Game Restart: New Platform



Seated at a table that has seen better days and several bar fights, I glance around the restaurant filled with a perpetual blue haze and the distinctive scent of heavy spice.  By any definition, Zahrah is a seedy place with a predictable mix of patrons - a rowdy group of men in the back corner betting on a dice game, a scattering of questionable merchants speaking in low tones, and the town drunkard sleeping on top the bar area.  It's a place of quiet dealings and foolish gambles; it's no surprise that our contact wanted to meet us here.

"... and that's when I told her, 'Fuck that, honey bear, let's use the pilot's seat!'"

"Oh, Cid, you didn't!"

"Course I did!  And if you want a tip, when you're surrounded by smooth metal, it's best to leave yer shoes on - more traction for the harder push."

Yuffie laughs loudly at the older man's account, the near guffaw drowning out Cloud's faint chuckle at the story which he and I have already heard once before during a scouting mission.  Meanwhile, Aerith shakes her head in light disapproval, probably concerned about Seifer's nonexistent innocence.  Granted, the teen claims he is a virgin, but his interested smirk at Cid's story proves that his mind leans toward the lewd even if his body hasn't put it to practice yet.

The six of us had arrived in Agrabah yesterday afternoon, which gave us plenty of time to purchase clothing more suited for the desert environment, not to mention the additional benefit of making us less conspicuous to the thieves and con artists in the area.  Once properly dressed, we had split ways to locate information about the Oasis of Last Return and quickly discovered that few people were willing to speak of the cursed place, let alone give directions.  But where there is munny, there's a way, and one crafty entrepreneur was willing to risk the unlikely chance of being cursed in exchange for a small fortune.

It's not until the delivery of questionable food that I notice the arrival of the short peddler, a fast talking man who has quite a reputation in these parts.  While a merchant of dubious morals, he supposedly spins a good tale and sells his customers exactly what they want... depending on how carefully the request is worded.

I stand from my chair without a word to the others, only Seifer watching me when I leave to the bar area.  I try not to let the feel of green eyes on my back distract me as I approach the peddler struggling to mount a stool that is taller than his meager height.  It's a mild surprise when he makes it safely, even his ridiculously large turban remaining in place when he settles on the seat.  His small and bony hand pats the countertop, prompting the bartender to prepare his order without need of a vocal request.

I step next to the seated man, not bothering to take the stool next to him.  "Do you have the map?"

With a wide grin, he toys with his goatee.  "My friend, have you not just arrived?  Stay and enjoy the treasures of Zahrah.  Business can wait."

I glance around the restaurant, curious what 'treasures' could exist in such a dump.  It doesn't take long to notice the sight of two scantly clad women dancing directly behind Cid and Seifer, the pair of belly dancers effortlessly gaining their rapt attention while Aerith and Yuffie laugh at the obvious male response.  I scoff at the obvious game that has been put into action.

"I'm not interested in the offer of drinks or women or any other ploy you have designed to swindle more munny out of me.  You promised me a map," I state while reaching into my jacket and producing a bag of munny.  "Here's your price."

Though the shrewd man leans back to glimpse inside my jacket, he defends, "'Swindle'?  You are too harsh, foreign one.  I'm merely a simple merchant with simple desires."

Unmoved, I stare at the man and his unconvincing smile.

The peddler clears his throat and tries another predictable tactic, "I am embarrassed to admit this, but the map was... more difficult to obtain than I first thought."

"Not my problem."

The beady-eyed man poorly hides his disappointment at my continued inflexibility and snatches the bag of munny off the countertop.  He makes a show of bouncing the bag to judge its weight and glancing inside to make certain I wasn't the one scamming him.  Once assured that the correct amount had been paid, he reaches inside a pouch hanging off his belt and reveals a scroll.

"As agreed," the peddler states peevishly while offering the supposed map.

I glance at the scroll that seems a touch too crisp and notice the anxious tapping of a skeletal finger.  Without taking the map, I thumb over my shoulder and ask, "Do you see that man at my table dressed in black?"  At the peddler's curious nod, I continue to ask, "Do you see the sword he carries?"  The widening of beady eyes gives me the answer I need.  "If that map of yours doesn't lead us to the Oasis of Last Return, we will come back and make you regret your choice to deceive us.  And I promise you, we will come back."

The peddler swallows thickly and promptly pulls back the scroll.  "Ah yes, the Oasis of Last Return.  There are many places of interest in our great land, but the names are terribly similar."  While stumbling through his explanation, he tips back his enormous turban and slips free a scroll that has the creases and tears of a well used parchment.  "Here we are, but I'm afraid it's in the ancient tongue of our language.  For a small fee, I may provide translations--"

"That's unnecessary," I inform him while taking the scroll from his bony hand.

Walking back to our table, I frown at the addition a third belly dancer who appears quite fascinated by Seifer's golden hair, her hand of numerous rings and painted fingernails buried deeply into the soft spikes while she continues to dance.  Seifer's expressive green eyes follow her seductive movements and his lustful smirk shines in full form, but he surprising doesn't reach for the woman, unlike Cid who has an arm wrapped around a tall thing with long black hair and deep red eyes.

"So how 'bout it, boy?" Cid questions with a toothy leer.  "A youngster like you hasn't tasted heaven until you've had one of these desert beauties.  My treat for yer dumbass act to save those idiots during that building collapse."

While Yuffie and Aerith groan at the immoral offer, Seifer simply grins and shakes his head.  "Sorry, old man, but I'm not interested in one-night stands."  Green eyes shift toward me and focus on my approach.  "I want something real."

I curse under my breath when everyone, except Cloud, turns to determine the target of Seifer's stare.  Hyne damn it all, I knew I would regret leaving the impressionable teen alone with Cloud after that meeting earlier this week.  Even so, the others have no reason to assume Seifer meant me with his statement.  Judging their plain expressions, no one thought twice about Seifer's gaze, instead making the simpler assumption that my approach had attracted his eye and nothing more.

"I have a map," I state before tossing the scroll at Cid, the pilot easily snatching it out of the air.  "Can you tell if it's legit?"

Cid manages to open the scroll without losing his hold on the red-eyed dancer.  He hums in a variety of tones while examining the map, eventually telling the rest of us, "It's a reproduction, but an old one and good work.  It wouldn't surprise me if some smart guy copied the original 'fore the damn thing was lost or too faded to read.  The hand is steady, so I don't think anythin' was altered durin' the transfer.  Beyond that, I can't tell if this piece o' paper will lead us to that oasis of Merlin's or to a bullfrog singin' 'It's a Small World After All'."

While Yuffie snorts out a laugh, I nod with the understanding that it's a risk to trust any information gained with a price, especially when worldly treasures are involved.  "It's the best we have.  Aerith, can you attempt to translate the notes on the map?"

"No problem," the woman states with a smile, accepting the scroll from Cid.  "Merlin gave me an enchanted gem to help if we ran across any old languages."

"Be careful with it," I warn with a pointed stare.  "While we know better, any idiot who sees you and Yuffie with that map will assume you're fair game.  I know you can take care of yourselves, but don't let your guard down."

"Aye, aye, captain!" Yuffie says a bit too cheerfully, most likely excited at the opportunity to teach a group of burly men the lesson that some women shouldn't be messed with.  We had discovered yesterday that the local inn has ridiculously tight quarters, forcing us to separate into pairs for sleeping arrangements - Yuffie with Aerith, Cid with Cloud, and Seifer with me.  While it technically created a dangerous situation for the two women, Yuffie and Aerith had a laugh over the idea of being forced to pair off with a man in the room, particularly with Cid.  I can't blame them - the bastard has a mean snore.

"Then everyone should be prepared to leave early in the morning.  I want to get moving before the sun rises," I state while eyeing Cid in particular, the man only half-listening to the discussion as his red-eyed beauty toys with his goggles on top of his head.  "No excuses."

"Huh?" Cid questions when Yuffie shoves an elbow against his side.  Noticing my stare, he manages to appear chagrinned while scratching the stubble at his cheek.  "Oh right, early in the AM.  I'll be there with bells on."

Talk about your lost battles.  Deciding to change my focus to something controllable, I look to the spread of food that has already been handedly decimated by the others at the table.  "Anything I should avoid?"

"Nothing deadly," Aerith informs me.  "But there's a Sleep potion in the soup."

Yuffie snorts at the idea.  "Really, it's such child's play to use magic to steal from people.  What happened to having pride in a clean theft?  There's no skill in picking the pocket of someone who's dead to the world."

Normally I'd be worried that no one seems concerned by the fact that someone had tried to poison us, but such is Agrabah, a world that idolizes its history of outright thievery and deadly betrayal.  And as I scoop the last scraps of lamb from the closest plate, I mutter under my breath, "I never did like this fucking wasteland."

~ > < ~

Within the nonexistent comforts of the local inn and one of its dingy rooms, I remove my shirt as soon as the door closes and I step to the chipped basin partly filled with precious water.  Unfortunately, the luxury of baths are limited to royalty, which means I have to settle with a ratty rag dampened with water to wipe the sweat from my skin.  The lingering dust will have to wait until our return to Radiant Garden and far away from the desert winds that coat everything and everyone in golden sand.

The door opens and closes behind me, Seifer delayed in coming to the room for a reason I would rather not guess.  Perhaps Cid tried one last attempt to convince the teen to accept a whore in his bed, or perhaps Aerith and Yuffie wanted to give him encouraging words before our trip tomorrow.  Of course, that's mostly wishful thinking, especially when I have started to notice the shared glances between Cloud and Seifer.  Something happened a few days ago when I needed time to think about the unknown GF residing within Seifer, time that the impressionable teen had spent with Cloud despite my warnings otherwise.  I have a strong feeling that I'm not going to like the outcome of whatever they had talked about on that day.

After kicking off his boots, Seifer grunts out loudly when he drops onto one of two beds, the flimsy frame creaking dangerously at the move.  "God, I can't believe Cid.  Where did he get the idea that I'd actually want something like those women as a reward for doing what's only right, anyway?  Is there something about me that makes it look like I'm desperate for sex?"

"You are a virgin," I comment with a slight smirk at his predicament.

"And what, that's a disease around here or something?"

Rewetting my rag, I wipe the back of my neck.  "It's been a difficult era for everyone exposed to the Heartless.  We have learned to find comfort wherever we can."

Seifer mulls over that reality for a moment before insisting, "But to find somebody like one of those women and pay for her to sleep with me... It sounds depressing."

"Perhaps, but the body is easier to satisfy than the heart."

"Phft, that's like saying it's easier to take last place instead of first," Seifer argues with unmoved arrogance.  "I just don't get it.  I mean, looking at those dancers, it's not like I wanted any of them.  They were pretty enough and had nice bodies, but what do I care about appearances when it's apparent that beautiful women exist on almost every world out there?  I want more than the obvious, y'know?"

"You're stronger than most," I comment quietly, my thoughts drifting to memories of the nights I spent with Cloud.  I'm not ashamed of something that helped to heal my heart and keep Cloud away from the darkness that threatens to overtake all of us.  But that certainty doesn't make it any easier to face Seifer.

"Maybe..." Seifer agrees distractedly, his thoughts apparently focused elsewhere.  "Say, Leon, can I ask a question?"

Folding the damp rag and hanging it off the edge of the basin to dry, I hum out my reluctant permission to the teen.

"What is it about the male body that excites you?"

Standing motionless, I stare at the filthy and cracked mirror ahead of me and focus on the reflection of Seifer lounging on his bed.  In a show of nonchalance, the teen sits with his back against the wall and his arm bent behind his head, but the slight downward cast of his eyes proves that it took more than he'd ever admit to ask the overly personal question.  It also suggests that he has spent a decent amount of time dwelling over the issue, something that Seifer probably didn't think up on his own.

My eyes narrowed on his reflection, I warn him, "Stop listening to Strife."

"It wasn't exactly my choice to listen to him," Seifer complains with a huff.  "But why does it bother you so much that I talk with him?  Is it just because what he has to say is inconvenient for you?"

A resounding 'yes' comes to mind and I have to fight to keep my expression as neutral as possible.  "It's because he has a bad habit of throwing people to the wolves when it suits his ideas of what is 'right'."

"And what, you're the big bad wolf in this scenario?"

I turn around and glance at the young man who has lived in my protection for several months now.  Dressed in the local attire, his sleeveless shirt of dark green complements his golden skin and developing muscles, his loose pants of thin material does nothing to inhibit his arrogant stride, and his black sash fits snugly at his waist while conveniently hiding the small bejeweled blade he couldn't help purchasing from a street merchant.  He's no longer the wide-eyed kid I picked up from Twilight Town and that knowledge does little to help me in this situation.

Crossing my arms over my chest, I warn him, "I'm more dangerous than you realize."

Seifer lifts a hand to his right ear and caresses the flesh scarred by magical fire.  "I've never thought of you as anything other than dangerous."

Unable to pull my eyes away, I watch his thumb move over the ear that is forever marred because of my weakened defenses and Seifer's regrettable ability to release the emotions from my damaged heart.  I should be ashamed, maybe guilty at his pain, but I can only feel warped satisfaction every time Seifer strokes that scar and not the line between his eyes, a brand that has nothing to do with me.

"Are you with men because women are too boring for you?"

With an eyebrow lifted in disbelief, I ask in reply, "Who said that I've only been with men?"

"But you're with Strife... And while the prick wouldn't say one way or another, I know you were with the other me.  That's his ring, isn't it?"

Though initially surprised by his insight, I inwardly laugh at my constant failure to keep in mind that this Seifer shares his previous self's ability to make inconvenient connections.  "Strife and I were never in a relationship," I state, hating my need to clarify that point.  "But yes, this ring was from the Seifer Almasy from my lost world.  And before him, I was with a woman for a short time."

"Whoa, really?" Seifer asks as he shifts to sit at the edge of his bed, his socked feet flat against the rugged floor.  "What was she like?  Was she a beauty?"

"You seemed to think so."  When Seifer's nose wrinkles in confusion, I explain, "The body Ultimecia possessed once belonged to a girl named Rinoa Heartilly."

Green eyes slowly widen as the teen processes the information I've given him, hopefully coming to the conclusion that becoming involved with me would be a poor decision on his part.  One lover lost her soul and the other lost his life, not once, but twice... I imagine Cloud is only safe because it was never a matter of love between us.  Hell, I can almost imagine my love being listed in Agrabah's books as one of its many fabled curses.

"I didn't realize," Seifer murmurs to himself, his eyes shifting in thought before he abruptly looks at me.  "Did you promise yourself to her?"

"Promise myself?  What do you mean?"

"Well, if I understand right, you've only been with men since her..."

It takes a moment to understand the direction of his thoughts, and once I realize that he thinks I'm somehow pining for Rinoa by only having sex with men instead of women, a breath of laughter escapes me and I fail to restrain further laughter when Seifer sports a faint blush at my reaction.  Oh Hyne, it would be a costly mistake to explain that Rinoa had been poor substitute for Seifer, my attraction to her based solely on her warmth and comfort after the events of D-District Prison.  Unfortunately, I have to say something to the clueless teen, or else I'd face even more unusual assumptions from the creative blond.

"Rinoa helped me through a tough time, nothing more than that," I inform him with a lingering smile from my previous laughter.

Though his soft blush doesn't fade, Seifer maintains eye contact while standing from the bed.  His steps are soundless when he moves toward me.  "And who's helping you through this 'tough time'?"

I don't give him the response he wants, but my eyes follow his every movement as he comes closer and I shift my footing into a more comfortable stance, refusing to budge in front of the slightly taller man.

"It's Strife, isn't it?" Seifer guesses, but instead of being angered by the thought, the teen smiles with smug confidence.  "Or should that be 'it was Strife'?"

I try not to react, but something in my expression gives Seifer the confirmation he needs.

"You used the past tense earlier when talking about you and Strife," he explains before stopping maybe a foot in front of me.  Though not touching, I can still feel his body heat against my bare skin, something I try to disregard as psychological nonsense since I shouldn't be able to tell the difference compared to the suffocating desert air around us.  "And before you think to deny anything, the prick also mentioned something about losing you.  Altogether, that leaves a simple question - why did you stop using him?"

I breathe a laugh at Seifer's idea of a 'simple question', wishing that I had his gift of sarcasm such that I could ask him to replace Cloud for me and have it be taken as nothing more than a joke, or better yet, taken as an insult that would drive him away.  But if I dared to make the suggestion and Seifer replied 'yes'...

Though distracted by conflicting thoughts, I notice the movement of Seifer's arm in time to shove a hand against his chest, forcing him a step backward and startling him from whatever stupid action he was about to make.  "You don't want this."

Green eyes narrow with irritation.  "How do you know what I want?"

"You're a rebellious punk of a kid who has been shown something new and immoral by the rules of your world and now you want to experience it for yourself."  My glare cold and unforgiving, I tell him, "Frankly, I'm not in the mood to humor a boy who just hit puberty."

Admirably, Seifer doesn't back off at my tone.  Instead, he regains his lost step and straightens to use his meager height over me.  "Is that what you think this is?  That I just want to use you for some sexual end goal?"

My fingers at his chest twitch at his angered and upset voice.  Hyne damn it, why is it impossible to divert this idiot blond from his single-minded aspirations?  "You don't want this," I repeat, as if saying it enough times will make it true.

"Then what do I want, Leon?" Seifer demands.  He then moves faster than I've seen from the teenager thus far, his hand burying deep into my hair and making it an inconvenient choice to pull away from his larger body.  "You're in my thoughts all of the time and I'm not used to shit like that.  I've only been on dates because girls would come to me, and though I made certain they had a good time for the sake of my reputation, I never gave them a second thought.  Hell, I hardly gave them a first thought.  But then you appeared out of nowhere and it's hard to have a thought that doesn't involve you."

I relax my arm that had failed to keep a safe distance between us and I hook my fingers at the low neckline of his shirt.  "You're confusing gratitude for something deeper.  I saved you from deadly monsters you never knew existed, and then I gave you the sword you always wanted--"

"If that's the case," Seifer interjects, "then shouldn't I have similar feelings for Strife?  He has done a shitload to help me out and he actually answers my questions unlike most people I know.  But thinking about him in your bed and touching you... it gnaws at me like nothing else."  With a bitter laugh, he adds, "You know, I actually make myself think of that night whenever I spar with the bastard.  It gives me bit of an edge against that ridiculous sword of his."

"Do you even understand what you're asking from me?"

His eyes firm and serious, Seifer admits, "Not really.  This is new ground for me, but it doesn't make it any less real."

I can't win.  It's a painful realization that I've been forced to relive time and time again with Seifer, and yet I continue to struggle against him as if it'd make a difference.  It reminds me of all those years ago when Seifer managed to make me see him instead of the possessed man who had raped me and marked my body.  I shouldn't have been able to fall in love with him again, but his determination was greater than my fear and my heart was weak to his overbearing presence.

And such is my problem.

If I had bothered to stop and think about my actions against Seifer, I would have realized that I didn't care that he was child or someone who wasn't the skilled mercenary I had known.  No, those were just my excuses for a greater reason - I can't betray Seifer with my love.

"I can't give you what you want."  Before Seifer can voice an argument, I lift my left hand and rest it lightly on his raised arm, purposefully placing my golden ring in plain view.  "He, my husband, meant everything to me.  If I were to touch you, to hold you as you foolishly desire, I would feel him and desire him even though you're the one with me.  I can't do that to you.  I won't do that to you."

Seifer focuses on the worn ring, his normally intense gaze softened by a cerulean hue.  "But what if I am him?"

A sigh of regret leaves me at the suggestion.  Despite the few details he knows about his past life, Seifer has never tried to be anything more than what he already is - a teenaged boy who faced a sorceress and won, a novice who learned to carry a gunblade in mere months, and a young man who constantly faces the fears no one else from his world can begin to comprehend.  He's proud of the person he is and that's how it should be.

Before I can voice my thoughts, Seifer catches onto my disappointment and promptly amends, "I'm not saying that I want to be that guy, but... You see, Strife mentioned it to me once and I couldn't get it out of my head until I realized that maybe he's right.  Maybe I am that guy, just different because our lives aren't the same.  I mean, what's a life really except a bunch of memories?  Just because I don't have that guy's memories doesn't mean I'm not him."  With a jerk of his chin towards my ring, Seifer asks, "Would you have given up on him if he had gotten kicked in the head and forgot everything he knew?"

I stare at him for the example, suspicious at Strife's true influence over the teen's thought process despite Seifer's words that suggest he had reached the conclusion on his own.  "You aren't him."

Seifer shrugs, unbothered by my declaration.  "Maybe, maybe not.  But doesn't it make more sense if I were him in some fashion?  The moment I saw your gunblade, I knew it was the weapon I've always itched to get my hands on.  It didn't matter that I had never seen such a blade before; I wanted one for myself.  There's also the issue about that guardian force sleeping inside of me.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but would a beast like that choose just anyone to possess?"  When I don't have an argument to offer, Seifer grins with sharp arrogance.  "And then there's you.  From the very beginning, I trusted you, a deadly guy who had appeared out of nowhere and knew my name.  It may sound weird, but the fact I wanted to blindly trust you scared me more than those monsters you had killed.  Since then, I've tried to figure out where that trust came from and the only thing I can figure is that my soul remembers something that my brain isn't allowed to touch.  I think it remembers you."

My hand tightens around his forearm, almost to the point of leaving bruises.  "So what am I supposed to do?  Accept you because your soul is the same?  Somehow forget the fact that you aren't my husband?"

"But I am, Squall."

My eyes widen at his use of the name I had left behind, a name this Seifer once claimed suited me better than 'Leon'.  Staring into entrancing eyes, I find it too hard, too painful to force myself to separate this teen from the man I have already lost twice in my wretched life.  It doesn't matter that his scar is at the wrong angle, that his eyes are too young, that his golden hair is too long.  I've known Seifer all of my life and I've seen him as a young boy, as a sorceress' pet, and as a lover.  This teenager before me is just one of his many forms.

My eyes burn with moisture at the acceptance that Seifer is more than I wanted him to be, but my vision of him doesn't blur or shift when I say, "You left me behind."

It was nothing I meant to say, nothing I would ever admit to another soul, but I'm not given the chance to regret the spoken words or to question why they had to be said.  Like many times before, my sense seems to disappear the moment warm lips press against mine.  It's not that he's particularly skilled at the chaste kiss, but for the first time in years, I feel like I have a reason to breathe if only to take in the scent of the only man who constantly dares to touch my frostbitten heart.

"I'm sorry," Seifer eventually whispers against my lips.

I scoff halfheartedly.  "You don't even know why you're apologizing."

"It's not my fault I don't know the details," he states accusingly, "but even a kid like me can see that you've been left alone.  And I have a feeling that you're weaker for it."

Afraid to accept him, terrified to reject him, I make myself look into his hopeful gaze.  "Why now?"

"Isn't it obvious?"  My glare of 'I wouldn't ask if I knew' makes Seifer swallow thickly and reply, "Well, because... there may not be a later."

Concerned by his abruptly hoarse tone, I demand, "Why wouldn't there be a later?"

Seifer scowls at the question and succumbs to his typical sarcasm, "Oh, I don't know, maybe because there's that little issue of a sorceress who possessed your ex-girlfriend and wants to kill us both in terrible ways.  But then again, it could have something to do with us searching for an evil warlock's lair, prepared to face booby traps to find a relic that might handle that bitch sorceress.  Or maybe, just maybe, it's because I've already survived one battle against Ultimecia where, right in front of me, you dropped to the ground and I thought... I swore..."

When his voice breaks apart to uselessness, I feel partly ashamed at my assumption that Seifer had prepared himself for his own death at the hands of the petty sorceress.  To hear that he's afraid to lose me, an idea that didn't really cross my mind, I almost feel sick.

Seifer barks out a bitter laugh.  "Back then, I was too weak to defend myself, to even move.  That was all I could think about when I watched you collapse, something that was previously unfeasible to me.  Do you have any clue how that tore me apart?  How my nightmares of that whore have been replaced with visions of your dead body spread out on the desert ground?"

"... I didn't die."

"Right, that time you didn't, but what happens during the next attack?  She should have her Knight by then and who knows what type of monster she'll find to be her minion.  Shit, forget the Knight - the moment she gets complete control of her powers, we're all fucked.  And with that ahead of us, do you really think I'm stupid enough to let this time pass without at least trying to be with you?"  His fingers caress my scalp with a light touch and he adds, "Hell, if I'm lucky, there might even be enough time to have something real between us."

"Seifer..." I whisper, uncertain what I should tell him.

After a surprised blink, the teen smiles like a fool.  "You've never called me by my first name before."

My lips tighten into a thin line as I'm forced to consider my mistake... if it was a mistake at all.  Gazing into his eager green eyes, I can't think of him as 'Almasy' anymore, my final defense against this kid gone without much effort on his part.  "Seifer," I repeat more forcefully, as if speaking his name wasn't a slip of the tongue, but my attempt to emphasize a point.  "You don't understand the line you are treading.  If you continue this and force me to see you as... something more, I can't look the other way again.  And frankly, I don't think you're ready for a relationship with a man like me."

Seifer laughs lightly at my warning.  "Is that supposed to dissuade me?  Come on, what have I been ready for in this screwed up universe?"

I scowl at the comment that has its measure of truth, but I don't like it nonetheless.

Shifting closer to me, Seifer smirks in defiance to my displeasure.  "In any case, you're wrong.  The only reason I want this is because you're 'a man like you'.  I wouldn't be interested otherwise."

I don't resist when Seifer leans in for another kiss, his final argument against my noble intentions to keep him safe from my toxic love and cursed life.  Despite all of the reasons why this shouldn't work, I surrender to his single-minded desire to conquer me no matter the situation, no matter our past.  Too quickly I fall into old habits and I lap my tongue at his lower lip, a silent request for something deeper that would make me stop thinking and simply accept this young man for everything he is and everything he isn't.  And Hyne, I haven't been kissed in so long.  Seifer, however, jerks back at the wet touch, his eyes wide and his cheeks flushed as he stares at me.  He then stutters out something of an apology, but his voice is too muffled and too embarrassed for him to make much sense.

It's then I realize the troubles of associating with virgins.

"Don't tell me that you haven't kissed before."

Seifer straightens with offense at the comment, but his deepening blush takes away from his attempt of regaining a dose of poise in front of me.  "I've kissed girls plenty of times before.  Just not like... that."

Fighting against a smile at his naivety, I question, "Didn't you mention something about giving those girls a good time?"

"Yeah, like treating them to a movie, putting my arm around them, a simple kiss goodnight.  But you... we don't that sort of thing in Twilight Town, y'know."

A soft breath of laughter leaves me, the sound causing Seifer's blush to spread to his ears.  It should be a disappointing sight, something to dissuade me, but looking at his face, I know that nothing has changed.  He's still the idiot I couldn't help loving over and over again, and if I'm going to succumb to his stupidity once again, I might as well enjoy myself.  I lift my hand to his face and lightly brush my fingertips along his heated cheek, eventually positioning my thumb at his chin.

"Would you like me to show you?"

Green eyes widen at the offer.  "You aren't...?  I mean, you and not-me probably did this sort of thing all of the time, and I..."

"Hn, but aren't you supposed to be him?"

Before Seifer has the chance to fully process the meaning behind my words, I stretch to place my lips against his in a gentle kiss that won't frighten him.  It doesn't take long before Seifer relaxes enough to lightly stroke my hair with the same caress as before and place his other arm around my bare waist.  With gradual pressure of my thumb against his chin, I carefully open his mouth and tease the inner edge of his lip with my tongue.  Though relenting to my lead, Seifer shows some hesitance to open his mouth further than what he thinks is proper, as if I were the one to lure him into this situation.  Amused by the idea, I don't warn him when I slip my tongue past his parted teeth.  Seifer immediately retreats, but only to the distance of a few inches where he stops and thinks about the sensations forced upon him.  He eventually grunts out a surprised 'huh' before leaning back into the kiss.

He tastes of saffron.  It's the only thought I'm allowed while I control the kiss such that Seifer's inexperienced experiments ultimately result in something productive for the both of us.  As such, I don't recognize the movement of his hand until it slips along the edge of my pants and the rough skin of his fingers rub against my lower back.  I arch forward with a soft groan into our kiss, the action once again startling Seifer, but not to the point of retreating from me.  Instead, his focus drifts away from the mechanics of the kiss and he tries his damnedest to recreate the touch that had caused my reaction.

"Not happening," I grumble into his mouth.  "We have an early morning tomorrow."

Seifer leans back to blink at me with confusion, but it doesn't take long for him to understand what exactly isn't happening tonight.  "Oh..." he breathes, and then a slow smile comes to his lips.  "Oh."

Damn virgins.  "You have poor timing," I inform him and try to pull away, but he replaces his arm at my waist and wraps the other around my bare shoulders.  "Seifer, we should get to bed."

"Can we share one?"

I look at him with a raised eyebrow, wondering how that trick would work.

Seifer glances back over his shoulder and frowns at the reminder of the narrow and flimsy mattresses that will serve as our beds tonight.  "Well, maybe we can pull them together?"

"They'd probably fall apart if we moved them," I comment.  At the teen's downhearted look, I sigh and question, "I know you're not stupid enough to force the issue of sex, so what is this really about?"

"...Tomorrow morning, you're going to pretend this didn't happen, aren't you?"

I don't dignify the question with an answer, my irritated glare being enough.

Avoiding my gaze, Seifer explains, "I've played a game like this before.  You're an adult humoring a kid, and the moment I let go, you aren't going to live up to your promises."

Taking a moment to study his expression, I recognize the pained look Seifer would show after every failed SeeDs exam.  Always trying his hardest, always putting his neck on the line, and his reward for that bravery was undeserved failure.  It's a shame that this Seifer was somehow taught the same lesson in his young life.  At that moment, I realize that there is little I know about this kid who has a family and a past he can remember.  And suddenly I want to know what has made this Seifer so much like the man I knew, but noticeably different in thoughts and actions.  Thus far, I have avoided such talk to prevent getting too close to the person I can lose at any minute... again... but it's too late now.  Maybe it was too late to begin with.

My voice low and certain, I say, "I've already warned you that I'm not interested in games."

Though still not meeting my gaze, Seifer comments, "Yeah, but an hour ago, you weren't interested in me, either."

"That... wasn't a matter of being uninterested in you," I admit reluctantly, earning a sidelong glance from the teen.  "This won't be easy.  Our differing pasts aside, I'm a decade older than you and you still aren't accustomed to the universe outside of Twilight Town.  While the people of Radiant Garden are fairly open-minded, not every world is like that.  I imagine most people will think I've taken advantage of you."

"I'm fine with that," Seifer insists, finally facing me directly.  "I don't give a shit what other people say as long as you don't push me aside."

Hn, it's funny how things can move full circle like this, his declaration reminding me of my one time wish to stand next to Seifer, even if he never acknowledged my love.  But that's the past and it has become rather apparent that I should take my chances and live in the present for once.  That thought foremost in my mind, I tell him, "I want you to call me 'Leon'."

Seifer stares at me with a betrayed look, and then starts into an argument I don't bother listening to.

Speaking over him, I maintain, "If you call me 'Leon', it'll be harder for me to confuse you with the man I knew.  And if we're going to do this, I want to try to do this with you, not with old memories."

His expression relaxes into one of hopeful disbelief.  "Then, are we...?"

I huff at his desire to name this thing between us.  "We're together and figuring things out.  Leave it at that for now."

Though he should reasonably be disappointed by the reply, Seifer instead smiles and nods.  "We're together," he repeats softly.  His hand moves to grasp mine in a tight hold and causes my ring to be squeezed bitingly between our fingers.  "And one day, I'll make you see me."


The heat of the desert sun is like nothing I've experienced before, giving me a true appreciation of the simple things in life such as ice cubes and shade.  Like a regular nomad tribe, we've been stomping through the desert since early this morning, before the sun had bothered appearing on the horizon.  Leon had taken the lead with me trailing behind him as I couldn't quite keep up with his steady pace in the sand.  Strife kept back with Aerith, the only person with the right touch to convince the camel carrying our supplies to move.  Unsurprisingly, Cid could barely be persuaded to budge this morning, and so he was tossed onto the camel along with our supplies.  Though regaining consciousness since then, his complaints of being an old man with a sore back earned him a permanent perch on the camel.  Yuffie had been given the job of scout, her appearance and disappearance happening throughout the day depending on her whims.

All in all, it has been a very long, very hot day.

I thought the others were insane to insist that robes and headwear were necessary for traveling into the desert, the idea of wearing more clothing seemingly an oxymoron, but I now understand how the sun would've burnt my bare skin to a bacon-like crisp.  Making the head piece work this morning was quite the adventure, Leon forced to fix the disaster that I had created with the simple scarf.  It was hard to stand in place while he stood in front of me and wrapped the cloth in a purposeful manner such that my head and neck were covered without limiting my peripheral vision.  Every time his fingers brushed against my skin, a weird feeling turned my stomach and made me more sensitive to the next touch.  More than that, I wanted him to touch me, a need that still frightens me a little.  I've never wanted something as much as I do Leon and I can't quite figure out what to do about it.

"Thinking about something interesting?"

I jump at the unexpected voice, and then glare at Strife for constantly catching me off guard.  "How do you do that?"

The blond soldier simply grins in response, making me look like an idiot for the valid question.  Dressed like the rest of us in a flowing white robe that covers his darker clothes, Strife should reasonably be struggling on the desert sands while bearing the weight of his buster blade.  Instead, he moves effortlessly with the air of someone on a stroll... in the middle of a desert... looking for the lair of a crazed warlock who really liked killing people.  Fuck, for all I know, Strife does consider this to be nothing more than an afternoon stroll, the experienced mercenary not bothered by the ideas of booby traps and potentially undead warlocks.

"So, you finally took my advice."

My lips twitch into a near sneer and I forcefully look away from the smug bastard, only to have my eyes settle on Leon's back a dozen or so yards ahead of us.  It's his fault that I got shit for sleep last night, my eyes unwilling to close while I laid on that mockery of a bed and watched Leon rest motionlessly.  Though he had said otherwise, I was prepared for the worse this morning, that Leon would simply pretend nothing had happened.  Instead, I was surprised to wake up with a cold touch against my forehead, Leon toying with my hair while waiting for me to wake.  His eyes were remote, his posture was visibly stiff, but he was there and sitting at my side.

Even so, one question remains and, unfortunately, only one man can give me the answer.  "Why were you so certain that he'd accept me?"

"He said so himself," he replies, and then adds for clarification, "You were there when Leon mentioned that he wanted to forgive."

Realizing that Strife was talking about Leon's odd comment a few days ago, I ask with unresolved confusion, "What exactly does he want to forgive?"

"You," Strife replies dully, as if bored with the obvious.

Stunned, I look at the mercenary, but I don't need to ask any questions when I think I know the answers.  I can still hear Leon's voice telling me that I had left him behind, and though I know he wasn't really speaking to me, it pained me all the same.  It had been an instinctual act to kiss him, as well as whispering the subsequent apology that wasn't really my right to give, but it had to be said nonetheless.  And if I wanted to trust Strife and his assumptions, then Leon probably needed to hear that apology whether he knew it or not.

"So," Strife prods after allowing me a moment of thought, "how did the bed hold up?"

I snort at the ridiculous question.  "Seriously, what's wrong with you and Leon?  Does everything have to be about sex?"

Sapphire eyes narrow with interest.  "You're still calling him 'Leon'."

Shit, why do I keep telling these things to him?  "Yeah, because he wants me to.  He wants me to continue doing the things I do, got it?"

His mysterious smile in place, Strife places a heavy hand at my shoulder and squeezes hard.  "Tread carefully, kid.  While you might be head over heels in love, Leon doesn't fall like that."

"I never said I was in love, either," I state sharply, not liking how both Strife and Leon seem to think that love is a child's game.  "I know the real thing isn't this easy, but I finally have Leon's attention.  He's looking at me and not through me, and while it may sound pathetic to you, it's the first step to something incredible, something..."  At a loss for the right word, I explain, "I've always had my dreams, but I never thought I'd be this close to making one real."

"Nice story, but you have a rough road ahead of you," Strife comments, his voice surprisingly sympathetic.  "Even if Leon wants the same things, he's not going to admit it.  Well, at least willingly."

I stare at the mercenary for his offhanded remark, something about his tone striking me as a warning... or perhaps a threat.

Before I have a chance to figure out what Strife could be implying, I'm abruptly distracted by the sight of Yuffie jumping and waving like a loon in the distance, her location slightly west of our current course.

Leon seems to notice her at the same moment I do, and after muttering something under his breath that I can't understand with him so far ahead, he motions for rest of us to shift directions and meet up with the excitable woman.  It takes a few minutes to reach her waiting spot, Yuffie bouncing lightly the entire time despite the heat that has zapped everyone else's energy.  Once we're close enough, she points at the ground with a mild flourish and directs our attention to a small, weather-beaten statue of a fish... that appears to be missing half of its tail.

"That'" I ask in disbelief, seeing nothing important about the statue, but apparently I'm the only one who thinks so.

"Appearances are always deceiving in Agrabah," Leon states while kneeling to the ground.  With a gloved hand, he lightly raps a knuckle against the abused stone, the seemingly fragile statue not budging at the rough touch.  Leon then brushes a finger along the underside of the fish and reveals twisted lettering that oddly looks like it was freshly carved into the stone.  "Good eye, Yuffie.  We would've walked right past it."

Yuffie grins at the praise and flexes her arm in a victory pose.  "You can always count on me, boss."

Standing up from the ground, Leon says, "Get a last drink, everyone."

"Don't call it a 'last' drink, dumb shit," Cid complains from his perch on top of the camel.  "It's bad luck."

Leon raises an eyebrow at the superstitious comment, and without correcting his statement, he retrieves his canteen from beneath his robes and takes a deep drink of the undoubtedly lukewarm water.  We all follow his lead, the gravity of his statement understood by everyone without need of additional words.  Though tasting of dirt and faintly of metal, I savor the last of my water while leaving a few mouthfuls in the canteen.  It's almost painful to save that last bit with the knowledge that we'll somehow have to get back to the city without the lifesaving liquid, but there's nothing to be done about it.

Leon is the first to pour his remaining water on the statue, the rest of us following his lead once again.  Cid is the last to dump his water, the old man sliding off the back of the camel with more grace than his previous complaints of a bad back should have allowed.  And thusly, we stand in a circle around the broken statue of a fish, staring as the desert ground greedily absorbs the last drops of our water.  We probably look like idiots right now, especially when we probably just committed ourselves to dying in this desert.

The soft gurgle from the fish is a mild surprise, more so the spits of water that come from its gapping mouth.  It's then I notice a faint blue glow to the lettering on the statue, the light hard to see given the glare of sunlight off the sand.  The splattering of water gradually becomes a trickling stream that creates a muddy mess at the base of the statue.

A gloved hand abruptly grabs onto my forearm and forces me to step backward at a slow pace.  "Don't let the water touch you and bind you to this place," Leon cautions in a low tone.

I should probably be offended at his warning since I'm hardly an idiot and everyone was informed by Aerith about the dangerous properties of the water here, but I don't say anything in fear of driving away the touch of his fingers wrapped securely around my arm.  Though a glove covers his hand and my robe protects my arm, I can still feel the hardness of his ring against my skin.  It's hard to say how I feel about that hunk of gold.  A large part of me wants to be childishly jealous over the thing, but a quiet voice likes to remind me that Leon is wearing that ring because of his deep love for the person who owned this soul before me.  And if I play this right, that same love just may become mine.  And when I think of it that way, it's hard to hate that ring and what it represents.

As everyone steps back, more and more water accumulates around the statue of the broken fish.  Grass and reeds abruptly appear at the touch of water and a couple palm trees shoot up into the air, an effect that is almost comical instead of awe-inspiring.  But even thinking so, I know very well that there's a darker purpose behind the excessive use of magic: the oasis was once a lure that ensnared ill-fated people who thought they had discovered salvation, only to find themselves in a new sort of Hell.  Since the warlock's death, the oasis had dropped into a dormant state and, as every legend goes, those who dared to stir it back to life were never heard from again.

In time, the water level stabilizes and reveals certain features that had been hidden beneath the sand: several large platforms of rock serve as a path to the center of the pool where the water pours down into a square opening, the supposed entrance to the warlock's lair.  And we're not supposed to touch the water.  Right.

The hand still at my arm squeezes tightly, encouraging me to look away from the oasis and stare into cold pools of blue-gray.  Leon doesn't say anything in that moment, but his stern gaze reminds me that I can't afford to be afraid this early in the game.  Sure, it won't be easy obtaining the relic we need, but any risk is worth the chance of removing Ultimecia as a threat toward our shared future.  Leon smiles slightly, perhaps able to see my strengthened resolve, and then removes his hand from my arm.

"Get ready," he instructs, promptly removing his covering of robes that could easily dip into the enchanted water.

In short time, a collection of robes hang over the camel's back, the creature irritated by the magic oasis, but not threatened enough to run off with all of our supplies.  Aerith whispers something to the beast while tying its reins to a newly formed tree at the edge of the oasis, hopefully calming it enough that we'll have medical supplies and food once we return.  No water, unfortunately, as the oasis can only be revived with a traveler's final drops of water, but Leon seems unconcerned by the matter compared to retrieving the relic.

Once everyone is prepared, Yuffie is the first to hop across the dried stones, the woman looking much like a girl playing hopscotch.  Leon shakes his head at her antics, but follows behind without visible concern for her safety.  I trail closely behind Leon, surprised to watch Yuffie hardly pause at the entrance of the warlock's lair before she hurries down the apparent steps.  Leon, however, waits at the top platform where I move to his side and get a proper view of the entrance.  Though it appeared from the shore that water was pouring down into the stairwell, the structure actually has glass in place such that the water slides between the stone walls and glass covering, leaving the steps untouched from the cascading water.  Still, the initial flood of water had touched the stones, and judging by the smell of smoke, Yuffie was busy using fire spells to dry the remaining puddles.

"All clear, boss!" Yuffie calls out from within the shadows.

Leon glances back at the rest of us, and after a vague nod, he leads us down into the warlock's lair.

Step by step, we move from burning sunlight into damp shadows, and though it's a relief at first, the chill eventually adds to my base fears and goosebumps break out across my bare arms.  It's stupid, but I can't help feeling like a treasure hunter breaking into the tomb of a murdered pharaoh, his mummy just waiting around the corner to attack.  While there shouldn't be any mummies, I've been informed that far worse could be waiting for us within the lair.  Why did I ever think it was a good idea to search for comforting words from a mercenary?

Yuffie waits for us at the base of stairs, the dark-haired woman leaning against a stone wall where the steps seem to reach a dead-end.  Knowing differently, Yuffie simply smiles and says, "Would you do the honors, Aerith?"

"Of course."  Aerith slips past me and Leon to approach the wall, and with the map held between her and Yuffie, Aerith uses her finger against the stone to copy something from the old scroll.  The trail of words shines like glitter against the stone, and with the final stroke of her finger, the stone groans and gradually sinks into the ground to give us entrance into the warlock's lair.

Yuffie is the first to move over the threshold, the woman a supposed expert when it comes to locating and disarming booby traps.  Even so, she only seems to take a cursory glance of the area before waving us forward with the warning to not touch anything, her gaze pointedly focused on Cid.

I don't know what I had imagined when I first heard that we would be walking into the den of a warlock.  Skulls were probably on top of my list, maybe an old wooden bench with melted candles and a cauldron, and it was assumed there would be a shelf of exotic items ranging from eye of newt to fairy dust.  Apparently, I know nothing about warlocks.  The entrance to the 'lair' leads to the top floor of an immense room that looks like something crossed between a library and cathedral.  Five circular levels dig down into the earth, each floor except the lowest displaying a vast collection of old books and ancient scrolls, and between those numerous shelves are statues upon statues of angels and demons.  The hairs at the back of my neck rise up at the sight of the life-sized statues bathed in poor lighting from scattered crystals.

"Mercy from above," Aerith whispers in horror.  Everyone turns to see her standing next to a female angel that was position at the edge of the floor with her legs hanging in midair and her head cradled within her arms.  Aerith places a shaky hand on top of the angel's head and says, "She was alive when he did this to her.  They were all alive."

Stunned, I look around at the collection of statues and realize that all of them, whether angel or demon, had pained expressions.  Many were doubled over in their agony, some looked like they were trying to fight back, but none had the expected serenity of angels or the mischievousness of demons.  To think they were once humans, once alive and they were given such callous deaths... it just doesn't make sense.

"Why?" I ask to no one in particular.  "Why did something like this happen?"

"Greed, obsession, madness - take your pick," Leon replies as he steps along the metal railing, searching for a way down.  "He was a man who wanted to capture the immortal soul and discover its secrets.  These people were victims of experiments that ultimately led to the relic we need."

"And what, we just use it and forget about what was done to create it?"

"We use it and pray that it works against Ultimecia.  If not, she will bring about more horrors than the few tortured men and women here," Leon says as if their lives didn't matter, as if they were just causalities of war.

With my hands fisted at my sides, I watch helplessly as the dark-haired man steps further away with that damn unreadable expression of his.  My attention is so focused on him that I jump when a hand settles on my shoulder.

"Don't let him fool you," Yuffie states with an impish smile.  "Leon isn't as uncaring as he'd like the rest of us to believe.  In fact, there was this one time when the Dalmatian puppies went missing--"

"Yuffie, I need you over here."

The young woman pouts at her story being cut short, but replies with a, "Yes, sir!", before running off to check the ladder Leon had apparently found at the other side of the circular floor.

Watching her run off, I think about what she said and I realize that Leon's attitude wasn't the source of my anger, but rather that I know he cares more than he'd ever show and it pisses me off that he hides it like this.  "Who's benefit is he doing this for - ours or his own?"  The feel of eyes focused on my back makes me turn and I easily locate the bright sapphire gaze studying me.  I had whispered the question under my breath, but I've learned that Strife has better hearing than most humans and his interested expression proves he had heard every word.  I huff in irritation that I can't even talk to myself in peace, and then ask, "Well?  Got something to say, Strife?"

The blond soldier simply smirks and shakes his head.

Before I can coax an answer from the man, we're called over to the discovered ladder that Yuffie had declared clear of traps.  It's a direct shot from that top level to the bottom floor... well, nearly to the bottom floor as the last ten feet are mangled to uselessness.  I jump the remaining distance like Yuffie and Leon ahead of me, but unlike them, my landing doesn't stick and I stumble several steps backward before Leon grabs a flailing arm and steadies me.  I'm just about to thank him when my gaze focuses on the area around us and my breath catches at the sight previously hidden from the higher levels.  Scattered everywhere are bones that are clearly human, but most are shattered into bits and pieces like someone took a sledgehammer to a few dozen skeletons.

"Step carefully," Leon warns as he releases my arm, his fingers briefly tangling with mine.  "I won't lose you here."

Feeling like I've been bewitched, my gaze follows Leon as he crosses the room and stands next to Yuffie in front of a stone wall decorated with lettering I'll never recognize in this lifetime.  Instead of his typical leather and belts, Leon wears looser clothing that makes him appear smaller and younger than he really is.  It's strange to see him like that, a part of me wanting to protect him while the wiser part of me knows that he would snap my neck if I even mentioned it.  Still, my hand drifts to Helios' hilt and I silently pledge that I won't always be this worthless to him.

A loud thump and a biting curse signals Cid's uncoordinated arrival to the bottom level, and by the time I turn around, Strife drops down next to the old man with more grace than should be allowed, a thought that Cid clearly shares given his nasty glare from his unplanned seated position.  Strife offers a hand to the fallen man, something Cid almost refuses out of spite, but instead takes the hand that easily lifts him to his feet.  While Strife waits for Aerith in order to catch her fall, Cid walks stiffly toward Yuffie and Leon.

"I'm too old for these games, kids," the old man says while whipping the dust from his ass.  "Let's wrap this up and head home, eh?"

"We need a key first," Leon replies, and then nods toward his right.  "And I think he's the only one who knows where it is."

Confused, I look in the direction pointed out and have to squint to see within the alcove obscured by shadows.  I soon recognize the wooden bench I had expected to find within the warlock's lair, but I receive a mild shock when I barely make out a person seated in a chair facing out at us.  Leon steps causally toward that area and lifts a hand, a tiny blaze of fire appearing at his palm just before shooting toward the bench and its collection of candles.  The added light shows the person for what he is - an ancient skeleton dressed in nothing more than rags and tarnished jewelry.

"Well, lookie there," Cid says while walking past Leon and toward the seated skeleton.  "You need a key and this bugger has one."

Several points come to mind within the matter of seconds: a) there are a shitload of broken skeletons everywhere, b) there is one intact skeleton that happens to have the key we need, and c) that key is still on a chain around the skeleton's neck despite the bodies of treasurer hunters littering the place.  Unfortunately, Cid is faster than the rest of us can speak or act, and though Leon manages to grab a shoulder, Cid's outreached hand pierces through a barrier around the skeleton that causes the air to shimmer.  Soon after, heavy metal clangs in the distance.

"That... can't be good," Cid admits, and then winces at the glare Leon directs at him.  "Yeah, yeah, I know that girly-girl was supposed to check everythin' first, but how many times were we gonna wait for her to give us an all clear?"

Leon continues to glare at Cid when commanding, "Almasy, stay back.  Aerith and Yuffie, keep him in place."

"Wha--" is the extent of my argument when Yuffie grabs my arm and pulls me toward the alcove, the only source of decent cover in the place.  Aerith is fast behind her, leaving me with my back against the wall and with two women shielding me from whatever is coming.

Before I can work past my anger to voice anything, Aerith places a hand at my arm and assures, "It's nothing against you, Seifer.  There's simply not enough room for everyone to fight and you haven't had training in close quarters like this.  It's for everyone's safety that you remain here."

I blink at her, mentally unprepared to have a wordy version of Leon's typical explanation of 'you aren't ready yet.'  And funnily enough, I wish I had heard it directly from Leon.  No matter how many times he says 'kid' or 'brat', Leon still treats me like an adult who can handle the straight truth.  "I know," I tell Aerith, though my gaze is focused on Leon.  "I know I can't help, but I still want to."

Aerith smiles fondly and starts to say something in reply, but her words are obscured by a sudden rumble from beneath our feet.

A deafening clang sounds before the ground rises up in front of Leon, Strife, and Cid and sand showers down from the hidden trap door spanning at least ten feet each way.  In that dangerous moment when clouds of dust fill the entire room, something huge, dark, and fast crawls out from the created opening and launches directly at the waiting fighters.  For too long, I can't see anything beyond that damn haze and movements of shadows, a fact that makes stomach clench in panicked fear for Leon's safety.  And when I hear his voice curse in pain, I struggle against Aerith and Yuffie who are a lot stronger than they look.

The dust finally settles enough for us to get a view of the battle scene and only one thought comes to mind: "Scorpions aren't supposed to get that big."

Yuffie snorts at the comment.  "Size means nothing when it comes to sorcerers and their like.  Maleficent's favorite trick is to become a dragon twenty times her normal size."

That observation does little to help me cope with the sight of the monster scorpion that could easily snap a person in half with one of its claws.  And from the look of Leon's cut and bloodied shirt, it seems like the beast had already tried that trick on the man and failed.  While I hate seeing Leon injured like that, there's something intoxicating about the fighter colored with fresh blood and deeply focused on the battle ahead of him with a cold metallic gleam to his eyes.

A blur of black streaks toward Leon, but the gunblader dodges the striking tail with a causal grace and doesn't appear bothered when the wall behind him cracks at the force of the impact.  I, however, cringe at witnessing the demonstration of how the ladder had become so mangled.  Leon moves sharply to protect Strife's back from a vicious claw, and in that brief moment back-to-back, they somehow manage to debate and agree on an attack strategy before they part ways, the scorpion's tail landing on the ground left between them.

Strife jumps high to follow the tail's retreat while Leon stays low along with Cid to protect the mercenary from snapping claws.  It's dizzying to watch Strife hack at the armored tail, somehow utilizing brief footholds on the walls and tail to avoid the poisonous stinger.  For many long minutes, the buster blade seems useless against the scorpion's shell, a disheartening sight in itself, but Strife's determination doesn't falter and he's ultimately rewarded when the blade lands between the sectional pieces of armor.  For all of his previous effort, it's almost ridiculous how cleanly the top half of the tail breaks free from the scorpion.

The bug screams out at the injury and lashes out at the people causing it harm, but without the tail and stinger around as a threat, Cid makes his move to attack the scorpion's head with his spear.  Leon amazingly defends the old man's back against both pincers until Strife lends him a hand, though the aid doesn't amount for much when Cid finds a weak point in the armor and drives his spear through until only inches remain of the staff.  The scorpion jerks at the attack and yanks the spear free from the old man's hold, but a few uncoordinated steps later, the bug goes eerily still before slumping to the ground.

Aerith is the first to move from the alcove, the woman making a beeline for Leon and his still bleeding side.  Leon, however, waves her off and points in Strife's direction with the comment that the mercenary hadn't completely dodged the stinger's attacks.  Aerith promptly shifts her attention to Strife and grabs his arm before he can run off.  Though the cut itself is minor, the poison has already given his skin a grayish hue that can't be good.  While Aerith fusses over the blond, I step up to Leon while he examines his side wound.

Still confused by the mix of hate and desire at seeing Leon's blood, I comment hoarsely, "I wish I could heal that for you."

Leon glances up at me, his eyes pale silver in the dim light of the lair.  "Would you like to learn?"

Though initially surprised by the offer, I smile excitedly at the chance to learn more magic.  "I might make it worse."

"Doubtful.  You learned Shell and Protect without injuring yourself, so I'm hopeful that you can manage a novice spell like Cure," Leon says as he steps closer and grabs my hand to place it against his side above the slashed skin.  "It's not necessary to have contact, but it will help you to concentrate."

I stroke my thumb against his side, just able to feel his ribs beneath the material of his shirt.  "Are you sure about that?"

Leon huffs lightly, but continues with the lesson.  "Curative magic isn't about mending an injury, but giving a person 'health' which empowers a body to heal its own wounds.  It's very powerful magic, but not selective in the least."

"Hn, I remember you saying that before.  It's why you couldn't heal me on the construction site."

Something flashes in stormy eyes at the comment, but Leon doesn't elaborate on the emotion.  "Close your eyes and focus on me.  For beginners, it usually helps to envision a wounded person as a glass of water that has spilt some of its liquid and you need to pour more water back into the glass."

My eyes closed and my breath held, I listen to his voice and follow his instructions, but I don't feel the same stirring of magic as when I used Shell against Ultimecia.  Learning in the past that frustration won't help me in this situation, I shift my focus to the body in front of me and sense its pained tenseness.  Wanting to drive away that pain, I imagine a type of wind that could carry away everything that hurts Leon, and just like that, warm and blue magic flows through me and into Leon.  I open my eyes at the perfect moment to witness the dark-haired man with closed eyes and his head tilted back in quiet pleasure.

"Good job, Seifer."

Startled at the female voice, I look to the side to find Aerith smiling softly at my successful first try at a cure spell.  Strife's grin isn't nearly so innocent, but I purposefully ignore him for Aerith's praise.  "Well, what else could you expect from one of Leon's students?"

"Nothing less than perfect," Aerith admits with a gentle chuckle.

Leon scoffs.  "Don't encourage him."

"Why, do you want to be the only one who encourages me?" I ask with a suggestive smirk, one that doesn't last long against the dark scowl that Leon sends my way.  Even so, I manage to hold my ground when I know Leon would love to see me back away in fear of his wrath.

"Enough chitchat," Yuffie calls out from behind us.  In a raised hand, she swings the chain and key that had caused all of the trouble with the scorpion.  "Let's get us some treasure!"

While everyone else migrates toward the stone door, I'm tackled from behind by Cid as the old man wraps a muscular arm around my neck and pulls me down to his level.  "Did you see me land that death blow, kid?  I hope you remember every moment 'cause you're goin' to be my witness for those asses back home who think I've lost my touch."

"Does that mean I get to tell them all how it was your fault to begin with?" I ask while struggling to escape his headlock.

Cid guffaws at the question and slaps me in the stomach with the same strength of a punch.  "Yer a good one, son, nothin' like the rest of that lot.  I'm glad Leon filched you from that undeservin' world of yours."

Still trying to catch my breath, I don't have the opportunity to respond before Cid moves on to Strife with a heavy pat to the man's back and a mocking word about a pair of kids needing an old man around to clean up their messes.  Still focused on his previous words, I find it strange to hear from Cid the same thought that has been running through my head as of late - I never belonged to Twilight Town.  As Cid so plainly put it, that place didn't deserve me or my romantic dreams for more.  But Leon... he's the person who will help me make those dreams come true.

Yuffie swings the chain a final time around her fingers before conceding to Leon's glare that there was a door to open.  Once the key slides into the lock, magical symbols flash across the stone along with metallic clicks before the door moves back an inch to reveal a crack of light.  Yuffie pushes the door the rest of the way, then gasping at the contents of the room.

"We're so fucked," she announces, stepping to the side so that the rest of us can see the rows upon rows of egg-shaped stones displayed on the same type of shelves that line the upper floors of the warlock's lair with books and scrolls.  "Say Aerith, is there enough detail in that book of Merlin's to know which one we're looking for?"

Aerith lifts a fretful hand to her mouth.  "The sketch only shows one side of the relic.  It doesn't even specify a size."

A hand fisted at her waist, Yuffie lifts her other hand to scratch the back of her head.  "Aw man, there's easily a hundred of those things.  How are we supposed to know the difference without, well, using it on someone?"

"That's not an option," Leon states while glancing over the upper rows of stones.  "Beside the obvious, we can't assume the effects of these other relics.  They could be anything from bombs to imprisoned souls and I don't particularly want to find out which it is.  Aerith, unless you can determine some kind of identifying features for this thing, we may have to move onto another option."

Yuffie and Cid don't restrain their groans at the idea of starting over with yet another map, another desert, and another giant scorpion, but no one truly argues against Leon's rationale.  While brave, no one here is an idiot and they recognize a lost battle when they see one.

Leaning against the entryway, I glance over the rows of decorated stones, each of them given a stand to best display the magical item.  While they all have the same egg-like shape, there is a variety of sizes and colors that would normally help in the selection process, but not when compared to the charcoal sketch in Merlin's book.  Even so, something bothers me about the presentation of so many relics when there was supposedly only one vessel that could capture a soul.  Merlin had performed an extensive search and it doesn't make sense that he somehow missed learning about these other magical items made by the same warlock.

Frustrated at sight of too many questions when we were all hoping for an easy answer, I step away from the secluded room and stare up in thought about what I would do if I were a crazy sorcerer.  From the levels above, I notice the placement of statues such that they seemed to be looking down with their pained and angry expressions.  It's an intimidating sight, especially when it's been fairly easy to reach this point within the lair.  Shivering, I turn to face another direction, but find more statues staring down at me with the silent question of 'why did this happen to me?'  Just went I'm about find refuge within the opened room, a sudden thought comes to mind and I force myself to stare up at all of those statues, and spinning slowly, I realize that all of the statues have been positioned to stare down at the lower level.  Angels and demons alike, gazing down with silent accusation.

"What are you doing?"

I chuckle at the question that comes mid-spin, forcing me to continue the child-like move before I face Leon and grin at his expression which doubts my sanity.  "They're mistakes.  They're all mistakes."

Leon frowns at my statement, but doesn't otherwise comment, something I take as permission to defend my theory.

"It's like you said earlier, those statues are all experiments that he used to figure out how to capture a soul, but for there to be so many of them, they must be failed experiments.  And look, he put all of the statues such that they could be seen from down here.  He wanted to be reminded of his failure, to force himself to figure out the answer.  It's the same thing with those stones - they're all shit, but they've been put on display because they are worthless.  The sight of them must've pushed him to the final solution, to his one solution."

Leon stares at me, no, through me like whenever he thinks about his lost lover.  He then breaths an odd laugh before asking, "Then where's the real one?"

Though instinctively suspicious of his question, I can't detect any ridicule in his voice.  "I don't know for certain, but... if I had one success after hundreds of failures, I'd probably want it within arm's reach," I think out loud, slowly turning until I face the work bench and the seated skeleton.

It seems obvious at that point and rather devious of the bastard warlock to cause so many deaths over a key that led to nothing.  Without saying anything to Leon, I walk over to the wooden desk covered in lit candles, half-disintegrated scrolls of paper, and dusty cobwebs.  Of course nothing of interest is in plain view on the desk, but after pushing aside a few large books, I grin at the sight of recesses in the otherwise smooth wall.  Drunk on the idea that I was right, I claw my fingers into the compacted sand and loosen the solid material free, not realizing until too late that the relic hadn't been placed into a protective shell like I expected.  Faster than I thought, the naked stone pops free of the wall and I instinctively grab the falling object, a weak curse leaving my lips when curved lettering abruptly shines to life with purple light.

I scream out at the instant onset of pain, the sensation something like a scab being torn from new flesh, but many, many times worse.  My world becomes nothing except the pain for a moment, for a lifetime, and then it's abruptly gone as suddenly as it came.  Unable to cope with that immense swing between sensations, I collapse to the ground, but I don't completely get there.  A strong arm at my waist and my body slumped against a chest that smells of gunpowder and blood, I don't need to open my eyes to know Leon had caught me.  Damn, why do I always make a fool of myself when he's right there to witness it?

"You stupid..." Leon growls, his gloved hand squeezing tightly at my side.  "What were you thinking to do that?"

Since it's obvious that I wasn't thinking, I look down at my hand and notice the bright red mark at the back of my wrist that's going to be a nasty bruise by tomorrow.  "That hurts," I say... or rather, try to say and choke on my breath when my voice doesn't sound.

"Almasy?" Leon questions, his voice still rough with anger, but there's enough worry to scare me even more.

I push up from him, and then notice that everyone else is watching, something that makes perfect sense given my previous screams, but it's still inconvenient.  Stumbling back a few steps, I try to get my voice to work, but nothing sounds except harsh rasps of breath.  Aerith hurries toward me and places a hand at my throat, the warm touch giving me something to focus on aside from blind panic.

Her brow furrowed, Aerith looks up at me and says, "Nothing is wrong, but something... something is different."

I can only meet her gaze, silently countering that I don't know what the fuck is happening.  Then something flickers in my peripheral vision and I glance upward to see nothing aside from those damn statues displayed under dim lighting.  Shit, I'm probably going to go crazy if I stay here much longer.

<The shadows scream in voices that cannot be heard>

I jerk back at the statement spoken in a voice that I don't recognize, and in a panicked moment, I turn and stare at the warlock's skeleton, hoping to God that it wasn't him who had just talked.  A gloved hand wraps around my upper arm and I glance back at Leon, the fighter staring at me intently, perhaps looking for those first signs of insanity.

<Frightened, barn?  That is unlike you, but you are not yourself this time, so it is... forgivable>

Stunned at the suggestion that the voice knows me, knew what I was, I glance down at Leon's necklace and stare at the pendant of the roaring lion that rarely leaves his body.  I can still hear Leon's words about the guardian force he calls 'Griever', a so-called tired soul living within him.

With a growled huff, the voice complains, <To be rescued by a pet kitten... The Ęsir shall mock me for another century>


My gaze lifts up to meet Leon's and I can't help a small smile at him using my first name.  When another attempt to speak fails, I tap at Leon's necklace, and then point to my own chest.  Instead of relieving the serious man, Leon scowls sharply at the sign that the guardian force within me has awakened.  He glances down at the seemingly harmless stone left on the ground and sneers at the object that is supposed to save us from the wrath of a sorceress.

"Leon, what is--"

He cuts off Aerith to explain, "The relic must have tried to remove the guardian force from Seifer, and though I was in time to stop it, the guardian force is now awake."

"O-oh," Yuffie says as if understanding the situation, but then scrunches her nose in confusion.  "So, what does that mean?"

Leon shakes his head, unable to answer.

<Choose your time and place, barn.  This is neither one>

Along with the message, I'm struck with the knowledge of what is wrong with the statues I've hated ever since we've stepped in this place.   I grab Leon's hand and begin to move toward the ladder, but the stubborn fighter resists my attempt to drag him along.  Though I have the nasty feeling Leon doesn't have a chance to understand me, I point at a clump of statues, and then motion over my chest with a circle and a line through it.  The first time I do the gestures, I make Leon frown.  The second time, I cause that amazing light of silver in his eyes.

"Aerith, throw that relic in the bag Merlin gave us.  We need to move and now," Leon commands, abruptly moving ahead of me without releasing my hand, the effect resulting in a switch of him dragging me toward the only escape route.  Though everyone follows his lead, Leon is eventually goaded into explaining, "When that warlock was trying to take souls, he was stealing hearts.  Those statues contain Heartless and they must be restless for Seifer's GF to notice them."

With the bottom part of the ladder useless, Strife gives Leon a leg up to the first sturdy rung.  I follow shortly after, supported by Leon when I nearly lose my grip.  Climbing up the ladder to the second level, I glance over at a demon with spiky hair and twin tears beneath his eyes, but I take greater notice of the deep crack creeping along his face, the fracture reaching his nose and causing the tip to drop off with a quiet clink against metal.  I move a bit faster at that point.  Aerith and Yuffie aren't far behind me, but before Cid gets off the ground, a statue across the room from the first level shatters with a banshee-like shriek.  It's like popcorn after that first explosion, at least ten more statues breaking apart to reveal inky creatures that poorly mimic the angel or demon mold that had imprisoned them for centuries.

Leon reaches the fourth level first and reaches down to grab my shirt and haul me onto the floor behind him.  Though nothing was called out, everyone else seems to take the same tactic of reaching the closest level and making a defendable spot against the sudden enemies.  For the first time in this place, I pull Helios free of its sheath and I stand back-to-back with Leon as two large Heartless approach us from either side.  With every step closer, I can feel their hate and soul-warping sorrow, but it's hard to feel pity for something that wants to kill me.

The pseudo-demon in front of me snarls before launching forward with an elongated arm and talon-like fingernails.  I parry the attack, but when I attempt the follow-through, Helios hits the outer railing and I nearly lose my gunblade with the stupid move.  Right, and this is why Leon didn't want me to help against that scorpion.  The Heartless takes advantage of my mistake and scores a hit at my upper arm, but it's a bearable wound compared to the idea that the same strike against my chest would've probably pierced my heart.

After several minutes of fighting, it becomes worrisomely apparent that this isn't going to work.  The Heartless are too old, too enraged to be subdued by our attacks, and when another few statues burst apart, even Leon and Strife are pressed to simply defend themselves from multiple attackers, let alone get in a clean strike.  There has to be another way to break through.

'What use are you?' I say soundlessly to the soul hiding within me.

<I am more than you understand.  But tell me, why should I assist you?>

I duck when the Heartless in front of me lunges with both clawed hands.  Avoiding injury, I drive Helios up into the creatures' chest, only to push the thing back several steps and give it a slight cut across its dark body.  'I don't know.  Maybe because I could die here with you trapped within me?'

<That is not your reason to crave my strength>

Straightening with Helios held before me, I glance briefly at the blade partly created by Leon.  'It's pretty damn obvious what I want.  But what about you?  Is there something... anything I could offer in exchange?'

<If I asked for your voice which has not spoken words of love to your other half, would you grant me it?>

'Of course.'

<If I asked for your sight which has not seen his true smile, would you grant me it?>

Hesitating with my answer, I eventually say, 'If you swore to always protect him, then yes.  I'd give you my voice, my sight, my hearing, whatever the fuck you want.  Just do something.'

A deep purr of laughter sounds, the reverberation oddly soothing the aches of my body.  <Your answer should be boring, barn, but each time, it excites me.  Say the name you gave me.  Summon my strength and make it yours>

Dodging yet another attack, I snort at the ridiculousness at the instruction which involves both knowing the thing's name and being able to use my voice.  Then, just as I suddenly knew the presence of the Heartless, a name comes to mind along with the knowledge that it's the wrong name, but one he likes from me, the person I was and the person I will be.  Though confused and frustrated with a powerful soul playing games with my head, I can't refuse the offer of help, not when Leon has already said that he won't lose me here.

I slash Helios in front of me to gain some space from the determined Heartless and a touch of extra time.  Turning the gunblade point down, I place my hand at its hilt and mouth the words of 'summoning' that the guardian force had placed into my head, ending with, '... my body and life I place into your hands, appear before me: Vidar.'

Once I 'speak' the name, my body loses all sensation of strength and pain, warmth and touch, and I collapse to the floor with Helios clattering next to my side.  Looking up, I see the moment Leon loses his focus and stares down at me, his eyes an intense pale blue from unguarded terror.  Two winged Heartless reach for him in that fraction of a second, their dark talons brushing against his shirt before the creatures abruptly stop in mid-attack and burst into black dust.  A knife then flies through the air, barely missing Leon's neck as it plunges into the chest of the Heartless that I had been paired against.  The Heartless screams in frustration before falling apart into dust.

The resulting dark mist eventually parts to reveal a towering brute of a man with long golden hair and a braided beard.  The armor covering his chest and thighs appears old and well used, the dark metal bearing dents and scratches in an account of the battles he had witnessed and survived.  At his back, a fur cape hangs nearly to the ground and the ragged edges sway in a nonexistent wind.  His haggard face is expressionless, but his disturbing eyes of endless black and yellow pupils shine with a type of animalistic anticipation.  The slight bounce of his thick sword against his shoulder only furthers my guess that I've summoned something more than I could possibly control.

"Vidar..." Leon whispers reverently and lowers his gunblade to his side.  "You exist... And you've been with Seifer all this time?"

The guardian force smirks at the question, and without answer, he places his free hand to his shoulder and bows to the dark-haired fighter.  He then fades through the floor, and judging by the surprised curse from Yuffie, he has taken it upon himself to help the others at the lower levels.

Leon sheaths Lion Heart before kneeling next to me.  "Are you hurt?"

I shake my head since nothing felt damaged beyond repair when I first summoned that other soul.  Right now, I'm too numb to care.

"Hold on as best you can," Leon says while wiping dust from my face.  "We need your strength."

I snort at the request and mouth, 'Not mine.'

"And you don't understand the power of GFs like I do," the pale-eyed man scolds, but doesn't elaborate further when steps sound on the ladder.

"Damn, Leon, what hat did you pull that miracle trick out of?" Yuffie asks before her head pokes over the ledge.  Her eyes go ridiculously wide at the sight of me flat on my back and she quickly crawls next to my other side.  "Oh no, don't tell me... don't say one of those inky bastards..."

"He's fine," Leon assures.  "He was the one to summon Vidar, but the magic is too much for him."

I want to argue out of spite, but aside from my lacking voice, the edges of my vision have grown too hazy and dim in a bothersome sign that I'm about to pass out.  Closing my eyes, I struggle to get my senses back under control and remain conscious for Strife and Cid's sake, no one yet mentioning that they were in the clear.  Then, without warning, energy rushes into me with the intensity of a flood, and much like a drowning person, I can't breathe, can't see, can't hear, can't find my way to salvation...

And then a hand grasps onto mine.  With the confidence that Leon will take me to safety, I surrender to the pull of unconsciousness and slip away into darkness.

~ > < ~

Not quite awake, no longer asleep, I first become aware of incredibly soft sheets covering my sore body.  Second is the scent of jasmine failing to overwhelm the burn of gunpowder.  Third is the brush of fingers on paper and the flip of a page.

Opening my eyes, I wince against the glare of more light than I was expecting, but my vision quickly adjusts to look at Leon sitting next to me on the apparent bed.  He looks freshly washed, his hair darker than normal given its dampened state and his cleaned skin seems paler in comparison.  His clothing consists of nothing more than a silky robe, a teasing sight with him seated with legs crossed and his back against the headboard.  I don't recognize the book, but that doesn't matter as I focus on the hand holding the book and his ring glinting with golden light.  It's strange how my hatred for the thing seems to fade each time I see it.

"It's not polite to stare," Leon comments, his gaze not leaving the page.

"But it sure is fun," I retort, and don't realize until a moment later that it was something of a miracle that my voice was working again.  I place a hand at my throat and stare up at Leon, the man not looking the least bit surprised as he closes his book and sets it to his other side.

Blue-gray eyes stare down at me in an unreadable gaze.  "Why do you make life so hard?"

I blink at the unexpected question.  "Do you mean your life?"

He doesn't immediately respond, Leon first lifting a hand to brush hair from my forehead.  "Each time I plan my life and settle with the realities I understand to be true, you appear and turn everything upside-down."

Though the words are harsh, I don't hear anything in his voice or see anything in his face that suggests his true thoughts either way.  "If you ask me, it sounds like you were enduring life before I showed up.  And if you want to know the truth, so was I.  Not at your same level, but that just means I know how much worse it must have been for you."

Not noticeable at first, a slow smile forms and Leon breathes a laugh.  "Hyne, I warned Strife about you, but I never listened to my own warning."

While I'm curious what exactly Strife was told, I decide to let it slide for now since I know that I won't get a real answer and there's more important information to be had while Leon is talking.  "So, where are we?" I ask, glancing around the room that is nothing like the inn room we had used before.

"I called in one of Sora's favors.  We're staying at the royal palace until you're ready to travel."

"Whoa," is the best reply I can form, my brain struggling with the idea that some king owed that spiky-haired kid big enough to allow a group of strangers to sleep within the palace walls.  And what a place to sleep - expensive sheets on a wide mattress, gold and jewels decorating the furniture, and a functional bathing area where Leon must have cleaned up.  I then glance down at my own partially covered body and realize that I'm also clean, not to mention naked besides a pair of boxers... and I wasn't awake for any of it.

"Don't look so disappointed," Leon chides lightly.

"No justice in the world," I mutter before meeting his gaze.  "So, what happened back there, anyway?  And what's the deal with that 'Vidar' character?  You recognized him, but you seemed surprised."

"One thing at a time," Leon says as he relaxes back against headboard.  A wrinkle then forms between his eyebrows, his typical expression whenever forced to explain something in length.  "Aerith has already examined the relic, and while Merlin will give the final assessment, it doesn't seem to be as strong as described.  It can only capture weak souls or ones that are loosely bound to a body, like the guardian force living within you."

I frown at the example, something teasing my thoughts with the idea.  "Will it work against Ultimecia?"

"It should.  That isn't her original body to claim."

My throat goes dry at the thought.  "That isn't your body, either."

"Unlike you, I'm not planning to touch a magical item that steals souls."

I bite my tongue, knowing that the excuse of 'I didn't mean to' wouldn't fly with Leon.

He eyes me, perhaps waiting for that exact statement before moving on.  "Fortunately, I was there to knock the relic from your hand, but in the meantime, Vidar had junctioned with you to save himself from being trapped."

"... 'Junctioned'?"

"It's what GFs do to join with their hosts.  When junctioning occurs, several things happen: both the GF and host become stronger, the host can summon the GF into this plane, and on occasion, knowledge can be shared."

"GF and host," I repeat in an amused tone.  "You make it sound like these GFs are parasites or something."

"They are."  At my stunned gaze, Leon explains, "When junctioning takes place, a GF doesn't give its strength and freedom in return for nothing.  Most of their kind only takes away some magical power, sometimes the host is physically weaker unless another GF is in place to support that loss in strength.  The stronger ones are more complicated.  In your case, junctioning with Vidar temporarily took away your voice."

"But... why?  I can understand the thing wanting more energy, magical or otherwise, but what the hell does my voice have to do with anything?"

"Vidar is a legendary GF - the obedient, but recluse son of another one named Odin.  In our history books, Vidar was called the 'Silent One', and per legend, he never spoke unless someone else took upon the penance for him.  That is why all of his previous hosts lost their voice in exchange for his service, a heavy price for someone in battle since it takes away the ability to use magic, not to mention the basic power to cry out for help or in warning."

"And yet, I'm fine now."

"I forced him to unjunction with you.  While he refused to leave your body, he's gone back into a dormant state... However, he's aware this time and most likely waiting for another opportunity to use you.  It's too dangerous to rely on his power.  I don't want you summoning him a second time."

I hide a grin at Leon's possessive tone.  "Didn't he save our asses back in the desert?"

"Because you stupidly touched the relic and stirred an ancient spirit to life," Leon lashes back at me, "the power of which awakening those Heartless that have spent centuries clawing away at their prisons.  It was a chance occurrence and it won't happen again, so don't listen to his lies or bargains about saving you.  Or saving me."

I purposely don't agree to his demand and better use my time to study at the man who isn't the stoic warrior nor the hardass trainer I have grown to admire in these past months.  Instead, I recognize the lost soul who had accused me for leaving him behind and I want nothing more than to hold him and prove I'm still here.  And suddenly, that doesn't seem like such a bad idea and I push up from my prone position to move closer to the smaller man.

Leon eyes me guardedly for my closeness, but his lack of argument only serves to motivate me further.  I reach across his body and place my hand over his left hand to cover the distracting sight of his ring.  With my other hand, I slowly push aside the sleek material of his robe to reveal more of his pale skin and decoration of scars.  Leon lets the robe slip over his shoulder, but his quiet glare suggests that I'm not allowed to go any further.  I'm not bothered by the drawn line, my attention instead focused on the terrible scar located beneath his shoulder.  With frost-like lines trailing from the fist-sized mass of scars, I can't begin to guess what caused the injury, but I can assume magic was involved.  I brush my fingers over the jagged lines of the scar and think about how much time must have passed and how much pain had been endured between receiving the injury and being healed.

"It's ugly," Leon says in a voice that barely sounds.

"It's life," I retort.  When I receive a glare in response, I explain, "Something like this would have killed most people, but you survived and continued living.  This scar is a mark of life."

With a harsh scoff, Leon lifts his hand to the back of my head and toys with my hair.  "I shouldn't encourage you."

"I think you aren't encouraging me enough," I argue while leaning forward.  When Leon doesn't pull back or threaten me, I close the distance to press my lips against his.  He doesn't react except to smirk slightly, leaving it to me to figure out what I'm doing with the kiss.  Deciding that his mouth is too dangerous for a kid of my experience, I move lower to taste his neck and enjoy the clean scent that doesn't have a hint of blood.  After several attempts, I finally entice a shaky breath from the brunet when I tongue the white scar lines that lead from his collar bone and to the thicker mass of scars.  God, I never knew the sound of a single breath could take away mine.

Abruptly, a soft musical tone carries over from the nightstand, and though I'm perfectly prepared to ignore the recognizable ring, Leon pushes me back with a firm press of fingers and slides his hand from mine to reach the communication device.  Leon scowls at the names of 'Chip and Dale' listed in large letters, and after adjusting his robe, he presses the 'receive' button on the screen.

"Leon!" the two chipmunks call out from the small screen, their little tails wagging madly.

"This better be good," Leon says, his voice steady and tame compared to the angry glare he gives them.

"It's a red-alert!" the rodent with the fatter nose announces, handedly pushing aside his counterpart.  "That there shield you put up in Sunset City just went craaazy."

"Dale, you dummy," the other one chirps as he shoves back.  "It's Twilight Town, not Sunset City.  How many times do I have to--"

"Wait, both of you," Leon interrupts, his controlled tone not at all reflecting the sudden jump of my heart.  "What exactly is happening there?"

"The shield is under attack--"

"--and while it's holdin' up fer now--"

"--something is hitting it hard and--"

"--it's already at eighty-seven percent strength!"

Leon studiously avoids looking at me, his dark eyebrows furrowed in fast thought.  "We finished our mission here and we'll leave within the hour.  Tell Merlin to be ready for our arrival and that we're on a short timeline.  Understood?"

"Aye, aye!" the chipmunks reply in unison, the screen flashing to black.

"Twilight Town..." I whisper, as if not believing what I had just heard.

"That's where Ultimecia first found you," Leon reasons while moving to the edge of the mattress.  "In the past, she didn't get to choose the battlefield of her last stand.  Now, she is happily returning the courtesy."

"But... my family is there."

Leon pauses once standing from the bed and glances back at me.  "Then we have more reason to fight harder."

Recognizing that something in the man was beginning to close off, I stand up on the mattress and hurry to move in front of Leon.  His eyes guarded and posture stiff, I don't have the focus or energy to figure what I said to upset him.  All I can do is remind him that I left my family behind to follow his lead and I have yet to regret that choice... well, for any real length of time.

"Seifer, there isn't time--"

I take his hands into mine and squeeze tightly.  "I want you to meet them.  My mother will hate you, my step-father will thank you, and Quisty will think you're the greatest."

Leon tilts his head at my words that were shakier than I wanted.  "And why would your mother hate me?"

Though surprised at him humoring me, I feel a little bit better with the illusion that we didn't have to rush after all.  "Because you stole me away.  And I don't really know how she'll take the idea of me wanting an older man."

"A mother's love is hard to discourage."  A cold hand lifts to my cheek and Leon leans up to brush his lips against mine, a consoling touch in the middle of chaos.  "And I will do everything in my power to protect your family."

"I trust you."  And it hurts to think just how much do.

"Then get dressed," Leon says with a light push.  "We still have to inform the others and prepare the Gummy ship."

Following his command, I find my usual clothes folded on top of a dresser and quickly dress in my loose pants, vest, and sleeveless jacket that feels heavy compared to what I have been wearing the last several days.  I grab my boots and move to the bed to put them on, learning many weeks back that untied laces are a poor choice when in the middle of a fight.  One boot laced up, I start tightening the second one when a sudden and worrisome thought comes to mind.

"Hey, Leon, if Ultimecia is attacking Twilight Town, does that mean she already found a Knight?"

Fitting the smaller belts to his forearm, Leon replies, "That's safe to assume."

"Who is it?"

"... Don't let it confuse you.  No matter who it is, he or she is already under Ultimecia's thrall."

"Wait, does that mean somebody is going to fight us... when they don't even want to?"

"Maybe, maybe not."  Another belt, another clasp.

"Then, what, we're supposed to fight that person, maybe kill that person when they aren't thinking for themselves anymore?"

Jerking on his gloves, Leon steps in front of me, his eyes cold and unforgiving.  "You tell me: if a sorceress conquered your mind and made you commit horrible crimes, would you blame the person who stopped you, even if it meant taking your life?"

"How can you say that?  If we handle Ultimecia, that sets the Knight free, right?"

Though a faint smile forms, there's a sorrowful hint to the curl of lips.  "One day, Almasy, you'll learn that answers aren't always that simple."

I scowl at the condescending statement.  "If you try hard enough, you can make anything happen."

"There's no such thing as 'hard enough'," Leon says in a tired voice, and then turns around to head for the door.

I want to say something back, to argue that Leon is proof that determination can conquer so much, but watching his retreating back, I come to the realization that I'm an idiot.  Of course Leon understands defeat far better than I ever would.  The man lost his world and husband to the same Heartless onslaught that has invaded the rest of these worlds.  The only difference - this universe had the Keyblade Master while his world didn't.  It must have killed him to survive when others were left behind, and yet, he's still here.  He's here and he found me.

Leon already gone to rouse the others, I feel numb while pushing up from the bed and stepping across the room to collect Helios and its holster.  I stare at the hilt of unusual blade and wonder briefly if Rai and Fuu will even believe me that it's a functioning weapon.  ...Shit, what was I thinking to only worry about my family when far more people are in trouble here?  Even those goofs Pence, Hayner, and Olette could be in serious danger, especially if they try to do something noble, otherwise known as stupid.  And with that thought, I finally appreciate what Leon feels every time I step on a battlefield.

Fastening the holster around my waist, I stare at the dark metal circles that shine with protective magic and the worn leather that had lost its newness a good week ago.  I rest my hand on the hilt of my gunblade and glance over at the full-length mirror in the corner of the room.  It's weird to look at my reflection and see the image of man who is about to save his family and friends from an evil witch and her dark forces...

... This isn't as romantic as I thought it would be.




Author's Whining -- Ugh, this chapter was plain torture.  I had issues with the first part since it's rather rushed, but as my betas assured me, that's just the nature of 'Game Restart'.  Things are happening too fast around Seifer and Squall for them to bother finding a reason behind their emotions.  At least it's still mostly at a physical state and no words of love have been exchanged, but that won't last forever.  Hopefully you all can wait for the next chapter since I want to finish off those requests from back in July.  If the stars align, I may have most of those finished before the end of the year.  Here's to wishful thinking.