The battle came swift—one event stacked onto another, until the heap was so massive there wasn't anything to do but cleave through it. Leon felt the change in the air, the subtle tension winding through Hollow Bastion as the heartless begin their march. He saw it coming a mile away. There was always someone pulling the strings, and Sora's appearance might as well have been a bright, flashing billboard announcing for them to draw their weapons.
In the thick of it, Leon was almost enjoying himself. There was something thrilling about standing back-to-back with another sword-arm, talking shit, ready to slice through anything stupid enough to dare come his way. In that moment, with Cloud, the battle was fun. He'd forgotten what it felt like to be outnumbered and completely confident, nonetheless. It was what drove him, the reason he picked up a gunblade and spent the whole of his childhood and teenage years learning to use it perfectly. They were surrounded ten feet in every direction, but it didn't matter. They had it in the bag.
Leon had no issues admitting his inappropriately good mood was partially due to battle-lust, but mostly it was that he was finally back on the front line. For one glorious hour there was nothing but Leon, his gunblade, and his backup—and it mattered. Then, the last heartless fell, and time started moving again.
He was breathing heavy; sticky with sweat and blood, heart racing. He allowed himself a few precious seconds to savor the feeling before he had to snap back to reality. He wasn't the only one fighting.
Leon slashed his way through the rest of the route separating the town from the Maw, keeping an eye out for anyone who needed help. Everyone was holding their own. Cid had a small group on the ropes as Yuffie helped Sora clear out the trail leading to the maw. Leon picked up where she left off, and just like that he was back in the thick of it. He split from Sora halfway to the fissure, at first with the mindset that he needed to check on Yuffie—but then he remembered the look on her face as she swung her shuriken and reminded himself that Yuffie was fine. He cut an alternate path down the trail. Three strange lights flitted by, and Leon almost laughed out loud; the fairies were actually helping them? Laguna would die if he were alive to see it.
He strode forward through the fissure.
Suddenly, it wasn't fun or thrilling. His thoughts betrayed him, and for a few seconds he envisioned Aerith and Cid in the midst of what Sora was cutting his way through, out of reach in the middle of the maw. The sight of him there, all alone, drowning in heartless was enough to knock Leon into damage assessment mode. The kid was good, Leon would give him that, but it didn't change the fact that the only person he was okay with being in that sort of a situation was himself; preferably with someone like Cloud or Yuffie watching his back.
He was struck with the urge to go back, to make sure everyone else was okay and then lock them up in their houses until this was all over, but it wasn't an option. Last time he spent so long running around that he didn't get anything done, and at that moment Sora was the one who needed backup the most. The others could take care of themselves, even Aerith, and there was no time to retreat. Yuffie was probably having the time of her life.
Leon pressed forward, took care of the stragglers. He let it be Sora's fight even though he didn't want to, and only backed off once Sora had broken through to the depths. He had a theory about what was waiting past the maw, and it was harder to let that one go. Leon wanted nothing more than to charge in there and blow a hole through the bastard who unleashed hell on Hollow Bastion for the second time. He had almost convinced himself to do it, too, when light shot out of the earth into the sky, and Sora was gone.
His heart sank. After all that had happened, he'd become somewhat attached to the boy.
"He'll be fine. He's a lucky kid." Of all the things that happened, Cloud reappearing long enough to share a few optimistic words before striding away had to be the most bizarre. Actually, Cloud referring to Sora as a lucky took the prize. Leon couldn't fathom how Cloud could possibly think something like that. Sora was many things: adaptable, determined, and a foolish, foolish boy. Those traits were what got him through all the obstacles shoved in his way whether he was running or stumbling, but he was not lucky, not with the hand fate had dealt him.
Sora had grown strong since the day he crashed from the sky to land at Leon's feet. He was more weathered after his first journey, and he understood what it meant to fight with all he had, and lose. No matter how much it still irked him or how much envy Leon still had for the boy, he grieved the path Sora had and would continue to walk. Sora was too bright to burn out in an instant, but still, he smoldered and smoked with each step.
Leon indulged himself in a fleeting wish that wherever Sora had gone, he would be alright.
It was over, but it didn't feel real. The surge of adrenaline that had kept him going tapered off. He needed to check on the others.
The return trip to the postern had a different feel to it than fighting his way out. All he could see was carnage; evidence of spell-work and dark stains on the ground where he fired his gunblade. There were gouges in the dirt and sides of the canyon that wound between the town and the Vale—Cloud's work—and a few kunai that Yuffie didn't have time to recover. He made sure to grab all the knives he came across. He didn't want Yuffie coming back any time soon.
He could admit that it might be better to fight as a team, but in a lot of ways it wasn't any easier than fighting alone.
Leon caught up with Aerith on the stairs. She couldn't offer him any more than a weak smile at first, but she was resilient. Every step she took was lighter than the last, and by the time they've reached Yuffie and Cid at the postern, Aerith was back to her old self. He felt better once he could see with his own eyes that everyone was okay.
Yuffie gave him a critical once-over, frowning at the minor cuts he'd managed to collect and the blood on his jacket and arm. Leon pointedly nodded toward her knee. She let it go. A wicked grin spread over her face. "Permission to high-five, sir?"
Leon sighed and rolled his eyes, acting more put out than he was. Truthfully, Yuffie's joke was kind of funny. He held out his hand. "Granted."
Yuffie leapt up and smacked her palm against his. "Kicked their asses!"
"Sure did." Leon had a grin tugging at his lips, and hadn't even been trying to repress it, but with his next thought, he frowned. "Got rougher than I would have liked, though."
Yuffie sank back down into a seat on the parapet. "Come on. Don't be a downer."
"Where's Cloud?" Aerith asked, making a deliberate scan of the area before sitting next to Yuffie. Leon was thankful for the quick change in focus.
"Who knows. He left right after Sora."
Leon didn't realize Aerith knew she was there, though, when he stopped to think about it, the possibility of anyone missing all the crashes echoing from Ansem's study was absurd. Tifa wasn't even the slightest bit subtle, and she had been determined to find Cloud even if she had to tear Hollow Bastion to pieces to do it. Leon got the gist of why she was looking, but still, he felt kind of sorry for Cloud. Tifa probably wouldn't be any less demanding once she got her hands on him, and Leon did not doubt for a moment that she would find him. "She's around, I think. She didn't sound like she had any plans to leave."
Yuffie's head jerked up, eyes bright. "Tifa's here?!"
"Better watch out, Leon." Aerith laughed. "You may be about to lose your roommate."
"Nah." Yuffie waved her hand. "Tifa would never let me get away with half the shit he does."
Leon wished Yuffie wouldn't say stuff like that, but Aerith laughed it off. She even looked to be genuine in her humor.
"I'll hunt her down," Cid offered. He ambled off toward Ansem's study. "Got some stuff I want to talk to her about anyway."
Yuffie's expression fell. "That's still only half."
"I'm sure they're fine," Aerith said, one hand rubbing Yuffie's back in an attempt to reassure her.
Leon took great care to stifle the nagging voice in the back of his head that whispered it was't fair; two of Yuffie and Aerith's friends had turned up, and all of his were dead.
Aerith had explained the best she could after his brief chat with Cloud out in the maw. She'd said that their world—their planet—was different from his. It was alive. When the heartless came, they didn't attack the people; they attacked the planet itself. She'd been there, somehow, absorbed into an energy of sorts when she'd died. That was why when Yuffie and Cid were expelled, she'd been able to hitch a ride; or it could have been the other way around. Leon couldn't untangle half of what she'd said, but what he took away from that conversation was that because the planet itself had died, the people were free to be cast into the void and wind up in places like Traverse Town before the heartless had a chance to get them. That definitely wasn't what happened to Hollow Bastion.
He was yanked back into the conversation when Yuffie started describing her end of the battle. Of course, she made herself out to be far more heroic than she probably was. Leon was about to knock her down a few pegs for the hell of it, but Aerith got there first.
"Hey, now! Who saved who from falling off that cliff?" Aerith asked, teasing and proud. Leon would have been proud of her, too, if his heart hadn't seized in his chest at her words.
Yuffie shot a dark look at Aerith. "It was nothing."
"You almost fell off a cliff?" Leon couldn't quite grasp it.
"But I didn't." Yuffie drew herself up and visibly resigned herself to telling Leon the whole story. "It's no big deal. Got caught by surprise when the heartless charged past me instead of into me. Aerith was there; nothing a quick heal and hand up couldn't fix."
Nausea churned in Leon's gut; it was a sensation he never wanted to feel again. For a brief moment it didn't matter one bit that Yuffie was obviously fine, they were all fine, because he couldn't stop watching it play out in his head with a very different result. It was possible that he was starting to get far too emotional, but the thought fluttered away in the face of more pressing matters.
"Leon." He mumbled, half-aware, but Yuffie's jab did its work to pull him back to the present.
Leon decided what he really needed was to be alone. Half an hour in the shower couldn't hurt, either.
No matter how hard he tried, Leon couldn't shake his tension. His high wore off long ago, and he felt like he was right back where he started. He wasn't happy or relieved that it was over because it wasn't. No matter how hard they pushed, there was always more waiting. It wasn't the first time he'd wondered if his inability to accept the respite of victory meant there was something fundamentally wrong with him. Relief never came. Every time he thought it was over, it wasn't, and he couldn't afford to let his guard down.
He spent the afternoon lying in bed, hands beneath his head, staring at the ceiling while the others celebrated. They deserved their fun, and it wasn't their fault he couldn't calm his mind long enough to be happy that they've finally won a battle.
"You want some company?" Yuffie asked. She was leaning against the doorframe. He didn't even hear her come in.
"Too bad. Scoot over."
He obliged, mostly because he knew arguing with her wouldn't do any good—but there was a part of him that was happy she never listened.
Yuffie kept quiet and still for twenty minutes while he mulled things over, and then, deciding she waited long enough, tugged one hand from behind his head and invaded his personal space to rest her head on his arm. Leon made a quiet noise of assent; he should have realized.
It was another one of those nights where it was too easy to remember how tragic their reality was. Yuffie was curled up against his side, except now she was almost nineteen instead of barely sixteen, and she wasn't as concerned with hiding how hard it was to always be fighting. He supposed that was something that came with growing up in an environment like theirs. It was non-stop war, and sooner or later they had to learn to grab hold of anything that made them feel human, even if it was only for a few minutes. Even if it made them feel weak.
He thought about the battle, went over it from start to finish, and because he was more than a little masochistic he thought about what might have happened if the Gullwings hadn't switched sides; if Aerith hadn't happened to be rushing by when Yuffie collapsed at the edge of the cliff. There was no denying that if something had happened to her, it would have wrecked him. He was struck with an almost uncontrollable urge to hop out of bed, run next door, and ensure Aerith understood just how well she performed under pressure and how much he appreciated her for it.
Yuffie jabbed him in the side and muttered something he couldn't catch, like she knew exactly what he was thinking.
He'd been analyzing every little detail he could remember for hours. It didn't seem good enough anymore, picking off heartless little by little every time he got the chance until they reached critical mass. There had to be some middle ground between playing it safe and being foolishly reckless, but for the life of him Leon could never manage to strike that balance.
"You done yet?"
Yuffie did a scarily accurate impression of him. "Thinking."
"I'm surprised you can recognize the process."
Yuffie chuckled and sprawled out on her back, head rested against his shoulder and limbs taking up far more of the bed than should be possible. "I'm glad you're alright. It would have really sucked if, you know, you'd died or something. Not to mention that your stubborn ass would have wound up being a bitch of a nobody to kill."
"I can handle a few heartless."
Yuffie made a vague, wide gesture in the air. "Sure, sure. I know. But I didn't realize that when you say 'a few', you mean 'a few thousand.'"
He didn't want to talk about it. He already went over the battle beginning to end, and the more he thought about it the more he was starting to see that those odds were astronomical. It was a miracle they didn't lose anyone. Something, somewhere managed to stack the odds in their favor, and it was driving him crazy that he couldn't come up with any reason other than teamwork. Maybe it just so happened that all those variables managed to come together in the right way for once; or maybe it really was as simple as a united front.
Yuffie huffed. He just knew she was rolling her eyes. "Let it go, Squall. You did good. I did good. We all kicked ass and maybe next time those Organization bozos will think twice about messing with people as obviously talented as we are. Man, you should have seen Aerith out there. You would have had a heart-attack and died from the awesomeness."
Wasn't that a disturbing thought? He didn't want to consider all the crazy stunts Aerith had been pulling—it was bad enough knowing what he did about Yuffie's—so he fell back on his standard reaction. "It's—"
"It's not," Yuffie said, interrupting what must be the two most common words to come out his mouth. "Not always. When are you going to get over this crazy obsession of yours? It's not like you can be someone else just because you say so. So, why?"
"Because that's not who I am anymore." Too late, Leon realized it was the first time he'd ever actually admitted to it. Before it was like folklore—whispered rumors of a man named Squall that were all denied. Now it was fact.
"I don't understand why it's such a big deal. So what? Sometimes you're Leon. Sometimes you're Squall. Only you would be so hung up on it that you've managed to turn it into multiple-personality disorder."
Leon wiped the shock from his face and stared down at her, long and hard. "Then why are you so insistent?"
Yuffie gave a half-hearted shrug and answered, "Because someone has to remind you where you came from instead of indulging you."
He almost asked her if she was feeling okay—but he was starting to see that he had underestimated Yuffie by miles. He didn't know how she managed to pull enough information together to put that theory together in the first place. "I will always correct you."
"Maybe that's the point." Yuffie stared up at the ceiling while Leon thought that over. A couple minutes later she'd decided he had enough time and said, "Did I ever tell you that in my world we had monsters? Like, honest-to-god, actual monsters. There were a lot of factors, I guess; whacko scientists, mutations from the reactors, that sort of stuff. Some were created as weapons and other just… happened."
Leon wasn't sure where she was going with this, but he waved her on.
"They all wound up loose, of course. Even the ones from the labs," Yuffie said, bitter and angry. "After a while there weren't wolves, there were mutated wolf-monsters. They had no natural predators, and there weren't many willing to take them on any more than they had to, so they thrived, took over. Eventually the regular wildlife started getting fiercer; they had to if they wanted to compete. Cid explained it to me once as 'survival of the fittest.' I think you're kind of like that."
"You think I'm like a monster?" Leon asked, not sure if he was supposed to take her little story at face-value. In a lot of ways he fit the bill, but instead of being grown in a lab he was grown in a Garden. He bet there wasn't much of a difference.
"No! I think you're… I think Squall is like the wildlife before and Leon… Fuck, none of this is coming out right."
Leon waited. His silence kept her off-balance and he planned to keep it up until she managed to say what she meant.
"That was a bad example." Yuffie took a breath and started over. "I think Squall is like… the template. Everything you are now is built off of who you were then. It's not a case of scrapping the whole thing and starting over; it's evolution. Survival of the fittest."
Leon's brain couldn't comprehend it. On one hand, he thought Yuffie might be a genius, and he liked the hypothesis she put forward. On the other, it was infuriating that Yuffie managed to hit the conclusion he'd been circling around for years from miles away. Pride dictated that he not let on how close to the mark she was.
"Ugh, now you've roped me into your stupid multiple-personalities deal." Yuffie threw her hands in the air. "Forget it. Forget I said anything. You're so crazy, you're making me crazy! This is unacceptable!"
"I think," Leon said carefully, "that you might have been crazy to begin with." The conversation was over, but Yuffie had managed to rub off on him a little over the years, so he added, "Brat."
Yuffie countered, "Masochist."
They could have gone on forever, so he wiped all emotion from his face before dealing the killing blow in the form of an over-exaggerated, "Whatever."
Yuffie laughed hard enough to confirm that Merlin still couldn't keep his mouth shut.
"You know, I am super pissed I didn't get to impale any of those assholes in trench coats."
"So violent." Leon chuckled, recognizing the change in subject. "Modest, too."
Yuffie poked him in the neck. "You are not one to lecture on either of those vices, he who lusts after the keyblade with a passion normally reserved for torrid romance novels."
He shrugged. It was true. Leon was mostly able to stop thinking he'd be better for the keyblade than Sora, but that didn't change the fact that he still wanted it. He didn't like being stuck holding the line while some kid ran off to save the worlds from collapsing. He wasn't cut out for it. Leon was used to leading the charge—he was good at it—and being told someone else was better suited to the task was not something he took well.
"I have a thing for weaponry."
Yuffie cackled. "Don't I know it. I was only joking about the armory when we moved in."
The room fell silent. Leon wondered if these strange, winding conversations they had were Yuffie's equivalent of being used as a pillow. She had a knack for drawing his attention away from what plagued him and lightening his spirits. All the what-ifs of the past twenty-four hours didn't seem quite so urgent anymore.
He mused over the differences between Squall and Leon, again. Progress has been made, though that traitorous voice still lingered in the back of his mind, whispering that if Yuffie were gone, he would have left some things unsaid. He took her for granted, and while he wasn't sure what he might have regretted not saying he did know it was important. If nothing else, he owed it to the both of them to figure it out.
Leon scooted down the bed, turned to his side, and dropped his arm between them. Just like Yuffie needed someone to hold onto without being weak, Leon needed the reminder of her strength. He needed to keep in mind that it wasn't all on his shoulders. Yuffie fought, viciously, and when she fell Aerith was there to pick her up. It struck him with awe, how much stronger they were simply because they were a team. With Yuffie close by, shifting around to get more comfortable, it was easier to remember that he could trust her to hold her own. He'd still fight. He'd be over-protective and over-bearing and ream her out every time she did anything even the slightest bit stupid—but that was how it worked. That was what he contributed.
"You're doing that thing again," Yuffie said, sleep clouding her voice. "Turn off your brain. Sleep. You can angst in the morning."