Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts or any Final Fantasy characters. This story was written for fun, not profit.
A/N: Pre-KH1. Slightly AU, what with the gratuitous Esthar references.
Aerith Gainsborough saved her world once.
At least Leon's fairly sure she did. Yuffie tells stories back-to-front, like she has to bully the words into order or else they'll run off in all directions, but Yuffie is also the only one who talks about her planet. Her Planet, really; he can hear the importance of it, just like he can listen to Cid's gruff gaping omissions and admire-envy Aerith's delicate verbal footwork, which is mostly dancing around Him.
(He's one to talk, since he has Them and There and Before and Her, which he never mentions at all.)
He knows that Aerith Gainsborough saved her Planet and then didn't save it, and that she takes this as a personal indignation – as a fault, Yuffie says-but-not, as her fault, followed by something about streams and holy-magic rocks that he doesn't really get. But he understands the gist of it, which is why he tries so hard to forget every single time Yuffie lets something slip. Aerith reminds him of lost things and places and people (and Her sometimes) and he thinks it will be easier if he can't remember.
That's why you have the jacket, She counters in his head, and her long fingers trace blood-red angel wings in the air.
Sometimes She tells him that he has guilt issues – but not quite like that, because it's been almost ten years now and he's forgetting. He can't remember how She phrased things or how She cocked her head to one side when she was deep in thought, which scares and relieves him all at once.
But he still hears Her in his head, and these days he hears Aerith too and sometimes he hears them both, and he thinks that he'd go mad if he had the time and energy and inclination, and maybe it would be better for everyone if he did.
The difference between Her and Aerith is that the second time around, She didn't try to save the world. She said it was like time compression turned sideways, like the Lunar Cry ten times over with a hole straight through her heart, and that there was nothing any of them could do – and She said this while shadow-shapes scrambled up the Garden walls and Irvine suggested putting silverware in the guns when they ran out of ammo and Balamb burned like a torch and he changed his name and he can't forget why can't he forget –
He wishes he knew what She did at the end of the world, surrounded by her feather-white magic and Esthar's screams. Maybe she wanted to save what was left.
Silly, She says, it was you, I wanted to save you. (But he never hears this.)
Sometimes he hears accusation in the few words Yuffie won't say, which is what makes him think that there's only a fixed number of miracles per world, like Garden quotas. He gleans little fragments from her stories and foot-stomping tantrums and the occasional "I fucking hate you, Squall!" (He makes a poor stand-in for whoever she's really angry at, because she ends up skipping him entirely and knocking a hole straight through the wall.)
Aerith's Planet had miracles to spare – although he watches her evasions and wonders if her Him would think so – and it's probably only fair of them to have expected another one.
He wonders how many miracles this world has left, or at least he would if he were a different sort of person. But he is himself - and he thinks of this as his punishment, over and over and over - and so he sharpens his gunblade yet again and swipes at shadows in the underground cavern.
This is another way he reminds himself that Aerith is different from Her, because She would come looking for him.
One day Aerith does too.
And she is not fiery and innocent and wonderful, and she does not stamp her feet and make dainty little fists and ask who he thinks he's fooling, Squall – because Aerith has never been naïve and he knows she was not born a princess of anyone's revolution, and he's never asked what she gave up to save a Planet once upon a time.
"You don't get to do this," she says. He wonders who she's yelling at, and if maybe she sees Him the way he sees Her. "You mean too much to everyone. You're not allowed to wallow."
He thinks it's too late for that. "Whatever."
"I'm not leaving until you do," she says.
It takes a week of this before he realizes, suddenly and rather horribly, that she means every word.
"Did you save the world?" he asks one day in the cavern.
She smiles right through him, at something he isn't sure he wants to see, and she shrugs helplessly – because no one wants to admit something like that, he doesn't want to admit that he did the impossible once, him and his friends and his Garden and Her, and what was the point if it was all for nothing? What good did it do?
"I wouldn't be here if I had," she says.
That is the first and only time she ever answers. And that's all right, because it's the only time he asks. If there's one thing he understands, it's not wanting to remember.
They understand each other far better than they ought to, better than anyone else does, and if he had the time that would scare him as much as the Heartless ever did.
Aerith isn't Her. Aerith can't be Her and will never be Her. He repeats this to himself like it's a talisman, and if he says it often enough everything will be all right.
(And She isn't there to smile sadly and kiss his cheek and point out that it's all right, because he isn't Him either.)