Written as Part Eh I Forget What Number We're On of the prompt challenge I'm doing with my best friends, Le Requiem and junealondra (check them out if you like Naruto and Harry Potter!)If you have no idea what I'm referring to with this prompting challenge, see my profile for details. Also… please prepare yourselves for the complete and utter massacre of the comma in this fic. I'm giving you fair warning now.

Prompt: I could still be ruthless if you'll let me.

.xxx.

Sometimes, he forgets. He wakes expecting to find Rinoa curled against his side, snoring lightly in that kitteny way she always had, her breath warm against his chest and her hair an onyx fan, glistening in the morning sun. Her eyes would open sleepily, blearily, hot chocolate pools that made him feel alive, and she'd smile at him. Sometimes, he forgets, and the empty space beside him leaves his forehead scrunched in confusion upon waking.

Then reality hits him, and he remembers it all. The sky blotted black, stars snuffed out, the fear, the uncertainty, the what the fuck is going on? And his sorceress, his Rinoa, in sharp relief against the darkness, wings a flurry of white as magic cascaded from her fingertips. The hilt of his gunblade familiar in his sweaty hands as he—eighteen years young not knowing he had it all, would lose it all—swung and chopped and parried.

Her magic, his metal, and it wasn't enough, could never have been enough because their own shadows were against them, sticky black blobs with eyes like liquid hate and if they had no hearts then how could they ever die?

Muscles protesting, Rinoa screaming, and Cid was calling them all to the Gummi ships. And the blood and the bodies, oh the bodies…

His hand found hers as she touched down, and he dragged her through the streets, weaving through the bailey away from the castle, into the town square, away from the death and the carnage, only there was no away because it was everywhere, was everything.

Their feet pounded a war song and her wings still hadn't vanished as she shot blue thunder and black lightning over her shoulder. His heart was in his throat, hers in his hands and they were doomed, doomed, doomed from the very start. Something sliced against his face, hot crimson spilling across his nose, into his eyes and he felt Rinoa stumble, hoisted her up only for her to drop again, this time for good, as he turned in horror, gunblade at the ready but just not ready enough.

They swarmed her. The most powerful sorceress the world had ever seen, yet she had the biggest heart of anyone he'd ever known, too big for the Heartless not to take for their own, gobble down their sticky throats until it stopped its beating, cold and dead, within their black, distended bellies. She collapsed upon the stairs, stone tearing her dress and skin, her snow-soft wings drenched crimson and aching, her chest a gaping, empty hole. Blood dribbled from her eyes in a sick mockery of the tears he felt falling down his own face, and then Cid and Aerith were dragging him away and Yuffie, so young, so young, was screaming bloody sin.

Into the Gummi ship they went, the only survivors, and Rinoa's bleeding eyes, once brown and warm and filled with the desire to do so much good, would haunt him forever.

She'd had the biggest heart of anyone he'd ever known, too big for them not to take, and with it they took his as well.

When he remembers, the hate begins all over again.

If the Heartless were still around to take it out on, it would be one thing, but Sora had banished them two years ago, leaving Hollow Bastion—fuck if it would ever feel like Radiant Garden ever again because she wasn't there to make it beautiful—safe and tame and empty. So he throws himself into work with the Restoration Committee to see Aerith's worried frown turn into a smile, and so Cid lays off with the "fuckin' emo brat" comments.

The buildings gleam in the newfound sun and Aerith's flowers bloom like they never had before and one day even Cloud appears out of nowhere, back from Wherever, his grudge with Sephiroth settled to his satisfaction. Cid has his Gummi Ships and Merlin has his magic and when Sora and Donald and Goofy sail into town it's with smiles too big for their faces and innocence too true for the things they've done. Squall sees it, sees the flaws in the aftermath, yet to everyone else, it's perfect.

And when he can't stand it anymore, can't stand the smiles and the laughter and the everything's fine now, when he sees flashes of Rinoa in Tifa's wandering form around the castle's halls, when he simply hates it all, Squall goes to find Yuffie.

She's loud and obnoxious, Rinoa's complete antithesis in every way, from her boyish shape to her cheeky grin and her blue-grey eyes. She's young and naïve and graceless where Rinoa was refined, elegant and good.

He finds the ninja and she pokes and prods his sore points, tongue sticking out between pouting lips when he corrects her that it's Leon, for fuck's sake, taunting him with her eyes and words and giving him something to lash out at. They spar, and he feels the hatred ebb. She leaves, and it returns. Tifa smiles at Cloud, hands clasped behind her back and it's all so wholly, quintessentially Rinoa that Squall has to find Yuffie again.

Only one night, he can't and when he finds himself in the bailey after searching hopelessly for over an hour, he feels something within him shatter. The shadows flow over him, into him, frustratingly harmless, lacking the glowing eyes and scratching claws that gave him something to fight for, fight against.

His fist finds the wall, scraping skin, cracking bone, over and over again until his leather-clad hand is caked in blood, half-dry, half-sticky, all his own.

Because with no heartless left, Squall can only hate himself.

His hand strikes the stone. Not strong enough.

And again. Not tough enough.

Again. Not ruthless enough.

He wishes to again be eighteen and full of promise rather than twenty-five and bitter. He wishes to again see Rinoa, healing the sick and injured of Radiant Garden, or out in this very bailey, wings stretched lazily in the sky as she practiced spells for the joy of it. He's desperate to see her peek over her shoulder, smiling and pointing toward the shooting stars above. Wants the chance to have one more lesson in the waltz with her, because she was the only one who could ever help him get it right.

The glove comes off and the wall meets his fist again; this time he can see the bones of his knuckles poking through the shredded skin.

He hates himself, everything about himself. His name reminds him of the failure he once was, his scar of the night that everything was destroyed, and his hands, oh gods how he loathes his hands. Hands that once held hers, but not tight enough, hands that swung his gunblade, but not well enough, hands that have no purpose now that the thirteen year old prodigy had waltzed on in and fixed things.

When the world has no need for the lion-hearted, what was he to do? Back then, when it was needed, he was not ruthless enough, and now, with the need neutralized, he is so full of ruthlessness he cannot bear it, feels himself burning up in it.

He falls to his knees, head bent against the cold brick wall of the bailey. In the darkness, he can almost pretend things haven't changed, that he's still needed. In the darkness, he doesn't hear anything until—

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

He doesn't have to open his eyes to see who it is. The whining lilt to her voice says it all. And yet even though everything about her sets him on edge, he can't help but sigh in relief at her sudden presence.

"Yuffie."

"Seriously, Squall? Are you trying to win Emo of the Year or something, 'cause that is gawd-awfully depressing." He bristles at the name, but it's a familiar jolt, a familiar dance. They do this all the time.

"It's Leon now."

"Yeah, yeah, and I'm the Queen of Wonderland. Fuck off, Leon and get your head out of your ass-crack before I start shoving my throwing stars up there."

There's an edge to her voice and for the first time since her appearance, he raises his head and turns to look at her and, for a moment, she takes his breath away. She is furious and blazing, hands on her hips and loathing in her eyes and so unlike the child he's so used to seeing her as that he wants to kiss her, kill her, devour her and repel her all at once.

She is not elegant, will never be, but she is grace, is ninja, more deadly and fluid than anyone he's ever seen as she glides up to him, five-foot-nothing and fuming, and socks him right in the jaw. He stumbles a bit—when did her right hook actually hurt?—and lowers wide eyes to find hers.

She shrugs. "If you're gonna beat yourself up, you may as well let me do it for you. Gawd knows you've had it coming."

He doesn't bother asking when she went and grew up on him. He never really talks much with her at all, and yet he's always known that she was used to silences. He doesn't ask her anything and yet she smiles cheekily and grabs his wrist.

"You weren't looking, Leonhart, like the big doofus you are. Now come on, I've got a solution to your King Emo crap that's a whole lot more meaningful than punching walls."

If she were Rinoa, she would've healed his shredded hand immediately, but she is Yuffie and these things don't bother her. Instead, she drags him back to her room and sits him down on the floor and orders him to strip.

"Just your jacket and your shirt, ya big perv. There ain't no way I wanna see you get all nakey-time on me." She gags noisily and mimes vomiting as he removes the specified articles of clothing, and he begins to doubt she's grown up at all, ever will grow up at all.

Only once she's lit the room with candles and produced a tiny knife from her dresser does he begin to worry that maybe she's as fucked up on the inside as he is.

"Scared?" She teases, grinning from nose to chin. "Nah, no worries. This is just a little tradition we had back in the old country. Something to remember lost loved ones by. Something to keep them with you always."

"The old country?" He asks, though he has a feeling he knows what he means.

She sighs and flicks the back of his head before settling a towel around his hips and herself behind him. "Don't be stupid. The Before everyone has but no one ever talks about 'cause they get, like, migraines and stuff if they think about it too hard."

He does know. Has always known that there was something before Radiant Garden, a different Garden, and Rinoa was there as well, meant as much to him then as she had after. But there were others too, a girl like Yuffie who always wore yellow, and a guy with a tattooed face. And others, too, serious and fleeting and painted in abstracts across his mind and it does hurt to think about, hurts in that niggling way that a loose tooth hurts, or a forgotten dream that was so much better than reality.

When Yuffie's knife slices into his back, he stops thinking about it at all and cries out, more from surprise than anything else.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing you crazy bitch?" He hollers, but doesn't pull away because there's something in the pain like old magic or maybe just relief from all the loathing bottled up inside him.

He feels her roll her eyes. "Told you, Squallie-poo. Ancient Wu—" her voice hitches, catches and she falters, "a-ancient ritual. From Before."

Squall doesn't pry. He never does. He simply relishes the drag of the blade across his skin, even as he feels blood dripping, steaming and sticky, down his back. With each stroke of her knife, he feels the self-abhorrence drain a little. She bleeds it from him one cut at a time, and he's never been so thankful to be sliced to pieces in his life. For over an hour they sit, he cross legged and she kneeling behind him and, for once, she has little to say. He knows her face, knows it's scrunched in concentration, the tip of her tongue poking from one corner of her mouth as she hums slightly, focused.

They've been partners for years only it feels like lifetimes and even though she drives him up the wall half the time, he knows her. Appreciates her.

"So were you all this masochistic Before or are you just the exception?" He asks, breaking the silence.

"Pfft, we were a freaking ninja clan; pain meant we were still alive… or something. I dunno, I just remember this 'cause… well, 'cause it's not really something you forget. But mostly our traditions were all about honour and giving thanks to Levia—to our patron god. You know, stuff like that. You probably would've called us heathens or some dumb shit, but we were pretty kickass." She pauses for a moment and a shiver goes up his spine as she draws her fingertips across his shoulder blades. She hums contentedly. "There. All done."

She hands him a mirror and holds up one of her own behind him. One hand clamped around his wrist again—she was never one for holding hands and certainly not with him—she positions his mirror properly and shows him what she's done. And takes his breath away all over again.

In red relief against the milkiness of his back, two wings take shape. Carved from his own skin and maybe-maybe-not bound with some heathen magic, and he is captivated. They're raw and aching and a bit ragged around the edges, but they're his and Rinoa's and he knows she'll be with him now. He sees Yuffie smiling, small and timid, behind him.

She lowers the mirror.

"C'mon, Squallie-kins, time to bandage you up. Don't want any infections fucking up the scarring now do we?" She sticks her tongue out and winks, and now he's sure she's just as fucked up as he is.

The bandages chafe against his torn back and he hates to see the cuts covered. Hates that Yuffie is the one to see him so weak and piece him back together again. Hates just to have something to hate, but…

But it's not as potent, not as pure anymore. Something in him has lightened.

"Do you have any?" He asks, once she's tied the final knot at his side. He hears more than sees her grin as she scuttles around and, unabashedly, she rips her shirt off, exposing her bare back to him.

Nestled between her shoulder-blades, small and delicate and oddly threatening, the stylized etching of a three-headed dog glares out at him. On wing sprouts from its back and its paws seems to scrape at the air with malice. Its tail is a long chain, tiny links ending in a gothic point.

"Aerith did mine," Yuffie throws over her shoulder, eyes gleaming with mischief and something that looks disturbingly like unshed tears. "After I wouldn't stop crying and snotting and generally being gross for days and days and days, once I remembered Before. You know it took until Sora came to Traverse Town for it all to come back to me? Thought I was going psycho, most gawd-awful week of my life. And… and it was worse 'cause… 'cause I didn't even get him in this life, you know?"

Her shirt is back on in an instant, inside out and she doesn't care, and as she crawls around behind Squall again he sees something glimmer down her cheek. The candles have burnt to stubby wax globs, and in the semi-darkness Squall is unafraid to lean back against Yuffie, offering comfort and looking for it in return.

Her arms circle his shoulders and her forehead buries itself in the crook of his neck.

"We all had lives, before this one, you know?" Her voice breaks and her slight cough does nothing to fool Squall. "Before the Heartless and even Before that, too. We had lives and they were good, were important, meant something to us. I did, you did, Aerith and Cid and Cloud and Tifa did. We had them and we lost them. But…" she heaves a breath in time with his own, "but we have this life now and it's all we've got. So cut the emo crap, or else I'll… I'll drag Rinoa back from the afterlife to kick your sorry ass."

The room is quiet and dark as she whispers in his ear, all sadness for herself and her lost love gone and replaced by empathy for him. "You know she'd hate to see what you're doing to yourself. You know she'd never think you failed her."

And in the darkness, in the ninja's loose embrace, he finds acceptance. And when Yuffie feels two tiny pricks of water dot her forearm, she pretends not to notice.

And for once, above all else, Squall is thankful.

.Fin.

AN: I'm a bit hesitant to post this, mostly because I've spent my entire life on FanFic trying to AVOID writing (and to a certain extent reading) anything having to do with Squall because he's so… so… Squall. Meaning he's so hard to get right. That being said, any thoughts on this oneshot—whether you loved it, hated it, or were completely and disgustingly indifferent—I would love to hear. I chose to use the prompt as more of an overall theme than work it in directly this time, and I can only hope I did it justice. Thanks to all who read and I hope to hear from you soon! ^.^