"Ours is a bizarrely ironic task—to watch over the light from the shadows."
Master Eraqus had said it strangely, like a tainted quote. He handled the words like a dark artifact he was in the process of destroying. But he meant them.
Terra hadn't forgotten the day Master Eraqus had said it. Now that the darkness enfolded him, silently testing his armor, the words comforted him. The darkness was not something he had to fear or defeat- it was his natural environment. He only had to keep it in check- to channel it, Master Xehanort had said.
Ahead of him, the darkness broke for a nearby world. He gripped his glider and adjusted toward it, still lost in thought. He had left the Land of Departure for the first time in his life and all he could think about was going back. He still had questions, stones to turn over… Terra shook his head. The justifications on his mind lacked a certain truth to them.
He didn't have anything to learn from turning over the stones or questioning The Master anymore, and Ventus knew less than him. He wanted to learn in private, one-on-one, without interference. It was Aqua he wanted to question, alone. He had passed up countless chances to ask her, favoring less verbal conversations. The thought of his weakest mistake was constricting his fingers, offing his direction again.
Terra corrected angrily, but couldn't force his way out of his thoughts until the world ahead finally caught up with him, drawing him to the task at hand.
Terra's glider couldn't carry him fast enough to escape his thoughts now. No amount of darkness buffeting him could scare him into forgetting what he'd done. And that was the problem; the darkness wasn't scaring him. Terra could only sense that he should be afraid, that he needed to resist, that a woman with a pure heart- without, his conscious chided- that a woman was practically dead because of him.
The thought of retreating home appeared. Terra needed Master Eraqus now more than ever. He needed to know what power Maleficent had over him, what had gone so horribly wrong that she had controlled him. He needed to ask questions, to…
Terra shook his head clear at the sight of another world. He was so busy over-thinking with his one-track mind that his body had done the honors of going onward. There was nothing Master Eraqus could tell him that he didn't already know, nothing that he hadn't already said. He didn't want to go home to Eraqus. He wanted to find Aqua there waiting for him, and he wouldn't. She had been sent out just like him. She was on one of the millions of pinpricks he could see in the darkness- hopefully the next one.
And if not the next one, then hopefully the one after that. The magic mirror, while cryptic and entertaining, would only answer him one question, and only then with a riddle. He had wanted to ask it about her, but duty came first. The meager clue it provided was at once frustrating for prolonging his search for Master Xehanort, and comforting for knowing that he hadn't wasted an opportunity.
And now he was on a third world.
Terra couldn't help but think that his time at the ball was through when Cinderella fled at the sound of midnight. Her satin form sprinted past him over the carpeted floor. A noble, probably the prince, was left reaching behind her. Too polite to give chase, his only recourse was a plea: "Wait! Come back! Please, come back!"
Terra knew enough to step out of the way and not get involved beyond a prayer. He prayed though, harder than he ever had. The thought of endless worlds without Aqua was taking Cinderella's place as she left, and he hated it. He hated the thought of living the entirety of his life without her in it. Strength be damned if it would never compliment her beauty. He hated the idea of his life dying by the hand of time, by the starvation of his heart.
And he hated the idea.
He knew that an idea in his head would have its way with him until it was done, that it would scatter his focus with its roots while it grew into the dark impulses that had already taken his dream of mastery from him. Oh yes, he knew it was darkness. It was rage and hatred for his lot in life. He wasn't praying for the princess to stop; he wanted her to trip.
The thought of her tiara and pearls cascading down the stairs into a magical oblivion while the maid-in-rags was left nursing a broken ankle danced in his mind. His fantasy turned into something elaborate, an entire list of justifications and possibilities seducing him in turn, taking her life and giving to his. The thought consumed him, that if she would trip and fall at the perfect angle, he would never suffer again.
His sanity was saved, abruptly, by the distraction of a wish fulfilled. She had turned to wave on her way down a step, to apologize for having to go, and was suffering the consequences of indecision. Terra dashed on instinct to catch her, without realizing just how far away she had already gotten during his stupor. Terra had only made it to the top step by the time Cinderella had recovered her balance and abandoned the offending slipper.
She waived again and called, "I'm sorry, but I must leave!"
Terra shook in his skin. He had wanted her dead. For a moment, it was as if he were still standing over the sleeping princess. But he was past that. He hadn't done anything this time, he reminded himself. He… was distracted by a woman in the entryway who was taking a curious interest in Cinderella's departure.
Her short, blue hair turned, revealing her confused face. She took a second to realize he was above her, but smiled when their eyes met.
He was halfway down the stairs before his wits returned and he had enough sense to jog instead of run, to not seem so desperate. He had his question to ask her. He had to know, and now, on a world of strangers, was the time and place to ask her. But when they met at the base of the staircase, she was the first to speak.
"Terra... Ven ran away from home."
Terra's one-track mind failed him as his interests stepped aside for worry.
Her lips had leveled, smoothing out the smile into a professional expression.
"I think he left to go find you. Do you have any idea why?"
Terra was a moment behind her, wondering for himself rather than retracing his own speedy departure.
The memory struck him as soon as he had denied it. He and his one-track mind had ignored Ventus. The thought of adventure, of finding new strength and defeating the Unversed had led him to abandon his friend.
" Actually…" slipped across his tongue.
Aqua's concern manifested toward him in a pointed look.
He braved her disappointment to finish. "Just before I left, he tried to tell me something."
She made no response, leaving Terra at her mercy, vulnerable to anything that she could think or say. He couldn't bear to see it on her face. Several steps away and his back to her cured him of the pain. It was all he knew to do beyond adding, "I should have listened to what he had to say."
Aqua, meanwhile, had felt the pain of his fear to face her.
"Oh," she whispered.
The ensuing silence in the grand entryway left both of them grasping for topics, for any way to vocalize their desires without the risk of ruining what stability they had left.
"So…" Aqua finally mumbled. "Did you manage to locate Master Xehanort?"
Terra shook his head.
"No, but it seems he's looking for pure hearts filled with light."
He couldn't handle her presence anymore. What he'd wanted more than anything only a moment ago was too much for him now. He had to be alone. He had to fix himself and tame his heart before he could ever dare to ask her.
"Pure hearts…" she mimicked, pondering. "Filled with light…"
His feet continued to carry him away, obeying his heart. "All I can tell you is that his search hasn't taken him here."
Aqua nodded, still watching him leave, feeling his every step as the intentional separation that it was.
"All right," she managed to say in a level tone. "I'll stay and see if I can find more clues."
"You can stay, too," she wanted to add.
Terra would make his own decision no matter how she pleaded.
"Okay." His head turned slightly to address her over his shoulder. "The prince is in the ballroom ahead. He might have some answers."
She nodded again, acquiescing to the impending solitude, and muttered "Thanks."
But as she turned to climb the stairs, she heard him stop. He knew she had noticed. It had taken him every unit of control he had left to stop himself, to come as close to asking her as he could.
"Aqua," was all he managed to say. He had tried to suppress the plea in it, but perhaps it was what gave him her full attention. His gaze found the courage to lock on to her.
"You still have the same dream?" he asked.
On her face it seemed obvious, as if she didn't even need to answer. "Well… yes."
Terra nodded. He wouldn't ask her here, or now. But he knew that she would always want to be a master- a true master- and that as long as they both wanted the same thing, he would see her again. The excuse soothed his cowardice enough for him to stand straighter and stern.
"There's this girl here- her name is Cinderella. She made me realize how powerful it is just to believe. No matter how impossible things seem… a powerful enough dream will always be enough to light the darkness."
He hadn't said anything near what he really wanted to, but it gave him an extra second to stand across from her and look into her eyes.
She nodded, distractedly, the unrequited expectancy obvious in her disappointed glare. "Hm."
"If you see her, give her my thanks."
Aqua nodded again, for the last time, and answered, "will do" as if to say "good bye."
Terra turned, and before he could hate himself for not asking, his one-track mind carried him into another world entirely: "Who is the boy in the mask?"
Terra dispelled his keyblade as the last of the Unversed monster faded into its death. From Unversed to Unliving, it seemed. Radiant Gardens could sleep easily tonight.
Aqua interrupted his morbid fascination. "We make a good team."
"Sure do!" Ventus chimed in.
Ventus. Terra did his best to turn a paternal glare at the runaway, if only to impress upon him the stupidity of leaving Master Eraqus' side to look for a single person in a world of worlds. The look faltered when Terra realized that his search for Master Xehanort was exactly that.
"Oh yeah! I got you guys these tickets." Ventus successfully delayed their scolding and produced three cards from one of his pockets. Terra couldn't be blamed for being caught off guard.
"For what?" he nearly yelled.
Ventus ignored Terra's tone in his excitement. "Lifetime passes to Disney Town!"
He handed one of the cards to Terra.
"He said to…"
Ventus meant to continue, but trailed his thought into a sadder one. He handed a second card to Aqua and pocketed the third before admitting, "he said to take two grown-ups."
That one, no one was prepared for.
"Y-you mean…" Aqua stammered. "You mean us?"
Terra chuckled with Aqua at the thought. But when their eyes met like they had before on so many quiet nights at home, they knew what he meant.
"Listen to me, Ven," Aqua tried in a not-too-maternal voice. "We need to get you home."
Ven shook his head. "It's okay Aqua. Trust me. That guy in the mask is history. He'll never badmouth Terra again."
Terra was seized. What had hit him, he didn't know. But the thought of the boy in the mask coming for Ventus had crossed a line. He grabbed Ven's shoulder angrily. "You saw the boy in the mask?"
Ventus responded with shock and had to force himself to stammer, "Y-yes?"
Terra couldn't be bothered with defending Ventus. And he sure as hell didn't want to spend the rest of his life sailing the darkness in search of worlds without Aqua- not while she was an arm's length away from him. He had too much to do, and the fear that he had too little time to do it.
The only way to be a master was for Eraqus to make him one. And the only way for him to have Aqua was for her to always be in a place he could find her. And Ventus could only really be safe in that same place.
"Ven," he said. "Let Aqua take you home."
Ventus stamped his foot. "No way! I wanna go with you guys."
Terra bit back the urge to smack him and discarded it, not recognizing the signs of his darker habits and worse decisions. A lie came to mind.
"You can't. We have a dangerous task ahead of us."
Aqua shifted her weight beside him, and he knew, dimly, that he had made a mistake.
"I don't want you to get hurt," he finished.
"And what is this dangerous task, Terra?"
The bite in Aqua's words met tender emotions in him. He didn't have a response. He couldn't fathom a lie for her.
"It doesn't sound like what the Master told you to do." The accusation in her tone was unavoidable. And for the first time, Terra found himself accountable to his friends for things that he knew he could never justify. He saw the conversation going to a place that, at the moment, he would pay anything to avoid.
He had hoped dearly, more than he wanted to be a Master, that this time he would have the strength to ask her. Now, he simply couldn't.
"It might be a different route, but I'm fighting the darkness." He left the statement unsupported, for lack of support, he realized. He was exposed, laid bare and open to whatever she could say. He was, as always, at her mercy.
"I'm not so sure," she mumbled. She couldn't meet his eyes. He couldn't meet hers. It left Ventus trying to peer up at both of them.
Aqua shook her head. "I've been to the same worlds as you, Terra, and…"
He closed his eyes.
"And I've seen what you've done." She raised her eyes to his again, this time stern and holding justice.
He retreated into the comfort of his fears, of his desperate defense, and hid behind an insulted, angry stare.
"You shouldn't put yourself so close to the darkness, Terra!"
He took a step back, indignant, horrified at what he had done, and academic as to why it was that- really- he felt nothing but curiosity for the unknown, and a lust for power. He just wanted an excuse to turn around, walk away, and find Master Xehanort.
Ventus came to his verbal defense instead and stepped between them. "Listen to yourself, Aqua! Terra would never-"
"You mean you've been spying on me," Terra interrupted.
Ventus drifted to the side of the standoff, shocked at the accusation.
"Is that what he said to do? The masters orders?"
And now it was Aqua who was ashamed, who couldn't meet his stare, who felt bare and exposed to his judgements.
"He was only-" she tried. But no interruption was needed. She couldn't defend the indefensible.
"A-Aqua," Ven stumbled.
Terra shook his head free of the anger that was building inside of him. He had his excuse to turn and leave, and he did.
"I get it," was his way of goodbye.
Ventus stepped after him and called, "but Terra!"
"Just STAY PUT!"
Ventus stepped back, and found that Aqua had as well. Neither of them had ever been found the object of Terra's outbursts. Even he took a moment to reel from it.
"I'm on my own now, okay?"
He didn't wait for a response. He was done waiting- waiting to ask her, waiting to become a master, waiting to die alone and weak. He walked away.
And when Aqua called after him, "Terra, please! Listen!" he found that, for the first time in his life, he was not at her mercy. And he didn't.
Oh how he wished he had. The phantom of regret gnawed at his mind and cursed him every second that he failed to repent and call for her. He could have, he knew. The Wayfinder could have brought him to her on any of the days he had spent searching out knowledge and power. At a moment's notice he could have had her in his arms and asked her the one question that a lifetime of searching could never answer. But his dark impulses had guided him closer to their source. And here he was, in the barren lands of a war that, in truth, had never ended. Terra raised his keyblade as a salute to those fallen before him. He could not sanctify their graves, he knew. He could not comfort them. The judgments of ten-thousand nameless warriors were brought to bear upon him: how dare you perpetuate this madness?
Terra found that his only answer could be a justification. He drew up his full height, to present it to their lingering hearts and souls. Shamelessly, honestly, he lifted his voice to them. "What I do here," he intoned, "I do for my friends." The weight of their judgment seemed quelled. Perhaps it was simply the one reasonable justification that he had.
But more so, it was a milestone- the last in his life. The next time that his eyes would meet hers would be the last time for his lips to just formulate the one thing he needed. The Wayfinder, secure in his pocket, was his only comfort until that final reunion. It came sooner than he expected.
Out among the keys, stuck in the earth where their owners had left them: he could sense her approaching. He waited, too long it seemed, as if the time he had wasted on other worlds was shorter than this final torment. Her every step toward him peeled away a layer of hatred and added a layer of regret until, finally, she stopped before him. She was several lengths away still, he observed, and wouldn't meet his eyes. It was far more distance than she had given him before.
He deserved it. He was a wretched, lost soul. He had done terrible things. But he would ask her now, he thought. She proved him wrong when she finally looked up at him.
"I was told… the master was struck down."
He knew he was at her mercy again, and he didn't care. He wanted it. He wanted her to give him direction in life and to correct all of his wrongs. The loneliness of his horrid self had convinced him finally that he needed her like water, if only to wash away his sins.
"Yes…" he admitted. "That's right."
He dropped his gaze. "I was stupid and helped Xehanort do it." Aqua's gasp failed to stop him.
"The master- He tried to hurt Ven. I only fought because I wanted to protect him."
The moment revisited him like a burning scar. The weight of his blade striking his own master was pain in itself.
"But I was tricked!" His fists balled as an outlet for the turmoil in him. "Xehanort set the whole thing up, all so he could awaken the darkness inside me."
She took a step toward him, this time as if the layers of distrust were peeling away from her.
"You were right, Aqua. And so was the Master. I did need to be watched."
She took another step, and placed her hand on him.
"I went astray- but no more."
Her steely eyes faltered and watered the soil as her level-headed defense finally failed. What use was her disguise against the one person whom she wanted to see and hear her? What use was a lie so close to their possible deaths?
"What else is darkness, but hate, and rage?"
Terra could have answered. His shame spoke silently for him.
"Terra," she cried. "Xehanort is feeding the dark fires within you- making you fight. You'll go astray again. Terra, you will!"
His eyes closed. The horror of his realization prevented him from responding: She was right. And as long as she was right, he could never ask her.
"Terra, how does that honor our master's memory?"
She grabbed him by the arms and tried to shake his stoic form. "Answer me, Terra!"
But he had decided. His one-track mind had set a course, and he had made his own decision.
Ventus' footsteps interrupted her further pleas, but did not surprise her. It was fitting this way- that they would all meet. If it were possible, she would have wanted everyone here. His approach seemed the end of her life, and the beginning of her final duties.
From there, it was battle, a struggle to match what had preceded it by so many years.
Terra could only think of defending his friends- save Ventus- save Aqua- survive- find strength from wherever you can, but save them. And when Xehanort finally gave under the blow of his keyblade, he felt freed. In that one moment, his one track mind suddenly stopped and thought- I will live to ask her. His armor may have helped that come true, had he summoned it a moment sooner.
He was lost, feeling his way through the dark, cavernous tunnels carved into his own heart. He was a stranger in his own body, and because of it, he was free. There was truly nothing left for him to lose. Terra sat on the darkness below him and pulled the Wayfinder from his pocket, an inseparable bond, and called her name.
"Aqua… please, destroy me."
For a time that could not be measured, there was silence. He waited, and wondered for how long he could, until the answer came.
"Terra, lead me to you."
He did, as best as he could. He willed himself to meet her, to have his feet carry his body into the night of the town while Xehanort slept.
It was then that a light appeared, and like the clearest of cries she had ever given, he heard her call his name. "No! You're Terra!"
"Terra, you say?" his voice responded.
Terra leapt to his feet. It was her! Near him! He focused and struggled with all of what was left of him to feel, to sense.
Slowly, and in a murky fashion, he felt his limbs exist. He entered his own body. She was there, at the end of his arm with his fist balled around her neck. Terra released his grip in horror and was set upon by an ache in his head before he could react. Xehanort had awoken. What little resistance he could offer was squelched in a slight moment, and he found himself lying in the darkness again almost instantly. But he could hear her, calling his name. He could feel her blows against his body like judgments against his errors. Xehanort was using his body against her. The thought took his mind, empowered him with that same rage and hatred that had gotten him into the whole mess. He would have none of it.
Terra jumped to his feet again and felt. No other words could describe it. He felt into his body as best as he could, leaning too far, holding his strikes, tripping, sapping his own strength, destroying the body he had spent his life honing for power. And he was doing it for her. Strength be damned if it would never compliment her beauty!
She struck him down with a final blow, sending Xehanort reeling out of the picture long enough for Terra to seize his chance. He was in control again for the last time.
He could feel it acutely, like an expensive glove that he would only have the honor of wearing once. It could smell the sweet air of Radiant Gardens, feel the weight of his armored shoes and the billowing of his pants. He could see her there, weapon at the ready against him, and could feel the damage she had done to him. It was the only moment he allowed himself. He knew that he would not have time to ask her for the answer he needed. He had wasted the chances that he had.
Following his will, his arms raised an odd keyblade to himself- Xehanorts, he remembered. The tip rested against his chest, and he felt it lock, as if an iron weight were connected to his heart. Aqua dropped her blade despite herself, and lunged to stop him.
It was the only way.
He turned it, locking himself in forever, guarding Eraqus and himself from any further corruption that could spread- from Xehanort, from that Thing stalking behind him. "It was the only way," he tried to tell her. The wind in his lips brushed silently into the night as the last of his thoughts left him. His one-track mind derailed, and, dimly, he heard her call his name as he fell.
Death did not greet him as a floor. He was falling, as if forever, and feeling the horrors of the dark surround him. There was no testing of his armor, for it was now gone, possessed by a lingering sentiment for justice. The abuses of obscurity set upon him and blinded his senses. The darkness obscured everything to him, from the pinpricks of light to the desperate sounds of Aqua's pursuit after him. Alone for the first time in his life, Terra could only stand in silence, in the darkness within himself, in the darkness between worlds, and pray.
The prayer was another first- an honest, heartfelt longing for something good; It wasn't a prayer for a trip-to-her-death, or an answer. He had missed his chances. Secretly, from the last bastion of his free will, he tucked the little prayer into his Wayfinder, and sent it away: let her know.
A hand grabbed his from the darkness, bringing rain to parched earth. She wrapped him in an embrace and swiftly had the both of them accelerating to safety on her glider. Tucked against her, albeit awkwardly, he felt his chance. But his body would not respond. Terra drew in his full height, trying again to step in control. His body wasn't even in a position to be conscious. It merely dangled in Aqua's arms. But he wouldn't give up this close. He would answer the prayer himself if he had to. Calling on his Wayfinder, calling on every link he had made, he borrowed the strength of every world he had seen, of ever friend he had found, and screamed it, finally, at the top of his lungs.
His lips twitched as their feeling returned.
"Aqua," they managed to whisper.
Her response was set aside due to her focus, or perhaps because she couldn't hear him. Something ahead of them had her full concentration.
"Aqua… do you… know?"
She grimaced and leaned her weight against the glider, egging more speed out of it. There was light against the visor of her armor.
"Do you know how I feel about you?"
His words were mere wisps that she didn't seem to hear in the shrouding darkness.
"Do you feel the same?" He finally asked. The weight of so many years not saying it lifted from his heart instantly; so easily that he cursed himself for being such a fool with his previous chances. But it was Aqua's curse he heard instead of his own.
"Damnit! Both of us can't make it!" Her level expression failed her again, tears for a resolved and unfavorable course welled to life in her eyes, and Terra realized- with emotions he had long forgotten- that this was her answer, whether conscious or not. The embrace around him was no longer hers, but her abandoned armor.
She leaned over him, the pain of the burning darkness plain on her face, and whispered into his ears, "I'm always with you, Terra."
And as he faded into the recesses that he had built for himself, Terra felt the lonely embrace of her armor fulfilling its final role, to save him in favor of her. And he had his answer.