A/N: I think I proofread this. Maybe. Who knows? My fuzzy, decongestant-laden brain is pretty sure it happened at one point or another. *shrugs* I'm all wonky and easily distracted right now. Ooooooh, Dissidia...
Leon was hallucinating. He had to be. There was no other explanation for the swarm of heartless writhing over the grounds surrounding the dark, twisted Vale off in the distance. It had to be in his head—maybe he was dreaming? He couldn't look away.
Everything had been getting better. After nearly a year of hard work the town was on the mend; people were even starting to show up again. Yuffie and Leon had managed to clean up most of the remaining heartless and Cid designed a defense system that took care of the rest. Aerith had been happier since Cloud showed up, and Yuffie had finally stopped painting random walls in his bedroom strange colors. They were getting back on their feet, and now this.
Yuffie let out a low whistle behind him.
"Please tell me you don't see it, too."
"Sorry to disappoint." Yuffie moved forward and shook her head. "That does not look good."
Dread prickled Leon's gut. He didn't know where they came from—how they were even there in the first place—but he knew they were coming. They weren't anywhere near prepared for something of that magnitude. He only had a handful of fighters, and he could only count on Yuffie. Cid had too much on his plate as it was, and Cloud's dedication was sporadic at best. Leon briefly entertained the idea of locking Aerith in her house, but dismissed it. She would never forgive him.
It was like being shoved right back to square one. He frowned. "This is a problem."
Yuffie rocked back on her heels. "So, what do we do?"
Leon drew his gunblade and exited the bailey. "We kill them."
And then, just when it seemed like he couldn't possibly be pushed any closer to the edge, the nobodies showed up.
Leon's mood was black and tangled; he was a coil wound too tight, a disaster waiting to happen just like the mountains of heartless he was determined to hack his way through. Any residual hope of repairing Hollow Bastion or himself had been shattered the instant he caught sight of the countless heartless slithering under the Vale.
His patrols had twisted into something dangerously obsessive. Everyone—even Cid, even Cloud—had approached him with some combination of demands, orders, pleas, blackmail, or even threats to handcuff him to his bed, but every last one of them fell on deaf ears. He couldn't stop. He felt like he was sleep-walking through a nightmare, caught in some horrible alternate reality where the past repeated itself over and over—and he knew the ending already. He wouldn't survive it again.
The heartless could sense his rage; they were drawn to him. They'd come at him for hours on end, each kill did so little to satisfy him. His blade cut through shadows like butter; he didn't bother with bullets. He wore thin under the strain, but it was a price he was willing to pay. Every creature that fell to him was one less that would be coming after them later. He needed to make a dent in their numbers, had to take out as many as he could before the situation turned into a crisis.
He was on a mission. Waiting was not an option. He wasn't going to stand guard and take the defensive position, hoping Sora would show up and pull something out of his ass in time to fix the sick cycle Hollow Bastion was stuck in. For all he knew, Sora was home, too, though he had a hard time believing the boy wouldn't turn up sooner or later. Leon would ask for help when he did, too—his pride was hardly worth Hollow Bastion—but until the time came when he had to suck it up and beg a fifteen year old to do his dirty work, he'd do it himself.
He hunted. He threw himself all-in and resigned himself to waging a one man war against the shadows creeping their way toward the town he poured everything he had left into. Leon rebuilt that place with his own two hands, and the heartless were going to have to go through him if they wanted to destroy it again. It was easy to fall back into the vendetta. It never left him, had always been there; simmering, waiting. His rage was distracted by having something productive to do, but it was never gone. His body adjusted to the strain and lack of sleep after the first week. In the middle of the second he was almost numb enough that he could delude himself into believing he could keep it up forever if he had to.
It was Yuffie's turn to try to talk some sense into him. She laid atop the parapet lining the bailey, waiting for him to get back from his second trip out to the maw. Her eyes were closed, muscles relaxed. She looked like she was doing nothing more than enjoying the fresh air. Leon knew better than that.
"What?" Yuffie asked. She glanced his way, took in the sweat, bloody scrapes, and tension. "Pointing out that you're killing yourself?"
He gave her a sharp look. "Or any commentary whatsoever."
"It's no big deal. I'm not worried about it." She said it like it wasn't going to bait him. Leon knew that trick, too.
He crossed his arms and waited. Yuffie couldn't stand it if he refused to ask what she wanted him to.
She glared and sat up, gave in. "Aerith's been taking lessons, brushing up on her offensive magic. We figured we'd each pick up one of your patrols."
Leon's voice was dark when he asked, "What?"
Yuffie shrugged, back to being confident she had the upper hand. Her next words were scathing. "It's not like it's anything horribly dangerous. You wouldn't lie to us and say you're fine and it's nothing you can't handle if that wasn't true, right?"
"I can handle it."
"Oh." Yuffie tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Then you must think Aerith and I are incapable."
Leon was fucked. They were playing dirty now. He'd never been good at navigating emotional blackmail.
Yuffie kept going. "Either that, or you actually are trying to commit suicide by heartless. You know, that would totally make you about the shittiest kind of friend there is. Just saying."
His only chance was to try and intimidate her into giving in before she could take him down. "Back off, Yuffie."
"No can do, Squall."
He snarled. "It's Leon."
Yuffie didn't break eye contact, didn't back down. She waved her arm toward him and scoffed. "I don't know. This seems like more of a Squall thing you're doing here."
The only thing that kept his weapon sheathed was that she couldn't possibly have known how akin her insult was to being smacked in the face with a slab of concrete. His fingers tightened around the hilt of his gunblade so hard his gloves creaked. His forefinger caressed the long neglected trigger, seeking comfort from the violence pulling it would wreck. She was maddening. "I mean it. Back off. This isn't going to work. All you're doing is pissing me off."
"Sorry, but no." She sounded like she actually meant it. "Let me put it this way—you used to be a mercenary, right? Would you take this job?"
"That was a long time ago." Before Traverse Town, before Hollow Bastion—he wasn't even sure how Yuffie had found out about it. Like always, he blamed Merlin.
"Fine. As a Commander, would you assign it to one of your subordinates?"
Leon's silence was answer enough.
"You don't have to like it; you just have to make a choice. Give it a rest or accept help."
He had his options. He could give in and cut back, let Yuffie and Aerith march out into that pit of heartless by themselves, or admit that the only reason he was okay with going out there himself was that he'd stopped caring about what happened to him a long time ago. There wasn't much of a choice. He hated it when Yuffie was the rational one.
The situation was bad, yes, but he refused to throw either of them into the middle of it because, well, he had lied to them. It was a hundred times worse than they suspected, and there wasn't a chance in hell he was letting either of them go anywhere near the maw without him. Leon had been through worse and survived. Actually, he was pretty sure Aerith and Yuffie had, too, but that wasn't the point. Somewhere in the back of his head, he knew Aerith and Yuffie were right. He wouldn't stand for either of them running themselves ragged, and he was behaving unreasonably enough that he really had forced them into their subterfuge. That didn't mean he liked it.
"Your assistance won't be necessary. There is no need to continue with such aggressive tactics." He clenched his teeth and bit back any commentary about what a low trick she was pulling. He could have shoved her right off her perch.
"Great!" Yuffie beamed, smug and victorious. She stood and started pushing him toward town. "Best go tell Aerith! I better go along with you, just to make sure you don't get lost."
Leon had never managed to hate Yuffie more than he liked her, not since Traverse Town, but he was coming close. She followed him all the way back to town, never leaving his side until he knocked twice on Aerith's door and shoved it open.
He stormed into the house and growled. "No."
"Oh, wonderful!" Aerith clapped her hands together in front of her chest, delighted with Leon's violent entrance. "So, you're able to cut back enough that you don't need us to help?"
Leon stalked right back out the door without another word, furious with himself for being so easily manipulated. He almost went back on his concession, but he didn't want to find out whether or not Aerith and Yuffie were bluffing.
Leon rearranged his routine of walking out from the bailey to the maw every day. He didn't chance the depths anymore. The route was invariably full of heartless with the occasional nobody wandering by; at least he could do that much without feeling like he was risking the town or reigniting Aerith's fury. Sometimes Yuffie would tag along, but when she patrolled she tended to stick to the reconstruction sites.
He hadn't seen Cloud around much, no one had. With the exception of Aerith, Cloud was anti-social to the point of ignoring all but the most direct of questions. Leon had never been able to feel comfortable around Cloud; he wasn't sure if he could take him down if he had to. Leon knew he was patrolling, too, but they hadn't run into each other. That is, until the day Leon stalked his way through the bailey to find Cloud waiting for him. Leon was immediately suspicious—it would be just like Aerith to badger Cloud into helping him out.
Cloud answered before he was asked. "Figured we'd cover more ground if we coordinated instead of doing our own thing."
Leon nodded, still unsure of Cloud's motives, but did not object. He didn't mind having company. Cloud was quiet, and Leon never passed up an opportunity to observe his sword-work. Besides, if Aerith had sent him, Leon would be in for nothing but a lecture when he got back if he sent him away. If not, well, he'd never find out what Cloud wanted if he ditched him.
They were halfway through the maw when Cloud made his move. "So, what are you trying to atone for here?"
Normally Leon wouldn't even consider answering, but there was something empathetic in the way Cloud asked. The answer was kind of obvious anyway. Cloud was probably only looking for an opening to start a different conversation.
"Take a look around." Leon paused. He might as well ask. "What about you?"
"Take a look at your neighbor," Cloud answered, as if he expected the question.
Leon and Aerith had never been close. She was a constant reminder of the people he loved most and lost to the darkness, and it was easier to keep his distance. There was also the small matter of the grudge he was still holding against her for teaming up with Yuffie. He could see now that they had been right, but that didn't mean he liked being played. At least Yuffie had been up front about her side of the ultimatum. Still, despite all of the reasons why he shouldn't react, an intense rage bubbled from his gut at Cloud's implication. He had his blade raised in a second. "You hurt Aerith?"
Cloud wasn't concerned with Leon's aggressive stance. "Got her killed."
"I don't understand it either. She was dead, but she wasn't…" Cloud struggled for a moment to find the right word. "Gone. She wasn't gone."
Leon lowered his weapon and examined Cloud as he tried to put the pieces together. His erratic behavior made a twisted sort of sense with this new information. Still, he couldn't leave lose ends. "You hurt her, or Yuffie, and I will end you."
Cloud nodded. "We have an understanding, then."
Cloud turned and walked back the way they came without another word. Leon had a feeling that the whole exchange—every word and every reaction—went exactly the way Cloud wanted it to. He didn't know if he should feel used or impressed.
Aerith wasn't good at controlling her protective side, but she did try to. Everyone knew she felt maternal toward Yuffie, though the cause and effect shifted often. At first it was the whole living with Leon thing. Aerith hadn't objected back in Traverse Town, but once it became apparent that it wasn't a temporary arrangement, she started to worry. It hadn't helped that Yuffie had continued to stay with him once they got to Hollow Bastion.
Aerith was nice about her disapproval at least. Leon figured it would have helped if he'd latched onto a parental mindset toward Yuffie, too. He had tried to think of her differently, for a while, but the fact of the matter was that at first she was an annoying, nightmare of a girl, then she was an ally, and eventually she became his friend. He'd always been taught that rank should be equal to ability, and Yuffie had earned her place as his comrade. To revoke that would be disrespectful, no matter the designation it was replaced with.
Still, Aerith's worry continued to grow and her theories ran wilder. Leon was starting to harbor a burning hatred for the term 'co-dependent'.
Aerith's grievances ran far and wide: she didn't like that Leon refused to keep tabs on Yuffie, thought it irresponsible that he let her run wild without thinking to set boundaries. She had even complained once that he hadn't given her a curfew. He didn't see the point. Yuffie could take care of herself, and so long as she didn't feel restricted she was fairly honest about where she went and what she did. For her part, Yuffie stayed out of trouble because she knew if she did something stupid, Leon would breath hell down her neck for weeks on end. Yuffie was a master of evasion, but Leon could always find her when he wanted to, and he could make her miserable when properly motivated. Not to mention he was still sitting on a gold-mine of blackmail. He couldn't exactly tell Aerith about that last part.
Still, it wasn't Aerith's fault she was over-protective, and in an effort to mollify her Leon resolved to try to be less standoffish. Having dinner together was a small but efficient way of letting Aerith feel like she was taking care of them. It kept her from going too crazy, and Yuffie enjoyed it—most of the time.
This was not one of those times. Leon was only half-way through his meal when Aerith started pushing again.
"Have you thought about what you want to do with yourself once we finish getting the town fixed up?"
The question sounded innocent, but Leon and Yuffie knew better. Aerith probably figured that since she and Yuffie had been able to get Leon to slow down, she might as well go for two out of two. They shared a look across the table. Leon shrugged, and Yuffie went back to staring at Aerith like she'd grown a second head, her fork frozen mid-way to her mouth. "Huh?"
"When this is over, what do you want to do?" Aerith let out a relieved smile when Yuffie appeared to be giving the concept serious thought.
"I'd probably make a wicked-awesome bounty-hunter."
Aerith's smile was wiped from her face in the time it Leon to blink. "Or you could go to school."
Leon could see the outrage building behind Yuffie's careful and controlled smile. He defused the situation the best way he could think of. "You can keep working with me. Doesn't matter how many heartless we clear out, there will always be something."
Aerith gave him a dirty look. Apparently, this conversation wasn't so much about Yuffie having a future as it was about Yuffie having a different future. Leon didn't see what the problem was. If Yuffie wanted to fight they couldn't stop her. It was better to give her something to fight for, a focus, rather than leave her loose and hope she came up with something on her own. She was too young to do that intelligently—hell, sometimes Leon thought he was too young for it, too.
"I'd want a command position." Yuffie snapped out of her indignation enough to continue eating.
"I could put you in charge of spying, thieving, and general tomfoolery."
"Man, if you're using words like 'tomfoolery', you've officially crossed the line into old." Aerith's forehead connected with her palm, and Yuffie wasted no time pointing out, "And if you're doing that, you've definitely been spending too much time with Squall."
"Leon." He corrected her out of habit more than the delusion that it would do any good.
Aerith let the subject drop for the rest of their dinner, only to take it back up after Yuffie skipped out on helping with the dishes. Leon had a bad feeling that he wasn't going to like this at all.
"I think we should make her find something else to do with her time besides fighting heartless."
Leon arched an eyebrow. "Make her? You aren't her mother, or even her guardian, for that matter. Yuffie is eighteen. You can't make her do anything."
"I know that! It's just… I'm worried that we made a mistake, letting her fight like we have." Aerith bit her lip. "I know we couldn't have stopped her, but I don't think we should have given in so easily—we shouldn't have let her think it was the only way she could help."
Leon didn't know what she was talking about, or when the hell they became a 'we' where it came to this particular subject. Yuffie knew her worth, and she knew that it did not begin and end at her combat abilities. "I don't understand."
Aerith huffed. "I'm afraid that she thinks these constant battles are all she's good for."
Leon tried not to laugh, but it was hopeless. He was starting to form a theory that Aerith's concern over Yuffie living with him stemmed from her thinking he was a bad influence. "I'm sorry, but I don't think you can understand this type of situation."
Aerith looked skeptical, but she was listening for now. Leon couldn't ask for much more than that, especially when he was withholding so much information. He'd never tell her about the bad nights in Traverse Town—it would be a complete betrayal—but that refusal left him at a loss as to how he could explain that Yuffie wasn't ever going to back down. She'd had dozens of chances already, and every time she came back to the fold. There were lots of reasons, but the only one he knew for certain was that Yuffie was like him; she was a warrior.
In the end, it was best to tell Aerith what he was sure of. "She can't lay down arms if she's able to fight; it's not in her blood. It was not us who made her this way. Besides, we need her. This isn't the time to hand out vacations, or did you forget about the thousands of heartless surrounding the Vale?"
That was apparently the wrong thing to say. Aerith's fist slammed down on the table. "She has already given up her childhood for one war! This isn't even the second time, it's the third!"
Leon hadn't known that. He knew about Sephiroth, how Yuffie met the rest of her group and was drawn into a battle with their very world laid on the line, but he'd never heard of any other war Yuffie took part in. It must have been near a decade ago if her stories of running around before she'd met Cloud and Aerith were all true. She couldn't have been more than a child. Leon would have liked to live in a reality where that knowledge made a difference.
Aerith wasn't finished. "She is a teenager. She should be doing teenager things! Instead, she's got more battle-scars than you."
"And you're, what, twenty-four? If we're raking ourselves based solely on age, I win." Aerith gave him a dirty look for that one. "Do not deny her the status she's carved out for herself. She did a selfless and brave thing every time she chose to stand her ground instead of running, and you shouldn't belittle it."
"I just want her to be able to have a normal life, for once. If in the end that's not what she wants, fine—but she should be given the opportunity to both understand and make that decision. When will it end? When is she going to get to settle down and just be?" Aerith took a deep breath. When she spoke again, a note of her usual calm trickled through. "All I want is for everyone to be safe and happy, and why is that too much to ask? We've paid our dues, every one of us. I want… I want the two of you to start thinking about the future. There will be life beyond the heartless and it scares me that neither of you can see it."
Leon knew she had to have a point in there somewhere, he just didn't expect it to cut so deep. Wasn't that his biggest problem? He couldn't envision a future anymore; every time he tried all he saw was the circling darkness moving ever closer. He fought because he had to—to protect the people and town he cared for—but there was no end to it.
He considered his next words carefully. "If that is your goal, you are going about it the wrong way."
"And what is the right way?" Aerith asked. Defeat ran heavy through her slouched posture.
Leon shrugged and shook his head. He didn't know.
"I don't like it."
This time, Leon managed a little sympathy. "I know you don't, but that's not a bad thing. It helps keep the rest of us grounded."
Aerith's laugh was rueful and sad. "I'd hate to imagine what you'd be like without someone to rein you in."
Leon didn't want to think about that, either. It was easier to look back on their time in Traverse Town and more recent events in Hollow Bastion objectively once he achieved some distance. He'd been reckless, had even gotten Yuffie caught up once or twice by biting off more than he could chew, not that she contributed much to keeping him rational. Without Aerith demanding that he kept Yuffie safe, he would have been killed by now.
"It scares me, how far you're willing to go." Apparently, Aerith couldn't help but get one last shot in.
Leon stood, knowing that letting Aerith keep going wasn't going to end well. He turned back at the door though, deciding to offer one last olive-branch, even though it was going to hurt. "What I find scary is the way you and I can argue like we've been practicing for years."
"Cid calls it the 'ex-wife nag.'" Aerith cracked a genuine smile. "It frightens you?"
"Beyond words." He resolved to keep the deeper reasons why to himself, for now. It helped, being back, but there were some losses he would never be ready to talk about.
Aerith wrung her hands together atop the table. She had something else to say. Leon was sure he didn't want to hear it, but waited the obligatory few seconds to see if she'd spit it out. She didn't. "What?"
"Are you okay?" Her question was so earnest that it took nearly everything he had to keep his reaction from showing on his face. Aerith saw it anyway. "I didn't think so. I don't suppose there's anything I can do to help?"
Normally Leon would either lie or storm off without any indication that he even heard her, but in that moment she reminded him so much of Rinoa that his heart might as well have been breaking all over again. He shook his head, partially to banish the comparison he'd spent too long denying, and to give his answer.
"But Yuffie can." Aerith nodded to herself.
"I guess." His throat felt like sandpaper, but he forced himself to elaborate because those two words were completely inadequate. "I know you want to protect her. I do, too, and I'm doing that the best way I know how. Before… I never let anyone share the weight, and we were weaker for it. I refused to work in a group, spent so much time running around trying to save everyone that I couldn't help anybody. I was focused on all the wrong pieces. I'm trying to do things better this time around, and that means I have to trust in my comrades. I can't stand by while the world burns, again. I won't do it."
He'd gone horribly off-topic, and was being wildly hypocritical considering his recent behavior, but it had to be the most he'd ever said to anyone about what happened to Hollow Bastion and why he felt responsible. It was probably the most he'd ever said to Aerith, period. He felt lighter.
Aerith's lip quirked in a knowing smile, and god, Leon missed that smile so much he couldn't breathe.
"You remind me so much of her." He didn't mean to say it. Thankfully, Aerith didn't ask.