(A/N: A new story! Feels like ages since I last posted something new. Anyway, let's see... This fic focuses on the Final Fantasy characters of Radiant Garden. I should make it clear from the outset that this is not a Final Fantasy crossover. I have included some elements from the Final Fantasy games, but all such elements are written to be part of the KH universe, rather than any continuation of Final Fantasy canon. So I have allowed myself to take a few liberties, just as KH itself does with the FF characters.
What else... pairings. Sorry, but it would really be a spoiler to give anything away. I can say that there is only het. The main characters are Leon, Cloud, Aerith, Tifa and the Gullwings. There is a kinda-sorta-maybe-if-you-squint love triangle between Cloud, Aerith and Tifa. I can't really say how that goes either, but romance isn't the main focus, anyway.
This is the first part of five. The whole story is already written, and just has a few more minor edits to make, so I should be updating regularly - once per week, I think. I'd like to thank my beta readers for all their help - you guys are great! :D Finally, reviews are much appreciated. I hope you enjoy. :)
Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts and all its characters belong to Square Enix and Disney. I make no profit from writing about these characters. This disclaimer applies to all chapters of this fic.)
Follow the Butterfly
Chapter 1: A Quest
"There's a letter for you," Cid grunted, not even bothering to turn around from the computer as Leon walked in.
"Did Merlin leave it?" Leon picked up the envelope from the table and frowned at the name inked in a round, cursive script. Squall was all it said. No seal, no address. Just the name he had cast off.
"Dunno, maybe somebody dropped it off earlier."
Leon didn't pursue the subject. Leaning against the wall, he unfolded the letter. His frown deepened. There were only three words written on the parchment:
Follow the butterfly.
Leon looked up as Yuffie barged in, wearing a big smile and holding two sea-salt ice creams.
"I brought one for you," she said, in a tone that implied she had done something on a par with rescuing a dying princess or single-handedly defeating all the Heartless in the world.
Cid swivelled around in his seat. "You're a star, kiddo."
Yuffie gave him the ice cream and was about to enjoy her own when three tiny figures appeared in midair behind her. Leon blinked. Those damn pixies. They were the Gullwings: Yuna, Rikku and Paine. Ever since they had come to him asking for treasure, they had haunted the restoration committee, making mischief at every opportunity.
Yuffie didn't even have time to turn around before one of them snatched the ice cream bar from her hand. Laughing, the pixies flew out of the house, and Yuffie chased after them, waving her fist. None of them had noticed Leon. He frowned, then returned his attention to the letter.
Follow the butterfly. What did it mean? The words appeared to shimmer, and for a moment he thought he had been staring so intently that his eyesight had unfocused – but no, the letters were really moving, the ink sliding like rivulets of water. The ink formed itself into the outline of a butterfly, and then it bled, colour running in to fill the picture. The butterfly glowed pink, flapped its wings twice, and took off, right out of the parchment and into the air. Leon tilted his head back to watch as it reached the ceiling.
Follow the butterfly.
The butterfly fluttered in a circle twice, then seemed to realise that it couldn't get through the rafters; it darted off to the door which Yuffie had left ajar instead.
"What's that?" Cid asked, slurping his ice cream.
"I don't know," replied Leon, "but I'm going to find out."
Someone had gone to the trouble of using magic to contact him. Someone from his past. He couldn't just stand there and let the mystery fly away from him, but whoever it was, he wouldn't meet them unprepared. Leon checked that his gunblade was sheathed at his hip and chased after the butterfly.
Aerith sat at the edge of the crystal cliff, dangling her legs over the abyss. It was peaceful here, away from the town, with only the sky and the glittering rocks for company. She was waiting.
Something overhead caught her eye; she glanced up and saw a swirl of pink fluttering above her, trailing golden sparks. Its movement was too haphazard to be a bird. She stood up and lifted her hand, not really expecting anything, but the creature flew down in wide circles and flapped around her before settling down on her outstretched finger. Perhaps it was attracted to the pink of her dress.
"Where are you going?" Aerith murmured.
The butterfly's wings trembled. She kept perfectly still, not wanting to alarm it.
That was Leon's voice calling her. Distracted, she moved without meaning to, and the butterfly took off at once, flying over the abyss and into the wild lands.
"The butterfly!" Leon panted, hurrying up to her. "There it is!"
He ran to the edge, searching for a route to follow, but the cliff here was sheer. Aerith planted herself in front of him, between him and his quarry, the cliff at her back. She folded her arms.
"Oh? And where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know – I'm trying to follow it."
He wasn't looking at her; he was leaning from side to side, trying to see past her.
Aerith sighed. "You shouldn't go alone."
"I don't want anyone to slow me down."
He meant her, she could tell. These silly, stubborn men. Cloud was just the same. She tilted her head, watching as Leon searched fruitlessly for a way down.
"I'll have to double back," he said at last.
The only way down to the plains was through a narrow, twisting gully. If he did, he would lose sight of the butterfly. Aerith glanced back over the edge. A tiny pink sparkle was still visible, winging its way erratically through the air. An idea occurred to her. She grinned.
"Leon, wait. I know a quicker way down."
He was paying attention to her now. Her smile widened; she clicked her fingers. Three figures appeared in midair, hovering around her shoulders: the Gullwings. Rikku and Yuna were holding a half-eaten sea-salt ice cream bar. They both looked around in surprise and dropped the ice cream. It landed on the ground with a mournful splat.
"Oh, no!" said Yuna.
"You made us drop our ice cream!" Rikku cried.
Paine hovered by Aerith's left ear, arms folded, tiny bat-like wings beating steadily. "What do you want?"
Leon stared. "Them? No. No way."
"Why not?" said Aerith, her smile bright. "Gullwings, I've got a quest for you."
"Ooh!" Yuna and Rikku chorused, forgetting the ice cream at once. "Is it exciting?" Yuna asked.
"Will there be lots of treasure?"
"Is it dangerous?"
"It could be," said Aerith. "Leon needs your help. He's trying to catch a butterfly, but it's flown over the cliff."
"A butterfly?" said Yuna. "Where is it?"
Leon pointed. "It's getting away." The butterfly was almost out of sight.
"I'll catch it!" said Rikku. She grinned, her mane of blonde hair and bright orange scarf bobbing up and down. With a twirl, she vanished.
"No, I don't want to catch it," said Leon, too late. "I want to follow it…" But they could already see Rikku's tiny figure darting over the plains where she had reappeared. She flew back and forth, looped-the-loop, and zigzagged in implausible directions, but the pink dot constantly eluded her.
"Why do you want to follow it?" Aerith asked.
"I got a message from someone… I think they're trying to lead me to them."
"A message from whom?"
Leon shrugged. "I don't know."
"A mystery message!" said Yuna. "This is exciting!" She flew over to Leon. "All right, we accept your quest!"
"We want payment first," Paine reminded her.
"I don't…" Leon began. But Rikku had reappeared, tired and empty-handed.
"It's too fast!" she complained. "I'm dizzy…" Her pixie friends went to help her, slinging an arm under each of her shoulders.
"They can fly you safely down to the plains and catch up with the butterfly for you," said Aerith, determined not to give Leon any chance to refuse. "It'll be the quickest way."
Leon looked over the cliff. The butterfly was out of sight. Aerith knew that he had to take their offer now; without the pixies' ability to disappear and reappear at will, he might not be able to find the butterfly again.
"Fine," he said.
"Payment first," said Paine, looming in front of Leon like a miniature female version of him: both inscrutable, dressed in black and with an overabundance of belts and buckles.
"I told you before," he said, "I don't have anything to give you…"
"What do you want?" Aerith asked. The pixies were fickle, easily pleased by shiny and pretty things, which they discarded as soon as the next new thing grabbed their attention. That was how she had befriended them. They came at her call, and she kept them happy by indulging their whims.
"Hmm…" said Yuna. The three pixies huddled together, whispering.
Leon was tapping his foot.
"Don't worry," said Aerith, "they can find the butterfly in a matter of seconds."
The pixies finished whispering. They hovered in front of Leon and Aerith, wearing greedy expressions.
"I want one of your flowers," said Yuna.
"Five hundred munny for me!" said Rikku.
Paine pointed at Leon. "Your gunblade."
Leon had frowned at Rikku's expensive demand – Aerith and he both knew that the munny would have to come out of the world rebuilding fund – but at Paine's words, his body became rigid.
"What? You're too small to even use it!"
"I don't think so," Paine replied. She darted over to Leon, tugged at the hilt of the blade, and darted away again before he could snatch her out of the air. The gunblade had magically shrunk as soon as she touched it, reduced to a tiny dagger. Paine lifted it in both hands, testing the balance, and tried a few strokes in midair. It suited her perfectly.
"Give that back!" Leon snarled.
Aerith covered her mouth to stifle her giggling as Leon chased after the pixie, who kept flying out of his reach. Yuna tugged at her arm.
"Oh, your flower…" she said, still trying not to laugh. "Here you go. We'll pay Rikku's munny later, okay?"
She handed Yuna a tiny snowdrop from inside a pocket in her dress. Yuna took it, stroking the white petals with delight before threading the flower into her hair.
"Do you promise?" Rikku asked, pouting at being the only one not to receive her prize immediately.
"I promise," said Aerith. "Look after that flower, Yuna. It's a lucky charm."
"Oh, thank you!" Yuna bowed.
Meanwhile, Leon was growling, "I need that gunblade if the Heartless appear!"
Paine paused. "The Heartless?"
"Unless you want to be the one fighting them."
Paine twirled the gunblade, as if to show that she could easily handle the Heartless, but then her fingers slipped on the trigger. The weapon backfired with a loud bang, blasting Paine head-over-heels through the air. She dropped the gunblade, which clattered on the rocky ground, returned at once to its original dimensions.
"Paine!" Her friends flew to her, concerned, but Paine only looked embarrassed. Aerith hastily turned her giggle into a cough when the pixie glared at her.
Leon picked up his gunblade and sheathed it. "It takes years of training to become a gunblade specialist. I think you should leave it to me."
Paine nodded. "It's still mine," she added. "You can have it on loan."
"Off you go," said Aerith, forestalling any more argument. "I know you can do it!"
"Wait," said Leon, as the pixies grabbed him, tugging him towards the edge. Yuna had grabbed the left side of his white-furred collar, Paine the right, and Rikku had sneaked behind his back, sniggering. "When you said fly me over, you didn't mean…"
"All you need is a little bit of pixie dust," Yuna chirped.
"The pixie dust costs extra!" Rikku added.
Each pixie gestured as though they were tossing a coin into the air, but it was not munny they were throwing, it was pixie dust. The dust shimmered, settling over Leon's body, sprinkling the black leather with gold. Leon sneezed.
"Here we go!" the pixies cried, as Leon stumbled over the edge rather ungracefully. Aerith instinctively started forward, but he did not plummet straight down; he was falling more like a feather, in long, slow sweeps, the pixies tugging and fluttering to keep him aloft. She crouched down, peering over the edge to watch him glide down.
He landed safely, the pixies releasing him for the last few feet. She would not have been able to make him out in the shadows at the bottom if it were not for the pixie dust still faintly glowing.
"Good luck!" she shouted, when he looked up at her. "Oh! There's something I forgot to tell you!"
"There are reports of a big, flying Heartless out there. We think it might be one of the aeons. Cloud went to deal with it, and Tifa followed him too."
"No. She ran after him because she didn't want him to go alone."
She thought she could make out a frown on his face. It was easy to guess why: he was wondering why Aerith had been willing to let Cloud go alone and not him. But that was different; Cloud had already disappeared before she and Tifa found out. That was why she had made her way to the cliff's edge, to wait for them. I'm waiting because I know Cloud will come back, Aerith thought. Tifa's chasing after him because she isn't sure he will.
It was too complicated to explain to Leon, hollering against the wind and the distance between them, and he didn't ask. He turned to the pixies, who bobbed up and down impatiently.
"Let's go," he said. "That butterfly might have disappeared by now."
"Be careful!" Aerith waved, her expression apologetic. Whoever the mystery letter writer was, Leon seemed keen to follow their instructions. She hoped he wasn't being led straight into a trap.
He was already gone, running across the wide plains, the pixies swooping above him. She watched the land swallow him up. The Gullwings will look after him, she thought. And maybe they'll bring back news of Cloud and Tifa too…
Tifa was fuming. She felt as though she had been chasing after Cloud forever and he was still running away from her. When she caught up with him, she was going to hit him. Maybe then he would actually listen instead of going off by himself all the time. The only problem was, she'd lost him. Again.
The crystal fissure was like a maze. Cracks ran all along the sides, carved by waterfalls and the great, rushing river which fed the castle on its way to the sea. She was following one of the tributaries at the bottom of a gully. Steep cliffs rose on either side of her. A little way back, the path had forked; one way led north, the other north-east. She had no idea which way Cloud had gone. She had guessed north-east, on a whim, but for all she knew, she could be moving further away from him with every step.
"Damn you, Cloud," she muttered. "You do like to make things hard."
Then, abruptly, she turned a corner and reached a dead end. No water here, only impassable rock. Tifa cursed. She would have to retrace her steps.
Rikku had gone ahead to reconnoitre. Until he found the butterfly again, Leon was stuck with the pixies. He jogged steadily, pacing himself, but they did their best to distract him. Paine kept swooping into his path, veering away at the last second. Yuna seemed content to flutter over his head, occasionally vanishing and reappearing some distance away to any place that interested her. These varied from a dead white tree, its branches spread like bony fingers, to an interesting arrangement of rocks, to a silvery gleam that attracted her and turned out to be a pool of water reflecting the light. This last attraction was the sole one that interested Leon, and only because he was thirsty. They diverted from their chosen route for a few minutes, stopping at the pool. Paine and Yuna skimmed over the surface, splashing each other. Knowing he had seconds before they thought to flick water at him, Leon drank quickly and moved on, keeping close to a brook which trickled its way through the rocks.
The next time Yuna vanished and reappeared, she did so inches from his nose, pulled a face and shouted, "Boo!"
Leon reeled back with a cry, almost losing his footing. Yuna's high-pitched peals of laughter filled his ears. He felt his face beginning to burn and told himself to stay cool. He'd lived with Yuffie's pranks for years; he could handle a few mischievous pixies.
"Don't do that again," he warned.
"Do what?" Yuna asked innocently.
He was saved the trouble of answering by Rikku's reappearance.
"Ta da!" she said, as though she expected applause.
"Did you find it?" Leon asked.
Yuna and Paine clustered around her, as eager to find out as he was.
"Yup," said Rikku, beaming. "It's heading in a straight line that-a-way." She pointed.
The direction was north-west to the route they had been taking, into a valley where boulders were strewn along the plains like a bowling game played by giants. And further beyond, the edge of the fissure rose up into the shapes of hills, the boundary of his world. That was as far as had been mapped. He hoped they weren't about to be led over the brink.
"Is it far?" He started to walk, his boots scuffing over loose stones and shrapnel.
"Nu uh," Rikku answered. "We could catch it in a jiffy if you hurried up, slowpoke."
He increased his pace, half-listening to the pixies' glib conversation.
"Where do you think it's going?" Paine asked.
"Maybe to an ancient temple," Yuna suggested.
"Somewhere full of treasure for the Gullwings!" said Rikku.
"Or a big castle."
"The castle's back that way, silly!"
Yuna blushed. "I meant a different castle!"
"Just how many castles do you think there are in this place?" Paine asked.
"There could be more than one."
"I don't see any," said Paine, shading her eyes. "If there is, we've got a long journey ahead of us."
"Oh, I hope it's not too far."
Rikku flew around his head, turned upside down and blew a raspberry at him. "Shake a leg, Leon!"
He trudged on silently. One foot in front of the other. That's all you need to do.
Yuna seemed to like the idea of being upside down. She copied Rikku, floating along in front of him with her head cocked on one side and her half-skirt flapping over her arm.
"Come on, Leon!"
Paine darted between them, grabbing hold of one ankle each to pull them upright again.
"Leon!" Rikku chorused.
"Leon, Leon, Leon!"
"What?" he snapped at last. A sudden gust of wind blew the pixies off-course; they whizzed away above his head, laughing. As they flew higher, Rikku pirouetted in the air.
"Ooh!" she cried. "I can see the butterfly!"
"Where?" Leon looked in the direction she was pointing, but his view was blocked by a high ridge. He had been following the course of a bubbling stream, but now it was time to scramble up the steep slope to higher ground again. He was starting to sweat beneath his jacket as he climbed, and for a moment he felt jealous of the pixies flying over him.
When he reached the top, emerging on to the plains again, he spotted the butterfly himself. It meandered along, its dancing movement as unpredictable as a winding brook. His fatigue forgotten, Leon dashed after it.
"Go, go!" Yuna cried, cheering him on.
He dodged moss-covered rocks, his eyes fixed on his target. The butterfly shone as bright as ever. It took a few minutes of hard running, and the pixies still got there before him using their magic. But when he finally reached it and slowed down to walking pace as it fluttered before him, he felt a sense of triumph. Yet the butterfly showed no sign of stopping.
The aeon had been Bahamut. Once king of the dragons, it had literally been reduced to a shadow of itself, a giant Heartless with ragged wings and long claws. Cloud had defeated it alone, but barely. The battle left him wounded and exhausted. He slumped against the flat of his blade, which he had driven into the ground so that it stood upright, the metal catching the sunlight.
It was that glint which enabled Tifa to find him. She stood on the plains and caught a glimpse of something shining in the distance. A few Heartless appeared, sliding back and forth in their slippery way, about to attack. She ran at once to defend him and the Heartless met their ends at her fists. He lifted his head as she knelt down beside him.
"Cloud, are you all right?"
His face was covered in dirt and scratches, and the ends of his spiky hair were matted with blood. "Tifa," he managed. His breathing was shallow.
"Let me help. Here." She tilted back his chin with one finger and tipped an elixir into his mouth. To her relief, he swallowed it quickly. "Oh, Cloud," she said. "Why did you go after the Heartless yourself? Why didn't you let any of us help you?"
"You followed me?"
"Yes. And it was a good thing I did. But you still haven't answered me. Why didn't you let us help you?"
He stared at the ground. "I don't deserve your… help."
"What? You went out there hoping you'd die? Is that it?"
The elixir had taken effect. He pulled himself up, using his sword as a lever, and backed away from her. For a moment, he stood still, avoiding her eyes. Then he began walking away, back in the direction of the castle. A vein in Tifa's temple twitched. She strode after him, her hands balled into fists, and when she caught up with him, she drew back her arm and slapped him, hard. He staggered from the force of the blow, his head snapping back.
The slap had taken him by surprise, but his fighting instincts kicked in at once; his hands tightened on the hilt of his sword, and he drew one leg back slightly, muscles tensed. She was ready for him, however, her fists raised.
"That," she said, "was for running away from me. The Cloud I knew never ran away. He didn't hide in the dark and avoid the light; he faced both head-on, like a hero."
"I'm not a hero."
"To me you are. I believe in you. But I suppose that's not good enough, is it?"
"It's not you, Tifa…"
"No. It's not. It's you. I realise that now. Aerith was right. When you're ready to come back into the light, I'll be there. But until then, don't expect me to keep chasing after you."
And this time, she was the one walking away from him.