Sparks lit up the square as she formed her faithful sword from her fist. The steel edge trembled in anticipation as Aqua raised the keyblade above her head.
The monster that faced her howled, its voice as low as the earth grinding against itself. It leapt over the severed corpse of its companion, open jaw eager to close around the young woman that was a quarter of its size, but she was too fast. Aqua threw herself backwards towards the ground and pointed her weapon straight up, ripping through the underbelly of the beast as it leapt over her.
Black ooze spilt over her face, her silk dress, everything, and she was left laying there, taking in the stagnant air through gasps.
XIV: A Dance in Thorns
Two hours earlier…
The one and only time she visited Terra's abode had already passed in the up and coming days, but as she sat on a lone stool in front of a mirror, her heart weighed heavy like the thick mascara on her lashes. A feathery, translucent tail fluttered in her face as Nami struggled to keep a hold on a lock of her hair while Shio sorted through a tin of bobby pins (quite the challenge considering that neither familiars had thumbs).
"Mmph… I have it," Shio sounded as she stuck in one pin, if a bit haphazardly. Nami nodded and both twirled about her head in synchronization as they stuck bits of hair here and there. The whole thing looked… a bit questionable, and if Aqua weren't so busy lost in her own thoughts, she would've voiced a concern or two. "We'll make you pretty!"
"Not that you already look pretty everyday," Nami hastily assured. The fish paused in mid twirl before straightening slowly. "…Miss?"
"Hm?" Aqua barely jerked. She lifted a hand to the updo the two fish put together. "Oh, it looks great. Thanks you guys." Well, strands of hair stuck out here and there, but with her layers, the style didn't look so bad half-messy. She couldn't complain.
Her familiars exchanged looks before zooming right into her face. Aqua blinked, leaning back a little. "What's wrong, Miss? You were looking forward to this day for forever. Is it the guy? Should we haunt him for you?"
Aqua shook her head. "No, it's not him. It's nothing."
The fish visibly pouted, swishing their tails behind themselves indignantly. "We're your familiars," Shio shook a disapproving fin. "Extensions of your soul, you can't hide stuff from us, Miss."
The young woman smiled humorlessly as she gazed downwards. Shio and Nami combated this by settling in her lap, staring up at her with bubble eyes.
"It's that one…" Nami murmured in hushed tones, nudging her twin.
Aqua frowned as her throat tightened with worry and guilt. Her thumb stroked the surface of her phone rapidly as she redialed Terra's number.
No answer. Again.
"He could be busy," Aqua tried to reason with herself. "But how busy can you be when you're at the store? He's… probably driving. No, he's angry. I'd be angry too."
She was so stupid, so rude. Terra had wanted to spend time with her. For the first time, he invited her to what he called his home. She didn't know who else had the privilege, not that it mattered, because in the end Terra had been hoping to hang out. Why else would he bring up the idea of her visiting after school?
He took the initiative and Aqua repaid him by falling asleep on his couch. She buried a hand in her hair as she pressed her forehead to the cool countertops, groaning with pure embarrassment. She fights demons at night, but so what? She was still a high school student and she had spent the past year convincing herself and her master that she was up for the dual roles. Responsibility was responsibility, not something to split up when it became convenient. Part of it was about her parents, but she had been so sure that she could handle—no, she was losing her grip here. She wasn't going to let that old weasel get the better of her. She felt awful about everything and Braig having the nerve of dropping by did wonders for her spirits, but it was vital that she calm down and think this through.
"Just wash some dishes… That's what Mom always told me to do, right?" She went over to the sink, rinsed her coffee mug and placed it upside down on the dish rack. There. Done. "Okay, great. That's a start."
She wasn't sure how much time had passed as she wandered around the small space of the living room like a disorientated child until she heard the front door crack open. Her heart trembled as her throat tightened up again, but before she could say anything—
"I was just coming to get you. Ven's at your car," Terra said without even stepping foot in his own apartment. His eyes were shadowed, thrown to the side and Aqua chewed her lip, wondering if that was any better than having to look him in the eye.
"Alright," she managed, wanting to disappear on the spot. That was it. He wanted her to leave—he made it clear enough. "I'm… sorry about…" She trailed off, unsure of how to go on. Sorry for what? Falling asleep on him? She was more than sorry, but the words that came from her mouth were awkward enough.
"It's no problem," he replied, voice lacking it's usual vim. He sounded rather…resigned. "You got the note right?" His shoulders straightened at that, but by the time Aqua joined him outside the door, his back was to her.
"I did," she answered.
Aqua guessed he nodded. No more words passed between them for the rest of that day, or the days that followed.
"Do you want us to haunt him too?" Shio repeated the question, referring to Terra instead.
Aqua brushed them off her lap. "Weren't you listening? It was my fault." She sighed heavily, fiddling with the frilled edges of her blue and violet gradiated dress. "What do I do? What do kids, what do people do when things like this happen?
"…I just want to do what anyone but someone like me would do, just for tonight… Just like a normal girl, since that's what he'd like, right?"
"You do what you like, Miss," answered Nami. "But normal girls don't have magical familiars do their hair for them."
Aqua smiled. "Touché." She nudged the mess of hair gathered at the back of her head to make sure it'd stay. "You guys did a good job. I would never manage on my own… A lot of fuss is put into nights like these, huh?"
"Makeup and glitter should be the least of your worries," Shio said. Nami nodded. "Will you bring the keyblade?"
Aqua lifted her right hand, the modified charm dangling from the wrist. "Yeah, I shouldn't lose it like this." She stood up and brushed herself off, studying her dress in the mirror. Kairi had said blue was her color and Aqua told her it was boring… but with time running out and Terra becoming a troubling distraction, she found it hard to care anymore. Silk roses adorned one shoulder and along the rim above her chest. The dress hugged her curves before splitting at her thigh into flowing layers. The last time she wore something like this was during a ball for magicians at the Order, and a stuck up lot they were.
"Do you think the Heartless will behave, just for this one night?"
The goldfish shook their heads. "You can't ask them to do anything, Miss, but we wish you a fun night. We'll work on the barrier. Don't worry and stay safe."
Nami nudged the purse into her hands and both familiars worked together in getting their master through the door. "Trust us to take care of everything, Miss, but be back by the stroke of twelve!"
She's dealt with swarms of shadows, monsters, demons and the like, but this was something else entirely.
Her ankles wobbled dangerously as Aqua tried her best to maintain her posture in the growing crowd. The night hadn't even started and there was already the heavy stench of sweat in the air.
"And I still don't know what Homecoming is," Aqua hissed through aching feet.
"Aqua!" Shouted a rather boisterous voice that had no problem cutting through the crowd. Well, that saved her from having to look for anyone else. However, before she could greet her date, said young man shamelessly lifted her off her feet in a bear hug. Aqua found it to be a miracle that she could still stand straight on these stilts for shoes.
"Y-You're going to make me fall—"
"You look awesome!" Zack beamed, flanked by Terra and Axel. "Kairi said this would be your first dance, so I wasn't sure what to expect but I knew you'd pull anything off. And never fear; lucky for you, you have me as a guide and I promise I'll make this night unfor—" Terra and Axel both knocked him across the head.
"You look nice, Aqua," Terra said, eyes meeting hers for the briefest moment. She realized he was trying to chip away at the ice, but the remark only left them both feeling even more awkward than before.
"Thanks," she returned, trying her best to smile. Thankfully, Axel drew her attention away from him.
"He's really excited, as you can tell," the redhead told her. "And don't let Terra get you down—we made him come, but he's gonna stay and make the most outta it, right buddy?"
"I'm leaving first chance I get," Terra grumbled, crossing his arms. He turned his way, trying his best not to look at her. Aqua huffed, instead turning her attention back to the other two if he was going to be like that.
"Well," she started, wanting to draw the conversation away from the brunet, seeing that he wasn't appreciating the attention anymore than she was. "Kairi made me come too. Have you guys seen her?"
Zack threw a thumb over his shoulder. "Yeah, she's with your bro, Sora, and Riku. I don't think Roxas is here y—"
Aqua looked alarmed at that, her clenched hand hidden behind her back. Realizing that the three of them still had their eyes on her, she tried her best to relax her rather rigid posture but the reaction didn't go unnoticed.
Axel and Zack exchanged looks, but Aqua felt Terra focus solely on her. Her neck tingled uncomfortably. "Well, I-I mean, I'm just surprised, that's all. We talked once and I just had the idea, well, that he wasn't going to go." She fiddled with the silk clutch Shio and Nami "conjured" up for her (she made a mental note to herself to talk to those two about kleptomania, but now wasn't the time to be worrying about that) before walking past their expectant gazes. "We don't talk a lot—I mean, that's not important, I—uh, nevermind. I'm going to say hi real quick, excuse me."
Zack looked the most disappointed, but to be fair, Aqua took great care not to let her gaze flicker even the slightest bit in Terra's general direction. "We're not going to take the first dance?"
"Well, it hasn't started yet." Aqua checked her watch for the time before she realized she didn't have one. This whole… charade was going down awfully—and what happened to wanting to enjoy the night? "I won't be gone long, I just want to talk to some people first!"
There was a dry plop as Axel slapped both hands down on Zack's shoulders. "You go on ahead then," he said, "This guy will be right here."
Aqua nodded, the corner of her mouth twitching in gratitude.
The night progressed slowly for her and she felt that she was a constant, an observer amidst a sea of life and fervor. She traded only a single glance with Riku and finally decided to trust him rather than muster the courage to approach him and suffer the attention of Kairi.
After rejoining the group, she tried her best to copy their movements, but her whole body only moved awkwardly, hips swaying clumsily. It wasn't long before she snuck away and found herself at the punch table. The dry pastries seemed more unappealing than anything, but she grabbed a miniature éclair anyway to nibble and help calm her nerves. Her head swam—the music was too loud, the lights too bright, and the gymnasium too small to hold this much energy. Frankly, it was overwhelming.
"Do you mind sharing?" Came a voice too unsure of itself. Aqua stepped aside, not sure how to respond when there were several trays laden with puff pastry covered in waxy chocolate.
Terra shambled to the edge of the table, broad shoulders slumping. He stood at a measured distance from her, more determined than anything not to bump elbows. He pretended to search through the array of baked goods before scooping some punch into a cup when Aqua knew he was just as stumped for words as she was. Still, he was the one who approached her, not she, but to her surprise, Terra offered her the cup and she gingerly accepted it, meekly mumbling a small "Thanks." She took a sip and was left wondering if someone wanted to know how many spoonfuls of sugar could dissolve in so much water before turning into a syrup.
A tense minute followed before Terra set down his own cup of sugar water. He sighed heavily, running his fingers through and ruining his combed hair. "I'm… an idiot, aren't I?"
Aqua could laugh as she felt the tension in her chest loosen almost magically. He was the same as ever, and she felt silly to ever think that things had changed between them.
Terra seemed flustered, and amusingly so, as if he could sense the air of relief around her. "I-I'm not done. I'm an idiot, thickheaded, selfish, and dense. I'm stubborn, but indecisive, and I have the eloquence of a slug. I don't know what to say when it matters the most, and I give the people around me the hardest time of their lives because a rock has more emotional intelligence than I do. In the end, I deserve to swim in a volcano, or drown in the ocean, otherwise I'll never learn from my mistakes and continue living my life as Radiant Garden's biggest jerk."
Aqua blinked, almost spilling the punch all over herself. "I… I don't know," she finally said, still rather dumbfounded at the rhetoric, "that was pretty eloquent."
The blush deepened, even under the dim glow of the black light. "Tifa had me memorize it."
That time, she laughed, even if it was only a little bit and barely audible over the earthshaking bass. "So you didn't come up with that yourself? I think you owe me another apology then," she said, quickly shaking her head as Terra opened his mouth. "I'm only kidding… To be honest, the next one… should be mine." She looked away, biting her lip in mild embarrassment. Was this the right time to bring that up again? If Terra had the emotional intelligence of a rock, well, then that was probably more impressive than her social amenities.
For what came next, she could blame her lack of discretion on the atmosphere as she suddenly shouted, "I'm so sorry!"
Terra was quick to steady her hands before she sloshed fruit punch all over herself, but in the rush of the apology, she didn't even notice his too-hot hands enclosing hers.
"I… I really am sorry."
He was puzzled at first, taken aback even, but when he thought he figured out what she was talking about, she viciously shook her head and cut him off.
"It's not about falling asleep on your couch or drinking your coffee. I'm sorry about that too, but this… this is about way more—" more than he'd truly ever know,"—I'm an idiot and a liar." More of a liar than anything else; that was easier to admit out loud than she expected, but what was she supposed to say next? The truth was out of the question, but standing there without completing the confession only perpetuated her status as a two-faced fox that knew only how to deceive and call it different truths. If she thought this through before blurting out to desperately rid herself of the burden, then she probably would've chosen to bite her tongue. It was too late now, however.
"I know." Only when her hands were re-exposed to the chill air did she realize Terra had been holding them through her internal rant. "You told me something like that before, when we were watching over the bay together, and I'll tell you this again: I don't know your whole story, and I'm okay with that. You can run around and do what you do, apologize all you want, it'll all be the same to me. You're Aqua, and some things matter more than others. I feel… all right with you, so don't think that you have to prove anything to me, or us. When you're ready, you're ready and things will be okay then too—I think I can promise that."
That's right, she had forgotten her first date with him, when they shared food together under the birch tree. As she gazed back up at him, she realized that she hardly knew anything more about him than what he knew about her. "It's weird," she said, "how easily we can admit about how little we really know about people. But when it comes to us, we hold onto our secrets like they're nobody's business."
"Because they are nobody's business," Terra replied without hesitating. "But when it bogs you down to the point that it drives you crazy, then things change. Anyways, you're not an idiot, Aqua—" it seemed that he wanted to add more to that, but he only continued, "I want to believe that you won't let it get to that."
The young woman only smiled, the silver teardrop tinkling sadly around her wrist. "Did she ask you to memorize that too?"
Terra stuck out a tongue. "No, I was being honest! And I didn't come here just to get sappy…" He ducked his head to hide the deepening color in his cheeks.
Aqua raised an eyebrow expectantly. "Sappy?"
Terra realized his mistake and quickly backtracked. "I mean, it's good that we got that off our chests—I didn't want to be the one to ruin your night." He rubbed the back of his head shyly. "That being said, I was wondering… well… if—" He grit his teeth, hissing out a curse before continuing, "—if you wanted to share a dance."
Aqua blinked, unsure of what to say for a moment. "I-I don't know how to dance, you saw me."
"No, I don't mean that flailing crap," he said, blushing even harder, "I was thinking that if we wait for a slow song, then maybe I could, I dunno, lead? That way you wouldn't have to do anything so—"
"I'd love to."
Terra stopped in mid sentence. "What?"
Now it was her turn to flush a rosy red. "I said I'd love to—you asked, didn't you?"
"Yeah—I mean, yeah, that's great," he responded awkwardly.
As she thought, things haven't changed a single bit, and maybe she was fine with that. She smiled gently at him, giving him her most genuine gesture that night. It was Zack who had asked her out, and he never failed to give her his attention, but ever since she arrived decked in a flowing dress and heels, Aqua struggled to find a place for herself in the crowd that was much too lively. After dumping their apologies on one another, it would be like Terra to offer her a steady arm, a sturdy branch amidst a river of flashing lights and writhing bodies.
He seemed to have gotten over his embarrassment as he slowly offered a hand, a trace of uncertainty flickering in his eyes. Head swimming, Aqua prepared to take it until—
Pain, sharp and hot shot through her chest as a young girl's voice shrieked deafeningly in her mind.
"MISS! S-Shio is—!"
She froze, fingers hovering inches from the young man's open palm. "Terra…" Her eyes refocused, head fighting against the sense of horror threatening to make her scream aloud herself. "…I have to go." Her gaze, watering from the pain, locked with his, and she sensed that he knew enough as he withdrew his hand.
As she turned to leave, he grabbed her by the hand, squeezing tightly only for a split second. "Promise me, just one dance, one day."
"One day then," she sealed the deal, knowing that she was pledging more than just a that, and he let her go free.
Aqua ripped off her heels once she made it off the school grounds, her strides turning into mere blurs as she covered miles within minutes.
The cry of her familiar, of only Nami, brought her to a deserted end of town where the older buildings lay. Not far was the maze of alleys or the construction sites that lay beyond, but Aqua had no concern for the scenery… only the two glowing orbs that were mere yards from where she stood, one being much dimmer than the other. As she approached them, the crying within her head only grew louder and louder and Aqua fell to her knees, cupping the limp form of her most loyal servant.
Nami's voice was higher than ever, thin and cracking. "W-we only separated for a few seconds to complete th-the barrier, but Shio, Shio…! Something attacked Shio! She tried to escape, but w-we couldn't hear each other, and—and—!"
"Shio," Aqua whispered softly. The familiar weighed heavily in her hands, just as slimy as any regular goldfish. Her bubble eyes were fixed upon nothing, devoid of any life or emotion.
She shook her gently. "Shio." Again. "Wake up, that's an order."
"Wake up, dummy!" Nami sobbed, twisting her round body in agony. "Miss says wake up!"
But Shio did not wake up. Her unblinking eyes remained lifeless, fins and tail limp as wet cloth. Her soft blue light dimmed further and Aqua felt a cool viscous liquid run down her wrist. Face expressionless, she fumbled for the plastic cup she brought all this way and pressed it to the edge of her palm to catch the running blue. The plastic was crushed and cracked, but Aqua could hardly process what laid before her much less summon a proper replacement out of thin air.
Shio liquefied before their very eyes, her glowing blue remains running neatly into the cup like water from a magical spring described only in fairy tails. Holding the cup to her lips, Aqua fought back a sob as she stared within its depths for any signs of her long-time companion, the half to Nami's whole. No face stared back up at her, no voice soothed or comforted her, and Aqua downed the shapeless form of her soul, nearly choking on it.
It went down cold, like liquid ice, soothing the fresh wound of her heart. With the soul, she swallowed her sadness, the familiar sense of loss that threatened to let loose tears. Nami trembled speechlessly as the cup tumbled from her grasp, and Aqua cradled her in her arms, holding her close as if she were her only child, because she was.
"It's okay," she murmured, feeling far from it. "I'll fix this, but I want you to come back… Just return for now and don't come out until I summon you."
Nami hiccupped as she struggled half-heartedly against her embrace. "I-I can't do that, Miss Aqua. It's too dangerous. No matter what, a servant must protect their master."
"It's the servants' job to obey their master and the master's job to protect their servant." She placed a delicate kiss between the eyes of her remaining familiar. "Please, Nami."
The goldfish's eyes watered again as she nodded with great difficulty, vanishing in a light as dim as their collective depression.
Aqua closed her eyes and slowly stood up, allowing the ominous wind to sift through her hair as she extended her sight throughout the surroundings.
The rose… has three thorns.
Within the second, one of them hurled its great body towards her, arching red claws extended like many scythes. Neither came close enough to even catch against the shimmering silk of the warrior's dress since a single slender arm pale against the waxing moon held the beast back by the tip of its snout.
The demon snarled, hot breath wreaking of rotting flesh blasting her in the face. It lolled its slender tongue, whipping at her bare arm in vain. Aqua gazed upon it with cold disdain that was uncharacteristic of her usual self. She took a single minute to study the untamed monster as its slobber collected in puddles at her feet. Sinewy muscle twitching, the neck and body of the beast writhed side to side as it struggled to claw at her, to no avail against her unyielding frame despite the difference in size between them.
Satisfied, but disgusted, Aqua recited the first line of its damned fate:
"Propter iram meam—" A red glow characteristic of fire engulfed her arm as her words kindled the silent rage within her, "—Summone ira deorum animo scelus corrigere…" A tempest whipped around them and snarls turned to whining as the beast struggled to maintain its hold on the earth.
For the sake of my wrath… summon the rage of gods to correct the crime against my soul.
With the proper intention, she could end the spell there, and in turn, banish the demon with her will, but she was beyond reason and mercy at this point. Shio was gone, struck down by this savage beast that was unworthy of anything beside a custom-tailored curse just for it and its companions.
"Ignis secare per hoc infidelis bestia—!" She screamed the final words of her prayer, arm burning from the power surging through it. Flashes of gold and red lit up the square like a bonfire as the roar of flames mixed with the roars of the beast.
The blade of fire vanished as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind two halves of the hapless demon. Aqua turned away from the smoking corpse without a second glance, grasping her keychain firmly within a single hand.
Summoning the thought to the forefront of her mind, she pulled the hungry blade from the hand that was its sheath as she sensed the approaching presence of the second.
The monster announced its arrival with an ear-splitting howl before bounding towards her on all fours. It leapt a great distance, soaring over the still smoking body of the first, and fixed its blood red eyes on the awaiting Aqua.
Aqua herself tightened her grip and brandished the keyblade. When those extended claws were a mere foot from her face, she threw herself to the ground and ripped through the underside of the beast, unfazed at the resulting bloodshed. The monster hit the ground in a heap, skidding along the asphalt and leaving its mark.
Gasping for air, Aqua grimaced as she clutched her chest and rolled onto her side. She hadn't healed all the way so it seemed, for her heart ached from both the loss of her familiar and the great deal of power she channeled through her own body for the spell.
Revenge is so unlike you…
She spat and shakily forced herself back up again, wiping the katana on the ruffles of her dress—the silk didn't hold the blood well. Either way, it was utterly ruined and there was no returning to the dance—not that she expected to, her job here was unfinished.
Her eyes and ears couldn't make out the third at all, so she dismissed her keyblade and suppressed the turmoil within her being, for now at least. In her solitude, it was easy to make out and track the presence of the last demon. It moved further and further away from her location and Aqua smirked in both bitter amusement and annoyance. The monster, as brutish as it was, was smarter than the first two as it ran away. At the pace it was traveling, not for its life no, but for it to lead Aqua away from here. Perhaps it was because the location was less than favorable (obviously, looking at the remains of the others), but it could run to the ends of the earth and still find no shelter from her ensuing wrath. Aqua was far from giving up chase, especially when she hadn't even started.
A/N: Good god this took forever. I apologize deeply for the lack of update in like forever. I thought I'd be freer lately, but college apps and scholarship apps have taken their toll and I'm dying send help.
Hopefully the next chapt won't take so long. This story's been plaguing me for weeks.