Part 5

Leon didn't bother bemoaning the fact that his life had become so ridiculous that he had to worry about heartless coming out of a computer system. It was kind of par for the course by that point. He sighed, studied the factory hidden underneath the computer lab one last time, and drew his blade. There were a lot, but he could take them.

He was starting to wonder if this was what the rest of his life was going to be like.

XxX

"You know, I've noticed something," Yuffie said. She was lying atop a half-finished wall, twirling a knife through her fingers and gave him an expectant look.

Leon rested a hip against the stone and stared out at their most recent project. "I'm proud of you."

For a moment he thought she was going to try to stab him. "Don't be like that. Anyway, ever get the impression that the heartless we're killing are actually staying dead for once?"

He was about to shoot off another smart-ass remark, then he stopped to think about it. She was right. There had been less activity lately. "Huh."

"Yeah. What do you suppose that means?"

"I don't know."

Yuffie tilted her head. "Maybe Sora finally got a handle on things? Figured out how to stop 'em for good?"

The theory was a little too optimistic for Leon. Every single time he thought they were winning, something came along to sweep his feet out from under him. Leon could deal with disappointment, but he was getting tired of having his hopes annihilated at every turn.

He made a noncommittal grunt in response, unsure of how he felt. Logic dictated that Sora stopping the heartless for good would be the best thing that could happen. He was sick of fighting and never having anything to show for it. He just wanted to move on with his life. Illogically, he didn't want Sora to be the one to save them. Sora wasn't really a kid anymore, Leon had seen for himself how strong he'd become—there was even a fair amount of skill present—but Leon was bred for war. It didn't sit right with him that Sora could do something he couldn't.

"You're in a petty mood, aren't you?" Yuffie asked.

He grunted again, unwilling to admit it.

"It's alright," Yuffie assured him. She had a wicked gleam in her eye. "Being jealous of a sixteen year old doesn't make you any less of a man."

"I'm starting to reconsider my initial decision to not strangle you."

"You would never." Yuffie craned her neck and stared up at him with a smile. "I'm too valuable. Who else would you train with?"

"Cloud."

Yuffie held in her laughter, barely. "Yeah, you let me know how that works out for you."

"Tifa, then."

"Your insane and completely misguided notion of a fair fight would mean you'd have to go bare-hands." Yuffie was enjoying this argument far too much. "Which is stupid, by the way. It wouldn't matter to Tifa if you had six weapons, she'd still kick your ass into next week."

"Fine, you're irreplaceable. My life would be a wasteland devoid of meaning without you." Leon rolled his eyes and ignored Yuffie's whoop of triumph.

"And don't you forget it!" Yuffie reached out and poked him in the side.

He almost smiled back at her before he remembered that he was Leon, and he didn't do that. She would never let him live it down. He got the impression that Yuffie caught the moment anyway.

"What were you doing when it happened?" Yuffie asked. She tilted her head as Leon absorbed her question. "You know, when it started."

He didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to talk about much of anything, actually—but the thing about Yuffie was that if he refused she'd never stop asking. It was more effective to just throw her a bone and then let the conversation fade.

"I was on the phone."

"With who?"

Leon considered his options. He had been talking to Laguna, convinced the man had finally gone insane when he started rambling about shapeless, black masses coming through the walls. It had only taken minutes for Leon to realize that whatever Laguna was going on about, it was serious. Afterwards he had vowed—too late—that he would at least try to take Laguna's ramblings more seriously. It was the beginning of the end, there wasn't much else to say about it. He certainly wasn't going to give Yuffie specifics. "A politician."

Yuffie whistled. "Whoa. You must have been a big-wig."

"Not really." He paused, thought about changing the subject, and then against all reason asked, "What were you doing?"

"Cid was dropping me off in Wutai—where I'm from—Vincent was there, too. I'd always said the apocalypse would come before I set foot in that place again." Yuffie chuckled darkly. "Didn't really mean it, though. We held up pretty well, at first. Vince was the first to go down; those things were after him. Aerith saved me and Cid. Don't ask me how, 'cause I don't know and she's still not talking about it, but she did. I guess you know the rest."

Leon nodded. It would be disrespectful to add commentary.

"Wasn't exactly the grand homecoming I'd been expecting." Yuffie kicked her legs back and forth for a couple minutes and then shot him a sly look. He could have sworn she looked nervous. "Who were you really on the phone with?"

"I wasn't lying."

"But you weren't telling the truth, either." Yuffie pointed out.

Sometimes, it was massively annoying that Yuffie knew him well enough to tell. He also could have done without her ability to back him into a corner so far that the only way for him to stand his ground was to concede. "He was also my father."

Yuffie let out a harsh and maniacal laugh. "Wow. We have more in common than I thought. It's fun, huh? Having a Dad like that? Bet mine was worse than yours, though."

"Mine was a moron."

"Yeah? Well, mine spent fifteen years berating me for everything under the sun until I ran away. Then I was taken back, exiled, and, finally, welcomed home with open arms once he realized what a judgmental ass he was being." Yuffie sighed. Suddenly, she looked sad. "And that was such a shock that two days later, the whole freaking planet imploded."

"Oh." There wasn't much he could say to that.

"I guess what matters is he came around. I hated that place, but I did miss it sometimes, when I didn't have a home to go back to." Yuffie swung her legs to either side of the wall and sat up.

Leon had always considered Yuffie somewhat of an open book. She had her secrets, yes, but she was usually abundantly clear when she was keeping them. He thought back to a long ago conversation with Aerith, when he wouldn't even dream to ask or answer these types of questions with anyone, and wondered what it was that made him want to now. He was about to ask what Aerith had meant when she'd said Yuffie was in the midst of her third war when Yuffie folded her legs and leaned forward.

"You know, I think I get the whole 'call me Leon' thing, now. Sometimes you just have to let it go. I guess I kind of did the same thing, except instead of a name, it's a title. I don't want it, and I don't want it to define me. Not that it ever did, much." She shrugged. "Yeah. I think I can see where you were coming from."

"What was your title?"

Yuffie snorted. "Didn't anyone tell you? I was a princess."

Leon shook his head. Even with indisputable evidence laid out in front of him, he wouldn't believe it. "Of course you were."

"Doesn't matter." Yuffie shrugged, unbothered by his skepticism. "I'm not, anymore. Haven't been for a long time, actually."

"How is this the first time I'm hearing about it?"

Yuffie grinned. "Like you're so willing to discuss your previous life? You wouldn't believe the amount of snooping I had to do just to figure out what your damn job was. It's a two way street, buster."

"Point taken."

"I guess the biggest difference is that my friends were willing to keep my secrets. All you had was Merlin."

Leon growled. That man was more trouble than he was worth sometimes.

"You might not be aware," Yuffie said, deadly serious, "but he talks."

"I'll try to keep that in mind."

"Leon?" Yuffie asked after a few quiet minutes had passed.

He thought about praising her for managing to get his name right, but figured it was best not to question her sudden cooperation. She had said, after all, that she understood. "Hm?"

"If it's really over, what are we going to do?" Yuffie's voice was drowning in loss—whether for previous trials or an uncertain future, he didn't know.

"We keep building." Leon shrugged. He didn't know what the right answer was, and he didn't want to search too hard for it. It would destroy him to make plans for a peaceful future, only to have it ripped out from under him again. For now, he was erring on the side of caution.

"And then?"

"I guess after that we get to live." The possibility was always so vague, and it never felt further away than when he could almost reach out and touch it.

XxX

Leon was used to being the one to break first, no matter how distasteful he found it to be. It happened more and more with every passing year, since the first time he left Hollow Bastion. It happened often when Yuffie was involved.

She had been spending most nights curled up in his bed. He suspected she was having just as hard of a time as he was trying to figure out if the heartless really had stopped multiplying, and what that might mean for them once the last of them had been eradicated. In some ways, Leon had expected to spend the rest of his life doing battle against them. The idea that they could become more of a nuisance than anything else wasn't one he could absorb.

He'd been trying to sleep for over an hour. Yuffie had, miraculously, kept her mouth shut the whole time. Either she knew one word would see her kicked out of his room faster than she could blink, or she was in the rare mood for some quiet as well. Leon was having a harder time reading her than he used to. It wasn't that she had changed, or that he'd been gifted with a new perspective. The space between them was just different. The shift had become more apparent over the past few weeks, but it had been there for a while, growing.

He was lost in his thoughts, and then Yuffie scooted closer, and instead of poking him or tickling him or making an obnoxious comment, she reached over and slid the palm of her hand along his neck.

He hadn't realized he was wound in the first place, but that simple, soft touch shot down his spine, and he broke in an instant. He couldn't remember the last time someone touched him like that. Only Yuffie dared in the first place and even then it was always for her sake, not his. It was always pokes and prods, silent pleas for an anchor when reality got to be too much for her. She had never laid a finger on him—or anyone, as far as he could recall—with such a sweet tenor.

Yuffie didn't do anything else. She just lay there, stroking her fingers along his nape, and suddenly they were playing chicken. She kept touching and he almost shook with the effort it took not to do something about it. He was torn between tossing her off the bed, throwing her down on it, or silently enjoying the innocent touch that meant nothing and changed everything. It was a long forgotten sensation coursing through him; like a shard of a pleasant memory, still beyond his reach but drawing closer with every second. It took everything he had not to chase it down.

Yuffie was nineteen now, and Leon was twenty-seven. Eight years had never been so vast and meaningless at the same time. He wondered if in another year, when he could say they were both in their twenties, it wouldn't feel like the difference should mean something.

More fragments swept through his mind, uncertainty and confusion heavy in their wake. He didn't know what to do, or even what he wanted. Whatever game she was playing, she was going to win, Leon knew it already. Battles were decided within the first blows, and he still hadn't even begun to think about his counter. He may as well have ceded the moment she decided to try something. He was going to put up a fight anyway—he was terrible at backing down—but not until tomorrow. For tonight he was going to ignore it the best he could, keep his eyes closed, and make himself fall asleep. Who knew he was such a coward?

"You awake?" Yuffie's voice was quiet, cautious. He hadn't ever heard her sound so unsure before.

Leon pretended he wasn't. Her hand was still on his neck, and he began to worry he was losing his mind for how aware he was of it and how much it affected him.

"I guess it doesn't matter. We don't talk, you know? You stay silent and I never shut up, and in the end what it amounts to is that neither of us say anything. So it's not like you'll tell anyone that I admit it—you saved me. I didn't even notice I was drowning, and then you swam down and pulled me up and yelled at me for twenty minutes for trying to tread water with lead shoes on." She stroked his cheek once. "And so I'm going to save you, too. I'll keep you afloat no matter what comes; I'll never leave. I promise."

She shifted closer, her thumb brushed over his cheek again. "I bet you're so gorgeous when you smile, it's unfair. But you know what? I don't miss it. I like the scowl."

Leon's brand-new and already weak resolve cracked under the confession. This time, Aerith really was going to kill him.

XxX

"Not that I don't like having you around so much, but are you ever going to tell me what you're avoiding?" Aerith was entirely too amused by Leon's ever-increasing presence in her kitchen.

It had been two weeks since what he had taken to calling 'the incident', and he'd decided that hiding out with Aerith killed nearly all the birds he needed with one stone. He could avoid Yuffie touching him, which negated the possibility that he would do something stupid, which would prevent Aerith from turning violent. All that was left was to keep Yuffie out of his bedroom, and that had been a chore all on its own. He absolutely could not endure another confession whispered across his sheets. The first one had been—he didn't know. He didn't know, and it was killing him.

He considered the various explanations he could give Aerith, and then threw all his deliberations out the window. Given the choice between being angry or hopelessly lost, Leon chose to be angry. He snarled. "Yuffie."

Aerith quirked an amused brow at him. "Okay?"

"She's driving me insane." It was more that avoiding Yuffie was driving him insane, but he saw no reason to reveal any more details than necessary.

"Oh, no." Aerith's expression fell. Leon felt so damn guilty that his forehead hit the kitchen table with an audible crack. "Don't tell me you gave in already. Shoot. I owe Tifa money. I thought you'd hold out longer."

His head whipped up to fix Aerith with the dirtiest glare he could manage. "Excuse me?!"

Aerith laughed. "So, what'd she do?"

"She touched me." He felt ridiculous just saying it.

"In your naughty place?" Leon would take hoards of heartless over what their absence had done for Aerith's mood. Who knew she had it in her?

"My neck." He wasn't just being ridiculous; he'd crossed the line into certifiable about four miles back. Worst of all, Aerith knew it—and she was mocking him.

"Well, it could have been worse. Be thankful she didn't listen to any of Tifa's suggestions."

"Why? Why are you encouraging this?" He didn't understand. Aerith had never said as much, but he was sure she was barely holding in the opinion that any sort of relationship between him and Yuffie outside the bounds of mentorship was exceedingly inappropriate. Suddenly, she not only didn't care, but found it funny. The whole situation was turning his brain into a pretzel, and he didn't appreciate it one bit.

"Because trying to reason with Yuffie always goes over so well." Aerith let out a little sigh and got serious. "Honestly, I'd hoped she'd get her little crush out of her system without ever trying to act on it, or you finding out, but I guess there's a point where it's not going to go away on its own. She needs to move on, whichever direction that winds up being in."

A significant part of Leon didn't want to ask, but he was compelled to anyway. "When exactly did this start?"

"A couple months ago, I think, after the last time we saw Sora. Probably longer. You know how Yuffie is about keeping things to herself." Silence fell over the kitchen, and for a couple minutes Leon felt like he could think. Then Aerith went and dropped another bomb. "Do you like her?"

"Fuck." Leon crossed his arms and desperately tried to stop himself from forming an answer. "How would I even begin to navigate a loaded question like that? I've never thought about it before."

"Before?" Aerith asked, a scheming twinkle in her eye. "Before what, exactly?"

Leon would not be answering that question under any circumstance. That moment was too private, too meaningful, and too precious to ever share. He had to nip this in the bud. The simplest of all possible objections popped out of his mouth before he could think of how Aerith would react. "She's too young."

Aerith flat-out laughed at him. Leon decided his time would be better spent helping Cid, even if he would have to learn mechanical engineering first. It'd be worth it.

"You don't have to enjoy my dilemma this much, you know." Leon felt betrayed in an irrational and childish manner. Aerith was supposed to be the sensible one of them.

"Oh, but I do." She calmed her laughter and grinned. "It's nice, us talking like this. I'm sorry you're confused, but I won't deny I'm pleased you wound up coming to me about it."

He was about to tell her that didn't make any sense whatsoever, but then he paused and thought about it from her point of view. He hadn't ever considered what Aerith might think of the distance he kept between them. He'd basically done nothing but avoid and snap at her for three years. She probably thought he hated her.

"Don't give me that look." Aerith's scolding was more of a tease than anything else. "Some wounds take a long time to heal. Just be happy that yours are on the mend."

Leon's gaze shifted from guilty to pleading. He felt like he'd been stuck in a tornado until he couldn't tell the difference between north and south anymore, and more than anything he wanted it to go away. "What am I supposed to do about this?"

"No clue." Aerith smirked. "Maybe you could try, oh, I don't know, talking to Yuffie about it?"

Leon would rather throw himself off the postern.

XxX

Leon was sitting out on the bailey when he finally started to make sense of all the stray thoughts swirling in his head. He sat at the very edge, legs dangling over the side and palms set back, flat against solid ground. The setting was reminiscent of Traverse Town—in front of him there was the cliff, the maw; out in the distance, the Vale was quiet. It was the stage of his last great battle. He knew it with the same certainty he had the day he fell off the High Tower and offered his name in sacrifice for his failings. There were many battles before, and there would be many to come—but out in the maw, that was Leon's last stand.

He thought about what Yuffie said—how it didn't always have to be one or the other—and decided he agreed. After all that happened, Leon stayed the same every bit as much as he changed. He still wasn't all that fond of people in general, but now he tried to make sure his friends knew he cared. In the end, he couldn't run off to rescue Yuffie when she needed help, just like he couldn't save the people who mattered most when the heartless invaded the first time—but he was starting to come to terms with it. A lot of what happened back then was his fault, then again, a lot of it wasn't. He wouldn't ever be able to save everyone, no matter how much he wanted to. He had to trust in his comrades to take care of themselves and they would watch out for everyone else together. That was the only way it worked.

Leon wasn't ever going to be rid of that last chunk of cynicism resting in the bottom of his heart, and despite that, he'd still allow hope to grab hold of him far sooner than he should every time. That was how he was, and the only thing he got when he tried to smother those traits was a path leading straight to self-destruction.

It was easier to go through the list of things he didn't particularly like or understand about himself now that he'd gotten some distance. Leon had always considered himself pragmatic, but every passing day showed him that he hadn't even known what that word meant.

Squall followed orders. He also made sure to get his orders from the people who would tell him what he wanted to hear. In the end that was little better than running off half-cocked. Squall did not function in a unit. He didn't let anyone get too close and he was weaker for it. Leon struggled with those things, too, but he accepted them. He also had friends who weren't opposed to getting rough, who were willing to do whatever it took to keep him from drawing back too far. He'd valued the people he was close to before more than he'd ever put into words, but the truth was that he forced them to handle him. It could have been that he was older and more desensitized that made it easier to get close to Yuffie and Aerith—but most likely it was that he had perspective. He'd let down his walls once and lost everything because he only did it part way. He'd learned his lesson. No matter how much Yuffie and Aerith pissed him off, manipulated him, or called him by the wrong name, he'd never be anything less than all-in.

Back in Traverse Town, even after coming back to Hollow Bastion, Squall would have gone running to the first person who'd tell him to hop on a gummi ship and take off after Sora, but Leon? Leon was going to stay put because above all else he refused to watch the end of the world again. He would do his part even if he hated it; even if it meant he had to hold the line and watch someone else be the hero. Sora had proven himself many times over, no matter what he faced, and it was time Leon gave him his due.

He tried so hard to let go of the past that he never realized he was clinging to it every minute since he was ejected from Hollow Bastion and landed in Traverse Town. Squall or Leon—there wasn't much of a difference. Mostly, it had to do with restraint. It was all in the fine-tuning. He couldn't go back and start over; after all that happened, he didn't even want to. The only thing he could do was keep building, keep adapting to the changing world and trust that he'd come out okay when all was said and done.

From his spot on the bailey the past few years looked like more of a second chance rather than a punishment. If he hadn't survived the first fall of Hollow Bastion—if he hadn't spent all those years miserable in Traverse Town—he would never have had the chance to rebuild what he lost. He wouldn't know the true value of comrades, or that he couldn't carve out all the things he didn't like about himself and pretend he was still whole. He never would have had the chance to get it right.

And Yuffie… he still didn't know. She was a whirlwind. No matter how much time he spent trying to figure out what he wanted and what he should say, she was going to blow it all to pieces the moment she opened her mouth. There was no use trying to prepare. He watched the sun setting over the landscape and considered that maybe that was the way it was supposed to be.

He straightened up with the tell-tale shuffling of skipping feet from the market place. He picked out the pattern and allowed himself a quiet smile. Yuffie had a walk for every mood; she was happy today. The sun dipped below the horizon and he considered doing the logical thing and asking what was going through her head, like Aerith told him to—but that wasn't his style and she'd just lie anyway. Yuffie did everything to her own beat, and she'd talk when she was ready. She always did. By then he might be ready, too. It was harmless to give in, to figure out the answers for himself, in his own time, and that was exactly what he was going to do. This once, he would follow her lead without protest.

Yuffie didn't bother with a greeting. She crouched behind him; her knees pressed into his ribs, and she slung her arms over his shoulders. Her head rested next to his as they watched the last of the sunset together. "So, what are we brooding about today?"

"Etymology."

"Gross," Yuffie said. It was one of her defaults. "Let's go spar instead."

She shifted like she was going to stand and before he could make himself stop he grabbed her forearm, keeping her in place. She had to be uncomfortable in that position, but she relaxed, and then after a minute she laughed.

"Hey," she whispered. Leon didn't know she could do that. "Is that a gunblade on your hip, or are you just happy to see me?"

He said nothing. He hadn't been so embarrassed since he was seventeen and convinced his tactics instructor had a crush on him. Yuffie had a way of bringing everyone down to her level. Though, if anyone asked her, she'd say they needed to check their directions.

It took him a second to regain his cool. "Is that a shuriken poking me in the back?"

Yuffie squeezed tighter. The next bit came out in a rush of words so quick he wasn't sure he heard them right.

"What?"

"I said," Yuffie huffed, "that I love you. You know that, right?" She took one look at him and blathered on. "You mean a lot to me. You don't have to say anything; I know it's not your thing. I just wanted to make sure you knew."

And there was the whirlwind.

It was a chance he couldn't pass up. If nothing else Yuffie should hear, explicitly, that he cared about her, too. He didn't have to define it right now. "I know. It goes both ways."

Yuffie stood so fast she almost fumbled her step. She looked at him like he might be possessed, or a robot. He never knew with her.

"Okay…" She drew the word out and then shook it off. "Okay. Can we go kill things now? Because I don't know about you, but that moment we almost had there totally filled my sap quota for the rest of the year."

"And killing things is obviously the solution."

"Yes." She nodded and pivoted, swinging her arms in the air as she carried on with her requirements. "Big things. Monstrous, gigantic, ugly things. With horns. I'm telling you now, I want a trophy. Come on, let's blow this popsicle stand!"

Leon waited for her to realize her mistake, but she just stood across the bailey, her foot tapping with impatience. "The popsicle stand is on the other side of town."

"You know what I meant. It's one of those saying things, right? An… an idiom?"

Leon chuckled. "Not even close."

"I took a shot." Yuffie shrugged and started making her way out of the bailey.

He made to follow her only to pause when a bird flew overhead. The sight was stunning. He couldn't remember the last time he saw an actual bird in the skies. Maybe Hollow Bastion really was, at last, on the mend and free to retake its former name, even if he wasn't. He felt the tiniest spark of hope. Part of him wanted to block it out, to crush it so the heartless couldn't do it for him, but like every other time he couldn't let it go. He welcomed the rush.

A blur of white floated through the breeze; Leon caught the feather between his fingers. It felt like forgiveness, goodbye, and approval all tangled together. It was silly. It was only a feather, but Leon wanted to believe it was something more. He thought he might understand what Cloud meant that day out in the maw when he'd said that Aerith had died, but she was never gone.

Yuffie was halfway to the site separating the bailey from the postern before he swung his blade onto his shoulder and followed. He still wasn't sure what he wished he would have said to her before that last battle, but the uncertainty had stopped feeling tragic and raw. He'd let that side of him that would always be Squall dwell on what-ifs. Leon was going to live for tomorrow.


The end :-)