Author's Note: I'll be the first to admit this is a fairly LONG story for a one-shot. So sit back, relax, and give yourself some time to enjoy it.
Suggested listening: Snow Patrol's "Eyes Open" album on repeat
Suggested beverage: Dr. Pepper
The first time Leon mentioned the scar, he and Cloud were fighting good-naturedly about who was going to do the dishes after dinner. Yuffie and Aerith had done them the night before and were exempt. Cid had a gash on the back of his left hand, the result of a battle with a twisted piece of sheet of metal in his workshop, so he was excused from the chore. And Tifa was on a mission to the surrounding villages trying to find some supplies.
"Take your turn, Strife," Leon said, "before I give you another scar."
That comment stopped the easy flow of conversation at the table. Cloud frowned, his forehead creasing in confusion. Yuffie and Cid glanced at Aerith, who gestured with the graceful bird that was her hand. The message was clear: Let it go.
"What?" Leon groused, thinking that his friends were childish for letting something that had happened so long ago become such a big deal. Sure, Leon wasn't usually one to joke about things or speak of the past (now was the time to focus on the future), but one casual comment shouldn't be so shocking.
"Nothing," Cloud muttered, pushing back his chair to collect the plates. It was the only time he'd ever actually done that particular household chore without grumbling.
The Gunblade specialist watched Cloud closely as they worked side-by-side that evening, both bent over a bucket of soapy water, one washing, one drying. Leon watched his friend's steady hands sorting out the dishes from the soup bowls, the stout water glasses from the delicate wine glasses. When they were brash youngsters, just learning to swing their swords in their awkward hands, they had sparred together for the first time in a dusty field. Things got out of control. The scar Leon had given the blonde was now a smooth, dark pink jag between his pale brows. Leon had a matching one, a gift from Cloud, between his eyes as well.
"You're not still mad about that, are you?" Leon asked as he rubbed another dish dry.
Cloud put his arms in the water bucket up to his elbows, fishing for forks that clinked at the bottom. He took his time answering. "I'm not mad at you," he finally said, giving Leon a handful of cutlery.
"Good. After all," Leon gave his old friend a smirk, "you started it."
Cloud answered with a small smile of his own and bumped his shoulder against Leon's in a show of camaraderie, but Leon saw something in Cloud's eyes that spoke of complete confusion.
Leon went to Aerith the next day, hoping the girl could help solve the riddle of Cloud's discomfort.
"As far as I know, there's no problem," the healer said, looking up from the books scattered on the table in front of her. In what little spare time she had, Aerith was always trying to learn new spells from Merlin's extensive library.
"He just seemed a little distracted last night. Kept giving me blank looks," Leon said, hoisting himself up to sit on the edge of the table next to a stack of thick spell books.
"Well…" Aerith hesitated, fingering the worn corner of the page in front of her, though her eyes were on the floor. "Maybe he's been working too hard lately. And you too, Leon. Sometimes when our bodies are exhausted, our minds get tired too. You should think about taking a little break, I think."
Leon smiled at that. Good old Aerith. She was always looking out for them, making sure they ate their vegetables and wore clean clothes. It had been that way since they were kids, growing up in Radiant Garden together.
"I guess the restoration schedule is pretty demanding," Leon conceded. "We could all use a few days of free time. Sound like a good idea?"
"Absolutely," Aerith gushed, clapping her hands happily. "I'll tell the others when they come down for breakfast."
"Do my ears deceive me," Cloud's dry voice came from the hallway before the man joined them, "or is Taskmaster Leonhart giving us a vacation?"
"You heard right. I hope you use this valuable time wisely," Aerith cautioned, wagging her finger at the blonde.
Cloud and Leon locked eyes from across the room.
They smirked at each other and went to retrieve their weapons from the rack in the foyer. Aerith dropped her head in her book and groaned loudly.
"Stupid boys, always playing with their stupid toys!" she called after the two as they left the house.
Leon and Cloud walked through the crooked streets of what used to be called Hollow Bastion. Four months ago, Sora had freed the city from the darkness that controlled it. That also freed the memories of the citizens; the place was called Radiant Garden once more, and Leon couldn't have been more proud. The castle renovation was nearly complete and he had plans for repaving the cracked cobbled streets, rebuilding the children's school, putting new roofs on the townspeople's houses…the work never ceased. Luckily, the restoration was going faster now that the Heartless were beaten. Only the stray monster or two ever bothered the town, and Leon and the others were more than enough protection against such things.
Still, it never hurt to stay in shape.
It didn't take long to reach the old dusty field, the same field where Cloud had given Leon his scar and Leon had returned the favor. Of course, back then, Leon went by the name Squall. He only changed it when…
"You awake?" Cloud asked, drawing his huge sword from its harness on his back.
Leon blinked and shook his head to clear it. "Yeah. Guess Aerith was right. I need a break from working." He slipped his Gunblade from the holster on his hip, swinging it through the air experimentally. "Do you know if Tifa got everything she needed?" Leon asked absentmindedly, checking the revolver on his Gunblade to ensure it wasn't loaded.
"Yeah, she called yesterday. She'll be back in a couple of days." Cloud hefted his sword on his shoulder, waiting patiently for Leon to prepare.
For his part, Leon hummed in thought. Tifa was a special woman. They had been together for a time, she and Leon. Tifa understood him like no one else could. She had given him space when he needed it, had let him be silent without asking if anything was wrong. They had been good together.
But women sometimes needed something better than good, and Leon hadn't been enough. At least, that's what he remembered Tifa saying. Thank everything Holy, Leon thought, that they could still be friends. But he still caught his eyes wandering over her long dark hair or her long bare legs. Sometimes.
"Ready when you are," Cloud muttered impatiently, sticking his Buster in the dirt and making a show of leaning on it, the wolf charm on his shoulder armor clinking noisily.
"If you say so," Leon quipped, roused suddenly from another round of reminiscing. He lifted his Gunblade to fill the space between them. Cloud nodded, unearthed his sword with a smirk, and came at him lightning fast.
Metal rang. Dust rose. Leon relaxed slightly. Fighting with Cloud always had that effect. It was comforting, something that would never change.
At sunset, the two men dragged themselves back to the house. Their faces were streaked with dust, their boots were caked with filth, and Cloud had a clod of dirt in his hair from taking a hard fall face-first. Leon was dabbing some potion on his left forearm where Cloud had accidentally nicked the skin. They looked, in short, disgusting.
Yuffie stood in the doorway shaking her head. "Only you guys could come home looking like that and still have those silly grins on your faces. I can't believe you wasted the whole day fighting."
Leon shrugged, then winced at the pain in his shoulder, his grin not fading one bit. "It was a good day," he said,
"He won. Once," Cloud said. "Out of a dozen."
Leon gave a bark of laughter, shoving at Cloud playfully. Yuffie jumped up and down, calling for a fight by yelling, "Oooooooooooo!" at the top of her lungs.
"Whatever, Yuffie," Leon said, pushing his way past her to get into the house. Yuffie would never grow up, it seemed. She had always been like that, always getting herself into trouble even as a child. She was a sweet girl, for the most part. Sure, Yuffie had picked up a few martial arts skills, but—
She's such a klutz.
Leon's gaze snapped up to find Cloud standing there in the common room, unbuckling his sword's harness with a thoroughly concerned look in his shining blue eyes.
"You okay, Leon?" The sun was going down, and since no one had lit the candles yet, the room was getting dark. Leon squinted to make sure he was seeing correctly. Cloud's eyes were…glowing. An eerie blue light radiated from them, casting a soft illumination around the blonde's face.
"Your eyes…" Leon said slowly. "They're so bright."
Cloud shrugged, sliding his harness onto the weapon rack. "Yeah. So?" The blonde swordsman absently picked up a matchbook and lit a nearby candle on the long wooden table. As soon as the candle's light filled the room, the blue glow disappeared from Cloud's eyes. They looked the same as they had all day. Leon blinked.
"Sorry. I think I…I'm going to go to bed." Leon racked his Gunblade as well, putting a hand to his forehead to check for fever. He felt fine. Was he just tired? He started down the hallway towards his room.
"Don't you want dinner?" Cloud called after him.
"Not hungry," Leon threw over his shoulder, shutting the door to his room behind him. He took a deep breath and leaned back against the door, slowly sliding to sit on the floor. He cradled his head in his hands and wondered what was wrong with him.
The next morning, Leon woke up convinced he was going to be fine. He dressed and made his way to the common room, where Cid was burning toast for the crew's breakfast. Everyone greeted him as he sat at the table.
"Hey kid. Doing okay? You passed out early last night." The mechanic flicked the ash from his cigarette into an empty coffee cup and slammed a plate stacked with toast in front of Leon. That was Cid; if he wasn't cooking or eating, he was smoking. Or some combination thereof.
"Just got a little tired, that's all. I feel fine now," Leon said, reaching for a knife and the jar of jam.
Cloud swallowed a bite of his buttered toast and smirked. "Wore you out yesterday, Leon?"
Leon regarded his friend across the table with a raised eyebrow. Damn, but they had always been competitive when it came to each other.
"I can go another round today, if you're up for it," he challenged.
"You're on." Cloud was already up and striding towards the foyer. Leon pushed his chair back to follow, grabbing his cropped jacket from its peg on the wall.
"Guys! Your breakfast?" Aerith pointed to their still full plates.
Leon shrugged and scooped the toast up in his hands. "We can walk and eat," he called over his shoulder as he exited, ignoring the girl's exasperated moan.
The two swordsmen enjoyed a companionable silence as they made their way to the field half a mile away, munching on their toast as they walked. The streets were still empty this early and the only sound was the gentle swishing of both men's black pants with each step they took. When they passed by the weapon shop, they glanced in the window to try and spot any new arrivals, and Cloud spoke up.
"That reminds me; I got a letter from my friend Vincent." He took another bite of his breakfast before continuing. "He says he's found some new ammunition that's very effective against the Heartless. Thought you'd be interested in it for your Gunblade."
"Sure," Leon chuckled lowly, "if Vincent can stop chasing women long enough to send you some."
It took Leon a moment to realize that Cloud had stopped walking and was now several paces behind him on the street. He turned to face the blonde man, chewing his toast slowly.
"What?" He brushed at his chin in case some crumbs had stuck there.
"Vincent doesn't chase women," Cloud said, choosing his words with caution.
"Sure he does. It's his department."
Guns and women, of course.
Cloud shifted on his feet, standing taller and biting his lip in frustration. Finally, he bit out, "You've never met Vincent."
Leon snorted and tossed the remaining crusts of his toast into a nearby garbage can. "Are you crazy? We grew up together. Don't you remember?"
Cloud considered him for a moment, throwing the last of his slices away as well. "What did he look like when you last saw him?" he asked.
Leon shrugged. "Long hair. Big gun. Stupid hat."
"A hat?" Cloud shook his head. "I think you're hallucinating, Leon."
"What? No, I—"
"And when did you give me a scar?" Cloud interrupted.
Leon gaped. "Are you serious?"
"The scar on your face! It's right between your eyes!" Leon pointed in the blonde's face at the dark pink line.
"No, Leon, that's you. You have a scar like that." Cloud crossed his arms over his chest.
"But so do you! Don't you remember?" Leon dragged both hands through his hair, growling in frustration. He looked around the deserted street and pointed. "Look in that shop window. You can see it, plain as day."
He grabbed Cloud by the shoulders and spun him around to face the plate glass. Cloud allowed himself to be manhandled, staring intently at their reflections in the window.
"See?" Leon jabbed his gloved finger at the mirrored Cloud's face, tracing the jagged diagonal line between his brows.
Cloud met Leon's gaze in the window before sighing and closing his eyes. "I don't see anything."
"Stop kidding around," Leon hissed, spinning the surprised blonde in his arms to face him. "It's right there! I can see it. I can feel it." To prove his point, Leon tore the glove off his right hand with his teeth and ran his bare fingertips along the scar. "It's. Right. There," he ground out.
Cloud's strong hand shot up and caught Leon's, forcing it down. "No. It's. Not," Cloud answered firmly.
Leon pulled his hand free and laughed bitterly, looking down at the cobblestones beneath their feet. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing, Cloud, but it's not funny."
"I'm not playing a game." Cloud reached forward and framed Leon's face in his hands, tilting the brunette's head up to meet his gaze. "I think something's wrong. With your memories."
"I'm not crazy," Leon whispered, clutching at Cloud's wrists, one hand gloved, and one hand bare. His other glove lay crumpled on the ground. "You have a scar. I cut you while sparring. You gave me the same injury. It happened when we were kids."
Cloud shook his head, his blonde spikes bobbing with the motion. "Leon," he said, his blue eyes glowing again, making it look like tears, "I haven't known you that long."
No matter how hard you hold on…
"No," Leon said weakly, his knees threatening to buckle under his weight. "Your hair was shorter. And you wore white. But I knew you, Cloud. I've known you forever."
"I'm sorry." Cloud shut his eyes again and swallowed hard. "But it's not true."
"Liar," Leon snarled. His hands went to the Gunblade at his hip. Cloud's eyes snapped open at the movement and unsheathed the sword on his back. In a blink of an eye, the two friends were battling in the narrow street. Leon's more agile weapon clashed loudly with the massive strength of Cloud's Buster, sparks spraying them both. Crates and boxes were overturned as they fought up and down the alleyway. A window shattered with a hit that was meant for Cloud's neck. Shopkeepers popped their heads from doorways to see what commotion had broken the early morning quiet. And still Leon kept attacking.
"Stop it! Get a hold of yourself," Cloud yelled, deflecting another blow with his wide sword.
I can't just run away.
"I don't want to hurt you!" The blonde man rolled away from a fierce swipe of the Gunblade.
One of these days, I'm going to tell you about my romantic dream.
Leon ground their blades together, the screech of metal drowning out the shouts of the townspeople in his ears. Cloud pushed against the onslaught with all his might, but Leon had the strength of a man possessed. He backed Cloud into a corner and the sharp edge of the Gunblade wavered closer to his exposed throat.
"Squall!" Cloud screamed in desperation.
"Shut up, Seifer!" Leon shouted in his friend's face.
It was like someone had pulled the plug. Leon froze, his face draining of color, still inches from Cloud. His weapon drooped in his limp hands until it clattered uselessly to the ground. A hush came over the crowd of onlookers.
Cloud lowered his sword, his eyes wide. "Leon?"
"I—" Leon brought his gloved hand up to cover his face, his eyes sliding shut. "I'm sorry, I…" And, unable to speak anymore, he turned and walked away, faster and faster down the road until he was running and outside the city limits.
Leon made his way to the Crystal Fissure, seating himself on the edge of the cliff overlooking the town. Mere weeks ago, he had been here to watch as Cloud defeated Sephiroth with the help of Sora. Now the lookout point was quiet and peaceful. The view was beautiful, but Leon didn't see any of it. He was lost in his thoughts, a jumbled mass of memories.
Leon had always trusted Cloud, but now he remembered that he'd been betrayed by the blonde somehow. Was it when Cloud had nearly been consumed by the darkness, before he lost the leathery wing on his back? Had they battled then as enemies? It was difficult to sort out.
It was probably just a side effect of Sora's actions. It couldn't have been a coincidence that everyone suddenly remembered Radiant Garden at the same time. Maybe other memories were being unlocked, too. Maybe Leon was just the first to remember.
But that still didn't explain the scar that only Leon could see.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of familiar boots on the packed earth behind him. His lost glove dropped into Leon's lap, and his Gunblade was placed on the ground beside him.
"I've never seen you leave it behind," Cloud said, sitting on the cliff next to Leon.
"I must have forgotten." Leon slipped his right hand glove back on, refusing to meet his friend's eyes.
"What was that about, Leon?" Cloud asked, motioning with his hand to the streets where their fight had taken place. "What's got you so scared?"
"I'm not scared," Leon said with more venom than he'd planned. He took a deep breath before saying more quietly, "Some things just aren't adding up. In here." He tapped the side of his head with his finger.
Cloud sighed, leaning back on his hands. "I know how you feel."
Leon glared at him. "I'm going mad. I'm remembering things that you say never happened. How could you possibly know what I'm feeling?"
"It's happened to me before," Cloud said, unbuckling his sword harness and setting it aside so he could sit more comfortably. "I lost most of my memories for a short time."
Leon's brows furrowed. "You've never told me about that."
"I don't like to talk about it. Obviously." Cloud shrugged. "A good friend of mine died to save my life. I was a wreck, nearly dead myself. But when I survived, I couldn't deal with any of it. I thought…" Cloud sighed and hung his head. "I thought I was Zack. My memories got blurry trying to compensate for inconsistencies. I would have given anything to have him back." He shut his eyes and whispered, "I guess I just wanted Zack back so much that my mind didn't care if I was erased in the process."
Leon placed a comforting hand on Cloud's back, unsure of what else to do. Cloud usually didn't like talking about the past or his feelings, which Leon appreciated. This had to be painful for him.
"I'm so sorry," Leon said softly. "How did you figure it out?"
"Tifa." Cloud nodded. "Tifa grew up with me, so she knew some of the things I told her weren't true. She brought me back from the edge. I was losing my mind, but she helped me find it again."
Leon was silent for a moment, his hand just brushing back and forth on the back of Cloud's black shirt thoughtfully. "I don't remember us growing up with Tifa," he finally admitted. "Cloud, when…do you remember meeting me?"
Cloud swallowed hard. "Damn, I wish Aerith was here," he whispered before turning to Leon, his deep blue eyes open and serious. "You fell out of the sky a few years ago, before Sora first came to this world to fight the Heartless."
"Out of the sky?" Leon shook his head and withdrew his hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. His head was pounding.
"You came to Traverse Town from some other world. Where, I don't know. You were badly injured, barely breathing. You couldn't speak for weeks. Do you remember any of that?" Cloud asked, touching Leon's elbow lightly, offering a small bit of encouragement.
Leon concentrated, wracking his brain for some shred of memory to support Cloud's story. Falling from the sky? Being half-dead? Could that really have happened without Leon remembering? He looked closely at Cloud's pale face, trying to fit the pieces of his memory together.
On the cold ground.
Am I dead?
These warm arms…
This angel has a devil's wing…
"Were you the one…who found me?" Leon asked slowly. "It was raining and you…"
Cloud nodded eagerly. "That's right. I carried you home."
Leon smiled, pleased with the small amount of progress, when a splitting pain attacked his head. He shut his eyes against the agony and clasped his head in his hands, his teeth grinding as flashes came unbidden to his mind.
You don't let people in, do you…
Destiny has nothing to do with it!
…declare your undying hatred for me!
It escapes you.
"Leon, what's wrong?" Cloud had wrapped his arms around the shuddering man, trying to keep him from falling off the edge of the cliff.
"I, I can't tell what's real and what's not. You…I remember you from before. I trusted you, and you tortured me!" Leon was inconsolable now, thrashing in Cloud's arms, his eyes clenched shut in pain.
"I never did that. You have to believe me," Cloud said, trying to keep his voice steady as Leon's struggles became more violent. The blonde man tried to keep him still against his chest with one arm so he could reach the pouch at his belt with his free hand. "I'm going to give you a sleeping potion to calm you down," he said between gritted teeth.
"No! Don't—" But Leon couldn't speak any longer. Cloud uncapped the vial and held it under Leon's nose, letting the sleeping fumes go to work. After a few seconds, the lids drooped over Leon's grey eyes and his world went black.
When Leon came to, he was back at the house in his bed. He felt groggy and lethargic, an after-effect of the sleeping potion. Leon blinked the sleep from his eyes and turned his head slowly on his pillow. Aerith was in a chair at his bedside, reading a book. She looked up when she heard Leon's tired groan and smiled.
"Good, you're awake." She snapped her book shut with one hand. "I've been doing some research, and I think I have a good idea of what's happened to your memories."
Leon took a glass of water Aerith offered and drank long swallows before he could speak in a rough voice. "Where's Cloud?"
"Oh. He told me about what happened this morning. I didn't want his presence to upset you when you woke up, so I sent him on a few errands. Trust me, it took a lot to make him leave. He's worried about you." She leaned forward, her eyes wide with concern. "We all are."
"I should tell him…sorry," Leon managed to cough out. "I don't know what came over me."
"Well, I have a clue," Aerith offered brightly. "I think what's happening here is your mind is playing tricks on you so you can make sense of your past. Cloud told me that you remember growing up here in Radiant Garden with me and Yuffie and Cid?"
"And Cloud and Vincent. Then we met Tifa while on a mission." Leon looked at Aerith's sad eyes. "But that's not true, is it?"
The healer shook her head, her heavy plait swinging.
Leon let his head fall back on his pillow with a heavy sigh. "It seems so real. I can remember all these little details. Yuffie was always tripping and falling down. Cid once won a hotdog eating contest. And," he glanced at Aerith out of the corner of his eye, "did I ever date Tifa?"
"Sorry, no. But Cloud did," Aerith said.
"Great. This is great. The only girlfriend I can remember didn't even go out with me." Leon groaned in frustration, throwing an arm over his face to cover his eyes.
Aerith put a gentle hand on Leon's shoulder. "There's a possibility you had a girlfriend in your home world and your mind just transferred those memories to Tifa when you came here." The girl nodded to herself. "That's actually my theory. To deal with the trauma of losing your world to the Heartless, your mind jumbled up your memories of your old friends and assigned those memories to new people."
"So…I don't really know any of you, do I?" Leon asked, his unblinking eyes riveted on the ceiling above him.
"No, that's not true! We're still your friends. You're just a little confused about some details. Like, Yuffie is actually an agile fighter, but you associate her with some little sister figure you once knew, so you ignore that part of her, much to her annoyance. And you think Cid likes hotdogs, which is weird because I don't think he's ever even seen one. And Cloud…" Aerith trailed off.
"He's either my best friend or my worst enemy," Leon finished for her. "I always thought we were close since childhood, but lately I've been seeing these memories, hearing these voices in my head, and I, I just freak out."
He rolled onto his side so he could see Aerith as she spoke in that delicate, calming voice.
"You may not have known Cloud for as long as you think, but I can tell you he's never hurt you, and he'd never want to." She leaned back in her chair, her green eyes taking on a dreamy quality as she remembered. "When he found you in Traverse Town, there was a lot of chaos. Lots of people were coming into the city in gummi ships to escape the destruction of their home worlds, but you were different. You seemed to come from nowhere. There was just this bright flash of light in the sky, like a shooting star. Cloud went to go investigate and he came back with you lifeless in his arms. I'd never seen Cloud so worried about a stranger. When I asked him, he said you reminded him of someone he used to know." Aerith gave Leon a small smile and shrugged. "Yuffie and I always joked that he saw the weapon in your holster and just wanted to have someone to spar with."
"Why did you never tell me about this before?" Leon asked, his hands clutching at the sheets.
Aerith frowned. "I did. When you finally woke up, I explained to you what had happened and continued nursing you back to health. But you were so quiet, and never spoke a word to anyone. If someone tried to ask about your home world, you'd shut down. The only one who seemed to get any response from you was Cloud. When you got strong enough, he took you out to that old training field. You seemed to recover so well, and we were just all so pleased to have you alive, I guess no one wanted to bother you with more questions. And since you never brought it up…"
"But now the memories are coming back," Leon said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. "Seifer…I called Cloud Seifer today. I think that's the name of the boy I grew up with, the one I ended up fighting when we were older."
"Seifer? That's strange," Aerith muttered, reaching for the stack of books on the floor beside her chair. She selected one of the volumes and paged through it, eyes widening as they stopped at a certain spot. "Oh, my."
Leon sat up slowly, fighting the dizziness that swarmed around his head. "What's the matter?"
"Merlin's books are more than books; they're a universal index of spells and their casting history." She turned the book so Leon could see the pages. He couldn't read the strange script the book contained, but he could see they were no ordinary words. Some sections glowed in a variety of colors and the words actually moved and appeared on the page. Aerith continued, "See, this book contains information on some very rare spells, and every time a spell like that is cast, this book automatically records who cast it and who the spell was cast on. And the name Seifer Almasy comes up under the spell…" She studied the ancient script for a moment. "…Time Compression."
"Time Compression," Leon repeated, rolling the words on his tongue. It sounded so familiar.
"The spell was only ever cast twice. Once by a sorceress named Ul…Ulti…" Aerith concentrated on the book, trying to sound out the foreign word.
"Ultimecia," Leon said quietly.
"Yes! And one other time by a sorceress named Rinoa. Does any of this ring a bell for you?" Aerith asked, peeking over the top of the book.
My love. My heart. Not enough.
"Quick, who was the spell cast on the second time?" Leon asked, pointing at the book.
"Let's see, uh, Seifer Almasy, Selphie Tilmitt, and…oh, that's weird." Aerith flipped a few pages, flipped back, and squinted at the alien print.
"What's it say?" Leon asked anxiously.
"It says Nonexila. It's an ancient phrase meaning a man with no true name." Aerith's mouth turned into a little O of surprise. "That's you, isn't it?"
Leon was now staring at Aerith in fascination, sitting on the edge of the bed. "What else does it say?"
The healer ran her fingertips over the pages. "According to this, the spell was never completed either time. The sorceress' must have been stopped. Good thing, because if used incorrectly, this is one powerful spell." She looked up at Leon, making circles in the air with one hand. "It controls not only time, but space. Pretty much all of a world's existence can be altered or destroyed however the caster wishes."
"Oh, Holy," Leon whispered. "She was trying to save us all."
Get inside the Garden! That's an order!
You can't stop them, Quistis. They're everywhere.
Shut up, Seifer! Just—
What's she doing?
Time shall compress…
All existence denied.
"She was trying to get us all to safety before our world collapsed." Leon blinked hard, feeling unfamiliar tears welling up in his eyes. "My world…"
"I'm sorry, Leon," Aerith said, resting a reassuring hand on Leon's knee and clutching the book to her chest. "I've tried using locator spells to find your home world again and again, hoping that it was restored when Sora defeated Ansem. But it's lost, and now I understand why. Time Compression magic is dangerous, and the spell may have backfired on your friend while she was casting it."
Leon stood up suddenly, dislodging Aerith's hand. "I need to go somewhere. Collect my thoughts." Leon ran both hands through his messy brown hair, ignoring the tears still pricking his eyes. "The memories are trickling into my head now, and it's a lot to take in all at once."
"It's okay. Take all the time you need," Aerith said softly, watching Leon leave.
He took a moment to grab his Gunblade from where it had been placed in the weapon rack before walking to the woods outside of town. It was peaceful there, with the late afternoon sun slanting through the dense trees. The river flowed languidly through the forest, and Leon chose to rest on its bank. If he closed his eyes, he could let the deluge of memories wash over him, faint flashes growing stronger with time. He sat there for hours, just recalling the past.
Zell with his tattoo.
Quistis always pushing for something better.
Irvine, who hid his low self esteem with jokes.
Seifer. His brutal kiss.
Leon's eyes snapped open. He was panting for breath as if he'd run a mile. He turned his head to his left, feeling a presence beside him. It was Cloud, of course, watching him silently.
"Just wanted to make sure you were okay," the blonde said. Leon stared at the man with wide eyes. There was no longer a scar between his pale brows.
"Me too!" a voice piped up from Leon's right. The man jumped a few inches into the air in surprise, whirling on the boy sitting on his other side.
"Sora?" he asked, clutching his hand over his heart.
"Didn't mean to scare you," Sora apologized. The little Keyblade master dropped his eyes and toed the river mud at his feet with his huge yellow shoes.
"Sora has some information for you," Cloud said, reaching around Leon and prodding Sora in the back with his gloved hand. "Go ahead and tell him."
"Well, I just dropped in this afternoon with Donald and Goofy. We wanted to visit the armor shop, maybe synthesize some items with the Moogles, try to find any treasure we may have missed in the underground tunnels…" the boy rattled on, folding his hands behind his head in a gesture of youthful bravado.
Cloud sighed heavily. "Just skip to the important part."
"Oh, right." Sora's expression sobered. "Aerith was telling us what happened to your world and all your friends, and she was wondering what happened to the other two people the spell was cast on, and it turns out," he smiled widely, "I know them!"
"What?" Leon blurted out. "Seifer? And Selphie? They're okay?"
"Yeah, but something didn't make sense to me." Sora rested his chin on his fists. "I told Aerith about it, and she explained how Time Compression works. See, the caster can send anyone to any time or place."
"So where are they?" Leon asked, leaning forward.
"Well, Selphie got sent to my world. Small universe, huh?" Sora grinned. "In fact, she got sent to my time, too. She's my age now. I grew up with her." The Keyblade master continued, "And I met a boy named Seifer in a nice place called Twilight Town. He's about my age as well, and he gets to fight in all the Struggle battles. It's like the Coliseum, except with foam bats so no one gets hurt."
Leon gave a relieved laugh. "Selphie finally got to live in a peaceful world. And Seifer is forced to fight with toys. It's like Rinoa knew exactly what to do with them," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
"We were wondering why the same thing didn't happen to you," Sora said, scratching his spiky head. "You're still an adult. The others got to start over again as kids."
"Aerith thinks the spell may have been interrupted by the Heartless while it was being cast on you," Cloud offered.
"Maybe." Leon picked up a dried leaf from the ground and crumbled it between his fingers. "Or maybe she wasn't sure how to fix me."
"Or," Cloud slung his arm around Leon's neck in a rare hug, "maybe she did."
Leon bit his lip and returned the one-armed embrace. "Thanks, Cloud. And thank you, Sora, for the good news."
"If you want, you can catch a ride with me in the ship," Sora suggested, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "I haven't been able to get back to Destiny Islands, but Donald, Goofy and I are stopping in Twilight Town next. You can see your friend."
"See Seifer?" He glanced at Cloud, who nodded. Leon licked his lips in thought, but shook his head. "No, he has no memory of me now. And he wouldn't be the person I remember either. It would be useless."
Sora smiled. "I understand. Just thought I'd offer." He stood swiftly, his brown hair bobbing in the wind. "Well, I've got to get back. Hope you feel better soon."
Leon murmured his thanks as the boy left the forest, whistling contentedly. It was almost inconceivable that Selph and Seifer had gotten another shot at that kind of happiness. A new childhood.
"How are you feeling?" Cloud asked when Sora had gone.
Leon sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "Tired. A little confused still. These memories are exhausting."
That brutal kiss.
We can't do this…
Who's going to stop us, Squall?
You make me feel so…
…stay with me. Please.
"Been there," Cloud muttered, breaking Leon from his flash of memory.
Leon gasped for breath, sweat standing out on his brow from the intensity of the memory. "Not quite like this, I don't think."
"Hey, what's wrong?" Cloud clamped his teeth down on the fingertips of one of his gloves and tugged it off, placing his bare hand on Leon's hot forehead. "You're burning up," he murmured, tucking the jagged brown bangs behind his ears.
Leon stared at the man before him as if it was the first time he'd seen him. Without all the false memories attached to him, Leon was able to see Cloud more clearly than ever. He was beautiful. Flawless pale skin, a teasing glint of metal in his ear. The sun was setting behind the trees, and those blue eyes were glowing in the low light, giving Cloud an ethereal look.
"Your eyes," Leon whispered. "Why do they do that?"
Cloud blinked, and the light from his eyes was gone briefly before reappearing.
"It's Mako. It's a long story. I'm surprised you never noticed before. But maybe those false memories had something to do with it."
But Leon wasn't listening, really. He leaned forward even closer to Cloud's face.
"You scar's gone," he said, his voice barely audible. "I can't see it anymore."
"Good." Cloud shrugged. "It looks okay on you, but I don't think I—"
Cloud inhaled sharply as Leon's lips touched his. The blonde froze, but Leon was not deterred. His senses overpowered him: He could smell Cloud's skin, fresh with Aerith's homemade soap. He could feel the pulse where he grasped Cloud's wrist, thrumming like a hundred horses. He could taste the mint on his soft lips. Leon groaned low in his throat, tilting his head to deepen the kiss, and was thrilled to feel Cloud finally respond. His mouth opened to Leon, who tasted him deeply before pulling back to gauge his friend's reaction.
The blonde slowly opened his eyes, licking his lips unconsciously. "Huh," was all he managed.
"Was it okay?" Leon asked, feeling like he was at sea and more unsure of himself than he'd ever been.
"Leon," Cloud sighed, running a hand through his soft blonde spikes, "I don't know what to say."
"Say what you feel," Leon said in a hushed tone, squeezing Cloud's wrist in his hand.
"Tell me something," Cloud said, fixing Leon with his glowing gaze. "Were you and Seifer lovers once?"
"I think so," he answered, studying his friend's face closely. "It's a little blurry, but I think so."
Cloud's eyes hardened. "Maybe you should talk to me about this when you sort out your memories." He stood up suddenly, looking down at Leon still sitting on the riverbank. "I'm not going to be a replacement for you."
"Wait! Cloud!" Leon shouted at his retreating back. He cursed and struggled to his feet, running after the blonde. "You're not a replacement."
Cloud whirled around to face him. "I have been for years. This whole time you've equated me with a man who evidently tortured you. Not too encouraging."
"Hey." Leon grabbed Cloud's elbow as the other man tried to leave again, forcing the blonde to stay facing him. "Seifer wasn't perfect. In fact, he was an arrogant, self-centered, crazy bastard most of the time."
"Might want to quit with the complimentary comparisons while you're ahead," Cloud muttered, trying unsuccessfully to pull away from Leon's grasp.
"Let me finish, damn it," Leon said, tightening his grip. "He wasn't perfect, but Seifer was there with me, all my life. And when he gave in to the darkness and became my enemy, I felt betrayed. But when the battle was over and the smoke cleared…" Leon sighed, his grey eyes dropping to the forest floor. "He came back to us. He changed. And he there to catch me when it counted. That's when I think I fell in love with Seifer." Leon let his hand fall from Cloud's bare arm and balled his fists at his sides. "So if you're insulted because I subconsciously linked you to the first person I ever loved well enough to deserve, I'm sorry."
Cloud's face flushed, and he ducked his head. "Leon, are you saying—"
But he was cut off by a loud siren resounding through the still woods.
"Oh Holy," Leon cursed. "That's the town alarm."
Cloud nodded, already drawing his sword from his harness. "Let's go."
The two men raced towards Market Square where the alarm seemed to be originating. The closer they got, the more screaming townspeople ran past them going the opposite direction. Whatever it was, Leon thought as they neared the Square, it wasn't just some stray goblin or flan.
Leon and Cloud burst into the Square and froze at what faced them. Towering above the buildings was a huge serpent, its fangs bared and striking at the heels of some fleeing townspeople. Yuffie, Cid and Aerith were there already, their weapons bouncing uselessly off snake's thick scaly skin.
"What is that thing?" Leon yelled, quickly loading his Gunblade with bullets from the belt slung around his waist.
"What the hell does it look like?" Cid shouted back. "It's a huge fucking snake!"
"It's a swamp Naga!" Yuffie called, still throwing shuriken at the monster's large yellow eyes which the animal deftly dodged. "It's too fast! And when it is hit, it doesn't seem to get hurt."
"Aren't Nagas supposed to stay in the swamp?" Cloud growled, swinging his Buster at the snake's long tail, the blade clanging loudly as it rebounded off the animal.
"You can tell it that once it's knocked down the entire city!" Aerith shouted, trying and failing to cast Stop on the beast.
Yuffie groaned in frustration as her Thunder spell fizzled out against the snake's scales. "This is hopeless!"
Cid leapt to the roof of one of the houses to face the Naga eye to eye. He took a long drag on his cigarette before tossing it to the street below. The snake hissed down at him.
"I am tired of this motherfucking snake," Cid growled, spinning his pike in his hand, "in this motherfucking town."
Letting loose a war cry, Cid jumped at the monster, landing between its narrowed eyes. He scrambled for purchase on the slick skin while the snake reared back and tried to shake the man off. Cid managed to jam the point of his weapon behind the Naga's skull before being thrown clear.
"Catch him, Aerith!" Leon shouted.
"Got it." The girl spoke a Slow spell and Cid stopped in mid-air, inches away from smashing into a brick wall.
The mechanic gave her a thumbs-up, slowly drifting towards the ground until his boots touched the cobblestones. "Thanks, darling," he said.
Aerith sighed in relief. "Just be more careful. I can't catch you every time."
The Naga, now with Cid's spear jammed painfully into its neck, roared loud enough to shake the windows in the Square. It thrashed wildly, scraping its huge head against buildings, trying to dislodge the weapon.
"Cid got it mad. That's just great," Leon muttered, circling around the monster to get a clear shot at its head. "Stand back, guys," he warned. "I'm going to try to take out its eyes."
"Blind giant snake is still a giant snake," Yuffie countered, jumping back anyway with a back flip.
Leon aimed his Gunblade carefully and squeezed off a round. It exploded in the Naga's right eye, and the creature wailed in fury. Leon tried to fire again, but the snake's long tail shot out at him, knocking him against a wall. His Gunblade clattered to the ground about ten feet away. Leon dove for it, but the snake used its long body to stop him and throw him back against the wall. It reared its head back and bared its fangs, preparing to attack.
"Leon!" Cloud dashed to his side, striking at the snake as its jaws came at them lightning fast. The blow from the Buster sword snapped one of the giant fangs in half, the pointed white spike flying to the side. The beast gave an inhuman cry of pain and snapped its head back, only to come striking at Cloud again. This time, the blonde drove his sword up into the roof of its gaping mouth. The Buster embedded itself in the snake's brain with a terrible fleshy sound.
The snake's one good eye rolled back in its head. Leon gasped; the creature was in its death throes. Cloud turned slightly, as if in slow-motion, to say something to Leon and didn't see the snake's tail snapping towards him in its final spasm.
Leon tried to open his mouth quick enough to warn Cloud, but could only watch as the powerful bulk slammed into his friend, sending him flying with so much force that it shattered the wall he hit.
"Holy! Oh, Holy," Aerith screamed. "I couldn't stop him! I didn't see in time!"
"Cloud? Cloud!" Leon picked himself off the ground and dodged the flailing snake's tail to reach his partner. The blonde was half-buried in rubble; Leon started digging him out. "Someone hand me a potion!"
The other three ran over to the spot to assist Leon. Yuffie dumped the entire contents of her potion supply onto Cloud's still form, but he didn't budge. Aerith found his pale wrist amid the debris and searched it for a pulse.
"Aerith, cure him!" Leon shouted, cradling the broken body in his arms. "Now!"
The girl in the pink dress shook her head, tears streaming down her face. "He's gone, Leon."
"No, he's not! Holy—" Leon murmured a quick Curaga, but the greenish healing light sputtered and died in the air around Cloud's body. "Aerith, do something!"
"I can't," she choked. "No amount of magic can heal him now."
"Goddamnit," Cid muttered, getting to his feet and taking the goggles off his head.
"He's…dead?" Yuffie whimpered, falling to her knees in the street.
"No! He's not dead. Not if I can help it." Leon's eyes darted over the unmoving body of his friend, blood seeping from his wounds to stain Leon's white shirt.
"Leon, there's nothing you can—" Aerith gasped as the man whirled on her, grabbing her by her pink jacket and hauling her a few inches into the air.
"Fix it. I know you can," he growled.
Aerith blinked, her tears still falling steadily. "I would if it were possible, Leon, but…"
He cut her off. "Use Time Compression. Bring him back."
"What? No!" The girl struggled in his grip, sobbing harder. "I've only read about it. It's not like casting Fire or Cure. It could make the entire world collapse!"
"Do it," Leon commanded in a hushed voice.
"I can't," she moaned.
"Hey, I don't want Cloud dead either, Leon. But you can't expect the girl to take such a big risk," Cid said, putting a hand on his arm. "Now let her go."
Leon lowered his head and released Aerith, who slumped to the ground. "You're right. I can't ask her to do that," he said quietly, moving past the carcass of the Naga to retrieve his Gunblade. "But I will force her to."
Yuffie and Cid moved to block his path to Aerith, thinking he would rush at her. But instead, Leon turned the sword on himself, laying the sharp blade against his neck.
"Do it, Aerith. Or you watch me die, too." His grey eyes were twin storms divided by his scar. Deadly serious.
Cid's mouth fell open in awe, and Yuffie took a surprised step backward. Aerith looked up at Leon sadly, still wracked with sobs.
"How can you do this?" she whispered. "You bastard."
"I know you, Aerith," Leon said, his weapon never leaving his throat. "You won't let the darkness take you during the spell. You can bring him back." He swallowed, closing his eyes. "Please."
The girl stood shakily, numb hands smoothing out her disheveled skirt. She glanced at Leon again and took a few shuddering breaths before closing her eyes. Her lips began to move in a silent chant.
Almost instantly, the world began to shift. The streets shook beneath their feet, street lamps crashing to the ground. Dark clouds appeared on the once-clear horizon. Lightning flashed in the newly-fallen night sky, starless and moonless.
"Look," Yuffie whispered, pointing upwards. Pieces of rooftops were floating towards the inky blackness like the whole town was being dismantled by some unseen hand.
"It'll tear us apart," Cid muttered, sticking another cigarette in his mouth. "Better enjoy a last smoke."
"It will work. It has to." Leon dropped his Gunblade to the ground, shouting above the din, "If you can hear me, Aerith, control the darkness. Don't let it destroy everything!"
"Reflect on the past," Aerith's voice boomed. Her eyes, usually clear green, flew open to reveal black orbs. "All existence denied."
"Everyone take cover!" Leon shouted, covering Cloud's body with his own. Yuffie and Cid fell to the ground as a sonic wave burst from Aerith, crashing through the city like the buildings were made of matchsticks. Leon heard explosions all around him, but kept his eyes clenched shut, burying his face against Cloud's motionless chest.
This was the end of the world.
He'd really fucked up this time.
Am I dead?
Leon picked his head up and stared down at the grassy field he was laying in. Birds were chirping in a far-off place. The scent of wildflowers wafted to his nose. A pair of slim bare feet appeared before his face.
I told you I would wait for you.
I'm sending you home now.
Good luck, Squall.
Leon looked up, but was blinded by a white light.
An enveloping light. Then silence.
Leon blinked rapidly, lifting himself from the ground. His boots clicked on the solid cobblestones beneath him. The air smelled a bit acrid, but the skies were clear. Everything looked as it always had in Radiant Garden.
"Hey." Leon heard a voice behind him and turned around. Cloud stood there, looking around the Square like he'd never seen it before. He furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. "What just happened?"
Leon choked on what may have been a word or a sound and ran forward, grabbing Cloud in a hard embrace.
"Whoa," the blonde yelped. "Get a hold of yourself, Leonhart."
Leon pulled back, tried to speak again, and failed. But he was interrupted anyway.
"Cloud!" Yuffie ran headlong into them, wrapping them both in her skinny arms. "Man, am I glad to see you!"
"You made it, kid!" Cid howled in triumph, joining in the impromptu group hug. Leon couldn't even find it in him to shrug them off. It felt too good to have Cloud back in his arms.
"Did…did I do it?"
The four turned to see Aerith, looking a bit worse for wear, stumbling forward. Leon rushed to her side and held her up with a strong arm around her waist before she fell over.
"You did. Thank you. Thank you…more than I can say," Leon said, leading her to a bench she could sit on.
"Don't thank me," Aerith murmured. "Thank Rinoa. Couldn't have done it without her. Whoever she is."
Leon smiled, too overcome to hold it back. "She was you, but not. In another life."
Aerith's eyelids drooped slightly. "Should smile more…" she whispered before she fell into an exhausted sleep. Tiny snores drifted from her lax lips, and Leon heard Cid chuckle.
"Nothing takes it out of the old girl like almost destroying the world," he laughed. "I'd say you owe her a lifetime's worth of foot rubs, Leon."
"Aerith? Destroy the world?" Cloud moaned in frustration. "Would someone please tell me what's going on?"
"Why don't we get Little Miss Powerful Sorceress back home, and then Leon can tell you all about it," Yuffie said, smiling with a hint of malice.
"Come on, Yuff," Cid grunted, picking up Aerith in his arms. "Let's get her in bed. Good luck explaining things to Cloud, Leon." The mechanic grinned. "Or, as I will now call you, Crazy Motherfucking Leon."
"Thanks," Leon said blankly, watching them cart the healer away.
"What are they talking about?" Cloud asked. "One minute I'm fighting a giant snake and the next…where the hell did that thing go, anyway?"
"Aerith just cast Time Compression," Leon said, hands on his belted hips, eyes on the ground.
"She what?" Cloud strode up to Leon and cried, "Why?"
"Because I told her to," Leon said, biting his lip and shutting his eyes because the next question would inevitably be…
"Why the fuck did you do a thing like that?" Cloud shouted, his glowing eyes wide in horror.
Leon lifted his gaze, his mouth a thin line. "Because you were dead."
Cloud's eyes lost their angry glow and his lips fell open slightly. "What?"
Leon scraped the heel of his boot along the ground, looking down again. "I guess there's really no excuse for letting the world almost end. Even if it is to save…"
Leon sighed and looked back up at Cloud, his long brown hair blowing in a sudden wind.
"I just wanted to save you," he whispered. "I love you, Cloud."
Cloud didn't say anything. He took Leon by the arm and slowly led him back home. Leon stayed silent as well and let the blonde steer him to his room, let him lock the door behind them, let him lead him to the bed.
Cloud's hands worked on the buckles of his armbands. They fell to the floor with loud thumps and clinks when the metal hit metal. Leon's short leather jacket followed, hitting the floor more quietly. Gloves fell like shapeless birds. Then his white shirt, which should have been red with blood.
"I made her do it," he said, breaking the cold quiet. "Aerith wouldn't have taken the chance otherwise."
"I'm not mad," Cloud said, working the fasteners of Leon's red belts.
"I shouldn't have let you down in the battle to begin with," Leon whispered, his lips in Cloud's soft hair. He didn't remember clinging to the other man, but there he was.
"Here's a tip. Took me a long time to figure it out for myself." Cloud flung the belts away, narrowly missing the chair they had been aimed at. "You're not perfect. No one is."
Leon gave a short bark of laughter. "No shit?"
Cloud's eyes were glowing again, but Leon could see that it was softer this time. Affectionate. "If you're going to lay there like a statue all night, Leonhart, I may as well get some sleep in my own room."
"You'd like to stay here? With me?" Leon brushed a few strands of blonde hair out of Cloud's face so he could see his eyes better. "Are you serious?"
"To tell you the truth," Cloud smirked, "I kind of like being alive."
Leon laughed properly then, holding Cloud even closer.
"But you're going to have to help me with my gear, too, you lazy bastard," Cloud chuckled, pushing himself up on his knees, straddling Leon's hips.
The brunette's hands came up to undo the leather strap of Cloud's shoulder armor. That clunked heavily on the floor beside the bed. Then Leon unzipped and peeled off the sleeveless black knit shirt. Then there was the belt that held the protective leather covering on Cloud's leg. Floor, floor, floor.
Cloud, now naked from the waist up as well, hovered above Leon's face, his gloved hands framing his angular face against the pillow.
"I want you to know…I love you, too, Leon," Cloud said, caressing his face, his thumb drifting over the scar between his brows.
"Call me Squall," he said, lifting his hands to the back of Cloud's neck to pull him down for the first kiss of both their new lives.