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in her steps, a flourishing.

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A distant whoop breaks through the quiet, stirring Aqua from her sleep.

 

She doesn’t open her eyes just yet, though. The wind and waves cradling her are comfortably sun-warmed, if unfamiliarly salty, and she hasn’t felt this peaceful since leaving home. It reminds her of nights spent stargazing on lush grasses and days spent roughhousing under a watchful eye, comfortable and safe.

 

But the Land of Departure has never bordered a beach or filled the air with seabird cries. As much as it soothes her heart to rest here, this isn’t her home. She can’t stay.

 

She needs to find Terra again. She needs to wake Ven from his sleep.

 

She needs to get up.

 

Aqua cracks open an eye to the sight of a calm beach, fine sand pillowing her cheek. She faintly recognizes the shoreline and the trees further inland — she’s been here before, not too long ago. But when she tries to push herself up to get a better look, all of her wounds immediately flare up, painfully reminding her that the last thing she’d done was fight an awful, awful battle. Battling her possessed best friends had left injuries both physical and mental, despite her victories.

 

Habit more than conscious thought drives her to whisper a soft curaga beneath her breath, ethereal bells and flowers blooming overhead for a moment. Some of the aching ebbs as the green light knits her wounds closed, and a bit of the tension in her shoulders melts away.

 

Once the spell runs its course, Aqua carefully sits upright. Her limbs twinge but hold only an echo of the pain, easily ignorable.

 

But before she can do anything else, quick footsteps come pattering across the sand. Aqua looks up sharply, tense and fully aware that the last thing she remembers is falling into the darkness — but the steps come to a stop a couple paces from her with little gasps. It’s just a couple of kids.

 

Actually, she recognizes them, which is both strange and a strong indicator that she’s not in the realm of darkness.

 

“It’s you!” the brown-haired boy exclaims. “Hello!”

 

“Hello,” she says, mildly baffled. The specks of light that had been coalescing around her fingers dissipate quickly as she relaxes. There’s no threat here. “You’re… Sora and Riku, right?”

 

The boys nod, Sora in excitement, Riku with curiosity.

 

Riku asks, “Where are you from?” but his eyes look like they already know the answer.

 

“Far away,” Aqua says, elusive. He still reminds her of Terra, but her amusement at the thought is threaded with worry. She… did save him, right? The dark guardian at his back had dissolved, she remembers that much. And the rain-like drumming of Stormfall on the roof of her soul is missing, which means it must still be with Terra, so he’s not truly alone. That alone affords her some measure of hope. She smiles a little and says, “But I’m just stopping by. I need to find my friends.”

 

Sora perks up. “Maybe we can help! Nobody else really comes here much besides us, but maybe people on the main island have seen them. What’re their names?”

 

“Terra and Ven. Terra’s a little older than me, but Ven’s a little younger,” she says. Honestly, she doesn’t expect her friends to be found here, especially since Ven’s in the locked Land of Departure, but it couldn’t hurt to cover her bases. Terra could very well be anywhere, since Aqua emerged on an island she’d only visited once for no clear reason.

 

Actually, she isn’t sure why or how she escaped the darkness in the first place. Diving into the shadows around Terra should’ve pulled her into the dark realm for sure, once she gave up Stormfall and her armor to save him… She suspects it has something to do with the steady pulse of Master’s Defender behind her heart, or maybe the glistening wayfinder tied to her sash. Either way, she’s grateful. Being stuck in the realm of darkness would suck.

 

“Terra and Ven,” Sora echoes thoughtfully. “Okay, I’ll keep an eye out for him!”

 

“Thank you.” That’s all she could ask for. Aqua rises to her feet, brushing some sand from her clothes.

 

Riku, quick to pick up on her intention to leave, peers up at her with poorly concealed disappointment. “Are you going already?” He looks every inch the eager boy Terra had once been, pressing at the borders of the world, leaping at any chance to escape. Eraqus had once berated his pupils for that eagerness, long ago, but Aqua can’t bring herself to do the same. Riku adds, “You should come with us and talk to the grownups, so they can do search parties for your friends.”

 

“I think I can count on you two for that,” Aqua says gently. No need to raise awareness about people who don’t usually exist here, and she’d hate to draw darkness by disturbing the walls between worlds. A couple of kids would be fine, especially since one of them is Terra’s successor (he has to return and check on the boy sometime, of course), but adults don’t normally take it as well.

 

Summoning her keyblade with a flash of light, Aqua reaches for her arm — and stops.

 

She doesn’t have her armor.

 

She doesn’t have her armor, and she doesn’t have Stormfall. There’s no way she’d be safe from the darkness of the Lanes Between without them. With just Stormfall, she could be quick enough to just dart through, or with just the armor, she’d be shielded enough to carefully pick her path. But without either…

 

Master’s Defender is capable of a glider mode, she knows, but Eraqus rarely used it. She’s doesn’t know if it would even respond to her, not to mention that relying on an unfamiliar keyblade in such a dangerous place without any protection is a very bad idea.

 

And that means she’s stuck. Until she feels comfortable enough with Master’s Defender or gets her armor back, she can’t leave this world.

 

Aqua drops her arm from where she’d been about to activate her absent armor. Her keyblade also dissipates from her hand, bringing a spark of wonder to the two boys’ eyes as they watch the weapon vanish. “Actually,” Aqua says, her expression shifting to something wry, “if you’d like, I… I guess could stay a while.”

 

Riku’s marked for inheritance, anyway. Might as well train him a little while she’s here, so he knows how to defend himself and his loved ones when he grows older. There aren’t any other Masters for him to learn from, after all, with Eraqus dead and Xehanort vanquished.

 

It’s Sora’s radiant smile that sells it, though. He beams at her with such sincere delight that she’s sorely reminded of Ven. “Come with us to the main island, then. We can show you around!”

 

“Not yet,” Riku protests. “We just got here, we can play a while first.”

 

Sora looks conflicted at that, torn between the need to help out and the need to play, but Aqua laughs and ruffles his hair. “Go ahead,” she says. “I’ll be here.”

 

“Do you want to play with us?” he asks, tentative.

 

“Maybe next time. You can go on with Riku.”

 

“Okay! We’ll be back later.” Sora grins at her, yelps when Riku jabs him impatiently, and then shouts a quick, “Bye, Aqua!” before he scrambles after his friend. Both of them dart off deeper inland, chasing each other along the path.

 

Aqua waits until they’re well out of sight, and then lets the smile slip from her face as she looks to her hands. Master’s Defender reappears in a wash of light, all glistening metal and steady pulsing like a heart behind her own, calm and reassuring.

 

Hold on, Ven, she thinks. I’ll be back soon. I’m sorry, but it’ll be just a little bit longer.

 


 

If there’s one thing Aqua knows, it’s that keyblade wielders — even wielders to-be, like Riku — have a penchant for trouble. Just because he isn’t quite as heavy-hitting as Terra (yet) doesn’t mean he wreaks any less havoc than her friend once did. He’s just quicker and more subtle about it.

 

Thankfully, she also knows several tried and true ways of putting that troublemaking energy to good use instead of letting it run rampant, thanks to growing up under Eraqus’ tutelage. When the three full-time pupils pushed his patience to the limit, their Master would simply exhaust them with practice drills so they didn’t have the energy to incite any more chaos. Aqua hopes the same could be said for her two part-time pupils.

 

Yes, two. She’d decided against separating Riku and Sora, even though she only expects the former to inherit a keyblade. Splitting them would only decay their friendship, which Aqua actively tries to avoid. Besides, sparring tends to be the best route to exhausting all that energy, and more options open up when she invites the two to work as a team.

 

It doesn’t take much convincing to start up the training sessions, probably because of the excitement of having someone new to cross blades with.

 

Metaphorically, that is. They’re nowhere near experienced enough to justify pulling her actual keyblade on them. Barehanded works just fine.

 

Aqua actually finds herself enjoying the challenge of teaching. Some of the tension in her shoulders loosens as she catches Riku’s attack and flips him right into Sora with perfect precision, sending the kids tumbling head-over-heels in the soft sand. They let out a few muffled grunts before untangling themselves, rolling to their feet a little more quickly than the last time she’d dropped them.

 

Sora shakes some sand from his hair, and then squints at his lightly scraped elbow before dismissing the scratch as unimportant. “I wasn’t ready that time!” he protests indignantly.

 

“Then stay out of range,” Aqua says, amused. “You were in the splash zone, and that makes you a fair target. Try again.”

 

With a fake pout, Sora obligingly readies himself. Riku just huffs good-naturedly and hefts his wooden sword, nodding to Sora before trying to circle around while his friend lunges forward to distract her.

 

Unfortunately for them, Aqua’s fought too many hordes of unversed to be caught off-guard by a two-sided attack, but she commends the thought. She sidesteps Sora’s quick blitz, shoving his shoulder as he lands to test his balance (he wobbles, but doesn’t fall over; better), and glimpses silver rushing in from the corner of her eye as Riku seizes his chance.

 

Aqua rotates half a turn and deftly grabs Riku’s wrist as he comes within range, pulling him around her to redirect his sliding dash before letting go. As he stumbles, she debates knocking his legs out from beneath him, but Sora darts in to draw her attention first, rushing into his own sliding dash that just misses the fluttering edge of her sash as she hops away.

 

“Good try,” she calls, but Sora remains undaunted and tries to sliding dash at her again. He’s now a bit too close to pull it off properly, lacking the momentum to exert a forceful hit, so Aqua knocks his wooden blade aside with ease.

 

Caught off balance, Sora almost drops his sword, but manages to catch himself at the last moment. He shifts his weight between his feet as though deliberating, glancing around to check Riku’s position, twisting his grip on his weapon, and then his eyes narrow and he leaps forward.

 

That’s a backhanded grip, wait, she didn’t teach him that—

 

A familiar blitz crashes down in front of Aqua, not as quick as memory recalls, not as controlled, but she reflexively cartwheels away from the next two strikes, digging her heels into the sand to steady herself when she comes up again. She stares at the young boy, this person who grins back at her with fever-pitch energy and endless brilliance and a reverse grip and the sunset in his hair like spun gold, and all she can think to say is, “Ven?”

 

Her voice wavers, as does his grin. Ven — or just Sora? — cocks his head to the side. “Aqua?” he replies, hesitant.

 

That could mean anything.

 

Brows furrowed, Aqua stares at this face she knows twice over, trying to understand the inexplicable pang of joy in her chest. Her eyes disagree with her heart, her mind disagrees with her heart, and yet...

 

Riku blinks, and then looks around in vain. There’s nobody else on the play island. “Ven? Where?” he asks.

 

Where indeed. Aqua pauses for a moment, and then shakes her head to clear it. It’s probably just a trick of the eye, or an illusion of the heart. Something she sees because she wants to, not because it’s actually there. “Never mind,” she says briskly. “I was just reminded of him. Sora, are you familiar with a backhanded grip?”

 

Sora, looking puzzled, glances down at his hand. “Um. No? I wasn’t really thinking,” he says, changing back to a normal grip. In doing so, he erases most of the phantom similarities between him and Ven, and Aqua reluctantly pushes those thoughts aside for later contemplation. It’s probably nothing. Sora picks at the wooden blade, looking concerned and sheepish, as though he thinks he’s in trouble. “Is it bad?”

 

“No, not at all,” Aqua reassures. “It does use different forms, though. We can work on it some other time, if you want, but let’s focus on regular grips for now.”

 

“Okay!” He brightens, worries forgotten, as he bounces in place. “We almost got you that time, though!”

 

“I wouldn’t go that far.” Aqua chuckles. “But you are getting better.” Visibly so, at that. They’re putting their newly learned attacks to good practice, tightening their movements instead of just swinging wildly at an opponent, and while their initial stances haven’t changed much, their execution has definitely improved. “Another round, and then we’ll be done for the day. Watch your distance in that sliding dash, Sora.”

 

He nods, eagerly falling into a prepared stance as he exchanges nods with Riku. “Got it.”

 


 

A month into her stay at Destiny Islands, Aqua grows anxious.

 

She sits on the dock of the main island, Master’s Defender warm in her hand. It’s late; nobody’s around to see the mystical weapon, so she feels comfortable enough to lay it across her lap as she watches the night unfurl. All worlds share the same sky, she recalls, but only one patch of stars in this expanse are familiar to her. They point towards Olympus Coliseum, a world on the barest fringes of the starmaps she’s studied.

 

Aqua finds herself wondering how the residents of that world are faring. Is Zack still training there, with Hercules and Phil? Is Hades still scheming?

 

There’s no way for her to know. She doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in the worlds outside, not about Zack or Cinderella or 626 or Mickey or Terra. Her fingers tighten on her keyblade and she looks back down at it, pensive.

 

She’d tried to transform Master’s Defender into its glider form the other day. It hadn’t worked, and despite her persistent efforts, it still hasn’t changed forms. It has not transformed at all, in fact, which is greatly worrying and currently the source of her troubles. She can feel its pulse and knows it’s not inert or rejecting her or anything — in fact, it delights in her magical prowess and recently taught her to Bind with chains of molten gold — but she doesn’t know why it refuses to change shape.

 

Keyblades are willful, picky things, but usually not to this extent. Aqua runs her fingers over its gleaming metal and whispers, “What am I doing wrong?”

 

No response. She wasn’t really expecting one anyway, and sighs. Maybe it just needs time.

 

Aqua flicks the keyblade to the side, testing once more for good measure, but it still doesn’t transform. With that, she gets to her feet and dismisses it at last, deciding to turn in for the night.

 

Before she even leaves the docks, however, a little figure stumbles across her path. The spiky hair is too familiar to ignore, even half-hidden in the dark.

 

“Sora?” she calls, incredulous. It must be midnight by now, or close to it. “What are you doing here? Are you on your own?” She approaches quickly, crouching with a hand hovering just over his shoulder.

 

When he looks up at her, her breath catches in her chest — his eyes are a familiar blue, but also too-familiar blank in a way that rattles all of her old alarms about his state. About Ven’s state, back when he’d first come to the castle, blank and empty and lost in ways only loss of heart could be responsible for.

 

“Aqua? I got a — I had a nightmare,” he says, and it’s Sora’s voice but it cracks in a way that’s all Ven in Aqua’s earliest memory of him, back before he built himself up from the pieces he’d been left in. She’d hoped never to hear that kind of hesitance again.

 

“It’s okay,” she soothes, but when she looks him over, her eyes keep skipping upward as though expecting someone a little taller, a little older. She forcefully tears her gaze downward, telling herself to focus. This is Sora. “You’re fine. It’s late, though, you should go to bed. Your parents are going to worry, Sora.”

 

He shakes his head, reaching out to grab her sleeve. “Nightmare. ’S cold. Freezing. And I saw you,” he adds, insistent. “I saw you and another, but you were standing, just standing there, and then he came down from the sky and you fell. I didn’t know if you were okay, or if he got you, but I had to find out, ’n look—” He breaks off, breath quickening.

 

Hearing that, Aqua stills. Ice crawls through her veins as she remembers this nightmare. She‘d been there for it, and she remembers Ven frozen in her arms, remembers fighting, remembers looking up an instant too late before Vanitas plunged from the sky with his keyblade drawn and.

 

But why would that scene plague Sora’s dreams? Unless…

 

Sora shivers, and regardless of what’s going on, Aqua knows he should be in bed right now. She reaches down to pick him up and take him home. To her surprise, he doesn’t fight her on it. He’s smaller than Ven ever was, easy to lift onto her back, quick to wrap his arms around her neck. Aqua starts making her way towards his house. “You’re going to catch a cold like this, Sora. I… I’m fine. You need to go home now, but you’ll see me tomorrow.”

 

“Promise?” Sora asks.

 

Aqua thinks of what Yen Sid said about hearts and light guiding Ven’s heart back from wherever it had fled. It seems like she, Terra, and Mickey hadn’t been the only ones to show him the way.

 

Gently, she nods. “I promise.”

 


 

It’s a good thing Aqua decided to train Sora alongside Riku.

 

Something in the glimmer of their hearts beside hers resonates with Master’s Defender in her chest. Not just Riku, but Sora too — they both have the potential to become keybearers.

 

She isn’t sure when that happened; she hadn’t checked them since her first arrival, which was back before the fights in the Keyblade Graveyard.

 

“Riku,” Aqua calls, making the boy pause in his drills and look up at her. “Do you remember... Has anyone ever let you hold a weapon like this?” She manifests Master’s Defender to demonstrate, grabbing the the teethed end and holding the hilt outward, as though offering it.

 

Recognition immediately flashes over Riku’s expression. “Yeah,” he says. “He had brown hair. And his sword was kind of brown or gold? Not like yours. He said it was a secret or else the magic would go away, but… you know it already, so I guess it’s okay.”

 

Aqua can’t help but smile. “Don’t worry, it won’t go away. The magic doesn’t work like that. But… must have been Terra, then.” She’d supposed as much, but the confirmation is nice. To have Riku keep the bequeathing a secret… Maybe that‘s Terra’s way of being thoughtful to the worlds’ borders. Aqua turns towards Sora, who looks equal parts curious and confused. “Sora, what about you?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Did anyone bequeath you? Give you a key to hold?”

 

Sora scrunches up his face for a moment, thinking, and then shakes his head. “Uh-uh. I don’t even remember Riku meeting that other guy.”

 

“You were there, you just ran ahead,” Riku reminds. Sora perks up.

 

“Oh yeah! I won the race that time!”

 

“Only because I was talking with someone. Terra, right?” Riku looks to Aqua, who nods. “Yeah, so I stopped to talk with Terra. Doesn’t count!”

 

“Does too!” Sora counters.

 

Aqua laughs, waving a hand to distract them and stop the argument from devolving further. “Okay — more importantly, Sora, about that nightmare you had. Have you had other nightmares like it?”

 

It’s Riku’s turn to look curious and confused. Sora shuffles his feet a bit and shrugs, his mood somewhat dampened by the topic. “Sometimes. I forget them really fast once I get up, so I just get the feeling that I’m scared and lonely. But they’re not always nightmares.”

 

“What do you dream when they’re not nightmares?”

 

“Sometimes I see pretty rooms and big halls, or I just run around and look at the sky. Um, I think there was one when I was talking to people, but I don’t know who. It’s hard to remember,” Sora says.

 

Aqua hums, realizing that while the described scenes could line up with Ven’s memories, they’re also vague enough that… Well, not last night’s nightmare. That was pretty specific to Ven and Ven alone. “I see.”

 

“Sorry for scaring you,” Sora offers, but Aqua shakes her head.

 

“No, don’t be, it’s fine. Actually — this might explain some things. Here, put the swords aside for a moment,” she adds, walking a little further inland. “It’s going to be a long tale, but I think you should hear it.”

 

Riku looks at Sora, and then back to her. “Me too?”

 

“Of course.” Aqua sits on a ledge, beckoning for them to join her. As they do, she continues, “You know when I told you that my sword is unique to me, and that’s why it’s magic? That’s not quite true.”

 

Master’s Defender sings beneath her skin that this is right, that this path is the one to follow.

 

Aqua smiles. “It’s called a keyblade.”