The wind blew dust across the Badlands, and Xemnas breathed in the arid air. The dirt was undoubtedly already turning his pristine black boots amber - he would have to have them cleaned upon his return, in case any of his subordinates noticed and realised he had left The World That Never Was.
He hadn’t been back to the Keyblade Graveyard since that fateful clash, and now he stood on its ground once more and breathed in the empty, dead air, conflicting memories raced through his mind. Staring down himself from two sides of the terrain. Hatred and contempt in equal measure, of equal intensity, but from opposing directions. Simultaneously having a dark shadow at his heel, and two bright lights at his side. The light threatening to smother him - or at least, one version of him - had been evident from both perspectives.
Xemnas closed his eyes and breathed, attempting to sort the memories into something more coherent. He had told the apprentices he was amnesiac - that was easier to say than to attempt to explain the conflicting narrative that his memories had become, and he was hardly going to tell the truth to a collection of pawns. Even that tiny thought sparked a flash of fury where his heart - hearts? - should have been, quickly smothered by the contempt that he could always fall back on. That, at least, was a constant.
There was an abrupt change to the air, a swift motion like all of the oxygen had been drawn away. He conjured a barrier immediately, and the enormous orb of energy that the lingering will of Terra had formed bounced harmlessly away. The suit of armour it occupied dodged the orb as it bounced back toward him, and he cast a magical whip that lashed all around him and behind the straight wall that Xemnas had created. Xemnas simply stepped into the nothingness around him and emerged elsewhere, near the armour yet out of range of the attack. He held open his hands and the barrier reformed all around himself, surrounding him in an almost-cage of protective magic. He had little doubt that Terra could break through it if he attempted to trap him, but if he surrounded himself rather than Terra’s remains he would have to focus on maintaining one of the walls alone instead of all of them.
“Cease this foolishness,” he ordered, his voice carrying through the magic and to the armour beyond. “I seek only answers.”
Terra clearly wasn’t listening - he had transformed his Keyblade into some sort of bow, and was firing light arrow after light arrow at the barrier as though that would break it down. He hadn’t known how to do that ten years ago - perhaps he had been training during his absence from his body, and had grown a stronger affinity with the light. There was a sort of grim satisfaction that rose within him at that, but he quashed it quickly enough. He reminded himself not to get complacent; he simply needed his information, and then he would disappear.
“The suit of armour in Radiant Garden,” he said slowly and purposefully. “Who did it belong to?”
He already half-knew the answer, but he couldn’t remember her name. A woman, one with blue hair and a smile like the sun - like the light she was drowning in, that she forced upon the world and upset the balance just like her master did. The light that he and his servant had longed to smother out. The light that had flickered under his fingertips as he squeezed her throat, that had wavered at the sight of her friend like this.
That was all he remembered from the weaker side of his heart, the one still a slave to petty sentiment. The side that he wanted to smother completely, but that remained like a persistent stain.
The armour belonged to a friend. The armour may be the key to finding her.
The armour had to be kept away from her from all costs.
The mention of the armour made the lingering will banish the bow, and instead charge at the barrier with his Keyblade alone. Xemnas almost flinched when the blade collided with his barrier repeatedly, staring straight into the empty visor of Terra’s remains as he waited for him to stop. He did not, and after a long moment Xemnas reached a gloved hand into the pocket of his long coat. Terra’s armour continued to assault the barrier until it seemed to catch sight of what exactly it was dangling from his fingers.
The orange glass caught the sun hanging over the Badlands, causing the star to shimmer in Xemnas’s hand, and what remained of Terra went completely still.
The proximity to the armour that had been his - the armour that belonged to the foolish youth who was so easy to manipulate - was making the memories that were deeply buried come closer to the forefront. He remembered the bright smile on her face as she brandished three of the charms, each a different colour but shining equally beneath the hanging lanterns. He remembered the sturdiness of it in his hand as he caught it, remembered the glimmer in her blue eyes as she said she’d worked magic on it. A pitiful trinket made in the image of the fruit of the world that he had left behind.
‘An unbreakable connection’, she’d said with a grin, and he had believed her. He had believed with all of his heart that that night would be the start of a bright future - the crowning of two new masters, the promise of a new age of Keyblade wielders. But only one had been crowned master, and the three of them had been scattered as they vainly fought in the dust, surrounded by the dead.
He had a vague memory of her staring him down in another world, a lifetime later, those bright eyes shining with cold fury and determination - but even the righteous anger filling her couldn’t begin to dim her light. She had summoned her Keyblade in a flutter of petals, her form not faltering for a second as it came to her fingertips, her eyes not leaving his as she made her declaration.
‘My name is Master Aqua. Now return my friend’s heart, or pay the price!’
“Aqua,” Xemnas breathed, and Terra’s lingering will physically recoiled. A rumbling growl of air escaped from the helm, and although the empty shell was incapable of forming words Xemnas still heard them as clear as day, echoing in his mind.
You do not deserve to say her name.
“That was all I needed,” Xemnas said, and he opened a corridor of darkness in front of him, still shielded behind the barrier. What remained of Terra immediately began attacking the barrier again, desperate to catch him before he disappeared, but he couldn’t get through before Xemnas was enveloped by the darkness and carried away.
It was time he visited Aqua’s armour.
Two graveyards in the space of an hour seemed a little excessive, but now the thought was in his head he had to go to the chamber. He had to see the armour for himself - had to see if it suddenly triggered any recollections that had previously been denied to him.
Inputting the passwords into Ansem’s computer was second nature to him now, his gloved fingers dancing over the keyboard that his old master, that foolish old man, had used freely. There was a loud roar as the secret door at the foot of the Heartless manufactory began to open, and Xemnas tucked the disc that opened the doors back into the pocket of his coat. His hand brushed the Wayfinder as he did so, and a spasm of emotion he couldn’t quite name lanced across his face. Years ago simply holding it in his hand could give him power; he could feel his bonds with the two people whose names were lost to him (Aqua he now knew, and the boy who was not Roxas) and they gave him strength in turn. As he began the long descent to the rooms at the foot of the spiral he found himself pulling the Wayfinder out of his pocket and holding it to his chest, over where his heart(s) should have been.
He closed his eyes for the briefest of moments, trying to think of the woman and the boy whose name he didn’t know. He chased the phantoms of the emotions their existence in his life had stirred within him, but the second he felt a shiver of the warm affection he had felt for them it was snuffed out by the wave of scorn that overwhelmed him. He grimaced and put the Wayfinder back, continuing his descent.
There were claw marks on the stairwell from when Maleficent had attacked, the Heartless he had set free to counter her having desperately clawed their way toward the people who hadn’t yet been cast from the world. The scent of darkness still hung thick on the air, despite all of the actual Heartless having left this part of the world long ago. He supposed that it took longer for places like this to stop reeking of death.
The smell grew stronger the further down he went, and when he eventually emerged from the stairwell to the bright white corridor the darkness was almost overwhelming. He could almost hear the screams of the people he and his companions had locked down here and experimented on - could hear the rattle of the chains on the door, the fearful cries, the furious shouts, the sobs. He remembered the morbid curiosity that had overpowered the disgust and shame; the same curiosity that had driven his fellow apprentices to follow him into the dark. He remembered the two boys who had crept into the castle before they had known it was no longer Ansem’s but his, and the expressions of pure terror on their faces as they had seen this place.
The door at the far end of the white hall opened for him, revealing the throne that was his and the armour that was Aqua’s. He sat down and the room was illuminated, white light reflecting off of the broken visor of the helmet. He remembered seeing that armour crashing down to earth in the distance, from two separate pairs of eyes, expecting to see the body broken and unmoving in the crater the fall had made. He remembered the disappointment-relief as he saw her rise instead, hair so bright against the dust and stone. Why would this Keyblade Master just not die?
He reached for the Wayfinder again, cradling it gently in his hand as he looked at the broken armour and the Keyblade beside it.
“Aqua,” he said, as though the name could summon her when ‘friend’ did not. He didn’t know what he would do if it actually worked; if he would rise to embrace her or run her through. If she would look at him like she did that night beneath the stars when it had been the three of them, or when they stood opposed in the plaza of Radiant Garden. He didn’t know which would hurt more, or if he even had the capacity to feel hurt when he was like this.
But the armour didn’t move, and no Keyblade Master appeared in this dark place. He tried saying her name again, but the word felt wrong on his lips - his voice couldn’t decide how he should say it, or what the word meant to him. Everything was a jumbled mess torn between Terra and Xehanort, their intentions and desires so opposed that he couldn’t make sense of it.
His fingers tightened around the Wayfinder marginally, the tiny points of the star almost piercing his gloves, and he reached out with his free hand. He reached out to the heart that was lost to him, the heart he had sealed away, and with all his might he willed his Keyblade into existence.
Light and dark sparked at his fingertips, clashing with one another, trying to pull together into one consistent shape. For an instant a larger Keyblade formed in front of him, the enormous Earthshaker, but as soon as he recognised it it flickered out of existence. The ghost of No Name replaced it quickly enough, but there was enough of Terra remaining within him that it couldn’t quite become corporeal. His ethereal blades came so easily, but neither of his Keyblades could decide if they wanted to appear. Both refused to acknowledge what he had become.
He closed his hand into a fist and slammed it onto the side of the throne, glaring at the armour and willing it to move, for her voice to come out of it. Nothing happened, and Xemnas sighed. He rubbed at his forehead with the gloved hand still clutching the Wayfinder, eyes still fixed on the armour, and drummed his fingers on the side of the throne with the other.
“I miss you.”
The words slipped out without thinking, and the part of him that ached with loss warred with the derision that immediately sprung forth. But, although the derision appeared to firmly rule his head, his mouth spoke otherwise.
“I wish you were here.”
To have you near me. To bring an end to you once and for all.
“I am tired of this.”
He closed his eyes, feeling the cold of the Wayfinder against his skin, and waited for it to glow. Waited to hear Aqua’s voice, or the boy who was not Roxas - sometimes Roxas would say something, and the subtle cadence of those particular words would send a jolt through him as though he had been struck - but nothing happened. Nothing greeted him but silence, and nothing glowed but the insignias he himself had carved onto the walls.
He was alone, with the shell of someone who had once been a friend, surrounded by darkness and the dead.