Game Restart: New Platform
May
2008

 

[Squall]

I don't like this.  I don't like this at all.

"Uh oh," Yuffie singsongs from her seat on a floating chair.  "Leon is making his 'you're all idiots' look again."

Her announcement directs everyone's attention to my position leaning against the wall closest to the exit.  Cid chomps on his toothpick while eyeing me critically, Merlin strokes his long beard in considerate thought, Cloud smirks at the knowledge that only he knows, and Aerith sits with perfect posture in contrast to Yuffie's lazy sprawl.  I can also feel the sharp glare of green eyes from where Seifer sits on the floor, but it's too hard to face the boy and restrain my bothersome emotions at the same time.

"Leon," Aerith begins in her typical soothing tone, a voice that even strangers associate to a healing angel.  "I know you don't like putting others in danger, but if you want me to help you, I have to see what we are fighting against.  I've never met someone like this 'sorceress' of yours."

"She wants Almasy dead," I argue.  "How is using him as bait a good idea?"

Pity flickers in Aerith's eyes, but she insists, "I need to see this woman before she regains all of her strength.  If I understand you correctly, we can't simply assassinate her.  Her soul could invade one of us," she says while pointing between her and Yuffie, "or worse, maybe travel as far as finding Maleficent.  Give me the chance to see her and understand her soul before it's too dangerous for all of us."

"If you only need to see her, then let me go alone," I suggest.

"She doesn't want to face you yet," Seifer says in an almost bored tone.  At my glare, the teen tugs on the edge of his black hat before explaining.  "I told you all about how I first saw her at the Great Maw.  She was right in front of you and you never flinched.  If she was careful enough to be invisible to you at that point, then she won't be stupid enough to face you alone without good reason."

My teeth grinding, I resist to mention that Seifer's former status of Knight could be the reason why he saw Ultimecia while I was oblivious to her presence.  "She won't hide from me forever."

"Yeah, yeah, but all of us here know that she'd rather get her pretty little hands on me."  Green eyes bright with arrogance, Seifer flashes his best smirk and says, "I don't know why you're fighting so hard against this.  You and Strife will be there to save my neck.  Or is it a lie that you've already defeated this sorceress once?"

"I didn't do it alone and we caught her by surprise."

"And isn't that the whole point?" Seifer asks while waving a hand at the others in the room.  "You're not alone and Aerith's powers should surprise the shit out of her."

I rub gloved fingers at the bridge of my nose, wondering what happened to the frightened teen from last night.  He had been shaking like a leaf in a storm, an understandable reaction after playing mind games with an aged sorceress and unbelievably winning.  The teen's nightmares had been worse, though.  For most of the night, Seifer whimpered in his sleep until I would finally give in and reach down to stroke his golden hair, the touch stealing him away from the sorceress' tainted dreams.  After all of that, I suppose Seifer has his right to want to face the sorceress and prove she doesn't control his life and fears, but I really wish he wouldn't endanger his life in the process.  I reminds me a bit too much of the choices the old Seifer would make in such a situation.

"We'll keep the kid safe," Cloud says dully, the man's first words of the morning.  "Trust us."

I direct a withering glare at the spiky-haired man, not appreciating his input that places me in a no-win situation where either Seifer gets himself killed or I make the statement that I don't trust anyone here.  Hyne damn it all, it's not about trust.  It's about doing the smart thing, but no one here will see it that way.  And unfortunately, since I don't have a better idea with Estharian technology completely out of reach, I'm going to have to surrender to this madness and somehow make it work.

"Fine," I submit with a scowl.  "But I don't want Almasy helpless.  Give me a week to train him with a real blade."

I ignore Seifer's hopeful glance and focus my attention on Aerith, the young woman twisting her lips in deep thought before she looks to Cloud, the soldier offering a slight nod.  Aerith releases a long breath before saying, "Do you understand what you're asking, Leon?  Time may or may not make Seifer stronger, but it will most certainly give this sorceress time to regain her strength."

"I know, but for me to face Ultimecia, I can't afford to split my concentration between her and Almasy."

The hands in her lap folded in a tight squeeze, Aerith nods gravely at the statement.  "Very well, you have one week.  We will do our best to plan for worst case scenarios while you and Cloud prepare Seifer.  But Leon, please remember that she has already appeared once before..."

I reply when her voice trails off.  "Merlin has already agreed to strengthen the shields to prevent another uninvited visit.  Meanwhile, Almasy will be staying at my apartment from now on, so in the event Ultimecia appears for a second time, I'll be waiting for her arrival."

Aerith accepts my reasoning with another nod while Yuffie places a hand over her mouth, smothering her excitement at the announcement of Seifer's new living arrangements.  Cid grumbles from his seat in front of the computer, commenting on his ultimate goal to retire with his body in one piece.  Merlin taunts him for being a craven youngster, probably earning the toothpick spat into his beard.  Cloud watches all of it with a quiet fondness to his bright sapphire eyes, the reserved man forever awkward with his desire to interact with his odd family.

"If that's settled, then Almasy and I have work to do."  When no one objects, I turn and exit the wizard's house without waiting for the teen who is forced to scramble from his seated position.  Given only a moment of reviving fresh air, I'm soon joined by the blond youth who doesn't hide his irritation at being treated like a stray dog.  I suppose he has his right - it's not his fault for existing when I wish he didn't.

"So hey, I've got a question," Seifer says while keeping pace with my long stride.  When I don't discourage him, the teen tugs on the edge of his ski cap before asking, "How did that sorceress bitch know my name?"

"She's a sorceress," I reply after a slight pause, hoping that he'd accept the fact that magical beings have a way of finding information, whether it be names or hotel room numbers.

"I figured that at first, but I think it goes deeper than that.  When I asked her about it, she said that 'Seifer' has always been my name and there was no reason for it to change.  I thought she meant that it was always my name, as in my name since birth, but I was thinking about it during the meeting and I got to wondering if she meant something...  something more."

"Something more?" I question, though I already know the answer and I silently curse my luck that Seifer has figured out yet another inconvenient truth.

Green eyes stare at me, through me, and Seifer speaks with surprised certainty, "You fucking bastard, you've been lying all along.  I don't just 'look like' the guy who fought with you - I am that guy, somehow.  Some kind of reincarnation bullshit, right?"  When I don't reply, Seifer stops short and refuses to follow me as I continue forward.  "Answer me.  Tell me what this is really about."

I don't want to have this conversation, certainly not when Seifer is on the edge of a teenage temper tantrum, but I unfortunately need his cooperation if I'm going to save his life.  I slow to a stop and keep my back to the blond when I tell him, "This is about keeping you alive and safe."

"Me, or are you confusing me with that other 'Seifer'?"

"You aren't him, but that won't stop Ultimecia from using you to satisfy her desire for revenge."

"That's rather obvious after last night, but why should it matter to you?"

The quiet pang to his voice forces me to turn and face the young man.  Green eyes shine with a fierceness that the old Seifer would typically reserve for hard combat or rough sex, but this Seifer is less careful about saving his energy for the more important battles in life.  Placing a fist against my hip, I ask the impossible kid, "Are you suggesting that I should leave you alone to suffer the consequences of what happened in a different lifetime?"

Seifer straightens in part fear, his fast mind coming to the easy conclusion that he could never face the sorceress alone.  "No, that's not what I'm saying.  I just... I want to know that you're looking out for me."

An unintentional smirk comes to my lips.  "Of course I am.  If you were the Seifer I knew, it wouldn't be necessary for me to waste my time protecting your ass."

The teen stares at me for the brutally honest response, his green eyes bright with unspoken thoughts for a long moment before he places a hand on top of his head and lowers his hat to better hide the disappointment in his gaze.  "I understand."

"Good.  Then can we get back to the business at hand?"

Seifer nods, apparently speechless for a change.

I turn sharply and continue on my previous path to the moogle shop located in the main city area.  I don't initially hear Seifer's footsteps, the teen hesitating before he follows me at distance.  Hyne damn it, I can't handle this.  For every reason that exists to prove this isn't Seifer, I'm instead reminded of the things that made me love the man: sharp intellect smothered by arrogance, crude wit that leaves no one safe, and romantic dreams made possible by pure determination.

It's cruel fate to have Seifer reenter my life, especially when it makes me remember why I needed him in the first place.

... And if I wanted to be honest with myself, why I may need him now.

Lost in unwanted thoughts, I nearly walk past the small store as I instinctively want to expend some energy in the training area beyond the restoration zone.  With a quiet jingle of a bell, I enter the moogle shop and ignore the high-pitched welcomes from the various fluttering creatures.  By the time I find Moshi, Seifer steps inside the shop and surprisingly greets several of the moogles by name, an event that instantly worries me.  When Moshi flies right past me to welcome Seifer with a cheerful 'kupo', I purposefully block out the thoughts of what dangers can take place with Seifer befriending magical creatures that occasionally make weapons for no cost under the right conditions.

"Seifer!" Moshi cheers as the teen scratches under her chin.  "Is Leon letting you take your blade home?"

His easy smirk returned, Seifer eyes me before saying, "Yeah, finally.  Though I guess it helps that I'm now staying with the prude.  I won't be able to play with the beauty like I'd want to with him watching my every move."

"A gunblade isn't a toy to be played with," I remind him.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," he taunts before asking Moshi pleasantly, "Can I have my blade, sweet thing?"

Blue wings fluttering madly, the moogle bounces once in a type of nod before rushing off to the back room to fetch the heavy gunblade case.  Meanwhile, I cross my arms over my chest and glare questioningly at the golden-haired teen.  Seifer grins back at me with practiced innocence, but doesn't say anything as his attention is immediately distracted by the thump of his gunblade being placed onto the countertop.  He steps to the counter, placing himself at my side when he brushes his fingers along the dark wood in a move mimicking the first time he saw the blade.

"Have you named it yet?" I ask softly, remembering a time when Seifer was the one to tell me that every respectable weapon deserved a name, something I didn't understand until I first set eyes on Lion Heart.

Green eyes bright, Seifer continues to stare at the unopened case when he says, "I thought that you may have already named it."

"Of course not.  That's something for the owner of the of blade to decide."

Lips curling into a childlike smile, he opens the wooden case to reveal the long blade made of dark metal.  He reaches out a hand to hover above the gunblade, his fingers twitching in the desire to hold the dangerous weapon.  "Helios."

I nearly choke on my breath at his choice, a name that isn't as damning as 'Hyperion', but almost worse with Helios being the Titan's son per legend.  Hyne, why does everything come back to haunt me like this?

"Is there something wrong with the name?"

With a glance into concerned green eyes, I realize that I've become a dramatic fool who has given the Fates more credit than they deserve.  That group of old hags would be more interested in a new pair of scissors than a gunblade's name, after all.  "No, it's fine.  I was simply surprised that you chose something suitable."

Seifer frowns slightly, not believing me, but he has nothing to prove his suspicion.

"We should go," I say while turning toward the entrance.  "Moshi, thank you for your hard work."

While the blue-winged moogle chirps a proud 'kupo' in response, I make my way for the exit without waiting for the blond.  Stepping out into the sunlight, I pause briefly to glance up at the sky and focus on the dark star that has gained a menacing aura since I last looked at the damned thing.  A part of me wishes that it was only my imagination, but if Seifer was truthful in his account last night, then Ultimecia must be furious at his betrayal.

With a loud bump and a harsh curse, Seifer stumbles out from the moogle shop with his gunblade case in hand, the bulky item not quite obeying his attempts to navigate it through the small entrance.  Once free of the doorway, he glances at me and doesn't hide his surprise that I haven't already moved ahead to the postern.  I say nothing to his somewhat insulting reaction and instead turn my back to the youth before continuing on the path that leads outside of the main city.

Seifer doesn't break the silence between us, the teen awkwardly lugging the wooden gunblade case without complaint, a rare event for the bothersome blond.  But that may be unfair - it was the previous Seifer who couldn't shut up for more than several minutes at a time, his history at the orphanage teaching him that getting Matron's attention meant being the most vocal in the room.  This Seifer has learned caution from somewhere, a lesson that makes him too quiet at times, especially when faced something he doesn't know how to handle.  More interesting is his habit of running off somewhere to think by himself, the teen usually finding a broken down spot where he can sit and think in peace.

Imagine, Seifer thinking for a change.

In short time, we reach the training site and Cloud is already there waiting for us.  Sapphire eyes shine when the soldier spots the gunblade case, his lips curling into vague amusement at the sight of Seifer struggling with the heavy object.  For all of his harassment toward the kid, Cloud has grown fond of the determined youth, which is hardly good news for me.  The more he likes Seifer, the more risk I face with the soldier deciding that I should try another relationship with this shadow of my husband.  Hyne help me, I'm already too weak without additional attacks from unexpected angles.

Managing a dose of grace, Seifer places the gunblade case onto the low brick wall without damaging the wood surface.  Cloud moves beside the taller teen and watches as the case is opened with an excited hand.

"Nice blade," Cloud says with true praise, his gaze then shifting to me.  "Now I know who to ask if I ever need a new weapon."

I scoff.  "Moshi did most of the work, but for one of your outlandish blades, it would take all of the moogles to lift it, let alone make it."

Cloud grins at the thought before nodding in the direction of the gunblade.  "It's good, but it looks like it's missing something, though."

At Seifer's confused gaze, the soldier hands out a gunblade holster that he had been hiding behind his back.  The black leather shines with a newness that won't last long, but of more interest are the dark metal circles decorated along the holster that have etchings of fairly strong protective magic.  I knew Cloud wanted to be the one to gift the kid with a holster, but I didn't expect him to go this far.

"Holy shit, is that really for me?" Seifer asks as he reaches out to examine the wards even though the teen only has remedial knowledge about magic.

"What would I do with something this small?" Cloud taunts while tossing the holster to ring it around Seifer's arm.  "And it won't help anyone to have you lugging around that case wherever you go."

Practically grinning from ear to ear, Seifer unbuckles the holster and places it beneath the folds of his pants to settle nicely around his waist.  Newly dubbed Helios is removed from its case and Seifer nearly slices off a finger while figuring out the best method to sheath the long gunblade.  Seeing the blade hanging such that its tip is a bare few inches from the ground, I silently give the kid a point for gaining the gunblade in less than a month, just as I expected from the cocky bastard.

With a nod toward the training circle, I tell him, "Let's break in that blade."

Seifer glances at me, his green eyes vivid with anticipation.  "Are you going to loan me some bullets?"

I scoff at his zealousness.  "As of right now, you'd sooner blow off your own toe before hitting a target.  Weapon control comes first.  Ammunition comes later."  I add a muttered, "A lot later," when I notice the shine of blood dripping from his thumb.  So, the idiot got closer to cutting off his fingers than I thought.

Seifer pouts once figuring out the direction of my gaze.  "It doesn't hurt," he claims before licking the blood from his thumb.  He then sticks the digit into his mouth and sucks at the sliced skin.

I turn my back to the sight that reminds me of far too many late mornings instigated by the master gunblader when he would 'demonstrate' his reasons as to why I didn't want to get out of bed.  With slow steps, I make my way to the center of the circle and remove the safety strap from Lion Heart's handle.  Seifer's booted steps on brick eventually sound behind me, the blond taking position as in our past training sessions.

Turning around, I grin at the teen attempting to remove his gunblade from his holster with a measure of grace, a failed endeavor by the sound of his expletive mutters that the blade didn't seem so long moments earlier.  I settle into a relaxed pose with one foot supporting my weight and my arms crossed over my chest.

"How long is this going to take?" I ask with amusement.

"You aren't helping, bastard.  How do you make this look so easy?"

"Practice," I reply, and then decide to show him the small amount of effort it should take to remove a gunblade from its sheath.

Glaring at the tip of Lion Heart pointed in his direction, Seifer mutters another 'bastard' before abandoning poise altogether to free Helios from its new holster.  As a minor miracle, he doesn't injure himself in the clumsy process of removing his gunblade.  His smile victorious, Seifer holds out Helios in a decent attack stance - his balance isn't quite right for the longer blade, but he'll figure that out soon enough.

"All right then, from the beginning," I say as step forward into an offensive stance and knock the tip of his blade with just enough force to make Seifer lose his hold on the handle.  Flipping on end as it falls, Helios lands with a loud clatter and its point directed at Seifer.  I scoff at the novice mistake.  "If you're going to drop your weapon--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know - make certain it doesn't end up shooting you in the foot, too," Seifer interjects, his voice reflecting his bitterness at being taught the same lesson several times in the past few weeks.  "Damn it, I wasn't ready yet."

"And you think Ultimecia will wait until you're ready?"

Seifer frowns at the question, hesitating before bending over to retrieve the blade.  Without another word, he lifts Helios into a better position that balances its weight and he focuses solely on my eyes.  It's both a relief and a shame when something harsh replaces the young excitement in his green gaze, a sign that Seifer is ready to take today's lesson more seriously.  In all reality, a week isn't long enough for him to learn all of the lessons he would need to defend himself against a sorceress, but at least Seifer won't waste my time.  He will do his best or die trying and that's all I can ask of him.

"Then let's try this again," I say with a small step forward and another solid hit against Helios, this time Seifer managing to keep the blade in hand.

Practice continues from morning into mid-afternoon, the teen slowly succumbing to fatigue given the extra weight and awkward balance of his new gunblade.  Despite that, he gains quick confidence with using the edged weapon and defending himself against mine.  The minor slashes along his arms and sides are impressively ignored as he focuses on the next parry and the proper counterattack.  The idiot is so determined to continue our sparring lesson that I'm forced to harshly disarm the kid when he refuses to end on my command.

"God fuck!" Seifer yells as Helios lands several feet to the side and spins in one complete circle before settling on the brick ground.  The gunblade, however, is the least of the teen's concern as he rapidly waves his right hand in a determined attempt to shake out the pain from his fingers.

As the blond curses with a vocabulary increased from his exposure to Cid, I return Lion Heart to its sheath and step in the direction of the seated soldier.  "We're done today.  You were expected at the construction site almost an hour ago and Cid isn't a man who forgives lateness.  Go get lunch from Aerith and I'll speak with--"

"Are you crazy?" Seifer demands from behind me.  "We only have a week to get ready to fight that sorceress bitch and you want me to continue working under the old man?"

I stop and turn just enough to look at the teen.  "Your job this week is to learn how to hold that blade and use it intelligently during a battle.  Strife and I can't be bothered to save you from whatever monsters that woman decides to summon, so you'll have to protect yourself while we focus on Ultimecia."

His scowl deep and angry, Seifer contends, "I can help.  I can fight at your side."

"You'll get yourself killed."

"I'm not worthless, damn it!" he argues with fists clenched at his sides.  "I want to fight with you!"

As common when I'm forced to confront the blond, I'm taken into his easy anger and feel the urge to react in kind.  "You want to fight a sorceress," I repeat lowly, the free magic of this world burning in my blood.  "Do you have any idea what that means?"

Taken aback by my tone, Seifer flinches subtly before admitting, "No, but you're supposed to be the one training me.  Tell me, show me."

I feel my lips tighten into something that mimics a smile.  "If that's what you want."

Before Seifer has the opportunity consider the damage of his demands, I lift my right arm and flex back my hand to reveal a swirling ball of condensed fire.  Awe flickers in green eyes the moment before I release my hold on the eager flames and the Fire spell jets toward the oblivious teen.  Seifer appreciates his situation a moment too late and doesn't move in time to prevent the flames that singe his ridiculous hat and right ear, the rest of his body left unharmed.

"That's a fire spell Sora learned during his first day here.  It's basic, but it can still kill under the right conditions.  Or perhaps you'd like something flashier," I suggest while lifting my hand and snapping my fingers.  White lightning crashes from the cloudless skies and strikes the ground at Seifer's feet, encouraging the blond to do a comical dance of sorts to dodge the Thundaga spell.  It isn't much of a surprise when Seifer trips and lands on his ass.

"But you want to fight a sorceress," I remind with a tone that once earned me the title of Shiva's Lover.  "A sorceress wouldn't waste her energy on such childish magic."

For my final demonstration, I lift both hands to the sky and draw upon energy that this universe doesn't recognize and tries to resist, but my call is too strong for the spell I've used many times in the past.  Poisonous green light brightened by warm yellow rays twists above my hands, gradually forming into a large ball of energy that makes Seifer pale with instinctual fear toward the dangerous magic.  I eye the teen critically, tempted to have him feel the burn of unnatural magic as it seeps into his very soul and tries to steal away his life... But I was never good at attempting to kill Seifer, even when he was perfectly prepared to take my life.

The Ultima spell demanding for release, I angle my body to the lifeless area beyond the postern and throw the mass of energy toward a rock formation in the distance, destroying it in an instant.  The flash of golden-green light is followed by a rumbling sound that evokes more fear than the mere crash of thunder that comes with each lightning spell.  Seifer winces at the brutality of the Ultima spell, hopefully realizing that the spell was originally intended for his fragile and wholly mortal body.  He eventually faces me, his green eyes dark from mystified terror and tormented betrayal, but he says nothing from his fallen position.  He just stares and questions everything he has thus far assumed about me.

"I can't teach you how to fight that type of magic in a year, let alone a week," I tell Seifer softly, my anger disappearing with the need to have him understand.  "All I can do is give you enough techniques and enough power to stay alive when I can't be there for you."

His eyebrows furrow in consideration before he gently touches his ear, the red and charred skin reasonably sensitive to the touch, forcing him to jerk away his hand when the pain becomes too much.  Seifer stands abruptly at that point, his back turned when he retrieves Helios from the ground and manages to sheath the weapon without cutting himself.

"I get it," Seifer states dejectedly.  "I'll go to the construction site."

I nod in response, something the teen doesn't see as he hurries to the edge of the training circle and collects his gunblade case.  He leaves in hurried silence that I've never seen from my lost husband, but it has become all too common with this Seifer.  Hyne, why does this silence hurt more than when Seifer would curse at me for being a heartless bastard?

"Was that wise?" Cloud questions from his position at the low brick wall.

"Maybe not, but it's more important that he isn't deluded by his thoughts of nonexistent grandeur."

Cloud hums quietly in a manner that suggests he doesn't believe my words for a moment.

Sighing, I brush gloved fingers back through my hair and distractedly wonder if I've gained any gray hairs since I foolishly decided to travel to Twilight Town all those weeks ago.  "If Almasy thinks for one moment that he can face a sorceress, he'll get himself killed before we can act otherwise.  Or worse, Ultimecia will take him as a hostage and do everything in her power to make him suffer for his past and present betrayal.  And trust me, she can be very intuitive when it comes to personalizing torture."

His sapphire eyes bright with thought, Cloud asks, "Does that mean this sorceress was the so-called 'dark magic' that influenced the former Seifer to hurt you and mark your body?"

"More or less," I reply, not particularly in the mood to explain the finer details of the events that I'd rather forget.

Cloud shifts slightly, his gaze drifting to where Seifer had disappeared into the restoration zone.  "Necessary or not, he may not forgive you for this."

The unexpected comment draws a frown from me.  "Why would you care?"

"Don't you remember - I like the kid," Cloud states with a slight smirk.

"I thought you would've gotten over that by now."

The soldier chuckles at my bitter reply.  "What can I say, he's interesting.  It's also been a long time that a kid like him has seen the monster in me and still treats me like a human being."

"... ..."

Tilting his head such that spiky hair shifts to the side, Cloud questions, "May I ask you something?"

The reflective desire to say 'no' is squashed as I remind myself that Cloud is probably the only man in this universe who would actually respect such an answer.  Fists held at my sides, I offer him a single nod in the slim chance that his question could be important.

The soldier doesn't start straight into his inquiry, his eyes momentarily distant while he considers his words.  "When you first brought the kid to this world and I connected his initials to those on your body, you told me that you had forgiven the man for his crimes against you.  There was no hesitation in your words.  It was a simple truth that you continued to love Seifer Almasy despite everything he had done."

My teeth grind at the unwanted discussion.  "I don't hear a question, Strife."

His eyes sympathetic, Cloud meets my gaze and asks, "If you can forgive him for treason and torture, why can't you forgive Seifer for coming back without his memories?"

I can only stare at the interfering man, hating everything that he is demanding from me with such a dangerous question.  "He's a boy."

"He couldn't afford to be a boy the moment your sorceress decided to target his life," he argues in a tone that says I should know better.

"He threw pillows at Ultimecia when she threatened him."

Strife chuckles at the thought.  "Yes, well, given the fact that the kid hasn't had an ounce of formal training before you got your hands on him, it's quite impressive that he reacted at all.  I'd say he was being rather brave."

Growling at the soldier's determination to defend the idiot blond, I scratch my fingers through my hair in angered frustration.  "I don't care what you say, Strife.  It isn't easy or even smart for me to accept Almasy back into my life."

"Hn, but you did say that Seifer is the sort who enjoys making the impossible happen."

I mutter a curse under my breath, hating how this bastard makes me say the most damning things.

Lips forming an amused grin, Cloud adds, "I don't understand why you're being so obstinate.  He's a good kid and it's obvious that he's very eager to please you."

My eyes narrow to a fine line at the implied manner Seifer would 'please' me.  "His focus is on training and I'm his instructor.  There's nothing more to it."

Though he voices nothing, the soldier's quirked smile prompts the suggestion that there could be more, only if I allowed it to happen.

Feeling a headache building between my eyes, I rub the spot and declare, "We're done discussing this.  I need to return to my apartment for some rest before I meet with Aerith to begin our plans for this fool's mission."

Cloud smirks as he pushes up from the brick wall and steps directly in front of me.  "You'll make it work.  This isn't the first time that you've taken an idea and made it a reality," he says, his gaze then drifting to the buildings that tower in the short distance.

"I'm not responsible for the transformation of Hallow Bastion back into Radiant Garden."

The spiky-haired soldier breaths a laugh at my argument.  "Only you think that, Leon.  Everyone else knows better."

My headache growing with every second, I don't bother trying to dissuade this man of something I can't imagine he actually believes himself.  Cloud simply enjoys to taunt me with the hero-worship I abhor within this damned town, especially when I don't really care about the people like I should.  My reaction when protecting Seifer from Cloud's blade has proved that well enough.  To think, there have been hundreds upon hundreds of Heartless and Nobody attacks in both Traverse Town and Hallow Bastion, and yet it's been years since Lion Heart has sung with the thirst for blood.

Lowering my hand as it does nothing to relieve my headache, I decide to save these thoughts for another time.  "If you're here in the morning, I think Seifer could use some experience against your buster blade.  It'll give him the sense of power he'll face with some of the monsters Ultimecia may summon."

"You bring the coffee and I'll be happy to knock the kid off his feet."

"Try not to break any bones this time," I comment as I take my first steps toward the restoration zone.

The blond easily matches my stride.  "It was one time and nothing that a heavy cure spell couldn't fix."

I don't argue the point that I want Seifer stronger and smarter during a fight, not scared shitless to the point of uselessness.  The critique would only fall upon deaf ears, the spiky-haired soldier accustomed to harsher training conditions than what I experienced in Balamb Garden, even when Seifer was my trainer.  It's amazing Cloud that isn't more fucked up than what I have already seen.

The trip downtown is spent discussing various techniques to show the young gunblader, including the potential of skipping basic magic and to instead teach Seifer more relevant spells like Protect and Shell.  It's risky to ignore the proper hierarchy when learning magic, but there isn't enough time to play things as safe as I'd like.  Defense is most important for our current needs.  We can leave Seifer accidentally setting something on fire for another time.

Once in the town center, Cloud and I split ways as the soldier heads in the direction of Aerith's café and I continue toward the minor comforts of my apartment.  It was difficult to sleep last night, Ultimecia's visitation and Seifer's nightmares keeping me from anything that I could consider restful.  While I can only afford an hour or two of rest at most, I learned many years ago to get sleep whenever possible before a dangerous mission.  And when that mission involves me considering to let Seifer use live ammunition in the near future, I can't afford to be half-asleep if I'm going to dodge his stray bullets.

Hyne, I hate training kids.

~ > < ~

"These locations would give us the best defensive positions while providing cover to hide your presence," I tell Aerith while pointing at a detailed map of the Great Maw, the locations of interest marked with small flags.  Still at the café from his earlier visit, Cloud looks on with a hooded gaze from the raised stool next to mine.  "Ultimecia is too unpredictable for us to assume she'd appear when and where we want her to, but we can linger in the areas we prefer and give her the chance to 'surprise' us."

Standing behind the counter of her café, Aerith twists a lock of hair around her finger while contemplating the map before her.  Even though she sounded confident in her decision this morning, the young woman has shown her true colors to worry about everyone's safety with this mission.  "Wouldn't it be best to avoid traveling so far into the Maw?"

"Only if you want Ultimecia to think that we're planning something," I argue after a sip of her latest lemonade concoction that includes raspberries.  "She'll suspect us no matter, but this way, it'll appear that Almasy is getting some fighting experience."

Aerith continues to fuss with her hair, nearly placing the curly lock into her mouth.  "But you're assuming that she'll appear despite her weakened state.  Why risk herself if she won't be able to finish her revenge with a single attack?"

"Because Ultimecia craves information.  She knows Almasy is powerless, but she doesn't know my status.  With her kingdom lost and no minion to do her bidding, Ultimecia will have to see for herself what power she is up against."

The long-haired woman sighs at my explanation.  "You're right.  You're always right, but I--"

Interrupting her thought, the café door slams open with a clatter of the bell that normally announces the arrival of guests with a soft jingle.  Bent over with her hand on the door handle, Yuffie pants heavily for a few breaths before finally looking up.  "Leon, thank goodness you're here!  Seifer... There's been an accident at the construction site."

Before I truly comprehend the words, I'm off the raised stool and running past the exhausted thief into the street.  I've always considered Radiant Garden to be a small town, but the distance between the café and the current construction site feels too far as my boots clap loudly against cobbled roads.  Turning a sharp corner, my rushed breaths slow and almost stop completely at the sight of a half-built structure crumpled to the ground.  Metal supports lie twisted from the weight of the fallen building, multi-colored bricks scatter across the street, and medics examine dust-covered workers for injuries - painfully clear signs of the destructive chaos that had taken place.

Once spotting a distinctive pair of pilot's goggles, I weave through the building ruins and befuddled bystanders to reach Cid.  Though surrounded by numerous people looking for instructions, the older man waves all of them aside at the sight of my approach.  Before I speak a single word, Cid thumbs toward the middle of the crumpled building and a collection of people removing chucks of brick and wood.

"Your kid is under that fucking mess.  He pushed a couple of guys out of the way, but didn't make it himself.  We're diggin' him out now and HEY, you fuckin' dipwads!" he yells at the workers in question.  "I said get 'im out, not cause more stuff to fall on the kid!  What the hell do ya think you're doing?!"

I hardly register Cid's insult toward the mixture of humans and other creatures, all of them dusty and several displaying bandages of some sort.  Stepping between them such that a few are forced out of my way, I stare at the pile of building materials and briefly wonder if Seifer could really be there.  But then I see a hand peeking out from the rubble, the thumb bearing a fresh cut from a sharp blade.

My hands spread, I cast an Aero spell and hold tight control over the wind spell as it slips beneath the timber and brick to slowly lift the material from the street below.  The rubble lifted into the air, Seifer's torn and filthy body is gradually revealed to the sunlight and I nearly lose control at the sight of his battered form.  Cid hurries past me while muttering a harsh curse about fools entranced by simple magic.  Ducking beneath the hovering debris, Cid grabs Seifer's arms and pulls the teen completely free of the collapsed building.  Once they are clear and behind me, I release the wind spell and watch as the material crashes onto the street where Seifer had been trapped.

"You know," Cid grumbles from behind me, "you're lucky that I trust you with magic and let you use it.  These other morons would've sooner caused a tornado of nails before savin' anyone from this mess."

"Are others trapped?" I ask despite my greater concern for Seifer.  I don't dare turn around, knowing that I'll be useless once my mind is focused on the sight of the injured youth.

The older man sighs.  "Yeah, but it ain't no concern of yours.  This idiot was under the worst of it.  We'll get the others without ya, so take care of this kid and let me get back to work."

I turn and direct a grateful look to the crude man, something Cid accepts with a stern huff before moving aside.  Kneeling at the vacated spot, I quickly examine Seifer's body for serious injuries, but find nothing more serious than some large splinters, heavy bruising and numerous cuts.  A thorough Scan spell finds a few fractured ribs, but amazingly, no broken bones or internal damage.

During my examination of his neck and spine, Seifer opens his eyes partway and tries to focus on me.  "Leon...?  What're you doin' 'ere?"

"Looking for injuries, so don't move."

He blinks slowly.  "S'rry... di'n't mean to... get hurt."

"Of course you didn't.  You never mean to get hurt," I tell him with a final Scan spell to his head.  A mild concussion.  No surprise there.

"Excuse me, Mr. Leon," a jaguar-looking cat addresses me, the peculiar addition of lipstick identifying her as female.  Dressed in a stained uniform, the apparent medic clutches nervously at the strap of her first-aid kit.  "We're taking people to the hospital and--"

"This one isn't yours," I state more harshly than I intended.  I could explain that a sorceress is out to kill him, that I'm proficient in healing arts, or anything else that could make an ounce of logical sense, but I can't find it in me to explain away my necessity to keep Seifer close.  The teen's stealthy hand clutching onto my jacket certainly doesn't help matters.  "His injuries are minor and my apartment is stocked with a variety of potions."

The feline medic appears prepared to argue, but a weathered hand appears at her shoulder and Cid shakes his head at her annoyed gaze.  "Don't fight with the man.  Even if ya manage to get the kid into the bus, Leon will have 'im out of there 'fore you reach the hospital.  You have enough bodies to watch over without this one slowing ya down."

Though far from appeased by the former pilot's words, the spotted cat reluctantly nods her understanding.  "Fine, but if he turns for the worst, you know where to find us."

While Cid ushers away the feline medic, I turn my full attention to Seifer and gently pry his fingers from my jacket.  "I'm going to move you and it isn't going to be pleasant."

"Can't you cure me... like before?"

Knowing he meant when Cloud broke his arm, I shake my head.  "Any cure spell or potion I could use is nonspecific and would heal everything, flesh or bone.  With the amount of debris in your wounds, it'd only lead to infection and I've seen a man lose his arm because he cured an injury before cleaning it thoroughly."

Eyelids fluttering closed, Seifer visibly swallows before saying, "Right.  Do your worst."

I slip my arms beneath his back and legs, and before he can change his mind, I lift him to my chest.  Seifer groans at the movement and presses his face against my shoulder.  His pain unavoidable, I move carefully to my feet and hurry in the direction of my apartment.  Though we receive a few cautious stares from various pedestrians, nothing eventful happens in the short trip that ends when Seifer is forced to open the door with a sore and scratched hand.  It's a surprise, really, to discover the apartment empty and that no one had decided to offer their unwanted help, but occasionally Aerith and the others have a second sense to know when I'd react poorly to their good intentions.

The front door kicked close, I carry Seifer to the bathroom and help him to sit on the narrow counter, the teen regaining more clarity in the time it took to reach the apartment.  Seifer leans back against the mirror and moans while adjusting sore limbs.

"Man, you're stronger than you look," he says with a weak chuckle.

I glance over him briefly, realizing that he had managed to gain an inch or more during his past month here.  We were almost even height at our first meeting in Twilight Town, but it was a forgone conclusion that he'd gain another few inches to reach his previous height at seventeen, an age looming on the horizon for this kid.  Eventually Seifer will be six-foot-four and trying his damnedest to use that extra height over me, something that has never and will never work.

Stepping to the cabinet stock with first-aid items, I instruct the teen, "Take off your clothes."

"Uh, wha...?"

"I can't exactly clean your injuries through fabric," I explain while selecting the potions to use for cleaning and others for extensive healing.  "Get over yourself and strip."

Seifer doesn't move an inch, and when I turn around, I find him with his hand raised as he instinctively reaches for his nonexistent hat, the ski cap lost somewhere underneath timber and brick.  Trying to recover from his mistake, he rakes his fingers back through dusty hair.  "Any chance you'd let me treat my own wounds?"

"None," I announce.  "So either you take them off or I do it for you.  You can leave on your boxers if you're going to be so difficult about it."

With a wary glance, he asks, "It's... just for my injuries, right?"

"And what else in Hyne's name do you think I'll do to you?"

Seifer offers an embarrassed shrug before muttering, "Whatever you do with Strife when he's naked."

Hyne above, I knew him stumbling upon our tryst would lead to trouble.  "That has nothing to do with you.  Now, do you need help or not?"

Hesitantly, Seifer shakes his head and begins removing his jacket and vest, the sight of large splinters encouraging me to retrieve a set of forceps from the cabinet.  Meanwhile, his loosely laced boots are toed off and he unzips his pants to reveal plain white boxers.  He slips off the counter to remove the baggy clothing, the jerky move causing him to hiss in pain and place a hand against his heavily bruised side.

"Careful, you have fractured ribs," I warn before helping him back onto the counter.  "I'll give you something for that once I have a chance to clean the rest of your injuries."

Seifer doesn't reply, his expression still reflecting the pain of his injuries.  Deciding to get to work despite the youth, I slip off the loose pants that had fallen to around his thighs.  After removing my gloves and wetting a clean cloth in cold water, I carefully treat the worse of his injuries, most of which appearing along his arms left bare from his sleeveless jacket.

Eventually regaining his breath, Seifer wets a cloth for himself and wipes his face clean, careful of the bad cut just below his hairline.  His green eyes bright with a cat-like wariness, he watches as I move along his body, even twisting to look in the mirror when I focus on the split skin on his back.  The brunt of the damage cleaned within an hour, I move to his legs and remove two nails from the back of his right calf.

That being the last of the debris, I nod toward the potions lined next to the sink.  "Drink those starting with the one closest to you."

Seifer eyes the colored bottles.  "What are they?"

"Esuna will remove any infection and bacteria.  The restorative potions are ranked in strength, lowest first to make certain everything is healing properly.  If you don't feel anything wrong, finish it with a Hi-potion."

"You'd think it'd be easier than this."

"It's better than taking a couple of months to heal," I comment while standing.  "Once you finish those, take a shower.  You'll feel better after that."

Downing the Esuna, he winces at the bitter taste and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.  "Yeah, I'll do that."

I leave the teen to finish his business and close the bathroom door behind me.  My eyes immediately settle on the futon Seifer used during the night, mere inches from my own bed to prevent anything from getting between us.  Hyne, so much work has been put into place to keep Seifer safe from a vindictive sorceress and her demons, and yet I nearly lost him to a damned construction accident.  A construction accident I practically forced him into.

The sound of running water wakes me from disturbing thoughts and makes me realize that I should get comfortable while waiting for Seifer to finish his shower.  I take a seat at the foot of my bed and sit such that I stare down at my boots, the scuffed leather covered in dust.  I should be taking the moment to think and understand my actions in the past month or so, but my mind feels empty and unwilling to focus.  I vaguely recall being in a similar state shortly after regaining consciousness after Time Compression.  I had too many thoughts to think straight and I was exhausted by the knowledge of events that had yet to occur.  I felt like a ghost in a world I no longer belonged to and the one thing that pulled me through was...

"Hey, you okay?"

Startled, I look up to find the freshly cleaned teen standing in the open doorway to the bathroom.  Dressed in my white robe, Seifer looks strangely older with his wet hair hanging almost to his eyes and the robe partly open to reveal his hairless chest.  If I didn't know better, I would think he was trying to seduce me.

Seifer frowns with uncertainty before he pushes away from the doorway.  "Um, I don't know if it's normal, so I thought I'd ask, but that burn from this morning didn't heal like the rest of my cuts and bruises."

I move to my feet and step close to the slighter taller teen.  He admirably doesn't wince when I push aside wet hair and look at his right ear, the top half jagged with scarred skin.  Hyne, why didn't I think to offer him a potion before he stormed off after training?  "Curative magic works best on fresh injuries.  I'm afraid you're stuck with this scar."

With an odd smile, Seifer fingers the damaged flesh.  "Really?  Nothing will take it away?"

"Nothing short of cutting off your ear."

"Good.  I need the reminder."  The statement gains my attention, and once noticing my curious gaze, Seifer continues to explain, "While I was doing that boring ass construction work, I had plenty of time to think and I realized that I was acting like the stupid kid you and Strife always claim I am.  I got my hands on a real weapon and suddenly thought I could conquer the world or some shit like that.  You were right to do what you did, and frankly, it was pretty damn cool," he adds with an interested smile, the desire to learn the spells I used against him shining in his eyes.

I stare at him without reply, abruptly feeling exhausted by the weight of his trust in me and my actions.  I didn't mean to hurt him, not like this, and by all rights, I should have suffered the consequence of losing his confidence.

"So, when do I get to learn magic?"

I fight back the smile that wants to form at his eagerness, Seifer an absolute magician at finding something of worth in every situation, good or bad.  "In time we'll teach you offensive magic.  For now, we need to focus on defense."

"Defense?  You mean there's magic to fight against that stuff you threw at me?"

"Not completely, but it'll dampen the force of the spells and may be the difference between life and death."

Seifer grins hungrily at the idea of practicing magic, something that was limited to fairy tales on his world.  "Can we start today?"

"You need rest."

"I feel great," Seifer states as he abruptly moves to his duffle bag and starts removing clean clothes.  "Give me a moment and I'll be ready to go."

His previous wariness is lost to excitement as the teen removes his robe and dresses directly in front of me.  The gashes and bruises are gone from his body as if never existing, a relieving sight after the mess he had been a short while ago.  As he hops into boxers and pants, I notice the better balance of muscles compared to when he first arrived and only his arms were strengthened to support him during 'Struggle Matches' or whatever they were called.  Daily practice and heavy construction work have helped to tone the still growing body and every day it becomes more difficult to remember that he's nothing but a shadow of my lost husband.

... No, that's not fair to call him a shadow.  This is Seifer with a different background, a kinder life that we always wished for as orphans.  I shouldn't resent him for having the one thing I'll never know despite the number of lives I have lived and may yet live through.  I shouldn't, but it's quite irritating that Seifer seems to have the Devil's luck when it comes to getting the things he wants.

Seifer throws on a faded t-shirt with the name of some band from his world, 'eThereal'.  It's a shirt I've seen before, but it still unnerves me to see the letter T replaced by a cross sword image.  "Alright, I'm ready to learn something good."

With a tired sigh, I remind him, "You do realize that you were suffering from a mild concussion earlier."

"Yeah?  But didn't one of those potions fix that?"

Knowing that I was defeated since the moment I mentioned teaching him magic, I nod in the direction of the door.  "I assume you left your blade some place safe at the construction site.  We'll retrieve that before moving to the posterns."

Seifer abruptly frowns at my comment.  "Wait, I just realized... Do they need our help over there?  I think there were three or four guys still in the building when it fell.  Did they find them?"

I study his eyes for a moment, interested to find worry for others in his gaze.  I bet that's another trait that was beaten into him by his mother since the previous man I knew was only concerned about his own interests and simply humored me with my need to save those unable to help themselves.  "Cid said he had it handled, but we can check with him first."

The teen nods with quiet relief.  "Thanks, I'd like that.  A few of those guys have been really cool and I want to make certain that they're okay."

I hold back a scoff, already learning from Cid over the weeks that Seifer had earned a soft spot in the hearts of the other workers.  Something about them finding humor in his determination to prove me wrong by handling more work than the reasonable amount expected of him.  Apparently it's highly amusing that anyone would think to cross me, let alone a kid like Seifer.

Seifer slips on his boots and doesn't bother to lace them per usual habit.  "Let's get going.  And maybe you can show me that wind spell that I heard Cid talking about?  The one you used to save me?"

"One step at a time, Almasy," I scold while moving ahead of him toward the door.  Hyne, this day just keeps getting longer and longer.


[Seifer]

With a warm sports drink in my hand, I sit in the shade on top of a smooth boulder and lean back against the high cliff, the chilled stone feeling great against the bare skin of my neck.  Today is the third day we've spent in the Great Maw and my nerves have started to fray while playing bait for a murderous sorceress.  My initial excitement at using Helios in true combat faded after the first twenty Heartless I had to kill on my own, Leon or Strife only stepping in if I was about to be blindsided by something with sharp claws and/or pointy teeth.  While Leon claims that my technique has improved with all of this legwork, I think he's finding more entertainment in watching me drown in my own arrogance.  Damn it, these monsters didn't seem so challenging when it was Leon fighting them.

After a few deep gulps of my drink, I stare across the way at Leon and Strife and bemoan the fact that I'm stuck with the two least talkative men in Radiant Garden.  Aerith is nearby, but given the effort to keep her presence unknown until needed, I can't strike up a conversation with the motherly woman.  So, with nothing better to do, I've taken up the habit of watching Leon.  It's nothing intentional, but given enough time, my eyes always drift in his direction until I end up staring for minutes on end.  Worse, as I focus on the master gunblader, I can't help but to think of ten days back when his bare hands were on my body, touching and massaging and--

"You're staring."

I choke on my breath at the amused voice, and after a few violent coughs, I glare at the man who loves to make me suffer.  "What do you want, Strife?"

The soldier shrugs, quite an endeavor given the oversized blade at his back.

"Fuck'tard," I mutter before finishing off my drink.

"You've spent too much time around Cid," Strife states with a light chuckle, and then leans back against the boulder I'm using as my seat.  "So, what's your favorite part?"

Confused, I stare at the back of his head.  "What, you mean with this field trip of ours?"

"No, I meant with the object of your obsession."

It takes a few seconds before I realize he means Leon.  "I'm not obsessed," I growl while tossing my empty bottle at Strife, the experienced soldier dodging the 'attack' with an easy sway.

Continuing without shame, Strife comments, "I'm partial to his hands, personally.  His fingers look delicate, but they are surprisingly strong and quite dexterous."

My mouth gaping and my cheeks flushed to an almost painful extent, I can only stare at the typically closed-mouth fighter.  Sure, Strife always taunts Leon for one thing or another and I'm the object of his sharp tongue during our spars, but this is the first time he has referenced his... business between him and Leon.

Glancing back over his shoulder, Strife shows a bland expression that doesn't match the brightness of his unusual eyes.  "But I suppose you noticed that when Leon treated you after the construction accident.  Do you like being treated by him?"

I quickly look in Leon's direction and find the man unmoved from his previous position as he stares out across the Great Maw, diligently searching for any sign of the sorceress.  Returning my attention to Strife, I whisper harshly, "What do you think you're doing?"

He takes a moment to consider his answer before saying, "I'm having my fun before I lose him."

"Lose him?  Why, did you two have a fight or something?" I ask before I realize that I probably don't want to know what they would fight over.

Strife smirks at the question, but doesn't have the chance to answer when Leon pushes away from his lookout position and steps close to tell us that break time is over.  Sliding off from my rock, I take a moment to stretch before I notice Leon's eyes on me, a dark eyebrow lifted high.  Shit, I bet my blush hasn't faded much, but Leon's says nothing and instead directs a withering glare at Strife.  The soldier simply shrugs before heading off toward the next target zone for the day, leaving Leon behind to sigh at the wordless exchange.

Two target zones and about fifteen destroyed Heartless later, I wipe the sweat from my forehead and wish for the return of the hat I lost in the construction accident.  Once there are no other beasties around, I move Helios to rest on my shoulder, too tired to care if I look good doing the pose that nearly resulted in me slicing own my throat the first time I tried it.

"Hey, Leon," I call out to the dark-haired fighter leaning against a long dead tree.  "It's getting late.  Don't you think it's time to head back?"

Leon frowns slightly, the first sign of frustration from the man I've seen yet.

"It's not that I don't like the practice," I amend with real pride at being able to handle two to three Heartless or Nobodies at once, "but Aerith said that she's making sundaes tonight and I promised to show her how to make my mom's waffle cups."

The brunet blinks once at my comment before his lips curl into a fond smile and he mutters something about pies and berries.

My hand tightens at Helios' hilt, something about Leon's expression making me irritated in a nameless fashion.  I've been taunted enough times in the past for being a guy who knows too much about baking that I don't need Leon to make his own comments about how such knowledge could affect my fighting ability.  I'm not ashamed of the time I spent with my mother while making her latest recipe discovery, but just when I'm about to inform Leon of that fact, I stop short and stare forward without seeing anything.

In that fraction of a second, I wonder what I was thinking in the past to imagine myself as a skilled fighter when I couldn't sense the approach of something dark and unnatural.  It seems so obvious now, and as I step forward to turn with Helios held out in front of me, I face the portal of black mist without the same fear I had in the past.  Back then, it was fear of the unknown.  Right now, it's fear of knowing exactly how many ways I could be killed by whatever steps out from the portal.

A scaled head bursts out from the darkness and the ground shutters at its first step into this world.  Upright on two clawed feet, a dragon of midnight blue coloring and immense tattered wings stretches out with a deafening roar that does very funny things to my stomach.  While not as large as the T-rexaus that had attacked me in Twilight Town, this beast has a more intelligent air about it with the way it gazes down with glassy black eyes.

The dragon barely manages to swoop down its head for an attack when a dark blur rushes past me and Leon stabs Lion Heart into the scaled chest.  The beast roars, but doesn't appear out for the count when it lifts a stubby arm to claw at the brunet.  Leon easily ducks the swipe and then lifts his hand covered in bright blue light.  Spears of ice appear at Leon's summon and pierce into the dragon's head, shoulder, and stomach.  Without a final sound, the beast sways slightly before slumping to the side, Lion Heart removed as Leon keeps a strong hold on his weapon.

The silence after the dragon's death is broken by the sound of slow clapping, drawing everyone's attention to a woman seated on the back of an odd horse-like demon, its hooves replaced by claws and from its forehead is a horn that appears like a broken and rusted scythe.  Fuck, and I was just kidding when I wondered if murdering unicorns would appear from those damned portals.

"Such beautiful form," Ultimecia praises from her perch, looking just like she did last week - dressed in blue, smiling with pleasure, and absolutely fucking gorgeous.  "I wouldn't expect less from the man who has murdered me time and time again."

Leon says nothing while staring at the raven-haired woman, perhaps planning his next move, perhaps overwhelmed by thoughts of the past.  Meanwhile, Strife steps out from behind me and places himself at the master gunblader's side.

"I see that we have a new face amongst the old favorites," she says with a false pleasure, her dark eyes then shifting to me.  "Well, one of them isn't as old as it should be, but full of potential as ever."

"Enough, Ultimecia," Leon warns with Lion Heart grasped in a two-handed hold.  "He's not yours anymore."

"Now, now, why are you being so formal, Squally-poo?  Wouldn't you feel more comfortable calling me 'Rinoa'?"

"No," he states before dashing forward.

The sorceress' steed rears up at the attack, its forelegs pawing in the air at the dark-haired fighter.  Leon is forced to dodge the defensive flailing and Lion Heart swings upward to behead the demonic unicorn.  Her mount lost, Ultimecia lifts up from the creature and seemingly floats to the ground in a model-like pose with one foot crossed in front of the other and her hands flexed at her sides.  The stance doesn't last long, however, when Strife moves in with his buster blade swinging.  The sorceress steps back from the series of attacks, each fall of the immense sword parried by her hands covered with the iridescent light of a powerful Protect spell.  Strife ends his combination with a pleased grin, an unexpected expression given the fact that little to no damage had been caused to the lovely woman.

Smirking at the failed attack, Ultimecia twists her right hand and draws upon dark energy sparking with purple light.  At her snap of fingers, black lightning strikes out toward the spiky-haired soldier and nearly connects when Strife is forced into the hasty retreat.  Once again at Leon's side, the blond leans over and makes a comment that explains his earlier expression - the sorceress had used protective magic, which meant we weren't dealing with another projection.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ultimecia coos with her attention clearly focused on Leon.  "I haven't come here to fight you.  It's been so many years since our last meeting and I wished to talk."

Leon scoffs, a sentiment I share given her summons of a dragon to snack on me.  "Talk?  You never want to talk, witch."

"Oh, but I do," she says brightly.  "Especially when it's for something I want."

Her midnight-colored eyes are focused on me once more, but with a hungrier look that causes a violent shiver to travel down my spine.  She had called me worthless, even suggested that I could never match the skills of the Seifer before me, but something about her gaze makes me feel like she wants me.  Wants me to the point that if she can't have me, then no one will have me.

Leon shifts his stance in front of the deceivingly young woman.  "You're insane."

Ultimecia smiles brightly at the suggestion and nearly replies when, abruptly, her body goes very still and all humor vanishes from her face.  A snarl overcoming her features, she turns sharply and swings her arm in the direction of several pillars of rock.  Dust rises at the launched earth spell, and once connecting, the pillars vibrate and crumble at the force of her magic.  My breath catches at the sight of crude destruction and I'm not able to breathe again until the shine of a Protect spell breaks through the cloud of thick dust.

"Who are you?" Ultimecia demands in a strange voice, one that sounds nothing like the lovely woman up to this point.

Her smile secretive, Aerith steps lightly across gravel and broken rock while her spell shimmers brightly in the afternoon sun.  "Just a girl who knows a little magic."

While Strife grins at her appearance, Leon maintains a stern expression when asking, "Are we done?"

Aerith nods and reveals a wand-like object, the weapon abruptly expanding to become a tall staff.  "We're done."

Though Ultimecia shows initial irritation at being drawn into an apparent trap, the sorceress eventually regains her regal smile and directs an approving gaze to the master gunblader.  "It seems you have made some valuable friends in the time I've spent sleeping.  Troublesome, but I think that you'll find my friends so much more useful..."

Her arms spread wide, dark portals of varying sizes begin to appear in all directions and demons are given entrance into this world.  Aerith shudders at the use of dark magic, but doesn't balk when faced with the decision to fight an inky glob with a gaping mouth.  Leon and Strife are forced to beat away attacking dragons, the last thing I notice before I'm drawn into my own battle against a pair of immense bugs that barely hold themselves up in the air.

The onslaught monsters serves its purpose as a distraction, the sorceress' presence nearly driven from my mind as I keep stingers dripping with poison from my throat.  Four bugs beaten and dead on the ground, I glance up to meet the gaze of deep brown eyes and I'm unable to look away from the woman standing easily fifty feet away.  It can't be chance that the space between us was clear of monsters and I probably should run, but I won't be fast enough to escape her insanity.  Her hands lift in a fashion I recognize from days ago when Leon used magic against me, her spell of choice painfully obvious.  Resignation threatens to overwhelm my actions, but I still manage to stutter out the spell for Shell, hoping that the fragile barrier could mean the difference between life and death.

The sorceress smiles with the same play of lips from when she called me worthless, and with the Ultima spell burning in her hands, she blows a mocking kiss before launching the spell in my direction.

So large, so bright, so loud... I never hear the approach of footsteps when a shadow dashes in front of me.

The Ultima spell breaks around the figure, momentarily giving the shadow angel-like wings of blinding light before the spell fades completely.  It takes several heart-pounding seconds before I can see properly and it isn't much of a surprise to be staring at Leon's back and the scarlet wings of his jacket.  Wisps of smoke lift from the tattered leather, but Leon doesn't show any weakness at being hit with the same spell that I've witnessed tear apart rock and earth.

"Horrid boy," Ultimecia states as she places a fist to her hip, the stance somewhat shaky compared to her previous poise.  "Perhaps you deserve something special."

Her piercing whistle makes me wince, but the purpose of her call makes me sick to my stomach.  At her side, a rotting zombie of a dog abruptly appears with half of its face lost to squirming maggots, its yellowed rib bones visible through paper-thin flesh and matted fur, and its weakly wagging tail attached by a few strings of muscle at most.  Worse is its lolling tongue, bloated in shape and dripping dark mucus-like salvia to the desert floor.

Ultimecia gazes fondly at the creature and says simply, "Get him, Angelo."

Faster than its bony legs should have allowed, the dog dashes straight for Leon.  The dark-haired fighter smirks oddly at the approaching demon, and without a second to waste, kicks with his booted foot straight for the dog's throat.  A sickening snap suggests a broken neck, but the injury means nothing to the undead beast as it continues to do everything in its power to serve its master.  Leon swing his blade at the demon, but the dog moves such that the weapon gets trapped within visible ribs.  Unbalanced, Leon doesn't move fast enough to avoid the beast's teeth latching onto his arm.

So entranced by the fight in front of me, I almost don't notice the flicker of light in the distance.  Looking up, I stare horrified at the sorceress bitch forming yet another Ultima spell.  It happens a lot faster this time and I have no skill to help the unknowing fighter, no ability beyond yelling as loud as I can.

"Leon!"

The moment his head jerks up, Ultimecia releases her spell upon us.  The green light mixed with harsh yellow appears brighter this time, but Leon doesn't flinch or back away.  Instead, he uses Lion Heart to pry the demonic dog from his arm, the force of the move disconnecting the body from its head due to the already broken neck.  Though cursing his luck, Leon flings the beast's body into the center of the spell, disrupting its energy with a harsh crack of thunder.  Wide open to the aftershocks of the magical attack, Leon stumbles back against me and lingers for a moment too long for me to believe his front of strength.  Still, he soon stands by his own power and lifts Lion Heart in a challenging pose, a wholly strange sight given the dog's head still clamped onto his belted arm.

It comes to mind that this is insanity, that nothing should be worth the price Leon is paying for his defiance against this merciless woman.  And even though that 'nothing' is my life, I can't imagine what is worthwhile about a kid who can hardly protect himself from a few large bugs and some lumbering shadows.  At this rate, it would be better if I...

A hand abruptly settles on my shoulder and I glance back at Aerith smiling gently with her hair in disarray and black smears marring her cheek and forehead.  "Just a little longer, okay?"

Embarrassed by my moment of despair, I nod once before turning back to find Strife mercifully at Leon's side.  The presence of the bastard soldier helps to calm my worries, though something tells me that Ultimecia hasn't given her worst and I don't want to know what other magic she can control.

Reassuming her girlish persona, Ultimecia breaths out such that her choppy bangs sway.  "Well, that was quite a workout, don't you think?  It's so nice to stretch the muscles after being locked in a cage for years on end."

"You deserved worse than a prison, Ultimecia," Leon growls in return.

"Don't fool yourself, Squally-poo.  You know you can't kill me.  Unless," she purrs while glancing at Aerith, "you want to give me that radiant body and all of its powers."

Strife is the first to respond, his buster blade held back as he boldly charges the slender woman.  Ultimecia reacts immediately, her right hand lifting up with an open palm.  A dark purple seal of some design appears beneath Strife's feet and a pillar of light pierces straight through the soldier, causing him to scream out and fall to his side several meters short of the sorceress.  Ultimecia sneers at the fallen man, but makes no other move as she cradles her arm to her chest.

"Foolish man," she says with disgust, her dark eyes then shifting back to Leon.  "Only you are patient enough despite your strength, but you have always been untouchable to me.  I should destroy you here and now, but this universe bleeds too much magic.  By destroying you, I may destroy myself and that simply won't do."  A portal abruptly opens behind Ultimecia, and with a pleasant smile masking her darkness, she steps backward while suggesting, "Next time we meet, why not chose a more dramatic place to die?  As you know, I've always had a fondness for flowers."

Her noxious laugh lingers after the portal closes around her, taking her away to another place and, as far as I'm concerned, she can stay there.

Aerith rushes to Strife's side, the soldier moved to bent elbows and his wild glare focused on the empty air where Ultimecia had last stood.  With Strife tended to, I shakily sheath Helios and then take a step toward Leon with the vague notion to offer my help.  Without warning, Lion Heart abruptly slips from his hands, and after a dull bounce off the hard desert ground, Leon sways and falls to join his weapon.  Cursing, I sprint the last few meters between us and drop to my knees such that I slide right up next to the dark-haired fighter.

I move Leon onto his back and I'm surprised to find the dog's head still firmly attached to his left arm.  Deciding that the gook oozing from yellow fangs could be partially responsible for the man's collapse, I pry my fingers beneath sharp teeth at both sides of Leon's arm and force the surprisingly stubborn mouth open.  Once the injured arm is free, I toss the canine head to the side, but then nearly jump out of my skin when the demon attempts to snap at my retreating hand.  Its biting action bringing the head closer, I realize that unsheathing my blade while in a kneeling position would be quite impossible.  Deciding to suffer the consequences at a later time, I grab Lion Heart's hilt and lift the blade back over my head to swing the weapon down at the tenacious dog.  The skull sliced in two, an odd whine sounds in the moment before the two halves dissolve into black mist and disappear into nothingness.

"Count your blessings that Leon didn't see you do that."

Strife's voice nearly makes me drop the weapon from surprise.  "Fucking Hell, don't scare me like that."  Scowling at the man who looks worse for wear, I comment, "What are you doing walking around already?"

He scoffs while kneeling at Leon's other side.  "It was a cheap spell that steals away almost all of your energy.  No real lasting damage."

"As long as you get rest," Aerith scolds from behind the blond.  Her tone quickly softening, she asks, "How does he look?"

"Not good," Strife says while lifting Leon's injured arm and revealing the veins thickened with dark poison.  "Do you have a Remedy on you?  Spirits know what that mutt was infected with."

As Aerith hands him a potion that glows softly in the late afternoon light, I brush aside dark hair from Leon's forehead and frown at the lines of burn marks that cover his face and neck.  "Is he going to be okay?"

"Hn, he wouldn't dare die without being certain that you were safe," Strife answers with a completely serious expression, "but those Ultima spells are brutal when taken head on.  Smarter people dodge and take only part of the blow.  And that's not too mention whatever damage this poison is doing to him."

My body tenses at the guilt fueled by his casual words.  If I hadn't been here standing around like a lame duck, Leon would've been able to handle himself just fine against the sorceress bitch.  It's my fault that he's like this and I don't even have a potion to my name to take away the injuries I inadvertently caused.

A gloved hand sticky with unmentionable gook presses below my chin, forcing me to meet gazes with intense sapphire when Strife says, "Don't look like that when he wakes up.  You're the reason he's alive again and I don't want him regretting it."

Knocking aside his hand, I argue, "You keep saying that, but you're wrong.  Leon wants the guy before me and I have nothing to do with it."

An eyebrow lifted in an incredulous arc, Strife asks, "Then remind me again why he looks like a man trampled by a chocobo on fire?"

"It's for him," I insist.  "Not me."

"But what if you are him?"

I sit as tall as possible when I state in a clear voice, "I am not him.  I'm Seifer Almasy from boring ass Twilight Town, and while it's not much, I'm not pathetic enough to pretend to be someone else."

Instead of being put out by my response, Strife smiles smugly, "And that's why he likes you."

Though irritated by the soldier's determination to fuck with me, I don't have the proper focus to continue with his game.  Looking down at Leon, I adjust his silver necklace so that it doesn't press too hard against his throat.  "Why isn't he waking up?"

"Because I don't want him to," Strife states without an ounce of shame.  Ignoring my horrified stare, the soldier slips an arm beneath the unconscious brunet and lifts him none too gently onto his shoulder opposite the one adorned with a heavy guard.  "It's just a Sleep spell, kid.  He has a bad habit of refusing treatment for potentially fatal injuries."

That being the extent of his explanation, I watch dumbly as Strife lifts up to his feet and starts walking in the direction of Radiant Garden.  Aerith flashes me a smile and nods her head toward the city before she chases after Strife while asking if he had been worried about her.  I almost stand before I notice Lion Heart still resting next to me.  I stare at the blade of blue metal, hesitating before I wrap my fingers around the decorated hilt.  Moving to my feet, I rest the gunblade on my shoulder and step without hurry after the others, my eyes unable to move away from the sight of Leon slumped over Strife's shoulder.

I never before realized how much the wings on his jacket look like stains of blood.

~ > < ~

Kneeling on the ground while resting my arms and head at the foot of Leon's bed, I stare sleepily at the man who hasn't been awake since the battle yesterday afternoon.  Aerith and Merlin had worked together to remove the hexed poison from his blood, the old wizard rambling on about zombies and 'ghastly magic' during the entire process.  Leon tried to wake at one point and was promptly subdued by another Sleep spell from both Strife and Aerith.  Once fully treated, Strife carried the brunet back to this apartment and locked the bathroom door behind them before cleaning sweat and desert dirt from the unconscious body.

It was hard to sleep last night with Leon passed out on his bed and Strife gone to his own apartment with the promise to return at some point this morning.  I got maybe an hour or two before moving into my current position half-lying on the bed while watching the dark-haired man sleep.  My right leg went numb some time ago, but I can't be bothered to move while lost in drowsy reflection.

So many thoughts have crossed my mind, some concerning my family and if they were upset at my desertion, others focused on the sorceress and why she escaped when she did.  But most of my night has been spent thinking about the man in front of me.  Many of those thoughts are nothing new - amazement toward his skill both with a blade and with magic, that quickly followed by disbelief that Leon's willing to waste those abilities to protect a kid like me.  But there are new thoughts with the old, most encouraged by Strife's stunt yesterday to bring up Leon's hands, of all things.  And hell, it's not like I never noticed them before with the way Leon holds a weapon or when casting complex magic, but nothing compares to watching and feeling his fingers on my body and caressing my skin with a healing touch.

... Shit, I can't afford to think of this again.  Back then, I had the pain of fractured bones and fucking nails in my body to drive away any unintended reactions.  Now, I have nothing except the knowledge that Leon prefers men and how he looks while only wearing only boxers.

The click of a lock abruptly sounds, making me jump more from embarrassment at my thoughts than surprise alone.  Strife steps inside, his eyes glowing in the dim light of early morning when he glances at me.

"That doesn't look too comfortable," he comments while closing the door behind him and revealing a bag of foodstuffs, most likely breakfast with regards from Aerith.  "Are you hungry?"

"Not really," I mutter without moving from my position on the bed.

"He'll be all right, kid.  It was bad luck that the sorceress used necromancy, but now we know what to watch out for in the future."

I hum with skepticism at the statement, but don't bother putting words to my dislike of Leon nearly killing himself to protect my meager life.  Instead, my eyes are drawn to the golden ring visible at Leon's left hand and I'm prompted to ask, "Say, Strife, how much do you know about Leon's past?"

"Enough," he replies from the kitchen, placing some food on plates while the rest is shoved into the fridge.  "Why do you ask?"

I hesitate briefly, debating if Strife's future taunts are worth the information I want to know.  Unfortunately, the answer is yes.  "This ring of Leon's... He got it from the Seifer before me, didn't he?"

The soldier doesn't respond directly, though his movements in the kitchen have stopped.  "It's not really my place to say.  But whatever the answer may be, why would it matter to you?"

"Damn it, it's unfair," I complain, Strife's non-answer enough to tell me that I'm right to assume there had been something more between Leon and the other Seifer.  "No matter what I do, I've already lost.  I'll never compare to that fucking bastard."

"Hn, that's probably true."  At the blunt answer, I glance at the blond and find him smirking smugly as he leans back against the fridge, his arms crossed in front of his chest.  "So, when did you start liking Leon?"

"I don't like him, prick," I argue, but then make the poor choice of looking back at Leon's sleeping face.  Dark lashes contrast greatly against his pale cheeks and his chestnut-colored hair lies softly on his pillow and long neck, a warming sight that greatly contradicts his cold-hearted mercenary reputation.  My lips hardly moving, I quietly amend my statement with, "At least I don't think I do."

"I've heard that 'thought' has very little to do with love," Strife comments amusedly.

Cursing his inhuman hearing, I huff in irritation.  "I don't know anything about that... But I guess that could be the heart of the matter."

The soldier hums in question.

"Yeah right, like I'd tell you.  You're just going to mock me.  Why should I bother giving you ammunition?"

Strife shrugs in his typical manner.  "You've got someone else to talk to?"

The offhanded comment startles me with its harsh measure of truth.  Leon and Strife are the only ones I've actually talked to in this damn place, the rest of the people nice enough, but no one I can be myself around.  I stare at the spiky-haired soldier to judge his intentions behind playing this game of 'confidant', but when nothing in the man's face gives him away, I breath a sigh of surrender.

"While I'm sure you'd laugh at the idea, I was pretty popular at my school and I've gotten more than my fair share of confessions.  A couple of the girls were cute enough for me to try the whole dating scene, but it always felt... flat, somehow.  I'd be with my girl, but thinking of other stuff like the next Struggle Battle or hanging out with my posse.  It was never right."

Strife looks at me with his softly glowing eyes, appearing truly interested.  "What happened when a boy would confess to you?"

I snort at the idea.  "Guys aren't like that in Twilight Town.  Fuck, I didn't even know two guys could be together until I saw you and Leon, and I still don't really get it."

"Maybe you were born on the wrong world," Strife muses, his suggestive tone not entirely upsetting.  Hell, I'm the idiot who has been watching Leon asleep for the past several hours, so I'm the first to doubt that the wiring in my brain is quite right.

As my fingers toy with the edge of the blanket, I briefly debate asking the foremost question in my mind.  Eventually deciding I was already this deep, I ask the blond, "What is it like, being with a guy and all?"

The corner of his mouth quirks into an almost smile.  "Sex is sex, mostly.  The mechanics are different, but the orgasm is the same."

"I never said that I've had sex," I say a bit irritably, uncertain if I should be proud or disgusted that both Leon and Strife had assumed I was experienced.

He blinks once and then chokes slightly, forced to cover his mouth with a fisted hand to hide the evidence of his laugh.  Catching my angry glare, Strife waves with the fingers of his raised hand.  "Sorry, it's hard to forget that you're from a different world.  When you learn to kill at a young age, sex doesn't seem as magical."

"I don't think it's 'magical' or anything, but it should be something... Well, something for your first time."  As my thoughts drift to my mother and her hard lessons in life, I abruptly realize that my hand had moved such that my thumb strokes the scar between my eyes.  Trying to appear natural, I move my hand and trap it beneath my arm.

Strife stares at me with an expression somewhere between pity and envy.  "Thinking so leaves you open for greater disappointment."

"Or it gets you something more satisfying than an easy fuck," I argue.

A vague smirk sneaks into his expression and he leans back further against the fridge.  "If that's the case, then maybe I should explain it on a level you'll understand.  Compared to sex with a woman, sex between two men is a lot like sparring - it's hard and fast with a lot of grunting and sweating, and whenever you land a proper hit, it feels pretty damn amazing.  There's some pain on occasion, but nothing beats the rush of a final victory."

Feeling disconcerted by the way Strife's smile had shifted to something feral, I point out grimly, "You know, I don't know how much I like that analogy.  You broke my arm during one of our spar sessions."

"If you do it right, that's a risk with sex, too."

Already stunned by the man's bluntness, I'm pushed beyond that stage when a weary voice says, "Don't believe a word he says."

After a brief glance at half-opened eyes, I jerk back away from the bed and sit back on my heels in a stiff pose.  Leon, for his part, doesn't comment on my previous position and simply moves such that he sits upright on the mattress and leans partially on the adjacent wall.  A hand buried deep into his sleep-messed hair, Leon glares at me tiredly before directing a harsher look at the blond soldier.

Unbothered by the stare, Strife asks dryly, "When did you wake up?"

"Somewhere around magical sex," Leon replies crossly.  "How long have you been putting Sleep spells on me?"

"Just since the fight yesterday.  Though admittedly, it was a mistake when Aerith and I double teamed you."

The brunet scoffs in disbelief before glancing back at me.  "I didn't see... Were you wounded badly during the fight?"

The concerned shine of silver in his eyes stuns me momentarily, almost making me forget that I should offer a reply to the question.  "I got a few bites and was singed a little, but nothing major."

"Good," he says within a relieved sigh.

When nothing more is said, Strife comments, "There's food if you're hungry."

Leon nods and moves slowly off of the bed.  "We should have a meeting as soon as possible.  Gather everyone at Merlin's and I'll bring Almasy with me after we've had breakfast."

"If you want to be alone with a kid, you just have to ask," the soldier says with a completely straight face.

Without vocal warning, Leon steps sharply and places a hand around his friend's throat.  Strong fingers clamp around pale skin and Leon warns lowly, "I'll deal with you later."

Strife fights to maintain a smile despite his obvious pain, unable to speak given the choke hold.  His face turns vaguely purple before Leon releases his grip, first making certain to bang the soldier's head against the fridge.  Strife doesn't retaliate, but instead coughs in a fashion that sounds a little bit too much like a laugh.  The blond manages a smooth duck when Leon throws a half-hearted punch, and once a safe distance away from the angered man, Strife waves his goodbye and sends a wink in my direction before leaving the apartment.

Alone with me, Leon grumbles while grabbing two forks and placing them loudly onto the breakfast plates prepared earlier by Strife.  Stepping back to the bed, he shoves a plate in my direction in a manner that suggests refusal on my part would be very unwise.  We eat in silence for several bites and I do a good job of looking everywhere except at Leon.  Unfortunately, it doesn't last.

"Don't let Strife get you alone again.  Or one of the girls, for that matter."

Nearly choking on a bite of scrambled eggs, I manage a baffled, "What?  Why?"

"Because he is planning something and it can't lead to anything good."

I eye Leon for a long moment, uncertain if it's my general interest in the gunblade master that can't lead to anything good or if there's a valid concern with Strife's involvement in the matter.  Witnessing Strife's methods thus far, I'm inclined to believe that, for the first time, I'm not the worst of two evils.

After another pause for eating, Leon adds, "You did well yesterday."

I scoff.  "I could barely handle myself against a few bugs while you took on a spell-happy sorceress and a zombie dog.  That hardly compares."

"You kept yourself alive.  That's all I could hope for."  Though he downplays the statement by eating with a casual air, I hear the truth in his voice - Leon was afraid to lose me, more than he'd probably admit to anyone.  Especially not to me.

Forcing a cocky smile, I say, "Well, I chose a good instructor, so what else did you expect?"

Leon stops with his fork halfway lifted to his mouth and his eyes gain a haunted look as if seeing something he didn't like.  The loss of composure passes after a pained second and he finishes his bite before saying, "You don't want to know."

Acknowledging the reality that, yes, it would probably be safer to not know some of the things the gunblader has seen, I don't press the point and instead tell him, "I'm alive because you were there to save my ass.  I probably should thank you for that or something."

Once again pausing in his meal, Leon glances over at me with an almost surprised expression, as if he had forgotten that he was the one who had stepped between me and the sorceress.  He then shakes his head and comments, "Some things never change."

"Hey, I didn't mean to get into trouble."

His gaze wistful, Leon says, "And yet, events happened as they always do."

Confused by the remark, I look questioningly at the dark-haired man in hopes of a clearer explanation.  Instead, Leon stands up with his mostly finished plate and heads to the kitchen with a vague statement that he needed a shower before meeting with the others.  The plate set next to the sink, Leon steps to the bathroom, but stops at the doorway.

Never looking at me, he says, "I'm glad I was there this time."

And as I watch him escape into the bathroom, I reach up and finger my scarred ear while thinking of the question I can't ask Leon - "Does that mean you won't always be there for me?"

~ > < ~

The rest of my breakfast finished in silence, Leon and I make it to Merlin's house in time to watch Strife drag Yuffie in by the collar of her pajamas.  Strife dumps her onto a plush chair before he moves to lean against the wall behind her, apparently prepared to kick the chair as needed to keep the girl awake.  Already there, Aerith pours coffee for those attending the early morning meeting, which includes Cid grumbling next to his computer and Merlin absent mindedly stroking his beard while reading a floating book that appears to be upside down.  Leon takes his typical place near the door while leaning back against the wall, his arms already crossed and eyes momentarily closed in thought.  Meanwhile, I steal a non-floating chair and turn it around to sit with the back of the chair pressed against my chest.

"So, looks like you kids did good, bein' still alive and all," Cid comments while scratching at his morning stubble.

"We were lucky," Leon corrects, an unspoken 'I told you that I didn't like the plan' heard within his tone.  "Ultimecia wasn't as powerless as we hoped.  Instead, she had too much power at her command."

"Too much?" Yuffie murmurs from her chair, her hands tight around a large cup of coffee.  "Then why didn't she knock off you and Seifer with an explodie spell or something?"

A dark eyebrow raises at the concept of an 'explodie' spell.  "There would've been too much backlash without someone to ground her connection with such wild magic.  She needs a Knight."

I stare at Leon for the statement.  "But wouldn't that be one of us?"

"It's nothing that selective," Leon explains.  "She'll want someone who won't combust at the first serious use of her magic, but there are enough 'worthy' fighters in this universe that it shouldn't take her long to find someone who suits her tastes."

"How long is 'long'?" I ask, not exactly excited with the idea of fighting that woman again in the near future.

Leon shrugs and looks to Aerith.  "Can we do anything with this time we've been given?"

With all attention focused on her, Aerith nods hesitantly.  "I think so.  When I touched her with my magic, I felt her soul's tenuous hold on this existence.  She's on the brink between life and death, and I believe that's the reason why she can call upon the creatures from your destroyed world.  That poor girl's body is nothing but a vessel--"

"Which may work in our favor," Merlin announces with a flourish as his floating book thumps loudly onto the table.  "The desert world of thieves, merchants, and ancient legends has many artifacts of cursed nature that are focused on trapping powerful souls.  Most certainly, one of these relics will match our needs."

Leon pinches the bridge of his nose.  "That would involve actually going to Argrabah."

"But of course, my lad.  Items that have the ability to imprison souls can't be made, not without condemning your own soul to such dark magic.  No, no, no, we can only use what already exists."

Leon sighs in defeat.  "I suppose nothing else can be done.  Let us know once you've found something of interest and we'll move from there."

Merlin nods distractedly, his attention already returned to the book of many squiggly words and very few pictures.

"If that's all...?" Leon prompts with the obvious desire to be somewhere else.

When no one else thinks of something to add, I raise my hand before I realize what I'm doing and silently berate myself for acting like a kid in school.  "I've got a question."  Gaining everyone's attention, I look to Leon and ask, "Is there a reason why that sorceress bitch seems confused about what to do with me?  One minute she's out to kill me, and then the next moment she says she wants me.  Or am I just imagining things?"

"Ultimecia wants to torment us in everyway possible," Leon reasons.  "Logic isn't involved."

"Seifer may have a point," Aerith argues while standing up from her chair.  Approaching me, she continues to explain, "Something about her soul is drawn to Seifer and it may benefit us to understand why."

Aerith reaches out and places a soothing hand at my cheek with her thumb brushing just below my eye.  Her gaze is questioning when she stares down at me, and though I don't know what I'm agreeing to, I nod at the silent request.  Like a breeze felt within my mind and body, her spell moves within me for no longer than a second, but she instantly frowns at whatever she discovers with her magic.

When nothing is said as Aerith continues to stare at me, I ask somewhat worriedly, "Is it bad?"

"I don't know.  There's something, but... Leon, perhaps this is something you would recognize?"

Leon scowls at me, as if I'm purposefully doing this to irritate him, but he still steps close to place his hand at the back of my neck.  Compared to Aerith's soft presence, Leon's magic feels like ice water trickling through my veins, an odd but not entirely unpleasant feeling when it last for a fraction of a second, ending with a hissed curse.

"This is impossible," Leon complains as he sharply removes his hand and places it deep into his hair.  "This is fucking impossible."

"Leon," Aerith attempts to sooth, but he shrugs off her consoling touch.

"No wonder she said that we had something she wants.  Hyne damn it, why does this shit have to happen?"

Unsettled by Leon's outburst, I stand up from my chair and grab his raised arm, forcing him to face me.  "What's wrong with me?"

He meets my gaze for a long moment before announcing, "You have a... 'spirit' inside of you, something we called a 'guardian force' or GF.  I don't know how it got there, but it's dormant for now and it would be best to let it sleep."

"... You mean to say that there's something living inside of me?"

Calm returning to blue-gray eyes, Leon fists his free hand around his silver pendant of a roaring lion.  "It's possible to survive just fine with a GF sleeping within you.  The problem comes when you try to command it and use its magic."

I stare at the dark-haired man, his mannerisms suggesting a worrisome idea - "You don't... I mean, could you have one... too?"

Leon tightens his hold on the pendant.  "His name is Griever."

"Holy shit," I whisper while jerking back my hand, as if the spirit within him would abruptly strike at the call of its name.

Leon breaths a chuckle.  "He's not an attack dog, just a tired soul.  Much like the one inside of you."

I press a hand to my chest and clutch at my shirt.  "Does... this one have a name?"

"I'm certain it does, but I don't recognize the spirit.  It may have been with the Seifer from my world and we never knew of its existence.  They are rather skilled at hiding, especially the stronger ones."

I stare at nothing for a time, startled by the idea of something hidden within me.  Nothing feels wrong or unusual, but I suppose that if this thing has been with me since the beginning, there's no reason for me to know any differently.  A hand rests my shoulder and I glance into stone-colored eyes, the firm gaze quieting some of my panicked thoughts.

"That GF resides within you because it likes something about you.  It can be your ally if you respect it, but not if you fear it."

I scoff at the suggestion.  "Easier said than done.  At least you know what's in you."

Leon doesn't argue, though his pale eyes continue to look at me with an intent gaze while he studies my face.  His hand lifts and almost goes high enough to touch my scarred ear, but Leon pulls away before that contact.  Haltingly, he turns and glares at Strife for some reason.  The soldier in turn cocks his head with the wordless question of 'what's the problem?'.  Leon's scowl deepens, but turns his head sharply to move toward the door.

"Ultimecia may have given us time to prepare, but she is gathering more power the longer she exists in this universe and when she finds a suitable Knight, she'll come back to take what she wants and then destroy everyone that could oppose her.  We need to be ready."  His hand on the door handle, he directs, "Merlin, let us know what help you need in your research.  Cid, speak with Chip and Dale about preparing a Gummi ship for travel to Agrabah.  Aerith and Yuffie, gather the supplies we will need depending on Merlin's information.  Understood?"

With the mixed collection of agreement from those in the room, Leon nods and leaves the house with no other words such that I'm forced to hurry after him.  I'm momentarily blinded by the brightness of the rising sun, and thus nearly run into the brunet who had stopped a few meters from Merlin's house.  His face angled up to the sky, Leon doesn't acknowledge my clumsiness while lost in whatever thoughts are bothering him.  In all reality, he has many unsettling thoughts to chose from, so I can't blame him much.

"I want to forgive," Leon eventually says, the statement not making any sense.  Just when I'm about to say so, another voice speaks out behind us.

"Nothing's stopping you."

I turn and stare at Strife for understanding the nonsensical comment.  He just smirks in return.

"This is a mess," Leon mutters and begins to walk away again.

I try to follow, but Strife grabs the collar of my jacket.  At my glare, he shakes his head and says, "Let him go.  He needs time to think."

I frown at the suggestion, my first thought being that Leon doesn't want me alone with this guy, but I don't have much choice when Strife starts walking in the opposite direction of the gunblader and doesn't release his hold on my jacket when doing so.  "Hey, let go!"

"Don't worry, kid.  I'm just going to show you some new fighting techniques without Leon around to baby you."

That doesn't sound overly promising.  "I don't have my blade."

"That's fine.  It's time you learned some hand-to-hand combat, anyway.  You aren't always going to have a weapon nearby."  A wolfish grin abruptly forms, Strife then adding, "I'll even teach you some moves that can be used both on and off of the battlefield."

Unable to break free, I stop struggling against his hold and surrender to the idea of Strife training me.  "Leon isn't going to like this, is he?"

"Not if you do it right, kid," Strife says with a deep chuckle.  "Not if you do it right."

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- I so adore this side of my Cloud muse that has emerged.  Just to make things clear, he has no sexual interest in Seifer.  He sees the boy as an elixir of sorts for Squall/Leon, and if Squall can have his soul healed by love, Cloud feels hope in his own salvation.  And now it's on to Agrabah... where I'm not going to have Aladdin or any of those characters involved, but there's something to said for a shady city with all sorts of relics, exotic foods, and other questionable items available for a price. *grin*