AN: This oneshot was originally written and posted back in 2006 as an Epiphany gift for Darknightdestiny, who tolerated and even encouraged my affinity for underappreciated pairings. I'm reposting it for Joanie, because it's her OTP.
I'll tell you now, I've played FF7, FF8 and the first KH, but not the second. Plus, I've never been able to wrap my mind around the histories of the Final Fantasy characters, so consider them canon for their respective games and AU for Kingdom Hearts.
The Shelf Life of Memory
She's standing on the crumbling outer ramparts in a decidedly out-of-the-way spot when he finally finds her—arms crossed, shoulders caught in an undecided state between stiff and drooping—scrying and squinting out into the nothingness that every resident of Hollow Bastion (correction, Radiant Garden) secretly hates so much. She's still and soundless and somewhere else, and Leon contemplates whether or not he should come back later. Like when she's alive.
But he doesn't want to come back later. He wants to give her the message that he climbed up all this way to deliver (because someone couldn't be bothered to change into a godsdamned pair of pants), and then he wants to go back to burying himself in some mindless, neverending task. And so he says, "Aerith sent me up here to find you."
The first words he's ever spoken to her, he realizes, and he thinks to himself that she could at least do him the courtesy of turning around and acknowledging him instead of ogling a bunch of stupid clouds.
"Have you ever been in love?"
The question comes swinging at him like a sword, like the crackwhizz of a bullet, and he reacts as he would to most surprise attacks—he silently dodges; he removes himself from the path of danger. He doesn't answer.
I don't know you, he explains to her in his mind. He knows Aerith. He knows Yuffie. He knows Cid. He thinks he knows Cloud. But I don't know you.
But he knows who she looks like and reminds him of, and it makes him remember black hair and blue knit and weightless laughter. He remembers a dance, and a bright moon, and a kiss that still hurts and writhes and wakes in cold sweats at night.
Yes, I have been in love.
After a few minutes of unanswered quiet have passed, she says, "I'm sorry," in a toneless way that sounds to Leon like she doesn't really mean it. "Forget I asked. Thanks for the message."
She walks away, footsteps falling like brittle words, and Leon thinks to himself, No, I don't know you at all.
When he sees her again, he's buttoning up his shirt while the morning breezes in from his open window.
Aerith's voice, chattering in her sweet and silly way about beautification plans, rises up to his bedroom as she marches through the Boroughs. She's chatting at someone, and when he looks out onto the street, he sees that she is duly trailing behind Aerith with a flat of flowers still in shoothood, casting a glance up at the sky every now and again.
"Hi, Leon!" Aerith has stopped under his window and is waving full-armed at him. "Good morning!"
He raises his hand and returns her wave, and promptly locks himself in a debate over whether or not it should be followed with a reciprocated "good morning." Sometimes he hates how rusty he is when it comes to returning a godsdamned greeting. "Good morn—" he starts to say, but he's rudely cut off.
"Geez, Tifa!" Aerith exclaims, stumbling and hopping and holding an arm. "Watch where you're going! You nearly bowled me over."
"Oh, sorry, Aerith," the other woman (Tifa, according to Aerith) says, balancing the flat with one hand and righting little overturned boxes of purple, pink and green with the other. "I wasn't paying attention, I guess. Sorry."
"Honestly, Tifa," Aerith laughs, brushing dirt from her dress. "You need to stop looking at the clouds and start looking at what's right in front of you. Right, Leon?" She gives him a wink.
At the sound of his name, Tifa swings her eyes from the empty sky (where they've once again drifted) to the window where he's suddenly doing his best impression of a statue. Their gazes crash haphazardly, and fear grips and freezes the hand on the button near his collar. He's been here before.
He remembers clumsy grace. He remembers brown eyes under an uneven fringe. He remembers the world around him blurring into unimportance. He remembers being afraid to feel.
"Right, Leon?" Aerith's voice is firm, with a hint of amused.
I'm not ready for this, he thinks. "...Right."
Aerith's eyes linger on him for a split second longer than comfortable, and he wonders what she sees to make her swallow a smile like that. "Come on, Tifa," she says lightly, starting her march down the street again. "I've got a lot of work to do."
He watches them go, thinking to himself that after two weeks of hyphens, the woman-who-is-not-her now has a name, and he reminds himself that it is not her name.
He finds her on the ramparts again, a week later, staring into a cloudless night sky.
Her posture is the same rigid and taciturn one from before, and when he takes the empty spot next to her, he recognizes it in his own. Perfect rampart pose.
"Aerith send you up with another message?" she asks, without preamble.
He waits for another question or a demand to explain himself, but she falls back into silence, and he's not sure if he should be relieved or offended.
Minutes tick by in a heavy hush. Finally, she breaks it by asking, "You come up here often?"
"No." After a few seconds, he adds, "Used to though. Back when I first came here."
"It's a good spot," is all she says.
He remembers the waiting and the pacing and the awful, horrible thinking that he could've, should've done more. He remembers sometimes imagining that he heard a laughing voice calling out his name—his real one, the one he would've gladly given to her. He remembers picturing what a reunion might be like, and how many different ways he might hold her again, if he ever did get to hold her again.
What are you here for? he wants to ask, but he thinks he knows the answer. There's only one reason to stare into the hated nothingness. It was his reason, once upon a time.
And so they stand quietly together while she waits, while he remembers, while the evening grows old.
He's bent over a table of diagrams replaying the walk home last night, while Yuffie yammers at his ear.
"So anyway, someone needs to have a little chitchat with those three, and by that, I mean you need to yell at them, Leon. I mean, gawds, does Donald know his nephews are so perverted? The little shits. Hey, look, there goes Tifa."
"Huh?" He almost doesn't catch that last part. His head jerks sharply toward the window that she has just passed by, and he observes long hair and stiff shoulders moving determinedly up the street. "Do you know where she's going?"
"Tifa." It's the first time he's said her name. He rolls it around on his tongue, searching for a flavor.
"Oh." Yuffie joins him in looking out the window. "I think she said something earlier about going to the library." She makes a disgusted sound. "That Cloud... What a stupidhead."
"What about Cloud?"
Yuffie rolls her eyes. "So gawdsawful blind. He wouldn't recognize something good in his life if it came up with gold, pointy-tipped boots and kicked him in the—"
"I get the picture," Leon interrupts, wincing.
She sighs. "Poor Tifa. So anyway, can I count on you to take care of this?"
"Take care of what?" Once he disconnects himself from thoughts of Cloud and Tifa, he realizes he has no idea what Yuffie's talking about.
"Leon!" She stomps her foot, fists balled. "Haven't you been listening?"
"...Right." No, he hadn't been listening. "Yeah. Whatever."
"I'm counting on you, Leon," she tells him. A funny look crosses her face and she adds, "Don't you be a stupidhead, too."
He's not entirely sure how to take that, but because he doesn't want to be a stupidhead, he says nothing at all.
That night, as he walks around the city, he finds himself at a familiar ruined part of the wall looking up at a figure silhouetted against the stars.
She turns at the sound of him clambering over the edge, and smiles. "Thanks for walking me home last night."
"No problem," he says, straightening his belts. "I didn't know you lived with Aerith."
"Oh, it's only temporary," she hastily assures him. "I don't think two women were meant to share one bathroom."
He half-smiles. "I imagine not."
"You know those little—?" She makes twirling motions at her cheeks with her fingers. "Yeah. They take her almost half an hour to do. And let's not even get into the bangs or the braid."
His smile grows into a full-fledged one.
"Still, it's nice that she's willing to share her space, so you didn't hear me complain."
"Of course not."
She pivots toward him suddenly, hand outstretched. "My name's Tifa, by the way. I don't think we've been properly introduced."
As he shakes her hand, it occurs to him that she's correct. "Leon."
"Nice to meet you finally... Leon." She returns to her usual posture, sets her eyes back to scanning the horizon.
He echoes her actions, but darts a swift glance at her out of the corners of his eyes. "I agree...Tifa."
Her name tastes bittersweet, like honey laced with heartache. Tifa. He tastes loss and futility and steel.
But it isn't her name, and he has no business letting some other woman linger on his tongue. Guilt worms its shameful way through his ruminations, and he makes a vow to a long-lived memory that he'll remain silent and untasting for the rest of the night.
The next day, he sees her from a distance chatting animatedly with Cid in the bailey. As he approaches, in his hesitant way, his ears pick up something about a disastrous snowboarding incident.
"...And remember? He hit that tree and went flying off into a snow bank!" She's nearly doubled over with laughter.
"And then the stupid little shit tried to pretend like nothin' happened!" Cid slaps at a thigh, grinning around a cigar. "Ah, those were the days, Teef. Fine days...fine days."
"Yes, they were. Fine days, indeed." Then her laughter breaks and stutters down into something resembling a sob. "I miss them, Cid. I m-miss everyone...you know? But most of all...I miss him."
Cid tucks her into a tender, tight embrace, and Leon ducks and darts into a shadowy corner, hoping his penchant for dark clothing has saved him from detection.
"Shhh, sweetheart..." he hears Cid say. "He'll come back eventually. You know he will."
Another sob. "I'm not so sure. And if he does...I— I don't know him anymore, Cid. He's like...a stranger to me."
"Aww, but you know that's how Cloud is. He's smart and he's dumb. Maybe that's what's takin' him so long—tryin' to get the stupid outta his system before he comes back."
A shuddering breath. "Yeah...maybe you're right."
"Maybe? Ain't no 'maybes' about it, Teef. In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt you none to think about movin' on."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you need to stop mopin' around and get yourself back to the Tifa we all know and love. You're a fighter, sweetheart, ya shouldn't be givin' up on life that easily."
There's a rustling of clothing and some loud sniffling. "I'll think about it," she finally says.
"Good. Now whaddya say we go tinker around on the computer for a bit? Don't tell Leon, but I found a game the other day... You see, you ride these 'light cycles' around and try to avoid..."
As their footsteps and Cid's voice fade away down the hallway, Leon wonders when the old pilot has become so wise.
Later that evening, he's on the verge of climbing up to their spot (as he's come to think of it) when a high, keening wail stops him. The hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention and his first thought is that she's in some sort of danger.
He knows what kind of danger that is, and he tries not to remember how she once said he should think less, react more. As he listens to Tifa's hollow-heavy weeping, he tells himself that he should finish his climb and walk up to her and offer her a shoulder and two arms—because it does something to him, twists his insides a bit, to overhear her grieving over a "stupidhead" for the second time that day.
But he doesn't. His feet stay firmly rooted to the ground while his mind shouts to her, It's not my place! I don't know you!
He doesn't know if she likes sunsets, or if her favorite kind of ice cream is strawberry swirl. He doesn't know if she prefers dogs over cats, or if chocolate makes her break out in hives, or if her dad ever called her "Princess." He doesn't know if she loved her grandma, if she got good grades in school, or if she even knows how to write in cursive.
He doesn't want to know, either. Because there's only room for one strawberry swirl, one chocolate hives case, one "Princess," one cursive-writer in his life. It doesn't matter that his life has been so empty for years; he doesn't care. He owes it to her for being the one who survived.
And so he strides briskly away from the sounds of Tifa's vulnerability, before she becomes his.
It's been several days since he's been back to their spot. He's not sure if she's noticed or if she's even been back there, herself, but whenever he sees her during the day, his heart rushes heedlessly forward and he knows it's a wise thing to stay away.
Almost a week later, however, his feet have decided enough is enough, and he finds himself standing at the bottom of the wall, looking up at the outline of a woman against a backdrop of stars. As he makes the climb, hands over feet, he thinks that this must be the most foolish thing he's ever done.
When he's finally up on their ledge looking out into the distance with her, the first thing out of her mouth is, "You know what I miss most about home?"
"What?" He likes that she doesn't ask where he's been, why he's been avoiding her.
"I miss the mountains, the views." She smiles sadly. "There's nothing here. It's pretty, but it seems so limited. Sometimes I'd like a little more variety. An ocean, or a swamp even."
He lifts an eyebrow in amusement. "Is that all?"
She grins. "For now it is. What about you? What do you miss?"
To his credit, he doesn't dodge this time but takes the blow to his chest and steadily answers, "Her."
"Her? Who was she?"
"She was someone I knew when I was younger. She...didn't make it."
"Oh. I'm sorry." Her lips compress in sympathy. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
"No. Not at all."
She lowers herself to the ground, cross-legged, and leans back against the rampart's low embankment. He sits down beside her, legs stretched out, and together they look out over the sleeping city. It's a change from their usual vista of nothingness, and Leon decides he likes it.
She picks distractedly at a fingernail. "I— I don't think he's coming back."
He doesn't need to ask who she's referring to. He still remembers the last time he was at this wall. "Then why are you here?"
"I don't know." She looks up at the sky and sighs. "Do you think I'm weak for giving up hope?"
Did he think he was weak when he gave up hope? Yes. But he doesn't want to tell her that, so instead he says, "Sometimes giving up can be a terribly brave thing to do."
She rolls her head toward him. "And what makes the difference between 'weak' and 'terribly brave?'"
He folds his arms and looks grimly out over the rooftops. "Your reasons for giving up, I suppose."
"What if I'm giving up because I think it's time to move on?"
He turns his face to hers and forces himself to meet her wide-eyed stare. "Then I think that makes you terribly brave. It's easier to hold onto memories than to let go and move on to new ones."
"I—" She lowers her gaze. "Thank you, Leon," she says quietly.
The rest of the night passes in companionable quiet while she thinks about being terribly brave and he thinks about how much of a hypocrite he is.
Days, weeks pass... And though he knows she is trying to be terribly brave, the two of them continue to meet on the ramparts at night.
When he sees her during the day, she's a completely different woman to him. There's an unspoken agreement between them to be unspeakable while the sun watches, and they converse in polite, perfunctory sentences—brief, and giving no hint of their nightly rendezvous—if they converse at all.
But out of the too-bright light of day, under a dome of discreet stars, they sit with their backs to the wall and talk to the city, to each other.
He learns that she has a fear of bridges, she's a small-town girl and that her favorite ice cream is chocolate without any frills. Her second toe is longer than her big toe, she prefers tea over coffee, she doesn't like small dogs, and she's only been kissed twice—neither by Cloud.
He tells her about the orphanage where he grew up. He tells her about the ocean and how he misses digging into the sand with his toes. He recounts the time he fought another gunblader and ended up with the scar across his nose. He tells her about Garden and young mercenaries and bloated patrons in the basement, but he doesn't tell her about her.
They compare the Ragnarok to the Highwind. They argue over Guardian Forces versus summons. She says ketchup is better than mustard. He says suspenders are accessories, and not actual clothing. She promises to kick his ass someday. He welcomes her to try.
They are becoming friends, he thinks to himself. No, not quite. Aerith is a friend, Yuffie is a friend, Cid is a friend, Cloud is an ally, but Tifa is...something different.
He finds himself looking for her often. He scans crowds for her now; he sneaks glances out of windows hoping to see her pass by. When he catches a glimpse of her, he holds his breath in anticipation. Will she see me? And when she does, their eyes meet, she smiles, he's caught, and the foundations of his world shake.
And while he's caught shaking, he tries desperately to remember white wings against blue cloth, tries frantically to recall the sound of her voice, of her happiness. He tries—godsdammit, he tries (he even tries to remember the name of her stupid dog!)—but he's hooked by teardrop earrings and red-flecked irises and a wide grin.
At night, long after he's walked Tifa to Aerith's house and has thrown himself into his own bed, Leon thinks to himself that he's becoming less and less of a hypocrite...and it worries him.
"What's your last name, Leon?"
Her question comes after spending the last twenty minutes giving ridiculous names to the stars they've been gazing up at. He balks at answering—not out of reticence, but out of sport—and shifts his weight from one numb side of his butt to the other.
"Oh, come on," she cajoles. "I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours."
He yawns, stalling, and crosses his arms. "How's this, you tell me yours first, and I'll think about telling you mine."
"Bastard," she says, scowling at him. "Okay, fine. Mine's Lockhart."
His eyebrows lift. "Really? Mine's Leonhart."
"Leon Leonhart?" she snickers. "Were your parents that unkind?"
Unable to help himself, he laughs. "No. My first name isn't really Leon."
"Okay," she says very slowly. "Then what is it? Are you going to share it with the rest of the class, Leon-who-is-not-really-Leon?"
Her impromptu name for him earns her a snort. "It's Squall."
"Squall? Like a storm or something?"
She mulls over this new name of his, and he sees her mouth testing it out. "I dunno," she finally says, giving him a skeptical look. "I think I might stick with Leon Leonhart. Do you spell 'heart' with an 'e'?"
He shakes his head. "No. Do you?"
"They sound very similar," he observes.
"Yes, they do, don't they? Lockhart and Leonhart... We sound like a couple of lawyers."
He laughs again. The second time that night, he notes.
"When's your birthday?" she asks.
"August twenty-third. When's yours?"
"May third." She turns to him with a surprised smile. "Hey, how 'bout that?"
"How 'bout what?"
"Despite the fact that we come from different worlds, we share the same calendar."
"Hmm." Interesting. "I've never thought about that before."
"You know..." She draws up her knees and hugs them to herself. "So many similarities we share. Yet, our meeting wasn't supposed to happen."
His eyebrows dart together. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, literally, we come from two different worlds, you and I. Under normal, happier circumstances, we might never have met. I don't know how I should feel about that."
Neither does he.
"Leon? Can I tell you something?"
"Sure," he says, and then holds his breath for something bad.
"I used to think you were like him, like Cloud. But now... I've changed my mind."
"You didn't run from your memories."
He thinks about what she said, and realizes he's a sham. No, I'm not running...but I'm not giving them up, either.
But when she leans her head on his shoulder minutes later, he forgets to feel guilty.
Aerith decides that Hollow Bastion needs to have a dance, and puts it up for vote during a newly-renamed Radiant Garden Restoration Committee meeting—one which Leon is conveniently absent from. When he finds out, he knows better than to protest, especially after he overhears Aerith plotting to put Tifa in a dress.
The marketplace is chosen for the location, and when Leon enters later that evening, it has been dressed up in lights and music. Tables and chairs line the upper walks in front of the shop areas, offering rest or intimacy over candlelight. He sees Aerith and Cid dodging a flailing Merlin on the dance floor. He sees Yuffie getting sea salt ice cream from Scrooge. There are other faces, faces that he's never taken the time to learn names for, but none of them are hers.
He spies her talking to Wedge, and she's in something white and breezy that floats around her knees. Her hair is pulled up and away from a neck that arches into exposed shoulders and collarbones. He can't remember blinking, he can't remember breathing and he sure as hell can't remember how he ended up in front of her, but he remembers staring down at her and thinking, I don't know you.
"Leon," she says warmly. The lights, the candles glitter off the gloss on her lips.
"Dance?" he asks before he can help himself. He gestures weakly to the makeshift dance floor.
"Oh." She starts in astonishment, but nods and allows herself to be led by the hand, away from Wedge and anyone else who might vie for her time. He ushers her past a giggling Aerith and a smirking Cid, takes her by the waist and hand, and tries to remember how to arrange his feet.
"You're quite a good dancer, Leon," she remarks a few minutes later, surprised.
"So are you," he says, slightly less surprised. He remembers the way her hips and feet move down a street.
"Well, I had to take lessons," she explains. "What's your excuse?"
"Well, I did too. Part of military training." He thinks about how ridiculous it sounds, and adds, "If you can believe that."
"Mine was also for my training, so I guess I can. But I've never danced formally before. Have you?"
"Yes, I had to attend a few dances."
It comes back to him then. He remembers a graduation. He remembers music playing distantly in the background. He remembers a dress, a swirl of hair and patient feet. He remembers falling in love.
"She was a lot like you," he says, unthoughtfully thinking out loud. "But you're taller, by a couple of inches."
She misses a step, but quickly recovers. "What?"
"And your bangs are different," he continues. "Hers parted in the opposite direction."
"And she had red highlights in her hair. Yours are in your eyes."
There's an unreadable expression on her face. "Are you done?"
"No. You're a fighter, she wasn't. There. Now I'm done."
"You know," she says suddenly, "you asked me once, why I keep going up to our meeting place, and I told you I didn't know. But that's not the truth anymore. I do know." She takes a deep breath. "I go there for you, Leon. I stopped going up there for him weeks ago."
Leon's stunned and doesn't quite know what to say. He can't help but feel like he brought this upon himself. He remembers awkwardness melting into pleasantness melting into rightness, but he should have recognized it and put a stop to it before it came to this.
"Tifa...I'm sorry." He releases her hand and waist and takes a step back from her. "I can't—"
"No, it's okay," she reassures him. A crease forms between her eyebrows. "You don't have to say anything. In fact, please don't. It's not the first time I've totally said the wrong thing or been the wrong person. So you don't have to tell me I'm not short enough, not right-parted enough, not brown-eyed enough...or whatever. I'm used to not being enough."
She tries to brush past him, embarrassment and misery plainly visible on her face, but he grasps her arm. "Wait."
"Please let me go, Leon," she whispers. "At least give me this."
His hesitation is rewarded with the sight of a tear sliding from a corner of her too-red-not-brown-enough eyes. She deftly wrenches her arm free and flees from the marketplace.
"Well, fine work there, boy." Cid and Aerith have waltzed up to where he's left standing, glowering at him with twin looks of censure. "It's not like we ain't dropped enough clues," Cid mutters.
"What?" Leon frowns in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
Aerith shakes her head. "Leon, Leon... What are we going to do with you?"
"I told you not to be a stupidhead!" Yuffie yells as she runs over to join in the lecture. "I told you, but you went and did it anyway!"
"I thought you were talking about Cloud!"
Yuffie gives him a disgusted look. "Come on, Leon. Don't be such a stupidhead."
"And I distinctly remember tellin' ya to move on," Cid puts in. "And to quit being so godsdamned mopey."
"I thought you were saying that to Tifa."
"I was sayin' it to the both of you! You think I didn't know you were there that day? Pssh. My eyesight ain't that bad."
"Wait." An idea starts to gnaw at the edges of Leon's brain. Why didn't I see this? "You guys had this planned all along, hadn't you? Tifa and me... Why?"
"Because we're your friends," Aerith says gently. "And we knew you'd be perfect for each other. Why else would I have sent you to find her?"
"Go find her now, Leon. I know you know where she is."
He does know where she is, and his feet take him there without remorse. He finds her as a lone shadow against the stars, standing, staring into the nothingness.
When he reaches the top of the wall, she whirls on him, wiping at her cheeks. "Why are you here?" she demands.
Aerith sent me up here to find you. The first words he'd ever spoken to her, now taken on a new meaning.
"The first time you ever talked to me," he says, taking slow steps toward her, "you asked me if I've ever been in love. Do you remember?"
She stares at him with a wariness that makes him stop in his tracks. "Yes."
"The answer I would've given you then," he says carefully, "would have been 'Once.'"
"Okay, that's great, Leon." She rolls her eyes. "Thanks for coming up here to tell me that."
"Ask me now."
"I said, ask me now."
She turns away from him and addresses her question to nothingness. "Why should I? I already know the answer. I—"
He's startled her. "What?"
"The answer is 'twice.' I didn't think it could happen again, but it did. You did."
He expects something like happiness or pleasure or joy, but instead, she rounds on him indignantly, nostrils flared. "I can't be her, Leon," she bites out. "And I won't be a substitute either."
"I know this," he says firmly, "You'll never be her—no one will ever be." He begins walking toward her again. "I have been telling myself this, even as I have felt myself falling."
"Falling..." She sighs and lets the word drift into the night air between them. "I can't be your light either, Leon. Don't look to me for salvation or redemption. I can only be me. Tifa."
He remembers how he used to envy the Heartless. He remembers aimlessly prowling the city at night, alone and bitter. He remembers waking up every morning wishing he had died in his sleep, and he remembers thinking that he could never love someone as much as he loved her.
But he was wrong. He's not looking for a substitute or salvation or redemption. He's looking for someone who has strange toes and a preference for ketchup. He's looking for chocolate ice cream and a similar last name and a birthday in May. He's looking for a woman who looks just as good in white as she does in black. And he's found her.
Her name tastes different now, still bittersweet, but more like heartache laced with hope. "That's what I want," he says, reaching out to draw her near. "Tifa."
He lets her name linger on his tongue as he leisurely lowers his lips to hers. Tifa. I know you. And as her mouth opens under his, he thinks to himself that he's been long overdue for some new memories.
AN: And the great thing about old stories is that a sequel was written for it during its sabbatical, How To Lose Your Life in a Year and Day.
Comments are appreciated!