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Stroke of Midnight

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XXX

The stupid girl was crying.

Vanitas watched her from a thicket of trees, the place where he always designated his dark corridors to materialize.  He had scouted this world long enough to know that this spot was close enough to civilization to be useful, but hidden enough to conceal his arrival.  By virtue of always picking this particular location, he had caught glimpses of this girl before, as it was near a plot of land he assumed was her garden.  The proximity was intentional.  Not because he cared about this girl - in fact, she sickened him with her incessant singing as she went about her work.  Unfortunately, Xehanort had ordered him to keep an eye on her.  She was, after all, a heart of pure light.

Which was why he was surprised to find her crying.  What could she possibly have to cry about?  Life must be all butterflies and rainbows for her.  

He crept silently through the undergrowth, emerging between two tangles of briars.  They caught on the red hem of his waist-cape - he refused to call the stupid garment a skirt - but the girl ignored the rustling as he tugged it free.  As far as he could tell, she was fully wrapped in the world of her own misery.  Well, all the better for him.  His job would be easier than he thought.

She didn’t even lift her head as he slunk behind her.  A simple Stop spell ensured that she never would.  Then, acting before the spell wore off, he seized her shoulders and drew upon her light.  It was a nameless spell, and one he only understood as he performed it.  It felt almost like creating Unversed, only in reverse; instead of releasing negativity, he was stealing positivity.

His skin burned through his suit; his lips parted in silent agony.  Fiery needles pierced his heart like some kind of demonic acupuncture.  Yet the scent - like flowers and cotton; sugar and sky - and the rush - the feeling of waking up, of finally being alive - more than made up for the pain.

He wanted to keep drinking it in, but her heart would recognize the foreign parasite soon enough.  Part of him longed to join with this random girl, the way he soon would with Ventus, but that was beyond stupid.  If Ventus was still weak, then this girl was little more than a bug.  He’d accidentally kill her before they would even have a chance of merging.

Forcing himself to let go was like leaving an all-you-can-eat buffet after only taking a single bite.  He jerked back his hands just as the girl’s head shot up.

By the time she looked over her shoulder, he was once more hidden in the trees.  As much as he wanted to strike fear into her sunshine-filled heart, he might need her again.  No point in tipping her off to what he’d done.

He watched her for a moment to see if she would notice anything off - but she just went right back to sobbing.  Seriously, what was wrong with this girl?

“I’ll give you something to cry about,” Vanitas muttered under his breath, preparing to wrangle  his Annoyance into some Floods and Scrappers.  Just as his hand was stretched out to create the Unversed, however, a voice stopped him.

“Is something wrong?”

For half a second, he thought the question was directed at him.  A stupid assumption, considering no one but Xehanort ever talked to him.  But then he saw Terra’s burly form approaching the crying girl.  Of course, Vanitas should’ve recognized the voice.  He’d spied on Eraqus’s apprentices more times than he could remember.  He just hadn’t expected the taller keyblade wielder to appear here of all places.  Xehanort had ordered him to intercept Aqua here, but he hadn’t said anything about Terra.

Probably didn’t want me picking a fight with his vessel, Vanitas grumbled internally.  The old man never let him have any fun.

“It's just that my friends made me the most beautiful dress - but my stepmother and stepsisters ruined it. And I was so looking forward to the ball.” The girl’s voice slapped him out of his reverie.  

“A ball?”  Vanitas couldn’t help the exclamation.  “She’s sobbing over a freaking ball?”  And a dress!  Void’s Abyss, did Princesses of Heart seriously have nothing better to worry about?

If what the girl had said was embarrassingly pathetic, then Terra’s reply was even worse.

“Darkness always finds a way into a wounded heart. You have to be strong. Strength of heart will carry you through the hardest of trials.”

Vanitas could’ve burst out laughing right there.  A few Archravens of sadistic amusement wanted to flap their way out.  Terra, who was about to succumb to the darkness himself, was lecturing a Princess of Heart about it?

He would’ve stayed to see how their conversation played out, but not only was it likely to get more pathetic from there, he was also on a time limit.  Aqua would be here soon, and his cloaking of light wouldn’t last forever.

So he set free a mob of Unversed and loped off through the forest.

XXX

“I can’t believe… not anymore…”

Terra could hardly believe it himself.  The young woman was still crying, seemingly unaware that more than just her dress had been in danger.  Puffs of darkness still hung in the air, the fading remnants of the Unversed he’d destroyed.

I always said I wanted strength to protect, he told himself, not strength to impress others.  Whether she knew it or not, he had been able to fulfill his purpose as a keyblade wielder.  The Master would have been proud of him.

Then again, maybe he would’ve been more proud if Terra knew a way to help this girl stop crying.  It wasn’t like he had any experience - whenever Aqua cried, she’d also give you this look like if you tried to comfort her, she’d punch you in the face.  She might be such a girl sometimes, but others…

He shook his head.  The one thing Aqua would sometimes let him do was bring her ice cream, but he didn’t have any of that on him at the moment.

Just when he was about to kneel down and maybe pat her shoulder or something, a strange blue mist started to condense on the air in front of her.

“Uh…”  He almost summoned his keyblade, thinking it could be more Unversed, but then he heard the voice.

“Strength of heart is important, but that’s not all you need.”

What - had this weird voice been spying on them?  His face flushed, suddenly self-conscious of his failed attempt to comfort the young woman.  Not that he had any reason to be; it wasn’t his fault she was crying.  And this voice had no right to criticise his advice!

“There’s nothing left to believe in… nothing…” The young woman shook with her sobs.  That seemed a little extreme for having just lost a chance at a ball.  There had to be more to the story than that.  Maybe her stepsisters had hurt her too.  He could cast Cure on her, just in case.

“Nothing, my dear? Oh, now, you don't really mean that,” the mist said, coalescing into… an old lady?  She was cloaked in a blue robe with a giant pink bow tied at her neck.  Well, he’d seen stranger things in the past few days.  At least she seemed more benevolent than Maleficent and the Queen had been.  Not that he had proven himself to be a stunning judge of character…

“Oh...but I do. It's just no use.”

The floating lady placed a hand on her shoulder.  Maybe he should’ve tried a comforting pat after all.  “Nonsense! If you'd lost all your faith, I couldn't be here, and here I am. Oh, come now, dry those tears. You can't go to the ball looking like that.”

The girl looked up, tears still streaming down her face.  “The ball? Oh, but I'm not-”

“Of course you are. But we'll have to hurry. Now, what were those magic words? Oh yes... Bibbidi-Bobbidi-boo!”

What the-?  That wasn’t any kind of magic spell Terra knew.  Not that he was the expert on magic; he left that to Aqua, but he was pretty sure she’d agree.

When the lady’s wand shot out glitter that summoned a pumpkin from across the garden, Terra began to wonder if he’d accidentally inhaled too many D-Link Crystals.  As that pumpkin evolved into a gleaming white carriage, he became increasingly sure of it.  He would’ve run away if he hadn’t been worried he’d pass out somewhere.

He made up his mind to sneak away anyway, but then the old lady-fairy waved her wand again - this time towards the young woman.  His jaw dropped as her tattered dress swirled with glitter and grew into a full white ballgown.

“Oh... It's a beautiful dress,” the woman gasped.  Suddenly she didn’t look so young.  Certainly not old, but - mature.  ...Or something like that.  He was just glad she was too enthralled herself to catch him staring.  “Why… it’s a dream come true!”

The fairy was saying something, but Terra wasn’t paying attention.  He could feel something, the same sixth sense that alerted him to Aurora and Snow White.  It was something like the tingle of stepping into a warm bath on a chilly day.  The feeling of pure light.

And she had to put on a pretty dress for me to see it.  Am I really that shallow?  

“Excuse me, sir,” the woman was waving a white-gloved hand at him.

“Huh?”  He blinked.  The fairy was gone, but the woman, carriage, and even two horses were still there.  He still wanted to blame the D-Link Crystals, but he reluctantly admitted that his imagination probably wouldn’t be this good even if he actually was on drugs.

“You’re going to the ball too, aren’t you?”  She asked with a smile.

“Uh… I… sure…?”  No, you moron, you’re not!  He wanted to slap himself.  It wasn’t like he’d never seen a pretty girl before - well, actually, it was.  Aqua was like his sister; she didn’t count.  She would probably slap him for saying that…

“Would you like a ride in my carriage?  It’s no trouble.”

“Um, ah, no thank you… I actually, uh, wasn’t invited,” he finally managed to stammer.  It didn’t help that her light only served to remind him of what he’d done to Aurora, and nearly done to Snow White.  It was a surprise no shady villainess had come to demand he steal this woman’s heart yet.

At this rate, she’s going to steal mine, the coherent part of his mind thought wryly, before he pushed it aside.  He was a keyblade wielder, for light’s sake, not some fairytale hero whose main job was to sweep princesses off their feet.

The woman laughed, a stereotypically musical sound.  “The whole kingdom is invited; surely you know?  Or are you not from here?”

“Um, no, I’m from here,” he covered quickly, wishing his clothes didn’t make him stick out like the foolish outworlder he was.  The Master would be furious if he revealed the existence of other worlds.  If only that fairy had worked some magic on him, too…  “I’m just not, uh, the kind of person who knows his way around a ball.”

“Well, that makes two of us.”  She gave him another perfect smile.  No one should be allowed to smile at complete strangers like that.  “Shall we go, then?”

He sighed.  It didn’t seem she would take no for an answer.  He guessed a ride wouldn’t hurt; if there was a ball going on, that’s where the most people would be.  Maybe he could ask around about Xehanort and the Unversed there.

“Alright,” he relented.  

“Thank you… um...”  she seemed to be fishing for something.  It took him a moment to realize it was probably his name.

“Terra.”

“Terra.  What a lovely name,” she smiled without a trace of mockery.  He was just grateful she didn’t tease him about having a girl’s name.

“Thanks,” he replied, not really sure how to take it.  “What’s yours?”

“Cinderella.”

Oh.  Well, if he had a name like that, maybe he wouldn’t make fun of anyone else either.  Stop being a jerk, it’s a fine name, he mentally shook himself.

“Nice to meet you, Cinderella.”  He finally managed to complete a full sentence without saying uh. He would’ve fist-pumped, but that probably would’ve been excessive.  Also, this was his first real greeting with someone from another world who didn’t either tempt him to do evil or run away screaming.  Was he supposed to do anything else?  Shake her hand or something?  He shouldn’t have dozed during the Master’s lessons on otherworld cultures…

“Likewise.  Now, we really should be going!  We’ll be ever so late at this rate, but I do believe we can make it.”  She stepped towards the carriage, then paused, as if waiting for something.  She glanced at him.  Maybe he had forgotten part of the greeting?  Whatever it was, she soon shook it off and stepped carefully into the carriage.  He climbed in after her, and the horses took off at a gallop.  He had to dig his fingers into the seat cushion to keep from being flung back.  Cinderella, on the other hand, took the bumpy, jarring road in stride.

“I really can’t thank you enough, Terra,” she said as they rode.  “Those monsters would have attacked me for sure if you hadn’t been there.”

“Wha- you mean you noticed them?”

She giggled.  “Not at first, but it would have been difficult to miss your battle cries.”

His face suddenly heated again.  How could he have been so careless?  He had used his keyblade and magic right in front of her - well, behind her.  Unless this world was full of people like the fairy from earlier, she had to know he wasn’t from around here.  Actually, she had hardly reacted to that either, so maybe magic really was normal around here.

“No need to be embarrassed.  I assure you they were quite manly.”

What - that had definitely not been what he was worried about!  He knew he sounded manly.  ...Except when he made a complete stammering fool of himself in front of her…

“Why didn’t you run away, then?”  He asked.

“From your manly battle cries?”  She raised her eyebrows.

“No!”  The grave he was digging for his pride just kept getting deeper and deeper.  “The monsters, I mean.”

Suddenly her smile softened to look of concern.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to tease you, it’s just been so long since I had another kind human to talk to, I’m terribly out of practice.”

Another kind human?  What other sentient creatures lived on this world?  ...Or had he just ended up alone with a schizophrenic?

“I would have ran from the monsters if I’d seen them earlier,” she continued.  “But I was so lost in myself, I didn’t notice until you were already fighting them.  And then you were so brave… I should have believed then.  I’m sorry you’ve had to see me in such a dark place…”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Terra said, wincing as they flew over another bump in the dirt road.  You never had those kinds of problems with a Keyblade Glider.  “We all have moments where the darkness seems too strong to fight.”

Some of us more than others, he thought with a sigh.  He didn’t realize that sigh had been out loud until Cinderella placed a hand on his knee.

“You seem like someone who has a lot of experience fighting,” she said quietly.  “Has something been troubling you?”

Why would she ask that?  She barely knew him.  Then again, that had basically been the first words he’d said to her - but she had been sobbing uncontrollably, so it had been pretty obvious.

“It’s nothing.”  He shook his head.  His problems belonged to him, nobody else.  No need to spoil Cinderella’s magical ball with his self-doubt.

“I’m sure you thought a torn dress and missing a ball were ‘nothing,’ too,” she smiled, and he might have detected a hint of wryness in it.  

He hated it, but he was sure his face reddened in embarrassment.  “...I wouldn’t have said that.”  Even if he had thought it.

“It’s alright. They are quite small things, really.  It was more of what they represented to me - the dream of being free.  But enough about me!  I’ve already burdened you enough with my sorrows.  Is there any way that I can help you?”

Terra’s first instinct was to say no.  He was supposed to be the strong one, the one who helped, not the one who needed help.  However, the sincerity in her eyes, the light that shone through them, made him wonder if the best way to help her might be to allow her to help him.

“You might,” he decided.  “Have you met a man named Xehanort? Or do you know anything about those monsters that attacked us?”

Those didn’t seem to be the type of questions she was expecting.  Her brow furrowed as she replied, “That name doesn’t sound familiar, though I wouldn’t expect it to. My stepmother keeps me inside unless she needs me to run an errand.  As for those monsters, I’ve seen a few on the edge of the forest before, but never as many as those you fought.”

“Really,” he replied thoughtfully.  Had he attracted the creatures somehow?  “Did they ever attack you before?”

“Hmm… no, strangely they didn’t.”  She frowned.  “I only saw them a few times, so I could be wrong, but they seemed almost curious.”

Curious?  The Master had told him that the Unversed were “fledgling emotions,” but did that mean that they could actually feel those emotions?  It was hard to wrap his head around.  Maybe it was simpler than that - Master Eraqus had also said they fed on negativity.  As a Princess of Heart, Cinderella probably didn’t have much, if any, of that to feed on.

That could also explain why the Unversed seemed so attracted to him lately…

“I was likely just imagining things,” she sighed when Terra didn’t reply.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he said.  “There’s a lot I don’t know about them yet.”

The carriage shook again, probably bouncing over a larger rock this time.  Rather than spending money on fancy balls, Terra wished this kingdom would pave their roads.

He realized the problem might be worse than a bumpy road when a mob of Floods slithered through the windows.

The carriage jerked to a halt; he heard the horses whinny in fright.  Terra nearly flung forward at the sudden stop, but he summoned his keyblade and jammed it through the floor, holding himself in place.  

“I’ve got this,” he assured Cinderella, who had barely paused to gasp before crouching down as far as she could beneath the seat.  Considering she was currently a puff of gauzy fabric and glitter, it wasn't working very well.

“Yes, I’m quite sure you do,” she replied, concern barely tinging her voice.  If it were anyone else, he would’ve thought she was trying to be sarcastic.

Well now wasn’t the time to worry about that - he had Unversed to fight.  Stabbing monsters was something he could handle - if only there was room to stab them.  He had to resort to shooting bursts of Fire through the windows to keep them out, being careful to avoid singeing Cinderella’s probably-flammable dress.  She would probably be more upset about that than about being mauled by monsters.

The few Floods that had made it into the carriage gave him a little more trouble.  There wasn’t enough room to swing his blade, and any magic would be dangerous in such close quarters. The blue monsters were lunging towards Cinderella; he had to think of something -

He slammed his fist into an Unversed’s face.  His hand sunk in a little, like its skin was little more than a cold tarp holding in a fluid substance.  The blow didn’t seem to do much damage, but he swore he could see shock in its glowing red eyes.

Then they narrowed angrily.

Terra barely managed to summon his armor before the Floods dove at him.  Miraculously, his armored fists actually did damage, plunging through the Unversed’s thin skins and destroying them in plumes of dark vapor. He panted slightly as the mist dissipated.  Great as the keyblade was, there was something satisfying about just punching his problems in the face.

Cinderella stood and smoothed out her skirts.  “Well, that was rather exciting.”

Terra just stared at her.  Again, that might have been sarcasm, but she was smiling.  As if her life hadn’t just been in peril for the second time tonight.  This girl needs to get her priorities straight.

“You weren’t worried?”  He asked, which only made her smile wider.

“Didn’t you tell me it was important to stay strong?”

...Alright, she had him there.

After she stepped out to check on the horses, they were off again.  The rest of the trip wasn’t as exciting; mostly Cinderella asked him questions about his armor, which he figured he was allowed to answer.  At least he hadn’t shown off his glider.

She gasped when they arrived at the Castle.  “I’ve never seen it from this close before… it’s beautiful.”

Terra smiled.  “You should see the castle I-”  he cut himself off.  What was he doing?  About to tell her he lived in a castle?  She would never believe his story about being a soldier from the other side of the kingdom at this rate.

“Hm?”  She asked, but when he said “Nothing,” she didn’t press him.  She did seem to be waiting for him to exit the carriage first, though, so he scrambled out the door.  

She still looked at him strangely.  What?  Something about getting in and out of carriages… oh.  He remembered now, from several of Aqua’s old princess movies.  The prince was supposed to help the princess get in and out.  It made sense; if it was a pain for him to climb out, it must be even more of a struggle in a dress.

“Here.”  He took her by the arms and lifted her down, which made her giggle.

“Well, that works too…”

“What?”  He frowned.

“Oh, nothing,” she said, but she was still stifling a laugh.  Other worlds and their crazy cultures…

At least there were more Unversed in the castle’s courtyard.  Fighting them was a welcome distraction from his embarrassment.

Once inside the castle, they followed the sounds of classical music and chattering voices towards the ballroom.  How anyone had made it through the Unversed, he had no idea, until he saw a few castle guards stabbing at some Scrappers with long pikes.  They roved in groups of three or four, taking out any Unversed that had made it through the doors.  Whatever this ball was about, apparently it was important enough to hold in spite of the monstrous threat.

He had to stop himself from summoning his keyblade and helping the guards out.  Cinderella was one thing; showing off his weapon to others here could be dangerous.  “What is this ball for, anyway?”  He asked her to distract himself as they continued towards the ballroom.

“Hm?  Oh, I think it has to do with the prince, or something,” she waved a hand, as if it weren’t really important.

“You mean you were so excited to come, and you don’t actually know what it’s about?”  Terra asked in surprise.

She laughed sheepishly.  “I just know that ‘every eligible maiden’ is supposed to attend.  It’s the first excuse I’ve had in forever to leave the manor, to have one night for myself…  It could have been a country hoedown rather than a ball and I still would have been thrilled.”

“Fair enough.”  He’d felt similarly about leaving the Land of Departure.  Even if his mission to locate Xehanort was less than successful at the moment, at least he was getting to see the worlds and use his keyblade for good.

Well, mostly for good… He hid a wince at his memory of Aurora.  No.  That wasn’t my fault; that was Maleficent.  He couldn’t do anything for Aurora now; the most he could do was protect others like her.  Like Cinderella.

Finally, they reached the ballroom.  If she had been impressed by the castle’s exterior, the light in her blue eyes doubled at the sight of the well-dressed men and women inside.  Well, well-dressed for this world, he guessed.  The women looked like a rainbow of puffballs in their poofy dresses.  The men were a little better, in stiff uniforms or tailcoats.

Terra stopped at the door.  When Cinderella glanced back at him in confusion, he simply bowed and gestured for her to go on.

“You… aren’t coming?”  She asked.

“I did tell you that I don’t know my way around a ball,” he replied.  Besides, his spiky hair and wide pants would stand out like a syrup stain on one of Ven’s jackets.

“Nonsense,” she laughed.  “Why, you just gave me the most gentlemanly bow.  Surely a knight like yourself has been to a ball before.”

“A knight?”  Well, a knight was probably more similar to a keyblade wielder than a soldier.  That would have been a better cover story.  “Uh, sure.  But I still haven’t been to a ball before.”

“As I said before, that makes both of us.”  She paused, as if expecting him to agree.  When he didn’t, she continued with an expression that reminded him of Ven’s when Terra ate the last cookie.  “Please forgive me for my assumptions, Terra.  It was kind of you to accompany me this far.  It means so much to me.”

Was she doing that on purpose?  Making the guilt squirm in his chest?  She turned and daintily held her skirts as she walked into the ballroom.

He should have let her go.  Let her find some other man to talk to, someone from her world, someone who could continue to be her friend after he was gone.  She was kind and friendly, if a little strange; she would have no trouble mingling.

He wasn’t sure what possessed him to call out, “Wait.”  She turned with a hint of hope in her eyes.  “There might be Unversed in there.  I should at least make sure it’s safe.”

She blinked.  Then that wonderful smile spread across her face.  “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

In spite of himself, Terra grinned.  Whether there were more Unversed to fight or not, he realized he might enjoy this ball.