"Your Armor will protect you," Master had said.

The last time she had seen her armor, it had embraced Terra instead of her, and sent him back into the light.

She'd had no armor, no black coat of magic to protect her. She was no Princess of Heart, not like that girl she'd met all those years before with no darkness tainting her heart.

Aqua was left alone in the Realm where Darkness was the only reality for twelve years, and she had nothing to protect her, was nothing more than human.

Twelve years is a long time to live without the light.

/

They went for Terra first. Mickey said he had three friends—one lost, they didn't know where, one sleeping, in a castle of memories, and one taken, and he was the one they went after first. With Xemnas defeated, Terra's body was restored—still silver-haired, still not himself, but that was fixable. It took the combined forces of Mickey, Riku, Sora, and the still-in-training Kairi to subdue him without killing him. They took him back to Yen Sid, and Riku and he tore through book after book to find a way to help him regain himself.

And they did, and it worked, and the first emotion that flashed through his newly-cobalt eyes was fear, fear for his friends, and the first words he spoke were "Where're Ven and Aqua?"

The words drove a spike into all of them, and the frantic need to protect that drove him infected them too.

They stormed Castle Oblivion not long after.

Terra did not recognize his old home, did not magically know his way around, but he mostly remembered his trips there as Xemnas. Lea had spent more than enough time there to help them navigate, and whenever the group seemed lost, Terra would stop for a moment, would hold himself still long enough, it seemed, to listen to some unheard voice. All he'd say when they asked was "My Master still knows his castle," with a small, proud smile.

It took them a few days. But they found Ventus.

/

Terra, with his longer, gray-streaked hair, and his face older than it should have been, was the first thing Ven saw when he opened his crusty, heavy eyelids. He looked at him from under bangs that shouldn't have been that long, and when he spoke (a hesitant, "Terra?") Ven's voice came out too deep, his mouth drier than the desert.

But Terra just pulled him into a desperate hug in spite of Ven's subsequent coughing fit. He was laughing, in relief, almost hysteric relief, and just held him tighter when Ven repeated the query. Behind Terra, Ven made out four other figures—one, who was somehow familiar, sat against the wall like he'd fallen there, one hand clutching his chest, and his eyes met Ven's. Sora, Ven thought, subconsciously. Somehow, Ven knew the others too, though he'd never seen two of them before. Riku (a rush of friend, brother, find, dark, gone, found, saved was what Ven remembered) knelt next to Sora, but his eyes were on Terra, expression smooth, and Ven knew from experience that was not his own that it was not a look of disdain, but one of reflection. Kairi (friend, red, light, sorry, sorry, safety, find, found, warmth) was smiling at Sora's tired grin. And Lea (dark, no, no, light, chakrams, no, frisbees, enemy, no, friend, friend)—Ven stopped his thought trail, because his head was starting to spin the longer he looked at LeaAxelLea.

He pulled back from Terra to push his too-long hair out of his eyes and examine his friend. Terra looked drawn—darker, his hair different and longer, streaked with silver, but his eyes were the same. That was enough for Ven. No matter what else had happened, that was enough.

"Where's Aqua?"

Terra flinched at this, and his gaze dropped from Ven's—in shame? That would have been Terra's reaction, back then, but then again, so much had changed since then. Ven opened his mouth to prompt him again, fear removing the last bit of sleepiness from his limbs, but Terra held out a hand to stop him from rising.

"She's—" Terra started, but he seemed to choke on the word, and Ven pushed himself up on arms that felt weak. If she was hurt—his heart plummeted. He remembered Vanitas standing over her with Keyblade poised to strike, all those years before. If she was dead—

"Ven, she's not dead," Terra held him back from rising again, still not meeting his eyes. "I… I think she fell." A grimace crossed his face. "It's all messed up in my head. I can't remember that time well. But I know… I know she's gone. Into the dark."

"But we're gonna go get her, right?" Ven asked.

And that made Terra look back up at him.

Out of his pocket, Ven drew his Wayfinder. It was right where he'd left it. It still felt warm, thrumming with magic the way it had ever since Aqua had tossed it to him so long ago. An unbreakable connection. He held it out to Terra, who, with a soft look in his eyes, placed his hand over Ven's on the charm. "Of course we are."

/

As much as Ven wanted to help, he was still weak from twelve years of sleep—and none of them were about to let himself overwork himself. Terra, while he got lost in memories often and seemed more haunted by nightmares than by the Heartless swarms they still fended off every day, was at least physically fine, so he worked day in and out with Sora and Lea, searching for a safe passage into the Realm of Darkness. "When you feel up to it," Mickey tried to cheer Ven up, "You can join me and Riku in looking through Yen Sid's books for routes there too!"

But for the most part, he was left to his own devices in Yen Sid's tower, where he'd never visited, not before everything. The perpetually tinted sky outside just reminded him of home, of late-night stargazing, of the quiet pools and roving mists. And remembering the Land of Departure just made him remember that it didn't exist anymore—not after Xehanort's attack, not after Aqua used Master Keeper to lock it. The books that Riku and Mickey poured over looked like the ones that used to line Master Eraqus' shelves. The sounds of Kairi and Lea practicing their forms in their spare time just brought back memories of Terra and Aqua doing the same.

Ven didn't want to sleep, though his body seemed to disagree with him—he drifted off seemingly every few hours—and he didn't want to wait around for the others to find Aqua. He wanted to go with them, but Ven wasn't even able to walk up and down the tower steps without breaking a sweat. Sometimes, he tried to join Kairi as she trained, but even short sparring matches took his breath out of his lungs and left him feeling ragged and useless. It got better, slowly, but it wasn't enough.

It wasn't enough for the day that Terra and Sora returned to the Tower early; Sora with a bounce in his step, having found a way to get to Aqua. It wasn't enough for Yen Sid to allow him to go with them.

So Ven, inwardly seething, inwardly cursing himself, sat on the steps of the Tower as they went. He would wait for them, as long as it took.

He'd been waiting for ten years, after all, and while he couldn't go get Aqua, Terra could. Ven could just imagine how he could tease her about having to go find her, instead of her coming back for him.

/

They found themselves on a beach, one that reminded Terra somehow of Sora and Riku's home, only it was a pale shadow of that place. Black where the other was light, moon where the sun had been, bordered by jagged dark rocks instead of rustling green trees. The sand itself seemed wrong, somehow paler than it should have been, somehow rougher than any other beach.

Terra did not take the time to analyze his surroundings, though. He had equipped his Armor long before stepping through the portal, though Sora seemed almost to have forgotten until Riku reminded him, though Riku seemed completely unphased by the slither of darkness in the edge of the shadows.

Terra turned his mind immediately to finding Aqua, because if this place unnerved him after a mere glance, how could his friend have survived this long? He would find her.

No matter what it took.

/

The first time they were ambushed, it was Heartless. And it was Heartless the second time, and the third, and the fourth time too.

But the fifth time Terra's instincts warned him of a presence before the crunch of rocks underfoot alerted his ears, it was her.

"Aqua?"

Glittering in her hand was Master Keeper, achingly familiar. Her brows were drawn close together, glare piercing from behind stringy, jaggedly cut blue hair. The white and blue wraps around her hips had long since turned to tatters, and her white sleeves were stained with dirt and blood and worse. But perhaps worst of all, the silver Keybearer symbol which had been affixed to her chest by pink ribbons was gone, its absence as striking as the scars that showed at her neck and shoulders.

"Aqua?"

She gave no response, and Terra's heart crumbled in his chest.

Her eyes were a ring of gold in the darkness.

/

Aqua had been fighting for a long time. Long enough that the specifics no longer mattered.

At first, she had resisted the darkness, fought back at the Heartless who snuck up behind her and tore her from sleep with claws crueler than Unverseds'. At first, she had tried to keep the memory of Ven and Terra strong in her mind—had tried to remember sitting beneath the stars with them on the last good night

But there were no stars here. There were no others to keep watch at night. There were no sunrises, no safe havens.

The Realm of Darkness was nothing more than pain and misery and endless twilight. The Heartless did not decrease, never slept. They haunted every path, every deserted beach, every ruined castle, every empty house brought here by darkness. Aqua walked alone wherever she went, consumed by the endless drudgery and untiring shadow.

Eventually, she realized it was easier to not.

Easier to not fight the whisper of darkness. Easier to not mutter Ven and Terra's names over and over and over in an attempt to remind herself why she trudged on. Easier to forget her promise to Ven. Easier to placate her protective instinct with the knowledge that Terra was safe.

It was easier to become darker even than the Heartless, because if you were darker than the nightmares they stopped trying to kill you. Because if you stopped holding onto the light, there was no pain in the lack of sunshine. Because if you let the darkness in, you stopped feeling so weak.

Aqua understood Terra, now, better than she ever had before.

By the time they found her, her best friend's voice did nothing more than irritate Aqua's ears, so used to silence other than the click of Heartless claws on stone as she was. Their bright auras were nothing but curiosities. They were strangers in the land, irregularities in the landscape.

Snuff the light out, said a voice, and Aqua agreed.

/

Aqua charged him, and Terra flashed back to her doing the same thing years before, surrounded by the bright colors of the stained glass window in the Mark of Mastery. He intercepted her strike, and her strength rocked him back. "Aqua!"

No answer, only another attack that Riku deflected, and his slightly panicked glance back at Terra told him that Terra wasn't having a bad dream. That this was really happening. That his best friend had just attacked him, that her eyes were golden and not a blue that put the sea to shame.

Sora pounded closer to keep her from getting at Terra again, because for some reason, his limbs didn't want to move anymore, after that first block. His Keyblade hung limply at his side, and his fingers held no strength to make it rise again. "Master Aqua, please!" Sora yelled, flipping back out of her range, only to have her cartwheel straight after him—Sora wasn't used to people matching his athleticism, and he was thrown back into a rock face with a force that seemed inhuman. Or it would've seemed inhuman if Terra didn't remember feeling that strength before, back when he had been sustained by the darkness. "No," the word came unbidden to him, but it snapped him out of his haze, at least.

"No! Aqua! Look at me!"

A shimmer of magic obscured Terra's vision for a moment, and then he looked at Aqua without the tint of his armor. "Terra, don't-" Riku started to warn him, but then glanced at Aqua's frozen face, and stopped.

Because she had stilled. Master Keeper was still raised in her hand, threatening Riku back, but her face had lost that dark glare. "Aqua, it's me." Terra took a small step forward, like he was approaching some startled animal, "It's just me, Terra."

Her eyes locked with his, and though they were gold, Terra recognized them. He recognized the inquisitive curve of her eyebrows, the way her breath came a little harsher through her nose than her mouth, the grace in her stance. "We're here to take you back, Aqua." He took another step forward. "I'm sorry it's been so long." Though she hadn't moved an inch since he'd dismissed his armor, Terra thought he saw a flicker in her gaze, a memory. It was the same kind of gleam in her eyes that she got whenever she cast a new spell. Another step. He dismissed his Keyblade, too, keeping his eyes on her and completely ignorant to Sora or Riku. "Aqua," he said again, the word almost a plea.

It was an eternal moment before her lips parted, and Aqua answered.

"Thundaga."

A burst of stars across his vision, cries of pain from Sora and Riku, and when Terra could blink the black spots out of his eyes, she had landed atop him, her knee hard on his chest, Master Keeper gleaming at his throat.

Her golden eyes held nothing other than anger, and she growled at him through a clenched jaw, "I should have let you fall here instead!"

A burst of ice from Riku spun her off of him, but her words continued to ring in his ears. Twelve years, and he finally knew.

She had regretted saving him.

"Terra!" Sora landed beside him, and helped him up. Before he let go of Terra's arm, however, Sora locked eyes with him. "That's not her anymore, okay?"

"What?" Terra blinked at him, aware of Aqua's battle cry echoing in the background.

"That's not Aqua." His eyes were fierce on Terra's. "She's not thinking straight. That's the darkness talking, not her. Whatever she said, that's not what your friend believed!"

Another second stretched by, but then Terra nodded, and Sora raced off to stop Aqua from stabbing Riku.

With his heartbeat pounding loud in his ears, every thought that raced through Terra's head seemed to make his brain restart. They were saving Aqua. They were saving her. Not finding her with golden eyes and a glare. They were saving Aqua.

But there she was, angry yells just as piercing as her powerful magic strikes, and her strikes seemed twice as strong as they used to be. She iced Riku to the rock before turning and throwing Sora ten feet into the air with her Keyblade, her golden eyes burning brighter than the fire leftover from her first attacks. They were saving Aqua.

Terra summoned Earthshaker.

They were going to save Aqua.

He sprinted forward to block her from stabbing Riku. The grunt of pain she released hit more than her next retaliatory magic strike. When he turned to slash at her arm, Terra tilted his Keyblade to hit with the flat of his weapon.

He used to be able to beat her in one-on-one sparring. He used to know her moves better than he knew his own. He could stop her, could make her see reason.

They were going to save Aqua.

/

Ventus waited. He waited until the sky turned dark, and even when the dew started to gather on the grass, Ven stayed on the bench by the window, looking out at the empty clearing. Mist swirled around the trees, and though its swirling patterns tempted him with sleep, Ven refused. He pinched himself, he paced, he practiced the forms he remembered from Master Eraqus' teaching. Anything it took to keep him awake long enough to see the portal burst into existence at the edge of the clearing.

When it did, Ven was out of the door before they could even make it out of the portal.

"Aqua—?"

The yell turned into a question when he saw only three shadows emerge from the portal—Terra with a slight, pale body in his arms.

When Ven's panicked eyes met his, Terra gave him the smallest of reassuring smiles. "She's alive."

Ven made his way over anyway, eyes lingering on Aqua's small frame. She was even skinnier than he had been, when he first woke up. There were scars crossing her arms and her clothes were ripped and dirty, her hair jaggedly cut.

But he knew it was still wrong.

As Riku and Sora limped past him into the tower when Terra nodded to them, Ven placed a hand on Aqua's forehead, and tried to smile at her sleeping face. "See? We did find each other again. You fulfilled your promise."

But then he turned to Terra, and demanded to know what was wrong.

His friend gave a sigh, and told him.

/

They set her down in the tower, in a room with no windows and a locked door. This seemed cruel to Ven, who remembered that Aqua loved nothing more than stargazing and she'd been stuck without a single star for so long, but there was nothing else to be done. They couldn't risk her escaping. Not after everything.

But Terra and he didn't leave her there. They sat beside her, a loose triangle, and looked between each other and her. A part of Ven was searching for that feeling of belonging he had always felt when surrounded by the two of them, that grounding that came when his two best friends were next to him, but nothing but a grim sadness gripped him. It was dark, inside the room, and Ventus wanted nothing more than to turn on a light, but he knew if he did, he'd have to face the reality. If he closed his eyes, and just focused on the breathing of the two others, he could pretend he was back home, together with them, on any other night.

Terra sat heavily, the energy seeming to disappear even as he reached for it. No words rose to replace it, no feeling beside bone-deep sorrow. This was his fault, he had no doubt. If he hadn't let Xehanort in, if he hadn't hurt Master Eraqus, if he hadn't pushed her and Ven away, if he hadn't messed up the Mark in the first place—but Terra shook the thoughts away. The past was the past, and this… this was all that mattered now. Ven, who was still too skinny and fumbled with his legs longer than he was used to, and Aqua, who spoke with fury and not kindness, whose eyes blazed not with protectiveness but pain. This was all he had now, and it was all he could grasp. Outside the tower, loomed a darkness greater than he'd ever faced. Xehanort still had a plan, was still weaving his web. Kairi, Riku, Lea, Sora, even Mickey and Yen Sid—they still held hopes and scrambled to stop the darkness, and they'd need Terra and Ven's help.

"Can we do anything?"

Ven and Terra turned. Sora, his eyes wide, his hands open at his side, looked back at them. He seemed much younger, somehow.

Aqua's sleeping face was relaxed, and without that furrow between her brows and the angry growl, she looked like the friend Ven and Terra had fought beside twelve years before.

"I don't know," Terra's shoulders slumped under the admission.

"But we're gonna try anyway," Ven reached out, and put a hand on Aqua's shoulder.

~fin~

...


A/N: heLLLO my friends!

this was a request by Shiranai Atsune, and it took me waaay too long, I am very sorry! But this was really fun to write, and I hope it is to your liking, Shiranai, and to the rest of you! :) thanks for reading you guys

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