Chapter 9 - Hope

Aqua's home world, Fifteen years before Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

As Atrileng grabbed Terra's Keyblade, he dropped the knife, and a few things happened all at once. Aqua wrestled herself from his metal grip without problem. Terra yanked the key chain off his Keyblade. Terra Firma changed into Earth Shaker, and Atrileng, unprepared for its weight, tipped forward. Seizing the opportunity, Terra jumped him, giving in to pure fury as he knocked the man over and started attacking him with his bare hands. Aqua grabbed Earth Shaker by the handle and tried to run with it, but it was much too heavy, so she resorted to dragging it slowly away from the fight. With a roar of anger, Atrileng managed to push Terra off, knocking him away with a metal backhand, which sent him flying. Terra skidded into the sand a few feet away from Aqua.

Recovering, he grabbed his Keyblade from her, hefting it with more success than she'd had. "Thanks. I'm glad you caught on."

"You were planning this from the beginning!?" she screeched, summoning her own Keyblade.

He nodded. "Cover me. I've got an idea, but I need time to prepare." He whispered hurriedly to her what he needed her to do. "Think you can handle it?"

"Now we're talking," she smirked. "You bet. I'll take it from here." She ran forward, leaving Terra to his task as she readied herself for hers.

Atrileng was furious. "You've picked the wrong person to mess with! I'll obliterate you!" With a wave of his hand, he summoned a pack of ten or twelve Neoshadows. "I'll teach you children a lesson you'll never forget!"

"Being an adult doesn't make you any better," Aqua sneered, sticking out her tongue. "You're still just a big meanie."

Aqua fended off the Heartless, making sure to stand in the same spot, not moving from where she was. Atrileng was so blinded by rage he didn't notice what was going on. Neoshadows dived at her from all sides, but Aqua cast reflect, making the bounce off, and then concentrated magic into her Keyblade, wrapping the blade in water from the ocean. Any Heartless she hit burst into dust, other bouncing off her shield into the water. Her position was perfect if she was going to win, but Atrileng wasn't satisfied. He summoned more Heartless, not stopping even when it was obvious that he was pushing his limits.

Suddenly, over the sound of Neoshadows in agony, she heard it: a whistle. The signal. Dropping her shield, she jumped out of the way, hitting the sand hard. Atrileng, in that moment, realized what she had accomplished by holding her ground in that exact spot. Standing behind where she'd been standing, the only blind spot in his line of sight, was Terra, holding what looked like a giant cannon. The cannon was twice as big as he was and incredibly heavy looking. Terra had to support it with both hands to keep it steady, and even then, he staggered under its weight. The back end of the cannon was formed by the blade, its different sections pulsing like an active motor, and the hilt-guard acting as the muzzle of cannon, glowing with a bright white light.

"Ultima Cannon," he shouted, and the cannon glowed brighter in response, "FIRE!"

The cannon fired a bright beam of white light, consuming everything in its path. The water lapped against it like a solid material, unable to pass the powerful beam's pathway. Staring at it, Aqua was temporarily blinded, but when she regained her sight, she was too shocked to respond. All of the Heartless, numbering in the hundreds, had been blasted out of existence by the single shot. Atrileng had used his metal arms to shield himself and had survived, but when he tried to summon more Heartless with a wave of his hand, he found the metal had melted together.

Gritting his teeth, Terra steadied the cannon once more. "Again! FIRE!"

Another powerful blast exploded from the cannon, sending Terra skidding through the sand. Without anything else to protect him, Atrileng took the full force of the blast, consumed in light until the beam vanished. Steam rising from hideous burns on his skin, he collapsed to the ground, his metal arms having completely dissipated in the blast. Aqua got up, her legs shaking protesting so much that she had to use her Keyblade as support. She rushed over to Terra, who wobbled even more than she did. When she reached him, his Keyblade returned to its normal form and he collapsed to the ground, completely drained of energy.

"I…" hissed Atrileng, his voice producing more steam from his burnt face, "I… How…? How!?"

"You were defeated, Atrileng, because you underestimated the strength of a heart chosen by the Keyblade," a voice replied, and Aqua up to see Master Eraqus walking along the beach to them, Keyblade at the ready, "You underestimated because of their age, because they're children, but you forgot the strength of their hearts. A heart with a true path can overcome anything. Very nice work, Terra, both of you," he smiled.

"Yes, sir, Master Eraqus," Terra chuckled, raising his arm in a weak thumbs up before dropping it back to the ground with a groan.

Atrileng hissed. "Eraqus… burn… I hope you burn… worse than I have… I hope… one day… that your precious apprentices… pay you the same… courtesy… that you've shown me… I hope you rot…"

Eraqus stood over him, staring down at the man with unforgiving eyes. "You'd better hope that never happens, for your sake. I was sure you had died that day, Atrileng, after losing your arms and that much blood. I couldn't come help you or we would have both died that day. I lamented for a long time that I couldn't help you and it caused me a great deal of pain, but there are things we can't undo. You've been beaten by my apprentices, and that's something that you can't change. I would be proud, if I were you. These two will make great Keyblade wielders someday, and their actions will change the universe. This time, you'll die and I won't feel sorry anymore. Goodbye."

Terra chuckled tiredly as Master Eraqus came to check on them. "You talk big for someone who did nothing to help."

"You talk big for someone who keeps breaking my rules. How many times have I told you that firing the Ultima Cannon more than once in a row could kill you, especially because it's a prototype?" Eraqus lectured.

"Yes, Master," Terra grumbled, closing his eyes. "I'll keep that in mind-"

"-next time. You always say that, and you never listen. This is why I loathe putting you in charge of anything."

"And who's to blame for that?"

"Enough," Aqua snapped, making both of them silent, "Terra, are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes," he replied, sighing. "The Ultima Cannon isn't finished yet, so it runs on physical energy. I should be able to walk again in a week… or two."

"If you say so," she sighed, rolling her eyes.

Two weeks later, Master Eraqus announced that it was time for them to leave. At first Aqua didn't understand, but then she remembered that they weren't from her world, and that they had to return to manage the Land of Departure.

Terra looked at her from the seat next to her. "You're coming with us, aren't you, Aqua?"

She was surprised. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it's up to you whether you want to come with us, but it means you may never come back here," he explained. "The choice is yours."

"What do you think?" she asked them.

Terra blushed. "I don't want to make your decision hard for you, but… I think you should come with us. Master Eraqus and I get along fine, but it'd be nice to have someone else around… someone I can talk to. And there's all kinds of worlds to see and people to meet. You'd love it."

"I agree with Terra," Eraqus nodded, his arms folded, "It would be a good experience for you, and you can accomplish much more with us than you can by staying here. But, as always, the choice is up to you."

Aqua took some time to think it over. On one hand, she had her home, the place she had been born in, with the beaches she loved and the people she knew. Her mother and father were both there, but she would never get so see then again. On the other hand, she had the chance to become an apprentice and learn to wield her Keyblade, along with Terra, who had become closer to her than anyone, and Master Eraqus, while they traveled to different and unusual worlds, protecting people from the Heartless. When she weighed her options, the simplicity of the decision made her laugh.

"There's no question to it," she smiled. "When do we leave?"

Realm of Darkness, One year after Kingdom Hearts II

Aqua laughed in spite of herself, remembering her first adventure. She had realized since then that the universe wasn't as simple as she had thought. She had trained with her Keyblade, grown up alongside her best friend, and had experienced things that others her age could only dream of. Then Ventus had been added to the equation and the three of them had become inseparable… well, almost inseparable. Despite that, she still loved the two like brothers and was proud of her actions, even if they hadn't done any good. 'At least I tried. That's good enough for me. One day, Terra, Ven and I will be back together again, and that's the way it'll stay.'

Standing up, not having known how sore she was, she stretched and continued walking along the beach, comforted by the resemblance. She felt like a kid again and as though nothing could stand in her way. It was silly, childish thought, but it didn't matter. She felt free, even trapped in the darkness. 'Maybe… it'll be like that first time. Maybe… I'll meet someone…' As she finished with her thought, she noticed someone sitting on a rock, silhouetted by the moon. Heart pounding fast, she raced over, her stomach dropping when she realized that it wasn't a silhouette, but a black coat. The person inside looked up at her from under the hood and spoke. She recognized the voice, but couldn't place it at first. It was Ansem the Wise, ruler of Radiant Garden.

Ansem explained to her as much as could remember, recounting his betrayal by his apprentices, led by Xehanort; the time he spent in the darkness, and the events that had occurred in the ten years that had followed her battle with Xehanort; the formation of Xehanort's Heartless and his attempt to obtain Kingdom Hearts through the Princesses of Heart; and of Xehanort's Nobody, Xemnas, and Organization XIII's plans to build Kingdom Hearts using the Keyblade. As he described the events to her, it became apparent to her just how long she had been in the Realm of Darkness and how things had changed. 'To think, all this has happened, and I knew nothing of it… It's scary, thinking about it that way.'

As Ansem finished, he settled back into his position and sat silently, staring out into the horizon. Aqua stared at him for a long moment, waiting in case he had something more to say, but he didn't. She sighed internally. 'I'm thankful he could share this with me, but it doesn't do me a lot of good, stuck here. I have to keep wondering: is there any hope for the three of us? Have we used up all our chances?'

She shook her head, smiling. 'No, I can feel it. It's still there. There's still hope. As long as we keep believing that hope exists, it will find us, wherever or whatever we are. As long as he's still out there, we have hope.' She felt tears rolling down her cheeks, tears of joy, and she could feel Ven and Terra, wherever they were, resonating their agreement. 'As long as we believe in him, he can do anything. So, I'll choose to believe in him, and I'll choose to have hope, and I'll wait until you come…'