The end of the world comes and goes, but they’re not quite finished yet.
Aqua hooks her fingers into Terra’s shirt and Ven’s jacket and whispers, “Curaga.” A bell chimes and flowers bloom over them, green light washing away their scrapes and wounds before ebbing a second later.
“I’m not even hurt,” Ven says, but it’s a weak protest. They both know that only reason that’s true is because Aqua took every opportunity (and then some) to dump a healing spell on him mid-battle.
Maybe a bit wasteful, as far as mana management is concerned, but Aqua would give up every drop of her magic and then some if it kept her friends safe. She’s strong enough to afford to.
Despite the grumble, Ven doesn’t complain when it takes a little too long for Aqua to let go of them, as though she’s afraid they’ll dissipate into golden light the same way their Master did. Like she’s still not certain that they’re real.
She knows they are, logically. She’s not in the realm of darkness anymore and there’s nothing prying at the cracks in her heart and tricking her into falling again, but — what if, what if — this all is just a touch too good to be true. The of three them alive and well and reunited and nothing but the strength of their bonds between them? A snarling, shadow-steeped part of her reels in paranoia. It’s the part that kept her alive in the eternal nights and safe on the endless walkways, but now it just makes her jittery. Nervous.
Terra closes a warm hand around hers, gently pulling his shirt free from her clenched-white fist. He doesn’t let go. After a moment, he doesn’t vanish like an illusion, and she exhales, finally loosening her grasp.
“Let’s head back,” Riku says, eventually. His eyes keep flicking toward the sky where his friend vanished, and a pang of empathy laps at Aqua’s heart. “Master Yen Sid’s waiting.”
“He’ll definitely want to hear about this,” Mickey agrees. “I don’t have the star, though.”
Ven snorts. “That thing hardly ever takes you where you want to go anyway, and it’s a bumpy ride the whole time,” he says wryly. “I think the way we came in is the only way out.”
Hesitating, Donald shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Well, we could all take the gummi ship,” he quacks. "But then Sora would be stuck here when he comes back."
“I don’t see why we can’t come back soon as we’re done at Yen Sid’s place,” Goofy says, and that seems to assuage his concerns.
Donald looks around a bit, some calculation in his eyes, and nods. “It might be a squeeze, but we could probably fit everyone. If we can't, we'll add some blocks on and make it bigger.”
“I can just fly beside it on my glider,” Ven says. “That could help. What about you, Aqua, Terra?”
Terra opens his mouth to agree, but stops before he says anything. His brows furrow together, one hand rising to the pauldron on his shoulder. He taps a finger on the circular piece, trying to activate it, but nothing happens. “Wait. I could, but I need my armor back first.”
Aqua blinks, and then turns to him. “Come to think of it, where’s Stormfall?”
“My keyblade. I left it with you.”
“I… I don’t remember that.”
Oh. Well, of course he doesn’t remember, that was after the possession happened, technically. Her defeating Xehanort clearly hadn’t done much to actually expel the corrupted Master.
Xehanort couldn’t have taken Stormfall with him, could he? He would’ve taunted her with it if he did. Maybe it rejected him when he tried. Surely he didn’t take it with him. Surely he just left it there to rot, surely he ignored anyone who tried to touch the smooth steel forged from the singing of her own heart—
Aqua stomps back an instinctive surge of panic (where is my heart? I left it with you, how could you lose it?) and tries to think back. Her last command had been to take Terra to the world of light, and then she’d severed her connection to it. If Terra, or Xehanort in Terra’s body, hadn’t picked it up and adopted it, then it should be wherever it was that he reemerged in the light.
Which should be right where he’d fallen out of it: Radiant Garden.
Should. Unless something happened to it, unless someone worthy came across it, unless it’s buried under too much rubble to find.
“I can’t fly without Stormfall,” Aqua says. She focuses on the steady drumbeat of Master’s Defender at her chest, letting it calm her like Master Eraqus’ voice once did. It’s not quite as reassuring as it used to be, before it abandoned her to walk the realm of darkness utterly unarmed but for her magic, but Ven leans into her side and that’s much more encouraging. “I need my keyblade back. Master’s Defender is fine, but it’s not mine. I need to go to Radiant Garden.”
“Ends of the Earth could take the both of us there,” Terra offers immediately, but Aqua shakes her head.
“I don’t have my armor, either.” The last person who traversed the Lanes Between without any protection from the dark was Xehanort, and seeing how he turned out, that particular risk doesn’t seem worth taking. “Donald, Goofy? Could you just drop me off at Radiant Garden? I’ll catch up to you when I find my things.”
Riku frowns, deliberating. “I need to go there too, actually. You’ll probably be talking to Ienzo and the others, and I need to drop off a replica. That lines up just fine.”
At this point, Lea pipes up from where he’d been whispering to Roxas and Xion off to the side. “Hey, same here. I gotta see if Isa’s turned back into his old self or not.”
Goofy chuckles. “Gosh, it seems like Master Yen Sid will have to wait, then. Everyone’s got something to do at Radiant Garden.”
“I don’t,” says Donald, Xion, and Roxas.
“Do you want to report to Master Yen Sid on your own, then?” Riku asks.
Suddenly, everyone wants to go to Radiant Garden. Terra shakes his head fondly and goes and picks up his armor from where his possessed self had beat it up.
“I’m looking for my keyblade,” Aqua says.
The scientist — Ienzo, she thinks his name is — squints. “Don’t keyblades just… you know. Appear for you?” He makes a vague dismissing-summoning gesture, one that’s shockingly natural for someone who’s never had a keyblade. Maybe he’s used to another summonable weapon.
“Normally, yes, but I sent mine away and nobody thought to bring it with them, or even keep track of where it went.”
“Sorry,” Terra says, over her shoulder. She casts him a glance , notes the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth, and lets it go. Ven is a little more obvious with his amusement, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
“What did it look like?” Ienzo asks, reaching down to pull out a shadowy copy of Master’s Defender, her mirror image sneering as it pulls her into the rippling silver and circles her. You’re weak, it says. You failed them, you abandoned them, and now they have abandoned you. It stalks, a predator looking for one last opening to seal the final blow, and the reflection cackles and dances and splinters the ice at its feet as it advances, as she steps back and steels herself for the impact—
Aqua blinks. She’s — she stands a pace or so back from where she’d been a second ago, and she feels herself straightening up from a defensive stance. The voice is Ven’s, his gaze concerned as he watches her come out of a half-memory, half-nightmare.
Ienzo is holding out a sheet of paper and a pencil, looking rather lost.
“Right,” Aqua says, very carefully not letting her voice shake. A pencil. That’s hardly threatening. She steps forward, takes the paper and pencil, and quickly sketches out Stormfall’s basic shape. It’s been over a decade since she last saw it, so the details are a little fuzzy, but it’s her keyblade, so she could never completely forget it. She remembers that summoning it feels like rain hissing on cobblestone, cool water dripping from the heavens. A benediction, a blessing.
She wonders if that key still fits into the battle-worn, darkness-warped lock of her heart anymore.
No, best not to think about that.
Aqua sets the pencil down and slides the paper back towards Ienzo, who’s looking at her with an inscrutable expression. “If you see it,” she says, “let me know right away. I’m just going to…” Look around. Try and get a feel for any hint of resonance, any chance that her keyblade might be just within reach.
“I’ll ask Dilan and the others, they might’ve seen it,” Ienzo says, mercifully passing over the oddities of a light that’s forgotten how light works. “I was really young when it happened.”
“When what happened?” another scientist asks, stepping in.
“When we found Xehanort and he didn’t remember anything. This is Even,” Ienzo adds, introducing the newcomer to the trio. “Even, this is Ventus, Aqua, and Terra.”
Even inclines his head, somewhat stiffly. “I remember. What about that time?”
Ienzo holds up the paper to him, and Aqua watches Even’s brow climb to his hairline.
“He took that with him to the Chamber of Repose,” Even says.
Terra scrunches up his face. “That sounds familiar.” He doesn’t sound happy about it, though. Instinctively, Aqua bumps their shoulders together, grounding him before any memories can sweep his attention away.
“Can you take us there?” Aqua asks, and Even looks at her for a long moment before finally nodding.
The stairs are long and winding. They spiral downward at a steady angle, descending into the abyss with no landing in sight.
“Wow,” Ven says, “this goes on forever.” He was excited at first, but now looks bored at the unchanging walls — honestly, Aqua feels the same. They're going very slowly, mostly out of caution, but her fingers itch and her heart wants and if they could just speed it up a little…
As if having the same thought, Ven suddenly calls Wayward Wind to him.
“I bet I could ferry all of you to the bottom before you have a chance to walk all the way down,” he declares, changing his keyblade into its glider form.
“Bet I could do it faster,” Terra says, and Ends of the Earth bursts into existence.
It’s clear that this descent was not built for keyblade gliders — the two are clogging up the hall, crammed uncomfortably close to each other. Attempting to race each other would be a spectacular mess, especially since (no offense, Terra) Ends of the Earth is not very good at the whole agility thing (or speed, for that matter), and this whole track is a fairly tight spiral.
A crash is in their near future, if they start speeding while pressed up against each other like this.
But Aqua misses the days where they chased each other around on their gliders. She hears Riku make an stifled noise of incredulous exasperation, sees their guides Even and Ienzo exchange odd glances, and thinks, fuck it. They’re overdue for some fun, anyhow.
She focuses her magic. Master’s Defender comes to her hand easily, purring at her palm. Before anyone can comment on its appearance, she funnels her power through it and unleashes a crackling Blizzaga low to the ground, so precisely controlled that it curves with the spiral of the stairs, so strong it leaves no gap between each step as it freezes a sloping path for her.
“Bet I’ll get there first,” Aqua taunts, steps onto the frozen rail she’s made for herself, and lets herself slide. She has to duck a few parts of her friends’ gliders, but within seconds she’s left them behind. The sound of clashing metal and sparks lights up the path behind her, indignant shouting echoing down the stairwell.
As she speeds up and leaves all that behind, the darkness yawns wide open ahead of her, and for an instant her breath stutters and the fun sputters out a bit, fearful of something writhing in the shadows.
A voice calls out, “That’s cheating, Aqua!” and she shakes herself out of it.
“I’m just playing to my strengths!” she shouts back, and the miffed protests ringing in her ears helps keep the paranoia at bay.
Aqua steps into the Chamber of Repose and immediately makes a face, looking around with disdain.
“What?” Terra asks, seeing her expression.
“Looks like this was designed to mimic the place I hid Ven,” Aqua says, and frowns. “Nobody’s supposed to know what that is, though. Even you don’t know what it looked like, you couldn’t have provided the memory.”
Terra pauses to think on it, his eyes tracing over the throne and the chain marks streaking across the floor and reaching up the walls. He watches Ven pace inquisitively but warily near the doorway, seemingly wary of something he doesn’t quite remember. “Xehanort was a Master of the Land of Departure too, once,” he says, after a moment. “He knew how it worked.”
As though their home had not been soiled by Xehanort enough already. Aqua suppresses a scowl and walks on, careful not to touch the throne as she steps past it, and her eyes latch onto the only splash of grey-blue color on this silvery white backdrop.
Stormfall sticks out of the ground beside her empty armor like a flagpole in a battleground. It juts up at an angle, handle toward the ceiling, and Aqua lunges for it with her heart pounding in her throat. Her fingers close around its hilt and there’s a flash of light, a storm blowing in, the thrum of enchanted metal singing against the fabric of her soul.
The words are off. She tries to listen and receive and return, but they don’t fit anymore, the mismatch grating in discordance. They sear at the parts of her still sticky with anxious grief and wary despair and the darkness dripping from her form, snarling, a reflection half-melted to a puddle as it rebels against Stormfall’s song, and Aqua recoils, dropping the keyblade like it’s burned her.
It clangs against stained glass, gently glowing.
She’s not in the Chamber of Repose. The stained glass platform she stands on is the only source of light in this abyss, and even then she can see the marks of darkness lingering at its edges, threatening to press in and consume. Her heart, she sees, is scarred over — dark scars marring some of the lines, left behind by close calls and that one time she drowned in her despair.
There’s rain in her ears. Susurrant, hushed, indicating that Stormfall is here and a part of her like it always has been, their bond restored, so why had it hurt?
Aqua hesitates, and then calls Master’s Defender to her side. This keyblade is quieter, smaller, like it knows it doesn’t truly belong, whereas Stomfall’s voice heightens incessantly. Irritation crawls along her thoughts — annoyance at being replaced, sorrow that such growth happened so far away.
Stormfall is an echo of the past, left behind to withstand the sands of time as its wielder changed and changed and changed. Of course they don’t match up like this, when they’re in completely different eras.
“Oh,” Aqua says, and moves Master’s Defender to her left hand. She flicks her right wrist and Stormfall vanishes from the floor in a shower of light before reappearing in her grasp, its voice renewed.
It’s not... hurting her, actually. Acutely uncomfortable, yes, like being so certain that this is the way to her home only to get lost in the streets and have to check a map again, frustrated and tired. Like the only thing they’ve known for the past decade is wondering if their friends are even alive.
(They are, she knows now.)
But there’s no pain.
Aqua thinks about the dark, about her time alone and scared and pushing on anyway because she had no other choice. A bitter taste wells up in the back of her throat at that, so instead she thinks about Terra and Ven and how much she loves them, how much she’d missed them, how wonderful it was to touch and hug and fight alongside them again.
The stained glass glows brighter. Brighter. It’s almost blinding, but with every pulse her keyblade seems to fit better, the discordance slowly erased note by note.
Aqua inhales deeply, and Stormfall twists with a shriek of metal—
And she’s standing back in the Chamber of Repose. There’s nothing in her hands and nothing on the ground, the armor pulled into the pieces on her arms.
Her cheeks are wet as she whispers, “Brightcrest.” What had before been maelstrom roiling is now the ocean rushing in, pulling back, the hushing sound of water against loose sand. Its depths are dark and looming but sunlight warms its surface, welcoming. Different from the storm, but not bad. Not broken.
Master's Defender is silent. Something about it reminds her of Master Eraqus retiring after a long day's work of tutoring his three rowdy pupils, exhausted but pleased. Soon, it will have to be put away. Maybe they can go visit the Land of Departure, after checking in with Yen Sid...
Ven tackles Aqua out of her thoughts with a hug and she stiffens, for a second, before relaxing.
“I’m fine,” she promises, ruffling his hair. She doesn’t even look up as she holds out a hand, beckoning, until Terra joins them and she squeezes them both tightly, a little laugh bubbling up in her throat. “We’re going to be okay.”
Terra wipes the tear tracks from her cheek like she’d done for him when he returned in the Keyblade Graveyard, and she smiles up at him. The three of them are different, now, still wounded and aching. But they are healing, and they are together, and that is enough for them.