From the beginning, Xehanort had always had a tendency for darkness.
He was never like Eraqus, holding himself in perfect order and doing only the right thing, never thinking of himself first.
“I’m sorry, are you okay?” A small hand reaching down to help him up. Eyes like a cloudy sky, dark eyebrows laced with concern and voice as clumsily childlike around the words like the technique that had sent Xehanort sprawling. “Did I hurt you?”
Eraqus was the perfect student. He should've been the one to inherit the Master's keyblade instead. He was perfect.
Xehanort took the hand offered and ignored the lump in his throat threatening tears; he was a big kid now. He was an apprentice. Big kids don’t cry. “Just a little,” he lied, and the other boy only looked more concerned.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized again, helping Xehanort back to his feet as the other apprentices continued to spar.
Part of him wants to blame him. It was Eraqus who drove him further from the balance their master had taught, it was Eraqus who had given him the ultimatum on that beach. It was Eraqus who summoned his blade first.
“Why are you apologizing?” Xehanort asked, pushing back his silver bangs that had been knocked loose from his hair tie in the fall. “It was super frickin’ cool! How’d you knock me down so quick?”
The other boy looked alarmed. “Don’t say bad words, the master might hear you!” he hissed, eyes gleaming with scandalous glee at the childish rebellion of saying the f-word. “I can show you, though! My name’s Eraqus, what’s yours?”
But that would only dig the knife in his chest deeper.
He wants to, by the stars he wants nothing more than to push the blame onto the irritatingly pure boy. It’d be so easy to. But...
Xehanort had changed, and it made him nauseous to think about the fate he’d very narrowly averted. One moment of that irritating self-sacrifice Eraqus had always branded himself in, and he’d changed the stones cast for him by his own hand.
And now he had no idea what to do.
If the same situation had happened any other time, Terra would have been in full panic. Xehanort - the young one, the one who had turned the tide - was missing. The others were frantic, immediately forming a search party coordinated through as many worlds as they could on such short notice.
Terra was only in three quarters of a panic, maybe half of one if he took a moment to take a deep breath. The only thing holding him back from a true breakdown was the chance vulnerability he’d seen when the teen had thought no one was paying attention.
The others wouldn’t have noticed. Not the way Terra did. He’d had over a decade to figure out what makes Xehanort tick, to mesh and fuse with each clash until they were like the same seamless heart in an endless war with itself.
He was himself again. There had been moments where he wasn’t sure - hell, he still wasn’t sure if he really was truly Terra any longer, but each time he doubted he simply closed his eyes and rested and knew without a doubt he was at least himself. Whoever he was.
And even though he was himself, Terra still knew Xehanort even better than the back of his hand. He knew everything about how he works, and what he’d seen in the boy bearing his youthful face was similar, but not exactly the same.
He’d noticed when he’d mentioned Master Eraqus and the boy - Xehanort - recoiled like he’d been slapped in the face. It had only been a fraction of a second and far too reserved for many to notice, but Terra had been taken off guard. And then completely disarmed when Xehanort had swallowed, sickening yellow eyes downcast with pain, grief, and guilt all flashing across his face in seconds before he forced his bored resting expression back to the forefront of his facade.
It was ridiculous. But that seconds long instance was the only thing keeping Terra from true panic.
It didn’t matter what worlds he’d skimmed through. He found him where it all began.
If he didn’t know who he was, Xehanort would have just looked like any normal teenager with bare feet tracing the surface of the ocean from where he was sitting on the dock, loose pants hiked up to keep from getting wet. Anybody else would have looked at him and seen just another unremarkable kid out enjoying the always beautiful sunset that trademarked the Destiny Islands.
Even after everything that had happened, Master Eraqus had been right about Terra. He was weak; even after so much pain and having so much taken from him by Xehanort, all Terra could fathom to do in that moment was to approach him on the dock almost lazily, all the while carefully studying him as he walked.
Xehanort tensed at the sound of footsteps, fingertips tightening around the end of the sun-worn boards.
“Figures you’re the one to find out where I went,” he said, voice a careful monotone that sounded a touch too dull to be fully genuine.
For a moment, Terra was taken aback. Hazy memories of the same boy in a long black coat in a washed-out world boiled to the surface of his mind and Terra decidedly ignored the sickening turn of his stomach that seemed to dance every time he thought too hard about his memories from the past decade.
He could have just kept standing there like an idiot talking to a grumpy teenager’s back, but Terra remembered all too well what being talked down to by an adult was like when he was younger. He knew this was Xehanort, but he was also just a kid. He couldn't rightfully treat him as an adult, not fairly.
Terra sat down next to Xehanort, one leg crossed under the other, which dangled down and skimmed the warm ocean water.
“Someone was bound to,” was all he could say in response.
He couldn’t look at Xehanort, he wasn’t sure he could reconcile what he knew with what he’d find in those eyes. He studied the sunset instead, soaking in the atmosphere of the softly lapping waves on the beach behind them and the dazzling array of oranges and reds and purples kissing on the horizon.
Xehanort actually snorted a bitter, terse laugh. “Yeah, guess so. I’m assuming there’s a pack of keyblade masters tearing the multiverse apart looking for me.”
“Pretty much,” Terra agreed, leaning forward to rest his elbow on his upright knee. Neither said anything for a moment. Shadows from seagulls soaring far away passed over them and in his peripheral vision, Terra saw Xehanort slowly tense more and more before-
“Why won’t you hate me?” The short boy’s shoulders hunched around him defensively, fists balled and it seemed that Terra wasn’t the only one blatantly avoiding eye contact. His voice broke toward the end of the question, sounding raw in a decidedly un-Xehanort way.
“I don’t know,” Terra said softly.
“You lost everything because of me. The least you could do is hate me for it. It’d be stupid not to.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I hate him. I don’t think I’d be here now if I didn’t fight him as hard as I did,” Terra corrected him passively, “But something tells me that you becoming him isn’t set in stone anymore, is it?”
Xehanort pulled his knees to his chest, tucking his chin on his kneecaps as he hugged his legs. “I’unno,” he muttered mutinously.
Terra could only laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Xehanort snapped, undoubtedly scowling.
“It’s just weird to hear you sound like a kid for once, is all. The guy I know wouldn’t be caught dead saying ‘I’unno.'”
Some of the tension eased from his shoulders despite the scoff he gave at that. “I guess you’re right,” he conceded grumpily.
A pause. “You really think I’m different?” he asked tentatively, voice soft.
“The Xehanort that did all of that didn’t care about anything but himself- er, the himself he physically was. It’s kind of blurry, but I remember watching you react when you found out about Master Eraqus.”
A dull ache throbbed in Terra’s chest at the thought of Eraqus. It may have been years and years, but it was just as vivid in his mind as if it had happened mere moments before.
Judging by the boy’s reaction, he felt the same way. “That’s proof enough for me,” Terra finished.
“I killed him,” Xehanort whispered, an echo to the same thoughts Terra had had.
“Would you do it now?” Terra asked in a tone far too light for a question as loaded as that, finally turning his head to properly look at Xehanort. He was staring at the water just beyond the dock, looking mournful as he was absorbed in thought.
Xehanort jerked abruptly, looking at him with a mixture of alarm and disgust in his wide honeyed eyes as his arms shot to his sides. “No,” he said, voice breaking again. “Never.”
“Then you didn’t. Or you don’t. I’m not sure how that time travel stuff works.”
“It doesn't matter. I can’t go back.”
Xehanort sighed and mirrored Terra’s pose, resting his chin on a bare forearm propped over his knee. “I can’t go back. I broke the timeline by changing. If I went back, this universe would break under a paradox.”
“Isn’t you changing already a paradox?”
“Yes, but the reason why this universe isn’t crushed by it is because I’m still here. If I went back, the past would be rewritten and all of this-” He gestured vaguely at the sea. “-Would be no more. And I’m trying out this new thing of being a good person, so it’s out of the question to consider it.”
“Ah,” Terra said eloquently, mildly surprised by the shockingly selfless admission. “What do you think would change for you, if you did go back?”
Xehanort hummed unhappily. “I don’t know why I’m pouring my heart out to the guy I wore like a sock puppet, but...” He looked up. The sky above was an interesting shade of cat vomit orange. “I’d fix things with Eraqus. It’s both our faults things went the way they did with us but if I began to admit to my mistakes, maybe he’d eventually do the same himself.”
“I have a hard time believing that,” Terra said flatly and Xehanort snorted.
“I know it’s far fetched, but I’m thinking best case scenario here, work with me,” he shot back, humor in his tone. “He’d admit he’s wrong sometimes, and if he didn’t...” He shifted awkwardly, looking away from Terra. “I’d... take you as an apprentice before he did,” he muttered, clearly embarrassed, a faint flush on his cheeks.
“What?” Terra blinked. “Why?”
“I don’t know, maybe ‘cause I don’t have a stick up my ass about darkness like Eraqus always does. I wouldn’t freak out on you for looking at the darkness for two seconds, and in that timeline, I wouldn’t try to do any of that junk I did this time around.”
“And you’d... encourage me to use the darkness?”
“No!” His face was red now, embarrassed by his admissions but in too deep to weasel out. “I’d teach you how to y’know, not get consumed by it. Darkness isn’t inherently bad, it’s just... how you use it. Same thing goes for light.”
Terra hummed thoughtfully at that. “Why tell me this now if you'd just have to teach it again next time around?”
“It’s not a doomed timeline if I stay here, you meathead, this is purely hypothetical.”
“Still.” Terra gave a smile. “You have no idea how relieving it is to hear you talk about wanting to be a better person and actually sounding like a real teenager.”
“What do you mean a ‘real teenager?’”
“Not using big words to try and impress or intimidate people and actually just sounding like a huge dweeb instead.” Xehanort squinted quizzically at him and Terra dramatically pointed at him and said in his most theatrical voice, “Begone!”
Xehanort buried his face in his hands and groaned while Terra laughed.
“I cannot believe you’re sitting here teasing me like someone's lame dad,” he said in a flat voice, muffled by his hands. "We were mortal enemies."
“And I can’t believe you were just lecturing me about the ethics light and darkness,” Terra shot back and Xehanort groaned again.
The moment lulled back into a comfortable silence, like the tides of the sea below. “You should talk to Sora,” Terra said after a while.
“Great idea. Maybe I should chat up Isa while I’m at it.” Xehanort grimaced. “No thanks. I tried to do the same thing to Sora what the old me did to you, I don’t think he’d be too keen on being around me.”
“Sora’s a good kid with a big heart. I don’t think he has it in him to actually hate anyone, even if he wanted to,” Terra replied, wincing before adding, “I wouldn’t try talking to Isa, though. He still acts like I’m Xemnas.”
“You do look just like him,” Xehanort pointed out. "You just don't have the same great hair color anymore."
“And whose fault is that?”
“Some old guy, probably.”
“Probably,” Terra agreed. “Really though, you should talk to Sora. I’m sure he’d be thrilled you’d be the one to approach him.”
“I will,” the silver haired boy said reluctantly.
“I’m hearing a ‘but’ in there.”
Xehanort exhaled through his nose. “You are. I just- ugh, it’s exhausting to think of other people as... y’know, people. I went so long doing everything for myself and him, I totally blinded myself thinking what he wanted was for us, but I just got used. And I started thinking about how I had used other people without a second thought and... ugh.” He dropped his head onto his knees again, growling in frustration at himself.
“I want to actually be better before anything. I don’t just want to say I want to change and just not really do anything about it beyond saying I will, and- and it’s hard!” His voice slipped into a frustrated whine. “I want to do better, but it’s so hard to do this garbage that everyone else does like they were born from kitten whiskers and rainbow sparkles.”
“I just want to be okay with who I am. I spent so long hanging onto my- his every word, it's hard to make my own choices and follow my own will. I won’t buy it if you people start to like me when even I don’t like me,” he muttered like Terra was pulling his teeth.
“You know, I think that’s something we actually have in common.” Terra stared at the horizon, now the peachy red of a sunset’s death throes. “All that kept me alive and sane was just how badly I wanted to make things right. I still don’t think I have, I still feel the same way.”
“But you-” Xehanort interjected.
“We’re in the same boat, Master Xehanort, it doesn’t matter if you think I did enough to be redeemed. I’ve had a hard time with the same things you’ve said my whole life, and I’m twice your age.”
“Just how old do you think I am, dad?”
“Uh,” Terra squinted at him. “Sixteen?”
Xehanort looked stricken, but quickly recovered. “Wait, how old are you?” he fired back.
“I think...” Oh stars, just how old was he? Terra realized with horror he didn’t even know what year it was. “I think I’m somewhere around... oh jeez, thirty-three? Thirty-four?” Despair edged into his voice, just as it had in the younger boy's when Xehanort had asked. “Why, did I get you right?”
“Yes,” Xehanort said resentfully, looking put out. “I thought I looked older.”
“Who told you that?”
Xehanort pouted. “...I did,” he admitted begrudgingly.
“Yeah, well the old man also called me a keyblade master just because I fought some Unversed, so you’re a liar.”
“You’re not a master?” He was incredulous.
“Nope.” Terra popped the ‘p’ sound. “Master Eraqus failed me on my Mark of Mastery exam.”
"Why on earth did he do that?"
Terra scratched the back of his neck, and tried not to laugh at Xehanort's disbelief. "In the peer combat trial, I accidentally used darkness fighting Aqua."
“Oh, for...!” Xehanort violently rolled his eyes like they were the ones to blame for Eraqus’ judgement. “Here, I’m a master. You’re a master now too. Congratulations.”
“That’s pretty much what the old you said to me too, but I think that was less actually respecting me and more manipulating me to do whatever he wanted.”
“That sounds about right for him,” he murmured bitterly and wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Ugh, he sucked so much.”
“Wait, are you actually a master?” Terra asked belatedly, stricken.
“Yep,” Xehanort popped the ‘p’ on the word in an echo of Terra moments before, “Passed my exam just before coming to the future.”
“Did you seriously just make me a master?!”
He shrugged. “Take it or leave it, I’d say surviving after winning a second keyblade war is more than enough of a bar to pass.”
“And you swear you’re not just manipulating me.”
“I don’t know, what do you think? Do you really think if I was, I’d admit to it right off the bat?”
Terra chewed the inside of his cheek in thought.
“Please tell me you’re not-”
“I think you’re a good kid. It’ll take time to get into the swing of doing things kinda like the others do, but having this talk with you really split you apart from him for me. You’re Xehanort, but you’re not going to be him anymore if you don’t want to be.”
Xehanort opened his mouth and closed it without saying anything.
“I gave in, I was weak and naive and it cost me everything.” Terra swallowed. “I have plenty of experience in trying to right mistakes. I’m not just saying all this because I don’t want a repeat of everything, I’m saying it because you’re a kid struggling to do the right thing and I see a lot of myself in that.”
“Oh,” was all Xehanort said.
“And just because we’re having this talk doesn’t mean you’re free from the things you did, either,” Terra said, lightly jabbing a finger in his direction. “Neither of us can really make up for anything. Even if we were both manipulated by him, we were responsible for our actions. I was Xemnas, sort of. You chose Isa and Sora and everything else.”
“There’s no making up for it, but we can try to do better this time around, okay?” His voice was quiet and earnest over the waves as he glanced back at the silver haired boy for his reaction.
“I’m glad you didn’t lie and tell me I could just atone for everything,” Xehanort muttered, but he had an ever so slight smile on his face that looked surprisingly heartfelt. “But.”
He visibly struggled to verbalize his thought and Terra held his breath, patient for his words.
“I didn’t expect you to come to me and be like this. I thought you’d be the one leading the team against me trying to get rid of me, but here we are. Having a... heart-to-heart on my home world.” His smile twitched into a smirk and he gave a quiet, solitary laugh. “Pretty different from our last heart-to-heart, right?”
Terra blinked. Then blinked again and burst into laughter, snorting as he instinctively reached over to ruffle Xehanort’s hair like he was so used to doing to Ven.
“Watch it,” he warned without any real threat backing it up, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice. The young master snorted and ducked away from his hand, incapable of keeping a genuine smile off his face, sandalwood skin around his eyes creasing teasingly.
“Sorry,” he said unapologetically.
“Sure you are,” Terra pushed his shoulder lightly. The sun had disappeared beneath the water by then, leaving only dying red tendrils of light on the horizon stubbornly lasting after the sun sunk below the waves. "What do you say we head back and call off the search?"
"I don't want to, but that's probably the right thing to do," Xehanort grumbled.
"You don't have to be a hundred percent good all the time to be a good person, you know."
"Yeah, but I can only imagine their horror when they find out we had another 'heart-to-heart,'" he snorted, shaking his head. "No use prolonging the inevitable."
"One of us has to be." Xehanort pulled himself up to his feet, reaching down to help Terra up. He accepted the hand. "Alright, let's go face the unavoidable."