Game Restart: New Platform



As the summer sun sets behind tall buildings, I walk at a lingering pace that hardly resembles my typical firm stride.  It's cruel of my body to question me like this, giving me the second chance to turn around and return to the inn I had just left behind.  It shouldn't be this confusing - that person isn't Seifer no matter how much my eyes want to believe otherwise.  As I reasoned before going to Twilight Town, there was no chance that the younger version of Seifer could retain anything of his previous self.  While his personality is painfully similar, his skill level is pathetic compared to the Seifer I knew at the same age.  Hell, the sixteen-year-old blond was the one to teach me the skills needed to wield a gunblade, his attitude and abilities driving away the previous gunblade master.

But it isn't Seifer's sudden weakness that torments me the most when I'm in his presence.  No, when my eyes first settled on his face, I knew in an instant that his scar was different, not as steep as it once was.  The mark that had made Seifer mine doesn't exist anymore, just as Seifer no longer truly exists and I don't know what to do with that reality.

Scoffing at the sudden ache in my chest, I shake my head at the realization that Yuffie must have infected me with a glimmer of hope just before I had left to check on the clueless blond.  I knew better than that, knowing any hope I had would be crushed upon first sight of the younger and wholly different Seifer.  Damn that woman for making my life more difficult.

I reach the safety of my home in short time, Radiant Garden not nearly large enough for me to exhaust my thoughts while walking across town.  Stepping inside the apartment that is smaller than my place in Traverse Town, I bend down to undo the straps of my boots while purposefully not looking in the direction of my silent and uninvited visitor.

"What do you need, Cloud?" I ask, unable to keep the steely edge from my voice.

The man clad in dark leather chuckles lightly before he steps out from the far corner of the flat.  "Nothing important.  The girls are worried, so they decided to send in their spy to discover your hidden thoughts and feelings."

I smirk at the comment, somewhat sympathetic to Cloud and his inability to refuse any request from the precious female figures in his life.  Removing my boots, I pad into my apartment that reminds me a touch too much of the dorm rooms in Balamb Garden - light gray walls with the glimmer of steel in some areas, a single small window that shines pale light on my narrow bed, and sparse furniture that serves the functional purposes of storing clothes and gunblade parts.  Aerith snuck in a vase of flowers once, but they didn't last very long.

"Seifer Almasy," Cloud eventually says as if trying out the name, seeing if the taste was to his liking.  "From Yuffie's reaction, I assume that he is someone from the lost world that you remember.  Someone with the initials SA."

"Blunt as ever, Strife," I comment dryly, impressed that it took the soldier less than an hour to make the inconvenient connection to the initials forever scarred along my penis, a memento from the third Sorceress War and the other horrors that had occurred before the Time Compression, before I changed that painful timeline.

"Tell me a civilized way to broach the subject and I'll remember it for next time."

Making it to the safety of my bed, I drop onto the mattress with a groan and place an arm over my eyes.  "It's not a problem."

"But those are his initials, right?"

"... Yes."

With a frustrated breath, Cloud moves to the bed and sits next to me such that his leg presses against mine.  "You're one fucked up individual, Leon."

"It's not what you think," I grumble.  "Seifer got himself mixed up in dark magic and he wasn't himself for a long time."

Cloud hums in a light, knowing tone.  "It was still him, Leon - his face and his hand.  You can't tell me that you were able to forgive him."

"Easier said than done, I know... But that was Seifer's specialty.  He made the impossible possible and I never had a real chance against him."

"A-ah, then he's the one who gave you that ring you always wear."

At the statement filled with certainty, I lift my arm to stare at my limp hand and the bump of leather at the fourth finger.  "Aside from my scars, the only things that traveled with me to this odd universe were Lion Heart, my necklace, and this ring.  I suppose that I should be grateful to have that much, but in the same sense, it's difficult to live with the memories."

"And now the source of those memories has returned to haunt you."

With no real response to give to the comment, I decide to ask him, "Speaking of ghosts, how did it go with your own personal demon?"

Allowing me the escape into a different topic, Cloud's amused smirk softens into a quieter curl of lips.  "Sephiroth got away again, but for the first time, I think it was for the better.  I may have actually learned something this time around."

I lift an eyebrow in true interest, curious what could have gotten through the skull of this obsessed soldier after so many years.

"For the longest time, I thought I was chasing Sephiroth because I needed something from him.  I thought I was chasing my light," Cloud says with a bitter laugh.  "Turns out that Sephiroth is nothing more than the darkness I see in myself every time I glance into a mirror.  Once I realized that, I got to thinking about why I've been chasing him all of these years.  I haven't figured everything out yet, but I think... No, I'm nearly positive that he had stolen it from me.  It's his fault that I lost my true light and I'll never regain it again."

"Your true light... I take it that you don't mean either of the girls nor that determined young lady who was harassing Sora."

"No.  Someone who was lost to time long ago, many years before The Divide.  Someone I had forgotten about until recently..."

As I watch the folding and unfolding of hands, I sympathize with the man's tormented soul.  While my memories have stayed intact due to the aftereffects of the Time Compression, Cloud also recalls his other life because of a supposed 'dip' into the life stream of his planet.  His memories aren't as solid as mine, but I happen to have greater experience when it comes to meddling with time and space.  Even so, it's comforting to have someone else who remembers a different life compared to the one that everyone else believes is true.  It makes a man feel a little bit less crazy.

"You mentioned that Aerith had died in your other life," I comment softly.  "Maybe your 'light' was reborn on another world, too."

Cloud scoffs.  "As what, a teenage boy that I'd have to protect like you?  Or worse, maybe this disturbed universe turned him into a woman.  Shit, I'd bet he would love that, too.  A pair of breasts to fondle and always within reach."

"Would it really matter?"

The soldier considers the question with a frown, but doesn't answer it when he looks back at me.  "Is that why you brought that kid here?  To restart the love life you had with his counterpart?  Maybe to make him into an obedient little boytoy?"

"Don't play that game with me, Strife.  You know damn well why I went to Twilight Town."

"Oh yes, that black star of yours," Cloud says condescendingly, as if humoring a child's excuse that the dog ate his homework.

"For your information, it was a lucky thing that I decided to go there and see for myself what defenses were in place around the town," I state in a grave tone, unable to ignore the memory that Seifer had nearly lost his head to the shadow of a creature that shouldn't exist in this universe.  "When I got there, demons from my old world suddenly appeared with the use of warp magic, something that made me consider a troubling theory.  And then I discovered that Almasy is the only other person who can see that star, a fact that confirms my worse fear."

"And that would be?"

I hesitate before voicing the thought that plagued me the moment I saw the T-Rexaur lunge at the unsuspecting teen.  "Ultimecia followed me here."

"Ultimecia...?  Wait, isn't that the sorceress you sealed away in your other life?"

"Yes," I reply quietly, momentarily haunted by the final visions of Rinoa trapped within a sphere made from superior technology, a beautiful tomb for the unfortunate princess.  "And I imagine that she's rather angry about our shared past."

"Shit, why does it seem like we always trade one problem for an even bigger problem?" Cloud grumbles as he scratches at the back of his neck.  "So, an evil sorceress is out for revenge.  Any reason why she waited this long?"

"There's no way to be certain, but just as our weapons stayed with us after The Divide, she may have been unlucky enough to have her prison travel with her."

"Hn, and if I remember correctly, you said that she was launched into space," Cloud says thoughtfully, his previous skepticism lost.  "Some 'dark star' you've got there, Leon."

"It gets worse.  The people who maintained that prison are gone, which means it's degrading to the point that her restraints won't keep her for long, and once she is free... Ultimecia will murder Seifer and she'll make me watch," I say with bleak certainty.  "That will be her revenge before she decides to take my life."

Glancing back over his shoulder, the soldier silently examines me with disturbingly bright sapphire eyes.  When he eventually moves, the creak of leather is soothing in some nameless fashion.  He stretches out along the mattress and rolls onto his side such that he places his back to me.  "Do you need help training the kid to defend himself?"

"Sixteen years old and he hasn't even touched a true blade yet - I need all of the help I can get," I say with a frustrated huff.  Moving onto my side, I rest my back against Cloud's and try to remember when it became comfortable to be back-to-back with this mercenary.  "I take it that you're staying here tonight."

"I'd offer more, but I have a feeling you're not in the mood."

I don't reply, a silent expression of gratitude to the spiky-haired man.  Our relationship is a complex one - sex without love, companionship without dependence, empathy without pity - and I imagine that most of those we currently consider friends would be horrified and certainly bewildered by such a thing existing between two men.  We already confuse them enough and that's without them having a single clue about how stress-relieving sex can be.  Poor fools, they'll never be able to see beyond the metal and leather.

"Do you really think...?" Cloud whispers into the darkness without finishing the thought, the action reminding me of a child who fears that his spoken wishes will never come true.

Guessing his words, I tell him, "Your 'light' is out there, Strife.  We just have to find him."

The tenseness to shoulders disappear with a soft breath and the man settles more comfortably against me.  "You're a lucky man, Leon.  Fuck this up with the kid and I'll make you suffer for it."

With a drowsy smirk, I agree quietly, "Of course you will."

I knock at the inn door bearing the letters 'VIII', not prepared for the instant response of the door swinging open to reveal the young, oh so young, version of Seifer.  It's frightening how much is the same and yet slightly different from my faded memories - his vest is the same white cross on blue that highlights his eyes, but a couple sizes too small such that his midsection is in plain view; his trench coat is the same color and length, but absent the sleeves bearing his infamous cross sword; and of course his scar, still angled from his left eyebrow down across the bridge of his nose, is too sharp and not as deep as I remember.  The only new item is the black winter cap that hides most of his scar and arrogantly displays the 'before times' symbol for the male version of "I".  I already hate the thing and it's tempting to 'accidentally' set the thing ablaze with a well-placed fire spell.

"What took you?" Seifer asks with a commonplace smirk, proud and hungry.  "You're gonna buy me breakfast, right?"

I stare at the surprisingly energetic youth, remembering a time when Seifer loathed any class that took place before noon.  "I suppose we can get something along the way, but nothing heavy."

He nods in agreement while closing the door behind him, soon forced to hurry his pace when I walk ahead down the hallway.  "Hey, so what are you going to show me today?  Do I get to use your blade?"

"You touch my blade, you lose something," I warn lowly, irritated by the mere thought of someone else handling Lion Heart, the only blade faithful enough to follow me to this new universe.

Seifer places an extra few inches between us, logically wary at my sharp tone.  "Right, I'll remember that.  But can I learn to use a blade like yours?  It looks more interesting than those plain old swords that everyone else uses."

I smirk slightly, pleased that the youth wants to use a gunblade, not that I expected anything less.  "We'll see how you do."

Tugging on the edge of his hat, he directs a smug grin at me.  "As I see it, I'm only limited by the skill of my teacher, so you had better be as good as I think you are."

Without acknowledging the suggested doubt toward my skills, I lead Seifer into town and ignore his various comments about everything including both the odd structures that seem to defy the rules of gravity and the various inhabitants that have better hearing than Seifer probably realizes.  Looks like I'll have a few complaints about Seifer's sharp tongue before dinner tonight.

Eventually we reach our first stop and I enter the store without answering the confused gaze from Seifer.  A gathering of white-furred and flying creatures greet us with a few loud 'kupo' chirps, the noise startling Seifer into a stiff pose.  I shouldn't blame him for fearing the unknown, but really, who can find something frightening about a moogle?

"Moshi, I'm here to collect some of my things," I tell the moogle with blue wings.

"Of course, of course!" she says with a slight bounce, but instead of helping me directly, she stretches her small neck to look at the person I have with me.  "Is he the one to use the blade we made?"

Seifer immediately latches onto the unfortunate question.  "A blade?  You have a blade for me?"

I rub gloved fingers across the bridge of my nose.  "You'll hurt yourself or, more importantly, someone else if I gave it to you now, but yes, if you can be successfully trained, there will be a gunblade waiting for you."

"A gunblade," the blond teen says in soft awe before moving closer.  "Can I see it?"

Before I can consider the damage it would cause to show him the blade too soon, Moshi has already moved to retrieve the gunblade case hidden away in the back room.  The weight is a heavy strain on her blue wings, but the determined moogle doesn't ask for help when placing the case onto the workbench.  Sighing at her overly helpful nature, I move aside as my nonverbal permission for Seifer to open the large case for himself.  Fingers lacking calluses brush along the dark wood before undoing the metal clasps and his eyes go wide when he reveals the weapon within.

For my part, a familiar pain returns at the sight of Hyperion's twin.

Many years ago, I recognized my precarious situation with wielding a gunblade when there was no weapons master who could repair the blade, let alone replicate one if I managed to destroy Lion Heart.  Once acknowledging that weakness, I came to the moogles and asked for help, Moshi immediately offering her services to help me learn how to fix and create a gunblade.  Hyperion, however, had been a mistake.  In my mind, I know that I had started with a completely different design, something heavier and with more fire power, but my hands and subconscious worked against me to create a twin to Hyperion.  Who could've guessed that its master would return to claim it?

"It's perfect," Seifer whispers as he runs his fingers across the long blade, ruining its oil job.  "Did you make this for me?"

"Don't be an idiot - it takes a lot longer than a night to make something like this."  When the teen frowns at my words, I decide to clarify further, "Moshi and I made this blade last year to see if we could replicate one.  It's too light for me, but it should serve you well enough."

He nods without truly understanding and carefully closes the weapon case before thumbing the clasps back in place.  "I know I don't have the munny for this yet, but can I keep this?  Take it back to the inn?"


Somewhat startled by the sharp reply, Seifer looks at me with a betrayed gaze.  "Why not?  You just said that this gunblade was going to be mine and I'll pledge to whatever god you worship that I'll pay you back the entire cost."

"What I said was that the blade would be waiting for you once you're trained."

"I won't--"

I interrupt his retort.  "I know your type, Almasy.  It'll start with something simple like cleaning a smudge from the handle, and then it'll end with a bullet hole through the skull of some unlucky person in the room next to yours.  I'm sorry, but this weapon doesn't leave this store until I think you're ready for the responsibility.  End of discussion."

Seifer frowns in a typical teenager expression of 'I'm not a kid!' before reaching out to glide his fingers across the dark wood.  "You're a bastard, you know."

I shrug, accustomed to hearing worse from the blond.

"But I'll have this gunblade in my hands sooner than you think."

Glancing into his eyes and noting the determined edge of the soft jade, I figure that Hyperion's twin will be safe in his hands within a few weeks.  I doubt that he'd actually earn the blade by that time, but he'll convince me that he won't do anything dangerous with it.  He always manages to convince me that he won't do anything stupid even when I've learned a long time ago that everything Seifer does is tainted with his special sort of idiocy.

I look back to the hovering moogle.  "Moshi, please keep this weapon safe for a while longer."

"Of course!" she chirps, then grabbing onto the gunblade case and sliding it out from beneath Seifer's lingering hand.

I quickly add, "While you're back there, can you fetch the canvas bag resting in the corner?"

With a 'kupo' as her only response, Moshi eventually returns with the long and heavy bag, forced to drag it along the ground as her blue wings flutter madly.  Seeing her struggle with the bag of training weapons, I stride around the workbench to intercept her and take the handles from her paw-like hands.  With an easy swing, I place the canvas bag onto my back with both handles resting comfortably over my right shoulder.

"Anything else I can help you with?" the moogle asks in a panting breath.

"No, you've been a great help," I reply, interrupting Seifer as his mouth parts in an apparent request.  I can't assume what he thinks he wants, but I know to stop his thought process before he has the chance to flesh out the idea.  The practice blades heavy against my back, I make my way out of the moogle shop with Seifer a few reluctant paces behind me, acting like a boy being dragged out of a candy store.

From there we drop by Aerith's café just when she opens the door for the day, the young woman pleased to be serving someone who finishes the breakfast she cooks practically the moment after she sets it on his plate.  I barely manage to stop her from serving seconds and earn an irritated gaze from Seifer at my interference.  He doesn't seem to care that a heavy breakfast will only return to haunt him during a hard training session.  As we begin to leave the café, Aerith hands me two small canisters of coffee and discreetly asks me to take it easy on Seifer.  Her expression is a sorrowful one when I tell her that there isn't enough time to be gentle.

The trip to the circular area beyond the restoration site is a quiet one, Seifer most likely fantasizing about wielding his gunblade in some glorious battle.  Hopefully some of those romantic dreams of his will be tempered by the end of our training today.

When we eventually step out from the mess of building materials, I'm not surprised to see the backside of spiky blond hair as Cloud leans against a low wall with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Hey, what is he doing here?" Seifer demands in a confused tone.

"Strife offered to help with your training.  Be grateful," I tell him while rounding the low brick wall that encloses most of the wide circular area once meant for a meeting ground for those who trained under Ansem in the long past.  Cloud glances up when I approach and promptly reaches for one of the canisters in my hold.  It's a lucky thing Aerith has a second sense when it comes to knowing when Cloud and I have decided to spar this early in the morning.

"Hn, is he good like you?"

Cloud and I share a subtle glance before I decide to reply, "He's good enough, I suppose."

The spiky-haired blond scoffs into his coffee, but doesn't try to argue with his typical dry comeback, not this early in the morning.  It's not that he isn't accustomed to waking up along with me at the crack of dawn, but his brain tends to take an hour or so before it realizes that the body is up and moving.  It's incredible to me that he can spar at full strength long before he'll utter his first words of the morning.

I lay the canvas bag onto the ground, the sound of clunking wood drawing the gaze of intense sapphire as Cloud stares down with unseeing eyes.  I don't know what memories have been sparked by the recognition of the practice weapons hidden within the large bag, but I can understand the feeling.  We all started the same - kids with no knowledge of a blade being handed a wooden sword - and we all have our own memories of that first time holding a practice blade in our soft hands.  One day I should ask Cloud what training was like in his lost world, but given the number of ghosts in his past, I don't want to accidentally stir up the wrong demons.

"So, what's the plan?" Seifer asks as he stretches his arms over his head, revealing even more skin as his too small vest rides up along his taut abdomen.  Hyne, I need to get this kid clothing that actually fits.

"You're going to sit and watch," I say while stealing a last sip of coffee from my canister.  "Try to focus on how I hold the blade and where I position my feet."

Setting aside the remaining coffee on the low wall, I step out to the middle of the wide circle and remove Lion Heart from its holster, the action igniting thoughts of the necessity to purchase Seifer a similar holster that would accommodate Hyperion's twin.  As I think about types of materials and designs for the important piece of equipment, my arms move by their own accord, guiding the heavy gunblade in random loops and swings that help to warm muscles this early in the morning.  Cloud doesn't follow me directly, his eyes half-closed as he savors his coffee.  Despite the casual attitude, his fingers twitch faintly along the metal canister, a clear sign that the spiky-haired man had stretched before our arrival and was quite anxious for a heavy spar.

Eventually recognizing the end of my routine, Cloud places his canister next to mine and pushes up from the low wall.  The stifled gasp from Seifer is an amusing one, the teenager getting his first real look at the sword Cloud sports.  Well, more of a thick sheet of tempered metal than what a normal person would call a "sword".  Swinging it from his back with a one-handed hold, the soldier lets the buster sword covered in bandages fall in front of him such that the long handle slaps against his waiting hand, the enormous blade coming to a perfect halt as it points towards my chest.

Words far from necessary and not even desired, I simply settle into a fighting stance with both hands firm around Lion Heart's hilt.  Our eyes meet briefly, silent judgment taking place as we assess the other's weaknesses for this particular morning.  One of his eyebrows rises in a curious arch, something that draws a reflexive frown from me, but it's pointless to try and guess the thoughts of the blond soldier.  Instead, I focus on the sudden sway of loose bandages, signaling the slight dip of the buster blade and Cloud's intention to start with a hard lunge.  Despite reading his move, I barely sidestep the aggressive attack and don't have the opportunity to make a counterstrike before Cloud spins with his blade following in a smooth arc.

Forced into a defense mode, I mostly parry Cloud's unusually hard-hitting attacks as I'm driven backward.  I can't assume the reason for his aggressiveness aside from the earlier comment that he was 'good enough' at fighting, but Cloud isn't the hot-headed type to be goaded into battle with something that simple.  Unfortunate for me, I don't realize the herding nature of his attacks until I hear a sharp intake of air from Seifer, the teenager at most ten feet behind me.

Cloud pauses in his rapid series of lunges and sharp swings to offer me a half smile, one that causes a small shiver down my spine as the dark madness within his soul flickers behind sapphire eyes.  Time slows when the blond soldier sprints forward, the loose bandage around his blade brushing against the bare skin of my right arm as Cloud, without apparent reason or warning, sidesteps me entirely.  Turning, I note with horror that Cloud had changed his target to Seifer, and not in a friendly 'scare the shit out of the rookie' way.  I act before true thought, forcing my body to move through the abruptly sludge-like air that makes my movements feel slow and clumsy.  I watch the buster sword raise high, the stained bandages shifting along the blade, thirsty for new blood.  Entranced and motionless, Seifer stares at the weapon like someone eyeing a coiled serpent ready to strike.  It's painful to see that fear in his eyes, such young eyes.

The moment my arm encircles Cloud's throat, time snaps back into place, almost too fast as I jerk the soldier backward such that his blade falls short, landing just inches from booted feet.  Twisting around, I use the choke hold to throw Cloud behind me and place my body between him and Seifer.  I allow the man a moment to recover, but once his lips curl into a pleased smirk, I lose all sense of reason and restraint.

I move in close, satisfied when Cloud flinches in surprise at my speed, and launch a series of attacks I haven't used since the battle against Ultimecia, a battle that never happened except in my memory.  The soldier's stumbling blocks quickly gain a stronger edge, but that doesn't matter in my failing mindset.  Each defended attack adds more heat to my blood and adds that much more power to my determination to make Cloud suffer.  Forced back too many steps, Cloud fails to recognize his surroundings and stumbles on a brick that had been knocked loose during our last spar.  I act before the soldier even realizes his mistake, my feet leaving the ground as I prepare for a final attack against the unbalanced man.  The first strike is blocked, the second inadvertently parried by the lucky man, but the third lands home against chest, driving Cloud back a step before I aim and fire my gunblade.  Unbalanced and unprepared, Cloud twists in midair when he is hit and lands hard on his side, the buster sword crashing a fair distance from its master.

Knocking the sword out of reach from the grounded solider, I rest my smoking gunblade on my shoulder and glare down at the cocky bastard, silently questioning his motives.

"Holy shit..." Seifer whispers a short distance behind me and approaching.  "You... Did you kill him?"

At the same moment of my scoff, Cloud chuckles breathily from his prone position, a hand carefully examining the armored shoulder that had received the brunt of the gunblade's shot.  "Leon doesn't make a habit of accidentally killing people."

"Fucking shit," Seifer swears in a startled tone, sounding much like he had seen a ghost.  "How are you still alive?  Do you need a doctor or... or a priest or something?"

"He'll live," I say while reaching into my jacket and retrieving a vial for the soldier.

Catching the tossed potion, Cloud huffs a laugh once reading the label.  "Only a high potion?  You do realize that you shot me, right?"

Uninterested in his pain, I focus on the spiky-haired man while my finger lazily strokes Lion Heart's trigger.  "Why did you threaten Almasy?"

"Just curious, I suppose," he states with that same gleam of something darker before he downs the healing potion.  Moving to a seated position, Cloud reaches for his buster blade, forcing me to kick the weapon further from his reach.

"That isn't an answer, Strife."

Meeting my blue-gray gaze with far brighter eyes, Cloud stares for an intense moment before he concedes an explanation.  "You never seem to fight at your full potential, so I figured I'd see if 'Squall Leonhart' had more soul than 'Leon'.  The contrast is quite... exciting," he says with a curl of lips that I've only seen during our more desperate trysts.

The mention of my former name grates against my nerves, but I know the truth of his words.  It should be obvious that a person would fight harder and with more heart when there is something to protect, someone to love.  All of that was taken from me and I'm tired of patching the tears and holes in my soul, so I've resisted the deeper connections to this place, these people, and their causes.  I want a simple life and I'll help others to give me a chance of that life, but it makes each swing of the blade a little slower, a little softer to not have a real reason to put your heart into fighting.

Cloud reaches for his blade a second time and I don't stop him from retrieving the weapon.  Lifting the heavy sword, the bandages sag and slip from the hard metal, the cuts and tears from my previous attacks causing the stained fabric to fall to the brick ground.  At first surprised by the loss, Cloud then breaths a soft sigh as he strokes the naked blade.  "I suppose it was time for them to come off."

His defeated, yet relieved tone is a curious one, but I know better than to ask anything right now.  My blood is still simmering at Cloud's betrayal and I won't be able to listen him with the respect he needs.  I reluctantly holster my gunblade and turn to better face Seifer.  He's holding up fairly well, but I know his telltale signs - his right eye squints a little more than his left and the fingers of his right hand twitch as if clutching a weapon.  He feels threatened and I can't be certain if it was from Cloud's unexpected attack or from my near attempt of murder.

Noticing my gaze, Seifer asks guardedly, "Why am I here?"

"To train and learn how to defend yourself."

A strange laugh leaves the teen.  "And what exactly is after me that I have to learn defense from people like you?"

Despite his youth, despite being impulsive and easy to anger, Seifer never got the credit he deserved for his sharp intelligence and his knack for connecting the dots that no one else could see.  After all, he was the first to immediately figure out that something was different about me when the Time Compression had sent me into the past, back to a time when I could change things for the better.  I'll never forget when he had directed that damned Scan spell at me and his sea-green eyes looked up with a harshness that was typically reserved for strategizing a battle.  He knew me in that moment and I had nowhere to escape.

Impatient with my lacking response, Seifer prods further, "Am I right that something is after me?  I know I tried to blame you back in Twilight Town, but the fact remains that the demon dino tried to eat me first, not you.  The only problem with my theory is that I don't have a fucking clue why someone would want to get rid of me... Even so..."

At the angered voice trailing off in uncertainty, I reluctantly tell him, "You're not wrong."

Green eyes go wide at the simple statement, fear shimmering briefly before Seifer controls himself.  "Shit, I was hoping you wouldn't say that."

Cloud abruptly stands up with a creak of leather and returns his buster sword to his back.  Walking between Seifer and me, he thumps a fisted hand against my shoulder in silent support, then mutters something about needing more coffee.

Left alone with Seifer, I avoid looking at the younger version of my husband when I give him the best explanation that I can offer at this time.  "That black star only we can see is actually a sorceress trapped in space.  She is the one who sent those demons to kill you and I imagine that she is fairly upset that you're still breathing."

"But why?  What the fuck did I do to piss of a sorceress?" Seifer demands as he steps in front of me, his long coat swaying at the sharp motion.

Unable to avert my gaze without drawing suspicion from the teen, my eyes glance over the body I once knew better than my own.  "You didn't do anything.  Unfortunately, you... resemble a man who was partly responsible for her imprisonment.  Ultimecia believes you are the same person and she'll make you suffer for his actions."

"Wait, so this woman wants me dead because I look like a guy she wants dead?"

"You're underestimating the depth of her hate," I warn him as my hand automatically drifts to the handle of my gunblade.  "She had very detailed plans that took decades of research, years of development, and several months to enact... But all of those plans were ruined by two men.  Ultimecia wants her revenge and she has no reason to be rational about the matter."

Seifer scowls at my words, his sharp jade eyes squinted in fast thought.  "If I look like one of those men, then what's happening to the person who looks like the other guy?"

Unable to tell the truth, unable to lie, I simply stare forward with my standard empty expression.  Amazingly, the teenager still manages to read through it.

"Holy shit, it's you, isn't it?  And not just someone who looks like a guy who fucked up that witch's life, but actually you."

"... I didn't say that."

"Maybe not, but you sure know a lot about a star that apparently only you and I can see," Seifer says with regrettable intelligence.

My eyes closed and a string of curses rattling in my mind (in the older Seifer's voice I might add), I wonder in what lifetime I may be able to hide anything from this irritating man.  No, not a man.  A kid.  A kid with Seifer's face and eyes and patent smirk...  Hyne damn it all, why did this Seifer have to be the same age as when I first started falling in love with him?

"What was he like?"

Startled by the question, I open my eyes to stare at Seifer, not quite certain I understand what he wants to know.

"The guy I look like," he clarifies while pulling down on the edge of his black ski cap.  "What was he like?"

I continue to stare at the young face, not wanting to answer, but the words leave me anyway: "He was an arrogant asshole who, amazingly, had the skill to back his words during a fight.  And he's the only man I've known who could either dominate a world or choose to save it depending on his motivation."

"... Sounds like you really respected him."

I scoff at the sore reality of that statement.  "He trained me.  Respect was something he liked beating into his students."

Green eyes widen in surprise.  "Wait, then that guy used a gunblade, too?"

Feeling like the conversation was about to lead into dangerous territory, I decide to attempt a distraction that should ensnare the youth.  "I didn't bring those practice swords here for us to talk all morning.  Did you want to learn something or not?"

Seifer stiffens with indecision, but sea-green eyes inevitably shift to the canvas bag lying on the ground next to Cloud's feet.  Eventually his lips slide into a familiar smirk and he places a fisted hand against his hip.  "Alright, play first.  Talk later."

"This isn't play," I grumble while escaping to collect the practice swords.

Reaching the low brick wall, I ignore the gaze of bright sapphire as Cloud glances over his canister of coffee at me.  Bastard, he's taking way too much pleasure in my pain.  I remove Lion Heart and its holster from my waist and rest the weapon close to Cloud before bending down to retrieve the canvas bag.  From the selection I brought, it's a simple matter to find the wooden swords that vaguely resemble Lion Heart and Hyperion.  There are other types of weapons in the bag in the event Seifer changes his mind about wielding a gunblade, something that isn't likely, but I like to be prepared for any possibility.

"Hey, isn't that like the gunblade you showed me in that weird shop?" Seifer asks when stepping close.

"It's a basic style, and while the weight distribution is the same, the gunblade you saw is longer and has a thinner blade," I explain while handing the practice sword to the blond teen.

Seifer takes the wooden weapon by the offered handle, his soft hand grasping the gunblade like an idiot novice.  The moment I release my hold, Seifer's arm drops several inches from the awkward weight of the weapon and he nearly drops it before his second hand steadies the gunblade.  If it had been the real thing, I imagine Seifer would've lost a toe or two when dropping the heavier weapon of specially forged metal.

"Shit, how do you make this thing look lighter than it is?" Seifer asks while eyeing me suspiciously, as if I had somehow snuck lead into the weapon when he wasn't looking.

I don't answer while stepping around him and to the middle of the open circle, the weight of a practice sword on my shoulder feeling strange and weak compared to the solid presence of Lion Heart.  Seifer follows behind me, still playing with his grip on the wooden gunblade to attempt a one-handed hold that would keep the blade level.  Hyne, I need to get some real muscle on this kid.

"First, we'll work on stances and basic handling skills.  The moment you complain about what I'm teaching you, we're done for the day.  Understood?"

Attempting a cocky stance, Seifer lifts the practice blade and rests the weapon against his shoulder, the pose not exactly natural.  "Whatever you say, Master Teacher."

After a quietly muttered 'Idiot,' I easily fall into the role of a trainer as I walk Seifer through the basics, pleased to note that he has some good skills amongst some very bad habits that he gained from Struggle Battles.  Overall, it's something to work with instead of starting from nothing.  We spend several hours on footwork and gunblade handling techniques, Seifer offering only slight hesitation toward the simpler routines he felt beneath him, but never a spoken word of complaint.  The hunger for strength shines in his eyes of harsh jade, a desire that would worry me if I weren't the one training him.

Eventually we reach the stage for a careful spar, not at any great speed and certainly not with any amount of force, but it better shows the purpose behind every basic move I had just demonstrated.  Seifer does a decent job at hiding his frustration toward the spar that is leagues beneath the battle I had shared with Cloud, but the longer we exchange hits and parries, the more desperate and clumsy his moves become.

"Enough," I eventually say before I strike the underside of his weapon and successfully disarm the exhausted teen.  Picking up the dropped practice sword, I place both of the blades against my shoulder and walk toward the low wall and the waiting soldier.

"Hey, wait a moment!  I can still do more," Seifer insists while rubbing his right wrist, most likely sore from my disarming attack.

"That's good to hear - I promised Cid that you'd be ready for work after lunch," I say while placing the practice blades into the canvas bag.

"You're still going to make me do construction work when you just admitted that a crazed sorceress is after my neck?  I should be training, not lugging around chunks of wood at some old guy's command."

"As I told you last night, heavy labor will build up your endurance and strength, not to mention earning some extra munny to cover your expenses," I remind the blond while tying off the bag.  "If you don't want to do it, then just tell me and I take you back home."

"You'd love that, wouldn't you?" Seifer growls at me, his green eyes bright with a defiant glare.  "From the moment you saved my ass, you've been dying to get rid of me.  I don't know what I did to piss you off, but I actually want to learn from you, you asswipe, and I'll do whatever it takes to make you teach me whether you like it not."

Stunned by the declaration, I stare at the teen without seeing much more than his eyes.  Hyne, I was an unthinking fool to bring this boy into my world.

"Don't worry, kid," Cloud says, his first words in hours.  "Leon has no intention of letting some woman get her claws on you."

I turn sharply to glare at the blond soldier, tempted to punch the smirking man, but I manage to restrain myself at the knowledge that Cloud was most likely enjoying his moment of payback.  I suppose he has his right.  After all, today was the first time I've ever shot the guy.

Seifer scoffs peevishly.  "Why should he care?  Just because I look like someone he fought with?"

"Because you don't deserve your fate," I retort while glancing back at the young man.  When Seifer has nothing more to argue, I nod in the direction of the restoration area.  "Go get lunch.  Aerith will be happy to treat you to whatever you want.  By the time you're done, Cid will meet you at the café and introduce you to the construction crew.  I suggest being on your best behavior or they'll make your life hell."

"And what, you've made everything as cheery as a bottle of sunshine for me?"

Cloud breathes a laugh at Seifer's comment, something I don't find as amusing.  Eyes narrowed on the teen, I tell him helpfully, "I can make things even worse, if you'd like.  Then you'll realize how easy you have it right now."

Seifer returns the glare, but wisely says nothing for a change.  Instead, he adjusts his black ski cap and turns away with an angered energy that I remember all too well from our days back in Balamb Garden.  Such a kid, storming off when things don't go the way he wants.  At least it doesn't seem quite as childish with the flutter of his long trench coat, a reflection of the Sorceress Knight who never really existed.

"I think I like him."

I look over at the seated soldier, not overly comfortable with his quiet smile.  "You don't like anybody."

"That's a bit of an exaggeration," Cloud comments while adjusting his stance, unable to hide a wince from aggravated injuries.  "In any case, it's quite obvious that he's your light."

"No, he isn't.  He's a reflection of something that once shined, but was then lost for all times."

"Do you really believe that your love had a light that could be extinguished so easily?"

Teeth clenched at the soldier's gall, I argue lowly, "It wasn't exactly an 'easy' death to fight against shadows that wouldn't die and watch your entire world dissolve into darkness."

"I know," Cloud replies in a soft tone, forcing me to recall that he's the only other one who remembers a world before The Divide, a world that had been destroyed.  "But if you can't believe that your light has returned to you, then why should I believe your words that my light exists somewhere in this universe."

Burying a gloved hand into my hair, I clutch at the dark strands and wonder why my few words always seem to come back to haunt me.  "It's different, Strife."

"I don't see how."

"Because I had my light," I say with a more desperate edge than I had intended.  "I had Seifer when he was my partner and my husband and this Seifer is nothing more than a kid.  I can't... I can't go through the same pain that lead me to Seifer in the first place."

Cloud studies me with blue eyes bright in consideration, the glow of moving sapphire uncomfortably alien in nature.  After a short while, his pale lips slide into an intelligent smirk, but he doesn't voice any of his thoughts.  Instead, he pushes up from the low wall and starts walking in the direction of town.  Calling over his shoulder, Cloud tells me, "Good spar today, Leon.  It was fun seeing you actually fight for a change."

"Bastard," I mutter mostly to myself, Cloud already turning around the corner and beyond the walls of construction materials.  While I trust the man to let me handle my own affairs, that smirk of his worries me.  It's hard to imagine him doing anything stupid outside of a battlefield, but the two of us have gotten close, too close, over the past year.  And I know for a fact that I've called out Seifer's name on more than one occasion...

Hyne damn it all.  As long as the spiky-haired soldier doesn't get the girls involved, I can handle this.  Compared to the Lunar Cry, the Time Compression, and sealing Rinoa to her fate, this is nothing to worry about, nothing to strategize against, nothing to lose sleep over...

Absolutely nothing...


Sore and prepared to die at any moment, I slump down onto crumbling stone and find a surprising comfortable position resting my shoulder against a damaged brick wall.  While I don't know the details, some kind of battle had happened here with Leon and Sora's crew, the resulting chaos creating to a giant hole in the 'Bailey' that views upon the wide canyon that leads to a castle in the distance.  It shouldn't be comfortable leaning against cracked stone while gazing at 'The Great Maw', but my body is too exhausted to tell the difference between rock and pillows.

For about two weeks, I've been subjected to torture of all forms.  From dawn until high noon, Leon has been merciless with his training regime, forcing me to test my abilities and daringness with every new technique he shows me.  Meanwhile, Strife finds great enjoyment with his role in my training, the bastard perfectly happy at any chance to hurt me.  After training and one of Aerith's lunches, my days have continued with Cid promptly kidnapping me for hard labor at the various restoration sites.  The work is tough and the old man is a loud mouthed asshole, but I have to admit that Leon wasn't kidding about construction work helping to build up my endurance levels.

The one saving grace is that the construction crews don't work on Sundays, so I have at least one afternoon free per week.  Last Sunday, I slept for at least fourteen hours.  Today I still have some energy left after training with Leon, but I doubt that I'll last to see the sunset.  Anymore, I feel like a toddler with a ridiculously early bedtime.

Bored with thoughts of training, I change my focus on the canyon to view upon the barely visible barrier that protects the city from the strange creatures people call 'Heartless' and 'Nobodies'.  I've only seen a ghost-like 'Dusk' once, the creature somehow slipping through the magical barrier undetected.  The thing was pathetically weak, Leon able to destroy the odd creature with a solid punch and a booted foot before it could cause trouble in town.  He should've let me try out my skills against the thing, but Leon continues to insist that I need more practical work before facing something that wants to kill me.  It's aggravating that he can only see me as some punk kid and not as a future gunblade master who can fight at his side.  If only I could prove myself...

"Don't even think it."

I jump at the unexpected voice and nearly fall back from my resting spot against the wall.  Even though I catch myself, I end up knocking my elbow against brick and it isn't a pleasant feeling.  Massaging the injured elbow, I glare over my shoulder at the pale-eyed intruder.  "Where the fuck did you come from?"

Leon shrugs and thumbs behind him toward the broken gate that leads from the Bailey and into town.  Glancing in that direction, I note the scattered gravel that should have added noise to the man's steps.  Either I'm too tired to even hear when someone walks close or else this guy is more skilled than I can imagine.

"Alright, then why are you here?  Were you so bored that you decided to find me and pretend that you can read my mind?"

Eyes of blue metal seem to stare right through me, something that is apparently possible given his reply: "You were considering to go beyond the barrier and test your skills against some of the Heartless and Nobodies wandering within the canyon."

"You can't know that," I declare too quickly, a guilty man protesting his innocence.

"I know your type," Leon argues, a common statement of his whenever he surprises me with his insight.  And then dead on cue, he averts his gaze to something harmless, something not me.  "If you want to get yourself killed, do it on someone else's watch."

"Right, because you know that I'm so interested in losing my life to something that looks like a gimp in white leather."

Pale lips twitch slightly, whether from an unspoken rebuke or a defeated smile, I can't tell.  "Just stay where it's safe until Strife or I can chaperone you."

I stare at the dark-haired man, unable to believe what he just implied.  "Are you saying that you'll actually let me fight one of those creatures?"

"Eventually.  After you start using a real weapon."

Feeling more energetic than I have in days, I lean forward when prodding, "If that's the case, then when do I get to use my gunblade?"

Leon faces me, an eyebrow raised in an interested arch.  "Your gunblade?"

"You said it was mine, so stop avoiding the question - when do I start training with it?"

He thinks for a moment, blue-iron eyes glancing over my bare arms while he considers his reply.  "Soon.  Right now, a real blade for our training sessions would exhaust you too quickly, but maybe in another week or two..."

Unable to temper my smile, I fight the urge to comment that I'm perfectly happy to spend the rest of the afternoon training if it meant getting that blade a few days sooner.  Though I haven't seen it since that one time, I can clearly envision every detail of the beauty - a sleek design made of dark metal, a gun handle crafted from solid workmanship, and sharp edge that would sing when slicing through air.  I've spent most of my life dreaming of a sword in my hand, but that gunblade is my reality and I'll do anything to have it in my hands.

"Don't forget the reason why you're training," Leon scolds lightly, obviously not impressed with my obvious eagerness.

"I know, I know.  So that I can defend myself from the evil space witch," I say with reflexive sarcasm, too afraid to consider what it actually means to be hunted by a sorceress.

Frowning, Leon hesitates before stepping close and kneeling down.  My eyes fly open when he places a gloved hand beneath my chin and focuses the full intensity of his storm-colored eyes on my face.  His voice quiet and firm, he tells me, "She is nothing more than a petty woman with pathetic plans for revenge and you will not lose to her.  Understood?"

Stunned by the closeness of the man who has only touched me once before, by a chokehold nonetheless, I can do nothing more than agree with an unintentionally awed, "Understood."

While pale lips hardly move, Leon seems to smile when he nods and breaths a barely heard, "Good."

He begins to lean back and pulls away his hand, the lost connection suddenly unacceptable as I react without thought - I grab his fingers and hold on tight before he can escape.  "Why do you do that all of the time?"

Leon glares at my hand with a look that tries to set the flesh ablaze.  "Do what exactly?"

"Back off before you get too close.  It makes a guy feel diseased or something."

"I don't have time for--"

"Why is it only me?"

Straightening into a tense pose, Leon continues to look at nothing except my hand when he replies, "Sorry to disappoint you, but as a general rule, I don't like people getting too close.  They tend to get hurt."

I can't read his tone, whether he means he punishes people for invading his personal space or if he thinks of himself a cursed artifact that brings plague and disaster to those nearby.  Deciding to play it safe and assume the former case, I release his hand and retreat as far as the brick wall permits.  Leon, for his part, lifts up from his kneeling position, managing to make it seem natural and look nothing like the escape it was.

"Focus on your training, Almasy.  If you let yourself be distracted like this, then there's nothing I can do to save you."

I look away and glare at the vast canyon that appears almost blue from the collection of shadows.  "I wouldn't worry about that.  I'll steal all of your secrets and become the most fearsome knight this world has ever seen.  Not even Strife will be able to stop me."

With a quiet huff, Leon mutters, "Be careful when chasing after those romantic dreams.  You'll never see the cliff before you fall."

I don't bother looking back at the man for his comment, Leon already leaving with a soft click of boots on stone as he heads out for patrol.  It's fucking irritating that he seems to know my thoughts and critiques them as strongly as he evaluates my fighting stances and failed attacks during our spars.  What's wrong with wanting to be better and stronger?  Didn't Leon want the same when he was my age?  I can't imagine him being so skilled without something to drive him forward.

Eventually Leon appears in the distance, walking the perimeter of the barrier to check for weaknesses and stray monsters.  It's distracting to watch him move across the uneven cliffs, the dark-haired fighter quick and graceful as he moves at a steady pace that would cause anyone else to stumble and fall.  I've spent the last two weeks trying to understand Leon and his motivations, but the man is a sealed box on legs, happy to walk away the moment my questions hit too close to home.  He seems to truly pity my fate at being mistaken for a person that a blood-thirsty sorceress wants to kill, but beyond that, I can't shake the feeling that he despises me for some reason, something that isn't my fault.

The strangest thing of all - even though I recognize the hate he holds for me, I can't find the desire to hate him back.  It isn't like me and it's rather disturbing.

While most of my respect for him stems back to the day he rescued me from shadow monsters, I know that my true obsession started from the moment Strife raised his blade against me.  I have no doubt that the crazed soldier was perfectly prepared to kill me, that it wasn't some warped game of chicken.  No, Strife wanted to make it real, because nothing short of true danger would have made Leon react and, holy mother, did Leon react.  It was only a second, maybe a fraction of a second that I saw Leon's face from over Strife's shoulder and I'll never forget how Death looked back at me.

After that eternal moment, Leon released his inner demon and attacked with strikes that shouldn't have been blocked, couldn't have been blocked by anyone other than Strife.  Leon tried to kill a trusted friend because the idiot had threatened my life, something that shouldn't have made any logical sense knowing Leon's distaste for my general presence.  But then Strife made the comment that it had been 'Squall' fighting, not 'Leon'.  Assuming the spiky-haired soldier knows what he talking about, it leads to a simple assumption - 'Leon' hates me, but 'Squall'... doesn't.  Right, not the most complete theory in the world, but I'm getting there.

Leon soon finishes his examination of the magical barrier along the canyon wall and continues toward to the next sector of his patrol, but my eyes don't follow him when he strides off.  Instead, I focus on the spot he had vacated and pale the sight of a raven-haired woman standing beyond the safety of the barrier.  Shock overwhelms me at the appearance of the woman who should have been quite obvious in her light blue outfit and, well, being the only other living creature down there aside from Leon, which makes it increasingly worrisome that he doesn't seem to be aware of her presence.

Even from this distance, I can tell that she has a porcelain beauty with a fine body and a girlish air as she stands there with hands clasped behind her back.  Leaning forward, she gazes at Leon for a long moment, watching him disappear around a large cliff.  She then straightens, and though it should be impossible, she turns to look up directly at me.  Golden light flashes from her eyes, a brightness that fades to a darker color when she unexpectedly smiles with false warmth and lifts a delicate hand to wave with a bend of fingers.

By the time I stumble to my feet and refocus on that spot, the woman is gone, vanished into thin air in the same manner as when she first appeared.  My fingernails clawing against brick, I scan the entire expanse of the canyon without seeing a single hair of the mysterious woman.  The only consolation is that she had appeared beyond the barrier... if she had existed at all.  I've been tired and it's not too crazy to believe that I had fallen asleep.  After all Leon, the same man who anticipates my every thought and move, didn't even flinch at her presence mere steps away from his position.  That fact alone seems too frightening to accept as reality and it's unsurprisingly more reassuring to think that I can dream with my eyes open rather than consider Leon as fallible.

Pushing from the damaged wall, I back away from the Bailey and slowly make my way into town, my thoughts turned to visiting the moogle shop and trying my luck with Moshi another time.  Maybe the sight of my promised gunblade will help to steady my nerves and prevent any future dreams of lovely women stalking Leon and mocking me from a distance.  Maybe...

Arms tight around my chest, I lay on my bed amongst the numerous pillows that always find their way back onto the mattress despite my daily attempts to hide the things from the maids.  My hair wet and my body cold from a recent shower, I simply stare at the door and try not to remember the dreams I've had over the past several nights.  All of them start in this very room and involve a very gorgeous and very naked woman riding my cock with such zeal that I'm driven to distraction, and so overpowered by the scent and feel of the seductress, I don't recognize her hands around my throat until far too late.  Struggling against incredibly strong hands, I glance to the side and find Leon there, chained and beaten with thin tracks of tears slipping across dried blood.  My vision darkens such that piercing blue eyes are the last thing I see and the woman laughs with a school girl's delight at her success.

Shivering at the remembered sound of laughter, I curse at myself for thinking about the dreams when I knew it would lead to this.  I inch back into the pillows, my current guardians against the use of this bed for anything more than sleeping, not that I've gotten much of that lately.  Leon has noticed the difference in me, but it's not like I can tell him that I'm having nightmares about being killed during sex.  Knowing my luck, Strife would overhear and mock me for the rest of my natural life.  No, that isn't an option.

I close my eyes and focus on memories of Leon using the gunblade named 'Lion Heart', a shimmering weapon of blue metal that compliments the brunet in more ways than I can count.  Much like a conductor leading an orchestra, Leon guides his weapon with smooth grace and sharp purpose, a perfect execution that I will never master myself, but I'm slowly learning how to disrupt the flows of his strikes until I'm given the opportunity for a counterattack.  I almost managed a well-timed lunge during our last spar, something that clearly surprised Leon when he was forced to sidestep the attack, but the move had unfortunately left me wide open and I now spot a dark bruise from where the fighter punched me in the side.  One of these days, I'll learn what it takes to get actual praise from the hardass instead of more bruises.

A soft whisper sounds, something between a quiet breeze and a song that makes me roll onto my back with the thought to check the window, but I resist the urge.  I can't bring myself to take my eyes off the door.  It's childish, but it makes me feel better to keep watch on the entrance to this room, as if it were only my sight on the lock that keeps it in place.

"Poor thing, aren't you tired?"

Startled, I jump up into a seated position and push back against the headboard with nowhere left to go, and the only thought in my head is that I was watching the door.  She should have come through the fucking door.

Rocking back and forth on her heels, the same young woman from last week stands at the foot of my bed.  Her angelic face is framed by silken raven hair highlighted with streaks of golden brown, the hairstyle drawing attention to her dark doe eyes and her sweet smile of lightly colored lips.  Her clothing is an odd assortment of a long pale blue coat without sleeves, a miniskirt that fails in its purpose given the biker shorts beneath the looser fabric, and black combat boots that appear shiny and unused.  Overall, she appears the typical twenty-something girl who had been living off Daddy's money - innocent about the world, beautiful with a manicured shine, and completely aware of the effect she has on men.

None of that explained why I was scared shitless at the idea of being alone with this woman in my room.

"Oh Seifer," she purrs with a pitying tone.  "What has happened to you here?  You look so young and so very... very worthless."

"... H-how do you know my name?"

Full lips pout in exaggerated thought when she replies, "Well, it has always been your name, so why would it change now?"

While her words are almost childlike, I can feel the hidden intelligence behind the empty expression and gentle tone.  "Alright, then why are you here?"

She leans forward with a bright smile and shining eyes.  "I'm here to help you, Seifer.  I know you're scared and so tired, but I can give you everything you have always wanted: the abilities of the greatest swordsmen in history, the strength to fight a hundred men, and the power to achieve your beautiful dreams.  You can have it all if you give me what I want, what I need."

I feel her words wrap around me and seep into me like a fine wire twisting around my soul as it draws me toward her, both mentally and physically.  I crawl onto my knees, the unconscious movement knocking a pillow onto the bedside table, which subsequently pushes the lamp onto the ground.  The dull shatter of ceramic on hard wood wakes me from the woman's apparent spell, freeing me as I launch back into the bed's headboard.

"No!" I yell out, the word torn from my throat.  "I'll do all of that myself!"

Eyes narrow in displeasure despite the woman's, no, the sorceress' continued sham of a smile.  "It will take decades of your life to reach that point, if you can reach it at all."

"Leon will help me," I insist as I wish that I was wearing my hat, but it's probably a foolish hope to think that extra fabric over my ears would protect me from this siren's song.  Why the fuck didn't Leon mention that the witch could mess with thoughts as well as perform bone crushing magic?  It probably would've also helped to know that she looks like a damned supermodel and not the traditional green skinned, hooked nosed, and overall lumpy witch I remember from childhood fairytales.

"'Leon'?" she asks in a thoughtful note as if she felt like she should know the name.  "There has never been a 'Leon'... No, no, there hasn't been 'Leon', but then 'Leonhart' is not a very creative boy, is he?  Did he truly believe that he could hide from me by using a name that isn't his?"

I stare at the raven-haired woman, somewhat lost by the one-sided discussion that didn't seem to involve me in the least.

Remembering my presence, the sorceress frowns at me with a concerned curl of lips.  "I'm so very disappointed in you, young knight.  What is it about that... defiant child that draws you to his frozen fire?  He can't appreciate your potential.  In fact, he fears the very thing you are destined to become and will do anything to prevent you from obtaining greatness.  Does that sound like a man who can be trusted to teach you everything you want to learn?"

Unbidden thoughts come to mind, reminding me of how Leon has yet to train me with a true blade and constantly refuses to let me take my promised gunblade from the moogle shop.  Irritation and anger rise at his condescending treatment toward me, but even as those emotions burn in my chest, I know that it isn't true.  Leon only speaks down to me when I deserve it, everything he does stems from his desire to keep me safe from myself and others, and more than anything else, he would kill for me.

That final thought frees my mind from shadows, the sudden release causing me to inhale sharply and choke on air.  "... Fucking bitch..."

"How unfortunate," the raven-haired sorceress says with a sad look to her eyes.  "I was willing to spare your life to repay the loyalty you once showed me, but I see now that he has done something irreparable to your soul.  What a pity - you were such a handsome knight."

With nothing more useful at my disposal, I grab a pillow in each hand and toss them at the woman.  One misses completely to fly into the bathroom, but the other lands on its mark... and still vanishes into the bathroom when it passes through the brunette like a rock flying through smoke.  The vision of a woman wavers while she smiles at me, clearly amused by my useless attack.

"So impatient, young one, but fear not.  I'll find my way to you and when we truly meet, I will make you regret choosing him over me for a second time."

With her promise finished in a soft whisper resembling the sound of a breeze, the woman fades completely from view and leaves me feeling very un-alone and vulnerable despite her apparent inability to attack me until she returns in her physical form.  In the end, I have no desire to stick around and find out how powerful she is in her projected form.

I slide off the bed and quickly put on my boots while momentarily debating if it was actually a smart idea to leave this room and run to Leon.  It could be a trap, the woman wanting me out in the open or else hoping that I'd lead her to Leon... but neither option makes that much sense.  Even if Leon was being targeted, he can handle himself and should be warned about the bitch.  My decision made, I'm out the door and moving through town at a fast pace that I pretend isn't running.

I lose my way once in the darkness of night, but I eventually reach Leon's apartment and proceed to pound my fist on the door with the urgency of someone who thinks a werewolf is two steps behind.  When I spare a second to actually think, however, I realize that I probably should be equally worried about Leon's frame of mind when abruptly wakened from sleep and if he likes keeping his gunblade close to his bed.

Indeed, when the door jerks open to reveal the dark-haired fighter, the first thing I notice is Lion Heart glimmering at his side.  The second thing I notice is the master gunblader dressed in nothing more than black boxers.  I should be explaining myself at that moment, but I'm instead distracted by the exposed body covered in lean muscle and decorated with innumerable scars.  The one at his right shoulder is particularly harsh, a six-inch slash surrounded by deeply scarred skin.  It was an obvious assumption that Leon has seen many battles in his lifetime, but to see the evidence directly in front of me...


I jerk back at the hissed voice, Leon's expression suggesting that he had been trying to get my attention for a while.

"Why are you here?" Leon demands in controlled tone that doesn't match the sight of his finger twitching at Lion Heart's trigger.

Returning his scowl, I lash back at him, "Sorry for interrupting your beauty sleep, but I thought you would like to know that some psycho sorceress appeared in my room and threatened to kill me because she fucking hates you."

His irritation fades to horror when Leon places a firm hand on my arm.  "Did she do anything to you?  Harm you in any way?"

Stunned at his ungloved touch and true concern for my safety, I gaze into storm-colored eyes and feel calmer at the knowledge that I had chosen correctly to ignore the promises of the seductive woman.  Eventually I manage to explain, "It wasn't really her, but some kind of... projection that couldn't touch anything.  It's probably why I'm still alive," I say, a conclusion that I had unconsciously avoided until this moment.  For good reason, too, as my body begins to shake in a most violent and embarrassing manner.

Leon exhales a relieved breath before he pulls me into his dimly lit apartment, something I don't resist until Leon flips on a light and I get my first look inside to see the sleep-rumbled soldier lounging on the narrow bed at the far wall.  Poorly hidden beneath thin sheets, Strife is obviously naked and not visibly concerned about the fact as he doesn't think to use the pillow as a more solid barrier.  Leon then walks past me to the kitchen area, revealing a fresh set of red marks behind his shoulder that still bears the faint impression of teeth.

I briefly consider that I should offer to leave, but my body is still shaking and I don't really want to leave.  Thankfully, Leon doesn't seem to have any intention to kick me out, at least not yet.

"Have a seat and tell us everything."

I move to the chair Leon indicates, a simple metal chair with a thin blue cushion, and try to collect my thoughts to provide something useful for the pair of fighters.  "This woman - dark hair, dark eyes, fucking gorgeous - came out of nowhere, just appeared in my room, and acted like she knew me somehow.  She damn well knew my name, but the way she said it..."  I shiver at the sorceress' possessive tone whenever she had called me her knight.  "It was like she thought she owned me and she kept trying to make me accept her promises that sounded way too much like a Devil's bargain - power and fame for the low, low price of my eternal soul."

"You didn't accept her offers?" Leon asks with muted surprise as he steps close with something in hand.

"I wanted to," I admit bitterly.  "I could feel her power and it was so tempting, but... It was strange.  I felt like if I accepted her offer, she would make me do something terrible.  And not 'ask', but 'make' me do her bidding whether I want to or not, and I'm pretty damn certain killing you was first on her list."

"Incredible," Leon whispers under his breath, and then hands me the mug he had carried from the kitchen.  "This should help your nerves."

I take the plain white mug without argument and stare into the steaming depths that smells of warm chocolate and something else.  After a testing sip, I straighten in surprise.  "There's alcohol in this."

"Just enough to take the edge off," Leon comments while continuing to look down at me, his eyes oddly bright in the dimly lit apartment.  "So you refused her.  I imagine that she didn't take it very well."

I cough out a laugh.  "She said that I'd regret choosing you over her."  Eyebrows furrowed in thought, I shake my head at the memory.  "No, she said I was choosing you for a second time.  It didn't make much sense, but I suppose that she was confusing me with that other guy who helped you to fight her in the past."

Leon doesn't offer his opinion in the matter, but instead looks to Strife.  "If she can already project some of her power here, Ultimecia must have made a crack in her prison.  I can't predict how much time we have left, but she has obviously selected her target."

Strife nods while sliding off the bed.  "I'll go get the kid's stuff and bring it here."

I look away sharply from the naked soldier and focus my question on Leon.  "Why exactly is he getting my stuff?"

"You're staying here where I can protect you," Leon says without room for disagreement, but he doesn't seem overly pleased about it either.

"Are you sure I won't... be in the way?" I ask, trying my damnedest to not glance in Strife's direction.  I really don't need to see him bent over and displaying any interesting marks Leon had given him before I had interrupted... whatever they had been doing.  It damn well looks like sex, but I've never heard of two guys doing that together.

"Of course you'll be in the way, but there's no other choice, so shut up and drink your hot chocolate."

With a zip of leather pants, Strife chuckles under his breath.  "Give the kid a break."

Leon scoffs, ignoring the suggestion.  "While you're out, leave a message at Merlin's that we need to have a meeting with him.  Something needs to be done about the town's defenses against dark magic."

"If anything can be done," Strife amends as he steps to the apartment entrance.  "I won't be too long, so don't start anything you can't finish."

Leon's eyes flash with the shine of sharpened metal, but he doesn't have the opportunity shoot back a reply when the door closes soundly behind the smirking soldier.  Still, the brunet glares at the door and mutters something under his breath that involves an act that is physically impossible, but knowing the man's sheer skill, I have a sickening feeling that Leon could make it possible.

With an abrupt sigh, Leon runs a hand through his choppy hair, the glint of gold catching my eye.  "Are you really okay?"

"... No.  Not really," I say while studying the ring on his fourth finger, wondering what fuck Leon was doing with Strife if there was a wife hidden somewhere.  "You know, you never warned me about magic that can warp your thoughts.  She almost had me convinced that you were out to prevent me from becoming the best fighter I can be."

"I would never do that," Leon says with quiet certainty.  "But I also won't allow her to use you for her own disturbed sense of destiny."

Feeling awkward with his protective tone, I turn my attention back to the mug in my hand and take a long sip of the hot chocolate, starting to really appreciate the mix of warmth and alcohol.

With nothing else to add himself, Leon steps to a closet and kneels down to retrieve an old futon, a set of sheets, and a blanket.  I stand up with the idea to help him, but Leon promptly glares at me with the clear message to sit and relax.  I follow the silent command, but with complete lack of grace as I drop back onto the chair, my head swaying at the rushed movement.  Apparently facing a sorceress after days of little sleep is quite taxing on a body.

I watch Leon prepare the futon with a practiced hand, the sheets folded neatly beneath the thin mattress.  It's almost surreal seeing this domestic side of the master gunblader, and then I find my eye attracted to that damned ring of his, igniting an assortment of questions in my head, foremost involving Strife.  Wanting answers, but not certain where to begin, I ask the first thing that I can place into words - "Why didn't you make Strife sleep on the floor?"

Leon pauses a moment before sitting back on his heels.  "Don't you think that would've been a little counterproductive?"

"Counterproductive how?"

A dark eyebrow lifts in a slight arch of surprise.  "Do I really need to answer that?"

Inevitable heat rises to my cheeks, something I try to hide behind the mug of hot chocolate.  "But you're both guys.  Sex doesn't work like that."

His eyebrow lifts even higher at my comment, promptly followed by a sharp laugh when he says, "Sorry to disappoint you, but sex isn't so complex that it can't be enjoyed by partners other than a man with a woman."

"But... how?"

"Circle peg in the circle hole theory," Leon states with a smirk.

It takes a full seven seconds before I realize what he means.  "You've got to be shitting me.  Why would a guy put his dick in somebody's asshole?"

"It feels good.  Why else would we do it?"

I groan inwardly as I lift my mug even higher and press it against my forehead, efficiently hiding my face behind bent arms.  Holy mother, why do I always have to look like such a naive idiot in front of this guy?

"Are you being serious with these questions?"

I bite at my lower lip before saying, "I'm not stupid - I know about sex, but I've never heard about two guys doing it together."

"You know about sex," Leon repeats in a soft tone.  "Is that to say you're a virgin?"

"I'm fucking sixteen years old, you asswipe.  Of course I'm a virgin.  My mother didn't raise me to be some male whore."

Leon shows quiet surprise at my admission, and then shakes his head while muttering, "The difference a mother makes."  Before I have the chance to question his statement, Leon pushes up from the ground and steals the mug of mostly finished hot chocolate from my hand.  "You look like shit.  Try to get some sleep and don't worry about waking up early.  Ultimecia has moved faster than I predicted, which means the others should be involved with planning a defensive strategy.  Your training will have to wait until after that meeting."

"But shouldn't I be a part of that meeting, too?"

Leon studies me for a thoughtful second before nodding.  "It would be best.  My memories of her appearance have faded over the years."

Though I know I'm only being used for details about the sorceress, it helps some of my anxiety to have Leon include me as a part of his team.  I'm not ready to roll over and let that bitch sorceress make me afraid of shadows, but I frankly don't know what to do against magic and mind control.  The best I can do is stick close to Leon's side and learn everything I can from him.  And if the prick tries to leave me behind... Well, let him try.

Moving the short distance from the chair to the prepared futon, I kick off my shoes, grab a pillow from Leon's bed and settle on the thin mattress.  The smell of leather and sweat beneath my head, I feel the exhaustion from my body seep into my mind and quiet the fears related to the dreams I've had over the past week.  While a childish thought, I can't imagine the sorceress attempting something with Leon watching over me.

"Hey, Leon..." I call out with failing energy.

Flipping off the lights, the brunet sounds a questioning grunt.

"I don't think I want to be a knight anymore."

"... Is that what she called you?  Her Knight?"

"... ..."

Leon sighs softly, probably knowing the answer before he had asked it.  "You don't belong to her.  And for your information, there are other people in this universe who could use a knight, so don't act prematurely when it comes to abandoning your dreams."

Eyelids already drifting close, I don't have the mindset to be irritated by the man's constant critique, something that has expanded beyond our daily training sessions.  Instead, I curl deeper into the blankets and grumble under my breath that I'll figure out something better than a knight, a status that will ensure I can fight at Leon's side in the future.  Maybe I can become a 'soldier' like Strife, whatever that involves.

Drifting into sleep, I almost imagine the soft caress of fingers against my hair and the whispered call of my name, and with that sign of kinder dreams for the night, I smile drowsily and succumb to the darkness.




Author's Whining -- Well, nothing terribly eventful happened in this chapter (despite what Griffin has reassured me), but hopefully this will lead the story into more interesting realms, aka Seifer getting some more learning. *laugh*  Seriously, when I envision Twilight Town, it seems like such a goodie-two-shoes type of place where sex is something kids aren't really taught about, let alone practice.  So even if "badass" Seifer wanted to get experience, there was no one to get experience with in such a boring town.  What else can be expected with a town where they have 'Struggle Battles' as their main event? =P  Anywho, more is to come... after FNFE gets another chapter closer to finishing.