AN: A sequel to The Shelf Life of Memory. Written for Joanie (Squeeze-the-Fish) and originally posted at my (now-defunct) LiveJournal. Posted here for Anshu, Sixth Night and Lindsey (here's your encore!).
How To Lose Your Life In A Year And A Day
There was a time when Leon thought his heart was broken.
It was unfortunate to have come at a place in his life when his existence relied so heavily on it. As the pendulum to his clock, its refusal to tick was near devastating. It sat in his chest like a dull and tired weight. It made his body heavy in the mornings and sank his hopes during the day. But it was his heart, and broken and useless as it was, it was the only one he had.
So he lived with it. It was good enough, as far as hearts went. He was still able to put one foot in front of the other; he could still breathe and he could still fight—what more did he need? She was gone—there was nothing else to be had. At night, when he lay in his silent, empty room and considered his silent, empty future, he thought, This is what I deserve for even having a heart.
Then one day, the pendulum moved. It was slight, so small a movement Leon convinced himself it was his imagination. To have his heart working again, under circumstances not of his choosing, was unsettling. But imaginations had ways of becoming wishes, and wishes had ways of becoming reality. His mornings were no longer struggles to leave his bed, his days and nights were spent with a woman who undid him. A ticking, unbroken heart was just as devastating as a still one, he found, but it was also exhilarating.
I didn't think it could happen again, but it did, he'd said once. She did. They did together. And then he remembered a promise, a vow he kept buried under sand, water, and memories.
So after a year of truly living, he's unprepared for his limbs to be made of heavy clay again. An old weight in his chest takes him by surprise. He blinks up at the ceiling and wonders how he'll make it through the day.
Hollow Bastion—Radiant Garden, a voice similar to Aerith's reminds him—is already awake and dressed when Leon opens his front door. On his street there's a trickle of people ambling their way to wherever it is Hol—Radiant Gardeners—go early in the morning. He should be going too, but something is troubling about his stoop this morning. He stares at it for some time before his mind agrees, This is not right.
It's all wrong. Something's missing, he registers, and thinks that this must be how Matron felt the morning Irvine woke up before everyone else. But it isn't six bottles of milk gone missing—it's Tifa. She isn't here, and neither is her mmm, good morning, Leon, sleep well? or her hands to button the second button from the top of his shirt or her smiling, toothpaste-fresh kiss.
He'd like to blame it on Irvine, but he can't this time. He pulls his door closed, ignores the hands ghosting at his shirt buttons, and sets off toward the marketplace. His ears immediately, self-consciously, make note of only one set of feet hitting the stones this morning. Tifa's laughter, her bright Buongiorno! to the short, mustached man sweeping in front of the bookstore is conspicuously absent. Leon waves at him and the man waves back, but both know he's a weak substitute for bella signorina. His hands bury themselves in his pockets.
As usual, the marketplace is a crowded place when he arrives. The shops along the upper walks have opened their windows wide to morning and commerce, and the strange bedfellows of bread and metal have slipped into the air to mingle with the morning chatter. A secret pride bubbles up, much as it does every time he comes here, and briefly lightens Leon's gloom.
We made this happen, he allows himself to think.
Leon scans the competing lines at Biggs's bakery and Huey, Dewey and Louie's café, looking for a shine on dark hair. Tifa isn't in either line, nor is she sitting at any of the tables in the courtyard—though, what would he do if she were? What would he say?
You would ask: "Biggs or the ducks?" his mind prompts.
As if on autopilot, Leon says, "Biggs or the ducks?" There's a pause for the answer.
Whichever line's shorter, his mind belatedly answers, but it doesn't even sound like Tifa. It sounds like him.
Disgusted, Leon begins threading his way through the upper walk. One of the ducklings—Dewey, he thinks—shouts to him as he passes by. "Leon! Fermented radishes! Try 'em!"
"No, thanks," Leon says.
"Aww, shucks," he hears.
Next to the café is Wedge's armor shop. "Morning, Leon," Wedge calls out, smiling his ever-present smile.
"Morning," Leon returns, still moving. The last thing he wants is to explain his pronounced lack of Tifa to one of her biggest admirers.
"Saw Tifa this morning."
Leon stops. Curiosity, anger and maybe fear takes him back to Wedge's stall, where he doesn't really want to be standing, doesn't really want to be asking, "Where did you see her?"
"Here." The wood counter makes a dull noise as a beaming Wedge thumps it with his palm. "She came by for a chat after Biggs's. Don't mind saying I was surprised to see her without you. Trouble?"
Leon's unable to prevent the sudden shift of his eyes from Wedge's grin to the largish mole on the side of his neck, southeast of his ear. It's the color of an ant hill and raised like one too; a thick black hair rises from the center of it like a lone antenna. It's repellant. The most innocent of caresses couldn't miss it, Leon tells himself.
Wedge's smile wavers and Leon tactfully moves his attention elsewhere. "I just woke up," he mumbles.
"When I see her again, you want me to tell her you're up?" Wedge asks.
When you see her again... Leon resists the urge to openly stare at Wedge's mole again. "No. I'll—" he begins, but is forced to fill in the rest of the sentence with a shrug. He doesn't know what he'll do. His options, at this point, are limited.
He was dreaming of a faraway shore, of stirring up sand cloud chains as his legs sliced through knee-deep water. His steps were sluggish, his pace slow. Behind him, on the beach, a house, a woman, and a blue sky waited for him, but he plowed on, determined, until his feet reached a place where the ocean split, as if a knife had cut the world in half. At his feet, water ran over the edge of the world, his world, like a bathtub overfilled. When he looked down, he could not see the bottom.
He opened his eyes.
The bottomless chasm became a bedroom ceiling in shadow. Light from the street lanterns outside made his curtains a dim ochre. The sheets beneath him were deep green silk, bought new for the occasion from Agrabah and no longer smelling of the desert but of her and him. The whole room did. He took a deep inhale of them and rolled over in search of an arm, a shoulder—a woman—but found only mussed, empty sheets.
She was a figure bent over a chair in the corner, pulling on shoes. "Oh. I was trying to be quiet," she whispered. "I'm so sorry, Leon."
Leon raised himself on his elbows. "Why?"
"Why what? Why am I sorry? Or why was I trying to be quiet?" She tucked her hair behind an ear and went back to her shoes. "Because I didn't want to wake you."
"No. Why are you leaving? I thought..." But what he thought now was different from what he had thought earlier. His world had an edge now.
"It's Aerith," Tifa said. "I told her I'd be back tonight and if I'm not there, she'll worry. You know her."
He'd remember later the sound of her shoe scraping against the chair, and the way it took one...two...three...four steps to reach him. "I'm sorry, Leon." She gathered her loose hair and leaned down to touch her mouth to his. "Go back to sleep, okay? I'll see you in the morning."
His hand found her fingers in the dark. "Do you need me to walk you home?"
Tifa chuckled—a soft, husky sound that he loved. "Three blocks? I'll be home before you can get dressed. Stay in bed."
Don't go, he wanted to say. But then her fingers slipped from his, and she was taking them with her out the door, leaving him alone with his unease.
Leon's next stop is the castle in the center of town. As he walks through the streets, he takes in Hollow Bastion's—Radiant Garden's—changes with a manager's eye. There's a crack in the sidewalk he hasn't seen before. A building to the left has a fresh coat of paint as of yesterday. A building to the right is scheduled for painting next week. Wooden cranes loom overhead and act as daily reminders to Leon that things aren't where he'd like them to be.
Yet the city is improving. He passes by two men in wooden clogs and heavy aprons hammering cobbles into gaps in the street. There's a new shingle hanging above a bright green door that says "Geppetto's Toys" in gold leaf. Several house windows are open and cooking smells and voices waft through them. Flowers bloom all around. Once again, pride stirs under all the fault-finding and threatens to put a smile on his face.
"It takes more than a name change," he sternly reminds himself.
Yeah, it takes belief, he hears in his head. His mind, trying, smiles a happy, chipped bicuspid smile for him.
As Leon nears the castle, he sees a crew working to remove a fallen tree from the walkway. He recognizes some of the men as newcomers, emigrants of a city called London. He's tempted to stop and help, but he can't. His destination is Cid's hangar, a two-level affair that monopolizes one of the branching towers. It takes multiple lift changes to reach it and until today Leon's forgotten how tedious the trip is.
That's because you're usually preoccupied with someone, his mind says.
Leon ignores it. He doesn't want to remember that, or hear her voice teasing him about not having shaved that morning. He pulls open the door to Cid's hangar and walks in.
The entire circumference of the room is ringed by a workbench on which tools of varying degrees of recognizability lie. There's a large circle cut from the floor in the center of the room, and inside the cutaway, under the floor, gears and chains are visibly working to lower a section from the ceiling. As the section from the ceiling reaches the floor, it becomes a platform, one that neatly fills the cutaway, and Cid's on it with a gummi ship.
"Hey, kid," Cid says, once the gears and chains are silent. "Fancy seeing you here and all that small talk stuff. Ha ha." He punches a gloved index finger at a keypad near the ship's door until a section of cladding under the ship hisses open and clatters to the floor.
"Gonna have to work on that landing," Cid says. He bends down to pick up the fallen paneling, props it against the gummi's nosewheel, then squints up into the opening made by it. "So what's up?" he asks.
It's a casual question, but Leon doesn't have a casual answer so he pretends not to hear. He picks up a clipboard from the desk and scans it instead. "Going to Port Royale today, I see."
"Yup," Cid answers. He's unclipped a flashlight from his belt and is peering at something just inside the opening. "Sweet bleedin' skies, that's a real doozy. Just one passenger though."
"Yuffie. And before you say anything, I ain't gettin' involved. Already told Tifa that."
Cid's head and shoulders are inside the underbelly of the ship, but Leon has heard everything clearly. "Tifa was here?" he asks.
"Yup. Brought me a coffee...and that's all I'm sayin'. Hand me a wrench, will you?"
Leon sifts through the objects scattered on the workbench until he finds one, then ducks under the ship to place it in Cid's waiting hand. "So what's Tifa got to do with Yuffie's business in Port Royale?"
"Not talkin' about that, and don't play dense with me," Cid says. A few loud clanks ring out before Cid continues, "You and Tifa been comin' up here together every morning for almost a year, happier than kids in a puddle. Now today, the both of you show up separately and lookin' like versions of your old broody self. It don't take a genius to figure out something's happened and I ain't getting involved."
Bristling, Leon straightens and knocks his head against hard metal. His brain registers a hollow, inelegant sound as lights flash in his vision.
Cid ducks down long enough to ask, "Okay, kid?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." The lights fade and Leon stumbles his way out from under the ship, mentally cursing. He puts a hand to his scalp, and finds the beginnings of a bump somewhere near the top. It irritates him. Everything irritates him. "And nobody's asked you to, Cid. In fact, I'd like it if everyone minded their own business."
"Good," Cid says. "Mindin' my own business's what I do best. No—flying's what I do best. Mindin' my own business's second best. It's what I told Tifa right before she left to deliver a message to Yuffie for me, not ten minutes ago."
"Tifa left ten minutes ago?" Leon says. His irritation has vanished.
"I said I ain't gettin' involved!" Cid bellows.
But Leon doesn't hear him. He's already left.
"Not asleep yet?"
Beside him, the mattress shifted as she turned onto her side. Her breath was warm on his skin as she chuckled softly into his shoulder. "Not really. Why?"
"Curious. Hmm. Okay."
A minute or two passed in the dark listening to her breathe. "Tired?" he asked.
"A little, but not too tired to talk. Do you want to talk?"
"No," he said. "Just curious."
"Okay." She sounded disappointed.
Don't listen to him, he silently begged her. Underneath the covers, his hand, needy and crawling, sought hers. When he found it, his fingers burrowed in the spaces between her smaller ones and curled themselves around her webbing like hooks. This means so much, he told her. Even if I can't show it.
He turned his head and stared at her profile. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth had fallen open, as if she had wanted to answer but was overwhelmed by the chore. Through the space between her lips he saw a hint of white, a shadow of teeth. He could fit one of his own lips—didn't matter which one—in that space. He could add a little pressure or a little suction or a little tongue until she woke up and added something of her own. He could pull her on top of him, run the fingers of his right hand through her hair and show her how much he loved knowing this about her.
But he didn't. He lay there with his eyes to the ceiling and explored the bones of her knuckles until a faraway shore overtook him.
Morning found him alone. His hand lay at his side, empty, like him.
Yuffie's office is two floors down from Cid's and takes Leon approximately five minutes to reach on a normal day. Today, it takes him one. On a normal day, Yuffie's office looks as if someone has closed the door and all the windows and cast Aeroga on it repeatedly. Today, it looks worse. On a normal day, Tifa sits behind Yuffie's desk and picks fallen receipts from the floor while she stresses the importance of the Town Treasurer being organized. Today, she isn't here.
Today, Leon wants desperately to be somewhere else.
"Le-on," Yuffie whines. "Can you tell me, can you give me any good reason why Huey, Dewey and Louie are still here?"
Leon looks up from a ledger book and shrugs. "Free trade."
Yuffie's jaw clenches and unclenches. At her hips, her hands fist. "Oh, no you don't. Don't you go standing up for them too. You want to know why I think they're still here? I think they're still here so they can make my life miserable."
Leon's heard this many times before. Maybe you should get them to clean your office, is the usual response from behind the desk, and his mind supplies it dutifully. He goes back to reading numbers. "What'd they do this time?" he asks after a few lines, but his answer is silence. He looks up again. "Yuffie?"
Her face has turned a surprising shade of red. "Um, nothing," she mumbles. "Forget I mentioned it."
"Okay." He goes back to his numbers, but realizes he's lost his place. He swears under his breath and looks for a set of numbers he recognizes.
"So...I might have a date tomorrow," Yuffie says in a too-casual voice.
Leon doesn't look up. "Yeah? Who's the guy?"
"Mmmm, no one."
"That sounds like quite a date."
"You wouldn't know him, Leon," Yuffie hurriedly puts in. "He's not from around here. Seriously. He's waaaaay out of town. Not even on land. And he's older. Lots older. Responsible and stuff. And kind of a night owl."
This time Leon uses an index finger to hold his place before he looks at her. "An older night owl? Well, that's...nice."
Yuffie stomps a foot. "Don't say it like that! Don't say it all like, 'That's nice, you're crazy, and I'm just humoring you.' Because I really do like him. He's really, really sweet, and he's good to me. We have things in common. I just—I don't know! Who would've thought, huh? Me!"
"You're a brand new woman," he says dryly.
"I am, Leon. I feel completely different. Older. More mature." At Leon's snort, she blushes. "Well, maybe not that more mature. But you know what I mean? Love does things to you. It changes you."
Leon sighs—because he does know what she means. He closes the ledger with a snap and smiles. "I'm happy for you, Yuffie," he says.
"Really? You mean it, Leon?"
"Yeah, I do." And he does. "Here."
He hands the ledger book to Yuffie and heads for the door. She hugs it to her chest like a schoolgirl and follows him. "Aww, look what Tifa's done to you."
At Tifa's name, Leon stops with the door half-opened, hand clenched around the knob to keep from dropping to his knees. "What?"
"Now you're one of us," Yuffie says.
"A romantic, Leon. Duh." Yuffie rolls her eyes at him, then adds, "Don't tell her I said that."
"She won't hear a word from me," he manages to say.
He loved her hand on the back of his neck, the way the steady, downward press of it was a counterbeat to the flexing of his hips. He loved the way her fingertips found the nooks in his neck muscles and how he could tell when she'd recently trimmed her nails. He loved the way she cried out his name during her orgasm, the way she whispered it after his.
A breeze on his back told him he hadn't closed the windows like she'd asked; they had probably kept the whole street awake again. He pushed Griever over his shoulder and bent his arms, carefully lowering his weight to her hips, her belly, her breasts, and his elbows until they were flush against each other like pages of a book. It was his favorite thing. When they were like this, he could easily believe they were the only two people in the world.
"Did I tell you I missed you today?" she asked.
Leon smiled. "Several times."
"Did you miss me?"
Underneath him, her ribs crashed against him like waves beating against a seaside cliff, reshaping it little by little. It reminded him of waves rolling toward a beach. "I might've," he said.
It was the wrong thing to say. "I might've," she repeated. "That's great. Let me up."
He moved from her, then watched her turn away from him onto her side. Propped on an elbow, he could feel Griever's edges against his shoulder blades, Griever's weight at his throat when he swallowed. Tell me what to do, he told it. Tell me how to make it right when I can't stop being me.
"Wedge asked me to lunch today," she said. "He didn't know we were together together."
Her voice sounded tired, but not angry. He crossed the gulf between them and fitted himself around her withdrawn body. "I'm sorry," he said. He kissed her shoulder. "I did miss you. I thought about you all day." His thumb stroked the ridge of her rib.
"I told him I love you," she said.
He buried his face in her hair and thought, Then maybe this time you'll stay.
But in the morning, a few dark strands on the pillow next to him were the only proof she had been there at all.
Leon goes home to make himself a sandwich for lunch. He eats it outside in the sun on an overturned crate rather than in his kitchen where he might remember Tifa on his counter, Tifa thumping her heels against his cupboard doors. People pass by—some nod, some say hello. He duly nods and echoes the greetings, but wishes they'd leave him alone. Misery loves company, his mind singsongs, and he tells it to shut up.
He's chewing the last bite of bread and brushing crumbs from his shirt when he sees Aerith coming up the street. His mouth and hands slow, and his thoughts turn to how he can escape, how he can avoid what he guesses will be an unpleasant encounter. He stands as if to flee, but then she waves to him and his feet root themselves to the spot.
"Hello, Leon," Aerith says in her usual agreeable way.
"Hello, Aerith," he replies, then asks, "How are you?"
"Me?" She touches a hand to her chest and laughs. "I'm dandy. Never been better. How are you?"
Leon's not sure how he should answer. There's what he considers none of her business, and there's an honest answer to a friend. He opts for something in-between. "I'm dandy too...I guess."
"Never been better?"
It's a trap. He sighs and sinks back down to the crate. "What do you want me to say, Aerith?"
The smile vanishes. "I want you to say you're miserable, Leon. How about that for starters?"
Leon waits for a curious passerby to move further up the street before he admits, "I am miserable. Satisfied?"
"Not even close," she says. She aims a buffed fingernail at the tip of his nose. "Now I want you to say you cried yourself to sleep last night. I want you to say you couldn't get out of bed this morning. I want you to say you needed your best friend to talk you into even getting dressed and leaving the house. And then I want you to say what an idiot you are and how you are going to do everything in your power to make it right, Leon."
"I can't," Leon says. He pushes her finger away. "I don't know how."
Aerith puts her hands on her hips. "Then you're not the person I thought you were. You're someone else. Someone I don't want to know."
"You're right," Leon says. "I am someone else."
"Yeah, an asshole!" Aerith says shrilly.
"Whoa, whoa!" a voice cuts in. They both turn to find Cid striding toward them, greasy and grim. He removes the cigar from the corner of his mouth and asks, "Since when does our sweet, little Aerith say 'asshole'?"
"I say it all the time," Aerith replies. She smiles a birthday cake smile at Cid. "But it's usually behind your back."
Cid blinks at her a moment, then comes to, laughing. "Hear that, Leon? She talks about me." He lifts an oil-smeared hand to his chest and places it over his heart. "Wonder what she'll say if I ask her to spend some time alone with me."
"Why?" Aerith asks. Her eyes are narrowed.
Cid snorts. "Get your mind out of the gutter, woman. I need you to hold some cladding while I weld."
Aerith's glare jumps over to Leon. "Why can't you get him to do it?"
"Because he ain't as pretty as you," Cid says. "Now, will you do it, or do I need to find that hat shop girl?"
"Fine! But I have to change clothes first," Aerith huffs. She points to Cid's cigar. "And no smoking."
"Got something to go over with the boy here," Cid tells her as she marches away. "I'll just meet you up there."
They wait until Aerith's disappeared around the corner. "Well, what is it?" Leon says, but he's talking to an empty space. Cid's already started off in the direction of the castle.
Leon watches him for a moment, then says, "I thought you weren't getting involved."
"I ain't!" Cid shouts over a shoulder. "Just evenin' out the playing field! The rest is on you, Leon!"
He'd made love to her, but a thing had crept into it and made it less than love—he'd made fear to her. It was the only thing he could do for her and he'd spoiled it.
"Leon, you're heavy," Tifa said, as if she knew it too.
He raised himself up on his elbows and stared down at her. Her eyes were closed. Griever lay in the valley between her breasts as if she were the one who wore it. Dark hair spilled around her face and for a brief, dazzling, frightening moment everything was all right.
"Still heavy," she said, and sighed. "Do you mind?"
And then it wasn't all right. The woman under him became Tifa and he became Leon, and guilt, ugly and unavoidable, forced him to withdraw from her body and stare at the wall.
"I feel like we're unraveling," he heard her say.
He looked over his shoulder. She had turned away from him and was sitting at the edge of the bed where he couldn't see anything but the way her spine was stiff.
"Then don't leave tonight," he said. "Stay."
Her spine unstiffened, and when she spoke, her voice was plugged with emotion. "Because you talk in your sleep."
Leon didn't know what to say. He stared up at the ceiling and saw in its depths already a house, a beach.
"It was never going be anything more than this, was it?" Tifa asked. "Because you won't let it. Maybe you'll love me, but only to a certain point, and never to the point where you actually believe it enough to say it. Am I right?"
"I made a promise, Tifa."
She whirled to look at him, to glare at him. "No, Leon. Squall made a promise. Squall!"
"But he's me," Leon said helplessly. "Leon...Squall... We're the same person."
"After all this time, do you truly believe that? Do you really think you can go back to being him even after all this is over?"
"I have to. I can't stop being me, Tifa."
Tears spilled over her edges, like a bathtub overfilled. She dashed them away angrily. "Then I'm sorry, Leon, Squall, whoever you are." She left the bed and began gathering up her clothes from the floor. "Because I promised myself never ever again would I settle for anyone who didn't feel the same way I did."
She clipped her shoulder on the door frame in her haste to leave, and for a few seconds she was thrown off-balance. It was an opportunity to speak up, to deny, to protest, to stop her from shrugging them off, shrugging him off.
He didn't. And he didn't know which him prevented it.
There are no cranes or pick axes or empty trenches with discarded trowels around this section of the city. The outer wall is still crumbling. Dust and dirt lie in thick, untouched layers. Piles of rubble occupy the same places as they did a year ago, like a snapshot someone took to remember the day he learned how to tick-tock again.
He climbs to the top of the ramparts, hoping to find someone waiting for him with knees drawn up under a wide smile. He's sad to find it empty. He turns away from the emptiness of the ramparts and looks out into the emptiness of the sky. Too soon, the flat sky becomes something else—a dream, a faraway shore, chains around his ankles as he wades through memories.
But he's tired of this dream. He rejects it, and chooses to face the city instead. Hollow Bastion sprawls at his feet, moving under a sunset. Aerith's right, he thinks. It doesn't deserve the name Hollow Bastion any longer. His world, it's alive, like hundreds of tiny radiant rivers running. Like a ticking, unbroken heart.
It takes more than a name change, his mind reminds him.
"It takes belief," he answers.
The sound of pebbles tumbling against rocks catches his ear. He looks down at one of the rubble piles and sees Tifa picking her way over it, head down, arms folded close to her chest as if cradling a wound. His own chest reacts to see her. It takes the air meant for his words and pushes it down to his stomach where it sits like a ball of lead. He's weighed down by chains and lead, by promises and pasts.
She stops. She looks up. She recognizes him. She says, "Leon?"
And just like that, he's free.
"Tifa," he says, moving swiftly to the edge of the ramparts. "Stay there. I'm coming down. Don't go."
He descends recklessly, with no thought other than to reach the woman at the bottom. When he does, she's standing so still and silent she's become a portrait: Girl Standing On Ruins. He's surprised when she blinks.
"Leon," she says. "I—"
He feels it again, that freedom to move. "Say it again."
"My name. Say my name again."
He closes his eyes. All he sees is afterimage, a snapshot's negative. All he hears is rocks crumbling, a house falling, a memory ebbing.
"Leon?" A hand touches his.
He opens his eyes. She's standing so close he can see her jaw flexing, but she doesn't say anything. He knows she's waiting.
"I love everything about you," he says.
Comments are appreciated! Oh, and can you guess who Yuffie's mystery man is?