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Aqua: Heart of Pain

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"It's time to wake up Aqua."

Aqua gave a startled gasp and sat up, taking in a deep breath for what felt like the first time in years. She groaned and clutched her head, feeling dizzy, confused, and a little nauseous. She slowly opened her eyes, seeing herself sitting on a white, marble-like landscape hanging over an endless abyss.

She turned her head and looked around, pausing on seeing the Door to Darkness before her. Only... it was different than she remembered. Gone was the beautiful pure white door with stainless glass on the top. In it's place was a reinforced door, barred shut and armored, as if to resist any and all attempts to force it open.

It took her a moment to remember why. "I... I nearly destroyed the door..."

Slowly she stood up, her eyebrows furrowing. "But... it was repaired? Wait, where's Terra? The last thing I remember... I... stabbed myself with my Keyblade to expel Xehanort. Terra... he was there, he wouldn't have just left me here, he..."

Aqua's eyes went wide and her body went rigged. She fell to her knees and screamed as she was bombarded endlessly with countless memories. She saw herself, no, she saw her Heartless, as it engulfed Radiant Garden in darkness, ripping out people's hearts to feast on. She saw her Heartless and Terra clash. She cried out each time her Heartless hurt the man she cared for.

What's worse...

Was the pain she felt when it won, when her Heartless cast Terra aside in favor of a World's Heart and consumed it.

On and on the memories went, of countless lives consumed in a heart-born hunger. She saw her friends clash with her Heartless time and time again. The pain it inflicted on them, the agony, the torment of fighting against a mockery of their friend, she could see it in their eyes. Then... two new boys entered the memory... no... she knew them. Sora... Riku... they had been taken in and trained, they tried to help fight the Heartless, but it wasn't enough...

So many times... so many times she hurt them... so many times she nearly killed them...

A memory, of Ventus laying near comatose on the ground, of her Heartless's hand embedded in his chest trying to rip out his heart, only for Eraqus to step in and save the boy. It... it destroyed Aqua to see him like that. To realize her Heartless... her own darkness... had nearly killed her friend...

She wanted to sob and cry, to give outlet to the pain, but the memories showed her no mercy and gave her no chance to grieve in their onslaught. On and on they went, and slowly, her friends started appearing less, they stopped standing a chance against the heart-gorged heartless and they knew it. Very few things could stand against it...

She saw a trio of monstrous demon-like creatures, Baal, Mephisto, Diablo, stand up to her briefly, angel's and mortals stepping in to pick up the slack when they began to fail...

She saw a giant mountain of a place called Olympus, gods and titans and mortal heroes rushing at her to stop her onslaught...

She saw a winged castle in a place called Alexandria, bathed in light, flap it's magnificent wings and banish her from it's world...

But so few worlds had such kind of monumental power. Most fell before the power of her Heartless and it's army. Numbness crept over Aqua as the memories sped along. So many worlds... so many people...

Her Heartless had been committing genocide against the entire Realm of Light, devouring all hearts and light...

Then...

Then a girl in Keyblade armor came into view of the memories, rushing at her not to fight, but to hug her? Calling the Heartless 'Master Aqua'?

Wait... that girl... the light she radiated in the memories, a heart of pure light...

Oh... oh no... she knew... she knew who that girl was!

"K-kairi..." whispered Aqua, "Please no..."

She screamed in anguish as her Heartless nearly destroyed Kairi's heart, trying to use it to feed off Aqua's memories sleeping in her heart. She remembered a different memory then, not from the heartless, but from herself. It was hazy, but clear enough to understand she had met Kairi in the ocean leading to the Realm of Sleep, sacrificing her own suspension out of sleep to help prevent Kairi from falling to slumber.

It was the smallest of comforts, in the sea of horror that was spilling into her memories.

Again and again her Heartless came after Kairi, torturing screams out of the girl to awaken more and more memories. The only slight satisfaction she got out of the memories was the grim fate her Heartless gave to Xehanort's own Heartless, enslaving it to her will and destroying it's sense of self.

Finally, she came to the door, still broken, of Kairi and Sora facing off against Xehanort's Heartless, destroying it. Then...

She wailed as her Heartless ripped Kairi's heart out of her chest and devoured it. There were not words to describe the despair she felt...

But then there was light.

It ripped out of the door and engulfed the Heartless, and through Kairi, destroyed it.

A faint memory, of Kairi's heart leading her own to the door to help heal it stirred. Then, entrusting Sora with the girl's heart for safekeeping before she had fallen fully to sleep.

The memory onslaught ended, leaving her ragged and raw.

She dry heaved.

She tried to empty her empty stomach over and over, gagging over the horror that her darkness had caused the worlds. "What... what have I done?!"

She sat there, despair and depression overwhelming her. "I... I ruined everything... I could have ended it, I could... I could have stopped Xehanort..."

Instead? She had succumbed, she had, as she had always been warned of by the Master, and by Terra, she had succumbed to her darkness to try to inflict as much pain on Xehanort as she could, and... and this... was the result.

"Terra was right...," she whispered.


"You saw what I saw Ven, she's willingly turning to the darkness for power. It hasn't even been a week since the exam, yet she gained that kind of power by succumbing to it," said Terra, "How long will it be Aqua before your darkness swallows you whole? How long before it corrupts you and makes you hurt those you care for? Hurt us?"


She remembered his words at Radiant Garden... and how true they had been.

And Kairi...


Was she even capable of performing the Inheritance Ceremony? She had never became a master... but... Xehanort had said she would have been one if it were up to him, and Master Eraqus had said something along those lines as well. Ignoring that, being a wielder brought on responsibilities and dangers... could she really inflict those upon a Princess of Heart?

But...

Could she not? If she hadn't been there, then Kairi would have died...

This sweet little girl would have DIED!

Aqua bristled at the agonizing thought. After Master Eraqus retired, it would only be Terra, Ventus, and her as Keyblade Wielders to her knowledge. They couldn't possibly be everywhere at once, protecting everyone at once. Kairi needed to be able to one day defend herself from any darkness that would dare try to harm her...

"How long will it be Aqua before your darkness swallows you whole? How long before it corrupts you and makes you hurt those you care for? Hurt us?"

Even from Aqua herself if what Terra had said were to happen...


How could she have done that to that sweet innocent girl? Inflicted on her a task and fate so cruel...

"I knew things could go badly, I even acknowledged it, but I still went through with it, I'm a monster...," she whispered.

She sat there in brooding depression until her head started to hurt again. She recognized the sensation, and cried out as suddenly more memories started to bombard her. Of waking up outside a mansion. Lost, unable to feel, not knowing where she was, or who she was, without a memory to spare. Of going into the mansion, and residing there for years, alone, save for the people in black coats, Nobodies, who tried to continually spy on and recruit her...

Until a young girl accidentally broke down the door and changed her life...

Olette, sweet dear Olette...

She saw the girl try to worm her way into the Nobody's none-existent heart. It hurt Aqua... hurt her so badly, to see the girl try to please her so much, and yet get not a smile in response. The girl was determined, to say the least, to keep trying, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.

The only small relief that Aqua got, was that her Nobody took up the mantle of defending the world, Twilight Town, from the Heartless and any Nobody that dared think of harming those that dwelled there. She watched as her Nobody, while it could not feel, came to treasure Olette in it's own way, prioritizing her above all else.

Then...

Kairi and Sora stumbled into her life.

And were promptly rejected after telling the Nobody the truth of who she was, selfishly choosing one world over the whole...

Not much later, an oddity came into the memories. A girl who looked so much like Kairi, but called herself Xion. Her Nobody thought it might be Kairi's Nobody, but Aqua herself wasn't so sure...

She watched, a soft smile on her face, as Xion tried to worm her way into the Nobody's heart as well with a pure innocent nature. Sitting on the clock tower, eating ice cream, glancing out at the sunsets, she could appreciate the moment far more than she knew her Nobody had been able to. Xion came back a few more times, along with a red haired Nobody named Axel, and a blonde named Larxene. The woman that didn't sit well with Aqua, but, Xion appeared to be trying to change the woman for the better.

Then, things started going wrong. First she learned that Xion had been out of it for a week, then Axel came to ask her to provide sanctuary for Xion if needed, then the girl whose hair had started going red and Axel both came back seeking it. Only for... Braig? No, for Braig's Nobody, Xigbar, to come and reveal Xehanort's Nobody's plans.

She watched, her heart aching, as Xion knocked the two men out and left on her own to stop Xehanort. One way or another, she knew it would be the last time she saw the girl in these memories. It came true, but not nearly in the way she thought.

When Kairi entered back into the memories, dressed in Xion's coat, and told them of the true nature of Xion as a replica and the sacrifice she had made to save Kairi's heart... it... it broke her heart...

"It's because of me... again... and my choice," she whispered in anguish.

She watched depressed as her Nobody finally agreed to go offworld and help sort out the mess Xehanort was making. Convincing Kairi's friends and family to help, storming the castle, the pain that Kairi and Xion felt at Larxene's death, working through the remaining Nobodies...

And then...

"Maleficent," whispered Aqua in shock.

What in the world had become of the witch?! She had turned herself into some kind of... just... 'abomination' was the only word that came to mind for Maleficent and the monsters that came in behind her. It was like the witch had somehow merged Nobodies and Heartless together. The skin crawling sensation the witch and her creations gave off... was this... was this her fault? She heard Maleficent tell her Nobody that she had paved the way...

She understood a second later. "The books... I left her with all of Xehanort's knowledge and of course she'd seek power... what have I done?"

She had little time to dwell on the horror of her failures as the memories continued. It was a painful jolt to see the Keyblade Graveyard again, for Xehanort to slip memories into her Nobody to try and overwhelm her...

"Wait... he has my memories?!" she exclaimed.

When she had tried to extract his heart from hers... had it not been an even cut? No, of course it hadn't, she hadn't even aimed or try to think it through. She had just carved into her heart with the Keyblade and ripped him out driven by fear and desperation. Dammit, stupid, how could she be so stupid? If she had acted calmly... if she had taken the time to try and slowly extract him instead of brute force ripping both his and her own heart out, none of the last ten years would have happened...

But...

On the other end of the spectrum she noticed something.

She couldn't remember any of the memories she had gained by absorbing Xehanort's heart.

Good riddance.

She caught up with herself as the memories continued and the battle against Xehanort started. It frightened her how powerful the man had gotten by trying to merge with his artificial Kingdom Hearts. How in the world were they supposed to fight against that? She watched the struggle anxiously... and then Xigbar fell and died...

And then her Nobody considered why he died so willingly, his words, and the oddity that had been Xehanort not trying to land a blow on her...

In that moment, her Nobody theorized that if both a Heartless and a Nobody of someone were to perish, the original self would be reborn.

Then, the last memory was her Nobody putting that theory to the test...

BEFORE THE BATTLE WAS EVEN WON!?

Aqua leaped to her feet, terrified. "NO! What happened to Kairi!? Did she win? Did she survive? Stupid IDIOT Nobody!"

Forget her misery and pain over the memories! She had to GO! If he had won, she knew she couldn't fight Xehanort alone with that kind of power. He wouldn't have killed a Princess of Heart, just captured her. She needed... she needed her friends if she were to stop Xehanort and save Kairi...

She suckered in a deep breath and aimed a hand forward, feeling inwardly for her darkness. She hated tapping into it after all of this, all that she had seen, but she had no choice...

She felt a familiar chill of darkness and rush of power before a Dark Corridor opened. She steeled herself and walked through, coming out at the summit of the Land of Departure. Her legs wobbled as she walked down the mountain at a pace far slower than she knew she should be going. Guilt, anxiety, uncertainty, they all pried at her, saying she had no right to be here anymore in this land, no right to ask her friends for help...

She knew they were right too...

She came to the courtyard before the keep, where she had fought the Master to save Ven's life. She paused there, staring silently at the ground, the memory of the battle washing over her. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, letting it out, and opening them. It was time.

She stretched out her senses, it was probably a good idea to see if they were even home at the moment. One by one she felt their presences...

And...

Her eyes went wide with happy surprise. "Kairi..."

She felt Kairi's light, her pure light, emanating from within the castle. The girl had won! She had beaten Xehanort?! It left Aqua flabbergasted, and yet, proud.

"You're a far better keybearer than I ever was Kairi," whispered Aqua.

Yet...

She frowned. Something felt... wrong... with the light she felt with Kairi. No, not the light, from Kairi herself. She closed her eyes and tasted the air, focusing her senses.

Despair.

She felt it from Kairi, washing out from the girl like an unstoppable tide.

Something was wrong with her...

"Your apprentice needs you right now, she's hurting so much."

The words echoed in her mind. She shoved aside and bottled up everything plaguing her. She forced a passive mask on her face, showing no emotion. Forget her own troubles, Kairi needed her! She walked up the steps to the castle and pushed open the doors silently. She could hear faint words from up the steps in the throne room. She ascended the steps slowly, listening.

Her heart ached to hear Terra's voice for the first time in so long. "Any change with her Sora?"

The pain in the boy's voice made her falter and go still half-way up the steps. "No... she's just... she hasn't done anything but sit there and cry or just stare at the wall for days now... I could barely get her to eat at first, now she just doesn't even look food, or even acknowledge that I'm there anymore."

Ven's voice rang out, so similar to her memories, yet sounding a bit more deep than she remembered, not as youthful. "Ah jeez, poor kid."

"I suppose we may have to consider force feeding her until she's... pulled herself together," came Eraqus's tired voice, "She's strong, have faith Sora, she will recover."

"I... I hope so, I can't stand seeing her like this," whispered Sora.

Aqua shook her head and snapped herself out of it, ascending the rest of the way up. She stood at the top of the steps, glancing at the thrones, at the gathering of people there. She took them all in within the span of a moment.

Terra was as she remembered him, clothes and all. Though, his face was a bit more worn, his hair a little longer, his body a bit more muscular and toned than she remembered. But the power from him... it left her surprised. He so far exceeded the strength she remembered feeling from him before. He had grown much in the last ten years as the Steward of the Land of Departure.

Ven... oh gosh! He had grown so tall! He was even taller than Terra now! Oh man... she was the shortest of the three of them now. A soft smile played across her lips as she took him in. He was still dead set on wearing that goofy set of clothing he had. White on one half, black on the other, crossed by a black cloth with House of the Keyblade Master's symbol. Though, it was a bigger version to fit his taller body. His eyes still had that kind gentle look she so cared for, but... with it... was a hardness that she never wanted to see in them. Oh Ven... how she had made him suffer...

Eraqus was as she remembered, though, his hair looked to be showing signs of turning gray.

Her eyes flickered to see a Mouse of all things sitting on one of the thrones, dressed in a red zipper jacket. Was that... the Mickey that had been there at the Keyblade Graveyard?

She noted Yen Sid standing next to the man, same as ever, even ten years later.

On the flip side, standing next to Terra was... wait... was that Aurora? The Princess of Heart? What was she doing here?

She pondered it briefly before dismissing it and glancing at the two boys... at Sora and Riku...

She distinctly remembered those spiky brown locks as Sora's. While she couldn't see his face with his back turned, she figured he would look mostly the same, but older. He had a white haori, paying homage to Eraqus, except it was lined black instead of red. Underneath he had a dark red shirt with a white zipper going all the way down to his pants. His bottom was baggy, and stopped at his knees. On his hands were two white finger-less gloves with a blue buckle wrapped around them with the symbol of the house of Keyblade Master's on the top of the gloves. He also had on a set of Keyblade armor on his shoulder.

The other boy, Riku...

She remembered that silver hair of his, going down to his neck. She caught a glimpse of a serious, but kind blue eyes, his face calm but focused. He bore a tight yellow sleeveless shirt with a brown X shape coming down from the collar. He was well toned for someone his age. His bottom half bore a blue hakama, paying homage to Terra if she had to guess. The boy was his apprentice after all if she recalled. Connecting his two halves was a belt with that symbol of the House of the Keyblade Master'sn. On his hands he had black gloves, a little below his wrists, brown bands.

The final member was Axel. Spiky red hair, black Organization coat, teal eyes, and those odd markings under his eyes. But speaking of his eyes... for a Nobody, they showed a good chunk of emotion, most being grief...

She shook her head and refocused as Terra spoke, "Alright Sora, just... go back and keep an eye on her."

Sora sighed. "Yeah, I will..."

"I'll go with you kid," said Axel.

"Actually Axel, I believe you agreed to tell us more about the Organization yesterday," said Terra.

"Aww come on, the Organization's toast, and I wanna keep an eye on the kids," said Axel.

Terra's head started to turn. "And we appreciate it, but, there's no guarantee they're all gone. The more we know the..."

Terra trailed off as his eyes landed on Aqua on their way to Axel. The first thing that passed through them was fear and anticipation. She could tell the first thought that passed his mind was of her Heartless, and as much as he had a right to default to that after the last ten years, it hurt. Then, confusion played across his face, he by now had noticed the differences.

The others saw the look on his face and turned to follow his gaze. Surprise played across their faces.

"Uh... Axel, didn't you say Aqua's Nobody died?" said Sora in disbelief.

"Uh... she did," said Axel, confused.

Terra stood up, his eyes no longer held confusion, only shock. "That's... that's not her Nobody... nor is it her Heartless... it's..."

"Aqua... is that really...?" said Ven, standing up from his throne, disbelief on his face.

She wanted to run to them, to throw herself at them, and hug them to oblivion. To cry into Terra's shoulder, and ruffle Ven's hair, but... she wasn't here for herself...

She took a shaky breath and started forward slowly, stopping a bit from the stunned group. "Where is my apprentice? Where is Kairi?"

That seemed to snap them out of it.

Terra brushed passed the group and stood in front of the group, Ven doing the same, just staring at her, exploring her body with their eyes, taking in a sight she knew they hadn't seen in ten years.

"It's you...," said Terra in disbelief, "How...?"

Ven didn't wait for an explanation, he threw himself at her and wrapped her in a fierce hug. "AQUA!"

She yelped as she staggered a bit under his weight and strength. "E-easy Ven!"

"Don't easy Ven me!" he yelled, tearing up, "Aqua... it's you, you're alive... you're... you're back..."

"Ven please... I need to go see Kairi," she tried

Ven blinked a few times, took a ragged breath and separated. "You need to...?"

He sighed deeply, a sad smile crossing his face. "You haven't changed a bit Aqua... still seeing to others before yourself..."

She returned the sad smile. "We'll talk later Ven, I promise."

He pointed down the hall. "She's in the Princesses's suite. Just follow the light."

Aqua turned to go, only for Terra's hand to clamp on her shoulder. "How?"

"Terra, I said we'll talk later...," she began.

"And we will, but I have to know, how are you here?" he asked, a forceful tone to his voice, "Are you truly you?"

"Terra!" said Ven, a little angry.

She closed her eyes, pained by the question, though he had every right to ask it. "My Nobody figured it out shortly before she died. If someone's Heartless and Nobody are killed, their original self is reborn."

She opened her eyes and stared at him. "It's me Terra, as much as I don't deserve a second chance, it's me."

Terra's hand slowly fell off her shoulder, his face furrowed in thought, and a bit of irritation. "I'll save the 'deserve a second chance' part for later. Aqua, your Nobody couldn't have shared that critical piece of information with Kairi? Saved her from all of this pain?"

Aqua winced. "I'm... not happy about that either."

Terra slowly shook his head. "I suppose your Nobody was just as brash and impulsive as you were."

Aqua bristled a little. "Excuse me?"

There was a hint of a smirk on his face. "It also means then, that Kairi's family may be back as well. The girl might not have lost what she thought she did."

Terra turned and approached Axel. "Check Traverse Town for them, and if they're not there, go check in Radiant Garden, alright?"

Axel nodded and saluted. "Got it boss man."

Terra scoffed. "Boss man?"

Axel grinned, but said nothing in response before leaving through a Dark Corridor.

With that, Aqua turned and walked away, following the sensation of pain filled light...


Terra watched her go, his heart in a flux in a way it hadn't been in years.

It was her, truly her.

Aqua was alive.

She was back.

Right in front of him.

The weight of it hadn't quite hit him yet, but he was certain he was going to feel it later.

He turned to look at Ven, who had the biggest smile on his face, not one seen since he was a teenager. "She's back Terra... we got her back again..."

Terra smiled too. "Yeah, and this time Ven, were not letting her go."

Ven nodded. "Damn straight.

Terra turned to look at the group. Eraqus was pleased, a soft smile on the man's face. Mickey and Yen Sid seemed thoughtful. Riku was as stoic as ever, though, he thought he caught a certain twinkle in the boys eyes and the beginnings of a smile. Aurora seemed a little uneasy, but, she had never really interacted with Aqua outside of her Heartless, not to mention Aqua's darkness could clearly be felt, so it was understandable...

But...

It didn't explain why Sora seemed so uneasy and uncertain. Curious, not the reaction he'd expect from the boy... maybe it was because of Kairi...?

"Sora? Do you wish to go with her to see Kairi?" asked Terra.

Sora slowly shook his head, a worried look on his face. "Master Terra... if she's back... then... what about Xehanort?"

All happiness left the room instantly and a coldness settled in as a rigidness and alarm filled everyone present.

Aqua said that if a Heartless and a Nobody were destroyed, the original self was restored. Both of Aqua's had been destroyed... but so had Xehanort's...

If he was back... if the original Master Xehanort was back...

Oh dammit, this could all start over again...

He could lose Aqua all over again...

Terra's eyes slowly narrowed. "Yen Sid."

Yen Sid slowly stepped forward. "Yes Master Terra?"

"I want you to observe and search the stars, use your magic, anything you can think of, try to see if you can come up with any clue to see if Xehanort is truly back," ordered Terra.

Yen Sid nodded. "Very well."

He turned to his old master. "Eraqus, I want you to refresh yourself on everything you can remember about him. His fighting style, abilities, everything you can recall. You trained alongside him. If he's back, then you're the only one here that's had actual experience with him that we can turn to."

Eraqus nodded slowly, a clearly troubled look on his face. "Very well, but, Aqua herself may have a more up-to-date knowledge of his abilities and..."

"We're not involving her in this," said Terra.

Eraqus frowned. "I'd assume she'd already know."

"Eraqus, if the thought of Xehanort being alive had crossed her mind, she wouldn't be here. She'd have gone off alone to kill him, to eliminate the threat he'd represent to us, and for revenge," said Terra.

"Terra, that's...," began Ven.

Terra shot him a look. "Ven, you know it's true."

Ven frowned. "I... suppose..."

"I don't want anyone mentioning this to her, got it?" said Terra, glaring around the room, "We just got her back, and I'm not losing her to that man's mad ambitions again. If she figures it out on her own, then we'll deal with her involvement, but otherwise, she is to be left out of it. Kairi is to be left out of it as well... the girl's suffered enough as it is without worrying over Xehanort. Not to mention she has a... damaged passenger... in her heart that doesn't need to be put at risk."

He paused on his apprentice. "That means curb the anger, got it Riku? You're not the only one Xehanort hurt."

Riku's face had grown furious over the thought of Xehanort being alive, but he worked it away. "As you wish Master."

Terra ran a hand through his hair. "Out on your missions, if any of you get any clue of Xehanort being back, report it immediately, and be on guard. His Heartless and his Nobody by extension even though we never fought it, are nothing compared to the real Xehanort. He is a full fledged Keyblade Master of darkness, and is not to be underestimated under any circumstance. Do not take him on alone."

There was a collective nod.

"We'll wait on Yen Sid's observations before we make any move to go looking for him. If he is truly back, we will act before he causes another ten years of strife and ruins countless more lives," said Terra, "Until then, keep a tight lip."

He turned his eyes towards Aurora, shifting focus. "I don't wish to impose more than normal, but... would you be willing to make a bit of a feast tonight? I... want to celebrate Aqua being back."

Aurora nodded, a soft smile on her face. "Of course Terra."

He stood there, letting the reality of Aqua being back hit him again.

It should be a much warmer sensation...

But...

Again...

Xehanort clouded over everything.

Terra's fists clenched tightly. Xehanort had taken Aqua from them once, it would NOT happen again.

He frowned heavily before a different, and much more pleasing thought occurred to him. "Ven..."

Ven turned to him. "Yeah?"

He gave the boy a soft smile. "There's something of Aqua's I think we need to give back to her, ten years overdue."

Ven's eyes furrowed in thought for a moment before going wide, a huge grin spreading across his face. "Yeah..."

"Let's go," said Terra, turning to walk away, Ven following suit, up towards the old abandoned attic storeroom...


Aqua stood outside a door, the sound of a soft, yet deep sob emanating through it. She hadn't had the courage to walk in yet, just... pained... by all she had forced upon the girl by turning her into a Keybearer.

"I should never have forced this life on you," whispered Aqua to the door, "You were a little girl had no idea what you were asking for, I should have known better, been more responsible... this pain... should never have been yours to bear..."

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out before slowly pushing the door open.

Kairi sat on her bed, legs pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around them. She was still dressed in Xion's Organization coat. Her face was so tear stained and raw it almost made it hard to identify her at first, if not for the obvious red hair. Her blue eyes, eyes she could remember being so happy as a young four year old girl, were instead tainted by a pain and grief and emptiness that threatened to squeeze Aqua's heart until it popped. She looked dazed, unaware of anything, simply staring at a wall blankly, sobbing every now and then.

"Kairi... what did I do to you?" Aqua whispered.

The girl just... it hurt to admit... looked broken.

Aqua slowly walked over and sat down on the bed. "Kairi?"

No response.

She waved a hand in front of the girl's eyes.

No response.

She gave her a light shake. "Kairi... please..."

No response.

Aqua closed her eyes and took a ragged breath. She let it out and opened them, scooting over to the other side of Kairi against the wall. She gently took the girl and turned her, laying her head on her lap. She hesitated briefly before starting to run a hand through the girl's hair, trying to be comforting.

She was surprised when that of all things got a slight reaction out of her. The girl flinched a little, murmured something quietly under her breath, and closed her eyes, tilting her head more towards Aqua's hand. Aqua smiled softly and continued. Slowly, Kairi's breathing evened out, though, she continued to mumble something.

Aqua bit her lips and leaned down, trying to hear what she was saying. "Thank you miss Aqua for saving me from the monsters. I'm sorry you got hurt..."

Aqua blanked for a moment. What was she going on about...?

"I wish I was big and strong and a hero like you," the girl mumbled.

Something about this sounded... familiar...

"Miss Aqua?" mumbled the girl.

Wait a minute...

"Y-yes?" mumbled the girl.

It sounded like she was holding a conversation with a memory if Aqua had to guess.

"Ahuh, I wanna grow up to be just like you and protect all the other little girls like me!" murmured Kairi.

Aqua closed her eyes painfully. She knew what this was. This... Kairi was reliving when she had been chosen as a Keybearer, that time in the infirmary in Radiant Garden's castle...

"So? If I can help people by beating up mean monsters and making tears and cracks go away then I wanna! I don't do takesies-backsies!" murmured Kairi.

Aqua knew what came next, and spoke it aloud, whispering it into Kairi's ear, "In your hand, take this Key. So long as you have the makings, then through this simple act of taking, it's wielder you shall one day be. And you will find me, friend—no ocean will contain you then. No more borders around, or below, or above, so long as you champion the ones you love."

Kairi shivered at the words, shaking a bit. "Gnnn..."

Aqua remembered the next part, remembered how she made a promise that she had broken. "One day Kairi, when you're older, I'll come back for you. I'll be your master, and you'll be my apprentice, I'll teach you all about being a Keyblade Wielder. About the worlds, about yourself, about the light and the darkness."

Kairi shivered again. "Y-you promise?"

Tears started going down Aqua's face as she lied to the memory, just as she had lied in the past. "I promise."

Kairi took in a ragged breath, but made no other action, the murmuring stopped, and she just laid there. Aqua continued to run a hand through the girl's hair, staring down at her sadly. For a time, nothing happened, not a sound was heard but Kairi's steady breathing.

Finally, the girl slowly turned her head to look up at Aqua. "Master... Aqua...?"

Aqua smiled down at her, and not sure what to say, gave an awkward greeting, "H-hey there..."

The girl just laid there, staring up at her in a daze. Aqua watched as slowly, awareness started to come back into Kairi's eyes. Kairi blinked, and then sat up, glancing around the room in confusion.

"Where...," she murmured.

"Umm, you're in your room in the Land of Departure," offered Aqua.

Kairi turned her head to look at Aqua, simply staring at her with no reaction whatsoever. Aqua though was making a countdown in her head. About five seconds if she had to guess...

Kairi blinked once, blinked twice, and then jolted as if she had been struck by lighting, fully aware at last. "W-what?! Aqua! You... I saw Xehanort... he killed... you disappeared..."

Aqua gave her a soft smile. "Well, he did kill my Nobody."

"Your Nobody...?" murmured Kairi, confused.

Aqua felt the girl stretch out her senses and probe her, disbelief crossing her face. "You..."

Aqua saw it, the moment Kairi connected the dots, the girl's going wide and her body going rigid. "You... you're..."

Aqua couldn't help but wince painfully as Kairi screamed at near top of her lungs. "MASTER AQUA!"

Aqua was rammed into the wall as Kairi lunged at her in a full force tackle hug. "You're alive! Your back!"

Kairi started sobbing full force, burying her face into Aqua's chest; Aqua slowly put her arms around the girl, hugging her tightly. "I'm so sorry Kairi, for everything."

She started running a hand through the girl's hair, a hand rubbing her back. "It's alright Kairi, it's alright."

She waited for the girl to run through her sobs of relief, giving her as much time as she needed.

At last, Kairi pulled her head away and looked up at her. "How... how are... you here?"

"Well... my Nobody figured if someone's Heartless and Nobody are destroyed, the original person comes back, turns out she was right," explained Aqua.

Kairi worked the information over in her mind for a moment before her face changed. It wasn't in a good way, and it made Aqua start to sweat as pure, unadulterated, rage played across the girl's face.

Kairi grabbed Aqua's shoulders and started shaking her. "WHY DIDN'T SHE TELL ME? WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY?!"

Aqua flew into a full on panic, not sure how to react to the girls rage, and not liking her head getting bashed into the wall over and over again. "I don't know! She didn't think to say it! I'm sorry!"

"YOU'RE SORRY?!" Kairi roared at her.

Aqua thought fast, and while she knew she shouldn't say it until after Axel confirmed it, she needed a way out of this without a concussion. "Your family should be back too!"

Kairi completely froze up. "They... they're..."

"You're serious?" she whispered, the raw hope in her voice so palpable it hurt.

"They should be," reconfirmed Aqua, "Terra sent Axel to go check Traverse Town and Radiant Garden."

Kairi closed her eyes and took a ragged breath, and opened them, there was equal desperation and disbelief in her voice. "This... is this dream?"

"No, it's not," said Aqua sternly.

The reaction she got to it wasn't what she expected. Instead of Kairi looking happy, she just... her face turned tired, ragged. "..."

"Kairi?" asked Aqua.

When the girl didn't respond, Aqua took a slight risk and pinched her arm.

Kairi jumped a little and glared at her. "What was that for?"

"Just in-case you didn't believe me," teased Aqua, a little nervous Kairi would grow angry again.

That girl was scary when she was pissed.

Kairi said nothing, simply staring at her, her face tired and a little blank. She glanced down at the bed, closing her eyes, and gave a sigh far to heavy from someone so young.

"So... damn tired," muttered Kairi.

"Well, staring at a wall all day for days on end isn't exactly sleeping," said Aqua, "Get some rest Kairi. You need it."

Kairi turned to look at her. "Will... you still be here when I wake up?"

Her eyes asked the question her voice didn't. 'Will you still be real?'

Aqua heard the unasked question regardless and gave a small smile. "I'll stay right here until you do. Come here."

Kairi crawled to Aqua and laid down in her lap, closing her eyes, breathing shakily. Aqua's hand was getting a little tired from the repetition of the movement, but she she started running a hand through the girl's hair again until she drifted off.

Aqua figured she was going to be here for awhile. She grabbed Kairi's pillows, setting one behind her back, and gently lifting Kairi's head up to set one under her. She pulled Kairi's blanket out from under them and tucked it over here up to her neck.

Aqua sighed and ran her other hand through her own hair. She wondered what was going to happen now. Terra and Ven had been happy to see her at first, but would that still be the case later on? She knew, she knew without a doubt they... they were going to have to have a talk. Not any talk.

The talk.

About her failure.

About what she did.

What could she honestly say? There was no defense for what she did, putting her own desire for revenge against Xehanort over the safety of the worlds as a whole.

She didn't know what she'd do if they banished her for it, for her sins, for what had happened over the last ten years...

She had no where else to go and no one else to turn to...

Well...

There was Twilight Town.

Not to mention...

Olette.

Aqua smiled sadly, remembering what her Nobody had asked of Kairi as she died. Even in her last breaths, her Nobody had been worried for Olette. The girl deserved an explanation, either way, of what had happened. Not to mention Aqua's gratitude, for trying to be there for her Nobody.

On that note though, she really... wasn't sure to think of her Nobody, her... self but not self. She knew full well what to think about her Heartless, HATE, but... her Nobody... to just sit in Twilight Town that entire time, not helping the worlds, not seeking answers...

Even with only bits and pieces of memories, it should have been enough to drive her. Yet... it hadn't. The memories had embedded themselves in Aqua's mind, it was hard not to see the Nobody as just having been a part of herself. She wanted to dissociate herself from it, and especially from her Heartless...

Yet...

They had been her.

Were a part of her of her even now.

The body she resided in, and the darkness in her heart.

She sighed heavily. "What am I going to do with myself..."

She had an entire decade of genocide in her memories... she didn't know how the hell she was going to deal with that. Repressing wasn't going to work very well, even if she tried to use magic to help with it. Even if she tried to erase her own memories, they'd still lurk in her heart. If she didn't wake up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares, she'd be very much surprised.

She really didn't want to though, not for herself, but for the others... she knew such a thing would be torture for Terra and Ven if they let her stay here...

She'd find a way... she had to...

Creak...

Aqua glanced up to see Sora peaking through the door at the two of them. He looked down at Kairi, a soft smile at his face, before glancing up at Aqua with uncertainty.

There was another one whose life she had ruined... another she had inflicted the burden of being a Keybearer on. She wondered, how much had he lost compared to Kairi? How much pain had her decision to choose him put the boy through?

"Is she okay?" whispered Sora.

Aqua hesitated. "She's... just sleeping for now. I got her out of... that state, but... she needs time."

"Thank you," whispered Sora with heavy relief.

Aqua gave him a small smile, but didn't respond.

The boy hesitated for a moment before entering the room and sitting down on a chair next to the bed. "I'm umm... glad your back."

"Thank you," she offered quietly, not so sure she deserved the chance to be.

Sora gnawed a little on his lips before bowing his head, "And... I'm sorry... I'm sorry for not keeping my promise to protect her... I failed, miserably..."

Aqua stared sorrowfully at the boy, guilt eating away at her. "Sora... you don't need to be sorry. I... I placed a responsibility on you I never should have. You were just a boy back then, and... any pain she felt... can be laid at my feet far before it can be laid on yours."

She could see it in his eyes, that he wanted to argue against that, but, he merely sighed and took the obvious, if but true way out, "More like it can be laid at Xehanort's..."

Aqua's eyes tightened a bit at the man's name. "True enough."

Sora's eyes turned to Kairi. "How long do you think she's going to be out for?"

"To be honest, she ought to rest for a few days, if not longer. I may not have an exact time-frame for everything, but how much of a rest has she honestly had since... she defeated my Heartless?" asked Aqua.

Sora bowed his head. "She only had a month of sleep inside of me before Xehanort stole her heart. Being consumed alive by Xion... had to be a pain and torture unlike anything I can imagine, not that I really blame Xion. She didn't know, and when she found out, she gave herself up for Kairi, even though it hurt Kairi so much to lose her. Then... when she came back to us after beating Xehanort... she just... well... you saw."

Aqua glanced down at Kairi mournfully. "It's to much for someone so young to go through..."

Her eyes furrowed. "Though, I'm very curious about something. About how Kairi got so strong so quickly, especially when being eaten alive."

"Huh?" said Sora.

"Sora, I... know how strong Kairi was before she went to sleep inside of your heart. It doesn't match up, even with Xion helping her, how strong she was when she fought through the Organization and Xehanort," said Aqua.

Sora frowned. "Xion... was abnormally strong, I do remember that when we fought. Something... happened to her, between when Riku fought her and I did. Xion was... at least three times as strong as I remember Kairi being for that fight, and at the end... Kairi actually took over and talked to me."

Sora grew a bit frustrated. "Dammit Kairi... I still can't believe you did that. I worked up all the nerve to actually come out and say it, to try to get you to stop, but you just knocked me out before I could."

"Say what?" asked Aqua curiously.

Sora's face immediately turned beat red and he looked away. "Uh... n-nothing!"

Aqua went looking back and forth between Sora and Kairi before she connected the dots, a wide smile spreading across her face. Oh... THIS was going to be fun. It had been way to long since she had teased someone.

"Sora... do you like Kairi?" she asked in a teasing tone.

Sora's face burned even more. "W-well..."

"Hmmm...?" she said aloud.

"N-no...," he said.

Wow, he was trying hard to avoid it.

"Oh? You don't like her? Well that's a shame, she's a nice pretty girl after all," said Aqua teasingly.

Sora scowled. "Nice being the questionable term."

Aqua raised an eyebrow at that. "Something I missed?"

"First time we really met, she booted me in the stomach," said Sora, an oddly wistful tone in his voice.

Aqua stared down at Kairi for a moment before having to bring her arm up to block a fit of laughter.

"It hurt mind you," said Sora crossly.

He grew hesitant. "But... you're wrong. I... don't like her. I..."

"Well," he muttered.

His voice grew so quiet Aqua almost missed it. "I love her."

All the tease went right out of Aqua, she stared at him, astonished. "Sora..."

She smiled warmly at the boy. "That's so sweet..."

"She's strong, never gives up, can be so confrontational and aggressive at times it'd be funny if it wasn't so scary," he admitted, "But, deep down, she hides her kindness, her gentleness, her softness. I saw it... when she took over Xion, when she laid herself bare to me and told me she couldn't kill Xion, that she was going to sacrifice herself for her replica..."

Sora sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It takes someone special to be willing to do that."

"I just wish she'd let others in, let us help her, let me help her," said Sora with frustration, "She always struggles on her own. Unless things got bad, and I mean really bad, she'd never show how much she hurt. I'd take it all away if I could, but she doesn't let me... let anyone. Then... it just spills out and overflows when it becomes to much, become impossible for her to withstand, like this..."

Aqua stared at him, speechless. She didn't think she'd seen or heard anyone lay it bare like that before... wow...

Sora sighed again before smiling sadly at Kairi. "I swear she's going to be the death of me one day."

They both shared a soft chuckle, staring down at the girl as time ticked by...

...until a soft knock came at the door quite a few hours later as the sun was setting outside, and Eraqus's voice sounded. "Sora? Aqua? Dinner will be ready shortly."

Aqua bit her lips and glanced down at Kairi, shaking the girl gently. "Kairi? Wake up."

"Mrhhh... five more minutes Leon...," murmured Kairi.

Sora laughed a little. "Did that to me too the first time I tried to wake her up."

Aqua shook her again. "Kairi, wake up, unless you want to miss dinner."

rumble

Aqua and Sora both laughed at the audible growl from the girl's stomach; Kairi slowly sat up, groaning, rubbing her eyes. "What time is it...?"

"Uh... six ish I think?" said Sora.

Kairi blinked a few times, her face slowly turning into a glare as she looked at him. "Sora, what have I said about you being in my room?"

Sora grinned and scratched the back of his head. "Whoops."

Aqua giggled a little at that, amused by the antic.

Kairi froze at that, her head sharply turning to Aqua. "Aqua..."

Relief played across the girl's face. "You're really here..."

"I told you I wasn't going anywhere," said Aqua softly.

A deep raw smile broke through, one that reminded Aqua so much of the little girl she remembered. It was a relief to see the girl could still smile like that after all of this...

The knock came again and Eraqus spoke once more, "Be down at the mess hall in three minutes."

Sora stood up and made for the door. "Alright, time for some grub!"

Aqua scooted to get off the bed and stood up, Kairi did the same. She was a bit surprised when Kairi slid her hand into hers, grasping it tightly, as if she were afraid Aqua would vanish if she let go. Aqua glanced down at her curiously, and Kairi gave her a weak smile in return, clinging close. She felt a tremor run down the girls arms, the girl's face tight with repressed emotions. She might have been pulled out of that state, but it didn't mean she was okay. Hopefully the news Axel would bring would set her at ease.

"I assume this place hasn't changed to much, but, lead the way Sora," said Aqua.

They followed the boy down the halls. The structure hadn't changed much. Any damage that had been done to the place by Xehanort after Aqua's battle with Eraqus had long since been repaired. To be honest, the tapestry, ornaments, and even the carpentry in certain rooms looked like it hadn't even been changed in the last ten years. Then again, dealing with a Heartless Apocalypse was more important then home decor.

At first glance through the door, the mess hall hadn't change either and...

Oh...

That smell coming out of the room...

Aqua felt her mouth start to water...

Rumble

She blushed a little when her belly rumbled as well. Kairi gave a soft giggle and nudged her to the door. They walked into the room, and Aqua's eyes went wide to see the assortment of foods being laid out by Terra, Ven, Eraqus, Riku and Aurora. The corn on the cob was the first thing to catch her attention, follow by the assortment of various meats and veggies and... oh was that shepherds pie Ven was carrying?!

Ven saw her look and tilted the pot slightly to give her a view, grin on his face. Oh man... it was!

Terra glanced over at them. "Have a seat."

"I can help if you want and...," began Aqua.

Terra shook his head. "Tonight is on all of us Aqua."

She gave him a stern look in response.

Terra chuckled. "There will be plenty of nights for you to help out to come. You and Kairi just sit down and relax."

Kairi tugged her to the table and they sat down.

"Uh, that doesn't include you Sora, get your butt in the kitchen and help bring it all out," said Ven.

Sora was caught red handed, butt half way onto the seat of a chair. "Aww man..."

There was a collective laugh as Sora sheepishly went to the kitchen to help out.

Aqua glanced around. "Where's um... Mickey I think it was? And Yen Sid?"

Terra paused for a second. "They're star gazing, checking something out for me."

"Star gazing?" asked Aqua curiously.

"Yen Sid can read the stars, in a sense," explained Eraqus, "He uses it as a way to look for dangers or things out of the ordinary."

"We have him do it daily," added in Terra quickly, "Nothing to be concerned about."

Aqua studied his face, noting a slight tension in it. She decided not to press, to be frank, she had no right to anymore. He was the Steward of the Land of Departure. She... was just a fool who had succumbed to darkness after toting the line for so long. To be honest, she didn't think she should even consider herself a Keyblade Master anymore...

Aqua stared down at the table silently. "..."

"Is... something wrong Master Aqua?" asked Kairi quietly.

Aqua gave her a brief forced smile. "Nothing, just... thinking."

Kairi hesitating, looking like she wanted to press, but went silent.

"You know, you don't have to call me 'Master'," said Aqua, "If your thinking about what I said back in Radiant Garden all those years ago, I was just teasing."

Kairi gave a small smile. "Okay... Aqua."

Though, Aqua was curious... and had the opportunity to tease...

"So, which one of those lunk heads taught you to wield?" asked Aqua, shooting a smile in Ven and Terra's direction as the two men raised their eyebrows at her in response.

"Actually, Master Eraqus was the one who primarily taught me for the month or so of training I got in, well, when I was here and not out on missions with the others anyway," said Kairi.

"Eraqus huh?" said Aqua, glancing over at her old Master.

"Training another teenager was... an experience," said Eraqus, a wry grin on his face.

Aqua kept a faint smile on her face. Though, she was... a little troubled to have Eraqus teaching again after what he had...

No.

That wasn't fair to him.

She remembered, through her Heartless, she remembered the times the man had saved Ven from her. Fought alongside the others to safeguard the light and beat back the darkness. Eraqus had long since paid back his dues for his mistake, even as critical a mistake as it was and...

Wait.

Wait a second.

The second half of what Kairi had said caught up to Aqua and she turned to look at the girl. "Month or so...?"

Kairi hesitated. "Umm... they only recently found me in Traverse Town. It's where I ended up after..."

She trailed off uncomfortably, not wanted to say it, but Aqua knew.

After her Heartless had consumed the world...

Aqua hoped she masked the pain in her eyes well enough and focused on the weight behind what Kairi had said. "You defeated Xehanort's Heartless, and his Nobody, with only a month or so of training on how to actually use a Keyblade?"

Kairi grew a little timid. "Erm... yes?"

Aqua stared at her, astonished.

"W-well, S-sora fought just as hard as I did against Xehanort's Heartless... a-and you, Xigbar, Axel, and... Xion... helped with his Nobody," stammered out Kairi, "N-not to mention my dad taught me how to use a sword years ago, it's not too much different from fighting with a Keyblade."

She hesitated. "I... wasn't strong enough to do any of it alone..."

Aqua's face softened. "You shouldn't have to be Kairi. You did well. You're... to be honest, a far better wielder than I ever was, and your training hasn't even really started yet."

Kairi looked a bit stunned, speechless at the praise.

"Aqua, no offense to Kairi, that's not really fair to yourself," said Ven.

Aqua turned to frown at him.

Ven set down the food he was carrying. "Aqua, you never had the chance to be who you were, to grow into who you would have become, after what Xehanort did to your heart."

Aqua pursed her lips. "I wont make excuses for what I did, Ven."

"Nope, none of that," came Terra's voice as he walked back into the room, "The past can be saved for later, right now, we're focusing on the present. You're back with us again, after ten years of us believing you were lost. Aurora made a fine feast for all of us, so enjoy both it and being back amongst friends."

Aqua sighed, but couldn't help eying the food put on the table.

They finished a moment later, along with Yen Sid and Mickey 'poofing' into the room with the sorcerer's magic.

Terra clapped his hands together. "Dig in."

Aqua had her plate full and was digging in within the minute. She didn't realize how absolutely ravenous she was. She was through two corn on the cops, a helping of meat and mashed potatoes, before she caught onto the sound of someone snickering.

She looked up, noticing that most of the room was eyeing her with amusement, and spoke with a mouthful of food. "Rwhat?"

Ven looked like he was trying not to bust a gut. "What happened to 'mind your table manner's' Aqua?"

Aqua blinked a few times, and glanced down at herself. Embarrassment washed over her at the sight of sticky hands, her face covered, and some of it even on her clothes. She swallowed, reached for a napkin, and wiped herself off.

"Uh... s-sorry, just feels like I haven't eaten in... well...," she began.

"Ten years?" said Terra, eyebrow raised.

"Yeah," she admitted.

"I will admit," said Yen Sid, "The status of the body after being... restored... is a curious thought that has invaded my mind. Does it simply pick up where it left off? As if nothing happened to it? You do not appear to have aged a day in the last ten years."

Aqua frowned, contemplating it. "Well... when I first woke up, I felt a bit dizzy, confused, and nauseous. I'm not going to even go into what it felt like to get my..."

She caught herself before she said 'Heartless's', "...Nobody's memories just rush in and embed themselves in my mind."

"You remember everything from her?" asked Kairi, curious.

Aqua nodded and started reaching, with her utensils this time, for the next piece of food. "I do, and I owe Olette a very big thank you the first chance I get for putting up with my... er... her crap all these years."

Kairi smiled a little. "She seemed like a good friend to your Nobody."

"If I may Aqua, I am curious, as my knowledge of the subject is extremely limited at this point," said Yen Sid, "You almost claimed ownership, instead of saying your Nobody. To you, does it seem as if she was but a part of yourself, or someone else?"

Aqua frowned again and set down her utensils, eyes furrowing in thought. Truth be told... it was the former, not the later. The memories were as if they were seen and experienced herself. Yet... she didn't WANT to claim ownership, because... if she did for her Nobody... she'd have to for her Heartless as well...

"Questions can wait until a later time...," began Terra.

"It's fine," said Aqua, "I'm a guest in your house, you all have a right to ask what questions you will."

Terra narrowed his eyes, and he took a tone that sounded so much like Eraqus back when he had to give a hard lesson. "Aqua."

The tone commanded her attention. "This is your house too."

Aqua was silent for a moment. "Even... after all of this? All that happened?"

"Especially after all that happened," he confirmed.

Aqua gave a sad sigh and glanced down at her plate. "..."

"Now, miss starving lady," said Terra, his tone easing into a teasing one, "I want at least three, preferably four, plates filled and eaten before your done here."

"Are you trying to make me fat?" she asked, amused.

Terra just chuckled and resumed his own eating.

Aqua stared at the plate for a moment before turning to Yen Sid, deciding on an answer, as much as she dreaded it. "In a way... I suppose my Nobody was a part of myself. It's... difficult, if not impossible, to try and dissociate her memories from my own."

Yen Sid nodded, but asked no further questions and made no further comment.

The table ate slowly, light banter between most. Though, Aqua was more than aware of the glances sent her way, and... to Kairi if she saw right. She did a quick check of the girl. She was eating quietly, sneaking glances towards the door...

Oh, she was waiting for Axel.

It was probably eating her alive, worrying about whether her family was restored or not.

She put a hand on the girl's shoulder and spoke quietly. "Have faith Kairi. They'll be back."

Kairi turned her head to give her a weak forced smile before turning to her food.

Aqua, to her own chagrin, found Terra's demand might actually happen. She finished her second plate off and started on her third, more than ready to gorge without end. The taste and sensation of food in her mouth... she treasured it in a way she never had before.

She paused, feeling a slight ripple of darkness out in the throne room, a Dark Corridor. She felt Axel's presence, and did her best to mask a grin. Hopefully he had good news.

She waited with hopeful anticipation as she followed his presence to the dinning hall and walked in. "What? You all started without me?"

"Plenty left over," said Sora, "Dig in!"

Aqua's eyes flickered to Kairi. The girl looked about ready to scramble out of her seat and lunge at him for answers. She watched as Axel nonchalantly moved to a table and grabbed a plate. He kept his back, intentionally if she guessed, to Kairi as he went about his business. The man sat down and started eating.

She could practically feel Kairi boiling.

"Oh, by the way Kairi," said Axel after a few mouthfuls, "Your dad expects you to be over in Radiant Garden for lunch tomorrow."

Kairi's eyes went so wide Aqua entertained the brief notion of her eyeballs rolling out. "T-they're back!? They're alive?!"

Axel grinned. "Yep. A bit tired and really confused, but they are."

Kairi gripped the table, shuddered a little, and let out a heavy sigh of relief. Aqua could tell it was taking a lot of effort for the girl not to cry in relief. Kairi composed herself and resumed eating, a very happy smile on her face, and a lot of the tension going out of her body.

Aqua smile deeply at the sight. The girl deserved a happy ending after all of this.

They finished up a bit later, and to Aqua's annoyance, wouldn't even entertain the idea of her helping clean up. She and Kairi were shooed out of the room and found themselves alone in the throne room.

Aqua stared at the thrones silently, a memory of herself and Terra sitting on them watching Ven take his Mark of Mastery exam stiring in her mind. "Hmm..."

"Something wrong Aqua?" asked Kairi.

Aqua shook her head. "Just living in the past."

"I wonder if my room's still here," she murmured, heading down a familiar hall.

"Oh, I never even thought to see where you once slept," said Kairi bashfully.

Aqua frowned briefly. That sounded a little... odd and obsessive. Aqua shrugged it off and continued walking. She was a bit surprised when the hallway she turned and started down grew dusty. It was as if no one had been down here in years...

Her face fell a bit. It probably hurt them to much to pass by her room...

She slowly walked, dust kicking up as she went. She came to her door and slowly opened it. She coughed a bit when dust flooded her lungs and she flapped her hands to dispel it. Her room was exactly as she left it the day before she left to find the Door to Darkness under Xehanort's influence, minus the layer of dust...

That wouldn't do at all.

Aqua tapped into a bit of her magic and help up her hand, forming a small gravity spell. Dust began to swirl and pick up, condensing into it.

"Kairi, would you air out the pillows, bed-sheets, and curtains please?" asked Aqua.

"Sure!" said Kairi, rushing off to do so with an odd eagerness.

Within minutes layers of dust were swirling through the air into the spell. Finally, when not a spec more came, she opened a small Dark Corridor and dumped the condensed dust ball through.

"Where'd you send all that gunk?" asked Kairi.

"Umm, somewhere in the Realm of Darkness," admitted Aqua sheepishly.

Kairi giggled a little before pausing. "The Realm of Darkness huh? I... tried to go there once, searching for Kingdom Hearts, what's it like?"

"It's not a place you'd want to go to," said Aqua firmly, "Those of darkness may find sanctuary there, but those that actively bear the Keyblade, and those filled with light, would find themselves devoured in such a place."

Kairi frowned briefly. "Well... that doesn't exactly tell me what it's like."

"Well... it had rising pale rocky terrain, cracked and emitting strange light blue energy. The sky was pitch black, yet off in the distance, I could see it taint purple. The atmosphere, the place, it's stench reeked of darkness. If I didn't so actively wield the darkness, it might have been oppressive," said Aqua.

"It's... where the Heartless live, where they're suppose to reside. They don't venture into the Realm of Light unless drawn out by something or called," said Aqua.

Kairi absorbed the information before asking, "Why'd you go there?"

"To train," answered Aqua before sighing, "For three weeks, I trained myself in the Realm of Darkness and with Xehanort's stolen book, and I still failed. I... failed everyone."

"Aqua...," murmured Kairi with uncertainty.

Aqua moved to sit on the bed, a loud creak emanating from it. She could feel the weight building in her chest, it had slowly been building all day. It cried out for an outlet.

"Kairi... I'm sorry, for everything I put you through," said Aqua softly, "I should never have forced this life on you."

Kairi looked at her, bewildered. "Forced? I asked to be a..."

"You were four years old Kairi, did you honestly understand what you were asking?" asked Aqua, pained, "Knowing what you know now, would you still have wanted to become..."

"Yes," said Kairi quietly, but not without determination.

Aqua stared at her in disbelief.

"The only thing I wish I could have changed, was what I did on the day Radiant Garden fell. I ran with Grandma, instead of believing in her stories, having faith in the light," said Kairi.

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "I don't understand."

"That no matter how deep the darkness is, there is always a light," said Kairi, sadness and guilt on her face, "If... if I had gone to you, pushed through that darkness, went to your Heartless and reached for you. I could have saved you, pulled you out of that thing, restored you, and prevented the next ten years of suffering for everyone."

"Kairi...," said Aqua, stunned, "That's... to much to expect of so young a child... you couldn't have known, and it was never your burden to bear. Especially as a Princess of Heart..."

Kairi stared her down. "I believe what that echo told me Aqua. I could have saved you, but I didn't."

"Echo?" questioned Aqua.

"It's... kind of strange. I first heard his voice in a dream, before I awakened my Keyblade," said Kairi, "Riku told me those dreams, a dive to one's heart, were sacred things to be kept private, but..."

The girl glanced up at the ceiling. "The voice had me pick a weapon, made my friends and family ask me questions. He toild me..."

She looked to Aqua. "Like the Recusant I seek, my adventure began at dusk..."

Aqua closed her eyes and recited the words from her own dream, that night, so many years ago. "Your path will be dangerous, with nothing but the dead of night awaiting you, with dreams of the dawn as but a distant memory."

"You... had the same dive?" asked Kairi, surprised.

Aqua smiled sadly and opened her eyes. "Well, you did say 'like the Recusant I seek', that Voice called me that in the dream. He... the echo as you say, appeared to me as a transparent cloaked figure, before I had to make my choice. On whether to merge with Xehanort, or try to extract his heart from mine."

Kairi nodded slowly. "The echo appeared to me just before Sora and I confronted your Heartless for the final time. He's... the one that reminded me not to give up on you. I thought sleep was death, that you were really gone. I just wanted to put your heart to rest, he reminded me, he told me to never give up on the dreams etched in my heart..."

Kairi smiled a her. "And here you are."

Aqua pondered it. "So, your dive came true... but..."

"But what?" asked Kairi.

"Mines only half done," murmured Aqua, troubled, "He said I would stand before the door again, and have to make another choice."

Kairi frowned. "Hrm..."

She sat down next to Aqua. "At least this time, whatever happens, I'll be here with you, Master Aqua. Together, there isn't anything we can't do."

Aqua gave her a small smile and ruffled her hair. "You're a sweet kid Kairi, you really are."

Kairi smiled faintly before frowning. "No..."

She summoned Oathkeeper and Two-Become One, laying her Keyblades on her lap. "We, will be here with you."

Aqua hesitated. "Can... you still hear Xion?"

Kairi bowed her head. "I... haven't really heard her since Larxene died..."

Kairi paused, her eyes going wide. "Oh! Larxene..., she should be back too!"

Aqua nodded. "Should be."

Kairi frowned. "But... I have no idea where I'd even find her. I don't even know what her real name is..."

"Could ask Axel," suggested Aqua.

Kairi nodded. "I will, hopefully he knows something."

Kairi frowned, contemplative. "But... it's not the same. It wont be the same, me sitting up there, on that clocktower instead of Xion..."

She sighed, banished her keyblades, and hugged herself. "I want her back..."

Aqua put a hand on Kairi's shoulder. "We'll find a way Kairi."

"How?" said Kairi, "She doesn't have a body to go to, and her heart... its... its in tatters inside of my own... I have no clue how long it will take for her to heal. It could take years, decades... and that's only if she doesn't pull another stunt like she did with Larxene. She shouldn't have taken control then, I could feel how much it hurt her to do."

"Have... faith Kairi," said Aqua, "We'll find a way."

Maybe it was cruel to say, but think otherwise. Because, she sure as hell didn't have the faintest idea how they could do anything for the replica. If Xion's heart was in tatter's, hanging onto Kairi's for dear life, could it even recuperate at this point? And Kairi brought up one hell of a problem, how could they get her a new body?

Something must have bled through, because Kairi glanced at the floor, sighing heavily. "Xion..."

They sat there in silence for a time before Aqua glanced outside at the falling sun. "Come on Kairi, it's getting late. You have a big day tomorrow going to see your family after all this."

Kairi smiled faintly. "I guess..."

The girl hesitated. "Umm... would you be willing to come with me? I want to introduce you, the real you, to them."

"Sure Kairi," said Aqua faintly.

Kairi brightened. "Alright, well, see you tomorrow then."

Aqua nodded and watched her leave before sighing and whispering to herself, "Honestly Kairi... I only came back to see if you were safe, and to help you recover. I'm... not really sure I have a place here anymore."

Aqua stood up and left the room, walking down the hallway silently to the throne room, descended the steps, and left the keep. She walked outside as night fell, glancing up at the stars. It was a sight she felt like she hadn't seen in so long a time. So quietly walked up the mountain, listing to the stream run down it as she crossed the bridge on her way up. She came to the center of the summit and slowly raised a hand, feeling for her darkness to make a Dark Corridor...

"We hope you're not planning on leaving us so soon Aqua," came Terra's calm voice.

Aqua winced and turned her head, sighting Terra AND Ven sitting quietly on the edge of the summit. Her face burned with embarrassment, she hadn't even noticed or felt them there. Oh man she was busted...

"Er...," she mumbled.

Ven glanced at Terra. "Told you she'd try."

"That predictable?" she asked a bit bashfully.

"Yes," said both of them at the same time, making her chuckle nervously

Terra rose to his feet and walked over, Ven doing the same.

Terra crossed his arms. "Aqua, why?"

She bowed her head. "Terra... I... I have no right to be here anymore, after what I did, everything that happened... it's all my fault Terra..."

"No Aqua, it's not just your fault, it's all of our faults," said Terra, "And while you did make a grave mistake, so did we."

"What did you two possibly do?" she asked in disbelief.

"We never really helped you when it mattered," said Ven, "When you were struggling with a cracked heart those years the three of us trained together, that week you struggled with Xehanort's influence when we thought he was gone. We knew something was wrong, we felt it in our hearts, but we never acted on it until it was to late. We just acted like everything was fine..."

He grew quiet. "And we lost you because of it."

"Ven...," she whispered.

"Whats worse Aqua, is that we gave up on you," said Terra, his voice heavy and plagued with remorse, "I remember, at the Keyblade Graveyard, when I told Ven that he could be lost in the deepest darkness, but I would never give up for fighting for him, for both of you."

Terra closed his eyes. "But I gave up. I told your Heartless I had no more tears to shed for you, that I had came to terms with what happened to you a long time ago."

Terra strode over and wrapped her in a deep hug. "I'm sorry Aqua."

Aqua choked a bit, unable to form a reply, all she could do was hug him back and start crying softly into his shoulder. Ven came over and joined in the hug, the three of them, united again at long last, in a shared misery.

"It... it should never have happened...," she sobbed out, "D-damn him... damn Xehanort..."

"Shhh Aqua," said Terra softly, "Forget him. He's... gone now, its all over. You're back, and all that's left is to pick up the peices where the fell, and... well... I have something to give back to you."

"We," said Ven.

Terra glanced over at him. "Well, she never chucked it at your head."

Ven smirked. "Ah shut up and just give it to her."

Aqua glanced back and forth at them as the trio separated, confused. "Give what?"

Terra reached into his pocket. "Something you gave to me a long time ago. You told me to give it back to you when you returned, well, you're back."

What he pulled out of his pocket made her eyes go wide, and every part of her body tingle. "That's... it's..."

It was her wayfinder...

She stared at it, a sadness creeping across her face. The wayfinder had gone dull over the years, its colors faded. She could hardly feel anything from it, the connection she had woven into it from herself had gone almost completely silent. The magic in it was almost all gone...

Terra glanced at Ven, nodding to him. The boy grasped the wayfinder with him, and slowly, they offered it to her. Aqua hesitated briefly, before she slowly and tenderly reached out to grasp it...

SHINE!

Aqua gave a gasp when light burst from the charm. She felt it re-ignite, tapping into her magic to replenish itself and restore it's connection to her. The colors grew vibrant, and within moments, it looked as new as the day she had made it. Two lines emanated from it, moving into the pants pocket of her friends, drawing their wayfinders out.

They still had them, after all this time...

The three wayfinders rose into the air and touched briefly, a spark of light running through them, before they settled into their owners hands.

In a way Aqua hadn't done in over a decade, she took her wayfinder and clutched it to her chest, tears streaming down her face, as a warmth emanated from it into her chest, into her heart. "Terra... Ven..."

They smiled at her, but said nothing. There was nothing to be said. When they offered her a hand, she took it readily, walking back to the keep, hands clasped within her friends. When she laid in her bed to go to sleep that night, she clutched the wayfinder tight to herself, it's light granting her a peaceful sleep, free from troubles and the nightmares she thought would plague her...

Chapter Text

*knock knock knock*

"Master Aqua, breakfast will be ready soon!" called in Kairi's voice.

Aqua yawned and slowly sat up in her bed, stretching. "Mmmm..."

She stared at the door to her room blankly for a moment before yesterday's events played through her mind and she murmured, "Oh... right, I'm alive again."

She cleared her throat. "I'll be down after I shower."

"Okay!" called in Kairi before the pattering of feet sounded down the hall.

Aqua moved to her dresser and pulled it open, staring silently down at her spare clothing. Left exactly the way they had been. Everything in her room had been. She didn't honestly know if she should be happy or sad at that.

Happy because her friends didn't linger endlessly on the pain they felt.

Sad because her friends hadn't lingered endlessly, and wrote her off as dead.

Truth be told, she had been dead, from a certain point of view. Actually, after that memory rush, she considered being a Heartless a fate worse than death, for herself and for others. She ought to be happy they had tried to move on, but... it left a pain, even after Terra had apologized last night. Speaking of which...

She glanced down and smiled at her wayfinder laying next to her in her bed. She picked it up and held it tightly to her chest. Just holding it, having it again, made her feel like nothing could ever go wrong again.

She knew better though.

She sighed, took a set of clothes out and flapped them overhead, getting as much dust out of them as she could, with a bit of magical help afterwords to make sure. She went to the shower, stripped down, and went inside. She yelped as soon as the water hit her, surprised by how alien the sensation felt. She closed her eyes, took a steam filled breath, and forced herself to relax. Ten years she supposed she hadn't had a shower, unless her Nobody counted, but those were infrequent things, brought on by Olette's nagging more than anything else.

Honestly, one would think even without feelings or memories a Nobody would have a sense of personal hygiene.

She couldn't help but wonder if her body was her Nobody's body restored and recombined with her heart, or just a newly reconstructed one. She didn't honestly know how being... um... what was a good word for it? Restored? Recompleated? Yeah that one. She didn't honestly know how being recompleated worked.

Better to scrub extra hard to make up for lost times to be sure.

And...

As a poor attempt to get the blood and darkness she imagined staining her hands off...

She took in a shuddered breath and suppressed her power, her darkness. She did not want to feel it at the moment.

She took far longer in the shower then she could recall doing before she had first set off from here all those years ago. She left it thirty minutes later, her skin a tempered red and her hands and feet quite wrinkled from a long exposure to water. She brushed her hair slowly, getting back into a rhythm that had been interrupted. She could imagine Ven teasing her about taking so long with her 'girl time' to get herself ready for the day.

Well...

Only if things weren't completely awkward between them. Yesterday had been one thing, them reuniting after all this time.

Today?

That would be another thing entirely, the first day of the rest of their lives. Hopefully she wouldn't screw it up like she had done everything else last time around.

She sighed bitterly, clothed herself, and left for the dinning hall. The sound of laughter and happy voices echoed from the room. She took a quiet peak into the room, standing a bit before the doorway. Yen Sid, Mickey, and Eraqus were no where to be seen. Axel was leaning against the far right wall, eyes on the table, or rather, on Kairi who held Xion's ruined heart inside of her. Terra and Ven sat next to each other eating and elbowing one another playfully in a way that made Aqua wonder if they really were ten years older than she remembered or not. Sora and Riku were mirror images of their masters...

Kairi however sat alone a few seats away from the other apprentices, eating quietly, apprehension on her face. Curious. Aqua tapped into her senses and lightly probed the girl. Guilt, fear, and unease radiated from her in waves. A small step up from all consuming depression, but not what she wanted to see from Kairi. It was especially odd since the girl knew she would be going to see her family today. So why...

Well, one way to find out.

Aqua strode into the room and made a b-line for Kairi, sitting down next to her. "Morning Kairi."

Kairi jumped a little. "Wha... oh, good morning Master Aqua. You... can move really quietly. I didn't hear or sense you coming."

"Uh... seconded!" said Sora.

Aqua raised an eyebrow. "It's called suppressing yourself and not letting your feet clomp on the way in, it's not hard."

Sora grinned at that. "I'm a horrible clomper."

"I'll say, the moment Sora steps foot on the world, his huge goofy shoes scream, 'I'm here Heartless, come and get me!'," joked Riku.

Aqua giggled a little at that. "Besides, were supposed to keep ourselves suppressed and not make a big stink out on a mission if I recall. The people of the world's aren't supposed to know about one another, or that were visitors from another world wielding Keyblades."

There was an awkward silence in the room.

Aqua frowned and glanced at Terra. "Right?"

"Erm...," said Terra, scratching the back of his head.

"That has since changed," came Eraqus's voice as the old master walked into the room, "Much has changed since your apprenticeship ten years ago."

Aqua's eyes turned to follow the man as he sat down a few sets from Terra. "Perhaps you ought to bring me up to speed then."

Eraqus licked his lips. "Aqua... how much are you aware of? Of what's happened the last ten years?"

There was a very heavy silence all of the sudden. She could feel and see everyone in the room tense and stare straight at her.

Aqua's mouth suddenly felt very dry as she lied through her teeth, "I'm... aware of what Kairi and Sora told my Nobody, nothing more. I know what the dark presence in the sky was that was destroying the Realm of Light."

She wouldn't, couldn't, tell them that she had her Heartless's memories. That was her burden to bear. The awkwardness, sadness, and guilt that radiated off her friends was hard enough to deal with without them knowing she knew each and every way her Heartless had ever hurt them. She fought hard to keep a tremor from going down her hand at the notion.

"I have a lot of sins to make up for," she said quietly.

"Aqua...," began Ven.

She stared hard at her friend. "Don't you dare say otherwise."

There was an uncomfortable silence for a minute.

Eraqus cleared his throat. "As the struggle against the Heartless started in earnest, it became rather impossible to hide who we were from the worlds when we played such an active and visible role in their defense. We had to coordinate with the defenders of the worlds in order to try to hold back the Heartless."

"Did you take people to help defend other worlds?" she asked, unwilling to check through her Heartless's memories for an answer.

Eraqus shook his head. "No, we didn't want to rob worlds of their champions incase they were attacked while we were gone."

Aqua nodded slowly before asking, "Well, with the Heartless threat mostly dealt with, will things be going back to the way they were?"

Eraqus hesitated. "We're... not honestly sure."

"Why?" she asked.

Terra leaned forward. "To be honest Aqua, the three of us have been thinking that rule might have been a mistake to begin with."

Aqua's eyebrows shot up at that and glanced towards her former master. Eraqus, the precept harping master, thought a precept was a mistake?

Damn.

The last ten years HAD changed the man.

Eraqus saw her look and chuckled. "Even an old man like me can learn from past mistakes."

The man grew serious. "The worlds were not prepared at all for the darkness that swept over them. So many of them fell so quickly because they had not a clue what was happening, what the Heartless were, how to defend against them. The Keyblade may be one of the very few ways to truly defeat a Heartless, but, they can at least be driven off by other means if one is properly prepared to face the darkness."

Eraqus looked crestfallen. "But they weren't. The Order of the Keyblade Masters left them in darkness about the darkness. We did not help the worlds learn to defend themselves, taking over that responsibility for ourselves. The worlds were like pampered children, unprepared to face the realities of life because we sheltered them to much."

He hesitated briefly. "They also needed to be made aware of what could happen if a Keyblade Master misused their power, so that they would not trust us blindly and be played for fools. A great number of worlds know that Xehanort is behind what happened."

Aqua stared at him passively for a moment. "And did you warn them about me?"

Eraqus blinked a few times before closing his eyes. "I warned them about what happened if one gave into the darkness, yes."

There was an uneasy tension, only broken when she spoke one single word.

"Good."

They all stared at her. Judging by the looks in most of their eyes, they were surprised. Kairi however looked oddly cross with her.

Aqua cleared her throat. "It's good you warned them, because to be frank, it's true. I walked that line of darkness so tightly and so recklessly that I'm surprised it took me to the final fight with Xehanort to fall off it on the wrong side."

No... that was a lie. She had fallen off the line far before then. Back when she had been extracting the hearts of Maleficent's pig minions was the first true obvious one. There was no excusing what she did there, even if it was to stop Xehanort. That however was a secret she planned taking to her grave. But... in regards to what she had said...

The line between using darkness and succumbing to it could be walked.

Darkness could be controlled.

It could be channeled.

But it was so easy to lose control and succumb to it's temptations that it was probably not worth the effort. She knew she could become a master of darkness unlike anything seen since the Keyblade War. Maleficent and Xehanort both alluded to it, heck, she had ascended in power so quickly during the conflict with Xehanort, she figured she hadn't even been close to her prime yet.

But how many more lives would have to be ruined by her mistakes in the process of chasing that power?

It wasn't worth it.

The memory of Ven's face, twisted in agony by her Heartless...

It wasn't worth it at all.

No power in the world was.

"Perhaps it's wrong and cruel of me to say this Aqua, but, from what I remember I'm surprised to hear you say that," said Eraqus softly.

Aqua blinked a few times and pulled out of her thoughts, turning her head to appraise Eraqus, she was not angry, no, he had every right to say it. "Master... I'm not willfully blind nor stupid, not anymore. Coming back from the dead, in a sense, to the worlds ten years later and hearing just what my actions did is a wake up call unlike any other."

Eraqus nodded, but said nothing else.

Aqua spoke softly, "I used the darkness, knowing the dangers, knowing and struggling with its temptations. For a time, I used it right, as it should be used, in service and defense of the light, doing what the light cannot do, but it didn't matter in the end. I gave in when it mattered most. I succumbed, it's as simple and awful as that."

It was oddly funny to her, in a way. It was easy to talk about her failure at the Keyblade Graveyard. Compared to the pain her Heartless caused, her succumbing to her own temptation for revenge was nothing. Even if one caused the other in the end.

There was silence in the room for a time. Ven and Terra stared at her awkwardly, wanting to speak, but unable to. She could feel they wanted to tell her it wasn't her fault, but they knew it was true. They had admitted last night that she had made a grave mistake, and grave was a very light word to use to describe it and the aftermath that followed.

Eraqus stared contemplatively at her for a time before speaking again, "You show wisdom, learning from past mistakes. We could use such wisdom, and your insight into the darkness, to better brace the worlds and help re-define the precepts if need be. The last ten years was not the first time darkness swept over the worlds, I doubt it will be the last. They need to be prepared."

"As you wish," murmured Aqua.

It was the right thing to do, to help people learn to defend themselves. Loath as she was to speak of or use the darkness to help them... but... that was a topic for another day.

"But, I believe I promised my apprentice to go with her to see her family," said Aqua, shooting Kairi a quick smile.

Kairi smiled weakly back, but said nothing.

Odd, why did she seem apprehensive all the sudden to go see them?

"Glad to hear your family came back," said Sora with a wistful tone.

"Thanks," said Kairi before pausing, "Sora... what about your and Riku's families? Shouldn't your world have been restored to?"

Sora and Riku both froze, a completely blank on their faces, both of them saying, "Oh..."

Kairi giggled a little. "Boys... always so clueless."

Sora and Riku glanced at Terra, who had a soft, but amused look on his face. "Go."

Sora and Riku scrambled out of the mess hall, running at top speed. Aqua could feel the hopeful eagerness emanating from both of them. She shook her head, happy for the two, and ate quickly, not wanting to keep Kairi waiting.

She finished and rose to her feet. "Shall we Kairi?"

Kairi bit her lip a little nervously before standing up. "Okay..."

Aqua pursed her lips and made for the door, Kairi following suite, she waited until they were a bit down the hall before she decided to speak, "Kairi, is something wrong? I'd think you'd be happy to go see your family, but, I don't sense that you are."

Kairi stopped walking, and Aqua turned to face the girl who had her head bowed. "Well?"

"I... got them all killed, twice," Kairi murmured, "Are they really going to want to see me?"

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "Twice?"

"Eraqus tried to lie to me, but I know. I know I... I was what lured... um... the Leader of the Heartless to Traverse Town," said Kairi, "I got everyone in that world killed when I awakened my Keyblade... my light and Keyblade drew them to Traverse Town..."

"Kairi... that's not your fault," said Aqua, "You had no control when your Keyblade would awaken, and..."

Aqua closed her eyes. "You don't need to skirt the issue, you know full well what 'the Leader of the Heartless' was."

"Your Heartless," murmured Kairi, not meeting her eyes.

Aqua sighed and walked forward, kneeling down in front of Kairi. "It's not your fault Kairi. If anything, it's mine. I chose you to be a Keybearer, and it was my Heartless that destroyed that world."

"Well, what about the second time? At the World That Never Was, they...," began Kairi.

"They made the choice to stand their ground Kairi," said Aqua, "They could have retreated at any time. But they held out for as long as they could, stopping the population of the World That Never Was from interfering to give us a fighting chance to reach Xehanort."

She put her hands on Kairi's shoulders. "They won't hate you Kairi, they love you. They wouldn't have given up their lives if they didn't, especially not knowing about recompleation. Okay?"

"Okay...," murmured Kairi.

Aqua stood up and held out her hand. "Come on, let's go."

Kairi sniffled a little and took it. Aqua was tempted to just make a Dark Corridor and go, but she had something special planned for Kairi, to get her mind off her worries. They left the keep and summoned their gliders...

Before Aqua deadpanned. "Your glider... is a raft?"

Kairi's face burned with embarrassment. "Erm... yes?"

Aqua smiled a little at that. "Keyblades work in mysterious ways."

"Wish I had your glider," muttered Kairi.

"Well, to be fair, you can dive off your glider really easy if you need to ditch it," said Aqua.

Kairi rolled her eyes. "Maybe, but I have to stand the entire trip on these things, I'd rather make a Dark Corridor than use my glider."

"Well, we can do that next time, I want to show you something," said Aqua.

Kairi gave her a curious look, but Aqua merely held a finger up to her lips before mounting her glider, Kairi doing the same. They shot off into the sky, and into the Lanes Between. She felt it the moment they entered the space between worlds, Kairi's surprise, and then delight, to see all the stars, all the worlds, as they were so long ago, before the darkness consumed them.

Aqua remembered the first time she had gone into the Lanes Between without her armor, seeing that sight unhindered by her Keyblade Armor. It was a beautiful sight to take in and...

Aqua yelped when Kairi bumped her glider into Aqua's, grinning and then taking off at full speed. Ohhhh, so that's how it was huh? Race time! Aqua full-throttled her glider and took off in hot pursuit, bumping and jostling with Kairi as they went for fun. She remembered herself, Terra and Ven doing this in their training years. Glad to see it being passed on.

They arrived at Radiant Garden about half an hour later and touched down in an alleyway. Aqua could feel Kairi was still a little anxious, but she seemed more relaxed after their fun trip through the Lanes Between.

"Erm...," said Kairi, "I... don't actually know where Leon and Yuffie, or anyone else, lived in Radiant Garden."

"Can you feel their presence?" asked Aqua.

Kairi closed her eyes, a soft white glow surrounding her body for a moment before a smile took her face and the light faded. "Yeah."

Aqua let Kairi take the lead and followed behind her quietly, down the streets heading towards the castle area. No one paid them any head at first. Though, as they passed down the streets, a few people gave Kairi's Organization Cloak a hesitant look, and were wide eye staring at Aqua. She chose not to react to them, figuring they were probably a few recompleated Nobodies who recognized them...

On the other end of the spectrum, it was possible they recognized Aqua from her Heartless eating their heart's ten years ago...

Oh boy...

She hadn't even given that a thought. How would people who had encountered her Heartless react to her? Well... no one had started screaming at the sight of her or running away yet, so, small favors she supposed. She figured THAT reaction was going to happen at some point.

Kairi drew her attention when she snorted and said, "Well that figures."

Aqua followed Kairi's gaze to see a small tavern labeled 7th Heaven. "Hmm...?"

"I think Tifa told me once she named the bar in Traverse Town after her old one," said Kairi, a grin spreading across her face.

Aqua followed the girl in and glanced around as they stood in the entrance. The tavern didn't seem to different from any other. Tables, chairs, a bar at the back with a barkeep. On that note, she recognized two people from Kairi's group back in the World That Never Was.

"Tifa! Cid!" said Kairi with glee, running towards the bar.

The woman, Tifa if Aqua had to guess, was a long haired brunette in black leather clothes with fighting gloves on. The woman had a hardened face, but it lit up at the sight of Kairi, at least until she scowled.

"No running in the bar Kairi! Told you that a hundred times," said Tifa, appearing to be trying to suppress a wide smile.

Kairi rolled her eyes and sat down next to the other person Aqua recognized. He was a older blond haired man, with a white shirt, a huge brown belt, blue pants, and a cigarette in his mouth. Cid she assumed. Aqua moved to sit down next to Kairi at the bar.

"Weren't expecting you for another few hours at lunch kiddo," said Cid.

"Yeah well, how long did you expect me to wait after hearing you all were alive!?" exclaimed Kairi.

"No yelling in the bar either missy," said Tifa.

Kairi stuck her tongue out at her; Tifa rolled her eyes before laughing and smiling at the girl, leaning over the bar to give her a brief but tight hug, "Good to see you made it out of that alive Kairi. You give that old bastard a thumping for us?"

Kairi's face hardened for a moment. "In the end, yes."

Tifa gave her a curious look before shaking her head. "Well, Leon and Yuffie won't be here for a bit."

"What about the others?" said Kairi eagerly.

Tifa hesitated. "Well... we invited Cloud and Aerith, but, I don't know if they're going to come or not."

"Why not?" asked Kairi.

Tifa bit her lips. "Erm..."

"Aerith's a bit... off," said Tifa.

"Oh just get it out," said Cid with chagrin.

Tifa sighed. "She isn't doing so well after getting her heart back after, well, acting like she did as a Nobody. She's... struggling I guess is the word I'd use, to figure out who she is. The old happy hopeful Aerith doesn't mix well with how cold she was as a Nobody."

"Oh...," murmured Kairi sadly.

"Cloud's trying to help her come to terms with it, they both started working in the Castle Gardens," said Tifa.

Kairi snorted. "Cloud? Work with flowers?!"

Tifa smiled sadly. "He... cares for her Kairi, he'll do what it takes to help her."

Aqua studied the woman's face for a moment. It was easy to see the suppressed envy and jealousy. The woman didn't appear to want to feel that way, but she had a hunch Tifa liked this 'Cloud' guy.

"What about Barret? Where's he at?" said Kairi.

Tifa turned away and walked to her glass shelf, starting to wash them silently.

"Tifa?" asked Kairi.

"Kiddo, Barret ain't from this world," said Cid, "He didn't wake up here with the rest of us after our Nobodies bit it."

Kairi froze for a moment before a sad look crossed her face. "Oh... that means no one else who wasn't from here is here either... so Arthur, Rapunzel, Hiro, everyone else is just... gone."

Cid raised a fist and hit his own chest with it, over his heart. "They're still with us where it counts kiddo. 'sides, you got that Keyblade thing and can make corridors, right? You can go track those numbskulls down if you want to."

Kairi smiled a little. "Yeah, I guess I can, might be hard though. I don't know where most of them are from."

"Barret said he was from a place called Midgar," said Tifa softly.

Kairi nodded. "I think Arthur said something about 'England' or 'Camelot'?"

"Sounds right," said Tifa.

Kairi thought for a moment before sighing. "Though, I had tons of friends in the Guardian's of Traverse Town, don't know if I can really track them all down. Maybe... it's for the best we all just move on..."

Aqua put a hand on Kairi's shoulder. "You're duties as a Keybearer will bring you to many world's Kairi, especially if the precepts are changed. You'll see plenty of your friends again, don't worry."

Kairi gave her a small smile before turning towards Tifa. "Orange juice please."

Tifa got her a glass and set it down before turning to eye Aqua. "I suppose we ought to thank you for helping Kairi against Xehanort, though, I'm surprised you stayed afterwords."

Aqua slowly shook her head. "I didn't 'stay'. My Nobody died and I was reborn as you were."

Tifa's eyes went wide. "Your Nobody DIED?!"

Cid sharply turned towards Aqua. "Damn. That Nobody was no joke, the hell happened?"

"Xehanort happened, or my Nobody was an idiot, take your pick, I don't care to describe it as anything else," said Aqua dryly.

Tifa nodded slowly before growing curious. "So you're her huh? Kairi's actual 'Master Aqua'? She droned on and on about you for years."

"T-tifa!" stammered Kairi, chocking a bit on her juice, her face turning a beat red.

Aqua's eyes furrowed. That was a curious statement. She turned to give Kairi a questioning look.

"E-erm... well...," stammered Kairi, "I..."

The girl bowed her embarrassed face. "We all needed something to hang onto those ten years, something to give us hope. The promise you made me was what I clung to in order to help me keep going."

Aqua stared silently at her before turning away, saying nothing. Ten years she made that girl wait for her... and when she 'came', it was her Heartless that ripped apart her world and killed her friends and family. The next time, it her Heartless than almost ripped her heart out. If Kairi wasn't here to probably take the action the wrong way, Aqua would have considered asking Tifa for her advice on what alcohol a beginner should drink.

Light knows she still might.

"I'm sorry I made you wait so long," said Aqua softly.

"It's alright, you didn't have a choice in the...," began Kairi.

"I did, and you know it," Aqua cut off.

Kairi went silent.

Aqua decided to divert the subject, "Kairi, did you not have a grandmother here as well?"

Kairi's eyes went wide. "Oh! Grandma!"

Kairi stood up and practically yanked Aqua off her chair. "C'mon, I want you to meet Grandma! She never even got a chance to thank you last time around."

Aqua barely got to give Tifa and Cid a goodbye, both of them giving the two of them amused glances. Aqua followed Kairi to a tiny little cottage at the edge of the town, overlooking a great maw like area. It was a quiet little place, a small fence with flowers painted on them surrounding it. There was a tiny little vegetable garden to the right of the cottage. Tending to the garden was an elderly woman. She had puffy gray hair, an old, sagging, but nice face. She wore a purple dress, with a white apron over it.

Kairi couldn't contain herself, she let go of Aqua and bolted for the woman, crying out, "Grandma!"

The elderly woman froze for a moment before standing up and glancing her way. "That voice..."

The elderly woman barely had time to react before Kairi had her in a fierce hug. "Grandma... I missed you so much..."

"Good heavens... Kairi... is that you?" said the elderly woman in disbelief.

Kairi sniffled a little and looked down at her Grandma's face. "It's me Grandma..."

"You... you've grown so much!" exclaimed the elderly woman, looking her over.

Kairi giggled a little. "Well, ten years will do that."

The elderly woman's face lit up. "So you weren't taken with the rest of us then! Thank goodness..."

Kairi smiled a little. "Yeah, I survived. A Keyblade Master named Terra saved me and then took me to Leon and Yuffie, they adopted me when we ended up in Traverse Town."

The elderly woman stared at her for a moment before motioning to the steps. "Let's sit down, I want you to tell me everything that I've missed."

Aqua moved to lean against the fence, watching the girl reunite with her grandmother, a soft smile on her face.

"Well well well, fancy meeting you here bluebird," came a familiar voice.

Aqua turned her head and spotted, to her surprise, Braig standing there. "You..."

He was as she remembered him ten years ago. He had white buttoned clothes, white gloves, with a red scarf. He had smooth black hair and eyes. Apparently, being recompleated undid the damage she had done to his eye.

"I believe you have something of mine ten years overdue," said Braig, arms crossed.

Aqua frowned briefly, glancing at Kairi who was to absorbed talking to her Grandmother to notice, before turning to Braig. "We'll talk elsewhere."

Aqua and Braig walked down the street and down an alleyway before stopping and facing one another. She thought back to what Braig's Nobody, Xigbar had said in Twilight Town, and then back to the battle at the Keyblade Graveyard, when she had gotten him to turn on Xehanort...

Oh shit...

She had promised him a Keyblade, promised to do the inheritance ceremony on him...

"Well? I'm waiting," said Braig, "Don't you get cold feet on our deal. I didn't have to help out Xion and Kairi, but I did as a show of good faith. I aint holding you stabbing me with your Keyblade against you. I could have, and I COULD have helped Xehanort, but I choose to keep up my end of the bargain."

"I'm aware," muttered Aqua.

Oh... was she really going to do this? For THIS man? She stared at him, her lips pursed, unsure of what to do. If the others ever found out about this... oh man she'd never hear the end of it. Probably get herself in a world of trouble too. But...

Braig, and Xigbar, had both helped her out. Both helped to make a difference, if not directly, then by not helping Xehanort.

Considering she had betrayed him at the Keyblade Graveyard, even if Xehanort drove her to do it... she did owe him.

But...

"If I EVER hear of you misusing the power of the Keyblade Braig," said Aqua in a harsh tone, "I will come for you. Are we clear?"

Braig shrugged. "Yeah yeah yeah, don't worry, I ain't gonna go 'all Xehanort' on the worlds. I'm going to collect my Keyblade, find some nice little backwater world to hide in, and wait for this whole thing to blow over."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "Whole thing?"

Braig grinned. "You still got a mess to clean up bluebird. This time though, I'm keeping my neck out of it."

Mess...?

Oh, Maleficent, right...

Crap, she hadn't even thought of Maleficent and her monsters since the memory rush.

"Not interested in doing the right thing and helping out?" mocked Aqua.

"Me? Act the hero? Pff, as if," said Braig, "Do your little Keyblade thingy so we can get this over with and I'll be on my way."

Aqua sighed and summoned her Keyblade, reversing her grip and holding it out to him. "In your hand, take this Key. So long as you have the makings, then through this simple act of taking, it's wielder you shall one day be. And you will find me, friend—no ocean will contain you then. No more borders around, or below, or above, so long as you champion the ones you love."

Braig greedily grabed the Keyblade and waited a few moments. "That it?"

Aqua nodded. "Yes. It might take some time for the Keyblade to manifest, if it deems you worthy."

Braig frowned. "If?"

"Keyblades chose their Masters, they aren't just simple weapons or tools," said Aqua.

"You ain't trying to double-cross me are you?" asked Braig, giving her a skeptical look.

Aqua scowled. "It's how the Keyblade works, take it or leave it.

"Fine fine fine," said Braig, "I'll take your word for it."

Aqua banished her Keyblade and turned around. "I don't expect we'll be seeing eachother again then."

"Who knows bluebird, who knows," said Braig.

She paused briefly at a 'warp' sound, turning her head to see Braig go off into a Dark Corridor. "Knowing my luck, that decision is going to come back to bite me."

"Or help me, either or," she muttered.

She walked back to Kairi's Grandmother's house and resumed watching Kairi and her grandmother talk with one another. Though, her mind was on another matter. Maleficent and her monsters. Now that she wasn't in the middle of a memory rush, she paused to actually give them some thought. What in the world WE'RE those things? From her Nobody's memories, the creatures seemed to be mixtures Heartless and Nobody's somehow mixed together. Yet, if that was the case, shouldn't they just reform as whole people?

Apparently not...

Her eyebrows furrowed in thought, mulling it over. A heart, plus a body equals a person...

A heart...

Oh!

The Heartless, they are not just a heart. A Heartless was a sleeping heart consumed by darkness. Alright, so, taking that into consideration, she would have expected them to just be dark creatures, Heartless in control of a body. She wondered why they gave off that awful sensation then. These 'things', felt like something else entirely... something worse. She contemplated paying Maleficent a visit...

Then again, the Witch seemed fairly hostile back in the World That Never Was. She doubted their old time spent together seeking power and answers in darkness and knowledge mattered much anymore. Showing up at her castle only to be surrounded by the Witch and who knows how many of her monsters didn't seem like a good idea. Not to mention, she didn't honestly know if Maleficent still resided in her old castle or not. Regardless, she needed to talk to the others about these creatures, see if they had encountered them and had any observations to give.

Aqua sighed and rubbed her nose, muttering to herself, "Figures things can't just go back to normal."

Hell... what did normal even mean anymore to her? She hadn't had a normal day in her life since before Xehanort had damaged her heart and cracked her control over her darkness all those years ago...

She shook her head and tried her best to stop brooding. She didn't want Kairi to catch her doing it and ruin the girl's happiness. Speaking of which...

"...then Eraqus made me climb up the entire Mount Olympus," said Kairi.

"Good heavens, in your... Keyblade Armor you said it was?" replied Kairi's Grandmother.

Kairi nodded. "Yeah, it was tough."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. Climbing a mountain in Keyblade Armor? Guess Eraqus had a more rigorous training regime these days. Not quite what Aqua would have put the girl through. In fact...

Aqua played the battle against Xehanort inside of Kingdom Hearts over in her mind again. While it was obvious Kairi knew how to wield a weapon, Aqua figured she had probably been taught how to wield a sword, her skill with a Keyblade... she hated to admit it, but Kairi's form was kind of sloppy. She had incredible power, to much power for someone her age honestly, but... Xehanort had been right when he mocked Kairi, the girl lacked in technique and Keyblade-ship, by a great deal. She had promised the girl ten years ago to train her, and while Aqua could admit she herself wasn't the best with a Keyblade, Terra held that spot over her, she could at least guide Kairi with that. It was the least she could do to pay the girl back all she owed her. Maybe give her some magic tips. Speaking of magic... she didn't recall seeing Kairi ever using magic, only her light. She wondered if the girl had received any training in it. Yen Sid ought to have been able to teach her. Then again, only so much could be squeezed into one month of training, not to mention having to go on missions to safeguard the worlds...

Honestly she ought to stop speculating and just ask Kairi what training she's had when they got back to the Land of Departure. She resumed passively watching Kairi tell her tale to her Grandmother, keeping an ear open to see if there was anything important she needed to hear about. Aqua kept a tight control of her emotions as Kairi began detailing her trials at the hands of Aqua's Heartless. It was... difficult... to not have the memories of what Kairi described flash through her mind. The images... of her Heartless putting her hands inside of Kairi's chest to torture her heart...

Aqua closed her eyes and took a quiet breath, letting it out slowly, before opening them. Kairi's Grandmother wasn't doing much better than Aqua was. Aqua wasn't one for lying or misleading if she didn't have to, but, she wondered if giving the old woman the full story was the right thing to do. Straining her poor old heart didn't seem like a good idea...

Aqua paid more attention when Kairi started detailing her time inside of Xion as a captive heart. The concept of being inside of someone else, a prisoner, unable to do anything, slowly being drained away of power, life, and memory... it was a terrifying prospect. Aqua wondered if that would have been something similar to what would have happened if Xehanort had won at the Keyblade Graveyard and took over her body. She listened, as Kairi guilty described blaming Xion for her troubles, wishing she had trusted the girl to begin with. Aqua couldn't blame her, she'd probably have done the same thing as Kairi did if she had found herself in the same situation.

Aqua listened passively for a time until Kairi did something that took her by surprise. She lied, and she didn't do a very good job about it either.

"...and after that... hybrid monster thing... attacked Xion, it knocked her out and I took control. I beat it, took the witch by surprise and knocked her off-balance, then I... and... I um... made a portal and took Xion back to her room right away," stammered Kairi, not meeting her Grandmother's eyes.

Aqua raised an eyebrow at that. If the girl wanted that to be half way believable, she needed to put a bit more effort into it. Judging by the look on Kairi's Grandmother's face, she didn't believe it either, but she didn't call her out on it. It was something she'd need to ask Kairi about when they were alone. Aqua continued to listen as Kairi unraveled the last of Xion's story, tearing up a bit, but doing surprisingly well at not crying. She listened passively until Kairi finally got to the end of the battle against Xehanort inside of Kingdom Hearts.

The fact that Maleficent could attempt to take over the artificial Kingdom Hearts put Aqua ill at ease. After hearing about Xion/Kairi's encounter with Maleficent, and the fact that the woman launched a full scale invasion of the World That Never Was, it was more than apparent the witch was no longer content to sit and wait in her castle. She was on the move, hungering for power, converting any in her path into her 'Ascended'.

It was the method of conversion that was most troubling to her. Kairi said these 'Ascended' took the hearts out of their victims, much like the Heartless did. However, what they did afterwords was not the same. They... they split the heart open, wrapped it in the darkness that spilled out, and shoved it back inside the body before it could disperse and form a Nobody. It was so much worse than she had originally thought. What Maleficent was doing... it was unnatural, abhorrent, wrong. Evil didn't begin to describe the sensation the creatures gave off.

Forget her earlier thoughts. According to Kairi, Maleficent was invading and converting entire worlds. She was just as much of a threat as Aqua's own Heartless had been. The Witch needed to be dealt with, quickly. Aqua figured she'd give Kairi the rest of the day. Then she needed to test out her own strength, to see where she stood. If she needed to train to get stronger and re-hone her skills, she would. Then she'd go after the Witch and put a stop to this.

Alone.

What Kairi had described...

She'd never risk her friends against these things. The mere thought of Terra or Ven's hearts being split open and consumed by darkness, turned into one of those things...

It was a horrifying one.

"Master Aqua?" came Kairi's voice.

Aqua glanced up to see both Kairi and her Grandmother standing before her. "Oh, um, yes?"

The girl's Grandmother gave her a warm smile. "I never got a chance to thank you for saving my granddaughter when she was a child."

Aqua smiled softly. "It's one of the few things I can look back to with pride from that time."

Kairi frowned, but said nothing.

Her Grandmother on the other hand chuckled. "You're still young Aqua. So let me tell you young'in, life is a pathway of mistakes, even extreme ones, and learning from them. Have faith in yourself and the light, even if you use the darkness, and you'll end up alright."

"Well, if you call living long enough to be permanently hunched over alright," said the old woman with a chuckle.

Aqua stared at the old woman for a moment before closing her eyes and sighing. "I suppose."

The old woman cleared her throat. "As a Keybearer... how much spare time would Kairi have to come visit her dear old grandmother?"

"G-grandma!" exclaimed Kairi, embarrassed.

Aqua opened her eyes and smiled a little. "Well, I don't know how it is now, but, back when I was an apprentice Keybearer, before this whole mess happened, we used to get brief breaks for recovery after every successful mission or training exercise, and of course on the weekends unless there was an emergency. She'd be able to visit during those times if it hasn't changed."

The old woman smiled and turned to Kairi. "Hear that? I want you visiting at least once every other week."

"Yes Grandma," said Kairi.

"I think its about lunch time, ready to go see the rest of your family?" suggested Aqua.

Kairi nodded before glancing at her Grandmother. "Wanna come?"

The old woman slowly shook her head. "I'm afraid a bar is no place for an old thing like me. I'm sure I'll have the chance to meet your adoptive parents another time. Besides... you've given me a lot I need to think about."

Kairi looked a bit uncertain, but gave her Grandma a hug and left all the same. "Alright, see you later Grandma."

"Bye Kairi," said the old woman.

Aqua waited until they had walked a ways down the street halting Kairi with a grip on her shoulder. "Kairi. You lied."

The girl paused. "Huh?"

"When you were telling your Grandmother about when you and Xion first encountered Maleficent's 'Ascended'. You lied, and poorly," said Aqua, keeping her voice plan.

Kairi froze up, looking a little panicked.

"Kairi, would you care to tell me what actually happened?" inquired Aqua, crossing her arms over her chest and giving the girl a stern look.

Kairi's face paled. "I... I can't..."

Aqua sighed, pulled Kairi into the same alleyway she had talked to Braig in, and knelt down in front of her. "Kairi, you don't need to be scared, just tell me what happened."

Kairi gulped. "I... didn't have a choice Master Aqua. Xion would have died if I didn't! She and I would have been turned into one of those things! I... I didn't... I'm sorry..."

Aqua put her hands on the girl's shoulders, starting to grow a bit concerned. "Kairi, what did you do?"

"I... I absorbed the Cornerstone of Light," she whispered, "I didn't have a choice!"

Aqua blinked a few times. "The what?"

Kairi blanked. "The... Cornerstone?"

Aqua frowned. "I... have no clue what that is Kairi."

"Oh...," deadpanned Kairi, "I guess you weren't listening for that part."

"So... what is it?" asked Aqua, a bit curious and skeptical as to why Kairi had been afraid to tell her.

"It is... it was, an artifact of light that protected Disney Castle, Mickey's home, from darkness," said Kairi, "When I first went there, I had this... urge, or instinct, to try to take it's light into me, it really messed with me, but I pulled myself away from it. When Xion was dying, I didn't have anywhere else to turn, the Princesses were all separated, I didn't think only one of them could save her. So, I went there, put my hand on the Cornerstone, and it shattered, it's light swirled around me and entered my heart."

Aqua worked over what she had told her. "Hmm... Kairi. You should tell Mickey when we get back."

"B-but!" began Kairi.

"Kairi, he'll understand, they all will. You need to tell him so he can check in on his home and make sure it's alright, and maybe re-organize things there to keep it better defended," said Aqua.

"But... Mickey doesn't go there anymore, I was told he hasn't since Minnie died defending their world from the Heartless," murmured Kairi.

Aqua closed her eyes at that. Another couple of lives she had ruined with her failure...

Aqua sighed, opened her eyes, and stood up. "Well, that's Mickey's decision, if he wants to stick by it after you tell him, then it's his choice."

She held out a finger. "But you're still telling him and the others."

"Yes Master Aqua," murmured Kairi.

"Now, lets get going," she said, motioning out the alleyway.

Kairi nodded and left.

Aqua paused briefly to mutter, "I'm a hypocrite in keeping things from my friends, but, better she not make the same mistakes I did."

She followed Kairi back towards 7th Heaven. "This city is a lot bigger than I thought it was the first time I came here."

Kairi glanced back briefly. "I guess. I don't remember a lot of this place, just the path back to Grandma's, and to the flower garden near the castle, but... it doesn't make it any less special to me. It's a whole lot better than Traverse Town, though, that place kind of grows on you."

She frowned briefly. "There was a lot of memories in that world..."

Kairi shook her head and resumed walking.

"Conflabbit! I come back here after ten years and the house is still as messy as I left it!" came a gruff voice, "Don't know why I expected different.

Aqua turned her head briefly to see a older man with a long beard and blue robes using a wand and magic to flap out carpet out of a small house. The man sighed, rubbed his eyes, and then opened them, pausing at the sight of Aqua. He froze up for a moment before he narrowed his eyes.

"Now you stay away you blasted Heartless!" said the man, taking a step back and raising his wand, energy starting to engulf it.

"Wait a sec...," began Aqua, raising her hands.

"Merlin stop!" exclaimed Kairi, rushing between the two of them.

"Oh my, is that you Kairi?" said Merlin with surprise, "What in the world are you doing defending this Heartless?"

Kairi scowled. "Does she look like a Heartless?"

Merlin frowned and slightly lowered his wand. "Well, she looks roughly the same. Clothes are a bit off, hair's shorter..."

The man glanced at Aqua's eyes for a moment, holding them and then relaxing. "None of that cruelty coming off her though. Strange... you look just like it..."

Aqua said nothing.

Kairi nervously glanced back at Aqua. "Umm, this is Merlin, he was the head Mage of the Guardian's of Traverse Town."

Merlin tilted his head, but did not draw any closer.

Kairi turned back to him. "Merlin... where were you the night Traverse Town fell? I didn't hear or see you anywhere."

Merlin scowled. "Fighting of-course, at least until it became unwinnable. I was teleporting around trying to keep some semblance of order. Not that it lasted long. I returned to the First District to help Cid and... well..."

His eyes flickered to Aqua. "A certain Heartless came and took his heart. The power of that thing was... unbelievable. I had to use all my strength magic to flee the world before it could take mine too."

Kairi looked a little relieved. "So you survived... that's good."

"By the skin of my teeth deary," said Merlin, "But my goodness was I surprised when this world came back, and I found Cid and everyone else here alive and well."

"Erm... well, if you defeat someone's Heartless, or release their heart from a Heartless that ate it, and their Nobody dies, the origional person is reborn," explained Kairi.

Merlin pulled on his beard a little. "Ah, so that explains it I suppose."

His eyes flickered to Aqua again. "So that Heartless..."

"Was mine," said Aqua quietly.

"Hmph," said Merlin dismissively, "You had to have a lot of darkness in you to spawn something as foul as that."

"Merlin!" exclaimed Kairi.

"Don't you Merlin me," said the old wizard, "Who is this anyway?"

"This," Kairi said with a very thin voice, "Is Master Aqua."

Merlin paused. "Master Aqua? As in the Keybearer you were always going on about? Your Master Aqua is some dark heathen?"

Kairi glared daggers at him. "Merlin!"

"It's fine Kairi," muttered Aqua, turning away and starting down the street, "I was expecting that reaction at some point."

"A-aqua wait!" said Kairi, running to catch up to her.

"He... he didn't mean...," began Kairi.

"I said its fine," said Aqua passively, "Don't cross your family and friends on my behalf."

"He's just a grumpy old fart," said Kairi, "Not to mention a mage, I don't really like those cowards anyway."

Aqua paused at that, and turned her head, raising an eyebrow. "Kairi, you are aware I'M a mage, right? Magic is my specialization, or at least it was before I focused on darkness anyway."

Kairi winced, an utterly awkward look crossing her face. "Uh... umm..."

Aqua crossed her arms. "Kairi... do you even know how to use magic?"

"Erm... no?" she said sheepishly.

Aqua deadpanned. "Not even cure?"

"I can heal myself with the light," said Kairi defensively.

Aqua slowly shook her head, amused. "We have a lot of work to do with you Kairi."

She started walking. "Why don't you like mages?"

"I don't like people standing in the back using spells while everyone else does the fighting upfront," said Kairi grumpily.

Aqua was half tempted to scoff and call her out for such a limited viewpoint, but..., "You know that some people really aren't suited for physical combat, right? Could you imagine that um, Merlin guy, using a sword to try to fight the Heartless?"

"He could at least try," muttered Kairi bitterly.

Aqua stopped outside of 7th Heaven and turned to Kairi, frowning. "Kairi, this is more than just a dislike, isn't it?"

Kairi said nothing for a moment before she started quietly, "I... didn't really have a lot of childhood friends when I was younger in Traverse Town, most kids thought I was weird for wanting to train all the time at so young an age. But I had two friends particular that didn't care. The first was Anne, she was so fearless and fun. The second..."

Kairi made a face. "Was Elsa. She was really gifted in ice magic, didn't speak or do much though."

Kairi closed her eyes. "We.. were really stupid, thought we were invincible. Thought we could take on the world, with nothing but Elsa's magic and the daggers we um... stole, only thing we could use back then. We were about seven years old at the time when it happened."

Aqua had a bad feeling forming in the pit of her stomach.

"We were tired of being told to stay indoors, or always be with an adult, so we went out on our own. We had heard news on the Guardians of Traverse Town radio that there was trouble in one of the outer districts, so, we made our way there, right in the middle of a bad Heartless infestation," said Kairi quietly, "It... Anna... there were so many of them, and we weren't even in the main part of the battle, just a little group of them off to the side, a few Shadows and a Neoshadow."

Kairi began to speak, her voice painfully dry, "I was trying to fight all the shadows myself, Anna took the Neoshadow head on, and Elsa just stood back and threw little icicles at them. The... the Neoshadow got Anna. It knocked her to the ground, and when no one was there to cover her, it... it took her heart."

Seven years old... seven years old and they got it in their heads to try and fight Heartless?! A child that young shouldn't have even been near a shadow, let alone a Neoshadow.

"What were you three thinking?" whispered Aqua in disbelief.

"We... we just wanted to help," said Kairi, "We were so tired of not being able to do anything. We tried our hardest, and if Elsa had just been there to help Anna instead of hanging back and flinging spells..."

"She would have lost her heart as well, or lost her heart in place of Anna," cut in Aqua, "By the light Kairi, a seven year old against a Neoshadow, that should never have happened."

"Maybe, but," said Kairi, "I saw plenty of Guardians lose their hearts out on patrol because they had a mage instead of someone at their side to stop them from getting surrounded, or to cover their back."

"A mage can do that just as effectively," said Aqua.

"Then why did so many people die?!" demanded Kairi bitterly.

Aqua's face softened. "Mage or not, a lack of trained people to properly cover one another will get people killed. Tell me, how big were these 'patrols' in Traverse Town?"

"One or two people, three if was an outer district and there was someone to spare," murmured Kairi, "A given patrol generally covered a set of ten districts, and the Guardians had to cover hundreds of districts throughout Traverse Town."

"That's not nearly enough people, especially spread so thin," said Aqua with a slow shake of her head, "Even as a Keybearer, back when I was an apprentice, I rarely had any solo missions, well, save for my last one where everything went wrong."

She wondered briefly how things would have went had Terra or Ven been with her, as a guiding light, rather as objects to protect...

She shook the thought off. "The point is Kairi, I know you want something or someone to blame when something horrible happens, but putting it on those who are fighting just as hard as you, thinking them cowards, isn't right."

Kairi didn't respond, she simply bowed her head. "..."

Aqua cracked a weak smile. "Personally, I threw everything under the 'my own fault' or 'Xehanor's Fault' category."

Kairi scoffed a little, but said nothing.

Aqua sighed and nudged her towards the door. "Go on, your family is waiting for you."

Kairi paused briefly at the door, took a deep breath, let it out, and went inside, Aqua following inside. She glanced towards the bar, seeing the one's she remembered to be 'Nexol' and 'Xuffiey' from the Organization, or, Leon and Yuffie as their true names were according to Kairi.

Yuffie was a young woman with black hair, violet eyes, a black headband, a short black leather vest and shorts. Her arms and some of her legs were bare, and she had a rather large pair of gray boots that went almost up to her knees with equally long socks. She had a shuriken leaning against the bar next to her chair.

Leon was a young man with short brown hair, blue eyes, and a fur collar short sleeved jacket with a strange red lion symbol on each shoulder. He had a white undershirt, black globes, black pants with a rather unusual amount of buckles on them. He had a silver necklace on, the same symbol as the other two red lion ones. Strapped to his back was a sword, though... it looked rather unusual, it's handle was angle strange, and it almost looked like... it had a built in revolver to it? Strange...

The two of them were talking quietly with Cid and Tifa. Or well, they were until...

Kairi latched onto Yuffie from behind with a tight hug. "Mom!"

Yuffie gave a yelp of surprise and glanced back, a wide grin on her face. "Heya squirt!"

Yuffie squirmed in Kairi's grasp, managing to turn herself around on her stool to hug her back. "Yeeesh, when did you get such a grip?"

Kairi didn't respond at first, just burying her face into Yuffie's shoulder, before she pulled away and glared at her with such force Aqua began to sweat a little. "Why didn't you and the other's bail out when things got bad?!"

"Good to see you to," muttered Yuffie.

Leon turned his seat and crossed his arms. "You needed all the time you could get to storm the castle, we... or... our Nobodies I guess, gave it to you."

Yuffie scowled. "I still say it was us, I got all my memories as Xuffiey, I can't really tell the difference."

Leon shrugged.

"You should have ran," said Kairi furiously, "What if this whole 'reborn as a whole person' thing didn't happen?! I'd... I'd have lost all of you..."

Kairi started to choke a little. "I couldn't bear that..."

Yuffie pulled her into a hug. "Hey hey squirt, what happened to your 'no tears in public rule' huh?"

Kairi bristled a little. "S-shut up!"

Yuffie grinned. "Heh heh heh."

Leon reached over and gave Kairi's shoulder a gentle squeeze before pulling back. "It' was good to hear you made it out of that alive from Axel."

"Yeah, shoulda seen Leon here when we all first woke up, threw such a fit about heading back to the castle to check on you," said Yuffie.

"I did not!" said Leon, indignified.

Yuffie stuck out her tongue. "Unfortunately for him, we can't make Dark Corridors anymore, dunno why. Kind of annoying to be honest, those things were useful."

Kairi giggled a little at their antics, relaxing a bit. "It's probably because you're not Nobody's anymore, and you don't use darkness."

Yuffie shrugged. "Oh well. Guess were stuck in Radiant Garden then. Better than Traverse Town I suppose."

Leon nodded. "It's... strange being back here after all this time."

"I'll say," said Cid, butting into the conversation, "We're a few months late on the world being restored, but it's still as if almost nothing changed from the day it fell."

Tifa nodded. "Mhm. Though, a bunch of people being found suddenly in random spots all over the world after being reborn did cause quite a scene."

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Not our fault, can't control where my body plopped down."

"At least you weren't reborn face first in one of the fountains," muttered Tifa.

"Well, not all of us need baths," teased Yuffie.

Tifa huffed. "You're one to talk."

"Hey!" exclaimed Yuffie.

Tifa rolled her eyes.

Yuffie turned to Kairi. "Say, since you got your Keyblade thingy, don't suppose you could do me a favor and head back to Traverse Town and pick up a few things from home, er, our old home?"

Kairi went silent for a moment. "It's gone mom."

Yuffie blinked a few times. "Huh?"

"Traverse Town, our Traverse Town, is gone. There's a new really small one, but, our hundreds of districts one is just... gone," said Kairi quietly.

Yuffie made a face. "You're kidding me, after all the work we put into that place? Pfe."

Leon shook his head. "Probably for the best. To many bad memories in that place."

No one said anything for a moment before Leon motioned to the stool next to Yuffie. "Have a seat Kairi."

He glanced back at Aqua. "You as well, unless you prefer to simply stand there and watch us talk."

Aqua smiled at the jab before moving to sit next to Kairi.

Leon stared at Aqua for a moment. "I always figured that if you were real that you were... indisposed in some way."

Aqua's eyes furrowed. "Real...?"

Kairi scoffed. "They thought you were some imaginary friend of mine when I was younger."

Aqua snorted. "If only."

Leon motioned for Tifa to get him a drink before continuing, "Though, I never expected the truth of it. We never knew of Nobody's, or humanoid Heartless."

Aqua said nothing.

"We ain't knockin you for it or anything," said Yuffie quickly, "People arn't people anymore when they're Heartless, and we were told you we're an amnesiac Nobody."

Aqua shrugged. "It's fine."

"So squirt," said Yuffie, turning to Kairi, "You still set on goin with her and being a Keybearer?"

"Of course," said Kairi.

Yuffie pouted a little. "We aint hardly gonna be able to see you anymore."

Kairi rolled her eyes. "Yes you are, my Grandma's already nagged me into visiting every other week."

Yuffie grinned. "That's my kind of Grandma!"

"Must have been quite a shock for her to see you all grown up," said Tifa, leaning on the counter.

Kairi shrugged. "I guess. She got over it pretty quick."

"Got over it? Or you didn't even give a chance to react to it?" teased Tifa.

Kairi scowled. "I gave her plenty of chances! We spent a few hours catching up, or well, me filling her in on my life."

"So... you talked and she had no chance to speak," said Tifa, amused.

"Sounds bout right," said Cid.

"Mhm," said Leon.

Kairi huffed, but said nothing as the four others started laughing. Aqua watched, amused at the light group teasing. Perhaps if it was like this now, growing up couldn't have been all bad for the girl. Aqua watched silently as the five others continued to talk, joke, and just enjoy one another's company. She kept quiet, not speaking unless spoken to. This gathering was for Kairi, not for herself. Tifa made food inbetween serving other customers and talking, putting a plateful before everyone.

"So, Aqua, what do you drink? We probably have some stocked here," said Tifa.

Aqua blinked a few times. "Just water."

Tifa raised an eyebrow. "Just water? C'mon now, you're kidding, right? Do you drink any kind of beer?"

"No," said Aqua.

"Wine at least?" said Tifa in disbelief.

"Nope," said Aqua, "Just water."

"I think water is code for 'give me a Heaven's Special'," said Yuffie.

"Uh... unless you're willing to clean up the puke and find her someplace to sleep it off, no, not for her first drink," said Tifa, amused, "Alright Miss Water, water it is."

"Your friend's no fun," whispered Yuffie to Kairi, who rolled her eyes back.

Aqua glanced over at her, bemused. "Anyone with magic should not drink, period. It's asking for trouble."

"Tch, like I said, no fun," said Yuffie with a pout.

Aqua merely chuckled and took the glass of water Tifa offered.

"Better no fun then a bad influence," teased Kairi.

Yuffie looked at her with mock hurt. "Bad influence! I was a great mom! I taught you all kinds of awesome things! How to pick locks, how to pickpocket, how to make a clean getaway..."

"M-mom!" stammered Kairi.

"I think you've made her case for her," said Aqua with amusement.

Yuffie put an arm around Kairi's shoulders. "Hey! I taught my little ninja all the perfect skills! Not my fault she wanted to be Leon's little swordslady instead. When's the last time you even used the Shuriken I made for you and... wait... oh MAAAAAN!"

Yuffie groaned. "It's probably in your room back in the Traverse Town that doesn't exist anymore! Aww, I put so much effort into making that..."

"Sorry mom," said Kairi sheepishly.

"Guess I'll just have to make you a new one so you can show off all your super ninja skills to your friend here," teased Yuffie, "I remember the first time you used a Shuriken, boy oh boy, you nearly took your own arm off, Aerith threw a fit having to heal that."

Kairi's face turned beat red. "M-mom! Stop!"

"Yuffie, do you intend to keep embarrassing her the entire time?" said Leon with amusement.

"Mmm... yes?" said Yuffie.

"You're horrible mom!" said Kairi with exasperation.

Yuffie just laughed.

"Ugh... where's Cloud? I could use someone at least half-way serious right now," said Kairi.

"Off with his flower lady," said Yuffie.

"Hey, what about me?" said Leon.

"Your as much of a goofball as mom is," said Kairi, "You just time it better instead of being like that all the time."

Kairi frowned for a moment before standing up. "So, Cloud and Aerith are in the flower garden's then?"

"Yeah, it's by the castle if you want to go see them," said Tifa.

"Alright, I'll be back in a bit," said Kairi.

She glanced at Aqua.

Aqua motioned to the door. "Go see your friends, today is for you Kairi, take as much time as you want."

Kairi smiled at that before leaving.

The moment Kairi was out the door, Aqua felt every eye from the girl's family and friends turn towards her.

"So... we're kind of in the dark here," said Yuffie, "I remember hearing in the World That Never Was that Xehanort was behind the Heartless Apocolypse, mind going into detail on that?"

Aqua frowned for a moment before turning to Tifa. "What's a good beginer's alcohol?"

Tifa scoffed. "What happened to no drinking?"

Aqua shrugged. "I feel like I'm going to need one."

Tifa nodded and turned to mix a quick drink, plopping it down. "On the house."

Aqua eyed it before taking a gulp. She immediantly made a distasteful face and started coughing.

Tifa seemed amused by her reaction. "Ah, brings back memories of my first drink."

Aqua stared down at her drink for a moment before speaking, "Xigbar said that Xehanort was the one primarily responsible for the Heartless Apocalypse. I suppose that's true, without him it would never have happened. But, it ignores the responsibility I had in it as well. I could have killed him, but I didn't, I wanted him to suffer, and made a horrible mistake. Even beyond that, how I dealt with what Xehanort tried to do to me directly created my Heartless and started the whole mess. I won't deny or hide it."

"Umm...," began Yuffie uneasily, "What... did Xehanort try to do? And how did you deal with it."

Aqua took another sip of her drink, licking her lips afterwords. What an awful taste... do people really like drinking this stuff?

"He tried to merge his heart with mine. Rather than let that happen, I ripped our hearts apart and tore them out of my body," answered Aqua, "Removing Xehanort's was intentional, removing mine was not. I lost my heart and created my Heartless."

"And then everything else happened afterwords," murmured Leon.

"If you want to put it like that, pretty much," said Aqua.

"Hmph, I'm giving you the curtasy to asume you'd rather not talk about it," said Leon, eyebrow raised.

Aqua said nothing in response, merely taking another reluctant sip of her drink. When no one else said anything else, she hesitatingly tapped into her darkness to probe the emotions of those around her. Leon was to guarded to make anything out with a light probe. Yuffie gave off a lingering happiness to see Kairi, but a bit of awkwardness towards Aqua. Tifa seemed a bit confused and uncertain towards her. Cid had a slight hostile feeling, but gave no voice or sign of it. If she had to guess, he wasn't happy that her Heartless had directly killed him. Aqua was honestly surprised there wasn't any open hostility, was it because of Kairi? Or did they not hold what happened against her?

"Do you not care?" she whispered softly.

"Aqua," said Leon with a sigh.

She turned her head.

"The past is the past, so long as you promise to keep Kairi safe, I don't give a damn about much else," said Leon.

There were murmurs of agreement from the others.

"I will," said Aqua softly, "But, you all need to keep yourself safe as well. I don't think Kairi could survive losing you all a third time, she barely survived the second time."

Yuffie's eyebrows furrowed. "The heck does that mean?"

Aqua went silent for a moment before speaking softly, "She thought she had lost all of you, and me as well. According to Sora, she had stopped eating or drinking a few days ago. She... when I walked into her room, she had just... shut down. It's the only way I could really describe it. Don't put her through that again, because I don't know if I could pull her out of that state a second time."

Yuffie opened and closed her mouth a few times before simply staying silent.

"So much for the tough kid act," muttered Cid, sighing afterwords.

Tifa crossed her arms, an unhappy look on her face. "Never thought Kairi would be one to have that kind of break down."

Leon sipped his drink, a frown on his face. "No one, no matter how tough they can try to act, can handle that much repeated loss and come out okay. Last ten years have been enough of it as it is."

He muttered under his breath before clearing his throat. "I don't expect to much trouble here in Radiant Garden. We'll keep ourselves okay, if she's off in other world's as a Keybearer she'll be in more danger than we are, don't let her worry about us and keep her focused."

Aqua nodded and stayed silent this time. She faintly listened to them speak, but mostly, she just sipped her drink and stared down at it. She paused when she felt a burst of light off in the distance, followed by an extreme amount of rage from Kairi. Aqua was out the door in an instant and rushing down the street towards the castle. When she came to the gardens, she was rather surprised to see Kairi, Keyblades drawn, standing over a downed Xaldin in a guard uniform. Or rather, she guessed whoever Xaldin had been before he became a Nobody. Oh boy...

They weren't alone. Another who she recognized from the Organization, Lexaeus, was also in a guard uniform and had his sword drawn. He was trying to get past another man with a huge sword. If she recalled right... that was Cloud. Aerith was there as well, though, she was simply watching from a distance, a hint of a frown on her face.

"You bastard!" seethed Kairi, raising up Two-Became One into the air, tip pointed down to skewer.

"Kairi!" barked Aqua, "Stop! All of you stop!"

Kairi froze and glanced back at her. "He killed Larxene!"

Aqua frowned at her. "His Nobody did. Not him."

"I don't care, he...," began Kairi.

"Banish your Keyblades, and step away from him. Now," said Aqua, trying her hardest to call out the tone Eraqus used for her and the others when they were in trouble, serious trouble.

Kairi froze for a moment, uncertainty washing over her face, before she banished her Keyblades and slowly moved away from 'Xaldin'.

"Heal him," ordered Aqua.

Kairi quietly did so with a flash of light.

'Xaldin' groaned and rose to his feet, scowling at Kairi. "Do you always greet people with the sharp end of your Keyblade?"

Kairi glared at him. "Only scum like..."

"Kairi!" barked Aqua, making the girl flinch, "Apologize for attacking him, now."

For a moment, she thought Kairi might refuse; there was a hard glint in her eyes, and boiling fury, but she muttered out a half-assed, "Sorry."

Aqua glanced at Cloud and 'Lexaeus'. "Put away your swords."

The two men eyed each other, slowly strapping the weapons across their backs, watching to see if the other refused to do so. The two men seperated, Cloud heading over to Aerith, and 'Lexaeus' moving over to look 'Xaldin' over.

"You alright Dilan?" asked 'Lexaeus'.

Dilan scoffed. "Been through worse Aeleus."

Aqua took a few steps forward and did a partial bow. "My apologies, she shouldn't have attacked you like that."

Kairi loudly ground her teeth and grumbled something under her breath.

Dilan frowned, looking Aqua over. "Whole in heart and body are you? Hmph. Considering your Nobody first greeted me in a similar manner to the brat, I'm surprised you have an inkling of respect in you."

Aqua frowned right back at him. "I think, it's for the best, none of us are held accountable for what our former Nobodies did. Otherwise, I might let her finish what she started."

Dilan scowled and began to say something before Aeleus clamped a hand on his shoulder. "We're not here to cause a scene. Just get back to doing our rounds."

Kairi snickered as they left, before going silent as Aqua glared at her. "Kairi, I hope you said goodbye to your friends and family, because we're leaving, now."

"But...," began Kairi.

"No buts," said Aqua, walking up to Kairi, "You ought to know better than to just attack someone like that!"

Kairi glared at her. "Yeah? Bet if Xehanort was right in front of you that you'd drop him with a second thought."

Aqua turned and aimed a hand, forming a Dark Corridor back to the Land of Departure. "Go."

"Didn't answer the question," muttered Kairi as she walked to the portal, "Probably because we both know the answer."

Aqua held her tongue, and simply watched her go through it. "Tsk..."

She glanced over at Cloud and Aerith, the both of them watching her silently, gave them a brief nod, and followed Kairi through the portal out to the steps leading into the keep. Kairi was already half way up them.

"Kairi," said Aqua, making the girl pause.

"I shouldn't have had to apologize to that bastard," hissed Kairi.

Aqua walked up to her. "For what it's worth, you are right, I wouldn't even give Xehanort a chance to speak. But that's beside the point, you should be better than me."

Kairi scoffed. "Do you hear yourself?"

"Do you want me to give out a punishment?" countered Aqua.

Kairi grumbled and resumed ascending the steps. Aqua knew she really ought to hand out some kind of punishment or discipline, extra chores for a year is what she assumed Eraqus would have done at the bare minimum. Letting the girl off scot-free was horrible for her to do as a master and set a poor example. But... after what Kairi had been through recently, she didn't want to. Not to mention Kairi had rightly called her out for being a hypocrite...

Aqua sighed and followed the girl up and into the throne room, noting a full gathering around the thrones, and made her way over with Kairi in time to hear a downcast Sora say, "...just not there. I'm telling you Master Terra, we know where it was. We could feel where our world was, it's just... not there."

Terra briefly turned his head to nod at Aqua before refocusing on Sora. "Then it's possible your world still resides in sleep."

Sora grew frustrated. "But why? So many worlds were already restored! Why not ours?"

"Sora, the bulk of the worlds that were restored I'd imagine were because my Heartless was the one who directly consumed them. Once it fell, those worlds were free," said Aqua, "Did Xehanort's Heartless ever directly consume a world's heart?"

Riku shook his head. "No, he always had his little Heartless lackeys do it. Don't know why, he might have been able to challenge your Heartless if he did."

"I doubt it, she had a huge head start before Xehanort even stepped into the playing field," said Ven, "Xehanort would have just been racing a losing race."

Yen Sid nodded, pulling at his beard. "Odd as it is to say, but the strategic choice was wise on his part. If he had made himself a threat, he would have been destroyed by the stronger Heartless far sooner, and those worlds would have either been feed into it, or restored only to be consumed again."

"So what, we have to find and kill some little Soldier Emblem Heartless or whatever it was that took our world?!" exclaimed Sora, "There's gotta be thousands of those things lurking out there!"

"Not to mention, Xehanort would have probably kept any Heartless that took a world safely hidden," muttered Riku furiously.

"So it's hopeless then unless we get lucky?" whispered Sora.

Yen Sid slowly shook his head. "Not necessarily. There are other ways to wake a sleeping world, though, such methods have not been used in many generations of Keybearers."

"Really? What?" asked Sora eagerly.

Yen Sid closed his eyes. "I do not wish to get up hope prematurely, I would need to research and look into the old ways, and how to preform them."

Sora studied the old wizard for a moment before nodding. "Alright, we'll be ready when you figure it out."

Aqua held her tongue. She had a hunch she knew what he was talking about. He was talking about going into the dreaming worlds themselves and waking them manually. She could admit though, she held little knowledge on how to do so. Truth be told, all she knew about dreams was from Xehanort's books. He said that darkness held both them, and nightmares. Delving into dreams, not as a dreamer, but an outside force, could be dangerous.

"Alright, dismissed then, take the rest of the day to yourselves," said Terra.

Before the ground could disperse, Aqua cleared her throat. "Mickey, Kairi has something she needs to tell you."

The Mouse blinked a few times before glancing at Kairi. "What is it?"

Kairi gave Aqua an unhappy look, but she merely motioned for her to speak. "I... when I was inside of Xion... when we first encountered Maleficent's 'Ascended'..."

"Maleficent's what?" said Ven.

"Umm... didn't Axel mention it when he was telling you what happened?" said Kairi.

"Erm...," said Axel, "I just gave em a run down and said a bunch of creepy crawlys took over the castle before you used Kingdom Hearts to blow it up."

Kairi deadpanned. "Note to self, Axel isn't very thorough or descriptive."

"Hey! I resent that!" said Axel.

Terra leaned forward on his chair. "What is an 'Ascended' and what does Maleficent have to do with them? I haven't heard of her in almost ten years."

"A monster," said Kairi instantly and viciously, "That witch, she somehow 'merged' Nobodies and Heartless together."

The room was silent for a moment before everyone who hadn't seen or heard of them before exploded in exclamations and questions.

Terra raised a hand for silence before narrowing his eyes at Kairi and spoke one word with a severity Aqua wasn't used to hearing from him, "Explain."

"It's like... someone took parts of a Heartless, part of a Nobody, and stitched them together. They don't look like something... 'new'. They looked like amalgamations, abominations, horrible forced mergings. It's even worse how they grow in numbers. Heartless just take a heart and drown it in darkness. Ascended take a heart, split it open, drown it in darkness, and then shove it back in the body."

Aurora paled. "That's... they split a heart open?!"

Kairi nodded. "They give off the is the most awful sensation, and it hurts just to be close to them. They make your stomach twist, and coming into contact with them, even just swiping my Keyblade against it, hurt me."

"Eh?" said Axel, "None of the others in the Organization that came across them mentioned the pain part."

"That's because they are not Princesses of Heart, are not in-tune with the matters of the heart as we are," said Aurora, "Kairi... if I'm right, it's not your pain. It's their pain you feel."

Kairi blinked a few times. "Huh?"

Aqua nodded slowly. "My Nobody came pretty close to Maleficent in the World That Never Was. She never felt any pain by proximity."

"I don't even want to think of it," said Aurora, raising an arm to her mouth, as if to stop from throwing up, "A heart, ripped open, placed back in the body, and forced to act."

"It's... probably like Xion if I had to guess," said Axel softly, "You said it hurt her a lot to act and stop you from killing Larxene when her heart... is so messed up, right?"

Kairi nodded, starting to look as pale as Aurora. "Oh gosh..."

The girl closed her eyes, took a ragged breath, and let it out. "These things... their attacks, it felt like they attacked the heart directly."

"Felt?" said Ven, slightly alarmed.

"Well... as I was saying when I began. Xion fought them, I had to give her full access to my strength in order to beat even a normal one of them. Then, Maleficent sent a bigger one she called Pete, a kind of a large mouse like Mickey..."

"PETE?" said Mickey, startled, jumping off his throne, "She turned Pete into one of those things?"

"You... know, er, knew him?" said Kairi.

Mickey frowned intently. "Gosh... yeah I knew him. He kinda got banished from Disney Castle, but golly... I never ever would have wished that on him."

"I wish he hadn't either, he beat Xion in one punch. Damaged her heart so badly it started to die and had to tack onto mine just to hang on," said Kairi, "I took over Xion's body and managed to flee. But... Xion was dying, and by extension, I was to. She... we... would have turned into one of those things if I didn't do something. The Princesses weren't gathered in one place, I didn't have a choice," said Kairi.

Terra's eyes furrowed. "Kairi... what did you do?"

"I... went to Disney Castle and absorbed the Cornerstone of Light to survive," said Kairi quietly.

There was compleate and utter silence from the room as it's inhabitents regarded her.

"The Cornerstone is gone?" whispered Mickey, shocked.

Kairi nodded, but stayed quiet.

"Mickey, you should contact Goofy and see if things are all right," said Yen Sid.

Mickey nodded and started to go around the thrones for the communication devices embedded in the wall behind them before pausing, "Kairi, I don't blame you for it."

Kairi looked a bit relieved.

Mickey went up to the wall and tapped the purple gem, fiddling with it to choose the right world to comminicate with. "Goofy? You there?"

There was silence for a moment before an overjoyed voice rang out. "Gawrsh, is that you Mickey? We haven't heard from you in years!"

Mickey winced and scratched the back of his neck. "Sorry about that. Is... everything okay over there?"

"Well... Mickey, your not gonna belive it, but, the Cornerstone's gone! It was shattered!" said Goofy, "We woulda contacted you about it but erm... something else came up."

Mickey's ears perked. "Something else? Is everything alright?"

"Well... she didn't want me to say anything, but I don't think it's right to keep something like this from ya," said Goofy, his voice lowring, "It's Minnie, she just showed up here a few days ago out of nowhere!"

Mickey froze.

"Weird thing is, she was wearing a weird black cloak," continued Goofy.

"Uh... that's Mixenin," said Axel.

"Whose Mixenin, and whose that speaking? Don recognize the voice," said Goofy.

"Umm...," said Kairi, stepping forward, "Mickey... Minnie's Nobody worked as the cheif healer in the Nobody's Organization."

Mickey turned to look at her silently, saying nothing, an odd blank look on his face.

"When we were storming the Castle That Never Was and I ran into her, I kinda told her to go back to Disney Castle," said Kairi.

"Minnie... is alive?" squeaked out Mickey.

"Well, her Nobody is," said Kairi.

"I don't care if it's her Nobody!" exclaimed Mickey, a huge happy smile on his face, "Axel told us Nobody's can regrow their hearts! Minnie's alive! She's... she's..."

He turned to Terra. "I... I gotta go."

Terra gave him a warm smile. "Take as much time as you need. We'll be alright without you. Besides, without the Cornerstone, your world is going to need you."

Mickey nodded. "Yeah."

Ven walked over and clapped a hand on the mouse's shoulder. "Give her our regards!"

Mickey nodded and, with an rampant eagerness, started rushing for the stairs out of the throne room.

"Mickey! Wait a second," said Kairi.

Mickey paused and turned to her, looking unusually impatient. "What?"

"I um... I think I ought to warn you," said Kairi quietly, "She's... really bitter."

The happyness evaporated from his face with an unfortunate swiftness. "She blames me, doesn't she?"

Kairi opened and closed her mouth a few times before speaking, "I... don't know if it's just because she can't feel or not. But..."

Mickey shook his head and turned back around, walking to the stairs. "It's fine. Thank's for the warning, but, she has every right to blame me. I wasn't there when she needed me."

The room watched the mouse leave in silence before Goofy's loud voice called in, "Is anyone still there? Hello?"

Sora smiled a little and walked over to the device, speaking quietly into it.

Eraqus walked over to Kairi. "So, you absorbed the Cornerstone, do you feel different, strange?"

She shrugged. "Not really, I just feel stronger."

Eraqus gave her a skeptical look. "Nothing else is different?"

Kairi shrugged. "Well, my heart's felt overly warm since I took in the Cornerstone's power, but that's about it."

Eraqus crossed his arms. "I'll need to discuss this with Aurora and Yen Sid. Forgive us, but, we'd prefer if you stayed here for the next few days. We may wish to test this and see if there are any... side effects."

Kairi frowned. "What the heck am I supposed to do stuck here?"

Aqua chose that moment to speak up, "Why, train your magic of course."

Kairi grimaced. "Oh please no..."

Aqua gave her a cheeky grin. "Well, I did promise you that I would teach and train you after all. Be careful what you wish for."

There was a chorus of laughter.

Terra nodded. "Would be good for the girl, and besides. We all have a lot we need to discuss over the next few days. But, that can wait for tomarrow. Dinner will be in a few hours, do what you will until then."

Kairi was gone out of the throne room in a flash, more than eager to not be the center of attention anymore. Aqua took her leave as well, retreating to her room. She sat down on her bed and sighed, laying down and staring up at the celing, losing herself in her thoughts over the days events, and her own past...

Chapter Text

Aqua woke up screaming.

She panted, streams of sweat coming down her face. The nightmare, the memories of her Heartless, feeding. Tearing hearts out of people's chest, of Kairi's chest...

Trying to do the same to Terra... to Ven...

The hearts of countless people...

Countless worlds...

Screaming inside of her...

She began to shake uncontrollably and scrambled for her wayfinder. Where was it, where was it, WHERE WAS IT?

THERE!

Next to her bed on her desk was her wayfinder, glowing softly, beckoning her to take it in her hands. She hurriedly obliged it, and almost instantly, her pounding heart quelled, the terror in her mind faded, the tremors in her arms and hands abated, and her breathing evened out. She stared down at the small glowing charm pressed against her chest over her heart. Was this what it was going to be like, if she didn't have the charm at her side every-time she went to sleep? Nightmares like... like... that?

She let out a shuddered breath before getting up. She didn't care what time it was, charm or not, she was not going back to sleep. She went into the bathroom, leaning against the sink, staring into the mirror at herself. Even in the darkness of the room, she could still see her own reflection... always in the darkness...

Shatter

She embedded her fist into the mirror, directly into her reflection's face. "YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!"

She withdrew her bloodying glass-shard filled hand and slid to the floor, taking ragged breaths. Slowly, she turned around, resting her back against the sink. She began to slowly pluck pieces of glass out of her hand and toss them into the trash. She did not flinch at any of the sharp pains, she would not allow herself to, for she deserved far worse. When she finished, she rested her hand down on her lap, reddening the clothes on her thighs. She sighed softly to herself and tapped into her magic, green restorative energy briefly glowing around her hand, casting a light over her she did not deserve.

She showered, then changed into another set of her clothes, beating the dust out of them with a flap in the air and a bit of gravity magic. She hid her last pair of clothes, the other's didn't need to see the blood, didn't need to be upset. Light knows Terra and Ven would probably flip. She shook her head and left her room...

...only to stop and stare at Terra leaning against the wall across from her door, staring at her silently.

"Terra," she said quietly.

"I remember," he said softly, "The last time you woke like that, screaming in the night about a nightmare."

"It was a dive actually," she murmured.

Terra's eyes furrowed. "I see."

Aqua turned and started walking down the hall, her head bowed.

"Aqua," his voice came.

She paused, but said nothing.

"Screaming at yourself doesn't fix anything," he said softly, "The past is the past, let it go and move on."

She didn't reply. She walked down the hallway, into the throne room, down the stairs, and left the keep. It was still dark outside, whether it was late at night or early morning she didn't know nor care. She walked to the summit and sat down on the edge, simply staring off out into the blackness in the distance.

Repulsive darkness...

She had hungered for it so readily, expecting it to save her friends. Instead, it damned them, and everyone else...

Or...

Was that an excuse?

Did the darkness damn the worlds to their ten years of hell?

Or was it her choices?

After all, wasn't darkness half of...

"Darkness is half of everything my dear," explained Xehanort, "Everything must exist in a balance, light and darkness. One cannot exist without the other."

She tensed, anger and hate radiating off her in waves as Xehanort's poisonous words filled her head. Words spoken so long ago to her younger and naive self. She hissed and clenched her fists tightly, only to pause when a light warping and skittering sound came from behind her. She turned her head and froze, surprised to see a shadow Heartless wobbling towards her. She ground her teeth, raging at herself. She had brought a Heartless to this sacred land, drawn it here with her hate, of all the stupid things she had done, this was high up there. She half-turned her body, aiming a hand out to blast it away with her magic...

...and was utterly shocked as the shadow nuzzled against her hand.

She stared at it in disbelief. "What in the..."

A memory hit her at the sight of it...

The heartless dragon overhead roared and flew down, landing next to Aqua's Heartless in the Land of Dragon's, who reached a hand up to pet it's head lovingly. "Have fun my friend, you may consume the boy, the girl is to remain intact, but not unharmed."

Even more followed. When her Heartless was not consuming worlds and hearts, she was with her brethren, walking among them. Hand's trailing their darkness based bodies like a gentle caress. So many times that her Heartless showed care, concern, and oddly love towards her fellow Heartless. As if...

"As if she knew she was missing something in her life, and replacing it the only way she knew how," muttered Aqua.

After all, she remembered her Heartless asking, almost begging Terra to succumb to darkness and take his own heart to make a Heartless. It had wanted a friend, but the desire... it was... twisted... everything that her Heartless had been... what had Terra called it? A twisted echo of everything Aqua herself had once been?

She froze for a moment, noting that her hand had started to pet the Heartless's head, almost reflexively.

She stopped, closed her eyes, and gritted her teeth. "Go back to the Realm of Darkness where you belong."

Warp.

When she opened her eyes, it was gone, but the weight, the impact of what had just happened was to heavy to bear. "Darkness recognizes its own."

The Heartless had obeyed her before, it was true, but this was different. This was far more different, and far worse. She hadn't been trying to control it, to summon it. It felt her darkness, recognized it, and it came willingly. The implication of that made her want to hurl, did the Heartless really see no difference between her and her Heartless?

Her shoulder's sagged. "Ugh..."

She stood up and walked to the middle of the summit, an annoying thought coming to mind. She channeled a bit of her darkness, as if she were going to fight...

WARP

On cue, a small cluster of Shadows and Soldier Heartless appeared, watching her, waiting for her, hungering for her command, she could feel it. She stared at the blue Heartless symbol on a Soldier's chest silently. They were drawn to her power like a moth to the flame. The last ten years of her darkness swallowing the worlds and controlling the Heartless seemed to have left a very much lingering impression. That... was a problem.

Aqua closed her eyes and forced herself to go into her memories of her time as a Heartless. That thing had been able to practically summon armies at will, beckoned from the Realm of Darkness or other worlds with simply a call. Yet, at times it had been able to show up alone. It had come to the second incarnation of Traverse Town alone to confront Xehanort's Heartless, and confronted Kairi in Alexandria on that tree by itself. So it was possible...

She focused. "Leave me, and do not come unless I actually call."

She sent it out as a ripple, spoken aloud, yet emanating from her darkness in a wave that transversed the world. The Heartless faded back into darkness, an almost disappointed sensation left in their wake. They craved her presence, but she sure as hell didn't crave theirs. She still wanted to put it to the test though. She walked down to the training rings and summoned her keyblade.

She paused briefly to glance down at it. Even after all this time, Rainfell still heeded her call. She ran a hand along it sadly, wondering if she really deserved to have her Keyblade at all. She slowly shook her head and leaped up, slashing at a ring and sending it spinning. She threw herself into batting the swinging rings along, every so often pausing to see if any Heartless were called by her actions.

Satisfied when nothing happened, she stepped away from the rings and started a kata, swinging her Keyblade about in smooth, controlled strikes. It had been ages since she had last done any solo training like this, ignoring the ten year gap. During the Xehanort Incident, most of her training had been focused on gaining knowledge or simply fighting to scale her raw power. To refine and hone her technique was something she had been slacking on. She wondered, compared to Terra, Ven, and Eraqus who had been fighting the last ten years, how far behind would she be?

She frowned and held up a hand, staring at the black glow coating it. "Do I care?"

She banished her keyblade and simply continued to stare at her hand. "Do I really want to fight anymore? Use my darkness again?"

She slowly waved her hand and suppressed her energy, banishing the darkness with a heavy sigh. "Not really."

She turned to stare at the keep off in the distance. "After Maleficent is dealt with, and Kairi becomes a Master, I think I'll take my leave of this place. Hang up my Keyblade and find some secluded world to live in."

It would be for the best, perhaps the others would be sad, but at least that way she couldn't screw anything up again. She walked up to the summit again and stood by the edge, crossed her arms over her chest, and simply stared out into the darkness. She stood there, silently brooding for hours, until the sun started to come up. She decided to head back, the others would be up and about soon, and breakfast to follow.

She paused when she saw Kairi sitting alone on a bench near the training grounds and walked towards her, only to pause when she caught sight of the girl's face. Aqua frowned, seeing a depressed look, and stretched out her senses, feeling what she saw emanating from the girl. Strange, why was the girl depressed? Aqua couldn't really think of a reason considering how much the girl had gotten back recently.

"Kairi?" questioned Aqua.

The girl jumped and masked her face and emotions. "Oh uh... good morning Aqua."

"Something wrong Kairi?" asked Aqua.

Kairi shrugged. "Not really."

Aqua gave her a not-so-impressed look and crossed her arms. "Really? It didn't look like nothing was wrong."

Kairi said nothing, bowing her head.

Aqua walked over and sat down next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "The Heartless apocalypse is over, your family is alive, and I'm back to train you as promised. Is it about Xion? We'll find a way Kairi..."

"And what's the point even if we do?" muttered Kairi.

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "What do you mean 'what's the point'?"

"Even if I get her back, even if my family's alive, how long will it stay that way?" she questioned bitterly.

Aqua frowned. "I don't understand."

"I was a little kid when I lost everything the first time," said Kairi quietly, a tremor in her voice, "I kept losing friends over the last ten years, one by one, over and over again, then I lose everything a second time, then my family came back as Nobodies, and I lost them again. How long until it happens again? A month, a year, a decade? Until the next major crisis? Whats the point if I'm going to lose them all over again? If I can't do anything to stop it?"

So that was it, the fear of loss. The helplessness against it. She'd suffered both far to much for someone her age.

"I dreamed that I lost them again last night," Kairi whispered bleakly, "I can't keep doing this."

Aqua said nothing for a few moments, not liking how vulnerable the girl seemed. "The best you can do is train as hard as you can, become as strong as you can, and do your duty to keep them and the world's safe. Even then, Kairi, everyone dies someday."

Kairi closed her eyes. "I know... but... it should be of old age, in bed, surrounded by your family and friends after living a long and fulfilling life."

Aqua gave her a sad smile. "I agree, but, the world's don't always work that way."

Kairi sighed heavily in response.

Aqua reached over and gave the girl's shoulder a squeeze. "It'll be alright Kairi, I promise."

Kairi turned her head to stare at her. "You shouldn't make promises you can't keep."

Aqua said nothing for a moment before rising to her feet. "Then I suppose you should help me keep it, come, I believe you and I are overdue for some training. I want you to have the basic spells down before lunch."

If she couldn't banish the girl's troubles, then she'd do her best to work her to hard to think about them. "Now watch carefully..."

One by one, Aqua started to coach Kairi on the basics of spellwork, showing her fire, blizzard, thunder, and cure, and 'trying' to help the girl to learn how to use them. Boy oh boy though, she was not good at it.

"Think of heat Kairi, imagine warmth in your hand, call out your power, and let it go," instructed Aqua.

She resisted the urge to grimace, one again, as a burst of white fire erupted from the girl's hands. "No no no, not light magic, you have to start practicing with pure magic before you try mixing it with light."

Kairi sighed. "What am I doing wrong then? I'm doing exactly as you say, but it's always 'lighty'."

Aqua's mouth twitched in amusement at the term. "I think you'll have to do what I do to get pure magic at the start, but instead of suppressing darkness, you'll have to suppress your light instead to get a pure effect."

Kairi gave her a blank stare. "How the hell do I 'suppress' my light?"

Aqua hesitated. "Well... it's been years since I've used the light. I'm not exactly sure, I imagine it would be somewhat similar to suppressing darkness. I'll try to show you, keep your senses on me."

Aqua called slightly on her power, a weak black aura surrounding her...

...and felt a spike of fear and unease from Kairi, both briefly flashing across her face before the girl hid it. It took Aqua everything she had to not deflate, not show that she had seen that fear of her. Seen that memory in Kairi's eyes, of Aqua's Heartless coated in darkness. Instead, Aqua closed her eyes to hide the pain and depression that act inflicted on her, and then suppressed her darkness. Not trusting herself to immediately speak, she did it a few more times to stall and perhaps give a better example.

"Does... that help?" asked Aqua quietly.

Kairi closed her eyes and tried to do as she was shown. Aqua felt the girl's light, her raw power, dip a decent chunk, maybe a quarter, but no more. A frustrated look crossed the girl's face, and she seemed to try to redouble her effort, and draw Aqua's concern when her power and presence fluctuated.

"Don't force it Kairi," said Aqua abruptly.

Kairi hissed out in irritated before stopping and glaring down at her hands. "I don't understand. I get the concept, I can do it, it's like shoving the power down inside of yourself, but I just... it's like I can't fit anymore."

Aqua crossed her arms in thought for a moment. "Well... I guess that might be a side-effect of absorbing the Cornerstone. You have far more power than you are naturally capable of containing."

Kairi blinked a few times before scowling. "Well that's annoying."

"It also means you will never be able to mask your presence nor power," warned Aqua, "Anyone with any kind of capability to sense or detect power will sense you coming miles away."

"Well, guess that throws out me ever fulfilling mom's dream of me becoming the 'Great Ninja Kairi'," mused Kairi.

Aqua gave a weak chuckle before motioning to the keep. "We'll take a break for now. I imagine we kind of missed breakfast, why don't you go on ahead and see if you can't find something to eat? I'll be along in a few minutes."

Kairi shrugged. "Okay."

Aqua waited until Kairi was out of sight before she moved to sit at the bench she had found Kairi on. Aqua put her head in her hands and let out a ragged breath. Kairi had been afraid of her, Aqua had felt that fear like a knife through her body. It was an awful sensation, to have someone she cared about be afraid of her. She wasn't willfully stupid, she knew Kairi couldn't help it, it was an instinctual reaction. Her Heartless had tortured that girl over and over again. Aqua looked pretty much the same as it, coated in darkness. Kairi had every right to react that way...

It still hurt though.

It hurt so much...

Aqua took a few minutes to collect herself, wipe tears out of her eyes, and place a calm mask over her face. She walked into the keep and made for the dinning hall, joining Kairi in grabbing a few peices of fruit, and cold toast and eggs that had been left out for them. Thankfully, magic was a great re-heater.

"Morning Aqua," came Ven's voice.

Aqua turned her head to see the young man poking his head in. "Good morning Ventus."

"Have fun teaching this morning?" he asked in a teasing tone.

"Kairi is a work in progress," mused Aqua.

"Hey!" exclaimed Kairi.

Ven grinned and ducked back as Kairi raised her half-eaten toast in preparation to toss at him.

"Him and Sora are the worst," said Kairi with chagrin.

"I'll take your word for it," said Aqua before pausing, "Speaking of Sora. Him and Riku, what are your impressions of them?"

"Impressions?" asked Kairi.

"Well, the only memories I have of them were as boys, or when my Nobody briefly met Sora, what are they like?" Aqua lied.

She could tap into her Heartless's memories of fighting the two boys, but... she'd rather not touch those with a ten foot pole if it wasn't absolutely required.

"Well, I don't know Riku that well. He comes of as a fairly serious person, at least to me, he's probably more friendly with people he knows," said Kairi before growing sheepish, "Especially since he probably didn't have such a good impression of me early on."

Aqua raised an eyebrow. "Do I detect a story?"

"I might have booted Sora in the stomach," Kairi admitted before glaring at Aqua's amused look, "What? He just started laughing and dancing with me all the sudden."

Aqua smiled at that. "So that's what caused it, Sora mentioned 'the boot' to me. Anyway, what do you think of Sora?"

The purely odd look on Kairi's face took Aqua by surprise.

"I... don't know," the girl murmured.

Aqua studied the girl, noting an awkward and uncomfortable sensation emanating from her. Not to mention a whole confusing jumble of emotions. Aqua could pick out admiration and some affection for Sora in her, but... she was rather surprised to feel a huge ball of negative emotions, guilt, shame, pain, fear. They were blocking out any love she might have felt, if she did. Why she felt those towards Sora, Aqua didn't have a clue. It was kind of odd, after Sora had admitted to loving Kairi, she had easily paired the two of them in her mind. Though, it wasn't her duty to play matchmaker, ignoring her own obvious lack of experience in that regard. Still... something felt off with the girl's emotions as a whole when they were unbarred like this... something... unstable, fractured...

She decided to test the waters. "You don't know?"

"He was... just an annoyance at the beginning," said Kairi with barely restrained guilt, "Always so absurdly cheerful all the time. I kind of spited him for it, except... the first time I saw Sora really lose that happy look, it felt wrong."

"It's hard to stay mad at him though, the way he always goes out of his way to be nice and help out," said Kairi grumpily, "Even if you don't ask him to, no, especially if you don't."

She grew quiet. "He's loyal to a fault, to a stupid ridiculous fault..."

"I don't see how that's a bad thing," said Aqua.

"He should have just let Xion go," muttered Kairi, "Shouldn't have fought her, fought me, for me... stupid idiot Sora..."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. Kairi had mentioned Xion and Sora had fought, but she hadn't gone deeply into details. Sora had given a few more details, but, she was still lacking Kairi's perspective on the matter. Judging from the rawness Kairi was emitting at the moment, it might not be the time to ask.

"It is who he is I suppose," said Aqua before diverting Kairi's focus and attention, "Alright, breaks over, let's get back to training."

Kairi took a few moments to collect herself before rising to her feet. Together, they both left the keep to pick up where they left off...


Xehanort watched carefully from his hiding spot behind a bush on a ledge on the pathway to the summit to the Land of Departure. It was as he feared, Aqua was indeed back, restored as he had been. Worse still, she was beginning to train the Princess of Heart more in-depth. Combined with the other Keybearers, all of the champions of various worlds they had set against him, the likeliness that the former Organization members losing their loyalty to him, and the bizarre refusal of the Heartless to heed his command anymore, he found himself with very few options at the moment.

He stared silently at Aqua, off in the distance. "If only I had succeeded at the Graveyard..."

"Remaining bitter over the past wont see your goals accomplished," came a young voice behind him.

Xehanort sharply turned his head before pausing in surprise. Standing behind him on the ledge, coming out of a Dark Corridor, was a young man in the Organization Cloak, with silvery hair, and piercing yellow eyes. HIS eyes. In fact, if he didn't know any better...

Xehanort narrowed his eyes. "Who are you?"

The young man tilted his head in thought. "If you don't know, then your plans must be more derailed than I thought."

The young man pointed his finger at Xehanort. "I am you from the most distant past."

Xehanort stared at the young man. For a brief moment, he contemplated if boy was insane. But no, he felt nothing but the truth in his words, and in his eyes, so very much his own.

"Curious, how then, are you here?" asked Xehanort.

"Did you not plan to have Ansem venture into the past?" asked this 'Young Xehanort'.

Xehanort blinked a few times. "Ansem?"

Young Xehanort seemed displeased with his response. "Something is different, so very different, with this time compared to my own."

The boy moved to kneel next to Xehanort, staring out at the training Keybearers, his eyes furrowing. "Why do I feel such immense darkness within Master Aqua's heart?"

Xehanort scoffed. "Because I tried, and failed, to turn her into my vessel."

Young Xehanort turned his head to give Xehanort a disbelieving look. "Her? Not Terra?"

"I had planned on Terra initially, but, I saw an opportunity with Aqua that I took," answered Xehanort.

"Hmm," murmured Young Xehanort, rubbing his chin, "I have been to several worlds since I came to this time, both sleeping and awake, seen and learned of such differences. Yet, it was only one different choice, Aqua instead of Terra, that branched out into so strange a future."

Xehanort frowned. "The past cannot be changed, I know this from my own studies about time. Memories from the future, cannot be taken into the past. So if what you say is true, in that where you come from 'Terra' was my choice, how then do you explain this?"

"The second is easy enough to answered, I have yet to arrive back at my own proper time, thus I have not yet lost what I gained," explained Young Xehanort.

"The first however, I can only answer in theory," said Young Xehanort.

"Do tell," said Xehanort, a scholar's gleam in his eye.

"We cannot change our pasts, I believe this still stands true, as the events here have no bearing on the past which I came from," said Young Xehanort, "However, when I came to this time, I was traveling back down the stream of time to take up my destined path, I was... not paying attention, lost in my own thoughts, and was drawn to, and eventually through a... splitting strand of time. One that was breaking away from the stream."

Xehanort frowned intently. "Splitting strand? Breaking away? How is such a thing possible?"

"Time is like a flowing river," said Young Xehanort, "But little streams can break away, form their own rivers, ponds, and lakes."

"I understand the analogy, but, are you implying it simply 'happened'?" said Xehanort with a scoff, "Time is more than a river, what you are implying, an 'alternate time' would not happen without a reason. Something that causes such a thing would not be minor."

Young Xehanort tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Agreed, but I know not what it was."

It was a curious thing, and the idea of 'alternate times' was perhaps worth exploring at some point. First and foremost though, he needed to get a handle on his own situation. He needed the X-Blade, and with it, Kingdom Hearts.

"You said Terra was chosen in your time, how did that decision fair?" questioned Xehanort.

A humorless smile slowly played across Young Xehanort's face. "In a stalemate I suppose. You possessed Terra, but Aqua defeated you and ended up in the Realm of Darkness for her efforts, but by doing so, let Terra regain enough control to fight you for the body. You two ended up locking the body's memories away and delaying the plan for some time."

"It appears Aqua thwarts me in more times than just my own," mused Xehanort, "How do you play into this then?"

"My most future self, you, has a plan in motion to gather himself from various points in time to use as the thirteen darknesses for the Keyblade," said Young Xehanort, "We have twelve vessels at the moment, and are looking for a someone to bear a part of our heart as the thirteenth."

Xehanort was thoughtful. "Ingenious, using my past selves to fill the slots. I had simply intended to use twelve other chosen vessels from my Organization."

"We did that to a degree as well," mused Young Xehanort, "Isa, Braig..."

"Braig?!" snarled out Xehanort, "That traitor?"

Young Xehanort frowned. "Traitor? He is one of our strongest supporters, and most willing."

"So long as it suits his needs and someone doesn't come by with a better offer," said Xehanort with disdain.

"Aqua?" questioned Young Xehanort.

"Indeed," was Xehanort's reply, "Stole him from me on the very battlefield we fought on. She played his greed well, she came to understand darkness far more than I originally intended."

Young Xehanort paused. "You are implying she willingly turned to it."

"She did," confirmed Xehanort.

Young Xehanort stared at him, hard, "I imagine the time-frame of our attempt to create the X-Blade with Vanitas and Ventus was the same, so when exactly did this happen?"

Xehanort stared silently out across the land, staring at Aqua as she tried to coax her young apprentice to use higher forms of magic. "That depends on what you refer to. She accepted the darkness early on a few months after I delivered Ventus to Eraqus, she was uncomfortable with it, but after I told her it was half of everything she slowly began to relax to it overtime. She did not welcome it fully until Radiant Garden I believe."

"That she accepted it early on should have been a warning for you," said Young Xehanort, "You, we, did not begin to embrace the darkness until after we left our Master's care as a Master ourselves. A keybearer welcoming and delving into the darkness so quickly does not create a vessel, it creates a rival."

Xehanort opened his mouth to speak, but Young Xehanort did not stop, "That is why Terra's fall was such a masterful act. He never embraced the darkness willingly, only ever with grim reluctance, or in an emotional fit. While Terra was easy to manipulate, it does not dismiss the elegance of what was done. If he had been pushed to much, he could have embraced his darkness to much for us to handle, to little he would have remained to light to use. He was lead down the path we chose with expert precision."

Xehanort held back his pride and forced himself to think logically. "I made a mistake, I can admit that now. I am uncertain what was more foolish, the decision to darken Aqua, or doing so the way I did."

"A curious thing," said Young Xehanort, "How did you get her to turn to the dark?"

"It was twofold," said Xehanort, "First, I cracked the control she had over her heart, to allow her to experience darkness, struggle with it, give birth to trials and insecurities."

"A bit of a brute force tactic," said Young Xehanort distastefully, "What was the second?"

"Her friends," said Xehanort humorlessly, "Her weakness, her strength. She embraced the darkness for them, to protect them."

"And there would be no pit she wouldn't fling herself into on their behalf," mused Young Xehanort, "She did after all throw herself into the Realm of Darkness to try and save Terra in my time."

Young Xehanort slowly shook his head. "You say you made a mistake, an understatement my most future self, an understatement indeed. You are lucky this is still salvageable."

Xehanort raised an eyebrow. "Enlighten me then, for you see something I am having difficulty finding. Against their raw power, either Kairi or Aqua themselves could best me, and that doesn't consider the other Keybearers or their allies."

Young Xehanort gave him a disapproving look. "Since when has pure power or the number of our foes mattered? They are pieces on the chessboard to be maneuvered around. Albeit your opponent having two queens in play makes the game difficult, it is still however winnable. Especially since the queens on the board are in so... fragile... a state."

Xehanort raised an eyebrow. "Fragile?"

"You are focusing two much on the raw power they have," warned Young Xehanort, "When instead you should focus on the vessels that contain that power. Tell me, study them, what do you see?"

Xehanort frowned and refocused on Kairi and Aqua, noting first that they had been joined by their fellow keybearers. The others were laughing about something, perhaps joking around, yet...

He tilted his ear, listening, testing his senses, feeling...

A strained laugh, a forced smile. From both of them.

"So they are stressed, what of it?" mused Xehanort, "I did not make it easy for them, neither did Aqua's own Heartless, it's expected that they would be raw for some time."

Young Xehanort narrowed his eyes. "And where is the instinct to focus on that weakness? To draw it out and deepen the wound? Use it to your advantage? I've heard about your 'Organization'. Far grander in size than the one in my time, yet I wonder, did sitting on that throne, with so many to heed your beck and call, make you complacent? Make you loose your touch?"

Xehanort scowled. "Perhaps there is a weakness there, within those two, but it is not one I can personally touch nor influence."

"Directly? Of course not," said Young Xehanort, "They'd crush you in an instant. Indirectly though, there is so much you can do. For Kairi, all you would have to do to break her would be kill her family permanently, without Keyblade or Heartless involved, if that is the method you so chose to take."

Xehanort considered it briefly, but dismissed it, if he knew himself at all, his younger self had something else in mind. "What other methods are available?"

"That all depends, do you wish to do this yourself, or do you wish my aid?" inquired Young Xehanort.

Xehanort raised an eyebrow. "Why would you be here if not to aid me?"

Young Xehanort scoffed. "I have my own destined path to walk. The events here have no bearing on my future, in fact, risking my life here is a foolish thing to do."

"Yet...?" inquired Xehanort.

"I am loath to allow myself to risk failure, in any time," said Young Xehanort, "Especially when my own future is unsecured."

Xehanort frowned. "I was under the assumption you fared far better than I."

"In some ways perhaps, in some ways not," said Young Xehanort before he pointed out towards the keybearers, "Especially in regards to Sora, yours is both far stronger and far weaker than my own."

That took Xehanort off-guard, and confused him. "That boy? What of him? He's a decent bearer I suppose, but a threat? What do you mean by stronger and weaker?"

Young Xehanort was silent for a moment. "Your Sora is stronger and more skilled, raised as a Keybearer if I guess right. Ours was not, he lived as a simple boy most his life. Yet, the Sora of my time I feel is stronger, far stronger, in one critical regard."

"Which is?" asked Xehanort.

"His heart," answered Young Xehanort, "Sora, in my time, is the light, the key, that binds the lights together. So long as that boy stands, I fear our victory is in question, as much as my older self assumes otherwise. His importance is far less here in this time."

Xehanort tilted his head thoughtfully. "What would cause that difference?"

Young Xehanort rubbed his chin. "Tell me, I have heard of a 'Heartless Apocalypse' that eclipsed the Worlds in this time for roughly the last ten years. Is this true?"

Xehanort nodded. "It is. Aqua's Heartless nearly consumed all worlds, the entire Realm of Light."

Young Xehanort raised an eyebrow. "Another mark against having turned Aqua dark, the destruction of the Realm of Light was never our goal. Regardless, it tells me the reason Sora is different. In my time, his heart was allowed to grow unmarred, untainted by suffering and strife until he started his journey. Here..."

Young Xehanort grinned. "Here, I couldn't help but notice Destiny Islands is gone. I imagine from a rather young age. Such a traumatizing thing to lose one's home, one's family. Consider still the constant suffering and loss ten years of losing against the Heartless would inflict upon the boy. His heart is weighted and heavy, nowhere near the peak of the potential that heart has."

"Does that apply then to all of them?" asked Xehanort, curious about the comparison.

Young Xehanort nodded slowly. "Perhaps. They all hold more martial prowess, more pure power than their counterparts in my time, yet, they are perhaps all weaker in some way or the other. This Riku, while better trained, has no experience using, nor special resistance developed against the darkness for example. He is not nearly as dangerous to our plans as the one I know."

Young Xehanort hesitated. "The only exceptions to this rule that I see, are Ventus and Terra. Though that is easily understood, as it appears the two of them were not taken out of the equation as the ones of my time were. Terra as a Vessel, and Ventus from shattering his own heart to stop Vanitas."

He scowled. "And Eraqus of course, he was dealt with in my time."

"What of the Princess?" asked Xehanort, "What differs between them?"

"They are as different as the moon and the sun," said Young Xehanort, "Kairi in my time is merely a simple Princess of Heart, certainly not a warrior. I consider it a good thing I suppose. If the Princess of my time had a Keyblade and were trained to use it, she could be a threat considering she is more stable than this one."

"Stable?" asked Xehanort.

"Can you not see it?" asked Young Xehanort, "I've barely begun to study her and yet I can see, I can feel the cracks waiting to spread. She is an emotional disaster waiting to happen. Aqua can most likely see it as well I believe, she will try to help the girl heal and stabilize, ignoring her own issues, but not before this time 'catches up'."

Xehanort was starting to get annoyed, having to constantly ask questions to cover his lack of knowledge, "Catches up?"

Young Xehanort pointed out a finger, "Kairi is younger than the Kairi I know of, hasn't hit her last growth spurt I believe. This 'time' appears to be... I'm not quite sure, a year or so behind mine?"

"Is this significant?" asked Xehanort.

"Perhaps," said Young Xehanort, "In our time, they had merely defeated Ansem at this point, the Heartless of the possessed Terra if you were curious. In this time, your 'Ansem', Aqua's Heartless, and the Organization, have both already fallen."

"Things appear accelerated here, and when coupled with the differences between the two Kairis, I feel therein is the avenue to your success," said Young Xehanort.

Xehanort was silent this time, rather than questioning. Perhaps his younger self had been right, he HAD grown complacent over the last ten years as the Superior of the Organization. Here before him, his younger self was scheming in his full glory, already with a plan hiding behind his cunning yellow eyes, rather than lamenting his losses.

"What do you have in mind my friend?" asked Xehanort.

"First, answer my earlier question, do you wish my aid?" asked Young Xehanort.

"I would be foolish not to," said Xehanort.

"I suspect that soon enough, the Masters will make the same mistake they did in my time, sending off the apprentices alone into the Realm of Sleep as a part of their Mark of Mastery Exam," said Young Xehanort, "In my time, we tried to make Sora into a vessel, using the connections in his heart to drown him in nightmare and darkness."

"You implied Kairi held the key to success, she cannot be used as a Vessel," said Xehanort.

"I don't intend her to be," said Young Xehanort, "I simply intend to remove her from the chessboard, and I plan to use the Kairi of my time to do so."

"You're going to go back for her? How could she possibly best this Kairi?" questioned Xehanort.

"Oh no, I don't need the actual Kairi," said Young Xehanort with dark glee, "In fact, I hold doubt I could get back to this time after I leave. No, what I intend is the same, and yet the opposite of what was done to Sora in my time."

"Which means what?" demanded Xehanort.

"Drown her in light and the most pleasant of dreams, rather than drown her in nightmare and darkness," said Young Xehanort with a dark chuckle.

Xehanort's eyebrows furrowed, curious about what he meant.

"I will take Kairi out of the equation, which will tilt the playing field in your favor and will help to further destabilize the others," said Young Xehanort, "Without Sora being the binding light here, to draw them back together, I foresee any fracture between the bearers to be a lasting damage.

Young Xehanort gave him a warning look. "You on the other-hand have to work on catch-up. You are eleven vessels behind your counterpart in my time. You must rectify this deficiency, immediately. I don't care how, it's not my problem."

Xehanort nodded slowly and stood. "Indeed."

"I will stay to continue to watch them and learn," said Young Xehanort, "At some point though, I wish to have a more in-depth discussion about the differences between our times."

Xehanort nodded curtly and formed a dark corridor. "Agreed, I am curious about the exact play-out of events in your time."

Young Xehanort nodded, but said nothing in response. With that Xehanort went through the corridor, eager to find the vessels he needed...


"Your starting stance helps to determine how the flow of battle begins," explained Aqua, holding her Keyblade out to the side, her other hand mirroring it on the other side of her body, "Tell me, what does my stance suggest?"

"It's... not really offensive or defensive I guess," said Kairi.

Aqua nodded. "Correct, it is a versitle stance, not favoring either start. I can assume the offense, transfer into a defense, or simply fall back and start unleashing magic."

Kairi nodded. "Okay."

"Have you ever considered your own?" asked Aqua.

Kairi shrugged. "I really don't have one, I kind of just throw myself into a fight."

"Yeah she sure does," called over Sora, mid spar with Ventus.

Kairi turned her head to glare at the boy. "Why don't you go train somewhere else?"

"Nope, we're fine here," called over Ven cheekily.

Aqua smiled a little at the antic. "Well, anyway Kairi you ought to give it some thought. There is far more to battle than wildly swinging your keyblade around."

Kairi's face turned a little red. "I don't just swing it around wildly!"

"Well, it is true you at least try to aim it," teased Aqua.

Kairi scowled. "Hmph!"

"What of your family and friends?" asked Aqua, "What of their stances have you seen?"

Kairi gripped her keyblade two-handed, and pointed it out infront of her at an angle, a slightly dissatisfied expression on her face. "It looks more imposing when you have Cloud or Leon's big swords."

Aqua thought briefly, vaguely recalling the two's weapons. "Yes, those swords also cover more area. It's hard to find an opening when a giant sword is held in front of you as a block. It's part of their stance to not give their opponent a good way to start off. Though, a heavy weapon like that is more difficult to maneuver or wield."

Kairi raised an eyebrow. "You obviously haven't seen Cloud fight. He swings that sword of his around like it's a twig."

Aqua shrugged. "I guess."

"Anyway, a Keyblade doesn't quite offer that much area protection," said Aqua, "But, it offer's many other advantages. A Keyblade is capable of channeling energy and amplifying it, whether light, darkness, fire, ice, lightning, whatever you choose. A Keyblade cannot be permanently broken..."

"I beg to differ," muttered Kairi.

Aqua gave her a curious look. "Explain."

"I think she means when Xion had it, when Kairi's heart was giving out, Oathkeeper started to look broken," called over Sora.

Aqua nodded slowly. "I see. Well, under normal circumstances, a Keyblade cannot be permanently broken. Even if you, I don't know, freeze it with magic and smash it on a cliff, if you dismissed and resummoned your Keyblade, it would be whole. However, a Keyblade is tied to one's heart once it has chosen you. If the Heart it is connected to perishes..."

She briefly thought of the Keyblade graveyard, "The key goes lifeless and dull."

"Can a Keyblade ever un-choose someone?" asked Kairi.

If it could, Aqua figured she would be the perfect candidate for that abandonment. "I don't know, I've never heard of that happening before."

"Neither have I," came Terra's voice.

Aqua turned to see Terra, Eraqus, and Riku walking over to the training area, standing off a ways to watch the two pairs.

Aqua refocused. "Anyway Kairi, if you were to pick an opening stance, what would you want? Balanced? Defens..."

"Aggressive," said Kairi without question.

Aqua studied Kairi for a moment. Aggressive huh?

"Well, let's see you spar and I'll try to give a few pointers on that and fighting in general," suggested Aqua.

Kairi nodded and readied her keyblade. "Ready when you are."

Aqua froze up for a moment. Kairi wanted to spar... fight her?

"I uh, meant with someone else," said Aqua quickly before passing her gaze around the others, "I can't really give pointers if I'm caught up in the fight. How about Riku?"

Riku shrugged. "Sure why not."

Aqua couldn't help but notice the slight narrowing of Terra's eyes and the bright tint of concern, but thankfully the man said nothing.

Aqua walked a bit away to give the two apprentices room. "Alright, this is about technique, not power. No magic or anything serious, just practice your keymanship."

Both Ven and Sora stopped sparing and laughed.

Ven snorted. "Is that even a word?"

Aqua scowled at him. "Well, keyblade's aren't swords so you can't say swordsmanship."

Ven just gave her a teasing smile and walked over, making Aqua roll her eyes and turn back to the apprentices. "Begi-"

Aqua's eyes went wide to see Kairi practically fly at Riku before she even finished, Keyblade reaping through the air. Riku took a startled step back, raised his keyblade to block, then instead spun around, letting Kairi's momentum take her forward and then to the ground with a slight trip and slamming the pummel of his Keyblade into her back. Kairi rolled and swung as she rose to her feet, expecting Riku to have kept up, but the boy merely back off and waited.

Kairi rushed at him and swept her keyblade in wide, powerful arcs while Riku merely twitched his Keyblade to block, wincing at the impact but not having to maneuver much. Aqua frowned at this, Kairi kept sweeping her Keyblade around, as if to drive off multiple opponents...

Oh.

"Ven...," murmured Aqua, "From what you know of her, has Kairi ever had to really fight Keyblade against Keyblade, or against someone with a melee weapon? You know, something not Heartless?"

"Umm, no clue about her time in Traverse Town, but when she was with us, it was pretty much just Heartless," murmured Ven back, "I see it to, she's giving out way to many openings by swinging it around like that."

"How much time did you guys have to train her?" asked Aqua.

"Erm... not much," admitted Ven, "It was mostly just missions and resting. We gave her pointers on her abilities when we could, but... there really wasn't a lot of time."

"So her experience in fighting is pretty much against the Heartless, save for her brief fight against the Organization, and maybe some sparring against her friends and family back home," said Aqua.

"Probably," said Ven, "I mean, she's fine fighting Heartless, but, you don't really need a perfect or even half-skilled form to beat mindless opponents."

There came a yelp from Kairi as Riku smashed the flat of his Keyblade on Kairi's hand after a sweep, causing her to let go and send the keyblade flying.

"Kairi," called out Aqua, "Keep your blade closer to your body. Control how much effort you put into your attacks, where the Keyblade goes. Don't just swing it about. You have one opponent, and it pays to keep your keyblade between you and him, not behind you or off to the side."

Kairi's face flushed in embarrassment before she recalled her Keyblade, adjusted her grip, and resumed attacking. Aqua watched passively for a few minutes, studying Kairi as she fought, or rather, attacked, since Riku appeared to simply be allowing her to strike out without counter. The girl wasn't kidding, she was aggressive. She was not a calm and collected fighter, emotion bled across her face and into every swing.

And then the frustration kicked in when she couldn't get passed Riku's defenses.

With a growl, Kairi summoned her second Keyblade, Two-Become One, in her other hand and grew twice as aggressive, light starting to coat her body and blade.

"Kairi," warned Aqua, "This is a spar, not a fight, sheath the light."

Kairi briefly paused to banish the light and resumed.

"Sora wasn't joking, she really can duel-wield Keyblades," murmured Ven.

"Yeah," admitted Aqua, "And I have no idea or advice on how to fight with two, mastering one blade is difficult enough."

"Riku," called out Terra, "You know you can fight back."

Riku shrugged between parries and blocks. "Don't need to."

"Don't need to?!" exclaimed Kairi angrily, hot light starting to engulf her keyblades again.

"Kairi," warned Aqua again.

Kairi grumbled to herself and banished her light once more. "Could win easily if I cut loose."

Riku scowled at her. "Yeah, sure, you probably could beat me into the dirt if you used all your power. Raw strength isn't everything though, I'm still a better fighter."

"Well excuse me if you've had years of practice with a keyblade," growled Kairi.

"Yeah? Well how about you try to practice and learn with one keyblade before you fool around with a second," said Riku, swinging his keyblade precisely, smashing into Kairi's left hand, and sending Two-Become One flying.

Aqua half-turned her head towards Ven. "Those two have issues?"

Ven shrugged. "Dunno, they really don't interact much."

"Kairi," called out Aqua, "I want to see how you defend, stop attacking."

"Best defense is a good offense!" called back Kairi.

Aqua blinked a few times, not sure if to be amused or annoyed. "Does that mean you have an acceptable defense, or your bad on it?"

Kairi flinched at that, and Riku took the advantage, stepping forward and swinging in heavy, focused swings. It became very apparent, very quickly, Kairi was terrible on the defense. Someone had thought her to fight, she had the motions, but they were awkward, rusty and unpracticed. Riku picked her apart with childish ease, swatting one keyblade out of her hands, then the other, and holding her at keypoint.

"How about you two call it for now," called out Terra.

Riku lowered his keyblade, stared at Kairi for a moment, shook his head, and turned away to rejoin his master. Kairi stood there for a second, flustered and angry, before she forced herself to calm down, recalled her keyblades, and banished them.

Aqua put a hand on the girl's shoulder when she walked over. "Don't sweat it Kairi. You'll get there. I'll walk you through a few starting katas later."

"Yeah, apprentice time is over, time for the masters to have some fun!" teased Ven.

"We 'just' sparred," deadpanned Sora.

"Shhh," said Ven, slugging his shoulder, "That was 'teaching!' I wanna have some fun."

Sora rolled his eyes.

"Anyway, Aqua, up for a spar?" asked Ven, a grin on his face, "I got a lot of new moves to show you!"

For a moment, she was about to say yes, eager to pick up in the life she left off. Then... Kairi's face, filled with fear, flashed across her mind and Aqua froze up. Ven, and the others, they had fought her Heartless for a decade. Would she see that same fear on their faces in a spar when she called out her power? Even worse... she had no right to ever raise her weapon, or use her power against her friends, even in a spar, for the hell she had put them through. She could not bear the thought of hurting them anymore than she already.

"No thank you Ven," she managed to say, doing her best to keep the tremor out of her voice.

"Aww why not?" whined Ven.

Aqua shrugged and averted her eyes, picking a random excuse. "I haven't had the time to really test myself out. Wouldn't be comfortable sparing right now."

Ven frowned briefly, studying her, before shrugged. "Okay, maybe another time."

Aqua felt a lot of eyes on her and silently cursed herself. She wasn't doing a good job, her friends didn't need to be concerned about her.

"Well, how about the two of us show you what we've learned then, eh?" said Ven, glancing at Terra.

Aqua gave a weak smile. "Sure."

Aqua didn't have the heart to really watch. She had seen enough of their abilities over the last decade through her Heartless. Terra was a monster with raw power and the light. Attacks so strong and bright nothing but the deepest of darknesses could withstand him. Defenses so sturdy, immovable as a mountain, shielded with the light. Ven was fast, to an absurd degree. Bathed in wind and light, he could flow around a battlefield and dance around an opponent with ease. He could whittle away while dodging his opponent, or simply choose the opportune time to burst at his opponent with everything he got.

None of their abilities had matter against her Heartless, and watching the two spar just brought back memories of their struggles. She closed her eyes and suppressed her senses to dull the pain watching them brought.

Thankfully, Eraqus and Aurora came out an announced lunch not to much later, the sparing stopped, and the group began to disperse.

"Coming Master Aqua?" asked Kairi.

"In a bit, I'm not hunger at the moment," said Aqua quietly.

Kairi's eyebrows furrowed before turning and heading into the keep with the other apprentices. Aqua gave Ven and Terra a brief look before she stood up and started heading for the summit.

"Aqua," said Terra, "What was that earlier?"

Aqua paused and half turned her head. "What was what?"

"That freeze up," said Terra calmly, his eyes searching hers, "All Ven asked was for a spar."

Aqua was unable to stop a pained look from crossing her face."..."

"All I asked for was for a spar," said Ven, curious, "You think I'd ask you to pull a tooth or something."

"I... I won't fight any of you," whispered Aqua.

"Uh... a spar isn't really a figh...," began Ven, confused.

Terra held up a hand and cut him off, taking a few steps towards Aqua. "Why?"

Because she couldn't face that fear on their faces. Because she had seen them in pain, hurt by her Heartless countless times, and she couldn't bear to hurt them...

"I just don't want to," said Aqua, masking her face with a blank calm look and turning away.

Terra's hand clamped on her shoulder. "Aqua, don't shut us out, not this time. Don't face your problems alone again."

Aqua cracked at that, flinching, and for that moment, she lost her nerve. "I... I have her memories..."

"Whose memories?" asked Terra, baffled.

Aqua turned and gave him a bleak look. "My Heartlesses."

A look of disbelief crossed his face. "You're serious?"

"I remember each... e-each and every way she... it... I... ever hurt any of you," said Aqua, a tremor in her voice and arms.

"Oh Aqua," said Terra quietly.

He put his arms around her in a tight hug; she lost all control at that and starting sobbing, "I'm sorry Terra, Ven, I'm so sorry..."

Ven walked around and hugged her from the other side. "It's okay Aqua, that wasn't you, it's not your fault..."

Encompassed by her friends, she let out her grief. "Yes it is! I'm was so stupid... so stupid... I chased into the darkness to try to save you both, I nearly doomed you instead. I hate myself... I hate Xehanort... I hate the darkness... I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!"

They let her sob, guiding her to a nearby bench and sitting her down. Ven sat down next to her and Terra knelt down in front of her.

"Aqua, I don't like seeing you like this," said Terra, pained, "If this is how you feel, then perhaps its time to put both darkness and hate behind you. Learning how to walk in the light once more might help you heal."

Aqua closed her eyes, tears streaming down her face. "I can't Terra, I can't..."

"I don't wanna sound forceful, but why not?" asked Ven.

"I... my Heartless... it committed genocide against the entire Realm of Light," whispered Aqua.

A heavy silence overcame her friends.

"I can't find the light again. Not when my crimes haunts my nightmares, my waking thoughts, can be seen on the faces of those I hurt, can be flung rightfully at my face by the inhabitants of the worlds," she whispered mournfully, "I just can't..."

Terra sighed heavily. "Aqua... you have to let it go. If you can't find a way to forgive yourself, it's going to eat away at you for the rest of your life."

"Maybe I deserve it," she muttered.

"No one deserves that," scolded Ven, "You're not a bad person Aqua, you made a mistake in a situation that was forced on you."

"Did I?" she said bitterly, "At any point after Kairi healed my heart, I could have returned to Master Eraqus, could have went home. I didn't. Instead, I sought more and more power and knowledge within the darkness. The things I did to get stronger... Maleficent... the Realm of Darkness..."

She could so easily remember the hours spent reading through Xehanort's stolen books. Using her Keyblade to rip the hearts of out Maleficent's pig minions to practice defending her heart against foreign invaders. Then, the hours she spent in the Realm of Darkness, fighting heartless, commanding Invisibles to help her fight...

She didn't realize she had started shaking until Ven grabbed her arm. "Easy Aqua..."

"Xehanort brought out the worst in all of us Aqua," said Terra seriously, "None of us are proud of that time, not a one. All of us made critical mistakes during that time, each of us had the power to prevent what happened, all of us failed Aqua, not just you."

"How did any of you fail?" asked Aqua with disbelief.

"I never should have let you fight against Xehanort at the end, knowing what he wanted of you," said Terra, "I could have faced him and won. This doesn't even touch on how badly I bungled our 'reunion' at Radiant Garden. I drove you away."

"I rushed into situations without thinking," admitted Ven, "From the moment you left, to tons of incidents out in the worlds, to going home to confront the Master about what I was, to risking Xehanort getting the X-Blade by fighting Vanitas. I never stopped to think, rarely letting Terra even give me a piece of advice before I shot out ahead."

"Eraqus made one of the greatest mistakes as well," said Terra, "Trying to kill you and Ventus to stop Xehanort was... there are no words for it. The act unbalanced all of us, and took Eraqus out of the fight at the Keyblade Graveyard as a potential ally while he had to recover."

"Master Yen Sid did almost nothing but sit back and give advice when we came to seek it," said Ven, "Mickey helped a bit, but that Star Shard of his kept going off at bad times, or he arrived late. If Mickey had been there at the start of the battle at the Keyblade Graveyard, four on two would have made it end a lot quicker. Ignoring the guy you got to turn on Xehanort of course."

"And myself, Ven, and Eraqus are all guilty of not approaching you about your darkness to try and help before the Mark of Master Exam," added in Terra.

Aqua sighed. "Terra, Ven..."

"What were trying to say Aqua, is that you're not alone," said Terra.

"Yeah, don't keep it all bottled up this time around," said Ven, "We can help bear the load."

What had she done to deserve friends as good as them? She didn't honestly know, in her own mind, she had done enough to lose them over and over again. Yet, here they were...

Aqua smiled weakly at them. "I don't know what I'd ever do without the two of you."

"C'mon, let's not keep the kids waiting," said Ven, "Time to eat!"

Aqua gave a soft sigh, wiped her tears away on her sleeve, and stood up, walking alongside her friends towards the keep, a soft smile on her face...

Chapter Text

Terra was apprehensive, watching Aqua quietly eat out of the corner of his eyes. He hadn't realized just how badly off she was since her rebirth. He had hoped they would be able to pick things back up where they had left off, but after that display... it just wasn't going to happen. He had been foolish to think it would.

Aqua was nowhere near ready to retake her mantle as a Keyblade Master, no, not retake it, start it. She had barely had time to begin her initial duties last time around. Regardless, Aqua could put up a fake controlled front, but underneath it she was a complete mess. No, not even underneath it, the damage to her showed through far to often these last few days. He didn't know what to honestly do to help her. He told her to 'let it go', but that wasn't something easily done, especially now that he knew she had her Heartless's memories.

Light...

He didn't know how she was still sane, and it deeply scared him. The horrors that thing had done, atrocities it had committed, the friends it had hurt... it had nearly wiped out the entire Realm of Light. It took an inner strength and will he couldn't fathom to keep going despite all of that in her head, the guilt he knew was devouring her whole. Was she capable of keeping on going for much longer? If not, how long could she stand it?

He didn't want to treat her like she was brittle. He was a believer of self-fulfilling prophecies. If he treated her like glass, he would be pushing her make her glass. Though... back during their training, both before and after Xehanort cracked her heart, Aqua never let them go easy on her. If he treated her like she was fragile, he was curious if she'd get over her unwillingness to spar and show him what for with a whack upside the head.

Terra banished his thoughts, turning his head when Eraqus cleared his throat and tapped a fork loudly on his plate for attention. "I'd like to take this opportunity while most of us are gathered to bridge the topic of the Precepts we Keybearers have lived by in the past. The worlds have changed heavily within this last decade, faults that our rules allowed or encouraged. Some of our laws are no longer even possible to maintain anymore."

"Shouldn't we have Mickey here for this?" spoke up Sora.

Yen Sid pulled on his beard. "Yes, and no."

"Huh?" questioned Sora.

"Mickey will not be available in the foreseeable future, with his duties to both his homeworld and helping his wife resuming in earnest," explained Yen Sid, "He has been... absent there, for many years during the Heartless Apocalypse, and has much he must relearn and adjust to. It is not a fault nor a complaint, but Mickey has never solely been a Keybearer, his role as King is something he cannot afford to shirk anymore due to pained past. While he will aid us if we call, it is on us, as full-time Keybearers, to decide our future."

Terra nodded. "Agreed. He will have his hands far to full at the moment."

"Alright, so, where do we start with that whole Precepts mess?" asked Ven.

"I suppose with what does not work anymore," said Eraqus, "The worlds not knowing about one another. What are your opinions on this?"

"Isn't that... already moot?" asked Kairi, "I thought most worlds know about eachother now?"

"Not quite," explained Eraqus, "There are many worlds that fell before we could arrive to help. If I had to guess, roughly thirty to forty percent of the Realm of Light now knows about other worlds. It is enlightening these reborn worlds that we are deciding."

Deciding to be the devil's advocate, Terra spoke up, "If nothing is done with it, people would naturally forget over a long period of time. Generations later, the Heartless Apocalypse may become an old wives tale, or attributed to something else aside from 'shadowy monsters'."

"Perhaps," said Eraqus.

"But nothing would have been learned then," said Aqua softly before her voice slowly began to rise, "What would the point of all of this been then? Keybearers may have learned from this, might change a rule or two but, forgive me, we already have to much power as it is. All it took was one Master, Xehanort, misusing his abilities for his own desires, and all of this spiraled out from it. How long will it be before it happens again? A few generations of keybearers down the line? The worlds need to have more power, more knowledge, and the ability to keep Keybearers in check if they abuse their strength."

"Well said Aqua," complimented Eraqus, approval in his eyes.

Terra readily agreed, but rather than voice it, he was curious if he could draw more from her, he liked seeing her confident. "What would you suggest Aqua?"

Aqua withdrew a little, looking all the sudden aware that everyone was looking at her an waiting for her opinion. "Well... I... the Keyblade, and darkness, can be used to damage a heart. How many people of the worlds understand that there is more to a heart that it's physical aspect beating in their chests? How many have any knowledge of how to defend their hearts?"

"Not many," mused Terra, "Hell, we didn't learn the concept till the last parts of our apprenticeship."

"Which was a mistake," said Eraqus sadly, "Something we rectified with Sora and Riku after teaching them the basics. It is a subject now taught far sooner in an apprenticeship than later."

Yen Sid nodded before pulling on his beard and looking slowly around the table. "So we are in agreement then? The worlds are to be enlightened. Told of the Light and the Dark, of the Keyblade, and of the Heart."

There was a collective nod, and with that, Yen Sid snapped his fingers, quill-pen and parchment appearing in the air and levitating down to the table before him. Slowly, he began to write what they had decided down. Terra rubbed his chin in though, considering the next topic he had in mind, something he knew was going to be a interesting one.

"The next precept that bear focus in my opinion," began Terra, "Is one I expect disagreement on."

He waited a second for everyone's focus to turn to him before announcing the subject, "The amount of Keybearers allowed, and whether they should be bound or at least connected to the Order of Keyblade Masters."

There was a few confused looks shot his way, though Aqua's eyes went wide slightly, he figured she understood what he was getting at. "Terra... that's dangerous."

Terra nodded. "I'm aware."

"The process of choosing a future Keybearer is not something easily amplified," said Eraqus, "And while greater numbers would have been useful during the Heartless Apocalypse, there are risks associated with having to many of our kind."

"True," said Terra, nodding in acknowledgement before continuing, "During the Apocalypse, there were many a champion of the world that, when told the Keyblade was one of the only ways to truly defeat the Heartless, asked about how to obtain one. Many that we have met have the potential, they may not shine out to us as Sora, Riku, Kairi, or us ourselves did to our Masters, but the potential, while less, is there. Uther for example I know all of us here would trust with the responsibility of a Keyblade."

There was a heavy frown from Eraqus. "Asking the champions of the worlds to give up their lives and adopt the role of the Keyblade is not something to be made lightly. And even if you had them take up a role similar to Mickey's, connected to both us and their own worlds, tasked with helping to maintain a balance..."

"That's not what Terra is saying Master," interrupted Aqua softly, "He's not saying that they should be connected to us at all."

She always was good at listening and understanding. "Correct. I'm proposing that a very select few from each world be chosen for the Keyblade, trained and taught its ways, but left in that world with the responsibility of protecting it alone."

Eraqus's eyes went wide. "Terra! That... that would create potentially hundreds of Keybearers! Especially once they pass on the Keyblade."

"And with such numbers," warned Yen Sid, "We risk the factionization of the worlds, a precursor to a new Keyblade War."

"And perhaps," said Ven quietly, for once going against Terra's words, "While those we may choose might turn out okay, there's no guarantee those our chosen choose will. To use who you said, Uther I'd trust, hell yea I would, but I know Uther loves Arthas like a son, he'd choose him no question. While I think Arthas is a good person at heart, he makes terrible choices and could do awful things with the Keyblade if the power went to his head."

Terra noticed an uncomfortable frown in Sora's direction, but he said nothing. He knew Sora cared for the troubled prince, but it was willful blindness not to at least acknowledge the potential danger.

"Yeah? So what?" said Kairi crossly, her voice rising a bit to loudly, "You act as if that can't happen to us when Master Aqua mentioned it like two minutes ago. Hellooo? Xehanort anyone?"

Aqua reached over and put a hand on her apprentice's shoulder. "Civil, Kairi."

"You especially know it's true," said Kairi, glancing at her.

"I do, but there's no need to yell your point," said Aqua, "A discussion or debate should be kept calm and level, and insult and rebuke free. We argue our opinion, not shove them down someone's throat."

Kairi grumbled and crossed her arms, going silent. Terra had a half smile on his face, not offended; Kairi was a passionate one.

"Perhaps," said Eraqus, a hint of discomfort on his shoulders, "This topic should be shelved and revisited once we see the benefits or disadvantages of other changes. It is a massive change that cannot be taken lightly."

Terra tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Fair enough."

Even if it was shot down, the idea was out there now, left to stew in the back of their minds. He expected, the next time that the topic came up, there would be a lot more carefully crafted arguments both for and against the change.

"A more neutral topic would be that of Nobodies," offered Eraqus, "And one with no precedent within the Precepts of the Keybearers."

Terra noticed Kairi's attention immediately snap towards the old master, her eyes intently focused. Now this would be a topic that she could offer great insight in, Aqua to perhaps.

"You know, it might help to have a Nobody here to ask their opinions," offered Aqua, "Where is Axel? I haven't seem him all day."

"Said he was going home for awhile and left in the morning," said Sora, "Said something about tracking down some guy named 'Isa' and trying to patch things up."

"Isa?" murmured Kairi, "Xisa. Xsia, Xsai, Sxai, Siax, Sai... oh, Saix."

"What was all that mumbo jumbo?" asked Sora in a teasing tone.

"It's the organization name rule," explained Kairi, "You take their original name, add an X to it, and mix it up."

Eraqus gave a heavy sigh and massaged his forehead. "Even as a Nobody, Xehanort was still obsessed with the X-Blade. The X in the names I doubt is purely an X, Xehanort was most likely having it allude to the Recusant Sigil."

Terra noted Aqua flinch slightly at the word 'Recusant'. Curious. Why did that word get a reaction out of her?

"What exactly is it? And hows it related to the X-Blade?" asked Kairi.

Eraqus's lips drew a thin, unpleasant line. "While it may have different terminology and meaning to other worlds or peoples, in terms of the Keybearers, a Recusant Sigil is also known as a Mark of Heresy. To forsake your duties and responsibilities as a Keybearer, to turn on those you were meant to protect, to become all that you were supposed to stand against. The few Keybearers since the Keyblade Wars who did this were stripped of their Keyblade, their powers locked within their heart, and branded with the mark before being exiled to their home worlds. It is both ironic and fitting that Xehanort chose that symbol, considering that would be at bare minimum his punishment if he were captured."

Terra nodded grimly at that, but rather than speak, he watched Kairi, her eyes dancing back and forth on nothing, her eyes furrowed in thought, before rage played across her face. "To renounce their sense of self. That bastard..."

"Kairi?" questioned Sora.

"He wanted anything and everything that would encourage Nobodies to renounce who they had been, to make them more easier hosts to implant copies of his heart in with his artificial kingdom hearts," spat out Kairi.

"Artificial WHAT?" said Ven, half rising out of his seat, damn near half the table doing the same.

Terra stared at Kairi, mouth agape, before closing it. "Perhaps we need to have your debrief of what happened sooner rather than later."

Kairi looked exasperated. "Did Axel not tell you anything?"

"Axel rushed through his whole explanation, half of it didn't honestly make sense," said Terra with equal exasperation, "I quote 'We went into the Giant Heart in the sky, fought Xehanort, lost Xigbar and Aqua, beat him, then Kairi basically crashed it into the World that Never was and blew it up.'"

Kairi chocked a bit. "Seriously Axel?"

Terra slowly shook his head. "I take it the 'giant heart in the sky' he refereed to was Kingdom Hearts. In hindsight, its obvious, in the middle of his spiel, nonsense."

Kairi snorted. "Oh Axel... you're ridiculous. Its a wonder Xion likes you half as much as she does."

"Kairi's 'debrief' can wait for another time," butted in Aqua, "One thing at a time, we're discussing precepts at the moment. Back on topic."

Terra sighed before relenting, the table settling down as he began again, "Alright then, so Kairi, if you would: Assume we are completely unknowledgeable about what a Nobody is. Explain what they are to us."

Kairi gave him a half puzzled look before shrugging. "A Nobody is the body left behind from a person who lost their heart. From what I remember overhearing, Nobody's bodies typically fade out of the Realm of Light briefly to adjust to their new state before reappearing in another world. I have no clue how that world is determined. Typically, a Nobody will remember everything from their previous lives, though I heard it mentioned that its not always the case. A Nobody cannot feel, though they remember what they are supposed to feel..."

She trailed off briefly, looking uncomfortable. "At first glance, without looking deeper, you can walk into a bar filled with Nobodies, and mistake them for normal people. But... their interactions are as if they are missing something. Xifta... or Tifa as I had known her, her smile just wasn't right..."

She shook her head. "Some overcompensate and try to act hyper emotional, which is just as awkward. But the common theme is the same, many Nobodies simply wanted back what they had lost. It's the Nobodies who lost their hearts, and didn't care to get them back, that could be extremely dangerous, because there would be no morals or feelings to get in their way. They frequently had a sense of being 'abandoned' by 'somebodies', those with hearts, thinking they wouldn't give a damn about them."

She smiled a sad smile. "Sometimes all they needed was someone to show them they cared. It was like that with Larxene and Xokie, er, Eiko."

There was a sputtering from both Sora and Riku. "Eiko?!"

Kairi tilted her head. "You knew her when she was a somebody?"

The two boys seemed extremely uncomfortable, Riku spoke quietly, "We were there when she lost her heart."

There was a moment of awkwardness before Kairi offered, "Well, she should be back now if you guys ever wanna go in and say hi."

"We will at some point," offered Terra, "Light knows we all fought absurdly hard for that world. It would be nice to see Alexandria and its champions prospering for once. Now, continue Kairi."

Kairi frowned. "Nobodies tend to think logically since they can't rely on their emotions and gut feelings to guide them. On one hand, it lets them make clear cut decisions, on the other hand, it can let someone, like Xehanort, lead them by the nose since they can't feel anything off about the situation and their logic makes sense."

"Let it be said however," interrupted Eraqus, "That Xehanort was far more capable of fooling people than just Nobodies. He fooled the rest of us for years, his acting is deceptively powerful."

Kairi nodded. "I guess, but I still think what I said stands. Nobodies aren't bad people, they just want back what's lost. They have their extremists just as normal people do."

Terra gave a slow nod. "A fair enough statement."

"And, dare it be said, most of the conflict with them wouldn't have occurred if not for Xehanort's influence over their group," offered Yen Sid.

Kairi scowled. "Agreed."

She shook her head slowly. "A Nobody can regain their heart two ways. One, through interaction with people overtime they'll slowly regain their emotional capabilities and create a new heart. I... think its quicker if a Princess of Heart is involved, but I'm not sure. The second method, which I don't like at all, is for their Heartless and Nobody to be destroyed. I'm not sure on the order of it, or if it matters, but with Aqua, her Heartless fell before her Nobody did."

For once, Terra was glad to see the discomfort on Aqua's face about her heartless, if only as a distraction. He didn't really want either of them to dwell long on the subject of Recompletion, one stray thought leading to Xehanort potentially being back would have them both out on a tangent.

"I think everyone would find it in good taste, that the first method would be the desired one," said Terra.

Sora nodded. "Yeah, the Nobodies lost their hearts, their lives, once already, getting killed a second time and reborn that way is trauma they really don't need."

Terra resisted the urge to not glance at Aqua with that statement, and instead hurried it on, "Agreed. The second method should only be done as a last resort, if they are to dangerous to leave as a Nobody, or if they ask for it."

Kairi scowled. "Ask for it?!"

Ven shrugged. "I imagine it might be quicker to get their heart back that way."

Kairi scoffed. "IF, and that's a big IF, their Heartless is already dead. If not, they could be stuck in... limbo, or whatever state they'd be in, while waiting for it to be destroyed, which it might not ever be if the Heartless goes back to the Realm of Darkness."

"Point taken," said Ven, shrugging.

Yen Sid pulled on his beard. "The topic brings up an interesting question. What happens to someone, who has rebuilt their heart as a Nobody, and then the Heartless containing their heart is destroyed? Would the two hearts merge? Would the new one be driven out in favor of the older one? Or would the old heart simply fade away?"

Terra leaned his head back, a hint of a frown on his face. "I don't have the faintest idea."

He turned his head to their quietest table member. "Aurora?"

The elder Princess of Heart merely shook her head. "I wouldn't have the experience or knowledge to say. If I had to guess, it would depend on the hearts in question. On whether they would accept one another or not. If they do, a seamless merging would most likely happen. If not... I'm not sure."

"Sounds reasonable," said Sora before he elbowed Riku, "Waja think?"

Riku gave him an incredulous look. "Do I look like I'd have a clue?"

Terra glanced over at the two, slightly amused. "Boys."

Terra refocused on Aurora after the two gave him innocent looks. "As a note, just because this is a discussion about Keybearers and our roles, it doesn't mean we wouldn't value your opinion. The weight of the eldest Princess of Heart's opinion does matter. You may see or think of something we don't."

Aurora nodded, offering a quiet, "Of course."

"It's off topic, but if I may...," began Aqua, "I know the other princesses were returned to their homes..."

For a brief moment, a shadow crossed the Princess's face. "I have nowhere to return to, Maleficent saw to that."

Aqua winced. "Oh, forgive..."

Aurora shook her head. "It's fine."

Terra distinctly remembered how the Princess had reacted when they had brought her home, only to find her castle in utter ruin, not a single soul of those from her earlier life there. That desolation on her face had set him ill at ease. Allowing her to find home here, a place she had come to see as home anyway, was beyond the right decision to make.

He rubbed his chin thought, what subject to broach next...

"So...," spoke up Ven, "I kind of figured it went out the window since no one said anything about Kairi seeing her family, or Sora and Riku going to check on their homes, but what about the whole family rule thing?"

Oh... yeah, that was probably a good idea. He had honestly forgotten about it.

Kairi tilted her head. "What do you mean?"

Sora and Riku echoed her confusion. Considering they had lost their families, the topic had never actually been broached.

Terra cleared his throats, "The role of a Keybearer is a tough one, it can be a long and difficult life, full of hardships and strife. It requires an immense dedication. As such, in the past, it requires Keybearers to have... no split loyalties, nothing that can be held against or over them. For myself, Aqua, and Ventus, it wasn't exactly a problem, we were either orphans, our parents were dead, or we didn't remember. But..."

He really didn't want to deliver this one, especially when he had every intention of voting to throw this particular Precept away.

Thankfully, Eraqus seemed to take pity on him, "Keybearers in the past were required to sever all familial ties."

Kairi chocked and sputtered a bit. "E-excuse me?!"

Sora and Riku visibly blanched.

"Yeah, no," said Kairi icily, "That rule gets thrown out or I'm walking out the door, again."

Terra raised an eyebrow. "Not that I agree with the Precept in question, but giving an ultimatum is not a way to win an argument."

"It's not an ultimatum," said Kairi warningly, "It's a fact."

Which was still an ultimatum, he wasn't exactly impressed. Still... he was more than aware Kairi was loyal to people, her family, her friends, those she cared for. She was not loyal to the line Keybearers; not that they hadn't seriously shot themselves in the foot with that stupid idea to try and keep her trapped here and away from Aqua's heartless. It made her a sort of... watcher, if they ever lost their way, the girl sure as hell wouldn't stand for it. Not to say she wasn't most likely biased in certain topics, but she would at least serve as an indicator.

"In the past," explained Eraqus, drawing Terra out of his thoughts, "The families of Keybeares of old were used against them, causing them to fall into traps or do things for kidnappers lest their families be killed. In some cases, families greedily tried to influence the Keybearer to do things for them."

Kairi crossed her arms. "So the few ruin it for the whole? How is that fair?"

"I'm not saying it is, and I have the most peculiar hunch the Precept is about to fade," said Eraqus, "But I want you, and Sora and Riku, to understand the dangers, risks, and responsibilities that come with this."

The older man leveled his gaze squarely on the young Princess of Heart. "If someone were to capture your family, and tell you to kill someone otherwise they would kill your family, what would you do Kairi?"

A deep scowl crossed Kairi's face. "I'm not stupid. If I did that, I might as well have killed my family myself. Dad sure as hell would never forgive me for it, probably never want to see me again, and mom, she'd look at me like I was a stranger. My family would never want me to murder innocents to save them."

Riku agreed, "I don't remember much about him, but I know my father was a good man, he'd never want that either-and Sora's mom was such a gushy-goody two-shoes..."

"Hey!" said Sora, swatting Riku's shoulder, "That's my mother you're talking about!"

Riku grinned at him before going serious, "I don't think any of us will have an issue."

"Perhaps not," said Yen Sid, pulling on his beard, "I hold doubt that any who remember the trials of the last decade will fall to the wayward path. But, generations later, I can not say."

"Well then, guess we'd just have to set a good example for future generations," challenged Kairi.

"If only it were so simple," mused Eraqus, "Regardless, do we believe this Precept should be discarded?"

It was almost unanimous, save for Yen Sid and Eraqus.

Yen Sid pulled on his beard, not in agitation, but thought. "I acknowledge its potential, yet I fear the dangers this change represents for the future. If we truly wish it gone, then so be it, but I ask that it be written, that this specific Precept be revisited in the future, if the responsibility becomes to much to bear."

Terra tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Very well."

He waited for Yen Sid to write it down, the elder man ignoring the glare Kairi was shooting at him, before he cleared his throat. "Moving on, the next topic I expect to be... argued heavily. Both for and against, but it bears consideration either way."

He waited a second for all of their attention to fall on him. "Keybearers are forbidden from influencing or interacting with the natural fates of worlds. We generally keep our distance and watch from afar, or go in incognito, unless unnatural darkness or people not of that specific world try to alter it's fate. If such a thing happens, Keybearers try to help direct things back to their original path."

"It's basically a none-interference rule," he heard Aqua whisper to Kairi.

Kairi tilted. "I'm not sure I understand, are you saying you don't get involved, no matter what, unless Heartless appear or some rogue starts messing with other worlds?"

"That is correct," said Eraqus.

"But... what if someone's in trouble and needs our help?" Kairi asked, her voice steadily rising in agitation, "What if someones about to get murdered right in front of us? Are you seriously telling me were not supposed to interfere and save them?"

"I do recall a certain young Keybearer taking maters into his own hands in his youth many times to ever save damsels in distress, much to his master's ire," said Yen Sid, an almost sly look on his face as he glanced at Eraqus.

Oh? What was that now? Terra gave Eraqus a humored look, both Ven and Aqua snickering.

Eraqus looked chagrined. "I admit, I was foolish and hotheaded in my youth, rushing headfirst into situations without consideration of the consequences."

"How can you think saving people is foolish?" asked Kairi, incredulous, voice painfully closing onto a shrill tone.

Eraqus sighed. "Because, it could have been that specific person's time to fade, and by saving them, we drastically alter the fate of a world."

"Screw fate," said Kairi crossly, "Saving the life of an innocent or a good person is never a bad thing."

"Or saving them from themselves and their mistakes," added in Sora, hesitatingly.

Yen Sid slowly shook his head. "A noble intent, however, consider the consequences of such an act. In addition to what Eraqus said, what if we interfered in a situation that we didn't need to? We cannot remain in any one world for long, and by robbing the person we saved of the chance to struggle and grow on their own, they are weaker for their next trial, and we are not there to help them the next time."

Kairi's jaw set, irritation playing across her face. "Well, maybe we should stick around longer in the worlds. Help make them stable, peaceful, the way they should be."

"But Kairi," said Aqua softly, "Not that I disagree with peace, but, who are we to decide how things should be?"

"People with common fricken sense, that's who," answered Kairi.

"And if people disagree?" asked Terra, "What if the people of a world resist our help? Are we to impose our way of life, our laws, our desires on that world?"

"That's not what I'm saying!" said Kairi, outraged.

"Maybe not," spoke up Riku, "But it's what it could lead to."

"Well said Apprentice," praised Terra, an approving smile given to the boy, before he turned solemnly to Kairi, and made a point he knew she wasn't going to like, "Is it not what Xehanort wanted? To use Kingdom Hearts to remake the worlds to his own liking? Isn't that at heart similar to what your saying?"

"Terra!" exclaimed a shocked Aqua, "That's not fair and not even a close comparison!"

Kairi didn't even answer, she glared furiously at him before pushing from the table and storming out of the room. Well... that reaction just about fit her age and temperament. Light, had he been like that at her age?

Yeah probably.

"Perhaps a recess would do for now," suggested Yen Sid.

Terra sighed and nodded. "Very well, all of you take an hour to rest and think of anything you want to bring up. We will continue this specific argument when we return."

Mere moments after rising from his seat, Aqua had his arm in a near death-grip and dragged him into the kitchen, closing the door behind them, hard. "Terra... I know what you were trying to do, but seriously, why that way? Xehanort's machinations stole so much from her and hurt her badly. To compare what she was saying to HIM?"

"It's an honest one," countered Terra, holding up a hand to forestall a rebuttal, "I'm not worried about Kairi, about anyone here going off and becoming the next Xehanort. But we have to think generations down the road. When the lessons and consequences of what happened to us don't seem as important anymore to those who come next."

Aqua sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I get it, I do, but still... I wish you had used a different example. I'll go talk to her and try to explain what you meant."

She brushed passed without a further word and left. Terra crossed his arms and leaned against the wall next to the door, tilting his head back. Not that the girl didn't bring up good points, and a different viewpoint to bounce ideas against, but he wondered if she was ready to be in this discussion. He wanted the next generation of Keybearers to have a say in their future. Hell, Sora and Riku weren't that far off from their Mark of Mastery Exam if he had anything to say about it, they deserved a chance to express their opinion.

To that end, perhaps he should encourage them to speak up more when they resumed, rather than sit back and watch the elder Keybearers, and Kairi, argue it out.

But Kairi... was heavily jaded by her experiences, and had lived a very small part of her life as a Keybearer. She still had so much more to learn and understand. He was pretty sure at this point she didn't have a diplomatic bone in her body. Pure hotheadedness and emotion drove her when her heart didn't. It was going to get her in serious trouble someday, not that it hadn't already during the Heartless Apocalypse, and dealing with the Organization.

He shook his head. Why in the world had she not come to them? Three masters, a sorcerer, and two senior apprentices could have made it much easier to defeat Xehanort's Nobody. At least he believed so. Did she just not trust them? Wait a sec...

Now that he thought about it, no, she didn't. Hadn't for some time.

He frowned and rubbed his chin. Lack of trust was... not a good thing, in any group or organization. It led to stress, pointless clashes, rebelliousness for the sake of it, suspicion, and always looking over one's shoulder, among a great many other things. He did recognize that the Keybearers had panicked and made a grave error during the Heartless Apocalypse in trying to imprison her, but Kairi herself also had much to prove. He would always approve of and be deeply impressed by her final actions during the Apocalypse, near sacrificing her heart to destroy Aqua's Heartless. When it truly mattered, he didn't think she'd ever let them down, her heart would not lead her astray.

It was all other times that had him worried. She needed to learn how to slow down and think. At the moment, her passions ran hot and wild, uncontrollable when she really got going. She was young, just starting her apprenticeship, and relatively unproven, at least in regards to matters of the Keyblade and her role as a Keybearer. Yes they needed to earn her trust back, but she also had to prove herself and earn theirs.

He frowned momentarily as an unwelcome thought hit him. Kairi had to earn their trust, but so unfortunately did Aqua. The woman, his friend, had suffered greatly, and not everything that had happened had been her fault, it never would have happened without Xehanort. The whole thing had been an outright clusterfuck (not that he'd say that out loud lest Eraqus still scold him for his language) if anyone asked his opinion. But, she still had some responsibility. a large chunk of it. To that end, he knew they, or at least him and Ven, still needed to have the talk with her. Yet... he really didn't want to confront Aqua about what the hell she had been thinking, not while she was still so raw over it all.

The problem was, he didn't think she was going to come anywhere near close to a full recovery from what had happened anytime soon. And they really couldn't put off just sitting down with her and hashing it out for years, perhaps decades, if she ever came to terms with it at all. Perhaps... as rough as it would be, it would be better to get it out of the way quicker. He'd have to ask Ven for his thoughts. He considered for a moment asking Eraqus or Yen Sid's opinion, but banished it.

Their actions, or lack therein of them during that crisis, eliminated them from being involved in that discussion. While he had forgiven them a long time ago, they had no right to confront Aqua about it. And speaking of confrontations, he did not want to be Eraqus when he and Aqua eventually had to face off with what the Master had tried to do to her and Ventus. Both he and Ven had forgiven him, but Aqua? She never had a chance.

Which led to another conundrum for him.

Aqua barely had a week after they thought Xehanort was defeated to process that time period before she lost her heart. He knew full well she had shoved that to the back of her mind to focus on just being reunited with her friends, and watching in anticipation as Ven prepared for and passed his 'Mark of Mastery Exam'. She had so many things she needed to come to terms with...

He sighed and left the room. He wanted a bit of fresh air before they all returned to the discussion for another few hours. He made his way towards the summit, it always helped him clear his mind to go up there and simply stare up at the stars in the sky. He paused just before entering the area, hearing voices speaking.

"...can't seriously agree with him, can you?" exclaimed Kairi.

He heard Aqua sigh. "Kairi, no, I don't personally agree with the non-interference rule, at least, not all of it. I agree that we shouldn't decide the fates of any specific world ourselves, but not helping those in immediate danger and need, that I disagree with."

"So why didn't you say anything Master Aqua?" demanded Kairi.

"Even before the..." began Aqua before uncomfortably trailing off, an audible anxious gulp escaping her throat, enough to draw Terra's concern.

He heard the rustling of her hair, imagining her shaking her head. "Even before the whole mess with Xehanort, neither of us followed the precepts to a T."

She chuckled fondly. "I remember once, on our first unchaperoned observational mission, that Terra and I saw a boat capsize on a lake. Without a second's hesitation to wonder if we should interfere or not, Terra threw himself into the lake and swam out to save those people. It filled me with such pride and admiration for him when he did, especially since he was such a lousy swimmer."

Terra blushed in his hiding place, recalling that day, and waited for her to continue, but was confused when she didn't finish the story. "The point is, Terra loves to argue and play the devil's advocate. Sometimes it can be hard to see if he actually believes in what he's arguing for, or helping you figure out your reasoning for arguing against."

Well, she had him pegged. Yet... he was a little concerned about something. How she downplayed, no, outright ignored her own actions that day. He had dove in yes, but she had followed him in seconds later, and helped him not drown when he really overexerted and didn't pace himself going back and forth between the boat and the shore (nearly drowning had not been a pleasant experience). Perhaps her ignoring it was nothing to worry about and he was overthinking it, but... he hoped she wouldn't make a common practice of it. She shouldn't ignore the good she had done in the face of the havoc the last ten years had wrought.

Decided he had eavesdropped enough, he walked into the summit, spotting the two of them standing a ways in. "Well, I do love arguing with people."

He watched as both Aqua and Kairi, who were sitting on a bench, jump a little bit of surprise.

He winked at Aqua. "Talking about me behind me back are we?"

Aqua grinned sheepishly, "Just telling her some old stories."

"Oh?" he said, faking ignorance, "What ones? I have some fun ones from our early apprenticeship I could share in turn."

Aqua's eyes widened and she shook both of her hands. "No, no that's okay."

"Really? Aw, but that one time we pranked the Master with the jelly-jar bomb...," he slyly led into.

Kairi chocked a bit. "You what?!"

Aqua blushed furiously. "I um... might have put a bit of magic into a jar of jelly while Terra was sick he and asked the Master for a sandwich. It exploded in his face and ruined his robes. He was so pissed."

Terra grinned. "Yeah he was. Sick or not, I got loaded with chores for that, we both did."

Aqua bashfully scratched her head. "Ugh... I had to clean the bathrooms for three months straight."

Kairi giggled a little bit. "Serves you right! Light, I don't even want to think what dad would have done if I tried anything like that. Mom though probably would have had a fit of laughter."

"So, what story were you telling her?" led in Terra.

Aqua hesitated, but Kairi had no qualms. "Something about your first unsupervised mission together."

"Ohhh," said Terra, giving Aqua a grin, "The one with the boat? I tell you, Aqua looked like a wet cat after diving in after me to help save those people."

Aqua huffed. "Better a wet cat than a smelly wet dog."

"Hey!" exclaimed Terra, "Rude."

Aqua stuck her tongue out, and Terra made an effort to grab at it, only for her to dance away. "Anyway, I'll... see you two back inside."

Terra blinked a few times, taken offguard by her abrupt departure, and made to call her back, but she was already gone, walking so swiftly away it was almost as if she were running away. "Hmm..."

"Terra," said Kairi slowly, "Were you just arguing for the sake of it, or do you really believe we shouldn't even interfere to save people's lives?"

Terra sighed. "Kairi... No, I wouldn't just let an innocent die in front of me, but I would understand and accept the consequences of such actions."

He motioned for her to sit on a nearby bench as he knelt down and rested on his knees. "Even the single noble act of saving someone's life can have drastic consequences Kairi. I doubt you will like this reasoning any better than the other examples, but, imagine, for a moment, an utterly cruel world, filled with violence and suffering and tyranny. Someone is meant to rise against it, had been building towards the point of action for some time, all they need in one final push... and you save the person whose death would have spurned a revolution. Thus, that person doesn't have that trigger, and by seeing someone else they think is handling the problem, lose their steam."

Kairi crossed her arms, jaw set, teeth grinding, but kept a level voice. "Then I'd say it would be our duty then to..."

"To take on a revolution that could potentially take years?" questioned Terra, "We cannot be everywhere Kairi, especially for long periods of time where our duty is elsewhere."

She scowled. "There are who knows how many worlds. We can't be everywhere anyway. Take the time to fix one world at a time and I think it would be better in the long run."

Terra smiled, rather enjoying the back and forth. "How would you be certain you were fighting on the right side in such an extended conflict?"

"Common sense and following my heart," she short back, "I'm not going to adopt some crazy crusade to wipe or convert people out or anything like that. It doesn't take a genius to figure out whose a bad guy or not and what cause is or isn't righteous."

"Perhaps, perhaps not," said Terra, "And what if no one's cause is righteous? What if two sides of a war are fighting for a completely wasteful reason, or just plain hate eachother?"

That got Kairi to pause briefly, eyebrows furrowed in thought, before she scoffed. "If I can stop them from fighting, then I will, otherwise I wash my hands of it."

Slightly better answer he supposed. "And how long would it take you to figure out that such a conflict wasn't justified? How steep would you have waded into the conflict before you realized the truth?"

Kairi scowled at him again, but didn't respond.

"Stopping to observe and learn is important," he instructed, "While a Keybearer must be ready to have haste and urgency if the situation dictates it, assessing and learning as much as you can about a situation is equally so."

"Yeah? Well what if while we're 'observing' we fail to act when we need to?" she countered back.

Terra smiled and decided it was time to end the back and forth. "I feel that we're not going to agree on this point. Suffice to say, young one, that a Keybearer must wield both patience and the willingness to act in both hands. Now, we ought to go back."

He didn't get very far before her voice range out, "I have a question on one of the earlier rules that was thrown out."

He turned his head. "Which one?"

"The family connection one," she said sourly.

"What of it?" he asked.

She grew oddly quiet, contemplative for a moment, before asking quietly, "Does... that apply to love?"

Terra blinked a few times before answering slowly, "Love is something that cannot be stopped no matter how hard one tries. It didn't happen often in our history with how Keybearers never stay in one place. Generally when it does, its between Keybearers, or Wards of the Keybearers like Aurora."

He studied her for a moment before he raised an eyebrow. "You are about that age, I'm assuming your parents gave you the talk?"

Kairi chocked a little. "T-that is none of your business!"

Terra grew amused. "I remember when Eraqus gave us the talk, boy that was awkward. His advice boiled down to" 'If you must, at least use protection.'"

Kairi's face turned beat red, and she couldn't even stammer out a reply.

He slowly shook his head. "Regardless, so long as it didn't end in a child, love was warily permitted. But if it ever got in the way of our duty, intervention happened."

He felt Kairi's irritation before he heard it. "So you can't settle down and start a family?!"

He turned his head and spared her a curious look. "That matters to you?"

"Not for at least another ten years," rebuffed Kairi, "I haven't given it much thought, I'm not even sixteen yet, let alone an adult, but... eventually... I think I'd want a family. So what happens then?"

"In the past, if it came down to it, Keybearers gave up their duty, had their ability to summon the Keyblade sealed, and were left on the world of their choosing," said Terra.

"Why?" asked Kairi.

"More than duty, the Precepts feared and prohibited a Keyblade Dynasty," explained Terra, "From what little we understand of the times before the Keyblade War, that was apparently a common thing, for entire Bloodlines to wield the Keyblade generation to generation. It was deemed to much power to put in the hands of a select few."

"You mean like your little group here?" she said, eyebrow raised challengingly, "Family is FAR more than just blood. I'm not related to Leon or Yuffie at all, but they are family to me. Xion is family to me. Axel is family to Xion, thus to me as well. Aqua changed my life so much, and I don't know if she thinks the same of me, but I consider her family for as little as we know eachother. All the people I used to know back in Traverse Town, so much of them were like one giant family. Are you going to say it isn't the same between you, Ven, Aqua, Eraqus, Micky, and Yen Sid?"

There was a reason Terra liked her despite how hot her emotions ran. "Not so much on the last two, they're more good friends than family, but I do get your point. Perhaps that Precept should come up for appraisal as well."

At that, Kairi looked smugly satisfied. "Good."

Terra resisted the childish urge to roll his eyes. Gosh, he had been like that in his early apprenticeship, hadn't he? Him and Aqua both had been a terror for Eraqus. He probably owed the old man a drink or ten.

"Alright, let's head back," he said, waving them forward.

Back to the keep, back to the dinning hall, back to the table, and back to a whole lot of arguing about rules made by people in eras gone by...


Aqua had been in a lot of uncomfortable situations in her life. This though? Was oddly high ranking. Every time they asked her input on a rule or regulation or precept was like a jolt of lightning down her spine, with one word echoing in her head.

Unworthy...

She had no right to be here, making these determinations. Even IF her opinion and experiences did help, she didn't feel like she should be giving her thoughts as an equal. Not to ignore that the young apprentices were here giving their thoughts to. It wasn't that she disagreed with them giving their ideas, but it was so alien compared to her own apprenticeship to Eraqus. Talking, countering, and rebuking so freely as they were now would have gotten her a set of chores in her early years as a student. There was a time and a place for it as her Master used to say, but like this? Not even close. That Eraqus himself was showing such thoughtful patience and explanations was... jarring.

Sometimes it was the most oddest things that really hit home that it had been over a decade since she had last been here and seen her friends...

"All in favor of removing the Anti-Dynasty precept?" asked Terra.

Aqua absentmindedly voted in favor. Though, she couldn't help but scoff to herself at the title of it. Back in the day of the survivors of the Keyblade War, did they really see family as a 'Dynasty'? She shook her head at the thought of it.

"The next topic is..." there was hesitation and trepidation in Terra's voice, the man glancing her way, "A difficult one, one that has been deeply forbidden since the Precepts were made. We have so little information on it, that's its difficult to understand, combat, and plan around."

Aqua furrowed her eyes. "The Keyblade War?"

"Darkness," said Terra.

Aqua stiffened at that and went silent, staring at Terra warily, chills of apprehension going down her spine. She was pretty sure her face had paled quite a bit as well.

"Darkness is a forbidden subject for Keybearers," said Terra cautiously, "All we are told is that it is our antitheses, despite knowing it is half of everything. We know so little of its powers or abilities except for what we encounter. We are... fortunate... to have someone who can enlighten us on this subject."

Aqua's throat felt oh so dry. "W-what exactly are you asking for Terra? What it feels like? How it affects or changes those who use or succumb to it? The signs to watch out for? H-how to use it? What you can do with..."

"Everything," said Terra softly, making Aqua tense.

There was a level of discomfort and wariness lining the table. Ven looked back and forth between Terra and Aqua, fidgeting. Kairi was glaring at the man in disbelief. Sora and Riku looked like they wanted to sink into their chairs and disappear. Yen Sid had a pen and parchment out, eyes appraising, but not showing anything else. Eraqus was rubbing his forehead and looking like he wanted to be anywhere else.

"This is a bad idea," said Aqua quietly.

"It's important Aqua," said Terra.

"You're going to take down this knowledge and just... leave it for anyone to stumble across? You're going to give people access to it?" she asked in disbelief.

"No, light no, Aqua," said Terra, "It's knowledge, dangerous knowledge, that will be restricted to Keyblade Masters, or perhaps Apprentices on the cusp of Mastery. This is information that could help those who struggle generations from now..."

Like she had...

"Or help Keybearers predict or combat a Keybearer who goes dark and abuses their power like Xehanort did," offered Terra.

She frowned, more than little unhappy, but she wasn't stupid, this... this was important. "I see."

Aqua closed her eyes to think and ponder. Where in the world was she to begin on this subject? Light... she just wanted to go to her room and burrow her face in a pillow than bring up old memories. But she had a duty to do, so she dredged up her memories of the time after Ven entered her life, after Xehanort had cracked her heart.

"What happened with and to me isn't necessarily what will happen to someone else," began Aqua slowly, "I had no idea what was going on when it all began. It just suddenly started happening, little tints of darkness or bursts of emotion that I had never had to struggle with before. I had thought something was wrong with me as a person, not that something had been done to me. I... was ashamed of myself at the time, thought I had failed my Master's teachings. So... I did my best to hide it, I never went to anyone for help."

There was a brief torrent of emotions running across Terra's face before he masked it. "So, you'd say to be on the watch for sudden unexplained seclusion? Shame without reason? Any hints of darkness where there was none before?"

Aqua hesitated. "Y-yes? I'm not honestly sure, it depends on the person. With me, I was never anything originally like an introvert. I had my moments, but you and I hung out, played a lot, and spent a great deal of time together in our youth before Xehanort cracked my heart. I suppose I'll just say, in cases like mine, be aware of sudden unexplained changes in behavior and emotion."

Terra nodded. "Agreed."

She waited until Yen Sid finished scribbling down his notes before continuing, "I can't exactly describe what a... solo fall... to darkness would be like, I never really had that experience. Xehanort goaded and guided me down that path for so long..."

"What do you mean by 'so long'?" asked Eraqus, eyes narrowed.

Aqua averted her eyes. "I... he... when I was struggling with controlling my darkness, the first time he came to 'check in' on Ventus. He goaded me into a spar, and into using my darkness. I kind of freaked when he did, but he didn't turn me in, I... I was so foolishly and naively glad to have someone to confide in, who appeared to understand me. He gave me my first lesson on darkness then and there."

"First?!" asked Terra in disbelief, "Just how long did his 'lessons' go on for?"

"Until the Mark of Mastery Exam," admitted Aqua quietly.

"T-that...," whispered Ven in horror, "That was years! Four years Aqua!"

Aqua watched, a bit stunned, as the room collectively paled. The hurricane of shock-horror-regret-guilt-shame-fear and more negative emotions was so massive she had to momentarily cut off her ability to feel them. She had to blink a few times to get the backlash-black spots dancing across her vision to go away.

Eraqus put his head in a hand. "It was so much worse than I imagined. He led you down that path, right under my nose, without me having the slightest clue, for years on end. I should have known, should have known you wouldn't have walked that path unless someone treacherously led you down it. Every time he came to visit Ventus, we left you alone with him after he was done. And I had so foolishly thought it was a good thing, for you to get over your hostility towards him."

"He... visited a few times without even checking in with you or Ventus," muttered Aqua.

"Even worse," rasped out Eraqus, more emotion on his face than she had EVER seen, even after she and him had fought, "I left you alone with a predator seeking to twist you in his image."

Aqua said nothing, shifting uncomfortably, averting her eyes. Terra had such rage in his eyes, fists clenching the table so tightly she could see little cracks splintering. She swore she could see him killing Xehanort in his mind's eye over and over again. Ven looked so grief stricken she wondered if he were going to cry. Kairi looked anxious and disturbed, with Sora and Riku echoing that look to a confused degree.

"He didn't hurt me or anything during those times," Aqua murmured, trying to calm the room with a token offering, trying to get rid of those looks being sent her way.

"No," spat out Terra, "He just kept poisoning your mind instead."

Aqua closed her eyes and sighed, but said nothing. She wanted to curl up and hide away from all the pity and sorrow being sent her way. "I am the one who chose to listen to him."

She could feel Terra narrowing his eyes at her, wanting to argue with her, his irritation spilling into her masked senses, but before he could speak-

"I think, the lesson to be learned," said Yen Sid after loudly clearing his throat, "Is not to leave young, struggling, and impressionable apprentices alone with questionable individuals."

"No kidding," chocked out Ven.

Eraqus let out a loud, drawn out sigh. "You did not think to come to us, Aqua."

She hesitated a few times. The way he sounded... it wasn't a question? "I didn't."

"Then I truly failed you badly," said Eraqus heavily, "Rather than come to me, your Master, your teacher, someone who was supposed to guide you, you went to the apparent kind ear willing to hear your troubles. You feared my reaction, and perhaps rightly so. My rebuke and discipline at the time, had you confessed, or had I personally caught sight of your darkness, would have been an awful thing. I created an atmosphere where the Apprentice could not trust in the Master, was afraid."

Aqua was silent for a moment before answering softly, "Either way, I still didn't come to you, to any of you. I felt... trapped... in a sense I suppose."

"Then it is on us, on others down the road, to not make the same mistakes," said Terra grimly, "To not make our fellow Keybearers afraid to seek help, and not to leave them alone in their suffering and struggles if we see it. We must be watchful and wary, if not for our sake, then for the worlds."

The room quieted down a bit, Aqua glanced down before opening her eyes, not wanting to see the others staring at her. She could easily feel it as is.

Yen Sid pulled on his beard in thought. "I am honestly surprised, with four years effort, things did not end in his favor. I know this was not the point of this topic, but when did you turn on Xehanort, Aqua?"

"Shortly after Kairi repaired my heart in Radiant Garden," said Aqua, "Or really, in the middle of that, when Kairi said she saw a 'grumpy mean looking bald guy with yellow eyes' when she repaired the cracks in my heart. To be honest, the first doubts started working their way in when Maleficent told me that Xehanort had instructed her to mess with me with the whole Aurora's heart thing."

There was a not-so-subtle flinch from Aurora at that.

"Maleficent figured I'd end up stronger than Xehanort in the end and sided with me, telling me a bit of Xehanort's scheming, and helped me learn the basics of truly controlling my darkness," said Aqua.

"Wait, you learned from the Witch?" asked Ven in disbelief, "I kinda remember you looking like you wanted to throttle her at one point, not learn from her."

"It was a pact," admitted Aqua, "I'd spare her life, in exchanged, she'd teach me how to control my power so no one could use it against me. I had wanted to make sure no one could force me to hurt someone again, or so I thought. Damn Witch could have told me from the get go it had been Xehanort."

"Wait, what?" said Terra, "What do you mean it had been Xehanort?"

"All Maleficent did was put me to sleep for a little bit while Xehanort stole Aurora's heart. She played along with his plan in order to make me doubt myself," said Aqua, "Xehanort had probably meant for me to seek him out, not Maleficent, in taking my next steps into darkness."

There was silence for a solid stunned minute before Yen Sid quietly confirmed, "I sense no lies nor deception."

Aqua bristled in irritation for them not believing her on that. Not that they didn't have a reason to have their doubts.

"You know," said Kairi sourly, "Xehanort was a special kind of scumbag."

Aqua snorted. "No kidding."

She turned her head at a kind of faint choking sound, sighting Aurora staring at her with so much regret it hurt. The Princess took a few moments to collect herself before offering a quiet, "You have my apologies for doubting a Keybearer's integrity all this time."

Aqua slowly shook her head. "You have every right to doubt who you so wish. If not of that crime, there are plenty of other reasons to place doubt on me."

"Aqua...," began Terra sternly.

Aqua didn't bother arguing with him. Right now, she needed... needed to just be out of here. They had BARELY started going into her knowledge of Darkness and her experiences during the Xehanort conflict and she couldn't stand the atmosphere of the room. To much, it was far to much to handle right now. To much sorrow, anger, grief, guilt... so much old wounds brought back up and broken back open, it was suffocating.

Terra had once said to her Hearthless that he had no more tears to shed for her, that he had come to terms with her loss a long time ago. Judging by the outpour of anger and fury at Xehanort her first few confessions of that time had brought out, he obviously hadn't. And that didn't cover the others gathered here. Perhaps they had come to terms with what they had personally gone through, but there was a side to every story, and they didn't know hers.

Aqua pushed from the table, standing up and turning away fast enough to only see blurs instead of faces. "We will continue this topic another time. I... I need to..."

She couldn't put words into what she was feeling, and instead walked just short of running out of the room. She just had to get away... She did not want to deal with any of them at the moment, any pity or guilt stricken apologies or sad gazes, or anything. Nor bring up any more memories of that time. The moment she was out of sight, she took a Dark Corridor straight into the Realm of Darkness, found herself a spot between to softly glowing pale rocks, and plopped herself down, taking in deep ragged breaths, using the darkness of the place as a crutch to drown out what she felt...

Chapter Text

The sight Aqua awoke to was unexpected and unwanted. She found a horde of Heartless sleeping near her, and with her. A Darkball as a pillow, a few Earth Core lazily nestled around her like wolves around their pack-mates. A Flame Core sat nearby, its fire granting a hint of warmth in the cold Realm of Darkness. A few Shadows slept on her kind of like that one time she had seen Ven sleep next to 'big brother' Terra after a nightmare with them both a sprawl of limbs and drool, to her amusement.

This was not amusing however.

She let our a ragged breath, trying to understand what in the hell was-


Her Heartless stalked the Realm of Darkness, brooding, something about those Keybearers pulled at her in a way she didn't understand. It made her watch them, go after them for reasons she couldn't fathom. It was a waste of time, she had to keep going, keep feeding, keep seeking... seeking something, she didn't know what, but it didn't matter. She should feed on them and be done with it. But she never struck them down and fed off their hearts, she had come close a few times, and had been willing, only to be driven off or distracted. They should be nothing, mean nothing, yet...

They filled her with an odd sense of longing, a desire for companionship that was alien to her. She contemplated it for a moment before tilting her head back, letting her desire spill out into the dark around her. Her friends, her brothers and sisters, her kin, the Heartless swarmed to her at her call. She rested against a nearby rock and let them nestle in around her, eager for her touch and acknowledgement, to be near so great a darkness. She let them, and basked in the moment as the longing faded away for the moment...


-and let out a sharp gasp as the memory hit her. She... she must have been bleeding her emotions into the darkness around her while she slept, calling to them unknowingly like her Heartless had once done. Once more, she was confused, and worried, by the reaction of the Heartless to her. It wasn't the same as simply obeying a strong dark heart, they came to her willingly, at the slightest provocation. If she hadn't given a command not to come, they probably would have been swarming her during that 'talk' earlier. Why? Why! She wasn't her Heartless! Why were they drawn to her like this?!

The Heartless began to stir at her agitation, some rising and looking around in equal agitation, as if searching for an enemy, or the source of her displeasure. Aqua took a deep breath, let it out, and bolted to her feet, brushing away from the Heartless, making a Dark Corridor, and rushing through. She came out at the top of the Land of Departure, with the sun setting. She took in another breath, shaky, before moving to sit at the edge of the mountain, staring off aimlessly into the darkening night sky.

On top of all the Heartless mess, she had wasted the day away sleeping in the Realm of Darkness. Way to mess up her sleep schedule as well. She sighed, moderately depressed, and wondered what the hell she was going to do with her life...

"There you are," came Terra's voice in a teasing tone, "Thought we were going to have to go track you down."

Aqua glanced back, sighting both Ven and Terra approaching, relief on their face; she however wasn't in a teasing mood. "Like the old days at the Masters bidding huh?"

There was a slight flinch in Terra's hands. "Right, I don't think I ever apologized for that."

She shrugged and returned to staring out aimlessly at nothing. "You had, and still have, the right to."

Ven sat down next to her on one side, Terra on the other; the latter spoke, "Look, we're sorry about earlier..."

Aqua shook her head. "You had the right to ask, I was just... overwhelmed by all the emotion in the air."

Ven leaned forward a bit. "In the air...?"

"I could feel what everyone was feeling, it was... a bit much, especially with that topic," she said.

"You can... feel other people's emotions? How?" asked Terra.

She shrugged. "It's something I've been able to do since I started actively using the darkness. I can feel emotions, feel someone's presence and affinity, really easily."

Terra tilted his head back in thought. "Interesting... perhaps that's how Xehanort and Vanitas tracked us so easily back in the day."

"Perhaps, but Xehanort had other methods, I... I vaguely recall something from when I had his heart in mine," muttered Aqua, "The Recusant Sigil, anything that resembles it he can use as a method to listen and observe from them."

Ven chocked a little. "W-wait, what?! Are you kidding me?"

"I wish I was," said Aqua softly.

"So anything that resembles an X can be used to spy on us?" asked Terra in disbelief.

Aqua nodded. "So long as Xehanort's had the chance to put a bit of his magic or darkness in it."

Terra frowned intently. "We're going to need to do an indepth inspection of the Land of Departure, and all our clothes and items, later on."

Aqua shrugged. "Xehanort is dead, but, someone else could tap into them down the road, so it's for the best."

There was an uncomfortable silence at that. Aqua turned to glanced at Terra's clothing, at the giant red X on his shirt. While he didn't change his taste in clothing, she was pretty sure it wasn't the same one from ten years ago (it better not be, or she'd be having a talk with Terra about bad habits). Still... Xehanort's heartless had been around until recently. She reached over, pushing aside his Master's cloak, and placed a hand on the X, making him go watchful but still, and closed her eyes. She felt it with but a brief pass of her darker senses, a thread of Xehanort's power. Her face scrunched up with an old familiar loathing as she pulled.

She withdrew her hand, a small flame of dark energy floating above it, and snarled, "Case and point."

Terra stared at it unsteadily, closing his eyes and holding his hand close to it. "It can't feel things quite like you can, but yeah... that's... a Xehanort vibe. Son of a..."

Aqua waved her hand out infront of her, bursting the dark energy away with distaste, wiping her hands on her leggings as if to get off something foul.

"No wonder he and his Heartless were always able to go circles around us," growled Ven.

"It's another reason that learning about the Darkness and it's capabilities is so important," mused Terra tiredly, "There's so little we know. And our ignorance is... was... to his advantage, and anyone who would abuse that power down the road."

Aqua nodded slowly. "I know."

They sat there in silence for a little while, Aqua closing her eyes and simply enjoying her friend's presence.

Eventually, Terra cleared his throat. "Aqua."

She opened her eyes and turned her head. "Yes?"

"Ven and I... we want to talk to you," he said.

A sense of dread filled Aqua's stomach, she had the most awful hunch..., "About what?"

"If you are up for it, with just Ven and I, no Eraqus or Yen Sid or any of the apprentices, we want to... to talk, about what happened back then," he said hesitatingly.

"Ah," she murmured, "I was wondering when this was going to happen."

"Saw it coming huh?" teased Ven lightly.

Aqua shrugged. "I knew I was in for it, you have ever right..."

"It's not about having a right to ask or know," said Terra, "It's if you are willing. We wont force you to talk about the past if you don't want to. But we want to know, we want to understand, we want to help."

She went silent.

"We hadn't meant earlier for that question on Darkness to tread into this, not with everyone there," said Terra apologetically, "There's just... we all know so little of what happened on your side of things back then. So much we missed. That Xehanort had been influencing you under our nose the entire time had been... bad... to learn. Eraqus couldn't help his reactions, we had all thought we had come to terms with everything that happened, only to realize how little we truly knew or understood. So lets pretend for this discussion, even if we retread over points already covered, that Ven and I know nothing about what happened to you."

Aqua sighed softly. "It's... not exactly a comfortable story. I did things back then... that I'm not proud of, had things happen to me that still haunt me to this day."

"Back then? It hasn't been that long for you though," pointed out Ven, "A week after we beat Xehanort, then these last few days since you came back."

Aqua closed her eyes tightly. "I... yes... you're right. The memories of my Heartless and Nobody distort that a bit for me."

"Where do you want to begin?" she asked quietly.

"At the very start," said Terra.

Aqua slowly opened her eyes, she did not want to do this, however..., "If your talking about when he first cracked my heart, that's a bit further back, but..."

Did they really want to make her retell this part again? It hurt enough the first time earlier...

"When it happened, I couldn't... understand what was happening to me," she admitted, "The Darkness had just come out of nowhere, and I couldn't get a handle on my emotions. After being in control for most of my apprenticeship, this was... I was terrified, afraid of myself. I had so much doubt, I had thought I was failing-had failed, the Master's teachings, and continued to think that for a long time, what with me becoming second-fiddle to you Terra. I'm... not proud of the jealousy I developed towards you."

Terra sighed softly. "The only reason I became what I am now is because of you."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "Me?"

"The moment I saw you, someone I had always deemed as the 'perfect Keyblade Weider' up to that point, struggling with your darkness, it... shocked me," he admitted, "Scared me into getting my act together."

Aqua was silent for a moment, before softly speaking, "I fell and you rose because of it."

"That's not how I look at it, but... I suppose you could say so," said Terra.

"Well, at least there was some good out of that mess," muttered Aqua before shaking her head, "Still, I'm... glad I was the one who suffered and not you."

"You shouldn't have," said Terra, "None of us should have."

She gave him a sad smile before looking back out into the darkness of the night. "I struggled for years with my darkness, and my emotions, depression wasn't uncommon, but you two had a habit of picking up on that and dragging me out into your games or teasing me enough to get me mad rather than sad. On the other end of the spectrum, I felt shame, such shame, at the slowly growing desire to learn more. It was at it's worst whenever Xehanort gave me his little speeches and lessons. But, it didn't... take off really, until I left the Land of Departure."

She glanced up into the night's sky. "I suppose the issue of it came to a head at the Mark of Mastery Exam. I managed to hold myself together up until that point. Or maybe... the night before. I tried so hard to push that to the back of my mind, but... I... it was a dive. I didn't want to think about it, or what it truly meant, but it was a dive, and a warning of what was to come."

Terra's voice was sharp. "You... yeah, you told me that didn't you? You had a second dive after your initial one? As I understand it, that's rather rare."

Aqua shrugged. "I suppose. It's... sadly funny in a way, the voice in the dive... hinted pretty heavily at what Xehanort wanted. I was to blind to his schemes at that point to catch on. Said that in the end, only my choice would matter, and it did, I screwed up so badly..."

She abruptly shook her head. "That's... that's later. T-the Mark of Mastery, that's what we're on right now."

"Hey hey, easy Aqua, slow and steady," said Ven, putting an had on her shoulder.

She looked away from him, taking a moment to compose herself, before starting again. "The moment I took on my first command style... the moment I actually held my own against you Terra for the first in years, the thrill of it, I lost myself in it, in the feeling of being strong for once. I hadn't felt so sure of myself in so long..."

She shook her head. "But I took it to far, I hurt you, and could have done a lot worse if I hadn't snapped out of it."

"But you did snap out of it," said Tera, "And besides, it was the Mark of Mastery, it was kind of expected that we'd rough eachother up. Eraqus told me about his first exam once, it ended with both him and Yen Sid bedridden for weeks. Apparently they had quite the rivalry when they were younger. Neither of them passed that exam."

Aqua's eyebrows shot up. "The Master failed his first exam?"

Terra nodded. "Mhm, needled Yen Sid about it, but he didn't want to talk, said 'the mistakes of the past are best left there'."

Ven snorted. "He just hates to admit he was worse then we were at that age."

Terra grinned. "Perhaps."

Aqua cracked a smile at that before looking back out into the darkness. "Even though I had already suspected the outcome, it was one of the most crushing moments of my life to have failed the exam. Of course, Xehanort latched onto that, followed me after I took off in order to pour more of his poison into my ears."

She grew uncomfortably silent for a minute, a tinge of bitterness leaked into her voice, "After we were given our mission to protect the Princesses of Heart and go after the Unversed, I... I hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but, I heard the Master give you your orders to watch me, Terra, to drag me back here if I so much as stepped out of line after he had just told me he had faith in me. I felt like a betrayal."

Terra sighed softly. "He was worried and concerned for you. I won't lie that the order's didn't sit comfortably with me. At least..."

His eyes grew a little distant, lost in a memory. "Not until I saw you go after Maleficent like that. Then, I wanted to bring you home and get you help."

Aqua snorted. "That Witch..."

She shook her head. "She let me believe for so long it had been me who took Aurora's heart. It made me so damn angry. For a single fight, against a giant Unversed in Aurora's castle, I think that was the first time I really stopped holding back my darkness."

Terra shook his head. "What was it about Vanitas and creating gigantic Unversed? I swear, Ven and I fought one on every world we went to."

Aqua smiled a little in amusement. "I dunno, why not ask Ven?"

Ven rolled his eyes. "Beats me. We merged hearts, but all his memories were kind of a jumbled mess. I still haven't sorted through them all."

He frowned. "I'm not sure I want to, to be honest. Xehanort made his life a living hell."

He rubbed his eyes. "Common theme there."

"Yeah," Aqua said bitterly, "It is."

She shook her head slightly before continuing, "I went to track down Maleficent after I beat the Unversed. I... don't like to admit it, but I was more than a little angry, frustrated, and a bit miserable when I saw that someone else had freed Aurora's heart. I'm happy that Ven was able to do it, but... I had at the time wanted to 'redeem' myself."

Ven scratched his head. "Sorry?"

She laughed a little. "It's fine Ven, you did good there."

She grew quiet for a moment. "I wanted to kill her, I really did. I think I honestly might have, if she hadn't made me that offer. She said it was because of my lack of control of my darkness that she had been able to control me. I feared it happening again, being used against anyone else. So... when she offered to teach me to control and keep my darkness in check."

"I'll admit, I was surprised when you said that earlier. You truly learned from that Witch?" asked Terra.

"I did," said Aqua softly, "She was also the person who told me my heart was cracked. Told me it was a few years old. I came to the right conclusion that it involved my first incident with Xehanort, but that it was my fault and not his. I should have realized it then, but... I didn't. I stayed there for awhile, learning from her."

"Figures," said Terra in a whiny voice, "We go search alllll thoooose other worlds, and you hadn't even left that one!"

She smiled a little and slugged his shoulder. "You needed the exercise you lazy bum."

"Lazy!" he said, scandalized, before flexing his arms, "You call these muscles lazy?"

They all laughed, settling down into a relaxed state for a bit, simply staring out into the night's sky.

Eventually, her happiness faded as she recalled what else had happened there. "Maleficent is also the one who opened my eyes to Xehanort's treachery. She told me he had been the one who told her to use my darkness against her. She turned on Xehanort, like the scheming witch she is, because she thought it would be better to get into my good graces than his, thought I'd end up stronger than Xehanort."

"Well, you did beat him," said Terra.

Aqua shook her head. "No Terra, I didn't. When Xehanort and I fought at the graveyard, he held back the entire time. He didn't want to damage his new potential host. He let me win that fight, it was when he threw his heart at me that I caught and crushed it. There was never a true full on fight between the two of us."

"Kind of feel cheated out of it to be honest," she muttered, "But that's my own fault, I could have ended him, instead I did something so stupid..."

"Later Aqua," said Terra, poking her shoulder, "That's way ahead."

She sighed. "Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, the training came to an end when she sent me out to fight against Unversed for a few hours using my darkness. Had a run in with Vanitas..."

Ven made a chocking sound.

"What?" asked Aqua.

Ven's face twitch a little, trying to suppress a laugh. "I uh... just remember something he said to you."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "And...?"

"Temper temper, you're leaking darkness, is it that time of the month?" said Ven in a mock Vanitas tone.

Aqua turned beat red.

Terra tilted back his head and laughed. "Oh man. I didn't like Vanitas or anything, and darkness isn't something to joke about, but he got you good there Aqua."

"There is a several hundred foot drop off this cliff Terra, do not tempt me," she said, trying to sound angry and stern, coming off more as squeaky and embarrassed than anything else.

Terra just tilted his head back down and grinned at her.

Aqua crossed her arms and looked away, huffing irritably. "Pff, and to think I had Maleficent teach me how to make a Dark Corridor and took off after that because he threatened you guys."

Terra's smile faded a bit. "I wish you hadn't. Coming across you almost dead against that giant unversed in Radiant Garden was one of the most terrifying moments of my life."

Aqua shrugged, not looking at him. "My life is a price I would have paid in exchange for either of yours."

"It's not one we would have wanted you to," said Terra firmly.

Aqua didn't feel like arguing with them about it, and instead moved on. "It almost didn't matter. I tapped to deeply into my darkness during the fight against the Trinity Armor. I ripped the crack right open into a full blown wound. My heart started falling apart the moment I dove through that Dark Corridor."

She absolutely refused to linger or acknowledge the brief argument she had with her friends. She couldn't bear it at the moment.

She shivered a bit. "I'm not sure I've ever felt pain like that before. But, I forced myself to push through it when I heard a little girl screaming."

Aqua lost herself for a moment, in the pain filled memories of that battle. "I kept bringing out my darkness, despite the agony, to try and keep Kairi safe, but the Unversed never stopped coming, until I couldn't bear it anymore and fell. Kairi... somehow drew out her power then, beat back the Unversed, and dove into my heart."

"I'm still in disbelief over that," admitted Terra, "When Kairi told us what happened back then. The power of a Princess of Heart is not to be underestimated, no matter the age."

"I woke up in an infirmary afterwords, feeling better than I had since before Xehanort cracked my heart," she said, "For obvious reasons."

She shook her head. "I spoke with Kairi for awhile. I was... afraid to leave the girl unprotected, and she said she wanted to become 'a hero'. I should have known better than to lay this kind of life on her, she was a little girl, she didn't understand, but, I chose her to become a Keybearer."

"She seems to have taken to it," said Ven.

"Has she?" asked Aqua, a little bitter, "All I've seen and heard thus far leads me to believe I just inflicted a life of pain on her. I promised to go back for her, and instead I ruined her life with my failings. It nearly broke that girl to lose her family twice."

"That would have happened with or without her having a Keyblade," said Terra.

"Would it?" said Aqua, bitterness growing, "The only reason my Heartless went for Traverse Town was because it felt Kairi's Awakening."

"It would have gotten there eventually anyway," countered Terra, "And without the Keyblade, Kairi would have been... well, not defenseless, but a lot worse off."

Aqua stubbornly didn't acknowledge his words, and held onto her bitterness as she forced them to the next topic. "After that, Xehanort tried to lure me into a kind of trap. Sent his yes man Braig after me..."

"The guy who helped us at the graveyard?" asked Ven, "He was with Xehanort?"

"I'll explain that later Ven," said Aqua, "I followed Braig down to the depths of Radiant Garden, and found Xehanort 'somehow' having been defeated and chained to a pipe as Braid's supposed captive."

"It was one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen," said Aqua with disdain, "Xehanort must have thought me an imbecile to not find something fishy with that whole scenario. There was no way some thug could beat a Keyblade Master. Not to mention he had told Braig about the Keyblade, and the man thought beating me would get him one."

Terra snorted. "Yeah right."

"I know, the whole setup was beyond stupid," said Aqua, shaking her head, "Anyway, I trashed Braig pretty badly. Freed Xehanort, and listened to his spiel about letting Braig capture him as a test to see of my progress. Tempted me by saying I was worthy of being called me 'Master Aqua'. Told him only Eraqus could deem me a Master, and then he proceeded to try to turn me against the rest of you subtly. He also slipped up and mentioned Vanitas by name, which was another warning bell to me."

Terra... really didn't seem impressed. "He schemed better in the last ten years then he did there."

"After we parted ways, I stuck around to spy on him," said Aqua, "And confirmed my fears. I saw Braig come back and talk with Xehanort, as did Vanitas. I followed Xehanort through a Dark Corridor and to a house of his in the Keyblade Graveyard. I decided to come back later, and went to Yen Sid to see if I could learn anything about Xehanort from him."

She frowned, and summed up that entire meeting with four quick words, she didn't want to linger on it. "Not that I did."

She didn't give them a chance to question her on it. "Afterwards, I went back to Xehanort's house. He was gone, so I rifled through his reports, and figured out his plans. It was... horrifying, and so infuriating, to at last understand. But... it wasn't only his reports there... but books upon books and notes upon notes about all his experiences and studies."

She closed her eyes before confessing, "I did something then, that I fear is what allowed Maleficent to create her Ascended."

There was an uncomfortable and uneasy silence before Terra asked softly, "What did you do?"

"I wanted to read and learn everything that I could in order to prepare myself to defeat Xehanort. But, I needed a place to do so. I contacted Maleficent, and she helped me bring them there, replacing them with magical created copies to not tip Xehanort off," she said quietly, "I gave Maleficent every scrap of information Xehanort had."

"Maybe you did, but you are not responsible for what she did with that information Aqua," said Terra firmly, "While giving her access to that information was a questionable thing to do, I don't argue with that, her actions are not your actions."

Aqua merely looked away. "They feel like they are. I enabled her. Another of my many mistakes."

"But even then...," she said, a tremble going through her body, "What I did in her castle to prepare myself for Xehanort was even worse..."

She could feel it from. Dread anticipation, they both did and didn't want to know what she had done. "I... in order to figure out a way to repel Xehanort's heart from entering mine... I... we... used her pig minions..."

She trailed off, and really thought about it, about what she had done really meant. This... this was so much worse than giving Maleficent books.

She feared.

She feared so much.

That they would reject her for this.

Banish her from the world.

But... she... she had to do this.

She couldn't lie or hide from them anymore.

Had to confess... just... just had to come out and say it.

All it was, was a few words.

Just... get it over with, like ripping off a band-aid.

"We... I used my Keyblade to rip free their hearts, and Maleficent sent them at me to practice repelling and extracting them from my own," she said, guilt and shame lacing her voice, "Turned them into Heartless and practiced controlling them too."

"Aqua," breathed Terra, mortified.

"You... you really did that, Aqua?" asked Ven quietly.

"Yes," was all she could say, staring down into the darkness below the cliff they sat on.

Aqua flinched and shied away as Terra abruptly stood. For a moment, a silly stupid fear filled moment, she wondered if he would lash out. Hit her for what she did. It was a stupid thought, Terra would never do that, but she still feared it, feared that she deserved it. Instead, what he did felt worse.

He walked away.

He moved to the center of the summit and began to pace, his face contorted in a flurry of emotions.

Finally, he turned and stared at her, hard. "How could you do that Aqua?"

She was silent for a time before she answered, despite her anxiety and fear, with a strict firmness. "There is nothing I wouldn't do to protect those important to me. If Xehanort took me as a host, he would have used me to destroy you both."

That seemed to upset him even more than he already was. "Nothing you wouldn't do? Tell me Aqua! Does that include murder? Torture? Wanton destruction? None of us would have wanted you to do anything like that!"

"Terra!" hissed Ven, glaring at him then giving a not-so-subtle glance at Aqua.

"No Ven," she said softly when she saw Terra try to reign his temper in, "Don't ask him to go easy on me. I don't deserve it."

Terra's lips thinned, and he let his control go. "I have never been more disappointed in you Aqua than I am right now. There are many things I could grudgingly understand and look past given the circumstance, such as what you did with Xehanort's heart at the end, but not this. This... this was a betrayal of everything we were taught as Keybearers. Extracting a heart is an act of last resort! Meant to take a damaged heart away to be mended and returned, not as an act of violence! Not to be tossed away and transformed into a Heartless! It was an abuse of your power as a Keyblade Wielder! An act so vile, I never would have expected it from you."

She shrank and shook a little with every word. She wanted to run, to be anywhere but here...

"As the steward of the Land of Departure, it would be my responsibility, my duty, to revoke your mastership over such a crime, if not seal your ability to call a Keyblade," said Terra slowly, cold anger, crushing disappointment, bleeding through his firm voice, "But I'm not going to."

Aqua stared at him, shivering and bewildered. "Why?"

"Selfish reasons mostly," said Terra bluntly, "You are my friend, I wouldn't do that to you. You've suffered as much as the rest of us, is there truly any need to add anymore on top of it? To drive any further wedge between us than there already is? And while it is not an excuse, at all, especially from one of my station, those pig minions were as evil as Maleficent was. I find a hard time feeling pity for them, I'm more disappointed in the act, rather than the victims, as awful as that sounds. Besides..."

He studied her critically. "Keyblade sealing aside. What would stripping you of your Mastership even do? You are remorseful, you came clean rather than hide it, and you could certainly earn your Mastership back eventually. It would be a temporary punishment at best, you already punish yourself more in a way that will never fully go away with your guilt. And judging by how you look now, our disappointment hurts just as readily to, doesn't it?"

Somehow... this felt even worse than having her Mastership or the Keyblade stripped away, not that she really considered herself a Keyblade Master anyway at this point. He made it seem like she shouldn't ever forgive herself... but... had she ever really been planning to? She punished and loathed herself more than anyone else here did. And to see Terra look at her like that... she felt like she should find someplace to curl up and die in...

"Terra!" said Ven, standing up, "That's enough!"

Terra stared at Aqua's shivering form for a moment longer before turning to Ven, eyes narrowed. "Do you even care about what she did Ventus?"

"Of course I do! But I'm not going to berate and drag her down like that!" exclaimed Ven, "She made an awful mistake and an awful choice, I'm not going to deny it, but..."

"There is no buts Ventus," said Terra sternly, "I am not going to strip her of her rank, I'm not going to seal her ability to call the Keyblade, I'm not going to banish her, I'm not going to turn my back on her, I still want to listen, I still want to help her, but like hell am I not going to make my feelings known on this."

He turned and pointed a finger at Aqua. "Never again Aqua. Do not EVER do something like that in our name again. Do not ever extract a heart, murder, torture, or whatever, ANYONE, even someone as foul as Xehanort, in our name again. If someone needs to be stopped, even if you are forced to kill them, then you do it because it is the right thing to do, the just thing to do, not solely because we were threatened. AM I CLEAR?"

"Yes...," was all she could whisper out, terrified.

"That Aqua...," he said, his arm shaking a bit, "That you would do anything in our name, because of or for us, even something like that. Is... it's terrifying Aqua. It's absolutely terrifying."

He lowered his arm, took a shaky breath, and ran it through his hair. "Is there anything else like that?"

"I... not exactly like t-that," she said, "I... trained for a bit... in t-the Realm of Darkness... strengthened myself a-and my d-darkness, practiced controlling h-heartless... if I needed them to counter Vanitas's Unversed, b-but nothing else like that..."

His eyes searched hers for a few moments before he nodded and came back over. But he didn't sit down next to her, nor on the edge of the cliff. He sat on the ground a always from the edge, a ways from her, and simply said, "Continue the story then."

It felt like an insurmountable wall had sprung up between them, and it made Aqua feel brittle and hollow, unstable. Her friends were all she really had, without them... "I... I'm sorry Terra..."

He stared at her silently for a moment before sighing. "I know you are. But I need time to... process. Finish the story, then... then I need to sleep this off like a bad hangover."

Aqua struggled for a few minutes, desperately trying to control her chaotic emotions, before she pressed them down, cut them off with a blunt of darkness, forced herself numb instead of trying to cope with them.

"I trained and studied there for roughly roughly three week," said Aqua, taking on a monotone dead like voice.

Judging by the look Ventus shot her, he looked alarmed and anxious by her tone.

She continued without emotion, without depth to convey what she felt. "Afterwards, I left in search of you two. It took me awhile, but I eventually caught up at that Colosseum. I overheard you and Ven talking about islands, and children."

She paused. "And their capabilities of Keyblade wielders. I can recall being angry about the comment about one Keyblade being enough for a friendship, that our fate was to be avoided."

"That's not what I had meant," said Terra quietly.

Aqua didn't acknowledge the words. "Rather than confront either of you there, I went in search of these islands you spoke of. I found them, met Sora and Riku, talked with them for a bit, and found Sora worthy of the Keyblade, preforming the ceremony."

Her numbness melted a little. "Especially with what I learned Sora had done for your heart Ven."

"My... heart?" asked Ven, confused.

"Before Xehanort brought you to us, when he split your heart in two, the damage had made him think you would die, he had brought you to Destiny Islands to pass away," she said softly, "But there, you instead began to heal. I felt, when I probed Sora's heart, an echo of yours within his, as if they had touched a long time ago. I pieced it together what had happened. Barely a newborn, and he must have reached out to help your heart."

Ventus looked astonished. "Seriously?"

She nodded. "I believe so, with all my heart I do."

Ven looked a bit speechless. "Wow... I mean... I always thought I had known Sora from somewhere before when we met in the flesh for the first time. But that... yeah, I guess that does fit."

He grinned sheepishly and wagged a finger at her. "Don't tell him though, he'll hold it over me forever, saying I owe him one."

Aqua's lips barely twitched in a failed attempt to smile before the numbness came back and she resumed. "I returned to the Colosseum and met with Terra while you fought in the tournament. After Vanitas abducted you, I went in search of Xehanort, and briefly confronted him at the Keyblade Graveyard, where he told me to go home after Eraqus and..."

For a moment, her numbness cracked again, and pure turmoil roiled around her. "...and I confronted Eraqus."

Aqua didn't allow it to fester, and forced herself to brush over it, and the final battle. "Afterwords, we all went the graveyard, I convinced Braig to aid us, he got knocked out, then I screwed up with Xehanort after I saw and felt the X-Blade being forged, thinking I had lost Ventus. I let my anger, my pain, and my hate of Xehanort get the better of me. I wanted him to suffer, and I doomed us all by trying to make my heart a prison for what remained of his after I tortured it into bits and pieces."

She closed her eyes and finished. "I began to hear voices after that, but I never... took alarm to it for some reason. I think it was his meddling, otherwise I should have realized they were his, trying to guide and direct me as he chose. At the end, I had to choose between fully merging with Xehanort into someone new, or ripping our hearts apart. I chose the later, and drove the worlds into a Heartless apocalypse as the price."

She turned to stare briefly at Ven, and then Terra. "The End."

Terra didn't immediately react, a hint of concern in his eyes. "You glossed over a few things."

She turned back to staring out at nothing. "That's the best you are going to get right now."

She wasn't sure, if she allowed herself to feel, and allowed herself to try and go more in-depth on any of those memories that brought such pain, that she tried to shy away from, that she'd survive it. Not right now, not when Terra's justified rebuke and anger and disappointment could shut her down like this.

Light, when had she gotten so weak and fragile? Where had all her strength gone, had it all been an illusion? She had done everything for them, for her friends, and not only were they horrified by it, she had ended up making things so much worse for them, and for the worlds. It sapped her strength like it was the greatest and most malignant curse.

On one had, her weakness was off-putting and would have filled her with self-loathing and disgust if she could feel at the moment, on the other, it was oddly fascinating, to be so detached from everything right now. She had a 'feeling' that this was not going to last long, and that she wasn't going to like the repercussions from it, but it served a purpose.

Terra sighed. "Right. Okay. I think we all need to sleep, and come back to this another day. This is... to much to handle in one sitting. I should have known it would be and tried to split it onto blocks or something. I apologize for that."

Aqua said nothing in response.

Ven stood up, a sad look on his face. "Look, Aqua, it'll be alright, okay? We'll work through this. You are still our friend, you always will be."

It was odd, in a way, she distantly thought, that Ventus could hold back his anger and emotions better than Terra. She knew he still felt them, but he was surprisingly in better control at the moment. He certainly had come a long way.

"Go to sleep Ventus," was all she said in response.

Ven looked just a tad worried, in a way that used to make her fret and flutter around him when they were younger. "Alright... good night Aqua.

"Good night Ventus," she answered automatically.

Terra didn't offer a good-night. "I'll see you in the morning Aqua."

"Good night Terra," she answered back automatically again.

They left her there afterwards, alone on the summit. Retreating to what would most likely be sleepless beds and fitful sleep. She merely rose to her feet, walked over to one of the benches near the mountain part of the summit, and curled into a ball underneath it. She didn't find herself worthy of sleeping on her bed, let alone a bench. On the ground like a monster or an animal was what she thought she deserved.

She laid there for a long time, aimlessly starting out into the summit and the darkness beyond, as the numbness slowly faded and was replaced by absolutely crushing guilt and shame and depression. Her eyes flickered to the edge of the cliffs, wondering if that would be a kinder fate for herself and her friends rather than forcing them and her to have to deal with the mess that was her life. She couldn't even manage to summon the strength to move however, and simply laid there instead.

And laid there. Growing cold in the night's air. Shivering.

And laid there. Not having the strength to move, but not tired, no ability to sleep.

And laid there. Paralyzed, but not.

Until dawn broke over the horizon. She watched the sun rise, but drew no happiness from it. She sniffled a little, snot leaking down her nose. Great... she was getting a cold now. It was just one thing after another...

There was a heavy sound of footfalls, and she saw Terra's boots stride out into the summit. From what she could see, he stretched a bit. Then there was a flash, and she caught sight of the bottom of his keyblade. He began to move repetitively, the swoosh of a Keyblade singing powerfully through the air. A kata then. Coming out to the crisp morning air to exercise probably helped get him ready for the day.

Finally, he banished the keyblade, and walked over to the bench she was under, sitting down with a heavy sigh. "Wonder what today's going to bring after yesterday's mess."

Aqua closed her eyes and managed to turn her head down towards the ground, away from the bench, wanting to drown out his voice, not wanting to acknowledge troubling her friends.

"Aqua...," he muttered to himself, "Why didn't you come to us? Come to me? Was I truly so poor of a friend that you turned to that Witch before me for help?"

Aqua couldn't help it; she chocked a little, sniffling.

"What in the...?" began Terra, starting to his feet and kneeling down on the ground, eyes going wide at the sight of her, "Aqua! What in the world are you doing? Did you sleep under there the whole night? Are you crazy? What were you thinking?"

Something broke. Depression turned into sorrow, and finally she found a release to all that pent up emotion. She turned her head away from him as far as she could and stared sobbing uncontrollably.

"Aqua!?" he gasped in alarm.

He pulled her out from under the bench without a moments hesitation, clutching her tightly to him, running a hand through her hair over and over again. "Aqua, shh, shh, Aqua I'm sorry. I shouldn't have lashed out like that last night, should have been gentler about it, more understanding, I'm sorry. Please calm down, shh..."

He ended up holding her like that for a very long time until she wore herself out and found herself collapsing into sleep...

Chapter Text

The problem, Aqua found, with wanting to wither away in her bed was that no one would really let her. Terra had the mind to say Aqua had caught a cold staying up to late training in the night's chilly air, partially true, so that had bought her some leeway. Ven wasn't stupid, the first time he had come in to wish her well he had taken one look at her absolutely ashen face and went after Terra. She had caught bits and pieces of that argument outside her door and sorely wished she had the energy to smother herself. Ven made it a point to come in several times a day and speak to her, joking and teasing, trying to put a smile on her face. Eraqus had come in at one point and merely sat at her bedside, reading, not speaking nor offering comfort that she did not want, just offering his presence should she need it. It had been a small comfort, recalling times he had done the same when she was actually sick in her younger years, far worse then a bit of snot and sniffles. Whether Terra had told him what she had done or not, she hadn't a clue. Sora, Riku, and Yen Sid thankfully didn't make an appearance, because they were told to keep their distance or not, she did not know.

Unfortunately for her, Kairi wasn't particularly good at following directions. After the second day of not moving an inch save when Terra brought her a tray of food, Kairi started trying to get around Terra saying Aqua needed her rest. She had faintly heard the two of them arguing outside her door some time ago, and unfortunately, Terra couldn't stand watch the entire time and give her time to get her shit together.

So now Kairi stood next to her bed, eyes looking down at her critically. "I've gone on patrols way more sick than you are now. You're barely sniffling."

Aqua couldn't help but childishly turn away, pulling her covers up as she rolled on her side away from Kairi.

"Oh, one of those days," mused Kairi, a devious tone entering her voice, "I've had plenty of them."

With a yelp, Aqua found her blanket yanked away from her. "My dad always kicked my ass out of bed and made me get up, so up and at em Master Aqua, daylights wasting."

Aqua grumbled under her breath and sat up, glowering at Kairi.

Her apprentice merely grinned in response. "C'mon, get showered and get dressed, I think we ought to do something long overdue today."

"And what's that?" muttered Aqua.

"Visit Olette," said Kairi, making Aqua go very still, "We really should have gone to her before now and told her whats going on. She has to be really worried about your Nobody."

Aqua felt like she had been kicked in the gut, shame bleeding across her face. "Yeah... she probably is. Alright, alright, I'm up."

"Though, I'm kind of curious why she isn't here," muttered Kairi, "I thought I sent her through a corridor to hide out here while we dealt with Xehanort's Nobody. Did they send her back in the hours it took us to deal with him?"

"Umm...," began Aqua, "Did you try to dump her right into the keep?"

"Yes?"

"She probably was rebuffed by the Castle's protections since she would be an unrecognized entity," said Aqua, "And ended up right back where she came from a few minutes later."

"Oh she had to be pissed then," said Kairi with a hint of chagrin, "Anyway, go get ready, I'll wait here."

Aqua slowly found herself forcing speed back into her movement, if not for herself, then for poor Olette. The girl shouldn't have had to wait so long while Aqua struggled with her own issues. She took a bit longer in the shower than she should have, trying to take warmth from the water and reinvigorate herself. She had a purpose to rise and get out of bed, but she wasn't fooling herself to think she wouldn't be back here when she was done. She knew she shouldn't be wallowing like this, should try to make herself useful...

She just...

She shook her head and got out of the shower, clothed herself, and went to meet Kairi who already had a dark corridor ready.

Aqua paused at that. "Kairi. How exactly is a Princess of Heart..."

"Xion," said Kairi with a shrug.

"Hmm," mused Aqua, "What does it feel like, as a Princess, to touch the darkness?"

"It's like a chill that rolls down my spine each time I touch it," admitted Kairi, "It's kind of like a shock to my system, foreign, but... it doesn't particularly do anything else but jolt me."

"It wouldn't," said Aqua, "You still hold a Heart of Pure Light, even with Xion sleeping in it. I imagine once she'd healed and in her on body, you'll lose the ability to make a dark corridor."

Kairi made a face. "Hope I can figure out how to do the same with Light then."

"You're on your own for that, because I don't have a clue," said Aqua, walking up to and through the corridor.

They arrived outside the Mansion in Twilight Town, and Aqua was hit, hard, by a sense of deja vu. How many times during the last decade had she walked through that gate, those steps, passed that door? Nostalgia for opening that door from the other side and finding Olette's smiling face beaming up at her, a bag of tea-packets in her hands. Aqua shakily reached for the doorhandle and opened it, walking inside. The Mansion had steadily been cleaned up over the years, through her and Olette's work. It was still a bit barren, but not as dreary and run down as it had once been.

Aqua closed her eyes and briefly passed her senses over the mansion...

And turned her gaze to the side room, where she had sat down and talked to Sora and Kairi...

She shook her head; where her Nobody had...

She moved and opened the door, finding Olette asleep at the table, a blanket over her shoulders and back as she drooled over her arms used as a pillow. Aqua took in the sight of the girl. A messy haired brunette teenager, eyes she remembered as a vivid green, set on an innocent and soft face. She wore her favorite orange shirt with white flowers on the bottom of it. A creamy colored pair of pants with matching shoes, and orange shocks. She wore a sky-blue bracelet on her right wrist, and a black necklace with a sky-blue charm in it.

A charm she distinctly remembered enchanting with protective magics as a Nobody.

She stared the girl, for the first time with emotions; a deep ache in her chest, and couldn't help a soft sob that came out, "Oh Olette..."

How many years had the girl been forced to deal with an emotionless, unresponsive woman who could never return the kindness the child showed her? Why had she stayed? Why had she wasted so much time on a Nobody like Aqua's? Who couldn't even be bothered to fake an emotion in placation?

The girl stirred at the sound. "Hnng?"

Kairi walked in and stood next to Aqua. "I know from experience sleeping at the table isn't good for your back."

Olette blinked away, staring blearily at Kairi for a moment before sitting up and rubbing her eyes. "Oh... what time is..."

Then the girl jolted a bit, shaking her head, and GLARED at Kairi, "You almost killed me!"

Aqua and Kairi both froze for a moment, Kairi squeaked out, "I what?"

"I got thrown back out that corridor and nearly fell off the clock-tower!" yelled Olette, "You have any idea how scary it is to barely catch the edge of it? I would have been pasted if I had lost my grip!"

Aqua's heart took a moment to restart at the terrified jolt that went through it.

Kairi paled. "Oh... I um... I'm sorry! I didn't know that would happen!"

Olette huffed a bit, crossing her arms, nestling back in her chair and blanket. "Honestly... it took you and Aqua long enough to go and beat up the bad guys."

Olette turned to look at Aqua, "Was it a tough... fight?"

The girl's eyes washed over Aqua, taking in her appearance, a confused look on her face. "You... changed your clothes? Got a haircut? Where's your earrings and tattoos?"

Aqua opened and closed her mouth a few times, not quite sure how to say it. "I... um... Olette..."

"Are you stuttering?" asked Olette in disbelief, "You never stutter."

Aqua's face turned a little red, and Kairi did her best not to laugh. Which wasn't very good.

"You're blushing," whispered Olette in surprise, eyes going wide.

She scrambled out of her chair and discarded the blanket to the floor, walking over to stand in front of Aqua, drinking in the sight of her, a wide smile slowly crossing her face. "You got your heart back, didn't you?"

"I... yes?" said Aqua.

Olette squealed in delight and launched herself at Aqua, taking her in a fierce hug. "Yes! I'm so happy for you Aqua!"

Aqua hesitatingly returned the hug, savoring the feelings of joy emanating from the girl, directed at her, because of her, not a source of pain, of disappointment, of suffering. "Thank you."

The girl slowly pulled back, looking up at her. "How'd it happen?"

Aqua licked her lips. "Well... if a..."

She trailed off, wondering if she should be honest or not; because she knew that sensation of joy rippling through the air was about to go away.

"If a Nobody and a Heartless of a person are both destroyed, the original person comes back," said Kairi, crossing her arms, "Though I think its way better if a Nobody can just take the time and regrow a heart."

Aqua winced; that was way to blunt. Kairi really needed to work on that.

Olette's eyes went wide with shock. "W-what!? You... y-your Nobody died?"

Aqua nodded. "Yes, I... she... died in the fight against Xehanort."

Olette her leg's wobbled, reaching out to grip Aqua's arms tightly, her eyes going wide and breathing ragged. Aqua gently guided her to the nearest chair and sat her down, choking sounds escaping her throat. "She died... she died..."

Then Aqua's world turned upside down as an intense focus, so foreign, so deep, overtook her...

The child's pupils were dilated.

The child's breathing was ragged.

The child's face was pale.

The child's eyes had tears streaming down them.

The child's was in distress.

Olette was in distress.

That was unacceptable.

"Focus," came out Aqua's voice, intense but flat, lacking emotion, one hand tilting the girls head up, one hand on her shoulder, grip no longer gentle, but firm, "The ability to feel does not give those emotions the power to control you, that decision comes from the lack of you being in control."

Olette gave a startled hiccup, eyes shining up at her in startled surprise, her voice timid but hopeful, "...Aqua?"

Aqua brought a shocked hand up to her own lips before she turned and fled the room, ignoring the surprised and confused calls from the girls. She retreated to her room-her Nobody's room. It was supposed to be bland, Nobodies were bland... but it had life. Painted blue a dark blue. Plants... that she could recall Olette giving her. Drawing tapped to the wall, some of Olette's, some of her brief recollections the girl drew for her. Little gifts scattered here and there; sets of clothes she never wore neatly folded, dolls lined up in orderly fashion, a poster of some band that the girl liked and tried to get her to like for some reason despite how the thumping and head-screaming did nothing but give her a headache and bring out no feelings, but Olette liked them so she gave them her attention because Olette was important, Olette mattered, Olette made that hole that encompassed her very being not seem so all-consuming, could on occasion make her forget that she wasn't a cold, emotionless, subhuman creation that everyone else shied away from in fear or was watched by the other Nobodies for the same reason...

Aqua gave a strangled breath, clutching her chest and her head, kneeling aside her neatly made bed and burying her face in the cloth, overwhelmed and disoriented. She breathed out, in, out, in, struggling with the nausea of the moment of being-but-not-being-herself. She gave a semi-hysterical laugh into blanket, thinking of what she had briefly felt...

Nothing.

No emotion.

Just intense focus for the girl.

And found that oddly enough, that lack of emotion had been far better than what she had been in before coming here. Funny, how being emotionless was a higher state than what she was now. There was one unfortunate consequence from all of this however...

"I can't deny it," she murmured into the blanket, "My Nobody isn't a separate person, it's me."

"And why is that a problem?"

She pulled back from the bed, head half-turning to see Olette standing in the doorway, a mixture of concern and irritation on her face. "What exactly is wrong with you being your Nobody?"

"Other than the fact she stayed here the entire time the worlds were falling apart?" bit out Aqua.

Olette crossed her arms. "Maybe you could have been doing more elsewhere, but you know what? If you hadn't been here, I doubt I'd be alive at this point, that this world wouldn't have been consumed by the heartless. Call me selfish, but you staying for me, matters more to me than you can possibly imagine."

Aqua turned away, struggling with how that made her heart flutter.

"Why does that bother you so much?" asked Olette.

"It's not about the Nobody," murmured Aqua, "If I can't deny she was part of me..."

She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Oh," murmured Olette, "I get it. Your Heartless..."

There was silence for a few minutes before Olette asked, "Do you remember what you told me, about good and evil?"

Aqua sighed, moving to sit up on the bed, staring at the girl, eyes furrowed in thought. "I don't..."

"That good and evil are a matter of perspective," said Olette solemnly, "That no power you use, nothingness, light, dark, magic, makes you inherently good or evil. It's how you use it that determines what you are."

Aqua blinked. "My Nobody said that...?"

She felt a tingle in the back of her mind, a scratch that wanted to be itched...

"You said that," said Olette firmly, "When I first drew out my own power..."


There was a furious set of knocks on the outside doors of the mansion. Aqua... using name still left an odd sensation, a peculiar taste in the back of her mouth, rose from the table in the side room. She felt Olette's presence outside the mansion, panicked and scared, perhaps there were heartless in town again. Or the Organization had foolishly threatened the girl. Perhaps, someone had fallen. She could recall several instances of where the girl had come to her in a fit, anguished over losing an acquaintance. It had best not have been the last option, the affect that had on the girl was... undesirable and very long lasting.

Children were supposed to be happy, carefree. Even she, an empty thing, knew that.

She opened the door and was not surprised when the orange clothed child lunged at her in a fierce, desperate hug. "I didn't mean to do it!"

Aqua took a moment to assess the child, passing her senses over her for injury, but finding none. "Do what, child?"

"I... there was a heartless...," she hiccuped.

Aqua passed her senses farther out, but felt nothing.

"It came out right in the Usual Spot," sniffled Olette, "Just a shadow, I think... I think it came out because the three of us were arguing..."

Most likely about Aqua herself, yet again. Her friends, like most of the townsfolk, were afraid of her, and wished Olette to keep her distance.

"I was so angry, and then afraid, I... I didn't think, I just pushed a hand out and...," the girl trailed off, anxious, "I... I blasted it. Just a burst of... of black energy..."

"Darkness," mused Aqua.

The girl hung her head a bit. "I... yes..."

"Hmmm," she hummed, curious.

She was rather surprised the girl had been able to draw anything out at all. The denizens of Twilight Town were rather frail and meek in that regard. Little to no magic, no particular affinity for darkness or light. The most people had were batons on police officers, and maybe one or two privately owned guns for the paranoid. Then again, Olette did frequently 'hang out' with Aqua, watched her on occasion train, battle heartless, and rough up Organization members if they did not tread carefully. Perhaps the exposure ignited something in her. Or perhaps the awareness of it all awakened it. Sora and Kairi hadn't been gone that long, and she knew the story was still fresh in Olette's mind, had unsettled her...

If the way the girl had clung to her for the last few days was any indication.

"Is there a problem with this?" asked Aqua, "I would think you would be more inclined to have a power you can defend yourself with."

"B-b-but it's darkness," whispered the girl timidly.

"You didn't seem to have any aversion to the knowledge of my former self using it," pointed out Aqua.

"W-well... you were a trained Keyblade Wielder," said Olette awkwardly.

Aqua gave a firm tug, drawing the girl to the side room and sitting her down, taking over tea making duties for once. "You're point being what, Olette? Man, woman, child. King, politician, scholar. Keybearer, knight, soldier. None of them need light or darkness to do good or evil. You've studied your history, you've heard their tales, it should be apparent to you by now."

She walked over and placed a cup of tea in the girl's hand. "Good and evil are a matter of perspective. No power you use, nothingness, light, dark, magic, makes you inherently good or evil. It's how you use it that determines what you are."

Olette went silent for a moment, uncertainty on her face. "Could... you teach me?"

Aqua tilted her head for a moment, considering the question. On one hand, any kind of power was potential dangerous if misused or mismanaged, Olette could hurt herself if she wasn't careful. On the other hand, there had been many times over the years where Aqua had cut it close in saving the girl's life. This last instance, the heartless had come out right near Olette. If the child hadn't destroyed it, or managed to get away, the girl would have perished by the time Aqua sensed anything amiss. It would be, for one, irresponsible for her not to teach the girl how to use her power. For two, she couldn't leave the girl defenseless, or completely reliant on Aqua herself.

"Very well," said Aqua, moving to make herself a cup, "I can't exactly teach you to wield light or darkness, but, I can at least show you how to use magic."

"You think I can do magic?" said Olette, perking up, an eager smile on her lips.

Aqua traced the smile in her mind, another success, and filed it away with the other times she had succeeding in bringing it upon the girl's face through her own actions and not by some default setting of the girl. "I believe you have the potential to, yes. Perhaps we can practice later."

Olette grinned, teasing out, "Thank you, 'Master' Aqua."

Aqua gave her an unimpressed look. "Oh do be quiet and drink your tea, lest I take back what I offered.

Olette only giggled in response, unphased in the slightest, as the two of them settled down for another if ever brief moment of sitting there together...


"...re you okay?"

Aqua blinked a few times, finding herself shaking on the bed, Olette's hand on her shoulder. "J... just a memory."

"Umm... I don't think memories should leave you like that," said Olette.

Aqua closed her eyes. "I... try to keep them separate. I don't want..."

Olette huffed a bit. "I get your Heartless, not wanting to remember what its done or accept that its part of you..."

Aqua flinched.

"...but your Nobody was a good person. She's you, just lacking memories and emotions," said Olette, drawing her hand back to cross her arms "And I don't appreciate you implying otherwise."

Aqua swallowed, looking away.

"Why don't you look for yourself?" asked Olette, "Just take a few hours and, I dunno, sift through them? Decide for yourself. I thought the time we spent together was good, for the both of us."

"I... could try," admitted Aqua quietly.

Olette brightened at that, and oh how her doing so made Aqua's stomach tilt. The girl mattered... mattered so much. Right up there with Terra and Ven. "I'd try for you."

Olette snickered. "Yeah, you're not that different from the way you were without a heart. You old softie, the moment I go beady eyes you fall over."

Aqua glowered at her. "Off with you, brat."

Olette stuck out her tongue and scampered off out of the room, giggling all the way, closing the door and leaving Aqua alone with her uncomfortable task...


Kairi leaned against the wall next to the mansion's exit, watching Olette descend the stairs with a smugly satisfied smile on her face. A flare of ugly jealousy split through Kairi, and it was tough to yank it back. She had wanted to be the one to go after Aqua, but noooo, apparently Olette would handle her. And apparently she did if that look was anything to go by. Aqua was her Master, if anyone should be the one to get her out of whatever funk she'd been in the last few days, it should have been Kairi herself.

But such thoughts were unbecoming of her. If dad or mom knew she was having an internal hissy fit like this, they wouldn't have been impressed. Neither would Master Aqua herself, or any of the other Keybearers. So, she sucked it up, dismissed it as best she could, and tried to put on a pleasant mask. "How is she?"

"Better, I think," said Olette, "I think she was unsettled by her 'Nobody' part coming out, if you will. Made it hard to deny that her 'Nobody' and her memories were really a part of her, mostly because she didn't want to admit the same about her heartless."

Kairi's heart skipped a beat. What?! What did she say? And her Heartless's? Did that mean Master Aqua had that thing's memories...?

Oh sweet light...

Did she really...?

Well... that certainly explained some of the things Kairi had noticed this far. More specifically why she didn't want to spar with anyone, probably more things she had missed as well. Kairi swallowed heavily; the first thing she was going to do when she was alone with her Master was hug Aqua till she popped, and tell her it wasn't her fault, that she didn't blame her for anything, for what her Heartless did.

Olette sat down on the last step and looked at her thoughtfully. "Whats being a Keybearer like?"

Kairi blinked a few times, caught offguard. "I... well... I've only actually been a Keybearer for a short time, and only really in the middle of a Heartless Apocalypse or fighting the Organization. I can't really say what its normally like."

"Whats it like at its worse then?"

Kairi shifted uncomfortably. "Why do you want to know?"

"I was thinking... of maybe asking if I could be one. Asking if Aqua would train me."

That ugly flare of jealousy was back fullblast now, her body tensing. It was all Kairi could do to not snap at her. Kairi was her apprentice! Not Olette!

"Is... something wrong with that?" Olette asked with uncertainty.

Kairi swallowed back her jealousy for the second time. The Keybearers needed all the help they could get cleaning up and bringing some semblance of order back to the worlds. It would be foolish to deny someone who was willing. But what did that girl know of being a Keybearer? Of struggles, of pain and loss, over and over again? With Aqua's Nobody having been here to keep her safe and protected...

Like I should have been...

"At its worse... it's a harsh, bleak life," said Kairi finally, struggling to keep the bitterness out of her voice, "You are constantly in danger on the front lines against threats to the worlds, scrambling to try and save and protect everyone you can, but you can't despite giving your best. I've... I've failed more times than I like, watched people lose their hearts in front of me. Lost people I've dearly cared about. I've had my heart nearly ripped apart multiple times, been in enough life and death confrontations to last me a lifetime, though the others have probably been in more. It feels like a hopeless struggle, but you cant give up because of how many people are depending on you. You're..."

She swallowed. "You're the hero everyone is counting on, you can't let them down. You've a legacy, from the one who passed on the Keyblade to you, you can't let them down either..."

She shook her head. "You have to deal with your own desperation, and other's. Sometimes..."

She thought of what the other Keybearers had tried to do to her, imprison her in the Land of Departure. "...you can't even trust your allies to do the right thing when it comes down to it."

She remembered how the Heartless Apocalypse ended; she looked Olette dead in the eye. "If push comes to shove, you have to be ready to take your life into your own hands and strike out alone to do what needs to be done. Even if it feels like its you against all the worlds, facing impossible odds."

Olette... didn't show any visible signs of what she felt. Her eyes slightly narrowed, head tilted in thought.

"It's a life of suffering," admitted Kairi quietly, "Yours in exchange for others. That's... what it's felt like this far. Will it keep feeling like that once things settle down? I don't know. But that's what its like at its worst. You are the shield of the worlds, and no matter what, you can't break or falter."

Though... she already had, once, after Xehanort's Nobody was destroyed, when she thought her family was gone for good...

Did that make her a failure of a Keybearer then...?

Would Aqua be happier teaching someone else?

"Hmm," hummed Olette.

Kairi kept her eyes on the girl, but she made no further comment as the minutes ticked by. At the hour mark, Kairi slid down the wall and simply sat, waiting for Aqua to be done... whatever she was doing at the moment. Maybe she took a nap, that generally put some energy back into her step when Kairi had a chance to when she was a Guardian of Traverse Town.

"So what world are you from?" asked Olette.

Kairi blinked. "Uh... Radiant Garden, though I grew up in Traverse Town."

"What are they like?"

With nothing better to do, Kairi obliged the question. Though... remembering Traverse Town put an ache through her chest. They had struggled so many years for that world, then it fell in a single night... and she had spent so little time in Radiant Garden in comparison, had so fewer memories...

"A refuge huh," mused Olette, a sad smile on her face, "Guess you could say Traverse Town is like a keybearer, it safeguards and protects all the people it can."

An...odd comparison, but..., "Kind of? I guess..."

She let the silence return for a few minutes before she counter-asked, "Whats Twilight Town like?"

"Without Aqua, its small and boring," said Olette flatly, "I mean... it wasn't bad early on, when I was a little girl..."

She trailed off for a moment. "But... once I met Aqua, saw the Organization members, realized there were powers beyond my imagination, so many other worlds out there... its just... small and claustrophobic in comparison."

She moved to the doors, pushing them open, looking up into the sky. "I want to see them all. Explore them all."

A lump set in Kairi's throat, at that childlike innocence and eagerness...

When was the last time Kairi had truly felt like that? When she was four before the Heartless Apocalypse started?

"What... about your family and friends, your life here?" asked Kairi.

Olette looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I've spent more time with Aqua than my friends or my family over the years. I mean... my parents used to forbid me from going to see 'The Lady of the Mansion', but I kept sneaking out. Then Aqua walked in on them scolding me for it one time when they caught me in the woods heading for her and... well... she scolded them back and they've been terrified ever since. They started speaking carefully whenever I'm around them, to the point when sometimes I wonder if I've become a stranger in their house..."

She sighed. "There's a reason I've been sleeping here since Aqua left. It's more comfortable here than home, but I don't blame her for it. As for my friends... I mean... I think I'm still friends with Hayner and Pence, but... it's awkward sometimes. They're just as scared of Aqua as everyone else is, despite that she treated everyone with courtesy so long as they treated her with respect, well, and treat me with respect to. She gets scarily protective sometimes..."

Kairi cracked a smile. "Considering what I've heard of her past, that's true even with her heart."

Olette giggled a little. "Yeah..."

"I just wish everyone didn't walk on eggshells around me and Aqua," murmured Olette, "It made things uncomfortable. Even if people learned she was gone, or well, whole, I don't think anything would really change."

Olette glanced up into the sky again. "I think... I still want to try."

"Try what?"

They both turned to see Aqua walking down the stairs, giving the two girls a curious look.

Olette walked back into the mansion, stopping a few steps from the stairs, fidgeting nervously. "I um... well..."

"Would you... be willing to train me as a Keybearer?" asked Olette shyly.

Aqua's eyes went wide for a moment... and then her face completely shuttered away, like an impenetrable mask had been placed over it, and her voice grew just... dead-like. "No."

On one hand, a jealous part of Kairi was jumping up and down in delight, on the other hand, something about Aqua at the moment... set Kairi ill at ease.

Olette looked startled. "But... but... I think I could do good! You were teaching me magic and..."

"It's not about you Olette," said Aqua coldly, "I've already damned two children to this curse of a life, I'm not afflicting it upon a third. I can't..."

Kairi's jaw dropped, stunned as Aqua's face crumpled a bit; she brushed past Olette, past Kairi, made a Dark Corridor in the doorway to the mansion, and fled just like that. "Curse of a..."

Kairi narrowed her eyes intently, off-put. "I chose this life thank-you-very-much."

She turned to look at Olette, who just look devastated. Kairi frowned for a moment before she scowled, steeled her jaw, and marched over to the girl. Forget her jealousy, she had a point to make now. She grabbed the girl's arm, made a Dark Corridor, and yanked her towards it.

"H-hey!" exclaimed Olette.

Kairi briefly shielded her with light, and then pulled her through, coming out at the steps of the Land of Departure keep.

"Woah... is this another world?" whispered Olette in awe.

"The home of the Keybearers," said Kairi, "Where there are plenty of Masters who can make you a Keybearer if you really want to, if they think you have what it takes."

"But... I want Aqua to train me," murmured Olette.

Kairi let go of the girl's arm, not turning to look at her. That was a familiar ache, that had pained Kairi all of her time as a Keybearer, no, more like her entire life since the Heartless Apocalypse began. "Well... you'll just have to convince her then. Let's go talk to the others first. Should be about lunchtime I think."

She led the girl through the doors, into the keep, and up the steps to the currently empty large entry-hall. The childlike wonder as the girl looked around the place was... well... Kairi wasn't sure what to think on it. She didn't know if the Keybearers would appreciate their home being gawked at or not. Or maybe they'd find it amusing, who knows...

"Kairi, did you bring a tourist here?" came an incredulous voice.

Guess that answered that question.

She turned her head to see Riku standing in the hallway leading from the entryway towards the dinning hall. "No."

Riku crossed his arms, giving Olette, and then Kairi a look. "If you wanted to bring an outside friend here, you really should have asked permission first, Kairi. This is a sacred world..."

"Mr. Keybearer sir," said Olette politely, "I'm here because I want to ask about becoming a Keybearer."

That made Riku's mouth snap shut. He eyed her critically, eyes raking her over. He closed his eyes for a moment, a soft glow of light illuminating him, resonating with Olette briefly. She figured he was gauging her heart and current power. He opened his eyes and rubbed his jaw. "It would probably be a no during the height of the Apocalypse, wouldn't have had the time or manpower to spare more than we already were for Kairi. Now though..."

He shook his head. "Not my call to make, I'm still an apprentice. Come, I'll take you to the Masters."

Riku led them through the halls into the dinning halls. Kairi noted those present: Terra, Ven, Eraqus, and Sora. She could feel Aurora's presence in the kitchen. Aqua... she was off in the distance, locking herself up in her room again if Kairi had to guess, still sulking.

"Masters," said Riku in a louder voice to draw attention, bowing curtly when he did, "Kairi has brought a... prospective Keybearer."

Kairi watched the interest in elder Keybearer's eyes as they looked over Olette...

"Oh, hey Olette!" called out Sora, waving cheerfully, "You wanna be a Keybearer too huh?"

Terra turned to Sora. "You know her?"

"Ahuh," said Sora, "Me and Kairi met her when we ran into Aqua's Nobody during the Heartless Apocalypse. You could say they were looking out for one another."

There was a softness that briefly entered Terra's face before he masked it, and Kairi knew Olette probably had him, and the others, already around her finger without any further effort.

"Well... more like she looked after me," said Olette shyly.

Master Eraqus motioned her over. "Have a seat child, it may be a bit... impromptu, but considering that usually a Master selects an apprentice based off their observations rather than a current apprentice bringing a potential Keybearer to our attention, it would be best for us to interview you. To see if you show qualities that we agree are needed in someone who bears a key."

Olette hesitated. "I... does it matter if Aqua already said no...?"

Eraqus frowned instantly and intently, glancing at Kairi. "If she's already been rejected Kairi, going around a Master's back like this is not something approved of."

Kairi crossed her arms and tilted up her chin. "If Aqua had rejected her for a real reason, I'd agree. But Aqua said no because she apparently didn't want to 'afflict' a third child to this 'curse of a life'."

Eraqus let a strangled breath escape his lips, open disbelief and hurt across his face; he frankly looked like he had aged a decade and been sucker punched in the gut. Terra and Ven's jaws dropped in astonishment, and Sora just looked purely uncomfortable. Riku, as ever, kept his face calm, though, the tightening of his jaw was a decent indication of what he felt about that.

"She really said that?" asked Ven quietly.

"Aqua," said Eraqus with a heavy sigh, "Has had a very trying experience as a Keybearer, we all have. She is not, I will reluctantly admit, in a state ready to assume her duties as a Keyblade Master. She has only recently come back to life, or, been recompleated I suppose the term is, with little chance to... assimilate her experiences since Xehanort's madness first swept the worlds."

He gave Olette an apologetic look. "Now would not have been the opportune time to drop that request, and responsibility on her."

Olette bowed her head. "Oh... I hadn't really thought of that. I mean... I should have, what with her having to deal with her Nobody's and Heartless's memories and stuff."

Dead silence filled the room.

Eraqus closed his eyes, and brought a hand up to cover his face. "Her Heartless's..."

Olette glanced at Kairi, uncertain. "Was... that not public knowledge?"

"No," said Eraqus, his voice heavy, "We knew she had her Nobody's memories, but... she didn't imply she had her Heartless's. From what we've learned interacting with other recompleated or reborn people, none of them remembered their time as a Heartless. Even the other humanoid Nobodies. I assume it has to do then with Aqua having had a humanoid Heartless."

"We knew," said Terra softly, glancing at Ven, "Though... it wasn't our place to say."

"Erm... I'm sorry," said Olette, shamed and uncomfortable.

Terra waved a hand. "It was bound to come out at some point anyway, don't let it weigh on you. Come, sit."

Olette shyly walked over and sat down in a chair a few seats down from Sora. Kairi watched with little interest in the proceedings, it was probably as good as confirmed. She needed to get her own issues in line first before Olette became a Keybearer. Jealousy wasn't acceptable here (though there was a chance someone else aside from Aqua would be teaching Olette). She scowled a little at the thought, irritated with herself. If she were to be honest, she shouldn't be so desperate for Aqua to teach her right now either, it was selfish on her part. She had been to excited at the prospect of finally being trained, to ignorant that her Master needed time to herself before she took on her duties. She couldn't afford to make mistakes like that with her beloved Master...

Besides...

It might be fun to have a little sister-apprentice if she allowed herself to enjoy it. Or at least someone relatively as new (behind her) in Keybearing as she was. By the time Aqua was ready, Olette probably would be decently caught up, if not in power, then at least with technique. Maybe. It depended on how long it would take for her Keyblade to manifest. Still... maybe it would be good practice for when Kairi eventually became a Master and chose her own apprentice (Though, she didn't want that responsibility for awhile). She pondered what tips and tricks she could show Olette as the Masters continued to poke and prod and question Olette throughout lunch...

"What is she doing here?"

Kairi jumped a little to see Aqua standing in the doorway, eyes locked on Olette, a displeased look on her face. Olette wilted a little before Aqua turned her narrowed eyes onto Kairi, and she felt a bead of uneasy sweat roll down her forehead. She did not like that look turned her way. Even without the malice her Heartless had... it was uncomfortably intense.

"Kairi brought a prospective wielder to our attention who willingly wishes to bear the key," said Terra in a firm tone, eyes locking with Aqua's and not budging, "And from what we've determined so far, may possess the necessary will and traits."

Aqua's lips thinned. "I see."

She was tense, Kairi couldn't help but inch away from the anger radiating off the woman. "Now is not the time for anymore apprentices. The worlds are still recovering, there are still a multitude of Heartless on them, and Maleficent's monsters are still out there. Putting a child in such danger that we don't have to is unacceptable."

Slightly better reasoning than before.

"You think we'd send her out there with no training?" questioned Terra critically, unimpressed, "She hasn't been bequeathed yet, it would be months, if not over a year, at minimum even with her older age, until her Keyblade manifested if she is accepted. The Heartless Apocalypse is over Aqua, an apprenticeship is no longer forced to be a trial-by-fire as it was with Sora, Riku, and Kairi. She'd be put through the training that you, Ven, and I, along with countless others before us, went through. Slow and steady, paced out. She would be well trained and skilled, or at least escorted, before she undertook any missions."

Aqua closed her eyes for a moment, took in a deep breath, and let it out, eyes turning to Olette, her voice even. "Is this truly what you want, Olette?"

"I want to see the worlds," said Olette quietly, "and I want to help people."

There was loss in Aqua's eyes that just... hurt to see. Left Kairi deeply unsettled. "Your minds made up then, and I assume they've already made their decision. So be it, do as you wish. I'm sure they'll train you well."

Aqua turned, and Olette looked crushed at that dismissal, that implied refusal to train her...

Eraqus's voice rang out. "Aqua."

The woman paused and glanced back. "Yes?"

"May I speak with you, alone, outside the keep?" he asked, voice plain and controlled, "I think there is a conversation we need to have that has been long overdue."

Aqua frowned intently, tensing, a wildness, a hostility entering her eyes as she gritted out, "Fine."

She stalked out of the room, and Eraqus rose to his feet, briefly turning to Terra and Ven. "Continue interviewing the child. I need to... settle the past with Aqua. I think some things have been left to stew and build for to long that are negatively influencing her outlook."

Terra and Ven both looked distinctly distressed for trained Keyblade Masters; Terra asked, "Are you sure you want to do this right now? And alone?"

Eraqus smiled wryly. "I'm sure. If she takes my other eye as well, I can't say it would be unexpected or undeserved. I ask that you all stay in here and not interfere, especially if it comes to blows."

"Are you really sure I shouldn't at least be there? Since it did involve me?" asked Ven worriedly, "I don't think there's a way she doesn't flip, and Aqua isn't a pushover..."

"I am intimately familiar with that Ventus," said Eraqus, motioning to his scarred and sealed eye, "I have over a decade of intense fighting and experience that I did not have before when I was maintaining my position as the steward of this land. I can defend myself, but I will not harm her, not again, never again."

Kairi's eyes went a little wide. Was he talking about... that... when he tried to kill Ven and Aqua...?

"Besides... I now feel that I have more to speak of with her about than what happened that day, I think I have a lot of failings I need apologize for," murmured Eraqus, making for the door.

Kairi watched him leave the room, and all she could think, was that this wasn't going to end well...

Chapter Text

Aqua walked up to the summit of the Land of Departure, fuming. How dare they. How dare they go behind her back about this? She wanted to save Olette from this fate, this life, and they brought her into it anyway. They'd curse her, train her to be Keybearer who would suffer so much for the sake of others. The only consolation was that Olette was mostly old enough to have made that decision for herself. Not a foolish young girl, basically a toddler, that Kairi had been when she unknowingly doomed herself. Aqua hated herself again for doing that, for doing what had been done to Terra and Aqua herself, perhaps Ven, and who knows how many other Keybearers before them.

Aqua didn't remember where she came from, her earliest memories had been of the Land of Departure. Last she had asked Terra, years ago, it had roughly been the same. Was she an orphan taken in? Was she some delinquent that had been plucked off the streets? Had her parents given her up to the older Keybearer, had they understood they would never see her again? She didn't know, but the Land of Departure, and being a Keybearer, had been her entire life. She knew nothing else. A young child, asked if they wanted to be a hero, pulled into this life and trained from a young age, with the goal to become a Master, the dream embedded in them to become one... the term 'child soldier' and 'indoctrinated' echoed in her mind. They never had before... but this last day, ever since Olette had first asked that question...

It put so many doubts, mistrusts, and suspicions in Aqua's mind about the Order of the Keyblade Masters. Was it paranoia on Olette's behalf? Or were there truths in such thoughts? Eraqus had been so ready to cast aside and kill her and Ven 'for the greater good' all those years ago (less than a month for herself), it makes a sure fire question hard to tell...

Dark whispers echoed in her mind, her anger steadily spiking, and when she heard Eraqus step into the summit and clear his throat, she was about ready to throttle him. Because now she had to deal with him, and he had not-so-subtly implied they were going to talk about THAT day. The day he had betrayed them. For Terra and Ven, she had bottled it up, tried to put it behind her. After all, Eraqus had saved Ven's life many times over during the Heartless Apocalypse, and it was obvious Ven had forgiven him...

But this wasn't about Ven.

It was about Eraqus, and her.

Because he hadn't made any amends to her, and she sure as hell hadn't forgiven him; and since he had dragged her out here for a 'talk', she supposed there was no more trying to ignore it. If he really wanted to do this, then fine.

She turned and stared coldly at him. "Eraqus."

"Aqua," he said in an even voice.

"I will begin by saying that there is no way I can properly apologize for what I did, back then," began Eraqus, "Of all the mistakes I ever made in my life, even beyond Xehanort, that was the worst."

"The worst mistake," she mused darkly, "I think, Eraqus, you are largely understating what exactly it was you did that day."

He frowned. "It was a mistake..."

"It was a betrayal," she seethed, watching him go silent, not even flinching, not denying her words, "Of everything you ever taught us. Does the words compassion, understanding, and love, ring a bell? Everything you said a Keybearer and a denizen of light needed to have? None of which applied to what you tried to do to Ven? What you tried to do to me?"

She sneered at him. "It was a betrayal of us. Your children. You took us in, raised us, trained us, then you cast us aside the moment things started going out of control. We thought you a father... I thought you a father... and you... you..."

She clenched her fists tightly, not quite able to contain her mounting emotions, dark swirls of energy starting to surround her. "You raised your keyblade against me, with the intent to hurt, the intent to kill me."

"What... what did I do to deserve that?" she hissed, her voice trembling, "Yes, I betrayed your teachings, I won't deny it. I used the darkness, I've done things with it I'm not proud of, that will haunt me, that will shadow me and dog my steps for the rest of my life, and that's not even considering my Heartless. But did I truly deserve murder as a response?"

A pained look crossed his face. "You won't like the answer."

"What makes you think I'd like anything you say Eraqus?" she spat, "There is nothing you can say to justify it to me."

"Then I wont," said Eraqus with resignation, "Aqua... you and your darkness had little to do with my decision at first, though it became my focus once I realized how deep you were bathed in it. If it had been Terra there facing me with the light, I would have done the same. You were in my way, nothing more, nothing less. I felt that I had to stop the return of the Keyblade War no matter the cost."

In...

In the...

In the way?!

"A roadbump," she said icily, "My only crime to you being between you and a boy who had no say in what was done to him. Somehow... that's even worse."

So much worse...

"Did we mean nothing to you?" she whispered.

"The three of you meant the world...," he began.

"THEN WHY!?" she screamed, "WHY NOT TRY SOMETHING ELSE? ANYTHING ELSE!"

She trembled, black energy seeping off her in waves, dissipating into the air as they went further out. "Why was cold blooded murder for Ventus the first thing that passed through your mind? Just... just... why not just seal his ability to use the Keyblade?!"

"Xehanort could have unsealed it."

Aqua closed her eyes, fuming, trying to think of something, anything that couldn't be countered by 'Xehanort could have undone it since he was a Keyblade Master'. "He was there Eraqus, he was finally home. You could have kept him in the castle, activated its defenses and sealed that land to Oblivion until the crisis was over. Then, you could have actually stepped out of that damn keep and DONE SOMETHING instead of putting your apprentices, who had no true experience in a crisis at that point, through all of that without your guidance and support."

She jabbed a finger in his direction. "You abandoned us to that catastrophe. The Princesses of Heart were in danger, there were monsters, the Unversed, swarming the worlds, and your response is to send a brand new Keyblade Master and a struggling apprentice out to deal with it? Even worse when Ventus left and you didn't at least leave to go after him? Just dumping that on Terra to find him when he was also to do his own mission AND keep an eye on me as per your orders?"

"Kairi," snarled Aqua, "Would have died, a Princess of Heart, would have died, if I hadn't been there to save her. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You should have been out there!"

Eraqus closed his eyes. "I know."

"You know," she growled, "You know. Is that all you can say?"

"Hindsight is a curse Aqua," he answered quietly, "I've found myself questioning everything I did all those years ago constantly over the last decade. If I had only done this, or didn't do that..."

He shook his head and opened his eyes. "I cannot undo what was done Aqua. I'm sorry."

'I'm Sorry.'

Somehow, him apologizing just made everything worse. Her world turned red, and she had Rainfell in her hand swinging at him in a blink of an eye. Master's Defender was out and blocking the blow with a smooth motion, not an ounce of surprise on Eraqus's face, just sad resignation. He expected it. Aqua doesn't start attacking, or even pull back, she just pressed against his keyblade with her own, arms shaking with effort to try and push him back despite how steadfast he stands. It's not a fight, just... anger given form. And right now, she's feeling cruel.

"What was it like, to raise another pair of Keybearers after what you did to Ven and I?" she spat out.

That got a flinch out of him, and she smiled savagely.

"It was redemption," he answered a moment, and that got a jolt out of her, "A chance to right a wrong I did to you, with someone new. Even if Terra handled most of Riku's training, and we all shared in Sora's."

He looked her dead in the eye. "I never, not once, hesitated to put myself in harms way for Sora's sake, for your chosen's sake. And outside of sparing, I never raised my Keyblade to him."

Aqua broke bladelock with an angry crash of sparks and whine of metal. She took a step back and glowered at him. "Do you want a medal for that? For doing the right thing that any Master should do for those they teach? Honestly, I'd like to have seen you even try to do anything harmful to Sora. There's not a person here that would have taken that sitting down and not done something about it."

Eraqus sighed. "What you say is true. The care for an apprentice should be a given thing. An apprentice is a treasure, to be guarded and loved. I did with Sora as I should have done with you."

Aqua... wasn't proud of flare of resentment and bitter jealousy she felt to Sora at the moment, and lowered her Keyblade. "A better apprentice than I was I suppose, not a failure who struggled with the Dark."

"Aqua, that struggle wasn't your fault," admonished Eraqus.

"Really?" she drawled, "All the disappointment lectures, the looks, the sighs, the extra chores, the extra assigned readings and meditations, all of that and more suggested otherwise."

Eraqus winced.

"Do you... do you know how much of a failure you made me think I was?" she asked bitterly, "I was already shit for confidence having to struggle with my darkness and emotions, but you really ground it in. You made it so easy to turn to Xehanort's false praise and instructions all the times he visited."

She sneered at his second wince. "Honestly, what did Yen Sid say? It's a wonder I didn't end up with Xehanort? If he had strung me on a bit better, and earlier, maybe came to me and created some kind of elaborate scheme about discovering the cracks in my heart and mending them, pinning the blame on all of you, he could have had me as a willing accomplice."

She eyed his, predatory. "I wonder if you really realize, Eraqus, how much worse things could have been. The Heartless Apocalypse was awful, it nearly destroyed the Realm of Light, it caused so much suffering. But consider what would have happened if Xehanort had me on his side during that conflict. Consider that he could and most likely would, have won."

"I know."

She hates that. Because he has had a little over ten years to think on all of this, hasn't he? While this is all still burning so fresh in her mind. He's standing there with quiet acceptance, ready and willing to take the blunt of her words, his keyblade ready to bear the weight of her own if she lashes out. And she hates him for it. She wants to rip that look off his face. She wanted to be there to see that pain when he finally realized all his faults and failings; perhaps then maybe something between them could have been resolved, forgiven but never forgotten. But she missed it, and only has herself to blame for that.

She doesn't know what to do. Her anger, her hatred, unlocked and unleashed for truly the first time since she woke up; simmer and boil without an appropriate target. Eraqus is, and isn't that target. He was the source of so much pain for her in her life; but she'd by lying if she said he wasn't repentant. She still wants to hurt him though, wants to alleviate that pain he made her feel. She hasn't wanted to use her darkness since she got this second chance, but its pooling out of her, ready and waiting and eager to lash out...

Its stressing, she feels like screaming, ripping him apart limb from limb...

She feels like crying, squeezing him tightly and sobbing about why a father and daughter in all but blood had to raise their keyblades against one another...

She mises her old life, before Xehanort, and though she will never regret Ven, she wishes... wishes for so much that never will be...

This life is a shell of what it used to be. She is a shell of what she used to be. She stares at Eraqus, and briefly switches her senses, from normal to dark, and Eraqus is blazing firmly with the light, stronger than ever, more than he used to be. It's subtly different though, there are hints of shadow where there wasn't before, that's no longer suppressed, his presence is no longer tyrannically light if she had to put words to it. He is... everything he is now is most likely everything she would have wished him to be when she was still a struggling apprentice. Perhaps even before.

She aches for what could have been; and that's just another ignition for her bubbling anger; that desire to hurt him. It's selfish and cruel; she doesn't particularly care at the moment. If she can't hurt him anyone than he's already hurt himself for that day he tried to kill Ven and her, then she'll find another way to maim him.

"Where did you pick me up from?"

The change in topic gives her a surge of dark satisfaction when he is taken completely offguard by the topic shift, his stance broken, confusion destroying his pennant expression. "Where I what?"

She thinks of those earlier paranoid thoughts, and she lets it loose. "Was I some street rat you picked up out of the muck? Some orphan you snatched away. Some innocent child you lured away from her parents with promises of being a hero?"

The last hurts her to say, thinking of her passing on the Keyblade to Kairi.

There is an expression of oh so satisfying pain on his face. "Aqua... do you resent me for making you a Keybearer?"

Yes.

No.

She doesn't know.

She'd never have known Terra or Ven or Kairi or anyone else if she hadn't become one. She doesn't like this being turned around as a question on her. "I asked you a question first."

"You don't want to know," he said quietly, a hint of weary apprehension. Through the Darkness, there is an air of -I don't want to do this- from him. He doesn't want to speak of it, and that makes her all the more eager.

"Don't I?" she asked, "Was I abducted into this life? Stripped away from my parents? Did they even know they'd never see me again?"

Eraqus closes his eyes for a moment. "I don't think you need this on top of your current struggles Aqua."

"Don't you remember Eraqus? I'm always struggling," she jabbed at him, "How about you come clean?"

He looks at her with an air of sadness. "I never met your father, and your mother... I only saw from a distance. Your world was... an olden one. No technology, old religions..."

"I know the sort," said Aqua dismissively, impatient.

"...and ruled by them," continued Eraqus, "Rigid and paranoid, cursing anyone who didn't follow their ways as heathens of the light."

"Oh if that isn't familiar," said Aqua snidely, eyes latching onto the flinch from him like a lifeline.

"Magic, was seen as heresy, evil, to be persecuted, and from what I could feel that brief moment I saw her, even through her exhaustion and pain, your mother was powerful in it," said Eraqus softly, "I came across you being forced to watch as your mother burned at a stake, it was all I could do to fake myself as a traveling templar to guard your prison cell as they prepared to 'exorcise you', offer the chance for a future, and spirit you away so you didn't suffer a similar, horrible fate."

Aqua made a small choking sound. Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid, she shouldn't have asked. Why had she asked? She should have known. Nothing in her life was ever good, or if it was, it never lasted long. And as much as she wanted to hate Eraqus, he wasn't an evil man. He wouldn't have stolen her. He saved her, and she still wants to hate him anyway. She is trapped in her emotions, they are bleeding all over the place. She wants some kind of outlet to them, for everything she's held back since finding herself alive again. Unlike before with Terra and Ven feeling like she was drowning in despair, now it feels like shes going to explode with it all, go supernova and burn everything around her.

"Will you answer my question now?" he asked in return.

Her emotions rage for a moment before they were suddenly calm in defiant determination, remembering that day she had discovered Xehanort's plans, reading his reports...

"No," she said with purpose, "No, I don't regret it. Because if I hadn't been there, if he hadn't chosen me, Xehanort would have gone after Terra and tried to use him as a vessel. I'd bear my life over again a thousand times no matter the pain if it meant keeping Terra safe from my disaster of a life."

There is a sad softness in Eraqus's gaze. "Even with your own struggles, you still put others ahead of you. I never deserved such a selfless apprentice."

Would he say that if he knew how much she wanted to selfishly hurt him? If he knew all that she had done on her journey? Everything she had done for the sake of her friends who were in turn horrified by it? Was there such a thing as selfish selflessness? Damning herself to save others despite what they want? She didn't know, but she did feel the emotional storm rising again. He gives her credit she doesn't deserve. All she wants is his pain, and all she deserves if more pain of her own.

Oh...

Yeah, that idea about fits what she wants right now.

She raises Rainfell and assumes an aggressive ready stance, not her usual balanced one, her keyblade held at an diagonal from her shoulder angled away, as if shes about to charge and cut him down with an overhead swing. Eraqus had an ability to hurt her that only Xehanort had ever come close to rivaling, both physically and mentally. Here was a chance to hurt him, and a chance to be punished for everything she had done. She could have the worst of both worlds...

Eraqus stands loosely at the ready, an air of slight bafflement around him. Not about her readying to attack, no, he's expected it. If she feels right, he's just confused how his words of praise ended up encouraging a confrontation. Aqua disappears in a puff of darkness, reappearing behind him and swinging down; she's only slightly surprised that he was already spinning to block. Again and again she comes at him, fading in and out of the area through the darkness, teleporting around and trying to land a blow, but hes always moving, always blocking, parrying, deflecting...

But never attacking...

"Fight back!" she snarls at him, forgoing the teleport tactic, funneling dark energy down her arms, and swinging a heavy blow at him head on.

He blocks it head on, his mouth a thin line of displeasure. "I will not raise my Keyblade against you again, Aqua."

She glared at him. "I don't care what self-imposed rule or guilt you have right now Eraqus, I need this."

His displeasure turns into disapproval. "There are other ways to vent your emotions than fighting, Aqua. Scream and curse me to all the hells that exist if that will help you, but fighting one another will just end in unnecessary pain for you."

"For me? Not yourself?" she sneered at him. "Someone's arrogant considering how our last fight ended."

"At this point Aqua, it wouldn't be much of a fight. You are emotionally compromised, upset to a point where even I can feel it in the air, you have no control over yourself, and are ten years behind the rest of us in experience and skill," he said calmly, but not without steel, "I've faced a darkness many times over that put our confrontation that day to shame, made it seem like apprentices playing with mock-wooden keyblades. If we fight, I will hurt you, and I refuse to do so again."

He spoke of her Heartless.

It was true, yet it fills her with such all consuming rage to have that battle discredited in ANY way shape or form. What happened there was real in a way that nothing ever could bury for her.

How DARE he slight what happened there!

Her Darkness explodes out of her in a black nova, sending Eraqus staggering back with a surprised cry. A familiar purple and black aura radiates off her as she stops holding back. She feels it pumping through her in an exhilarating thrum that she would always yearn for no matter how ashamed of herself and her darkness she was. The area around them blackens, masking the ground in a sickly, squirming dark paint. Dark flames burst into being all around the edge of the area, sealing them in as the nearby lamplights flicker and die, and the dark energy blots out the daylight, leaving them in utter darkness.

A soft glow of light surrounds Eraqus, and his eyebrows are furrowed, academically curious but not concerned. "You came back stronger than you were before."

Aqua doesn't particularly care.

She's already moving and swinging Rainfell in tearing arcs, blurs of purple energy left in it's wake. Eraqus is still blocking, playing defensive, but with more effort than before. His barely illuminated face is focused, his movements have picked up pace, and he's put more effort into his blade to match her power. He has grown so much, to be able to meet her head on when he could barely stand against her before, and for a moment, through the red haze of rage, she wonders if he actually can back what he says and take her down.

She is thrilled by the prospect of it.

She blinks back, disappearing in a puff and begins lobbing darkness infused spells at him. Homing fireballs, waves of ice, barrages of lightning, gravity spells to try to put him off balance, burst of pure dark energy. Eraqus dodges, blocks, or shields with his own magic everything she sent his way. She shouldn't be surprised, she has the flickers of many of her Heartless's memories at the edges of her own, barely suppressed. He's fought harder than this, against an enemy stronger than Aqua is now.

She, again, doesn't particularly care.

She blasts him with everything she can, even if he takes everything in stride. She doesn't land a direct blow once, the best she got slightly clipping him with the edge of a spell here or there. She goes and goes until her rage is burned through enough to actually think. She stops casting and begins to circle the outside of their 'fight'. He's a superior keyblade wielder with decades more skill with it than her, she wont faze him with that. Her spellcraft he's become strong enough to deal with, and her darkness, he fought against worse over the decades. She's tempted to call heartless, but even with her anger and hate, she's not going to commit that sacrilege again, bringing them into this sacred land.

She can't beat him with the Keyblade.

With her magic.

Or with her darkness.

She grinned. "Option four then."

She blitzes at him and swings an obvious overhead strike, one handed. When he raises to block, she forms an ethereal blade in her free hand, blue energy surging in a tight beam of energy, and stabs at him. He barely manages to shift being skewered, the beam slicing into the side of his tunic, grazing his skin and leaving enough of a burn to get a grunt out of him. There is a flicker of surprise, and confusion from him as he shifts to try and defend from Keyblade and ethereal blade. He may have fought her, fought her Heartless...

But he never encountered her Nobody.

She smothers her rage and hate with cool dispassion, entering into that mindset by funneling thoughts of how the life of a Keybearer, how Eraqus himself, might endanger Olette. And like a trigger, it brings out that part of her...

That absolutely emotionless, calculated, ruthless focus. She might not be able to call on the powers of Nothingness, but that mindset is something he's never experienced fighting against with her. She's no longer an emotional fury, just cold, deadly intent, each strike no longer wild, but focused and aimed. That sudden change throws him, which is enough to make up for her lack of an experience duel wielding, especially two different types of weapons, one of which doesn't even have a grip. She has the hunch he's either never fought against it either or has little exposure to it with how much he is suddenly struggling to keep his single eye on both weapons, backpedaling to give himself space to react to separate blows, a bit more light illuminating his body as he starts to draw out more power.

Then she starts teleporting again.

Puffing in and out of the area around him mind swing with her weapons from different angles...

And scores her first real hit, her keyblade slicing into his shoulder, leaving a red blemish seeping into his clothes. He hisses and springs back. "Aqua! Enough!"

"Is something the matter, Eraqus?" she asks in a deathly calm voice, "Are you perhaps, afraid?"

He looks unsettled, deeply distraught.

Good.

She comes at him again, throwing her Keyblade in a strike raid, he deflects it, and she lunges at him, ethereal blade aiming right for his heart...

And she barely stops herself in time when he lowers his Keyblade and doesn't move, the tip of her energy weapon centimeters from breaching his flesh and putting a hole right through his heart. She narrows her eyes. "What, are you doing?"

He's not distraught.

He's devastated.

"Do you truly hate me so much that you would kill me without an ounce of emotion on your face?" he whispers, his voice tight and choking in a way she's never heard from him before, tears in his eyes.

Finally...

There it is...

The pain she felt that day...

To be cast aside and killed like she was nothing...

Except...

Now that its there, the satisfaction she thought she would feel isn't coming. There is an awful sensation in her chest, that she just made a grown man, her Master, her father, cry...

The worst part was, he was going to let her.

And she takes a shaky step back when that really hits her. He was going to let her kill him if she hadn't stopped, she could have killed him, and despite how angry she is, how hateful she wants to be, she doesn't want that. Her eyes go wide, her jaw drops a bit and she losses that Nobody's focus, and that emotional storm from earlier is comes back, not as rage, just sorrow and grief. "Eraqus..."

The darkness of the area dissipates in moments, the black and purple aura leaves her, and daylight enters the summit again. Now she's stood on the other side of the spectrum, being the monster trying to kill her family. It is one of the worst sensations she has ever felt in her life, because this wasn't her Heartless, this was her. She banishes her keyblade and ethereal blade and turns away. She has to go, she has to get away, and she has to never come back. She always ruins everything she touches...

"Do you?" he asked again, his voice hoarse with loss, "Did I truly ruin everything between us that day, make us irreparable?"

She can't leave him like that though, as much as she wanted to be cruel, to hurt him for the way he hurt her (she already has, and she regrets it), she can't leave him with that. "No. That... I was... was channeling my Nobody in a sense, using that emotionlessness to fight you..."

Not fight him, attack him, because he had never, frustratingly, fought back to make it a fight...

There is a sharp, bitter laugh, desperate relief in it, but..., "I'm shocked to say, I think I'm now more afraid of your Nobody that I was your Heartless."

She whirls. "You're what?!"

"Your Heartless was a creation I unwittingly paved the way for, and every emotion you or it threw at me is one I deserve," he said quietly, "For what I did to you, that day, and all throughout your apprenticeship. But... if it had gotten to the point where you felt nothing at all for me... at the thought of killing me..."

He shook his head, weary. "I would have deserved to end."

She is unable to look at him at that. She takes a ragged breath, her throat tight, hardly able to draw in air with how much she feels the world closing in around her.

Then something else closes in around her, and Eraqus is holding her, arms softly enveloping her. "I'm sorry Aqua, I'm so sorry."

All the lingering negativity fades, and she just felt ashen, buckling to her knees, shaking; to burned out to cry, her voice a whisper, "Why... did it have to be this way? Why did it have to happen?"

"I don't know," he answered softly, raising on of his hands along her back to cup her head and press it into his shoulder, a comfort from days so long passed. "I could lay the blame on Xehanort, but that is ignorance. What happened ten years ago was more than him, more than any pf us. Failings of our teachings since the end of the Keyblade War. A conflict long in the making, perhaps even before any of us were born. All we can do is regret what was done, swear never again, learn from our mistakes, and move on..."


Terra watched cautiously as the doors to the cafeteria opened, Aqua and Eraqus walking in. He was, considering the energy he had detected, rather surprised to see them only a bit scuffed up and sweaty, Eraqus sporting the only injures with a damaged tunic, a burn to his side, and a red splotch on his shoulder that he had better have healed. The Master looked... tired and weary, Aqua just looked utterly burnt out, her face slightly red to signal she had been crying earlier. He suspects Eraqus simply let Aqua vent out her anger, her emotions, and while he isn't happy to see the man even slightly hurt, he will be teasing him over the '10 years of additional experience' he had thought to have over Aqua.

"Eraqus."

Terra's eyes shifted to Aqua; she gave their Master a tight smile. "I am still going to kick your ass when I've caught up and can actually force you to fight seriously."

Ah, perhaps he spoke to soon.

Eraqus answered with an equally tight smile. "I suppose we'll see."

Aqua's attention shifted to Olette, and a hint of a frown showed on her face, making the girl squirm a little. Aqua sighed softly, walking over to Olette and kneeling down in front of her chair. "I can't promise I can give you what you're looking for, Olette. I'm not even sure I can give Kairi what I promised her anymore. I'm... still struggling I suppose."

"It's okay," said Olette quietly, eyes meeting Aqua's, "I don't honestly think I'm going to be anywhere ready for any 'duties' anytime soon. Mister Terra's been telling me a bit about what training is like, you guys were so far ahead of where I am now at my age..."

Aqua shook her head, closing her eyes. "I'm not sure we should have been."

Olette tilted her head with a curiosity that Terra shared. "Why not?"

Aqua smiled a little, sad. "I came from a... extreme situation I suppose. Considering that I'd probably be dead if Master Eraqus hadn't taken me in, I don't blame him for doing so."

Terra blinked, a little apprehensive. He had asked once, years ago, about his own origins, and had regretted the question. He had never intruded upon her privacy by asking Eraqus about her past, even after he thought her gone. When had Aqua asked... well... judging by the look on her face right now, probably in the middle of whatever happened outside. Ill timing he supposed. Still, he was curious where she was going with this.

"Aside from extreme situations," she said, "I'm not sure anyone below the age of maturity, or at least thirteen, should be chosen. They have no real idea what they are getting into, its... I don't think its fair for them, or ethical, to have a child marked for this life without them firmly understanding the responsibilities and consequences of it. It's not right, they should have a chance to live their life and grow up first, with their family and friends, and then make a thought out decision."

He wasn't blind to the way Kairi scowled and crossed her arms, taking offense. But... Aqua's words...

It was a potentially heavy thing to change. It wasn't exactly tradition to take Keybearers young, sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn't, they didn't go out of their way to do so. Honestly... picking an apprentice was kind of a spur of the moment, spontaneous thing, for lack of a better way to describe it, Master and Apprentice just clicked together when they met. He hadn't even thought with Riku, just sensed his heart, asked a few questions, liked the kid, thought he had potential and the rest was history. Eraqus had told him that himself and... Xehanort... had both been older children, preteens, when they had been chosen and taken from their worlds. Many before them though, had come in young. It allowed for younger Keyblade Masters, able to maintain their duties longer. Olette herself if she became a keybearer probably wouldn't become a Master until her late twenties most likely, she had years of studies and training to go through, plus missions, tests, and the eventual Mark of Mastery Exam. Not to mention... she would be the first apprentice trained under their currently changing precepts and rules, that in itself would be a learning curve for all of them. It would be interesting to see how she developed in comparison to the rest of them.

Still... he turned his gaze briefly to Riku, considering and weighing Aqua's words. He never regretted choosing Riku, but he does regret that the boy had to be trained in the middle of the Heartless Apocalypse... and perhaps that he never got anything like a normal childhood that he and Aqua had together originally before Ven came. He doesn't necessarily think she's right, but she may not be wrong either. Because even through all the hardships, he doesn't regret becoming a Keybearer.

"A potential precept change we can discuss at another time," offered Terra neutrally, watching Aqua nod briefly in return.

His apprentice was an excellent Keybearer in his opinion, a bit (so heavily that it was sometimes worrying) on the quiet and serious side, but a shoe in for Master within the year if he proved able to handle normal, non-apocalyptic times duties. Which was something he needed to remember to bring up with Eraqus and Ven, it was time to break in the apprentices with 'normal' missions. They could handle themselves well in an extended crisis, it was time to see how they fared and settled down for the 'mundane'. Or well, perhaps 'winding down' rather than mundane. There was still plenty of lingering damage to clean up from the Heartless Apocalypse, not to mention Maleficent and potentially but hopefully not Xehanort.

Speaking of normalcy though...

His eyes shifted to Aqua.

Perhaps that was something she needed. To get out of the keep and do something, be a Keybearer again. It could do her wonders perhaps. Or it could end in disaster, he didn't know if she was ready for the outside world yet. There would be many people who would recognize her from because of her Heartless, and that could cause all kinds of issues...

"I still want to be a Keybearer," said Olette firmly, "If... you'll have me that is. I understand if we have to take it slow, that Kairi is your first apprentice ahead of me that you're still teaching, or if you need time to yourself and need someone else to take over. I still want this."

Aqua closed her eyes for a moment, sighed softly, and opened them, summoning her Keyblade and reversing her grip on it. Terra smiled warmly, happy to be there to watch his friend bequeath another of their line. "In your hand take this key..."

Chapter Text

"Somehow, this really wasn't what I expecting when I thought about being trained as a Keyblade Wielder."

Aqua stood at the front of a small side-room in the Land of Departure's library, where years ago Eraqus had taught her, Terra, and Ven their lessons. Her two students, Olette and Kairi, sat at desks with notebooks open. She gave Kairi a small smile and tapped on a chalkboard. "Being a Keybearer is more than swinging a key around, using light or magic, and fighting against imbalance in the worlds. You require the same kind of skills you'd learn in the classroom of a normal world. Mathematics, sciences, history, etiquette, diplomacy, lessons about key worlds..."

Olette raised her hand. "What worlds specifically? I mean... I only know of a few, and I've heard there's a lot, how many of them are important?"

Aqua gave her an encouraging smile. "Well, it may have changed over the last ten years, but, for example the worlds that the Princesses of Heart resided on were by default considered worlds that we should have some background information on."

She gave a self-depreciating chuckle. "...not that I read up on that before starting out on my own journey. I didn't even have a mental list of the princesses at the time."

She shook her head. "Of course, our records are not always up-to-date. If a Princess of Heart should perish, or pass on from old age, their power will find another vessel, generally a young child, to imbue itself to. That does not necessarily require the new Princess in question to be on the same world. It can be a bit of a mess to try and locate a new Princess of Heart when the time comes."

"Oh, so... its not a bloodline thing?" asked Kairi with an odd quietness.

"Well... there's been evidence of both," admitted Aqua, "Mothers passing the power onto their daughter should the parent die early on in their life, or on the other hand, it goes off to a completely unrelated person on another world. I have no idea how its actually chosen."

"I suppose I could have been either," murmured Kairi.

Ah... that's right. Aside from the girl's grandmother, Aqua had never actually heard her mention other non-adoptive family.

Olette raised her hand again. "Umm... what exactly is a Princess of Heart? I heard of it first from Kairi when she was telling you about your past in the mansion, but I don't really know what they are."

"Hmm," said Aqua, tilting her head back, "Perhaps... I should started with the history of the Keyblade to lead into that?"

How in the world did Eraqus make it seem so easy to chain one lesson or subject to another? She thought getting the basics in would be the way to go, but a single question made her wonder if she should have done another lesson first. Olette had no idea about what the duty of a Keybearer really entailed, and Kairi might be a little biased at this point. Perhaps she should have sat down and planned this out before stumbling into it...

She smiled a little. Story of her life there.

Though... if she wanted to explain in full... there was information that was generally Master or even Steward level in it's requirement. Yet... perhaps if they understood from the beginning, knew the importance and the dangers... Aqua herself had never even heard of the X-Blade or the Keyblade of Hearts or any of that until the conflict with Xehanort began... never knew the dangers...

She nodded to herself. These were her apprentices, she would teach them as she saw fit. With complete understanding to pass on to their own apprentices one day, so her own disaster was not repeated.

"Alright, hold off on that question Olette, we'll get to the Princesses in a bit," she said, turning to the chalk board and writing three words on it, 'Kingdom Hearts', 'X-Blade', 'Keyblade'. "To understand our purpose as Keybearers is to go back thousands of years. To before the Keyblades Keybearers wield even existed. Long ago, in the Age of Fairy Tales, there existed two great entities. Kingdom Hearts, and the X-Blade. Kingdom Hearts is the heart of all worlds made manifest. It is said to contain ultimate power and wisdom..."

She thought briefly of that Xehanort Report she had read 'years' ago. "That the one who opens its doors can have the power to remake the worlds."

Kairi shifted in her seat uncomfortably, Olette just looked perplexed and raised her hand once more. "How do we know it can do that? Did someone use it before? Is that how they figured it out?"

Aqua blinked at the notion. "It's implied that no one has opened the door to Kingdom Hearts before, but... well... I can't answer that question because I don't know. No one alive would know I think. So much was lost at the end of the Age of Fairy Tales. How our fore-bearers figured out any of the mysteries about the X-Blade and Kingdom Hearts is knowledge beyond me."

Her sharp eyes caught Olette making a big question mark on her notebook, her tongue a little out the side of her mouth and clenched down in thought. Aqua had a little smile forming at her diligent and inquisitive student. Her eyes flickered to Kairi who... hadn't wrote anything down yet from what she could see. Hmm... hope she had a good memory then when she eventually started quizzing them. She returned her focus to the chalkboard.

"Now, the X-Blade," she began, "Its pronunciation differs depending on who you ask, some would say 'Kye' or 'Chi', but, loose translation brings it almost to the same meaning every time, death."

"So.. 'Death-Blade'?" asked Olette uneasily, "Sounds bad. That's what the Xehanort guy wanted, right?"

Aqua pursed her lips at the mention of Xehanort, but brushed it off. "The X-Blade is not in nature good or bad, it just is. Its whoever uses it and their actions that defines good or evil. The other translation of the 'X' is 'ending', the End Blade or perhaps the Blade of Endings. Which, if Kingdom Heart's ability is to be believed, more accurate. The X-Blade opens the door and signals the end of the current world, and Kingdom Hearts gives birth to the next."

She cleared her throat. "The X-Blade is said to coexist with Kingdom Hearts. The original key in which all Keyblades were made in the image of. Its full capabilities are unknown, but it is safe to assume anything a normal keyblade can do, the X-Blade can do as well, if not better. It's role is to serve as the guardian, the protector, of Kingdom Hearts. The only key that can open its door."

She continued, "It is a shameful beginning for the Keybearers, but, Keyblades were original forged in the image of the X-Blade in order to try to claim the power of Kingdom Hearts. People greedily sought the light of all worlds, and in order to conquer and control that light, they fought in a great and terrible Keyblade War. One that nearly destroyed all the worlds. Kingdom Hearts was lost to the Realm of Darkness, the worlds nearly blotted out, and the X-Blade shattered into twenty pieces, thirteen of dark, seven of light."

"And... that's the Princesses?" asked Kairi with confusion, "I'm a part of the Blade?"

Aqua held up a finger. "Not quite. I can see where you draw that conclusion, but the seven Princesses of Heart differ from the seven shards of the X-Blade."

"In the aftermath of the Keyblade War, when the worlds were drowning in darkness and nearly destroyed, its said that the light of children kept the remaining worlds alive and pushed back the darkness. Where originally, all worlds were together as one, in the aftermath, they were separated, but surviving. Those childish lights were made manifest in the Princesses of Heart, whose existence keep the Realm of Light afloat with the absence of Kingdom Hearts. The light of the X-Blade's shards became an equal amount of lights, to protect that same number of pure hearts in the world. Or so the story goes."

"How does anyone know that they're a shard of the X-Blade?" asked Olette, "That Xigbar guy said Xehanort was going to try to use thirteen of his own heart to try and make it by fighting the Keybearers," she started counting on her fingers, "Terra, Ventus, Mickey, Sora, Riku, Yen Sid, and that's not even a full seven if Kairi is counted as Princess and not a shard. And how would thirteen of the same darkness even work? What kind of guarantee is there that the Keybearers are any of the X-Blade's lights? Could Kairi count as both a princess and a shard?"

Aqua really wished Olette would stop bringing up Xehanort, unfortunately, that bastard's mad plots were the girl's only frame of reference, but... "All valid points and questions."

Olette waited a second before asking, "And?"

"Give her a bit," scolded Kairi, "She's..."

"No no, it's fine," said Aqua, waving Kairi off, "Because the truth is Olette, I don't know. The Keybearers as a whole don't know. Or maybe, they didn't want to know. Wanted to bury the Keyblade War, the X-Blade, and Kingdom Hearts, leaving them forgotten in the past."

"That's dumb," said Olette firmly, "How are you suppose to learn from the past if you don't know it? You're more likely to unknowingly repeat a mistake if you don't understand what you're doing wrong."

"Maybe," said Aqua, "Maybe not."

She thinks on Xehanort for a long moment. Would he have started this madness if he already had the answers he sought? Or would it just have enabled him more? She leans more to the latter, though she might be a bit biased in the matter. "The Keyblade War is a dangerous subject, as is knowledge of Kingdom Hearts. Those who know of it's power may crave it."

"Bad people are going to be bad regardless, even if they don't have this 'Kingdom Hearts' to go after," said Olette, "It's in their nature, they'll just go after something else."

"Not untrue, but some would say its better they don't go after something on the scale of Kingdom Hearts," Aqua tilted her head. "Still, that thought is rather wise from someone your age."

Olette blushed a little. "Just repeating something you told me years ago."

Aqua hid a frown, turning to the chalkboard again. Her Nobody might be a part of her, but she wasn't her specifically, she tapped the chalkboard. "That, is a basic summary of the three and the Princesses of Heart. It is our duty, as Keybearers, to both protect the Princesses, and maintain balance in the Realm of Light. We originally also protected the world order, but... that's changing. Originally the worlds were not to know of eachother..."

"Why?" asked Olette.

Aqua shrugged. "That's just the way it was."

"It was dumb and pointless," said Kairi, "Unless you had a Keyblade then how could the average person even get to other worlds?"

"If we assume Dark Corridors aren't an average method, then Gummi ships, I'm also led to believe there are a few other ways, though I'm not an expert on them," said Aqua.

Aqua hesitated. "I... believe the original thinking of the World Order may have been to discourage large scale warfare of the level of the Keyblade War. Worlds knowing of eachother could both be a boon and a tragedy waiting to happen. Greater collaborations, but greater potential for conflict. And a greater interest in the Keyblade would be bound to happen as well, which could lead to more Keybearers potentially and perhaps a re-ignition of the war down the road."

"I'm starting to notice a pattern," said Olette, "Was every big decision made because of the Keyblade War?"

Aqua gave a strained smile. "There's a high chance of that. I believe, in the aftermath of the Keyblade War, it was the surviving Keybearers who came together with the remaining world leaders at the time and made the call for separation. Being the event that nearly destroyed all the worlds, they wanted to prevent it from happening."

Olette crossed her arms, a stubborn look on her face. "Sounds more like they wanted to shush it up and forget it happened rather than prevent it from happening again."

"And I thought I was opinionated," said Kairi.

"You're not saying I'm wrong."

Kairi shrugged. "Aqua is my master, and Sora is... a friend. But otherwise I don't have high opinions of the other Keybearers and their order."

Aqua suppressed a wince. Kairi held one hell of a grudge. Aqua personally threw Kairi's attempted imprisonment into the mental box labeled 'What the hell was Eraqus thinking?' and tried very hard to forget about it and the other idiotic garbage than man had put them through. She mentally sighed and felt a weariness take her. Sometimes, just thinking of Xehanort and Eraqus could take all the strength from her limbs. One was thankfully gone, and the other was trying to learn from his mistakes. Though its not like she was innocent or mistake free either...

"Alright you two, fifteen minute break for a snack and something to drink, then you get your butts back in your seats," said Aqua in a faked-teasing tone; she just wanted a little bit to compose herself again.

Kairi whooped and was out of her seat instantly. Olette took her time to close her notebook and adjusted her seat to be presentable, pushing Kairi's chair back to her desk as well before she left. Aqua leaned back tiredly in her chair, a soft sigh escaping her lips. She closed her eyes and just sat there, resting...

"Well, that's... an interesting topic."

Her eyes opened and she turned her head to see Terra standing in the doorway, a slight frown on his face as his eyes washed over the chalkboard. She wanted to groan, she really didn't want to hash this out right now. "The best way to make sure they don't repeat the mistakes of the past is to have them understand it."

Terra hummed, non-committal. "I see."

He didn't.

She could see the disagreement in his eyes, the wariness as they linger on the chalkboard, on 'Kingdom Hearts', and 'X-Blade'. "So, how's teaching the kids?"

He is avoiding confronting her on it though, she's not blind to that. She swears if he really starts walking eggshells around her she's going to blow a gasket at some point. "Olette is very inquisitive, but, this is all relatively new to her. She had some understanding while she lived in Twilight Town with my Nobody, and from when Sora and Kairi visited there, but, experiencing and learning it is something else."

Terra had a soft smile. "Think she'll do what we did the first time we got our armor and went into the Lanes Between?"

Aqua takes a moment to recall, and then snorts with amusement. "Absolutely flip and starting flying away from the Master to explore?"

He's not abashed in the slightest, but then again neither is she. "Yeah."

"She might," said Aqua, tilting her head, "She might not. Shes inquisitive, but she's not impulsive, not like Kairi and Sora are. Or like I was."

"Any of us," corrected Terra, "Trying to reign in Ven during Xehanort's madness was an experience all unto itself. I was just as impulsive, but to busy trying to keep up with Ven to get any ideas myself."

"He was always so energetic," mused Aqua, trying to push down the agitation at another reminder of Xehanort.

"Whose energetic?" came Kairi's voice.

The pair turned to see Kairi and Olette returning with a bottle of water each, along with an apple and an orange; Terra gave a teasing smile. "We were picking on poor Ven."

Well, so much for having a few minutes to herself. Aqua withheld a sigh and adjusted her seat, pushing in herself a bit. "You still have a few minutes, finish up, and no orange peels on the floor please."

Olette rolled her eyes. "Yes Master Aqua."

"She's saying that from experience," said Terra with humor, "Whenever we made a mess of the classroom, Eraqus had us make it spotless afterwards. 'Builds character, discipline, and responsibility' he'd say."

He gave Aqua a conspirator look. "I think he was just mad that one time he slipped on your..."

"It was not my wrapper," said Aqua with a huff, "Unlike some boys, I was not raised in a barn and know where to put my trash."

Terra just grinned in response as the two girls giggled and moved passed him.

Aqua's eyes trailed her students as they sat down in their adjacent desks, Olette flipping open her notebook to review her notes. "Hey Kairi, can I see your notes? I wanna make sure I didn't miss anything."

"I didn't take any notes."

Olette gave her an owlish look. "How are you going to study for tests and exams?"

Kairi gave her a blank look. "We get tested on this stuff?"

"Well yeah, you always get tested on schoolwork," said Olette, frowning a little, "Did school not work that way on your world?"

"I didn't go to school."

"Oh, your parent's homeschooled you? That's neat," said Olette.

"They taught me what they could," a defensive tone entered the Kairi's voice, "As did the rest of the Guardians of Traverse Town when they had the time. We were kinda busy trying to keep our world safe."

Aqua blinked. Kairi didn't have a formal education?

"Good luck Aqua," said Terra, giving her another teasing look before making an about face and leaving the room. She shot a withering look at his back before schooling her face and looking at her apprentices again.

She wasn't going to be able to go standard with either of them once she covered the basics of the Keyblade and being a Keybearer. They were both going to need their own individualized lesson plans. Kairi more on normal coursework depending in what blanks Aqua had to fill in, Olette more on the physical and magical training. They'd eventually meet back up in the middle once they were both caught up in their respective deficiencies, but it would be a good long while for either of them to reach that point.

Aqua let them finish up their snacks and throw them away before resuming her lesson. "The first subject we will be going more indepth on is the Keyblade itself. It is considered by many to be a weapon, but it is so much more than that. A tool. A key. To us, an extension of ourselves. They are also loosely sentient."

"They are?!" said Olette, eyes wide.

"To a degree, not in the way you and I are, but they can be picky about their wielders," she said, "While we can perform a bequeathing, it is up to the Keyblade to decide if the illuminated is worthy."

"Do you think they get mad about being used like a cudgel or swung around?" asked Olette.

Aqua gave a laugh. "Not sure about that level of sentience. Rainfell's never given me any indications like that."

"They probably don't understand concepts of good or evil either," said Kairi flatly, "If Xehanort's Keyblade let itself be used by him."

Aqua exhaled through her nose, she was tired of hearing that name today. "No, probably not."

She leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling, aimlessly. "I'm not sure anyone has tried to look into the level of sentience of a Keyblade before. If they have goals or wills, desires, concrete thoughts and feelings. Maybe they are just tools that are sentient enough to pick their owners, or maybe they hold a further semi-sentience, I don't know."

She gives the girls a sly smile. "Maybe it could be a thesis topic in the academic side of your training in the latter years of your apprenticeships."

The girl's exchanged glances and shrugged.

"Perhaps a more impactful ability was the power to seal and open barriers between worlds, as well as lock a world's keyhole, which," Aqua said, thinking with illness of her heartless, "Could not be unlocked saved for another Keyblade, or absolutely absurd circumstances."

"What does locking a Keyhole do?" asked Olette.

"It's where a world's heart is," chimed in Kairi, "Locking it is supposed to keep the Heartless out and the world safe."

"Oh," said Olette, frowning a little, "Is there any side effects for a world if you lock it's heart away?"

Aqua blinked. "That's... another question I don't have an answer to."

She wanted to groan. She had defaulted to that far to many times already in this session. A bright, outside inquisitive perspective started poking at their knowledge and understanding and all the sudden it became apparent just how much wasn't actually know. At least to her. She wondered if either Eraqus or Terra, as steward and former steward, would have any answers.

Olette hummed and put another question mark in her notebook.

"Though, speaking of locking," said Aqua, "A Keyblade can open or close any lock or seal. You simply point your Keyblade at the object in question, will it open or closed, and a beam of light will shoot out from your Keyblade. However, this ability comes with some responsibility. To not go into sealed areas without reason, and the obvious of not using it to aid in petty thievery with breaking in and entering homes."

Light, why did speaking of that make her think of Braig? Oh how she hoped he wouldn't be stupid with the Keyblade if one deemed him worthy.

Kairi made a face. "Honestly, that'd be stupid. You get a mystical giant key and someone thinks to go around robbing people's homes with it?"

"It's all about temptation and the easy path," said Aqua softly, "Sometimes... the opportunity is right in front of you, and you don't think about the repercussions of your decision until its to late."

Far to late.

She shook her head and spoke with warning, moving onto the next subject, "For all its power, the Keyblade does have a few default dangers and abilities that must be used and handled with care and responsibility."

She watched as Olette and Kairi's eyes honed in. "The Keyblade is a beacon, their power draws in Heartless to crave it. They will be naturally drawn to Keybearers, even without their Keyblade out, but the effect is magnified when it is summoned."

She gave the girls (Kairi had finally taken the initiative to start taking notes) a moment to write it down before continuing, "The Keyblade... has the ability to release hearts, not just by freeing them from the Heartless, but, by extracting them from people."

She struggled for a moment, with the guilt of what she did with Maleficent, with Terra's condemnation echoing in her mind. "The ability to do so is dangerous, and if handled improperly, can damage a heart, or if the heart is set loose, may turn them into Heartless."

She hesitated for a moment. "In ages past, the heart was only meant to be freed in order to tend to it if it had been damaged. However..."

She made a distasteful face. "It is possible to release your own heart and put it in another's body, trying to posses them."

Kairi scowled. "Like Xehanort."

"Yeah, like what he tried," said Aqua, sighing, "There are several more advanced things he did, that were completely immoral and irresponsible to do. Ven... used to be Xehanort's apprentice, unfortunately. When he couldn't use Ven the way he wanted to, he literally split Ven's heart in half, one side light, one side dark, creating two separate people, Ven and Vanitas."

She shook her head. "That was a sickening and deplorable act."

"U-uh... I think you and Sora skipped over explaining that," Olette whispered to Kairi.

"I got their entire ten year old story crammed into my head in the span of a few hours," answered Kairi uneasily, "Couldn't remember everything. Heck, aside from mentioning he was pure darkness, I'm not sure they actually told me Vanitas used to be half of Ventus."

Olette looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Not sure I wanted to even know that could be done. Is... is there ways to defend against that kind of thing?"

Aqua nodded. "By safeguarding and protecting one's heart. Being aware of its existence as more than a physical part of your body, and with the knowledge of what you should guard against."

She sighed. "I'm sure the other Masters would disagree with revealing so much so soon, but... I think its important to be made aware of the dangers, and the responsibilities, early on, and definitely in being able to protect yourself."

She gave them a sly smile, it was a good lead in to end the classroom portion of the day. "Which means, as the basis for this protection, close those notebooks because its time for meditation."

Kairi groaned. "Oh goodie. This again."

Aqua grinned. "Come on Kairi, it's not that bad."

"Yeah it is."

The girls grabbed their affects and moved to follow Aqua down the halls, into a simple room with no decorations, just white mats, and followed her example in kneeling down after setting their stuff down by the door. "Now, close your eyes, take deep breaths and focus on emptying your mind of thoughts and distractions. Clear out all your emotions, concerns, and worries, and relax."

Aqua, a little hypocritically, didn't actually meditate herself. She hadn't done so since well before she had recompleated. She ought to, light knows she had enough baggage to think about and work through. Just... not now, while she's trying to teach. She watched the girls settle down, and waited. Her eyes flickering and looking for signs of fidgeting or tension, not to rebuke, but just to see how they were doing. Olette has little twangs of movement, Aqua took a whiff of the girl's emotions with the darkness; it was nothing major, a bit of jitters mixed with excitement, perhaps over her first day of lessons. A lot of contemplation over what she had learned. Some squeamishness and blanching, some of the things she had learned disturbed the girl.

Good.

There were dangerous things that shouldn't be underestimated or overlooked or thought of lightly.

Her attention turned to Kairi next. Despite how she bemoaned it, it looked the girl already had some experience with meditation, probably from Eraqus's lessons. Her emotions were a bit more sporadic. There was the odd mixture of both glee and boredom, as if happy to be being taught lessons, but also bored by them? It was strange, maybe she was getting the wrong idea from what she detected? There were, even days later, still undercurrents of grief and loss, and taking a moment to carefully look deeper, they almost like they were etched in rather than just in passing or as remnants. It... concerned Aqua a bit (more than a bit if she were honest). Then, she felt an emotion that startled her.

Jealousy.

And it wasn't difficult to see that it was aimed at Olette. If it weren't for the fact that Kairi was keeping a heavy, suppressing lid on it, Aqua would have worried. The girl, thankfully, realized she shouldn't feel it. Yet... where did it come from? This wasn't like her and Terra after her own heart had been cracked and she lost control of herself. What reason did she have to be jealous of her fellow apprentice? She momentarily tried to dig deeper before she felt Kairi begin to subconsciously react to the intrusion, her form starting to stir, and pulled back.

But she had gotten a taste of... inadequacy? And something else she hadn't had time to properly gauge.

Aqua frowned at the girl for a long moment before looking down at the floor between the two. She tried to think back, all the way back, to the first time Terra had shown up at the Land of Departure, had she felt that? The fear of being shown up by a new student? She can't honestly remember. But honestly, it shouldn't be felt, being a Keybearer isn't a competition. It's a way of life, a responsibility (a curse), its supposed to be a joint effort by the Keybearers to protect the worlds. Just because someone is stronger in someway over another isn't the end of the world. Terra has more physical strength than Aqua will ever have, and Ven defines the word speed, but Aqua doesn't feel inadequate, she knows she (used to) trash any of them in magic. Everyone has their on specialty. If she's honest, Olette hasn't even shown any strengths or weaknesses yet aside from being inquisitive. There is no reason to feel inadequate towards her.

Its something she'll have to try to unravel from Kairi before it can become an issue.

"Now," said Aqua softly, watching both girl's head twitch reflexively towards the sound of her voice, "Both of you I believe have some experience in reaching for your strength. Kairi, your own experiences, and Eraqus lessons I imagine, and Olette, from what my Nobody taught you about magic. Focus inward, hold out a hand, and draw out a small portion of energy."

She smiled a little when both girls did so, light emanating from Kairi's hand, and a soft translucent energy from Olette's. "Good. Kairi, I want you to, for the rest of the session, work on keeping it out and in control."

She turned her head towards the newer apprentice. "Now, Olette. Your energy is unfocused, untempered and unaligned, as it should be from someone just starting on their path. Transforming that into light, rather than magic, requires a different kind of intention than willing it into a more arcane form. Light..."

She smiled a bit sadly at old memories. "Light is faith. It is hope, happiness, compassion, love, all of that and more. Memories and feelings of such things help to give your power purpose and form. Think of such things, and let them flow through you."

Her smile turned pleased to see a pleasant look cross the young teen's face, that translucent glow turning slowly towards light. It wasn't a full change, just traces of it, but good for her first attempt.

Olette half opened her eyes and stared down at her hand. "So... it would be the opposite for Darkness? Negative emotions?"

Aqua hesitated for a moment. "Mostly, some emotions can overlap and be used for either, like determination or..."

She tensed a little to see Olette narrow her eyes at her hand, and the energy shifted, the light glow faded, a small tuft of black and purple energy in it's place. Aqua watched the girl as she toyed with it, going back and forth, curiosity in her eyes regardless of the emotions on her face as she threaded to and fro between light or dark. It was... strange to see her, anyone really, being so... malleable between the affinities.

"You should start with the light," said Aqua softly.

Olette glanced up at her briefly, "The dark is what you use though, isn't it?"

"It is," said Aqua, trying to hold back the bitterness of it all, "But, I still knew the light first. Make that your first path."

"If I want to switch later?"

"We'll discuss it then," answered Aqua, trying not to take a clipped tone.

Olette frowned down at her hands. "Can you use both?"

Aqua blinked at the question. "Not that I'm aware of. If its possible, I wouldn't have the faintest idea how."

Honestly, that notion is even more alien than the darkness was when she was a young apprentice. Against both Eraqus, and as much as she loathed him, Xehanort's teachings. Light and Darkness existed in a balance, opposite sides of the coin. She doubted it was possible. Maybe, with intense training, one could learn to switch back and forth between them quickly, but, Aqua didn't think a wielder who did that would really master either side. Not to mention the needed emotional control to be able to do that would be absolutly ridiculous.

Still... she did like that the girl tried to think outside the box. "Anyway, its almost time for lunch. Olette, you're dismissed, you have a few hours off afterwards before I collect you for the evening lessons. Kairi, could you wait a moment? I'd like to speak with you."

"Kay, see you in a bit," waved Olette, rising to her feet and trotting off.

Aqua watched her go for a moment before glancing at Kairi, the girl still sitting on her knees, a little apprehensive. There were a lot of questions that needed to be asked, both about earlier and what she felt in the meditation. How to go about it, and what to start with...

"I'd like to clarify," began Aqua, "You didn't attend school, nor get home-schooled?"

The girl's shoulder's went tense, her voice a little harsh. "No."

"Kairi, easy," said Aqua softly, "I'm not judging you or your family. I just need to know where you're at with your education so I know how best to teach you."

Kairi looked away for a moment before nodding. "Okay..."

Aqua nibbled on her lip for a moment, thinking, might as well start simple. "Alright, what do you know of mathematics?"

Kairi scowled a little. "I can count just fine."

"What about multiplication or d..."

"Division," finished Kairi, "Yeah, I can do that."

Aqua tilted her head. Perhaps they were defining homeschooled as two different things? "So, someone taught you them."

"Well, yeah, you need to be able to do that kind of stuff to take inventory," said Kairi.

Aqua blinked. "Inventory?"

"When I was younger, before I could help out on patrols in Traverse Town, my parents would have me help with taking inventory of our supplies," explained Kairi, "So I'd go around with who else was on the warehouse shift and go from place to place keeping track of what we had and making a report of it. You need to know how many people you can outfit, which doctor or hospital needs medical supplies the most, how much we can afford to feed a district a day before we burned through our food and water supply so we could ration it, that kind of stuff."

Aqua held back how unsettled the last point made her, a child shouldn't have to worry about such things, shouldn't be made so aware of it. "So, a more real world application then. You learned through doing."

Kairi nodded. "No one really ever sat me down and had me read a book to learn. So like I said, not homeschooled."

They could argue the semantics of it, but she Aqua could work with this whether her previous education had been more of a generalized apprenticeship or taught as she went. "What about reading or writing?"

"I um... learned how to read all over the place," said Kairi, "No one person taught me it, and I can write, but I've been told my hand writing sucks."

"That's something we can work on over time," said Aqua before shifting, "What about the sciences? Chemistry? Biology? Physics?"

"Uh... Aerith taught me how to make potions out of herbs, that's chemistry, right?" began Kairi with uncertainty, face flushing a little, "And I've been given the talk, I know what part goes where."

Aqua chuckled, good natured. "Biology is a bit more than reproduction. It is an overarching topic that studies life in itself, what makes people and other lifeforms tick I suppose. Keybearers aren't scientists, our requirements for it aren't to high, but for example, understanding anatomy for when we are forced to fight, can matter a great deal."

"For chemistry," began Aqua, "All keybearers can use magic, even if you are not by default skilled with it, Keyblades are a natural conduit for spellcasting. Knowing how the elements react and why is important. For your own example, its more herbalism, but, you generally need a basic understanding of chemistry to properly make herbal medicine, even if you don't realize it."

She held off on physics. While Eraqus had introduced them to the concepts of it early, without really even calling it physics, they hadn't started actually learning about it as a topic until they had been older than Kairi was now. "We'll go over the basics in our one on one sessions and see what you actually do or do not need help with."

Kairi blinked. "I thought you were teaching us both...?"

"I am," confirmed Aqua, before trying to see if she could work out some of that inadequacy and jealousy from the girl, "But, both you and Olette have different strengths and weaknesses, different skillsets. Olette has no experience with weaponry and combat. I'm going to have to guide her through things I imagine Leon taught you years ago. Having you go through the same thing would be pointless where the most you need is to make some adjustments on your fighting style, perhaps a few katas to go through, and practice."

"Our one on one on the other hand I imagine will mostly go over the academics to begin with," said Aqua, "And you'll have to see another teacher entirely for guidance on developing your powers with the light. Not to mention you're probably on your own for wielding two Keyblades at once."

Kairi slowly nodded. "Okay."

"Alright, off with you," said Aqua, "Go get some grub."

"See you at lunch then, Master Aqua," said Kairi before she left.

Aqua rubbed her nose and closed her eyes, a tired sigh escaping her lips. She had to many things she needed to get ready for the second half of the day to stop for lunch. She left the room and made her way back into the library, walking through rows and rows of books. For Kairi, she began to pick out basic academics, things they could go over one by one and see if she needed anymore guidance in the topic. For Olette, she grabbed beginners books on keymanship, stances and katas and trainings that generations of Keybearers before her time had painstakingly catalogued for future use.

She plopped the books down one by one on a library, and began to refresh herself on the subjects. It had been years since she had been a young apprentice, before she had settled into her own style of combat. Rehearsing the beginnings to teach Olette, so she didn't just by default have the girl emulate her, was needed. So she browsed the book, eyeing the exercises thoughtfully, flipping one page after another...

Until an apple landed on her book, making her jump a little. "Wha..."

"Swear I've seen this somewhere before," came Ven's amused voice, "Aqua so busy studying she forgets to eat."

She looked up to see Ven standing by the doorway, lofting a second apple up into the air and catching it, smiling at her.

She scratched her head bashfully. "I've got two apprentices I need to keep busy."

He walked over and set down the second apple on the table. "Doesn't mean you couldn't just ask one of them to grab you a quick bite to eat."

She sighed. "I'll try to remember for next time."

She plucked the apple off her book and bit into it, savoring the juicy snack, before she set it down and resumed reading.

"So, what's got Terra into a tangent?" asked Ven, moving to sit on the edge of the table, "Wouldn't tell me what was wrong."

Aqua sighed again, rolling her eyes and thumbing towards the side room she had been teaching in. Ven raised an eyebrow at that, but still moved to go in. She could see him crossing his arms and reading the chalkboard. She didn't get a sense of what he felt. He had come a long way in mastering himself, to be so controlled. It filled her with pride to see her friend as a Master, she just... just wished she had been there to see him come into his own. Hadn't had a hand in hardening him into the young man he was now.

He walked back out, a thoughtful look on his face. "I'm not judging either way, but why that? Especially so early?"

"I want them, and any apprentices they one day teach, to truly understand the dangers and responsibilities that come with being a Keybearer," answered Aqua before her voice went sour, "We can't have another Xehanort allowed to cause havoc across the worlds down the road. If things had happened just a little differently, he could have won."

She met his gaze with her own. "The knowledge of the dangers they face can't be put off until those of our lineage become Masters, or perhaps even until one of them became a future Steward. It leaves the responsibility in one persons hands when it is supposed to be on all of us to bear."

Ven tilted his head a little. "Hmm. I see where you're coming from. Though I still think day one is a little to soon."

She gave a sheepish smile. "Well, maybe. I think it had the desired effect at least, I could sense Olette didn't like a lot of the things she learned about."

Ven hummed, but didn't say anything in response, thinking. It was again so strange, to not see him so readily speaking, bouncing along with excitement to be heard; still and thoughtful wasn't a Ven trait she was familiar with. She smiled a bit. "When did you get so patient Ven?"

He gave her a strange look. "Patient?"

"You're still and thoughtful."

He scratched the back of his head. "If you say so. I mean, maybe compared to back then. I kinda had to learn to slow down and wait. Didn't really have a choice at the beginning, I messed up enough times that Terra eventually had to sit me out for a few months in the first year of the Heartless Apocalypse until I learned to sort myself out."

Aqua's eyebrows furrowed. "Ven, what do you mean by 'sort yourself out'?"

"I was all light, Aqua," said Ven, slowly frowning, "That's not true anymore."

She blinked at him.

"After Vanitas... died," after she killed him he meant, "He went back to me. I got all of his memories, his heart became a part of mine, which also meant I got his darkness."

Her eyes went wide.

"I never noticed it in that brief time we had after we thought Xehanort was beat because I was so happy it was finally over, that we had you back, there was nothing for the darkness to feed off of," said Ven quietly, "When... when we lost you, is when it really became apparent. I couldn't help Terra in some of the initial clashes with the heartless because I was having a brutal time learning control. Where before, I could feel and do and use my power however I wanted and still get light, now half of that would bring out my darkness."

"Vanitas' memories of his time as Xehanort's 'apprentice'," he spat out the last word, "Didn't help either."

Aqua swallowed thickly. "Ven..."

She was up and out of her seat, hugging him tightly. "I'm so sorry."

Ven gave a startled laugh. "Have I told you yet I missed your hugs?"

"I think they were better when you were shorter than me."

That got another laugh out of him. "I dunno."

He shook his head. "It's nothing you need apologize for."

She let go and sat on the edge of the table with her books. "I'm not so sure on that. I am the one who killed Vanitas."

He gave a strained smile. "As much as I wish that he could have lived his own life free of Xehanort, he had to be stopped. He wasn't going to stop until he became whole. Whether through me, or some other means."

"Some other means?"

"He had the thought that maybe he could use Terra or another extreme light to merge and complete with, but... I don't think it would have worked," said Ven, "Him and I were connected, no one else was. Maybe he could have tried something like what Xehanort wanted to do to you, became a parasite controlling someone else's body, but..."

Ven grew quieter. "He wouldn't have been whole."

Aqua did her best not to frown. "You sympathize with him?"

"All he wanted at first was to stop hurting, and to be whole," answered Ven, "Everything else came from Xehanort twisting him into what we encountered."

He shook his head. "Learning to manage those memories, along with re-balancing myself in the light, was a chore unlike any other let me tell you."

She squinted suspiciously at him. "Hours of meditation and retrospection?"

"Weeks of it!" he lamented, throwing his hands up into the air, "At least I was able to give Sora some lessons and talk to him when I was trying to deal with my issues, otherwise I mighta gone mad from being cooped up with myself."

He gave a self-depreciating smile. "Hard to feel pity for myself when the kid just lost his family and home. We kinda helped eachother out."

Aqua looked away for a long moment, wishing she had been there to help him. "I'm glad you two could do so."

They grew silent for a time before Ven glanced at the table. "Alright, I'll leave you to your reading."

He wagged a finger. "Don't forget to eat your apples, I know you."

She gave a soft chuckle and waved him off. "Alright, alright, off with you... actually, wait a sec."

He paused at the door. "Yeah?"

"Do you still have that wooden Keyblade of yours?" she asked.

"Erm... I mighta stuffed it in a treasure chest on another world?" he answered sheepishly, "Why do you ask... oh, right, new apprentice who hasn't manifested her Keyblade yet, gotcha."

He grinned. "Maybe I shoulda kept it, the thought of apprentices who could use it never crossed my mind."

She hummed. "There a story why you put in in a chest somewhere?"

"Kind of," he admitted, "Its nothing major, was helping out a guy named Peter Pan and a bunch of kids. We put a bunch of keepsakes in the chest, the wooden Keyblade was my donation to the treasure trove. I can go make a run for it, I'm sure Peter wouldn't mind."

"You don't have to go make a trip just for that, I can have her use Rainfell...," began Aqua.

Ven waved it off. "I'm happy to go do so, 'sides, I haven't seen Peter and his gang in years since their world fell. Would be nice to catch up with them for a bit."

He grinned. "Though I'm a 'grown-up' now, wonder how they'll react to that."

He was out the door before she could say anything else. She merely shook her head in bemusement and went back to planning out her lessons...

Though not before taking another bite of an apple.

By the time her apprentices returned a few hours later, and gave her lip about skipping lunch, Aqua had an idea of how she wanted to go about this. "Alright girls, its a lovely evening outside, so lets move our lesson."

The girls fell in behind her as she led them through the keep, out past the courtyard, and into the training yards. She eyed the ring targets, moving to stand next to one, gently pushing one along as she waited. Unfortunately, Ven wasn't back yet. She turned her head to look at the older apprentice. "Alright, Kairi. I'm going to walk you through a few Katas I want you to practice while I'm starting Olette on the basics. Most of these are defensive in nature, blocks or maneuvers meant to protect you or get you out of harms way."

"Couldn't you just teach me that barrier thing you use?" asked Kairi.

"I thought you didn't like magic?" asked Aqua innocently, "Because its magic in nature."

Kairi scowled a little at the teasing.

Aqua gave a self-depreciating smile. "I use the barrier for a reason, Kairi. My discipline is magic. I don't have the speed or the physical strength others have. Back in my training days, if I tried blocking, Terra would tend to just overpower me, or Ven would slip around. Kind of hard for them to do that when I'm in a bubble. It also requires a hefty magical aptitude and experience."

"Neither which I have," muttered Kairi.

"We all have our own strengths and weaknesses," said Aqua, "I can't even touch the light anymore, let alone use it like you do."

Kairi hesitated. Oddly, she looked rather uncomfortable with that for some reason.

"Now," said Aqua, "Lets get a Keyblade out, one to be specific."

Kairi summoned Two-Become One. Aqua's eyes lingered on it for a moment, wondering if Kairi made a conscious choice in which she summoned when she only called for only one, before walking over, wrapping her arms around the girl from being, grasping her wrists gently. "Now, hold it like this, down to the ground, bring it up horizontal with a snap, with force, as if to deflect a blow, to off-balance your opponent and leave them open for a counterattack..."

Her breathing briefly hitched when she felt a wave of pure happiness and contentedness ripple from the girl, as if all her worries and concerns had just faded away, leaving Aqua just a tad baffled, but continued with her lesson, showing Kairi a number of moves and maneuvers to practice. The entire time, those emotions don't budge an inch. The moment Aqua lets go, they immediately start to fade, not at a remarkable pace, bit she feels the dim, feels a sense of longing rise from the girl.

It leaves Aqua distinctly uncomfortable and uneasy. She should be happy Kairi enjoys the more hands on training, except... something feels terribly off about it, because it wasn't just training, she had tried teaching the girl magic and she hadn't gave off that sensation. Holding and guiding her through something she enjoyed though... it should seem okay, but it leaves a sinking feeling in her stomach...

"Ven Air Services special delivvveeeryyyy!" called down a voice from above.

Aqua glanced up and spotted Ven on his glider speeding down, leaping off, landing, and kneeling in one smooth motion infront of Olette as his armor disappeared, holding up and offering his old wooden Keyblade. "One training Keyblade per your Master's request, m'lady."

Olette had a mixture of amusement and blushing on her face, reaching out and grabbing the wooden Keyblade, running a hand up its dings and nicks. "Thank you."

"Cutting it awfully close Ven," teased Aqua.

Ven huffed. "Peter was being a pest, said if I wanted the Keyblade back I had to catch him."

"And you had trouble with that?" she asked.

"He can fly," answered Ven sourly, "And maneuver way better than a glider can, so yes, I had trouble."

Aqua couldn't help giggling, neither could her apprentices.

"Har har har, I go through all this trouble and I get laughed out," said Ven, pouting.

Aqua walked over and gave him a hug. "Thanks Ven."

He grinned. "No problem, have fun with the kids."

"Now, Olette, until your own Keyblade manifests, this will be what you train with," instructed Aqua as Ven broke off and went inside, "Don't be afraid to break it, but, try not to go out of your way to, it would be nice to start a tradition of passing it down. It was Terra's first, then Ven's, now yours."

Olette nodded, looking it over again. "I'll treasure it."

"Couldn't you just magic it to be stronger?" called over Kairi.

Aqua blinked a few times. "Well, actually, yeah, give it here for a moment Olette."

She hefted the wooden Keyblade in her hands for a moment, sizing it up, before closing her eyes and resting its teeth against her forehead, reaching inward for her power. She wrapped her magic around the Keyblade like a shell, embedding it into the outer wood, with an open reception for its wielder. Not quite like an actual Keyblade, or her good luck charms, but it would bind to whoever used it, drawing from their strength to grant it endurance. She opened her eyes, a glow surrounding the Keyblade before it faded into it.

"There we go," said Aqua, a grin on her face, "I doubt it would stand up to a real weapon in an actual fight, but you're definitely not going to break it smacking it against training equipment."

"Could you make it do the flash thing normal Keyblades do?" asked Olette shyly, "Where you can summon and dismiss it at will?"

Aqua tilted her head back in thought for a moment. "That would be a bit more complex to do."

She gave Olette a sly look. "Someone's eager to have her own Keyblade."

Olette kicked the ground, both hands going behind her back, blushing a little. "Maybe."

"Tell you what, do good in today's lessons, and I'll start working on the spellwork needed to do that tonight, sound fair?" asked Aqua, eyebrow raised in challenge.

Olette grinned. "Yes!"

"Alright then," said Aqua, summoning Rainfell, "I'm going to show you the motions to start building muscle memory, but understand, you are also going to need to do strength, endurance, and speed training ontop of these."

"Did you?" asked Olette, "Since you specialize in magic?"

"Of course," said Aqua, "Just because that is my focus doesn't mean I can slack in the others, because that creates a weakness anyone can exploit. I might not be as strong as Terra or as fast as Ven, but I'm by no means a pushover in either category."

She cleared her throat. "Now, we're going to do this for awhile, then I'll start showing you exercises you can do to start toning your body. Alright?"

Olette squinted suspiciously at her. "I'm going to need a shower at the end of this, aren't I?"

Aqua answered cheerfully, "Absolutely."

Kairi ended up joining in on the exercises after they were done with their Keyblades, while she was ahead of Olette having been raised by a Leon, a swordsman, and Yuffie, a Ninja, neither of those received the training a Keybearer required. Though she supposed patrolling and clearing heartless in Traverse Town had also helped prep her a bit, as did her few months as a Keybearer. Still, it never hurt to add onto that. Aqua ended the session with laps around the courtyard alongside her girls, a race to make them try harder.

Aqua might have cheated a little with teleporting, but it was a master's prerogative. Olette ran on ahead for her newly assigned room, eager to clean herself off, while Kairi and Aqua walked back to the keep at a slow pace.

"You know," said Kairi softly, "I've been waiting for this a long time."

"Hmmm?" hummed Aqua.

"You teaching and training me," said Kairi, taking a deep breath and letting it out before giving Aqua a wide smile, "I'm glad its finally happening."

"You don't count the magic lessons I gave you the other day?" said Aqua, amused.

Kairi made a face. "Bleh."

Aqua took it good nature, chuckling. "Well, I'll try not to let you down."

Kairi shook her head. "You're the best master I could ever ask to have, Master Aqua."

Aqua huffed in response, a bit of bitterness escaping her lips, "Hardly. I've screwed up enough times to have my mastership revoked, caused enough damage to last generations..."

"Everyone makes mistakes," said Kairi dismissively before pausing to surprise hug Aqua, "And I don't blame you for what that Heartless did to me."

Aqua came to a stop to not drag the girl along, hesitating. "Kairi..."

The girl just shook her head. "I don't blame you for anything. It's not your fault any of the last decade happened, its Xehanort's."

"I, and plenty of the others, could argue against that," said Aqua softly.

Kairi just sighed and hugged her tighter. "I wish you'd have more confidence in yourself Master Aqua. Your my master, once you've had a chance to really rest, recover, and catch up, you'll be the best Keyblade Master ever, way better than the others."

Aqua looks down at her, into her eyes, and sees faith there, feels it with her senses. The sinking feeling from earlier is rearing its head again, because the girl shouldn't have such devotion to her. She knows shes not even remotely perfect, she's messed up badly, has enough personal issues to last several lifetimes, caused misery to pretty much every person in the entire Realm of Light, especially those in this world, especially Kairi, her heartless tortured the girl's heart multiple times and nearly sent her on a one way trip to the Realm of Sleep. Yet, its like despite all of this she can do almost no fault, like the girl is trying to put her up on a pedestal... the look in her eye so devoted...

Almost fanatical...

Oh.

Oh...

Aqua swallows thickly as it hits her, and she can't even try to deny it the way the girl is clutching to and looking at her.

Its not devotion.

Its obsession.

Words Kairi spoke in Radiant Garden echo in her head, "We all needed something to hang onto those ten years, something to give us hope. The promise you made me was what I clung to in order to help me keep going."

Dread hits Aqua when she finally and truly understands just how badly she ruined Kairi. If the girl really focused on her over the years... along with so many little things she noticed over the last few days, from her Nobody's interactions with her, hells, Kairi charged through an army of Heartless to hug Aqua's heartless because she thought it was her when she first met it. Obsession makes a sickening amount of sense. Terra and Ven, despite her failings, still treasure her, and (for some reason) still trust in her, but not without acknowledging her faults and failings. Kairi? This is going to end so badly, she knows this. One day, that absolute faith and devotion would fail, one day Kairi would realize Aqua wasn't all she thought she was, that the pedestal she raised her master up on was made of glass, and Aqua prayed when it shattered that it wouldn't destroy the girl.

Because she had no idea how to fix this, Kairi will brush aside anything negative Aqua says, and the girl has little trust in or good opinions of the other Keybearers if Aqua asked them for help, because this was more than needing her to realize her 'Childhood Hero' was human with all the faults that implied...

"Master Aqua?"

Aqua gave her a strained smile and diverted, "C'mon, we both need a shower before we stink up the dinning halls for dinner..."

After dinner, after they've all separated to wind down for the next, Aqua retreats to hide in the library. Its a tactic from when she was a younger apprentice and wanted to be alone. The place her friends or Master always searched first was her room, the summit, the kitchen, then they'd start wandering and eventually find her. She'd always be able to use the 'I wanted to do some studying' excuse for when they found her. She picks a random book, goes into an isle, and plops down with it in her lap to open up in a split second if someone stumbles upon her.

She scrubs at her face, massaging her eyes, sighing heavily. Stressed doesn't begin to describer the last few days for her. Hells, the last few months if she wants to be honest. To go from the end of the Xehanort conflict to suddenly waking up a decade later makes her feel like she's never been able to catch her breath. She can't honestly remember drifting in the Realm of Sleep as anything more than vague notions, and she tries desperately to not think of her Heartless's memories, shunning her Nobody's as well (She literally sat in the mansion doing nothing for the first few years before Olette stumbled upon her, its infuriating!). And now she's training two apprentices on top of all of this, a brand new one that requires a great deal of focus and attention and care, the other who is stubbornly set in her own ways along with 'apparently' being obsessed that her master is the best thing ever. What was she thinking? She should have... should have passed them onto the others for at least a few weeks until she at least somewhat sorted herself out...

She pauses her thoughts when she hears the library door creak open, she grumbles quietly under her breath and props the book up, aimlessly looking at its pages, but the person doesn't go sifting through the library. She stretches her senses out when she hears them go for the side room; it's Terra. Aqua frowns a little, is he still aggravated by her teaching the girls about those topics? She pinches the bridge of her nose, wondering if she should just slip out, stay where she was, or just confront him on it.

In for a penny in for a pound. Why not throw another issue ontop of the rest? She scoffs at herself and stands, dumping the book on a bottom shelf and making to stand and move towards the side room. Except, rather than look irritated or angry, Terra seems thoughtful. He's flipping through a book, his eyes flicking up to look at the notes Aqua left on the chalkboard from earlier in the day. What is he doing?

"Terra?" she questions.

He starts a bit, looking over at her. "Oh, hi Aqua."

"What are you up to?" she asked.

"Comparing notes," he admitted, "Where did you find some of this information Aqua? Because there's a few things on the board that we weren't aware of."

She was taken aback. "Really?"

"You said Kingdom Hearts can be used to remake the worlds," said Terra, frowning, "All we have is that it is the heart of all worlds, that it is the source of light, of great power and wisdom. That it is what the Keyblade War was fought over."

He rubbed his chin. "I'm not versed on ancient languages either, while perhaps not as important, X being defined as death or ending wasn't something I was aware of. If Yen Sid knew, it was never anything he mentioned in our discussions over the years."

Aqua hesitated for a moment. "Its... this is all stuff I learned when Maleficent and I stole Xehanort's reports and books. You have a copy of the reports at least, the Kingdom Hearts bit was in there."

Terra's jaw set. "I despise reading those things."

Understandable, she could relate. "Fair enough."

There was silence for a time, as Terra continued to compare what was on the board to what he read. It honestly was only a brief overview of the things Aqua had read. Yet it seemed foreign to him. Perhaps she had been right, if Xehanort had found this information within his lifetime, then the Keybearers of the past might not truly have wanted to know. Might not have ever wanted to look for answers or knowledge on these forbidden topics.

"I suppose at some point," said Terra, "We ought to sit down and get what information you can remember from those book written down as well."

Aqua didn't hold back the weary sigh that escaped her lips. Just another thing to do or be worried over added to the list. "At some point."

"At some point," he agreed, turning to give her a concerned look, sizing her up, "Hmm. You look like you could use a day off."

Aqua snorted derisively. "A day."

"Maybe more," he admitted, "So, how about after the morning lessons tomorrow, we take a break from all of this?"

She tilted her head. "What do you have in mind?"

"Want to go to another world?" he asked, "I've made plenty of friends and allies over the years I wouldn't mind introducing to you. One in particular was a great source of advice and wisdom to me and Eraqus."

Its sad when Aqua doesn't instinctively know if that's a good thing or not. Her trip to Radiant Garden with Kairi also lingers in the back of her mind. Merlin's reaction to her. Its not a good idea. But it never will be, will it? Her heartless caused so much damage that it'll be relatively impossible to go anywhere without that kind of reaction. So either she never leaves here, finds some relatively uninhabited world to retire on at some point, or she sucks it up and gets it over with. Deals with the consequences of it all, getting people used to her being around and not her Heartless.

"Could use a change of scenery," she says halfheartedly.

He grins. "You'll like Zeus, trust me on that."

She hums, non-committal, filing the name away. It doesn't ring any bells to her. She doesn't know if he's referencing a world or the person he mentioned. She doesn't have the energy to ask. "Alright, well, it sounds like we have a long day tomorrow, I'll think I'll retire for the night."

Again, his eyes linger with concern. "Good night Aqua."

She nods curtly, turns, and leaves, retreating to her room, turning off the lights, grabbing her wayfinder, and clutching it to herself as she waits for sleep to overtake her...

Except wait.

She had promised Olette she'd try to work on a recall spell for the wooden Keyblade.

All Aqua could do was stare up at the ceiling and groan...