an impish grin.
“Maybe when we find Xehanort, we’ll find Terra,” she said. “And you’ll feel better.” She wasn’t sure if the armor had emotion, or that it even considered itself empty without a body or heart. But if it didn’t feel, then it probably couldn’t be offended by her remark.
Ventus climbed to sit on the shoulders of the armor, holding onto the wings of the helmet. “I swear this thing is taller than Terra, actually.”
With every step that Aqua took, the armor mimicked. When she stopped, it stopped. It strayed only when Ventus told it to, which was rare because he wanted to be carried anywhere he wanted. But they eventually walked back to the gummi ship, where they led the armor to Yen Sid’s tower.
Ventus smiled more often, now that it was around.
The first thing she did when they got back to the tower was clean and wax the armor. She took care to wash the pleather in between the metal by hand and scrubbed off as much dust as possible. She laundered its cape and hung it to dry, and told stories of her childhood with Terra and Ventus as it waited for her to finish cleaning. That was what it liked best – hearing her talk about things that it was curious about.
The armor even started to expect her to wipe it clean after missions, just so that it had a chance to listen to her talk.
This new life was one where they spent the days rescuing people in different worlds and looking for Terra. At dusk, they’d come back to the tower and spend time cleaning before dinner. At bedtime, the armor took its position standing next to her bedroom door, waiting for her to wake up.
Breakfast time was when Yen Sid’s animated brooms, waddling with arms of their own, delivered plates of plain eggs, toast, and ham. These magical servants prepared the wooden dining table for the Keyblade wielders staying there, topping it off with simple linen fabric.
Ventus yawned when he came in, rubbing his face when he sat by his plate. He put the empty fork in his mouth, taking far too long to register that he had nothing but metal on his tongue, before finally realizing that he forgot to pick at his food first.
The armor, without any word, left them alone. It really only left her by herself when Ventus was around. It never trusted her with anyone else, despite that it created warmer relations with the rest of the wielders. She didn’t ask where it was going, knowing that it will come back soon enough.
She listened to Ventus talk about his plans for the day. Without Terra around, he worked with Riku as much as he could. If Riku needed a mission to be taken care of, or had someone in mind to help, or had any clues about Terra’s location, Ventus was the first to respond. It was his way of becoming more independent and grown-up. Aqua’s first instinct was to hold him back, feeling the need to protect him so that they would never separate again. But considering how much she had pushed her two boys away that day in Radiant Garden, long ago, the guilt was too much to allow her to do that.
He rambled about his theories of where Terra could be when the armor came back into the room. It held a glass vase in one hand, which was filled with some water and several stems of vibrant pink flowers that blossomed in the bushes outside.
It placed the vase right next to Aqua’s plate, before resting its gauntlets onto the hilt of the Keyblade to watch her eat as always. Silence.
“Did Terra-Spirit give you a bouquet of flowers?” Ventus asked, his mouth half-open with chewed up scrambled eggs inside.
She opted not to tell him that it was rude to leave his food hanging like that. “They’re beautiful,” she said to the armor. But she was truthfully just as surprised as he was.
Aqua and Terra performed what was best called a song and dance. Too many times she wondered if he returned her feelings, after certain lingering looks and touches. They had their awkward silences. Reluctance to talk about certain subjects. Jealousy issues. A preference to stay together during missions - too often for something more casual. And when the tension subsided, they returned to being friends and nothing more.
She usually told herself that she read too much into it, and eventually she found comfort in the rhythm they kept together, too afraid to cross those boundaries. Years spent in the dark made her realize how stupid that fear was, cursing herself for missing the opportunities to say how much she truly admired him. Or how much she desired his attention.
These flowers made her heart thump a bit too fast for comfort.
“I guess the secret’s out,” Ventus said with a shrug.
It was a primal reaction to question her intuition. “What secret?” She couldn’t afford to allow herself to hope that the unknown in question was what she wanted all along.
“Nothing,” he said, too quickly for it to truly be inconsequential. He cut a slice of ham that was too big for his mouth and stuffed it all so quickly that he was too stuffed to say anything more.
Before meeting the armor, she sometimes dreaded seeing Terra again. Not because he was possibly still possessed, but because of how ashamed she was of pushing him away. She dreaded having to start these tough conversations with him, about what happened to them or to the Master.
But the flowers were proof of something else.
While Ventus continued to pretend that he didn’t say anything, Aqua enjoyed her food with a smile on her face, knowing that there was at least one very pleasant conversation to start with Terra when she would finally see him.