Stupidly long A/N: So, no joke, this was originally a one-shot. A 4000 word one-shot that I had little to no intentions of completing or posting. And then it went nuts and dragged me along for the ride. In my head I call it the 'Leon won't ever STFU and let the damn thing finish-fic'.

Not completely canon-compliant. I changed some stuff up. Kept everyone from their own words, kind of smooshed FFVIII into Radiant Garden, etc. Probably a bit OOC, but really, it's hard for me to tell at this point. Also, can I just say that none of the craziness of Kingdom Hearts ever bothered me until I tried to write about it and then suddenly NONE OF IT MAKES ANY SENSE WHATSOEVER OMG.

Time jumps galore. This is basically 5 inter-connected one-shots. Or 20 drabblish ramblings shoved into 5 chapters. Or something like that. I really don't know anymore. There comes a point where you just gotta give up and let the stupid thing do whatever it wants, and I hit that ages ago.

Thanks to sweeneyanne for the beta, and witchywoman1984 for pre-reading (even though it was like 8 bazillion drafts ago).

This fic is complete and chapters will post as I finish my final-freak out-editing bonanza.

If I owned this KH3 would be out by now.


Part 1

Leon used to love shooting stars, back when he still went by Squall. It wasn't something he thought about consciously until he had to start counting his stay in Traverse Town in terms of years instead of months. He'd seen dozens of lights streak through the night sky since the fall of Hollow Bastion, and he hated every last one. They weren't beautiful anymore, weren't suitable for wishes. Shooting stars were nothing but a bad omen crashing against the horizon, announcing the fall of yet another world. If he was unlucky, it also meant Traverse Town was about to gain more detainees.

XxX

Leon never could figure out how he always managed to stumble across new arrivals within minutes. He weighed the various factors for the hundredth time in four years as the pile of flailing limbs and bunched fabric sorted itself back out into separate people. The most likely explanation was that some combination of instinct and observation altered his routine just enough to push him in the right direction. Leon's cynical side was convinced that karma was screwing with him. The part of him that was just plain angry insisted that four years of penance should have been enough to balance out his sins.

The residents of Traverse Town had adapted to the ebb and flow of new arrivals long ago. They tried to be accommodating, to help whoever turned up cope with what remained of their lives. Almost everyone had been through it themselves at one point or another. They nearly made an exception for Leon, but as luck would have it his unbridled hatred of the heartless and his determination to slaughter every last one of them worked in his favor. There were only so many times he could rescue unsuspecting townsfolk before they were willing to overlook his more glaring defects. They put up with him because he was useful, and he got satisfaction out of keeping the place as free of heartless as possible. He could not and would not ask for more, even if that did mean he'd become the unofficial greeter for whoever turned up.

He crossed his arms and tried not to let too much of his irritation show as the three people on the ground slowly started to gather their wits. Two women and a man this time, no kids. It could have been worse. The woman sighed and stood, brushing the wrinkles from her dress—pink and sugary-sweet, like cotton candy—as if her appearance in an entirely new world was no more bothersome than a tumble. Leon found her nonchalance to be immensely unsettling.

"Well," she said, "I certainly didn't expect that to happen."

The girl hunched over next to her wore a pair of tan shorts, a green, midriff-baring shirt, and, for absolutely no reason he could discern, a bright yellow scarf. It almost gave Leon a headache, that scarf was in no way practical or logical. She had a mop of wild, black hair, and looked like she was torn between what he could only assume was a desire to tackle the woman wearing too much pink or be violently ill. A more thorough examination of the man showed him to carry the same expression. It was almost enough to pique Leon's curiosity, but he ruthlessly squashed any questions before they could form.

"Who the fuck would?" The man muttered to himself and patted down his pockets. He had a hard look to him and a gruff voice. Leon pegged him as a veteran. "The hell is this place, kid?"

The question was repeated twice before Leon realized they were looking to him for an answer. He scowled. "Kid?"

"Don't tell me we got another—"

The woman interrupted before he could get any further. "Cid. Be nice."

"This is Traverse Town," Leon said, wanting to get explanations over with as soon as possible. "It's like a hub. People turn up here when their worlds are destroyed."

At this point Leon was usually admonished for being insensitive.

The girl snorted. "Well, that's to the point."

"I'm Aerith," the woman said, halting any further conversation. She stepped forward and rubbed her palm against her dress before sticking it out in clear invitation.

He kept his arms firmly at his sides. "Leon."

Aerith dropped her hand and gestured to her companions. The movement was so graceful that Leon could have almost sworn she'd never meant to shake his hand in the first place. "Yuffie and Cid. I guess you already know why we're here, though, if you don't mind, I wouldn't object to a more detailed explanation."

Leon didn't owe these people anything, but he understood there was a difference between what was owed and what was deserved. Aerith and her friends had the right to know what had happened to them. Who else was going to do it? It was one of his unofficial duties; another reason the town tolerated his monumentally bad attitude. Leon was willing to do what they were not.

He nodded and gestured toward the small cafe nestled against the west end of the district. It was as good a place as any. He chanced another appraisal of the woman—Aerith—and the gnawing urge to get as far away as possible churned in his gut. Whatever it was about this woman that had his instincts roaring, he didn't want anything to do with it.

XxX

The shift that came with new arrivals never lasted long. Leon always ignored it in its entirety. Hours after he left Aerith, Yuffie, and Cid at the hotel he was back to prowling the districts, itching for a fight. That night he fell into bed well past midnight only to be up with the sun. It was his routine; the one thing he could count on to always stay the same in a place like Traverse Town where everything was in constant motion. Keeping to himself and staying detached were the only hopes he had of enduring.

He'd called in a favor to secure Aerith and Yuffie lodging at the hotel, and the only thing worse than Aerith's determination to be friendly was also having her as his neighbor. Aerith did her best to make seclusion impossible. New residents were always a bother, but none had latched on to him with such ferocity before.

It wasn't much of a surprise that Aerith took everyone by storm in a matter of hours. That was just the kind of girl she was, and no matter how uncomfortable she made Leon, the rest of the town loved her instantly. Yuffie, however, was like Leon, an acquired taste. The first thing anyone saw was a helpless, skinny teenager who—they assumed—needed all sorts of coddling and protection. It was obvious from the beginning that Yuffie was flawed, but the worst and most apparent of her bad habits was her unflinching dedication to ensuring that anyone who perceived her to be weak was convinced otherwise. She spent her first week in Traverse Town stamping the desire to mother her out of every last person she came across. Leon was invariably the one to hear about it when she caused problems, one of the many downsides to being the guy willing to do what others wouldn't, and mourned the loss of his solitude.

He slipped into mental debate with himself over the pros and cons of just getting it over with and strangling the girl for what had to be the twentieth time in under a month. He'd be justified; Yuffie stole, she swore with no regard for company, she set off an explosion in the underground waterway just to see if she could—the list went on forever.

All thoughts on the matter washed away in time with an echoing shriek coming from the direction of the Third District.

Leon didn't need to think about his reactions to these sorts of things anymore. Instinct drove his legs into a run and muscle memory had his blade drawn in the moment before he pushed open the heavy, wooden doors sectioning off the more dangerous area of town. He barely registered the couple fleeing the scene. Then, he froze.

There was Yuffie, standing in the middle of the plaza and flicking throwing stars through a group of shadows with such ease that she looked bored.

"Huh." Leon hadn't expected that.

"Come for the view?" Yuffie asked, obviously pleased with the audience. Her next throw had an unmistakable flair of showmanship to it.

Yuffie just got a lot more interesting, and to Leon's annoyance, a lot less irritating. He'd always had a set criteria for who deserved respect—a ranking system all his own for determining who was worth his time—and Yuffie just blew it out of the water. He'd heard Yuffie and Aerith arguing over her desire to do something about the heartless through their shared wall in the hotel, but he'd thought Yuffie's desire to take up arms against the heartless was born of resentment and a childish anger toward the monsters that stole her home. He never considered the possibility that she had anywhere near the skill required to actually do it.

"How long?" he asked.

Yuffie didn't need him to elaborate. "Since I could."

"Why?"

She smirked and skewered another shadow. "Because I could."

It was a better reason than Leon ever had. He took up a blade because it was expected of him; because that's what would earn his keep and repay the Garden that had taken him in. There was nothing quite like having your whole future assigned to you at the age of five.

"So, what's the assessment, Sarge? Do I get an A?"

"I was a Commander."

Yuffie frowned, mocking him. "Did I over-estimate?"

Leon chose to answer by raising his gunblade and shooting the last remaining heartless on the other side of the plaza.

Yuffie whistled. "Guess not."

Leon took a moment to think about whether or not this new information changed his position. On the plus side, having a partner would be useful—on the other, Aerith would be pissed, and he'd have to actually interact with Yuffie on a regular basis. He gave careful consideration to each of the opposing arguments, then, like he always did when he wasn't sure which way to go, he thought of what Squall would do and did the opposite.

"You want to fight, yes?"

Yuffie eyed him, wary of how he might respond to either answer. What she didn't realize was that so blunt a question laid her bare. She had no chance to defend her reaction, and in the few seconds before she responded Leon saw all he needed to. Yuffie was angry, hateful, and she wanted to roast the heartless almost as bad as he did. It was impressive that she managed to hide such rage—he'd assumed Yuffie announced every thought and feeling she had to the world just to piss people off. After catching a snippet of what laid under the surface, he considered that all that loudness was merely a facade.

He gave Yuffie a minute to pull herself together, to fix her mask back in place. She cocked her hip and shot a challenging sneer his way. "I do."

"Tomorrow. Oh-six-hundred." Leon was surely going to regret this. "We'll see what you're made of."

Yuffie went from suspicious to horrified so quickly, Leon nearly let his amusement show. "Six in the morning? Are you crazy? What the hell would we even do? Assuming I decide dragging myself out of bed for the pleasure of your company, that is."

Leon did smile at that; a feral, vicious grin accompanied the edge lent to his voice. "We hunt."

That certainly caught her attention.

"Aerith's going to kill you." Yuffie sounded positively gleeful. He wondered if Yuffie was bi-polar, or if her crazy mood-swings were just another shield, like her running mouth.

"She can try." She could probably succeed, too, but Leon wasn't worried about it. Aerith was too nice to do any serious damage—probably.

Yuffie looked to be struggling to figure out if she wanted to stab him for dooming her to an early morning or hug him for giving her a chance to prove herself. Since she would probably settle on trying both and either was unacceptable, Leon turned on his heel and headed back to the Second District without another word.

XxX

Leon expected that if he was able to get Yuffie to focus, she could become an invaluable asset. As it turned out, that criteria was irrelevant. He'd known she was good. He hadn't realized her skill was consistent.

Yuffie had shown up on time, and cheerfully introduced Leon to the largest shiruken he'd ever seen in what, he assumed, was supposed to be a threatening manner. He opted against explaining to Yuffie that she was going to have to try harder if she wanted to intimidate him. He didn't know much about her, but he was sure that was a bad idea.

He gave her some distance while she warmed up, and then settled in to watch from a few paces back while she sent knives sailing through the air. Every one of them landed dead center of the bullseye he'd painted on the side of a box sitting on the far side of the alley. At first he tried to keep up a mindless stream of chatter—easy with Yuffie—but when that failed to distract her he'd taken to flinging mild insults every few minutes. He criticized her clothes, called her scarf an obnoxious distraction, even went so far as to call her a skinny, useless child—anything he could think of that would piss her off enough for him to throw her off her game. She gnashed her teeth and narrowed her eyes into a glare that promised retribution, but she kept throwing, and she still hit the target every time.

Leon had to admit defeat.

"You good with anything other than throwing knives?"

"Kunai!" Yuffie shrieked, calming down enough to lose the murderous glint in her eyes, but not enough to keep from taking some pot-shots of her own. "God, you could at least know the proper name for them. Though I suppose it doesn't take much brain-power to lug around a giant gun with a sword stuck on the end of it. You may as well be cheating."

Leon was offended. He spent the majority of his life perfecting his technique on a notoriously difficult weapon; he hadn't time for such frivolous things as mastering a secondary specialty. "You think you could handle it?"

"Probably not." Yuffie snorted. "But I'll bet you can't handle mine, either."

Leon knew he wasn't nearly as good as Yuffie where it came to thrown weapons, but pride had him stepping up to the plate and giving it a shot. To her credit, Yuffie didn't mock him nearly as much as he expected. Instead he was forced to endure a lecture he didn't think her capable of on mechanics and theory, plus a few lewd jokes about weak wrists. If she were anyone else, he would have walked away and never come back, but she had a point when she deemed his aim in need of tuning. It was hard to deny when they had side-by-side target practice going on.

In an effort to salvage his pride, Leon found himself teaching Yuffie to use longer blades, and within days it spiraled into a demented contest between them. Who could be the bigger tyrant while still instructing effectively? Leon won.

He didn't think to be suspicious when Yuffie asked for help casting next—a mistake he'd never make again. Yuffie was very competent with magic and a good enough actress that he didn't see it coming until it was too late. Leon avenged his singed eyebrows by moving their patrols up to five in the morning, and made up an outrageous story about how caffeine would inhibit Yuffie's reaction time. She didn't believe him, but she went along with it anyway, and that was good enough.

Leon didn't care about the insults or pranks, so long as in the end, Yuffie would do as he said.

XxX

"I am not going to spend my time enchanting bullets for you, Squall!" Merlin huffed and upended a box full of crumpled papers and unrecognizable nicknacks over his sofa. He poked through the mess for a minute before shaking his head. "Honestly."

Truthfully, Leon hadn't expected Merlin to cooperate, but that didn't stop him from asking. He'd known the eccentric wizard for years; Merlin was the first person he'd met when he came to Hollow Bastion, and was the only other person left after its fall. Most of the time, Leon got on well with him, but the man had a tendency to forget himself, which Leon was getting a painful reminder of. Sure, Merlin could go on for hours discussing mythical weapons or complex spell-theory, but he, unfortunately, had little interest in the resources Leon actually had available.

"Squall?" Yuffie asked, cocking her head to the side as she stared up at Merlin with more interest than she'd previously let on.

"Well, that's his name isn't it?" Merlin squawked, shoving past Yuffie to claw through a set of drawers behind her. "You'd think I have nothing better to do!"

"Squall…" Yuffie repeated, as if she was testing the name out. She looked him up and down and nodded. She tried again, slower. "Squall. Yeah, that seems about right."

"Don't call me that." All he wanted was some combustible ammunition. He should have asked Cid; he was only slightly more likely to blow them up than Merlin.

Yuffie edged toward Merlin, watching with undisguised amusement as he pulled one of the drawers out and dumped its contents onto the table in the middle of the room with a flick of his wand. "You must tell me more of this mysterious creature named 'Squall.'"

"What?" Merlin asked, thoroughly distracted. "Oh, yes, yes. Squall. Such a troublesome boy. Enchanted bullets. Of all the ridiculous things to ask for. At least this time he only wants them to explode. As if swinging a slab of metal and firing a gun will save the world."

Leon thought long and hard about shooting Merlin with his oh-so-offensive bullets, but the old man would probably turn him into a frog if he tried. Instead, he grabbed Yuffie by the collar of her shirt and hauled her out of the cottage before Merlin could spew any more slander.

"Oh, are you leaving already?" Merlin called. Leon turned his head enough to see half the man's body hanging out a window as he shouted. "Usually you don't storm out until I've started insulting your upbringing! Which was an abomination, by the way!"

Yes, Leon definitely had to get Yuffie far, far away. Merlin had a tendency to rant, and there was no telling what secrets he'd wind up spilling once he got going. He was going to have to keep a close eye on the two of them. If Yuffie hadn't already picked up on Merlin's loose lips, she would soon, and she already had a wicked smirk that promised she would pursue this avenue until satisfied. He knew he shouldn't have let her tag along.

"Hey! Watch it!" Yuffie stumbled trying to keep up with his strides as he stormed back to the Third District. He released her collar mid-way through the plaza without lessening his pace. "What's your problem?! Exploding ammo would be awesome!"

Leon's gloves creaked under his curled fists.

"Squall is a perfectly nice name," Yuffie said, taking another guess. "And perfectly fitting if you ask me."

He spun in place and fixed her with his most violent glare. "Do not call me that."

Yuffie crossed her arms and tapped her foot. After a moment, she smirked. "We'll see."

It was painfully clear that it was a battle Leon couldn't win, but he was going to fight it anyway. He forced himself to calm. He had principles, and he couldn't let her think she could get to him so easily. He left the Third District with nothing more than a scowl in favor of searching out his back-up plan.

"See you later, Squall!"

He kept himself from throwing a rude gesture over his shoulder, barely. That would probably only encourage her.

It wasn't her fault, not really. Yuffie didn't understand. She didn't know that Squall was weak. He closed himself off to deal with his problems instead of acknowledging that he had issues; as a result, he was blindsided when he couldn't tune it out any longer. Leon was more cautious—he eased into the things that made him uncomfortable so that when the time came he could deal instead of choking. Leon wasn't going to have any tragic epiphanies while the ground collapsed beneath him and shadows ripped their claws through his friends' chests.

He drew his blade. He wouldn't let the past repeat itself, no matter what it took. For better or worse he had allies—mostly competent ones, at that—and he wasn't going to shove them off just because they were they were, on occasion, the most irritating group of people he'd encountered yet. He probably shouldn't have ditched Yuffie back in the Third District, though. He sighed, and resolved to try harder.

He stormed into Cid's shop and set his gunblade on the counter. "High-explosive incendiary rounds."

Cid's answering grin was diabolic, and exactly the kind of reaction Leon was hoping for. "Yeah, I can do that."

Leon was definitely going to get blown up at least once if Cid's excitement was anything to go by. It would be worth it.

XxX

Leon's back hit the concrete wall surrounding the plaza in the Third District. His breath left him in a rush and he barely had enough time to regain his wits before a fireball was zooming toward him. He wrenched his body out of the way and ignored the telltale bloom of pain indicating his shoulder was dislocated. At least it was his left.

They were prepared for the usual brand of shadows and magic-casters, but Leon hadn't expected anything he wasn't familiar with. Instead, they'd managed to stumble upon new types of heartless—one of the most horrific of all possibilities—and some of them were tough. There was one twice the size of Leon, and hitting it was like trying to beat a brick wall with a stick. He barely had time to process their new opponents before the damn thing started body-slamming him. Leon felt like a pancake.

He kept his grip loose and cut through the nocturne warming up another spell.

Yuffie cursed and a moment later a throwing star cut through air to take out another one. A thick trail of blood streamed from a gash in her thigh. Leon had lost track of how many times he'd told her she needed to find a pair of heavy pants and a jacket, at least, but she always argued that she wore what she could move in. Maybe after this, she'd listen. She spun in place and took out the shadow skittering around her legs, looking for another chance to rip into her.

"You said this would be easy!"

Leon snarled. "You said you could concentrate!"

He wanted to blame Yuffie for the mess they were in, but apparently he still had some twisted sense of honor, and couldn't. Sometimes things didn't go right. Sometimes, a handful of shadows and a few nocturnes kept multiplying and spawning backup until a sure win turned into a back against the wall lucky shot. That was the risk when the fighting wasn't pretend.

Leon was willing to admit that he wasn't as cautious as he should have been. Yuffie should take some of the blame, yes, but the fact remained that she wasn't used to restraining herself, the same as Leon wasn't used to working with a partner. He could have pulled it off if he were flying solo; or if Yuffie had remembered to cover him like she was supposed to.

"On your right! The big fucker!"

Leon ducked instead of attempting a slash. That hadn't ended well for him last time. The distraction proved enough for Yuffie to get in a few hits though, and when the monstrous thing turned to go after her instead, Leon took his shot. Cid's skill with combustibles sure was handy. He let out a long breath. That had taken way too long.

"That the last of them?"

He nodded, then thought to add, "Might be more on the way."

"Retreat?" Yuffie asked.

Leon hated that word. "Yes."

Yuffie's leg was sliced to hell and Leon was nowhere near his best. They had to fall back. He fired off a pair of cure spells at the doorway to the Second District, and the blood streaming down Yuffie's leg started to clot by the time he had to decide where to go next. He directed them toward the alley. There was no sense in dragging a mess through the hotel, and coming in through the front was sure to draw attention he wanted to avoid. He held his arm at his side, careful not to jostle it, and sucked in three large, even breaths. The entire situation, beginning to end, was unacceptable.

"Just your leg?" he asked, trying to get a better look at the injury without moving from his position against the back wall of the hotel.

"Yeah." Yuffie rolled her neck and tried to pretend she wasn't keeping weight off the limb. "What've you got?"

"Dislocated shoulder." He cast another cure on Yuffie. She kept an even face as she helped him out of his jacket, and then stood in front of him with a grim set to her lips. It was not an expression that instilled Leon with confidence. "You do know how to do this, right?"

"Yeah," Yuffie said, taking a firm hold of his forearm with one hand while gripping above his elbow with the other. She shuddered. "Sure. No problem. Walk in the park."

Leon waited. Yuffie adjusted her grip three times, visibly nervous. "Hold still!"

Leon clenched his teeth and struggled to rein in his temper. For all the good falling back was doing, he might as well have stayed for round two. "I am holding still. Stop stalling. You said you could do it, so do it."

Yuffie groaned. "This is so gross."

"Fuck it." Leon lost his patience and brushed Yuffie's hands away. Resetting own shoulder was not fun; he'd only ever had to do it once, and hadn't even managed to do it right. It was easier to have someone else pull on his arm until the damn thing popped back in. He knew the theory, and one example of what not to do, and that was about it—but if his options were to get it over with or wait for Yuffie to work up the nerve, he'd do it himself.

Carefully, he grabbed his arm at the elbow and grit his teeth. The hardest part was forcing his muscles to stay relaxed enough for the joint to pop back in. It was easier than he remembered. Relief bloomed from his shoulder, down his arm, and all across his chest. Leon exhaled and tried rotating forward, then backward. Seemed he got it right that time.

The pain and discomfort were almost worth the look on Yuffie's face. "That was even more horrific than if you'd made me do it!"

"Well, it wasn't pleasant for me, either." The only silver lining within miles was that now he could climb up the back of the hotel to his balcony. Leon imagined this was what teenagers felt like when they were sneaking back into their houses in the middle of the night.

Yuffie swung up over the railing behind him, landing with a soft thud followed by a groan and wince. "God, that hurt. What sort of stupid magic do you have in this world that you can't even heal? I miss my materia."

"It's magic, not a miracle." Leon seethed. Of all the ridiculous expectations to have. Her leg had nearly been in ribbons. "You're lucky it wasn't worse. Unless you wanted me to be haul you back to Aerith in shreds?"

That shut Yuffie right up. "Yeah, no thanks."

"Thought so. We can have another go at it in the morning; more magic isn't going to help you any right now."

Aerith would murder Leon if she saw Yuffie like this. They couldn't go near her until they got another few of their own spells and potions working, or they were both toast. Aerith had been fairly tolerant so far, but it was no secret that she didn't like them running around like they did. Leon didn't want to bear witness to Aerith's well-hidden temper again. The last time, when Yuffie had cornered her first thing in the morning to inform her that she was partnering up with Leon to take on the heartless, was enough. Aerith had looked five seconds away from wiping out Traverse Town herself. Leon had immediately revised his assumption that Aerith was too nice to do something like set him on fire and then electrocute him just for good measure. If she were angry enough, he doubted she would stop there. Aerith had access to magic he didn't even want to begin to think about.

He was still trying to work out how to avoid Aerith's wrath for getting Yuffie hurt when, silently agreeing with the avoidance plan, Yuffie finished bandaging her leg and collapsed into his bed. She hugged a pillow to her chest and mumbled, "Wake me before noon and die."

Leon gaped at the lump curled up on top of his blankets. How the hell did he manage to get himself into this situation? He jerked his head from left to right, hoping to clear away enough stray bafflement to think through his options. Really, there was only one. What it came down to was that both he and Yuffie had a horrible night, and there wasn't anything to do about it now except clean himself up and sleep in until noon.

"Leon?" Yuffie asked, her voice muffled by the pillow. "Sorry about earlier. That was an embarrassment, huh?"

It was harder to be angry with her after he realized she must feel terrible about what happened; she didn't even try to call him Squall. So maybe the real problem was that for all he claimed to see something different in Yuffie than everyone else, he still wasn't taking her seriously. Not entirely. He had treated her as a burden rather than a partner, and once he thought of it from that angle it was no wonder they couldn't work together efficiently. He definitely hadn't anticipated that she might expect something more of herself, that she might feel bad for failing.

"It's fine. We'll just have to try again." He rolled to his side and closed his eyes, determined to avoid being pulled into any further conversation. For once, Yuffie didn't have anything more to say.