7. The Fight to Save Yuffie
He looks up to see Captain Fair coming towards him. His legs ache and his arms feel like lead weights after sword training all afternoon and chocobo schooling all morning, but his spines straightens and he snaps off a perfect salute.
"At ease," Captain Fair chuckles. "You're not on duty, kid."
"Proper protocol is hard to forget, sir."
"I'll bet." Captain Fair sits and gestures next to him. "Cop a squat."
"Sit, Squall. Or would you prefer me to call you Cadet Leonhart?"
They've been training outside as it's such a nice day, but the other students have dispersed to shower and enjoy a well-earned rest before dinner. He thought he'd wait until they finished before going inside himself, but the captain seems in no hurry. Gingerly he sits next him.
"Geez, relax." Captain Fair turns his face into the sunlight and shuts his eyes. "Bask a little. You need to learn how to stop and smell the roses, kid."
His straight back hurts and his alms are sore, but he refuses to let anything show in his face and posture. "Sir?"
"How long have you wanted to be a Royal Guard?"
He thinks for maybe a microsecond. "I've always wanted to be a Guard, sir."
"Uh-huh. Tell me, Squall, have you ever kissed a girl?"
He nearly chokes on his own spit. "S-Sir?"
"It's a perfectly innocent – and relevant – question. How about dancing. Can you dance? Bowl? Play soccer? Sing? Burp the alphabet?"
"I'm not sure what you mean –"
"What I'm getting at, kid, is that you push yourself too hard. You're fixated. I can understand being passionate about what you do – I sure as hell enjoy my job – but you're only young, Squall." Captain Fair shakes his head and pushes hair from his face. "Listen to me. I sound like an old fart. I sound like the old farts I never used to listen to when I was a cadet! My point is, it's great to be passionate about training, and if you genuinely enjoy it, that's even better, but don't let it dominate everything else." He shoots him a narrow-eyed, sidelong glance that has more in it than just squinting from the sun. "Don't let someone else's dreams or plans dictate your own."
He thinks he understands what the captain is getting at. "I'm not doing this because of me father, sir."
"Maybe not. But you're letting your desire to be better than him get the better of you. Be careful, Squall. Figure out who you are before changing yourself to be someone else." He gets up, stretches and offers a hand. "There's plenty of time to be the best cadet we've ever had after you learn how to burp the alphabet."
It takes a second before he takes the captain's hand. His movements are stiff and he can't help giving another salute. "Yes, sir."
Captain Fair sighs. "Yeah. Uh, you're dismissed, I guess."
He leaves, but with a fresh nagging in his gut that wasn't there before.
Leon groaned softly and prised his eyes open. Right now it was a toss up between Heartless and headaches for which he hated more. Heartless were mean little beasts, but facing an army of them felt preferable to having his brain cooked from the inside out. The light hurt his eyes, and it took a second for him to orientate himself.
"What the –" He blinked, as if that would help. "Why am I outside?"
He thought back, remembering how Aerith had ordered him to bed instead of allowing him to patrol. He had done as she asked, but been unable to sleep. Eventually restlessness had driven him out of his room and along the ramparts, though he hadn't dared go further in case anyone found him and he had to endure another dose of being treated like a child as they ordered him back to bed. It wouldn't do any good in any case.
Rest hadn't eased his frenetic mind. Actually, the seemingly endless quiet had just let his thoughts turn in on themselves, eating their own tails until his vision swam. He couldn't just lie in bed and stew after visiting the dungeons. It was too significant an event. Pacing helped, and the breeze on the ramparts at least made him feel less suffocated, though as he leaned on a battlement and stared out across Radiant Garden, he couldn't help picturing the place in its heyday. A lot had changed since he was a cadet – out there, and inside himself. He wasn't the same person he'd been back then, and all of a sudden that had struck Leon as sad. He had wondered what type of person he might have been if things had gone as they were supposed to. Would he have eventually become Captain of the Royal Guard? Would he have grown up to get married and have a family of his own? He was late twenties now. His father and mother had been years younger than he was now when they married, and Leon had been a honeymoon baby. It was almost beyond his ken to imagine himself in their shoes. The way his life had actually turned out was so totally different, he could barely see that phantom version of himself, even in his imagination.
He levered himself to his feet, stretching his arms above his head, and stopped. A fragment of his dream came back to him with the movement. Captain Fair had stretched just like this.
He was distracted by movement from the courtyard below. He turned to get a better look, and saw Aerith and Cid hurrying across it. As he watched, Tifa caught up with them and exchanged a few words. Aerith took a steps backwards, but stop and nodded after a moment. Tifa scooped her into her arms and took off at a fantastic speed, bouncing from wall to wall using just her feet as Aerith hung tightly to her neck.
"Cid!" Leon yelled.
Cid looked around and then up. Leon couldn't see his face properly, but sensed something was wrong from his posture. Cid waved an arm, but that could have meant 'come here' or 'stay away'. Leon chose to think the former, glanced left and right along the rampaerts, and then vaulted the side. He caught behind himself, so he was leaning out precariously, braced both feet against the wall and launched out into empty air.
"Stupid kid – " he heard Cid squawk as he twisted and turned, exewcuting a series of jumps from gargoyle to gargoyle en route to the ground.
He landed, not heavily, but not lightly either. When he stood up his knees smarted. "What's up?"
"Not you!" Cid snarled. "Of all the stupid-ass, reckless, irresponsible stunt you ever pulled –"
"Where did Aerith and Tifa go?" Leon cut in.
Cid's shoulders drew up tight. "Got a call from Cloud. C'mon." Without elaborating further, Cid set off at a run himself.
Leon followed. "Cloud's back?"
Cid grunted. "Seems that way."
"Why didn't anyone come and tell me?"
"Had other things on our minds."
Leon frowned. "What aren't you telling me now?"
"I don't know details myself."
A dark shape soared overhead. Leon's step faltered as he craned to look. Cloud in flight had that effect on people. You couldn't help staring, even if it meant running into a tree. Cloud swooped, and for an instant Leon saw his face, grimmer than even he remembered. Then Cloud veered back in the direction he'd come from, presumably to tell Tifa and Aerith they were on their way. Cid picked up his pace, despite already breathing hard. He was beginning to limp, too, his old injuries holding him back.
"Cid, what is going on?" Leon demanded. he knew better than to offer help. Cid would be insulted and just shrug him off.
"S'the brat," Cid panted.
"Yuffie?" This was like pulling teeth from a grumpy tiger. "What about her? Did she find something on patrol?"
"More like something found her."
Leon wasn't stupid. Even so, it took him a few seconds to process what he saw when they crested a giant pile of rubble that used to be a wall. From the top they could see the tiered fountain that used to be Lord Ansem's pride and joy. It looked like a dilapidated staircase for giants now. On the middle step, arms pulled back on the horizontal surface and legs pressed flush to the vertical wall below, spin arched to screaming point, a figure had been staked out as if in some gruesome parody of Leon's own jump off the ramparts only minutes earlier. He could see the pools of red surrounding her hands and feet even from this distance. Her head lolled back, and both Tifa and Aerith crouched over her.
"YUFFIE!" The shout tore from Leon's throat unbidden.
"Oh shit," Cid wheezed. "Shitting shitty shit."
Leon skidded down the other side of the rubble, scree tumbling around and behind him. Cid followed at a slower rate, more circumspect about finding his footing. Leon could have fallen on his face and barely registered the pain. He slipped and slid, and finally ran the last distance, but pulled up short at the bottom of the lowest stone tier.
"Her spine," he heard Tifa gasp. "Oh my god, her spine."
Aerith said something. The glow of her healing magic radiated from a point he couldn't see. For a moment Leon considered trying to scramble up like a puppy on a flight of stairs. He even backed off to get a running jump at it. He stopped when Cloud appeared next to him. He braced the air with flaps of his single bat-like wing, hovering scant feet off the ground. It should have been impossible on several levels, but Cloud was good at accomplishing the impossible.
"Can you get me up there?" Leon demanded.
Maddeningly, Cloud didn't reply except to say, "You don't want to see."
"Damn it, Cloud!"
Cloud shot him a sidelong look and somehow tipped his body forward so he could hook his hands under Leon's armpits. Leon braced himself for the inevitable jerk as Cloud lifted him into the air. It didn't occur to him until later that Cloud had never carried him before. Cloud rarely touched anyone.
Getting a bird's-eye-view didn't help. What he could see of Yuffie was awful. The blood pools seemed huge and every scrap of skin on show was paler than normal. Red streaked the stonework from her feet, which he could now see had been pinned in place by her own kunai. Someone had rammed them in with enough force to spider-web the stone beneath with cracks. Leon felt sick, in a way he never had when battling Heartless or Nobodies.
This place. It had to be this place; this whole stinking world. It was tainted. It always had been, they'd just refused to see it every time. During Lord Ansem's tenure it had been hidden, but now they had no excuse. Nobody had hidden the taint when they returned and gave Hollow Bastion back its old name. They had just blinded themselves to it in their desperation to go home. Maleficent had sensed it, though. That must have been why she made this world her stronghold even though she wasn't from here. This place was evil, and it was where evil things happened. When were they going to learn from their mistakes and accept the obvious? They never should have come back.
"C'mon, Yuffie," Tifa muttered. "Don't you dare die on us."
Aerith looked awful, but gamely fed her power into the wounds to heal them. Leon could now see the slashes strafing Yuffie's torso, staining the fabric almost black with blood. She looked dead already. Aerith's hands pressed on her chest as if trying to restart her heart, except that she didn't move them. The contact was a way of help her focus when she was waning, Leon knew.
Finally Aerith sat back on her heels. "The kunai are stanching the bleeding," she panted. "But we can't move her to the Infirmary with them still in like this. They need to come out and I need to cauterise the wounds immediately."
"Do you have enough energy left?" Tifa asked.
"I'll cope," Aerith said simply.
Tifa looked up, shading her eyes. "A little help, guys?" Her words were flippant; her tone anything but. "We're gonna need a med-evac, pronto." She glanced at Aerith meaningfully.
By Leon's ear, Cloud grunted. It might have been meaningful too, or it would have just been an ordinary grunt. With Cloud you could never be sure. "I have to put you down." Without waiting for a reply he landed next to the girls. "Do you want me to extract those?" he asked, gesturing to the kunai.
Tifa gave him a funny look. "I know you're used to pulling all sorts of weapons out of yourself," she said, "but I'll handle this. You just get ready to move your tail. You take Yuffie to the castle. I'll follow with Aerith."
Cloud nodded. Even in the midst of his panic, Leon sensed their strange rapport. 'Strained' barely covered the tension between them, but they also shared a kind of kinship that crackled like static electricity in the air; a wordless communication that might have made him jealous ten years ago.
Aerith drew a breath. "She's stable for now, but we have to hurry. She's going into shock."
Tifa braced herself above Yuffie's head, but then paused. "This isn't going to work. Cloud, you have to be by her feet. I can't pull those out and catch her without jolting her more than she can afford."
Again, Cloud nodded. He stationed himself in the air just in front of Yuffie, planted his feet on the wall and grasped a kunai in either hand. "Ready?"
"Three, two, one –" Tifa pulled. The kunai embedded between the tendons of Yuffie's hands came free with two wet crunches. Two more signalled Cloud had done the same. "Now, Aerith!"
But Aerith was already working. A golden blossom had opened above them and was now raining what looked like fireflies on their heads. Just before any reached them, however, Aerith muttered under her breath and they were sucked aside, like water swirling down a plughole. Four funnels of magical energy aimed for Yuffie's hands and feet. For a moment the veins and arteries around her wounds glowed gold, and then red, before fading. Yuffie didn't open her eyes, but the four stab wounds were at least closed now. A network of gray lines spiralled down her arms and legs. She flopped forward into Cloud's waiting arms.
Aerith was breathing hard. "Go." She waved a hand at him. He frowned at her. "Go!" she insisted.
"We'll catch up," Tifa assured him.
Cloud didn't say a word, but turned in mid-air and flew off.
Aerith tried to get to her feet, but her knees had turned to water. Tifa had to help her, pulling one arm around her shoulder and hooking her own arm around Aerith's waist. Leon took a hesitant step towards them, but stopped. He felt suddenly useless.
"You overdid it," Tifa said. She wasn't speaking to him.
"I'm fine," Aerith replied, and then corrected herself. "I'll be fine. I just need to rest a little while. Yuffie's stable for now, but I need to heal her properly. That was just a hack-job to stop her bleeding out. It won't last." She bit her bottom lip. Leon wondered if she even realised she was doing it. "She's lost a lot of blood, but that's not what concerns me most."
Leon remembered what Tifa had been saying when he arrived. "Her spine?"
Both girls looked at him, as if only then remembering he was there. Leon couldn't remember the last time he felt so small and incompetent.
"It's not natural to be bent that way," Tifa said in the manner of someone wondering how technical she could get before he stopped understanding what she was saying.
"Actually, I meant the cuts on her stomach," Aerith interrupted. "Those were … someone did that to her." She was trembling. Leon couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion, fear, anger, or something else. "They cut her up and staked her out here like a … a dead pig in a farmyard."
Tifa pulled her closer, ostensibly to readjust her hold and make it more secure. "C'mon," she said, her tone conciliatory. "No time to waste."
"Hurry, Tifa," Aerith said as she was scooped up again. "Leon," she added before Tifa took off, "my books. I left some in the kitchen. Bring them to the Infirmary, please. I think I might need them in this. It's … bigger than I've done before." She was biting her lip again. "This wasn't a Heartless attack. This wasn't anything like the Heartless."
"I'll bring them," Leon assured her. "Go."
Cid was standing at the foot of the fountain. "Fucking fuck," he swore when Leon landed next to him. "That bad?"
Leon could only nod and start running again.
Cid glanced at the top and followed, breathing hard. "I'm gettin' too old for this shit."
Aerith pressed her hands against Yuffie's midsection. Her eyes were closed as she used her other senses to seek out hidden injuries. What you could see was often not the worst of it when dealing with the victim of an attack. She had healed warriors before after they'd been fighting – sometimes when they were still in the middle of it, as in the case of the Battle of the Thousand Heartless – but this wasn't like that. There was a cruelty here that turned her stomach.
She broke off, panting. Her stomach really did turn over. She felt a hand on her back and looked up to see Tifa. She gave her friend a wan smile. "I'm okay."
Tifa was grim. "No you're not."
"Yuffie's worse," she said before Tifa could say more. There was no argument against that. Aerith had to keep working or Yuffie would die.
The door opened. "I've got the books," Leon announced. He came towards them but not too close, looking for a place to put the books down until the sight of Yuffie on the examining table made him freeze. His face hardened. Aerith had seen Leon grim before, but this was different. Now he looked positively murderous.
"Bring them here," she said to distract him. The Infirmary had a lectern with a second lower shelf the old healers used to use when making notes on unusual or interesting cases. Maybe these very books had been written here. She hoped they had something she could use.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry." Leon set them down and backed off. "Where's Cloud?"
"He went to look for whoever was responsible," Tifa answered.
"Can I … is there anything I can do?"
"Pray." Aerith lifted off the top book to get at the one she wanted. This kind of operation required precision she wasn't used to. Stitching up her friends after battle and curing illness was far different than the kind of accuracy Yuffie's wounds demanded. This would mean long stretches of intense concentration and using a lot of power. Now, more than ever, Aerith wished she'd had time to complete her training. She found the book she wanted and opened it to the chapter she had been reading earlier. Drawing her finger down several pages, she finally found the passage she wanted. Then she took up a scalpel and brought it towards her own face.
"Aerith!" Tifa cried.
"What are you doing?" Leon demanded.
"Shush." Aerith grasped her ponytail with her other hand. The scalpel had been sharpened with magic and so, with one quick, clean slice, she was able to cut through her ponytail. The thick mass of hair came away in her hand. "Tifa, get me a ceramic bowl from the top cupboard and a box of matches from the glass cabinet to your left."
"Why-?" Tifa stopped herself, realising now what not the time to question the healer. "Right." She fetched the items and set them on the counter that ran around the edge of the room. "Anything else?"
"Yes. Stand back."
Yuffie's breathing was laboured and all too loud. Aerith tore the flyleaf from the book. It was dry and would burn quickly. She lit a match and dropped both into the bowl, then held her severed ponytail over the flames. She couldn't be sentimental now. Even so, it was an effort to open her fist and drop her hair into the bowl to burn. She inhaled the smoke, shut her eyes and opened her sixth sense once more. She wasn't sure what she expected: a fizzle in her veins, perhaps, or a rush like going up in an elevator too fast. It was nothing like that. Her heat beat faster and her healer sense expanded. She went to Yuffie and set to work.
"There's an old ritual," she explained, knowing Tifa and Leon were wondering why she had done that. "You can get a quick power boost from sacrificing body parts. Unscrupulous sorcerers made human sacrifices, but the intent behind any gesture is key in magic. It's not the act itself, but the meaning behind it that makes it effective. That kind of negative magic is toxic if you want to use it for positive purposes. Hair, teeth, nails – anything like that absorbs magic from a person. Hair is the easiest and least destructive to use. The longer you've been growing it, the more magic it has absorbed, and the bigger the power boost. It's not permanent, or ideal, but for what I need to do it seemed the best way. My hair has twenty-two years worth of magic in it."
"You … really need that much power?" Leon asked, but Aerith heard the question underneath that: Yuffie's injuries are really that bad?
"She's in a critical condition," Aerith said. "I have to focus now."
Both he and Tifa fell silent.
Aerith worked as hard as she could. She reached deeper and deeper, both into Yuffie and into herself. She wished magic was as easy as just waving a wand and saying a few special words. Like life itself, magic was about balance. Every death was replaced by a new life, every piece of bad luck offset by some good fortune, and every cruelty counterbalanced by a kindness somewhere in the world. In magic, for everything you took, you had to give something back, and everything you used had to be replaced and replenished. Aerith's healing wasn't free, but usually she could rely on her own energy.
Yuffie's life force was fading. Aerith went after it. It was like diving into molasses to bring back a spoonful of rice. The grains were sinking at different rates, growing further apart the deeper they sank. If they stretched too far apart the fragile bonds of Yuffie's soul would break and she would die. Aerith couldn't let that happen. She grabbed blindly, found a shard and held on, using its energy signature to find the other shards. She called to them and felt them answer, weakly.
She wasn't finished when the boost began to fade. She felt it when she started eating into her own power reserves again. If she went too far, she would hit her own life force and start using that too. Some healers burned out that way. They tried to do too much and kept the magical balance too literally, paying for one saved life with the sacrifice of their own. Aerith gritted her teeth and focussed on Yuffie's flickering life force rather than the nearness of her own. If she let go now the shards would scatter. She had to hang on. She had to … reach … a little … further …
Suddenly she was suffused with energy. Her eyes flew open. Where had it come from?
Tifa stood next to the smoking bowl, the scalpel in her hand. Her hair barely reached past her ears. As Aerith watched, Leon took the blade and raised it to his own hair.
"No, wait!" she panted. "Not too much too fast. I'll overload and make a mistake." Leon paused and she nodded. "I'll tell you if I need another boost."
The healing wasn't simple, but it was easier now. Somehow, Tifa's help and Leon's readiness to do likewise gave her strength that was nothing to do with magic. Her power blossomed above her, casting the room in an unearthly glow. Aerith's face felt warm. She felt for Yuffie's consciousness, massaging it like a heart that had stopped beating.
Come back to us, Yuffie. Come back from the edge. Your body is all ready for you. Return to it. Come back. Come back, please …
And then, finally, the shards came together. The flicker became a proper flame. Aerith felt her lungs expand. She realised she had been holding her breath. Her chest ached and her throat was tight and sore, but she was also elated. She had done all she could. The rest was up to Yuffie and nature.
"Aerith!" Leon shouted.
Arms caught her. Aerith realised belatedly that her knees had given out. Apparently she had used enough of her own energy to be too weak to stand up. She looked up into Leon's face and smiled.
"What the hell are you apologising for? You just saved Yuffie's life." He blinked. "You're crying."
"Am I?" Aerith touched her cheeks. They were wet. Funny; she didn't feel like crying. She felt like laughing. She felt like laughing a lot. Maybe that was hysteria. She should probably lie down for a while. That level of healing with her level of skill had wiped her out. "I need to rest, but I don't want to leave her." She gestured at the door in the wall. It led to a small anteroom lined with cots where patients recovered when this was a working medical facility. "It's okay to lift Yuffie as long as you're gentle. She's still fragile, but she won't break. Put us both in there. That way I can keep an eye on her."
Tifa carried Yuffie and she and Leon set them down in cots next to each other. Aerith's eyes started to close the moment her head met the pillow. She struggled to keep them open.
"We're not going anywhere," Tifa said, pulling up a chair. "What is it, Aerith?"
Tifa smiled. It made Aerith's heart twist in her chest. Somewhere out there Cloud was looking for Yuffie's attacker. Having him so close, being here with Tifa and knowing what she knew … Aerith's own smile wavered, and not just from exhaustion.
"I'm just glad I could help," Tifa assured her. "Now you get some rest. You look worn out."
Aerith fell back and went gratefully to sleep.
To be Continued ...