“You can keep it.”
Her answer starts slow and ends with a hiss, and the enigma sitting on a tall, white throne narrows his eyes - it lasts for a mere moment, a smirk drawing on the edge of his lips and she swears he’s thinking to himself that he has something valuable.
Two can play that game.
This is their first meeting, two days after she is discovered on the banks of a beach at night, after someone gives her a black robe to wear and leather gloves to cover the red tips of her fingers, after another introduces her to a familiar face stolen by a stranger.
And he had the audacity to try and give her a new name.
“I am Master Aqua to you,” she says like there’s an expectation to introduce herself as such, and it comes out like an audio recording because after so many years it sounds weird to say. She’s seen herself in the mirror since coming here. She knows how much she’s changed.
“Master Aqua,” he repeats, slowly, as though he likes to hear himself pronounce the syllables. His smile is foreign. “What is in a name, but a powerful congruence of will and faith?”
It’s enough of an introduction and she decides she can’t stand this guy. It’s wrong, he smiles wrong and for someone who thinks so little of such things, he calls himself Xemnas; not a name that should be worn with a face like his.
He catches her wandering the castle by herself, doing nothing but avoiding everyone else - particularly him. It’s hard enough to look at his face without having ugly reminders.
“So neglectful of your commands,” he says simply.
True. She’s been traveling on her own, keeping her hood up and dropping clues to other doe-eyed Keyblade wielders on how they can free Ventus from his deep sleep.
Not because she wants them to know who she is and not because she wants to join anyone who has abandoned her. Ventus will have to suffer enough disappointment with how long she’s taken already, there’s no need to prolong it.
Either way, anything to do with Ventus trumps whatever dumb shit and other shenanigans this Organization tries to throw at her - looking for missing boxes, babysitting princesses, it goes on. Xemnas has even commanded her on a mission to retrieve Ventus from his hiding spot. Her answer: never.
“You can’t make me care about them,” she says with a click of her tongue, too lazy to shrug with both shoulders.
“The cost of such defiance is steep.” His voice is deep and it rumbles even when it sneaks, startling and unnerving like a candle being snuffed out.
It doesn’t take a day to understand what Xemnas is capable of, and immediately she stiffens to prepare an attack, battle tactics and back-up plans coursing through her mind in case he pulls out his sabers against her. She’s still a force to be reckoned with, and he’s an idiot if he’s feeling testy.
Still… It’s not something a face like his would ever say to her. Should ever say. She wants to lunge forward and slap him, lose control and pull the real him out of his body, give him one thousand long lectures about what it was like to wait for him in the darkness, to chase him around worlds, to spend years worrying about him.
“Don’t speak to me that way,” she keeps, her voice as low as it can get before it turns to a whisper.
Xemnas smiles and she almost spits that he should entertain himself rather than bother her.
Entertaining himself indeed, every smile he gives has a double meaning and she’s only lucky to be able to guess what correctly. Otherwise, his eyes act like nothing but glass, doing their best at mimicking.
… It’s a wonder how he does it.
His lackeys give her a lot of comments of what it’s supposed to be like. How a Nobody feels, what her responsibilities are, how to connect to her powers, what to believe, what to expect out of Kingdom Hearts and when. Yes, she has yellow eyes just like the rest of them but that means nothing. It’s only because she’s angry.
Angry enough that she stews in between the grinding of her teeth when he lets her words slide off of him like it doesn’t matter. A perfect Nobody in every sense of the word, non-feeling, non-caring, un-attached… he therefore feels no pain and so he is free. Where does he hide the secrets to achieving such a high?
Xemnas draws a hand in the air, conjuring a dark corridor. “Come, Master Aqua.”
There’s a lot to fear in obeying him, one of which is enduring whatever punishment he’s decided for her. Not that there is a trace of threat in his voice, he’s just mostly amused. Perhaps the worst that would happen is finding out he’s just as bad company as the rest of them. Perhaps not.
She pushes the thought to the back of her mind that she shouldn’t follow a man with no hobbies.
He likes to hear himself talk.
The field trips are a nice distraction but she often finds herself tuning him out when he gets too involved in overblown monologues. She doesn’t spare this kind of time with the other Organization members - she instead follows other Keybearers to make sure they get her messages about Ventus. When he drones on about subjects too big for anyone, she’s afraid to name what she’s looking for in him.
Maybe if she pays enough attention, she’ll find that she’s walking by herself in Twilight Town, leaving him behind at a booth selling souvenirs.
It’s a strange thing to witness Xemnas show interest in something other than the moon. He usually keeps the other members at a far distance, where talks of what he’s like as a person are no more than rumors, and there is a certain… intimacy in being allowed to see him like this.
“A camera?” she asks when he picks one up, equipped with a neck strap and zoom lens, listening to the man behind the counter sell the idea that film photography is superior and can truly capture things as they are.
“As a matter of fact…” Even when he’s teasing, he’s monotone.
At least it’s a healthier pastime for him than sulking.
With his new toy, Xemnas requests a trip on the city trolley, over the sea and up a hill, until they reach a park and watch the sun bathe the entire city in a warm glow. Despite the sun’s reach, she’s cold, pulling on her sleeves to cover more of her wrists, hugging herself because even in thick leather, she shivers. Still, it’s quite a romantic little town, peaceful and vibrant. Nothing like this has ever existed in the Realm of Darkness.
“Does the view please you?” he asks, aiming the lens toward the horizon.
“I don’t care for the ocean.”
It reminds her of sinking, the water frigid and lonely where it’s too hard to swim up.
Learning how to use the camera is slow for him at first. The man has incredible focus though, and she can see the gears in his mind turning as he fumbles with the settings, twisting the lens, turning the flash on and off.
That’s the thing with him, that mind never stays quiet even when he is.
“What are you doing all that for? Art?” she snickers - obviously that could never be the reason.
“This world exists in-between… a ghost warped by the conflict of polarity, both standing in the light yet hidden in shadow. It will not continue to endure after the War. But now I have proof of its existence.”
“So you’re keeping a record for science,” she scoffs. “Such a civil servant.”
Her own words eat her up. A servant to the public would be locked in battle with him, doing all that it takes to put a stop to his very existence, and here she is, by his side, watching him study his camera the same way she used to study her books growing up.
It makes her wonder why a man so enraptured by the clicks of his machine would be so willing to walk into the fire once the end of the world comes.
“Why don’t you care about being swallowed by Kingdom Hearts?” she asks, half-expecting a lie as a response.
The question pulls his attention away. “Only a suffered soul abandons purpose.”
Of course, she should have known than to hope for a straightforward answer.
Finding a bench to sit on, she listens to him click away, each one blanketed by a pause as he adjusts ever so slightly, moving his frame from the town far below to the clock tower far away. This is familiar, like watching a close friend try his best to understand the secrets of a Keyblade, eyes lost in thought, focus spearheaded onto one thing and one thing only.
“A picture is a moment trapped in ink,” he says. “Here, a piece to take with me.”
“Kingdom Hearts,” he says and it makes his breath swell. “To wherever we shall go when the time comes. When all memory erases and we reset, in a space somewhere my existence will linger so long as I have a memory to hold onto.”
It’s not something she really thought about - him wanting to have something to possess. These people, these Nobodies, give their free will up to Xehanort’s influence, to reduce themselves to puppets. It never occurred to her that the others might have something they cherish and want to keep as well, no matter the reason why they chose to walk this path and give themselves up like this.
“It is beautiful, is it not?” he asks.
If he means the ocean, it used to be.
She cocks an eyebrow. “That’s something that moves you?”
He takes a seat on the bench in front of her, the camera treasured in his hands. “I am only missing a heart, not a mind. Opinions are privileged to me... What we will leave behind here is graceful, as damning as that is.”
“Hmph.” Listening to him speak about absent hearts, that he’s a hollow body, chokes her each time, like she’s facing punishment for her transgressions.
Either way, she can’t let him see her get so affected. She flicks dirt off her cloak, leaning back and crossing her legs.
“Xemnas,” she starts, her tone teasing like a dark thought hasn’t crossed her mind. “Superior of the In-Between, Appreciator of Beauty.”
Titles have a weight to them, some befitting and others suppressing. Xemnas is a man who gives them value, who finds agreement to what she’s saying, testing his new designation in his mind to see how well it suits.
He studies her first. Brings the camera to his face, aims the lens at her. She sees herself in its reflection, gold eyes bright, before the flash captures her.
She flips through several developed photos and it comes as no surprise that she’s not smiling in any of them. She can read the timeline as she looks through portraits of herself standing by riverbanks and strolling through souks, her hair whitening by the week.
The two of them meet in secret to look over the photographs when they’re certain no one else is in the castle, and a part of her today hopes that one of them is beautiful enough to bring her some comfort.
Ventus is no longer in Castle Oblivion. Her hints and paper trails have worked and he’s now in the custody of the other Keybearers.
But it leaves her with a sensational loneliness, having no reason to go back and watch him sleep, and she doesn’t have anyone to talk about these feelings with.
It’s hard to tell if she’s doing a banging job at pretending it doesn’t affect her, since she’s grumpy all the time anyway.
Xemnas stands close, looking over her shoulder as she goes through a stack where he recorded a trip they took to a world of mountains.
Some of these photos she was aware of. Others not so much, and one in particular shows her staring at her Wayfinder, blue and powerful, while she ignores the backdrop of clouds cowering under the girth of the peaks behind her. He’s captured her standing so close to the edge yet she doesn’t even remember walking so dangerously near.
He scoffs gently. “Continue to be bound by the chains that drag you, and you will plunge into oblivion.”
She doesn’t know what game he’s playing anymore. Is he just fooling himself at this point? What other reason does he have to always follow her around unless there’s something pulling him?
Maybe it’s time to see exactly what he remembers. She’s had so many wonderful years living in the mountains with her boys, exploring the forests and camping overnight...
“We used to fish together,” she says, and the words sting more than she expected.
“Hmmm,” he sighs. “It was a leisure that came easily to me.”
Her heart skips a beat. Xemnas rambles, Xemnas tricks himself, Xemnas keeps others in the dark, the blind leading the blind.
But this is the truest statement that he’s ever said; she’s never been the best at hunting.
“It was, you were the best at it,” she says, prodding his eyes for more. “There was a river by the closest trail and-”
He smiles, and she almost hates it. It’s not warm, not comforting, just condescending.
“At an ocean that stretched by my childhood home, on an island, stranded in the middle of nowhere, where I fished with schoolmates,” he says.
The lump in her throat sinks, and it’s an emotion called devastation. She’s spent years exploring her memories privately because admitting to them would acknowledge their existence, and there’s something about the dark that makes her question whether she’s making them up. Just like he is now.
She wants to throw his photos at his face, demand that he remembers her, shake him until he gives her an expression in his eyes that actually means he feels.
He pulls the photos from her hand, creased from her holding them too tightly. Whatever stupefied look she had on her face prompts him to say this next: “There is a place I want to show you.”
A single white room void of windows, like a capsule. But what’s inside nearly makes her wonder if she’s been transported elsewhere. There’s a white throne marked by chains and it’s uncanny how much it looks like the one Ventus slept in all this time.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she starts to ask, suddenly terrified that she’s been found out when she spots a mess of color.
Cracked and abandoned, just like her. Her armor in a scrap heap.
And right by it, Stormfall, dusty like it’s been waiting for as long as she has.
“It has not been a very…” He hides his hands behind his back. “Loquacious partner.”
She’s speechless at the idea that all this time the other members think he’s been talking to himself…
And what did he talk about? Why bother to pretend the armor is alive?
It’s enough temptation to try her hand. “Terra?”
If his smile is patronizing, his laugh is worse: breathy, amused, pitiful.
“What is in a name,” he says, “but a hopeful delusion?”
“Don’t mess with me,” she steps forward, ready to jab a finger at his chest. “I’m not in denial. There’s so much riding with me-”
“No.” He shakes his head, so tall that he has to look down. “You have nothing.”
“I’m not like you,” she hisses. “Any of you, I don’t tell myself lies that I am nothing.”
“You cannot claim that.” The confidence in his speech is astounding. “What you have is a star-shaped trinket. A fossil. That former life of yours is dead.”
She wants to spit back. Really, she does. And yet her mouth feels sewn together, too afraid to let toxic words slip out of her mouth, too tired to have to prove herself otherwise. It’s like she’s been paranoid that punishment has been waiting for its chance to pounce, and it’s finally here.
He’s so much larger than Terra that he has to bend over to meet her face, and he’s close enough she can smell his cologne, see the details of his irises and finally witness a spark -
Anger lives behind them, tested, refined, and tamed. Powerful, unlike hers which throws her at whims.
“This room,” he starts, and he pierces her with his eyes, beautiful and messy, “is what I have left. A troublesome reminder that there is something I have forgotten. The chains that keep us bound are attached to an empty void. That is why we are nothing, friend.”
The title feels like a leash and a collar around her neck, like he’s about to grab her. She braces herself for the possibility, and it churns her stomach.
“What I have earned since are the hollow words of a woman who’s told me there was nothing to darkness but hate and rage,” he continues, barely giving her the space to breathe for herself. “So I came here, to ask her time and time again if she still believes I will continue to go astray.”
If there is a memory she ever wished for Terra’s heart to hold onto, it wouldn’t have been those words.
“The fates that have been chiseled for us,” he continues, “were deviant… unnatural… manipulated. We should not have existed, maimed and exploited. Darkness has ravaged us, as much as it has left you destitute.”
What echoes in the silence is the shuddering of her breath, driving her to near-tears when she thought that she wasn’t capable of crying anymore. “I didn’t deserve what happened to me.” She doesn’t know why she needs to say that or what kind of comfort she will get out of it.
His eyes search her face and there’s that feeling in the back of her mind that he’s going to touch her. “I did not think so, either.”
With that, he straightens up, turning over his shoulder to leave her shivering in this cold room.
She lunges forward to grab his wrist - a knee-jerk reaction really. Who can blame her when she’s looking for… someone to tell her it’s not her fault. When he turns to look back at her and she realizes the smile she wants is just a fantasy, she’s reminded:
Xemnas. She has to remember that he is Xemnas and not who she wants him to be.
So she lets him go, to be left in an air-tight container with no Terra to hold her, no Ventus to wake up, and a Keyblade.
It belongs to a Master, to Aqua. And she is Aqua but she is not.
She has been tethered and conditioned since, a dull glory with memories that don’t serve her anymore except to leave her feeling… well, destitute. An Anti-Aqua, a new her with the same name she was born with.
Certainly it feels strange to hold Stormfall again after all these years, and she takes it with her. After all, stealing a Keyblade isn’t that terrible of a crime.
There isn’t so much of a point to being part of an Organization when she’s lonely even around other people. It’s daunting, and if she isn’t around Nobodies that can speak, she’s around monstrosities that can’t.
The World That Never Was is hollow, and the sea of empty hotels and apartments is all just for show, like it’s good enough to pretend to have friends.
But maybe that is definitely the point: keep attachments at bay to make it easier to move on to the other side when the time comes.
Footsteps softly rise as she hears him climb the steps that lead to the lounge where she waits, and it makes her smirk. He walks with the lightness of air; that’s impressive for his size.
“I come bearing gifts,” he announces when he arrives to take the couch across from her, crossing his legs as he makes himself comfortable. In his hand is a white envelope, full enough to have photos she hasn’t seen yet.
Her face goes cold when she looks through them - it’s like he’s throwing more games at her that she’s too tired to play, like he keeps testing her to see when she finally breaks. If he hasn’t figured her out yet, he certainly has now.
Ventus, in all of them. Wandering streets by himself with the curiosity of a toddler. Laughing with Sora. Sparring with Riku.
She inhales sharply. “What do you want with him?”
“Nothing,” he says like it’s his favorite word. “I do not wish to harm him.”
“Stalking and endangering him makes you look bad.”
All Xemnas does is flash her a smug grin, his fingers on his chest like he’s proud of himself. “It appears I am not the heartless one between the two of us, throwing such a blatant accusation against me.”
Being playful doesn’t suit him well but at least she’s fond of it. He lets go of a long breath, the smirk melting away into a faraway longing as he stares at his own hand, those gears of his turning.
It gives her the impression that her reaction stung him, and she wonders if anyone has ever asked him if his feelings have been hurt. If he’s even capable of being offended that way.
Rubbing his gloved fingers against his palm, Xemnas shakes his head. “There was a… an oath made to me long ago, and still I cannot recall the exact words.”
Aqua doesn’t know what to say - Terra and Ventus were like brothers, and sometimes would share secrets and promises without her knowing, so she really can’t help him remember.
She wishes, though, that he’s easier to read. It’s hard to tell if he’s being entirely sincere or if he’s pulling fanciful words to suit her - if he has other reasons not to attack Ventus. Come to think of it, he only asked her to find Ventus for him once… though it’s unsafe to assume too much. Believing that he feels a bond is still a risk, but so long as she can take care of herself, it’s probably a good idea to humor him.
It’s for the best since Ven isn’t something Xemnas should think he can keep.
“How long I have searched for the chamber that kept him locked away for more than a decade,” he continues. “I admit all I yearned for were answers to questions no book can satiate. Now... he simply waltzes out of the castle with nary a helping hand.”
It’s the way he says it that tells her he knows.
She shrugs. “Magically.”
“Magically.” At least he’s amused. “The portraits are yours to keep.”
She takes another glance, petting her thumb on the smooth surface where his cheek was captured. “How is he?”
“He is healthy.” He leans back, one elbow on the armrest. “Rambunctious and eager to fight.”
“Did he see you?”
“No.” He takes one hard look at her. “Will you not meet with him?”
He attempts to ask why but she cuts him off. “He’d be very upset if-” Takes a moment. Regain composure. There’s nothing left to cry over, he’s happy and he deserves it. “If he saw either of us this way.”
She adds, “my body is changing.”
The confession is like pulling a stopper, letting the water gush down the drain like a hurricane, where tears do not come out of her eyes but out of the growling in her throat and the fists she makes as she slips off her gloves to show him the red fingertips, the purple wrists, the smoke that poofs out like she’s sweating it.
Nothing could have prepared her for how much his smile falls, completely enraptured with what he sees, like she’s a foreign specimen in need of study.
“To feel so intensely,” he says mostly to himself, leaning over the table in between them to look at it more closely. “That it alters the host.” He frees a hand from his glove, and his skin looks smooth like a human’s - for someone who considers himself a monster, she’s the only one who looks like one.
He reaches over, as if asking for her hand. It has to be the most human thing to be curious.
Meeting him halfway, they press their palms against each other, the rolls that make up the hand and fingers shifting as they fill the gaps. His are so familiarly big, so amazingly warm, and she’s been certain this entire time that she’d never feel hands like these again. It’s pleasant to find some solace from the frigidity of her scales.
Splaying his fingers to meet hers, he plays: first leaning into hers to see how far they can bend, then threading them together one by one, like he understands what it is to hold a hand but has never learned what it’s supposed to feel like.
Intertwined like this, he’s now leashed to her, bound by a chain he can’t break either.
It’s hard to count the hours when there’s no sun. It could be late or early, whatever, but either way sleep has decided not to say good night no matter how many times she’ll toss and turn.
Suppose the only question keeping her awake is whether any of this matters. When that heart-shaped moon finally opens and she disintegrates, suppose she’ll become the inky sky that allows the stars to shine in the new world, a ghost so far away and expansive that she’ll stretch forever and witness everything.
Or instead, she’ll turn into a star, a memory of the way things were and she’ll shine brightly to give others hope. Maybe even become the sun and be the source of all life.
She takes her hand, lets her cold, scaly fingers brush her chest first before finding her heartbeat, quiet and calm with the hours in rest.
Still, what is the point if she’s at it alone? Will she blend into other people? Will she reconnect with Terra and Ven? Will she forget about them, about her current life, about pain and loss?
After all, the only way to remove the loss is to wipe away the reminiscence.
With this in mind, she leaves her bed and this empty room.
Whatever she becomes, the least she can have is something to hold onto. She should be allowed to keep the things she’s loved. Maybe nothing will happen - maybe they can run away, abandon crazy prospects and make a life out of what’s left.
Finding herself standing in front of Xemnas’ door, she knocks, somewhere between soft and demanding. When he opens the door, he’s finishing the zipper up his cloak, having just stood from his desk where his camera splays open.
“Don’t say anything,” Aqua says. There’s been enough thinking, enough existential crises tainted by the question of why’s and when’s and what’s.
They’re wasting time and she doesn’t want to be alone when her bones turn to dust.
Xemnas still has his glove-less fingers on his zipper when he steps aside and lets her walk through the threshold into his room, respecting her request to keep silent, a small smirk pulling on his face.
Aqua closes the gap between them, her head leaning against his chest, nuzzling on the leather he wears. He likes to talk big about being nothing, but there it is, his heartbeat, quiet and calm like it doesn’t want to be discovered.
What’s in a name indeed, a man once said to her when his own very name, Xemnas, is a body and a mind. He is someone, and Kingdom Hearts will take him away too.
Hearing its beat lulls her and finally, finally, she thinks she’ll be able to find sleep for this long night. Gripping his leather into her fists, her breath slows and she rests against him, taking his warmth as a reminder that she’s alive for now. There’s nothing else relevant except the lack of rhythm in their hearts and that camera, a small trinket they can take with them so at least they can share a life that isn’t dead.
He helps himself to a lock of her hair as he intertwines it into his fingers, his free hand claiming the small of her back, his warm breath on her scalp as he searches for his own meaning of life.
“It’s magnificent,” he says about whatever it is he’s finding.
She hums, half in contempt that he’s speaking and half asleep, intoxicated by his cologne as she pulls on his cloak, squeezing her fist tighter like tonight will be the last.
“Xemnas,” she calls but does not follow-up.
She was about to say that he can continue to take photos of her, to let her take some of him with her, to liven the mood, to keep her warm because this entire castle is cold… to do something or tell her a story of a world where the sun rises from the west. Maybe they can find it together and gather proof of it.
He’s been wrong all along - there is power to a name and if he wants to deny that, then she’ll have to slap him out of such a problem.
He moves slightly and now his hair covers her face but he grips her tighter. The door to his room closes. He carries her to bed, and she lets herself drown in his mouth as his weight pressures her to sink, down to the depths where they gasp for air together.