Game Restart: New Platform



I'm just a little bit insane.  I don't know what the first clue may have been - the red wings meticulously painted onto my jacket in remembrance of the past, the seemingly unending obsession with bondage-like items, or the ease with which I can talk to three-foot-tall ducks that don't wear pants.  I suppose there were many signs of my mental illness, but the convincing factor has been my sudden ability to see a dark star in the middle of the night.  It didn't matter that I could also see it during the day and it was only slightly worrisome that no one else seemed to notice the ominous sign, but staring at a single black spot in the void of space and knowing exactly where it shines... something is definitely wrong with me.

"You pansy-assed fool, stop wavin' that wand near my stuff!" demands a gruff voice, its owner having no concept of volume.

"Well, I never.  See if I help you again," retorts an older, more controlled voice.

"Promises, fucking promises."

And as always, there are too many interruptions while I attempt to think.  Arms loosely crossed over my chest, I glance away from the window and the impossible dark star in the sky, reluctantly curious what damage could take place within this confined space and if I want to get involved.  The source of that disruption comes from the back corner of the disorganized house where the goggle-wearing, unshaven pilot named Cid types loudly at his computer and continues to grumble his curses at the practically immortal wizard.  Meanwhile, Merlin returns the favor in forms of huffing and puffing, the old man looking about ready to change into some fire-breathing creature, something that is more possible than I'd like to imagine.  Thankfully this house belongs to the bearded wizard and he has yet to get angry enough to destroy the place, though Cid has certainly been pressing his luck.

Laughter abruptly sounds, drawing my gaze to the table that doesn't quite touch the ground.  Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Yuffie all sit at the magic-infused table, unconcerned about their unstable situation as they dig into the dessert Aerith had made once hearing about our 'heroes' upcoming visit.  Looking at the kid of spiky hair and expressive blue eyes, it's difficult to see the keyblade master who is supposed to save this divided universe from destruction.  Hell, at least I was seventeen before Fate decided to place the world on my shoulders.  It just doesn't sit right to rely on a fifteen-year-old boy... but then again, I'm already crazy, so why not trust Sora to save us all?

"... And then Goofy says, 'Ya mean 'junior heroes,' Donald'," Sora says in a decent imitation of the large dog's voice.  "You should've seen the look Donald gave him!  I swore he was going to cast Fira right then and there," the keyblade master describes while waving around his fork as an apparent visual of what the duck wanted to do.

As Donald crosses his arms tightly across his chest and sinks into his chair with a scowl, Yuffie and Aerith are easily caught up into Sora's amusement at the magic user's expense.  It's good to see how little has changed in the kid, that he still manages to smile despite everything he's gone through - changed into a heartless, trapped in an oversized egg and forced to sleep away a year of his life, and always one step behind the friends he misses.  It's either a sign of amazing strength or complete idiocy that he can still smile without reserve.

"Hey, Leon," Sora perks up once noticing that I was looking in their direction.  "Do you want the last piece?"

With hardly a glance at the slim pie piece oozing berries in dark sauce, I wave off the offer knowing that it would be tasteless in my mouth.  Not hiding his excitement over the refusal, Sora reaches out to claim the final slice of dessert, but Donald is just a bit faster as he pounds the edge of the tin to launch the pie piece into the air, and after a few impossible flips, the slice amazingly lands into the duck's mouth and he swallows it whole.  Donald's laugh is a vindictive one as Sora pouts at the loss of his third helping of dessert.

I shake my head at the antics, and with a spare thought about Zell and his bottomless stomach, I return my gaze to the window and the dark sky beyond.

"Don't worry so much, Leon," Sora says in his typical upbeat tone.  "Me, Donald, and Goofy will go to Twilight Town and figure out the deal behind that huge source of energy Chip and Dale keep talking about.  It's probably one of those Organization XIII guys causing trouble again."

My lips form a small frown as I realize that I probably should be concerned about the sudden appearance of an immense dark void beyond the world Sora calls 'Twilight Town'.  I should be helping to plan his voyage, but I instead I'm obsessing over a dark star in the sky.  What an amazing sense of priorities I have.

"Gawrsh, don't ya think Leon's scar looks familiar when he frowns like that?" Goofy asks in that pensive voice of his when he is making a dangerously observant comment.

Holding my body still despite the wrench of my heart, I glance casually in their direction and wait patiently for a more detailed explanation.

Sora abruptly snaps his fingers before pointing at me.  "That's right!  That jerk Seifer has a scar between his eyes, too.  But in the other direction," he says while furthering his point by drawing a line with his finger from his left eyebrow and down across the bridge of his nose.  Pulling away his hand, Sora frowns such that thin eyebrows furrow in thought.  "Huh, but don't you think it's strange that Seifer has a scar there when he doesn't even use a real blade?  He just has a Struggle bat from what I've seen."

Donald snickers in his patented fashion.  "He probably tried to use a sword and hurt himself."

Sora smiles broadly and nods.  "That sounds like something he'd do.  With all of his talk, you'd think he was the king of that place.  'Respect your elders,' he says.  He's, what, maybe a year older than me?"

I push up from the wall a little too sharply, the move drawing the attention of almost everyone in the room.  I simply say, "Need fresh air," and walk for the door despite the worried looks from Sora and the girls.  Stepping outside into the thankfully cool evening air, I don't have to waste any effort on thought as my feet start on the path to the sewers where I could safely practice with Lion Heart and drive myself to state of no thoughts, no feelings, and eventual collapse when I could find some sleep tonight.


Reluctantly coming to a halt, I sigh out a breath and turn to face the thief jogging after me.  No matter many times I remind Yuffie that I'm not going by that name anymore, it doesn't seem to stick.  At first it was a game to her, but after a few years of calling me by that worthless name, it has become a very inconvenient habit of hers.

Slowing as she approaches, she reflexively reaches out a consoling hand and places it at my shoulder.  "Hey, you don't look so hot.  Are you going to be okay?"

I shrug off her hand.  "I'm fine."

Yuffie frowns in a fashion that makes her appear a good five years younger.  "Don't you lie to me, Squall Leonhart.  Did you forget that we know the truth about you?  That you aren't like the rest of us?"

I scowl at her, wondering just how I could forget that they know I'm not the Squall they 'remember'.  Radiant Garden was never my original home, which then leads to the painful consideration of what exactly did happen to the man who inhabited this body before the The Divide.  I've come to the conclusion that there are two likely possibilities: either my soul overwhelmed the original 'Squall from Radiant Garden' and I unknowingly murdered that reflection of myself, or else all of this isn't real somehow and I'm one of the few who recognizes the truth that Radiant Garden never existed before The Divide.

"So, who's Seifer?" Yuffie asks as she places a fist on her hip.

"... ..."

"You had better answer or else I'll get Aerith out here and we both know that she'll drag the truth out of you.  And if I go get Aerith, Sora is going to know something is up and he'll walk out here with both Donald and Goofy.  And then--"

"Enough," I surrender while rubbing the bridge of my nose, irritated by Yuffie's implied blackmail.  "It's nothing important.  If what Sora says is true, then Seifer isn't the person he was."

Her stern expression falters at my reply, something in my voice alerting her to the difficultly of this topic.  "Then he is someone from the world you remember?"  When I don't argue, Yuffie smiles cheerfully and leans in far too close to ask, "But isn't that great news, then?  Someone from your own world finally appeared and you can go meet him!"

"It's not him," I say too roughly, the force of my words knocking Yuffie back a step in surprise.  Damn it, even when that idiot isn't here he draws out the emotion in me.  In a more controlled tone, I explain, "Listen, Yuffie, this isn't the same as you and the others meeting with Cloud again.  You remembered Cloud from Radiant Garden before The Divide and were able to search for him.  But Seifer... He and I are from a crumbled world that no one remembers."

"Well, that doesn't mean he won't remember anything.  Whatever makes you different could be associated to your world and that would make him the same as you.  He could remember you!"

"Yuffie, it's not that simple.  He... Seifer was older than me before the shadows came."

Dark purple eyes scrunch in hard thought before snapping open in understanding.  "Oh!  And now he's only sixteen, right?  That means he's lost time and... and... oh."

When her voice trails off into guarded silence, I finish for her, "He most likely isn't the same person he was before The Divide."

"Oh, Squall," Yuffie says in true regret for my situation.  "I'm so sorry.  Is there anything we can do for you?"

"Give me some time alone," I reply even though it should be obvious that I would want some quiet time with my thoughts.

"Alright, but you know that Sora leaves tomorrow.  And if he and the others are successful, we may never see them again."

Hands clutched at my sides, I consider that reality and know that I can't pretend the boy doesn't mean something to me.  There have been too many battles, too many times we've relied on each other that I can't shrug him off like a typical acquaintance.  "I'll come back in, but give me a moment."

While a flicker of doubt enters her eyes, Yuffie nods and begins jogging back to wizard's house.  "Don't take too long.  We're going to play games and Cid may 'accidentally' kill Merlin if you aren't there to stop him."

I grunt in acknowledgement of her insight and inwardly groan at the thought of games with this mismatched group.  Really, aren't we all too old for this by now?

Once Yuffie disappears into the house, I tug at the dark glove on my left hand and peal off the soft material to reveal overly pale skin and the soft shine of gold from my fourth finger.  After nearly seven years, the ring doesn't look too bad despite the scratches and no longer being completely circular.  With a gloved thumb, I rub the symbol of a cross sword and briefly recall Seifer's cautious face the day he presented it to me.  It feels like a dream anymore, or maybe a nightmare, to think about the past and the world that no longer exists.  One of these days, I may have to go to Olympus and ask the Fates what I did to deserve this unforgiving life.

"Hyne, I need a good fuck," I mutter to the ring, irritated that Cloud wasn't here to help me in that regard.  He'll return like he always does, but who knows how long it'll take this time.

With the sensation of being watched, I glance up into the ebony sky and look past the stars of holy light to locate something of darker intent.  Feeling wary and confused, I slip my glove back on with the need to shelter the ring from... from something.  And while that should've been the last sign that I was officially cracked in the head, I still had to wonder - what if I wasn't as crazy as I thought I was?


"I'm telling ya, man, it's right there," I explain with a squinted eye and a finger pointed in the direction of the star-filled sky.  "It's a black star just beneath that constellation for that Greek hero guy.  Right next to his damned pigeon-toed foot.  How can you not see it?"

"Sorry, Seifer, but I don't see nothing.  It's impossible to see a black star at night, y'know?"

I scowl at the rare occurrence of Rai making sense while I'm raving like a lunatic, but no matter what this dimwit says, I know there is something out there.


My scowl deepening further, I glare at the petite girl of dark red eyes and silver hair that covers half of her face.  "I don't give a shit about that match tomorrow morning, Fuu.  And even if I did, do you really think I'd make up a story about a dumbass black star?  I could come up with a story far better than that," I insist while thumbing my nose in irritation.

"I believe you, y'know," Rai announces with a heavy hand slapping my shoulder.  "Just 'cuz we can't see it don't mean it's not there."

I bite back the urge to comment that his opinion doesn't amount to much in this world.  I really do respect both Raijin and Fuujin.  They are loyal to a fault, decent fighters, partners I could trust to watch my back, and despite all of that, I also know that they'll tell me the truth and let me know when I'm being a complete ass.  Not that I always listen to their comments, but it's still good information when it matters.

With a tired groan, I fall back against the roof we had claimed as a watch station for the evening.  As self-appointed disciplinary committee members, it's our role to make certain that the little kiddies of this town stay good and don't sneak out during curfew hours.  And while it's a role that has given me a lot of pleasure in the past, I've been feeling restless as of late.  It may have something to do with that dark star, but I've only noticed it in the past week.  No, there's something else irritating me like a damned itch in a place you can't reach.

"So, whacha gonna get with the prize munnies when you win tomorrow?" Rai asks while shifting his position, inching closer to Fuu without touching.  Idiot, like I don't know they're dating behind my back.

"Don't know.  I've been thinking about getting a necklace," I say while rubbing my neck, the warm skin feeling oddly exposed.  "Probably something silver."

"Expensive," Fuu comments.

"Yeah, well, anything worthwhile is expensive.  Just like the blade I'll get someday."

Fuu continues to stare at me while Rai nods dumbly, both of them hearing that particular story one too many times.  I don't know why I bother.  It's not like anyone uses a real blade around here, but I've read enough books to know I want the weight of real metal in my hands, not some piece of shit foam bat.  I want something more than this boring small town life where I'm supposed to get a part time job delivering mail, pasting posters all over the damned place, or swatting a bunch of bees.  Seriously, I don't know how those normal kids do it.

It gets quiet for awhile, not that I mind, but Rai has never been one to sit still for long.  "So, you really think there's a black star out there?"

Rolling my eyes at his question, I move onto my side with my back facing the duo and grumble, "Nah, I just like fucking with your head.  I mean who could actually see that kind of thing at night?"

"Oh, that's good.  It makes more sense, y'know," he says a bit too cheerfully, as if incredibly relieved that his leader wasn't crazy after all.

"Idiot," Fuu says under her breath, the intelligent girl knowing the truth about what I thought I could see in the sky.

"Hey, he really sounded like he could see it, y'know?" Rai says defensively, assuming that his girl was insulting him for being gullible and not because he didn't realize that I was being sarcastic about messing with him.

Before Fuu could try to knock some sense into the brute, I let out an overly loud sigh and roll up onto my feet.  Stretching my arms high in the air, I declare, "Listen, kiddies, I'm heading home and getting some rest.  I've heard Setzer has upped his training routine and is delusional about kicking my ass this time around."

"Ha, you'll show him who's boss, Seifer," Rai cheers with a raised fist.  "Give 'im hell, y'know."

Fuu gives an affirmative nod to the sentiment, showing her support without wasting her few words.

Walking off from the duo, I lift a hand in a lazy wave and try my hardest to not imagine what they'll do to take advantage of their rare chance alone.  Reaching the edge of dark tiles, it's an easy matter to hop from the rooftop to a collection of conveniently placed boxes, from there jumping to the street below.  Dead at this time of night, there is no one around to see me walking a little bit too much like a drunkard while staring up at the starry sky.  I know I should leave it alone; after all, what does it matter to me if there's a black star out there in space?  But gazing up into that void, I'm filled with the sensation that something amazing is heading this way, something I've been waiting for in my dreams.

Rubbing the base of my neck, I smirk at the unrealistic direction of my thoughts.  Really, if I keep deteriorating like this, maybe I should visit that headshrinker like my parents keep suggesting with that touch of hope in their eyes.  Worse comes to worse, I suppose that I could get some time out of school from the deal... But nah, I think living out my delusions would be a lot more interesting than being a normal kid.  Why ruin that romantic dream?

~ > < ~

"Here we have it, Struggle fans: an exhibition match between two of our most popular Strugglers!" the announcer calls out to the surrounding crowd.  "On this side, we have the head of the Twilight Town Disciplinary Committee - Seifer Almasy!  And at the opposite corner, it's our former Struggle Champion - Setzer!"

The nearby group of females cheer for their obvious favorite and it's definitely not because of Setzer's skills with a Struggle bat.  Really, I don't know why they waste their energy on such a fruit.  He doesn't even know how to wear a jacket properly, let alone being a touch too concerned about his hair.  More importantly, I've been wondering for a long while about why a man his age is playing around with a sport that is dominated by teenagers.

"All right, combatants, to your positions.  And remember kids, visit our store in town and ask your parents for your own Struggle bat.  Who knows!  You could be the next champion!"

I cringe at the hardly subtle advertisement, and while not the reason for this exhibition, it's been awhile since the title match and I guess sales were getting a little low.  No, I wanted this match to shut up Setzer's boasting that since the last Struggle Champion went missing, Setzer has the strongest bat in Twilight Town.  It's a load of bullshit and I've been dying to shove it in his face.

Posing with his bat resting on his shoulder, Setzer flashes a smile in my direction.  "Sure you want to do this, boy?"

With a hard smirk, I shoot back, "Careful there, Setz.  Someone might think you're propositioning a minor."

His glamorous smile falters to a sterner expression, one that most people don't have the privilege of witnessing.  "Your death wish.  It's time to ante up."

"Ready, combatants?" the announcer questions as if we hadn't been standing around for the past five minutes.  "All right then, let's STRUGGLE."

Setzer and I launch forward with the same timing, covering the distance between us in little time.  The silver-haired man pulls his arm back in an overly familiar fashion, a move that alerts me to his favored lunging attack.  I skid to a halt and turn to the side with the right timing for the idiot to fly past me in a technique of repetitive attacks that would probably hurt if it ever connected.  As it is, Setzer can't easily stop given the forceful lunge and leaves his back completely open for my pleasure.  I manage to get in three hard strikes against his back, shoulder, and legs, the last hit causing the man to stumble and nearly fall.  What a shame I couldn't completely trip him - some concrete might help to fix that face of his.

Spinning around with a flourish of his jacket-turned-cape, Setzer glares at me with a vindictive edge before charging forward.  With several hops backward, I manage to avoid the broad slashes of his bat, the frustration of missing me leading to a missed beat and a wide opening.  Grabbing the other end of my bat with my free hand, I shove the length of the foam against his chest and drive him back numerous clumsy steps, but this time the man doesn't save himself as he stumbles and lands on his ass.

While the female fans cry out their distress over his fall, I savor the moment of victory against the fruitcake, but the sense of ease doesn't last long.  A chill runs along my spine at the sudden sensation of eyes upon me, something that should've been obvious given the crowd, but I've never felt such intensity from a single gaze.  I glance over the clumped gathering of Struggle fans and notice the flash of a metal necklace before I'm reminded of my situation.

A blur of purple and silver catches my eye, startling me into the reflexive action to jump back with a sweep of my Struggle bat.  I manage to parry the first strike of Setzer's lunging attack and just barely dodge the second, but the third lands against my shoulder.  More than usual, it's humiliating to have this old man score a point against me, especially when Setzer uses the moment to flaunt his victory by posing in front of his fans.

A snarl passing through my lips, I take one long step before leaping into the air and launching in the man's direction.  Too busy with his appearances, Setzer doesn't notice me until it's too late and the tip of my Struggle bat connects between his shoulder blades.  He stumble forwards and attempts to face me, a bad mistake as I continue my attack.  With every swing and thrust of the bat, I drive Setzer back another step as he tries to reform any type of defense against my onslaught.  Eventually the Struggle bat is lost and the silver-haired man drops to the ground in the weakest attempt yet I've seen from someone who was avoiding my strikes.

I take a final step forward and rest my Struggle bat at my shoulder as I sneer down at the pathetic loser.  "Got anything left, champ?"

Setzer glares up at me with a bit of defiance left in his eyes, but the expression abruptly changes into a wary, wide-eyed expression that seems a little bit overdone for a Struggle match.  Before I can manage an insulting word in his direction, the silver-haired man scurries to his feet in a ridiculously unmanly manner and runs off without his bat.  Confused, I watch his retreat and think to throw his cowardice in the face of his clueless fans, but I'm surprised to discover that the crowd is also making a fearful withdrawal, their cries of support at some point changing to cries of terror.

It's with resigned realization that I figure out that something must be behind me, something I'm not going to like to see.  My hand tight around the handle of my Struggle bat, I turn with as much composure that I can manage and face... well, I can't exactly tell what I'm facing.  Dark smoke twists and turns in a large mass that must be at least ten times my size.  While I can't identify the thing, it's a logical assumption that I should be placing as much distance as I can away from it.  Instead, I find myself entranced by the movement of black clouds that occasionally flicker with electricity.  It doesn't take long before I start seeing a pattern in the dark mass and notice that it's gradually forming a shape, a shape with sharp looking teeth.

Before I can blink, those teeth escape the black clouds and thrash in my direction, ready to remove my head with a simple snap.  Before those teeth connect, something hard shoves me backward and knocks me off my feet, landing me on the ground where I raise my Struggle bat in a weak defense against the monster made of darkness.  Once realizing I that was still in one piece, I lower my bat far enough to glimpse over my arm.  Eyes wide, I stare at blood red wings that stand out from a leather jacket, the bold symbol distracting me in the moment before a roar fills the confined area of the sandlot.  At that point, it becomes very difficult to miss the appearance of a shadow-like version of a dinosaur, a T-rex with a few too many teeth and completely out of its element in the middle of this small town.  Shit, why do I have a crazy urge to explain to this monster that it should be extinct and hope that it somehow forgot that minor detail?

"Get up, idiot, and run."

The rough tenor voice snaps me out of my stunned daze and makes me look at the full form of my savior.  Dark chestnut hair hangs over his neck and hides most of his face, the choppy appearance making me assume the man had shortened the hair himself with whatever knife he had on hand.  Belts and clasps hug at all parts of his body, many located in areas that make no logical sense.  And while obviously muscular beneath soft leather, the guy appears slim and very breakable in front of the enraged monster.  But then I hear the subtle clink of metal and notice a swaying chain, that leading up to the weirdest handle of a blade that I have ever seen.

"I don't like repeating myself," the man warns as he slides back a booted foot.

Despite the slight quake of my arms, I manage to push up onto my feet.  "What about you?  You can't be serious about facing this thing alone."

A quiet huff sounds from the man a split second before he launches forward with speed I've never witnessed in a Struggle match.  His bizarre sword lifted up to shoulder level, he runs at the black T-rex without a flinch at the beast's angered roar.  Blinking, I miss the stranger's initial leap into the air, but watch stunned as he lands three, four, five strikes in the matter of seconds, creating deep wounds that ooze out heavy mist instead of blood.  There's hardly a clack of boot on stone before the stranger pulls back his blade and swings in a wide arc, slashing at the weakest point of the T-rex's exposed throat.  Despite the weapon buried almost a third of the way through its neck, the monster still roars in pain and swishes its large tail in anticipation of attacking the small human.  The stranger amazingly smirks at the sound that chills my entire body, and without a warning in my direction, he pulls the trigger located on the unusual base of his sword.

An explosion sounds, promptly followed by a sudden shower of black goop that splatters across my face and body.  Too shocked to care, I stare forward to watch the headless body of the T-rex slowly totter and fall with a resounding thud, the vibrations nearly knocking me off my feet.

Casually lowering his soiled weapon, the dark-haired man steps to the unmoving body and eyes the dark mass before lifting a gloved hand.  As sudden as the previous explosion, white light shoots out from the stranger's hand and immediately sets the monster ablaze in white fire.

"Holy fucking shit!"  The curse leaves me before the reality of the situation truly hits.  This twig of a man just cut down a demonic dinosaur without breaking a sweat and then did magic.  Honest to god, nothing-up-my-sleeves magic.  And he did all of that while saving my life, never missing a beat.

"Do you have a home to go to?"

Startled, I watch the brunet sheath his blade, his face still veiled behind dark chestnut strands.  "Of course I've got a home.  What do you think I am?  An orphan or something?"

Narrow shoulders seem to tense.  "Then get home.  I don't have time to babysit kids."

"B, babysit... Fuck that!  Who the hell do you think you are to call me a baby?" I shoot back at the prick, abruptly irritated by the nameless man.  "You may think you're all high 'n' mighty because you can kill an overgrown lizard, but if I had a weapon like yours, I could've handled it just fine by myself."

"A weapon like mine," the man mutters before scoffing loudly and running gloved fingers back through his hair, adding streaks of black to the brown locks.

"Yeah, something with an edge.  It's not like I could've done anything with this piece of shit," I say while kicking my discarded Struggle bat.  As the foam toy skitters away, I realize that I've probably only succeeded in making myself look more like a kid to this experienced fighter, something that causes a dull pain in my chest.  Sneering at the senseless ache, I turn sharply to properly face the stranger.  "Where did you learn to use that thing?"

The brunet pauses before he lowers his arm and shifts in my direction, giving me the first real look at his features.  Pale skin stands out compared to the dark chestnut hair framing his face, but more dramatic are chilling eyes of blue-iron, icy and firm in their uncomfortably old gaze.  And between those eyes lies a scar line of reddish-brown, giving the obviously aged scar a fresher appearance as if the blood still stained his skin.  At the sight of the eerily familiar scar, I reflexively adjust my hat a bit lower and try not to show my discomfort at sharing something with this stranger.

"You should run."

Blinking, I meet harsh eyes to find that they weren't quite looking at me.  With a fleeting groan of irritation, I look back over my shoulder and only need the glimpse of dancing shadows before my feet take the initiative and I cover the short distance between me and the stranger.  I don't dare turn around until I'm safely behind the man and his large sword, and when I do turn, I instantly regret the choice.

"What the fuck are those?" I demand while pointing at several black panther-like creatures, each with a very large... mustache of sorts.

"Dark memories from a sleeping princess," the man responds in a distant voice while taking part in an impromptu staring contest with the closest feline of the bunch.

"Riiiiight, and I'm Goldilocks.  So, were you planning to use that blade of yours or can I borrow it?"

Looking over his shoulder, the brunet smirks amusedly.  "You wouldn't like this one.  It's too heavy to handle one-handed."

"Wha... How do you--"

And with the same incredible speed as before, the stranger leaves me behind as he charges at the group of large cats.  His blade isn't draw until the last possible moment, the stained silver flashing in the sun before being lost within the dark body of a feline, killing it in one strike.  Instantly three others rise to their feet, their odd whiskers twitching with crackling energy.  The dark-haired swordsman stands casually as the snarling creatures easily surround him.  In an unexpected thunderous crack, black energy strikes down against the man, briefly covering him in electricity that crawls across every inch of his slender body.

"Holy mother..." I whisper in shock.  He shouldn't be standing, shouldn't be alive, and yet before I can even consider a step in his direction with the intention to somehow help him, the stranger jerks out of his electricity-induced pose and promptly swings his blade in an arc that beheads one of the unlucky cats.

The whiskers of the remaining two felines wilt in fear, but despite their retreating steps, the dark-haired man doesn't seem to have much mercy when it comes to these demons.  One loses its forelegs just before the other gets a steel-toed boot in the snout, the impact effectively crushing the cat's skull into a bloody mess.  The one remaining and fatally injured cat tries to get its final revenge with a whip of its electrified whiskers, but the stranger anticipates the attack and captures the whiskers in his gloved hand.  Dark energy crackles around his arm, particularly sparking at the buckles of the three belts wrapped at his forearm.  Eyes of metallic gray shine as the man smirks at the shadow-covered creature, and with his blade raised to the cat's eye-level, an echoing explosion sounds from the weapon and the final feline is killed.

Unable to move or think, I simply stare at the swordsman standing in the middle of black carnage.  Despite his slender build and pretty boy appearance, the man somehow looks... perfect with chestnut-colored hair ruffled and darkened by gunk, pale skin burnt by electricity, and tight muscles hugged by worn leather.  He's right where he should be... and yet, I have a feeling that he doesn't belong here in the least.

"Who are you?" I ask anxiously, not certain how far I want to associate myself with this stranger, my savior or not.

The man turns slightly, just enough for his longish hair to sway against his face.  "The name is Leon."

"... Leon?" I repeat with a raised eyebrow, the uninspiring name doing nothing for me.  "Huh, it doesn't suit you."

With a shadow of a smile, the brunet says nothing while sheathing his bizarre blade and then brushing some of the dark mess from his jacket.

"You're not from here."

"No, I'm not," Leon says as he gives up on the hopeless effort of cleaning himself without a bucket of soap and a fire hose.  Stepping over the carcass of a feline, he picks up my forgotten Struggle bat, the light blue foam bearing dark scorch marks.  Before I can tell him to dump the piece of crap, the brunet waves a hand in the direction of the slaughtered cats and sets them ablaze in the same white fire that had turned the dino into ash.

"Why do you keep doing that?" I demand irritably, nearly certain that the guy was purposefully showing off his magic.

"The bodies would present too many questions."

I stare at him and grudgingly recognize that this man has some kind of deep dislike for answering questions.  And while he has given me some answers, they are worthless in the grand scheme of things.  All I have is his name and I have a gut feeling that he didn't tell me the name I deserve to hear.

"Here," Leon says, holding the ruined Struggle bat in my direction.

I scoff at the offer.  "I don't want it.  Tell me where you got your blade, instead."

"...That place doesn't exist anymore."

I almost call his bluff when I notice the dark gleam to his eyes, all signs of the softer blue vanished within the harsh silver.  While it first seems a lie that the weapons maker is gone, I instead think that this man is the master at understatements.  That assumed, I have to wonder what Leon meant by his words if he wasn't talking about a shop that has interesting weapons.  "What exactly do you mean by 'that place'?"

Leon says nothing, something that is beginning to irritate the shit out of me, but instead of surrendering to such a pathetic diversionary tactic, I decide to play his little game.  Folding my arms across my chest, I meet his frozen eyes and mimic his previous frown.  Realizing that I was perfectly prepared to stand here and wait, Leon lifts one of his dark eyebrows in an interested gaze, but he doesn't seem to take my stance seriously.  A shame for him that the sight of disbelief only makes me that much more determined to prove him wrong.

After several minutes of nothing except the sound of white flames petering out into smoke and ash, I hide a surprised flinch at the clatter of running footsteps that quickly grow louder.  Glancing to the side, I groan irritably at the sight of my posse, the duo completely out of breath and incredibly late.

"Seifer!" Rai yells out before stopping at the edge of the sandlot and bending over in exhaustion.  "Sorry we're late, but I forgot to set my alarm, y'know."

Fuu slows to a stop next to the large teen and smacks the back of the brute's head, earning a muffled apology from her boyfriend.

Rolling my eyes, I return my gaze to Leon with the intention to continue our staring contest, but find the man's attention directed to my friends.  While the interruption was bothersome, I find my resolve distracted by the stony appearance of eyes that had just moments earlier shone like polished metal.  Seeing that cold and sheltered gaze, I have to wonder what's happening in the brunet's head.

"Whoa, what happened to everyone?  Wasn't there supposed to be a match, y'know?"

"It ended earlier than expected," I state while looking at all that remains of the dark creatures.  While Rai and Fuu are amazingly loyal, it'd probably be a bit much to ask them to believe that a T-rex appeared out of nowhere and nearly made a snack out of me.

"Oh.  And who's he?" Rai asks with a pointed movement of his chin.

"No one," Leon responds before I can open my mouth.  Tossing the damaged Struggle bat at my feet, he turns and heads in the direction that leads out of town.  "Try to keep your nose clean, kid."

I don't think before I move, my hand wrapping around his arm in an instinctive effort to stop him.  My fingers barely brush against his chilled skin before Leon spins around sharply, his hand a lot faster than my own as he puts me in a single-handed chokehold.  Lifted to my tip-toes, I stare wide-eyed into bright silver orbs and wonder just how many people this man has killed in a similar manner.

"You don't have permission to touch me," Leon states in a low growl, something meant for my ears alone.

"Hey, let go of him, y'know!" Rai yells out, the sound of his approaching footsteps joined by lighter feet giving me a slight heart attack.

"Don't help," I order them in a strained voice, terrified for their lives when it comes to this unpredictable man.  Hell, he could probably kill them and put me back into a strangle hold before I could blink.  Hearing uncertain grumbles from Rai, I insist, "He's not going to hurt me."

Leon scowls at my comment.  "You shouldn't assume things like that.  It'd get you killed."

"Yeah, well, you don't seem the type to murder someone you just saved.  That would be a complete waste of effort, after all."

Eyes narrowed, Leon continues to glare at me until abruptly using his hold to shove me back several feet.  "I'm tired of seeing your face.  Stay in town and out of trouble so that I don't have to come back."

I rub at my throat, curious if the man's fingerprints were imprinted on my skin.  "What do you mean stay in town?  Who are you to say where I can and can't go, huh?"

"I'm going to finish placing wards around this town to prevent anymore... visitors.  If you decide to step outside of that protection, then there's nothing I can do about it."

"And what, I'm supposed to stay here for the rest of my stinking life?"

Leon shrugs with little concern about my distress at staying in a place that smothers me and makes me fill like I don't really belong.  From the moment I first held a Struggle bat, I knew something was wrong and that nothing would ever be right if I stayed in this place too long.  My family and school have kept me back all these years, not to mention the fact that I didn't know where I should be going, but maybe this man is the key to my escape.  Him coming here, saving me... there has to be a reason behind all of it.  There has to be... hey, wait a minute--

"Why are you here, anyway?" I ask the pale-eyed swordsman, startled by the realization that he was a stranger who had appeared at the precise moment to save my hide.  It's a bit too much to be a mere coincidence.

"... ..."

"Tell me.  Were these monsters after you?  Was it your fault that I nearly became catnip?"

With a shadow of a smile, Leon brushes chestnut hair from his eyes, his thumb lingering along the scar that mirrors mine.  "I saw a dark omen and decided to come.  Nothing more than that."

"A dark omen," I repeat with a disbelieving scoff.  "What, like a raven following you around or a... a black star or something?"

Visibly startled, or at least to the extent that seems possible the dour brunet, Leon asks, "You can see it, too?"

While it takes me a second to understand what the man means, I realize that I had inadvertently mentioned that dark star that has been bothering me for the past several days.  Turning sharply, I point a triumphant finger in Rai's direction.  "Ha!  I told you that there was a black star out there.  I'm not as crazy as you think, you dumbass!"

His dark eyes dull in slow thought, Rai glances down at Fuu in a silent plea for someone to explain things to him, but the silver-haired girl doesn't meet his gaze.  Instead, she frowns at both me and the stranger who had been choking me only moments earlier, obviously not pleased with my continued desire to talk with the dangerous man.

Irritated by my posse's refusal to acknowledge my perfectly sane state of mind, I turn back around and ask Leon, "So, what's that star got to do with me?"

"... Nothing if you stay in the town limits," he replies with the apparent decision to make his departure once again.  Before I can make a step in his direction, Leon lifts a hand and snaps his gloved fingers in an action that cause thick spikes of ice to rise from the ground, thereby creating an effective wall to thwart my desire to have all of my questions answered.

"You can't leave me like this," I demand, vaguely concerned about what would come next after an appearance of four electricity-producing felines and a fucking dinosaur.  Maybe a fire-breathing dragon or two, or if things got really crazy, why not a murdering unicorn with a scythe for a horn?

Leon doesn't flinch or turn at my accusing tone, but he does say something in a quiet voice, something I doubt I was meant to hear, but it's not like it makes much sense in the end.

Forced to retreat from the monstrous icicles and the swirl of freezing air, I take enough steps backward from the magically formed wall to better see the departure of the dark-haired swordsman.  Confused by his parting words, I push back the edge of my hat and rub a finger along the scar between my eyes.  "What the fuck does he mean that he's just returning the favor?"

~ > < ~

I stare up into the sky as I walk along cobbled streets, for the first time giving that odd star in the night sky a touch of respect rather than offhanded curiosity.  It doesn't seem as bright tonight, maybe because of the 'wards' Leon should have placed around the town by now, but my blood still feels cold at the sight of the thing.  With a vague shiver of my body, I move my gaze from the night sky and focus on the gates closed for the night.  While over ten feet in height, the vast walls and ornamental gates serve no greater purpose than to keep out the occasional wolf and to give the town a wealthier appearance.  Stepping to the gate, I toss my loaded backpack over the barrier and then proceed to climb the obstacle with familiar ease after years of escaping this place whenever the sensation of suffocation became too much to bear.

Dropping noiselessly to the ground, I reach out for my backpack and grab onto the worn strap before I notice the vague movement of shadows.  Growing immensely tired of things sneaking up behind me, I remove a switchblade from a pouch of my backpack and turn sharply while flicking the blade free.

"And that's how you plan to protect yourself?  With a toy knife?"

My eyes wide and my arm unmoving, I can do little more than stare at the reappearance of the dark-haired swordsman leaning against the looming wall.  And as more seconds pass, I feel just slightly stupid for pointing a switchblade at his throat when he has a far larger weapon at his command, not to mention the speed necessary to remove my hand if he so desired.

Making a show of glancing at the watch beneath his glove, Leon states, "Almost fifteen hours.  Hn, I thought you would've ignored my warning a lot sooner than this."

The man's superior tone rubs me in all of the wrong ways and certainly doesn't encourage me to lower my knife.  "You asswipe, who are you to assume what I decide to do, huh?"

"I'm someone who actually thinks before acting," Leon says while pushing up from the stone wall.  "So, what was the plan, kid?  Escape everything that keeps you safe and avoid adulthood all together?"

"What do you care?  You left."

Eyes gleaming pale sapphire in the moonlight, Leon says nothing as he glares at me and silently demands an answer more to his liking.

"Fine, there's no real plan, all right?  I'm just tired of school, tired of this town, and really tired of Struggle Battles," I declare while flicking my blade closed and pocketing the flimsy weapon.  "I deserve to do more in this life than flinging around a foam bat.  I'm going to learn to use a real blade and I'll be the one to protect people, not the one being protected."

The stranger huffs at my reply.  "In other words, you want to be a knight."

I hadn't thought of it that way before, but the moment the words are spoken, I know it's exactly what I've wanted for so long.  "Yeah, a knight that everyone knows and respects."

Leon brushes gloved fingers through dark hair while muttering under his breath, "Some things never change."

"Hey, I'm serious," I argue, hating that this man is apparently comparing me to the typical kid wanting to fight dragons and witches.

"I know you are," he states quietly before I can further my case, startling me with his lack of disbelief.  "What about your parents and friends?"

"Rai and Fuu understand what I want and they have each other, so it's no big deal if I leave for a while.  And my parents..."  I breathe a laugh through a hard smirk.  "My mom will be mad, but ever since she remarried and my little sister was born, I'm not really necessary.  They'll be better off without me ruining their picture-perfect family."

Eyeing me carefully, Leon asks, "You have a sister?"

"Yeah, a real genius, too.  Quisty is going to soar to the places that I can't reach," I say with some brotherly pride for my half-sister.  It's amazing how different we are, the only similarity being the color of our hair.  It'll be a shame to leave her behind - no one can make her laugh like I can, or piss her off until smoke practically steams from her ears.

"Quistis, huh?" the brunet says with a subtle glance in the direction of the town beyond the golden-colored gate.

"Hey, you're not asking about my family because you're planning to take me back, are you?" I say with some worry, not entirely certain I could escape this man if he really wanted to force me to return.

Briefly focusing his stony gaze on me, Leon then closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose with gloved fingers, his pose suggesting deep and highly frustrating thoughts.

"I'll have you know that even if you do make me go home, I'll just leave another night.  You can't keep an eye on me forever."

Leon scoffs before lowering his hand and reopening pale eyes to have them quickly hidden beneath long bangs of chestnut-colored hair.  He steps forward, his boots crunching on loose gravel as he comes close enough to grab me and force me back over the gate... But he doesn't do that.  Instead, Leon brushes past me and picks up my loaded backpack without breaking his stride.  I turn with the intention to demand for my stuff back, but he throws the bag straight at my chest and knocks the air out of me as I reflexively grab onto the backpack.

Without facing me, Leon says, "If you come with me, there won't be any visits home until you can take care of yourself."

It takes a moment before I realize what he is offering.  Hugging the backpack to my chest, I quickly debate the possibility of this being the stranger's plan all along - to somehow summon demons to kill me, save me from said demons, and then gain my trust before whisking me away as some kind of slave or something worse.  It's a bit overkill for something that could also be done with shiny objects and a set of handcuffs, but it also seems too easy to have this master swordsman take me in and assumedly train me.

"What would I owe you in return?" I ask, needing to understand this guy's motives.

"I have to see if you're trainable, first."

"...the Hell...?  Are you comparing me to a fucking dog or something?"

Leon doesn't reply, but his slight snicker can be heard in the quiet of night.

"Fine," I mutter irritably.  "Once I show you my stuff, what happens after that?"

Slowing to a halt, Leon turns such that moonlight reflects off from the large pendant at his chest.  "This is a simple offer, kid.  If you can't trust me, then I can't train you."

"That's asking a lot when I've never seen you before today.  You saved my life, I'll give you that, but... I don't know you," I tell him, unable to think of better words to explain the battle between my instinct to trust him and my parents' teachings to never take candy from strangers.

Leon studies me silently, his eyes unreadable in this poor light and the distance between us.  Eventually he turns around, showing me his back and the image of bright red wings when he says, "You're already asking for death by leaving the town's protection.  What does it matter if you take a step further and follow me as well?"

The somber tone puts me off guard as I stare at his backside, surprised when Leon continues on his previous path, the brunet obviously having no intention to further coerce my decision or to even wait for my reply.  I imagine his life would be easier without me around to upset the balance, not to mention the necessity of him having to protect two necks instead of his one.  And really, I have no reason to trust him or to doubt him...

Glancing up into the sky, I focus on that stupid star that is somehow connected to all of this and do a double-take when looking at the thing.  It's angry.  Furious, really, and don't ask me how I know that a star can have emotions like that.  But something about its anger makes me smile and I'll bet my handful of munny that it doesn't want me with Leon.  Well, that's certainly interesting.

A hand wrapped around the straps of my bag, I fling it onto my back and hurry to catch up to the dark-haired swordsman.  As the man said, what's the difference between losing my life to a shadow kitten or taking my chances with a possibly homicidal, though certainly experienced warrior?  At least this way I have a chance at using a real blade before I'm killed and there's nothing wrong with dying after fulfilling your dreams.

~ > < ~

Bored, bored, bored...

When I had first set eyes on Leon's mode of transportation, my immediate thought was 'holy fucking god, he has a spaceship'.  My excitement was only slightly reduced by Leon calling it a 'Gummi ship', whatever crazy sort of name that is.  Makes it sounds like a kids toy.  No, my eyes told me it was a spaceship, and with that thought, I came to the abrupt realization that Leon wasn't kidding when he said there wouldn't be any visits home for a long while.  Despite all that, I didn't have a second thought when jumping into the copilot's seat and resisted the urge to bounce like an idiot with naive thoughts about space travel, asteroids, and aliens.

I'm such a chump.

Turns out that spaceships come with something called 'autopilot'.  With a few selections of the right buttons, Leon had set the course to 'Radiant Garden' and sat back in his seat with nothing left to do except to wait for our arrival.  Granted, the first launch into space was incredible, but then the only view became unending blackness with a few shining lights.  And when the only source of entertainment is a twenty-something man with pathetic conversation skills, it becomes real boring real fast.

My chin resting on my fist, I stare at the dark-haired man slumped in his chair with arms crossed over his chest and his head bowed in apparent sleep.  Seated like that, I get my first real look at the man.  My predominate thought is that he shouldn't be a fighter.  Long eyelashes flutter over pale and soft-looking skin, full lips form a small pout that better suit models, and choppy chestnut hair lays gently across his long neck.  Refined, beautiful, and a pain in the ass... Destiny must have had something better planned for this beautiful man, but something else pushed Leon to the blade, forcing him to get good or die.  I can't imagine him being as skilled as he is without some major motivation.

Eventually I start feeling a bit too much like a stalker while watching the sleeping brunet, so I direct my attention to the dashboard of buttons.  I have enough intelligence to avoid anything red or labeled as a cannon or booster, but soon enough I find something of potential interest.

"Don't touch it."

My finger maybe an inch from the black button, I jump at the voice and glare at the seated man.  "There's no way you saw that.  Your eyes aren't even open!"

Cracking open an eyelid, icy blue gazes at me through dark lashes.  "I told you before that you couldn't press any buttons."

"Come on, it's just the CD player."

"This ship doesn't have a CD player," Leon comments while glancing at the dashboard.  "Hn, that C/D button is meant to contact Chip 'n' Dale."

"Uh, who are they and why is there a button here to contact them?"

"They are the chipmunks who engineered all of the Gummi ships.  If something goes wrong, they are the only ones who can fix the thing."

I blink, not quite certain what I was hearing from the prudish man.  "Did you say... chipmunks?  Is that code for something?"

With a slight smirk, Leon replies, "I take it that you don't have talking animals on your planet?"

"Well, duh!  And how can a chipmunk engineer a spaceship?"

"There are two of them," Leon comments as if two chipmunks instead of one made all of the difference in the world.

"Holy shit, you're actually telling the truth," I say with true concern, my eyes exploring the visible portions of the ship in search of defects that would make this thing fall apart.  Hell, forget defects - how did this thing even get off the ground and are we going to land in one piece?

"I've had this ship for years, Almasy.  It's not going to fall apart on me now."

I turn sharply toward the brunet.  "Disease ridden rodents built this thing and you expect me to sit back and relax?"

"They are hardly disease ridden and you were perfectly fine five minutes ago."

I press a hand against my face and try to understand how I'm really having this discussion with the dark-haired swordsman.  It's not normal, and while leaving Twilight Town in a spaceship isn't ordinary in the least, there is something innately wrong with said spaceship being built by a pair of chipmunks.  And for Leon to be comfortable with that thought... Why did I decide to follow him again?

A flash of light goes off and I find myself staring at a small vid screen... showing a pair of rodents in yellow aprons and wearing gloves.

"Welcome back to Radiant Garden, Leon!" one of the chipmunks says in a high-pitched voice.

"The guys have missed ya," the other with a large red nose adds while pushing his counterpart aside from the camera's view.  "Where'd you go?"

Before Leon can reply, the first one knocks the second one aside with his shoulder.  "Don't push me, Dale!"

"Hey, what'd you do that for?" 'Dale' retorts while shoving back.

In a rapid chain of events, the two chipmunks regress into incomprehensible chatter as they bat their arms at each other, not causing any real damage except for a lost glove.  Completely absorbed in their fight, they seem to forget all about us, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I'm still trying to cope with the idea of them wearing little aprons when they built this spaceship.

A soft chuckle suddenly sounds and I glance over at Leon to see him smiling with true amusement, a lighthearted expression that I imagine is rare for this man.  So rare, apparently, that it takes a pair of talking chipmunks to make him laugh.

"It's good to see you both, Chip, Dale."

Freezing where they are, Dale stops gnawing on a thigh and Chip somewhat loosens his headlock hold on his partner, both wide-eyed as they look at Leon and remember his presence.  Abruptly they break apart and stand with their right arms raised in a salute, both smiling as if they hadn't been at each other's throats only seconds earlier.  In perfect sync, they announce, "You're cleared to land."

Leon nods as he reaches forward and flips off the vid screen.  In the same motion, he presses several buttons, one of them triggering a computer voice that tells us to buckle our seatbelts and enjoy our visit.

"... talking rodents..." is about all I can say at this point.

"They would be offended if you keep calling them that.  And trust me, Cid has a few stories about what happens when you make them angry."

"Alright, then who's Cid?  A talking duck?"

"No, that's Donald, but you've already met him, of course."

With an incredulous glare at Leon, I can't be certain if the man is getting great enjoyment from my confused state or if he's being purposefully obtuse about my ignorance when it comes to far away worlds.

Leon glances at me.  "Don't tell me that you somehow missed an overgrown duck and six-foot dog standing around with Sora when he beat you during the Struggle tournament."

"Whoa, wait a minute, I could've kicked Sora's ass if I felt like it.  And as for his friends... I thought they were just idiots dressed in weird ass costumes," I explain weakly, almost embarrassed by my assumption when it came to the kid walking around with a pair of characters.  Frankly, it was easier to believe them to be in costume rather than to accept the sudden appearance of animals that walked and talked like humans.

"Costumes," Leon chuckles under his breath.

Bristled, but not about to admit that I was horribly wrong, I ask irritably, "Is there anything else I should be aware of?  Like singing chairs or dancing dishes?"

"Nah, the spell over Beast's Castle was broken months ago," Leon replies distractedly, more focused on preparing the ship for landing.  "Though I'd be careful in Merlin's house - anything is possible there."

Looking at the approaching world, I feel sick for the first time.  The ideas of training and going on some kind of adventure don't seem quite as incredible as before.  In Twilight Town, everyone knew who I was and respect was easy to obtain, but now I'm going to some place entirely new and alien.  Shit, what the Hell am I getting myself into?

~ > < ~

My hand tight around the straps of my backpack, I look all around me in awe of the construction taking place.  Nothing like the 'garden' I was expecting, this town has the appearance of being designed by a kid with mismatched building blocks.  Some of the structures don't seem overly stable, either, but the various inhabitants that I've seen so far seem secure and even happy with their home.  Granted, several of those inhabitants are animals that walk and talk way too much like humans for my comfort and who knows what a happy duck actually looks like, but they certainly seem to be smiling all of the time.

Passing through a high archway, I keep walking with my eyes more focused on the towering buildings around me rather than my immediate surroundings, so it's no surprise that I walk smack into Leon when he stops without warning.  Despite the cover of soft leather, walking into his body feels much like walking into a brick wall and I nearly fall to my ass when stumbling backwards.  Before I can curse at Leon for getting in my way, girlish laughter rings out and I glance around the brunet to see two women and an old guy standing in front of him.

While the woman with short dark hair continues to laugh, the other one with long braided hair leans around Leon to better see me.  "My, that's a new face.  Dale mentioned you had a passenger, but I thought it may have been Sora or one of his friends."

"He's here to train and then he'll leave," Leon states in a cold tone, making it sound like I had forced him to bring me here.

After directing a motherly glare to the brunet, the woman looks to me and smiles.  "Welcome to Radiant Garden.  I'm Aerith.  This is Yuffie and Cid," she says with a hand pointing to the short-haired woman and the grumpy looking man (definitely not a duck) in turn.  "And he's Cloud."  When she directs to the nearby wall, I'm startled to see a spiky-haired man leaning in the shadows, obviously in plain sight, but I still missed him somehow.

Eventually realizing that introductions would require my participation, I point a thumb against my chest.  "The name is Seifer Almasy."

The one named 'Yuffie' gasps loudly, earning confused stares from Aerith and the old man.  Leon merely lifts a gloved hand to his face and rubs the bridge of his nose.

"You're Seifer?  Like, Twilight Town Seifer?" Yuffie asks rapidly, and before I can reply, she continues, "No wait, the scar!  You really have a scar like Squall's!"

Reflectively adjusting my hat to better cover that scar, I scowl at the woman.  "Who's Squall?"

"No one," Leon states at the same moment Yuffie giggles and points in his direction.

My scowl deepening, I step forward to better face the swordsman.  "I thought you said your name was 'Leon'."

"It is," he replies with clenched teeth, but the hyperactive woman doesn't seem to care about his irritated state.

"He was upset about losing his world to darkness and decided to change his name, but now you're here, Seifer, and--"

"Yuffie," Leon interrupts with a growl.

"Oh yeah, that's a secret," she says while placing a pointer finger against her temple and mimics shooting herself in the head.  "Sorry, I forgot."

More than a bit confused, it's somewhat comforting when I notice that Aerith and the old man seem equally clueless about what is happening.  Deciding to stick to what I understand, I comment, "You know, the name 'Squall' suits you better."

Leon turns sharply and pins me with a frozen glare.  "You call me by that name and I'll send you back home in a shoebox."

Forced backward a single step, I'm quickly reminded of this guy's ability to scare the shit out of me.  "Hey, you're the boss, man.  I'll forget all about your real name if you want me to."

With a frustrated groan, Leon glances at Yuffie and warns her, "You are treading on fine lines, thief."

Fists on her hips and cheeks puffed out in offense, the woman counters, "You're just difficult.  I thought you would've been more cheerful after, uh, doing what you said you wouldn't do, but you did it anyway."

As everyone simply stares at the short-haired woman, I ask Leon, "Did that actually make sense to you?"

"Unfortunately, yes," the dour man mutters as he waves aside the supposed thief.  "I'm taking this kid to the inn for the night, if it's all right with the rest of you."

Aerith lifts a hand to her cheek.  "Well, it's unusual to give shelter to people from other worlds that haven't been lost to shadows, but as long as you have a reason for bringing him here..."

The old man scoffs and moves an unlit cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other.  "Leon always has a reason.  Jus' keep the kid from my stuff and we're good."

"I vote he can stay, too," Yuffie announces with a raised hand, a little bit too excited about the idea.

Leon nods at the three people, and then looks to the guy in the shadows who has yet to say a word.

Pushing off from the wall, the blond walks away while speaking over his shoulder, "Don't let him distract you from your responsibilities."

"As if you're one to talk," Leon mutters under his breath.  Then looking to me, he nods his head in the universal 'we're going' fashion and steps forward with the clear assumption that people would make room for him.  Interestingly enough, they do step aside without a disgruntled word and I try my best to follow behind, not really excited about prospect of talking to these people when Leon isn't around.  Granted, Yuffie must know something interesting about Leon and why he was in the right place at the right time to save my ass, but her violet-eyed gaze gives me the intense sensation of being stripped to my briefs and not in the friendly what-are-you-doing-tonight sort of way.

Still overwhelmed by the events of the past few days, I don't say anything as I follow Leon to the inn, a small building that further reveals the apparent rarity of travelers to this town.  Leon speaks with a young woman at the front desk and obtains a key with only a few clipped sentences.  He then leads me to a room that is nicer than I could imagine, an opinion mostly determined by the large number of pillows on the bed and the existence of a connecting bathroom.

"Your training starts at dawn," Leon announces while throwing the key in my direction.

He starts to leave with no further comment, but I manage to step in his path.  "Listen, I really don't have the munny for a place like this.  Don't you have a floor I could use?  I brought a sleeping bag with me."

"You're going to train in the mornings and do construction work in the afternoons to build up your endurance."  His smile oddly vindictive in nature, Leon comments, "You'll have plenty of munny to spend after a few weeks of carrying lumber."

"Wha... Hey, I'm not some slave, you asswipe.  You can't sign me up like that."

"I already did.  If you want to refuse, then I'll take you home right now."

I meet blue-gray eyes in anger, hating how this guy has me by the nuts.  "You could've mentioned it earlier."

"Training is training whether it involves a blade or basic discipline."

"And what, you want an obedient lapdog to lead around?"

Stony eyes narrow sharply in displeasure.  "I want no such thing."

"But you're selling me out for hard labor!"

"Keep arguing, kid, and see where it gets you."

"Fine," I growl while dropping my backpack onto the floor.  "I'll play your game for now, but just wait - I'll be kicking your ass before you know it."

With a quiet huff, Leon mutters, "Why else do you think I'm wasting this effort on you?"

Somewhat startled by the reply, I look at the dark-haired man in search of answers, but he turns before I can possibly see something, anything in his guarded eyes.

"My day starts once the sun rises," Leon states with his hand on the doorknob.  "I'll fetch you in the morning whether you're ready or not, so I suggest being well rested and properly dressed."

"Yeah, I get it.  Be ready or else," I say with failing sarcasm.

Leon nods silently and promptly leaves with the quiet whispers of leather.

I stare at that door for a long time, eventually stepping backward to blindly sit on the high mattress of the pillow-infested bed.  I can't remember the last time I felt exhaustion like this, something deeper than mere fatigue from sparring all day.  I suppose that it shouldn't be a surprise after the past couple of days - nearly dying at the hands of shadows, leaving the only home I've known, and entering a world completely strange and nonsensical to me.  But even considering all of that, I know the source of exhaustion is Leon.  I don't understand the guy, and while that sort of thing doesn't usually irritate me, I can't ignore the odd waver in his voice and the pained narrowing of pale eyes.  Something has happened to the guy and yet he's still training a punk kid when he could've just as easily left me behind on my world and forgotten about my existence.

Pushing off my black hat, I scratch at the flattened strands of hair before letting my fingers drift to the scar between my eyes.  I hate the damned thing, the mark giving me nothing more than shameful memories, but now... it's strange to consider that it connects me to Leon in some odd trick of destiny, something that has incredible potential to lead to amazing things.

I just hope that I'll wake up early enough in the morning to meet with destiny.




Author's Whining -- And thus, a sequel I never planned to write has begun.  Gnome is completely to blame.  Curse that woman, she manages to revive muses that were perfectly happy in retirement before I talked with her (see Life Series).  Anywho, if you're wondering about the title, you should all know by now that I'm not a creative person - FFVIII was made for Playstation and KH2 is on Playstation 2 - a new platform.  Yes, I'm pathetic. ^_-

BTW, no real clue if Twilight Town doesn't have the Disney characters like all of the other worlds, but I couldn't remember any.  Thusly, I imagine Twilight Town as kind of a 'modern day' world, but a rural city that doesn't have extensive technology.  Nothing like the World That Never Was.  If I'm wrong... well, it's still fun to have Seifer complain about the Disney side of the Kingdom Hearts games.