So I should be shot::wince:: Sorry for the long wait. I have no valid excuses cept for school and writer's block. Hope you guys enjoy nonetheless. Thanks for reading this and keeping up with me!

Warnings: Cid's potty mouth.

Broken Rituals: Chapter 7- Denial

One down, ten more to go, and he went at them with the Revolver like they were the most disgusting things he'd ever seen, not fit to exist, destructive, abominable, emotionless things.

Leon pretended that instead of fighting the Heartless, he was fighting himself.

He went at them with a savage fury, as if hoping that the avalanche of emotions in him would be carried away with the bullet he shot, as if maybe if he exhausted himself enough, he'd go to sleep and wake up and find it hurt less. He'd never been much of a dreamer, and all it amounted to was him trying to find a way to run away but at the same time, fleeing the fact that it was useless, and he knew it.

He didn't want to go anywhere, afraid he'd run into Cloud wherever he went. And now, with Cloud wanting him out of his sight, and having driven a knife into him that was still bleeding painfully— he didn't know how to ebb the flow, he felt lost and trapped in a maze that sprouted from inside him and had swallowed him up in guilt and rejection and unbearable pain.

They were all gone, the reflections of himself had dissipated into a burst of dark smoke, and he watched it wistfully, wishing things were like that. He wasn't sure if he was talking about his emotions, or his current problems, or his life… he just wanted to stop feeling. He timed his breaths to the second, but he needed so much more air than that and ended up feeling lightheaded. His hand was pressed tightly over his eyes, because the pressure behind them was painful, and he was afraid if he let it go he might start…

Impossible, he hadn't even when Irvine had died. He'd been too empty and shocked to.

And it was worse, in a way, that he couldn't even get mad at Cloud, because when he really thought about it, sitting on a bench in the central plaza in Second District, Leon was the one who'd started it all. He was the one who'd left early that morning, a fugitive from his dream, and apparently… worried Cloud? He felt unworthy of that worry now, but in truth, Cloud probably hadn't really been worried. Why should he have been? He was Leon, he wasn't worthy of worry, he wasn't fond of worry, he didn't want worry thrown his way. And yet… when Irvine had fussed over his injuries, or that one time he'd been feverish, he hadn't gotten mad. He'd felt pleased and awkward and unsure of how to react but…

He shoved that train of thought away because it was contradicting, and he just wanted simplicity. He didn't want to think of the conflicting images of Cloud and Irvine in his head, and trying to compare the feelings he got with each, and…

He was suddenly aware that he was being watched, and he lifted his head from where it hung limply to blink at two pairs of large brown eyes. They belonged to two young children, obviously brother and sister, who were watching him unabashedly from a distance.

"Wow…" the boy said with raised eyebrows, holding a multicolored ball in his hands, "It's him," they were apparently too young to know what constituted as rude.

"That's Leon?" her huge brown eyes blinked innocently, and as if noticing that Leon was staring back at them, waved cheerfully. He managed to raise his hand in an awkward motion back.

"Yeah, you don't see that cool weapon he has? The old pilot guy said it's called a 'gunblade'."

The little girl wrinkled her nose, "The one who says bad words all the time? I think he needs to wash his mouth with soap," Leon almost laughed, and made a mental note to tell that to Cid next time he saw him. Without wasting a further second, she tugged her older brother's shirt plaintively, "I wanna play! Mommy said we could play if he was around, cause then the Heartless would be too scared to come!"

The boy shrugged coolly, and threw the ball to her, and Leon watched them for a while. He'd been momentarily irritated at their presence in the beginning, being in no mood to deal with children, but now found them strangely relaxing. They were small, awkward little things, dropping the ball and scampering after it, and he liked the simplicity of their words and actions. It didn't make him wish he was a kid again though, because what little he could still remember despite Shiva's long-term presence in his mind from his past life was anything but pleasant. He did not particularly relish his childhood, though he did remember his 'sister' Elle with a fondness he found calming amidst the other barrage of emotions that were beginning to ebb in intensity.

They knew he was watching them, for they threw glances in his direction when the other was busing getting the ball. They mostly just ignored him, possibly out of shyness, and continued their game with a childish call to each other. But at one point, the little girl, after throwing him a 'covert' glance, as far as that went with children, set the ball down and scurried off to the fountain, where various flowers grew under the care of pixies that had been transported to Traverse Town. She stood there, clearly pondering which flower was best, and upon picking one, and then another one just 'cause, ran back under both her brother and Leon's puzzled gazes, to present the two haphazardly-picked flowers to him.

He took them, cupping them carefully in his hands, mostly because there was no other option, and looked at her, and she smiled sweetly and said, "Mommy says you keep the town safe, and that you're even stronger than Daddy. I give Mommy and Daddy flowers, so I thought you would want one too!"

He felt the corner of his mouth twitch, and allowed it to grow into a fuller smile, and then reached out to ruffle her golden, pony-tailed head, earning him a small giggle. Her brother came by, scoffing slightly.

"No way, he can't be stronger than Dad, Dad's the strongest man in the world," he looked slightly apologetically at Leon and added, "But I bet you come reaaaally close."

Leon shook his head slightly, "Or not," he said softly, and sent them along to keep on playing. He watched them play for over an hour, before a woman with groceries on hand called them from across the plaza, and they cantered away, waving him a goodbye.

They had reminded him of something important, and he wanted to hold on to that as long as he could. Worthless or not, he had a goal now, a mission he could not afford to give up, and it was for this reason that his name was now ' Leon', and the old Squall was gone. His inability and inadequacy at being able to save those dearest to him was what he'd been trying to get rid of, all that his old name encompassed. Squall had failed, Squall was worthless, and he to keep telling himself that he was now ' Leon' and he had a duty to defend this town from the Heartless. He could not fail, and he… he wasn't sure what it meant to be Leon sometimes. He wanted to believe that it gave him a new chance—that had been the purpose, after all, but now he wondered if it also made him null, in a way, because it disregarded the fact that he had been a person before. It was an opportunity of sorts, was what he'd led himself to believe in his periods of self-denial, because 'Leon' had not committed any wrongs, he'd not failed every one he loved and cared for. He'd not lost Irvine. He had thought that 'Leon' would not come to care for anyone, having learned from 'Squall's' mistakes, but now he wondered— hoped— if it gave him the chance to find someone without Squall's burdens. ' Leon' was not worthless, and thus, maybe ' Leon' was actually capable of having someone to love and care for.

Those were his thoughts in his deeper entrenches of denial, but in moments like this, with the weight of Irvine's hat resting like a board of nails on his back, he realized he was only fooling himself. He could not exactly throw away 'Squall' and start over anew. Squall and Leon were really one and the same, and he could only force the façade on to others. After all, Leon was also not someone who had earned anything, or learned anything through Squall's experiences, and thus really had no worth anyway. Squall was who he was, who he had been, and who he would forever remain being. He could not throw himself away.

And so the problem remained. Squall was worthless, had seen things far past what most humans would ever be tortured and cursed with seeing, and had been through hell and time itself. He'd not come out unscathed, and those scars were now the ones holding him back, binding him to the past and keeping him from reaching out to the future that might be without fear. The chains were thin and wiry, so easy to dispel if he had the mind to, but the problem was that he was holding on to them for simple fear of letting go. It was fear and nothing else, fear of being let down, of letting down, of losing and being unworthy, of failing. Fear of being drowned in emotions that would choke him. The way those of losing Irvine had.

God, he wished he couldn't feel.

"Hey, Leonhart!"

The brunet was startled out of his thoughts by the hoarse yell coming from behind and above him, and looked up to see Cid looking over him from the elevated streets surrounding the plaza. The man's intense blue eyes were looking at him with that sailor brashness Cid was so known for.

"Yeah, get your ass up here, boy."

Leon didn't deign to respond, but obeyed Cid without a question more for the fact that he had nothing better to do. He trudged up the stairs and placed his stoniest, 'don't-talk-stupid-or-I'll-get-pissed' look on his face and stood in front of Cid, hips cocked with a hand strategically placed on them for maximum no-nonsense effect. The old man was chewing on an unlit cigar, and shoved the heavy box full of Gummy ship parts he was carrying onto Leon's arms.

"Carry that, I'm too damn old to be doing manual labor like this."

Leon snorted, and refrained from mentioning that Cid and old age hadn't yet caught up with each other, and Cid was most definitely capable of obliterating more than a fair share of Heartless, if his language and attitude weren't indicative enough.

"So, where have you been?" Cid tossed back a glance that told him he didn't really care about the physical location. Leon could answer Baghdad for all Cid cared. He was tempted to, certainly, but obliged because Cid was a simple, straightforward man. Leon valued that, and so felt compelled to be the same way in return.

"Had a bad night. Just thought I'd get to work earlier," he shrugged.

"The girls are worried sick about you. They sent Spikey to find you," he paused, "Did he?"

It was Leon's turn to hesitate, and he did so by pretending to shift the box in his arms to a more comfortable position, then muttered, "Yeah."

"Hm…" Cid seemed to want to add more, but apparently something on Leon's face warned him that he was treading on touchy ground, and he instead gave Leon a look-over, taking in the red marks on the brunet's face, the dirt on his pants and jacket, and the less-than-energetic swagger to his steps, "You look like you were roughed up. Heartless give you trouble?"

Leon actually grimaced, and offered nothing more than an ill-humored grunt as Cid opened the door to his shop and led them inside.

"Actually…" Leon set the box down, rattling whatever goods were inside, and shifted awkwardly on one foot before relenting, "It was Cloud."

Cid raised his eyebrow and gave a low whistle, "So you're telling me you bastards fought? How the hell did that come about?" Cid began taking parts out of the box, and tossed some to the younger man, "Take those and follow me."

Leon scowled, following Cid down to the gummi garage, "I don't know. Apparently he was pissed that he'd been sent to look for me."

"I can image. Spikey's not a morning person. But he's also not the type to go around picking fights like some poor starved bastard."

Leon dwelt on that and wondered how to phrase the situation. On the one hand, yes, there had been a whole lot more to the situation, but on the other… it had happened so quickly that Leon wasn't even sure what or how it'd developed into a full-out brawl. It had been one vicious cycle of misplaced verbal assaults feeding off each other and escalating into the physical. It was, after all, what they were most comfortable with. He sighed as he stepped over scattered boxes full of strangely colored mechanical parts that he was sure came from a carnival sale, his mind whirring like a mechanical toy engine to find where it all had started. It wasn't all from this morning, was it? Leon shook his head and affirmed to himself, Yes, it was all just a misunderstanding that happened this morning.

"Well… right after he found me he made some smart-ass comment about my hat."

The old man began choking abruptly, and it took Leon a moment to realize that he was in fact, holding back his laughter. Leon bristled and slammed down his parts on the table, crossing his arms angrily.

"Careful with those!"

"Damn it, Cid," he snapped, "I'm not kidding around here."

Cid knew about Irvine, and most, if not nearly all, of his back story at Balamb. He knew about the orphanage, about the GF's, Rinoa and Seifer and Ultimecia… and Irvine. It was probably the only reason Leon was even attempting to explain some of his situation to him. He felt affronted and slightly indignant that Cid would laugh over something he knew was so difficult for him.

"Alright, alright. Sorry, kid. But what, you started a fuckin' fight over a comment about the hat? I mean, I know it's special to ya an' all, but…" Cid chewed on his cigar as he spoke, inspecting the giant engine sitting in the middle of the garage, and threw a glance at Leon, "What else?"

"Well…" Leon paused, because here he was treading territory that he was having a hard time coming to terms with himself, and he wasn't sure how to put it into words. He stuck with the easy parts to retell, "Actually, he got pissed after I ignored him and walked away."

"What are ya, five?" the old man recoiled slightly from Leon's scathing glare and held up his hands defensively, "Sorry, right, you're being serious. And? Why did you?"

Leon hesitated, "Because…" he sat down at one of the chairs surrounding the table, frowning deeply as he fingered one of the gummi parts. Cid waited patiently, scratching his head as he searched for a screw of the right size.

"I feel like I'm betraying Irvine," he admitted reluctantly, and the guilt ate him from the inside merely at the words and made his fingers clench convulsively. How could I ever…

"Betraying him? How the hell do you betray a dead man? —Toss me that booster part there."

Leon mentally winced at Cid's words and damned the pilot. His straightforwardness sometimes resulted in thoughtlessness and bluntness that Leon hardly appreciated. He tossed him the gummi block.

"Because I haven't thought about him in a while," it wasn't exactly a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth. He felt like too many of his thoughts lately had been focused on Cloud, and not enough on Irvine, and was afraid of reaching out to grasp the meaning of that with his conscious mind.

"What's that gotta do with blondie?"

Leon scowled, hating how Cid was able to pinpoint his thoughts like a radar and instead avoided the question, "Anyway, so I ignored him and then left. He followed me and slammed me against a wall and demanded to know why. How the hell was I supposed to explain to him about Irvine?"

"You could always just sit down and talk," Cid suggested, grunting as he pushed the screw deeper into the booster part.

"It's not that simple."

The old pilot paused and rummaged around in his toolbox, withdrawing a wrench, and continued in his conversational drawl. Leon wasn't sure whether he appreciated the casual air or not. He supposed that if it was any other way, though, he wouldn't be divulging as much information as he was right now, "You're probably making it more complicated than it really is— Get that hinge-looking thing from that shelf, will ya? Anyway, I have a feeling he might understand 'bout your cowboy, he had someone like that back at our world."

"Zack, right?" Leon muttered bitterly.

"Yeah, exactly," Cid was oblivious to Leon's tone and took the offered part without a glance back, "So, what, then you tried to kick his ass, and then he did the same, and that's what happened?"

"In a shortened version, yeah."

"You fellas never had a scrap?"

"Not really..."

Cid wrinkled his nose, "Damn engine's completely obsolete… I'm gonna have to update the whole damn system," he turned to Leon with a knowing look and chewed on his cigar more thoroughly. There'd be nothing left of it by the end of the day, Leon thought sullenly, "I got a feeling there's a good bit more to this. You pretty boys are too cold-blooded to let something as damn ridiculous as smart-ass quips get you into a fucking fist-fight. Especially one that's gotten you in a tizzy like this."

"I am not in a 'tizzy'. It's just a fight," Leon snapped, but the hand he ran through his hair belied him. He knew he was lying; he'd definitely been affected by this whole ordeal more than he'd like to admit to anyone. Why was the real question. And how to stop it was his next.

"Hm, not if it made you actually talk to me about it," and damn the pilot, why was he smarter than he led others to believe by mere speech and looks? "What was the result?"

"He hates me," Leon muttered, sinking down in his seat. Cid raised his brow and made his way over to Leon, pulling out a chair and taking a seat. He threw his arm over the back and scratching his chin, his eyes raking over Leon with an almost fatherly, regretful gaze.

"Sometimes I forget you kids are only kids, and have been made to shoulder stuff no fuckin' kid should ever have to deal with," he said softly.

"I'm 23," Leon said stiffly.

"And how old were ya when you were abandoned? How old were ya when that mess with Ultimecia happened?" Cid grunted, and Leon bitterly acknowledged he had a point, because it was something he'd resented all his life.

"Look kid, do you have someone you hate?"

"Of course," Leon's eyes flashed as he thought of Seifer and Ultimecia and the people he'd had to fight back at Balamb…

"And did it take just one misunderstanding or fight to get you to hate 'em?"

Leon blinked as Cid's logic clicked immediately, "No…" but he was still unsure, the vivid revulsion in Cloud's eyes was ingrained in his mind and made something odd get caught in his throat.

"Then what the hell's the problem?"

Leon looked away and massaged his forehead, willing away the throb behind his eyes, "…I don't know," he murmured, and wished his voice hadn't sounded so particularly weak. He paused and reviewed all the hurt that had gone into that fight. Remembered Cloud's rejection, and the words You're not worth it rang painfully in his head like an toll bell, swinging inside his skull, and he had to close his eyes, "We… were rather scathing with our words, I suppose."

"People don't mean what they say in a fight," Cid waved it off unimportantly.

"I think I did something stupid. I think I hurt him," Lean suddenly said, remembering Cloud's words about rejection, and how those had hit home in some part of Leon too, "He thinks I rejected him."

Cid looked up sharply and accusingly, "Did you say that?"

"Not exactly…" Leon said, shrinking away from Cid's reproaching look and hiding his puzzlement.

Cid snorted and took out a lighter from his pocket, flipping it open and lighting his mangled cigar, "You better not have. There's not a word that kills that poor kid more than that."

Leon gazed at Cid with something akin to anxious wonder, which in his stomach was rapidly turning into a metallic, roiling snake, "Why?"

Cid shrugged, "I don't know if it's exactly my place to tell you… but his childhood wasn't exactly friendly, and being rejected as a kid by nearly everyone around him didn't bode well for him. Then there was SOLDIER, and that really screwed with the kid's head. It was his dream, his only goal, really, to be accepted. But they found him too mentally unstable—lack of confidence, and all that, is what I'm guessin'. And then of course after—" Cid broke off there and fell abruptly silent.

"What?" Leon demanded. This was the most he'd heard about Cloud's past, and he found himself gluttonous for more, drinking it in greedily, even as the metal snake in his stomach became ice and tried to crawl up the walls of his throat and nudge its head out his throat…

"I don't think I should tell you any more. You'll need to hear the rest from his own mouth," Cid leaned forward, "Cloud went through hell and back, and it's a miracle he evens knows his name anymore."

Leon's brow furrowed, and he found himself holding his breath as if he was being admitted into some sort of pact of secrecy. Would Cloud ever tell him this on his own? Conversely, would Leon ever tell Cloud any of his past?

"What do you mean by that?" he was careful not to pry too much, but he just wanted to know, and wondered why. He wasn't a curious person by nature, he was content to let things happen around him without his knowledge, people and their actions didn't interest him as a general rule. So why? Why was he so thirsting to find out these things about Cloud? Cloud. Every time he consciously thought the name it was like something was poking the intangible thing his being was—he couldn't figure if it was his mind, or his heart, or some abstract shadow of his body…

Cid shook his head, "There was a time when the only thing he knew about himself was his name, and everything else he thought was him was in fact, Zack. There was also a time when he knew nothing about himself, scared the hell out of us that time… With all the shit he went through it's a surprise he's even remotely functional."

Leon was struck and baffled by this information, and was about to push his luck to decipher what this meant when Cid spoke up again.

"So, there's still a good bit I don't understand here. What does Irvine have to do with Cloud?"

Leon fell silent. And glared at Cid, because there was little else he could do at the moment.

"Don't look at me like that. If anything, that just proves it," Cid snorted, and blew out a plume of smoke that rose airily upward, and Leon had the fleeting wish to dissolve his problems like that. Maybe smoking would help, he thought rebelliously. Irvine said it did.

"Confirms what?" he finally muttered.

"There's a reason your name right now is Leon, Squall," Cid gave him a gaze too sharp and knowing for Leon's comfort, and the sound of his true name was almost accusatory and reminded him of getting caught lying as a kid. He masked the fact that he'd been forced to look away by standing up, the screech of the chair jarring his head and the throbbing pain that had begun growing there.

Denial. Squall—no, Leon—had always been particularly good at that.

Until Cloud came along.

I reapologize for the looong wait! Hope you guys forgive me. The next chapter should me up MUCH sooner than that. In the next chapter, we finally see Cloud... and what happened to him after their scuffle.