Disclaimer: Not mine – in triplicate!
A/N: So here it is. Finally, the sequel to The Most Dangerous Game and Tripych, and the third part of the trilogy I never actually planned to write. Hope it was worth the wait.
Wolf at the Door
© Scribbler, January 2010.
1. Reclaiming Radiant Garden
The problem with returning to Hollow Bastion after so long was that everything was different, and yet in many ways nothing had changed at all. The castle was still the castle, the buildings were still arranged in the same pattern, and objects that had been dropped in that last hasty departure were still exactly where you'd left them. It was disturbingly easy to find yourself wandering down familiar paths, only to discover something alien at the end.
Leon wished that was the case this time. He would rather have found another of Maleficent's little surprises than what he suspected was behind these doors. He concentrated on the steady tramp of his own feet, and the counterpoint of Yuffie's lighter footsteps. Where he walked in a straight line, she capered about, pirouetting, kicking up her heels and generally acting like a little kid being taken to the fair, instead of a seasoned freedom fighter in a dungeon.
"Do you think a song might lighten the mood?" she asked. "Or are you really wedded to that whole 'speak not, cheerful maiden, for my woe is infinite and must not be interrupted by merry ditties that might make me smile' thing you've got going on?"
Leon gritted his teeth. "This isn't a sightseeing tour –"
"Actually, that's exactly what it is. So nyer." Yuffie waggled her fingers in her ears at him.
"Was that sarcasm or a compliment?"
"What do you think?"
"I think I'm hungry. Can we hurry this up? Aerith said she was making enchiladas for lunch. If you take ages over this we won't be there in time, which will mean Cid eats my share, which will mean you owe me, which will mean I'll have to eat yours, which will mean you'll starve, which will mean you'll be even grouchier than usual."
"It'll take as long as it takes," Leon replied evenly.
Yuffie pouted. "Then I hope you like an empty tummy."
In the months after their return, the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee had systematically gone through Maleficent's former stronghold, taking stock of the changes made since they'd fled the place over a decade earlier. At first it was unbelievable to think this had once been their home. The castle pulsed with dark magic of the sort that turned your stomach when you were still miles away. By the time you got up the reverse-waterfalls you were practically tossing your cookies over the battlements, and that was before you'd even got through the doors to the inside, where the real nasty stuff lay in wait.
"You lived there?" Yuffie had said when she first saw it. Since she had been part of the envoy from Wutai, and so only visiting when the Heartless attacked, Radiant Garden had not been her home. It wasn't as much a part of her history as it was for the others.
"It was a lot nicer at the time," Aerith had replied, and Leon had held his tongue.
Originally they had stuck to the town surrounding the base of the castle, making it habitable again after years of neglect. Maleficent's living minions, unlike her Heartless, were a slovenly bunch. The town was in such disrepair it was easy to ignore the nauseating throb of the castle and pretend the reason they hadn't started cleaning that up was because they had more pressing matters.
Inwardly, they all knew the real reason, and it wasn't anything to do with feeling sick. Not physically, at least. It was hard to revisit the place where all your worst recurring nightmares had been born. In truth, most of them hadn't really thought they'd ever return, but when Sora drove out Maleficent and made it possible … well, the phrase 'working up to it' had never been better used.
Leon glanced at the walls. He reached out briefly to touch them, as if to make sure they were real. He wasn't usually given to sentimentalism. Life had made him the master of sharp-edges, and he had more than a few you couldn't see until you got to know him. Yet where Sora was concerned he found himself slipping into sentimentality more and more. 'Becoming human again' Yuffie called it, but he disagreed. He had never stopped being human, only cut himself off from all feelings but anger and determination to defeat the Heartless. It was more like he was rediscovering the human parts of him he had deemed unnecessary and locked away a long time ago. Sora's keyblade was good for unlocking more than worlds, it seemed.
They owed so much to the boy Keyblade Master. Not only had Sora and his friends gotten rid of Maleficent, they had also made bigger dents in the Heartless population than Leon and his team ever could. They had also played vital roles in The Battle of a Thousand Heartless, defeated countless other threats to Radiant Garden – including Organisation XIII – and they returned Cloud to them.
And that right there was one gigantic reason Leon would always owe his loyalty to a kid barely half his age.
Leon still wasn't quite sure how Sora had managed it. At one time Leon had thought Cloud was gone forever. Then he'd found out his friend was alive, only to discover Cloud really was lost, just in a different way than he'd thought. Nobody - not him, not Aerith, Cid, Yuffie nor even Tifa – had been enough to keep Cloud rooted when, at eighteen, he landed in Traverse Town by accident while chasing Sephiroth between worlds. Some part of Leon would always be standing on Devil's Peak, watching the friend he had failed to save fly away.
Yet somehow, impossibly, after meeting Sora Cloud had abandoned his quest and come back to them. More impossibly, he had stayed – for a whole year. He probably would have stayed longer if The Battle of a Thousand Heartless hadn't happened. Only when Sephiroth appeared again was Cloud pulled from their side, but this time he had promised to return. He'd never done that before.
Leon understood Cloud's connection to Sephiroth even less than he understood how Sora had made a phantom-eyed shell of a man not only remember the parts that made him human, but also return to the people who loved him – people he'd already rejected before. In that year with them, Cloud had relearned how to live with other people, and also just how to be something other than an avenging soldier. He wasn't quite back to being the Cloud they remembered from Radiant Garden, and perhaps he never would be, but his progress gave them hope. A blend of new and old would be better than the bitter, cold individual he'd become.
Leon was willing to bet Cloud had seen in Sora the same thing others had – a clear-eyed determination that gave you faith he really could save the day, and made you ashamed of any doubts you'd ever had. You could believe in Sora. Moreover, you wanted to believe in him, and by believing in him you found you were also believing in yourself again.
When Sora first landed in Traverse Town, Leon had been fighting the Heartless for years. The frustration of never seeming to make a difference had worn him down. It had made him cynical and hostile. He had become too jaded, he knew now, and had needed a good kick up the ass to renew his faith that they could, actually, win this war. He had disparaged the idea of Sora being the Keyblade Master. This scrappy, scrawny little kid, the saviour of worlds? Pull the other one. That is, until he saw for himself the power Sora possessed – not all of it in his keyblade. How wrong he had been. If part of him would always be on Devil's Peak, another part would always be in First District, gunblade locked with keyblade.
The memory of that first meeting was what had finally propelled Leon into the castle. Knowing Sora wouldn't hesitate sustained him as the castle doors clanked back, and a welter of memories he didn't want rushed him with the force of a freight train. If Sora could throw himself into battle when he was just a kid, what right did Leon have to cower at Merlin's house just because the big bad castle scared him?
No, not scared him. Not the building itself, at least – not at first. That came later, when the Committee realised the full extent of what Maleficent had left behind.
The castle was chock-full of the kind of dangerous magic that had even Merlin reaching for protective gloves. Maleficent's reign had started because of her extensive knowledge of the dark arts, and though she'd acquired the Heartless as her minions, she hadn't given up learning all she could about dark magic as well. The Committee had cleared out scrolls of spells, disposed of multi-coloured phials of disgusting potions, and even run across priceless, albeit evil artefacts as they tried to reclaim their old home. Neutralising the huge number of booby traps was the hardest part. Now it had ceased to be Hollow Bastion, sanitising Radiant Garden of Maleficent's touch was a hazardous business.
It was something of a hit-or-miss process, inasmuch as sometimes the things Maleficent had hidden hit you or missed you, depending on how close you were when they went off, as well as what they'd been designed to do. Apparently she had become increasingly paranoid as the years went by and her empire grew. Fearing rebellion or invasion from forces equal to her own, she'd wanted to protect the seat of her power and hadn't been content with just guards. Merlin said the intricacy of some protective spells was mind-boggling.
"Absolute genius of a woman," he muttered whenever they brought him a new bit of nastiness. "Twisted as a knotted snake, but a genius nonetheless."
"She was so cruel," Aerith said of a trap on the door of one storeroom filled with black magic artefacts. The spell literally turned intruders inside out, but kept them alive so they could fully appreciate their agony, presumably until the witch arrived and finished them off. "And what was she protecting, really? Just darkness and dark things that shouldn't ever have existed. She's made this place so horrible."
Leon, however, disagreed. His lasting memories of Radiant Garden didn't paint it as very nice in the first place. There had already been a lot of darkness and secrets here before Maleficent made it her headquarters.
Case in point: these damn doors he kept walking past. More specifically, what lay beyond them; memories, possibly objects he'd seen once before, when Lord Ansem fell from grace in the biggest way possible. Definitely memories, though. Already he was trying not to think too hard about his father walking this corridor, Lord Ansem and his trusted apprentice Xehanort ahead of him. This place had been the last his father saw before –
"C'mon, Squall, move your tush. We're burning daylight here." Yuffie paused in her capering to tap her chin thoughtfully. "Although, since we're underground, we can't actually see the sun, so who's to say it's daylight we're burning? We're burning … torchlight? Yeuch, that doesn't sound nearly as good." She blew out a breath. "Can't go wrong with the classics: Squall, you're a slowpoke."
Leon sighed, but privately he was a little glad of Yuffie's company, although he'd chew off his own tongue before admitting it. Yuffie was a handful. There was no other way of putting it. Despite growing up with Aerith's gentleness, Cid's gruffness and, well, himself, she had turned into the biggest bundle of hyperactive tomfoolery known to mankind. She could be annoying as a stone in your shoe on a long journey, and he often found himself exhausted by her antics. She'd been a handful as a kid, continued to be a handful as a teenager, and he'd wager that she'd be a handful as an adult too – a time not so far off now that her eighteenth birthday loomed, which was disturbing in an entirely different way.
Regardless, Yuffie had a way of getting under your skin but genuinely not realising she was the metaphorical equivalent of dry sand under there. Then, just when you thought you couldn't take another second of her company, she said or did something so considerate it stopped you in your tracks. You may want to brain her with the nearest hard object sometimes, but she was great at chasing away the blues. She blew away cobwebs with her chatter and injected life into dead places, like the corridors and abandoned laboratories beneath Radiant Garden.
"Slowpoke. Slowmo. Slowcoach. I could go on all day and not run out of names for you. Snail. Foot-dragger. Dawdler. Um …"
"That was a short day."
She puffed out her cheeks, pressed a fist against each and blew a long raspberry at him. "You're just jealous because my vocabulary totally kicks the ass of yours."
No, I'd just rather be anywhere but here, doing anything but this. Bamboo under my fingernails sounds better than carrying on in this direction. Nevertheless, he kept putting one foot in front of the other as if nothing was wrong.
"Lollygagger!" Yuffie said triumphantly. "Laggard!" She punched the air. "Oh yeah, I rock. Who knew listening in on Weirdy Beardy's babble would actually turn out to be useful?"
Leon felt a smidgen of tension ease in his shoulders.
"So this is really where Xemnas and Organisation XIII was born? Or grown. Or originated. Or transmogrified. Or … whatever. What the hell do you call it when a Nobody is … whatevered? Nobodied? That sounds weird. A question we should all ponder, I think."
The tension shot back up his spine like a rocket. "Yes. This is the place."
"Funny." Yuffie looked around. "I expected something a bit more pretentious, y'know? A bit showier. Those guys were, like, super-bad. Badness personified. Badness cubed. They monologued and everything. You'd think pompous assholes like that would've made their grand entrance somewhere you could waste adjectives describing, but this is so freaking ordinary it's making me want to spork out my own eyeballs to make it more interesting."
"Not all of them started here. Just the first six." Leon swallowed. Suddenly his mouth felt very dry. Ridiculous, but sometimes your physical reactions were more honest than any words. If Yuffie had asked if he was okay, he would've told her he was fine as the half-moon nail marks in his palms shouted: "Big fat liar!"
"I wonder what made the rest so special." Yuffie shrugged. "Ah well. Hey, look, we're here!"
"Yeah, 'cause I'm sick of walking without stopping anyplace. This door is as good as any."
Leon regarded it: big, blocky and unfriendly. "Do you have your tester spell?"
She started flipping through all the pouches on her belt. There were so many it took a while.
He rolled his eyes and brought out his own tester – the small enchantment Merlin had created to 'read' places for evil magic. It wasn't always the most accurate, especially if what they were testing had been treated with an enchantment they hadn't run across before, but it was better than nothing. The size of a baseball, shaped like an almond, off-white in colour, and smellier than Cid's favourite stinky cheese, each was kept in a layer of gauze until they needed it. Leon unwrapped and hefted it like a shot-put.
"Aw, can't I do it?" Yuffie clasped her hands and stuck out her lower lip.
He hesitated. "If you're careful," he said eventually.
"Yay!" She all but snatched it from his hand, went into an elaborate wind-up and hurled it at the doorway. It exploded in a cloud of powder.
Leon automatically took a step back. The spell wouldn't hurt him, but the powder could make you cough uncontrollably if you inhaled it. When it had settled enough he could see the doorway glowed a rapidly-fading violet, indicating it had been ensorcelled. The scale went from pale yellow, through red, all the way up to purple based on how potent the magic was. Violet designated this spell as too hot for them to handle alone.
"Damn it." Yuffie pouted again. "I guess we'll have to get Beardy down here."
Leon frowned. If Maleficent had seen the need to treat these doors with high-level black magic it meant she thought there was something down here worth guarding. Whatever it was, as sure as chocobos laid eggs, it wouldn't be good for them. He started running through a mental inventory of likely things. The Heartless-producing equipment Lord Ansem had invented, which had started the whole problem in the first place, had been moved to the upper levels along with the artificial-Heartless creator. Likewise the special containers used to hold newly made Heartless before she dispatched them to whatever place she wanted to conquer.
Despite himself, he shivered. He didn't shiver unless he was cold. Yuffie looked at him sidelong, since she was wearing her usual midriff-baring outfit and didn't have a single goosepimple.
They'd found the containers still filled with synthetic Heartless, as if Maleficent had been defeated mid-scheme. There had been a frozen-in-time quality to the scene, as though the witch might come back at any moment, but also because the last time any of them had seen those clear oblong boxes had been when Aerith, Tifa, Cid and, to a lesser extent, Yuffie, had rescued Leon from the one Commander Braig had locked him in while he killed Captain Trepe. It was a chunk of that exploding container that had given Leon his distinctive scar.
His head snapped up, immediately scanning for danger – a default reaction bred by a decade of 'uh-oh' meaning anything from 'I burned dinner' to 'we're all going to die'. "What uh-oh?"
Yuffie pursed her lips at him. "You basically have three expressions, and only one of them remotely resembles a smile. That's not the smile look, and the other two looks suck, because one means danger's about to crap on us from a great height and we're gonna hurt really badly, and the other means you're doing the guilt thing. I'm going for Option C right now, which means I, in turn, have three options open to me: kick your butt, yell for Sora, or hurt myself in some entertaining way. Option A will mean you have to concentrate on the tweety-birds flying around your head, so you won't be able to think about whatever's bugging you. Option Two is there because you only started smiling again after Sora pulled all those freaking miracles. And Option Trois is in the mix because, hey, who doesn't laugh at really, really, really good pratfall? Unfortunately Sora's not here, and I don't want any ouchies, which means it has to be the butt-kicking. So put up your dukes, Pouty McFrown-Face!"
Leon waited to see if the pause lasted long enough for him to get a few words in. "Yuffie, I'm fine."
She blew another raspberry. She could be surprisingly eloquent with them, actually. "Your voice says you're fine, but your eyes say 'Oh crap'."
"Look, I get it, okay? I'm bouncing around like a gerbil on sugar – and don't ask me how I know what that looks like – but I'm not, like, totally insensitive. I get that this place is wigging you out. Why else do you think I volunteered to check it out with you? I'm the only one who doesn't remember being here last time, and frankly your track record of doom n' gloom about the past means this place is the Roach Motel for any progress you've made into being an actual human being with fully functioning emotions instead of just a robot who bleeds. I like that you've got that third expression now. You went way, way too far into Pokerfaced Warrior Mode before Sora became Keyblade Master." She dropped her eyes. "I'll totally deny it if you tell anyone, but you were kinda scary for a while there."
Leon stared at her. He'd known he was unapproachable, but he'd liked it that way. The more he fought the Heartless, and the more he saw other people's losses mount up on top of his own, the more he thought personal connections would only hold him back or hurt when he screwed up again.
And in the back of his mind he had always assumed he would one day screw up again, possibly so monumentally he'd learn the true meaning of losing everything. He had trusted once before and it had brought only betrayal, pain and slaughter. At least he'd come out of Radiant Garden's destruction with the tenuous threads of his sanity still plaited together. Fraying at the edges, but ultimately still holding together. Next time, he had thought as he hardened himself against Traverse Town's neon backdrop, he might not be so lucky.
Tifa's had come apart. They had tied them in a lasso and hauled her back to them with it, and she had recovered, but for a while he had been sure he'd lose her as well. Surviving wasn't just about being alive after the dust settled, they'd learned. Just look at Cloud.
Or not, as the case may be. Leon briefly wondered where Cloud was right now. Had he defeated Sephiroth? No, he would have returned if he had. Leon didn't even consider the idea that Cloud may have been the one defeated, such was his faith in his old friend's skills these days. Cloud would come back when it was time to come back.
How very Zen. Gods, he really had mellowed.
… you were kinda scary …
The routine in Traverse Town, when he used to take trips out in gummi ships he often lost to the enemy, had been endless and exhausting. Cid had only started his business when it became apparent Leon was going to go through ships 'as fast figs through a short grandmother' in his continual quest to find ways of defeating the Heartless. Cid had needed a place that could accommodate all the repairs and rebuilds, somewhere to develop new ideas and improvements, and enough cash to keep them all from starving in the meantime. Even when his business became successful, he was only just able to keep up with the work Leon generated all on his own. There was always some new gemstone to be found, some new magic to be recovered, or another 'hopeful avenue' as King Mickey diplomatically put it.
For Leon, it hadn't been a cure for his pain and guilt so much as a distraction. Anything that dulled the ache had been welcome. He was only just beginning to understand what it must have been like living with him that way. It was a wonder Yuffie, Cid and Aerith had stuck by him at all, much less as long or tenaciously as they had.
Yuffie mimed a swoon. "Holy fuck! Now there are two words I never thought I'd hear out of your mouth. That's it, I must be dreaming. This is all a big trip to the Land of Nod, and you're not really you at all. You're an illusion. No, wait, what's the word? Hallucination, that's it! I must've passed out from hunger, and you're just a hallucination." She staggered theatrically, pressing the back of one hand against her forehead.
Leon felt the corners of his lips twitch. The sensation, in this dark and terrible place, was so unexpected it made him want to smile more. He had been dreading coming down here, and had eventually forced himself into facing this out of sheer bloody-mindedness. He had survived this long. After all he'd seen, done, and all the people he'd met, he wasn't going to let these corridors and rooms scare him off, he'd told himself – right before Yuffie leaped on him from behind a door and insisted he take her with him.
Suddenly he frowned. "Yuffie, watch out!"
In her play-acting, she had stepped too close to the still-fading violet door for his liking. She pivoted on one foot, tugging down the skin beneath one eye and sticking out her tongue at him.
"Pish posh. Don't be such a worrywart. I'm a ninja, remember? Reflexes like a cat on acid, and the agility of a … really agile animal that doesn't fall over just because it's standing on one leg."
She switched legs. "See? Being down here is making you antsy, that's all. I'm fine and so are you. There's nothing to be afraid of down here. Honest. All the bad guys are gone, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner we can all get to being one big happy family instead of a bunch of different personalities who live together – whoa!" Yuffie switched feet again, somehow managed to step on her own toes, and toppled backwards against the door.
Leon reached to haul her back before whatever spell was there could discharge. Sometimes there were a few seconds in which to get clear, which had saved their hides more than once.
Except there was no protective spell. Nothing discharged, though the door continued to glow, indicating that whatever magic was here extended beyond the door itself. It wasn't even locked. It opened when Yuffie tumbled against the handle and tried to use it to keep herself from falling over. The door swung outward, squashing her against the wall with a squawk.
Leon was aware of something dark in the room behind the door – blacker than black, a shadow within a shadow. As if only just sensing the way was clear, it pulsed outward, straining like a giant bubble being blown by a huge set of lungs. Then it erupted, washing over him with such force that he was knocked off his feet.
He was aware of landing on his back, and his head cracking against the floor, right before he passed out.
To Be Continued …