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The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun

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The woman inside the cell is heavily pregnant under the filth. She looks obscene, a swollen belly on a frame so spindly her legs would probably snap like twigs if she tries to stand. Cuts and track marks cover whatever skin is visible – quite as lot, as her dress is little more than rags with a high opinion of themselves.

"Oh, gods …"

At the sound of the voice she looks up. There's a horrified face at the window cut high in the door. She doesn't react. There have been lots of faces there, peering in at her progress – or lack of it. They seem obsessed with her reactions to the darkness, and come to poke and prod her at every opportunity. So far each time they've taken her out to test her she's beaten it back, but now it feels like the heart that stirs their interest is about to explode. Not because of any experiment, oh no, but because of the tremors rippling across her abdomen.

She wheezes as another one hits. "Aaaa-haaaaaaaa!" Her groan is entirely involuntary, and she doesn't even realise she's clutching her dress until her fingers cramp. It hurts so much. She knew there would be pain, but she never realised it would hurt this much…

The face at the door disappears. There's the sound of scuffling and then a hissed, "Damn it!" Strangely, there aren't any footsteps running away, but there are some approaching and the familiar rattle of a key in the lock. Two figures enter, nether of them the face from the door.

"Labour?" The first man looks familiar through the haze of pain and nausea. She thinks she remembers him with a clipboard. "So soon? Do you think the last exposure triggered it?"

"Maybe she'll give birth to a Heartless," says his white-coated partner, though his tone suggests sarcasm. "I always said using a pregnant woman was a bad idea."

"We just followed orders. You know how rare the Ancient bloodline is. There's no way Xehanort was going to be deterred from testing plus-human samples as well as baseline."

"I still say we should've waited. Now we'll lose both her and the infant and have nothing to further our data -"

"We haven't lost anything yet. Here, take this."

"Where are you going? Braig, what are you planning to do?"

"To induce a delivery, of course. The faster we get it out, the faster we can use the recovery drugs."

"But we only use those after experiments. How do we know they won't have an adverse reaction without post-darkness residue in her system to buffer her regular immunities? If the drugs are too strong they'll destroy her internal organs faster than if we made her drink sulphuric acid."

"We don't know it'll work, but without time to make a proper plan this is the most logical option. Using any of the usual recovery drugs while she's in this state would be too dangerous; if she dies first we really will lose them both, and we can't be sure of the dosage for an infant. The only other option is surgery. Have you ever performed a caesarean before?"

"… No."

"Neither have I, and call me crazy, but I don't mean to start now."

The woman claws ineffectually at the remaining man's arm, but her struggles are useless. She's too caught up in the pain to fight back. Another contraction hits, making her groan again and concentrate on simply not passing out with them in the room. You have to stay conscious with these people. Close your eyes for even a moment and they'll have you out of bed and strapped to a table with a syringe and a set of electrodes at the ready.

Oh gods, it hurts!

"HaaaaaaaaAAAAH!"

 


 

 

Rinoa pelts through the corridors, taking each corner so fast she only just clears them. She's working on pure instinct, her scattered brain still processing what she's seen and heard. Her mind feels like when you're falling asleep and having thoughts you know you should remember, but can't grasp quickly enough before they float away.

One thing thrums through her, becoming her focus as she winds her way up from the sealed passages beneath the castle to the extravagant hallways above: Find Squall. He'll know what to do.

She's hop-skipping up the spiral staircase when the first shockwave vibrates the walls. That brings her up short, and for the first time her resolve wavers. As one of the Royal Guards it's up to her to investigate something like that, but she can't let go of her information. Torn, she nonetheless starts off again. This can't wait. There are other Guards. They'll investigate whatever's going on elsewhere.

Another, more powerful shockwave strikes when she's in the upper levels. It crawls along the walls, making them tremble like the whole building is shivering with cold.

Well, at least they're useful for one thing; now she doesn't have to figure out where to look for Squall. She knows he'd head straight for the computer room in an emergency. He's always been supremely loyal to Lord Ansem and would think of protecting him first, and Lord Ansem will be in his precious computer room at this time.

As Captain, Squall has trained the Royal Guards up to his own exacting standards and trusts them to organise themselves in an emergency. You don't get to be a Guard without his say-so and there's a reason he was made Captain last year even though he was only eighteen at the time. The Royal Guards aren't a machine like the regular guards, they're a collection of individuals who work together, and Squall's brilliance is that he knows this and uses it. Everybody has his or her own role, and his has always been to safeguard Lord Ansem.

Rinoa feels a little guilty that she's not already at her own post, but what she knows is too big to be postponed. She recalls the bloodstained metal table, the rows of scalpels and other ugly implements, the neatly filed cabinets of notes detailing horrors committed in the name of research. Yet most of all she recalls the people – faces made blank with repetitive pain, all their eyes flat and dull and lacking, and that horrible motionless silence in every cell except one. The pregnant woman was the only spark of life in the place and even she was in agony. Rinoa feels dirty from just being down there. Those were Ansem the Wise's subjects, and his own apprentices have turned them into slabs of meat to be prodded, cut up and fed to those hateful things they've been keeping like unexploded bombs under their lord's feet.

The third tremor causes a marble bust to fall off its pedestal and nearly hit her. Rinoa twitches one wing, sliding the bust down her strong white feathers so it reaches the floor without damage.

She pauses to take stock. The further she goes, the more powerful each wave seems. This isn't earthquake country, and even if it was, the epicentre would have to be below-ground. The air tastes of burnt ozone and everything in her unique blood twitches at the flavour of raw magic.

Oh no – Squall!

She's through the doors before she has time to think, Blaster Edge at the ready. What she finds doesn't make her slip – too many early-morning training sessions in the rain to break her iron grip unless she wants it broken – but it does make her eyes widen.

Merlin, the resident wizard, is propped in Squall's arms like he's just flown backwards into them. A blackened blast radius on the floor supports this impression. Opposite them are three figures Rinoa recognises, each wearing a distinctive white labcoat. Before now they've always been on the periphery of her radar, but now when she sees them every molecule of her body burns with rage and grief, plus a hate so strong she's shocked at herself.

"Heartilly?" Squall's looking at her. He never uses her first name in the field, no matter how long they've known each other.

"Squall!" she cries, forgetting protocol in her urgency. "They've been breeding monsters under the castle. Xehanort and his cronies, they've been kidnapping townspeople to use as guinea-pigs, cutting them open and … and they've bred hundreds of the things! They're all stored downstairs in special pens and they -"

"We're already quite aware of what Xehanort has been doing, my dear." Merlin rights his hat and stands up. He's not even wobbly. For an old guy he's pretty resilient. He could probably give Barret a run for his money.

Except Barret went missing weeks ago, and Rinoa has a sick feeling that at least one pair of yellow eyes downstairs is because of him. He never fully trusted Xehanort and wasn't choosy about who knew it, or that he wanted enough dirt on the guy to make Ansem 'stop thinkin' the goddamn sun shines outta that guy's goddamn ass'.

Squall's gunblade is drawn. His arms are stiff and his jaw grimmer than grim. "Heartilly, get to your post," he grits, which is when she notices the blood dripping off his elbow and the stain spreading across the front of his shirt.

She sets her feet. "Sir, with all due respect, I think you need me here."

"Merlin and I are handling it."

"Of course you are." Xehanort stands with an apprentice either side, flanking him like guards. Just like Squall and Barret usually flank …

Rinoa's eyes dart from left to right. "Where's Lord Ansem?"

Squall's grip tightens fractionally.

"Gone," Xehanort answers. "The blind fool finally opened his eyes."

"You're going to bring him back from wherever you sent him." Squall uses his Captain Leonhart Voice. Not even Rinoa will push him too far when he uses that, and she pushes him further than anyone ever thought he could be pushed. Rinoa's the one who discovered Squall has the ability to bend without breakingbut not when he's using his Captain Leonhart Voice. She knows better than anyone that Captain Leonhart isn't Squall.

"You're in no position to give me orders, Captain. If I'm not mistaken, I'm holding all the aces here." Xehanort gestures to his companions, who each drop into ready stances Rinoa would not have expected from scientists. "Ansem is gone. Don't be a fool and die for him now." His voice doesn't rise or fall. He's a handsome man, but there's no warmth to it, just facial expression that change in increments.

"Nobody is going to die now," Merlin says with conviction. He raises his hands and mutters something in a language Rinoa doesn't understand. Instantly, a swirl of sparkling magic appears in front of him like a small cyclone. He directs it at the three men but one of them turns it aside with an equally incomprehensible string of words. "Hmm, it would appear somebody has been reading my books. It's very rude to peruse somebody else's things without their permission, Dilan."

The dark-haired apprentice smiles triumphantly. "You didn't exactly keep them under lock and key, old man."

"Silly me, I thought I lived in a land of trust and peace. That's what Ansem the Wise champions, isn't it? Or has he changed so much that he's started putting his name to research papers that contribute nothing to anyone except fear and monsters? Why don't you enlighten us on the matter, Xehanort?"

Xehanort keeps his arms folded, like he couldn't give a fig what's going on. His eyes aren't cold, but neither are they warm. They're full of indifference with a faint congratulatory edge, like the gummy seal on a letter being mailed too late. "Lord Ansem is dead. Long live Ansem."

"It's time for a new order, old man," Dilan boasts.

"An order of scientific discovery and innovation, not weak-willed cowering from knowledge that doesn't fit into social norms and niceties," adds the other apprentice.

Merlin sighs. "I might have known you'd see it that way, Even."

"You're part of a bygone era, old man," Even sneers. "This is the dawning of an age of real science, not Ansem's unexciting attempts, and certainly not your magic."

"Casting aspersions on my age is hardly the way to win my favour." To the inexperienced ear Merlin sounds nonchalant, but Rinoa's spent enough time around him to recognise his straightened spine and bristling moustache, as though his whole face is full of static electricity and each hair trying to escape his tamped-down anger. When he's offended Merlin rants and raves, but when truly angry his actions become far more decisive.

Merlin is furious, and a furious wizard is a dangerous wizard.

"Neither is casting my friend out of his own castle when he finally catches up to your scheming. What possible reason could you have had to betray him, Xehanort? He defended you when I suspected your motives. He found you when you were dying and nursed you back to health without any thought of repayment. He made you a part of his inner circle even though you couldn't remember who you were and others suspected your trustworthiness. He treated you like his own son."

"Yes, he did do all that," Xehanort admits, inflection competing with a spirit gauge for flatness.

"And this is how you repay him?" Squall demands. "By keeping secrets, going against his express wishes and then turning on him when he uncovers your sick experiments?"

"Did you hate him that much, I wonder?" Merlin's tone is deceptively soft. "Or did you simply resent the boundaries he set in place around you? Given your years and life experience, I thought you were beyond such hormonal acts of teenage rebellion. Ansem always said you were brilliant – sometimes he wondered if your brilliance would outshine his own someday, but not once did he resent you for it. Rather, he wanted you to succeed. He wanted your star to shine brighter than his own. Ansem would've shared the world with you if you'd asked."

"I did ask," Xehanort replies coolly. "Over and over, but the fool wouldn't listen to reason."

"What you asked for was permission to torture innocent people."

"No more than Ansem himself did to me."

"You volunteered for those experiments."

"So I did." Xehanort shrugs. The movement of his shoulders under his labcoat is like silk sliding over a razorblade.

He's made no move so far, leaving Even and Dilan to defend him. It strikes Rinoa that this indicates either supreme stupidity, as there are bound to be guards – both regular and Royal – on their way up here at any moment, or supreme self-confidence.

Xehanort is not a stupid man. Not even close.

She holds Blaster Edge ready. "Orders, Captain?"

Squall doesn't have time to answer.

"I must point out, Merlin, that not all those who participated in our research were innocent," Xehanort says. "Or did you think the reduced number of prisoners and traitors in the dungeons was a happy accident?"

"Nobody has the right to decide who's worthy of living. That's not your decision to make. Thinking you're so much better than everyone else, that it gives you the right to play god with their lives, it's just … it's just selfish arrogance!" The words are out before Rinoa can stop them. She's always had trouble keeping a lid on how she feels about things. Squall's pulled her up about it before, though Lord Ansem is always lenient when he overhears her.

This time, however, it really would've been a good idea to keep quiet.

Xehanort looks at her, and there's nothing in his gaze except a sort of mocking pity. "Everyone can be judged because everyone has darkness somewhere in their hearts. You're judging me right now, or did you draw your weapon to polish it? At this very moment you hate me and if I were to make the wrong move you would cut me down. Even you have darkness inside your heart, Private Heartilly. There are no exceptions. Lieutenant Wallace, for example, had a streak of darkness that even I didn't expect of him, but unexpectedness did nothing to reduce it once it was exposed."

Rinoa has a sudden flash of Barret: big strong Barret, who once took out an entire herd of griffins by himself and beat them even though it half killed him. Barret, who makes Stinkin' Hot Chilli when it's his turn to cook, and curses up a storm even in polite company. Tough-as-dragon-scales, wouldn't-be-seen-dead-sniffin'-no-goddamn-posy Barret, who can also cradle an exhausted friend like a baby and carry her home, and whom she's seen playing with one of her adopted animals when he thought nobody was looking, stroking kittens like he can't crush a man's skull with his bare hands. She imagines the calloused angles of his face, his broad shoulders and scratchy beard, which she always pets and tells him he should shave. She remembers the way he always pulls away, muttering, "Fuck it, Rinoa, I ain't no fuckin' pansy-ass pretty-boy like your Captain!" and how he can make her blush and she can do the same to him by not telling him Squall's right behind him.

In the same instant she thinks of the Heartless she saw when she finally got that locked door open. She thinks of them in their tank, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to reach her. Their scrabbling was like moths inside a lampshade, intent only on reaching her horrified heart and ripping it from her chest.

"I don't trust that mo-fo, and I'm'a prove it one of these days. He's up to sumthin'. All's I need is some goddamn evidence."

"Barret, don't do anything stupid."

"Who's stupid? You callin' me stupid, girl? I ain't stupid, on account of no stupid idiot woulda been able to figure out where that sonofabitch is keepin' special doors locked."

"Heartilly! Rinoa!"

She hears Squall's shout as if from far away. Her feet are off the floor and her wings are beating the air. One of them catches the wall – it's too restricted in here for a proper aerial attack. Instinctively the hand not burdened with Blaster Edge sharpens into claws for close combat, I case she has to retract her wings and lose what protection they afford her.

Someone's screaming and it's only when she's almost reached Xehanort that she realises it's her. Dilan's muttered magic blows past her. She spins to avoid it and comes in upside down, so when Xehanort raises a hand she's more focussed on the shape of his knuckles than the crackling blue energy in his palm.

The world fragments into a series of images and disconnected sensations. It's all she's able to remember afterwards: The crack of a gunblade. Merlin pointing. The sudden knowledge she can't stop. Someone crashing into her from the side. A blast of heat. Squall beside her on the floor, his face a mask of blood. Xehanort and Merlin's different magics clashing like two tidal waves flowing in opposite directions. Dilan and Even bearing down on her. Merlin's beard puffing out like an angry cat. Xehanort's sudden frown as he has to use both hands to hold back the old man's spell. Ienzo in the doorway, pointing at Merlin's back and reading aloud from one of Merlin's stolen books. Xehanort's angry shout for him to stop, to not use the Lexicon of Forbidden Spells.

Rinoa instinctively throws herself over Squall, covering them both with her wings as the whole room explodes with the colour of three irreconcilable magics being forced to mix together.

There's a sensation of power, like the biggest spring in the universe being pressed flat. It cuts through the noise of battle, dragging a cloak of silence behind it. The sound starts like a hiss, as though the whole world is taking a deep breath. It turns into … not noise, but something more like an invisible hammer that smacks into both ears at once. The flattened spring releases, and the tiny room where Ansem the Wise always retreated for peace and quiet erupts with so much magical energy that not even his entire castle can contain it.

It flows down the corridors, it bursts through doors, it pours out of windows and surges down steps. It blasts like dragon-fire from arrow-slits and chimneys, arcing from person to person and sweeping them all up like a riptide. It detonates outwards over the whole of Radiant Garden, tearing holes in the protective wall around it, shutting off the fountains of gentle light that fall like snow. When it can go no further it billows like a fresh sheet floating down over a bed and descends on the city.

Inside Ansem's study, at the core of the eruption, figures flicker and vanish as though incinerated. Merlin throws out a desperate enchantment to shield himself and the two bodies on the floor, but all it does is crystallise around them and they vanish as one.

"No!" Xehanort shouts, fighting the pull. Reality is ragged around him and he can already taste the realm of nothingness dragging him in. "I won't let this be the end! I won't be banished alone again!"

Something that resembles a silver cord flies out of him. Even's outline is already dissolving, but the cord shoots through him, connecting him to Xehanort and then to Ienzo and Dilan. It lances through the floor so fast that Braig and Aeleus, many stories below, are still registering the latest dramatic earthquake when it runs them through. As soon as all six apprentices are linked the cord reconnects with Xehanort and tightens, binding them together as firmly as their secrets bound them together against their teacher.

"I'll come back!" Xehanort screams, body fading and mind following. "I'm not finished here yet! There's still too much to d-argh!"

Something dark, like a solid version of his own shadow, peels away from him and rockets out of the window. Xehanort arches, clutching his chest.

Then he vanishes, and so does all knowledge of him.

 


 

 

She can hear a baby crying.

No, she can hear her baby crying.

She forces her eyes open. She's exhausted, but the sudden cessation of voices draws her back to herself.

The two men are nowhere to be seen. In a container on the floor is a howling, sticky baby wrapped in a towel. Only half its face has been wiped free of blood and birth fluid, and the towel hangs open as though dropped quite suddenly.

She sits up. Something inside her slides horribly, but she reaches to pick up her baby anyway. Her arm hurts where they injected the recovery drugs, but that's nothing compared to the welling queasiness in her gut. Her midriff feels like a pair of bellows that haven't been allowed to inflate for nine months. Her head aches and her joints are on fire, so it's a moment before she realises the impossible has happened.

The door is open.

She vaguely remembers one of the men standing in it before she shut her eyes against the pain and they disappeared. It has to be a ruse. If she tries to escape they'll catch her and strap her down again, like they did in Ragdim, the city where they first found her healing people for a living, before bringing her here.

The baby whimpers and coughs. She gently wipes the last of its tiny puckered face clean, shushing it with a voice made rusty from screaming. Its skin is blotchy, and when it screws up its mouth and nose she notices how delicate its features are. A tiny portion of its head pulses where the skull plates don't yet meet. She imagines the white-coated men with their rough, determined hands picking up her baby and poking it in that vulnerable spot, or forcing living shadows up its nose.

Body on fire, she carefully raises herself to her feet. Afterbirth slithers down her legs, but they cut the umbilical cord, at least. Her joints throb and she wants to throw up, but she picks her way out of the cell and into the corridor beyond, then pauses, not knowing which way to go.

This way… says a voiceless voice she's used to hearing only in her dreams.

It's then that she understands. The recovery drugs are designed to cleanse a system of residual darkness, leaving it ready for fresh experimentation. The dose now spreading through her system has no darkness to attack and consume, so it's consuming her instead. With every second that passes more poison spreads through her internal organs. She has to get out – now. She can't die here and leave her child where those madmen can find it.

… This way … says the voice again. It reminds her of her mother, except she hasn't seen her mother since she was sixteen and happy, before the older woman died of cholera while tending the poor in a city slum. Unable to heal herself the way she healed others, her mother died and left her to make her own way in the world. … This way …

She follows it, trusting it implicitly. It leads her up, out of the dark passageways. It takes her through doors that it also tells her how to unlock. As she walks it gets louder in her mind, overlaying one voice with another, and another, until her skull feels full to bursting. She hears people who died long ago, people she knew and people who died before she was even born – grandparents, uncles, cousins, ancient ancestors and her own husband, who met his end under the wheels of a cart in Ragdim only days before she was captured. Their increased clarity signals the deterioration of her body – she's getting closer to the speakers, closer to death. She hurries, panting from fatigue and starvation but determined to get out of this place.

When she reaches the last door she pauses. Where is everyone? Surely someone should have tried to stop her by now.

She soon gets her answer. The denizens of the castle are outside, dressed in ordinary clothes and living ordinary lives as though they've never set foot inside it before. They've been taken from their posts and replaced into the outside world by the gently falling magic dust in the night sky. She knows this as surely as she knows her own name, though there's nobody in sight. The dead whisper it into her mind as she stands alone in the remaining shell of a building.

Why wasn't she affected too? Why wasn't she taken from her cell and put into a nice house, with nice clothes and unmarked skin?

… Because you're an Ancient. Because we're different. Because magic can only affect us up to a point. Because we're a part of the mortal world and a part of the next as well …

"It's not fair," she whispers. She'd cry, but her eyeballs have dried out and her tongue is starting to swell.

… No … No disagreement, just fact. It's easy to be practical when you're dead.

The bundle in her arms mewls.

Her resolve tightens. She can't give in; not yet.

The struggle of getting the door open is almost too much for her. It slams shut on her heels, eager to lock her out and seal itself up. The castle has been scoured of life and she's the last to go. The night air is cold and crisp. She shivers, wrapping her baby up against the chill and creeping barefoot where the voices tell her to go. She has to support herself against walls, and she stumbles more than once, but she won't let herself give up until she's done what needs doing. Her baby will know freedom even if she has to die to make sure of it. The magic of her people isn't linear, she knows, though she never learned how to use hers properly because her mother died before she could teach her. She trusts the voices to know what's best for the future.

As the last speck of sorcery falls, Radiant Garden breathes its last and Hollow Bastion opens its eyes to mewl like the orphaned newborn left alone in the cold night.

 


 

 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

Rinoa pelts through the corridors, taking each corner so fast she only just clears them.

-- Rinoa Heartilly, Squall/Leon's girlfriend from FF8 (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Rinoa (underscore) Heartilly).

Barret, who makes Stinkin' Hot Chilli when it's his turn to cook, and curses up a storm even in polite company.

-- Barret Wallace, a member of the freedom fighter group AVALANCHE in FF7 (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Barret (underscore) Wallace)

Chapter Text

She first sees the black-haired boy her first day of school. He's a year older than her, wearing his knowledge of where to go and what to do like a badge to some super-special club. He's standing on the corner waiting for his friend, arms folded and one knee bent to press the sole of his foot against the wall. He doesn't look or wave at her, with her pigtails and pink lunchbox, but she notices him because he's the kind of person it's impossible not to notice.

She sees him again on the way home, head full of her new teacher's name and the peg with her name above it where she's supposed to hang her coat every day. She walks along feeling very grown up, crossing the street all by herself and not even stopping to pet Mrs. Prasca's new lambs, when suddenly he runs past pursued by a blond boy with what looks like jam in his hair. They don't knock into her but she stumbles back anyway, the daisy-chain she made at lunch falling off her head. The black-haired boy laughs wildly and scales Mrs. Prasca's wall to escape. His friend is left at the bottom, hopping from foot to foot and yelling words she's sure he's not supposed to know.

The blond boy looks embarrassed when he sees her watching. "What do you want?"

"Did he hurt you?"

"Only his pride!"

The blond boy throws himself against the wall, but he's wearing shiny new shoes and can't get any grip. "Zack, get back here!"

The other boy's laughter fades into the distance as he crosses from garden to garden, putting distance between himself and what he's done – or at least what she assumes he's done. Surely jam couldn't get in someone's hair by accident?

Zack. She thinks about his name and decides it suits him. More than one syllable would take too long to say and she gets the feeling he lives life on the move – probably running from one scrape right into another.

"Would you like some help washing that out of your hair?" she asks the blond boy, pointing down the street. Mom said she should try to make friends at school, and she recognises him from the schoolyard. He's in the class above hers, though he's the youngest and looks younger than he actually is. "If you leave it too long it'll go hard and you'll have to cut it out, and then you'll get a bald spot."

"I'll get a what?"

"My house is just over there."

He shoots a sulky glance at the top of the wall, but comes towards her. His hair looks like the chocobo they keep to pull the cart and there's a bright innocence about him that makes Aerith remember the kittens that were born in one of the huge planting tubs last Spring. She loved those kittens and cried when they grew up and left their mother – and her. Mom always says she should stop getting attached to small fluffy things, but surely she didn't mean people when she said that.

"I'm Aerith."

The boy sniffs, wiping his nose on his sleeve, but stops when he realises what he's doing and drops his arm to his side. "I'm Cloud."

 


 

 

"You're hanging out with a girl." Zack grins at them. He's hanging upside down from the rope swing on the giant Oak, making his hair even wilder than usual. Cloud told Aerith that Zack says he hasn't brushed his hair in years, and with all the obvious knots and tangles she can believe it. "You're gonna get cooties."

"Am not!" Cloud jumps to his feet, taking a few steps away from where, seconds earlier, he'd been happily making a daisy-chain with her.

"Does she make you play dollies? Does she do your hair?" Zack sing-songs.

Cloud blushes scarlet. "No." Even if she didn't already know about the jam incident Aerith would know he's lying.

Zack's grin stretches even wider. "She does! I'll bet you two play hairdressers! I'll bet she makes you wear dresses and pretend you're a girl! I'll bet-mrrf!" He can't say anymore because Aerith has also jumped to her feet and planted a kiss right on his lips. He stares at her, upside down and flabbergasted. For once, he's genuinely shocked into silence.

Cloud's still red, but now he's grinning too. "You kissed her! You kissed her!"

"I did not!" Zack protests, turning and scrabbling higher up the rope, as though putting distance between himself and Aerith. He stares down at both of them, cheeks flaming. It's the first time Aerith has ever seen him wrong-footed. "She kissed me! What did you go and do that for? Dumb girl! You got all your dumb girl-germs all over my mouth!"

"You kissed her! You kissed her!" Cloud continues to sing-song, and only stops when Zack shimmies down and leaps on him. They roll around in the dirt until Miss Trepe runs across the schoolyard in her heels to pull them apart.

Aerith isn't sure why she did it, but Cloud's pleased she did. He can't stop grinning for the rest of the day. She spots him through his classroom window when her class goes outside to practise naming birds. He even grins and waves at her on his way to detention.

Zack stalks ahead of his friend. He turns to see who Cloud's waving to and sends Aerith the filthiest look she's ever seen – filthier even than compost. Then he risks further punishment by running over to her instead of going into the detention room.

"Why'd you do it?" he demands.

"What?"

"That … thing. That stupid girly … kissy thing. Why?"

"Because you were making Cloud feel bad."

"That's not a good reason." He wipes his mouth like she's only just done it.

"It's a pretty good one," Aerith maintains, bending one knee and twisting her leg so that her toe scrubs little half-circles on the floor. "You shouldn't tell him it's bad to be my friend."

"Why not?"

"Because."

"Because what? Boys and girls aren't supposed to be friends. It's, like, against the laws of nature or something."

Aerith rolls her eyes. "Because if you make him stop being friends with me I'll … I'll tell everyone in school you tried to look up my skirt!"

Zack is aghast. "But I never-"

"Cloud's my friend," she says severely. "Boys or girls, a friend is a friend. I like him. You're his friend and I'm his friend, too. You don't have any right to tell us we can't be friends. We have fun together. You could have fun with us too, if you like. We could all have fun together instead of making Cloud feel like he has to choose between us."

Zack backs off. "As if I'd hang out with a dumb girl!" Then he runs into Miss Trepe's detention like he's a lunch lady being chased by Headmaster Deusericus after a lunchroom inspection.

 


 

 

Elmyra is signing off on a new cartload of flowers when Aerith comes home from school. She scribbles her signature on the hostler's clipboard and counts to ten before turning to face her daughter. "All right, what happened this time?"

Aerith glares at the floor. "Nothing."

"Aerith, I know that's not true."

She purses her lips.

Elmyra sighs. Usually she prefers fetching her own stock from the Dark Forest, even though that means going outside the city wall, but things have been sickly lately and so she's had to break her code and order flowers from a merchant who comes in with a caravan of traders once a month. She has Lisianthus wilting in the back room and Geraniums that need emergency treatment after their long trip, but the sight of Aerith, defiant against tears, makes her kneel and stroke the little girl's hair like she has nothing more important to attend to than this. "Is it that boy again?"

Aerith bites her lip and nods.

"Did he pull your hair?"

She shakes her head.

"Did he call you names?"

Surprisingly, that gets a shake of the head as well.

"What did he do?"

"He…" Aerith gulps air. "He squashed m-my flower…" Big fat tears roll down her cheeks.

Aerith has always loved flowers, even more than one might expect considering she lives above a flower shop. Since she could walk and talk she's trailed after her mother, asking questions and learning about how to arrange and care for them. Where other children want to look like teenagers and paint themselves with 'borrowed' make-up, Aerith goes to school each day with a flower in her hair. It's Elmyra's way of saying goodbye each morning.

"Did he mean it?"

"Huh?"

"Did he do it intentionally?"

"Uh, I … I … he was f-fighting with one of the bigger kids and h-he knocked into me and … and my flower fell out of my hair. He stood on it when he got up; him and his big feet. But he didn't say sorry or anything! He's just a big jerk who likes to fight too much."

Elmyra sighs. Playground politics. Was she ever this young?

On impulse she goes to one of the new bundles, unwraps it and pulls out a tulip. The upturned petals are white and seem to glow in the afternoon sun. "Here. Give this to him."

"What?" Aerith is horrified. "But he'll-"

"Sometimes, Aerith, the gift isn't the important part. It's the giving that counts."

Aerith stares disbelievingly at her. However, she trusts her mother and eventually holds out her hand. "Is it a Talking Flower?"

That's the name she gave them when Elmyra told her that some flowers can have special meanings – Stephanotises for good luck, Irises for inspiration, Geraniums for comfort, plus hundreds more. Different colours can change their meaning, too – giving someone a pink rose means friendship, but giving a red one means love. It's impossible to keep the meaning of every single flower and its variations inside just one head, though Aerith seems determined to try.

"Yes. It means forgiveness. You say this boy is Cloud's friend too, right?" Elmyra likes Cloud, even if he is a bit wet. His mother works hard to provide for them both and Elmyra can identify with her struggle to bring up a child alone. She still remembers when Aerith braided Cloud's ponytail and put sparkly pink clips in his bangs. She wonders what Ms. Strife thought when he got home. "Well, maybe you need to be the mature one if you want to be a real friend and not a selfish one."

"I'm not selfish! I share my lunch with Cloud all the time, and I help him tie his shoelaces."

"That's not what I meant."

"I don't know what you mean."

"That's something you'll have to figure out for yourself, I'm afraid."

Aerith retains her unconvinced expression, but goes to put wet cotton wool in the bottom of the stem to stop the tulip from drying out.

 


 

 

Angeal is hefting his toolkit from under the stairs when he hears the front door bang hard enough to rattle the rafters. Seconds later floorboards creak above his head. He steps out of the cupboard in time to see Zack disappearing around the corner to the upstairs hallway.

"Zack! What've I told you about not breaking the front door?"

"Not to do it," Zack replies without remorse.

"Zack!"

A sigh curls along the handrail Angeal cut, sanded and varnished himself. He's proud of that staircase. Usually he prefers simplicity, probably as a throwback of life in the military where everything was function over form, but his hands seemed to move by themselves as he lathed and carved intricate patterns in that wood. His old colleagues would laugh to know he has a soft spot for beautiful architecture.

The boy on the top step is unkempt and unruly, but his violet eyes burn with such force that even Angeal pauses.

"What?" Zack mutters sullenly.

Angeal is about to launch into yet another lecture about good manners, respect, showing consideration for their home and not bringing it down around their ears out of temper, but then he notices what's in the boy's hand. He blinks. The sight is so unusual that he leaves aside what he was going to say. "Is that a … flower?"

Zack scowls. His fist tightens around the stem, but he doesn't break it or throw it away even though his arm twitches like he wants to.

"Where did you get that?" For all the time and energy Angeal's spent building and maintaining their house, their yard still looks like a war zone. He just can't summon the inclination to cut grass and weed and do whatever else needs doing when the roof leaks and all he really wants is to burn off the tension in his shoulders on a punching bag. Plus the soil around these parts isn't good. Not that any soil in Hollow Bastion is good for growing things. "Zack?"

"Some dumb girl gave it to me."

Angeal quirks an eyebrow. He can't help himself. "A girl is giving you flowers?" Oh boy. Most flowers grow in Dark Forest, where no sane person goes without an escort and an extremely good reason. Those who have flowers have money, and those who give them away have good reason.

He didn't think he'd have to have this sort of talk with Zack for a few years yet.

"Not like that." Zack is surprisingly vehement. "She said it means forgiveness. Don't know what I did that needs forgiving, though. Dumb girl. Look, can you just yell at me already so I can go to my room?"

For a moment Angeal is honestly stumped. He sighs and waves a hand. "Pretend I did. Go and think about whatever it is you did that made a girl feel she had to come to our house to give you a daisy."

"It's a tulip."

"Excuse me?"

Zack blushes furiously. "Nothing." He whirls and a second later his bedroom door slams.

Angeal opens his mouth to shout, but closes it again without a word. Instead he goes to the front door and peers down the street to where a little girl with brown ponytail bobs away. He doesn't recognise her, but leans on the doorframe to watch what he assumes is his nephew's first love interest until she safely turns the corner.

 


 

 

Cloud is surprised when Zack comes over. Usually, when he sits with Aerith, Zack gives them a wide berth, but today he plunks his lunch on the bench right next to them.

"This seat taken?"

Cloud automatically shakes his head, and then looks at Aerith. She's gone all still and for a second he thinks she's going to send Zack packing. She was so upset when he ruined her flowers last week, and Zack never did say sorry. Cloud has to admit she'd be within her rights to make Zack sit somewhere else to eat.

Cloud likes both his friends. He finds it difficult that they can't seem to get along with each other half as well as they get along with him. Zack's too brash and Aerith's too gentle, though both are great to hang out with in their own way.

Zack plays fighting games and cheerfully bullies Cloud into playing them too, hiding around corners and behind buildings to leap out with twig-swords and have mock-battles. He's great at thinking up imaginary enemies for them to fight, often drawing on his uncle's stories about monsters and making them run manoeuvres like his old military unit. Cloud's usually exhausted after spending time with Zack, so hanging with Aerith is a nice counterpoint.

Aerith isn't like the other girls at school. She doesn't giggle at his hair or make fun of him because he's shorter and skinnier than all the other boys. Cloud feels safe around Aerith, helping her around her mom's shop and doing quiet things that would make Zack yawn and run away to slide down the banister-his-uncle-said-he-mustn't-slide-down-on-pain-of-death. Despite this, sometimes Cloud thinks they'd have so much more fun playing together, instead of him dividing his time between his two friends and forever feeling guilty with one that he's not with the other.

Zack looks at Aerith like he wants to put dirt in her food. She stares right back, reaching up to touch the white flower woven into the top of her ponytail.

Slowly, she shakes her head. "It's not taken."

Cloud's so delighted that he completely fails to notice the identical white flower sticking out of Zack's pants pocket.

 


 

 

"Were you really a soldier in the Ogre War?"

Angeal doesn't quite smile as he fixes sandwiches for everyone. The little girl who brought Zack a flower has become a recurring visitor, and he can't say his disapproves. She's a good influence on his rowdy nephew.

At first she came infrequently and only stayed as long as it took Zack to get his boots on. Then, gradually, she stayed longer and longer. Then she started coming over without that Cloud kid who follows Zack around like a loyal puppy. Now she's a regular fixture and part of Angeal is still surprised at how she gets away with bossing Zack around the way she does. Sometimes she exudes a kind of serenity he's never seen from kids her age. Until she appeared, Angeal constantly worried about Zack's wildness and his own mediocre parenting skills.

"I was," he replies in his deep baritone. "Though I think Zack might have already told you that."

"She didn't believe me," Zack puts in. "She thought I was making it up, but I never make stuff up about you, Angeal. I don't need to."

Aerith looks at him with a curious expression. "How come you don't call him Uncle?"

"'Cause his name's Angeal. Or sir, if he's really mad."

She frowns at Zack's answer, but diverts her gaze when Cloud starts to choke on his drink. As one, both she and Zack reach around to slap him on the back, producing fresh coughing and a dull squeal.

"You don't have to hit so hard!"

"Geez, Cloud, quite being such a baby," Zack sniffs, until Aerith smacks away the arm he's leaning on and he half tumbles out of his seat.

"Don't pick on him."

"I wasn't!"

Angeal shakes his head and wonders how the heck his life changed from disembowelling ogres and escaping monsters by dodging Barren Region acid pits to this strangely humbling domesticity.

 


 

 

Lazard Deusericus looks up from his paperwork to see his secretary in the doorway.

"Yes?"

"It's them again, sir."

Inwardly, Lazard groans. Outwardly he gives no indication of his emotions other than a slightly longer blink. "Very well. Show them in."

"All at once or one at a time, sir?"

He permits himself a small sigh. "Surprise me. No doubt they'll all try to take the blame anyway. What is it this time; a smashed window? Frightening a teacher's horse? Pepper-root smeared on the lunch dishes?"

"No, sir. Strife fell out of a second floor window and Fair climbed out of a third floor one to rescue him. Strife was clinging to the ledge where nobody inside could reach him."

"That's … new."

"Apparently Fair climbed down the drainpipe to get to him, sir. It came away from the wall under his weight. There's a lot of, uh, damage, sir."

"Of course. And how does Miss Gainsborough fit into all this?"

"She left her classroom and crawled along a ledge from another second floor window to rescue them both. She succeeded, too, but the three of them very nearly fell to their deaths. Poor Miss Trepe nearly had apoplexy, which wasn't helped when Strife told her how he fell out of the window in the first place."

"And how exactly did he fall?"

"His seat is next to it. Apparently there are birds nesting on the ledge below and the hatchling fell out. Strife was trying to replace it in its nest without Miss Trepe noticing when he, uh …"

"Fell out of his own nest?"

"Yes, sir."

"And he couldn't just have told an adult about the hatchling and let them deal with it?"

"He said it didn't even occur to him, sir."

Lazard blinks again. "Very well. Let's get this over with."

It is, he reflects, encouraging to see youngsters so devoted to each other and to committing acts of kindness, but he really wishes those three would choose ways of expressing themselves that don't result in being sent to his office every week.

 


 

 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

She has Lisianthus wilting in the back room and Geraniums that need emergency treatment after their long trip.

-- All flowers in this fic have been chosen because of their hidden meaning, even if that meaning isn't explicitly dealt with in the fic itself. Oak-leaf Geraniums signify friendship, while Rose Geraniums mean 'preference' or showing a particular liking for something or someone. Lisianthus used to mean a deep, heartfelt, sometimes even romantic desire, but its meaning has changed a bit over the years, so that now it signifies charisma and congeniality. If you give someone Lisianthus you're telling them how much you appreciate their outgoing personality.

Lazard Deusericus looks up from his paperwork to see his secretary in the doorway.

-- Lazard is a secondary tier character from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Lazard)

"Poor Miss Trepe nearly had apoplexy, which wasn't helped when Strife told her how he fell out of the window in the first place."

-- Quistis Trepe is a character from Final Fantasy VIII (finalfantasy . wikia . com / wiki / Quistis)

Chapter Text

They're eleven when Zack convinces Cloud and Aerith that it's a good idea to go to the edge of town and sneak down the rubble at the broken segment of wall, so they can play chicken with the monsters reported around the borders. Hollow Bastion has always had the occasional monster, being so close to Barren Region and Dark Forest, but lately their numbers have slightly increased – or at least they're getting bolder and letting themselves be seen more. It makes Zack's uncle frown, but nobody told them they can't go out, which Zack takes to mean they should do just that.

"I don't see anything." Cloud peers into the darkness. They're not at the bottom of the rubble but they're not at the top either, which makes him nervous.

"Maybe if we threw a stone or something," Zack muses, until Aerith folds her arms.

"If you two have finished being all macho, can we please go back now? This was a stupid idea. A stupid dangerous idea. Plus it's cold enough to make your teeth chatter, and you don't have a coat, Zack."

"I have my jacket."

"We're going back now."

"Aw, but I wanted to see a monster," Zack pouts. He wants to be a hero like Angeal, but there aren't many opportunities for a boy to prove himself in Hollow Bastion. It's too sleepy there, all the magic chased off by superstitious people who fear it more than anything else.

He's talked about leaving to cross the country and join the military when he's old enough, which makes Aerith's stomach scrunch up – especially when she sees Cloud's face and knows he'd follow Zack into a pit of fire without hesitation. The thought of them both leaving her, especially leaving her to go and fight with real weapons, makes her shake her head and quickly think of something else.

"Hey," Cloud says suddenly. "Look – snow!"

Big flakes float down on the evening breeze, twirling silently and melting on Cloud's hands. He hasn't brought any gloves but doesn't seem to care as he capers about trying to catch them on his tongue. Zack joins him and the two boys whoop, jumping and laughing and generally making a racket. It's been a long time since enough snow fell for them to enjoy it, but the temperature and type of flakes promise a morning of white-carpeted streets and roofs like the tops of the iced gingerbread cottages every family has at Yule.

"C'mon, Aerith," Zack calls.

"Yeah, c'mon Aerith," Cloud echoes. "It's fun."

Aerith hangs back. She's wearing a long dress and doesn't want to get the hem wet, plus bouncing about isn't as comfortable as it used to be. It's started making her chest a bit sore, but she can't tell them that. She already feels like she has to prove to Zack that girls are just as good as boys, and pointing out how she's changing under her loose dresses would only make him worse, she thinks. "I'm okay over here."

"Spoilsport." Zack bounds over and grabs her hand. "Well not this time." He drags her out and takes hold of her other hand, swinging her around in a circle until she feels dizzy.

"Zack! We'll fall!"

"C'mon, Aerith. Be active. Live a little!" His hands are tight around hers and his face is alive as they twirl as much as the falling flakes.

Aerith starts to laugh. She's stumbling over rocks and her hair is getting wet, but something about the way the light dances a few feet away, and the curve of the distant mountains on this side of the wall, creates a swell of recklessness inside her. There may be monsters hiding in the shadows, but there are three of them and they've survived more scrapes than she ever thought they would. They're young enough to believe they're safe this close to town, but to still get a thrill from dipping their toes into danger. Zack's boisterousness is infectious, like his smile, and she finds herself reflecting both.

Zack looks away from her and stops abruptly. "Cloud?"

Aerith stops too. There's no sign of him. "Cloud?"

"Cloud, buddy, where'd you go?" Alarm edges Zack's voice. Cloud is still short for his age and, with a year on his friends, Zack has adopted a somewhat protective instinct around them – though Cloud fights the suggestion that he can't take care of himself. Zack takes a few steps further into the darkness, away from the town's protective lights. "Cloud!"

"Cloud, this isn't funny." Aerith looks back through the gap they snuck through, at the safe bulk of the tavern, before running after Zack and slithering down a boulder almost as big as her house. She's hardly gone more than a few steps when the dark seems to swallow her. "Cloud, where are you?"

There's a noise to their left; a soft rustle that they might've missed if they hadn't been listening so hard. Aerith grips Zack's arm and he edges slightly in front of her, but they both keep going. It doesn't even cross their minds to turn back.

"Cloud?"

Suddenly a giant shape leaps from the darkness. Aerith screams and Zack becomes rigid. It lands between them, knocking them apart.

Aerith sees a hand reach out and feels something too strong to be human seize her. She screams again. Somewhere Zack is shouting, but a familiar blond head has caught her attention. Before she has chance to think, she's sunk her teeth into the arm holding her. The owner doesn't let go but its grip does loosen. Aerith takes the opportunity to twist away, grabbing Cloud and yanking to free him from it's other hand.

A dreadful wailing fills the air. Cloud is hoisted off the ground – Aerith too, since she refuses to let go of him. Her nose is full of the smell of rotting meat, and suddenly she's on the same level as a mouth stuffed with fangs. Eyes glare balefully at her, red as coals in a face of wrinkled skin like a crone's, if crones wee blue. Aerith adds another terrified scream to the jumble of noise.

"Let them go!" Zack yells, leaping on the creature and pummelling it with both fists. It hisses, dipping its head and stretching out the arm Aerith bit to wrap around his throat.

A roar cuts through the melee, but this one is far deeper and more familiar. Footsteps on stone and then there's a zing of metal and Aerith pitches sideways, still clinging onto Cloud. He's limp in her arms, and when they hit the rock she instinctively wraps herself around him, shielding him with her body in case they tumble over the edge.

Over their heads the creature's shriek is cut short. Something smelly and wet slaps down beside them. Aerith keeps her eyes screwed shut, not wanting to see what it is. Something else flops off the rocks and into the darkness.

"Zack! Aerith! Cloud! Are you kids all right?"

Zack coughs nearby. Heavy footsteps move from him to Aerith and she whimpers, unable to move. Her muscles have seized up in belated terror and she can no more unclench them than she could stop herself following Zack into the shadows after Cloud.

Strong arms pick both her and Cloud up like they're rag dolls. "It's okay," Angeal soothes. "Black Annis is gone. You're safe now."

Aerith just whimpers more. Putting a name to the horrible creature only makes it scarier. Once it has a name it's not just a nightmare, it's real and the feel of its claws burn where they cut through her jacket like a hot knife through butter. With great effort she opens her eyes and sees Cloud's face inches from her own. There's a bruise on his forehead, a cut on his cheek and his eyes are closed. He looks dead.

"C-Cloud…"

"He's all right," Angeal assures her. "She just knocked him out. It's a good thing you made so much noise so she didn't carry him off before I found you." He turns his head to the side, tone sharpening. "What were you thinking, going so far out like that?"

For a moment Aerith thinks he's talking to her, but Zack replies and she realises he's walking alongside them.

"I didn't know this would happen. I never meant for -"

"Dreams of glory are worthless if they mean putting those you care about in danger. This was reckless and stupid, even for you. You could've gotten them killed! You could've been killed! Black Annis preys on children, and for all you seem to think you're a man already, Zack, you're still a child." Angeal sounds angrier than Aerith has ever heard him.

She starts to cry, small sobs that shake her chest and shoulders. It's still snowing. She can feel it splatting against her cheeks, but inside she feels far, far colder than any snowflake.

 


 

 

Zack's facing the wall. He doesn't turn over when Angeal enters, which is probably to be expected. He really lambasted the kid, after all.

Angeal sighs. He was angry and worried, but once that anger faded he realised it wasn't all Zack's fault. He still shouldn't have gone to the edge of town when he knew about the monster sightings, and especially shouldn't have crossed the wall,but he hadn't forced his friends to go with him. They were all equally to blame, and the scare they'd received was punishment enough.

Aerith was nearly inconsolable by the time they arrived at Doctor Rui's. When Shalua opened the door Angeal was almost glad to deposit the girl with her assistant, Shelke, prising Aerith's fingers from Cloud and setting the boy on a cot for Shalua to examine. Zack had hovered on the fringes, unsure what to do or what to say, until Angeal snapped for him to make himself useful by shutting the damn door.

Cloud was fine. Black Annis had pounced on him and knocked him out before he could struggle, so he had no defensive wounds and she didn't have to fasten her iron claws very tight to hold onto him. Shalua worried he had a concussion and opted to keep him in for observation, sending a message to his mother to tell her where he was. Aerith's wounds were superficial except for her shoulder. Hermother was called to collect her, and when she arrived she plied Angeal with praise he didn't feel he deserved. Anyone in that tavern could've heard Aerith scream and rushed to the rescue.

Ironically, Zack came off worst. His throat is badly bruised, with a shallow cut where one of Black Annis's fingers was a hairsbreadth from puncturing his jugular. Angeal recalls seeing his nephew dangling from her grasp when he arrived on the scene. He shudders to think what he might have found if he'd been a few minutes – a few seconds – slower.

"Zack."

The boy doesn't respond.

"Zack, I'm talking to you."

Zack's shoulders twitch. Angeal thinks he's shrugging. Fresh anger flares within him, but a moment later he realises the twitching is too regular and sustained for a shrug. In fact, it's getting stronger despite Zack's attempts to hide it. His spine curves over and it becomes clear he's actually crying.

Angeal's anger drains out of him. He sits on the bed, facing away from his nephew, and lets out a long breath. "Zack, what you did tonight was very foolish."

"I know."

"Good. We learn from our mistakes. It's how we progress through life, and a sign of stupidity is an inability to learn and grow from experience."

"Angeal, I didn't mean to-"

"For example, tonight I experienced fear like I've never experienced it before. I feared that you would be killed. I feared that I had failed in my duty to protect you. I feared that I had broken the promise I made to your mother, to keep you safe and help you grow into an honest and honourable man. And I learned that I never want to experience that again."

"Angeal, I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry-"

"For that reason I have come to decision. Things can't go on as they are, Zack. You need discipline. You need to learn self-control."

Zack's whole body stiffens. "Are you sending me away?"

"No. I've decided to train you." Angeal looks at the ceiling. "There are things happening that I don't expect you to understand yet, but you must understand this: you need to know how to defend yourself and keep your loved ones safe. For that reason, you will begin training with me as soon as possible. I'll teach you everything I know." He glances over his shoulder. "Within reason."

Zack sits bolt upright, apparently forgetting his face is tearstained, and gapes at him. "Are you serious?"

"Deadly serious. This isn't a game, Zack. If I ever think you're treating it as such, I'll stop immediately." Angeal's tone is sombre. "The world is changing, even this quiet little part of it. In what ways and how much, I'm not sure yet, but I've already noticed some worrying developments and I want you to be prepared to face them, as well as any more that might occur. It won't be easy. I'm a hard taskmaster and I'll expect nothing less than your all. Are you willing to put everything you have into meeting this challenge? Are you willing to put your dreams into my hands?"

Zack doesn't even hesitate. He holds a hand to his head in a very sloppy salute, but his eyes are bright. "Yes, sir."

 


 

 

Cloud likes Doctor Rui. She's only got one eye and doesn't use one hand much, but she's kind and doesn't tell him he was stupid for nearly getting eaten by Black Annis.

He can't say the same for her assistant, though. Shelke is businesslike and aloof. She doesn't reply when Cloud thanks her for letting him stay the night. Instead, she busies herself labelling pots and putting instruments away in drawers as her sister leads him and his mother out. When Cloud reaches the door he swears he sees her roll her eyes, as though he's just some little kid who should've known better. Which, well, he guesses he is, but still…

Outside he's greeted by two pairs of worried eyes.

"Zack. Aerith." Cloud's mother seems surprised to see them, especially since they're alone.

Cloud isn't. "Hey, guys," he grins, but not too wide in case it unsticks the gauze on his cheek. Usually it's Zack who comes away with injuries. Cloud is sort of proud that this time he's wearing the evidence of another tight spot survived. His grin fades, however, when neither of his friends smiles back. "Guys?"

"Are you okay, Cloud?" Aerith asks. The part of her face visible through her hood looks paler than usual and really tired, like she didn't sleep a wink last night.

"I'm fine. Hey, I heard how you two took on Black Annis all by yourselves trying to rescue me. And how Angeal cut her head off with just a poker from the tavern fireplace. You're all so amazing!"

She blinks. "Uh…"

Zack's eyes dance. "So you're not hurt?"

"Except for this." Cloud points to the gauze, then the angry purple bruise on his forehead. "And this. Everyone says you two saved my life. Thank you. You really are the best friends I could ever ask -"

"That's all I needed to hear." Zack launches himself on top of Cloud, delivering the biggest noogie in the history of noogies. "You doofus! Don't you ever scare us like that again."

"Ever!" Aerith agrees, trying to drag Zack off by his arm.

Within seconds they're all tussling like puppies, laughing and whooping until they crash into Ms. Strife and she yelps. As one, they freeze. Aerith's hood has fallen back, Cloud's hair is even more mussed than Zack's, and they're all flushed from a combination of cold and exercise. They stare at Cloud's mother. She's even paler than Aerith and probably got even less sleep.

"Whoops." It's Zack who speaks first. His voice reverberates through Cloud's head, since Zack's throat is currently pressed against the crown of Cloud's skull. "Sorry about that, Ms. Strife. Are you hurt?"

"No." She sighs, running a hand through hair the same colour as her only son's, though much less spiky. "No, Zack. And I … suppose I should thank you, for trying to save Cloud. And you, Aerith. You two always seem to be getting him out of trouble."

"Only after they get me in it in the first place!" Cloud tries to say, but Zack stuffs the end of Aerith's scarf into his mouth.

"Can we please borrow Cloud for a while? It's perfect snowman weather and we wanted to make the most of it."

"I … guess so," Ms. Strife agrees, slightly flummoxed.

Cloud's glad she isn't going to try and make him stop seeing his friends, like she did after he nearly drowned in the brook when they were little. She used to think Zack was a bad influence, but Zack has a way of working himself under your skin so you know this and forgive him in the same heartbeat. Ms. Strife knows Zack would never intentionally hurt Cloud, and after last night will do his utmost to make sure neither Cloud nor Aerith are put in unnecessary danger again.

"Great." Zack starts to drag both Cloud and Aerith off down the snowy street.

"But you must stay away from the edge of town! Especially the wall!"

"Yes, Ms. Strife," Aerith replies. "We promise."

 


 

 

Zack only releases his friends when he can no longer contain his news.

Cloud's eyes shine. "Wow, Zack! Angeal really promised to train you? That's incredible!"

"I know. Isn't it fantastic?"

Aerith looks less convinced, as he explains that he won't be available to hang out so much anymore, but he's going to learn how to swordfight and flip a man twice his height and track monsters and everything. No more evil creatures will ever threaten them while he's around, he proclaims, looking proud.

"Unless you pull another stunt like last night," she points out.

Zack just waves a hand as though dispersing pipe smoke. "That was the old Zack. This is the new and improved version."

"Does this version still go to sleep hugging a teddy bear?"

"Shut up!"

"Does this version still build snowmen?" Cloud wants to know.

"Heck yeah. C'mon."

The two boys are already preparing to hare off to find the biggest, best snowdrift to use for their snowman, and possibly a snowball war, when Aerith suddenly bursts out, "You can't!"

They stop and look at her. "Can't what?" Zack asks.

Aerith bites her lip. "Can't … um, can't build a snowman." It isn't what she was going to say, but one look at the happiness in his eyes makes her words dry up in her throat. "Um, Cloud still doesn't have any gloves. He'll get frostbite."

Cloud looks at his hands. "Oh yeah."

"Is that all?" Zack makes an irritated noise and grabs Cloud's left hand. "Now you take the right one, Aerith. That way we'll keep his hands warm."

"And when we find a good snowdrift? How's he going to keep warm when he has to actually touch the snow?"

"Oh, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now come on before everything thaws and there's no snow left for a snowman."

 


 

 

Elmyra is surprised when the shop door opens and three ragged bundles roll in. They're wet through and covered in bits of dirt and pebbles and ... oh dear. She sniffs.

"What is that smell?"

"Zack made a snowball and didn't check which snow he was using first," Aerith grumbles.

"How was I supposed to know the horse manure was underneath it?"

Cloud sneezes. All his blond spikes are flat and the gauze on his cheek is so soggy it's drooping.

Elmyra sighs and comes around from behind the counter. "Come along, you three. There's a fire in the grate and blankets in the cupboard. Strip off those wet things and I'll fetch the clothes-horse."

"Mom, please don't mention horses." Aerith picks disconsolately at her dress.

Cloud looks fearful, while Zack is visibly appalled. "We're not stripping off where she can see us!"

"You can use the bathroom."

"Yeah, but the fire-"

"You'll be under blankets. Don't worry. And it'll only be for as long as it takes your clothes to dry out." Elmyra is brisk, hustling them along to the back room and staircase that leads to the quarters she and Aerith make their home in. Sales of holly and mistletoe have gone up with the approach of Yule, bringing in some much-needed money, but she turns the sign on the door to 'closed'. "Come along, now. No dilly-dallying."

"Za-ack," Cloud bleats.

Zack squares his shoulders. "You'd better not peek."

Aerith just rolls her eyes and shivers. "Like you have anything I'd want to see."

 


 

 

They're not completely inseparable, but people accept that when you spot one, the other two usually aren't far away. Kids whisper about them, giggling because they play games nobody else is allowed to join in with, and adults find their antics cute until one of the boys steals an apple pie that was cooling on their windowsill, or breaks their window, or goes scrumping in their orchard.

Their victims complain to the eldest boy's guardian. They have no proof it's him, but the uncle is stoic yet principled. They feel better about complaining to a noble man, who gave up his life as a soldier to raise someone else's child, than whinging to the flower-seller, who's already suffered so much with losing her husband, or to that woman. That's what sniffy neighbours call her, and nobody goes to her house if they can help it in case they're tarnished by association.

Soon the boy can be heard lecturing the other two about the wickedness of stealing and the importance of honour and integrity. Nobody's quite sure if he knows what 'integrity' means, but the pies stop disappearing and there are suddenly a lot more apples on trees, so nobody asks.


 

 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

Strong arms pick both her and Cloud up like they're rag dolls. "It's okay," Angeal soothes. "Black Annis is gone. You're safe now."

-- Black Annis is a creature from English folklore; a blue-faced old crone with iron claws and a taste for human (especially child) flesh. Though in this fic she inhabits Barren Region (the wilderness between Hollow Bastion and the lands beyond the mountain range), in real life she's said to haunt the Leicestershire countryside, and live in a cave in the Dane Hills. She supposedly goes out at night looking for unsuspecting children and lambs to eat, then hangs their skins around her waist. She's not above reaching inside houses to snatch people, which is the alleged reason why traditional houses in that area have small windows.

Aerith was nearly inconsolable by the time they arrived at Doctor Rui's. When Shalua opened the door Angeal was almost glad to deposit the girl with her assistant, Shelke, prising Aerith's fingers from Cloud and setting the boy on a cot for Shalua to examine.

-- Shalua Rui and Shelke are both characters from Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus www (dot) ffrepublic (dot) com /final-fantasy-7-dirge-of-cerberus/characters/shalua and www (dot) ffrepublic (dot) com /final-fantasy-7-dirge-of-cerberus/characters/shelke)

Adults find their antics cute until one of the boys steals an apple pie that was cooling on their windowsill, or breaks their window, or goes scrumping in their orchard.

-- I'm not sure if the word 'scrumping' exists outside Britain, but it basically means to steal fruit before it's been picked.

Chapter Text

A girl called Tifa joins Aerith's class. She's tall and agile and goes to martial arts lessons three times a week after school, as well as at weekends. She also has long brown hair, which she keeps in a swishy ponytail at the nape of her neck, and eyes the colour of crisp Autumn leaves. She kind of scares the other girls because she's a year younger but has been skipped ahead because she's smart. She also oozes self-confidence, and it's obvious she doesn't need their approval to feel good about herself. That same self-confidence makes a lot of the boys rethink how they wear their uniform and consider the sudden surge of hormones beginning to surge through them.

They've never spoken, but one day Aerith walks up to Tifa and asks if she'd like to come over to play. It might be strange for a twelve-year-old to arrange play-dates, but Aerith has never been one to follow tradition.

Tifa looks at her, standing with hand on her hip like she could kick the ass of anyone in the room. She's already wearing a bra under her uniform. After a few seconds she shrugs. "Sure. That'd be fun."

 


 

 

"You know Cloud?"

"Sure. We've lived next door to each other for, like, ever." Tifa stretches out on the bed, toes and fingers pointed, and then relaxes everything at once. She splays like cooked spaghetti, one arm draped over her forehead. Aerith's never met anyone as comfortable in their own skin as Tifa. "I never really talked to him though. His mom's not married."

Aerith feels herself bristle a little. "So? Neither's mine."

"Yeah, but Cloud's mom's never been married. Don't get me wrong, I don't care a bit, but my folks are really old-fashioned when it comes to stuff like that. They think Cloud is 'unsuitable' and 'from bad stock'. They actually use those words, too. If it wasn't for all the monsters appearing in Barren Region I swear they'd be training me up to be a good little wife instead of letting me learn Zangan-Ryu. See this scar?" She lifts her leg to show off a thin white line running across her shin. "I got that from a Grindylow. It hid in Master Zangan's fishpond and when I was practising my meditation it jumped me. Can you imagine? They aren't supposed to live in Hollow Bastion, so Master Zangan says it must've come from outside. Probably Barren Region or Dark Forest or someplace, but it's unusual for a monster to come right into town like that. Mostly the wall keeps them out, but they've been getting much cheekier since he was young. Either way, before that happened my parents were all for making me give up martial arts completely. Now they're happy for me to learn how to defend myself in case more monsters get into town and try to carry me off or something. You should learn too."

Aerith is startled. She's never considered learning to fight. It's always something Zack and Cloud play at while she sits on the side-lines or tends the flowers in the shop.

Dark Forest is so dangerous nowadays, but shipments from outside Hollow Bastion are getting fewer and fewer, and the plants they bring in droopier and droopier. They need more attention than they used to before they can be sold. It's like something is sucking the colour right out of them the moment they cross the wall, turning what were once vivid blooms into insipid impressions of Lilies, Pansies and Snapdragons as soon as they cross the town's border. Aerith has given up wearing flowers in her hair all the time, instead putting them in only when she doesn't feel bad for parading the poor things around.

She's not above rolling up her sleeves to drag Zack and Cloud from whatever mess they've gotten themselves into, but the thought of punching someone the way Tifa does turns her stomach. Aerith still has nightmares, sometimes, about Black Annis. Those nights she snaps awake, frozen like someone is gripping her mind and holding her still. She should learn but privately, she admits in those moments, she's afraid that if she does it'll be tempting fate to send more creatures like Black Annis into her life.

"Why didn't you come to school before this year?" she asks, changing the subject.

Tifa shrugs. "My parents thought it was better to teach me at home. Big yawn. Then they got worried that I'm not socialised enough, so they bought me a uniform and packed me off. So far, it's not been too bad. Not brilliant, but not too bad." She turns onto her stomach. "You and Cloud seem pretty tight. He's always been so mousy whenever I see him around his house. Are you going out?"

"What?"

Tifa frowns. "Isn't that what everyone does in school?"

"We go to school to learn," Aerith says, a little primly.

"But I thought everyone paired off." Tifa seems honestly puzzled. "That's what happens in all the books."

Aerith reads classics from her mom's shelves and cookbooks, plus any gardening books she can lay her hands on. Cloud's mother lent her a heavy tome about monsters after Black Annis. It was old, the glue smelled a little like mouldy cabbage, and Aerith had to look up so many words just to understand what it was talking about that eventually she gave up and asked Angeal about monsters instead. Yet she's never read anything like what Tifa now describes.

Tifa checks things off on her fingers. "First it's meeting a boy's eyes across a crowded room, then he sits next to the girl, or asks her to dance or something, then he carries her things home even if they're really light and she can easily carry them herself, or he makes a big deal about making sure she gets home safely and walks her to her door, and then…"

"Then what?"

"Then they kiss and stuff. Y'know – they go out."

Aerith pauses to give this serious thought. "Exactly which books are you reading?"

 


 

 

"Jodan tsuki!"

"Rising punch!"

"Chudan tsuki!"

"Middle punch!"

"Gedan tsuki!"

"Downward punch!""

"Oi tsuki!"

"Lunge punch!"

"Gyaku tsuki!"

"Reverse punch!"

Angeal drops back a few paces. "Good."

Zack wipes sweat from his eyes. He's a good student, far better than his teachers at school would've predicted. Like so many youngsters, Zack just needed the right lessons and subjects to stir his motivation. Practising drills with Angeal, though monotonous, provokes the kind of passion Angeal remembers on the faces of those few new recruits who'd one day become captains and commanders. He could always pick them out right at the beginning; when his own reputation became rock solid the higher-ups listened to his advice on who to keep and who just didn't have what it took to make it in the military.

He can already tell Zack's a keeper. He's just not sure how he feels about that.

Angeal doesn't miss those days. When he was a boy all he wanted was to get out into the world and become a soldier, but like most dreams, the reality couldn't match the fiction he'd fallen in love with. True, he never envisioned life after the military as a single parent, but there aren't many positive emotions he can summon about his time in the ranks aside from a few bits of being an Elite, and time spent with his friends, and those times he chooses not to think about if he can help it. 'Comrades-in-arms' tastes as sour as 'glory of battle' to Angeal these days.

Those who've never been soldiers think of it as glorious work: defending the weak, slaying monsters, being thanked by dignitaries and basking in the gratitude of peasants they've saved. In actual fact it's mostly monotonous grunt-work and basic day-to-day grind just like any other career. The thrill of battle is fleeting and the rest of the job incessant as a dripping faucet. When he became an Elite there was also a lot of paperwork involved. Angeal can't ever remember feeling glorious about being half torn to shreds and covered in steaming monster blood, or pushing paper at three o' clock in the morning for the fifth night in a row. Raising Zack, living here, eking out a living amongst these simple but good people … this, he reflects almost daily, is worth far more than any medal or tickertape parade.

Well, maybe 'eking' is the wrong word. He makes quite a good living. One of the fortunate parts of a town made almost entirely of wood, stone and thatch is there's always work for a carpenter. Or a handyman. Or a hod carrier. Or a thatcher. Angeal can turn his hand to many things and likes to diversify.

Right now, he's wearing his Mentor hat. "Don't telegraph your moves," he barks. "Your stances are too exaggerated. This isn't swordplay, it's hand-to-hand and you'll end up with no hands if you let your enemy see what you're planning next. Remember, you could be fighting creatures with iron instead of flesh like Black Annis, or more limbs than the few you have as a human. If you lose your weapon you've got to be able to defend yourself with just your body."

"Yes, sir." Zack's elbows shoot inward to his sides and his head comes up. His stance still needs work, but it's much better than it was when they first started. He's quick to pick things up and always eager to improve.

He took to a sword like a fish to water, though Angeal has been limiting their training on that front. He doesn't want Zack to become too reliant on any one weapon, especially since way out here knives, arrows, slingshots and rustic tools are the best he's going to have access to. There isn't a good swordsmith for miles.

Plus, truth be told, Angeal is a little wary of the ease with which Zack hefts his wooden practise sword. Even the new weighted one he made looks too comfortable in Zack's hands, whistling through the air in curves and arcs it took Angeal twice as long to master. When he holds a sword, Zack's eyes light up peculiarly and Angeal is transported back to a time and men he'd rather forget. At moments like that he's reminded that Zack is still only thirteen, just a boy, not yet ready for the messy reality of combat.

"How would you defeat a Vetala? Chudan tsuki!"

Zack's punch and voice are strong and true. "Cutting off the head of the inhabited corpse and removing its limbs so it's no more use and the evil spirit has to leave it, sir!"

Angeal nods. This training is all about defending what Zack holds dear, and that means also wielding knowledge as a weapon.

"How would you stop a berserk clay golem? Jodan tsuki followed by Gedan tsuki! Faster!"

 


 

 

"Where are you going?"

Aerith looks down from the driver's seat. "To Dark Forest."

"Are you crazy?"

"Our stock is down."

Zack rolls his eyes. "You and your flowers. Move over." He climbs onto the cart, but she stops him with a hand on his chest.

"And just where do you think you're going?"

"With you, of course."

"Why?"

"Because Dark Forest is dangerous and you shouldn't go there alone."

"I'm not alone. Cloud's going with me."

As if on cue, Cloud turns the corner. He waves when he sees Zack and quickens his step. "I thought you were training with Angeal all afternoon." As he talks, he holds out his hand and Grimoire, the Gainsboroughs’ ancient chocobo, gently scoops sugar cubes off his palm. Grimoire has always had a soft spot for Cloud, possibly because of the hair, but probably because all animals like Cloud. He has an easy manner they find comforting. Cloud laughs as Grimoire dips his head and even though he winces when the, in a chocobo sign of affection, he plucks out a few strands of blond hair as if they're feathers, Cloud doesn't push the elderly giant away.

"Angeal went to talk to the mayor about getting men to patrol the borders and some kind of proper repairs done to the wall. So many monsters have been seen on the edges of Barren Region recently, he wants to make sure none of them get cheeky and come into town." Zack stands up, balancing on the cart's wheel. "Cloud, are you and Aerith going to Dark Forest?"

"Um … we were …"

"Then I'm coming with you. Neither of you can fight and there may be dangers you can't handle down there."

"We're not going into the forest," Cloud protests. "We're not stupid. We were just going to the edge-"

"You still have to go outside the wall and that's dangerous enough, even with people watching. Don't argue, just get in. Aerith, I'm sitting next to you up front." Zack wiggles into place. "Budge over. There's not much room up here." He's not quite sitting in her lap, but it's close.

Aerith huffs irritably. Cloud clambers into the back of the cart without argument, but his progress is hampered by the two empty knapsacks he's brought along. Aerith has her own knapsack of tiny clay pots in which to safely relocate any plants they find rather than just cut them, but once they're full the pots won't all fit into just one bag.

Zack rolls his eyes. "Cloud, give me those."

"It's okay, they're not heavy, they're empty-"

"Just let me carry them. You too, Aerith." Zack takes her knapsack before she has time to protest and settles them over his own shoulders. It's ridiculous, and he has to lean uncomfortably forward just to sit down, but he refuses to take them off. "Man, the things I do to make sure you two get home safely."

Aerith shoots him a strange look. "What?"

He gazes blankly at her. "What things do I do?"

"No, what did you just …?" she trails off, glancing at Cloud, back at hunched-over Zack, then at the non-existent space between them on the driver's seat. Tifa's voice floats to her. Finally, she stares into her own lap. "Nothing. So, you're going to defend us with a stick?"

"Hey, it's a weighted wooden practise sword, and it can still knock the block off anything that threatens us."

Aerith twitches the reins and yips for Grimoire to move off. "Grimoire, if anything does threaten us, I hope there's some speed in those old legs of yours."

"Wark!"

 


 

 

"Aerith isn't mine." The admission comes without preamble.

Angeal looks at Elmyra, coffee mug halfway to his lips. "Uh…"

"I found her when she was a baby. Outside my front door." Elmyra shakes her head, smiling faintly at the memory. "I didn't know who'd put her there. At first, I thought it was a joke. I'd recently miscarried and suddenly here was a ready-made baby to replace mine. Except nobody but myself and my husband knew about the miscarriage. It was only the next morning that I understood; when I heard about a young woman who'd suddenly appeared out of nowhere and died on the castle steps." She shivers. "That place seems to draw death to it like moths to a flame."

Angeal hasn't lived here as long as some residents of Hollow Bastion, but most, like him, know only scraps of what happened to make the castle derelict. It's a strange thing, as though something seeped into the town to make it forget what went on there. Anyone who thinks about it too much finds their mind sliding away to think of other things, like soap suds off wet dishes. When he first arrived, Angeal asked who lived there and was surprised when nobody could answer him. It doesn't even have a name, or at least not one anyone can remember. One old lady mused to him that she was sure it used to, and that the town didn't used to be called Hollow Bastion, but she was half-batty anyway and died the following Winter after following 'ghosts' that were only in her mind and falling asleep in a blizzard. Angeal took what she said with several grains of salt.

Truthfully, Angeal doesn't want to know about the castle. He came here to escape bad feelings and just looking at the place gives him plenty of them. It's an imposing presence, looming over the little houses like a vulture in a tree waiting for an animal to die so it can pick the flesh from its bones. Too big to pull down and too full of stories for anyone to try, it remains where it is, though most avoid it and talk about it only in hushed whispers, when they talk about it at all. Animals sometimes go there to die – sickly lambs, old chocobos and less dreadful wildlife from Dark Forest that can scale the town walls or find ways past the gates or over the rubble.

And, apparently, mysterious young women.

"She must've left Aerith on my doorstep before…" Elmyra clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "I don't know why she did it. I don't know why she picked our doorstep. Aerith was wrapped in warm blankets and healthy, while her mother – her real mother – looked like a skeleton in rags. She was … it was like someone had operated on her. Multiple times. She had track marks and scars … half her hair was gone and there were electrode marks on the sides of her head. Added to her weakened condition, the trauma of childbirth must've been too much for her. She was such a pathetic thing, so skinny and ill looking. Nobody knew her name, or why went to the castle of all places. She was never going to get any help there."

"And you never told anyone about Aerith?"

Elmyra shakes her head stiffly, as though the action is rusty from disuse. "I-I was so close to full term that I had to deliver my son. There was no midwife. It was too fast, and my husband was the doctor at that time s-so ... It was wrong, I know that, b-but when I looked into Aerith's face, so helpless and vulnerable ... People around these parts are a suspicious crowd. If they'd known where she truly came from, they would've thought she was bad luck – a bad omen or something. That poor dead girl couldn't have known, but still … that's no legacy for a child."

"So, you kept her."

Elmyra bows her head. "Yes. My husband, h-he swapped the babies. Took the blankets and put our son in them. He was buried with that poor girl. A little plot outside the town walls – too much bad luck in burying them inside Hollow Bastion itself. I go to it sometimes. I put flowers down. My husband died soon after. Pneumonia. Ironic, eh? Physician, heal thyself. People mourned for a while. He was a good man and mostly well-liked, but there was a doctor ready to take his place and so they forgot him far too soon. He'd been training Shalua as his assistant after she was mauled by a Sandwalker. She was so badly disfigured that no man wanted to marry her because she couldn't bear children, so my husband decided to give her something else to concentrate her life on. He was like that; always kind and thinking of other besides himself. I think, sometimes, that maybe he hated me for what I asked him to do with our son, but he never spoke of it, and then he died and I couldn't ask him. I was left to raise Aerith on my own, and I've been pretending ever since that I really did give birth to her."

Silence fills the room.

Elmyra covers her face with her hands. "I've … never told anyone about this before."

"Why are you telling me now?"

She sets down her mug and Angeal notices that her hands are trembling. "Aerith has started … exhibiting abilities. Abilities she didn't inherit from me."

A bad feeling starts up in Angeal's gut. "Abilities such as…?"

"Last week she touched a bunch of lilies that had wilted. They were old stock, but an hour later it was like they'd just been cut. I could ignore that; I told myself I'd been mistaken, that they hadn't been nearly as bad as I thought and a dash of water had perked them up. Then, yesterday morning, she picked up the head of a rose that'd fallen off its stalk and put it on the counter. I'd accidentally stood on it. She didn't think anything of it – went out of the room without a backwards glance – but right before my eyes the crushed petals repaired themselves. She healed it."

Angeal's eyes widen. "She's a Healer?" Innate magic in humans is rare enough, but Healers are especially unusual.

Elmyra nods. "I think so." Her eyes are suddenly wet and Angeal finds himself a tad disturbed that this strong, capable woman looks about to break down in front of him. "P-People in Hollow Bastion … they don't trust magic. They never have, but especially now with all the new monsters, and those three poor children in their tree-house…" She shakes her head. "Emotions are running high right now. I'm frightened for Aerith. She doesn't understand and because I never told her about … where she came from … I'm frightened people will vent their anger on her because she's an easy target."

"Elmyra, why are you telling me this?"

"Because she needs protecting, now more than ever. Because I can't be around all the time to make sure she's all right. And because you've been training Zack to be a warrior and he listens to you."

Angeal lets the implications of that set in before speaking again. "Healing is rare, especially in one so young, but it's good magic-"

"People are narrow-minded when they're angry. After what happened to those three children, the whole town is angry and looking to blame someone. They can't find the monsters who took them, so they're looking for something – anything – to make them feel better, or at least make them not feel so bad about being unable to protect their own. I heard some people saying that magic attracts monsters like ... like the smell of meat attracts predators. They can sniff it out if it's used. If people find out Aerith has magic … The whole town is full of guilt and anger and fear right now, and powerful emotions can make people do awful things. They won't see the good she can do, or see that she's just a child herself, and one who didn't ask for this, they'll just see her as dangerous and they might … they might hurt her …"

Angeal is forced to agree. He stares into the coffee she invited him over for, seeing his own face and several others reflected there. Powerful emotions motivating awful things and people scared by power they fear and don't understand? "Yes. That much I do know."

 


 

 

Aerith leans back against the headboard. "I still can't believe they're gone."

"Believe it," Zack mutters, plucking at the worn knee of his pants with one hand, curling and uncurling the other around the hilt of his practise sword.

"It was so sudden. I don't think I'd said two words to Jessie since Yule, and now she's gone. I'll never be able to say anything to her ever again. It's just … so weird."

"Yeah, well, get used to it. Monsters are getting bolder and there are more of them than ever before. It was only a matter of time before big ones climbed the town wall and snatched someone."

"Three someones," Cloud corrects dismally, face downcast.

Zack scowls. It's not like they were even friends with Biggs, Wedge or Jessie. Still, news that they were dragged away into the wilderness by Bugganes has hit everyone hard, including him and his friends. They weren't taken in the middle of the night, either. A posse of lumbering monsters scaled the crumbling wall, waded into town and grabbed them from Wedge's tree-house in the middle of the day. They were in and out in a flash. The remains the men found have left Hollow Bastion reeling.

Zack lifts his sword, stares at the blunt blade for a moment, and then throws it away from him with such force the clatter makes everyone jump.

Cloud and Aerith stare at it, and then at him.

"Zack-"

"All my training, all the things I've learned, what good are they? What good are they really? Did they help Biggs, or Wedge, or Jessie? When he started teaching me, Angeal said it was a warrior's duty to protect those who can't protect themselves. Did me knowing what oi tsuki means stop those Bugganes from putting their grubby hands inside that tree-house and … and …" Zack scrubs furiously at his eyes. "… Damn it …"

Cloud and Aerith exchange a look. Zack can feel it over his head. Then something touches his hand. He whips his arm away before registering that Cloud was trying to comfort him.

"You can't be everywhere," Cloud says softly. "And just because you know this stuff doesn't mean you can use it all the time to help everyone."

"But I'm not helping anyone," Zack replies. "Angeal never takes me with him when he goes out to patrol the wall. I'm just … playing pretend! I'm still just playing pretend at being a hero!"

"You've kept us safe," Aerith says, voice as soft as Cloud's. "The day we went to collect flowers, when that goblin tried to attack us near Dark Forest, you fought it off. Even when it took your sword, you still saved us using what you've learned."

"I guess …"

"You're our hero, Zack." Cloud hits it home.

Zack twitches, almost flinches, and this time when Aerith touches his hand he doesn't pull away. By the time Cloud takes his other hand – hesitantly, because boys aren't supposed to hold hands, and after being ragged on by his schoolmates Cloud is acutely aware of this – Zack seems almost grateful for both the contact and the reassurance.

"That was so cliché," he says gruffly, not budging an inch.

"So what?" Aerith demands. "It's true. What happened to Biggs, Wedge and Jessie was awful, Zack, but it wasn't anybody's fault."

"I won't let it happen again," Zack says darkly. "Never again."

Aerith wants to say something about making promises you can't keep, and situations beyond your control, but at that moment a shadow falls across them and they squint up at the invader of their privacy. Zack snatches both hands away from them when he realises Angeal is home.

But Angeal doesn't say anything except, "Zack, could I have a word, please? Aerith, your mother's downstairs."

"She's come to pick me up?" Aerith is puzzled.

"No," Angeal replies, with something like … sadness? From Angeal? "She came back from your house with me. She just needs to speak with you. Cloud, you can go home if you like."

But Cloud has noticed the sudden ominous atmosphere Angeal has brought in the room, like air just before a storm. He decides to stay, so he's still there when Zack returns a few minutes later with tight shoulders and an extra-squared jaw. Zack picks up his practise sword and stares at it for a long moment, swings it once, twice, and holds it in front of him with eyes closed and lips moving silently.

When Aerith returns she's white-faced and dazed. Her hands are trembling and her eyes travel the room without truly seeing anything. Cloud has seen Aerith's eyes so often since they became friends, he thought he knew every emotion they could show, but it's the first time he's ever seen them this way. He doesn't understand the utterly bewildered look in them, far deeper than simple shock, and understands even less when she crumples like a marionette with all its strings cut.

What Cloud does understand is that one of his closest friends is hurting, so he moves to comfort her without even thinking about it. Zack beats him to it, sword in one hand and his left arm wrapped around Aerith, holding her tight. Cloud wraps his right arm around her from the other side, making soothing noises as her sobs rattle through him.

"I'll protect you," Zack says severely. "I'm your hero, remember? Don't worry, Aerith. No matter what, I promise I'll keep you safe."

 


 

 

 

The mayor holds a remembrance ceremony for the three lost children. The whole town can't fit into the central square, but most try. The Gainsborough flower shop runs out of white lilies early on, so when Aerith and Elmyra meet Angeal and Zack on the corner and walk together they each hold a different flower to place on the photographs of Biggs, Wedge and Jessie.

"They're Talking Flowers," Aerith explains.

"What do they say?" Zack asks, long since used to the name.

Aerith passes him his bloom. "Hyacinth for sincerity, because we're genuinely sad about what happened. Here, Angeal; you have Wood Anemone. It represents fragility, because of what you said about life being fragile and too short."

Angeal solemnly accepts the white flower.

"Mom has a white carnation, which means remembrance, and I have Zinnia. It means 'thoughts of friends'. I have some for Cloud and his mom, too, when we get there."

"If we can spot them in this crowd," Elmyra warns, espying the crowds as they near the square.

As it happens, they find Cloud and Ms. Strife without difficulty. A small ring of empty space surrounds mother and son, making it easy for them to join up. Cloud greets them warmly, while Ms. Strife's smile is only a little tense and she does her best not to acknowledge the dirty looks periodically thrown her way. She's delighted when Aerith presents her with her very own Talking Flower.

"You brought one for me, too?" she breathes, tears in her eyes.

"Stephanotis. It means 'good luck', so you can wish their spirits a safe journey."

"That's so sweet." Glancing at Elmyra, Ms. Strife bends to peck Aerith on the cheek. She smells a little of the apple cider the adults drank last Yule and Aerith wrinkles her nose. "Sorry. It was for courage."

"Nobody has any right to keep you from showing your face," Angeal says. "Especially not today. This is as much your home as it is theirs."

Ms. Strife looks like she could kiss him for standing up for her in earshot of all those who disapprove and don't mind whether she hears it. Angeal is a respected man, especially since he started organising monster-defences and construction crews to help repair the worst parts of the wall. Having him show public support for her is a big deal. Aerith notices the way her knuckles have blanched around the Stephanotis.

"Here you go, Cloud." Aerith passes him a thin-stemmed plant, much smaller than the rest, topped by petals shaped like a falling star. "Cyclamen. It means goodbye."

Cloud smiles. "Thanks, Aerith. We should go to the front and put these down."

"Perhaps we should wait," his mother says quickly. "Uh, until things clear a little. All these people – we might get separated o-or trampled on."

"Hey, there's Tifa!" Aerith changes the subject and waves.

Tifa waves back, but the man and woman with her steer her away from Aerith's little group. They both have brown hair and features so similar to Tifa's they must be her parents, but Aerith isn't sure she cares much for the way their eyes radiate indifference as much as Tifa's radiate friendliness.

"You're friends with Tifa Lockhart?" Cloud asks with awe.

"Huh? Oh, sure, we've hung out a couple of times. Not much, though, because she always has to go train with her Master Zangan."

"I've lived near her my whole life and I've barely even talked to her."

"You should. She's really nice."

"Me? Talk to her?"

Aerith looks sideways at him, wondering at the awe in his voice. Cloud has never spoken to Tifa at school, but more than once Aerith has seen him watching the other girl with the kind of deferential reverie usually reserved for … well, events like this, actually. It's as though the thought of Tifa mean more to Cloud than just the promise of friendship.

The mayor is on the podium. There's a space next to him reserved for Angeal, but Angeal doesn't move from his spot next to Elmyra and Ms. Strife. His arms are folded. So are Zack's, and perhaps it's unconscious but Zack is also mimicking his uncle's stance, feet apart and chest squared.

The mayor scans the crowd, alights on Angeal for a moment, and then moves off. Coughing into his fist, he begins the ceremony.

 


 

 

Cloud smacks heavily against the wall. He doesn't even have time to get up before the boys are on him, kicking and laughing.

"My uncle's had her!"

"My cousin says she's great!"

"My dad says she should've stayed in Radgim with all the other trash where she belongs."

"My mom says she's a disgrace and you're just as bad."

"Yeah – bastard!"

"That's right: bastard!"

"Bastard kid!"

"Who's your daddy? You don't know, do you?"

"Could be anyone."

"You're bad luck – everybody says so."

"Bastard!"

"Bad Luck Bastard!"

Voices swarm together, but Cloud's more concerned with the thump thump thump of hard boots hitting soft flesh. He tries to curl around so they can't hit his punch-tenderised stomach anymore, but that just makes them aim elsewhere.

"Hey! What the hell are you-?" A new voice bullwhips down the alley.

"Uh-oh, his boyfriend and girlfriend are here."

"Run for it!" Cloud's tormentors scramble away, still laughing.

Cloud doesn't move. Not even when soft palms cup his face, or when hands calloused from gripping a sword hilt hook under his arms. His head lolls forward. He's perfectly conscious, but nothing seems to want to move, and the afterimages of pain from the kicks are making themselves known.

"Cloud? Cloud, can you hear me?"

"Ugh…"

"Zack, I think they broke his nose. I think they broke his nose, Zack!"

Oh, so that's what the funny taste in his mouth is: blood. That doesn't explain the grinding in his chest, though.

"Those … those …" Zack's so angry he can barely speak. "They'll get theirs for this, I swear -"

"Stop that. You know what Angeal said about not using your skills that way. 'A real warrior has honour and defends it to the last'."

"Yeah, but-"

"Cloud? Open your eyes, Cloud."

He can do that. Aerith's face is blurred but refocuses after a second. Cloud blinks at her. He thinks one of the boys must've kicked him in the head, because her voice is muffled by ringing and the world keeps slipping sideways like he's standing up in Grimoire's moving cart. He clears his throat, swallowing more coppery blood. "Wzzz m'mummm."

"What?"

He clears his throat again. "Wuzz muh mom. They said she was a-" Swallow. More blood. How much is on his face if this much is heading for his stomach? "- whore. Started hittin' me when I tol' 'em not t'say tha'... tellin' lies … sayin' p-people've been … with her here … s'what she ran away from in Radgim …"

Aerith's face takes on an expression of such contrition it's almost painful to watch. Cloud can't see Zack, but feels the grip under his arms tighten.

"Those … those-"

Cloud coughs. The grinding really hurts now. His muscles reawaken enough for him to grab that part of his chest and gasp. He lurches out of Zack's grip, falling to his knees. He can't catch his breath, which makes him cough and huff uncontrollably to get more air into his lungs, but the jolting hurts even more and he can't breathe 

"Cloud!" Aerith drops to her knees beside him. "Zack, get help. Get help, Zack!"

"But-"

"Zack!"

Cloud hacks up blood and spit. It dribbles off his chin, dangling for a moment before splattering on the ground. He clutches at his chest with one hand, bracing himself on the other.

All this because those boys said bad things about his mom. They never would've said those things to Zack. Zack would kick their asses up and down the street if they said anything about his parents or Angeal, but because Cloud is small and gentle for a boy none of the other kids respect him.

Oh, he needs air that doesn't burn to make his lungs inflate. The world is going hazy and little black dots play around the edges of his vision.

Suddenly, just as everything is about to go dark, Cloud's hand is prised away. A greenish-gold light circles above his head like a madcap firefly. His entire chest goes numb, tendrils of itchiness mixed with cold spreading down his ribs and knitting them back together. He can feel the rough edges reaching towards each other, guided by some other power that also repairs cuts, smooths out bruises and heals until he can breathe again.

Cloud slumps sideways, gratefully sucking in air. Aerith falls across him, which should hurt a lot more than it does. She's breathing just as hard as Cloud and Zack is shouting something … Cloud can't hear what. He cracks open one eye to see Zack dashing back and forth, obviously caught between fetching help and tending to his friends.

"Zack, izzallright…"

"Cloud?" Zack crouches beside him. "Buddy? What happened?"

"I … I think Aerith … I think she healed me."

"With her magic? But she's never done anything like that before. And she's unconscious! Oh, not good, not good, this is so not good. In the scale of not good things, this is one million percent not good!"

Cloud can feel his strength returning. He struggles to sit, turning over and easing Aerith into his arms so she doesn't hit the floor. Her eyelids flutter like poisoned butterflies.

"Zack." Her voice is so faint it's almost inaudible.

Zack leans in close. "Yeah?"

"Stop … panicking … I'm all right. Tired … but all right." Her eyes close. "Cloud, are you okay?"

"I … yeah. I'm fine."

"I'm … glad …" She trails off, her breathing deepening as she falls asleep.

Cloud looks at Zack. Zack looks at Cloud. They're both thinking the same thing.

"We need to get her home to her mom and tell her what happened."

"Yeah," Zack agrees.

Cloud gazes at his two friends, registering the practise sword now constantly strapped to Zack's back and remembering the glow of Aerith's magic above his head. His attackers' taunts ring in his ears. "Zack, will you teach me how to fight, the way Angeal teaches you?"

"What?" Zack is genuinely surprised. "You want to learn to fight?"

Cloud nods. "Maybe then I can stop people saying stuff about my mom." The iron in his voice is strange to hear, even for him.

"Cloud -"

"I know she's not exactly … 'respectable'. That's the word people use, isn't it? But she doesn't do that stuff anymore, and she's never brought men home the way folks say she does. She works in the tavern now, but people won't let her forget the past. She's my mom and I love her, and nobody has any right to treat us badly because of…" He shakes his head. "C'mon, help me carry Aerith home."

"I'll do it." Ridiculously easily, Zack picks her up and carries her as though she weighs nothing at all. Yet more indication of how capable he is.

Cloud glances at the blood still on the ground. And how capable I'm not.

Zack has always been the capable one, while Cloud has always needed protecting. Normally this doesn't bother him. He evens out Zack's rough edges, providing a voice of reason to counteract his friend's reckless schemes. However, Angeal's training has curbed a lot of Zack's recklessness. Cloud's feels like his usefulness has been shorn off at the base, leaving only jagged edges to prick at his mind and heart. Now even Aerith is more capable than him. He has no special skills or talents; he's just Cloud, the boring one. He feels like he's just a tagalong – the Fighter, the Healer and the Outcast. He'll be thirteen in a few weeks but he's just as he was when they were six years old.

"Y'know, we were really worried back there," Zack says suddenly.

Cloud blinks, broken from his thoughts. "What?"

"When we saw those idiots hurting you. It was like … well, it was like someone was hurting us, too. If they'd really hurt you and Aerith hadn't fixed it, I don't think even Angeal's code of honour would've stopped me breaking their heads."

"Mrrf."

"It's weird, isn't it? How something can be so important but you don't realise until someone tries to damage it. Then suddenly you realise and it makes you do things without thinking to keep it safe." Zack shifts Aerith's weight in his arms. "It's a good thing we're always there to back each other up, huh? Times like this make me realise how much we all depend on each other."

"Some of us more than others," Cloud mutters.

"What?"

"Nothing."

Zack stops and looks at him. They're going through back streets, trying to avoid being spotted so they won't have to explain Aerith, or Cloud's dirty clothes and bloody face. Neither said this was what they'd do, they just understood each other without words. Zack fixes Cloud with a stare that's all the more penetrating for being half in shadow. "Cloud, is that really why you asked me to teach you to fight?"

"Nobody respects me," Cloud blurts. "And why should they? I'm useless. I'm just … I'm like the puppy who follows you two around and keeps getting under your feet."

"Are you kidding me?"

"I'm not strong like you, or special like Aerith-"

"Because you're you, not us."

"I don't serve any purpose -"

"Since when does friendship have to have a purpose? You're our friend, Cloud, and we like you just the way you are. You're worth ten of those bozos who beat you up. No, twenty. Thirty, even! They're all mean-spirited, narrow-minded-" he glances at Aerith's sleeping face "-assholes who can't see beyond their own prejudice. Why the hell would you want their respect when they're not worth yours?"

Cloud doesn't have an answer for that. "It's not just them. All the kids in school avoid me and call me weak."

"We don't."

"You're different."

"Exactly. Screw everyone else. We don't need them, because we have each other."

"It doesn't work like that, Zack."

"Who says?" It involves a lot of joggling so he doesn't drop Aerith. Zack rests most of her weight on one arm with her feet on the floor, but manages to free one hand, spit on it and hold it out to Cloud. "Spit-shake on it: the most important thing is that we're friends and we respect and stay true to each other. As long as we're buddies, and back each other up in all ways, not just rescuing each other from falling out of windows and bullies and goblins and junk, we'll be okay."

Cloud stares at his own palm. "What about Aerith?" he asks uncertainly.

"We'll make her swear it when she wakes up. Now hurry before I drop her."

Cloud hesitates a moment longer, then spits onto his palm. It's miraculously free of blood and squelches when he shakes Zack's hand. "All right. As long as people I respect and care about respect me and my mom, the rest of the world can," he smiles furtively, "go screw itself."

"Right on!" Zack punches the air, slips, and Cloud has to dash forward to save Aerith from a nasty fall.

"Watch out!"

Zack grins. "See? We need each other. Never forget that or doubt yourself, Cloud. Without any one of us this friendship wouldn't work."

Cloud smiles with a mixture of happiness and embarrassment. "C'mon, let's get her to the flower shop before someone sees us."

 


 

 

Torn away.

Aerith hurtles forward; not pushed, but pulled. She's dragged suddenly and unexpectedly out of herself into a black abyss. It's like her mind has been separated from her body. She can't feel her fingers or toes or force her eyes open; all the weight flesh and blood adds to her image of herself has been left behind somewhere.

What is she? Face and body and skin.

Heart and soul.

Memories.

All lost in this dark place where shadows come to die.

What is she? She is her emotions. She is hope. She is trust. She is happiness. She is anger.

She is fear.

She is afraid – of this place, of what lurks here, of what she's left behind with her body. She glows with fear; effervesces with the certainty that somewhere, something lies in wait that spells danger for her and her own. She has no eyes, but it's as if she can see a figure rise in the distance and come towards her, hands outstretched. She knows that figure. Some part of her that used to cry and snuggle in blankets next to a soothing heartbeat recognises it – even though it's impossible because she never before laid eyes on him. Yet she still knows him in her gut, something whispering to her: danger, danger, danger. The one who came with his needles and scalpels and experiments, and she's so filled with someone else's memories crowding her mind that their fear becomes her own. She's so afraid 

Green light bursts around them. Tendrils of emerald, lime and jade wrap around her, pulling her back. A sense of safety suffuses her, like warm arms and hot cocoa on a snowy day. Memories rise in her mind: rocking in a cart next to a familiar body; holding a cold, ungloved hand; laughing and running and skipping; digging in soil to plant things; hugging her mother; shouting for Zack and Cloud to get down from that apple tree before they're spotted …

"My little girl."

Who's that?

"You have a good life. I'm so happy for you."

Who's there?

"Don't fear the dreams, my precious. They're part of your birthright. They connect you to all those who came before you. Use what they tell you. Learn what you can. Grow like your flowers."

What … is this strange feeling? Why can she sense another presence – one that's both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time? It pushes back the dark figure, sending it hissing back into the shadows like a cat sprayed with cold water.

"Be careful. Danger is coming. You must be ready. Use what the dreams tell you. Use your powers. Use both to protect those you care about."

Could it …?

"There' no time to tell you everything you need to know. The doors between worlds are opening. Listen for the King. He'll call for heroes. Beware the darkness in people's hearts. Hearts will be the key to everything."

Could it be…?

"The key, Aerith. Look out for the key…"

"Mother?"

Aerith falls back into her own head and opens her eyes to see her mom gazing down at her.

"Aerith!" Elmyra cries, hugging her tight. "I was so worried. When Zack and Cloud brought you home, and Cloud had blood on his face and shirt, I thought … oh, but you're all right. It's okay. You're all right. You don't have to cry. I know it was scary, but we'll get through this. I'll help you learn about your healing. I may not know any magic but … oh, don't worry, Aerith, it'll all be okay."

But Aerith can't get past the empty feeling in her chest, the rapidly fading glimmer of her dream, or the foreboding sense that okay is the last thing everything is going to be.

The key, Aerith. Look out for the key…

 


 

 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs:

 

"See this scar?" She lifts her leg to show off a thin white line running across her shin. "I got that from a Grindylow. It hid in Master Zangan's fishpond and when I was practising my meditation it jumped me."

-- A Grindylow is a mythological creature that originated from folktales in the English county of Yorkshire. Grindylows are a sort of bogeyman used as a ploy to keep children from getting in the cold water in the area. They were supposed to grab little children with their long arms and fingers and devour them if they came close to the edge of pools, marshes, or ponds.

"How would you defeat a Vetala? Chudan tsuki!"

Zack's punch and voice are strong and true. "Cutting off the head of the inhabited corpse and removing its limbs so it's no more use and the evil spirit has to leave it, sir!"

-- A Vetala, or Baital, is a vampire-like creature from Hindu mythology. They're defined as spirits inhabiting corpses (that no longer decay while inhabited), but which may also leave the body at will. In Hindu folklore, Vetala are evil spirits who haunt cemeteries and take demonic possession of corpses. They can drive people mad, kill children and cause miscarriages. They are hostile spirits of the dead trapped in the twilight zone between life and after-life. Being spirits, unaffected by the laws of space and time, they have an uncanny knowledge about the past, present and future and a deep insight into human nature. Hence, many sorcerers seek to capture them and turn them into slaves.

"How would you stop a berserk clay golem?"

-- A Golem is a magically created monster in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, although they're based upon the Golems of Jewish mythology. There are four standard types (from weakest to strongest): Flesh Golems (created from human remains), Clay Golems, Stone Golems and Iron Golems. The creator of a Golem (typically a wizard, cleric or other very powerful wielder of magic) has control over it like a puppeteer. All Golems have a neutral alignment, having not enough mind or heart to be either good or evil, but a clay golem can be possessed by an evil spirit. If this happens it goes berserk and can't be controlled anymore and it attacks the closest living creature. Clay Golems may only be harmed with blunt weapons.

As he talks he holds out his hand and Grimoire, the Gainsboroughs' ancient chocobo, gently scoops sugar cubes off his palm.

-- The original bearer of the name Grimoire was Grimoire Valentine, Vincent Valentine's father in FFVII (although he wasn't introduced until Dirge of Cerberus, where only got a handful of lines and a very short death scene. Poor chap).

He'd been training Shalua as his assistant after she was mauled by a Sandwalker.

-- The Sandwalker is a legendary Arabian creature, said to steal camels by night, leaving behind only crab-like tracks. It's generally referred to as being very large, the size of a horse or a car. It is a beast normally with a large, sharp beak and a scorpion-like tail. It also has large, crab-like claws with which it carries away its victims. It buries itself in the sand by day to avoid detection, and comes out at night to feed. Very simply, it is a monstrous, nocturnal scorpion. Also, as a bit of trivia, it's been mooted that the Jawa Sandcrawlers in Star Wars may be based on them due to their similar names, theft, and track-leaving.

Zack scowls. It's not like they were even friends with Biggs, Wedge or Jessie.

-- In the original FFVII game these are three minor AVALANCHE members who assist Cloud, Barret, and Tifa. Biggs is a slightly cocky and arrogant fellow who gradually comes to respect Cloud. Wedge, his close friend, is on the contrary very warm-hearted and kind to others, but he easily loses his composure when nervous. Jessie is an explosives and fake IDs technician fascinated with gadgetry and other "flashy stuff". She gives Cloud a lesson on the Midgar rail system and the structure of the city itself. The player is given the option to have Cloud flirt with her a few times. All three characters are eventually killed by Shinra during the destruction of Sector 7.

Still, news that they were dragged away into the wilderness by Bugganes has hit everyone hard.

-- In Manx mythology, a Buggane was a huge ogre-like creature, native to the Isle of Man. Bugganes were said to be covered in black hair, with claws, tusks and a large red mouth. As they were known to tunnel underground, they might be said to resemble a giant mole, although there are some conflicting accounts that say they were shape-shifters, most often seen in the form of a horse or a cow, but who could also take on the appearance of humans. However, a Buggane in human guise could be spotted because they could never master shape-shifting enough to lose their long teeth, nails and hair.

Chapter Text

Zack is fourteen when he gets his first kiss.

To be honest, it's not all that brilliant. He only knows he's on his first girlfriend because she tells him she's his girlfriend. Until that point he thinks she's just some girl from class whose books are too heavy for her skinny little arms.

The books are what start it all. He offers to carry them when he sees some of the cattier girls, the ones Aerith doesn't go near, hide the skinny-armed girl's bag in the school fishpond. She's so grateful it makes Zack feel pretty good, and so he helps her out the next day as well.

"My mom says I can't have a new knapsack until next week," she says apologetically, tucking her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture.

"Don't worry. I'll carry your stuff until then."

They walk home together – she, he, Cloud and Aerith – but the skinny-armed girl never says a word while the others are around. She just keeps her head down, hair falling over her face, and answers in monosyllables whenever she's asked a question. Even Cloud can't coax more from her than that.

"She's hero-worshipping you," Angeal says when Zack tells him. "Be careful."

"Of what? She can barely lift her books. She's not a threat or anything."

Angeal just raises an eyebrow and shakes his head.

Then one day Cloud is kept back at school, and after they drop Aerith off at the flower shop, Zack and the girl keep on walking to her house. Cloud would usually be with them, and would walk home with Zack after the other girl goes to her own house. With Cloud's absence the girl chatters nervously about how grateful she is and how nice Zack is for doing this. She compliments his strength and the muscles in his arms. Pleased, he tells her they're from training, and she says she knows because she's watched him doing all those fantastic kicks and punches with the scary man with black hair.

"Angeal's not scary, he's my uncle." Zack is too busy defending Angeal to consider how she managed to see him in his own back garden, or why she's so chatty today when usually she's so silent.

As he says goodbye to her at her door she suddenly grabs his hand and uses her skinny arms to pull him towards her with surprising force. Before he knows what's going on, she has a hand on the back of his neck and her mouth on his.

"Mrrf!"

She pulls back. "What?"

"What are you doing?"

"Kissing you."

Something must have gone walkabout in Zack's brain at the feel of someone else's spit on his tongue, because he can only ask, "Why?"

She frowns at him. "Because that's what boyfriends and girlfriends do, stupid." It's the first time she's ever spoken to him with anything less than admiration or embarrassment.

"You're my girlfriend?" Zack is not so quick on the uptake.

"Of course." And she pulls him in for another smackeroo.

It's sloppy, and she keeps trying to put her tongue in his mouth, which Zack finds vaguely disgusting –and choking. He knows kissing is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, but he's never really given it much thought. In his head, he has always pigeonholed stuff like kissing and holding hands on long sunset walks as something girls want to do and guys sometimes go along with, like folding sheets, flower arranging and shopping. He doesn't find any of those things fun, not like training. Training is what Zack most enjoys, and since he knows that, it's what he'd rather do.

Still, the skinny girl is very insistent. Hands that couldn't lift her stupid books before now hold him in place like stakes through his feet, attaching him to the floor.

He struggles instinctively as her tongue depresses the very back of his, automatically triggering his gag reflex. He coughs and makes strange noises into her mouth. He doesn't mean it as an insult, but she snaps her head back, staring at him like he's slapped her. Then she bursts into tears and slams the door in his face.

The next day he finds out she's broken up with him. She doesn't tell him, but Aerith sits next to him on their bench at lunchtime and says it's all over the grapevine that he viciously used the girl for physical pleasure and then broke her heart, casting her aside with all the warmth of a used teabag.

"Girls," he declares to Angeal over dinner, "are so weird. They're so weird that weird doesn't even cover it. There needs to be a new word just for that special type of weirdness that makes teenage girls so … weird."

"Aerith's a girl," Angeal points out.

"Yeah, and she can be weird too, but she's less weird than all the other girls in school."

"Why do I get the feeling this isn't just about the one with the heavy books?"

"It is. And it isn't. It's … weird."

"So explain it to me."

Zack turns confused eyes on his uncle. "I can't understand how girls' minds work. Ever since the other girls found out I supposedly broke her heart, and she started spreading rumours of how I'm some complete bast-… uh …" He remembers in the nick of time who he's talking to. "A complete…"

"Mongrel?" Angeal provides.

"Yeah. Ever since they all heard I'm so horrible, they all keep trying to corner me in the corridor to kiss me!"

"All of them?"

"Well most of them. A lot of them. A lot."

"Have you kissed any back?"

"Are you kidding? Kissing's way grosser than I thought it would be. It's all drool and doing revolting things with tongues. The way some of the guys at school talk about it, you'd think it'd be so much cooler than all that … bodily fluid." He pulls a face that makes Angeal laugh. "What? What? Yeesh, Angeal, you're as weird as those girls!"

"Sorry, Zack, but the way you talk …" He chuckles into his fist. "Someday you might find you like things to do with 'bodily fluid'."

"Excuse me? Angeal, that might be the grossest thing I've ever heard in my life. And that includes your story about the imp guts and the spaghetti when you were on duty to supervise the cadets' cooking on field manoeuvres!"

Angeal pulls his own face at the memory. "Never mind. I guess the school hasn't taught that class yet. So how is Aerith reacting to all these girls kissing you?"

"She hid me in the broom closet while Cloud told them I was in the sick bay with the nurse."

And for some reason that makes Angeal laugh even harder.

 


 

 

The attack comes on a school day. Everyone is filing in through the main doors, as they do every morning – girls calling to their friends, boy kicking rocks and cans and whatever else they can find to bounce on the sides of their shoes. It's a regular day just like any other; until the sky erupts in a flurry of shrieks and leathery wings. Suddenly everyone scatters like ants from a kicked-in nest, looking up at the sky and screaming.

Zack, at the back of the line filing in through the main doors, immediately drops into a roll that takes him behind a memorial bench and watches the bat-like creatures drop out of the sky. They have long ears, even longer teeth, and eyes the colour of freshly spilled blood, which they use to scan the playground like they're searching for something.

"Monsters!" kids scream, running for cover, bumping into each other and totally forgetting what they've been told to do if a monster ever makes it past the wall. An aerial attack is completely beyond their ability to cope. "Monster attack! Monsters have come over the wall."

Well, duh, flits through Zack's mind. They have wings.

The bat-monsters screech to each other. Zack reaches for the practise sword on his back. Headmaster Deusericusprotested when he first tried wearing it to school. Zack permits himself a grim smirk that he's been vindicated. Maybe it won't hold against these things, but it's better than empty hands, and he's nothing if not resourceful.

Strangely, he isn't intimidated by the idea of facing real monsters. His rigorous training has left him confident in him own abilities. He's afraid, but fear is a good thing. Fear keeps you sharp, hones your senses and stops your actions from getting lazy. Fear in battle makes you respect your opponent and keeps you alive, though he was surprised to hear Angeal say that the first time. Zack always imagined Angeal as a fearless warrior on the battlefield, backlit by a red sunset and with sword gleaming. Not that he's ever seen Angeal wield anything but a wooden practise sword and an old broadsword bought from a nomadic weapon-monger, which doesn't gleam so much as look sidelong at light and begrudgingly reflect it, but the image is a strong one in Zack's mind.

There are three bat-monsters. Zack is calculating which group he should head to defend – the crying girls or the cowering boys; who, actually, look a lot like the boys who beat up Cloud last month – when one of the creatures folds its wings. It shoots into the crowd, disappears for a moment, and then swoops upwards clutching a struggling figure in its claws.

"No!" Zack is already on the move, leaving the shield of the bench without a real plan before he can stop himself. "Aerith!"

She screams. So do the bat-monsters, and somewhere in their cacophony Zack thinks he can hear words – or at least he has a memory of what's been said without having to register the sounds first.

"Ancientancientancientancient…"

"Aerith!" Zack calls desperately.

"Zack! Cloud!"

And suddenly there is Cloud, running away from the safety of the school building towards him.

Zack's mind clicks and whirrs. "Cloud, give me a leg up like at the orchards!"

It's been a long time since they went scrumping for apples, but Cloud remembers. He links his fingers together, palms up, still running towards Zack. Zack keeps up his momentum too, lifting his leg mid-stride to angle his foot into Cloud's hands. Cloud wrenches his arms as Zack kicks off from the ground. It's nowhere near as powerful as it needs to be, but their combined force is enough to get Zack into the air. He doesn't sail, doesn't fly, but lurches after the bat-creature like a drunken kestrel chasing an eagle.

Aerith is weighing the monster down. It hasn't pierced her with its claws, but they're wrapped tightly around her like fists. Zack cannons into the creature's underbelly, grabbing ineffectually at handfuls of smelly fur and slashing at it. The blunt training sword can't cut or stab, at least not like this, but it does deaden one leg. The bat-monster squeals in pain and loosens its grip enough for Aerith to slip free. Zack grabs for her wrist, but then they're falling, the ground rushing up to meet them with alarming speed.

Oh, crap!

Zack didn't think this far ahead.

"Kiiii-yaaaa!"

Someone leaps from the drainpipe running up the school building. It's a good jump, pushed off against the wall, and sends the person flying through the air much more gracefully than Zack. The person lands on one of the bat-creatures, which screeches when one hand reaches around to angle its nose and the other pushes against the base of its skull. Impossibly, it swoops in a downward arc and both Aerith and Zack thump safely onto its wide back.

"Hey." Tifa doesn't look around, fingers jammed into pressure points along the monster's spine and knees gripping tightly either side of its ribcage to stop herself falling off. "Need a lift?"

Zack scrabbles to hold on, extra difficult because he refuses to let go of Aerith. "What are you-?"

"Doing? Not quite sure myself. Are you two okay?"

"We're fine," Aerith yelps over the whoomp-whoomp of leathery wings. "Thanks."

"You're wel-cooooooooooome!" Tifa's words turn into a yell as the monster bucks and thrashes. It shrieks at its two companions. Zack thinks it might be asking for help until they lunge like it's an enemy, their claws outstretched. "Hang on!" Tifa jabs and kicks and somehow the one they're riding performs a series of turns that take them out of the firing line but further into the air, away from the school. "Looks like we're going for a ride."

Zack can see Cloud sprinting after them, but the creature banks left and he's lost from view.

They're dive-bombed again. Zack brandishes his sword one-handed. It clatters against claws and the tip is sheared off, leaving him staring at the ragged edge. This sword, unlike others he's practised with, is made from tigerwood – the hardest, most durable wood in the world. Angeal had to haggle a lot to get some from a merchant, and it was extra expensive because it's so difficult to come by.

Oh, crap!

Their bat-monster squawks, as eager to get away from the others as they are. Zack smells blood and sees his left boot is covered from a gash in the creature's side.

"Ancieeeeeeeeent!"

The guttural, inhuman cry heralds another dive-bomb attack. This one makes Aerith shriek, as a long claw catches her shoulder. The other two monsters are trying to pull her off and squawking at each other like a pair of crows fighting over a titbit. One wing-tip catches in her hair and she screams as a chunk is torn out.

Zack rams his practise sword upwards with such force that the end punches right through the attacking monster's foot. It releases Aerith, falls back and wrenches the hilt from his grasp. Now they're weaponless as well as airborne.

"We need to get to the ground," he calls to Tifa. He can fight better on the ground. Up here there's no cover and nothing he can use to their advantage except dumb luck. They're sitting ducks. Worse than sitting ducks, even, because the wings they're using belong to something just as dangerous as the things attacking them.

"Trying!" Tifa yells back. "Yaaaah!" She seems to like making noises as she throws herself about. Her brown eyes flash readily, as if some part of her is enjoying the adrenaline rush, and Zack suddenly understands why Cloud felt so intimidated about approaching her. "Master Zangan, don't fail me now – whoa!"

The other uninjured bat-creature has come up below them and performs a mid-air barrel-roll with claws extended, which opens the belly of the one they're riding. It gurgles a last scream before plummeting from the sky, streaming red like a pennant.

"Brace yourselves!" Tifa shouts, fear in her voice for the first time. "We're gong to hit-" The rest of her words are cut off as they catch against a chimney, sending them spinning.

Their monster hurtles forward on its front, sliding wetly down a rooftop that is thankfully not thatch like so many houses in Hollow Bastion. Things jerk and tear off, rolling and slithering behind them. Zack doesn't want to think about what they are. Their speed is reduced, but they still thunder over the edge of the roof and into empty air.

"Lean back!" Tifa shouts.

Zack twists at the waist, spine screaming, to instinctively curl around Aerith and protect her from the worst of the impact. He can feel Tifa's spine pressing against him. She uses their combined weight as a fulcrum to put the dead bat-monster between them and the wall of the next house. It works, but the collision still reverberates through them all from top to bottom. Zack's teeth clack together, nearly biting off the tip of his tongue.

"Lean forward!"

There's not enough warning this time. They land on the creature's side. Tifa yelps in pain, but Zack and Aerith are thrown clear. They roll to a stop in a pile of hay, whinnying and squawking filling their ears. They've landed near the tavern stables.

Zack is on his feet in an instant, aware that the other two bat-monsters are still up there and must've seen where they fell. Maybe they were just looking for an easy meal, like the Bugganes when they found Biggs, Wedge and Jessie in their tree house, but something inside Zack tells him this isn't true. The attack was too determined, too focussed on Aerith to the exclusion of all others. Why did the other two monsters attack one of their own instead of settling for easier prey? Why did they keep chanting 'ancient' when they found Aerith, when their mouth clearly weren't meant for human words?

Tifa groans. She's still half-on the dead monster, attempting to extract her leg from where the thing fell on it. Zack feels a breeze and realises Aerith has got up and gone to her.

"Is it broken?"

Tifa grimaces. "I think … yeah, I think so. My ankle …" She puffs out her cheeks and shakes her head. "You two need to go on without me. Someone must've heard us land. Find an adult. Find someone with weapons who can fight those things."

Zack comes over. The horses and chocobos are kicking up a fuss. He soon realises why. The smell of gore is overpowering. Something resembling sticky pink sausages oozes out of the dead monster, steaming slightly in the cool air between the tavern and the houses around it. Zack's stomach lurches. Is this what Angeal had to deal with when he was a soldier? Is that why he always frowned when Zack talked about joining the military? The creature's eyes are wide in death, staring vacantly at the sky as though searching for its companions. Zack looks away, swallowing bile, and kneels next to Tifa and Aerith.

Aerith's shoulder is bleeding. She looks washed-out and pale, but Tifa is worse. Her face is a grey of thin gruel and, though she's trying to hide it, her expression is lined with pain. Zack immediately grabs the dead monster. Bracing both hands and grunting with effort, he lifts it up enough for her to pull her damaged leg out. Her ankle is obviously swelling inside her sock.

"We have to get her inside," Zack starts, but a soft green-gold glow has appeared above Tifa's head.

Tifa is astonished when Aerith lays her hands against her ankle and the glow descends, swirling around the injury before dissolving in a fizz of pretty sparkles. When the last glint has vanished Aerith braces her hands on her own thighs, panting, her forehead shiny with perspiration.

"Aerith!" Zack gingerly holds her shoulders.

"I'm … okay. I'm n-not going to pass out this time." She tries to get to her feet, but her legs have turned to jelly. She wobbles so much that Zack leaps up to let her fall against him.

He loops one of Aerith's arms around his shoulder, conscious that her own cut is still bleeding. He looks down at Tifa. "Can you stand?"

Tifa stares at her ankle. When she meets Zack's eyes her gaze is full of wonder and not a little awe, but no fear. Though they've never talked before, Zack decides in that instant that he likes her.

"I'm … fine. Did she just-?" A screech sounds overhead. "Never mind."

A door opens nearby and a man comes out. His clothes are stained with manure and there's a piece of straw clamped between his teeth. "Hey, what're you kids-?" His eyes widen at the dead bat-monster and similar shapes circling lower in the sky above them. "Steel claws and chocobo teeth!" He dives back inside and slams the door shut behind him.

So much for getting help from adults.

"Run!" Zack is already on the move, pelting down the alley. When he reaches the mouth of it he recognises the buildings beyond and realises where they are. "This way!"

"Where are we-" Tifa starts.

"My house."

"But Angeal's not there," Aerith protests. "He's out patrolling with Mr. Swain's sons by Dark Forest because of the reports about a Vetala spotted out there."

"I know that." Still, something draws Zack on. Not the promise of another wooden sword – if a tigerwood one couldn't stand up to those things then the others at home would be useless – but … something. It's an indefinable something he can't put into words. He doesn't think he's after any of the other weapons Angeal keeps, either, though a bow and some arrows might be a good idea.

No, not a bow …

His hands feel empty and he suddenly knows, with unerring accuracy, that there is something in that house with which to fill them.

They hear the whoomp-whoomp of wings before they see the bat-monsters. Gods, they're tenacious. Zack feels more than ever that this is no random attack.

"That one!" he says, indicating his house.

Tifa vaults the wall, graceful as a gazelle, and has punched off the front door lock before he can stop her. "No time for keys," she explains, kicking it open. Her knuckles are bloody but she doesn't even acknowledge the new wound.

A shadow falls across them while they're still outside. Zack thrusts Aerith forward, away from him and the descending monster. She tumbles through the door as it rakes its claws across his shoulder-blades. Pain burns through him. The bat-creature, deprived of its prey, banks upwards, skimming the front of his house so close he swears it leaves fur on the eaves.

There are people in the street, drawn by the noise. They shout and some run back inside – for their own weapons or to escape being mauled, Zack doesn't know. He's totally focussed on not throwing up or passing out as he follows the girls inside, shoving down the pain branching across his back and hoping against hope that he can still raise a sword.

A sword. The thought slots into place in his mind like the final piece of a puzzle he didn't even know he was solving. Yes, that's what he needs.

Trance-like, he staggers through the house, slamming open door after door and ignoring Aerith and Tifa's cries for him to stop. He's aware of something warm sliding down his arms and back, but it's as though his body is moving on its own. He knows, with irrefutable certainty, that what he wants – what he needs – is here.

"Zack, what are you doing?" Aerith asks as he shoves aside the heavy oak dining table, pulls back the carpet that was a gift from the mayor's wife and reveals a trapdoor even he's never seen before. "Zack?"

"I'm keeping my promise," he mutters, opening the door without hesitation and skittering down the steps. "I'm protecting you. That's my mission. That's what heroes do. They keep those they care about safe. And I'm your hero, remember?"

"Don't be so – Zack! Come back!"

Zack's breath catches in his throat, Aerith's voice fading out of his reality.

It stares at him from the wall: the biggest sword he's ever seen. Its metal gleams in the poor illumination from the hatchway, not grey but complex different shades of silver that prism light like a crystal. He's never seen anything like it before. He's never felt anything like it before, because he's not just seeing it, he's sensing the power in that sword as it surveys him like a thoroughbred stallion inspecting a new rider. Every one of his senses feels alive to it, almost like it's been waiting for him.

This is no ordinary sword. That's clear in an instant.

"Zack?" Aerith is on the stairs behind him.

Zack lifts it down. He shouldn't be able to pick it up, much less wield it. It's a big as he is and weighs more than any of his practise swords, the blade ridiculously large compared to the hilt. Yet it feels light as a feather in his hands and the hilt doesn't snap or buckle as logic demands it should. It's like … magic.

The power he sensed has recognised and accepted him. He feels it swirling in the hidden cellar, probing into what he wants to use it for and deeming it worthy. Zack suddenly feels very … complete.

Which is when the roof of the house explodes.

Both Aerith and Tifa scream and cover their heads. Zack grips his new sword and runs past them up the stairs. "Stay here," he growls. "The cellar's made of stone."

"Zack-"

But he's already out, facing the splintering wood as the two bat-monsters claw their way through from the upstairs bedroom – his bedroom, though he doesn't know that at this moment. Actually, only one of them claws its way through – the other is forcing its wide shoulders through the front door, hobbling forward on blood-spattered feet and dragging itself by its wing-hooks in an ungainly way. These things are meant for flight, not life on the ground. They're still dangerous though. Zack remembers the slash across his back as if it happened to someone else and sees again the blank eyes of the dead monster.

Afterwards he can't explain what happened. He remembers a rush as he jumps into the fray, the heft and weight of the huge sword in his hands and a noise like biting into a crisp apple. When Angeal arrives, closely followed by other brave townsfolk, they find him covered from head to foot in blood and standing in the middle of a sea of violence.

Nobody can quite believe a fourteen-year-old boy could kill two grown monsters on his own, but Aerith and Tifa confirm it, and Zack hasn't escaped without injuries that tell their own tale. Not all the blood on him belongs to the bats.

Zack, for his part, simply stares at Angeal and grasps the sword tighter, like a small child who thinks a bigger kid is going to steal its favourite toy.

Angeal looks between his nephew and the blade, his expression unreadable.

"I kept … my promise …" Then Zack's eyes roll up into his head and he falls back in a dead faint.

 


 

 

Tifa doesn't tell anyone about Aerith healing her. She doesn't even mention it, pretending as though it never happened. Sometimes she catches the eye of one of the three friends and there's a glint of something there, some excitement at being part of their secret.

She doesn't need to be told why they haven't broadcast Aerith's abilities. Her mother and father are still two of the most superstitious people in the whole town. When Doned Radiuju was suddenly and inexplicably paralysed they saw it as his punishment for him killing his mother in childbirth and tried to stop Doctor Rui investigating his condition in case his 'bad luck' spread to her as well. When one of the chocobo breeder's prize hens produced a red chick that breathed fire they called for it to be slaughtered because it 'wasn't natural'. Yet they happily accept antibiotics and surgery on internal organs, which might as well be magic for all they understand them, and which everyone accepts are not natural either. Tifa can't explain how they reconcile their disparate beliefs, but she understands that they aren't alone in their way of thinking and what this might mean for Aerith, even if she doesn't know the full story of her birth.

Angeal and Zack's house is devastated. Bizarrely, the staircase Angeal spent so long carving escapes without so much as a bloodstain. They move into rooms at the tavern, free of charge because the owner, like everyone in town, has heard of Zack's victory and admires Angeal's own efforts to keep everyone safe. Nobody has ever put so much thought and effort into defending Hollow Bastion before. Having them stay is like a badge of honour, and the offer increases Angeal's reputation a little more when he insists on paying his way by fixing the leaky roof and cleaning up the dead monster outside the stables.

Before that, however, Zack is taken to Doctor Rui's to have his wounds tended. Miraculously, they're mostly shallow slashes and will heal easily, though he comes away from the experience with a small criss-cross scar on his left cheek. Aerith is taken there as well. She's released after Shelke does some quick patching on her shoulder. She wants to see Zack, but Angeal is speaking to him and Elmyra takes her home. Cloud waits outside, hopping from foot to foot, worried about his friends and ecstatic that they're both all right.

Inside, Zack sits on a simple cot, stroking the bandages across his knuckles. Aerith can't heal him because there were too many witnesses to the extent of his injuries, so he knows he'll bear the marks of this experience for the rest of his life. His first battle. It should be great – he should feel great, but he doesn't.

Angeal doesn't lean against the wall, but stands with feet apart, a solid stance to match his folded arms. His expression remains neutral. When he speaks it's in a calm tone.

"You found the Buster Sword."

"Is that what it's called?"

"Yes."

Silence.

Zack was still holding onto the hilt when Angeal carried him here. It took a lot of effort to prise his fingers open, and when he awoke the first thing he wanted to know after asking about his friends was where it had gone.

"That was my sword a long time ago," Angeal says softly.

"It's enchanted, isn't it?" Zack is blunt.

"Something like that. It isn't like ordinary swords."

"I guessed that. It … called to me." He spent a while figuring out how to phrase it without feeling like a dork, but there really is no other way to put it. The sword called and he answered. It's that simple.

Angeal nods. "The Buster Sword can only be used by those with pure souls – those with honour and pride. It judges those who wield it. It may not be able to stop them from what they're doing, but if it judges them and their purpose as worthy it can give them extra strength to fight."

Zack is curious despite himself. "Why don't you use it anymore? It was locked away. I've never even seen it before."

Angeal averts his eyes at this. It's as close to a shudder as he's likely to give. "Too many bad memories. The sword and I … you could say we fell out."

"Fell out?"

"Had a disagreement. It's one of the reasons I left the military."

Zack wets his lips. This is something he's always wanted to ask but never found the right opportunity to.

Angeal has never been secretive about his past, but he's always been a little reticent about details and doesn't volunteer information he's not asked about. Something about the expression in his eyes when the subject comes up makes even Zack back off.

"Why did you leave, Angeal? You were a decorated soldier – you said you were part of the Elite. I know you left before Mom and Dad died because you stayed with us and made that promise to Mom to raise me, so you didn't leave on my account."

Angeal is silent for a moment. "A very dear friend of mine … fell into darkness," he says quietly, each word clipped as though selected and interviewed for suitability before being allowed out of his mouth. "There were three of us. We served together since the beginning and raised ourselves to be the best. We saved each other's lives more than once. They were with me when I found the Buster Sword, and I was with them when they found their own special blades. We were as close as brothers – as close as you are to Cloud and Aerith. Then one of them was fatally injured during the Ogre War. Against the Buster Sword's 'advice', I cut open the demon that had wounded him and gave him her heart to replace his ruined one. It was the worst mistake I could have made. He was reborn, but he was … different. He was no longer the friend I knew."

"So you left?"

"I could no longer continue to fight. I felt I had no honour left and took no pride in what I did anymore. The Ogre War was over and peacetime brought new recruits for me to train. My shame was like a sickness inside me. I felt I couldn't teach them to be soldiers like me. Boys enter the military for two things – money and glory. Both are maximised by becoming part of the Elite, and every new recruit I met saw me as what they wanted to become. But when I looked back into their eyes I could only see my friend and what my mistake had done to him. The Buster Sword is a very special weapon, but it's not above 'I told you so'. I had money saved – a lot of it, as it happened. I felt I had no reason to stay. My guilt drove me to my sister, her husband," Angeal looks up, "and you. When they died I found a new purpose in you, Zack. You could say that you saved my life."

Zack's mouth drops open. "Me?"

"Yes. I miss my sister – your mother. I miss both her and her husband every day, but sometimes I think the only thing I ever did right with my life is raising you. You gave me purpose. You needed me in a way those new recruits didn't, and when you looked at me you didn't see just an Elite soldier. I didn't want to train you to be a warrior. I could only see heartache down that path – both yours and mine – but you fight from a desire to protect what's dear to you, not to advance up the ranks and increase your paycheque, or to prove your importance to an officer. You have a pure heart, Zack, and now the Buster Sword has decided to agree with me on that."

Zack looks at the sword across his lap. It's still light to him, though when Shelke tried to pick it up she nearly broke her arm. He strokes the smooth metal, fingers dipping into the oddly placed circles and grooves. There are patterns in the metal, like some strange language he doesn't know. In the back of his mind he can feel its presence burbling happily at his touch like a cat begging to be stroked. He knows he should be completely freaked out by that, but it feels too right to be freaky, like he's been waiting his whole life to hold it and now never wants to let it go. The fact that it was once Angeal's just makes it extra special.

"I'll make sure I'm worthy of your sword," Zack says softy. "I promise. I'll make you proud, Angeal."

But Angeal shakes his head. "You already have."

 


 

 

Time passes, as time is apt to do. Seasons change; days grow longer, then shorter, and then longer again. People help rebuild what was broken and everybody grows like the flowers whose numbers dwindle more and more. Dark Forest shrinks, trees sickening as bare rock spreads like a disease around the walled town, though few people journey outside to see it. The wasteland is expanding right up to their door and they ignore it like they ignore the castle.

Nobody understands why Aerith was targeted so determinedly by the bat-monsters, though privately those who know about her abilities wonder about the truth of the theory that monsters are attracted to sources of magic like wasps to sugar.

Zack continues to train. He and the Buster Sword develop a rhythm that defies description. Sometimes Aerith and Cloud feel twinges of jealousy, until they remember it's a sword, not a person. They might as well feel jealous of Grimoire when he nuzzles Cloud, or of the ailing flowers Aerith tends in the shop. For Zack's fifteenth birthday they get him a giant scabbard, only to find the measurements are wrong. Aerith thinks maybe the sword increased its size so it doesn't have to wear it, but Zack thanks them anyway and continues to wear the blade strapped across his back in a harness Angeal produced from a trunk in the hidden cellar. The straps are never severed when he withdraws or replaces it, though its edge is sharper than any other sword. After a while they can't remember what he looked like without it.

Aerith frets about why the bat-monsters chased her. For a while she refuses to use her powers even to practise her skills and decides to learn more about her healing, until one night she dreams in shades of green and wakes, shamefaced at her refusal to learn about skills that could be so helpful to others, as they were to Tifa when she was injured.

Aerith practises in secret. Her mother helps her, though she's wary at first, but somehow everything flows naturally and Aerith becomes more comfortable with her abilities. She doesn't stretch herself too far, in case something happens that nobody knows how to fix, but takes comfort in nonsensical dreams of green energy and warm arms. She doesn't hear her mother's voice again, but mornings after Green Dreams she seems to know, inexplicably, where to take her powers next, as though guided by past generations' trial-and-error experiences. Eventually she even learns how to shield her abilities, though only enough to stop monsters being able to sense her magic from a distance.

Cloud spends a lot of time at the stables and the chocobo breeder's. At first people are wary of his name, but when they realise what a good rapport he has with their animals they're less opposed to his presence. He can often be found smeared with the evidence of a day spent mucking out stalls, or fetching hay bales, or lugging sticky turquoise nutrient blocks into feeding trays in exchange for riding lessons. Aerith and Zack don't have nearly as much passion for subjects like chocobo tack, horse lice, or medical conditions involving pus and poultices. They throw whatever's handy – pillows, compost, half-eaten sandwiches – when he waxes lyrical about how Boko, the stud rooster, is off his food lately, or how Blue Whisky, the fastest horse in town has thrown a shoe, though they're happy he's found something into which he can pour so much of himself.

Cloud turns fifteen last, a month before Zack's sixteenth birthday. He awakens to find a small bundle cheeping on his bedclothes.

"What-?"

"Surprise!" Zack pops up from behind the end of the bed. "Happy birthday!"

"How-?"

Aerith rises to stand next to him, matching his grin with a smile of her own. "Your mom let us in. You have no idea how difficult it was to keep this idiot," she lightly smacks the back of Zack's head, "quiet so we didn't wake you."

Cloud stares at the yellow ball of fluff. "Is this-?"

"Your very own chocobo chick." Zack's grin can't possibly get any wider. Can it? "Now you can solve the question that's been plaguing mankind for years: which is fluffier, your head or a chicobo's ass?" Yes, in point of fact, Zack's grin can get wider. It doesn't even dim when Aerith smacks him again – still lightly, and grinning herself.

Cloud picks up the chick. It blinks at him, trembling. Very gently, he strokes the tip of one finger over the top of its head and down its back, smoothing the downy baby feathers. He does this several times, making crooning noises in the back of his throat until its stops shaking, tucks its head back and closes its eyes.

"Wow," Zack breathes. "How'd you do that?"

"What are you going to call it?" Aerith asks.

Cloud ponders this for a moment. "Cheepy."

"Cheepy?" Zack exclaims. He sees Aerith's hand coming, ducks and whispers, "Cheepy?"

"It's a good name," Aerith replies.

"But talk about unoriginal."

"Well I think it's cute." She looks at the chick, sleeping happily in Cloud's hands. "Yeah, cute."

Cloud smiles. "Thanks, guys."

At that moment the newly-named Cheepy, suitably relaxed, releases muscles it has kept tensed up while clumsily transported from the chocobo breeder on the other side of town.

Zack sniggers. "I think Poopy would've been more accurate."

 


 

 

"Cheepy, come back!"

"Man, how fast can that little guy run?" Zack puffs.

Cloud keeps pace beside him. "He's a chocobo, they're bred for running."

"He's a baby. His legs are shorter than my fingers!"

They careen around a corner and come to a skidding halt. Ahead of them Cheepy hops and scrabbles over a chunk of wall that's come loose and tumbled away from the main part, revealing something colourful and snakelike beneath. For a heart-stopping second Zack thinks it's a monster and he'll have to fight it, but the Buster Sword doesn't react.

Cheepy pecks at a strand but it doesn't break. The surface is waxy and red, like thick, fibrous hair. It seems like the outer casing of this part of the wall was just that – casing designed to conceal whatever is underneath.

"What is it?"

Zack pokes hesitantly with the end of his sword. The tip slices straight through one, causing a spray of sparks and a burst of staticky crackling. Both boys leap backwards. Zack moves in front of Cloud, Buster Sword readied, but nothing further happens.

Something tugs at the fringes of Zack's mind. His eyes slide left, then right, and he has to shake his head and readjust his grip to keep focussing on the broken wall.

Cheepy, finding nothing worth eating, hops off and peeps over to Cloud like he never tried to run away in the first place. Like all young things Cheepy is inquisitive and not fully appreciative of danger beyond immediate threats. He cowers at feather-dusters, boots without feet in them, slamming doors and nearly had a heart attack the first time he heard a toilet flush after following Cloud into the bathroom. Conversely, strange wires living in supposedly solid walls don't faze him at all. He settles on Cloud's feet and draws his head into his chest for a sleep. He's tired himself out and makes only tiny noises when Cloud scoops him into his pocket.

"C'mon, Zack."

"But-" Zack shakes his head again, momentarily hazy, as though he's inhaled a powerful smell that blots out everything except the need to cover his nose.

In the back of his mind the Buster Sword comes alive, apprehensive of something that circles his brain and turns it, like a horse trying to avoid having its blinkers put on. He narrows his eyes at the red wires … no, not wires, just a bit of broken wall. The wall is always crumbling. It's old and needs repairs. Zack makes a mental note to tell Angeal about this bit, so he can organise someone to mend bit as soon as possible.

The Buster Sword's presence inside him flares, but Zack pushes it away and replaces the sword on his back, unsure why he even has it out. There's no danger here, just stone and the view across the wasteland. He looks out at Barren Region, wrinkling his nose, and then turns away to follow Cloud.

 


 

 

To Be Continued …

 


 

 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

They throw whatever's handy – pillows, compost, half-eaten sandwiches – when he waxes lyrical about how Boko, the stud rooster, is off his food lately,

-- (Taken from Wikipedia) A chocobo named Boko appears in several installments of the Final Fantasy series. Boko appears in Final Fantasy V as Bartz Klauser's mount. Boko also appears in Final Fantasy Tactics as a chocobo owned by Wiegraf Folles, which is later encountered lost in a forest and can be saved and recruited by the protagonist Ramza Beoulve. A chicobo (young chocobo) named Boko appears in Final Fantasy VIII and can be obtained by Squall Leonhart; this chicobo possesses its own minigame. Boko also appears in Final Fantasy VII as a chocobo in races. A chocobo named Bobby Corwen appears in Final Fantasy IX in the Black Mage Village; his initials in Japanese katakana characters form "Boko". In Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, a pilot in the Shera airship mentions that she is raising a chocobo named Boko. A chocobo by the name of Boko follows the protagonists of the Final Fantasy: Unlimited anime series.

 

Blue Whisky, the fastest horse in town has thrown a shoe

-- Side-fling to Red Rum, one of the best known and most loved racehorses ever in the UK and Republic of Ireland (Red Rum being 'murder' spelled backwards, which probably says something about our national mindset, actually).

Chapter Text



 

It's a cold and rainy night when things change. Elmyra opens her frantically banging door to see Tifa on the step, hair wild and eyes wilder. She's shivering in her nightclothes, which are slick to her skin with rainwater, but refuses to come in.

"I-It's my mom," Tifa stammers. "I n-need … please, Aerith has to come. Please, she's got to come with me. My mom, she's … I think she's dying."

Elmyra freezes in place at this news.

"Mom?" Aerith balances with her feet on two steps of the staircase behind her. "Tifa?"

"Aerith." There are tears running down Tifa's cheeks, visible even against the rain. "Aerith, please …"

And Aerith can't refuse her. Even if it means people knowing about her magic, she can't let Tifa's mother die without trying to save her. She doesn't even go back upstairs to change, instead grabbing a cloak from the back of the door and running out into the night with her friend.

"Aerith!" Elmyra calls after them. "Aerith!"

"What's the matter with her?" Aerith asks as they run. She stumbles and Tifa helps her up, all but bullying her along the dark streets.

"She's been sick since last week. She started coughing up all this yellow muck, and shaking a lot, a-and she has a headache, like, all the time. She went to bed and couldn't get up because her legs couldn't take her weight. She hasn't eaten for days but she keeps throwing up anyway, and now her skin's turned kind of blue and she can't breathe…"

The seriousness of these symptoms whirl through Aerith like a blast of cigarette smoke the face. "Is she at your house?" She notices they're not headed in the right direction.

"No, she's at Doctor Rui's. Dad took her there, but none of the medicines are helping. I think they left it too late for normal medicine. Sh-she started to cough up … she was coughing up blood. That's when I ran to get you."

The lights are on at the doctor's surgery. They rush up to the front door, but it's shut tight against the weather. Tifa beats her fists against it.

"Doctor Rui! Doctor Rui, open up!"

The door opens, but it's not Doctor Rui who looks out. Framed in the doorway is the much smaller form of Shelke, and for once her eyes aren't completely flat. Even silhouetted, her face partly concealed in shadow, Aerith sees the flicker of sadness as her gaze alights on Tifa.

"Miss Lockhart -"

"Please, let us in. I brought help. For my mom. I brought help for my mom." Tifa's voice is agony to hear.

Aerith can see beyond Shelke. She recognises Mr. Lockhart, though his face is creased in anguish and he's scrunched over, holding his wife's hand. She's stretched out on one of the bleakly minimal cots, her face pale blue and her chest eerily still beneath the blanket.

"Miss Lockhart, I'm sorry," Shelke says in her customary level tone. She doesn't sound comforting. It's as though she knows what words to say but not how to say them in order for them to actually mean anything.

Still, they mean enough to Tifa. She backs up a step. "No."

"Miss Lockhart, you must come inside-"

"But I brought help."

If Shelke thinks Aerith is an odd source of help for Tifa to have fetched, she gives no sign of it. "It was too late, Miss Lockhart. You must come in out of the rain -"

"No!" Tifa sinks to her knees. "No … please no…"

"Miss Lockhart, you are not properly attired to be out in this weather-"

"But … my mom … I wasn't here." Tifa's chest heaves. "I wasn't here when she … I … please no …" She starts to sob uncontrollably. "I wasn't here! She can't be gone. I didn't even get to say goodbye!"

Shelke is at a loss, so it falls to Aerith to crouch beside Tifa and wrap her sodden cloak around them both like it'll do some good. She shushes her, holding her friend close as one might a baby, the pair of them nothing more than a tiny lump of grief and helplessness on the cobbles in the pouring rain.

 



 

 

The next time the back door of the flower shop opens to someone banging their fist against it, it's Aerith who opens it, and it's Cloud outside. Sunlight barely peeks over the horizon. Cloud is breathing hard, hands braced against his knees. He has run across town before anyone else is awake in order to fetch her.

"Tifa's going to the mountains – alone!"

"What?" For a second Aerith thinks she's misheard, but she hasn't.

"I woke up because Cheepy needed to go out, and I caught her. She made me promise not to tell anyone, but Aerith, she's going to the mountainsAlone. She has to get down the wall and cross Barren Region to do that, and there are monsters out there."

Aerith is confused, tiredness fuddling her thoughts. When she left Tifa she was at Doctor Rui's with her father, who'd refused to leave his wife's body and had fallen asleep at her side. Yet Cloud has seen Tifa at her house. Aerith's mind isn't yet able make the connection between the two facts. She wipes sleep from her eyes and forces herself to be more alert. "Why the heck does she want to go to the mountains?"

"She thinks her mom's spirit is going to cross though them. You know, like in the legend."

Everyone in these parts knows the old tale of Lucrecia and Vincent. Long enough ago for it to have passed into legend, Lucrecia was a woman who died tragically in this area. After encouraging her devastated lover to go on with his life without her, her soul waited in a cave in the mountains, sealed in a crystal that attached her to the mortal world when the afterlife tried to prise her away before she was ready to go. She waited for her lover to live his life and die so they could go on to the afterlife together because she couldn't face even a scrap of eternity without him, but didn't wish for him to join her in death before his time. The story goes that spirits who leave their bodies have to cross through the mountains, and some wait there if they have unfinished business on the mortal plane.

"Tifa wants to say goodbye to her mom," Cloud supplies, pushing hair from his eyes. He's started doing that a lot more lately: where once he hated his spikes, he's begun running his fingers through them to make them stick up more.

"We have to tell her dad -"

"He's still at Doctor Rui's, and Tifa's already gone! The only reason I saw her go was because Cheepy got away from me and I had to go looking for him in her yard." The high-pitched peeping in his pocket tells Aerith he didn't even have time to go inside and leave the chick behind. "I saw her leaving her house with a full knapsack and a rope. We have to go after her!"

"Us?"

"Yeah, she made me promise not to tell any adults, but we have to bring her back, or at least go with her to make sure she's safe."

"Cloud, we can't -"

"We can't wait. She might already be at the wall by now."

Aerith bites her lip and looks over her shoulder. Elmyra is exhausted from waiting up last night. She collapsed into bed in the small hours after Aerith got home, murmuring about not being as young as she used to be and deep asleep within seconds. Aerith knows she should wake her mother to tell her what's going on, but Cloud's panic is infectious. She's already calculating how far Tifa could've gone in the time it took him to get to the flower shop.

"All right," she says doubtfully. "But we have to fetch Zack first."

"But he'll want to tell Angeal, and he'll want to bring Tifa back before she can say goodbye to her mom -"

"Cloud, there are monsters out there. She should come back."

"But -" Cloud looks imploringly at her. "Wouldn't you want to say goodbye if it was your mom?"

Warm arms and green energy. A soft voice and someone holding back the darkness so it can't get her. These things glimmer into Aerith's mind even as she's thinking about Elmyra arranging flowers and hugging her so tight when she thought her little girl was hurt. Tifa's tearstained face also makes an appearance, so different than the happy I-can-break-your-arm-in-three-different-ways-using-just-my-pinkie-but-I-also-like-reading-sappy-romance-novels smile she usually wears.

"We fetch Zack," Aerith says firmly. "You can climb up to his window so we don't have to speak to Angeal. He can use the Buster Sword to fight any monsters we might meet."

 



 

 

"Tifa! Tifaaaa!"

Tifa whirls at the sound of someone calling her. "Cloud?"

The three figures are still far away, but getting closer with every second. Zack runs like a wolf, almost flowing across the ground with his long loping stride. Cloud is just behind him, knees higher like a racehorse or hunting chocobo, and Aerith puffs and pants her way towards Tifa like a human girl with a very red face.

"What are you guys doing out here?" Tifa sounds more shocked than angry. Her eyes are still red from crying. She rubs self-consciously at them. "Cloud, I thought I told you not to tell anyone -"

"We're your escort," Zack interrupts. He isn't even breathing hard. He pats the handle of the Buster Sword and winks at Tifa. "What, you thought we'd leave you to cross the freaking wasteland on your own? Hel-lo, wake up and smell the chocobo poop."

"Cloud told us what you were planning because he was worried," Aerith adds, holding onto Zack's arm for support. "Please, no more running, I think I'm going to pass out."

"We were all worried," Zack concurs. "I thought you were smarter than this, Tifa."

"Don't judge me." Tifa bridles, one foot sliding out as though expecting them to physically restrain her and carry her back to town. Grief and determination make her tone sharp as a dragon's tooth.

"Keep your pants on; we're not here to take you back."

"Then what -?"

"I said we're your escort, remember? You may be one tough cookie, but against a Vetala I prefer my chances with the Buster Sword."

Cheepy pokes his head out of Cloud's pocket, peeping loudly.

"See?" Zack indicates to the chick. "Even he agrees with me."

Tifa glances from one face to another. For a second it looks as though she's going to protest and tell them to get lost, but then her expression collapses in on itself. She looks very, very tired and her brown eyes resonate with the kind of relief reserved for victims pulled out of burning buildings. "Thank you."

 



 

 

"I wonder what everyone back in town is thinking right now."

"Those-stupid-brats-let's-find-and-fillet-them-for-their-stupid-stupidity?" Zack offers.

Cloud throws a handful of dirt at him. They're sitting on a ledge at the base of the mountains, pondering their miraculous journey across the wasteland between Hollow Bastion and here. Not one monster appeared the whole time, though they ducked and hid and used what meagre cover they found as Zack directed. Since none of them have ever had to cross the wasteland on foot before, they're not sure if this is unusual, but it doesn't match with what they've been told all their lives about this awful place. They're certainly grateful, however, as it's made progress a lot easier.

"We might even be home by nightfall," Zack muses.

"Yeah, just in time to be completely ripped to shreds by…" Aerith glances at Tifa. She was about to say 'our parents' and can't think of a suitable alternative. Grief stains the air like blood in a glass of water. "Um, is there any food left?" Tifa brought a knapsack with lunch for herself, and Zack insisted on bringing provisions because there's no point putting yourself at a disadvantage by collapsing from hunger or dehydration, as he told them.

"Here." Cloud rummages around and passes her a biscuit. "We should probably get going."

"Hmm." Zack makes a noise that could be agreement, or could be thoughtfulness as he scans the horizon. "It's too quiet," he says suddenly, all teasing gone from his voice. "I don't like it. We should've at least seen monster tracks, but there wasn't any evidence of anything bigger than a lizard passing this way for days. And not a bird in the sky, see? It's like …" He fumbles for the words. "It's like they're all afraid of something."

"Monsters? Afraid? Of what?"

"I don't know, but I don't like it. C'mon." Zack gets up, absently touching the Buster Sword hilt as if to reassure himself it's still there. "Let's move. Tifa?" His tone turns gentler. He holds out his hand to the hollow-eyed girl.

She takes it, letting him haul her to her feet. "Guys, I just … I want to say thank you again for coming after me. I thought I could do this on my own, but I … I'm really glad you're here."

"Nobody should have to do something like this alone," Cloud says softly.

Tifa turns a wan smile on him. She looks exhausted, though several times she's overtaken them in her determination to reach the mountains, and hasn't complained once. It's as though she's staving off the full force of her grief by concentrating on this task. "Thanks for not listening to me. I'm glad it was you who spotted me leaving. I never realised what a good friend you are. We've never really talked much before, have we? I'm sorry about that. I wish I'd gotten to know you sooner."

Cloud flushes scarlet to the roots of his hair. "Don't apologise!" he says, waving his hands at her. "You don't have to … not now, I mean … I was just trying to … um, Zack, Aerith, c'mon, time's wasting."

 



 

 

"There's no way we can cross that." Aerith is firm. "No. Way."

"It's looks kind of safe-"

"Zack! It's so rickety it'll disintegrate the moment we set foot on it. It must've been built when these mountains were just molehills."

"You're exaggerating."

To demonstrate, Aerith places her foot on the first wooden slat. It creaks ominously and, while it doesn't break, wisps of sawdust and lichen come off it in a very disturbing manner if one is thinking of using it to cross a giant ravine with dagger-like stalagmites at the bottom.

"See? It didn't break." Zack ducks. "Kidding, kidding. You're right, it's way too dangerous. We'll have to find another way across."

"There isn't another way across." Tifa nibbles her lip, staring out across the huge expanse between them and the other side as though contemplating whether she could jump it.

"Then we'll have to go around." Zack shrugs. "We'll get there, don't worry, but we're not going to take stupid risks doing it. Well," he corrects himself, rubbing the back of his head, "no more stupid than we already have, anyway. We did go into Barren Region alone, after all."

Tifa turns away from the bridge, not looking at them. "So which way do we go now?" she asks tightly.

"I've never been into the mountains before." Aerith looks at Zack. "Did Angeal ever teach you about the geography of this place?"

"Not really. Just the types of terrain certain monsters inhabit and stuff like that. He wasn't too hot on map-reading beyond the basic skill of how to do it."

"We could probably find another place if we just keep following this way," Aerith mutters, looking down the trail that runs alongside the ravine. "I mean, there's bound to be something, right? Or maybe we'll find a way down into the valley and out again, and we can stay on solid ground the whole time."

She examines the far collection of dark peaks, knifing up from the gloom like the ribs of some giant beast that died and rotted here long ago. The air is chilly; though that's only part of the reason she shivers. The further they've climbed, the more she's felt that something is wrong with this place –wrong at bone-level, a feeling as pervasive as it is alarming. Zack's words from earlier resound in her head as the suspicion grows within her that, for all they've seen no monsters anywhere, there is something to fear up here. She's not asleep, but it's like she can hear the voices from her Green Dreams whispering warnings to her.

"Cloud? Cloud, what're you doing? Cloud!"

Zack's shout breaks Aerith from her thoughts. She turns. "Cloud?"

Cloud is out on the bridge. He's not quite halfway across and stepping carefully from slat to slat, picking only those that look safe enough to stand on. Both hands are fastened to the rope handrails. Even from here the tension in his shoulders is obvious, but he keeps going regardless.

"Cloud!" Zack yells. "You idiot! Get back here!"

"I'm testing it to see if it's safe," Cloud calls back. "Look, I'm halfway now and I'm fine. We can cross here after all."

"Cloud, come back!" Aerith wrings her hands, terrified for him. Zack makes as if to follow him but she grabs his arm. "The sword's too heavy. It'll put you right through the slats. They're barely holding Cloud's weight as it is."

"But I have to bring him back," Zack protests. "Cloud, get your ass back on this side of the bridge right now! Quit trying to show off."

"I'm not showing off. I'm finding us safe passage."

"Cloud!" Tifa cups her hands around her mouth. "Cloud, please, come back where it's safe. We can find another route, it's okay. I can wait. I don't want you to fall."

Cloud half-turns and gives them a smile. "I'm okay. The bridge is strong enough to take-" A horrible cracking noise fills the air, followed by a wheezy groan. "Uh-oh."

"Cloud!" Aerith shrieks. "Run!"

Too late. One of the handrails snaps in two places in short succession. Cloud grabs the other one with both hands as the slats beneath him pitch sideways, going from horizontal to vertical. His feet slide off, kicking for purchase and finding none. Somehow he manages to hook his boots onto the swaying rope and clings there, immobile, his face a mask of disbelief.

"Cloud." Keeping his voice level, Zack crouches at the very edge of the sheer drop, making Aerith fear for his safety too. "Listen to me, buddy. Look this way, not down, and work your way along the rope towards us. Hand over hand, foot over foot, slow and steady, okay? Don't rush it. Take your time and be careful."

Fleetingly, Cloud stays where he is, shock robbing him of speech and movement. Then, achingly slowly, he begins to work his way back towards them. Aerith wants to shout support, but she doesn't want to distract him and so stays absolutely still, hands still clasped as if in prayer for his safety.

"That's it. You're doing great," Zack encourages, voice calm despite the rigid way his arm is thrust against the ground. "Focus on me, Cloud. Focus. You're going to be fine."

Maybe it's because he says this that fate decides to step in again. They all recognise the noise this time. Fear and panic swirl around them so intently they're like coloured smoke.

"Shit. Cloud, hold on!" Forgoing calm, Zack seizes the handrail and hauls back with all his strength as everything seems to snap at once, leaving the bridge dangling precariously. The whole thing is now supported by only the handrails. They're only thin stretches of rope, and just the left one is attached on the other side of the ravine. Zack tries to keep hold of the rope that used to be attached on their side, but his feet skid as the weight of the whole bridge plus Cloud drags him forward.

Aerith has her arms around Zack's waist in a moment and feels Tifa do the same to her. She can smell the other girl's hair and skin, a damp sweatiness trimmed with the sharpness of panic and mustiness of grief. Tifa's emotions mix with Aerith's as they desperately try to stop Zack from being pulled over the edge as well.

"Yaaah!" Zack grunts as he rope zips through his hands, burning his palms. The end flies out of his grasp, jolting the whole bridge and putting extra pressure on the remaining rope. "No!"

Cloud pitches again, scrabbling for the wooden slats to hold onto. His three friends are flung backwards and untangle themselves to peer over the edge at him. Cloud raises his head, eyes wide, and begins making his way back towards them again. He feels out each placement of his hands. His arm muscles must be screaming, but doggedly he keeps going.

"You're doing great, Cloud!" Zack calls, voice tight. "Just a few more feet."

It's no use. The ancient rope can't take this kind of abuse. On the other side of the ravine it creaks ominously. Though Cloud tries to go faster he's still not going to make it.

Frantically, Zack holds out his hand, reaching desperately. When the final rope snaps his fingers are almost brushing Cloud's. There's a frozen moment that seems to last forever, wherein Tifa, Aerith and Zack all see Cloud's wide eyes so clearly they can make out the flecks of lighter blue around his pupils.

And then he's gone.

"Cloud!" The scream rips from Aerith like someone has reached inside her with white-hot tongs and wrenched it out. Her chest constricts. She throws herself forward, only to find Tifa pinning her down before she can follow Cloud over the edge. "Cloud! Cloud!"

Something large bounds over them from behind. Aerith has an impression of black and feathers before it dives off the cliff.

"What the hell-?" Zack exclaims. "That better not have been a harpy!"

Whatever it is hurtles up out of the ravine in an impossible jump. Even Tifa can't jump like that. It finds sure-footing on the other side, landing with the grace of a cat on a pinnacle no bigger than the width of a sword-tip, and then turns to look at them. Aerith can't see properly from this distance, but she can make out a tall, quite thin man with silver hair that wafts in the breeze. A single black wing extends from his back to help him balance.

"Cloud!"

Cloud rests in the man's arms, head back and limbs slack. The man carries him as though he's a child with a doll, one arm supporting Cloud's back and one hooked under his knees. He pauses to look down at Cloud's face and then up at the three teenagers clustered on the opposite side of the ravine.

He smiles. It's tiny, but Aerith feels his smile. It crawls along her skin, making all her muscles tense up, like the feeling of walking into a dark room and suspecting someone is already there. It's the kind of smile that creeps through the undergrowth looking for the lone deer that's been separated from its herd, or lurks on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers. She distrusts that smile, despite the fact this man has just saved her best friend from certain death.

"It's like … it's like they're all afraid of something."

The man performs another impossible jump backwards, spreading his wing for equilibrium, and is lost from view amongst the rocks.

"Cloud!" Zack roars. "Bring him back! Cloud! Cloud!"

 



 

 

To Be Continued …

 



 

 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

"What the hell-?" Zack exclaims. "That better not have been a harpy!"

-- From Greek mythology. One of several loathsome, voracious monsters with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail, wings, and talons of a bird.

Chapter Text



 

The pain is what brings Cloud back to consciousness. It's worse than when Aerith healed his broken ribs. It's worse than when he nearly drowned in the brook. Not as sharp, maybe, but still insistent. No matter how he twists or tries to rearrange himself he can't escape it. It feels like someone has trapped his chest in a vice and is slowly turning the screws.

"Awake?"

He doesn't recognise the voice. "Who's there?" His tongue is dry and sticks to the roof of his mouth. He clears his throat, the act of swallowing saliva made easier by being on his back.

Why can't he see anything? His eyes are open, he's sure, but everything's still black.

"You're quite broken up inside. You hit the side of the cliff rather hard." The voice is smooth, even kind, but something in it makes the hairs on the back of Cloud's neck stand on end. It's a little too smooth, and little too kind to be genuine.

"Where are my friends?"

"I don't think they should really be your primary concern. You're bleeding internally, you know. And if you try to move your legs, I think you'll find your spinal damage is quite extensive."

The voice is right. Cloud feels his panic rising and forces himself to calm down. Panicking won't help anyone. He remembers hanging around Zack's house, waiting for him to finish training for the day and hearing Angeal talk about keeping yourself together in a crisis.

"A clear head is the best advantage anyone can have, no matter the situation," Angeal said. "Once you allow your thoughts to be clouded you've set yourself on the path to your own downfall."

Right. So. Time to assess the situation. What Cloud needs right now is Aerith, but before he can even think about her healing him he needs to know where his friends are, who the owner of this voice is, and what he's doing here – wherever 'here' is. Cloud remembers the bridge giving way, swinging him against the cliff wall and then … nothing.

"Where are my friends?" he asks again.

"You really are a noble thing, aren't you? Smashed to bits and still more concerned about others than yourself. How selfless. Yes, I think you'll do nicely."

"What?"

"Your friends aren't here."

"Where are they?"

"Probably searching for you. They aren't important."

"Why can't I see?"

"You knocked your head." This is said as if it explains everything. "If it hadn't been for me, you'd already be dead right now."

"Thank you."

"I wouldn't thank me if I were you. I never do anything unless there's something in it for me." There's a rustling noise. Cloud feels someone breathing close to his face. "You're a very special boy, you know. There's very little darkness in your heart. Still enough to make you human, but much less than others I've considered for this purpose. Very pure. You hate much less than the average human, especially since I sense you have good reason to hate people. You've been treated badly, haven't you? You have a lot of room inside you to contain darkness. And, more importantly, you're in a unique position to make a bargain with. How fortunate for me that you came up here and that the bridge accidentally broke."

"But you can't have – that was an accident!"

"There aren't many things people won't do to save their own lives. Or, perhaps, the lives of those they care about." The voice is like silk tearing on thorns.

Cloud goes cold, and not because of any injury. "Don't you dare hurt my friends."

"Is that any way to speak to someone who just saved your life? Or to someone who might be able to save it properly now? You're going to die if you aren't tended to, and it's just you and me here. Oh, and this."

Cloud recognises Cheepy's peeping. The chick makes frantic noises somewhere higher than he should be, since Cloud remembers putting him in his pocket.

"What are you-?"

"Listen closely, boy. I can save your life; right here, right now. Refuse me and you die."

"Put Cheepy down."

"A life for a life, boy. An act of darkness for an act of darkness. Everything in the universe is about exchange and balance. Now listen closely: I can give you back your life, or I can let you die in the dirt like an animal."

"What are you talking about?"

"You might call it an insurance policy. You have something I require. Agree to let me have it and I'll save your life."

"What is it?"

"Your heart."

"What?" Cloud is confused.

"Not your actual heart, but that place in you that contains your light and your darkness. Your … balance control, I suppose you could say. Everything is about balance."

"You're mad."

The voice contorts into mocking laughter. It's not a comfortable noise, as though the voice isn't used to laughing at all. It snaps back in an instant, levelling off once more into a smooth tenor. "I'm much saner than you think. I need a place I can regroup if things go badly for me."

"What?"

"I wouldn't expect a simple country boy like you to understand."

"Why are you even telling me about this?"

"Because what is given freely is much easier to hold onto than what is taken by force. If you fight me, that might make things difficult, but if you accept me from the beginning -"

"You can't have my heart."

"Fine. Then you die. And so do those three others you were with."

"No!"

"The choice is yours, boy. Accept me or accept death – yours and theirs. I can easily kill them. Yes, even the boy with the Buster Sword. I could cut his head off. Or I could stab the girl with the ponytail right through her heart. Or I could tear in half the one you were trying to impress with your antics on the bridge -"

"No, you can't!" Unaccountably, Cloud knows the owner of that voice can make good on these promises. This is not the voice of someone who makes idle threats. This is a dangerous voice, and just being near it makes him feel hollowed out inside, as though all positive emotions wither and die in its presence like plants exposed to poison.

"I'd say 'watch me', but that would be more than a little redundant."

Cloud tries to speak again, levering himself onto his arms, but liquid bubbles in his throat. He chokes, turning his head aside to spit it out. The taste of blood is easily identifiable. It coats his teeth and tongue, a reminder that whatever else this man might be saying, he's telling the truth about one thing: Cloud's injuries are serious. Pain throbs inside him, momentarily blocking out all else.

"It's your choice, boy."

"I … I …"

"I'm getting impatient. Answer me. Do you want to die?"

Cloud's own voice is no more than a whisper. "No."

"Do you want your friends to die?"

"No."

"Would you give up anything for them?"

"…Yes."

"Good boy."

Cloud hears Cheepy squeak once, feels someone gently touch the centre of his chest, and then it's like he's been split open from throat to belly. It's as though the pain he's been in so far was just a precursor to the main event. Agony beyond anything he could ever imagine slices through him; every pore, every nerve, every cell is on fire. He wants to scream but he can't. He wants it to stop, but it won't.

"Ah, there it is."

Then the world dissolves around Cloud into even deeper darkness, like a shadow within a shadow, and he knows nothing more.

 



 

 

They find him on a boulder some way down their own side of the ravine. They can't explain how he crossed back without them seeing, or where the man is who rescued him is, but frankly they don't care. Tifa, Aerith and Zack fall at Cloud's side, just glad he's alive.

"Cloud?" Zack shakes him. It looks like he's asleep, chest rising and falling in deep, regular breaths.

Cloud twitches and opens his eyes. He stares at the sky for a long moment, blinking, before focussing on them. "I'm … alive?"

"Sure you are." Zack's face practically glows with joy. "Gods, Cloud, we thought you were a goner for a minute there."

"A little longer than a minute." Aerith pushes past him to stand on tiptoe and lay her hands on Cloud, but can find no injuries to heal. Her eyes widen in surprise. "You're … all right?" Her voice changes and she throws her arms around him, half pulling him off the boulder and on top of her. "You're all right!"

Tifa jumps up and punches the air.

Zack runs a hand through his hair in amazement. "Wow, Cloud, how did you do it?"

"I … don't know." Cloud sits up and slides off the boulder, rubbing his head. He doesn't wobble when his feet hit the ground. "I remember … something about darkness. I guess was knocked out. And now…" he stares at them. "I don't know what happened. Did you guys save me?"

"As if. Some stranger rescued you and then took off with you. We were trying to find a way across this stupid ravine to get to you when we found you here." Zack's grin could light a room brighter than a chandelier. "I can't believe you're okay. Do you feel any pain?"

Cloud tests all his limbs. "No."

"You're not injured?"

"No."

"Not at all?"

"No."

"Good." Without further ado, Zack punches him. Cloud falls back against the boulder, shocked. "That's for pulling such a stupid stunt and almost killing yourself. If you ever do anything like that again I'll resurrect you just to kill you a second time."

"Zack!" Aerith is horrified.

"No, Aerith. If anything happened to either of you I'd …" Zack averts his eyes, suddenly acutely aware of Tifa.

She notices. There's no way she can't and she isn't stupid. This is a private moment.

"Look," Zack mumbles, "just accept that I needed to do that, okay? I've nearly lost you two before and every time it happens it hammers home how much you mean to me. I promised to protect you both, and that includes protecting you from yourselves."

"Zack." Aerith sighs and shakes her head. "Cloud, do you need me to-?"

"No, I'm okay." Cloud rises and looks around, still holding his jaw. He pats his pocket. "Where's Cheepy?"

"Cheepy? You mean that chicobo you carry around?" Tifa asks. She looked away during Zack's outburst, eyes going everywhere but them, and now they're fixed on a spot just above them on the cliff face.

Cloud follows her gaze. "Oh no! Cheepy!"

The chick is impaled on a sharp rock, obviously dead. He's too far up to reach, but they try to fetch him down anyway. Eventually Zack hooks the tiny bird off by careful use of the Buster Sword, and Cloud holds the sorry remains of his pet in his hands.

"Cloud, I'm so sorry." Aerith puts her arm around him, squeezing him. "We'll give him a proper burial when we get back to town."

"He looks so small," is all Cloud can say. "So defenceless."

"It was an accident," Zack offers, squinting at the bloodied rock and doubting his own words even as he says them.

Something feels off about this whole thing: Cloud's lack of injuries, the absence of the silver-haired man (who had a freaking big wing), and finding Cheepy's body so high up on a wall, as though placed there deliberately ... it just doesn't add up. At least, not to anything good.

Zack keeps the Buster Sword in hand and scans for Cloud's supposed saviour.

Tifa scuffs her foot. "I'm sorry, everyone. I'm sorry for coming here in the first place. I've brought nothing but trouble to you all." Her eyes are wet with tears.

"Don't be dumb." Zack punches her lightly on the shoulder and recoils in dismay when she bursts into tears and slumps against his chest. "Er…"

"I j-just w-wanted to say goodbye to my m-mom," she wails. This is so unlike her that nobody knows quite how to react. "I n-never meant to cause so much tr-trouble. Cloud nearly died, and now Cheepy and my mom … I'm so, so sorry… I'm such bad luck. It's like death is following me or somethinnnng…"

"Don't be silly." Aerith is at Zack's grateful side. She takes hold of Tifa's hands and rubs her thumbs across the backs of them in a soothing motion. "You're not bad luck. Far from it. Look, Cloud's okay. Cheepy was an accident. You know what an accident is? It's something nobody can control. What we're going to do now is find that cave so you can say goodbye to your mom, and then we're going to head back to town together. All right?"

Tifa sniffs. "I guess so." She sniffs again. "I don't care what any of the kids at school say: you three are good people, and you're better than all of them put together."

"Er … thanks. Come on, now. Cloud?" Aerith turns to him, taking off her jacket. "Here. For Cheepy."

Cloud accepts it and tenderly wraps up the tiny body. He carries it in the crook of his arm as they travel. Tifa drops back to walk beside him, leaving Aerith and Zack to take the lead as they walk along the side of the ravine and eventually find a winding, much safer path into and out of it again.

The legend of Lucrecia and Vincent tells of the cave being beneath an outcropping shaped like a demon with wings spread wide. It's one of the reasons not many people in Hollow Bastion have ever looked for it – or prefer to believe it's just a legend with no basis in truth. Their inherent dislike of magic turns their minds away from such possibilities as the cave being real, or the idea that it might still be there, just waiting for someone to rediscover it.

As soon as Zack, Cloud, Aerith and Tifa climbed the first part of the way into the mountains they spotted the demon rock. It was easy to see, even at a distance. They've been working their way towards it ever since. Now it looms like the castle in the centre of town, but somehow despite its shape it's less imposing than that deserted place. Zack picks his way along, testing the stability of their path and choosing the way even more carefully than before.

After a while Aerith draws near to him. "Zack, something feels wrong about this."

"I hear you. I'm happy as a chocobo with fresh seed that Cloud's okay, but there are too many unanswered questions. Who was that guy we saw? How did he do what he did – those jumps should've been impossible for a normal man. And that wing."

"Could he …" Aerith bites her lip. "Could he have been a monster? Or maybe a demon?"

"It's possible, but I've never heard of any monster or demon that looks like that. And anything remotely like a human in shape is usually out to eat real humans' flesh, but that one left Cloud alone. It saved him, which is totally un-demon-y behaviour."

"So you think it was a man?"

"Maybe. Where did he go? Why didn't he stick around after rescuing Cloud?"

"I suppose maybe he didn't want gratitude. Some people are funny about that sort of thing. He might be a hermit and doesn't want us knowing where he lives. Or perhaps he's like me, and doesn't want anyone to know he has magic in case they hurt him. But that doesn't answer the other questions."

"You know what else I think? I think that guy may have done that to Cheepy. There's no way that was an accident. It's like it was staged or something. Do you reckon he took Cheepy's life as, like, payment for saving Cloud's?"

"That's sick." But Aerith has to admit she doesn't know. "Cloud doesn't remember that man at all, so it's not like we can ask him. And did you notice? Cloud didn't ask anything about the guy when you said how he rescued him. That's a little strange, don't you think?"

"He is pretty cut up about Cheepy," Zack suggests unconvincingly. "But I get what you mean. We should probably keep a look out in case that guy comes back. And we should definitely keep an eye on Cloud, just in case."

"Definitely." Aerith glances back to where Tifa has a hand on Cloud's shoulder. It's not remotely proprietary, so the sudden rush of jealousy surprises even her. Aerith returns her gaze to where she's going, embarrassed and confused, and a little scared – though she can't narrow down why to just one reason. "Just in case."

 



 

 

They find the cave eventually. It's dank and far colder inside than outside. Aerith shivers without her jacket. Zack gives her his, playing the macho man and refusing to admit his teeth are chattering. They're not sure what they're going to find and proceed with caution, Zack and the Buster Sword at the front of their party and Tifa bringing up the rear, her fists at the ready.

Some way inside they have to light one of Zack's matches. They've gone through five more when the narrow passage opens out into a grotto lit by small holes in the ceiling. Sunlight streams through, refracting off a beautiful array of huge crystal formations to illuminate everything with an ethereal light. It's bright as a night with a full moon; a genuinely breathtaking sight. Smaller formations are scattered around like courtiers surrounding a queen, but it's the throne-like central mass that truly captivates. They can easily imagine Vincent and Lucrecia playing out their ancient tragedy here.

Tifa lays her hand against it for a long time. The other three linger at a short distance, allowing her some privacy. They're not sure whether she communes with her dead mother, or whether it's just the awe of being in the middle of such a natural wonder, or even that the journey itself has helped her to accept what's happened, but when Tifa turns to face them again her face is relaxed and she seems more at peace – with herself and the world. Instead of the tight ball of repressed grief they've been travelling with, she looks much more like herself.

The trip back down the mountains is uneventful. Zack and Aerith keep an eye out but they don't see so much as one feather. They're still wary about crossing the wilderness, but that, too, passes without incident. They might be more suspicious of this, if not for the crowd that awaits them as they approach the town, creating a jumble of dread and guilt that submerges all other emotions. Night is falling, they're weary and sore and the multitude of torches at the crumbled part of the wall doesn't comfort them at all. Rather, their hearts sink and their quest dwindles in their minds to nothing more than a silly flight of fancy against the hard stares and thin mouths of their loved ones.

"It was all my fault," Tifa says before anyone else can speak. "I went into the mountains by myself and Zack, Aerith and Cloud followed me to bring me back. When I wouldn't come they went with me to make sure I didn't get hurt. It was all my idea. They just did what they thought was right, so don't punish them for my selfishness."

Angeal heads the crowd. The other adults are all happy for him to be there. Angeal has become the unspoken protector of Hollow Bastion, a figure of justice, strength and fairness to whom everyone turns when they have doubts the mayor can't solve, and whose word is respected as much as the mayor's – if not more so. Angeal's face is impassive but his eyes are not. Zack quails under their hard stare.

However, just as Angeal opens his mouth to speak, another man bulldozes his way to the front of the crowd. His eyes are as intent as Angeal's but they're also wild with rage and worry. As soon as he spots Tifa he rushes to grab her by her shoulders, shaking her hard.

"You stupid girl! You stupid, stupid girl! Do you realise how worried I've been? Did you even think? What the hell was going through your mind to make you take off like that without telling anyone where you were? It's bad enough you engage in ridiculous heroics fighting monsters that come into town, but to go out into Barren Region on your own looking for them?"

"I-I…" Tifa is stunned by her father's vehemence. He's always been a demure figure, cutting his meat into small chunks before he eats it and dispensing low-voiced orders from behind his ancient books and rock-solid prejudice. To see him like this, his hair mussed, his chin unshaven, robs her of speech. She has never doubted that her father loves her, and there's still love in his eyes now, but it's mixed with grief and fury so strong she barely recognises him. "I didn't … I just went to speak to mom-"

"Your mother is dead," her father snaps, making her flinch. "And I thought you were too. How dare you make me worry so much! How dare you put me through that so soon after … after …" He runs out of words and raises an open palm to finish his sentence.

However, before the slap can make contact someone grabs his wrist. He turns to tell Angeal to mind his own business and is surprised to see Cloud, whose face is white with anger of his own.

"Don't you lay a finger on her," Cloud grits.

Everyone is shocked at the speed with which he moved. Even Angeal blinks.

"You." Mr. Lockhart narrows his eyes at Cloud. "I should've known you'd be behind this. You've always been a bad egg, you and that filthy mother of yours. Now you're leading Tifa astray just like … aaaah-ahhhhh."

Cloud squeezes his wrist tighter. "Say one more word against my mother and I'll break it." He doesn't raise his voice above a monotone, but there is no doubt he means what he says. His face is a mask of hatred. It's so totally unlike him that everyone is shocked into silence.

Until this moment, nobody's ever noticed how tall Cloud has grown. He's still shorter than most boys his age, but he stands tall, which is even more striking than actual inches and bulk. His chest is still thin, but not as thin everybody assumed when he was just mucking out stalls and petting dogs. His entire body hums with the energy of one who can rein in a bolting chocobo rooster.

"Daddy, I'm sorry."

Cloud flinches at Tifa's voice, releasing Mr. Lockhart and backing off so fast he stumbles and falls over. Instantly, all his sudden height is gone and he's back to being plain old Cloud Strife, too gentle and unassuming for his own good. Aerith's jacket falls from his arms and he snatches it up, clutching it like an anchor. When Elmyra runs to Aerith, and his own mother appears from the crowd to sweep him into a hug, Cloud keeps the bloodstained bundle against his chest, unconsciously putting it between them.

"I think what everyone needs now is to go home," Angeal says loud enough for everyone to hear. "Emotions are running high, but what is said in anger is not always what is best – or truthful. The young ones are safe and that's the most important thing. I think it's best if it's left to their parents to deal with them as they see fit." He fixes Mr. Lockhart with a penetrating look. "And as is fair, given their actions were the result of grief and friendship. You should be grateful your daughter has friends who are willing to put themselves in danger to keep her safe, sir."

"I … yes," Mr. Lockhart says grudgingly, refusing to look at the Strifes.

Aerith and Zack watch Cloud and exchange a meaningful, worried look.

"Zack," Angeal barks, breaking them apart with the sharpness in his tone. "Come on. You have some serious explaining to do, young man."

 



 

 

To Be Continued …

 



 

Chapter Text

 

Strange men have come to Hollow Bastion. They've come from far away and the ground quivers when they rumble across the wasteland in 'tanks'. Some people have heard of these contraptions before, but only one has ever seen them in action. He waits on the outskirts, standing on a rock at the base of the wall and watching them approach with mixed feelings.

It's been three weeks since Tifa, Zack, Aerith and Cloud made their journey into the mountains. In that time monster attacks have ceased and Angeal's interrogation of his nephew has left him with suspicions and a bad taste in the back of his throat like rancid milk. He was considering crossing Barren Region himself to investigate, but this new development occurs before he can.

The tanks stop in a line on the fringes. There are five of them, each slightly smaller than a cottage, topped by a cylindrical cannon as long as fully grown chocobo stretched flat from nose to tail. They're dusky brown splotched with grey and khaki green, presumably as camouflage, but frankly anything that fails to hear or feel the roar of their engines deserves to be shot.

Angeal waits patiently. As soon as he was told about the tanks' approach he asked to be the only one to meet them. He doesn't like giving orders unless it's necessary, but for him just asking is enough. Shutters are kept closed and the streets are empty as the residents of Hollow Bastion leave him to deal with whatever's going on. They know a threat when they see one.

One of Angeal's suspicions is proved true when the top of the middle tank flops back with a loud clang and a figure emerges. Unlike the uniformed man who clambers out after him, he leaps gracefully to the ground, unbuttoned red coat floating behind him in a way Angeal knows is just for dramatic effect. In battle a coat is as much use as a solar-powered lighthouse, unless the wearer has enough skill that dodging projectiles isn't even an issue.

"Angeal. I heard you'd retired to some fusty little town in the back of beyond, but I didn't believe it was true."

"Hello, Genesis."

Angeal's old friend smiles and holds out a hand. "Long time no see." It's not said with warmth, but a passable approximation of it. Angeal looks at the hand before he shakes it. "Aren't you glad to see me?"

"Why are you here?"

"Same old Angeal. Right down to business with no time for emotional reunions. Emotional departures he can do, but-"

"Genesis." There's an unmistakable note of warning in Angeal's voice.

Genesis sighs. "We've had reports of strange happenings in this area."

"And the higher-ups sent you, an elite warrior, to investigate unfounded reports of 'strange happenings' in 'some fusty little town in the back of beyond'?" Angeal doesn't invest his tone with much conviction.

This time Genesis's mouth curves further upwards. "There's no fooling you, is there? Then again, I wasn't really trying."

"It's Sephiroth, isn't it?"

"Affirmative. Our longstanding target was spotted heading in this direction and reports of its movements ended, leading us to believe it hasn't yet left this territory."

"'It'? 'Longstanding target'?" Angeal almost lets disgust seep into his tone. "He was your friend."

"He was yours too." Genesis's eyes dance. "Isn't that rather the point?"

Angeal doesn't flinch. He doesn't. At least, not on the outside. "We've had reports of our own."

"Oh?"

"Several of our young ones spotted a man with long silver hair and extraordinary abilities in the mountains near here. He also had a single feathered wing on his back. There aren't many men who answer to that description."

"Hm. We had to go around the mountains to reach this place, but I suppose it would make sense for him to stop there if he's going to stop at all. Terrain to give the best advantage. No trick missed, eh? Doesn't want the tanks to have him in range and you can't drive a tank up a sheer cliff face. I'm guessing you already know why he chose here to stop when he hasn't stayed in one location longer than a few nights for over a decade?"

Angeal nods once, briskly, just a quick up and down of his head that would give a lesser man whiplash. "Me."

He kept a low profile for so long, but his organisation of patrols and stance against monsters in the protection of Hollow Bastion have carved out something of a reputation in neighbouring townships. He's a warrior at heart, though he's tried to deny it more than once. Maybe it was only a matter of time before someone else noticed. Maybe it was only a matter of time before this happened.

"And now that I'm here too..." Genesis spreads his hands wide. "I thought it was odd that he let himself be seen enough for reports to reach us. I should've known better. He wasn't getting lax, he was orchestrating the whole situation, manipulating us like a regular puppeteer. He knew they'd send me to deal with him. I'm still the number one Elite they have, for all young upstarts keep trying to knock me off the top spot. He's corralled both of us into the same area and picked out his own field so he has a terrain advantage over us with that damn wing of his. Well, now he has what he wants."

"If this is what he wants."

"Oh, Angeal, don't play the stupid one. It doesn't suit you."

Angeal surveys the distant peaks. "Have you been tracking him all these years?"

"Actually, no. He's been off-radar for a long time and there have been other crises developing in the world without you."

"Like what?"

Genesis taps the side of his nose. He was always exceptionally good at getting Angeal's goat. From their first day in the military, Genesis seemed to intuitively know his friend's weak spots and what would make him bristle. It looks like he hasn't lost the skill. "I'll warn you now, Angeal, most of what you want to ask me is classified information the military got hold of at great expense, so it'd be impractical of me to just go blurting it out at the drop of a hat."

"And you're such a stickler for regulations." Angeal's sarcasm is so clear it's practically glass.

"It's been years, old friend."

"You're still you, Genesis."

"People change. You know that more than anyone."

Angeal thinks of flowing silver hair, a body throwing itself in front of him to protect him from a demon's claws, and innocent blood on the sword of someone who'd never before raised it in anything but justice. He thinks of a man who was once looked up to by every new recruit who heard his name, who broke down and skulked away in the middle of the night after filing his resignation because he couldn't deal with what he'd done to one of his closest friends. And he thinks of a young boy with violet eyes, too wild and unruly to ever be more than a tearaway in a backwater town, who became the new wielder of the remarkable Buster Sword.

"Well aren't you going to show us some small-town hospitality?" Genesis folds his arms. It's not as forbidding as when Angeal strikes the same pose, but there's a casual strength in the way Genesis moves that contradicts his clothing and manner. The rapier at his side only enhances the image. Unlike those used for games between nobles, his is bigger and Angeal knows that it's made from enchanted metal that can never be broken by humans or human-made weapons.

"You might as well allow your men out of those stinking tanks," Angeal says flatly. "I remember enough to know that those things get very cramped and smelly after a long journey, and if what you think about your 'target' wanting to avoid the cannons and give himself a terrain advantage is correct, we don't have to worry about him attacking us here."

 


 


 

Zack doesn't like Genesis. The dislike is instant and irrational. He knows straight away that this is one of the close friends Angeal talked about: a man who was a newbie soldier alongside his uncle, who trained with him, went into battle with him and fought by his side before Zack was even born. Logically he should admire Genesis, or at least give him leeway enough for respect to be earned, but something about the way he walks into a room and belittles its simplicity with nothing more than a glance sets Zack's teeth on edge.

The feeling only intensifies as he watches Genesis interact with Angeal, dropping sly jibes into the conversation and needling him in a way Zack has never seen before. He's surprised and a little horrified that Angeal doesn't reprimand the other man, instead taking each dig without a word.

"You're not even trying to defend yourself," Zack accuses him when they're alone, Genesis having gone to use the privy.

The other soldiers – those who weren't left to guard their precious tanks against sticky fingers – have gathered in the town hall to be fed, watered and admired by townsfolk who aren't too intimidated to venture out of their homes. Residents of Hollow Bastion have always been superstitious and some older folk see them as a bad omen.

Genesis, however, has come home with Angeal. Zack can't decide whether Angeal invited him or he invited himself. He's still smarting from the way Genesis looked at him when he opened the front door and said condescendingly, "You gave up a decorated military career for that?"

Angeal continues carefully wiping plates with a washcloth, neither looking at Zack nor slowing his movements in the slightest to acknowledge he's spoken. "What is there to defend against?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Angeal."

"That's the second time today someone's told me that."

Zack pauses, but only for a moment. "Why are you letting him get away with insulting you? I thought he was your friend. None of my friends would ever be that …" He searches for the right word. "That malicious."

"Think about the situation before you cast judgements, Zack," Angeal says softly. "When I left the military I left Genesis to clean up a mess I had the biggest hand in making. It's to be expected that he's a little bitter."

Zack snorts. "A little? I've tasted lemons that are sweeter than that guy."

"He blames me. And he blames himself."

"What?"

Angeal sighs. "I don't really want to discuss this with you -"

"Tough."

"Zack," Angeal warns.

"Angeal," Zack replies in exactly the same tone.

That finally makes Angeal pause. He holds a plate down in the sink of water and turns his head towards his nephew. Zack's arms are folded, his stare piercing, and he gets the distinct feeling Angeal is assessing him against some unknown criteria before he speaks.

"Genesis is a complicated man. He warned me against cutting open the demon to take out her heart. Jenova was legendary and there have been many, many stories about her. One of them said her blood had healing qualities and her heart could give life to those who were dying, but Genesis suspected there was more to it than that. He was right, of course. Her heart gave life, but it corrupted what it resurrected. Still, Genesis may not have made the cut, but he didn't physically stop me from doing it, and so he blames himself as much as he blames me. While I ran away like a coward, he stayed to deal with the creature that was once our friend and explain fix whatever other damage me leaving had caused. It must have been a logistical nightmare – there were only three Elite soldiers, and suddenly there was only one. It's hard on a man, to be given so much sudden responsibility and the order to murder someone he once considered closer than a brother."

"You're not a coward," Zack bursts out, unable to contain himself. "You're the bravest man I know!"

"In many ways I may be considered brave, Zack, but not this one. Genesis was far braver than me because he stayed to do what needed to be done even though it hurt him. Now, it seems, fate has decided to give me a second chance to correct my past mistakes and clear my name."

"Your name doesn't need to be cleared," Zack protests, not liking where this is going. "Everyone around here respects you."

"I remember you once telling me about a conversation you had with Cloud, about respecting yourself and how, as long as you have the respect of those you yourself hold in high regard, you don't need anything or anyone else."

"You still respect Genesis." The insight is blunt and so is Zack.

Angeal nods. "Very much so."

"He doesn't seem to respect you much."

"Exactly."

"This is about that guy we saw in the mountains, isn't it?"

Angeal pauses before answering, as though first turning his answer over in his mind like a jeweller examining a diamond for flaws. "Yes."

"He was the friend, wasn't he? The one with the demon's heart."

"I believe the man you saw was him, yes."

Zack licks his lips, which are suddenly very dry. "You never told me his name."

"Didn't I?" At once, though Angeal's gaze is still on him, Zack knows he isn't seeing him. His eyes are distant, looking back at times long ago. "His name is Sephiroth. Or it was. The man I knew as Sephiroth died a long time ago, saving my life on a battlefield. If it hadn't been for his sacrifice, I would've died that day. I tried to save his life to repay my debt, but everything went wrong and the man you saw is what replaced him. There may still be some of my friend in there, but…" He trails off.

"He came here for you?"

"Genesis is not the only one who's bitter, I think. The Sephiroth I knew would never have wanted to become a monster, which is exactly what I turned him into. He's done terrible things since the end of the war. When I left the military he was little more than a raving beast, but if he's survived this long then it's probable he's become coherent again. He may well want revenge for what was done to him and holds myself and Genesis responsible. He may even regret saving my life that day. He tempted the military into sending their best Elite warrior, the one with inside knowledge on how their target thinks, and lured him here, to a town where his other former friend just happens to have been hiding all these years. His intentions are clear. He wants to face us again."

"You mean he wants to fight you."

"That's the most likely conclusion."

"You're not thinking about going, are you?"

Angeal says nothing.

"Angeal!"

"I did say I didn't want to discuss this with you-"

"Bullshit." Zack trembles with rage.

"Zack-"

"Bull! Shit! You think that just because he's there it has to be you who goes to face him? Hell no. If he's after revenge then that probably means he wants to kill you, especially if he has a freaking demon messing up his head, so facing him is the last thing you should do."

"Zack, it isn't your place to direct my actions."

"It is if they're stupid!" Zack snaps back. "It is if they're likely to get you killed!"

"Do you really have such little faith in my skills?"

"That's not the point and you know it! If it was me you'd tie me up, lock me in the cellar and put the entire town on lockdown to stop me going." Zack glares with enough heat to melt a crowbar.

"My, my," says a voice from the doorway. "I had no idea you were into that sort of thing, Angeal, but it would certainly explain why you've spent so much time training this puppy and hiding away where nobody could see you." Genesis leans against the doorframe, clearly enjoying their argument. There's a strange gleam in his eyes and Zack wonders how long he's been there. He was so intent on Angeal that he didn't even hear the man's footsteps.

"You can't let him go," Zack says, not imploringly but like an order. He stands straight, spine ramrod and arms at his sides with elbows slightly bent, a very don't-mess-with-me-because-I'm-really-not-in-the-mood pose.

"Can't I?" Genesis raises an eyebrow. "I think that's up to Angeal, don't you?"

"He's not part of your army anymore. He's not under orders to go and face this Sephiroth guy. He's under no obligation to do anything."

"My army?" Again with the aerobic eyebrow. "Angeal, what have you been teaching this puppy?"

"Don't call me that."

"Zack," Angeal breaks in, irritation frosting the word.

"I agree with you that our dear Angeal is under no official obligation," Genesis allows. "However, I believe his overdeveloped sense of justice and underlying guilt complex mean he feels he has an obligation to himself to see this through to the end. Am I right, old friend?"

Angeal doesn't reply.

"Angeal!" Zack whirls on him, not so much angry as desperate now. "You can't!"

"I'm the one with an overdeveloped sense of justice?" Angeal says, ignoring Zack and focussing instead on Genesis, who flicks a hand like he's batting away flies. "I'm the one with a guilt complex forcing him to do things? May I point out, old friend, who ran away and who stayed behind to hold down the fort when things got tough?"

Genesis tips his head forward, allowing a curtain of reddish hair to fall across his face, shielding his expression. An instant later he tosses it back again, revealing a dazzling, if brittle smile. "Perhaps you have a point."

Genesis's smile reminds Zack of those china dolls girls at school used to bring to show off but never play with – the ones even Aerith thought were creepy with their painted smiles, porcelain skin and cheerful stare that never relented. They never stopped smiling, even when they were dropped, porcelain smashed and limbs twisted at disturbing angles.

Genesis's smile widens. "Perhaps."

 


 


 

They have a night to rest and then rise at dawn to meet at the line of tanks. Angeal doesn't have a uniform anymore, but he wears his training gear plus the most supple tough-as-a-dragon's-skin boots he owns. He puts a lot of stock in a good pair of boots, and even more in the laces to hold them on his feet. When he's dressed he goes to fetch his sword and finds Zack sitting in front of it.

"Is there anything I can say to stop you?"

Angeal shakes his head.

"Would punching you and knocking out help?"

"You're welcome to try."

Zack only sighs. "I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not."

"But-"

"This is my fight, Zack. I could never forgive myself if this mess got any bigger and something happened to you. This has been a long time coming and I'm determined to see what I started to its end."

"But you don't have to be alone," Zack insists.

"I'm not alone. Genesis will be there, and his unit, and their tanks."

Zack curls his lip. He can usually disguise any mood with a smile and a joke, but he's taken against Genesis for some reason and doesn't see the tanks as an advantage. Angeal supposes he can see his point on the last one. The tanks will be just for getting them across Barren Region. Everything else will have to be done on foot.

"I trust Genesis with my life."

"You know him better than I do," Zack mutters. "That's not what I'm worried about. I've seen a little bit of what Sephiroth can do. You said it yourself, he's part demon now. You don't have his abilities. And even if you can defeat him, will you really be able to kill one of your closest friends?"

"The Sephiroth who exists now is not the man I knew, just his echo," Angeal says firmly. "Genesis has spent years formulating strategies to defeat him. He was always the top strategist amongst us. I don't doubt he has a plan now."

"So you're just going to walk into Barren Region in the hopes that a man you haven't seen in years is still on top of his game enough that he can think up a way to kill someone who's not only more than human, but knows you and the way you fight? You may be a sitting duck out there."

"I won't be alone."

"Yeah, I know. You'll have Genesis. Two ducks waiting for the hunter. Genesis must be a hell of a guy for you to put so much faith in him."

"I watched Genesis grow from a quivering teenager with acne into one of the finest Elite who ever lived. He always had a spark of greatness in him. Don't let his manner fool you, Zack. Genesis is a good ally and an exceptional warrior. Plus we'll have his soldiers with us. They may not be Elite, but I doubt he'd have chosen to bring troglodytes with him on a mission like this."

Zack sighs and stands. At sixteen, he's nearly as tall as Angeal. "And you'll have this." Deferentially he unsheathes the Buster Sword and holds it out hilt-first.

Angeal takes a step backwards. "No, Zack."

"I'm giving it to you. It's yours."

"That sword hasn't been mine in a long time."

"Then just borrow it. Look, Angeal, either you let me go with you or you take the damn sword. You need every advantage you can get out there. I know this isn't just about defeating a monster, but I'm not going to lose you just because you think you don't need help." Zack gestures, holding the hilt further forward for him to take.

Slowly, Angeal does so. He holds the Buster Sword up to the light and feels the old familiar pull of its power encircling his heart and mind. He's under no illusions – the sword is redolent of Zack and unmistakably his now – but it feels good to hold it again with more than disgust at what he once used it for. "Thank you, Zack."

Zack clenches his fists and hides them behind his back. "Just promise me you'll come back, okay? You have to return my sword to me." His familiar smirk emerges from under the tightness at the edges of his mouth. "And make sure you clean it first, okay?"

 


 


 

"You're proud of your puppy, aren't you?" Genesis asks.

"Yes," Angeal replies shortly. For all he defended Genesis to Zack, the man's discourteous manner gets under his skin fast. "But don't call him that. He has a name."

"Oh yes. Zack." Genesis rolls his eyes, then narrows them against the rush of air that comes with travelling at speed on top of a tank.

Angeal admits he's competing by perching up here with him. He's not out of shape and part of him wants to prove this against his friend's assessing eye. He doesn't want Genesis thinking life in a 'backwater' has made him soft, or that he'll be in any way a burden during this battle.

And there will be a battle, of that he's certain. Sephiroth doesn't want to just talk about old times. If that were the case, he had ample opportunity last night when Genesis slept under Angeal's roof. He didn't try to make contact, ergo talking isn't what he wants. All that remains is to find out what he does want and, to use one of Genesis's phrases, to 'take care of him'.

Angeal winces.

"Are you certain you're up to this?" Genesis asks abruptly. "No sudden regrets? No desire to turn back and live the quiet farmer's life?"

"I am not, nor have I ever been, a quiet farmer."

Genesis gives him a sidelong look. "I suppose not." He averts his gaze back to the way ahead and the ever-nearing mountains. "I have to admit, I'm glad you're here."

Angeal raises both eyebrows at him. He doesn't smile. It's never been what they do. He does, however, turn his lips up at the corners. "I wouldn't want anyone else at my side during this battle, either."

"Good. I'd hate to think fatherhood had softened you into one of those doughy, dewy-eyed idiots who can only talk about their offspring and how boringly wonderful they are. At least you haven't forgotten how to conduct yourself in the field."

Angeal opens his mouth to argue, but thinks about this statement and changes what he was about to say. "Do you have a plan?"

"Don't I always? More to the point, are you going to actually listen to me this time?"

"Of course." Angeal grasps the hilt of the Buster Sword strapped to the magnetic harness on his back. The sword always did like resting with minimal layers between it and his skin. He wonders whether Zack draws the same reassurance from the weight and feel of it so close.

I will be back, Zack. I promise. Don't doubt me. I just need to take care of this first. He glances over his shoulder at the diminishing town, where he knows a lone figure probably still hasn't left his spot at the edge of the wall. Wait for me.

 


 


 

To Be Continued …

 



 

Chapter Text

Aerith approaches Zack hesitantly. He hasn't moved in hours. The sun has already cast long shadows, and they're steadily lengthening as evening approaches. Still, Zack stares out across the wasteland, waiting. The crowd that gathered this morning dispersed when the tanks were out of sight, but nobody could convince him to budge.

"Zack?"

He doesn't answer.

"Zack, it's okay to blink now and then."

"Do you think he's okay?"

Aerith follows his gaze. "I'm sure he's fine. He's … well, he's Angeal."

"Yeah." Zack looks different without the Buster Sword – smaller. Or maybe it's worry that makes him seem somehow reduced. "He's Angeal. He taught me everything I know, and there's still stuff in his head I want to learn. He has to come back. He's … Angeal." It means enough to both of them, though it might have sounded silly to outsiders. Angeal was too Angeal not to be okay, no matter how long he'd been gone or how impossible the odds stacked against him. His invincibility is a cornerstone of their lives.

Aerith puts her arms around Zack's waist and presses her face between his shoulder-blades. She hasn't been able to do this for so long because his back is always covered by unrelenting metal. The tension in him could suspend the entire town on a single length of twine.

"I'm … worried." There's a catch in his voice.

"We all are. It doesn't mean we don't have faith in them."

"I need him to be okay, Aerith."

"I know."

She wishes Cloud was here too. Zack needs them both right now, but she couldn't find Cloud when she went to his house and his mother didn't know where he could be. He wasn't at the stables, the chocobo breeder's, or even at Cheepy's burial mound, and she couldn't think where else to look for him that wouldn't take up valuable time better spent at Zack's side.

After the incident in the mountains they snuck into the graveyard and buried Cheepy in the corner so no predators or stray cats could dig him up. Cloud goes there sometimes and just stares at it, never talking about his thoughts or letting them play across his face. For Cloud, who doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve but suspends pieces of it from every part of his body and then throws himself at the metaphysical equivalent of a cactus patch, this is very odd.

"Where's Cloud?" Zack asks, as if reading her thoughts.

"I don't know," she replies truthfully.

"I'm worried about him, too. Lots of worry. Big pot of it. Enough for everyone."

"You don't need to worry about me," says a voice behind them.

Aerith turns but doesn't release Zack's waist. "Cloud!"

He's standing on a piece of wall-rubble slightly higher than theirs, scuffing his feet and looking embarrassed. "Hey. My mom said you were looking for me. I, uh … anything yet?"

Zack still doesn't drag his gaze from the mountains. His eyeballs are going to dry out if this keeps up. "Nothing. Yet."

"Have you eaten at all today?"

"He hasn't," Aerith replies.

Cloud sighs. "Here." He holds out two packages which, when Aerith lets go enough to unwrap one, prove to contain cold meat, cheese and bread. "Goat's cheese, so it's stinky as Zack's socks, but it'll keep you going." Cloud sits down and unwraps a third package.

Aerith looks at the food. Since Ms. Strife didn't know where he was, Cloud didn't ask her for money to pay for this. Cloud's no thief. He was at the stable and chocobo breeder's this morning, which means he worked but sacrificed his customary payment of riding for money to buy this instead. After Cheepy's death and the memory loss of his near-death experience in the mountains, Cloud has taken comfort from riding.

His actions now make a lump rise in Aerith's throat. "Is this where you were?"

"Yeah. I went to the market. I also have bottles of cherry cordial and some nutrient blocks, but I thought you'd appreciate real food before we have to resort to that tasteless imported stuff. I hear that's what the army marches on. No wonder Angeal loves to cook so much. He's probably making up for all those times he was stuck in a foxhole eating green cubes." Cloud's attempt at conversation is heartening after the strained silence.

Aerith is grateful to have him there. They've always coped best when they're together. "Zack, sit down. We don't have to go anywhere, but sit down and eat with us."

Finally Zack swivels his head to look at her. He blinks rapidly, giving credence to the eyes-drying-out idea, and then unfolds his arms to run a hand through his hair. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

"It is a good idea," Cloud says, unconsciously mimicking him with his own hair. "Sit down before you fall down."

Zack kneels side-on to the mountains and looks up several times as they eat. It's almost a picnic; three of them clustered on one rock at the bottom of a broken wall. Aerith and Cloud look at each other but say nothing. Sometimes there really is nothing to say.

"He's Angeal," Zack says, suddenly and decisively, a chunk of buttered bread still in his hand. It's like he's been arguing with himself in his head with every bite, and has now come to a resolution he likes enough to permit it out of his mouth. "He's Angeal."

Aerith nods. Both she and Cloud understand what Zack actually means, and she's glad her relationship with her mother allows her to say 'I love you' without worrying about sounding like a wuss.

 


 

 

The sky is burning.

That's what Angeal thinks when he opens his eyes. He's on his side but his face is twisted to the sky, and it really does look like it's on fire. The knowledge that it's actually a detonated firearm incinerating the remains of a soldier doesn't alter the impression, though it does make his stomach roil.

He pushes himself onto all fours and shakes his head to dispel the dizziness that momentarily overwhelms him. There's a dull ache in his side where he cracked a few ribs, but he's had busted ribs before and he knows he can keep moving against this kind of pain. In fact, the pain motivates him to move. It sharpens his senses.

It pisses him off.

What happened while he was knocked out? He remembers the long trek up the mountain, finding the broken bridge just where Zack said it would be, and travelling along the edge of the ravine to the rock and bloodstained outcropping where they found Cloud and his pet after his miraculously-survived fall.

Angeal guessed early on that Sephiroth wanted to tire them out, to have them running in circles possible as he watched. However, Genesis wanted a defensible position and pushed them on until either he was satisfied, or Sephiroth attacked – whichever came first.

It was early evening before anything happened. The soldiers Genesis brought with him had time to rest after carrying the heavy weapons previously stored inside their tanks. Angeal watched with grudging interest as they unpacked and set up. Apparently technology has advanced quite a bit while he's been carving staircases. Genesis observed his reaction with a smirk and couldn't resist commenting on his friend's wide-eyed wonder.

"We need every advantage we can," Angeal replied.

"We have them." Genesis looked out from their vantage point. "I'm just concerned that he let us have them."

"Perhaps he's already moved on from here and this is a wild goose chase."

"Do you honestly believe that?" Genesis arched one eyebrow. "I thought not." He hunkered down, cross-legged and hands on his knees as if in meditation.

Angeal was so taken up with being here, doing this and interacting with his old friend after all this time that he hadn't talked much with the rest of the unit beyond basic exchanges. They seemed a good bunch, the crème de la crème of what their rank had to offer, all outfitted with the latest military artillery. When Angeal left there were only guns, tanks, cannons and the Elite, but this new stuff is so much more. Genesis's very ordinary, very human unit were obviously thrilled with their new playthings and with facing a target dangerous enough to use them on.

They had no idea what they were walking into. They were actually looking forward to facing Sephiroth.

As Angeal staggers to his feet he can see their target is far more dangerous than any one of those boys anticipated. There are huge chunks missing from the cliff face. He wasn't aware until this moment that rock could burn and melt like that.

He looks around for the Buster Sword and spots it sticking out from under a pile of rubble that buried two men but knocked him clear. He hurries over. When he's still bent over, wrenching it free, one of the peaks behind him explodes.

He whirls to see Sephiroth, monstrous wing spread wide, advancing on Genesis. Genesis is bloodied but defiant, striking out with his rapier even as he's forced backwards. A rapier should not be able to stand up against anything more substantial than a katana, but these are no ordinary weapons, and this is no ordinary swordfight. Angeal recognises Masamune, Sephiroth's outrageously long blade, which he still manages to handle with a grace that belies its awkwardness.

Sephiroth was the first of them to find an enchanted weapon while they were all still grunts. Masamune is imbued with the same kind of connection the Buster Sword provokes with its wielder, with one crucial difference: while the Buster Sword can choose a new warrior, Masamune can only ever be used by one master. Sephiroth is blood-bonded to it. If anyone else ever tried to hold the hilt their hands would blacken and sizzle. Sephiroth used to say that if he died, Masamune would die too and follow him into the afterlife like a devoted lover from ancient legend. The strength he draws from it is what advanced him up the ranks so quickly, making him the first of them to eclipse every rank the military had to offer, forcing them to create the Elite just to compensate for his incredible skill. Angeal found the Buster Sword not long after, and Genesis journeyed far and wide to track down a similar weapon in his rapier.

Looking at Sephiroth now, Angeal wonders whether Masamune really did die that day on the battlefield, to be reborn in a new, corrupted form like its master. Sephiroth's fingers are gnarled like claws and the sword seems a part of his hand, slicing and thrusting with deadly force.

Genesis cries out and drops to one knee, holding his forearm. Angeal rushes to his side, parrying Sephiroth's blow before it can strike his friend down permanently. The two swords connect and stay connected, each man staring at the other over the spark of metal on metal.

"Angeal," Sephiroth says as though they're doing nothing more serious than taking afternoon tea. "It's been a while."

"You're not Sephiroth." With a burst of strength Angeal forces Masamune aside and brings the Buster Sword up inside the other man's defences. For a moment he thinks this is it, the killing blow, but then the bluish wing opens and he's left swiping at empty air. "Genesis! Are you -?"

"I'm all right," Genesis grits, getting to his feet and adopting a ready stance. Angeal moves into his own stance against Genesis's back. "Where is he?"

"I am still Sephiroth, whatever you may think," says a voice above them. It should be impossible for a single wing to allow flight, but again, this is not a normal battle and Angeal knows he can't forget that if he's to have any hope of surviving it.

As one, both he and Genesis raise their blades to meet Masamune before it can reach them. Rapier and Buster Sword cross and flick outwards so perfectly it's amazing to think they haven't choreographed it, much less not seen each other fight for years. The combined force of their blow actually sends Sephiroth reeling through the air.

"We have to attack him together," Angeal surmises. "With Jenova's heart he's too strong one-on-one. Together we have a chance of defeating him."

But Genesis replies with a brusque, "No!"

"What?" Angeal can't believe his friend, the master strategist, would say something like this, but his attention is grabbed by Sephiroth's renewed attack. He tries to leap aside, to put his back against Genesis's again, but Sephiroth twists and tosses Angeal away from his friend using the bony joint of his wing. Angeal rolls with the blow, coming up with Buster Sword braced, but he still only just meets Sephiroth's attack. "Genesis!"

Sephiroth leans close. "You may have convinced yourself that I'm just a demon wearing your friend's skin, but make no mistake, Angeal, I am Sephiroth. I didn't die in the way your think. The heart you gave me was a great gift and I've been waiting years to thank you for it – and to prove to you what it can do."

"You're. Not. Him!" Angeal performs a risky move by dropping back onto his tailbone, allowing Sephiroth's drive to take him forward an extra couple of inches. Angeal boots upwards at the hand holding Masamune's hilt. The soles of his feet connect, and for all his power Sephiroth's hand still goes nerveless and spasms open. Masamune soars upwards from Angeal's kick. "Genesis!" Angeal shouts desperately. "Quickly!"

A smear of red darts into Masamune's path, snatching it out of its arc. Genesis lands a distance away, holding the metal blade between his flat palms instead of the hilt, his own rapier rammed into its scabbard to free his hands.

For the first time in this whole battle, something more than mild amusement shows on Sephiroth's face. He snarls and lunges over Angeal, flying straight at Genesis who, despite holding one of the most powerful weapons in the world, can't defend himself. Angeal turns over and grabs onto Sephiroth's foot with one hand, bringing him to earth with a thump.

Sephiroth spreads his wing and beats it backwards, scraping the feathered tip over Angeal's face. It's like being scoured by barbed wire. Angeal hangs on grimly, but his vision is stained red from a cut on his forehead and he knows he's suddenly missing a lump of cheek and nostril. Every time he breathes in he inhales his own blood, so he opens his mouth – only to get the full effect of smoke and burning flesh from those soldiers Sephiroth picked off before turning on him and Genesis. Gods, he had forgotten the sensory overload of battle.

Angeal blindly raises the Buster Sword, but one of Sephiroth's feet connects with his chin. He sees stars for a moment and his fingers lose their grip.

He hears infrequent footsteps and knows that's Genesis leaping around in an acrobatic display that wouldn't be possible without the magic imbued by his rapier. His face aflame and dripping with blood, Angeal nonetheless scrubs at his eyes and gets up to help his friend.

"You're nothing without your sword!" Genesis shouts. "Masamune is the only reason you ever advanced to Elite!"

"Ah, and so you begin to show your true feelings, Genesis. Have you been keeping them secret, waiting to tell me for all this time?" By comparison, Sephiroth's voice has a pleasant lilt, all hint of a snarl evaporated like morning mist after the sun rises. "But you're incorrect, my friend. I am far more than just my sword, as I shall now demonstrate."

There's a whooshing, like a boulder being shot from a catapult. Genesis cries out in agony.

"Did I need Masamune for that? No. Your inadequacies are no match for me, Masamune or not, but I will take it back from you now."

Angeal opens his eyes to see Genesis fall limply from too high up – higher than he can jump, which means he's been thrown or dropped, and definitely higher than he can survive falling from. Enchanted rapier or not, a body is still just a sack of liquid if it hits stone at high velocity.

"Genesis!" Angeal roars, calling on the Buster Sword to give him the strength he needs to catch his friend in time.

Not even the sword can give him enough speed, however. Genesis bounces once off the cliff face and tumbles, arms and legs pinwheeling, over the side of the ravine and into the darkness below.

"Genesis!"

"And then there were two." Sephiroth, with Masamune once more in hand, descends like a perverted angel. "The first and the second."

His words cause Angeal to remember the rest of his conversation with Genesis from when they waited for their former friend to appear. He remembers the unusual faraway look in Genesis's eyes as he sat cross-legged beside him, not scanning for danger but peering at something tattooed on his own retinas, or else graffitied in block letters across the inside of his skull.

"Do you know, I used to think you two were intent on leaving me behind when we were grunts? First, second and third, and never the placements shall change, right through from obstacle courses on wet Sunday mornings to when we became Elite. And Sephiroth was always going to be first, right from the start. He was gifted, we all knew that. While you and I had to work so hard to achieve and to better ourselves, he seemed to just … flow ahead of us. Things fell into his lap as he needed them because he was just that good. He was always this noble force of nature everyone looked up to – even you. And then there was me; not a slouch, and certainly not a failure, but trailing behind you two all the same. And then …" Genesis sighed. "And then he went and completed the image of the perfect warrior by martyring himself for a friend. How was anyone ever supposed to compete with that?"

"We're not supposed to compete with it," Angeal said, thinking not about the Sephiroth they knew but what he became. "We're supposed to make sure everyone remembers the noble warrior and not the demon."

"Yes. Quite." But there was something in Genesis's voice, some furtive longing that made Angeal feel sorry for him.

Unlike Angeal, who has had Zack and Hollow Bastion to focus on, Genesis has spent the time after Sephiroth's fall mired in a world with a gaping hole where his friends used to be. Angeal can't imagine what that must have been like, going to the same places, hearing people talk about the fallen perfect hero Sephiroth, and having to nurse a private guilt over it without even his surviving friend for support.

"He was a good friend," Angeal said, putting a hand on Genesis's shoulder to reassure him. "We're honouring his memory today. Don't worry, Genesis. I'm here to help you shoulder the burden now."

Genesis blinked at him, pulled from his thoughts. "Yes," he said again. "Quite."

Except that Angeal wasn't there when Genesis needed him. Consumed by grief and remorse that he's failed his friend one last time after failing him for so long, and still seeing the fluttering red coat go over the edge, Angeal throws himself at Sephiroth with renewed energy.

The next few minutes pass in a dervish of sparks, clanging metal and impossible acrobatics. Angeal is breathing hard as he slews to a stop next to a pile of half-disintegrated boulders. He holds the Buster Sword before him, blade forward and aimed at Sephiroth as precisely as it was during his first attack. Despite his injuries and his fury his hands don't shake.

"You can't win, you know," Sephiroth tells him. "First and second, remember? I've always been better than you, Angeal."

"Stop pretending you're the real Sephiroth!"

"Shouting won't change what's true. Don't you recognise me? Don't you remember the times we shared? Everyone else in that little party of armed idiots you brought along was eulogising me. Even Genesis acknowledged that I was always a few steps ahead of you and he on the road to success."

"You were listening?" But … not even the Buster Sword sensed him –

"Of course I was listening." Sephiroth shakes his head like an adult talking to a slow but amusing child. "Do you know why I brought the pair of you out here, Angeal?"

"To punish us for turning you into a monster." Angeal's answer is instant and unwavering.

"That's what you'd like to think, but no. You and Genesis were never quite the same level as me, but you were still the best warriors I've ever met. Jenova was never a part of the Ogre War, you know. She had a much higher purpose in mind until the day we met her. She'd made it her life's goal to find and defeat the strongest warriors she could, making herself the strongest creature in all the world – demon, monster or human. You had a good day on that battlefield, and she mistakenly thought you were the strongest warrior there. She didn't count on me or our friendship getting in her way. It proved to be her undoing, but she didn't die completely that day. Her quest remains. Since you gave me her heart I've continued her search for strong warriors to defeat – I began with our men on that battlefield and have progressed from there. With every life Masamune takes, I become stronger. Still, I always wondered who would win if I was pitted against my two old friends."

"So you lured us here?"

"It wasn't difficult after I figured out where you were. Genesis was easy enough to entice, and as soon as your emotions became involved you couldn't stay away. You always were rather at the beck and call of your feelings, for all you refused to show any on your face; while for Genesis it was his pride that directed him. So now I know." Sephiroth waves his free hand. "It's what I always suspected, but never had the courage to prove before Jenova's heart beat inside me: not even you two are strong enough to defeat me."

Rage washes through Angeal. "It's not over yet."

"Yes. Quite," Sephiroth says in such a perfect impression of Genesis that Angeal is taken aback. The pain of losing him is still too fresh for this kind of mockery – if indeed it is mockery. The Sephiroth Angeal knew wasn't adept at it, but for this one it seems like a whole different language. It's more likely a tactic to throw Angeal off balance.

Well, he won't fall for it. He keeps his face impassive, not even letting the pain of his injuries show in his expression.

Sephiroth nods. "Still the strong and stoic one. Then let me put this to you, old friend, and see if it can give you the motivation to make this fight more remarkable than I anticipate it being. If you don't defeat me, what is there to stop me going to the little town you like so much and finding that boy you dote on? I saw him when he came up here. I saw the Buster Sword on his back. For you to give him your precious weapon means he must be very important to you. He even acts somewhat like you, though he seems to have more sense of humour. I wonder," he drops his voice, but Angeal can still hear it clearly, "what his dying screams would sound like."

If the previous skirmish was a blur, then this one is a blur of a blur. Angeal's body moves in ways it learned long ago, sliding from one position to the next without conscious thought. He's vaguely aware of Sephiroth's face, his throat, his solar plexus, the critical points on his body that, if hit, will provide maximum damage. Angeal whirls, he parries, he slices. He presses his attack, totally on the offensive and consumed by three mantra-like thoughts: Protect Zack. Avenge Genesis. Free Sephiroth's spirit. If anyone from Hollow Bastion could see him now they'd think him a demon himself, such is the power and ferocity with which he fights.

However, even the strongest burst of energy can't last forever. Sephiroth is so fast he seems to slip between moments. A few of Angeal's hits connect, but not nearly enough to slow Sephiroth down.

Sephiroth hits out with his free arm, a backhand that sends Angeal pirouetting to the ground. Angeal scythes his legs, trying to sweep Sephiroth's out from under him, but Sephiroth simply flaps his wing and floats away. It's a ridiculous move that even an untrained child could predict would fail. Angeal has allowed himself to be motivated by his emotions, and his mind has become clouded as a result. On the other hand Sephiroth has viewed the entire encounter like a chess match, extracting himself from the moment to examine and counter practically before Angeal has time to decide what he's going to do next.

Sephiroth jabs down and severs the tendons in the backs of Angeal's knees, crippling him. An elegant leap lands him on Angeal's arm, shattering the wrist and effectively ending their swordplay. Angeal grimaces in pain but doesn't cry out, instead reaching for his weapon with his other hand. A small yelp does escape him when Masamune slices between his knuckles, pinning his hand in place.

"A good attempt," Sephiroth concedes. "Age and soft living haven't dented your skills too much, old friend, but they're still not enough to defeat me." He kicks out, yanking his sword upwards as Angeal is flipped onto his back. Sephiroth prepares to drive Masamune down through Angeal's sternum and shatter his ribcage, destroying his insides like meat in a bag of glass shards. "And then there was one."

So it is that Angeal is perfectly placed to see the tip of a thin blade punch through Sephiroth's chest from behind.

Sephiroth's face warps with astonishment and disbelief as he looks down and then over his shoulder. "You …"

"Yes," Genesis replies. "Me."

Blood wells at the corners of Sephiroth's mouth and dribbles down his chin. Genesis's rapier has gone straight through Jenova's evil heart. Still staring, Sephiroth slumps to his knees and then onto his face, silver hair spreading around his skull like filigree.

"Genesis," Angeal breathes, so relieved that even if he wasn't in excruciating pain he'd be unable to speak. "How…?"

"Contrary to what he thought," Genesis spits, "I'm not so easily defeated. Third to his first and your second? Don't make me laugh." But he does laugh, scornfully and holding his middle, where Angeal can see ragged fabric and a huge discoloration staining his red coat an even darker red. Apparently Genesis didn't survive his fall completely intact.

"You're hurt."

"Yes, well, rebounding off a rock face and falling past lots of sharp outcroppings into a canyon of stalagmites will cause a few dents." He coughs, covering his fist in blood. "Damn it."

Angeal tries to roll onto his front. His body screams at him to stay exactly where he is, but he knows they have to get medical help, and quickly, or neither of them will survive. "The tanks … we can take one back to Hollow Bastion. There's a Healer there…" Gods forgive him for letting Aerith's secret out, but these are desperate times.

"Hollow Bastion? Is that what they're calling it now?" Genesis staggers forward to pull his rapier out of Sephiroth's back, but it's stuck. Jenova refuses to give it up and it seems Genesis doesn't have the strength to retrieve it. He kicks the body, Angeal assumes to make sure their enemy is dead.

'Their enemy'?

It wasn't Sephiroth anymore, he tells himself. That wasn't him. It was just a parasite, a thing living inside his remains, making them walk and talk like a marionette without any free will. He has to remember that. In some ways, that thing even thought it was the real Sephiroth, but Angeal refuses to believe his friend could commit such terrible crimes. That thing may have had Sephiroth's memories and personality traits, but it still wasn't him. It couldn't be him. Please, don't let it have been him.

"Ansem must've pulled a real trick to make everyone in that stupid little town forget about him," Genesis goes on, his words a little slurred. "Even you think it's called Hollow Bastion, and you never once mentioned that giant castle the whole time me and my unit were there. When he vanished he made sure to cover all his tracks. Didn't want sticky fingers pawing through his research, did he? Always so insular and resistant to outside interference. Not that it'll stop anything. Everything always comes out in the end – everything. Should really report this back to base, but it seems rather … pointless … now."

What? Angeal has no idea what Genesis is prattling on about. And why is he even prattling on about anything right now? "The tanks…"

"We're not going to the tanks."

"Excuse me?"

"Be serious, Angeal. The condition we're in, we both know we'd never make it down the mountain, much less pilot a three-man tank back to that squalid little 'Hollow Bastion' of yours."

"But -"

"And then there were two."

Something about the shape of these words prickles the hairs on Angeal's neck.

"I didn't start out hating," Genesis says softly. "It's something that developed inside me over time, like a tumour. First, second and third – Sephiroth, then you, and then me. Always me last in the grand scheme of things – last to graduate from the military academy, last to find a sword, last to become Elite, and last in everyone's estimation. I worked harder than either of you, was more tenacious, more passionate, more committed, but it was always Sephiroth they talked about. Even when he became a monster they idolised him – to my face! Can you believe that? There I am, working myself to death, the only one of us who actually stayed behind to fight and do what we'd all sworn to do when we signed up, and they still raved about that bastard like he was a saint. Reports coming in about another village he's wiped out, widespread mass destruction he's caused, wars he's started, while I run around cleaning up his mess, and I'm ignored while his pedestal gets higher and higher."

"Genesis -"

"And then there was you, the deserter. But do they scrub your name from the records? Do they tell the truth and call you a coward? No, they praise you almost as much as they do him. New recruits all wanting to be like the great Sephiroth or Angeal, but never like Genesis. No, they never want to be like the workhorse who gets no recognition. They want to be glorious. They want to be legends. He doesn't look so glorious now, does he?"

"Gen-"

"And who killed him in the end? Who proved himself greater than the greatest warrior who ever lived? Why, none other than Genesis. I knew I was better than him. And I wanted to prove to you that I'm better than him, too; that I'm better than both of you and should never have been consigned to your shadows." Genesis leans over Angeal, meeting his eyes. "First, second and third? Only the order in which we die, old friend."

Angeal is halfway to feet that can't possibly support him when Masamune, Genesis's fingers blistering to blackened stumps around its hilt, runs him through.

Angeal's vision is already fogging when Genesis surrenders to his stomach wound. Ironically, he slumps across Sephiroth's body, embracing the man he grew to hate as though grieving for him. His breath rattles only once, disproving his own words about the order of their deaths.

Angeal falls back, his eyelids fluttering. I'm sorry, Zack, he wants to say, but his mouth is full of blood and he can't get the words out. I know I broke my promise, and I taught you never to do that, but I wanted to come back. I wanted… His eyes close and his chest stills.

Overhead, the sky is burning.

 


 

 

In the end it was too cold to stay outside, so they retired to Zack's house, where exhaustion claimed them one by one. Zack didn't sleep at all last night. He was too consumed by worry over what today would bring, but he's still the last to drift off. He's also the first to snap awake when Aerith gasps and sits bolt upright like she's been propelled off the couch by invisible arms.

"Oh…" is all she'll say, over and over. "Oh … oh …"

"What?" Zack demands. "What's the matter?"

"He's … oh …" Tears slide unchecked down her cheeks. She won't look at him for a long moment. When she does it's with heartbroken eyes. She doesn't need to say it. "I'm so sorry, Zack. It's Angeal, he's -"

"No." Zack shuffles away from her. "You're wrong," he says hoarsely. "You can't possibly know that."

She shakes her head. She's so upset that she temporarily forgets how to breathe. "I felt him -"

"You're wrong," Zack insists, angry now. "He promised he'd come back. A warrior always keeps his promises. He taught me that. He's coming back. He is."

On Aerith's other side Cloud just looks shell-shocked. He has a hand on his chest, bunching the fabric of his shirt in his fist.

"Zack, I'm sorry," Aerith starts to say, but Zack leaps off the couch, out of the warm nest of blankets the three of them have wrapped themselves in.

"You're lying!" he accuses, irrational. He even points a finger at her. "You're making it up. You hear voices in your dreams, you don't feel people die. You didn't … you couldn't … oh gods …" Zack sags against the wall, sliding down it with his head in his hands. "… Angeal …"

Aerith leaves the couch too, Cloud following only a confused moment behind her. They curl around Zack, protective and insistent, even though he tries to push them away. Because they won't leave his side a thin wail goes up from somewhere deep inside him – the cry of a lost child. He doesn't weep. Aerith lets go of all their tears, while Cloud hoards their stunned silence and Zack simply keens grief so raw it makes the air bleed.

"You promiiiised!"

 


 

 

Underground, beneath the feet of Hollow Bastion, are forgotten rooms where there only shadows reside because there's no light. Electric bulbs are placed at regular intervals along the walls, but there's no longer anybody here to switch them on. Likewise the air system. Fans that used to turn to keep people alive down here have been still for years. There are no people left who remember these rooms. Dust sits over everything only because undisturbed dust has no memory.

Deep in the dark is a faint scrabbling. There has been no noise here since the day everyone left. The tanks are sound-proofed. They're also air-tight, but that's okay because the things inside them don't need to breathe. They've been circling their prisons, throwing themselves against the walls, climbing over each other and feeling for weaknesses every second of every hour of every day since they were born. They don't understand the concept of giving up – their primitive minds simply don't have a place the correct shape to house the thought. They know their purpose, though, and that's enough.

Nobody is around to hear the scrabbling. Nobody hears the first airlock give way to time and supernatural perseverance. Nobody witnesses the first oily body flop to the floor, or sees it begin to inspect this fresh, slightly larger prison. It ghosts over abandoned equipment, running its antennae along sharp tools, old bloodstains, dropped clipboards and sturdy walls. By the time the second body hits the floor it has found the air vent in the ceiling and is learning how to scale walls to reach it.

The first tank is almost empty when the smallest of the creatures breaks the pattern set by the first. Instead of climbing insect-like up the wall, it shuffles to the machine on the far side of the room. It sprawls over it, pressing its tiny black chest against the cool metal. Not that it can tell the metal is cool – it doesn't understand temperature beyond the fierce hotness deep within living chests. Like all its kind it craves that moist heat – the wriggly, ferocious turbulence of emotion baked into an organ that can be torn out and consumed. This one has never tasted it before, but it still knows what it is. The two most important parts of its existence are built into it at a molecular level – find food and reproduce.

The long arms of the machine are dormant. It will take a long, long time for the creature to hit the right buttons to activate it again, but it's nothing if not persistent. When it does it will tip its head on one side as the arms round up a clump of darkness to condense into a fidgety shape. It won't be pleased because it doesn't understand how to separate one feeling from the next, but it will briefly touch feelers with this new one, sense the mark on its chest and know that it is different. It will understand that it's fulfilling a vital role and quiver even faster than its siblings, which have found the outer barrier and a way to slip through it.

Once outside they scatter, pulled in different directions by the thousands of hot, unprotected chests they can sense in the world outside their prison. They spread outwards, away from Hollow Bastion, sensing their master's old wish for them to take this world but leave this part – his territory – until last. Just as they learned to climb the wall, burrow past wires of defunct security systems, and slip through cracks in solid stone, they will learn how to warp themselves from place to place in search of their prey.

And when they have consumed the hearts of those with the technology and knowledge to open Dark Corridors, they will spread even further, the ripples of their travel calling their master back to them, just as the echo of his bitter spirit call them to him in a place where distance and time have no meaning.

Deep beneath Hollow Bastion, things are moving.

And they're hungry.

 


 

 

To Be Continued …

 


 

 

Chapter Text

The townsfolk mourn. They mourn for the dead soldiers. They mourn for those soldiers' leader who brought them here to fight a demon. And they mourn for Angeal Hewley, a man who wasn't born in Hollow Bastion but who made it his own as they made him theirs. While somewhere distant the great Elite warrior Sephiroth is glorified, it can't compare to the ripples of sorrow and respect that convulse the little town between Barren Region and Dark Forest like it's been picked up and shaken.

A party of chocobo riders cross the wasteland and go into the mountains to fetch the bodies home. They return dragging far too many covered palettes.

Less than a day later more soldiers arrive to retrieve all of them except Angeal's. The commander in charge tries to remove him, too, and it takes several people to hold back Angeal's nephew. The commander is eventually convinced that, as Angeal retired from the military years before and entered into this mission of his own free will, the army has no claim over his sword or his remains. They Instead, they're interred next to his sister and brother-in-law in the town graveyard. Though the commander only grudgingly allows it, the sword is returned to its rightful owner and the military depart to recover their abandoned tanks.

Angeal's nephew stays in his house. He's almost seventeen, an adult by Hollow Bastion's standards, but there's some concern over leaving him alone in the house he shared with his uncle after losing the man so suddenly. He refuses to leave, however, shutting himself away where nobody can tell him how much they liked Angeal, how sad it all is, or how proud he must be that his uncle died defeating such a great threat. People knock the door with food but the boy stops answering, so they leave it on the step where it's either overturned by cats or taken in by the handful of visitors he does admit.

In other circumstances it might be frowned upon when the flower shop girl moves in with him. An unmarried boy and girl living under the same roof? Shameful. Even worse when the son of one of the barmaids – the unrespectable one with the chequered past that drove her to Hollow Bastion sixteen years ago – takes the number in the house up to three. Yet these are mitigating circumstances – which means there is gossip, but people keep it under their hats and don't shout rumours to each other across the market square on a busy afternoon.

It takes a while, but eventually the monsters return to Barren Region from wherever they fled to while Sephiroth made it too dangerous even for them. They prowl at night, not coming too close to town, but people can feel them there. They whisper to each other. Men who admired Angeal take up their old patrols, walking familiar paths and setting up defences along the ever-crumbling wall, but it's like stepping in footprints made in melted snow. Hollow Bastion hasn't forgotten what Angeal taught them, but still they whisper to each other. They feel vulnerable without him. Without his strong presence they remember that the wall is broken and that Bugganes once used the loose chunks to climb up and steal their children. Angeal was only one man, but he made them feel safe by teaching them to do more than just fear what lurked in the dark.

"What should we do?" is the most asked question. "What should we do?"

The nephew finally emerges from his house, but he's different. He wears his sword with pride and walks with his head held high, but his violet eyes are more complex than they used to be. Though he's learned to smile again there's always a grain of sadness in them now, no matter how much his mouth turns up at the corners. His hair, which has been dependably messy since he was a toddler, is slicked back. Unlike Angeal's hair, however, a single forelock refuses to be tamed, which would tell people a lot about the boy's character if they looked and stopped congratulating themselves on having another warrior to protect them and make their world right once again.

 


 

Aerith wrinkles her nose at the familiar stench. "Cloud!"

"What?"

"Leave your boots by the door."

"Aw, but-"

"By. The. Door."

Grumbling, he removes them. He's about to dump them next to hers when she holds out her ladle, not even looking in his direction. Droplets of soup fly through the air with the force of her straightened elbow.

"Outside the door until you clean them."

"You never make Zack do this."

"I do when he steps in dung and tries to bring it inside. Have you smelled what comes out of chimera? It's nearly as bad as what comes out of a chocobo."

Cloud sighs and dutifully does as she asks, going to the sink afterwards to wash his hands. It's an established rhythm, emphasised as Aerith turns and he practically presses his back to hers like warriors in battle, staying away from the hot saucepan and snatching dishes from the cupboard as he passes. One final spin and he's on the other side of the table, setting three places she didn't have to ask him to set.

"We need another two."

Cloud looks up. "We do?"

"Mm-hm, my mother and yours are coming over."

"They're checking up on us?"

"I'm saying nothing, but if my mom looks at you and Zack strangely, try and look as upstanding and respectable as possible."

Cloud isn't as innocent as he once was, though he still flushes scarlet at the mere thought of what people think they get up to behind closed doors. "My mom knows we're just friends," he protests.

"Mine too." Aerith shrugs. "But people talk, and you can't close your ears like you can your eyes. Could you fetch the bread? It's in the oven."

Cloud takes down the long wooden spatula and flicks open the door of the masonry oven set into the wall. The blast of heat hits him in the face, drying out his eyeballs and making him blink. "Ynf!"

"Did you forget to step out of the way to let the first blast pass?"

"… No."

When this house was rebuilt it was made sturdier, and could take such a thing as a masonry oven. When Cloud and Aerith first decided not to leave Zack living alone with only ghosts and memories for company, the whole house was cold as ice. These days they keep a fire in the grate and embers glowing inside the oven so the place is always pleasantly warm. It's homey, and for all Zack tried to send them away at the start, they both know he's glad of their company now.

However, when they sit down to their meal Zack is still notably absent. Elmyra exchanges a look with Dala Strife, which Cloud catches but doesn't understand. They make light conversation and it's all very agreeable, even if he does feel like he's being inspected. He, Aerith and Zack have been friends for so long he finds it hard to believe that anyone who knows them would squint the way his own mother does when she passes the butter.

"So," Elmyra says eventually, steepling her fingers over her food. "How is Zack?"

"He's better," Aerith tells her. "Things were bad for a while." She pauses. "Really bad. But they're a lot better now."

"He's coping all right?"

"Well, he's smiling again." So is Aerith. She barely smiled the whole time Zack's mouth remained a straight line, and it hurt Cloud more than he can say to see them feeding each other's pain. If anybody in the world was born to smile, it's those two.

"Uh-huh," he says emphatically.

"And it's not that horrible fake smile we had for a while, either."

Cloud winces. That was a bad time; when Zack went from room to room smiling with everything except his eyes, pretending he was fine while the sun was out. He even tried to laugh. It was terrible to hear. Then either Cloud or Aerith would wake in the night to find him in Angeal's room, or sitting halfway down the stairs running his hands over the carved banister. They spent long hours coaxing him back to bed, warming pans of hot milk, or just sitting beside him, doing nothing but being there and reminding him without words that he still has people who love him. They all miss Angeal. He was the only real father figure any of them had, and that shared experience helped Zack slowly come to terms with his death.

The townspeople have adopted Genesis as their second martyr. Angeal's wounds suggested Sephiroth killed him, and Genesis avenged his friend by killing Sephiroth, only to then die of his own fatal injuries. Neither Aerith nor Cloud could stop Zack going to see the bodies, and they'll never forget the look on his face when he came home. He acknowledges he was wrong about Genesis. The man was badly injured in the fight and had an ugly death. Sephiroth even burned off half his hands, which wouldn't have killed but would have put Genesis through an enormous amount of agony. Raw inside, Zack took on fresh guilt for doubting Genesis and added it to the grief that left him sleepless and aching.

But he's a lot better now. Everyone acknowledges it, including Zack himself. He's not completely healed, and perhaps he never will be, but ever since he took up the Buster Sword again and set out to continue Angeal's work, he's been much more at ease with himself and the world.

"It has been months." Elmyra's gaze flickers around the room, reminding Cloud that she used to sit here when they were all kids, at this table, maybe even in the very seat she's in now, and drink coffee with Angeal. The brief pinch of sadness in her eyes makes him wonder if perhaps Elmyra once hoped for more time with Angeal than she got, or that she'd spent that time in different ways.

"Nine of them," Dala puts in helpfully.

Aerith looks between them both, but it's Cloud who answers. "What's your point?"

Elmyra sighs. "When are you coming home?"

"This is home," Aerith says eventually. "It's not like we've moved away where you never see us. I still work in the flower shop all the time, and Cloud … okay, maybe he doesn't drink, but we're neither of us strangers to you."

"We just want what's best for you," Dala assures them. "You don't want to get a bad reputation. It's easy to get and difficult to lose. And some people never let go." Coming from her, this is sage advice.

Cloud shuffles his feet uncomfortably under the table. "We know what we're doing."

"Do you? Three of you living in the same house and not one wedding ring?"

"That's outmoded thinking -" Aerith starts.

"That's Hollow Bastion thinking," Elmyra cuts her off. "People were willing to look at the other way when Zack was in mourning, but it's been nine months. I understand that you three are close and you want to be there for him, but there's no point in making life more difficult than it has to be."

"We're not sleeping together!"

"We know that, but people need clear signals when they have thick heads. You're all of marriageable age – or close enough that it makes no difference."

Aerith's irritation is blooming into anger, though her face remains composed. Cloud recognises the signs, but before she can speak or he can pour reassurance on the situation, there's a scream from outside.

At once, everyone forgets what they're saying and bolts for the door. Cloud reaches it first. He has become a regular hand at the chocobo stables and working with the enormous birds has made him stronger and more muscular.

Outside on the street, a woman cowers away from a small black creature shaped like a sack toy. It's a tiny, ridiculous looking thing, but something about it causes ripples of revulsion to run through Cloud.

As they watch in horror, the creature's yellow eyes glow. It thrusts its hands into the woman's chest and yanks out what looks like a heart-shaped crystal. The creature scrabbles, but seems to lose its grip on it, and it rotates in the air before vanishing, leaving the woman's body to disintegrate into dust. Almost at once a second creature peels itself away from the first like the skin off a rancid and blackened banana.

"What in the world are those things?" Elmyra asks, hands flying to her mouth. "I've never seen monsters like that before."

Cloud is suddenly very aware that there are three women behind him, one of whom is his mother and one of whom is Aerith. Desire to protect them suffuses him, especially when the sack-toy creatures turn their eyes on them and shamble forward.

"Get back inside," Cloud orders, reaching for the wooden practise sword inside the umbrella stand. He's no master swordsman – not even close – but nine months of trying to cajole Zack back to himself has brought a fair amount of sparring. Zack works in physicality so much it's like a second language to him, and Cloud has tried to learn enough of the lexicon to say what his friend needed to hear. He's absorbed a lot more than he ever thought he would, though Zack can still hand him his ass in under a minute.

Cloud just hopes the creatures coming their way don't have his friend's skill.

Some people sneeze when they're in others' thoughts. Some people scratch their noses, or shiver. Zack careers around the corner and cuts the creatures in half with a swish of the Buster Sword. They don't make any noise as they fall to pieces and disappear.

"Hey, guys." Zack props the sword on one shoulder and grins at them. "Sorry I'm late for dinner."

"Zack!" Aerith claps her hands to see him.

"What was that thing?" Cloud asks, letting the tip of the practise sword drop to the ground.

Zack shakes his head. "No clue, but there were a whole bunch of them I found on patrol by Dark Forest. That's what held me up, but one of them got away from me – at least, I thought it was only one. I must've been mistaken."

"Th … they … killed that woman," Dala squeaks. Cloud immediately turns and wraps his mother in a comforting hug. She's never been so close to this sort of thing before and she's trembling. Instantly he berates himself for not telling her to run away so she wouldn't have to see. "They took her heart…"

"Shh, Mom, it's okay."

"Her heart!"

Zack's eyes narrow and his expression becomes dark. "They did?" It switches to confusion as he casts around for a body. "What woman?"

"She vanished," Aerith explains. "But it was weird. It wasn't a heart like a proper heart that sends blood around your body; it was more like those hearts we dangle from ribbons around bouquets on St. Valentine's Day."

There are people at the doors of other houses, all crowding and pointing. Zack raises his sword in a wave and a half-hearted cheer goes up. He looks back at the four faces at his own door. "I'll scout around; make sure there aren't any others. When I get back we'll talk – inside. I don't want a panic starting because of this."

Cloud's not looking at him, but from the corner of his eye he sees Aerith nod. "Please be careful," she says.

"Aren't I always?"

"No. You're a knucklehead about putting others' safety above your own. That's my point."

"You say that like it's a bad thing. All right, all right, don't look at me like that. I promise I'll be careful."

Cloud holds tight to his mother as she trembles like a newborn lamb finding its feet.

 


 

"They don't leave any bodies when they die," Zack says. "It's like they're not even really there – like I'm fighting phantoms."

"Except that we saw what happened to that woman," Aerith points out. "That wasn't the work of any phantom."

They're around the kitchen table, dinner dishes having been cleared away. Elmyra and Dala sit by the fire, leaving their children to talk and wondering how they raised them to be so calm in the face of … whatever just happened.

"They have a point," Cloud had pointed out when his mother was settled with a hot drink and had stopped quaking. Elmyra developed more of a tolerance for the extraordinary while Aerith learned about her powers, and her calming presence helped Dala to relax. "Since when did we become Hollow Bastion's defence council?"

"Since we live with its resident hero," Aerith replied, putting bread and cold cheese in front of Zack. The soup was a congealed paste and she deposited it in the slop bucket to take to the chocobos on the other side of town. Mix practically anything with grain and a hungry bird will eat it. "Here. You must be starving."

"Famished." Zack did his best impression of a hungry chicobo.

"Shouldn't we be discussing this with the others who patrol the borders?" Cloud asked.

There are quite a few of them now, though nobody's as dedicated as Zack. Mostly they're men and boys who have other jobs as well and fancy themselves as heroes on the side. They bring whatever weapons they have, which can range from swords bought specially from the travelling swordsmith, to an upturned bucket and a big stick with a nail in the end. Zack organises them, but they're not a militia, so he does most of the patrolling himself. Since 'hero' has become Zack's de facto profession he gets a lot of donations and can generally go to any shop or market stall and find himself with an armload of freebies. Whenever he does draw on the funds Angeal left behind he finds prices reduced and a blanket refusal to take the full amount when he tries to pay it. It's as if people are worried that he won't have as much time to defend them if he has to go out and earn a wage.

"I'd trust you two to make more sensible decisions than any of them," Zack replied. "They'll just want to run off with rakes and pitchforks or something. When it comes to fighting monsters most of them are heavily into hitting and yelling with a little space in between for logical thought. They don't seem bothered about challenging the stereotype of small-town fighters."

That was half a conversation ago. Since then Zack has explained about the pack of yellow-eyed creatures that tried to jump him when eh went to investigate rumours of Vetala in Dark Forest. Cloud and Aerith replied by describing in detail what happened to the woman on the street. They've established the woman's identity as Lula Weatherby, an old childless widow who sometimes wandered around looking for her dead goat, which is why nobody else in town is throwing up their arms and bewailing the sudden absence of a family member. Aerith will later put together a wreath for her, since nobody else will bother, and commemorate her passing even though Lula used to spit on her for 'living in sin'. But that's later, and this is now.

"I've never seen monsters that don't leave a body before," Zack says sombrely. "It's not natural. I felt my sword connect with something when I fought them. They were real. It just doesn't make any sense. Grah, I wish Angeal was here. He'd probably know what these things are and be sitting there pulling that I'm-not-smiling face while he waited for me to guess right."

Aerith and Cloud both wince, but Zack is past the stage where he can't even say Angeal's name without freezing into a little ball of pain.

"So what do we do?"

"You don't do anything," Zack tells Cloud. "I guess the only thing for me to do is keep on patrolling and hope no more of them turn up. It might be a temporary thing, like when that pack of imps tried to set up home in Dark Forest: dozens of imp attacks for a week, until they figured out it was less complicated to live someplace else and left. At least I know these new creatures aren't immune to the Buster Sword, so I can take care of them if and when they stick their noses in."

"That seems like a very unreliable strategy to me." Aerith rests her chin on one half-curled fist. "I don't know, something just doesn't feel right."

"Did you dream anything like this?"

"I haven't had any Green Dreams in a while, but I can't help feeling like we need to be doing more than just ignoring those things and hoping they go away. We don't even know what they're called." She has an old book in front of her with a hideous face on the cover. She bought it from a travelling book merchant when she was fourteen, and it's become well-thumbed with every monster Zack fights. When she moved in with him it was one of the first things she brought from her room above the flower shop, but there's nothing in it that even resembles what killed Lula Weatherby.

"Shadow monsters?" Cloud suggests. "Sack-toy monsters?"

"Pain-in-the-ass monsters?" Zack stands up. "I trust your feelings, Aerith. If you say there's more to this than meets the eye I believe it, but unless you can tell me what else to do there's nothing more to say right now."

Aerith frowns. "You're going out again?"

"You're not the only one with a bad feeling. I'm going to check where I found that group of them; see what I can find."

"I'm going with you." Aerith is firm. "Maybe I'll get a clearer idea of why my stomach's doing flip-flops if I see more than the inside of this house. Cloud, you stay here with my mom and yours."

"Hey!" Cloud protests, not liking the idea of them going to look for more of those dangerous creatures without him.

"Do you really want them to be alone right now, with more of those things possibly on the loose?"

"… No."

"That's that, then. Come on, Zack. I'll get my coat."

"Don't you want to change first?" Zack asks.

"What? Why?"

"It is a monster patrol. It'll involve going down the rocks. Which means sliding and climbing."

Aerith looks at her dress. She's never liked trousers or shorts, preferring the floaty femininity of a hemline. Maybe pants would be more practical, but she hasn't enough confidence in the shape of her hips and plane of her stomach to try. She compromises. "I'll put on some boots."

 


 

"So this is where you found them?" Aerith looks around. It isn't much to write home about; just a patch of what was once grass sloping into a gentle hollow. It's not even all that close to Dark Forest, instead edging more towards another shattered chunk of wall.

Beyond the wall of earth is whatever sits beneath the castle; dungeons or basements or whatever. There's a small gap in the soil there, no bigger than a rabbit hole, the edges worn smooth. Aerith might ponder it more, but her thoughts are already sliding away as she thinks these things, as if pushed in a different direction by invisible hands, and she turns them to the bulk of trees instead.

Dark Forest is a shadow of what it used to be, many trees withered and almost no flowers at all.

"No, this is where they found me." Zack inspects the area by walking around it. "It's like they were laying in wait to try and take me out. I swear one of them stuck its horrible little hands right inside my chest."

"Inside your chest?" Aerith thinks of Lula and the first shadow-creature.

"It sounds weird, but yeah. Went straight through me like it was a ghost, until I cut its legs off and it vanished. They were working on mob mentality, like a nest of disturbed ants. Not much finesse, just a big attack on one target – me – like they were clockwork toys someone wound up, pointed in the right direction and let go." He grunts. "I'm getting bupkiss out of this patrol. You?"

"I don't feel anything." Aerith is confused. The vague unease in her stomach is persistent but formless, as though it can't decide which of multiple dangers to warn her about, and so can do nothing but send her partial garbled messages about all of them.

"So I guess we head back." Zack sounds frustrated.

They've only taken a few steps when the air in front of them wobbles and darkens. Zack is instantly alert, Buster Sword out and body poised for battle. A yellow-eyed head pushes its way into view as though dragging itself out of a hole in mid-air. Zack lops it off, but the moment he does so a dozen more dark patches pop into being around him and spew out little bodies like rice pouring from sacks.

"Zack!" Aerith cries as he's submerged by a writhing mass of living shadow.

"Aerith, run!"

"I won't leave you!"

"I said run!"

Yellow eyes swivel to fix on her. Several creatures advance with their shuffly gait. Aerith takes a step back but stops, determined not to leave Zack. She flourishes the cast-iron frying pan she brought along in case she needed to defend herself, and takes grim satisfaction in the solid clang of it connecting with one creature's head. It doesn't dissolve into dust, but it does fly backward and seems a little stunned. They aren't ghost. She's not sure what they are, but they're not ghosts.

Buster Sword cutting around in a circle, Zack hacks his way towards her. "Aerith!" However, no matter how many are destroyed, more appear to take their place. He's forced backwards, away from Aerith.

Aerith's arms soon begin to ache. She fights to reach Zack regardless. Sweat runs down her back even though it's not warm. Gamely, she keeps on swinging her frying pan, until something worse than cold punches into her from behind. She gasps, back arching, as a softness in the centre of her chest suddenly constricts…

"Yaaah!"

Something large and noisy drops from the sky on top of the creature with its hands in Aerith's ribcage. Aerith gasps, toppling forward, but finds herself supported by someone too skinny and female to be Zack.

"Fly, foul demons! Fly from here or prepare to meet your maker at the hands of the greatest warrior who ever lived!"

The creatures don't even pause in their attack.

"Fine then. Be that way." Aerith is swivelled, forcibly bent forward at the waist and propelled to one side. "'Scuse me, Ponytail." A foot uses her as a step-up and the figure is back in the air again. "Eat shuriken, bastards!"

A series of spinning silver stars whirl in a circle around them, hitting shadow creatures with deadly accuracy. The creatures explode into puffs of black dust, but the stars keep on spinning around and around until there are barely any targets left to hit.

Zack chops at the remaining few and stands awkwardly, obviously wondering where the horde of insurmountable enemies went.

"Ha!" The figure drops to the ground, deftly catching the stars. "No applause, please. All in a day's work for the Great Ninja Yuffie." She makes a breathy noise in the back of her throat, like a distant crowd going wild. "Thank you, thank you, I know I'm brilliant. Hey there, lovebirds. How about some gratitude for the one who saved your scrawny backsides?"

Aerith, bewildered by the attack and the sudden strangeness of their rescuer, just stares. An unkind thought pops into her head and she roughly pushes it away. Who are you calling scrawny? It isn't like her to be so rude and she puts it down to the trauma of nearly having her heart ripped out of her ribcage.

"Uh, thanks. I guess." Zack replaces the Buster Sword on his back. "The name's Zack Fair. I take it you're Yuffie?"

"Cute and smart. Hold onto him, sister, or I might just sink my own teeth into his tight butt. Rowr!" The girl is obviously younger than them, but her grin is feral and her eyes as irreverent as her words. She grabs Zack's hand and enthusiastically pumps it up and down. "I am, indeed, the Great Ninja Yuffie. You've probably heard of me."

"Uh, no, we haven't."

"Really?" She looks shocked, but snaps out of it so fast it might be faked. "I'll have to fix that. You've already seen my intense skills in battle. By the way, I'm not greedy, so we'll leave payment for rescuing you at one square meal and a bed for the night. Yours or my own, cutie, I don't mind."

Zack looks completely flummoxed and Aerith draws herself up to her full height. "Now look here -"

"Hey, don't worry; I'm not a complete idiot who'd foist herself onto axe-wielding murderers or anything. I've heard of Zack Fair. You're pretty famous around these parts – a regular H-E-R-O and general symbol for all things noble and good and all that junk. A trustworthy guy like you wouldn't take advantage of a poor little innocent waif like me, would you?" She bats her eyelashes at him. "Well, not unless I asked you to, of course. C'mon, let's get inside and I can tell you all about my wild adventures so you can boast to all your friends you met the Great Ninja Yuffie!" She grabs Zack's hand and drags him away. "Which way to your house? Ah, never mind, I'll pick a direction and you can tell me left and right as we go."

For a moment Aerith is too stunned to move. Then she comes back to herself with a sharp, "Hey, wait!" and runs after them.

 


 

"You say you found her?"

"More like she found us." Aerith's arms are folded and she's broadcasting so many Not Happy vibes you can practically see them zigzagging around her. She keeps her face schooled into a neutral expression, and only those closest to her would be able to tell she's ticked off. "She says her name's Yuffie, that she's a ninja, and that she's on a mission from her clan to find out more about those creatures."

Cloud nervously spikes up the front of his hair. "And you believed her enough to bring her home with you?"

"She didn't exactly give us much of a choice."

Yuffie sits at the table, Zack sitting beside her – not because he wants to be, but because she refuses to let go of his hand and has a grip to put thumbscrews to shame. Only having one hand to eat with doesn't impede her progress. She's already devoured most of a loaf, all the cheese and part of the apple pie Aerith was keeping for later. It's a wonder she's still so spindly.

She turns to look at Cloud and Aerith in the doorway. "Wow, Ponytail, it's like hot and cold running water in this place – one dark-haired and one blondie. Do you alternate weekly or do they toss a coin?"

Cloud's cheeks flame.

"My name is Aerith. As I believe I've mentioned several times."

Yuffie waves a hand like this isn't important and gets back to the primary task of demolishing the pie. A few minutes later she sits back, sighing happily and licking the few remaining crumbs from around her mouth. "No wonder they both like you, if you can cook like that. Hell, I'll keep your feet warm if you can make a rhubarb version of that pie."

Aerith feels her own cheeks start to burn. "Right, so you've eaten. Now can you tell us what you know about those creatures? And while we're on the subject, more about yourself."

"I get you. You're threatened by me and want to make sure I'm not competition. Good call, I like you already." Yuffie smirks. In better light she's even younger than Aerith first thought, but somehow her smirk still manages to be vaguely filthy.

Cloud takes an imperceptible step backwards.

"Okay, so short version. Name's Yuffie Kisaragi, formerly of the Wutai Ninja Clan. You might've heard of them, might not; we tend to keep to ourselves a lot, but now and then we breed a champion who goes off and makes a name in the big wide world. That'd be me for this generation; though to hear my dad talk you wouldn't think it. He's all 'marriage-marriage-babies-rar' and I'm all, like, 'hel-lo, stuck in the dark ages much?' But I love the big lug, so I decided to prove to him I'm this generation's greatest ninja rather than just seeing which of us could shout the loudest in an argument. Got my opportunity when those Heartless thingies turned up. Heard some rumours about how they're the Next Big Thing on the monster charts, and how they're evil and inescapable and yadda-yadda-yadda. So off I jet on my own personal quest to gather information about the little cretins, 'cause my dad's also really 'information is a ninja's greatest weapon' as well, and maybe I'll impress him with my fabulous braininess as well as my kick-ass moves. Travelled a bit, learned a bit, ended up here and saved your asses from becoming Heartless chow, which brings us up to the present moment. Do you have a toothpick?"

Everyone's still catching up with her breakneck story.

Zack arrives first. "Wait, what did you call those things?"

"Hm? Oh, Heartless. Yeah, I didn't know what they were called at first, either, but some guy in a kingdom out west gave me the name. Really bad hair, lemme tell you, and a complexion like a wet Sunday. I'm all for functional-but-cute in the hairstyle department myself. He said some old coot scientist named the creatures a long time ago but never got around to showing them to anyone, and then he disappeared so everyone kind of forgot about them. He was pretty shocked when I said I'd not only seen some 'Heartless' but kicked their tails so hard they wagged their noses when they were happy. Apparently he only ever read about them in some research paper that disappeared not long afterwards, along with the town it was from. Luminous Gardens or something. You ever heard of that? No, me neither. Real hush-hush-mystery business, apparently."

"So … those things are monsters?"

Yuffie taps her chin with one finger. "In a manner of speaking. The guy's words (and this is a direct quote, 'cause I'm so kick-ass I remember it) were: 'Heartless were fabled to be hearts corrupted by darkness that no longer have a body to house them or a soul to temper them'. They're pretty much, like, heart zombies or something."

Aerith banishes the mental image of a pig's heart from the butcher's ambling along the street. "Those things were not hearts."

"Not your actual heart, but that place in you that contains your light and your darkness," Cloud says suddenly. "Your balance control. Everything is about balance." His eyes contain a faraway look and he speaks softly, like he's talking to himself more than them. When he realises all eyes are on him he stutters. "Uh … sorry, I was just … thinking out loud."

Zack nods, thoughtful. "I like the way you put that. It makes a whole lot more sense than imagining body parts wandering around."

"Like, when you say to someone 'I give you my heart' or 'You've stolen my heart'." Yuffie bobs her head up and down. "You're both of you smart and cute and oh so adorable when you blush. I'm going to like it here, I can tell."

"I thought you were only staying for a night." There is no strangled note in Aerith's voice. She makes sure of it. "One night."

Yuffie shrugs. "Night, week, month – what's the diff? You guys have got a Heartless problem and I'm on a Heartless mission. It all adds up. I'll give you the benefit of my awesome skills and knowledge and you get the pleasure of my company, and you can tell future generations that you met me. Plus you're the only people who've ever, y'know, actually let me into their home without trying to grope or kill me. Any chance of that toothpick now?"

"People have tried to hurt you before?" Cloud asks.

Another shrug. "Meh, occupational hazard. Nothing a good swift kick in the nuts couldn't cure. 'Course, it helped that I cleaned out their pantries before I pulled a midnight flit over the rooftops, but I call that justifiable payback. Or poetic justice, if I could get them to squeak high enough. You ever heard of eunuchs? I invented my own version: eu-shouldn't-underestimate-the-girl-just-because-she's-skinny-nuchs."

"You've been travelling alone? For how long?"

"Couple months, give or take."

"Across Barren Region?"

Aerith can understand the disbelief in Zack's voice. Yuffie's skinnier than a jockey's whip and there's something vulnerable about her that stops Aerith just short of outright offence every time she opens her mouth.

Yuffie snorts. "Across wherever. Thing about a big ol' quest is you go where the info takes you, and it takes you to some pretty skanky places."

Cloud shakes his head. "It sounds like you've been taking a lot of unnecessary risks in your quest."

"Ninja, remember? I can take care of myself, and it's not like it was a shock or anything. My clan's a bunch of noble mercenaries, but the problem with that is you can't pick your clients and some of them like to be paid with stuff other than money. Not that my dad ever let that happen to me, mind you, but you see what you see and you hear what you hear. And what I see is a surplus of tasties in a house with only one girl, and I hear the silent cries for some extra female company to balance out all the testosterone in this place. It'd be a crime for me not to correct that. Girl power! So what's your poison, Ponytail? Blond or black? I don't mind curling up with your cast-off."

Aerith doesn't choke, either. She doesn't. Not even when her mother and Ms. Strife come downstairs, having retreated up there against the whirlwind of Yuffie's initial inspection of the house. She doesn't choke even when she realises the two women have changed the sheets on all the beds and made up a fourth one on the floor of Aerith's own room.

"It seemed safer that way," Elmyra whispers conspiratorially as she leaves.

Aerith isn't sure whom it's supposed to be safer for when Yuffie slings an arm over her shoulder and chirrups, "So, roomie, mind if I take the bed?"

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

 

 

Yuffie is an overwhelming force. It's not that she's hyperactive; it's more that there's too much of her to be contained in one body and so pieces of her personality pop out at the seams. She doesn't just walk, she prances. She doesn't speak, she hoots. She doesn't enter their lives; she drops on them from a great height and leaves an impression of herself like a handprint in dough.

Hollow Bastion can't decide which to gossip about more: the fact that yet another teenager has moved into their hero's house, or just about Yuffie in general. Old biddies whisper when she's spotted cartwheeling down the street, or juggling with kunai while waiting in line at the butcher's. The tavern comes alive with chat after she vaults the chocobo breeder's wall and takes Boko out for an ill-fated, destined-for-the-duck-pond spin. Schoolchildren gawp from their classroom windows as she tours the grounds and building without once touching the floor, hanging upside down from the gutters and waving impudently at them while their teacher drones about fractions.

"Did you see what she did yesterday?"

"It's despicable, the way she runs wild."

"Like an animal!"

"Someone ought to do something about it."

"Someone ought to do something about her."

"Zack can't approve of all she does. Can he? Surely not."

"He doesn't seem to disapprove …"

"I heard she's only twelve years old."

"I heard she's a twenty-nine year old midget."

"I heard she's under a curse that only makes her look young. She'd actually older than me."

"Now that's old."

"Well I heard it was her thirteenth birthday and that's why she tied ribbons to the statue of the mayor in the town square and put hot-root in the stew the school cooks were making. All the pupils' mouths were burning for a week whenever they drank anything."

"She needed a special reason to do that?"

"She can't be that young. She'd a devil, I swear."

"I heard she's a ninja. That's close."

"The stew … was rather a funny joke."

"You're approving of her?"

"No, no, that's not what I said!"

Rumours are traded back and forth, but the nature of gossip prevents people from just asking anything outright. Instead they watch, clucking their tongues and marvelling that Yuffie's haven't killed her yet – or anyone else. She's inventive, effervescent … and exhausting.

After Yuffie arrives in their lives, Zack, Cloud and Aerith enter a state of being constantly worn out. The worst part is that there doesn't appear to be a malicious bone in Yuffie's body, so resenting her is more energy than any of them can summon. She's actually quite sweet in her own way, but you have to dig through layers of smart-mouth comments and trickery to see it. Still, she hasn't set out to cause trouble and she's genuinely grateful for their hospitality, which means she skids to a halt in front of the with treats she picked up from the bakery and then perches on the back of Cloud's armchair with a leg either side of his head to nibble a flapjack.

"Not one Heartless sighting all week," Zack comments at last.

"Is that a bad thing?" wonders Aerith.

"I guess not."

"Are you kidding? I'm hitting Boredom City faster than a runaway tank. Am I getting crumbs in your hair, Cloudy?" Yuffie runs her fingers through Cloud's spikes.

"No, it's fine," he says, shifting away from her until he realises this brings his face far too close to her inner thigh. He freezes. "Uh…"

"I could use a little sumthin'-sumthin'," Yuffie goes on, not bothered in the slightest when she leans forward to lean on him and kicks her heels against his chest like a little kid perched on a garden wall. Cloud looks like a gigged frog, all bug-eyes and bobbing throat. "Didn't you guys say there's a market today?"

"A caravan of merchants came to town this morning," says Zack. "They have to travel together and hire armed escorts to cross Barren Region, so they tend to travel in big groups. Sometimes other traders come with them – chocobo dealers, flower wholesalers looking for orders, people like that."

"Wutai Clan used to get work guarding groups like that." Yuffie claps her hands. "Sounds like fun. And you guys so totally owe me a birthday present."

Zack levels a weary look at her. "Are you sure you're only thirteen?"

"Sure as eggs are eggs." Yuffie purses her lips. "What a weird phrase that is. What else would eggs be?"

"You act a lot older."

A grin spreads across her face. She leans even further forward and tousles Cloud's hair. "I'm just really mature and grown-up all that junk."

"Uh-huh," Zack says without much conviction. He's more inclines to believe her 'maturity' is an elaborate front, but as with all things where Yuffie is concerned, he doesn't have the energy to challenge her on it.

Unable to stay where he is any longer, Cloud jumps up and retreats to the kitchen under the pretence of fetching a glass of water.

"I think I'm wearing him down," Yuffie stage-whispers. "Give me a little longer and he'll be putty in my hands." She reverts to her normal speaking voice. "So what're we waiting for? C'mon, oh citizens of Snoresville. Time to live a little."

There's no point in protesting or trying to fight her. Yuffie is inevitable, like hunger or sunset or blinking. They may as well try to stop time.

The town square is alive with carts and interesting wares when they get there. It's an even bigger caravan than usual, with a posse of different-coloured chocobo tied up on one side and an array of traders shouting and snagging customers on the other. Yuffie immediately dashes into the thickest crowd, elbows pointier than the spurs and riding crops Cloud examines with distaste. As ever on these occasions, he's drawn to the chocobos. This time his actions are helped by Yuffie, who wants to be nowhere near the 'freaking bad-tempered bastards' after her episode with Boko. He retreats away from her and into the embrace of his beloved birds.

Zack and Aerith soon find themselves alone and aimless. Having no pressing business they wander past various carts, absorbing the hustle and bustle. They still don't want to cause a panic by talking openly about the Heartless, especially in such a crowded place, so they take the opportunity to have a conversation that has nothing to do with fighting monsters. For the first time in what feels like forever they're allowed to forget their secrets and losses, what they have to do, what they don't know, what they should know, and just be the teenagers that circumstances have almost made them forget they are.

"Pretty scarf for the lady?" A man thrusts several under Aerith's nose. "A pretty scarf for a pretty lady?"

She declines and they walk on.

"This is nice."

"What, trying to avoid our bundle of never-ending energy before she embarrasses us in public by making rude comments?" Zack asks. "It's like we accidentally adopted a little kid or something. I don't remember signing up for that. At all."

Aerith lightly smacks the back of his head and realises as her fingers brush his hair that she can't remember the last time she did that. You don't smack a person in mourning, lightly or not. "No, I meant going to market like this. Just hanging around. It's relaxing."

Zack catches her arm to pull her out of the way as a giant sow squeals past dragging a man on a leash. The pig briefly sniffs Aerith's skirt and then ploughs on. "Yeah," he says wryly. "Real relaxing."

They meander down through the aisles of stalls until they emerge the other side of the square. Briefly, Zack's eyes trace the line of the distant mountains visible between the buildings, and Aerith mirrors his earlier action by catching his arm and pulling him towards the first stall she sees. It doesn't matter what it's for, just that it's a distraction.

It turns out to be a fabric seller. Reams of different kinds of cloth have been artfully arranged according to colour, size and texture, making Aerith think she just walked into a dream from eating bad mushrooms – like when they were ten and Zack insisted he knew which the good ones were and which were bad. She runs her hands over a coarse brown material used for making overalls, thinking about Cloud mucking out stalls and being dragged through the mud by unbroken-in chocobos.

"It's not really your colour," Zack remarks.

"It's not for me."

"Good. You should stick to those lighter colours. What're they called? Pastels. You look good in pink and colours like that."

Aerith can't explain the sudden springy feeling in the bottom of her stomach. Zack's never really commented on what she wears unless he's telling her it's unsuitable or dumb and girly. "Thank you, Mr. Fashion Expert."

"You wanna buy that?" asks the shifty-eyed woman behind the stall, gesturing at the brown material. "Or you gonna get dirt on it all day from your fingers?" She speaks quickly, not masking her impatience. Her fingers flex, as if wanting to snatch the material away. Aerith gets a strong sense of achy bones and painful joints fanning her bad mood.

"No," Zack says suddenly. "We want to buy this." He holds up a scrap of pink fabric, no bigger than a handkerchief.

The woman narrows her eyes at him, taking in the sword on his back and scar on his cheek. She quotes a ridiculous figure, which Zack refuses. She quotes another, which he laughs at, suggesting a much lower one. She laughs nastily at that one. Eventually they barter it down to a more reasonable price.

"I'm very low-cost," the seller says as they walk away. "You tell all your friends how reasonable I am."

"Crabby old bag," Zack mutters. "Here, hold still." He stops Aerith and faces her away from him. She feels him pick up her hair and move it around. Then he steps back, admiring his work. "It suits you." He pulls her across to a silverware stand and hands her an ornate mirror. "Take a look."

Aerith turns her head this way and that, watching the floaty material of the ribbon waft like butterfly wings at the top of her ponytail. "It's … beautiful. But why did you -?"

"I just wanted to do something nice for you. Is that a crime?" Zack's tone is defensive and a little sullen.

"No, it's lovely; I just don't know what I did to deserve it."

"Maybe I just wanted to get for you because you're you."

There are unexpected tears threatening to spill from Aerith's eyes. She's saved from embarrassing herself by Yuffie, who slams into her from the side, giggling madly.

"Oh, man, you two were hard to find. I don't have any money on me and these scarves are just to die for, don't you agree? Perfect birthday gift territory – I mean we're talking prime here. Don't you think these are just the bomb?" She holds out several of the bright scarves that were thrust under Aerith's nose earlier.

"They're very nice, but how did you pay for them without any money?"

"Heh, see, that's the thing. I kind of needed to find you guys and your oh-so-generously-generous purse strings, but there was this mean old lady eyeing these up too, and I just knew that if I put them down for even a second she'd snatch them up and I'd lose them, so I kind of …"

"Come back here, you thief!"

Zack slaps a hand over his forehead.

In the end they get things straightened out with the trader and Yuffie dons her brand new yellow ("I'm such a great ninja I can even blend into shadows wearing neon pink, but could I find one of those? No!") scarf with delight. It takes several tries to get her away from the silverware stall, as she keeps slipping through their grasp like water so she can go back and admire her reflection. It's only Cloud's appearance that motivates her to move. She dashes over the cobbles and throws herself at him, literally clinging to his front and entertaining everyone who can see his terrified expression.

Cloud has bought each of them a kruller. They sit eating them near to the chocobos, since it's quieter there than anywhere else. Or at least it is until a particularly sensitive bird is brought out to be examined by a potential buyer, and goes into a fit when it sees Cloud. The reaction is so violent and so unusual that everyone is shocked and the chocobo hastily taken away again for a more docile replacement.

"That thing was scared stiff," Yuffie marvels. "Way to go, Cloudy! Show those mean-eyed overgrown chickens who's boss."

Cloud, by comparison, is dismayed. "What did I do? It took one look at me and went wild."

"It was probably just looking for something to act up over," Zack reassures him. "It looked like something that'd spook easily."

Cloud is unconvinced and loses his appetite for his kruller. Yuffie consumes it as well as her own, licking her fingers and confounding everyone as to how she stays so tiny when she eats so much. "Heartburn, Cloudy?"

"Huh?"

"You keep rubbing your chest and you're off your food. Hey, you want me to kiss it better?" She snuggles close, forcing him to back away and tumble off the end of their seat. "Ooh, want to play in the dirt instead? I like the way you think!"

"No, I didn't – I just – Aerith, Zack, help!"

Aerith and Zack laugh at the pair of them.

"If you didn't react so much Cloud, she wouldn't do it."

Yuffie raises an eyebrow at Zack. "Oh wouldn't I?"

Suddenly there's a commotion from nearby. The skittish chocobo is still causing problems, yanking backwards against its halter and squawking loudly. It paws the ground and throws its head around, eyes rolling.

Hollow Bastion's chocobo breeder is there. He spots Cloud and gestures him over. "He'll help, sir. Got the best touch with these birds that I've ever seen. Our Cloud'll calm this beast down."

Yet Cloud doesn't calm it down. In fact, seeing him does exactly the opposite. The chocobo lets out an ear-piercing shriek of pure terror and barrels forward. After yanking backwards for so long, the change throws the breeder and its owner off balance and they fall back, allowing it to charge into the main market square.

A creature as large and powerful as a fully grown chocobo is no laughing matter when it's running wild. As soon as the screaming starts all four teens are on their feet.

"Stupid featherhead'll hurt someone," Yuffie mutters, shimmying up a wall like she's walking on solid ground and waiting until it passes beneath on the other side. She leaps straight into its saddle, reaching around to yank on the reins. The chocobo is completely spooked and can't be stopped by signals alone, but that isn't Yuffie's intention. A chocobo will always follow the tip of its beak, so she wrenches its head around at the last second so it can't pull up and sends it running into a wall. It knocks itself out and she hops off to leave other people to clear up the mess. "Take that, you mean-eyed, Cloudy-hating featherbutt."

There's still a disturbance in the crowd. People gather around one spot and a cry goes up, spreading like ripples in a pool: Someone call the doctor.

"Doctor?" Aerith mimics Yuffie's pointy-elbow trick to force her way through to the front. "What's going on? What's wrong?"

There's a heavily pregnant woman on the floor. She's clutching her belly and groaning, face ashen and hair damp with sweat.

A man kneels beside her, trying to hold her hand. "She must be in labour," he cries helplessly. "But it's too soon. That thing, i-it frightened her, knocked her over and now ... Where's the damn doctor?"

Nobody can say. The crowd isn't too large, but it's big enough to have a hive mentality and nobody to steer it.

Alarm blossoms inside Aerith, as does a kind of dull certainty. She shoves past the last few onlookers and drops to her knees next to the woman. Her hands move of their own accord, not guided by her but by instinct. "How long was it supposed to be until the due date?"

The man blinks at her. Obviously he was expecting Doctor Rui, not some scrappy teenage girl in a pink dress. Aerith admits she may not be the most heartening sight in this emergency, but she's all he's got and he seems to realise this. She tries to radiate level-headedness the way Doctor Rui does while also tamping down her own flight response.

"Th-there's still a month to g-g-go."

A whole month? Aerith's heart sinks, but she lays her hands on the woman's abdomen anyway. "Close your eyes." It's a needless instruction. The woman's face is scrunched up with pain and the man's is too with the force of her gripping hand.

Behind her she can hear Zack and Cloud break through and Cloud's gasp when he sees what she's doing.

"Aerith, no …" Zack whispers.

She ignores them both. If somebody doesn't act quickly, this woman and her child may both die. Aerith doesn't know how to deliver a baby, or what proper procedure is so long before the birth is meant to take place, but she senses the infant's distress and the woman's pain. She has to do something.

Her mind skitters over a lumpy realisation, as though tripping over it in a dark hallway. There's something wrong with the way the baby is placed. The word 'breach' pops into her head as though one of the Green Dream voices put it there, and something right down in Aerith's very core refuses to do nothing just because there are people around. She closes her eyes and calls on her healing ability, feeling the soft glow of her power begin to take shape in the air.

"No!" Zack hisses.

"Hey, the damn chocobo's awake again! Everybody scatter!"

As one, the crowd turns. A few do scatter, but most just gape with bovine curiosity.

"Hey, it's still out cold!" yells a man.

"Gotcha!"

Thank you, Yuffie. By the time people turn back again Aerith's hands are in her lap, the last golden sparkles have sunk into the woman's womb and the baby's distress has lessened. It shifts around, moved gently by her magic. The lumpy realisation smoothes into a more natural contour. The woman's breathing, too, evens out. Though she still looks awful, Aerith feels the slackening as something unwinds inside her the way it's supposed to. She's a little surprised to realise her knees are wet and looks down at the spreading pool of liquid.

"I think my waters just broke," the woman whispers throatily.

A figure strides through the crowd, closely followed by another, shorter one. "You'd be correct in that assumption," Doctor Rui observes. "Clear the way, please; the street is hardly an appropriate place to give birth. We need to get this woman to my treatment centre."

Aerith scrambles gratefully backwards. She meets a strong chest and arms wrap around her from behind, holding her close. "That's got to be the stupidest, most noble thing I've ever seen you do," Cloud murmurs, face pressed into her hair.

Aerith can feel her heart pounding and the wobbliness in her legs. If he wasn't holding her up she might just fall over. "You don't know the half of it."

 


 

"You may come in," Shelke says, opening the door. "They've been waiting for you."

"Thanks." Aerith steps through the door. She's changed her dress for a clean one but feels like Shelke is judging the frippery. Shelke always wear practical clothes in practical colours, forever an advocate of function over form. Aerith is taller than Shelke now, but feels just as cowed by her as she was when she was eleven and trembling from Black Annis's attack.

"In here." Shelke gestures. "Mr. Fair, I'm certain you have good reason in your own mind to wear you sword indoors, but I would appreciate it if you would either remove it or stay away from anything glass."

"Sure thing." Zack cocks a jaunty salute at her, which she meets with impassive eyes.

"Follow me, please."

"Bitch," Yuffie mutters under her breath. "Who put the cork up her butt?"

Shelke doesn't turn around but replies evenly, "If you wish to know more about suppositories, I'm sure we can accommodate you with a demonstration or two, Miss ...?"

"Kisaragi. And uh, I think you can hold back on that one. I'm fine being ignorant."

"Yes, I suppose you are." Shelke pushes open another door to reveal the man and woman from the marketplace.

They're tired and worn, hair scuffed into peaks and troughs to rival the mountains, but they both shine with the kind of warmth only new parents can generate. The woman is in bed with the man sitting on top of the covers beside her, both bent over the bundle in her arms. They raise their heads at the door opening and the woman's face lights up when she spots Aerith.

"You're the flower girl from the market!"

It seems a bit redundant to answer that. "Are you all right?" Aerith asks instead.

"Never better," the man says proudly.

His wife kicks him from under the covers of her cot. "Speak for yourself. I feel stretched six ways to Sunday. My poor nethers will never be the same again."

Zack and Cloud cough.

"We're so grateful to you," the man says, getting up to clasp Aerith's hand. His palms are sweaty from being wrung so often but it'd impolite to wipe her hand on her dress after he lets go. "We were wondering – oh, but we can't ask you yet! You don't even know our names. I'm Caspian Caspian."

Aerith thinks he's stuttered, but he laughs.

"It's a family tradition – all boys in my family are named Caspian. And this is Anemone." He introduces his wife. "You're Aerith Gainsborough. Everyone knows you. People in the mayor's office are always talking about and your inappropriate … uh … your living arrange-… oh dear" His eyes widen, as he grasps he's wandered into dangerous territory. "I'm the mayor's assistant!" he blurts to cover his faux pas. "There'll certainly be a reward for you for all your help."

"But I didn't do anything," Aerith says, studiously avoiding Yuffie's eye. Cloud and Zack she can trust to keep straight faces, but the surprise at Yuffie knowing her secret has left her unsure what to think.

"You're a Healer, aren't you?" Yuffie said earlier when they got back to the house to change.

"Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Duh, even ninjas can do other things besides hiding in shadows. Ever hear of multitasking? My clan has a Healer, too. No biggie. But why the hush-hush-keep-Yuffie-in-the-dark schtick? Why didn't you just tell me in the first place?"

"I didn't know I could trust you."

"Pfft. I'm the most trustworthy person on the planet! Well, up to a point. Unless there's unliberated cookies involved. But I'm definitely good at keeping secrets – especially if a really good reason to keep them. Small town without its own wizard or sorceress, plus those guys' faces when you started doing your thing?" Yuffie jabbed a thumb at Zack and Cloud. "Really not hard to make the connection. I'll bet this is one of those places that still calls all magic 'witchcraft'. You get found out and they burn you at the stake or something, right?"

"Or something," Aerith conceded.

"Then consider my lips sealed." Yuffie made a zipping motion across her mouth and wandered away to the kitchen. "Is there any flapjack left?"

And no more was said on the matter. Yuffie didn't probe for more information, nor seem annoyed that they'd kept anything from her. She just accepted the way things were with the same straightforward effervescence that she accepted everything, leaving Zack, Cloud and Aerith to murmur uneasily to each other about her habit of talking too much versus her promise to keep the secret – until word came that they were wanted at Doctor Rui's.

"You were a very comforting presence," the now very un-pregnant woman says firmly, batting away Aerith's protests. "I felt better when you were there, which made all the difference in the world. There were some problems with my pregnancy and I was expecting a difficult birth, but everything went like clockwork and now I have a beautiful, healthy daughter. I can't hep but think you were my good luck charm."

"So we've decided to name her after you."

Aerith stares at Caspian Caspian, even more nonplussed than when he told her his name. "That's not necessary -"

"Oh, but we feel it is."

"No, really -"

"I'd go with Ponytail on this one," Yuffie says, and nobody can understand how she moved to the new mother's side so fast without anyone noticing. Not even the woman, who blinks up at her in surprise. "It doesn't look right for the name. Y'know when you can look at a kid and see it wearing a name when it's, like, twenty-seven and fat and ugly? This one isn't an Aerith."

The woman snatches back the edge of the swaddling, glaring at Yuffie. "I think you'll find -"

"Perhaps it would be more acceptable to allow Miss Gainsborough to name your child," Shelke suggests. Nobody noticed her re-enter the room, either, though she's holding a bottle of something purple so she must've left and come back in again. Aerith briefly wonders if Shelke has some ninja in her. "Then all parties would be satisfied."

"I … suppose. Would you like to…?" Caspian motions Aerith forward.

Aerith takes a step back, but finds Zack behind her. "Go on," he whispers. "You earned the privilege. Go and get rewarded for once."

The baby is small and wrinkly, with a squashed red face and a nose like a piece of mashed potato. Aerith has heard people talk about the miracle of birth and beauty of babies, but this one must've missed out somewhere. It looks like someone threw a lot of pieces together without making sure they matched first.

Then it opens its eyes. They're the brightest, clearest blue she's ever seen – brighter and clearer even than Cloud's. The baby blinks, and though newborns can't focus more than a few centimetres in front of their own faces, Aerith could swear this one looks right at her and sees her.

"A girl's name," Aerith says thoughtfully.

"My baby girl," the woman – Anemone, Aerith remembers – says softly. "My beautiful, beautiful baby girl."

"Anemone … that's a type of flower, isn't it?"

"Why yes. It's special because it only lives under the sea. I guess I shouldn't be surprised you recognised it."

"And Caspian … that's the name of an ocean."

"Correct again," her husband says. "Not many people know that. It's a very remote region. My father told me we have a distant connection to the royal family who once ruled over it, that's why we're all named Caspian. I'm actually Caspian Caspian the Twenty-Fifth, but they've long since dissolved the monarchy in that part of the world."

"Angeal was stationed out there once. He said all he ate for a month were cockles, mussels and fried seaweed." Aerith still hasn't broken contact with the baby's stare. "He said it was gorgeous, though. Ridiculously hot, but gorgeous. His unit would go swimming when they were off-duty and he got sunburn on his shoulders doing kata on the sand." Aerith nods to herself and lifts her gaze to meet the woman's. "Kairi. It means 'sea'. That way there's a running theme between all three of your names."

"Kairi." The woman turns it over and smiles. "I quite like it."

"I do, too." Her husband kisses her on top of her head and sits down, completing the family portrait – mother, father and baby. "Kairi. Welcome to the world, my little Kairi."

Yuffie leans close to Aerith. "Personally, I was thinking more, like, Yuffie II. Or Potato Face."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

"Pretty scarf for the lady?" A man thrusts several under Aerith's nose. "A pretty scarf for a pretty lady?"

-- A riff off a line in Disney's Aladdin, when Jasmine visits the marketplace for the first time.

 

Cloud has bought each of them a kruller.

-- A kruller (sometimes spelled cruller, but I grew up spelling it the way my relatives in Aachen did) is a small, usually ring-shaped or twisted cake of sweet dough fried in deep fat. We used to eat them off sticks from street-sellers, although I've always been more of a sweet-waffle fan myself.

 

It's a family tradition – all boys in my family are named Caspian

-- I wrote this chapter before Prince Caspian came out in cinemas, but it should be mentioned that he's no relation to anyone from Narnia. The name Caspian genuinely does mean 'sea' and the Caspian Sea is a real place.

Chapter Text

 

 

Grimoire dies. Aerith goes to her mother in the flower shop and comforts her. He was just a chocobo, but he's been in their lives for so long his passing leaves a void. Elmyra cries a little, and as she cuddles her mother Aerith marvels that she feels so much like a visitor where she used to feel so comfortable. There are doilies she doesn't remember and new coverings on the chairs. The rooms above the flower shop really aren't her home anymore.

She and Cloud go to the stables where Grimoire was kept (because even the friendliest bird can't live in a flower shop) to take care of things. Aerith's glad Cloud is there. He knows everyone and what needs doing, does it all softly but firmly, and soon they're walking away again with a little pot of ashes. It's unusual to cremate chocobos, but somehow he gets it done and Grimoire takes up residence over Elmyra's fireplace.

Time goes on. Weeks turn into months; birthdays come and go, until one day Aerith opens the curtains to find snow on the ground and mistletoe tied above the front door. It's Yule again, and with Yuffie around it's definitely an experience. Three months after the tinsel has been taken down Cloud still blushes if anyone says 'Miss Cloud', while Zack dissolves into unmanly giggles at the beautiful purple dress Aerith knows she'll never be able to wear again. Yuffie's overjoyed at the new boots they get for her and wears them religiously, walking around on her hands when they're muddy and Aerith tries to make her leave them outside the door with Cloud's.

"They're just boots, Yuffie!"

"Wrong-o bongo!"

"What?"

"They're my boots, all for me, and nobody else is getting their mitts on them."

"Well … at least wash your hands before you walk over the rug. I've just cleaned it."

The Heartless don't attack again. It's as if they were simply performing reconnaissance and, not finding what they wanted, pulled back to wherever they came from.

Eventually Zack's the one to ask Yuffie what they've all been wondering and kind of already guessed.

"Yuffie, aren't you curious about searching for Heartless anymore?"

"Sure I am." She's sitting at the table with her feet balanced on another chair, totally relaxed like she's lived there since she was a toddler and first climbed onto chairs to get a better view of the World of Kneecaps. As they watch she shoves a whole cracker into her mouth and grins around it.

She always eats like she's got to fill up in case she doesn't get anything later. Even months of Aerith's cooking haven't dampened her approach to meals, and anyone who doesn't finish quickly enough soon finds themselves in a cutlery-battle for their food. It's not unusual to find Zack squaring up to her with his spoon as dessert arrives.

"I'm just, y'know, kicking back a bit." To emphasise, Yuffie crosses one ankle over the other. "Even champions need a little downtime. When I go after those creepy little creepazoids I'll blow through 'em like a fart through a sieve, but there's a time and place for everything, y'know?"

The others volley significant looks.

"Yuffie," Aerith says, reaching across to lay her hand over the younger girl's. She's grown to like Yuffie more than she would've expected. Yuffie may be crude and brash, but she's also sincere and loyal. She never said a word to anyone about Aerith's healing.

Yuffie links her hands behind her head, out of reach "You trying to tell me something, Ponytail? The three of you finally tired of having me around? Want me to skedaddle?"

"We're not saying that at all, but …" Aerith bites her lip. Yuffie has never sent word anywhere, never dispatched the information she's gathered on the Heartless, nor asked any of the caravans for news from her homeland. "Yuffie, what really happened to your clan?"

Yuffie freezes. She never freezes. There's always a small tick – a bouncing leg, or a jumping muscle – ready to send her careening into another handspring, but now she goes completely and utterly still. "I guess I should've seen that one coming."

Cloud looks desperately uncomfortable. "We're not trying to be intrusive -"

"Sure you are, but I forgive you. Yeah, you guessed right. They're all dead. Poof. Every single one of them." Her smile is brittle. "Heartless attack. First time I ever saw the things was when they took my dad's heart. I was goofballing around practising with my shuriken, away from camp because my dad was always all 'you-must-only-practise-with-supervision-until-you-can-throw-one-through-the-eye-of-a-needle', so I wasn't with them when it happened. Rushed back but it was a no-go. Too late. The Heartless were finishing up, and even though I took a few out it was pointless. They left and there I was, all one-is-the-loneliest-number in a ghost camp. So I tidied, took what I needed and upped sticks to find the little bastards and kill them.

"Only I found out along the way that they're like cockroaches – difficult to wipe out and you can't tell one from another. Then I found you guys and, well … that stuff I said about the 'only people to take me in and not try to kill or grope me' part was true. You're all right. A bit neurotic and uptight sometimes, and you need to get a clue about yourselves, but you're all right. And I guess I just thought … if I didn't mention moving on again … you wouldn't make me." The short pauses are as unusual as her freezing up. Yuffie lives life at breakneck speed. She doesn't do stumbling pauses.

"Oh, Yuffie." Aerith gets up and hugs her. It's impulsive, and she feels Yuffie stiffen before relaxing into it. She never likes to be touched unless she's the only initiating contact, but this time she relents. Her forehead touches Aerith's shoulder in a way that could just be accidental, dark hair falling across her eyes. It's brief, but it's enough.

"Hey, Ponytail, no need to get all girl-on-girl with me. So I've got a sob story. So do all of you. This just makes me fit in better with the rest of you freaks." Yuffie wriggles free and stands up. "So do you guys want me to leave? 'Cause I totally understand if you do. I've been wanting to investigate what's beyond those mountains for a while now, and I could start out in the morning if Ponytail stays up and makes enough food to see me through until I hit the next village -"

"Yuffie," Aerith cuts her off, "we don't want you to leave. This is your home now, too." She looks at Zack and Cloud. "Right?"

"Oh, absolutely," Zack agrees. "Just stay away from the Buster Sword."

Yuffie rolls her eyes. "It was one time, and I never even got it halfway out the door."

"Cloud?" Aerith looks at him.

"Hm?" He looks up, apparently having drifted off into another daydream. He's doing that more and more lately, rubbing his chest like he has heartburn and looking at an invisible mark on the wall. "Oh, yeah. Sure we want you to stay, Yuffie."

"Gee, way to make a girl feel wanted, Cloudy." Despite her words, Yuffie's eyes shine. "You guys are the best. Seriously. I am totally not putting water balloons above your doors like I'd planned to."

 


 

"Kairi's started walking."

"Really?" Cloud's head is under the sink, but he raises a blind thumb's-up. "That's great."

"Nothing too impressive, but she can take a couple of steps before she falls down again." Aerith smiles at the recollection of fat, grabby little hands and the delighted smile of child who is figuring out how to be mobile and looking forward to finally reaching the interesting stuff adults keep on high shelves.

She calls in on the Caspian household if she's passing that way and they're generally glad to see her. Even though that day in the marketplace was so long ago, they still refer to her as their good luck charm, and Aerith has grown fond of Kairi. The little girl is so bright and sparkling it's impossible not to give in when she demands to play peek-a-boo.

"How's that blockage coming?"

"It's not." Cloud fumbles about for a cloth and emerges wiping his hands. "Hey, do you ever wonder where we get our water from? Or our power?"

"From the …" Aerith blinks, mind slipping away from what she was about to say. An image of the castle comes into her thoughts but disappears again like a hand wiping across a chalkboard. "Not really. Is it important?"

"I guess not. I need to try the plunger again. Can you tell Yuffie not to put potato peelings down the plughole next time? It'd save a lot of hassle."

Aerith knows how much good that'll do, so she changes the subject "How's Little Boko?" Boko died a few months ago after contracting Crumble Claw, a disease that can blight a chocobo stable if not caught in time. Cloud's been coming home stinking of antibacterial solution ever since. Little Boko is one of the roosters from Boko's last studding and has shown promise of being just as magnificent as his father.

Cloud holds up reddened fingers. "Still a biter. We're going to have to muzzle him soon."

"Poor thing."

"Me or him?"

The front door slams and Yuffie runs upstairs. She pauses at the top and runs halfway back down to shout, "Totally not my fault!" before bolting back up again.

Cloud and Aerith look at each other. This can't be good.

It isn't.

"Tifa!" Aerith exclaims when she opens the door.

Tifa doesn't get angry easily. The fact she's wearing an expression which could be described as 'outraged' clues them in that Yuffie's been up to her tricks again. "Tell her," Tifa grits, not bothering to identify who, "that the tavern isn't the right place for her to show off her lock-picking skills to her little fan club. Do you know how many bottles of beer they stole?"

Yuffie's 'fan club' consists of those kids in town who've decided they want to be ninjas when they grow up. At first it was cute, since none of them could keep up with her and they mostly played ninja wars in the schoolyard. However, then Yuffie noticed them and 'took them under her wing', revelling in being adored and dropping tips about how to emulate the Great Ninja Yuffie Kisaragi. This has had mixed results, as Tifa's clenched fists now demonstrate.

Aerith sighs.

Tifa grew away from them for a long time after her mother's death, abiding by her father's wishes and not consorting with 'those three terrible influences'. Even the praise heaped on them after Angeal's death hasn't convinced him that Zack, Cloud and Aerith are anything more than 'bad seeds' who'll corrupt his precious daughter's purity if she's exposed to it too much. He's one of the strongest voices casting aspersions on the integrity of their living arrangements, accusing them of everything from sexual depravity to the occult. Fortunately, few people listen to him anymore. Since turning eighteen and taking a job in the tavern Tifa has tentatively reached out once again, making friends with Cloud's mother and quietly squirming out from under Mr. Lockhart's thumb. It's just a shame that her last few visits to the house have been about Yuffie's tricks.

"We'll put a leash on her." Zack comes up behind Tifa, back from patrol. "Hey, Tifa," he says belatedly.

Tifa pushes hair out of her face. She no longer wears it in a ponytail. Instead it's cut to shoulder-length and swishes as she moves her head. "Hey, Zack. Slay any monsters today?"

"Thankfully, no. All quiet today. You staying for dinner?"

"Can't. I've got to work. Which would be a lot easier if there wasn't so much stock missing." Tifa raises her voice so Yuffie can hear her from upstairs. Then she bids them goodbye and ambles down the path.

Cloud, Zack and Aerith wait until she's gone. Then they shut the door, turn their backs to it and take a deep collective breath.

"Yuffie!"

"I said it wasn't my fault!"

 


 

A figure rises from the shadows and smoke, dark against dark. A hood obscures the face but the body-shape is lean and rangy. She sees it mostly by the blue-white gleam of the outfit – a long coat fashioned from some kind of leather or other heavy, thick material. It reaches for her.

No, not for her but past her, for someone else.

She's not really here. She feels insubstantial, like a shadow cast on hot rock. Yet she also knows she has to protect that someone the figure is reaching for, and so she steps between them, only to gasp as its hand goes deep into her chest. It doesn't know she's there. The hand passes through her, and every cell that touches it comes alive with pain. The coppery tang of blood laps the back of her throat. She stares, wanting to yank down the black hood and expose the figure's identity, but her hands are heavy and everything is already beginning to fade.

Wait, this is wrong. This isn't one of yours, it's one of mine!

She blinks when light hits her eyes from a spinning crystal heart. But it's not her heart, she realises belatedly, slumped on her side like a discarded apple core and watching the figure pick up another, smaller person who struggles like a mouse in a trap. An equally small figure runs towards them, swinging what might be an oddly shaped sword, but freezes as the first little body goes limp. He cries out, and then everything fades away.

No, no, no, this is wrong! I didn't mean to show you this…

The scene changes, becoming angular and lit by tiny lights. The dark figure is still there, but the one whose heart he stole is prone and bathed in shadow. A blurry outline of a child dressed in red and yellow turns its weapon on itself and another crystal heart flies into the air.

She feels an inexplicable motherly affection for both dim bodies on the ground – the one already there, rising now, and the one that was standing but now tilts backwards and explodes into dust. But she can't cry out or reach them. This has happened before. She's failed, she knows, even though she's not sure what she failed at, or why she wants so much to go to the two figures, wrap her arms around them and tell that it'll all be okay in the end. She failed before and now she's failed again. She's failed both of these souls terribly, just like she failed … like she failed …

I was trying to show you it's not your fault. I was trying to show you that things can be changed, that you can save -

"Ponytail, wake up!"

Aerith sits bolt upright, her breath coming in short gasps. Her hands tremble and her eyes dart around, disorientated until the familiar shapes of her bedroom furniture remind her where she is. Her fists bunch reflexively in the bedclothes as she marshals herself to steady her breathing and slow her heartbeat to a mere gallop.

A hand rubs her back. "You look like shit," Yuffie murmurs, not unkindly. "Nightmare? You were all 'woooo' and thrashing about, and I totally thought you were having some really great dream until you started crying like a baby with a smacked ass."

Aerith feels her cheeks, which are indeed wet with tears. She rubs them onto her forearms, sniffing. "What are you doing in here?"

Yuffie moved out of this room ages ago, since she keeps such odd hours and often sleeps in the day instead of at night. Most mornings Aerith comes down to find her sprawled on the sofa, or slumped over the kitchen table with an empty plate that used to contain cake. She stopped feeling peeved after a while and started making two of everything Yuffie likes – one for her to eat with them, and one for her sneak when they've all gone to bed.

"I was on my way to the bathroom, but I heard you in here and thought you were having, like, a freaking seizure or something. Did Zack add another oh-so-clever ingredient to dinner again?"

In an effort to make Yuffie slow down in eating them out of house and home, and to get her back for some prank or other, Zack concocted a harebrained scheme involving fiery spices and knotweed. He'd found one of Aerith's gardening books and read that crushed knotweed has a laxative effect. They should really have realised something was up when he sat down at the table repressing giggles. Obviously, it ended badly for everyone concerned and Zack was banned from the kitchen for a week, forced to eat his meals outside on the step until it rained and Aerith took pity on him.

"N-no."

"Freaking hell, Ponytail, you're shaking like a … shaky thing. Hey, it's three in the morning; my descriptive skills are lacking right now. Are you sick?"

"No." Aerith keeps the tremor out of her voice this time, but when she moves her back is slick with cold sweat and her nightgown uncomfortably damp against her shoulders.

"Then what the hell were you dreaming about to put you in this state?"

"Nothing."

"Pfft. Like hell." Yuffie climbs onto the bed, making the mattress dip. She sits cross-legged, eyeballing Aerith like a fish. "The Healer in my clan always said dreams are your subconscious figuring out stuff the rest of your brain can't or won't deal with when you're awake. He also said it can be a major head-fuck."

"Yuffie!"

"Whatever. Head-freak sounds so lame. Anyhow, I'm gonna stay right here, right in this very spot, until you tell me what's got you so bothered you look like a half-drowned rabbit tossed in front of an oncoming stampede. Hey, cool, my descriptive skills are coming back. I rule!"

"I'm fine," Aerith replies, trying to get out of bed to change her outfit.

Yuffie grabs her hair and yanks her back down again. "No, you're not. You're jumpy and frightened. Just because I'm fearless doesn't mean I can't spot fear a mile away. You're the cool, calm and collected chick around this joint. Whatever's got you riled has to be serious in a 'we-will-not-smile-for-a-month-for-we-have-lost-all-our-sheep-to-rustlers' kind of way."

Aerith holds onto the middle of her ponytail with both hands, trying to tug it free from Yuffie's fist without pulling it out by the roots. "Yuffie -"

"- I am going to tell you what's bugging me? C'mon say it. You know you want to."

"I'm fine."

"Wrong answer." Yuffie gives a sharp yank that impels the back of Aerith's head into the mattress. Kneeling, she places a hand on both of Aerith's shoulders and peers into her face upside-down, so close their noses are almost brushing. "I can be really persistent when I want. You're upset. Ergo, I'm gonna stay right here instead, right in this very spot, until you fess up so I can fix whatever it is and go to sleep. And possibly I may drop spit bubbles on your face so you talk quicker. You're depriving me of my beauty rest, Ponytail. That makes me cranky and hungry, and I already finished all the apple pie."

Images from the dream reappear in Aerith's head, knocking against the inside of her skull like a demented cuckoo trying to head-butt its way out of a clock. She can still taste phantom blood and feel hands inside her chest so clearly that her stomach rolls. Yuffie's hands holding her down are like claws, and suddenly Aerith feels trapped.

"Get off me."

"Ponytail -"

"I said get off me!" It's a whispered hiss and the vehemence in it makes Yuffie let go.

Aerith struggles upright, but instead of getting up she sits on the edge of the bed, her head in her hands.

"Yo, Ponytail, you're beginning to freak me out. Seriously, what's the matter? Did something happen while I was out today?"

Aerith can't answer. She's trying too hard not to be sick as she pictures the red-and-yellow figure stabbing itself. It was too small to be anything but a child, the shape boyish, and the helplessness of not being able to stop him is like a physical wrench. She also remembers the voice that came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. It was high and fluty; nothing like the usual voices in her dreams. This was just a normal dream, that's all. It had to be just a normal dream – just a normal nightmare. But it was so real, like a memory she doesn't remember making. She's never felt this way before, not even after the nightmares following Black Annis, the bat-monsters, or even Angeal's death. At least then she could stop shaking -

A hand lands on her shoulder. "Aerith?"

Aerith swallows, wanting Zack or Cloud, but Yuffie's brown eyes don't morph into theirs and there's concern wriggling around like a trapped insect under the upturned glass of her usual precociousness. Yuffie never uses anything but nicknames.

"I had a dream," Aerith says softly.

"Uh, yeah, kinda guessed that. I'm all for big theatrical pauses and lengthy melodrama, but I'm more of a rip-it-off-like-a-band-aid-so-it-hurts-like-a-bitch-but-not-for-long fan, myself."

And so Aerith carefully explains about her dreams, about how sometimes they tell her things, and how sometimes she learns from the green fire that talks with the voices of those long dead. They don't come often, but when they do they always mean something. She recounts tonight's dream and her fear that it means something awful.

"Was there green fire in this one?" Yuffie asks like she's just been told it'll rain today, or that the hallway needs painting.

"…No," Aerith is forced to admit. "Lots of shadows, and people … people I don't know …"

"Do your dreams usually tell you the future?"

"No. They teach me things, but they usually talk about the past and how to learn from it."

"So maybe there's possibly a slight, outside, remote, slimmer-than-a-butcher's-pencil off-chance that this really was just an ordinary nightmare?"

"But it felt so real…" Aerith's hands clench into fists to stave off more trembling.

"The worst ones always do." An indecipherable expression flits across Yuffie's face in the gloom. There and gone, and then back to her regular smirk that can transform into a fierce grin at a moment's notice. "But hey, that's a good thing, right? If it was just some freaky nightmare then it means whatever was in it was just you playing your overprotective card again."

"Overprotective?" Aerith frowns.

"Of course. You mollycoddle us. Not that I'm complaining – I get double cake portions out of it." Without further ado Yuffie rears back, undoes her pouch-belt and tosses it into the floor. She kicks off her boots and unties her scarf and headband so neither chokes her.

"What are you doing?"

"Mollycoddling you back, of course. You think I'm gonna leave you alone with just your own thoughts for company when you're three heartbeats away from a nervous breakdown? Just don't get any ideas – I don't swing that way and you have two men on tap already."

Aerith flushes with indignation, but knows it's ridiculous to argue with Yuffie when she's decided to do something. "We're just friends," she protests instead.

"Move over." Yuffie grabs one of the pillows and wiggles under the covers at the bottom of the bed until just the top part of her face and fingertips show. "Get in, but keep your toes away from me if they're cold, and no kicking me off the end when I'm being so kind and generous as to give up the couch for a night. If any nightmares come back, lemme know and I'll stab 'em. Even dreams run in terror from the Great Ninja Yuffie."

 


 

"Do you ever think we're the only ones out there?" Aerith stares at the night sky.

"Hm?" Zack, lying next to her, opens his eyes. "What?"

"Were you falling asleep again?"

"Of course not. Your sparkling conversation is keeping me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed." He covers a yawn.

Aerith throws crumbs at him, but hears Cloud grumble instead. "Hey! I didn't do anything."

"Sorry." She settles back, hands linked on her stomach.

It's such a warm evening that she and Cloud decided to take their supper and wait for Zack on the front step, which somehow became laying down watching the sky darken and stars appear. When Zack arrived he wordlessly joined them, causing many squeaks and gripes as he wiggled his way in between their two bodies and linked his arms behind his head. The Buster Sword stands upright above their heads; tip jabbed into the ground like an ancient warrior's grave marker – or the world's smallest lightning rod.

"Where's Yuffie?" Zack asks abruptly.

"On 'night manoeuvres' with her fan club."

"Weren't we supposed to get a leash for her?"

"Do you really want to put ideas into her head?" Aerith breathes deeply, but not too deeply. She doesn't want to fall asleep where bugs can crawl into her shoes and up her skirt. "So, do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Either of you. Do you ever think we're the only ones out there?"

"Out where?" Zack looks at the sky. "Out there? I've never really thought about it before."

"I suppose there might be other places," Cloud muses. "Shelke says our planet's just a big ball of rock floating in space, so maybe there are other big rocks with other people on them."

"Staring up at the sky and wondering whether our planet can sustain life," Zack finishes. He yawns again. "Oh man, I'm tired."

"I like the idea of other worlds," Aerith confesses. "It's nice to think that there could be other souls out there, not just the petty ones you find in our world."

"Well if there are other worlds out there, I wouldn't want to be on that one." Zack points at a star that flares brilliantly for a moment and then goes out.

"I've never seen one so that before," says Cloud. "They usually leave a trail when they're shooting stars."

"Do you think we could still make a wish on it?" Aerith asks. She stares at the stygian blackness for a long while, thinking about what wish she would make, until she becomes aware of Zack's chest moving in regular deep breaths. "Zack? Are you asleep?"

"He's asleep," Cloud confirms in a whisper.

Neither of them moves. Aerith can feel the warmth of Zack's skin through his vest against her bare arm. After a while she shifts sideways and tentatively presses herself against his side, listening to his heartbeat. It's a comforting noise, a rhythmic thump-thump-thump that's almost an affirmation of being alive herself. She fell asleep listening to that noise when he used to get up and sit on the stairs, crying for Angeal. It's nice to listen to it now and know it beats with less sadness than it did then.

"What are you doing?" Cloud asks. Aerith jolts. She forgot he was there and is suffused with embarrassment.

"Uh, just … listening to his heartbeat," she replies truthfully.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"Oh." He sounds like he doesn't know what to say to that. There's a rustling noise and Aerith lifts her head enough to see Cloud's blond spikes getting closer. "Yep, he's still alive."

"Mm-hm."

"Hey, Aerith?" Cloud whispers after a moment.

"Yes?"

"Do you ever think about … y'know, girl things?"

"Do you really want me to answer that when you blush if you accidentally touch my bra on laundry days?"

"I mean older girl things. Like marriage and stuff."

She has thought about it, but only in the context of not wanting to do it. Men in town look at her strangely because she already lives with two – even with Yuffie around they disapprove because they can't see any linear boundaries dividing them into two separate couples. Aerith used to get invitations to dinner parties where girls her age are presented (subtly, of course) to eligible bachelors. Those have dried up lately. More and more people think badly of them but Aerith can't even contemplate leaving. Living here with Zack, Cloud and Yuffie feels right in a bone-deep, irrefutable way that things rarely do.

"Not really."

"Oh." Cloud leaves it a while before speaking again. "Hey, Aerith?"

"Yes, Cloud?"

"You know Zack and I just want you to be happy, right? I mean, we haven't talked about it in so many words, but I'm pretty sure he'd agree with me. It's not so bad to be an older bachelor. People don't talk as much, and especially since Zack's Hollow Bastion's hero they're more lenient about him not having time to go to marriage interviews and things. But you … it's different for girls. I know that. I – we don't want you to resent us, or our friendship. We don't want you to think you have to stay here even if you're uncomfortable or if people are talking and making things unpleasant for you-"

"Cloud?"

"Yes?"

"Be quiet." Aerith snuggles against Zack's side and pretends his sigh is from happiness and not because she and Cloud are constricting his rib-cage.

 


 

Ribbons of green fire twirl around her like veils in a dance. Aerith absorbs their warmth; not ordinary warmth but a deeper kind that rubs against her soul like a purring cat. She holds out her hands and lets green coils encircle her wrists and fingers, working their way up her arms and into her hair. They touch the pink ribbon, approval resonating though her as they snake down her spine and legs, sliding over her hips with the vague assessment that she's not a little girl anymore. Still a girl, but not a little one.

And then … someone touches her hands. She opens her eyes, not knowing until now that she'd closed them. Thin fingers wrap around her own, young and spindly, and indented on the right index finger where they've held a pencil too often. Their grip is soft but insistent and Aerith pulls the rest of the body they're attached to from the fire.

"Thank you," says a girl Aerith doesn't know. She can't be much older than Yuffie, but she's definitely not from Hollow Bastion. There is something familiar about her, though. Her hair is such dark mahogany it's almost red, but it's her blue eyes that hold Aerith's like someone twice her age. "For everything."

"Who -"

"I knew coming through this way would work this time. I knew if I sent myself instead of just memories I could do it." The girl grips her hands tighter. "I'm so sorry for everything."

"What?" The raw unhappiness in her voice doesn't sit right with the pleasant warmth still tingling down Aerith's arms. "What are you -?"

"The Heartless will come. Don't try to save me. If you want to hold on to what's most important to you, please, don't try to save me."

"The Heartless are gone," Aerith protests.

"They'll come back. They'll always come back until the key finds its master, and then they'll come back stronger than ever until they don't come back at all," the girl gabbles, cryptic in her haste to say as many things as she can in the shortest time possible. She clutches Aerith's hands so tight it starts to hurt. "The darkness will take one of us. It has to. If you want to be happy, let it take me instead. Don't save me – just leave me behind and run. I'll survive. I'll be sent away someplace safe anyway when the Heartless call the six of them back from the void. They'll come to take back the castle. I'm too important to kill, but if you try to save me now you'll only set events in motion that'll bring you heartache."

"I don't understand," Aerith starts, but the green fire roars up around them and she feels the girl's hands torn away.

"But I'm not finished yet! Wait, put me back! I didn't warn her about -" She's cut off abruptly.

"Wait!" Aerith steps forward, but the ground disappears and she falls.

 


 

"C'mon, sleepyheads. Up and at 'em." Yuffie pokes Cloud in the side with an umbrella. She will never explain why she took an umbrella on night manoeuvres, but they're used to that. "Man oh man, what did you three get up to last night?"

"Muh?" Cloud raises his head. "Whu?"

Yuffie grins suggestively. "Was it good?"

"Was what…?" Cloud realises that he's on the ground, outside, and his arm is slung over Zack's chest to loosely grasp Aerith's wrist. She's holding onto Zack's other side like he can protect her from the chill of morning dew. It's a very compromising position.

Cloud rolls away so fast he disturbs them both into wakefulness – or Aerith, at least. Zack's eyes are clear of sleep and watching him.

"You two looked so peaceful I didn't want to wake you," he says, helping Aerith to sit upright but talking to Cloud. "Plus you were warm." It seems bizarre that, of the three of them, Zack used to be the least tactile but has grown to enjoy casual touch, and now he's the least bothered about waking up with both his best friends hugging him.

Yuffie's still grinning. "Outside as nature intended," she crows.

"Nothing happened, Yuffie," Zack says in the manner of one speaking to an elderly person who will have forgotten what he's said in five minutes.

"Uh-huh. Y'know, it's sad, but I actually believe you." She sticks out her tongue and then her hand to help Cloud up. "Are you okay, Ponytail?"

Aerith has a hand to her forehead. "I … I had a dream," she mumbles.

"A good one?"

"A Green Dream, but not like any I've had before. I … I think something's going to happen. Something bad. It wasn't … very clear. I can't remember …" She looks up. "I think the Heartless are going to come back."

Yuffie's hand tightens around Cloud's but her face doesn't change. "Really? Hell yeah! We get to kick some Heartless keister!"

Aerith shakes her head. "I have bad feeling about this."

"Do you have any idea of a timeframe?" Zack asks, being the practical one.

She shakes her head again and gets up, brushing her dress a little more vigorously than she needs to. She picks up the discarded dishes and they follow her inside.

After Aerith has explained the details of her dream in private they contemplate what it might mean.

"I don't know anyone in town of that age who fits that description," says Zack. "She told you not to save her?"

"I don't understand it either. She seemed so familiar, but I know I've never seen her before."

When Aerith is uneasy she gets practical and domestic. She lifts the kettle off the hob and pours drinks for all of them, then brings the mugs to the kitchen table. Cloud reflects that this seems to be where they gather every time they need a serious discussion, but their kitchen is about as far from a war room as possible. Sprigs of dried herbs dangle from the walls, the scent of last night's dinner lingers, and there are picture frames of pressed flowers everywhere. A few months ago Aerith started selling them to traders who pass through and they've proven very popular. Nobody else can capture the colour flowers had in life, but when Aerith presses them they remain vibrant. They can brighten a gloomy room better than sunlight through a window.

"Maybe she's going to come in with one of the merchant caravans," Cloud suggests.

"And maybe she'll drop from the sky singing Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day." Yuffie throws up her hands. "If we don't know her, we don't know her. It doesn't matter when she turns up, just that we know her when the Heartless show their ugly faces."

"And do what?" Aerith hasn't sat down. "She said not to save her, but why? And how can we willingly leave her to the Heartless if there's a chance of doing something? Those things ... it's not right." Her head sways from side to side like a distressed animal.

"We'll just have to cross the bridge when it comes to it." Zack toys with the handle of his mug. Nobody except Yuffie has tasted their drink.

"She didn't say saving her would do anything except make me unhappy," Aerith murmurs. "If it comes down to an exchange, my happiness for an innocent life, then I'd still do everything I could to save her. Happiness would be a moot point. I don't know if I could live with myself if I knew someone had died because of my selfishness."

"If there's one thing you're not, Aerith, it's selfish." Zack's voice is so full of certainty nobody can argue.

"Right on." Yuffie claps a few times and punches the air. "Hey, look on the bright side. Maybe it was just a plan old bad dream brought on by sleeping in the dirt, and there isn't any spooky dream girl. Of course, that'd mean I don't get to mangle any Heartless, but life's about exchange, right? Keeping the balance – no dream girl, no Heartless, but no need to make big decisions that could totally crap all over your day."

Aerith doesn't look remotely convinced.

For his part, Cloud's head snaps up at Yuffie's words. "What did you say?"

"Huh? You need to clean your ears or something? I said no dream girl, no Heartless -"

"No, before that." Something is tugging at Cloud's memory like a small child tugging a trouser leg to get a parent's attention.

"Keeping the balance?" Yuffie's expression is as close to puzzled as it ever gets. "Life's about exchange?"

Everything in the universe is about exchange and balance.

The memory rockets out of nowhere. Cloud can't understand where it came from, who said it or why it inspires a sudden stab of fear in him. The feeling is so strong his heart seems to skip a beat.

"Are you okay, Cloud?" Zack's face is painted with concern. "You've gone white."

A life for a life, boy. An act of darkness for an act of darkness.

"I … I …" Cloud swallows. "I agree with Aerith. If this girl does appear and needs saving, we have to save her. If we leave her to the Heartless it's like we've killed her ourselves." … A life for a life … Would the universe pay them back by taking one of their lives to balance the scales? Cloud would die himself before he let any of his friends be hurt. Just the thought of losing them makes his insides twist like he's swallowed a razorblade cocktail. ... An act of darkness for an act of darkness … "It'd be an act of darkness."

"That's a melodramatic way of putting it," Yuffie remarks, arching her eyebrows at him. "Crises bring out your poetic side, Cloudy. Forsooth and yea, for we are the heroes of this town and we are noble, so let the darkness try to bend us to its wicked, wicked ways by giving us nasty-ass decisions to make, for we shall not falter or fall. We are mighty! We are righteous! We are … the Great Ninja Yuffie and the Hero Fighting and Cooking Combo Squad!" She props her feet on the table and leans back in her chair. "Hey, just in case it's today, we need to keep our strength up. I was out all night and I'm so hungry I could eat a fried chocobo egg. What's for breakfast?"

"You were out all night?" Zack squints at her. "Why do I get the feeling we're going to get a bill for damages?"

"Or an angry mob at the door," Cloud adds, marshalling himself to sound normal. He's made his decision already: if anything tries to harm his friends, he'll do whatever needs doing to keep them safe, even if it means risking his own life against the Heartless.

Yuffie just grins and taps the side of her nose.

"Oh hell," Zack mutters. "We'll have to move house."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

"Freaking hell, Ponytail, you're shaking like a … shaky thing."

-- A side-fling to the always-hilarious BBC comedy series Blackadder, which created this subverted style of simile.

 

Aerith shakes her head. "I have bad feeling about this."

-- A riff off the line that appears in every Star Wars movie. As soon as this line is said, you know the shit is about to hit the fan.

Chapter Text

"She's getting so big."

Anemone smiles. The expression has never really lost its tiredness since Kairi was born, but there's warmth and joy in it too. "Don't I know it? She eats like it's going out of fashion."

"Kind of like someone else I know." Aerith glances at Yuffie, who shrugs.

"What? I'm a growing girl." Yuffie pushes her face into Kairi's, brushing their noses from side to side. "We both are, aren't we, Small Fry?"

Kairi giggles and holds out her arms. She clearly wants to be picked up.

Yuffie, in a rare display of forethought, looks to Anemone first. "Is it okay if I hold her?"

Kairi makes a commanding noise. She wants to be picked up, and she wants it now.

"I suppose so." Anemone watches like a hawk as Yuffie grasps her daughter under the arms and hoists her from the floor onto her hip. There are pouches all over Yuffie's belt, some of which contain throwing stars and other sharp objects, plus goodness knows what else. Aerith often thinks they're bottomless, because they can't possible hold all Yuffie pulls out of them. "Be careful with her -"

"I know, I know. Wow, Small Fry, you're not really too small anymore."

"Fuh-rah-ee!" Kairi jabs a finger into Yuffie's eye. "Fry!"

"Please don't call her that," Anemone says tightly. She doesn't approve of a lot of what Yuffie does, but Aerith has vouched for her, and Anemone respects Aerith's opinion enough not to bar Yuffie from the house.

She didn't look too happy earlier, when she opened her front door to find not only Aerith, the guest she invited, but also the ninja girl she lives with. Yuffie was bored and looking for something to do because all her fan club is grounded or have fractured limbs (which she still claims aren't her fault because the kid should've told her he's afraid of heights), so Aerith brought her along to make sure she didn't get into the kind of crazy trouble only a bored Yuffie can create.

Privately, Anemone considers Yuffie a savage who's being slowly civilised by her housemates, but she'd never tell Aerith this as it might hurt her feelings. Aerith seems inexplicably attached to the ninja, not seeing (or choosing not to see) her obvious faults. Perhaps Yuffie is a pet to her, or at least a pet project to make up for not having a husband and children of her own yet.

Aerith knows all this because Yuffie told her after hanging upside down in a tree outside the Caspians' window one night, listening in on their conversation. Yuffie doesn't much care for Anemone either. She calls her a 'stuck up old prude' and often does impressions of her that involve a lot of sniffing with her nose in the air and walking like she has an acorn clenched between her buttocks. She likes Kairi, though. Everybody likes Kairi. Even people who don't like children like her, and Yuffie is willing to overlook Anemone's attitude to play with the little girl.

That didn't stop her from talking about her eavesdropped conversation for three days after she heard it, though – the highlight of which was when she tried to construct Anemone's idea of her being a replacement 'child' for Aerith.

"So if I'm the kid, and Aerith's my 'mom', that'd make one of you two …" Yuffie broke off her impression to grin at Zack and Cloud. "Which one wants the job? The other one can be the boyfriend I bring home as an act of rebellion to make my parents mad at me."

They backed off, pointing at each other, unsure which was worse: being connected to Yuffie as her love interest or as her surrogate father figure.

Back in the present moment, Kairi giggles as Yuffie, eternally forgiving even of having fingers stuck in her eyes, dances around the living room. "More! More!"

"She knows a lot of words now," Aerith remarks.

"Yes. We're so proud." Anemone sits up a little straighter. "Her grandmother dotes on her. She says Caspian didn't know half the things Kairi does when he was her age. We think she's going to be an early developer. She already knows how to hold a crayon and make marks on a piece of paper. Nothing too clear yet, but it's just a matter of time before she can draw a proper circle."

"That's … good."

Aerith watches Yuffie perform an awkward tango, holding Kairi's arm out to the side and taking long strides to her own music. After a moment she twirls around and dips Kairi backwards, provoking an eruption of giggles and a frantic clutch at her yellow scarf.

"Hey, watch it! Wait until you know me better before you try to strangle me."

Anemone's fingers cramp a little around her mug as she strangles her own urge to comment.

Suddenly Kairi's giggles die in her throat. She clutches again, but this time not with delight. She looks frightened and buries her face in Yuffie's front, trying to hide.

"Hey, what's the matter? I didn't yell at you."

"Bah!" Kairi whimpers. "Bah!"

Yuffie looks at Aerith and Anemone, nonplussed. "Translation?"

Aerith is about to say something when the air in the centre of the room wobbles and darkens. Ice knifes into her lungs. She instantly recognises the glowing yellow eyes and small body pulling itself into the room.

No…She stands up so fast she knocks her chair over. "Anemone, run! Yuffie, get Kairi out of here."

"Will do." Yuffie grabs hold of the older woman on her way to the door. "C'mon, Mistress Stuck-Up, we gotta make tracks."

"But … but this my house."

"And it just became part of Stay Here and The Monsters'll Kill You City."

"What about Aerith? What's going on? What is that thing?"

"Trust me, you don't wanna know. Ponytail, time to book it!"

But Aerith has grabbed a poker from the fireplace and whacks it down over the incoming Heartless's neck.

It's not human, she reminds herself, hands trembling at the unfamiliar violence. It's not a person. It barely even looks like one, even if it does have hands and legs and fingers and eyes … never mind. Just hit it! Hit it or you know what it'll do!

She shuts her eyes at the last moment, but still manages to sever its head. There's little substance to resist her – the Heartless really do seem made of shadows – and the momentum of her wild swing makes her stumble. The creature dissolves into dust without a sound, but already there's a new set of eyes peering at her, and the dark patch is growing. Aerith wheels to see more dark circles appearing around the room.

Oh noNo!

She decides a hasty retreat might indeed be the best option and runs for the door, only to find her way blocked by a freshly wobbling piece of air.

Oh  no !

Heartless pouronto the carpet. She backs away, holding her poker the way she's seen Zack hold his sword. It doesn't deter them. They come at her from all sides. They're not like individual bodies; when they're together they take on the appearance of a single, roiling mass of fingers, feelers and baleful yellow eyes.

The front door bangs wide and a hail of tiny shuriken pepper the room. "Ponytail, I thought I told you to book it!"

Aerith dashes gratefully through the small gap Yuffie's weapons have made. "Thank you."

Outside, Anemone holds Kairi in her arms, one hand against the back of the little girl's head like it'll protect her. Kairi is crying softly, shaking her head and pointing at the Heartless.

"Bah!" she says, and then takes a deep breath, her little face scrunched up in concentration. "Bad!"

She knew, Aerith thinks distractedly. She knew they were coming before they appeared.

There's no time to ponder this, as Heartless emerge from the Caspians' house. Yuffie slams the door on them but they've smashed the window. There are so many, all writhing and shuffling towards them. Yuffie hurls shuriken, catches the tiny stars on the rebound, spins on her toes and hurls them again using their own momentum. Heartless explode everywhere. Some headless bodies taking a few more steps before they pop, and some are suddenly missing limbs but still drag themselves forward. The ground turns dark with dust, but it's not enough.

"We need to get away. We need help." Aerith turns and pushes Anemone along in front of her. "We need weapons."

"Weapons we've got," Yuffie replies, tossing a kunai through the centre of one Heartless so that it also hits the one behind it in the head. "Help we could use."

Zack, Aerith instantly thinks, envisioning the Buster Sword. Her emotional responses associate Zack with strength and protection. Where is he? She remembers him saying something about finding imp tracks by the tavern and manoeuvres Anemone in that direction. If they can't find Zack, at least there might be others around there who can help fight these creatures.

"What are those things?" Anemone demands again.

"Bad!" Kairi sobs.

"You said it, Small Fry." Yuffie turns, a sai in either hand, and hacks at Heartless that have come too close.

They're appearing in the street, too, causing the women to dodge and zigzag to avoid them. These aren't like the creatures that attacked years ago. The Heartless then looked like sack-toys made of shadow, while these are dressed in clanking helmets and have metal feet shaped like opened pea-pods.

Yuffie's left sai clangs against one before she thrusts the right through its visor. She kicks and stomps and slashes, giving more credence than ever before to her self-given title. "Yaaaah! Eat Wutai fury, bastards! You'll be sorry you ever met the Great Ninja Yuffie!"

Aerith yanks Anemone back to stop her stepping into a portal on the ground. That's what those dark patches have to be – some sort of portal between here and wherever those things are coming from. She doesn't know what would happen if they did touch one and she doesn't want to find out. People are coming out of their houses to see what the ruckus is, but not one of them is armed and she wants to tell them to go back where it's safe, except she's entirely taken up with getting mother and baby away from the Heartless.

One leaps from above. Aerith, having little idea how to fight, holds out the poker and is grateful when it helpfully impales itself. Before exploding into dust the creature reaches, not for Aerith or Anemone, the easier targets, but for Kairi. Kairi cowers away and squeals when pieces of it land in her hair.

They're after Kairi, Aerith comprehends, thwacking away another Heartless trying to grab the child. But why? Could it have something to do with her knowing they were going to be there before they appeared?

Someone screams. Aerith sees a man who was running away without trying to help. He falls backwards, a shining crystal heart rising out of his chest. His body dissipates, but his heart spins faster and faster, turning a ghastly reddish colour before growing limbs and a head with a metal helmet. The new Heartless joins the throng and is quickly lost from view.

The captured hearts … they become Heartless themselves? A memory surfaces of when they first met Yuffie and she told them of her travels to find information about the nature of Heartless. 'Heartless are hearts corrupted by darkness that no longer have a body to house them or a soul to temper them.' So … people with too much darkness in their hearts become Heartless if their hearts are removed.

An old man hobbles down the path from his house brandishing a carving knife. There's no way he can fight. He can barely stand up and wheezes with the effort of getting this far, but gallantly tries to rescue them anyway. When his heart is taken it vanishes and no Heartless takes its place.

And people without enough darkness just have their hearts stolen. It's a chilling realisation.

The tavern is in sight now. Aerith doesn't know what she expected, but seeing their destination and no sign of Zack makes her stomach flip. She didn't plan further than this, and the horde of Heartless at their backs leave little room for mistakes.

"Aaaah!"

Aerith whips around at the cry. Yuffie is down, submerged under a mass of writhing, clanking bodies. One hand breaks free and stabs blindly with a sai, but it's no use.

"Yuffie!" Aerith cries.

The tavern door flings wide. Tifa runs out with a long pole in hand, which she uses to vault over Aerith and Anemone and land between them and the Heartless. "Get inside," she commands, swinging around in a wide arc and taking out a cluster of Heartless with the pole's sweep. Close-to, Aerith can see it's meant for opening high windows. The blunt hook on the end, which should unbolt window catches, rips through the Heartless like they're made of tissue paper.

"Go!" Aerith shoves Anemone forward.

Tifa performs a series of impressive flips that take her right into the centre of the swarm. For a moment she's lost from view. Then Heartless fly in all directions, flung away by the combined cyclonic force of she and Yuffie.

Yuffie, breathing hard, puts her back to Tifa's and grins. Her face is scratched and bruised and her headband is reddening from a gash in her hairline, but it hasn't dimmed the light in her eyes. "Glad to see you don't hold a grudge."

Tifa bats Heartless out of the air. "Don't think this means I like you."

"Nope. I think this means you loooove me."

Tifa turns in a sharp kick, slicing a Heartless in two with her foot. "Oh, get over yourself."

 


 

Cloud knows with unsettling certainty that the Heartless are attacking. As soon as he hears the noises, some part of him knows what they are and what they mean. He can't explain it, and tries to tell himself he's wrong. He stops sweeping the stable yard and goes to the gate, ears straining. It's probably a spooked horse or children playing.

The thin, unmistakable shriek of a terrified woman pierces the air.

Do you want your friends to die?

Cloud rocks backwards. The words are insidious, appearing in his mind fully formed but not summoned or produced by him. They feel like a memory, have a familiar edge, but slide away like soap when he tries to find out more. For a moment he swears he feels stone pressing against his back and tastes blood coating his teeth, but then the sensations are gone and it's just him, stalls full of panicking chocobos and the knowledge that somewhere the prediction Aerith made months ago has come true: the Heartless are back.

"Hey, what're you doing?" his employer yells as he crosses the yard and lets himself into one of the stalls. They have an advanced riders' class starting soon and several birds are all tacked up and ready. Cloud swings himself into a saddle with ease. "Where the hell do you think you're going? You put that chocobo back, mister, or you're looking at a suspension!"

"There are monsters attacking. I'm going to help."

"Not on one of our birds, you're not. Leave that friend of yours to deal with it. That's his job."

"I'm going," Cloud says in a tone that brooks no argument. He's a little surprised at how obstinate he sounds. Maybe Zack is already there, but he can't take the chance that he isn't. With the same unerring certainty as before, Cloud knows Aerith and Yuffie are mixed up in this. It's as though a thread is woven between them and it's pulling tight, drawing him to them when they need him.

"These birds are worth a fortune. You take one out to face monsters and you're not only looking at suspension, you're putting yourself up for dismissal!"

Cloud loves his job. He's good at it and people acknowledge his skills instead of writing him off as a wimp, a sexual deviant, or just the son of 'that woman', even though his mother hasn't been 'that woman' in a very long time. Stigma is more difficult to wash off than permanent ink. His job has helped him affirm his own identity in Hollow Bastion, independent of tittle-tattle and rumour.

Do you want your friends to die?

He squares his jaw. "No."

"No what?" his employer demands. "No you won't go, or no you don't want this job anymore?"

Would you give up anything for them?

"Yes."

Good boy.

Shaking away his uneasiness, Cloud spurs the chocobo through the open gate and down the street.

-

Anemone stares at Aerith with wide, terrified eyes. As the centre of her chest begins to glow, she thrusts Kairi out and Aerith just has time to take her before Anemone falls back and her very own crystal heart spins in the air. There's a loaded pause in which it could sprout arms and legs, but instead it vanishes, leaving Aerith staring into the eyes of the Heartless that tore it out the back of Anemone's ribcage.

"No!" Aerith shrieks, finding her voice again. "No, we were almost there!" The tavern door is open to admit them, though everyone inside has either bolted or is hiding under a table. They're a matter of steps away and now …

"Mama," Kairi whimpers against Aerith's collarbone. "Mama."

The Heartless reaches for her.

Aerith backs away. She dropped the poker when she took Kairi. "You stay away!"

Needless to say, it doesn't listen. Aerith assesses her options and makes a dash for the tavern once more. It may not be much sanctuary, but walls are walls and she'd rather have something between her and the Heartless than nothing at all.

Yuffie and Tifa enact a dance so deadly and poised it looks like they've been rehearsing this performance all their lives. When Yuffie leaps into the air, Tifa drops to the same spot, snapping out a kick with enough force to separate a Heartless's head from its shoulders. When Tifa spins, Yuffie spins with her, ducking under her extended leg to gouge shorter Heartless with a kunai and her remaining sai. They're almost faster than the eye can follow. Between them they create a bristling whirlwind, hopping, stabbing, weaving and slicing, never staying still long enough for the Heartless to get a proper fix on them. Yet despite their efforts many creatures stream past. They're simply too numerous to be stopped by the two girls' attacks.

Aerith skids to a halt, her way barred by two Heartless.

"Wark!"

A flurry of yellow feathers, the scrape of claws against cobbles, and both headless bodies waver a moment before disintegrating.

"Need a lift?" Cloud leans out of the saddle towards her.

Aerith's never been so glad to see him in her life and takes his hand without hesitation.

The chocobo hops from foot to foot, trying to get Heartless residue off its feet. Keeping one hand on the reigns, Cloud leans forward to shush it and scoops something up off the floor. "Where to?"

"Anywhere but here. Cloud, they're after Kairi. I don't know why, but everyone else is incidental. It's her they want."

"What? Why?"

"I don't know, but Cloud, they got Anemone." Aerith's voice is thick with emotion. Maybe she didn't always agree with Anemone's opinions, but she was a good person and didn't deserve this. Kairi shudders against her front, suddenly motherless and scared stiff. "And the Heartless, Cloud, the Heartless – they're not monsters, they're people. People with too much darkness in their hearts, that's what they are, and they've been turning people from Hollow Bastion into more Heartless, too, and stealing the hearts of anyone who can't be turned, and they took her heart right in front of me and I couldn't do anything and -"

"Whoa!" Cloud pulls the chocobo up short when it tries to bolt. It stamps the ground, terrified and desperate to run away. Chocobos have no sense of smell but the air is thick with a fine mist of defeated Heartless that reeks like stinkweed and roses on a bonfire. "Is that Yuffie and … Tifa?"

"Ragh!" Tifa strikes out with the window pole, decapitating a ring of enemies.

"Yeehaw!" Yuffie yells, plunging into the line behind them with wild abandon. "That's for my dad, you yellow-eyed, saggy-headed bastards. Hah! And that's for the Wutai clan! Hrrraaah! And that's for me!" She goes on this way, a dervish of strikes and shouts of payback, each more fervent and reckless than the last.

"Yuffie, look out!" Tifa yells, throwing herself in front of her with a flying snap-kick. The move takes out the Heartless about to grab Yuffie, but with both feet off the ground Tifa is vulnerable against the one on its left. The creature cannons into her side, sending them both crashing to the floor with her on the bottom. While Tifa is still winded the Heartless plunges both hands into her ribcage like her skin is the surface of water.

Cloud thrusts Aerith's fire-poker into it, slicing it up the middle. Black dusts falls on either side of Tifa's body and she stares up at her unlikely saviour, shocked and breathless.

"Aerith! Cloud!" roars a voice, and suddenly Zack is also there. He cuts a path up the street, the Buster Sword shining with magical strength that allows it to whip around so fast it's practically cutting time into slivers. "Yuffie! I'm coming!"

"What am I, chopped liver?" Tifa flips upright and takes up a ready stance, fists bunched, elbows loose, and all her weight on the balls of her feet.

"Here." Yuffie scoops up the discarded pole and tosses it to her. "By the way, thanks for saving my ass."

Tifa catches the pole and spins it around like an overlarge baton. "I still don't like you." But she's smiling as she says it.

Some of the Heartless at the back of the crowd turn and run at Zack. They pile on top of him and he goes under with the sheer force of their numbers. Tifa and Yuffie ratchet through and off exploding bodies to reach him, using Heartless as stepping stones an instant before they burst. At one point Yuffie's actually pulling Heartless off Zack with just her bare hands, as tiny throwing stars and what looks like a razor-edged boomerang whiz around her.

How the heck did she manage to hide that where nobody could see? Aerith wonders in that strange detached way that sometimes strikes when a situation becomes so incompressible your brain just wants to switch off completely.

Zack comes up for air. His swings should be cutting both girls to ribbons, but each move is so precise not one even clips their hair. The trio wreak havoc on the Heartless, working their way towards Cloud's frantically stomping and pecking chocobo.

"WARK!"

Cloud raises his foot to kick a Heartless clambering over his stirrup to get to Kairi and Aerith. "They're pretty single-minded!"

"Yeah, well so am I!" Yuffie lands in front of them. "And right now my mind's all about getting rid of these things. Cloud, don't like this feather-butt peck the back of my head and cave it in. Tell it I'm trying to protect you."

"Bad!" Kairi screams. "Bad!"

The portals have finally stopped appearing. Those that were there shrink to pinpricks and blink out. The Heartless are no longer infinite, but there are still so many the street is a boiling sea of black bodies. Zack has taken Yuffie's place at Tifa's back and they score a path towards the little group around the chocobo, but when they reach them Aerith sees the state they're in. Zack is better, having sprinted to the battle later than everyone else, but Tifa's starting to flag. Her martial arts aren't meant for prolonged combat. Her style is to finish a fight quickly in a few strong moves, but against so many Heartless she's being worn down. Her left sleeve has been torn off and her knuckles are bloody under their film of black dust.

"They want Kairi!" Cloud yells.

"Well they can't have her," someone replies, Aerith's not sure who, because Zack and Tifa have formed a defensive line with Yuffie and all she can see are their backs.

The Heartless rush them. They maintain their position, backed up against the tavern wall and just hitting, hitting, hitting as the things throw themselves forward. There are Heartless on the ground, in the air, falling on sword and kunai and pole – and then some of them have scaled the building while nobody was looking and are dropping from the roof.

Aerith screams, fingers in her hair, scrabbling at her dress, pulling her arms to make her let go. "No, no, no!"

One of them is wedged between her and Cloud and thrusts its hands into his chest from behind. Cloud's eyes widen in pain and shock. The Heartless itself freezes, its eyes wide with something like shock.

The Buster Sword zings, spattered with Zack's own blood from where they've clawed his face and arms. Yuffie is lifted into the air. Tifa slams against the wall, pole broken but still fighting. The chocobo squeals as three Heartless grab it and turn it onto its side, dumping Aerith, Kairi and Cloud on the ground. The Heartless on Cloud is knocked free and he gasps, clutching his chest like he's having a cardiac arrest. Aerith screams again, curling around Kairi because she can't think what else to do as Heartless pile on top of them.

"Bad! Go 'way!"

Aerith has a brief impression of something like a sword with a crooked end sprouting from Kairi's hand. It sparkles and smells like lilies, which is totally inappropriate for a battle, especially one they're about to die in, that disconnected part of Aerith thinks.

Then the little girl erupts with light, the Heartless dissolve into dust like the shadows they are, and everything is swept away.


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

"She'll take the castle."

"What?"

"You can't stop her. You couldn't know, but … he'll come back to claim his Heartless now they've broken free of their pens. Those things couldn't last forever. They were never designed to. He wanted to release them straight away, but he was stopped. It should've ended there, but everybody forgot, and the Heartless didn't that time and not one of them died of starvation, they just waited to find a way to escape. He'll use their calls and the call of the keyblade to find his way back from the Realm of Nothingness, and then he'll give the Heartless everything and everyone to feed on and multiply their numbers. He has plans. He's always had more plans than anyone knew about. He's been asleep in the nothingness, rekindling his powers, but you've woken him up. To him, it'll be like no time at all has passed, except to make people softer and less cautious. When he finally leaves, she'll come. She and the other evil ones will take the castle and make it their own when there's nobody left to stop them."

"Who will?"

"A witch. A sorceress. A being of pure evil. You don't know her, you'll never meet her, but she'll take your home, and when you go back you'll see her everywhere. You'll have to warn the key-bearer about her. You'll have to warn him about everything to do with Hollow Bastion."

"Him? What him? What's going on? Where am I? Am I dreaming?"

"You made your choice. Kairi thinks it's her fault, but you made your own choice. Now you're going to have to live with the consequences."

"What choice? What are you talking about? Who are you?"

"I am. I will be."

"I don't understand."

"It's difficult to explain. There's so much I'm not allowed to tell you."

"Where are the others? Zack! Cloud!"

"With you and not with you. They'll always be with you, even when you can't see them. It's important you remember that."

"You sound familiar. Do I know you?"

"The Heartless will do whatever he says. He's their master. They can be controlled if the will that bends them to it is strong enough. He'll use the town to increase their numbers and restart his plans. Everyone should leave, but they won't. They're too busy forgetting the castle's even there to notice the evil growing inside it, just like they forgot the people who used to live there. The cloaking was an accident, but it suits his purposes. They won't even see him coming."

"I don't understand."

"You're not meant to."

"I have to save my home!"

"You can't."

"I have to try. I can't leave my mom – Zack, Cloud, Yuffie, Tifa …"

"They're going to create armies. They both know a war is coming. They're counting on it. You can't stop them. You can't stop any of them now. You chose a different path, and so you have a different part to play in this fight."

"Fight? I don't want to fight anyone. I'm terrible at fighting. Wait – Kairi! Those things were after Kairi -"

"She's the most important chess piece on the board, though she's still far too young right now. The keyblade was an accident – she was desperate, but it's too soon for her. It'll always be too soon, until it isn't. She has to grow into herself, like you. You chose to protect. Now you have to carry on protecting her, from others and from herself. She's not yet ready for her powers, or the role she has to play. Keep her safe until she is."

"Why me?"

"Because you chose to save. Remember that. She'll blame herself. Maybe you'll have better luck convincing her that none of it was her fault when she eventually finds out the truth. Remember that you chose – that everyone chose to run towards the battle instead of away from it. They made their own choices, too. You shouldn't blame yourself."

"Blame myself for what? I don't understand! I have to save my mom!"

"She's already lost."

"No!"

"You can't do anything."

"I don't believe that!"

"You -"

"I don't believe that!

"Belief … yes, that's what'll turn the battle. Belief in oneself. Belief that friends can be saved. Belief in the power of the Keyblade. Kairi believed she could change the past, but part of being connected to the ancestors the way we are is learning that time tries to heal itself no matter what. She couldn't stop everyone from choosing to follow their own natures any more than I could. She unlocked the door to your dreams before I could stop her. I didn't even know she could do that until she did it. I used to be such a fan of false hope. It makes things easier when you have something to hope for. I can't promise anywhere would be far enough to run to, but I suppose this time … maybe … a message would be allowed?"

Green fire, warm arms, a voice not heard for years and a single name – Ifalna, that's my name, know me and cherish me like I cherished you when I left you with the doctor's wife, like I cherish you every time you dream, like I will always cherish you no matter what happens. Lips against her forehead, and then a streak of emerald as the message is transported into one who has walls around her mind. She's not like us. We're Ancients, special people with special blood who remember the old magic. Magic is stronger in us than other people, but I'll try. For you, my precious one, I'll try to make her hear…

Back along the dark tunnel, through the void between worlds and out into the light, across the sky like a falling star. A town. A house. A room. A body. The shape of a mind, lumpy and human. Elmyra.

Tell her! Quickly, tell her before the shock of hearing you this way makes her mind snap!

"Mom, you have to go! You have to leave Hollow Bastion! Take anyone who'll go with you and get as far away as you can. Go tonight. Just pick up what you need to get safely across Barren Region and leave. Take Cloud's mom. Take anyone else who wants to go. Take Tifa's dad! I know you don't like him but please, knock him out and drag him out of Hollow Bastion if you have to, just leave. Go to Zack's; take what weapons you can find to defend yourselves. Just get away and don't look back. Please. For me."

A mind startled. A dropped flowerpot. A body on its knees. Hands at a mouth bracketed by wrinkles, as the mind comprehends that someone precious is suddenly gone from her life. "Aerith…"

And then the link breaks and it's back, pulled back, yanked reluctantly into the void, through it, beyond it, out the other side as stars slide past. Different worlds, fading in and out, from bright to dim to bright again – the balance of light and dark, endless, eternal, stretching from the past, to the present, to a future where a woman wearing a pink and white dress smiles sadly.

"You'll understand your powers better, in time. It's part of being an Ancient – you only really see things properly when it's too late, or when you get old and die. Or just die, I guess. It'll be hard, but you'll understand when you get to me. It's easier to think about it all from here."

"Where's here?"

"Right … here."

And she lands with a splash.

 


 

Aerith opens her eyes and realises in the same moment that she's laying on her back, she's soaking wet, and a child is crying nearby. It takes a further moment for her scrambled brain to catch up and process these things properly. When she does she sits upright so fast her head spins.

"Kairi!"

Kairi's sitting beside her in the shallow, noxious smelling water. Their voices echo, which tells Aerith more than the faint flickering glow of a candle in a glass box hung on the wall. All she can tell from Kairi is what her outline and quiet sobbing reveal. "Mama … Mama …"

Anemone …

The battle with the Heartless comes back and Aerith hugs Kairi close. "Shh, shh, don't cry, it's all right, I'm here, you're okay." She doesn't think the lie is as bad if she slips it in the middle and covers it with soothing noises. Things are not all right. She doesn't have a clue where they are and it's too dark to see much. "Shh, Kairi, shh."

She hears splashing nearby and freezes up. More Heartless?

"Ponytail?"

"Yuffie!" Relief floods through Aerith. "You're all right!"

Yuffie's teeth shine in the gloom. "Sure I am. I'm the Great Ninja Yuffie. Nothing can keep me down for long. I am rubber, you are glue, yadda yadda yadda. You okay?"

"I'm not hurt."

"Yeah, I getcha. Here." She holds out her hand and helps Aerith to her feet. Aerith stumbles a little, readjusting Kairi in her arms.

"Where are we?"

"Trust me, you don't want to know."

"Yuffie, tell me."

"I think it's a sewer. I've seen things floating past you don't even want to know about – no crocodiles, though, which was kinda disappointing, but also kinda not, 'cause I'm tired as hell and I lost a shitload of weapons back there. Whoops, sorry, forgot about Small Fry. Um, I lost a buttload of stuff … ah, forget it. I've been wandering around in the dark for an age. I found a ladder that seems like it goes somewhere, but then I heard you two and skedaddled this way to do the whole huddle-together-for-warmth thing."

"Do you … have you see anyone else?"

Yuffie's tone is light and she's so good at it Aerith can't tell if it's forced or not. The fact she uses real names tells Aerith much more than her tone of voice. "Y'mean Zack or Cloud?"

"Or Tifa. We were all together when …" Aerith remembers and her eyes travel down to Kairi. She looks just like a normal little girl, but Aerith is beginning to comprehend that she's much, much more than that. Aerith's head feels fuggy, like after a Green Dream, but the details are still circling, waiting to land while her brain deals with the current crisis.

"Not a hair from any of them," Yuffie says. "C'mon, let's see if things look more familiar topside. Any idea what happened?"

"I don't know."

Aerith has a strange sense that they've shifted far more than location. The air is foetid, but when Yuffie pushes aside the covering at the top of the ladder and they emerge onto a street, even the cleaner air tastes strange. It's night, which it wasn't before, and when Aerith looks up she doesn't recognise any of the constellations.

"Wow, this place isn't exactly a bustling metropolis," Yuffie remarks.

It's true; the street is deserted, though the lamps are lit and everything is well cared for. There are cobbles here but they're shiny and new, like they've never seen a dusty chocobo's feet or been clanked over by horseshoes and hobnail boots. The buildings, too, are overly clean and prim. Lights shine out of windows but no silhouettes move in front of them. It all feels very simulated, like a child's play-set brought to life.

Aerith shivers. They need to get dry before Kairi catches a chill.

"Sure, but which way do we go?" Yuffie asks when she tells her this.

"Does it really matter? Let's try at one of those houses."

"Super duper." Yuffie starts to skip ahead but drops back to amble alongside Aerith. There's a kunai in her hand. "Can't be too careful when weird things happen."

Aerith is forced to agree.

The door is opened by a podgy man in formal clothes that include, bizarrely, a burgundy cravat and gold cufflinks. He's neat and trim, and when he sees them bedraggled on his step he slams the door in their faces.

"Asshole!" Yuffie shouts. "We've got a kid out here! Haven't you got any heart?"

"Yes, and I intend to keep it!" is the cryptic reply.

When nothing else comes of that house they move on, but not before Yuffie bangs the doorknocker so hard she hurts her already battered knuckles. "What an asshat. Oh shit, I forgot again. And that time too! Sorry." She reaches to wiggle a finger in Kairi's hand, but Kairi's too tired even to cry anymore and just stares blankly at her. "Poor kid. I know exactly how you feel. It happened to my dad, too, but it gets better with time and ass-kicking." It's the most consoling Yuffie can be but it does little good. Kairi just continues to stare.

"She's used up a lot of energy," Aerith murmurs.

"Say what?"

"I'm not certain, but I think Kairi may have been the one who brought us here."

"Seriously? But she's just a little kid."

"I was a little kid once. So were you. Besides, can you think of a better explanation?"

"Right now? No, but I never went to any fancy-pants school like you so I don't have as much reputation to lose if I'm wrong. What makes you think Kairi did it? Or that she even could do it, 'cause last time I checked, she's not even at the whole-sentences stage, let alone the transport-people-through-time-and-space stage. Even you were able to cut up your own food before you starting healing things, and I at least learned to walk before I became fabulously ninja-tastic."

Aerith halts, stunned. "You think we've been moved through time as well as space?" It's not as ridiculous an idea as it sounds for a girl who can mend broken bones just by touch and talks to the dead in her dreams.

Fragments of what she dreamed when she was unconscious float back to her, especially the image of a woman with startlingly familiar brown hair and green eyes. Was that her mother? No, wait, she has a name for her now. Was that Ifalna? Aerith hasn't had any contact with her mother since she first discovered her powers, and has never actually seen her face. Still, something in Aerith says not, but she recalls with perfect clarity how Ifalna was able to briefly drag her back to Hollow Bastion to warm Elmyra of the coming danger.


A witch. A sorceress. A being of pure evil. You don't know her, you'll never meet her, but she'll take your home and when you go back you'll see her everywhere.

Aerith feels sick.

"Hey, you," says a voice behind them.

They turn to face a man they've never seen before, who looks at them with stern eyes like they've broken some law just by existing. He stands with arms folded, but even this isn't enough to distract from the giant sword-thing dangling from one of his hands. Everything about him radiates tight control, the way Zack and Cloud radiate easy confidence and nervous wonder. A diagonal scar across his face warns Aerith that he's someone to be cautious of and makes Yuffie imperceptibly tighten her grip on her kunai.

"You're not from around here," he says.

"Right first time," Yuffie replies, moving slightly in front of Aerith and Kairi but grinning like this is all part of come colossal practical joke she and her fan club set up. "We just got into town. Y'might say we just dropped in. I'm the Great Ninja Yuffie Kisaragi. And you are?"

He grunts. "Yuffie. Does that mean you're Aerith?" He nods at her.

Aerith nods back, not allowing herself to show any weakness. She's responsible for Kairi's wellbeing now. She'd better get used to the responsibility. "That's me."

"And you have the kid with you. Both of you follow me."

"Hey, wait! What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Yuffie calls at his retreating back. "Hey, are you even listening to me? Hey, chumley, I'm talking to you! Ooh, I know he can hear me. C'mon, Ponytail."

Aerith doesn't move. "But we don't even know who he is. How do we know we can trust him?"

The man pauses long enough to throw over his shoulder, "Come with me or don't, I really don't care, but Tifa's waiting for you at my place."

Kairi sneezes. That and his words are enough to make Aerith move. The fact that he has a sword and hasn't used it on them helps, as does the strange feeling her power picks up from him; of brokenness even though he's clearly in the pique of health. Somehow her feet plod after him, Yuffie still babbling and Kairi heavy in her arms – until there are stairs, a door, and a wonderfully familiar face at the top of the first and behind the second.

"Teef!"

"Don't call me that," Tifa tells Yuffie before wrapping her in a bone-crushing hug. "I thought you guys were dead. When I woke up in the middle of the street and none of you were there…"

She tries the same with Aerith but Kairi sneezes again. The man motions them inside with a sharp hand movement that puts an end to any happy reunions. Tifa bustles them all into the welcome warmth.

"It's okay," she says, glancing at the man. "He's okay."

Aerith stands foolishly, not knowing what to do next. The room is nicely furnished but, just like outside, it feels like someone's faked it. The wood's too polished and if she moves she'll leave depressions in the thick-pile carpet, which would ruin the effect by leaving evidence of human habitation.

"You can clean up in here." The man, whose name she still doesn't know, leads her through to a bathroom area with a pale blue motif. The faucets are gold and the windows frosted stained glass. Anything else would be too mundane. "Towels are in the cupboard."

"Thank you." I think.

He doesn't acknowledge the words.

"You never told us your name." She should at least find that out, if she doesn't know whether to trust him or not. Clearly he's already earned Tifa's trust, but Aerith feels so out of sorts she'd second-guess her own name right now.

The man pauses, but Aerith gets the feeling he's not actually thinking about his answer. "It's Leon."

Yuffie dances in after he's gone, shining with delight "Tifa says that guy's gonna go out and look for Cloudy and Hero. How cool is that? If I clean up fast I'm going with him."

"Who is he?" Aerith asks, which might be a foolish thing to not know when she's in his bathroom wrapping one of his towels around Kairi.

"Leon."

"But who is he?" Aerith persists.

Yuffie shrugs. "Some guy who helped Tifa out. We can always bust his head if he's a pervert."

"With that sword … thing?" It had a trigger. Since when do swords have triggers?

"Hey, remember who you're talking to. I'm the Great Ninja Yuffie, and the day I can't kick a pervert's nuts into his neck is the day I give up dessert!"

Aerith is less than convinced.

Yuffie yanks her top over her head, unwinding her scarf from around her throat afterwards. She's never been especially body-conscious, as is evidenced by her midriff-baring outfits and tendency to sleep in her underwear, then go for a drink of milk and scare Cloud while he's on his way to the bathroom. She spins both faucets on the big ceramic bathtub before wriggling out of her shorts. Soon the room is filling with steam.

Aerith goes slower, taking care of Kairi before herself. She checks the little girl for injuries as she peels off her wet clothes, but Kairi's remarkably unharmed except for the tired, flat look in her eyes.

The man – Leon's – towels are far more luxurious than Aerith might've expected. He doesn't strike her as someone too bothered with luxury. He's all hard edges. Aerith wonders what basis she has to make any assumptions about his character, but can't help the suspicion that someone else was behind the home comforts. She's lived in a house where she's the only female and recognises the signs. No man chooses powder blue or decorates his bathroom with a wing motif.

"You wanna put Small Fry in first?" Yuffie gestures at the full bath.

Aerith shakes her head, but dips another towel in the water and strokes it over Kairi, washing the dirt and sewer water off her. The black residue of the Heartless comes away, too. It turns into a thick paste when mixed with water and Aerith has to stop herself scrubbing too hard to rid Kairi of the horrible stuff and all it represents.

Yuffie sinks into the hot water with a happy sigh. It's actually a few moments before she begins busily scrubbing up and down her legs, leaning so far back in the tub that Aerith is sure her face will submerge. A few moments' relaxation for Yuffie is a few hours for anyone else. Aerith continues to stroke Kairi with the towel, rubbing life back into her like a mother cat licking its kitten.

I'm responsible for you now, she thinks, the full weight of that dawning on her. Your father isn't here and your mother's gone. She gave you to me. She trusted me to get you to safety. We're all you've got. We have to keep you safe. She remembers the way the Heartless reached for Kairi and shivers. You're special, aren't you? What made them want your heart so much?

As if hearing her thoughts Kairi looks up. Her clear blue gaze is heart-stoppingly familiar, but before Aerith can grasp what it means Yuffie does slip backwards. She comes up spitting bathwater in a long stream like a character in a marble fountain, hair slicked so close to her head that Aerith can see the shape of her skull. Yuffie has a lot of strange indentations – records of the ninja training from her childhood perhaps? Mementoes of battles she doesn't talk about, fought before she even came to Hollow Bastion and met her friends? That's the problem with everything sliding off Yuffie; even the small things that would tell you more about who she is don't stick.

"Blearrgh!" Yuffie chokes. "This thing's slippery as a fish's butt!"

"Be careful."

"No sh-" Yuffie glances at Kairi. "No kidding." She finishes washing and stands up, soaking wet. "Hey, Ponytail, a little help here?"

Aerith passes her a towel.

Yuffie steps out, rubbing herself dry and scooping hair into a towel-turban. She dunks her clothes in the bathwater and wrings out greenish residue from the sewer. "Eeew! Gross to the max!" She promptly squeezes out as much as she can, flips her things about and wriggles back into them.

Aerith's about to protest when she realises they've nothing else to wear. "You can't go out in wet things," she settles for instead. "You'll catch pneumonia."

"Hardened warriors like me don't get piddly things like pneumonia."

"My dad died of pneumonia." She still thinks of Mr. Gainsborough as her father, even though they aren't blood related and she never knew him. If anything, Angeal acted more of a father to her, but she still calls the stranger who was once married to her mom 'dad' like it means something. "He was a doctor. Anyone can catch pneumonia."

"Yeah, well, I'm special." Yuffie doesn't do tactful retreats. With her it's all or nothing, eyes on the prize, tuck diplomacy under one arm, subtlety under the other, put your head down and run until you can't run anymore.

"Not that special. You can't go out if it'll make you sick."

"Yeah, and you'll be sick if I don't go and find your boys – sick with worry!"

"They're not just my boys."

"Yeah, uh-huh, whatever you say." Yuffie rolls her eyes and unspools her top down over her chest. She shakes her hair out of it turban like a wet dog, inadvertently sculpting it into crazy peaks and troughs. "Whoa, head rush." When it comes to her yellow scarf she spends a microsecond looking at it in her hands before replacing it around her neck. "There a hairbrush around this joint?"

"I haven't looked."

Yuffie's searching turns up nothing, so she runs a hand through her tangled mane and decides it'll do. "I'll try for windswept and interesting today. I think I have the experience to qualify."

Aerith hears voices when Yuffie skips out of the room; a bass rumble and Tifa's recognisable alto. They speak for several minutes, until a door shuts. Yuffie traipses back in, or at least skips a little slower.

"They said I can't go unless I change into something dry."

Aerith isn't entirely upset. She doesn't want Yuffie out of her sight now she's found her again, but the thought of Zack and Cloud out there alone, possibly injured and in pain, makes her lungs want to stop working. "I guess we'll have to trust that man to find Cloud and Zack -"

"Hey, no way! I'm still going; I just have to wait for a minute."

"For what?"

"For Mr. Tall, Dark and Monotone to get me some duds. Man, I hope they fit. Rolling up pants legs is so passé and, like, little-kid-ish. A total step backwards. Do I look like a little kid to you?" Yuffie turns around, trying to jiggle her non-existent chest. There isn't an ounce of fat on her despite all she eats.

Aerith is saved from answering by a knock at the door. It's Tifa, and for the first time Aerith notices that she, too, has changed her outfit. They're obviously man's clothes. The shirt hem has been tied into a bow beneath Tifa's chest, and the pants are tugged in at the waist by a studded belt on its last notch. However, on Tifa they still look feminine, maybe even a little sultry. She just generates an air of allure that means she could look sexy wearing a full garbage bag.

Yuffie stares with unashamed jealousy at Tifa's more ample bosom. "Razzin' frazzin' – some people get all the luck."

A short laugh crackles in Tifa's throat. "Luck? I don't feel very lucky right now."

"We're alive aren't we?" Yuffie snatches the pile from her hands. "And once we find Cloudy and Hero we'll be alive and all together again. No worries."

"Except for the fact we're gods-knows-where and left all those Heartless back home."

"We took most of them out. There had to be, what, five or six left?" It's a ridiculous thing to say, but nobody can fault Yuffie for trying, in her own way, to halt the tears flooding into Tifa's eyes at the thought that they left Hollow Bastion and everyone in it to die.

"My dad …"

"He'll get away."

Both Yuffie and Tifa look at Aerith.

"I got a message through to my mom. I told her to leave Hollow Bastion." The memory is filling in from the edges even as Aerith speaks – not wholly, but enough that she can infuse her tone with conviction. "Something evil is going to go there and I wanted so much to tell her to get away that I … did. I told her to take Cloud's mom and your dad, too, Tifa, plus anyone else who'll go with her."

Tifa swallows. "But the Heartless ..." She doesn't even try to argue with the improbability of what's just been said. She's too eager to have some hope to cling to.

"The light that brought us here, didn't you see what it did to them? They vanished."

"Did you dream that, Ponytail?"

"No, I saw that part myself. I dreamed the message to my mom, but I know it was real."

"Won't hear me complaining." Yuffie hops about on one leg, trying to remove her shorts and stuff her foot into a pair of pants at the same time. They're far too big and look absurd even when she pulls her studded belt so tight it creaks. Likewise when she slips a plain white vest over her head. She crams the bottom of the vest into the waist of the pants, but the effect is still that of a little girl trying on dressing-up clothes.

"They're too big," Tifa says, seizing upon this uninteresting thing to distract from whatever thoughts are running through her head. She's speaking to Yuffie but looking at Aerith, a mixture of gratefulness, confusion and curiosity in her eyes. "Wait here, I'll ask Leon if he has anything else."

"Wait, Tifa -" Aerith starts, but Tifa is already gone.

Yuffie looks down at the clothes. "I can fix this." As if from nowhere she produces a kunai and proceeds to hack off the pants at the knees. She spears a fresh hole in the tough leather belt, tightening it further, and stands proudly in front of the mirror. "I'm so good sometimes I even amaze myself. You okay here without me, Ponytail?"

Aerith ignores the question because she doesn't know what her answer should be. "Just find Cloud and Zack."

"Will do." Yuffie gives a hasty salute and dashes out.

Aerith turns her attention back to Kairi. Most of the gunk is off her now, but there's still black dust in her hair. Aerith decides a bath might be a good idea for the little girl after all. She swills out Yuffie's green residue before filling the tub with fresh water. She's just leaning over the side to push the plug in when the door knocks again and opens without waiting for a reply.

Leon pauses. "Where's the other one?"

"If you mean Yuffie, she was looking for you."

He grunts. "These might fit you better than my things." He holds out a neatly folded pile of clothes.

Aerith takes them gingerly. He walked in without waiting for permission. This is a bathroom and is obviously being used for bathing. Maybe he really is a pervert like Yuffie said.

And yet … something about him says the last thing he intended was to catch one of them naked. Rather, it probably didn't even occur to him that he would walk into his own bathroom to find a situation beyond his control, even if he does have strange women suddenly scattered all over the place. Which begs the question: what kind of person takes in strays like them off the street?

Then again, what kind of people take in a hungry, rude ninja girl and let her become a part of their family?

Leon's hands fold into fists and he holds his arms at his sides like he wants to snatch the clothes away from her again. "Anything else?"

"No, we're fine. Thank you for doing this."

He shrugs. It's nothing like a casual movement.

"I have to know, though," Aerith says carefully. "Why? Why are you helping us?"

"Your friend said you were fighting Heartless before you arrived here."

"You know about Heartless?"

His face darkens. "I know all about Heartless."

"Have you fought them too? Is that why you're being so kind?"

He looks at her, impassive. "Get changed. I'm going to find your friends." With that he leaves, shutting the door behind him.

Aerith crouches beside Kairi. She's startled to realise the little girl was watching the exchange in silence. Her eyes followed Leon out the door and have fixed on the last spot she saw him. Aerith gently joggles her arm to breaks her gaze. Instantly she's back to bring vacant and tired.

Aerith decides to try something. She lays her hands against Kairi's head and a pinprick of light appears above her knuckles. It turns in ever-increasing circles, casting Aerith's hands and Kairi's red hair in shifting shadows. It turns for far longer than usual and eventually Aerith lets it sink into Kairi's scalp, but when she pulls away, panting, she knows she's only scratched the surface of Kairi's exhaustion. The little girl was running on empty and looks only a little better now, though Aerith feels exhausted herself.

Aerith bathes Kairi, making sure to get all the slime out of her hair and out from under her fingernails. She can't bring herself to get into the bath and leave Kairi on the floor, so she settles for a quick wash while standing up to get the worst of the dirt off herself, and then dunks her head over the side of the bathtub. The water runs black for a while but eventually streams from her hair with no trace of Heartless or sewer in it. She cleans and tidies the bathroom before changing her outfit. A faint pall of normalcy settles, like a barrier between her and everything that's happened. Picking hair from a plughole is far more grounding than reassuring words.

The clothes aren't at all what she's expecting. For one thing they're women's clothes, giving credence to her earlier idea that Leon doesn't live alone. Aerith wonders what his companion will say about him bringing home a harem he doesn't even know. She feels odd, putting on someone else's things when they haven't given permission, but the clothes fit well and feel much better than her own. For Kairi she takes the shirt meant for Yuffie, putting it on over a towel tied around her bottom as a makeshift diaper. On Kairi the shirt looks more like a dress, so Aerith tucks it under her little feet before finally leaving the bathroom.

Tifa's on the sofa. She springs up at the sight of Aerith and Kairi. "Do you feel better now?"

"Much. But I'll feel even better when Cloud and Zack are back. I wish I could've gone too, but I couldn't leave Kairi."

"I could watch her."

Aerith shakes her head. "No offence, it's just that I feel responsible for her. Anemone gave her to me right before …" Aerith breaks off.

Tifa just nods. "Yeah. I know. Listen, about what you said before, did you really mean it?"

"That I spoke to my mom? Yes."

"How?"

Aerith bites her lip. All these years and Tifa still doesn't know even half of what she can do. Aerith feels guilty that Tifa, whom she's known for so long, knows less about her than Yuffie, but somehow the situation with Tifa never felt right. Perhaps it was Tifa's overbearing parents, but something has always held Aerith back from revealing her secrets. Now she feels filthily guilty that Tifa has risked her life and been brought to this strange place on account of someone who's not been honest with her. "It's a long story."

"Like we're going anywhere?" Tifa sits down but leans forward. "Do you think we should? Go somewhere else, I mean. You're a good judge of people. What do you think of Leon?"

Aerith is surprised. She's never thought of herself that way. She sits beside Tifa, Kairi on her knee. The room is warm and the edges of Kairi's hair are already beginning to dry. Her own hair feels cool against her neck. "What did he say to make you trust him?"

"He found me before I woke up and didn't try to kill me. That helped," Tifa admits. "I must've been talking in my sleep – I do that sometimes – because as soon as my eyes opened he was asking me what I knew about fighting Heartless. I didn't even know who he was; the last thing I remember was Heartless attacking us, and then he's in my face talking about them, and besides, he startled me …" She looks embarrassed.

Aerith frowns, just a little. "What … happened?" she asks, though she has a suspicion.

"I tried to kick him in the head while I was still on the ground. I would've hit him, too, if he hadn't moved that sword in my way so fast. Nearly vibrated my leg right off with the impact. I was all ready to fight anyway, but he put down his weapon and asked me again what I knew about the Heartless."

Aerith nods. "Did he tell you where we are?"

"Traverse Town."

It's not a name Aerith recognises.

A knock sounds at the front door. Both girls freeze, unsure whether to open it or not, since this isn't their home but they are the only ones here. As it is, the decision is taken away from them when a key rattles in the lock and an old man bustles in. He has the most preposterous hat and longest beard they've ever seen, and though he doesn't use it for walking he carries a knobbly cane in one hand. This stops half an inch above the floor when he spots them. His mouth drops open at the sight of Tifa.

"Rinoa?"

Tifa stands. "Uh, no. Hello there. My name's Tifa Lockheart. Who are you?"

The old man blinks at them over his glasses. "Oh my, oh dear, yes, I see. Sorry, my dear, you surprised me for a moment there. I thought … wait a moment, what are you doing here? Leon?" he calls, turning in a half circle.

"He's gone out. He … went to look for some friends of ours. We're sort of new in town and he let us stay here because we didn't have anywhere else to go."

The old man's eyes widen. "The falling star! I thought something like this might've happened, but to be ejected from your world without its star actually going out – well it's not happened since … dash it all, it hasn't happened since we arrived!"

"You live here?"

"Goodness gracious, no. Three's a crowd – or it was. Two is pesky. I'm quite comfortable where I live."

"You have a key." Tifa points to it, still in his hand.

"Mm? Oh, so I do. Yes, Leon gave it to me a while ago, though why he thought I'd ever be locked out of a place is beyond me. Me, barred from anywhere? Poppycock."

"Excuse me," Aerith interrupts. "You didn't answer our question: who are you?"

"My sincerest apologies, my dear. This must look very suspect to the untrained eye, yes? I am Merlin; mage, magician and general sorcerer."

"You're a wizard?"

"In its crudest terms, yes. I am a practitioner of the arcane arts. I am also Leon's friend, inasmuch as he has friends. I merely came by to check upon his welfare and discuss the falling star – an inexact term, to be sure, but sometimes clichés get the better of even the brightest mind. It seems he has, ah, 'beaten me to the punch' as it were. Is that child all right?"

Aerith looks at Kairi but sees no change in her. "She's just tired."

Merlin's brows knit, but he shrugs. "Well, a mother knows best, I suppose. I'm certainly no expert with children. Give me a good spell book any day."

"I'm not her mother."

"You're not?" He looks at Tifa, who raises her hands palms outward. "Oh. I must admit, I'm confused. The child seems most attached to you and you have a very motherly look to you … ah, but I think I may be speaking out of turn. I may have spent too long in Leon's company and his rudeness is rubbing off on me. Perhaps this is the opportunity to suggest a sit down with a cup of tea and a thorough chat with some proper introductions. I'd be most interested to hear of how you got here, where you came from and suchlike, and I assume you have as many questions about where here is."

Aerith doesn't feel intimidated by the old man the way she did with Leon. Leon's offhand manner grates, while Merlin comes across as merely a kind old gentleman; a bit scattered, perhaps, but there's an undercurrent of warmth to him that appeals and reassures her. "That sounds nice, but I'd rather wait for our friends to get back before we discuss anything."

"Quite, quite. But you won't mind if I indulge in a little tea in the interim?"

"No." Neither girl can see any harm in that.

"Splendid." Merlin taps his cane on the floor and a blue-spotted teapot poofs out of thin air, steam rising from its spout. "Goodness, I forgot the cups," Merlin exclaims. Three china teacups and matching saucers follow suit. They fly to the coffee table in front of the couch and come to rest ready for the pot to pour into them. "Sugar?" Merlin asks like it's nothing out of the ordinary.

Both Tifa and Aerith stare.

"Um…" Tifa mumbles. "Two please?"

"Very good. A girl after my own heart." Two sugarlumps materialise and plop into one cup, which slides towards Tifa on its own. "Miss … I do apologise, I don't know your name. I keep wanting to call you Rinoa in that outfit, too."

"I'm Aerith. Do these clothes belong to someone you know?"

"Ah, well, that's something of a sticky wicket."

"But she lives here?"

"An even stickier wicket, I'm afraid, and not really my place to go into it. I'm much more interested in hearing about your story. Sugar?"

"None for me, please."

He frowns slightly but her cup of unsweetened tea slides towards her. "You're not one of those dreadful people who take lemon in their tea, are you?" When Aerith shakes her head he goes on, "Pompous wretches, the lot of them. Spoiling a perfectly good cup of tea by throwing fruit juice into it. I've never been able to understand it myself. If you wish to drink lemon juice, then squeeze a lemon, but one drinks tea to taste tea."

"And sugar."

"Well yes, quite. Tea and sugar. And perhaps a biscuit. Excuse me." He waves one hand and a plate materialises in it. He sets it down and gestures. "Help yourself. My own special recipe. Tea is set off so well by a good custard cream."

"You seem quite the expert on, uh, tea." Tifa tries for light conversation.

"Hm? Oh, yes. Very soothing, tea, though some people who drink it are anything but soothing." His expression darkens for a moment and he huffs into his moustache. "Some people who drink it are so coarse you could scrub dirty pots with them."

An image of Leon flashes into Aerith's mind, though she gets the feeling this isn't whom Merlin is referring to. Then Kairi pushes herself against her chest and the image dispels.

"Want," Kairi says, reaching flaccidly for the teacup.

"Does she drink tea?" Merlin asks.

Aerith doesn't know, but doesn't trust the chance of Kairi scalding herself. Merlin's eyes twinkle.

"Not a problem. If the child wishes to drink tea, then tea she shall have." He snaps his fingers and a lidded beaker appears. "Iced tea. Not quite the beverage of choice, but better than nothing. May I?"

"Uh … I suppose so."

The beaker levitates into Kairi's waiting grasp. She's sure-handed enough to drain it without spilling a drop, and then holds it out, a little brighter than before. "More." She's more alert than when they arrived, though her movements still lack energy and there remains a terrible flatness in her eyes.

They drink in silence for a while, each contemplating his or her own thoughts. Aerith presses a custard cream into Kairi's hands and she gnaws at it, making a mess of herself and her borrowed shirt, but Aerith is too pleased at her doing something other than staring blankly to care.

The thin layer of normalcy thickens. Biscuit crumbs and cups of tea – those things she can handle. Jumping between worlds? Not so much.

Aerith refuses to think that Leon and Yuffie won't bring Cloud and Zack home with them. Uncertainties lurk around the fringes of her thoughts, but she erects a wall of normalcy between her and them. It's not quite denial, but comes from the same colour palette. When she glances at Tifa she sees the same thing reflected in her face and takes comfort in that. If they all believe together, maybe that'll put the odds in their favour.

"Belief … yes, that's what'll turn the battle. Belief in oneself. Belief that friends can be saved. Belief in the power of the Keyblade.

The memory comes suddenly, like a slap.

Merlin looks up. "What did you say?"

"I …" Aerith falters. Did she say something? Perhaps she said her thoughts out loud.

"You said 'keyblade'. What do you know of keyblades?"

"What's a keyblade?" Tifa asks, looking between the two of them.

"I don't know what a keyblade is," Aerith says. "It just … popped into my head for some reason." She's loath to tell this stranger about her dreams. Kairi squirms and Aerith realises she's holding her too tight.

There's a strange look in Merlin's eyes; a kind of hungry interest bordering on delight. Zack used to get the same look when telling her and Cloud about what Angeal had taught him in training that day, and Cloud himself would get a similar look after going to the chocobo stables. However, unlike her friends', Merlin's expression contains a degree of concern that instantly strengthens the panic Aerith has been sitting on. She remembers something shaped like a giant key appearing in Kairi's hand right before the Heartless took them.

"What world did you say you came from?" Merlin asks.

"It doesn't have a name," Aerith replies. "It was just … our world."

Tifa catches Aerith's troubled expression and waves her hand in front of Merlin's face. "Excuse me? What's a keyblade?"

He blinks myopically at her for several seconds. "Oh my. My apologies, it was just so unusual to hear it from the lips of someone who doesn't have a background in royalty or the arcane arts." He strokes his beard. "I suppose it will be all right to share the basic facts with you, if Leon trusts you enough to leave you alone in his home."

Yes, and why is that when he's barely spoken to any of us? Aerith wonders.

"Keyblades are magical weapons with the ability to open any door," Merlin explains. "They function somewhat like a sword, insofar as they chop and slice and whatnot, but they always retain their key shape. Nobody is entirely sure how they came to exist, but I have conducted some research into the matter and learned that they are somewhat sentient. They choose their wielders and can only be used by those characterised as 'pure of heart'."

Aerith immediately thinks of the Buster Sword. "My friend – one of those Leon went to find – he has a sword that does that. It chooses who can use it and helps them fight if it thinks they're worthy enough. It can't stop unworthy people from using it, but it doesn't give them any magical help and can make fighting with it difficult."

Merlin seems very interested in this. "Ah, now there's where it differs from a keyblade. Keyblades absolutely cannot be used by anyone other than the pure of heart, and if anyone else tries they will instantly return to the hand of the master they've chosen. Even so, I have heard stories about other sentient weaponry, though I've never come across one before. I look forward to meeting your friend and inspecting this sword. Does it have the power to combat darkness?"

"I don't know. It has the power to cut down a tree in a single swipe."

"Marvellous! Perhaps it is some relation to the keyblades – a precursor or offshoot. Since nobody has seen a keyblade in decades, and these are trying times, it would certainly be helpful if this alternative could also free hearts from the Heartless and restore them to their bodies."

Both Tifa and Aerith stiffen.

"You mean hearts the Heartless steal aren't destroyed?" Aerith breathes. "People can be brought back?"

"In theory. Though, as I say, nobody has seen a keyblade for so long they've become somewhat of a legend. A myth. A flight of fancy, if you will. They did exist, though; of that much I am certain. There are stories of a great war in which hundreds of keyblades were used to defeat an immense threat, but were all lost afterwards. It is my belief that they are simply stored somewhere, awaiting the right wielders to call them forth. Since they can travel between worlds and are sentient, however, they could literally be anywhere."

"Leon said … he knew all about the Heartless," Aerith says slowly. "Do you know about them as well?"

"I should do, my dear. I was one of those who challenged their creation – for all the good it did me, or the poor souls sacrificed in the name of research to create the frightful things. Oh dear." Merlin's face contorts into an expression of regret. "I believe I may have said too much. I do tend to wax lyrical when it comes to subjects close to my, ah, heart."

"No, please." Tifa leans forward. "We came here because Heartless were attacking us."

"They were?" Thoughts cross Merlin's face, each one casting a shadow as it passes. "Have they really travelled so far already? I thought I knew all the worlds whose shells have been broken. Could they have spread further than we realised?" He doesn't appear to be speaking to them, though what he says is still worthy of note. "How exactly did you leave your world?"

"We don't know," Tifa replies. "There was a bright flash of light and then we were here."

"Magical expulsion? Possible, I suppose, but who would be powerful enough to do it? Are there any witches or mages in your world? Anybody who has a connection to the arcane – by blood or learning or some other means?"

Tifa shakes her head. "Hollow Bastion hates magic unless it's absolutely necessary. It's almost pathological. Zack's Buster Sword is the only magical item in the whole place, and he's only allowed to keep that because he uses it to defend everyone from the monsters in Barren Region and Dark Forest."

Merlin's hand jerks and his teacup turns over, spilling tea all over the front of his robe. If it scalds him he either doesn't react or doesn't notice – though the sudden fervour in his face and gestures makes them think it's the second more than the first. "Barren Region, you say? Dark Forest? Tell me, do you also have a castle in this place you hail from?"

"Uh … yes. A big one." Tifa blinks as though this is an entirely new thought, though it's actually a memory. "It's … it's tall. And ugly. And horrible." Each statement brings a slight widening of her eyes, as the image becomes clearer in her mind. It's as if a veil is being drawn back.

Aerith knows this must be true because it's what's happening in her own mind too. Turrets knife out of her memory, dark and dreadful, and suddenly the building that has loomed over her all her life is thrown into sharp relief. How did she ignore its hideousness for so long? It was always just 'the castle', just the words and a vague sense of something behind the doors at the top of the steps, but not this. Not this collection of dark spikes and repulsiveness.

She's aware of Merlin talking again. "…walled town…?"

"Excuse me?"

"Is there a walled town at the base of this castle?"

"Uh, yes. That's Hollow Bastion, where we live."

For the first time since spilling his tea he frowns. "Hollow Bastion?" He says the name like he just found a cockroach swimming in his teacup. "That's not … but I suppose … maybe my memories of the forbidden spells were accurate after all … the backlash might've … not self-deception if its identity tried to rewrite itself – can a building have a conscience? Certainly an interesting thought … sentience gained through acts of evil, might've reacted with the inherent … I had hypothesised that the magical recoil of a duel of that nature might have had repercussions on that end as well as our own, and ours were spectacular enough … oh my … but the whole town?"

Neither Tifa nor Aerith have any clue what he's babbling about, though his sweeping arms and frantic stroking of that long, long beard make it necessary to move the cups and for Tifa to plink the still-warm teapot into her lap.

Suddenly Kairi sits up, like a puppy that has heard the creak of boots it recognises. Moments later the door knocks and opens. Merlin stands, opening his arms as if to hug the person who opened it.

"Leon, my boy, they're … they're … you're not Leon."

Yuffie cants her hips to one side; fists thrust either side of her waist. "Nope, but hum a few bars and I'll wing it."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 

 


Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

"Can you think of a better explanation?"

"Right now? No, but I never went to any fancy-pants school like you so I don't have as much reputation to lose if I'm wrong."

-- Partially inspired by an exchange in Bill Bryson's novel A Walk in the Woods, which taught me more than I ever realised I wanted to know about coal mining, how to avoid bear attacks, and other interesting things about the American wilderness.

Chapter Text

 

Zack has never really considered how useful it is to know about chocobos. Then again, he's never had to restrain one that's trying to peck his best friend to death – a best friend who cannot even fight back because this is a prize chocobo, a chocobo stud, and even if he just quit his job and took it without permission he still has to take it back, and he can't do that if it's been beheaded by a sword.

Yes, he's babbling, and babbling inside his own head, which is worse, but the situation is all kinds of freaky, and damn that bird has good aim.

"Cloud!"

"Hang on!" Cloud grapples on the chocobo's back, trying to bring it under control. He drags on the reins, but it isn't interested. It's frankly far too interested in taking its panic out on Zack and tries again with a peck that could rip a man's hand off.

"Cloud, I'm not kidding!" Zack blocks it with the flat of the Buster Sword. "If you can't stop that thing-"

"I can do it, just let me …" Cloud does something with his heels and elbows and suddenly, as though turned off at the mains, the chocobo goes quiet. It drops its head and pecks the dirt like the big mutant chicken it is.

Zack carefully lowers his blade. "I've fought goblins who didn't want to kill me as much as that thing."

"He's fine. He's a rooster, so he's a little more aggressive than most chocobos."

"A little?"

Cloud looks embarrassed.

Zack doesn't replace the Buster Sword on his back. Instead he holds it ready to fend off any fresh chocobo attacks, as he looks down at the little town on the other side of a cliff and a very steep drop. He just missed a good grip on the top of that drop when he popped into this place. Completely disoriented, he had to work on complete instinct to stop himself becoming a splash of red and a sad little bundle at the bottom, before passing out from exhaustion at being hit with ... whatever that light was. He awoke later to find Cloud tearing strips off his own shirt to bandage his wounds.

They had no idea where they are – still don't, in fact. All they know is it's not Hollow Bastion. Not even close. Initially Zack tried to use the stars as a guide, the way Angeal taught him, but it's like somebody picked up the world and shook it, leaving everything to settle back in a different order. The wasteland isn't a wasteland, it's one giant rock with patches of grass that shine silver in the moonlight; and that town isn't a town, it's a collection of buildings and lights with no wall around them.

How the heck do they keep the monsters out with no wall? Zack thought before Cloud heard the familiar 'WARK!' of the chocobo he stole (and Zack is still having problems reconciling that bit of news with what he knows about his friend) and they found a safer route back up the cliff the retrieve the stupid thing, both hoping they'd find the others there too.

"So what do we do now?" Cloud asks.

"We find Aerith and the others." That's the most important thing. Zack can't shake the memory of her scream when she was covered in Heartless. It makes his vision blur with anger and worry. His mouth goes dry at just the thought of what might've happened to her before they were plucked out of the fight by forces unknown.

And those forces could stay unknown for now. First priority: find Aerith and the others, make sure they're safe, then find out what the hell's going on.

"Yes, but where do we start looking? Where the heck are we, Zack?"

"We're here."

"Where's here?"

"Does it even matter? We're here and she's not."

There's a pause before Cloud says, "They're not, Zack."

Zack pinches a spot between his eyes. "I know."

There's an even longer pause before Cloud speaks again. "I know how you feel. I had her with me. She was right behind me in the saddle, I could feel her right there, and then …"

Zack sighs. "It's Biggs, Wedge and Jessie all over again. Except this time I was there and I still couldn't do anything. I feel so worthless for not being able to get to her when she needed … She's always been there for us in the ways that count, but when those Heartless attacked I may as well not know anything about anything, for all the use I was. Yuffie and Tifa had to dig me out of them, Cloud. Yuffie and Tifa. I mean, they're about the toughest women … girls … whatever. They're the toughest I've ever known, but I'm supposed to be this great hero everyone looks to in a crisis, and I had to be dragged out of there by my hair." He can still feel Yuffie's hands fisting in his scalp, yanking and clawing, sprinkling him with her own blood as she punched Heartless off his face so he could breathe.

"We'll find her, Zack," Cloud reassures him.

Zack just nods, unable to trust his voice not to give him away.

 


 

Leon crouches by a pile of rocks in a big old pile of rocks. They look no different than any other pile of rocks, but apparently this pile of rocks is special enough to make him crouch beside them and examine them like a pile of diamonds. He takes off one glove and touches them, just because they're that damn special. Then he looks up, narrows his eyes and makes what can only be described as an irritated noise in the back of his throat where his voice waits like a waiting thing between infrequent uses.

"Please stop doing that."

Yuffie, grinning, detaches herself from the shadows. "Am I getting to you yet? Are we going to see a smile soon?"

She doesn't understand why he chose to leave Traverse Town instead of search it, but beyond those reassuring lights this world is as peopled with shadows as her own, and she's a ninja. Shadows aren't just her domain, they were her childhood friends and playmates. The fact her greatest enemies are made from shadows is more than a little annoying.

Leon doesn't even flicker. Yuffie sees it as a challenge until he says, "Someone was bleeding here."

"Someone's bleeding everywhere. What's so special about this place?" This had better not be Hero or Cloudy's blood. If they've gone and injured themselves more than they were when I last saw them, I'll kick their asses until they're both brand new shapes, then I'll fix 'em just to kick even more shit out of them for -

"They were bleeding while they were lying down."

Shit. Shitshitshitshit. "And what does that tell you, oh great tracker?"

"I thought you were a ninja."

"Yeah, but I'm only ickle. I'm better at busting heads and spying on people than looking back into the past just by touching a spot on the ground."

"It's called psychometry."

"Say what with the what now?"

"The practise of reading the past through touch. Psychometry."

"You can do that?"

"No."

"But then why – oh, I get it, you're just trying to prove you're smarter than me. Ha ha, very funny, make fun of the teenager, because that's such a laugh riot. Ooh, help me; I think I bust a rib. Or I'll bust your ribs. Maybe I didn't go to school, but I learned a lot at the school of hard knocks, and lemme tell you, buddy, those lessons stick. Wanna test me? Be my teacher?" She throws a few fake jabs for emphasis. "C'mon, I'll bet you're just itching to pin me and roll around on the ground for a bit."

Leon doesn't roll his eyes, though something in his bearing says this would be an appropriate response if it didn't interfere with his Dark n' Broody image. Yuffie kind of likes Dark n' Broody – it makes a change from Cute n' Blushy or Heroic n' Cheerful, or even Diplomatic n' Motherly if it comes down to it. It's fun to mess with something new, even if she doesn't know the guy that well.

Still, when has that ever stopped her before? Yuffie is supremely confident in her own skills, especially when it comes to getting herself out of bother of her own making. She doesn't boast because she likes the sound of her own voice. She is as secure in her ability to defend herself as she is in her own skin (though some tits would still be nice, especially since Bodacious n' Kick-Ass has now joined the party, and she even makes Aerith look like two pill on an ironing board).

"WARK!"

"The hell-?" Yuffie looks up just in time to see a big yellow something-or-other hurtle over the edge of the cliff – or not over so much as just plain off it. It hangs in the air like it doesn't know what to do next. "Coooool…"

Gravity takes over. The thing plummets, but at such an angle that it hits right at the gradient where the cliff face starts to level off into a slope. Legs pumping, it keeps on running, throwing up a cloud that looks almost ethereal in the moonlight. The effect it totally ruined, however, by the faint yelling that increases in volume as the thing gets closer. There's even a point where it changes from yelling to a kind of manly shrieking.

"Cloooooooouuuuuuud!"

"We'reokaywe'reokaywe'reokay – IcanhandlethishonestIcan!"

"Cloudcloudcloudcloudcloudcloud-"

"WAAAAAAAAAAAARK!"

Yuffie steps sideways to let it blow past. Leon has already moved. Grit hits them both as the yellow bullet streaks between them. The back-draft almost pulls Yuffie right off her feet. Man, what she wouldn't give to go at that kind of speed. That would be so much cooler than kicking heads or rearranging gropers' testicles, and that's pretty damn cool.

"Neverlisteningtoyouagainnonevernevernevernevernever-"

"Turnturnturnturnturn – aahbigrockdon'thitthebigrock!"

"WAAARK!"

A large boulder is avoided and the thing turns in a wide arc. By the time it's almost reached Yuffie and Leon again, this time from the opposite direction, it's jogging more than sprinting and draws to a halt that leaves it bandy-legged and, hey, who knew chocobos can actually pant?

"…Neverlisteningtoyouagain…"

"Me? It was your idea to get down that fast!"

"You said it could handle it."

"Chocobos are flightless. What did you expect would happen?"

"Aw, look, they're like an old married couple," Yuffie grins, stepping from the mist of kicked-up dust and not even caring that her newly washed hair is now a mess of pebbles and sand. She cocks a jaunty salute. "Hey, guys."

"Yuffie!" Zack slides off the chocobo's back with an eagerness Yuffie finds appealing on several levels – one, because there's still no love lost between her and those feather-butts; two, because he's actually happy to see her, which never gets old; and three, because sliding makes his pants pull tight.

Man, sometimes it's so difficult being filled with hormones and surrounded by pretty she can't touch. Or rather, she can touch, but the pretty won't touch back. She's firmly in Little Sister territory – emphasis on the Little – and that sucks major ass, except that it's nice to be wanted in a way that's not 'we want you to take a hike' or 'we want your money' or even 'we want you, sweetheart, hur-dee-hur-hur-glurk' (glurk courtesy of a feisty uppercut or a kunai to the nads, whichever's easiest).

"You're all right!" Zack practically effervesces. Yuffie's about to treat him to another witty one-liner when he wraps her in the biggest bear hug she's ever had. For a second her vision is all black hair and sweaty shoulder and a little bit of pale, warm neck. "I thought … never mind what I thought. You're all right, and that's what matters." He pulls back to look her in the face. "Where's Aerith?"

Ah, yes, the important question. Yuffie isn't insulted, because he hugged her before he asked. Zack is one of the few people she wouldn't hit or shy away from for touching her, though she does wriggle out of his grasp pretty quick. She has limits, after all.

She jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the silent figure behind her. "At his place. We came looking for you. Hero, Cloudy, this is Leon – though you can call him Moody McMoodypants, and he also responds to 'hey, you with the poofy hair'!"

Zack notices Leon for the first time. Or maybe the second time, since he did just nearly run the guy down with a chocobo, but it's difficult to form a lasting impression of someone when the world is a smear of colour and you're trying not to fall off the stupid bird and get trampled by its big stupid feet. Zack's shoulders tense, eyes going to the blade in Leon's grasp, but he holds out a hand. Probably it's a macho thing – my sword is bigger than your sword, ug ug. Are they compensating? Hm, interesting thought. Or with these two maybe they're comparing scars. Yuffie knows how Zack got his, but Leon's is wicked-cool and she was too busy poking him with the verbal equivalent of a pointy stick to ask about it before.

"Hello. I'm Zack Fair."

Leon just looks at the proffered hand. "We were sent to fetch you."

"Don't lie." Yuffie jogs up to lightly punch his shoulder. He doesn't react except to sidestep her like a pro. "You offered to find them to make Tifa and Aerith happy. Go on, admit it, you don't like seeing pretty faces sad. Well, your luck's in, because my pretty face is hardly ever sad. I'm like a big grin with legs and teeth. And some hair. And some other parts I won't mention. Unless you want me to, of course. Do you want me to talk about my other parts?"

"You're injured." It's a statement and it's not directed at her. Leon indicates the makeshift bandages around Zack's arm, head and neck.

Zack is a mess of bruises, cuts and contusions. There's blood on his pants and a hole in one knee that might explain it – or maybe the huge freaking gash across his collarbone might be the cause. His left elbow has soaked through the fabric and the skin around it is red and scraped. One thin cut has gone right through his eyebrow, making him look so bizarre when he talks since he hasn't wiped all the blood away. Zack is one of those people with an expressive face that moves as he talks – not just the shapes needed to form words, but muscles that pull themselves into pictures like his dancing hands. Sometimes you can tune out his voice and get what he's saying just by the hue of his smile and slant of skin across his cheekbones.

"Jeez, Zack," Yuffie remarks. "What did you do, beat up the mountain with your face?"

He snorts like it's not too far from the truth. "Is Aerith okay? And Tifa and Kairi?"

"They're fine. Like, totally shell-shocked, but a-okay apart from that. Aerith even has a theory about how we got here."

Zack nods as though he's not surprised at this.

Leon steps forward, but it's to reach out and pat the chocobo's neck. He twitches his fingers just so and it lifts its head to look at him. Then – and Yuffie's damned if she's making this up – it makes a noise a hell of a lot like purring.

"A chocobo. I never thought I'd see one of these again."

"You have chocobos here?" On the thing's back, Cloud looks down at Leon but reaches out a hand to awkwardly shake his. As with Zack, Leon declines without a word.

"No. You'll have to walk it back to town."

"That town?" Zack points at the distant lights.

"Traverse Town!" Yuffie chirps.

"Is that where Aerith, Tifa and Kairi are?"

"Yup." Yuffie bounces on the balls of her feet. Now they've found Zack and Cloud she's impatient to go. Shadows may be her province but Leon mentioned Heartless and she's in no mood to do battle again so soon. A few enemies she can handle, no problem. She could eat a few enemies for breakfast, but the Heartless have a nasty habit of turning up in numbers so great they totally spoil the fun. If she ate that many, breakfast would last until after sunset and she'd be a complete lard-ass. "So are we going or what? I'm getting booooooored, and I do stupid stuff when I'm bored. And not stupid-unintelligent stuff, just stupid-random stuff, but it's still stupid and can we go already?"

Leon shoots a look over his shoulder at Zack. "Is she always like this?"

"You have no idea." Zack focuses on Yuffie again. "So they're really okay?"

Yuffie has no qualms about rolling her eyes. "They're fine, Hero." Unlike the others, Zack's nickname didn't come easily for Yuffie, which is odd as she prefers using her own names than the ones people tell her. Names are things you give away to other people, so she's doing the world a service by giving some back. It's good manners. Still, Zack's always just so … so damn Zack that nothing fits right. 'Hero' is the best she's come up with, since 'Spiky Head' doesn't fit with Cloud around and 'Mr. Your-Smile-Gives-Me-Tingles-in-My-Tummy' is too much of a mouthful.

"You're sure?"

"For crying out loud, will you wake up to yourself?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Yuffie throws up her hands. Clueless as ever. "I'm not taking that thing back with us." She points at the chocobo.

"I have to return it to the stables," Cloud says.

"Good luck with that, since the stables are in a whole different freaking world than us right now."

"A different … world?"

Zack looks thoughtful. "I thought something was screwy about the stars."

Yuffie tips her head back. "Screwy? They look fine to me – all light and bright and sparkling. Ooh, look, that one's brighter than the … hey, where'd it go?" Her pointing finger drops to her side. "Pretty-pretty go bye-bye."

Leon's face turns all new kinds of grim. "Another world was just destroyed by the Heartless."

"What?" All three faces turn to look at him.

"Heartless can destroy entire worlds?" It's halfway between a statement and a question; as though Cloud doesn't want it confirmed but can't stop himself asking.

Leon grunts. "Follow me." He starts walking, long strides that eat up the ground and force them to hurry to catch up.

Yuffie darts in and out of shadows, checking for monsters, disappearing from sight and reappearing fully only when they reach the lights of Traverse Town. There she pops up from behind a potted shrub and sits waiting for them to arrive. She dips her fingers in the soil of the pot and grimaces. Who the heck wants a shrub in a pot when it should be growing free, cracking concrete with its roots? After a few minutes she falls to kicking her heels against the ground and trying to make all her fingers fold over her pinkie at the same time.

She's just about mastered it when Leon looms out of the darkness. He's good at looming. Maybe it's his hobby – finding things to loom over and practising on bigger and bigger targets, until he can loom over something twice his size using psychological height alone. He doesn't glance her way, even though he practically has to step over her.

"Hey, what am I, invisible?"

He grunts.

"Hooray! Acknowledgment."

He doesn't respond.

"Man, what a grouch." She scrabbles to her feet at Zack and Cloud's approach. Cloud's still on the chocobo with Zack walking beside him, limping but resolute about not getting back on. A little voice cheers in Yuffie's head. "So, do you two have any theories about what the hell happened back there, with the lights and the Heartless and the screaming?"

"I think I'd like to hear Aerith's theory first."

She sticks her tongue out at Zack and chooses a fresh shadow. One thing about ninja training is it spawns a good geographical memory – when you're used to picking your way through unfamiliar territory in the dark you learn pretty damn quick how to imprint terrain on your brain so you can pick your way out again when the job's done and there are heavies on your tail and you're half blind with fear and tears from holding down your gag reflex.

There are things in Yuffie's past she's never told Zack, Cloud or Aerith. She thinks they must've guessed, one by one; probably Zack first, although Aerith sometimes exhibits a disturbing ability to read people like books – and not books with lots of words, either, but flat cardboard books with big fat words and pictures of 'cat' and 'ball' and 'xylophone', though what a little kid needs to know about xylophones for, Yuffie has no idea. She was thirteen when she tried one of those books and she'd never used a xylophone, nor needed to know what one was, or how to freaking well spell it, and now it's years later of nearly dying, running away, nearly dying some more, living the soft life and nearly dying even more,and it's still never come up.

But I digress. Again. I sure do that a lot. Meh.

Yuffie doesn't think Cloud cottoned on until after the other two. Maybe one of them told him, or maybe he suddenly stopped shovelling chocobo shit one day and thought, 'Hey, don't ninjas kill people?'

She's first to the stairs leading up to Leon's place. She spends a moment appreciating the building, since she spent the first go-around making kunai-handle-shaped impressions in her palm and being acutely aware of how much Aerith can't fight even when she doesn't have a kid in her arms. It's not a bad place; tall and no missing bricks or roof-slates. Leon's apartment is on the third of three floors, but by the looks of the darkened windows there's nobody in the others anyway. She wonders why he chose to be at the top. Not the best place to defend from – too easy to get cornered – and he'd know that as surely as she does.

She could tell instantly that Leon's a warrior – not even because of the sword, either, but because of the way he moves. Not like a ninja, who can fade into a shadow, but like smoke – smoke around a big fuck-off tank that's hurtling towards you and can swing its turret to blast you into an oily stain on the ground whenever it freaking well wants.

Yuffie checks to make sure the rest of their little posse is still there and sprints up the stairs. She treats the door to a shave-and-a-haircut and checks to make sure her hair's passably fabulous. It isn't, but sometimes you just have to pretend like hell and everybody else is too unnerved by your wild-eyed conviction to argue. Face in place, she punts the door open.

"Leon, my boy, they're … they're … you're not Leon."

Yuffie strikes her 'I-wasn't-expecting-that-but-damned-if-I'm-gonna-show-it' pose. It's in the same vein as her 'Of-course-I-meant-to-do-that' pose and reminiscent of her 'it-was-like-that-when-I-got-here' pose. "Nope, but hum a few bars and I'll wing it."

"Yuffie!" Tifa is plainly glad to see her, and Aerith smiles one of those smiles that makes Yuffie kind of wish her mom hadn't died before she knew her.

"In the flesh. Sorry, no autographs or locks of hair. Who's the old guy?"

"Yuffie, this is Merlin." Aerith's eyes are full of questions but only the important one makes it to her tongue. "Did you find Zack and Cloud?" There's an unspoken 'are they okay?' that's impossible to miss.

"Yup, yup, yup. Big heap o' man-flesh headed this way, ladies. Plus some feather-butt flesh, but we can eat that, right?"

The old man in the bathrobe looks confused. "You are … a friend of these young ladies?"

"Friend, confidante, lifesaver and general entertainer – no world-hopping trip is complete without the Great Ninja Yuffie Kisaragi. You just get out of bed, beardy?"

He splutters. "This is a mage's robe, young lady. It's a mark of great honour to wear one, and I'll have you know that I am -"

"Yeah, yeah, bored now." Yuffie sticks her head back out the door to bellow, "Hurry up, you guys! C'mon, get the lead ou-mmff!"

Leon glares at her. His glove smells of leather and dirt and little bit of blood, and suddenly Yuffie has a perfect image of him bending down to touch those rocks, all coiled muscles and calculating stare. "For a ninja, you can sure draw attention to yourself."

"Mmmffmffmfff-mffmff."

"Leon!" The old guy is back to being pleased, though Yuffie can feel disapproval arrowing between her shoulder-blades. "Leon, my boy, it's us! I mean, it's them! It's where they're from – it all makes sense and it fits. Oh, fiddlesticks." He flicks his fingers to retrieve his cane from the mirror he's just accidentally flung it into. The long jagged crack vanishes as the cane floats away, and Yuffie can't decide whether to wonder whether broken mirrors still give seven years' bad luck if they're suddenly unbroken again, or whether to plan how to steal that funky magical walking stick.

"Merlin," Leon says tonelessly. "You're here."

"And a good thing too, I should say. Leon, my dear boy, superb news! These refugees you nobly rescued, they're from Radiant Garden!"

 


 

"I can't believe we just ignored it for so long." Zack wears a taken aback expression that's fast becoming the norm for everyone except Merlin or Leon – Merlin because he's too happy and Leon because he's so not. "It's a castle. We talked about it. I must've looked at it every day of my life, but it never seemed real in my head until now. How is that even possible?"

"Quite possibly you've escaped the influence of its cloaking magic now you're no longer in its immediate vicinity," Merlin says knowledgably.

"Huh?" Yuffie blinked at him. "What?"

"It's not working on you now you're not near it."

"Oh. So why didn't you just say that in the first place?"

Zack interrupts. "So that thing's been messing with our minds?"

"Not intentionally, I think," Merlin replies. "It's more likely the magic is something of a surfeit – an overflow, if you will."

"From your duel," Cloud says with a frown, as though everything is getting a bit much and he'd like nothing better than to go downstairs and huddle up with the chocobo. It's nestling in a shed Merlin whipped up especially. Dusty feathers and straw are so much easier to handle than learning you've lived your life in the shadow of a madman's evil and bloody legacy. The hand Cloud has clamped firmly in Aerith's seems the only thing anchoring him in place.

"Indeed," says Merlin. "There are often spectacular side-effects from wizards' duels. I remember once, when I battled a truly obnoxious woman by the name of Mim, the backlash turned an entire village into frogs. It took me a fortnight to round them all up and turn them back, since the wretched troglodyte wouldn't stay to help. Do you know how many buckets of water it takes to hold an entire village of frogs? Or how many gnats one must gather t stop them dying of starvation while you round up their brethren?"

"I can't believe you guys are all from the same neighbourhood." Yuffie's elbows are balanced on her knees. She smiles like this is all some big joke and they're the punch line. "How weird is that? Skippety-doo-dah between worlds and you still meet tourists from home. Hollow Bastioners get around more than I thought – way more, since I thought you were all backwater chumps who never left your safe little town unless someone knocked you cold and dragged you out of there. Not like me. I'm a well-travelled explorer. I'm cultured."

"It wasn't called Hollow Bastion when we lived there," Merlin reminds her, a trifle bemused and a trifle impatient. Yuffie has that effect on people who aren't used to her.

Aerith remembers her own reactions when she first met Yuffie, before she learned that the scattershot rambling, childish pranks and rudeness conceal someone with more loyalty and love than sense. Yuffie is indomitable in everything she does, throwing herself at her emotions and rolling around in them until they're squashed into her pores, impossible to remove and obvious as the day but hiding too well in plain sight. She ducks and dives, avoiding genuine open affection, but Aerith would trust her with her life in a heartbeat. Heck, she already has.

"Yeah, but you said you're not exactly playing with a full deck," Yuffie shoots back at Merlin, kicking her heels against the chair that was dragged over for her since there weren't enough. Aerith, Zack, Cloud and Kairi have the sofa, and nobody's cruel enough to try and separate them. Tifa and Merlin have an armchair each and Leon leans against the wall doing his best to bore holes in the carpet with just his eyes.

Merlin sighs. "It's true that some of our memories were garbled as a result of the backlash, but frankly those were the least of our problems in the immediate aftermath of the duel."

"Ooh, I sense a story. Does it have juicy bits and gory parts and all the things in between?"

"We were frozen," Leon interrupts, making everyone look up.

"Like … in ice? How the heck are you guys still alive? Oh, I get it." Yuffie slaps her palms against her thighs and rubs them back and forth, ruckling the fabric of Leon's ruined pants. "It was magical ice, right? The kind that doesn't, oh, seize up your lungs and make it impossible for you to breathe?"

Since Leon isn't inclined to elaborate, Merlin does. "From what I can remember of the duel, I attempted to cast an enchantment to shield us from the worst of the eruption. Magic is not totally unlike science – if you mix chemicals willy-nilly you soon find yourself with a rather large problem."

"And singed eyebrows. And no nose hair." Yuffie looks around. "What? So maybe one time I had to break into a scientist's house and he was really careless and left some stuff out. What?"

"As I was saying," Merlin goes on, "mixing different types of magic can be equally volatile. Mixing two is dangerous, but mixing three is downright harebrained. It can cause an explosion of arcane forces that can destroy everything for miles around."

"Or wipe out an entire town's memory and rewrite it," Zack says grimly.

"Indeed. When the backlash occurred it threw us out of the natural order of things. Quite literally it tried to erase us from the world. It didn't attempt to kill us, mind you; it simply modified reality so that we were never a part of it. Or tried to, at least. The effects would be limited and localised, which is why you all still saw the castle and could talk about it, but found yourselves easily distracted if you tried to think about it too much. Nothing short of a wizarding war would rewrite the reality of an entire world."

"Did you hear that?" Yuffie leans across to elbow Cloud. "It only tried to erase their very existence from the fabric of reality. Nothing too big. Yeesh, Beardy, where does your weirdness threshold even start?" The nickname already has a capital letter. Everyone hears it, and several know this means it's well on its way to becoming her default name for Merlin unless she picks something better.

"Yuffie," Tifa says warningly, with some of the old fire that used to have her frogmarching up to Zack's house, or chasing wannabe ninjas down the street for stealing beer.

"So the people you were fighting, they were also brought here?" Zack asks.

Merlin shakes his head. "No. In truth, I'm not sure what happened to them. They may have been thrown into another world, or the backlash may have punched a hole in the world and dropped them into it – like a, uh, pocket in the jacket of reality, if you will. A realm with just them in it."

"So they're still alive too?"

"I couldn't begin to say. It has been quite a few years, and a lot can happen in that space of time." Merlin shoots Leon an incomprehensible look, which he avoids

"Why didn't that happen to you?"

"The enchantment I cast formed a shell around us, so when we were catapulted out of our world we passed through the, ah …" He searches for the words to explain. "We went through the ceiling of our world and into this one. Though the enchantment reacted with the backlash and solidified around us when we arrived, effectively freezing us, it did allow us safe passage. It really was quite remarkable. Usually an entire world has to be destroyed for anyone to pass from it into another world without a Gummi Ship. There are other denizens of Traverse Town who began their lives in other worlds that have, sadly, since met their end at the hands of the Heartless."

Aerith shivers. "Those poor people."

"The Heartless must be very powerful to destroy whole worlds," Cloud murmurs.

"You have no idea." This from Leon again, though he still studiously avoids looking at any of them. Several times in the conversation Aerith has felt eyes on the back of her neck, but every time she looks at him his gaze is elsewhere.

"What's a Gummi Ship?" Yuffie asks. "It sounds even cooler than magical ice."

"A Gummi Ship is a means of travelling between worlds," Merlin explains. "It can be manned by several individuals and functions much as a normal ship would on the high seas, albeit only between worlds that have had their protective shells shattered. The protective shells are made form a substance called 'gummi' and applying it to technology gives that technology the ability to travel between certain worlds. Each world is separate and unique, cut off from all others until something fractures the shell surrounding it and makes it porous."

"Something like the Heartless," Tifa finishes.

"Indeed."

Yuffie frowns. "Porous? What's that when it's at home?"

"It means permeable," says Merlin.

"Say what?"

He sighs. "Leaky. If something punctures the protective shell around a world it becomes leaky and things may pass through it. It also ceases their invisibility – no world is aware of another until they are connected, and for them to be connected their shells must become -"

"Porous!" Yuffie punches the air. "Permeable! Leaky like a leaky thing – like a sieve! Woo, go me, I'm not only a fantastic ninja, I'm also a walking word-bank. A walking word-sponge, absorbing words and getting smarter every second. Go on, Beardy, hit me with another one. What's another word for 'buttocks'?"

Merlin ignores her and looks at everyone else. "I must say, you are all attentive students and refreshingly quick on the uptake. I've explained this very same thing to other expatriates and they've been positively bamboozled by the very idea of other worlds, much less Gummi Ships, protective shells and magic. They've never had trouble believing in the Heartless, though," he adds almost as an afterthought, tugging his beard and frowning sadly.

"Oh, don't misunderstand us," Yuffie says. "We're all completely bamboozled, we're just better at hiding it. Putting on a brave face, a courageous front, a plucky phizog. Hey, isn't that another great word? Phizog. I never realised before what a great word that is. Phizog. Phiiiizog. Phiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-"

"Yuffie."

"Yeah, Teef?"

"Did you -" Aerith cuts herself off and nibbles her lip. "Did you have families? When you … were they affected by the …?"

"We had no families to forget us," Leon answers her stuttering attempt to ask a question without actually asking it and therefore dragging all its tangled and painful emotions out into the light.

"Oh." She nibbles her lip some more, tastes blood and stops.

Kairi is heavy against her front, asleep and dreaming things – or maybe not. Maybe it'd be better if she doesn't dream this time, so she can't remember. She's so exhausted they haven't even been whispering and she's stayed asleep. If she is dreaming then Aerith hopes they're good dreams, but suspects they're not. Or maybe she's not giving Kairi enough credit. Children are resilient. Everyone always says so. They bounce back faster and easier than you'd think.

She goes back to the other awkward question. "So what happens to us now? We don't have a Gummi Ship, so did we come here because our world was destroyed?"

"Traverse Town lies on the thinnest part of the veil between worlds. If your world -" Merlin pauses. "If our world had been destroyed you would have arrived here in a meteor shower composed of its last fragments. There would have been pieces of gummi found with you. Since you did not arrive in this manner, I can safely assume that it is, in fact, still intact."

"So we can go home in one of those Gummi Ship things?" Cloud asks.

"Ah … it's a little more complicated than that. There aren't any maps you see."

"Huh?"

"If we could find a way back home, don't you think we'd have gone by now?" Leon snaps.

Everyone processes this.

Yuffie articulates their collective thought. "Well, that sucks."

"Can't you follow the trail we made?" Zack enquires. "We made a pretty big splash when we got here. Maybe…" His voice peters out as Merlin shakes his head.

"In travelling between worlds you are not simply operating in the usual three dimensions. Finding a single world in the mass of potential destinations out there is akin to searching for a needle in a field of haystacks by locating the cotton with which it is threaded."

"Oh man, this really sucks. This is, like, the most majorly sucky suckage that ever sucked." Yuffie swings one leg around to cross it over the other, examines the shape of her knee and decides she prefers them crossed the other way. This, however, also seems to displease her, so she settles for balancing on the edge of her seat with her knees pointing outwards and her soles pressed together, hands gripping her toes. "So you're telling us we're stuck here, drinking tea while the Heartless chow down on whoever we left behind?"

"I'm afraid so."

Tifa makes a tiny noise in the back of her throat that could just be a hiccup. Both Aerith and Cloud whiten. Aerith thinks desperately about the message Ifalna took to Elmyra and prays it was enough, and that there's somewhere to run to where the Heartless won't be able to find them

Yuffie purses her lips. "I think I speak for everyone here when I say: SucksucksucksuckagesuckysuckysuckoramasuckSUCKsucksuckSUCK-"

"What are we supposed to do?" Zack leans forward, thigh still pressed against Aerith's but moving out the row he, she and Cloud set themselves up in when they sat down. "We can't just leave the Heartless to destroy our world while we're gone. Those things can die. We've killed them before."

"They'll make more to replace those you killed," Leon says, happiness and sunshine personified. "They always make more. Always."

"Thank you Captain Optimistic." Yuffie salutes him.

Leon raises his eyes to stare balefully at her for a second. His gaze shifts over to Aerith and she meets it, but she can't get anything from him except moody detachment. The bottoms of his eyelids twitch, as though considering narrowing, but then think better of it. "The Heartless are relentless and self-propagating," he says.

"Be kind, rewind." Yuffie holds up a hand. "Self-what?"

"They make more of themselves," Zack translates.

"Ooh, you're smart as a button, aren't you? Why does everybody know these words except me?"

"They steal hearts; some to help them reproduce, some to store. We're not sure for what purpose, yet." This is a very heavy 'yet'. Leon invests it with a lot of purpose. It promises future action, possibly involving gunblades and settling dust.

Tifa's spine straightens and Zack's fingers twitch.

Yuffie examines her nails and buffs them against her chest. "So, Smarty-pants and Smarty-pants Junior, if our world is okay – admittedly it has a Heartless problem, but it's still there, which makes it fixable, and anybody who argues with me or tries to interrupt me right now will have to talk to my favourite sai, Mr. Pointy -" She pauses to draw breath. "If our world isn't all destroyed and raining down on your heads in a shiny meteor shower, how the hell did we get from there to here?"

"That I cannot tell you," Merlin admits. "Though I am also eager to find out how you conducted your remarkable journey."

Aerith covers a yawn, blushing. "Sorry."

"Don't be, my dear. You've had rather a busy day, if I do say so myself."

"Yeah, when I woke up this morning, I said to myself: Yuffie, I said, Yuffie today you're going to go visit Small Fry, fight some Heartless, get thrown into another world, land on your head in a stinky sewer – which was totally gross and icky and you guys need to eat more fibre or something 'cause eeewwww – then you're gonna nearly get flattened by a dumb chocobo, meet a wizard with memory-loss and a creepy-cool guy in leather pants who will, in fact, give you a set of his pants (although he won't be in them at the time), learn that you've spent the last few years living in a town with an identity crisis and a giant fuck-off castle nobody talks about where, hey, Heartless were once-upon-a-time being researched by some guy called Ansem who may have battled the memory-loss wizard and caused reality to freaking well rewrite itself to make it forget about them, hear about a bunch of wicked-cool stuff like Gummi Ships and 'porous' and 'self-propagating', and then find out you're stuck in a giant dumping ground for world-orphans and people whose worlds don't want them anymore." She grins at the group. "I plan ahead. I also plan to eat cookies and other sugary sweet things soon. Do you have cookies?"

"Merlin, please." Aerith can't lean forward because of Kairi, but she inclines her head towards him. "I have to know: Are all our memories fake? Did we really live our lives the way we think we did, or did this 'magical backlash' give us false memories?" Her fingers curl around Cloud's hand, and though holding Kairi means she can't also hold Zack's, nobody misses how he leans towards her. The idea that their friendship could be invention makes her stomach twist like a burning piece of paper. They've shared too much and been through too many things together to then learn that none of it was real.

Zack becomes suddenly rigid. The Buster Sword is balanced beside him and she knows he's thinking of Angeal and wondering whether he was real, too.

"When exactly did you battle Ansem?"

Merlin strokes his beard, casting his mind back. "The details of that time are sketchy to me. All our memories were damaged by the magical backlash and subsequent stasis. I'm not even sure Ansem was the one I fought, though I suppose he must have been if it was his castle and he was the one who created the Heartless who attacked you after we were gone." He squints to himself. "Cid arrived here not long after we did and guarded our bodies for … so that would mean with the time since our eventual thaw … oh dear. Has it really been that long?"

"Yes," Leon counters with a dose of deliberate blankness.

"How long has it been since you got here?" Cloud echoes Aerith's question, since she's looking at Leon and wondering what he's not talking about so loudly he'd be quieter if he poured out words like Yuffie does.

"Nearly twenty years. We spent most of those frozen, which is why we've retained our youthful good looks – ha ha." Nobody laughs. Merlin coughs into his fist. "Ah, yes, well, the enchantment wasn't my best work, having being concocted in a crisis with little preparation time. Something of an emergency spell – not really meant for that sort of employ at all. Since it was broken we've been making lives for ourselves here, doing battle with Heartless as and when they appear."

"Heartless come here?" Cloud sounds dismayed.

"We are on the thinnest point between worlds, and Heartless travel between them much more easily than we are able to. Their true nature is still mostly unknown, but they can and will find you, and take your heart if they can."

Leon stands up sharply. "It's late." He takes the words and snaps them of at the base before throwing them into the middle of the room. "There isn't much more to do now. Talking doesn't solve anything and I think you've heard enough. How old are all of you?"

"Nineteen," Aerith replies, "but Zack's a little older-"

"Then your memories of your lives are real. You don't need to worry whether the bonds between you are phoney or whether the people, places and events you remember are fake. Hollow Bastion is real to you, but you can't go back there again. None of us can. You can't return to the past so there's no point in complaining about it. Better to go to bed and figure out your next move in the morning."

Yuffie's mouth forms a little 'o'. "That's, like, a million times more than you've said in one go to anybody since we arrived."

Leon grunts.

"Aaaaand we're back to the dot-dot-dot things. Well, at least you broke the monotony."

"Leon is right, though I can't say I agree with his brusqueness." Merlin rises to his feet. "What's needed now is rest. Sleep brings clearer thoughts, and clear heads are what you'll need in order to ascertain what you would like to do next. Plus, I'm sure you'd all like to engage in your own private discussions about your situation and the events preceding it. I shall return to my own home now and return at a more sociable hour."

"Aww," Yuffie pouts. "I wanted cookies."

 


 

There are two bedrooms. It's decided that the girls will take one and the boys will sleep in the other – or at least it is until Yuffie, declaring she's not staying in a room with a toddler who'll cry and stink up the place, invades next door. She bounces on the double bed, wraps herself up in a blanket and is fast asleep inside half a minute. It's a throwback from having to sleep outside and rest whenever and wherever she can while on clan missions, but it doesn't make her any easier to move.

While Tifa uses the bathroom, Aerith shuts the bedroom door and takes the opportunity to once again try replenishing Kairi's energy levels. She didn't mention her suspicions to Merlin or Leon because she's still not sure of them herself, and Kairi is so tiny that thoughts of keyblades and Heartless just make Aerith feel tired and protective.

Mostly what she feels is weary. There was too much news and too much explanation after too much happening, and the whole day has merged into one long succession of blows that leave her breathless and dizzy. Merlin was a godsend and Leon has, actually, been nothing but accommodating in his own way – especially considering he doesn't know them. They could've been a posse of thieves and murderers for all he knows. Still, everything they said sits like wet bread in the bottom of Aerith's mind; weighty and hard to digest.

When the door knocks Aerith lets the last gold specks fade into Kairi's scalp and calls, "Come in."

"Aerith?" It's Cloud, hovering like she might send him away.

Aerith instantly relaxes. If she has to be in this place, she's glad Cloud and Zack are with her.

Zack pushes Cloud into the room. "Are you okay?" he asks without overture. He asked it when he raced up the stairs behind Yuffie and Leon, and again after he and Cloud were done hugging her, but his expression is like he's never asked before and isn't sure what answer she might give.

"I'm fine. A little tired, but fine. Would you like me to see to those injuries?" She indicates to those they both sustained in the battle against the Heartless, as well as the cuts and gashes Zack got from rolling down a cliff.

cliff. He could have been killed …

"Better not," Zack replies. "Leon and Merlin already saw them."

She's crouched next to the bed, Kairi lying on top of the blankets. Kairi gives a little snore and rubs her nose, but doesn't wake up. Aerith turns awkwardly and sinks into a sitting position, back pressed against the side of the mattress. "It's been a … day."

"Yeah." Zack sits down beside her, wincing, and squeezes her hand. "It's been a real day."

Cloud hesitates before taking up the spot on her other side. It's pretty much how they were sitting on the couch, Aerith flanked like some old world princess by her two knights. Zack still has the Buster Sword, which helps the image, but Cloud's in his work clothes and smells of chocobo and sweat. It's more comforting than it probably should be. She feels safe between them.

"Zack, when Angeal told you about the Buster Sword, did he ever mention something called a 'keyblade'?"

"No. Why?"

Carefully, Aerith explains about the legend of the keyblades and how the Buster Sword may be related to them.

"Angeal only ever said it was enchanted. He pulled it out of a stone in an old temple somewhere in the north. It'd been abandoned for years."

"I think Kairi brought us here." The statement's out before she can think any more about it.

Neither Zack nor Cloud move. Maybe it's because they're also full of soul-deep tiredness; maybe it's because of their injuries, or maybe it's because this doesn't seem as ridiculous as it would've before Merlin talked to them; before they found out their whole lives would be different but for one day almost twenty years ago.

"Why?" Zack asks.

"When the Heartless were attacking, she … glowed."

"Glowed?"

"Right before everything went dark and we woke up here. Something was in her hand, just for a second. I think it may have been a keyblade, but whatever it was, she wasn't ready to use it yet. It completely drained her of energy. I've tried a couple of times to heal her and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what's gone. And I had a dream."

"What did your dream say?" Cloud asks.

"That we have to protect her. She doesn't have anyone but us now. The Heartless took her mom, and her dad's still in Hollow Bastion. I-I got to talk to my mom – one last time … I told her to leave because something bad was coming. I told her to take your mom with her, Cloud, and Tifa's dad, and anyone else who'd go, but I forgot to mention Kairi's dad. My mom doesn't know Kairi's with us. She can't tell him she's okay, or what happened to Anemone. He might not leave if he can't find them, and if he doesn't, and the Heartless get him, it'll be my fault -"

"It will not." Zack squeezes her hand again. Her fingers feel limp and useless in his. "None of this is our fault – none of it."

"You told her to save my mom?" Cloud's voice is full of relief and at least one layer of tension leaves him. Aerith can practically see it fluttering away out of the window – made of beautiful stained glass again. It makes the room seem like a church, and whatever goes on in here kind of holy and righteous.

Aerith doesn't feel righteous. She feels sad, and drained, and confused, and so tired it makes even her teeth hurt. Maybe it was a bad idea to try that last bit of healing on Kairi after all.

A huge sob rolls up from inside her before she can stop it. In the next moment she's weeping like a child – that kind of gasping, hysterical crying that feels like it'll never stop. She hasn't cried like this since Angeal died, and even then the hollowness of losing him and caring for Zack cushioned her against her own grief. Now she's perfectly in tune with reality. Everything feels sharp and real, like glass shards. If that window were to smash and slice them to pieces it wouldn't feel as jagged as the gaping wound inside her right now.

They've lost everything. They've lost all they had, plus all they thought they had – their families and world and everything that's familiar. It's like Angeal dying and finding out about her mother and nearly being killed by monsters and all the other bad things that have ever happened to them happening over again, but worse.

Someone hugs her, but she's too blinded by tears to tell whether it's Zack or Cloud. Then someone else hugs her from the other side and identifying them doesn't matter, because she's surrounded by warm arms that can actually touch and give faltering comfort that won't disappear when she opens her eyes.

"I-I didn't … didn't tell … I'm never going to s-see her again, am I?"

"Shh," Zack soothes her like she soothed Kairi in the sewer. The urge to say any promise that'll make her feel better makes him tremble, but he can't set any of them up for yet another fall. His honesty makes her cry even more.

"I didn't s-say I love her …"

"She knows." Cloud is resolute about this. "Your mom knows, Aerith."

" … So scared …"

They rock together, softly, trying not to wake the toddler on the bed behind them. They rock and shush and cry until the last scrap of energy leaves them and they finally fall asleep, a tightly tangled ball of sorrow and reassurance on a bedroom floor that isn't their own, in a world that isn't theirs either.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

Yuffie tips her head back. "Screwy? They look fine to me – all light and bright and sparkling."

-- Jane Austen once decried Pride and Prejudice as 'too light and bright and sparkling' for her own tastes, and somehow the phrase has stuck with me ever since.

 

"Anybody who argues with me or tries to interrupt me right now will have to talk to my favourite sai, Mr. Pointy -"

-- Side-fling to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kendra had a stake she called Mr. Pointy, which she bequeathed to Buffy after her death.

Chapter Text

Cloud wakes first, used to rising with the dawn to go to work. He's still absolutely exhausted though, and at first doesn't know where he is. His senses are focussed entirely on the feel of warm skin, the sound of Zack's breathing and the smell of Aerith's hair until it goes up his nose and tries to choke him. Then reality clicks into place and he spends a moment just processing the enormity of what's happened so it doesn't just overwhelm him. The urge to just stay there and go back to sleep where he doesn't have to think about it is strong, but in the end he has to get up.

Disentangling himself is easier than expected. He leaves the other two holding onto each other like they're all they had left in the world. Zack's fingers flex, his arm curled around Aerith's shoulder but his hand looking for Cloud. There was no chance to clean off the dried blood, and he never took off his gloves last night. The leather creaks. Not knowing what else to do, Cloud pats it and the movement stills.

Cloud pushes himself to his feet but notices Kairi shivering slightly on the bed. She's in exactly the same position as when she was put down last night. Tentatively, because he isn't used to infants unless they're chicks, he flicks the edge of the blanket over her. He stares for a moment longer wondering whether he should try to tuck her in or something. Without knowing quite why, he brushes her cheek with the back of his index finger. Kairi's skin is soft and her face peaceful in sleep. She looks like nothing bad has ever happened to her, nor ever will.

The bathroom is free and easy to find, but when Cloud returns someone else is awake and on their feet.

Tifa turns from the sink, startled, a cup of water in her hands. It only takes a moment for her face to smooth. Tifa has the kind of face that smiles briskly and easily. "Good morning."

"Morning."

"Sleep well?"

"Not especially," Cloud replies truthfully, rolling his shoulders to ease the kinks in his neck. He pauses, realising where he spent the night and how it relates to her. "I'm sorry; we didn't mean to keep you out of your room all night."

She shakes her head. "It's okay. I bunked with Yuffie. She doesn't snore, but she does spread out a bit. I had to get up after the fifth time she kicked my kidneys."

Cloud glances left and right, but nobody else is around. "What about Leon? He was supposed to be sharing with me and Zack, but then Yuffie took the bed and we fell asleep in your room and …"

"I think he was up on the roof."

Cloud wonders if he heard that correctly. "The roof?"

Tifa nods. "All night. And it's not a flat roof, either, so goodness knows how he got any sleep."

Cloud adds this to the pile of Things He Doesn't Understand About This Situation. "Maybe he doesn't need to sleep."

"Maybe." Tifa sips her water. An uncomfortable silence descends. "Would you … like some breakfast?" she asks eventually.

Cloud's stomach feels too tense to accept food yet, but he thanks her for the offer. Tifa sighs and sets down her cup, half-pulling herself to sit on the sideboard and then remembering this isn't her house. It isn't polite to put your backside where other people prepare their food. She slides down again and settles for leaning back with her arms folded.

"This is awkward, isn't it?"

"That's one word for it. Personally, I prefer 'mind-boggling', but I'd be okay with 'unbelievable' too."

Tifa blinks, as though she didn't expect him to make a joke. Perhaps she doesn't think him capable of cracking jokes. Cloud goes over their shared history in his mind and cringes to remember some of it. Peering nervously over a fence into her garden and running away when she spotted him, watching her from a distance at school, going into the mountains together and that hideous incident with the bridge when he was trying to impress her – he can't ever remember a time when he's made a good impression, except when he convinced Aerith and Zack to follow her into the wasteland after she lost her mom. His relationship with Tifa has always been strained. He put too much stock in it too early, getting his first crush on the girl next door but not having the wherewithal to act on – or even properly deal with – his emotions. The worst part is that Tifa's always been so nice about it. Like right now – she can kick his ass six ways from Sunday without breaking a sweat, but she's smiling at him in a way that makes the bags lessen under her eyes.

"I guess we'd better start believing it."

Cloud lowers his gaze. "I guess."

"That's not actually what I meant, though."

"It isn't?"

She shakes her head. She has bed hair so everything swings as one mass of knots and tangles. It half-covers her left eye. She doesn't push it aside. "I mean having me here. You and Zack and Aerith and Yuffie – you live together. You have your own routines and habits. You've coped with life as a unit, and now suddenly you have me along for the ride, too."

"And Kairi."

"Yes," she concedes, "and Kairi."

"You shouldn't worry about feeling like a spare part, Tifa, or that you don't fit in."

She blinks again, once more taken aback at his words – though this time at their perceptiveness. Cloud has cut right to the core of the matter inside a sentence.

"What good are routines when you've moved worlds the way we have? We're all in this together. We're a sort of … we're sort of a team now, I guess. If we're going to survive in this new world we have to be able to rely on each other. We each have our own part to play and our own talents to add to the mix, so you shouldn't feel that you're not needed or that you shouldn't be here. None of us should be here, but … uh …" Cloud fumbles for the right words under her gaze. "Anyway, I don't think some of Yuffie's routines and habits should be allowed to go on as they are."

"You know, sometimes I wonder how we managed to grow up so near to each other and not know each other better," Tifa muses. "You have your own habit of constantly surprising me, Cloud Strife."

Cloud blushes. "So what do you think we should do next?"

Tifa sighs, finally pushing her hair behind her ear. "I don't know. I was awake thinking about it for a long time last night. We can't stay here. Leon's already done so much for us and we can't impose on him any more than we already have. I think he's used to having his own space. It might account for why he escaped to the roof last night. I guess going from living alone to living with four other adults plus a child is a pretty big shock."

"You think he lives alone? But what about the clothes he gave Aerith?"

Tifa plucks at her own tied-up shirt, which she put on before leaving her room. Cloud fell asleep in his own clothes and realises in that instant that he must smell terrible. Blood rushes into his cheeks, but Tifa doesn't appear to have noticed – or if she has she's not saying anything.

"I don't know," she admits, "but I haven't seen much evidence of anyone else living here recently. The clothes I can't explain, but if someone else was living here don't you think there'd be more clues?"

"Clues like what?"

"Well, like a toothbrush, or personal stuff around the place, or maybe Leon mentioning that he lives with someone."

"He doesn't seem like a very talkative guy."

"I suppose." Tifa looks thoughtful for a moment. "Merlin called me a woman's name when he first saw me last night. He called me 'Rinoa', but he sounded surprised to see her. Me. Whatever. Maybe she's Leon's significant other and stores some of her clothes over here for when she stays over. Or maybe she was and they've recently broken up, which is why some of her things are still here but she isn't."

"Maybe." Cloud find himself uncomfortable discussing Leon's love life and living arrangements, like they're prying into his privacy when they only know his surname because someone else used it. "We'll find out if we're meant to know."

"Mm." Tifa picks up her water again and sips it. "How's Kairi?"

"Sleeping."

"Aerith and Zack?"

"They're asleep too."

Tifa taps each finger up and down along the edge of the cup, like she's playing the clarinet. "Aerith's … not like other people, is she?" she says suddenly. Then she blushes. "Not that it's a bad thing, but she's different, right?"

"You mean the healing?"

"Not just that. I appreciate that I was trusted to keep that secret back in Hollow Bastion, but that's not the only one, is it?" Tifa looks at Cloud, right at him, making his toes squirm. "Last night she said she spoke to her mom – after we were brought here. She warned her to get away from Hollow Bastion because something evil was coming, and she wasn't talking about just the Heartless. How would she know something like that? And she talked about the keyblades before Merlin brought it up. Even he was shocked to hear her say it. Aerith knows things she's not supposed to know, and she does things even her healing can't explain away. This isn't the first time I've noticed it, but back home I wasn't relying on you guys being honest with me so we'd all stay alive. Everybody has secrets, even me, but now things are different and I deserve to be brought into the loop. Don't you agree?"

Cloud wets his lips. "It's not my secret to tell," he says eventually.

Tifa stares hard at him. When she nods it's not really as disapproving as it first appears. "I guess I should ask Aerith myself, then."

"She's worried you'll hate her for not telling you," Cloud blurts, regretting it instantly. Aerith hasn't told him so but it's obvious to read a thing like that if you know someone well enough. "She thinks you'll be offended that she didn't tell you sooner. It's not that she doesn't trust you, but -" He stops as one of the bedroom doors opens.

Yuffie emerges, yawning and scrubbing at her hair. She brightens when she sees them. "Howdy-hey-hey, posse. What's for breakfast?" She spots Tifa's cup. "Just water? Nuts to that. Just lemme use the john and I'll go snooping for proper food. Your tits will deflate if you don't eat enough, Teef." She scuttles off to the bathroom and slams the door hard enough to rattle the frame.

Moments later Zack appears. He glances at the bathroom door. "Yuffie?"

Tifa and Cloud both nod.

"I figured as much." He yawns and runs his hands through his hair. His gloves are off. If possible he looks even worse now than he did last night. "So it was all real?"

"Looks that way," Tifa says.

"Damn. I was kind of hoping I'd dreamed everything." Zack sighs and retreats back into the bedroom. Moments later he re-emerges, still yawning, and still not wearing gloves or the Buster Sword. He catches Cloud looking and gives a half-shrug. "I figured I'd better not break things just by turning around too fast. This place is smaller than we're used to."

It's true; Leon's apartment is narrower than most houses in Hollow Bastion. The ceilings are lower too, giving everyone a vague sense of claustrophobia. Three people in the kitchen and already it's crowded. Tifa drains her glass and excuses herself, closing the bedroom door that Yuffie left wide.

"Are you okay?" Zack asks when she's gone.

Cloud just looks at him.

"Fine, fine, stupid question." More hands-through-hair. Zack's black spikes lay flat along his skull, though that stubborn wisp still refuses to stay down. Even that is greasy from him touching it too much, though. There's a dark stain around his neck where his collar has rubbed dirt onto his skin, even though Aerith set out those clothes fresh for him yesterday morning.

Was it really only yesterday they were thinking about clean laundry? It all seems so far away now. Yesterday Zack didn't have Heartless dust all over him, clogging his scabby cuts and mixing with dried blood to form maroon stains on his clothes, and Cloud couldn't feel the same powdery residue itching in his own hair.

"Is Aerith awake?" he asks to distract himself.

"She's with Kairi."

"How is she?"

"Aerith? Better than last night." Zack glances at the door he's just come through. "This has hit her hard."

"It's hit us all pretty hard," Cloud points out.

"Yeah, but it's … I don't know. I guess it's a natural impulse to want to protect her. I've been watching out for Aerith for so long now it's become second nature."

Cloud knows exactly what Zack means. Maybe he doesn't have a super-duper sword or years of training with Angeal under his belt, but that day in Zack's room, when Aerith came in pale and shaking after learning about her real mother, Cloud made him own promise to protect his friends from anything that threatened to hurt or take them away from him.

Zack looks around. "Where's Leon?"

"On the roof, I think."

"The roof?"

"Apparently he slept up there."

Zack looks bemused, but quickly wipes away the expression. "He seems a pretty decent guy, all things considered. I don't know how I'd cope losing almost twenty years of my life like that. At least he didn't age while he was frozen. That would've been rough, to pass out when you're in your prime and wake up middle-aged. He doesn't look too bad for it, though. I'd like to look like I'm in my early-twenties when I'm in my forties."

"I wonder if he got that scar in that battle Merlin was talking about," Cloud muses.

"wonder where he got that 'gunblade' thingy. I've never seen anything like it in Hollow Bastion before."

"Do you think it really did used to be called Radiant Garden?"

"Who knows? Merlin admitted their memories are pretty scrambled, but you can't deny that whole thing about the castle." Zack shakes his head like he still can't quite believe it. "I'm going to keep calling it Hollow Bastion, though."

"Me too. There aren't enough plants there for it to be any kind of garden, Radiant or otherwise."

Zack's face takes on a contemplative frame. "I wonder…" he murmurs, but shakes his head before finishing the thought. "First things first: breakfast, chocobo, washing. Not necessarily in that order."

"Chocobo?"

"You have to check on the one downstairs, don't you?"

"Right." Cloud lifts the hem of his shirt, inspecting the encrusted dirt, and lets it drop with a snort. Any extra dirt wouldn't make any difference. "I'll do that now. You can shower first, but make sure someone's ready to let me back in, okay?"

"Fine, fine, but it'll probably be little old unwashed me. You know how Yuffie hogs the bathroom in the morning. She'll probably be in there for hours."

It's such a normal thing to say that for a second both their hearts lift. This is one of those times when the best thing in the universe would be some normality.

 


 

Yuffie is examining her feet when the bathroom window opens. She decided a long time ago that she has pretty feet. They're a bit calloused from a childhood of going barefoot, or in those stupid soft sandals that were supposed to teach her how to walk silently, but they're petite feet and her toes are all the correct length.

She totally does not squeak, though she does withdraw her pretty tootsies to crouch on the toilet lid and gropes for a shuriken, or a kunai, or whatever else she can use to repel invaders. Since she left her belt and pouches in the bedroom she's brandishing a toilet brush when Leon's boots slide in, followed by the rest of him.

He arches an eyebrow.

Yuffie looks at the brush and holds it out a little further. "It's got poo-juice on it!" she threatens. "You'd be surprised how many enemies would take on a ninja but run like hell from poo-juice."

"Am I supposed to be intimidated by this?"

Yuffie blinks. "If you were normal, yes. You're telling me you like poo-juice?"

Leon says nothing, but goes to the door to let himself out.

"Hey, I could've been naked in here!"

"You aren't."

"Yeah, but I could've been, and you just barged right on in here like you own the place, with no regard for privacy or good manners or any of that junk."

He pauses, but just to say, "I do own the place."

"An excellent point, and as host it's up to you to make sure we maintain a proper level of decency around here."

His eyes fix on her. In daylight they're a much lighter shade of blue than she thought. Yuffie suddenly feels like that time as a kid when she swallowed a bug for a dare. She didn't chew and spent the night worried in a highly deniable way that it'd burrow a hole out through her intestines. Blessed with an overabundant imagination, she envisioned her perfectly arranged body discovered in the morning; how her dad would fall to his knees, beat his breast and proclaim he'd never realised how precious she was until she was gone, even though her dad was as given to displays of emotion like he was given to stabbing pins into his own eyeballs. Unfortunately that same imagination also envisioned what her guts would look like as the bug and all its buggy offspring jerked free of her splattered entrails, trailing blood and digestive fluids as they skittered away. She envisioned it so hard she swore she could feel the dead bug moving around inside her, which is exactly the same feeling she has now. Dead-bug-tummy-flutters.

Uh-oh.

"I used your toothbrush," she blurts. "You didn't have any spares and my mouth tasted like old socks. You ever get that old-sock taste in the mornings? Hey, why'd you sleep on the roof? I heard you climb up there last night. You're a good climber; almost as good as a ninja, although not as good as me 'cause I'm the Great Ninja Yuffie and nobody's as kick-ass as a Great Ninja. Except maybe a wizard, but not one who drinks tea and gets all fuddy-duddy over stupid stuff. Am I boring you?"

Leon just stares at her. "You used my toothbrush?" he says when she's just about to launch into another silence-filling diatribe. He doesn't sound angry, just curious and a little preoccupied. His gaze flicks to the cup on the sink that used to hold a toothbrush and a comb, but now just holds a damp toothbrush. "Where's my comb?"

"Dagnabbit, you caught me." Yuffie tosses it high into the air. It clatters back into the cup. Perfect shot, as always. Gods, she's good.

"Do I even want to know where you were hiding that?"

"Probably not." She grins at him. That was almost a kind-of-sort-of-not-funny-except-in-a-sad-dad-way joke thing. He doesn't smile back. She tosses the toilet brush back into its holder. Still no smile. "Am I annoying you?"

Another slight pause, just enough for him to breathe in and out once. "No."

"Really?" Yuffie's surprised. "But I used your toothbrush. It's all covered in my germs and spit. It's got girl-germs and cooties all over it, and they'll crawl all over you and infect you if you touch it. They'll get inside your head and eat your brain until it's a gooey mush that only thinks about boys and dresses and soppy romance novels, and you'll think nothing of sitting down to breakfast wearing a ribbon in your hair and sparkly shoes. Fear the girl germs! Wooooo!" She wiggles her fingers and makes a passable eerie noise.

"How old are you?"

"Sixteen."

"Hm."

"Is that a good 'hm' or a bad 'hm'? Or is it a 'how did this goddess with beauty beyond her years come to be sitting on my toilet seat engaging me in witty banter this fine morning' hm?" She leans forward, peering owlishly at him.

"I don't believe you're sixteen."

"Okay, fifteen." She meets his gaze squarely.

He doesn't blink. Not even once.

She pouts. "Thirteen, but I'm nearly fourteen. And that is the truth."

Having known him all of one night, Yuffie's decided Leon is many things, but cute is not one of them. Puppies are cute. Baby booties are cute. Leon isn't cute. He could look at water and make it boil. Cute is too mild an adjective to use and she might just be developing a little crush on him, which is totally Not a Good Thing right now. Damn it. It's easy to flirt shamelessly with Zack or Cloud because they really are cute, which makes the whole process much easier. Really hot men in leather pants are confusing in a 'we just switched worlds and you're thinking about his butt? Hel-lo, priorities?' kind of way. Plus Leon seems to have the sociability of a wet dishcloth. If she's going to get a proper crush on anyone, she'd prefer it to be someone who knows how to smile.

She's looking at the wall and thinking it might be good to run full tilt and bash her head against it when Leon speaks again.

"You seem older."

"I do? So why were you all eyeball-y and getting me to admit I'm younger than I said?" She grins and carries on without waiting for his answer. "Check me out, Yuffie the mature Great Ninja."

"I didn't say you were mature, I just said you seemed older. You are possibly the most immature person I've ever … spoken with." Yuffie doesn't miss the gap. For a moment Leon's eyes lose concentration and he looks again at the cup with its single toothbrush.

"Well thank you very freaking much," she replies, not so much breaking his moment as smashing it up and handing him the pieces on a silver-leaf platter – not solid silver, of course, because she's already stolen that and hoarded it away in the lockbox of her mind. "Insulting me won't make me forget, though. You, roof, why? Do we smell? Was someone snoring too loud? Talking in their sleep? Farting? C'mon, throw me a bone. It was Teef, right? She has to have some kind of glaring flaw to make up for that bombshell figure and great personality."

"It was too crowded," Leon replies. "I'm used to privacy."

"Which begs the question, why did you invade the bathroom and negate the privacy of whoever was in here – namely, me?" She taps her chin. "Did you sleep at all up there? 'Cause you look like shit." He doesn't, actually, or if he does then Leon's Look Like Shit face is tons better than most people's Spent All Day Getting Ready faces. She's trying to push his buttons, to see how far she can go and how far he'll let her go.

"You slept?" he counters.

"Like a baby. A really cool ninja baby, who can poke your eyes out with her rattle if you get too close and think she's not still aware of what's going on around her."

"You're from the Wutai Clan."

Yuffie blinks. "Hey, yeah! Right first time. How'd you guess?"

"You say 'ninja' a lot."

"Pfft, whatever. There are more ninja clans than raindrops on a stormy day (I heard that from a travelling storyteller and thought it was such a cool way of putting it, even though he got it completely wrong about how the Gongaga Clan whupped our butts in the Hundred Years War, because it didn't last a hundred years, and even if it had, we won for ninety-nine of them, they just tripped us up and sat on our legs at the last minute so it only looked like they beat us). Anyway, how'd you know I'm Wutai and not from some other clan?"

Leon doesn't even hesitate. "You have Godo's eyes."

"You knew my dad?" Totally not a wild screech. Not even. Nu-uh. But if it was then it was totally justified. "When? How?"

"I traveled with Lord Ansem when he visited other nations. He parleyed with various ninja clans, brokering peace and employing them for information gathering, but he seemed to favour Wutai. They were less bloodthirsty than most."

"Not completely. Fancy ideals and moral codes are great, but a ninja's still gotta eat." Yuffie pushes away memories of being laughed at when she offered her ninja skills as an independent agent before Hollow Bastion, and flatly refuses to acknowledge memories of earlier than that – darkness and blood and guilt – notgoingtherenotgointhere! Nobody takes a clan-less ninja seriously, especially a skinny teenage girl with grazed knees, scabbed knuckles and a tendency to throw rotten fruit if you make cracks about her 'development'. "Ansem? That's guy you fought with, who chucked you into this world, right?"

Leon frowns – or frowns deeper, as Yuffie realises his natural expression seems to be squinty-eyed-slanty-browed-downy-turny-mouth. Huh, funny, she's almost stopped seeing it the longer they talk. "He wrote a report about the Heartless. He was conducting research into them."

"Any goober sick enough to keep those things around without flaying 'em is a Grade A nutjob, research or not. Heartless are evil." Yuffie sits back on the toilet lid, clasping her feet sole-to-sole, elbows on her knees. "They killed my dad. Killed the whole clan, actually. No more Wutai."

Leon's eye widen just a little. If Yuffie had blinked she would've missed it, but for a second he definitely looks surprised. "I'm sorry. Godo was a good man."

Yuffie shrugs. "It made being chucked into this world after you easier. It's not like there was a whole lot left for me in ours. All the important people I would've missed are here with me – even Teef, though I'm going to get a complex about my body from living with her too. I lived with Hero, Cloudy and Ponytail in Hollow Bastion. They took me in; kind of adopted me, I guess." She taps her chin again, holding onto both feet with one splayed hand. "My dad would hate them. They're too liberal. He wasn't exactly King of the Open-Minded. Did you find that? He was always really 'Rar!' with me, and all in my face about the proper way to be a female ninja, like I was supposed to learn more about tea ceremonies and flower-arranging and less about ass-kicking and face-mashing. As if! Then when he finally figured out I'd been training on the sly he went totally nutso and all 'Rar! You must abide by our time-honoured ninja ways if you insist on pursuing this life!' even when the time-honoured ways totally stunk."

"It's good to have family," Leon says quietly.

"Hell yeah. Don't get me wrong, I miss him, but that was a long time ago now. I try not to think about it too much." Yuffie pushes away that final night, running home with lungs burning to find Heartless squirming over everything, and watching one prise apart her father's ribs to rip out the precious thing inside. "Actually, he might've liked Ponytail. She's really into flowers and junk, and she likes wearing skirts, but I'm pretty sure he'd hate her flexible living arrangements. I wasn't even allowed to look at boys unless he'd vetted them as marriage material, and there were always one or two of his 'friends' around to make sure nobody slipped into my quarters for a bit of hanky-panky."

A memory surges to the surface from the time between the death of her clan and getting to Hollow Bastion. It makes Yuffie shiver and her stomach knot with old fear, but she pushes it away without giving it time to take proper root in her mind.

Leon's confused, though he barely shows it. His eyebrows tilt a little less aggressively and that changes the whole shape of his face. Woo, momma. That's much nicer to concentrate on, and drives away the last of the shadows from her mind. "Ponytail? Hero? Cloudy?"

"Aerith Gainsborough, Zack Fair, Cloud Strife (a.k.a. Those Who Need to Get a Clue). Then there's Tifa Lockhart and the little kid is Kairi Caspian. Together we form … the elite Great Ninja Yuffie Kisaragi's Fighting, Cooking and Learning-to-Speak Squad!" She stands up on the toilet lid to strike a heroic pose. Her head nearly reaches the ceiling and she grins down at Leon. "Death from above!" She leaps and forces him to catch her.

Mm, strong arms. The gloves are leather like Zack's, but Leon's feel like they've never ever come off. Ever. He sets her down again almost immediately, and doesn't recoil butdoes a fair approximation of it without looking horrified.

"You're good at catching fair damsels." Yuffie rocks back and forth on her heels, studying his face up close. "Where'd you get that wicked-cool scar? Fighting monsters? Fighting Heartless? Or was it something really dull and boring like you slipped while shaving your monobrow?"

"Get dressed." Leon's tone of voice hasn't changed but there's a heavy, dead quality to the words. There's also something different about his bearing. Yuffie never figured he'd stay for a conversation, but he did and throughout he's been pretty polite; not friendly, but at least human. In an instant that has disappeared. She thinks of a toilet chain being pulled. The human part of him has just been flushed away.

"Spoilsport," she pouts.

Leon makes no reply except to shut the door decisively behind him.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 

Chapter Text

"Did Leon just come out of the bathroom?"

"Yes."

"But didn't Yuffie go in?"

"Yes."

"… Was Leon in there before?"

"No."

The confusion in Tifa's face could power a light bulb. "Gods, I hope he's not a pervert."

Zack watches Leon fetch something from the behind the armchair with an expression that says, 'Me too, but mainly because if he is that means I'll have to clobber him, and I don't really want to'.

Yuffie bounces out of the bathroom milliseconds later, apparently none the worse for sharing it. "Hey, guys. So what've you made me to eat?"

"There's water in the faucet." Tifa sips another cupful, her hair freshly brushed and tied behind her into a bristly pigtail on the back of her head. It's nowhere near as elegant as her old ponytail. Coupled with her slightly pink skin and tired eyes, this one makes her look like a fishwife.

Yuffie is aghast. "Are you kidding? I was in there for ages! You could've cooked a three-course meal in that time!"

"I thought you said you were going to find and cook your own food when you came back."

She stares at Tifa and then spins on her heel, pointing but not looking at her. "Zack, explain to her how this works!"

Zack sighs. "Aerith's busy this morning, Yuffie."

"You could cook."

"I could burn things. And besides, this isn't our house. We can't just go ransacking cupboards and taking stuff that isn't ours."

"Help yourselves," Leon interjects. Somehow he's got his gunblade in his hands again. Zack, Tifa and Yuffie stare and simultaneously wonder where he pulled that from. It's definitely too big to have come from the back of the armchair. He also has a cloth and is wiping the blade with quick, rhythmic movements, like someone might repeat a calming mantra if it mantras were touchable, longer than your arm and had a razor edge. "There's bread in the bread-bin, fruit and other dried things in the top left cupboard."

Yuffie's already on tippy-toes pulling it all down onto the counter for inspection. "Meat?"

"Soy. It's difficult to pattern the soy to taste like meat, but you get used to the flavour after a while."

She just looks at him. "Soy?"

"Protein substitute made from bean curd."

"What the hell is curd and since when do beans have it?" Yuffie screws up her mouth. "It sounds disgusting, whatever it is. Why don't you have proper meat, or eggs, or something?"

"Not everyone who lives in Traverse Town is human. You'll understand why I stick to soy when you meet them."

"You're going to introduce us?" Zack asks.

"You'll have to go through town to get to Cid's. That's assuming you want transportation to leave here. He's the man to see about Gummi Ships, travelling gear, and whatever else you might need for a long trip – inter-world or just in this one."

"We haven't really decided what we'd like to do yet," Zack admits.

Leon just shrugs, not looking up or pausing. He's gentle with his gunblade, as though holding a newborn. He's actually far gentler than Zack would have thought him capable of being. Leon draws severity out of the air to linger around him the way a naked flame draws moths. His scarred face suggests the risks and dangers he's faced; the easy way he handles his weapon telling of a life hard-lived. All of it has made him stern and unfriendly – though it hasn't totally stamped out his integrity. Leon is a good man, Zack can tell. It took a lot of kindness to take them in the way he did last night. Zack wonders about Leon's story and how being ejected from his own world has affected him. It makes him gladder than ever that his own friends are here with him.

"Do Heartless really come to Traverse Town?" Tifa asks abruptly.

Leon's reply is curt. "Yes."

"How often?"

"More in recent times. I wasn't conscious when they first started appearing. Traverse Town is a hub. When worlds are totally destroyed the survivors' meteor showers throw them here first. People either stay in town or go their own way. Cid collects fallen gummi or synthesizes it, then sells them Gummi Ship parts if they want to start looking for a new world to live in."

"But you've never looked for a new one?"

"Heartless are drawn to this place. Someone has to fight them off. People who land here are confused and disorganised. They're easy targets."

"And you protect those who can't defend themselves." Tifa's voice holds a note of admiration.

Leon cracks open the gunblade barrel to extract, inspect and replace each giant bullet. Each one is as big as Zack's fist. "I fight Heartless."

Tifa's estimation of him has obviously risen a notch. Zack can feel his creeping upwards as well. "You mentioned this 'Cid' before," he says.

"I didn't. That was Merlin. He and Cid have an ongoing friendship that borders on hostility. Or maybe it's the other way around."

Yuffie pauses and swallows a mouthful of dry bread, gagging slightly and grabbing Tifa's cup from her hands to wash it down. "Was that a joke?"

"No."

Tifa takes the water back, but reconsiders when she sees the seeds and crumbs floating around in it. Tutting, she pushes it back at Yuffie and also takes the loaf from her. With the same deft precision she used to punch and kick Heartless into dust, she finds some plates, turns on the hob, locates cooking utensils and cutlery, and goes about making breakfast. The clatter of food preparation is a welcome one – homey and restful.

"Cid found us when he first arrived in Traverse Town," Leon goes on after some prompting. "We were the only other humans around at that point who weren't indigenous to Traverse Town, so he tried to revive us but couldn't break the spell. He guarded our bodies until we woke up."

"Sounds a decent kind of guy."

Leon doesn't say anything, or even acknowledge Zack's comment.

"Is he a decent kind of guy?"

"He's decent. And he hates Heartless as much as I do." That seems an important factor in Leon's measurements of trustworthiness.

"As much as we do," Yuffie puts in, bouncing from foot to foot.

Leon does look up then, and nods at them. It's not approving but it does acknowledge them as more than just other presences in the room. He gives the gunblade a few more swipes and then tucks the cloth into his jacket pocket. Standing, he hefts the giant weapon onto one shoulder and heads for the door without coming close to knocking it into things. "I'll be back in a little while. Don't go anywhere."

"Like we know our way around this joint?" Yuffie blows a raspberry after him, dancing away from Zack's lackadaisical cuff.

"Don't be so rude," Tifa says without turning around. "You little beast."

"I'm a wee beastie with a big beastie's appetite."

"Humph."

"Well, isn't this turning out to be a grand adventure?" Yuffie asks when the door clicks shut.

"How do you like your soy?" Tifa deadpans. "And why was Leon in the bathroom with you?"

"Because he's a pervert." Yuffie laughs at their expressions. "He used the window to get back inside. It was all really macho and manly and acrobatic. I suspect he's asexual, since he doesn't understand that men aren't supposed to wear leather unless they're trying to catch someone's eye, and they definitely shouldn't pair it with fur collars. So clueless. I don't think he'd know how to be a pervert if he tried."

"You don't know anything about him."

"Neither do you, but you seem pretty comfortable frying his soy."

Tifa concedes the point. The smell of cooking wafts around the room, and even if they've never eaten soy before they realise they're hungry enough to try.

Tifa's cooking is different than Aerith's. Aerith is more of a cake, soup and pie kind of girl – comforting, nourishing meals. Tifa likes to fry things so they pop and skitter around the pan. She also leaves dirty utensils in the empty sink.

"I'm trying to remember what Master Zangan taught me," she says when Zack comments that she seems a lot more positive this morning. "'Life throws many unfavourable things at you, but it's how you cope with them that determines the fibre of your being. A weak will is the key to defeating yourself from the inside so that enemies may easily defeat you from the outside'. That's one of the tenets of the Zangan-Ryu creed."

"He sounds like a smart guy." Zack spoke to Zangan only a handful of times, and those were mainly conversations about guarding Hollow Bastion against monsters. The man spoke highly of his prize pupil, and in recent months Tifa had taken to sometimes patrolling the wall with him, keeping a lookout for monsters.

"He is." There's a brief flash of regret in Tifa's eyes, but she shakes it off and goes on serving breakfast.

Aerith surfaces with Kairi in her arms. They all sit at the small kitchen table, bunched in together with elbows hitting elbows. Kairi is still sleep-addled and has clearly been woken so she can eat something. She sits on Aerith's lap but only manages a few bites of fried bread before cushioning her head on her arms, smearing grease into her hair and the fold of her cheek.

Yuffie shamelessly steals the only-slightly-squashed bread. "What?" she demands of everyone's disapproving looks. "She's not going to eat it, and I'm a growing girl too." She gazes enviously at Tifa's chest, chewing and swallowing like the grease will go straight to her breasts if she eats enough of it.

Aerith nibbles a piece of dry, unfried bread. "Here," she says at last, sliding Kairi over to Zack, who accepts her with the bemusement of one who's not sure which end is up. Aerith rises and fills the sink to let the frying pan soak. Her hands flutter, looking for useful tasks to occupy them.

Tifa doesn't say a word.

The door knocks. It's Cloud, dirty and with freshly bleeding claw marks on his arm. He's brought into the apartment amidst a chorus of 'oh no', 'let me see that' and 'I knew that stupid feather-butt was trouble! Can we eat it instead of soy?'

"He was agitated," Cloud explains of the chocobo. "It's understandable when you think about it. Merlin left some seed and I got in the way while I was putting it down. It was an accident."

"Sure it was. Here." Aerith takes his arm and screws up her face. The healing glow is a little slower than usual but still removes the cuts like a wet cloth wiping grease off a plate. Afterwards she's breathing heavily and there's a faint sheen of sweat on her brow.

"Aerith?" Cloud has to hold her arm to steady her.

Zack looks down at Kairi, still slumped against his chest. "Aerith, did you try healing Kairi again before you joined us for breakfast?"

"… Maybe."

"And Small Fry's still totally dead beat even though you practically knocked yourself out?" Yuffie whistles. "How much energy did she spend? I'm beginning to agree with you about her bringing us here, Ponytail. Something's up with Small Fry, and it smells worse than fried soy and Cloudy's shirt put together."

A loaded pause fills the room. The squeak of Yuffie's plate as she mops up grease with plain bread is the only noise, and it's inordinately loud. One by one, they exchange looks between each other and glances at Kairi.

"Aerith, do you want to fill everybody in on your theories while Leon's not here?" Zack prompts.

Hesitantly, she does so, re-explaining about the legend of the keyblades for Yuffie's benefit, telling them about Kairi's iridescence the moment before they were transported to Traverse Town, and the strange glowing thing in her hand that didn't become significant until Merlin' story.

"It's a big leap of logic, but it seemed the most … logical …" Aerith finished lamely. She stifles a yawn.

"So what's the big deal?" Yuffie demands. "Okay, we have another girl with special powers amongst us. We all like Small Fry, right? So wouldn't we already be protecting her anyway? This is just, like, a full stop at the end of a sentence we already started."

"Heartless are drawn to keyblades," Tifa murmurs. "That means they might come after Kairi again. And us."

"We can take care of ourselves. We whupped their butts before, didn't we?"

"Just barely, Yuffie." Zack is grim. A grim Zack is a sure-fire indication that a situation is bad. "We were done-foe until we were rescued by a toddler, and we couldn't expect another miracle like that. We shouldn't expect Kairi to do it again if it's affected her so badly. Key word: toddler."

"Pfft, minor detail. The point is, if more Heartless do come after her, we're ready for them this time."

"How many shuriken do you have left?"

"Um…"

"Kunai?"

"Now you're just being fussy."

"Didn't you lose a sai in that battle?"

"Ponytail, he's picking on me!"

"He has a point." Tifa's arms are folded and her eyebrows knit in thought. "I'm more inclined to be sceptical, but the idea does answer a lot of questions – like how we got here without a meteor shower or a … Gummed Ship?"

"Gummi Ship," Cloud corrects softly, still staring at Aerith with concern. His hand never left her arm. During her talk his thumb started stroking in circles, a tiny sign of the comfort he so obviously wants to give. Aerith doesn't break down easily. She's not a warrior, but she's strong in her own way, and seeing the naked fatigue on her face troubles him, just as seeing that expression on his face troubles Zack.

Tifa spends slightly longer than a second looking at Cloud before carrying on. "But we can't disregard the fact that we don't know that's what happened. It could've been something else – something we're not even aware of yet, like we weren't aware of the keyblades until last night. There are forces at work here that we know nothing about, so we can't assume the few scraps of information we do have are all there is."

"Kairi used a keyblade," Aerith says. "It may have been an accident because she was so frightened and in so much danger from the Heartless. Keyblades are connected to darkness and Heartless are made of darkness. She wasn't ready to use one yet, but she did use it and she did save us."

"You're the only one who saw it," Tifa points out, not unkindly, but not as accepting as she was last night when grief and confusion made her thinking woolly.

"I did see it, but not all that clearly. I know she used a keyblade because…" Aerith looks up, treating Tifa to a pleading look she obviously isn't expecting. Aerith doesn't plead. She doesn't demand, either, but rather appeals to people's better sides, exerting no influence but that of her own personality. "Because I dreamed it."

"This is the part where I'm brought into the loop, isn't it?" Tifa doesn't look at Cloud directly, but Zack notes that his thumb has stopped circling.

Everyone else around the table stiffens slightly. They like Tifa, trust her and are grateful to her, even owe their lives to her, but Kairi isn't the only one they're protective of.

Falteringly, her tone suggesting that Kairi isn't the only reason behind her weariness, Aerith explains what everyone else already knows: about her real mother, about the Green Dreams, about voices that sometimes guide her and confuse her in equal measure, and everything in between. Words stream from her lips, half-gabbled, half-paused, but full of apology and need.

"I didn't mean to keep it from you," she says at last. "You're my friend, Tifa. I wasn't trying to insult you, or say I didn't trust you. I do!"

Tifa sits silently. "I don't understand why you didn't tell me before," she eventually says. "When my mom died, you could've told me then. Or when we left school. Or even when those bat-monsters attacked and you healed me. That's why they were after you, isn't it? They could sense your magic. I never guessed you had other tricks up your sleeve than just healing. I never said a word about that, did I? I never told a soul about what you can do. So what did it achieve, not telling me the full story?"

"It's not that I didn't trust you -"

"Actually it is, otherwise you would've told me before now." Tifa's hurt. They can hear it in her tone and see it in the raising of her shoulders. For all that Cloud tried to warn her beforehand, she's upset by this – enough to forget that she pulled away from them following her mother's death and didn't give them many opportunities for sharing intimate secrets. "What did you expect I'd do? I wouldn't have raised a lynch mob against you for witchcraft, or turned you in to my father so he could do it. What do you take me for?"

"I'm sorry."

Tifa's lips purse. "So you dreamed that Kairi used a keyblade," she says, changing the subject.

Aerith sighs. "Yes."

"Did those voices tell you?"

This draws a frown. "No, it wasn't like that. It was a woman, but … there was something odd about her. At first I thought it was my mother, but the voice was wrong. I remember most of what she said now. She told me Kairi's keyblade was an accident and that she has to grow up more before she can use it again."

"She actually said that?"

"She said Kairi has to 'grow into herself'. She also said it's up to us to protect her and keep her safe until that time."

"And we're supposed to trust this phantom woman?"

"The voices have never steered me wrong." The firmness in Aerith's voice belies her exhaustion.

Tifa looks like she'd like to argue the point more, but stops. She gives a slight shake of the head, more to herself than to what Aerith is saying, and lays both palms flat on the tabletop. "So what happens when she finally does 'grow into herself'?"

They process the question with differing amounts of forward thinking.

"Does it even matter?" Yuffie is attempting to balance a spoon on her nose, craning her neck back to prop the thin silver handle vertically. "Who knows what tomorrow will bring anyhow? Like any of us predicted today when we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed yesterday? Planning ahead is for chumps – ack!" The spoon topples, jabbing her in the eye in a display of supreme irony about the merits of forward thinking. "Owieowieowie!"

"I'm not sure I agree," Zack says, "but you have a point."

"Hey, get that; I have a point. You should all make me leader of our team."

"We're not a team," Tifa says, a trifle too quickly. "Not the kind you're talking about, anyway."

"We can't plan for the future until we figure out what we're going to do in the present," Zack goes on. "Firstly, what are we going to do now? Do we plan to stay in Traverse Town, or go somewhere else? We're stuck in this world for the time being, unless we get one of those Gummi Ships from that Cid guy, and I'm not willing to factor him into our decisions until I've met him and seen one for myself."

Zack isn't willing to admit it, but the name 'Gummi Ship' doesn't inspire hope in him. He never met one while defending Hollow Bastion, but he remembers Angeal quizzing him on small colourful bears also called 'Gummi', who live like Brownies and are so shy of humans that some people day they actually died out hundreds of years ago and nobody noticed. Nothing about their legend says they're master builders or inventors, just that they're mischievous and intelligent in their own way, dedicating themselves to subterfuge. Even if they're completely unconnected with Gummi Ships the mental connection remains. Zack doesn't handle artifice well. His ingrained honesty means he prefers everything out in the open.

Cloud tries, "We haven't really seen that much of Traverse Town. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to live here."

"Leon's made a pretty good home for himself," Yuffie points out.

"And he looks really happy about it," Tifa replies, to which there's no answer.

"He stays to fight the Heartless." Aerith looks at Kairi, her expression indecipherable. "He knows a lot about them. So does Merlin. If we leave, the Heartless might still come after us and we're not equipped to deal with them."

"So you're suggesting we stay here and use those two as bodyguards?" Yuffie doesn't seem displeased with the idea.

"That seems very mercenary," Cloud says, but she cuts him off.

"I'll bet Beardy has all sorts of cool stuff stashed away if he's a wizard. Yeah, brilliant magical things that'd turn your hair green or make your toes grow twelve inches long."

"We're not staying so you can bother him and possibly blow yourself up."

Yuffie flings her spoon at Zack. He snatches it out of the air and puts it back on her plate. "You're no fun," she pouts, spinning it in place and supporting her chin on her fist, the image of a moody teenager.

"So we're staying?"

"It looks that way. For the time being, at least," Zack adds.

"We should vote," Cloud says suddenly. "It'd be fairer that way."

"All right. All those in favour of staying in Traverse Town for now, raise your hands." Zack raises his own hand and looks around. "It's unanimous, then."

"Fine, but I have another question." Tifa drops her arm to her side. "Where are we going to stay? We can't keep infringing on Leon's privacy."

Yuffie is indignant. "Why not?"

"He spent last night on the roof because it was too crowded with all of us here. This place has two bedrooms to hold four people, maximum. There are six of us, plus Leon. The numbers just don't work out. Added to that, it's not fair for us to just assume he's okay with us staying with him for more than one night. We are kind of overwhelming if he's used to living alone, plus there's the fact that us being from Hollow Bastion might be uncomfortable for him."

They have to admit she's right.

"There might be some kind of provision, if people land here first when they leave their own worlds." Cloud runs a hand through his hair, spiking up his bangs as he thinks. His hand freezes in place when the front door opens and Leon himself strides in, gunblade in hand, looking every inch the imposing warrior.

Leon stops, glancing at the table and its breakfast debris. "Cid wants to meet you."

"Would you like something to eat?" Tifa scrambles to fetch the plate she's kept by for him. It was a job and a half saving it from Yuffie's appetite, but it's still intact and she holds it out to him.

Leon looks blankly at it. "I'm not hungry. Get ready."

"We're leaving now?" Cloud looks down at his dirty clothes.

Zack glances at his own, mottled with blood and Heartless dust. There are several large and smaller slashes, giving the impression he recently wandered into a group of irate wildcats with raw meat strapped to his body. These won't make a good impression on anyone. Neither will the bloodstains on his skin, or the dirt under his fingernails. "Can we have time to clean up first?"

"Trust me, Cid won't care about a few stains."

"It's unhygienic to leave those wounds untended any longer," Aerith says, staring at Zack.

"Plus Hero's shirt is a wreck and there's a big freaking hole in his pant-leg," Yuffie adds. "This Cid may not care what they look like, but other people might, and first impressions are important. Think about your first impressions of us." She waggles her eyebrows at Leon.

Leon looks at Zack and Cloud and his lower eyelids twitch as though he's studying them. "Fine. They can borrow some of my clothes." He has a very commanding voice. It reminds Zack a little of Angeal when he used the voice he perfected while drilling soldiers during his time in the military. Cadets were sent running from that voice, though Angeal would no more have made good on his threats than he would've jumped over the moon.

Thinking about Angeal sends a pang through Zack, as it always does, but it also makes him look at Leon anew; taking in the formal way he holds himself and the assessing quality in his eyes, as though looking at their little group for what they can offer in a battle. Leon carries himself like a warrior - which anybody could've deduced just from his gunblade - but more than that, he carries himself like he's been formally trained. He's also obviously used to having his orders obeyed, as he eyeballs the group until they scurry back into the bedrooms.

It's something to keep in mind, Zack thinks – or at least he does until he's handed a set of leather pants and expected to put them on without complaining or feeling like an idiot.

"Leather?" he says as he jumps up and down to pull them up. "Leather? Who the hell wears leather on a day to day basis?" He hops on one foot as only one side goes over his knees, staggers, and falls on his face. "Ow. This had better be worth it. At this rate I'm considering just wearing the ruined pants."

"They're not so bad," Cloud says, buckling the belt Leon has lent him. He has to pull it to its tightest setting and it still hands a little loose. The trousers, too, aren't tight.

Zack grumbles. "Says you."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

Cid's is just a short walk from Leon's apartment. They go on foot and see no evidence that there's any other way to travel in Traverse Town. There's some irony to the name, but nobody comments on it. Some buildings have alcoves for carriages, or alleyways that would lead to stables in Hollow Bastion, yet everything seems too clean for animals to live here. They pass Cloud's chocobo and the familiar musty smell and spilled straw is incongruous bordering on inappropriate, like running up to a beautiful painting and scribbling over it.

Aerith carries Kairi at first, until Zack takes her.

"It's all right -" she protests.

"You're tired. Don't argue. Hey!"

Cloud swings the little girl onto his back. "And you're carrying a giant sword."

Kairi murmurs, halfway between awake and asleep, but links her arms under his chin and he walks bent forward so she won't slide off.

"Papa …"

A fresh stab of remorse blossoms in Aerith's stomach. She's noticed how Tifa has kept Cloud and Yuffie between them, and though Aerith tries to tell herself this is accidental, in her heart she knows Tifa's still smarting.

She feels awful about it. She should've told Tifa the full story much, much earlier than this. Tifa saved her life against the bat-monsters and was nearly killed for her trouble. She's cheerful and forthright, never keeping anything of herself hidden. Aerith has returned her friendship by only letting Tifa see half of who she is; implying Tifa isn't honourable enough to be trusted. For someone like Tifa, who prises honesty like diamonds, this must be like a kick in the teeth. It wasn't meant that way, but that's obviously how she sees it and the sting is fresh enough to make her act younger than she is.

When they finally reach Cid's place Aerith is staring at the ground and couldn't find the way back if asked. She only realises they've arrived because Yuffie tugs her arm

"Hey, Ponytail, less of the space-case look, okay? First impressions and all that jazz."

"Hm?"

"Freaking hell, just – c'mon, this way." She propels Aerith through the door, both hands flat against her back like she needs all her strength to move her. This is proved a lie when Aerith shoots forward, stumbles, and crashes into a broad but slightly podgy chest.

"Y'didn't tell me I'd have women falling at my feet, kid."

Leon steps through, expression so frozen he might as well have rigor-mortise. "These are the new arrivals I told you about."

Strong hands grip Aerith shoulders, pushing her back a little. The owner of the chest is blond with a few flecks of grey, and for a moment Aerith is struck by only that and a mass of stubble from which juts a chewed-up cigarette. Old smoke tickles her nose along with oil and something else she's never smelled before – something musty and not quite sweet, not quite sour, which makes her want to sneeze and breathe in more at the same time. Later she'll learn this is the distinctive scent of muscle liniment.

"She's even making cow eyes at me." The cigarette moves around, indicating a mouth.

Aerith focuses slightly higher up on the crooked nose, which has been broken and reset several times, and above that on intelligent blue eyes that seem far too young for the face they inhabit. It's a face of contrasts and visual reminders of the life it's lived. It might have been pretty once, but now it's littered with thin scars and jowls just beginning to sag.

"Shit, girlie, I ain't had nobody study me that hard in years. You're young enough to be my daughter. Quit it, huh?"

She blinks and snaps to attention. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"

"Hey, can I bum a smoke?" Yuffie interrupts, suddenly hanging off Aerith's shoulder and leering up at the man.

He blinks in surprise. "Shit, kid, you never told me you had minors in this bunch. How old are you, midget?"

"Old enough to know swearing's a filthy habit and the penalty is one cigarette." Yuffie holds out her hand. "Pay up."

"Yuffie!" Zack drags her backwards and shoves her behind him. "Sorry, sir, we're working on a leash for her. Possibly a muzzle, too."

"Ooh, kinky."

"Shut up, Yuffie."

The cigarette moves from one side of the man's mouth to the other. Then he throws back his head and laughs; a deep booming laugh that starts in his feet and rolls upwards like a geyser. "Hot damn, they're a lot more fun than you, kid."

Leon just grunts.

"The name's Cid Highwind. Captain Cid Highwind. And you would be?"

Zack returns the handshake as forcefully as he can. "Zack Fair." He introduces everyone else in turn.

By the end Cid has taken out his cigarette and twisted the end to straighten it. Aerith notices it's not lit. "You're all just kids." Zack's jaw tightens and Aerith can tell he's about to protest when Cid points at Kairi. "And that one's more kid than the rest of you. I don't do kids."

"Yeah, 'cause that's icky and pervy and sick," Yuffie chimes in.

Cid levels a look just shy of a glare at her. "What are you, some kind of cheap lawn ornament?"

Yuffie raises her index finger to argue, but pauses. "That … didn't make any sense. What?"

He just grunts. "So you're the bunch of newcomers I've heard tell about. You're certainly a scruffy crowd. I also hear you're in the market for Gummi Ship parts. You ever fly a – hey, get down from there!"

Tifa yanks Yuffie off a stepladder, where she's peering at something on a shelf. "You've got a shitload of cool stuff here, Grandpa." Yuffie's eyes are round as soup plates.

"You shouldn't cuss. You're too young. Now, there's a couple of rules y'all should know before we go any further. Number one: keep your fucking hands off my gear unless I say you can touch it. Number two: it's just Cid. Any other nicknames and I'll make an ashtray outta your ass. That includes 'Grandpa' most of all. Number three: you break it, you bought it. Number four…"

And so it continues for a full five minutes. By the time Cid finishes it's clear that all they're supposed to do is stand there and bark out answers to questions.

Leon folds his arms and raises his eyes to the ceiling. "Give it a rest, Cid. They're okay." High praise indeed.

Cid sniffs. "Even the scrawny one with the big mouth?"

"Hey!"

"Even her," Leon replies, shooting Yuffie an unfathomable look.

Cid chews thoughtfully and then turns, gesturing for them to follow, "This way, boys and girls. Hold onto your vitals, 'cause you're about to enter Captain Cid's Cave of Wonders. Be warned, if you piss me off I will snap off your hands and use 'em as toilet roll holders."

Yuffie beams. "Ooh, I like him."

 


 

Beyond its meagre front, Cid's shop is labyrinthine and crammed to bursting. It stretches back quite far, with side-rooms they don't get to see into. Several hide curious whirring and clunking noises behind their closed doors, and at least one smells like burnt rubber. These, they're curtly told, are the Gummi launch bay and the workshops where Cid does things of a mechanical nature that he doesn't fucking want to go into right now, okay? And will Yuffie please get the hell down from there!

Cid is surprised when, after introducing them to his wares and explaining the nature of Gummi Blocks with a relish just a shade off total obsession, he learns that they're not, actually, planning to leave Traverse Town. He raises both eyebrows and his cigarette tips up as his lower jaw works.

"But I thought y'all wanted to get out of this 'burg ASAP."

Aerith glances at Leon, but he gives nothing away.

"We're going to stay and fight the Heartless," Zack says.

Instantly, Cid's expression darkens. "Fucking Heartless," he spits – literally, making Yuffie recoil with one foot theatrically raised.

"Eeew! That is so totally gross!" She shuffles backwards and tries to hide behind Tifa. "Tell him, Teef."

"It is unhygienic," Tifa adds helpfully.

Cid spits again. It makes a disgusting wet 'plap' noise on the floorboard. "What I do in my own place is my own damn business."

"I can see that." Tifa looks pointedly at the piles of junk.

The shop is messier and messier the further they go, running from scattered sheaves of paper and random screwdrivers to heaps of metal that, upon closer inspection, resemble the guts of monsters Zack has slain. When they enter the very back rooms pipe-intestines, nut-and-bolt-brains and colourful wires spill across the floor, over work surfaces, off shelves and dangle in nets from the ceiling like a central nervous system ripped right out of its body. What isn't taken up with this is dominated by unmarked cardboard boxes brimming with even more scrap, and everything is covered in a film of dust so thick it's changing from grey to black.

Cid catches her look and glowers. "What the hell are you staring at?"

"I could clean this, if you want."

"What?"

"You could employ me as a cleaner."

"The hell? I don't need no damn cleaning woman. Things are fine just the way they are."

"Uh-huh." Tifa doesn't invest her tone with much conviction. She scrapes up fluffy grey dust and grinds it between her thumb and index finger. "Do you have a cough?"

"They hell you mean, coming in her and -"

"Do. You have. A cough?" Her tone brooks no argument.

"Sometimes," Cid grudgingly replies, clearly wondering how selling stuff to this bunch of unwary teenagers has turned into a discussion about his health.

"I'll bet this place is crawling with mice, too." Tifa kicks at half a sandwich, left on the floor with neither plate nor concern. It's blue around the edges and furry as the dust in her hand. "And rats, probably. And it'll have germs galore. It's a wonder you haven't come down with something worse than a cough before now. Do you actually live here?"

"I don't see that it's any business of yours where I live. What's with all the fucking questions?"

"You seem a reasonable enough man. How about this: I clean up around here, organise your stock and make sure you aren't sitting on a plague nest, and you pay me an hourly rate. Traverse Town does use money, right? It's not a trading place?"

"Fucking right, it's not. We use munny." He pronounces it like a foreign word, enunciating the vowel as hard as rock and clicking the consonants against the backs of his teeth. "M-U-N-N-Y."

Tifa blinks. "M-U-N-N-Y?"

"Damn skippy."

She exchanges glances with the rest of the group, but then is immediately back in the conversation while everyone else looks on with a mixture of surprise and admiration. "All right. So we work out a reasonable hourly rate and I work for you until this place is less of a death trap and more a legitimate business."

"I'm perfectly legitimate!" Cid growls. "There ain't no funny stuff going on here, princess. Fuck! Do you think I'd be the premier machine accessory merchant in the whole fucking town if I wasn't legit?"

"Okay, so maybe legitimate wasn't the right word. You're obviously doing quite well for yourself as you are, but that doesn't stop this being any less of a risk to your health and the health of your customers. It wouldn't do you any good if, bustling business or not, a pile of debris fell on you and squashed you flat while you were fetching something from a high shelf, would it?"

"It ain't never happened yet."

"And until your world disappeared I'll bet that'd never happened before, either."

There's a hollow silence, in which the air itself seems to inhale sharply. Nobody was expecting something so brutal to come out of Tifa's mouth. Aerith stares at her, at the firm way she's crossed her arms, her unyielding posture and eyes that still stare straight at Cid. This isn't the usual Tifa; it's more like the one who can face down an ogre when it breaches the town wall and there's nobody between it and Hollow Bastion but her. That Tifa is streamlined in her thinking, completely focused on her target and picking out its weak points to bring it down in the fewest possible strikes. That was the Tifa whom Zack arrived to find organising tavern patrons to cart away the dead ogre so she could get back to work.

"No," Cid says eventually. "It hadn't."

"So what do you say?"

"I say … I'll think about it."

"But -"

"That's the best you're gonna get out of me today, so back off. Fuck. The hell do you people think you are?"

"Far from home and slightly desperate," Yuffie obliges him. "Teef makes a good point. If we're going to be sticking around this ol' homestead then we gotta find a way of making a living. Do you have any call for a world-class (or should that be worlds-class now?) ninja around here?"

"You're a ninja?" Cid is incredulous.

"I'm the Great Ninja Yuffie, and don't you forget it." She strikes a pose. "Respect the one with the shuriken, buddy."

Wordlessly, Cid reaches out and, without looking, empties out one of the unmarked boxes. It's full of shuriken of various quality – some are rusted to practically nothing while others gleam with the promise of violence. There are a couple of medium sized kunai mixed in with them too, as well as a few shards of indefinable metal that might once have been weapons but have been warped and bent beyond recognition.

"Right back atcha, kid."

"Ooh, can I have those?"

"Only if you got the cash to pay for 'em."

"I could work for you too!"

"How about no?"

"Aw, nuts." Yuffie pouts. "How am I supposed to fight Heartless with half my weapons stash gone?"

Cid strokes his chin. "I could possibly run to a discount, if'n it's Heartless you're thinking of using these beauties on." He dons a thick leather glove and scoops shuriken back into their box. "Are all of you warriors?"

"We all have our own parts to play in the fight against the Heartless." Aerith bows her head a little at Cid's penetrating gaze, but then thinks of how Tifa handled him. She raises her eyes again reminding herself that she's the girl who used to crawl along three-inch window-ledges to rescue her friends. She's the one who has dragged Yuffie out of more scrapes than she can count, placated angry men and women and then lugged her home by her ear. She's not gong to leave Cid's first impression of her as a weak-willed and timid thing. "You don't have to be a warrior to fight them."

"Sounds like something that someone who feels guilty that they aren't doing their part would say."

"And that sounds like a very narrow-minded view of the world."

Cid's eyes darken. "Fucking emancipation," he mutters, or at least that's what she thinks he mutters as he turns away from her and finishes cleaning up his mess. "Don't you fellahs have anything to say for yourselves, or do you let your women do all your talking for you?"

Zack accommodates him, but not in the way Cid probably intended. "How long have you been in Traverse Town?"

"Is this supposed to make me chummy 'cause we're all humans together in this poxy little fuck-horn of a ghost town?"

"Um -"

"Going on two years now," he says, not giving Zack time to answer. "Piloted the very first successfully designed Gummi Ship to get myself here when those fucking Heartless ate my fucking world. I was designing it as a regular aircraft to make the first trip to the moon, and when I found some gummi I experimented with it and found it helped, but that trip proved difficult when those creepy little fucktards destroyed the moon. The night the moon went out everything went to shit, and by the next morning the sun wasn't about to come up anytime soon, so I piled everything I could save into my baby and scrammed fuck-knew-where. Wasn't much left to run to, so I just picked the last remaining direction – straight up – and fucked off on literally a wing and a prayer. I ended up here 'cause apparently it's where everyone ends up when that happens, only I didn't know that at the time. Thought I was the only survivor. Tried to make the best of things, but it all seemed pretty pointless to have saved myself when I found him," Cid jerks a thumb at Leon, "and his pals. I thought they might be from my world, so I hung onto 'em and kept on making the best of things until they woke up. Of course, since he told me you're from the same place he is, I don't need to tell you I really am the last guy standing from my world. If there was a meteor shower then I didn't see it, and nobody I knew ever came running to find me."

His story is followed by a stunned silence.

Cid chuckles. "Yeah, that usually shuts a body up. What, you expected me to bottle everything up and let you know my life story at a dramatic moment? Fuck that. Get it all out in the open first thing, that's my motto."

"Damn straight!"

"Shut up, pipsqueak."

"Still damn straight." Yuffie punches the air.

"I figure the sooner you know my story, the sooner y'all will figure out I ain't one of those cuddly gruff pushover types with a heart of gold under my cranky exterior. I hate kids. I hate cute. I hate fluffy animals. About the only things I don't hate are machines and my workshop, plus beating the living crap out of anyone stupid enough to mess with either of 'em. And I especially hate Heartless for taking away everything I had and leaving me in this shithole."

"You haven't moved away if it's so bad," Zack points out.

"The hell would I go? The only world I want is the one that's gone. No point in me discovering new ones anymore. This town is as good as any other. I got me a good business here and some fringe benefits. I provide weapons and technology and Squall uses 'em to blow every bastard Heartless he can find off the fucking map."

"It's Leon." The sudden anger in Leon's voice shocks them. It's raw and heated, wrapping around his words and shooting them like arrows into Cid's chest.

For a moment Cid is quiet. Embarrassment flickers at the periphery of his face. It's obviously unfamiliar and can't find a way of settling properly on his features, so hooks itself at the edges like an ill-fitting mask. "Yeah. Sorry."

"Squall?" Yuffie ponders this. "Is that like a nickname or something?"

"No."

"So it's your real name and Leon is a nickname?"

"No."

"So your name really is Leon Leonhart?" She pulls a face. "Boy, you had cruel parents. Then again … Cloud, what exactly was your mom thinking?"

Leon will say nothing more. They fall to relating their own story to Cid, somewhat embarrassed to admit their world still stands and they don't want to use a Gummi Ship to try and find it again.

"It's too dangerous unless we know where we're going," Cloud says. "We have responsibilities we can't take risks with." He shifts Kairi on his back. She opens her eyes, blinks, and raises her head to look around.

"Smelly," she announces sleepily. "Don't like."

"How adorable." Cid's tone drips sarcasm. "She yours? You got the same eyes."

"So do you," Cloud counters, flustered that anyone could mistake him for father material. "Does that automatically make you her grandf- um, relation??"

Cid blusters, which makes him drop his cigarette. He catches it before it can hit the floor and replaces it between his teeth with more grumbling than they can understand. Aerith catches the tail-ends of a lot of cussing, some of it quite creative. So does Tifa. She's heard worse from the tavern back home, though.

Nonetheless, she marches up to Cid and pushes her face into his. She's not threatening. In fact she's perfectly polite, as though just sniffing his aftershave, but there's a rigidity to her tone that disallows argument. "Please don't swear where she can hear you. She's still learning to talk properly and if she picks up any bad language it'll be either you or Yuffie behind it. I doubt you'd be half as disturbed by the removal of dessert privileges or a swear jar, which means we'd have to come up with another means of punishment, and since I genuinely do want to work for you that might create a bad impression."

"You got a lot of mouth."

"Actually I have a normal sized mouth; I just use it to say the truth. Would you rather I lied to you?"

"You should learn how to respect your elders."

"Prove you can curb your own mouth. I'd respect that."

Cid opens the mouth in question … and then closes it again. He shakes his head and scrubs ruefully at the back of his hair. Flecks of dirt and other things Aerith doesn't even want to think about spray outward under the application of his fingernails. "What the hell have you got me into by bringing me this bunch, Leon?"

Tifa narrows her eyes.

"What? What? 'Hell' ain't cussing."

So much for making ashtrays out of their asses.

They stay at Cid's for quite some time, investigating what else he sells and just talking. It's strangely comforting. Aerith has always kept their home neat and pretty, neither of which can be applied to Cid's workshop, but despite the clutter Cid knows exactly where everything is and his peculiar cosiness in his surroundings rubs off. Leon's apartment is beautifully furnished but it doesn't feel like a home. Cid's shop is nothing like a home either, but for the first time since arriving in Traverse Town Aerith feels some tension leeching out of her. Even the gravelly rasp of Cid's voice is reassuring.

"Aerith?"

She startles, realising she's been wool-gathering. "Mm?"

Cloud peers at her. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, but I'm going to start charging money for every time you or Zack ask me that." She fiddles with the tip of her ponytail. It feels like every free-floating dust particle has made a beeline for it. She shakes it, but that sends up even more dust and both she and Cloud cough. "Sorry. Where's Kairi?"

"With Tifa."

Aerith looks past Cloud to where Tifa, with Kairi balanced on one hip, is deep in conversation with Cid. Kairi is asleep again, having given her opinion on Cid's shop and made a precursory scan to ascertain her 'Mama' isn't here. In her sleep she nuzzles against Tifa's neck.

Beside them and yet totally independent of their conversation, Zack has hold of Yuffie's shoulder and is giving her the kind of talking-to that became commonplace within a week of her moving in with them in Hollow Bastion. Yuffie is clearly not listening though, straining against his grip like an overexcited puppy in a field of buried bones. She's holding a bronze sai behind her back and shakes her head when Zack holds his hand out for it, leading to a grappling match when he tries to take it anyway and return it to the box she stole it from.

Just beyond them Leon leans against the wall, but rather than relaxed his pose is an efficient method of sustaining himself as a straight line of taut muscle. He stares straight ahead, ostensibly at Aerith and Cloud, but Aerith knows without needing to ask that he's acutely aware of everything around him. She wonders whether Leon's ever not meticulously aware of his environment.

She coughs again. Her throat feels clogged and her eyes are watering.

"Do you want to step outside for some fresh air?" Cloud asks.

She doesn't want to leave everyone, but tears from holding in another coughing fit well in her eyes.

Cloud excuses them, refusing to let her go outside alone, but instead of going back to the shop front, Cid lets them out through a back door concealed behind a mass of metal parts that include at least one disengaged tank cannon barrel. Seeing it sends Aerith back to the day Genesis Rhapsodos arrived in Hollow Bastion and she hurries past.

What greets them outside makes both Cloud and Aerith halt in their tracks.

"You see that, right?" Cloud whispers.

"I think so."

"So I'm not hallucinating?"

"Not unless I am too."

"Since when do parrots get that big? Or wear hats? Or jackets?"

"Or smoke cigars," Aerith murmurs, watching as the green bird-like creature ambles down the street twirling a walking cane.

When it gets closer it spots them and raises its hat in a congenial greeting. "Bom dia. Good morning, menina bonita. And to you, sir."

"Uh … good morning," Aerith replies, since Cloud has apparently been struck dumb by the way the parrot pulls solid beak into an impossible smile – a smile with teeth, little round molars and flat front, just like a human.

"The better for seeing you, my dear." The voice characterises it as male and he puffs away at his cigar as he carries on as though nothing's wrong or out of the ordinary. "Good day to you both."

"Parrots can talk," Aerith says after a while. "Miss Trepe taught us that at school. They learn to repeat phrases and mimic speech."

"She didn't say anything about them using their wings like hands or wearing clothes."

"Leon did say we'd find out the reason why he doesn't eat meat when we met others who live in Traverse Town."

They process this thought for a moment.

"Wow. We really are a long way from home," Cloud mutters.

Aerith's chest constricts with a hot stab of homesickness and longing for her mother. She smothers it, reminding herself who she's with. Cloud probably misses his mother just as much, but he's not crumpling into a feeble heap because of it. She pushes back her shoulders and shakes her hair out behind her. "Let's go for a walk," she says decisively.

"What?"

"If we're going to stay here for a while, we'll need a place to stay. Let's go and see what we can find."

"Since they use munny and we don't have any, I'd say there won't be much. It was a good idea of Tifa's to convince Cid to let her work for him, but the rest of us have to think about getting jobs too, or we won't survive for long. Zack's only ever been Hollow Bastion's hero, and that doesn't pay much outside Hollow Bastion. Leon said they don't have chocobos in this world, so that's me out of work unless I figure out an alternative. I hope they at least have horses, otherwise I really am out of luck."

"And me?" Aerith says softly. "I've worked in my mom's flower shop all my life. Maybe they have a flower shop here, too. Maybe it'll be better stocked in this world. Everything was so sickly in ours …" She'd still rather have her own droopy daffodils than any beautiful blossoms from this world. Stop that, she reprimands herself. Don't be so maudlin. You need to be more positive. Look at the others; they're not letting this get them down. So maybe you were flung across the universe and landed in a strange land. Does that mean you have to give up and face the wall for the rest of your life, however long that might be?

Okay, maybe this pep talk isn't quite as peppy as she planned, but it's a start. Cloud's right; it's all very well being mopey, but what they need right now is to be practical. They need a place to live and a way to feed themselves, plus basic amenities and comforts. While they may be able to do without, Kairi can't and Aerith will be damned it she lets Kairi starve just because she was busy holding a pity party for herself.

"We'll get home someday." The words slip out unannounced.

Cloud looks at her. He stumbles over a cobblestone but his eyes never leave her face. "You really think so?"

She nods. "Someday. I don't know when, and I don't know how, but we will get home."

"I believe you."

That helps. It's nice to be believed in. Aerith reaches for his hand and holds it tight.

Carefully, and not without tenderness, she pushes thoughts of her mother, her home and the questions still surrounding it to the back of her mind and into a box. She doesn't lock it, but closes the lid and resolves not to let these things out to muddle her thinking until a time when she can properly process them without them getting in the way of her new responsibilities. She won't forget. She'd never forget, but she needs to think of something else for a little while and she's sure her mother would understand. After all, Elmyra worked through her own grief over her husband's death by caring for her new baby daughter. There's something to be said for the composure that being practical can bring.

Traverse Town isn't quite as deserted as it first appears. Cloud and Aerith spot several other residents as they walk, three of whom aren't human. The pig walking on its hind trotters is less intimidating than the huge green dragon with orange hair, who smiles inanely at them and flutters ridiculously tiny wings in delight when Aerith waves back. It's nothing like the dragons from their world. It's faintly ridiculous and more than a little goofy. By the time they spot a grey rabbit in frayed pants and shirt, Aerith doesn't even feel faint shock. The rabbit engages them in polite conversation for a few minutes, then hop-walks away into a café bearing the placard 'grits and taters sold here – house specialty'.

"This is a very strange place," she remarks.

"Look on the bright side – if they're so used to magic and weirdness, maybe they wouldn't bat an eyelid at a Healer."

The thought resolves itself in Aerith's mind, sending ripples of delight through her. She smiles, brightly and honestly. How wonderful it would be to be accepted by everyone? How fantastic not to have to live in fear of being found out by the wrong people, or go cold at the word 'witchcraft'? Hollow Bastion may be home, but perhaps Traverse Town is the place where she can finally be truly open about who and what she is.

Tifa pops into her head and Aerith's mood immediately nosedives. Thinking of her healing ability reminds her of the bad feeling that keeping it secret has already caused between them.

Traverse Town is a mishmash of architectural designs jostling for space. Some is familiar, but some so wildly different that Cloud and Aerith have to stop and stare. Glistening billboards studded with light bulbs knife up from the street as though rearing like nervous stallions away from triangular roofs, squat buildings and tall cylindrical things like windmills without sails. They pass shops and houses, restaurants and faceless edifices of varying shape. Everything is shiny and new, so when they descend a stone staircase onto a lower level of the town the shabby thing that dominates the square is unexpected.

Whoever designed it at least knew his or her way around a decent cornice, and also knew when to stop. However, this was mainly to create as many corners as possible and fit at least two cherubs into each one. Above the columns is also a high-minded frieze involving men in long robes and maidens with even longer hair. Nobody could wear their hair like that without getting their hands constantly tangled in it, Aerith thinks with the certainly of experience. The stonework is chipped and there are holes in the roof. Most of the maidens and a few of the men have birds nesting in them. It's the first sign of normal animal life they've seen apart from Cloud's chocobo, and even a pigeon's angry stare from a stony bosom is a welcome sight.

"What is it?"

"I think it's some sort of temple."

"I don't think there are many worshipers around here if the state of this place is anything to go by."

Hollow Bastion revolves mostly around the idea of 'gods' embracing everything from planetary spirits to inexplicable chemical reactions. Swearing by the gods holds no real religious significance, at least in a formal sense, but is more a vague acknowledgement that everything is somehow connected and are effects of the world around them. Some people believe in a single higher power, but having experienced her Green Dreams, Aerith is more inclined to believe that anything that powerful is a benign presence, not given to skipping mortals around like pieces on a chessboard. She is, however, aware that other parts of their world play host to a more prescriptive and ceremonial take on the whole thing. Though its design was unusual, the temple where Angeal found the Buster Sword is not the only temple in the world, so she looks up at this incompatibly scruffy building and wonders what else it could be.

"It's all boarded up."

"That is because it is a death-trap," says a voice behind them

They turn to see the green parrot from earlier. He's still puffing merrily on his cigar and leans on his cane, watching them watching the temple. Inasmuch as they can read his expression, he seems curious and a little amused.

"Boa manhã outra vez, senhora bonita. I return from my daily constitutional to find you admiring this monstrosity. You are new to Traverse Town, yes?"

"We are," Cloud replies, holding out his hand. The parrot shakes it but kisses the back of Aerith's when she offers hers.

"Ah, we are not usually graced with such beauty as yours. Certainly this building cannot match you."

Aerith, pink-cheeked but pleased, withdraws her hand and holds it in a loose fist at her chest. "Uh, what exactly is it?"

"A church, Senhorita."

"Is that like a temple?"

He doesn't have eyebrows, but the feathers above his left eye fluff up in the approximation of an arch. "If you like. What world do you hail from?"

"It doesn't have a name," Cloud cuts in, a little sharply, Aerith thinks. "But our town was called Hollow Bastion."

"Hollow Bastion?" The parrot sounds out the name like it's a foreign delicacy to be sampled and savoured in tiny bites. "I have not heard of this place. But then again, I am not long here myself. I like Traverse Town, but I do not think I will stay. The people here are somewhat … sedate." He twirls a hand-wing-thing at a point where Aerith is used to seeing a wrist. "One might even go so far as to say dull. This world is a twilight world – things are not fixed here and there is no zest for life. People who live here do so because they always have, or simply out of a wish to be close to where they last saw their own worlds. It is not a place one can make a home in otherwise."

Aerith reflects on this and sees the truth in it. There is an odd sense of longing, like the memory of a taste or a pervasive smell. It clings to buildings and lines the cobbles. For all its shiny newness and colourful residents, Traverse Town seems a sad place.

And yet they've chosen to stay. Aerith thinks of Leon and his furnished apartment compared to the tenacious hatred in his eyes when he talks about the Heartless. Yes, they've chosen to stay, but that doesn't mean they've chosen to propagate that pervasive sadness.

She suddenly feels a sense of fellowship with this 'church', which sits in the very heart of Traverse Town but remains independent of its atmosphere. The church is battered but hopeful – it hasn't fallen down yet and is in no hurry to change this despite having gone though obvious hardship. Its untidiness is bizarrely comforting. It may not be attractive, but it's individual, as though it's been waiting here specifically to give them the message that things aren't completely hopeless.

"Can we go inside?" Aerith hears herself ask.

Another feathery eyebrow raises. "It is unsafe, Senhorita. The roof, she is collapsing, and the doors are boarded up."

"I'd just … like to see inside." It's an inadequate response and Aerith knows it, but it's the best she can come up with.

Cloud looks at her askance, but turns back to the bird-man. "Would anybody be angry if we went in?"

"Eu não penso que os povos estariam irritados. I think not. Nobody owns this building. In truth, most stay away from it. They fear it will fall on them, plus it is ugly. When people arrive here they desire beauty. Beauty is uplifting."

"Do you want to go inside?" Cloud asks Aerith.

She nods. "Just for a peek."

"I would not advise it."

Cloud shoots the parrot a look. "All right, but I'll go first. Thank you Mr…"

"I am José Carioca, but my friends call me simply José. You may also call me by this."

"Thank you, José." Aerith blushes as he once again takes her hand and kisses the back. His beak is rough but pliable, and nothing at all like being nuzzled by Grimoire.

A clock tower chimes on the other side of town. "Ah, brunch! Not as early as breakfast, not as late as lunch, but you get orange juice and a good meal all the same. I must bid you farewell, Senhor and Senhorita, but before I depart might I ask your names?"

They tell him and he treats the words like he did 'Hollow Bastion', elongating the vowels and clicking each consonant as though flipped it over to examine the other side. "Aeris and Cloud. What strange names these are. Very floaty, I feel. You would do well in my world, where flight and the air are prised beyond measure. Or was," he adds forlornly.

"Actually it's Aerith," she tries to correct, but José has already excused himself and is climbing the stone steps away from them.

"Well that's got to be one of the oddest conversations I've ever had," Cloud remarks.

"I thought he was nice."

"Oh he's nice, but he's still a parrot with a walking cane and a cigar." Cloud waves away the faint pall José has left behind. "Do you really want to see inside this church thing?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

Cloud looks at her again for a long moment, sighs, and then takes her hand to lead her forward. "Come on. The others will be wondering where we are soon, so let's make this quick."

Aerith doesn't want to go back Cid's stuffy shop just yet, so she allows herself to be led and waits patiently as Cloud worries at one of the boards over the main entrance. It's stuck tight and they scout around the perimeter, searching for an easier way in. They find it in the rear of the building, a shadowy little doorway the size of a child with no more than a perfunctory plank across it. Cloud easily pulls this off and they half-crouch to get through the unlocked door.

Inside is a riot of grey statues, dark wooden benches and shafts of brilliant sunlight. The light seems even brighter this way than it did outside, dust motes drifting lazily in the wake of their footsteps. Clearly, nobody has been here in a long time. They leave imprints where they walk and the air is as dry as it was at Cid's, but Aerith doesn't notice either of these things. She's far too taken up with the centre of the room.

The floorboards have all been smashed and among the jutting, broken planks are dozens and dozens of pink and blue flowers. They're tiny, but so many that they resemble a patchwork carpet thrown haphazardly into the middle of a room. They form an oasis in the sea of destruction and are the most absurdly beautiful thing Aerith has ever seen.

"Beautiful …" she breathes.

"How the heck are they growing here?" Cloud wonders. "Even with the floor gone, there should be foundations."

Aerith crouches beside them. "There's soil here."

"That can't be right."

"Well there is." She touches it. Unlike everything else in the church, it's moist and obviously rich with nutrients and the promise of life. Hollow Bastion soil used to be like that when she was a little girl, but as she grew up it became thinner and thinner, lightening to a pale brown with fewer nutrients than if she'd just spat on her plants. "This place is special. Can't you feel it?"

She can. Aerith's skin tingles with something extraordinary and rare. She can't put her finger on what it is, but she knows without question that this is an exceptional place. She feels lighter here, less burdened, and not just by the events of the last twenty-four hours.

Cloud doesn't answer.

Aerith looks up at him. "Cloud?"

He's scratching his chest through his shirt and staring at the shadier parts of the ceiling that are tucked away from the light. His eyes travel around the room, searching, and he frowns the longer he searches.

"Cloud, are you okay?"

Startled, he blinks at her. "Huh?"

"Are you all right?"

It takes a moment for him to process the question and answer. "Oh, yeah, sure. I just got a funny feeling we were being watched. Are you cold?"

Actually she's pleasantly warm, but when she tells him he frowns and shivers.

"Is there something wrong with your shirt?"

He stops rubbing and stares down like he didn't even realise what he was doing. "It's … itchy," he says lamely. "Or maybe it's just this place giving me the heebie-jeebies. It's creepy in here."

"You think so?" Aerith is surprised. How can he not feel its charm?

"Heebie-jeebies. In spades." Cloud shifts from foot to foot. "I think we should head back to Cid's. Zack and the others will be worried about us."

"Correct. He's climbing the walls as we speak. The only reason I'm here instead of him is because he'd probably carve up the whole town looking for you and Kairi won't let go of his neck after I passed her to him so I could deal with Yuffie."

They both whirl. "Tifa!"

Tifa stands in front of the little door, arms folded but expression generous. "That's my name, don't wear it out. Where the heck have you two been? I had to ask a monkey and a parrot if they'd seen you. A parrot."

"Was he green? It was probably José," Aerith says.

Tifa declines to comment on this. Instead she moves aside so she's no longer blocking the door. "Cloud, could you give us a minute? Aerith and I need to talk."

Even in the newly discovered lightness of the church, the bottom of Aerith's stomach drops.

"What about?" Cloud asks, not getting it at all.

"Girl stuff. Don't worry, we won't be long. I'm under strict instructions to escort you both back to Cid's shop and not let you out of my sight in case you wander off again. We thought you'd just stepped outside for some air, but when we went to call you back inside you were nowhere to be seen. Zack was all for scaling a full search and rescue until Yuffie told him to take it down a notch. He thought the Heartless had kidnapped you. Then Leon pointed out that the Heartless don't bother with kidnappings and that made him even worse."

A stab of guilt goes through Aerith.

"Oh. Okay, I'll give you two a couple of minutes, but don't be too long if Zack's that worried, okay?" Cloud slips out, leaving Tifa and Aerith alone in the wide open space.

It doesn't feel nearly wide enough.

Aerith suspected what this is about as soon as Tifa appeared. "Tifa, I'm sorry," she begins, but Tifa cuts her off by marching up to the flowers and surveying them.

"They're pretty. I'm no expert on flowers, but I know what I like, and I like these."

"They're called Forget-Me-Nots."

She nods like this actually means anything. "I'm sorry," she suddenly blurts.

Aerith is shocked. "Excuse me?"

"For ignoring you all morning. It was petty and childish, and I'm sorry. Master Zangan would be so mad at me right now for acting so immature."

Aerith is too surprised to speak.

"I guess," Tifa goes on, filling in the silence by herself, "it's because I was mad at you, but mostly it's because I was mad at myself. I didn't like what you keeping such an important, personal secret from me said about me."

"I don't understand."

"You were my first real friend after Master Zangan. It was so long before I joined school, and I intimidated the other kids enough that I was so grateful when you came up and talked to me that I couldn't think what to say. It was like 'poof' and all my elocution lessons flew away. I never set out to be a loner. I like company, but with my parents being the way they were, I thought I was fine just having Master Zangan. They didn't approve of anybody interesting as my friends so I didn't know how to not overwhelm everyone at first. I just wanted to be liked. I guess I came off as kind of desperate. Then you approached me and you didn't push things. You let me go at my own pace and I appreciated that. I'd kind of hoped you valued our friendship the same way I always have."

Aerith swallows. "You barely talked to us for years," she points out softly.

Tifa sweeps a hand through her hair. They've skipped worlds and learned so many awful and staggering things, and yet she still manages to look absolutely gorgeous. Despite herself, Aerith feels a pang of jealously. "I know. I thought that as I was looking for you and Cloud. Maybe I'm not totally blameless in making you think I'd betray you if my father clicked his fingers. I love my dad to pieces, but …" Tifa gestures expansively.

"I still should've told you. You're right; I should've believed in you more."

"I think maybe I should've believed in me more," Tifa exhales. "I was lonely, you know. I hated not talking to you guys, but I felt like I had to do what my dad wanted. He was so broken after my mom died. Some days I'd wake up and go down for breakfast, and I'd just stare at him because I genuinely didn't recognise who he was anymore. It was like … like a piece of him died with her. He transferred all his attention onto me, trying to keep me safe from real and imaginary dangers. I know he was dealing with losing her by using me as a distraction, but you didn't see him late at night, all huddled up in his chair next to the cold hearth. He wouldn't go to bed before me in case I died in my sleep, or monsters crept into town and stole me out of my bed, or I needed to be taken to the doctor. He wanted to be ready this time. The slightest sniffle and he whisked me down to Doctor Rui's. It was completely irrational but I couldn't criticise him for it. I felt like if I stood up to him I'd just hurt him more. It was kinder to just let things slide so he'd at least eat and sleep and function fairly normally. I still had my training with Master Zangan. I convinced myself that was enough."

"Tifa…"

"I had to keep away from you three because he associated you with everything he was scared would happen to me. That doesn't mean I didn't miss you. I missed you, Cloud and Zack every day. I was upset when Cloud moved in with you and Zack because then there wasn't even the chance I'd accidentally run into him and get to explain everything while my dad wasn't looking. You must have thought I hated you too. You must have thought I was a real … bitch." The word sounds alien in her mouth. Cussing suits Tifa like altruism suits cats.

"You saved my life!" Aerith exclaims. "You saved Zack's life too!"

"Yeah, when we were kids."

Aerith's voice drops. "We still are kids."

"Are we?"

"Mostly."

"I don't feel much like a kid anymore." Tifa's voice is heavy.

Aerith looks hard at her: Tifa, who has always radiated a sense of freedom, confined in her own home, caring for her father and missing her mother with nobody to talk to except Master Zangan. "You saved us and nearly got yourself killed, and we never tried to reach you – not really – when you broke ties with us."

"You had a lot on your plate after Angeal died."

"That's no excuse." Things are becoming clearer in Aerith's mind and she doesn't like how they slot together.

"You all risked your lives for me when you followed me into the mountains," Tifa points out. "Cloud nearly died that day, and how did I repay you? By stonewalling you. You can't reach out to someone who hasn't given you any reason to think she's interested in talking, especially not when you're in the middle of your own grief. I ignored you in public, or don't you remember that part?"

A memory of Tifa walking past the flower shop, glancing in without smiling and then walking on, rises in Aerith's mind. She recalls going to market once or twice, seeing Tifa perusing stalls and calling out to her, only for Tifa to turn her back when she'd obviously heard. She recalls the approving nod from Mr. Lockhart, so intent on keeping his daughter safe that he missed the more mundane dangers loneliness and isolation.

I've been such a bad friend, and I never even realised it, Aerith thinks in alarm.

"And all the time my dad was trying to spread poison about you three living together to make sure I never associated with you again. No wonder you felt like you couldn't tell me your secrets."

"Secret," Aerith corrects. "Just one."

"A doozy of a one."

"…Yes. Tifa, I'm sorry."

"Please don't say that."

"But I am! I've not been a very good friend to you."

"I could say the same back. I have, come to think of it."

They've stopped looking at each other, instead glancing around at the church's decorations, at the flowers, at the grain of the floorboards – anywhere but across the short distance between them. Now Aerith concentrates she can see there are chunks gouged out of the walls and small piles of rubble scattered hither and thither as if from small explosions. She's examining the roof beams, wondering if those are scorch marks and how they got there, when Tifa speaks again.

"She must've really loved you. Your mother, I mean."

Aerith doesn't mistake which mother she means by this. "I wish I'd had the chance to know her, but I love my mom too. The mom I grew up with, I mean. My mom isn't my mother, but my mother isn't my mom. It's … messy. For a long time I felt like I couldn't discuss it in case my mom got offended or thought it meant I didn't love her as much anymore. Eventually she saw sense, but I still wished I had more answers. The dreams help me understand more about what I can do, but not where I came from. I mean, who am I, when you get right down to it? Who am I really?"

"You're Aerith Gainsborough," Tifa says firmly. "And I'm Tifa Lockhart. And we're friends." She slides her gaze sideways. "Right?" It's an apology and an explanation and everything else that needs to be said, all captured in that last upward inflection.

"Right," Aerith replies, equally firmly.

It doesn't matter, not having all the answers. She knows enough, and part of that is knowing Tifa's friendship never really went away. Aerith also knows now that she should never take that friendship for granted again, or rest on her laurels about how friendship is more than only reaching out to those who reach back.

"C'mon," Tifa says. "Before Zack has apoplexy."

"All right." Casting one last look around the church, Aerith allows Tifa to lead her away.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

 

Old smoke tickles her nose along with oil and something else she's never smelled before – something musty and not quite sweet, not quite sour, which makes her want to sneeze and breathe in more at the same time.

-- I'll admit I was thinking about Deep Heat when I wrote this. For anyone who hasn't heard of it, Deep Heat is a muscle-rub cream meant to relieve things like rheumatic pain, backache, lumbago and sprains. It pongs a bit, since its ingredients include (among other things) menthol, eucalyptus and turpentine.

 

"Be warned, if you piss me off I will snap off your hands and use 'em as toilet roll holders."

-- Based on a similar line in an old episode of Farscape.

 

"Yes, but I'm going to start charging money for every time you or Zack ask me that."

-- Based on a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

… the huge green dragon with orange hair, who smiles inanely at them and flutters ridiculously tiny wings in delight when Aerith waves back.

-- Side-fling to Elliot from Pete's Dragon.

 

By the time they spot a grey rabbit in frayed pants and shirt, Aerith doesn't even feel faint shock.

-- Brer Rabbit from Song of the South.

 

"Boa manhã outra vez, senhora bonita."

-- Babelfish!Portuguese for "Good morning again, pretty lady."

 

"Eu não penso que os povos estariam irritados."

-- "I do not think people would be angry."

 

"I am José Carioca, but my friends call me simply José. You may also call me by this."

-- José was originally created as a friend of Donald Duck in 1942, but is more famous as being the Brazilian representative and third part of the Three Caballeros in 1945, alongside Donald and the Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles (en. wikipedia. org/wiki/The_Three_Caballeros).

 

"Ah, brunch! Not as early as breakfast, not as late as lunch, but you get orange juice and a good meal all the same."

-- Side-fling to a line in an early episode of The Simpsons.

 

"Aeris and Cloud. What strange names these are."

-- Reference to the fact that Aerith was originally called Aeris in the text of the English translation of Final Fantasy VII.

Chapter Text

Tifa does end up working for Cid. He makes out he's doing her a huge favour, grumbling about her forthrightness to Leon with invectives nobody even thought possible, until he realises Leon isn't listening anymore – if, in fact, he was listening in the first place. Leon has a habit of listening to everything with mind-numbing intensity and then just … not; as if someone just switched off his attention at the mains and redirected it somewhere internal they can't hope to access.

On Tifa's first day Cid grumbles from the moment she arrives to the second she leaves, and punctuates every step with a fresh curse or question about why the hell he agreed to this until he leaves to man the front of the shop. Gritting her teeth, Tifa ties back her hair, rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck into cleaning. She comes home filthy, sweaty and complaining about the state of the workshop – none of which stops her exercising or going through her kata next to the chocobo shack. In fact, her emotions spur her on, and she doesn't calm down until she's been out there for nearly half an hour.

She seems to draw inner calm from the precise movements Master Zangan built into her long ago. The chocobo rests its chin on the open lower door to watch her with big liquid eyes, which follow her as she kicks, punches, slaps aside invisible hands and manipulates the kinks out of her body through a series of rapid-fire strikes and turns. It, too, seems calmed, but that might be because it's used to living in a stable with dozens of other chocobos and craves company. It's easy for everyone to forget that this world is as much a change for the giant bird as it is for them.

"I'm not sure I've ever met a more infuriating man," she says breathlessly. "Well, maybe Leon. But Leon doesn't make me mad the way Cid does. I've worked there for one day – one – and I already wanted to wring his neck a hundred times over. Cid Highwind is just … he's such a pig! And I'm not sure he's ever done anything for anyone his entire life if there wasn't something in it for him. He obviously doesn't want me there, but does he have to be so horrible about it? I mean, it's a business transaction, and he doesn't come off too badly from it – unlike me. I ruined my top today, and did he care? No, he did not."

The next day she finds that Cid has procured some 'work clothes' for her – baggy old things she can get dirty without worrying about washing them afterwards. She changes in the 'staff bathroom' (which she immediately decides to make her cleaning focus of the day) and changes back before leaving. Cid takes the stinky shirt and pants with him when he leaves and brings them back the next morning for her to wear, having cleaned them in a bizarre display of domesticity nobody would have expected from him – especially if they've seen the back rooms of his shop.

"Not bad," he says when he looks at her work at the end of the day. Then, "I didn't know the floor was this colour."

"Admit it," she says after a few days of this. "It was a good idea for me to do this."

"Maybe."

"And I'm not so bad to have around the place for company, either."

"Don't push it."

She approaches the chocobo that evening and stops before beginning her kata. "Okay, so maybe he's not so bad. He's still a pig, though."

At first Cid stays out of her way completely, as though worried she'll sweep him up along with everything else as she thunders around with a broom. Gradually he begins leaning on doorframes to watch her work, and then ventures away from the shop front where customers insist on taking up his time.

He curses up a blue storm when he finds she's catalogued his spanners and wrenches into drawers. When he discovers the neatly arranged boxes of spare parts she couldn't identify, he hefts them away to sort through on his own. Being around Tifa inspires a grudging tidiness in him, though it's probably more because he wants to imprint a bit more of himself onto what is fast becoming her domain.

Tifa is a whirlwind, dealing with her thoughts and emotions by doing a simple job well. She becomes so wrapped up in her work that it ceases to even cross her mind whether Cid actually appreciates her efforts or just felt sorry for her and gave her something to keep her occupied. She sometimes catches him looking at her, when she's dirty but smiling and her hair has come loose to hang about her shoulders, and his expression is as close to regretful as it can come without spontaneously combusting.

He complains that he won't know where everything is and chews up cigarette after unlit cigarette. He also brings her sandwiches and insists she 'slow the fuck down' and 'goddamn eat something' before she keels over from exhaustion. Maybe he suspects that she's getting more than wages out of the task, but Tifa learns quickly that Cid can keep his own counsel when he wants to. He's crotchety and offensive, with a mouth that could scour chrome from steel just by talking at it, but he's also fair-minded, practical, crushingly realistic and not nearly as old as he appears.

"Why do you keep staring at me like that?" she finally asks.

He snaps from the regretful look, reverting to his favourite gruff and grumpy expression. "You remind me of someone I used to know. Now quit bellyaching at me for damn fool stuff and drink your tea." He bites down on an unlit cigarette, his own cup already drunk.

He never shows any sign of lighting his cigarettes, but considering the strong smell of petrol when she first starts, Tifa isn't surprised. Zack comments on it when she comes home, the acrid scent clinging to her, but Aerith scolds him and Cloud just has a towel ready by the bathroom door, letting Tifa go first even though he's filthy as well.

Cid's an expert in saying things without saying them, and they patter along for quite some time before one day he reclines on an upturned wooden crate and asks, "Your Aerith's pal, right? What's up with her?" Tifa replies that it's not for her to say, and that he'll have to ask Aerith herself, but Cid snaps back, "But I ain't asking her now, am I? I'm asking you because I can be reasonably fucking sure of a straight answer."

"You shouldn't cuss so much."

"I'll cuss all I fucking well want to. I'm old. It's my prerogative."

"You're not old, you only act that way."

"Just answer the question."

"I already did."

"She a witch?"

Tifa bristles but tries hard not to show it. His tone irks her. "Why do you even want to know? You haven't spoken to her since the first day we spent in Traverse Town."

Cid taps the side of his nose. "People talk. Better to cut them off with your own talk first. Best line of defense is a good strong attack, or didn't your pansy-ass Master Zangan ever teach you that?"

"He taught me that it's best to deal with problems as and when they happen. If you go looking for them, you may inspire them to happen when before that they were just possibilities with no fixed outcome."

"They ain't problems yet, but they're happening now. People in Traverse Town are naturally suspicious, prone to doing dumb shit and then wondering whether or not it was a good idea afterwards. A lot them act on impulse because planning too far ahead means acknowledging they ain't going home anytime soon. It's like a self-defense mechanism they use to stop themselves going insane, but it sure as shit makes them cranky and crazy and crappy neighbours."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying she needs to watch where she goes and what she does when she gets there. You give her a piece of friendly advice from me." Cid takes out his cigarette, which has become a mangled stump covered in saliva, and wags it at her. "Traverse Town is full of secrets enough. People deal with their own shit by being nosy about other people's, and when they don't know the answers they make up their own, get five from two pairs and go off the deep end thinking some new bad thing will happen to them if they don't happen to it first. It comes from being the sole survivors of dead worlds. Their survival instinct gets sharper and it can cut you 'til you bleed out. It's happened before. It'll happen again. I just don't want it to happen to your friend."

Tifa stares at him. "Excuse me?"

Cid sighs. "You've got to be honest and open with people or they'll get suspicious and possibly batshit."

"Anybody would think you cared about us."

"Like hell. You need to be open in this town. Think about it – we got wizards, dragons, talking animals, machines, magic and everything else the universe vomits onto us when another world goes kaput."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Tifa demands, wondering how much he's been able to figure out on his own, worried not just about Aerith but Kairi as well.

"It means show me some fucking respect like you would your Master Zangan when I impart pearls of wisdom."

"You're not Master Zangan."

"Thank crap for that. The idea of keeping you around longer than I have to makes me wanna run at the wall and smash my goggles into my brain." He rises to his feet without brushing his pants free of dust. There's plenty around since she moved some more boxes, but he makes no move to wipe away the grey film that has settled over his headgear. Tifa's decided they're an elaborate headband and not real goggles at all. There's practically an indentation in his skull where they sit. "I'm gonna go make some tea. Be finished and washed up by the time I get back so you can have a cup, or I'll fire your ass so fast it'll set alight."

That's another thing about Cid – he's almost disturbingly addicted to tea. Tifa flashes back to Merlin calling a teapot out of empty air that first, anxious night and wonders whether the wizard's infatuation with the stuff is comparable.

However, when she mentions it to him, Cid flares up like a firework, informing her in the midst of his rambling diatribe that he does know Merlin, but there's no love lost between them, and the mere notion that they are in any way similar is a goddamn fucking lie. He also says some things involving lemon juicers and carburetors that make Yuffie and Zack laugh when Tifa repeats them. Cloud turns beetroot and even Aerith is giggling and trying to hide it as she scolds them for setting such a bad example in front of Kairi.

Yet despite the munny Tifa brings in – and keeps bringing in even when there are fewer things to clean and tidy but Cid keeps sending her home with a curt, "See you tomorrow" – it's not enough to support them all. Traverse Town isn't home, a painful reminder found in every unfamiliar wall and corner. Even though it's a receptacle for world orphans it's still a part of this world. It runs on commerce and in order to survive they have to fit in with that. And so those who can work dutifully traipse off to find some.

Curiously, Leon is the biggest help in keeping them from actually becoming homeless. They're ready to move out and look for somewhere else immediately, but he is firm that they stay one more night. The morning when Tifa departs for her first day Cid's, Leon disappears for a while and then reappears followed by a roly-poly man in a crumpled tan suit. What little hair this man has is thoroughly finger-combed as he stammers that he's Mr. Snoops, the landlord. Leon has told him that they need accommodation, he says, and would they be interested in renting the apartment downstairs from this one?

Yuffie in particular is ecstatic at the thought of staying and, after careful discussion, they decide to take up the offer. It's far more reasonable than they could hope for. Leon mutters something about Mr. Snoops favouring those who fight Heartless as long as his penny-pinching wife doesn't find out.

Gradually, and not without mistakes, regrets and surprises at the differences between this world and their own (Cloud in particular is leery of the airships and technology Cid talks about, and everybody needs an explanation for the word 'computer'), they carve out a life for themselves.

There's never any question about them not staying together. Regardless of her earlier misgivings, Tifa never feels like a spare part. There's an obvious bond between Zack, Cloud, Aerith and Yuffie, but instead of it closing their ranks they extend that bond and loop it around Tifa and Kairi like a warm, shining cord, using it to draw them in closer. After years of coming home to her father's austerity, Tifa learns not to feel guilty that she'd much rather come home to Yuffie's acrobatics, Zack's habit of ruffling her hair, Cloud's smile and the smell of Aerith's cooking – even if she will never again drink her friend's tea.

Not long after Cid's question about Aerith being a witch, Aerith herself goes into town 'running an errand' (which Tifa translates as her going to that beaten-up old church again), and calls in at Cid's shop. She can't believe the difference and admires Tifa's labours with ill-concealed awe. The floor is visible and sparkling, the work surfaces can actually be worked on, and the whole place smells like strong bleach masked with lemon. During one bout of particularly gung-ho enthusiasm, Tifa took an upturned mop to the skylight in the big workshop and washed off so much caked dirt that it dropped in clumps that hurt when they fell on her head. She was blackened and smeared afterwards, but soft sunshine now rolls through the room like melted butter.

Somehow Aerith stays for a while, and somehow Cid is coaxed out to make conversation with her. He grumbles, but over the weeks she's spent working for him Tifa has come to recognise when he's actually glad of company. Aerith makes a pot of tea while he tells Tifa about the finer points of airship rudders compared to Gummi Ships, and he picks up the cup Aerith offers without even thinking about it.

His expression after the first sip is a gurn of prize-winning ugliness and he all but throws it back into its saucer. "What the fuck is that?"

"It's tea," Aerith replies, surprised.

"Tastes like gerbil piss. Tastes like dead gerbil piss. Are you trying to poison me?"

Tifa takes a sip. Until now she never realised how much care and attention Cid must take preparing tea, at least not until Aerith's sour brew spreads over her tongue. Her taste buds back away, whimpering. It's not quite enough to make her gag, but the strength is overwhelming and it leaves a strangely brackish aftertaste. Seeing her friend's face, however, Tifa gamely reaches for the sugar.

Cid stops her hand. "Have you ever made tea before?" he demands of Aerith.

"Of course!" she replies, slightly indignant. People have a habit of underestimating Aerith because she's feminine, wears pastel dresses and doesn't consider herself too old for smocking. They don't realise she has a sharp tongue and can use it if she wants to. She'll never be quarrelsome, but neither is she a pushover. Cid's aggression demands a response and it's as if she senses the potential disgust he'll always treat her with if she rolls over now. "Nobody's ever complained about it before."

"Then I feel sorry for the poor slobs who ain't never tasted proper tea to tell the difference. Siddown while I re-educate you." Cid removes the offending pot like it's a dead rat from behind the cabinet. Tifa and Aerith hear him clattering about in the tiny kitchenette adjacent to the back rooms, and he soon returns bearing a floral-pattern set on a tray.

Aerith protests when he shoves a delicate teacup filled with equally delicate brown liquid at her. "I already have some," she says defensively, holding it close – and then suddenly her hands are empty

"Shut up and drink your goddamn tea," Cid retorts, placing the mug of thick, paste-like stuff where she can't reach it.

Tifa waits until Aerith has drunk some before taking up her own cup, so she doesn't feel so traitorous. Cid's tea is lovely and smells faintly of some kind of aromatic plant – rosemary or thyme or something like that. Tifa's never been very into plants.

"It's … fantastic," Aerith is forced to admit.

Cid nods, satisfied. He surveys both girls with a critical eye, and when he raises his cup to his lips he keeps his pinkie firmly tucked in with the rest of his fingers. "You guys settling in all right?" It's not a usual kind of question from him. Cid operates under the idea that he can take care of himself, and nobody can take care of themselves as well as he could, but they should try anyway. He values self-reliance and altruism in equal measure, which might be why he's more approving of Tifa now than he was when they first met and she implied he couldn't cope looking after his own shop.

"We're fine," Aerith replies. "We're all pulling our weight and people seem to accept us. It's been even better since Cloud started running his delivery service."

Having realised there's a niche market in chocobo-related jobs, Cloud set himself up to fill it, allowing the distressingly high number of children in Traverse Town to ride on the bird while he leads it up and down the streets. Those children in Traverse Town who are old enough to properly process how they got here share the same haunted, fretful air, and Tifa's own heart hurts for them. She can't imagine what it must be like, to lose everything when so young. Their sad eyes mean Cloud often gives them rides for free. He makes up for this by also delivering packages, letters, food deliveries from restaurants and whatever else people want to employ him for. Sometimes there's no real reason and he finds himself delivering non-urgent messages because people simply want the novelty of seeing him ride off on a huge chicken. Everything he does earn goes into the kitty alongside Tifa's wages.

Zack, by comparison, has had a much harder time finding work. With his scarred face and giant sword people automatically assume he's another Leon, which is actually how the group find out just how far Leon's name can be traded on. People know and respect Leon. He has the same kind of role and reputation as Zack had in Hollow Bastion, if on a much more unofficial scale. Traverse Town sees Leon as its personal hero, wholly devoted to keeping its residents safe from the Heartless. Without asking for it, Zack has become an extension of that. Nobody will believe him when he says he honestly just wants a normal job. Zack is a hero, and heroes don't work behind cash registers or waiting tables.

Cid eyeballs Aerith, but slides his attention to Tifa. "Cloud. That's the blond kid you're sweet on, right?"

Tifa blushes. Even she's not sure what to make of her new feelings for Cloud. She has always thought of him as a tenuous friend, though she was aware of his crush on her back in school. Back then she was flattered by the attention but found him too reticent and nervy around her. She half-expected him to be one of those boys who got intimidated by her skills as a martial artist. There was always something needy about Cloud, which only went away when he was with Zack and Aerith. Tifa didn't need that kind of bother when she was chock full of brand new hormones and still figuring out how to be her and be what she was supposed to be at the same time. Plus her parents disapproved of Cloud and Tifa was a good girl who mostly did as she was told – as long as it didn't contradict the personal code of ethics Master Zangan's teachings had nurtured inside her.

Looking back, she reflects on how ridiculous it was that she could leap into battle against monsters but shied away from ticking off her mother and father through hanging out with the 'wrong' people.

The day he spotted her leaving for the mountains and followed her, Tifa started seeing Cloud in a new light. It was short-lived and hindered by circumstances, but upon landing in Traverse Town that light has returned. Cloud is clearer to her now. He, like her, is more comfortable in his own skin than he used to be. While Tifa has learned to tone down her personality and that she doesn't need to project aggressiveness to be taken seriously, Cloud has learned to talk without resembling a petrified rabbit. Every time they speak, whether alone or as part of a group, Tifa finds herself discovering more ways he's changed in the time she wasn't a part of his life. Cloud has grown up and Tifa isn't sure how she'd like to react to that.

It would be easier if Cloud could be more like Zack. Zack is effusive and open, the kind of guy you can go to with both problems and triumphs. Tifa never feels confused when talking to Zack like she does around Cloud, as Zack is so much easier to understand. When Zack makes awkward zooming noises encouraging Kairi to eat, it's cute. Likewise when he ended up with most of the food on his own face thanks to Kairi's clapping, or when he held her at arms' length because he had no idea how to deal with a dirty diaper. The time Tifa accidentally walked in on him getting dressed, Zack fell backwards over a chair in surprise and it made her laugh, but nothing more. The thought of seeing Cloud shirtless like that makes Tifa blush and then wonder why she's blushing.

The fact that both Cloud and Zack are devoted to Aerith doesn't help. Aerith and Tifa's friendship has been strengthened by their falling-out, so Tifa really doesn't want to resent or offend the other girl when she's not even sure how far her own feelings go. It could just be she's still flattered about that schoolyard crush and aggrieved Cloud is over it while she apparently isn't. If that's the case, then Tifa would rather bite her tongue than potentially ruin a friendship just because her heart is lagging behind her head. She thought she was doing a good job at hiding her uncertainties.

Judging by Cid's question, not as good as she hoped. "Cloud's the blond one and Zack has black hair. C'mon, Cid, you should know all our names by now. Me, Aerith, Zack, Cloud, Kairi, Yuffie-"

Cid's expression darkens. "I swear, if I find that pipsqueak rooting through my stock again I'm gonna wring her neck until you could fly a kite with it."

Yuffie sees no problem in liberating things they need without paying for them. Never luxuries, but she does have an extremely loose sense of what constitutes a 'necessity' and feels Cid wouldn't mind the odd missing kunai or throwing star. Tifa brought back the intricate dagger she discovered under Yuffie's pillow, and since then has kept a lookout for other evidence of thievery.

"Yuffie's been stealing from you again?" Aerith asks in alarm. Her eyes narrow and Tifa foresees a lecture in Yuffie's future – and possibly the stoppage of desserts. "We'll see about that."

"You gonna cast a spell on her to cure kleptomania?"

Stunned silence falls around them like rocks into a still pool.

"What?"

"Don't your magic stretch to that sort of thing? I ain't that well-versed in how the fucking stuff works. If you bring it up, that damn wizard babbles about all kinds of unbelievable shit until you stick a sock in his trap, so I don't bother asking anymore. Science and technology, they're the only kind of magic for me." Cid sips his tea aggressively – something Tifa never thought possible until she met him.

Aerith's wide eyes gradually return to normal size. She seems to come to a decision inside herself and takes a deep breath. "You know I have magic."

"Wasn't that difficult to figure out when you've hung around this place and Merlin for long enough. Damn blabber-mouthed know-it-all wizard. You learn to pick up on signs; and kid, you're broadcasting loud and clear."

"How? Nobody ever figured it out before without seeing me work."

"Nobody from your world."

"Oh." The significance of this settles against their skin, permeating and spreading to take proper root in their minds. "How much do you know?"

"For fuck's sake, kid, I ain't playing games with you. Remember the part where I said I like to get everything out in the open instead of sitting on it? Look, I ain't going to string you up from the nearest tree. Odds are I've seen much weirder shit than you can pull anyway, so get the fuck over yourself and stop thinking you're so damn special. You ain't a beautiful little snowflake any more than I am. You're a human being with a talent. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo."

His outburst is strangely humbling rather than offensive. After that, Aerith's explanation seems anticlimactic.

"A Healer, huh?" Cid says when she's done. "That'll come in handy. Just keep that shit away from me."

"You don't like magic?"

"I don't trust magic. I prefer stuff I can explain and there's too many inexplicable bits to magic. Plus it really pisses Merlin off, and that pompous windbag needs to be pissed off as often as possible."

There isn't much either of them can say to that.

"Traverse Town is much more permissive than Hollow Bastion," Aerith murmurs. "People there … well, let's just say the whole 'stringing up from a tree' idea may not have been so far-fetched."

"Did it ever happen before?"

"…No, but the threat was there."

"You don't give people much credit, do you?"

"Excuse me?"

Even Tifa is shocked at that one. Aerith is a pretty good judge of character and sometimes disturbingly skilled at reading people. To hear this called into question is unheard of.

Cid doesn't know Aerith well enough to know this, though, and carries on saying it as he sees it. "You're so busy being scared of what they might say, you never stopped to think what else they might say. Don't mistake Traverse Town as any bed of roses, because it ain't, but remember it's not like other towns. Permissive ain't really the word for it, since that'd imply you need permission for whatever you do. Tolerant doesn't really work, either. It's more that people have been lumped together against their will, without any warning or by-your-leave, so they're suspicious as hell of anything or anyone new until they get some answers. They hate mysteries, since mysteries have the potential to hurt them, but once they find out what's behind a mystery they mostly stop caring about it. There's the odd exception to the rule, especially when it comes to the Three Harpies."

"Three Harpies?" Tifa has a sudden flash of real harpies, and says so, but Cid shakes his head.

"Three old broads whose noses are out of joint as often as not. They're the ones you'd have to watch out for, but as for the rest, as long as you weren't keeping nothing shady from them, you could walk around buck naked with a chicken on your head and they wouldn't care – though I wouldn't recommend it. You can fade into a crowd easier in Traverse Town than anywhere else because here, there ain't no such thing as normal."

"So everybody's technically normal," Aerith points out.

"Feh, liberal hogwash. Nobody's normal. That's the fucking point." Cid rolls his eyes.

Tifa isn't sure she gets it, but the way Aerith frowns and smiles at the same time is enough to make her not question it.

Even if Cid is being a monumental ass.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 

… a roly-poly man in a crumpled tan suit. What little hair this man has is thoroughly finger-combed as he stammers that he's Mr. Snoops.

-- Snoops first appeared in Disney's 1977 animated movie The Rescuers.

Chapter Text

Aerith walks through town with sure steps. She doesn't get to visit the church as often as she might like, but by now she knows the way well enough to sleepwalk it. The others don't really understand what she sees in the place. They understand the pull of the flowers, but not even Zack felt the same sense of calm when he first went in. She was a little disappointed at his reactions.

"You getting all religious on us?"

"It's not like that," Aerith said, crouching low and stroking the petals with the tip of her index finger.

"You keep coming to a church and talk about the special atmosphere it has, how calm it makes you feel, but say that's not it. Excuse me for being a little skeptical. You never seemed all that interested in the old gods or anything back home."

"It just feels nice in here." Aerith couldn't explain it then and can't explain it now. The calm she feels in the church is odd, like the calm she feels when she wakes in the night and can hear Kairi and Tifa breathing, or when she tiptoes out of the bedroom and finds Yuffie safely inside and asleep on the couch instead of running around on the rooftops just like she used to in Hollow Bastion. It reminds Aerith of how she used to feel after Green Dreams – reassured and like her mother is close by, watching out for her.

When she first brought Yuffie to the church it wasn't calm at all. Yuffie was too busy chattering nineteen-to-the-dozen about how she tracked Leon into the sewer until he spotted her and lost her in the labyrinthine passageways. She had to crawl out through a grate near the fountain in the centre of town when the smell got too much and her 'keen super ninja senses' failed in finding the exit.

"Hey, cut me some slack," she'd protested. "I was dying of asphyxiation. There was no oxygen going to my brain. They were exceptional circumstances!"

Yuffie has really taken to following Leon about, though she thinks she's good at disguising her interest as just playful curiosity. The fact she isn't acknowledging her crush is what clued everybody into it.

Aerith thinks it's quite sweet, though she still gets uneasy around Leon. He's so intense that occasionally he seems on a whole different plane of reality than the rest of the world. They don't see him as often as one might expect, living just a floor below, but sometimes when she's out – especially if she's coming away from the church – Aerith feels the skin between her shoulder blades itch and turns to see him watching her. He doesn't hide. Even if he lurked in doorways or down alleys, Leon couldn't hide. He radiates too much fiercely tamped-down emotion, his face too schooled to be genuine; it makes him a beacon. Aerith might feel more intimidated, except that Leon's been good to them and she doesn't think he means her any harm. She interests him for some reason she can't fathom. It's not romantic, at least, and for that she's glad because she wouldn't know how to react to that sort of attention from someone like him.

"Senhorita!"

Aerith turns. "José!"

José isn't someone who runs, or even jogs to catch up with you. Instead he ambles, perfectly content to make you wait until he reaches your side and shoots you a charming smile that instantly smooths your ruffled feathers. "Out for a stroll?"

"Just running some errands."

"The little one is not with you today?"

Kairi is as popular here as she was in Hollow Bastion. She still wakes and calls for her mother most nights, but she's young enough that her resilience against losing her home and family in one fell swoop hasn't really registered. She sees Traverse Town as a new adventure and its people as exciting. Aerith, taking on the lion's share of childcare duties, often finds herself talking to strangers captivated by Kairi's shy smile and friendly wave. Kairi draws them, her innate likability acting as a flame to moths.

"No, she's with Zack today."

"Ah, Seu amante com o cabelo traseiro." José gives Aerith a knowing look. "Ou não."

In his world the landmasses were divided into many islands, each with its own language. Apparently it got very confusing, making Aerith wonder why they kept these languages when they all spoke Common Tongue as well. José just tapped his beak when asked and said it was a case of individuality and national pride. Often he slips between Common and his own language and she doesn't know enough to understand unless he translates, but he's also fluent in facial expressions that are no less potent for being worn on a beak.

"I have something to ask you, my dear."

"Yes?"

"The time has come to move on from Traverse Town. I am leaving to make my way out in the rest of this new world."

Aerith deflates. She likes José. He's not a close friend, but he's kind and helpful, and talking with him makes her feel good about herself – especially when he pulls his usual trick of kissing her hand. José is a gentleman. Gentlebird. Gentleparrot? He's courteous. She'll miss him. "When are you going?"

"Soon enough, but what I actually wanted was to ask you and your friends to attend a little partido." He clicks his finger-feathers and wags his head from side to side, bopping to music that hasn't begun playing yet. "A going-away party. It is not right to leave a place and people without the proper send-off, I feel, and to do so would also bode ill for any future plans. We must court good luck like a reluctant lover. So I wish for you all to come to the farewell celebrations. There will be food, drink and merriment for all to enjoy – including your little one, though she may tire earlier than the rest of you."

"It's an evening party?"

"Sim, deve ocorrer depois que o sol parte. After sunset, when the moon is full and the stars of other worlds burn in the sky." He gives a rueful smile. "It seemed fitting to bid farewell to where my old world used to sit as well. You are aware that stars which go out are worlds that have ended?"

Aerith nods. Merlin explained as much, over and over because he keeps forgetting what he has and hasn't told them. He seems more interested in the Buster Sword than anything else lately, anyway, which should at least give Zack something else to concentrate on instead of his lack of employment.

"You will come?" José asks. "Eu serei triste se você não chega."

"Excuse me?"

"I would miss you if you did not attend. Your beauty will light up the party more than any decorative lights. Your world produces beautiful women in abundance, though it is much dimmer for the lack of yourself, Miss Tifa and Miss Yuffie. However, its loss is our gain."

Aerith finds herself returning his smile. "Flattery will get you everywhere. We'll come, don't worry about that. I just wish you didn't have to leave."

José waves his ever-present but never-unfolded umbrella at the buildings around them. "I have had my fill of this stifling atmosphere. I find Traverse Town too gloomy to take anymore, and a suitable amount of time has passed to bid adeus to my home world. True, the rest of this world may be even gloomier, more filled with danger, and have fewer beautiful people in it, but chances are there to be taken. Consider that a good piece of advice, Senhorita. Do not live your life with any regrets."

"I'll keep that in mind."

José nods, kisses her hand as is his custom, and excuses himself after giving her the details of when and where. He whistles as he walks, swinging his umbrella like a walking cane.

Aerith sighs. She will miss José, but she won't try to stop him leaving. It's not up to her to dictate the movements of others – unless, of course, the other person is Yuffie and she's doing something illegal. Even then, that's partly social responsibility, partly prevention of whatever consequences may try to nail Yuffie to the wall – possibly literally.

A sign over a nearby doorway catches Aerith's attention. She stares at it, wondering how she never saw it before. Probably because she's usually hurrying through this part of town to reach the church, but right now she's in just the right spot to see it. It looks like she's not going to get to the church today, she thinks, as the seed of an idea takes root in her mind, watered by José's advice and her earlier conversation with Cid.

Aerith pushes open the door beneath the sign.

 


 

"I've got a job."

Zack looks up from trying to get Kairi's limbs through the correct holes in her dress. It already took him a couple of yanks to realise he was trying to force her head through an armhole. Now he pauses with her head visible but her arms still hidden from view. "Excuse me?"

Aerith beams at him. "I have a new job. And we're all going to a party tomorrow night."

"I thought you only went to fetch bread."

Her face falls.

"You forgot the bread."

"I'll go back and get some from the bakery -"

"No, no, it's okay," Zack says quickly. "I'll go."

Aerith eyes his attempts at dressing Kairi. Kairi giggles, flapping her arms up and down to make her dress fluff out and fall back again like wings. "Those aren't the clothes she was in when I went out."

"Yeah, about that; how easy is it to get jam out of fabric?"

"You gave her jam?"

"No. I didn't give her milk or juice, either. Or chocolate sauce. And I definitely didn't give her porridge oats. We need child locks on the cupboard doors, by the way."

Aerith giggles. "I take it you've had a busy morning."

Zack isn't a natural at the whole childcare thing. He likes Kairi, honestly he does, but she perplexes him in ways that trail sharp reminders that small children are resilient and delicate at the same time. While he was sweeping up crushed oats she managed to take out every pot and pan Mr. Snoops has provided with the apartment and slap, hit and beat them with a wooden spoon and a ladle. Kairi thought it was wonderful, while Zack was just glad Leon wasn't home to hear his inadequate parenting skills.

Every time Zack cleaned up one mess Kairi moved on to another, leaving a trail of destruction no single child should be able to produce. By the time he discovered the wooden spoon sticking out of the keyhole in her vain attempt to break out of the apartment, he was exhausted and she was dirty and sniffling at being thwarted. She's generally a happy little girl, but like any toddler she gets grumpy when tired, and running him ragged all morning has left them both exhausted. He wonders whether he was this troublesome for Angeal, then decides he was probably worse. His respect for his uncle ratchets up yet another notch.

Kairi perked up when Zack decided he couldn't let Aerith see her so grubby. Aerith and Tifa are both natural den mothers anyway, throwing his shortfalls into even sharper relief. Even Yuffie seems to know what she's doing more than Zack does. He made even more mess washing Kairi's face than she did getting it dirty.

"Please let me get the bread," Zack pleads, grappling with Kairi's left hand to put it through the correct sleeve. She fights him, giggling, and somehow one of her fingers goes up his nose. He yelps, eyes watering.

Aerith gently takes Kairi by the wrist. "Kairi," she says warningly, causing the arm to go limp and slot easily through the hole. Likewise the other side.

Kairi immediately reaches for Aerith to pick her up. "Out?"

"It seems like you have a lot of energy to run off. Unlike Zack."

"Zack!" Kairi giggles, clapping her hands. "Bash-bash-bash!" She likes the sound of the word and smacks his stomach and the empty air like she did the pots and pans. "Bash-bash-bash!"

Zack winces. "She's many things, but not a musical genius."

"Aren't you even going to ask where I got a job?"

"I'm sorry. Leaving aside the fact I'm now literally the only one without gainful employment, where are you working?"

"At the local doctor's surgery. As a Healer."

Zack chokes. "What?"

Aerith's smile is brittle. "I've decided I'm not going to hide my powers anymore. Things are different here. It's time I stopped hiding who I am and what I can do, and started using them for the right reasons. I was given these abilities to use, not to let them go stale and only treat my friends when they get hurt. That's just selfish. There are others who need my help too, and it's time I faced up to my responsibilities. Plus it's extra money and it'll help contribute to the housekeeping." Her words have the ring of something practised many times on the way home. They trip too fast off her tongue.

When she's finished it takes a moment for Zack to realise she's waiting for a response. "I … congratulations, I guess. Are you sure about this?"

She sighs. It's a very deep sigh. Kairi lays her head against Aerith's shoulder and pats her arm. "In Hollow Bastion it was always my first impulse to hide what I can do because of how people might react. Here there's no fear of magic, or at least not to the same degree. I can be useful and honest."

Zack tries to ignore the fact that this means she doesn't need him to protect her anymore – not for this, at least. Since they were kids he's sworn an oath to keep her safe and not let anyone hurt or try to punish her for her magic. It's yet another indicator that while in Hollow Bastion he was a hero, necessary and valued, here he's just a guy with an absurdly big sword and few employable skills beyond how to swing it. He's a hero in name only, here.

"At least try to look happy, Zack."

He pastes on a smile.

"That's just disturbing. You look like you ate something that tasted terrible." Aerith comes to sit next to him on the couch. "You're not happy about this at all, are you?"

"I'm just worried for you. We haven't been here very long and it's a pretty big step to take."

"Not for this world. For ours, maybe. Actually, no doubt about it – telling people I can heal them with magic would be a huge thing in our world. But here … they already have Merlin, and they accept his magic. Magic isn't a big deal here. He says the reason Hollow Bastion isn't as tolerant is because they instinctively distrust anything that may make them question the cloaking spell and try to figure out more about the castle. It's like a defence mechanism."

"Have you told anyone else about this?"

She shakes her head. "Just you and Kairi." She wipes crumbs from the corner of Kairi's mouth. "Hear that, Kairi? I'm going to be a nurse."

"I thought you were going to be a Healer?" says Zack.

"I am. That's just my official title. Now, there's something else bothering you, isn't there?"

"No."

"Don't lie to me, Zack. You have your Worry Face on. Your eyebrows, your forehead." She gestures. "You try to hide it, but you can't hide Worry Face from me."

"Is this the part where I say 'you know me too well'?"

"I know when something's bothering you that you're trying not to talk about."

Zack sighs. It's easier to just talk about it, he knows, but he has his male pride. Still, one look at Aerith's concerned expression reminds him how she once moved her entire life out of her home and into his because she wouldn't give up trying to reach him when he needed it. "I feel useless," he confesses. "Ever since we got here, it's been like everyone's found some new role to fill and I … haven't. The Heartless haven't attacked once – not that I want them to, of course, but there aren't exactly any monsters trying to storm the town here, either. They don't have a wall because they don't need one. Let's face it, Aerith, apart from fighting monsters and defending Hollow Bastion, what am I good for? Traverse Town has Leon. It doesn't need me muscling in, trying to be the hero here as well, but nobody's willing to give me the chance to do anything else. I'm pretty surplus to requirements. Tifa found work within twenty-four hours of getting here, you've got a job, Cloud made work for himself with the skills he has, even though there aren't any other chocobos here, and even Yuffie's doing … something."

"Her Babysitting, Intelligence and Spy Service."

"What do I have to offer Traverse Town that it doesn't already have?"

Aerith stares at him for a long moment; long enough that Kairi gets bored and wants to get down from the couch. Aerith holds onto her, shushing her before speaking to Zack again. "What do you have to offer? I can't believe you just asked me that."

"Excuse me?" Zack is confused.

"We're a team, Zack. Maybe not officially, but we rely on each other. It wouldn't work with any one of us missing – not Tifa, not Cloud, not Yuffie, and certainly not you. Do you even understand how much comfort we draw from you just being here? You're our strength. You're the one who's the voice of reason in an emergency. Do you think people in Hollow Bastion looked up to you just because you're Angeal's nephew?"

Zack drops his eyes. He'd be lying if he says it's never crossed his mind.

"They respected you because you're capable and honest and too competent not to be taken seriously, but also because that's not all you are. You're not just a hero."

"What am I, then?"

"You're Zack Fair. That's all you need to be."

"Nice words, Aerith, but they won't put food on the table."

"Oh, stop thinking like you have to be a hunter-gatherer. There's no 'the man must provide' rule here, and you'd have several angry women ready to smack you if you tried to say otherwise. Who said the role you have to play revolves around just heroing and humdrum household routines, anyway?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean Kairi."

Panic cuts its curves in Zack's face. "I'm really not getting the hang of this parenting thing, Aerith. I can't keep her clean for five minutes and she's wilder with me than she ever seems with you or the others."

"You're just exaggerating because you're frightened she'll get hurt on your watch. But that's not what I meant. I meant that we're supposed to keep Kairi safe until she's old enough to learn more about her powers, right? But as soon as she does, the Heartless are going to be drawn to her. We need to give her every advantage, and I'm certain Angeal once said something about knowledge being a good weapon."

"He did." Zack casts back through the years to recall Angeal's voice and lessons. He can almost feel the sweat on his face, slashing his way through complicated swordplay as Angeal fired off question after question about monsters, strategy and the brutal truth of what it takes to protect those you care about.

"Merlin and Leon are investigating the Heartless. It stands to reason they might be interested in finding out ways of not only defending against them, but perhaps stopping them from attacking entirely," Aerith gently suggests. "Merlin's already said he's interested in studying the Buster Sword to see if it has any connection to keyblades. He wouldn't turn you away if you said you wanted to help in other ways too."

Zack turns this idea over in his mind. It'd certainly be better than what he's currently doing: sitting at home feeling sorry for himself, sparring with Tifa and Cloud and stressing over bibs, crumbs on the carpet and dirty diapers. "I'll think about it."

"Good." Aerith leans her head against his shoulder and closes her eyes. "You're our hero, Zack."

Cloud said that, once, a long time ago on the day Zack swore his oath. He never forgot it until they came here.

"It may be a giant cliché, but I hope you never forget that." Aerith opens her eyes again and, without lifting her head, frowns at Kairi. "Zack … did you realise her dress is on inside out and back-to-front?"

 


 

Cloud stares at the little creature and wonders whether this is a joke. He's not sure if it stares back, but the dark slits he assumes to be eyes are pointed in his direction.

"Is there a problem, kupo?" asks a squeaky voice.

Cloud swallows. "Um … no. Are you the ones who called for me?"

"We're the ones in need of your services, yes, kupo."

"My name's Cloud."

"We already know that – the mechanic told us, kupo."

"Uh, it's Cloud Strife, not kupo."

"Who said anything about kupo, kupo?"

Cloud decides he'd better leave that one alone and instead focuses on the matter at hand. "Do you need something delivered?"

"Why else would we call for a delivery boy, kupo?" The creature looks like a cross between a piglet, a bat and a child's stuffed toy. It produces a folded up piece of paper, flies up to perch on his chocobo's head and solemnly holds it out for Cloud to take. The chocobo determines it doesn't like this and tosses its head, leaving Cloud to snatch the paper before the piglet-thing flutters away again. "You are to take this to the mechanic, Captain Highwind, wait for him to read it and then bring back what he gives you, kupo."

"That's it?"

"You will be paid on your return, kupo."

Cloud studies the little creature. Despite the bizarre appearance it's civilized and polite. He can see several others peering around the door to their shop, bobbing red bobbles on their long stalks in view even when they whip their heads away like naughty children. He's never seen anything quite like them before, and he used to live next to Barren Region.

"What name should I give Captain Highwind?"

"Just tell him the moogles sent you, kupo. No doubt he will already know what we want when you say that; the note is more of a formality and to make sure you know what you have to hand over when you return here, kupo. We're grateful for your services, but must urge you to be off now, kupo." The piglet-creature waves one stubby arm. "Have a safe journey, kupo."

"Uh, right." Cloud swings his chocobo around and starts off down the street, marvelling at the strangeness of Traverse Town's diverse inhabitants and wondering whether he'll ever get used to them all.

 


 

Tifa twirls around and launches into a series of rapid attacks. Her arms and legs are like bars of steel. Zack blocks each strike, but they reverberate through his body all the way down to his bones. He grits his teeth under her newest assault, ducking and countering with a few palm strikes of his own, but it's clear Tifa is master of this situation.

She comes back hard. He sees the kick coming, but too late. He can't block it. Almost superhumanly fast, Tifa's foot slams into his shoulder. Zack goes down on one knee with a grunt.

There's nothing unnecessary about the way she moves. She has sliced off every action she doesn't need like cutting the edges off mouldy cheese, leaving only the quickest way to bring an opponent down using minimal energy. Angeal trained Zack well, and he's learned even more through experience, but Tifa has a natural talent for this type of fighting. Despite their differences in size and weight, she's handing him his ass piece by bruised piece.

He reacts on instinct, dropping onto his back, air whooshing from his lungs as he avoids Tifa's finishing blow. He lifts his right leg, knee bent like a circus tumbler, and kicks out square at her stomach. She curls her spine to keep him from connecting but the move leaves him free to catch her wrists and use her own momentum to pitch her over his head. As soon as she's cleared him, he vaults to his feet and whips around.

Just in time for her impossible mid-air stretch-and-kick to catch him in the jaw.

When he comes around Tifa is standing over him, concern clear on her face. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to kick you so hard."

"Don't apologise," Zack says through his vigorously swelling jaw. She didn't dislocate it, though it feels like she popped it out and back in again a couple of dozen times while he was asleep. "I was the one who asked you not to hold back."

"But we were still just sparring. I just thought … I wasn't thinking. I got carried away."

He recalls the instinctive way her body went from one position to the next and silently agrees. It wasn't conscious thought motivating her, but something else. "How the heck do you move like that?"

She grins, offering a hand to help him up. "Regular martial arts plus Zangan-Ryu."

"You weren't totally cutting loose, were you?"

Sheepishly, she admits she wasn't. "I've never totally cut loose before, but I've come close. If I did I think I might destroy … lots. Losing control is the number one no-no to in Zangan-Ryu. It's all based around control, especially chi control – you know, the inner energy of every living creature. It's not actually supposed to be about combat. In Zangan-Ryu you learn to marshal your own chi and channel it into certain parts of your body, sort of like super-charging them. Theoretically it means you can mimic special abilities if you can fine-tune your chi control enough – enhanced strength, super-speed, stuff like that. I've never done it myself – I'm not nearly skilled enough to get to that sort of level – but it's possible. Master Zangan originally invented the technique as a form of self-defense, turning an opponent's strength against them by focusing on their chi and finding the places where their control is weakest."

"It sounds like a useful tool in a fight."

"Except against the Heartless." Her expression clouds. "They don't have any chi."

Zack processes the implications of this while his body works to locate each and every newly acquired ache and pain. He often spars with Tifa on the edge of town, not too far out but away from the cobbles and buildings were they can fight without worrying about property damage. He's the only one who's a real challenge for her, and likewise her for him. Cloud can fight, but he's always reluctant – despite a natural aptitude for swordplay Zack was surprised to find buried within his friend. Yuffie hates sparring unless there's a reward at the end. Neither of them even considers asking Leon. Zack prefers a sword but knows he has to keep his other skills honed too, and who better than a martial artist of Tifa's caliber to keep him on his toes?

He winces. Tifa frowns with concern. "You need Aerith to take a look at that. I may have loosened some teeth. If I hadn't pulled away in time I could've broken your neck."

He touches the swelling, imagining Aerith's stern lecture. She understands why they all need to train, despite the lack of Heartless. It's venting pent-up frustration at their situation as much as keeping themselves ready for battle. Sometimes talk is good, and sometimes it's better to punch something until either it breaks or you do. Aerith does understand, but that doesn't stop her telling them off when they come home bleeding.

Zack flexes his hands to make the tingling stop. "Man, I'm glad you're on our side."

Tifa smiles. "Thanks."

 


 

Yuffie taps her foot. She taps her other foot. She taps both feet. Then, for a change, she flips onto her hands and taps her fingers. None of it makes the time go any quicker. She's just considering clawing off her own face and eating it to alleviate her boredom when she hears footsteps behind her.

"You're blocking my door."

Not 'what are you doing here?' or 'how come you're upside down' or even 'wow, did you miss dinner to make sure you got to speak to me?' which she did. Her stomach hates her for it, but since it keeps going topsy-turvy whenever Leon's around she figures it's fair payback.

"I am," she replies, craning her neck a little and digging her chin into her chest to peer up at Leon. "Wanna know why?"

"No."

"Spoilsport. We're going to a party."

"You're still blocking my door."

"You're coming too."

He pauses at that. "I'm not going to a party with you."

"Sure you are." Yuffie raises one arm to shake out the stiffness in her elbow, putting all her weight on her remaining hand. The wrist protests, but she was doing handstands and flick-flacks through trees when she wasn't much older than Kairi, and so is acutely aware of her own limits. "It'll be fun, and maybe you'll actually crack a smile for once."

"I'm not going to a party with you," he says again.

"Tough, because when I mentioned it to Aerith and Tifa they both thought it was a good idea. It's Ho-say … um … Carr … Carry-oh … ah, screw it. That little green parrot guy in the jacket and straw boater – which is a really strange outfit when you remember he doesn't wear any pants – he's leaving town and is having some shindig, and everyone's invited."

"Everyone?"

"Well … maybe not everyone. But we are, and he said to bring our friends, and you're a friend. Kind of. Close enough to cadge an invite, anyway. It'll be fun. You do know about fun, right? The kind that doesn't involve moping about like a wet weekend and plotting how best to kill Heartless? You are allowed to think about other things, you know. Like parties and people and, y'know, stuff like that." Like me, she wants to think, but that'd be too pathetic for words, so there's no way she'd ever think it. Nu-uh, never. Honest.

Leon stares at her. "Aerith and Tifa told you to invite me?"

"Actually it was my idea, they just agreed with me. You can show me your gratitude by being there – or even better, by walking there with us. You can be my date. I'm a pretty good date. I don't get drunk and drool on your shoulder all evening, and I know how to dance. I can even show you how."

Leon scowls. "I already learned how to dance," he snaps, and there's probably a reason he looks so angry when he says it. Then again there are probably unsaid reasons for a lot of what Leon says and does, but he's keeping schtum on everything.

Yuffie is half-convinced all the vitriol locked inside him will liquefy his insides, if it hasn't done so already. His lungs and liver and pancreas and all that other junk she can't remember the names of, all melting and swirling around the heart he's keeping whole just so the Heartless can't have it.

Yuck. What a freaking disgusting mental image.

"Then you won't have any problems." She bends at the waist, plants her feet on the floor and straightens up. "Phew. Head rush. So, I'll see you there. Don't be late, out, or hiding behind the couch, otherwise I'll send Tifa in to get you. Trust me; you want me to be your escort, not her if you make her late." She pauses. "Or Aerith will come and fetch you." She's testing the water, waiting for his response to gauge it against what she suspects.

Leon scowls and pushes roughly past Yuffie to get to his door.

"Is that a yes or a no?"

"It's a no."

"No it's not. You'll make Aerith cry!" Okay, this is getting weird. She never uses real names for this length of time. The urge to say 'Ponytail' and 'Teef' knocks instantly against the sides of her windpipe.

Leon pauses. "All right," he says, so grudging he's practically cudgelling her around the head with it. Then he shuts the door. Click. No goodbye or anything. Not even that slow blink he sometimes gives her when she's said something especially dippy.

Yuffie sticks her tongue out and links her hands behind her head with a sigh. She should've guessed it the first time she saw him spying on Ponytail in town. Leon plays his cards so close to his chest he has swallowed them, but actions holler, shriek and screech louder than words. The third time she spotted him lurking in Ponytail's wake, his frankly stalkerish behaviour led Yuffie to believe that Leon – Mr. Grr Get Offa My Lawn, if he had a lawn, which he doesn't, but the sentiment is the same – has a crush like a boulder landing on an unsuspecting mouse. And why wouldn't he? Ponytail is, she has to admit, a pretty good catch. Yuffie has just always assumed she's too wrapped up in Cloudy and Hero to ever feature on anyone's radar as a potential love interest. Turns out she was wrong.

Oh, hell.

Hell, because Yuffie's own stomach is still performing cartwheels of its own, even though Leon is on the other side of a door in a locked apartment (admittedly, not a real barrier to a ninja), and patently Not Interested even if he wasn't much older than her. Hell, because Yuffie isn't stupid, and she's noticed all the eddying hormones and loaded glances flying around like paper darts recently. Hell, because none of them are directed at her. She's surrounded by pretty and can't touch any of it.

Worse than hell. Damn! Fuck, even!

Fuckfuckfuckfuck-

"Yuffie?"

Fuckityfuckityfuckfuckfucktastic!

Yuffie turns, smiling brightly. "Hey, Cloudy. What's up?"

Cloud lingers in the stairwell behind her. He doesn't come onto the landing, as though not wanting to invade Leon's territory. "I heard Leon get home. Are you ready to come and eat now?"

Yuffie resists the urge to singsong 'Teeeeeef liiiiiiiikes youuuuu', instead stretching her arms above her head until her spine pops. Cloud winces at the sickening noise. He has a much more expressive face than Leon, though he's still just as oblivious about what emotions should be on it.

Suddenly Yuffie wants to kick both of them in the nads for reasons that aren't truly clear even to herself. She doesn't, mainly because that'd mean having to explain herself and she knows she couldn't get away with 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'.

"Yeah," she says instead, slinging an arm around Cloud's shoulders. "C'mon, I'm starving."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 


 

"Ah, Seu amante com o cabelo traseiro." José gives Aerith a knowing look. "Ou não."

-- Babelfish Portuguese for "Ah, your lover with the black hair" and "Or not."

 

"Sim, deve ocorrer depois que o sol parte."

-- "Yes, it must occur after the sun goes away."

 

"Eu serei triste se você não chega."

-- I will be sad if you do not arrive."

 

"Don't lie to me, Zack. You have your Worry Face on. Your eyebrows, your forehead." She gestures. "You try to hide it, but you can't hide Worry Face from me."

-- Inspired by Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Chapter Text

 

Money isn't as tight as it could be, since Mr. Snoops rented them the apartment fully furnished and both Aerith and Tifa are used to running households on a budget. Since arriving, everyone has stuck mostly to the basics, unconsciously unwilling to admit this is likely a permanent arrangement. Every however, connection they make, every root they put down, all of it increases their links with Traverse Town as their new home, but they each still have only two or three sets of clothes, including the ones they arrived in and the loans from Leon. None of these are exactly party material.

"How do I look?"

Zack tries not to focus too much on Tifa's chest, which is being shown to great effect in a frankly stunning cream dress. The only short skirt he's ever seen her in was her school uniform, and she's far beyond a schoolgirl now. This leaves him with relatively few places to look that won't make her think he's ignoring her or potentially earn him a slap for being a pervert. He concentrates so hard on her eyes it's like he's trying to pull them out of her head with only the power of his mind.

"You look nice," he says truthfully.

Something heavy lands on his back. "She looks freaking gorgeous!" Yuffie corrects, hoisting herself onto his back by hooking her arms around his neck and her legs either side of his waist, forcing him to grab under her knees so they don't both overbalance. "Man, Teef, Highwind sure has some funky connections."

"I know." Tifa turns to admire herself. "I knew he'd been around for years and knows practically everyone, but even the dressmaker? She's the biggest harridan I've ever had the misfortune to meet, but she was like putty in his hands."

"Methinks Captain Grumpy-Pants is a hit with the laaaadies," Yuffie croons, drawing out the vowel so it stops just short of sleazy. "Or at least those with low standards." She still hasn't forgiven him for Aerith's lecture, closely followed by Tifa's lecture, closely followed by a double-whammy lecture from Cloud and Zack about the evils of stealing. "And we don't have to pay for them?"

"We're borrowing them for a small fee. So that means no acrobatics tonight, and you have to be careful with any food you eat. If you stain these outfits that lady will have your guts for garters – literally."

"Meh, she'd have to catch me first."

"… Yuffie…" Zack wheezes. "Can't … breathe …"

"What? Oh, sorry Hero." She unhooks herself and hops down to amble into the girls' bedroom. It's the same size as the one upstairs, since all apartments in this building follow the same basic layout, but everyone fits in much better here. Mr. Snoops was also kind enough to provide an extra bed, and to procure a baby's cot from somewhere that left him looking harassed and talking in a hushed voice about his wife and 'the threat of babies'.

Zack wonders what Mrs. Snoops must be like, to reduce her husband to a quivering wreck at just the thought of her. Mr. Snoops talked about her once in something other than terrified tones, but what he said didn't leave Zack with a much better impression. Zack has always considered marriage to be about love and commitment, and while he's not stupid or naïve enough to believe that's always the case, the idea of marrying someone who terrifies you just plain confuses him. Marrying for politics, arranged marriages, even marrying for money and status – those he can understand, but Mr. Snoops didn't marry for any of those. It strikes Zack that maybe he married because he was too petrified not to.

"If you think Teef looks good, just wait until you see me," Yuffie promises, closing the door behind her.

Hollow Bastion parties were mostly formal affairs; old-fashioned and nothing like the things he's heard about in Traverse Town, where people organise street parties just to celebrate being alive. Zack reflects, not for the first, second, nor even third time, about how patchwork life was in Hollow Bastion. The magic distorting people's memories also made them blindly accepting of the impossible – and of their own hypocrisy. Their lives were a muddle of technology and old-fashioned superstition, with little rhyme or reason applied to what they would and wouldn't believe.

Zack remembers science lessons at school, learning about planets and the universe, and how the sun is really just a big ball of gas. He remembers dissecting leaves, reading books and eating up information even when pretending the pigeons screwing on next door's roof were more interesting. He also remembers how darkly suspicious people were of things beyond the protection of the wall. Children studied biology, math and a few bits of philosophy, all of which was supposed to broaden their minds and develop their questioning skills. Then they toddled out of school into the same jobs their parents held, living and working and making families as if they'd never heard of any place but Hollow Bastion. Their curiosity died, their questions dried up and the blinkers that also kept them ignoring the castle went on.

It was as if they were sticking around like a herd of cattle awaiting the return of the farmer. Zack dimly remembers old plans he held of leaving to join the military, and how those plans simply dimmed the older he got, as the magic fastened its hold on his mind and tied him down in that mishmash of modern and antiquated living.

It wasn't even that people didn't understand what light bulbs were, or that there had to be more technology beyond their borders if the military were driving around in tanks full of explosive weapons; but somehow Hollow Bastioners prolonged their world view by just not thinking about anything that might disturb it. It was like anything outside their limited ideas of what was feasible simply ceased to exist. Once you left school science became a dirty word, the best way to get around had a saddle and its own heartbeat, and nobody thought it odd that Dr. Rui's surgery combined cutting-edge medicines with old wives' tales and superstition. Thinking back on how he could happily flip a switch without wondering what powered it, or where that power came from, makes him cringe. The castle unfailingly provided their electricity, their water, and everything else they needed for the simple price of their continued ignorance.

Everything comes back to the castle eventually, and the abandoned halls with their dark rooms and even darker secrets. What's going on in that place now? Zack isn't sure he wants to know.

"Is that what you're wearing?" Tifa's voice snaps him back to reality.

And this is reality, bizarre and garish but far more real than Hollow Bastion's identity crisis. Zack glances down at himself. "Uh, sure. The dressmaker didn't have anything for men."

Tifa purses her lips in dissatisfaction. "It's very … casual." It's not a good word; not the way she says it.

"It's clean," he offers.

"It's not a good thing if that's the best compliment you can think of."

"I'm comfortable in it. I don't like getting dressed up." He's not just saying that, either. Zack has gone too long thinking about ease of movement and whether he can run and jump without difficulty in whatever he wears. He's pure practicality with only a smidge of vanity – if he can fight monsters in it, it's fashionable, and there's very little that would convince him otherwise.

Which is why when Aerith walks out of the bedroom he feels like he's wearing an unwashed potato sack. "Wow."

"Wow." Even Tifa is impressed. "Red really suits you."

Aerith smooths invisible creases from the close-fitting dress. "Really? I thought it was too bright. I usually prefer pastels."

"No, it's lovely. Those colours always make you look washed out. You should wear red more often."

Zack swallows the sudden lump in his throat. "You look incredible," he manages, wondering why his pulse is suddenly much louder in his ears and suppressing the little voice that answers him. This is Aerith, one of his best friends. He's seen her in dresses before. It's practically all she wears.

But nothing like this dress. Zack is as fashion-savvy as a sleeping tortoise, but the low-cut neckline and cinched waist uncoil something in his stomach that provokes a faint 'uh-oh' close to where his skull meets his abruptly ramrod spine.

Aerith smiles, but uncomfortably. "I feel like one of Kairi's crayons."

"Hm. Something's missing." Tifa examines her, and then steps up to yank the ends of the ever-present pink ribbon. It's threadbare from being worn all the time and rasps as it slides over itself, allowing Aerith's ponytail to unravel. Her hair falls in one huge hank, kinked into a wave where the ribbon was. Tifa fluffs up the flattened bit, using her fingers to comb out some of the knots and fan it around Aerith's shoulders. By the time she's done Aerith somehow looks completely different, even though the changes are actually only slight.

She pats the back of her head, as if looking for the missing ponytail. "Okay, now I feel completely like a dog's dinner."

"Don't be stupid. You look fabulous." Tifa spins her around. "Doesn't she, Zack?"

The pounding in Zack's ears is very insistent. "What?"

"She looks good, right?"

"Uh…" He swallows. "You both look great."

"See? I told you that you look fabulous." Tifa pats Aerith on the back, congratulating her for something Zack's not entirely sure of. "It's fun to dress up once in a while. Don't you feel better for wearing something different?"

Aerith hesitates, glancing at Zack with yet another expression he doesn't understand. He's beginning to feel adrift in all the oestrogen and special female codes. "Yes," she says, eventually but firmly.

Tifa nods. "When's Cloud getting back?"

"He should be home by now." Aerith frowns. "He and Kairi both."

"That's the cue for a knock at the door."

They wait expectantly.

Tifa sighs. "Or not."

The bedroom door crashes open, hits the wall and rebounds. They hear a distracted, "Fuck!" as it hits Yuffie in the knee and she hobbles into the room. "Not the dramatic entrance I was going for."

"I don't know," Tifa grins. "It was pretty dramatic. I thought ninjas had lightning-fast reflexes?"

"We do."

"And yet you were defeated by a door."

"You're asking for a shuriken to the face, Teef." Yuffie straightens to pirouette on one foot. Her skirt is long and flowing, and it fans out around her, then twists to embrace her tiny shape with its own momentum when she stops. It's actually more a gown than a dress – nothing like Zack has ever imagined her wearing.

Yuffie likes showing off a lot of skin, or at least never thinks about covering up more than is on view. He's used to seeing her long skinny legs and (considering how much food she eats) incongruously flat stomach. Her bare shoulders are as familiar to him as his own toes.

In contrast to this, Yuffie has chosen to cover up as much skin as she can, coupling her ensemble with gloves that reach past her elbows, a high neckline and a fan that dangles from a cord looped around her wrist. It's the fan that most makes him double-take. It's such an un-Yuffie-like object – it doesn't have a razor edge, can't be turned into (or used to launch) a deadly missile, couldn't stab through a wet piece of paper, and would break if she tried to hit anyone with it. It puts Zack in mind of a little kid playing at dressing up and grabbing everything it has seen adults wear, whether or not it's all appropriate.

The three girls make a full complement of hemlines – Tifa's stretches to mid-thigh, Aerith's is calf-length, while Yuffie's grazes the floor. Their colours, too, are individual; Aerith is vibrant in red, Yuffie strangely flamboyant in deep green, and Tifa's dark hair and eyes provide a neat contrast to the delicate cream of her dress. It's like being in a nest of some previously undiscovered breed of clucking, fussing, swishing animals. Zack's wearing-a-potato-sack feeling intensifies until he half wants to check his pecs to makes sure he hasn't turned into a girl himself.

"Bow to my feet, lesser mortals," Yuffie proclaims. She takes one look at Aerith's hips and Tifa's chest and deflates like a balloon at a hedgehog convention. "Aw fuck! Way to take the wind out of my sails, guys. Hey, is that a slit in your skirt, Ponytail?" She pretends to swoon. "Little Miss Conservative is showing leg above her knees – the apocalypse must be nigh!"

"Don't use that word," Aerith replies.

"Which word?"

"You know which one."

"Maybe I don't," Yuffie insists wickedly. "Or maybe I do. Why shouldn't I use it? Cid uses it all the time."

"Cid is also a crabby fusspot with a paunch and five o' clock shadow at nine in the morning," Tifa shoots back. "Do you want those as well?"

"Why not? It might be fun to scratch myself and spit and nobody could say anything about it." Yuffie smirks and strikes a pose that's pure Cid. Given her current appearance, it's more than a little disturbing. "'You fucking kids stay outta my stuff or I'll twist off your fingers and use 'em to unclog my fucking drains'." She snorts back a lugie and makes as if to spit it onto the floor. The mouthful muffles her cry as Aerith and Tifa both lunge at her.

"Don't you dare!"

"You spit that and you can forget going to any party!"

They grapple for a moment, a mass of pretty shoes, pretty dresses and un-pretty exclamations.

"Ewewewewewewew! You made me swallow it!" Yuffie shrieks.

"Serves you right." Tifa pushes hair from her eyes. It has come out of the bun she twisted it into, and she helps it on its way by impatiently tugging out the few grips keeping it in place. "Phooey. It took me ages to pin all this into place."

Yuffie shoves her. Tifa totters in her unfamiliar shoes, grabbing at Aerith for support. Aerith, caught unawares, overbalances with arms windmilling. They crash to the floor in a tangled heap, landing on top of Yuffie, who squeals. Amidst the yelps and thrashing limbs a single shoe flies through the air.

Of course, this is the perfect moment for the door to open. Cloud walks in just in time for the shoe to hit him. He falls like a marionette with all its strings cut. When he sits up again there's a large red mark in the middle of his forehead.

Kairi stares at him. She's still holding onto his hand and yet, unsteadier on her feet than Cloud, she's the one still upright. "Fall down," she states solemnly. "Cowed fall down." She mispronounces his name slightly, but she's still understandable. She looks at the rest of them and says again, "Cowed fall down," pointing like they can't see for themselves.

"She wanted to try walking up the stairs on her own, just holding my hands," Cloud says, blinking at the scene before him. "It's why we're a little late. What's going on?"

"It's that girl-on-girl action you two strapping men have been dreaming about since you started living with such gorgeous examples of feminine loveliness," Yuffie says from somewhere in the pile. Aerith and Tifa hastily extricate themselves and Yuffie sits up, her hair askew but her leeriest grin firmly in place. "For the record, Ponytail's boobs are just as squashy as Teef's, especially when they're all in your face trying to suffocate you."

Aerith's face flames until she's almost the same colour as her dress. Tifa blushes too, but accompanies it with a not-as-gentle-as-it-could-be kick to Yuffie's exposed calf. Yuffie kicks back and then flips to her feet in a rustle of skirts.

"I thought we were supposed to keep these things clean?" she says.

"We are. This was a fluke." Tifa pats herself down and inspects the pale fabric of her dress for dirt. Remarkably, there isn't any, something attributable to the thorough job Aerith and Zack have done of the housecleaning. Zack may be untidy, but when Aerith chases after you with a duster, you learn to just take the stupid duster.

Kairi releases Cloud's hand to pick up the shoe. She wobbles over to Zack, completely under her own power, and holds it up for him to take. "Shoe," she tells him in a now-don't-you-forget-this-because-it's-very-important tone of voice.

"She's walking!" Tifa exclaims. "She's walking on her own!"

"You haven't seen that before?" Yuffie asks.

"No." Tifa deflates.

Apparently unaware of this, Kairi points with one fat little hand. "Shoe."

"Uh, thank you, Kairi," says Zack.

"Shoe." Satisfied, she nods and walks back to Cloud, falling down only once and not letting it deter her from her goal. She laboriously straightens her legs, walking her hands backwards towards her own feet until she can wobble upright again, and then completes her journey.

Zack looks down at the shoe. It's a strappy red thing with a stubby heel and closed toes. There's only one person it can belong to.

"That's mine," Aerith confirms, coming over to retrieve it. Her walk is lop-sided as she lurches on her one remaining heel. "I'm useless on these things. I don't know why I can't just wear boots like usual."

"Because this is a shindig, and you freaking well dress up for a shindig." Yuffie holds up a palm at Tifa. "I said freaking, that's not cussing, so neener neener neener."

"I wasn't going to say that." Tifa stares at Yuffie. "I was going to ask whether that's snot smeared all across your cheek."

"What?" Yuffie touches both sides of her face. "Aw, man! Eeeeew! It's in my hair too! Grossgrossgrossgrossgrossgross…" She disappears into the bathroom at a surprisingly fast pace, considering the length of her dress.

"Shoe," Kairi punctuates from the doorway, although this time it means 'Cloud, get up, you're blocking the door and I want to go out again.' She tries to push past him towards freedom, but he picks her up as he gets to his feet. "Shoe!" Kairi wails. "Shoooooe!"

"Nope, you're not going out again until you're dressed for José's party."

She immediately brightens. "José!"

"Her clothes are laid out for her," says Aerith. "Tifa, can you check to make sure Yuffie didn't leave anything on the bedroom floor?" The last time Cloud gave Kairi a bath and went to fetch her nightclothes, he found Yuffie's underwear scattered about and blushed so hard he actually burst a blood vessel in one eye.

Tifa verifies that the way is clear and Cloud goes off to complete his duties. They're working on the idea that if they indulge Kairi's desire to walk, she'll be tired enough to fall asleep without fussing too much and sleep so deeply they can stay at the party with her. To this end, Kairi's day has been a non-stop round of outings and disallowed naps. She's a little grumpy, but so delighted at the thought of seeing José, who always gives tickles her with one of his own feathers to keep, that there haven't been too many temper-tantrums.

"Zack?"

Zack looks back at Aerith. "Yes?"

"My shoe?"

"Oh! Yes. Sure." He bends down.

"Actually, I just meant for you to hand it to me."

"This works too. Lift your foot up." He slides the sandal-thing onto Aerith's foot, but freezes when he pushes a little too hard and she braces one hand on his head to stop herself falling over again. It's ungainly, and she pulls out a few hairs, but it also means his face is pressed almost to her stomach.

A peculiar sensation uncoils in Zack's own belly, like butterflies and that borderline awareness when you're sick that you may be about to throw up. He's entirely too aware of her soap-and-flower scent, and the sound of her breathing just above his head – utterly, jarringly, worryingly aware.

"Are you all right, Zack?" Tifa asks. "What's taking so long?"

"Aerith's making me bald."

"Whoops." Aerith releases his scalp and he stands, rubbing at it to cover his alarm.

He looks at Aerith, recognises the face he's looked at for most of his life. He knows the feel of those hands smacking the back of his head and what her voice sounds like when she's thoroughly ticked off. He's seen her cry, seen her at her lowest ebb, lied to her about the taste of her tea and had unfortunate snowball fights that left them both smelling of unseen dog faeces. He has argued with her, teased her, been exasperated with her, and even thought he hated her for being so bossy and sucking the fun out of everything when they were kids. She's his best friend along with Cloud. He's lived with her for years, for goodness' sake. There's no mystery to her, she's just … Aerith.

So what's with the sudden butterflies?

"Are you okay?" she asks, concerned.

"I'm fine. I … guess I'm just going to miss José more than I thought."

Aerith frowns – and well she might, since he knows José mostly in a peripheral way – but nods. "He's certainly made being in Traverse Town a lot easier. The transition between Hollow Bastion and here would've been much different if we hadn't had him to talk to. Cid, Merlin and Leon, too." She nibbles her lower lip. "I hope they don't want to leave as well."

"Fat chance," Tifa snorts. "Cid's like a turnip – all root. It'd take being put into another meteor shower and forcibly thrown out of this place to move him again. Intolerant grump."

Neither Aerith nor Zack are fooled by her words. Tifa has grown closer to Cid than any of them, and he seems to care a lot for her in return – albeit in his own rude, bad-tempered way. He'd sooner chew the tail off a skunk than admit it, but he does have elements of 'gruff pushover' in him after all where Tifa is concerned. Zack gets the feeling she's unconsciously using him as a father-figure substitute, and despite his faults Cid gets Zack's vote as a better candidate than Mr. Lockheart. He's not sure what Cid gets out of the relationship, but so far it's working, and Zack can't see any reason to rock the boat.

"You can't predict other people," Aerith points out. "We've not been here long enough to know anyone enough to guess how they'd react in any given situation."

"Cid would swear at it," Tifa says firmly. "Whatever else he might do, he'd cuss it for all he's worth."

Neither Zack nor Aerith can argue with this.

"It feels like we've been here far longer than we actually have," Aerith muses. "Doesn't it feel like that to you? It's almost like Hollow Bastion and everyone there was just …" She waves her hands. "It's echoey, like it was all a dream. José is a giant parrot who walks about like a person and smokes a cigar. When did that stop being impossible? When did it stop even being incredible? When did it become normal to see a dragon and say good morning to it instead of running away? Don't you guys ever wake up and wonder which part of your life is the dream part? Because sometimes I find it hard to tell the difference."

"Maybe that's the spell over Hollow Bastion talking," Tifa suggests. "It might be worth talking to Merlin about it – that magic messed with our minds and with the memories of everyone old enough to know what the town was like before it was cast. We can't be too careful where that stuff's concerned."

"It'd be useful if Merlin was going tonight," says Zack, "but he said he doesn't know José as more than a face in the street."

"And he hates parties even more than Cid does," Tifa adds.

Yuffie marches out of the bathroom. Her hair is pinned into as elaborate a style as she can manage, which isn't very elaborate at all. The short locks stick up at odd angles, coaxed into grips and protesting loudly at such ham-fisted treatment.

"I'm all de-snotted and ready for action!"

Tifa nods towards the closed bedroom door. "We're just waiting for Cloud and Kairi."

"Cool. I'll fetch Grumpy Guts." Yuffie wrenches open the front door and beetles upstairs, fists bunched in the front of her skirt to keep herself from tripping over and knocking out all her teeth.

Cloud and Kairi are ready when she comes back, grinning in a slightly manic way.

"He's not there?" Aerith says gently.

"He's a bas-… man," Yuffie replies, eyeing Kairi. "You men all need a kick in the crotch to remind you to be where you say you'll be when you say you'll be there. Hero, are you really going to take that big-ass sword with you to a freaking party? You and that thing have an unnatural connection. Do you hump it in private or something?"

Zack, long used to Yuffie's babbling, brushes it aside.

Finally they all make their way out of the building and set off for the location José gave them, alternately jabbering and trip-trapping across the cobbles and down the darkening streets. Evening comes early in Traverse Town, regardless of season, casting everything into eerie twilight that looks like it needs a fog to soften its hard edges. It's the same in the morning – pre-dawn grey light clings to the world, allowing the sun through with resentful slowness.

They hear before they see; a mixture of whoops and music closely followed by clapping hands. It feels like José has invited the whole of Traverse Town. Things are in full swing when Zack and his little posse arrive. The street is lined with trestle tables covered in food and bowls of clear orange liquid. Bunting has been hung from the streetlights and colourful streamers sway in the breeze made by breathlessly dancing bodies. Near the fountain a small area has been cleared and some residents have brought out instruments to replace the recorded music. Zack recognises a few of them, but others are from worlds where 'music' has a very loose interpretation and alternately resemble plumbing and small mangled animals. At least one sounds like it too, but the overall effect is festive. Clearly José doesn't want anyone to mourn him going.

"Wow," Tifa breathes.

Cloud eyes a large red and yellow paper horse, dangling from a streetlamp, which someone is trying to hit with a piece of wood while blindfolded. "Is this what parties are supposed to look like? Hollow Bastion was sure missing out."

"Pretty!" Kairi cries, as the horse explodes in a shower of flowers and sweets. "José! José!"

"Boa vinda, little sugar lump." José disentangles himself from a crowd of people and ambles over. He's still wearing his straw boater, but has swapped his regular jacket for a red one that clashes horribly with his feathers. "Ah, Miss Aerith! We are a matching pair tonight!"

Aerith smiles. "Hello, José."

"You all look wonderful," he beams at them, until his eye falls on Cloud and Zack. "We are aiming for casual chic this evening, my friends?"

"We, uh, didn't know what to wear," Zack says, half apologetic. "We're not used to parties like this."

"Then allow me to educate you." José grabs his hand and spirits him away into the thick of the festivities. "Come, come, everyone! The night is young and I wish to enjoy my time with you all."

 


 

The night is still young but Aerith feels about a hundred years old. She finds a seat on the fringe of the crowd and sinks gratefully into it. The others are all still laughing and dancing – mostly badly, since there aren't any steps to speak of and they're just moving as the bizarre music takes them. She spots one or two glints of martial arts in Tifa's movements, but they're stylish when masked in cream fabric and a carefree smile. Everyone looks so alive and free – the first time they've all been so honestly happy since they got to Traverse Town. It makes Aerith happy too, even though these stupid shoes are killing her.

"First time in heels?"

She turns to a woman who has also sought refuge from the crush of bodies, though her reason is more obvious. Her belly is swollen with pregnancy.

"You're new in town, right?" the woman asks with a friendly smile.

"Relatively," Aerith replies.

"I think I've seen you around. You have a daughter, right?"

Aerith has given up sputtering when people say this. Despite the different eye and hair colour, and the fact their faces look nothing alike, most of those who spot her with Kairi assume they're related. Given that, if Aerith ever does have children, she'd want them to be like Kairi, she's not offended. "She's not actually my daughter; we just ended up here together and kind of adopted each other."

"We?"

Aerith nods at her friends. Cloud is holding Kairi's hand in one of his and play-acting a tango. He's so much better with her than anyone suspected, though with his natural gentleness maybe they should've. Kairi is happy to boss him about and he's happy to take it. Beside them, Yuffie gyrates like her limbs have been snapped off and sewn back on too loosely. She wiggles her fingers in Kairi's face. Kairi tips back her head in a laugh that's swallowed by the noise of the crowd.

"She's adorable. Is that her father with her?"

"No, we're none of us related."

The woman nods, but there's a sadness to it, and the way her hand slides over her abdomen causes Aerith to wonder whether her own family are with her. So many people in Traverse Town are here because they've lost their worlds, Aerith reminds herself, and they all have stories of people they've lost.

"I'm Aerith."

"Chicha. I recognise your name. People talk about your group a lot. It's unusual for so many to survive this far. Usually there are only one or two survivors when a world dies. I've heard some pretty strange rumours about how so many of you lived to tell the tale. It's nice to find out you're pretty normal – no second heads or antennae or anything." Her smile is tired but genuine. Aerith finds herself liking this woman. Chicha reminds her of Elmyra. They have the same kind of innate motherliness and wry humour. "So what world are you from?"

"Does every world have a name?"

"Mine doesn't. Didn't." Chicha sighs. "Kuzco calls it Kingdom in the Sun, but I've never liked that name. I remember rainy days so fierce they nearly washed my whole village away down the mountain, but he has a pretty narrow point of view. To him, his kingdom was the whole world. I guess that's what comes from being a selfish teenager, though I think living with me here is wearing down his rough edges now."

"Kuzco?"

"In the flesh," says a nasal voice by Aerith's shoulder.

Aerith turns and jolts at the sight of a creature with four shaggy legs and a ridiculously shaped neck and head. Its face is only inches from her own. The startling intelligence in its broad eyes changes to irritation, judging by the way its tail flicks from side to side. The closest she's ever seen to something like it before is a nameless monster that once tried to scale Hollow Bastion's outer wall despite its cloven hooves. Angeal took care of that one, but this one seems much more harmless.

"Who's the chick, Chicha?"

"This is Aerith, one of the new bunch."

"Really?" The creature squints at her. "She doesn't look abnormal. Hey, baby, how'd you like to dance with a studly llama-emperor?"

"Llama-emperor?" Aerith repeats, envisioning an entire empire of these creatures. She's gotten used to animals who walk upright like humans, but this is a new one and she's still processing being talked to be the lovechild of a donkey and a rag mat.

"Kuzco, we've talked about this," Chicha scolds. "You're not an emperor anymore. You haven't been for a long time."

"But I am still a llama," he pouts. "What's up with that, anyway? How come you haven't found me a cure yet?"

"Because I've been a little busy being heavily pregnant."

He snorts. "Like that's an excuse."

"You could always ask Merlin yourself."

"He insulted me."

"You ate one of his books. One of his expensive magic books."

"Hello – I'm a llama! It's what I do. I can't help it. It's part of the whole total-omnivore gig."

"Excuse me," Aerith interrupts. Their banter sounds like it's been enacted many times before. "You know Merlin?"

"Who doesn't know that old coot?" the llama grunts. "You do realise most of Traverse Town's refugee population stick around because they hope a powerful wizard like him will be able to get them home someday, right? Thicky McThick and the Thickoes don't get that their worlds don't exist anymore to get home to."

Chicha winces. "Thank you, Kuzco, for once again being the height of sensitivity."

"What?" He glances between the two of them. "What? At least lifting my curse is possible. I'm not living with false hope."

"Me neither, but remember when we talked about being sensitive to other people's feelings?"

"We have a lot of conversations where you tell me I'm an ignorant jerk with the compassion of a bent horseshoe. Refresh my memory about which one you mean. And while you're doing that, remember to mention how I'm living with you to help lighten the load when you finally drop the sprog."

"It's not due for a while. I could remember to mention how you're mooching off me until then."

"And I could remember to mention how opposable thumbs would be really handy for when it does finally happen."

Aerith's head whirls. "I'm thirsty. I think I need something to drink." She gets up, intending to fetch one from one of the bowls of orange liquid. "Would either of you like something?"

"Actually, that'd be lovely," Chicha replies.

"Not me." Kuzco raises a front hoof in a very human gesture. "Apparently punch makes a llama's digestive system do a great impression of a whirlwind. I had a bucket of water before. Plus, can't hold a glass." He shoots a look at Chicha. "No thumbs."

 


 

Cloud watches Aerith detach herself from her strange new friends. He recognises the woman from when he has travelling around town making deliveries, and the creature with her can often be seen pacing around, muttering to itself, eating weeds and then spitting them out again. They're the only survivors from their world and Cloud feels sorry for the woman, faced with raising a child alone in a strange land. He should've known Aerith would draw her to them, or be drawn to them.

"This party is pretty busy," Zack comments. They lost sight of José after he showed them around and introduced them to people whose names and faces they instantly forgot. As host, José's duties extend beyond just them. He's a popular guy, judging by all those who've come to see him off. Or maybe this party is just an excuse to enjoy themselves.

"Nothing like back home." Cloud is vaguely surprised that he can say this without the usual stab of homesickness. Is Hollow Bastion fading from his heart so quickly?

"I keep thinking I'm going to accidentally stab somebody," Zack goes on, gesturing at the Buster Sword on his back. "Too many people too close together."

"It pays to always have a weapon to hand."

They both turn to see Leon, who is impervious to the dancing around him. It's like he's been transplanted into the setting without his consent and, inasmuch as he can look uncomfortable, he does. H e holds his gunblade like it can protect him from the swelling happiness.

"Squall!" Yuffie launches herself at him, clasping her arms around his neck. "Wow, you actually turned up. My flabber is gasted."

"It's Leon," he snaps, but the words die on his lips when he looks over the top of her head.

Tifa, abandoned by Yuffie, slips between people to follow her and join them. Her pale dress is conspicuous against the backdrop of other colourful partygoers. Her hair brushes her shoulders, looking tousled but not scruffy. Tifa has always had an ability to look great no matter what she wears, Cloud thinks.

Leon's eyes widen. He looks openly stunned. "Rin-"

A scream pierces the air.

The dancing falters. So does the music. The scream comes again, louder this time because of the sudden quiet. It's thin, terrified, and comes from within the crowd.

A woman points to the top of the fountain. "Heartless!" she screams.

A stampede would be more organised than the party crowd when it moves. The sight of those first disc-like eyes and twitching feelers sparks a hundred terrible memories – all those who have been attacked by Heartless, lost loved ones to them, and eventually seen their worlds die because of them. Just talking about them alternately stirs hatred and glacial fear. Those who have always lived in Traverse Town have heard enough about Heartless to also panic. The effect of their sudden appearance is both electric and devastating.

Within seconds the party has broken up and people are running in all directions, unmindful of whatever is in their way. Tables are turned over, decorations tumble, and more than one body stumbles, to be caught under the rush of feet. The screaming is almost an afterthought.

"Hey!" Cloud yelps, abruptly separated from his friends. He's swept along and can't even see Zack, whom he was nearest to. Instinctively he covers Kairi's head and works to keep her protected from sharp elbows. In their terror nobody is careful of a single child.

Cloud hears a roar and sees Leon scaling the side of the fountain, using the stone carvings as footholds. He swings his gunblade up and lays into the first Heartless with a ferocity that borders on crazed.

"Cloud! Kairi!" Tifa works her way through the crowd towards them, knocked sideways several times but somehow keeping her feet. She ploughs into Cloud and propels him to the edge, where the rushing bodies are fewer.

They each press their backs against the wall, knowing they should also be running but scanning for their friends. Tifa is uncomfortably close. Cloud can feel her breathing. Some of her hair gets into his mouth.

"Did you see where Zack went?" he asks. Kairi whimpers in his arms and he shushes her, stroking her head and pressing her against his chest and the comforting thrum of his heartbeat. It's what his mother used to do for him when he was small, and it's worked before when Kairi is upset at bedtime. She quietens a little, but the commotion is obviously terrifying her.

Or maybe it's the sight of the Heartless that has her shivering and burying her face in Cloud's shirt.

"I lost him and Yuffie when everyone went wild," Tifa shouts above the noise.

Leon roars again. They look up to see him knocked from his perch by the sheer number of Heartless pouring out of the empty air. A green smudge bounces up the fountain, swinging a folding chair. Yuffie cracks a bunch of Heartless with it. The force of the blow makes them to explode. She twists around, opening the chair and slamming it shut like a mousetrap around those attacking Leon. Unencumbered, he grabs a stone horse's head and swings himself around to land beside her, and they swat and slice like a single creature with four legs and two heads.

It's not enough, though.

Heartless decant into the fountain's base like water. They're so slow, but they move with conviction as they clamber over the side and swing their antennae to seek out prey. People injured by the frantic crowd try to crawl away on all fours or lay on the floor, moaning. The Heartless aim for these first.

Something black and silver streaks across the cobbles. As the first wave turn to dust, the thing has already moved on to the second, faster than the naked eye can follow. It takes a moment and a brief pause for Cloud to realise it's Zack. Cloud's mouth falls open. He has never seen his friend move like that before.

Zack also looks shocked when he finally halts, holding the Buster Sword ready and glancing around at the settling piles of black dust. His mouth moves in the beginning of question: "What the-"

One of the fallen people disappears, a stray Heartless's hand buried up to its elbows in his chest. It shudders and splits, another Heartless peeling out of its spine. They bump feelers for a moment, establishing contact, or maybe communicating through touch since they have no mouths. Then they turn on Zack.

Lunging forward, Zack makes a great diagonal sweep that cleaves through several Heartless, including the two moving towards him. Others are also coming towards him, but most chase the crowd – easier prey to swell their numbers so they can take on someone who actually fights back.

Even as fear for Zack's safety stabs into him Cloud realises that he, Kairi and Tifa have to move. It would be too dangerous to expose Kairi to close-quarters fighting. She's small and vulnerable, and it's up to them to keep her safe. Aerith would never forgive him if he put her ahead of Kairi, but Cloud's gaze still rakes over the scene, searching for the only member of their group he hasn't yet seen.

He spots Aerith when the animal in front of her yelps with a human voice. Aerith darts forward, away from the pregnant woman she's been shielding, and whaps the attacking Heartless away from the llama using an empty punch bowl. The glass shatters, shards dulled by black dust. Having lost her only weapon, Aerith returns to supporting the woman. Their escape is hindered by the woman's difficult breathing and the way she keeps clutching at her belly. Cloud is instantly transported back to the day in the marketplace when Anemone Caspian went into labour.

He's torn. Part of him wants to shove Kairi into Tifa's arms and go to Aerith, but another part of him knows this would be a stupid idea. Yet another part of him wants to go to Zack and Yuffie, even though they can obviously take care of themselves.

Kairi clings desperately to his neck, whimpering. He tries to balance impulse and reason in his head and comes out with a hodgepodge of both, equally laced with self-reproach like a spiked bowl of punch. "Tifa, Aerith needs help."

Tifa follows the line of his pointing finger. "But…" she starts until she sees his eyes. He's begging her and she can't refuse him. "Can you get Kairi away on your own?"

Cloud nods and Tifa takes off, vaulting over the debris without a thought of her short skirt. Halfway there she grinds her shoes against a particularly large cobblestone, snapping the heels off so she can go faster. Her dark hair streams behind her, and it's this that Cloud keeps seeing as he holds tight to Kairi and runs in the opposite direction to his friends.

 


 

Blood pounding and sword feverish in his hands, Zack cuts his way through the Heartless trying to escape the fountain. Above him, Leon and Yuffie dance over the stone carvings. Zack has never thought of furniture as a good weapon before, but Yuffie uses her chair to devastating effect. Leon's expression shifts between grim and bared-teeth fury, the most concrete emotion Zack has ever seen on him. Leon uses his gunblade like an extension of his arm, but his movements are still solid and human.

Zack can feel his connection with the Buster Sword like a sparkling explosion. It's the same bond he always feels, nestling in the back of his mind and flaring up whenever he uses the sword, but so much more intense. The heat of battle has set all his nerve endings alight, as though holding each one in a candle flame until they convulse. His feet move him where he needs to be sooner than his mind can register where that is. His grip on the hilt crackles with energy. He moves faster, leaps higher, slashes more devastatingly than should be possible. He's alive with the power of the sword. Heartless fall all around him, and still he keeps going, seeking, slashing, killing. This is what the sword was made for, to kill and kill and kill –

No it isn't, it's for protecting, not mindless destruction. He swore to Angeal he'd use his training to protect people. He's a hero, not an assassin.

But it's so good at this; surely this is what it was forged for, before nobleness and all that crap got in the way –

No, no, that's not right, can't be right, mustn't be right ...

Angeal!

Zack's thoughts are a scrambled mess of combat, Angeal's code, and his ties with the sword, until it feels like he's the weapon, and could cleave apart his enemies with his bare hands if he just reached out to touch them. Battle-awareness slams into him from all sides, assaulting his senses until he almost suffers white-out. For a second he imagines Angeal beside him, but when he looks there's nothing there. He's confused, but his body keeps moving with unerring accuracy.

"Aerith!"

Who's that? Who just shouted?

A pale figure, blurring in his peripheral vision – female in a white dress. Who was wearing the white dress? A darker figure leaps down from above; man-shaped, not Heartless. Zack recognises them both, but proper awareness slips away from him. They're not enemies and his brain stops discerning after that.

Zack blinks, aware he needs to refocus his mind. For a moment the unthinkable happens and he falters, swaying under the force of the Buster Sword's magic. His senses are blitzed. He's bewildered, unused to the sudden strength of the link. His heart jackhammers. The pause almost costs him his life when a Heartless, as if it can hear the thundering, comes up behind him and fastens onto his back.

"Hyaaaaaaa! Death from above!" Yuffie lands on top of it, squashing it and popping its head with her heels. Her long skirt has been shredded and the trailing bits torn off – probably by her, the tears are too even to be accidental. She's wearing a pair of shorts underneath.

Bizarrely, given the seriousness of the situation, Zack thinks, How Yuffie.

"Yo, Hero, quit spacing out or you're dead."

"I…" He shakes his head to clear his thoughts. His hands tremble with the need to fight, but he realises with a jolt that there are only a handful of Heartless left. Did he do that? His throat is clogged and Yuffie's face blackened with a film of dust.

She twirls her folding chair like a bo-staff. "I'm so good it's scary," she crows, eyeing the remaining Heartless. "Ladies first." She takes several steps back, and then launches herself at them in a great running leap.

Zack's muscles clench to follow but he forces himself to take stock of the situation first. A few partygoers lay horribly still, and there's a knot of people near the overturned refreshment tables. Tifa and Aerith are among them, unharmed, with Leon competing with Tifa's ready stance like a knight defending a cluster of princesses. A semi-familiar glow flares above them – Aerith's magic at work, although it's different than usual. Zack wonders who's been hurt and why there's a flower –

"Fair!" Leon barks. "Behind you!"

Zack doesn't even think. He swings his arms in a smooth arc. The Heartless falls in two rapidly dissolving pieces.

Now isn't the time for sight-seeing, but the magic of the Buster Sword is strong within him. Zack feels sick under its insistent pressure. His ears pound with his own pulse and his feet feel kind of numb. There's a dull ache in his head and chest, but the pain feels far away, like he's not totally connected to himself.

When the last of the Heartless finally fall, so does he. On his knees, the hilt of his sword pressed between his palm and the ground, he noisily throws up before collapsing onto his side, mind throbbing and vision frayed at the edges. He hears someone call his name but can't identify who it is. His heart throws itself against the inside of his ribcage. It hurts.

And then suddenly the insistent beating … stops.

Darkness swamps him.

"ZACK!"

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 


 

"Mine doesn't. Didn't." Chicha sighs. "Kuzco calls it Kingdom in the Sun, but I've never liked that name."

-- The Emperor's New Groove was originally called Kingdom in the Sun as a working title. True fact!

Chapter Text

Aerith is disturbed by the feel of Zack's mind. She's also disturbed by how aware she is of it. Her senses felt sharpened when she pressed her hands to Chicha's belly in the street, but it's only now, without battle raging around her, that she can grasp how sensitive her powers have suddenly become.

Zack's mind feels like part of it has unraveled. She weaves together what she can with golden thread, repairing the tangled cells like she used to sew up holes in his clothes after he came back from monster hunting. She doesn't know how to heal minds like she heals bodies – it's a firm and irrevocable fact. She cannot – simply cannot – pull him back from the darkness has engulfed him. She tried.

She failed.

Instinctively, she knows mending thoughts is beyond her capabilities, but she can still ease the physical swelling at the base of his skull and hope it helps. His nerve-endings have been scorched. He has overstrained the tendons in his arms from gripping his sword, too. She strokes his hair off his forehead as she works to patch him up, fingers dipping momentarily along the curve of his eyebrows, lightly brushing where his lower lids meet the upper in a tangle of eyelashes. He doesn't stir.

Nobody fully understands what happened. One moment Zack was a whirling dervish, destroying more Heartless than Leon, Tifa and Yuffie combined, and the next he'd collapsed and wasn't breathing. Dashing to him, kneeling on broken glass and grasping his face in her hands, Aerith felt like thorns lined the insides of her own lungs until he took his first shuddering breath. She doesn't remember exactly what she did. She has a vague memory of wanting to grasp his lungs with both hands and squeeze air into them, and of a great surge, like adrenaline washing through her but ten times more blistering. Afterwards Tifa told her the corona usually produced by her magic was so bright that everyone had to squint, and didn't circle gently above Zack's head, but burst violently above him.

"How is he?"

Aerith looks up. Relief briefly overcomes her. "Better than he was."

Cloud shuts the door and crouches next to her chair.

Zack is on his back on the bed, clothes dark against the cheerful embroidered throw. Chicha and Kuzco's house was closer than their apartment, and it made sense to bring everyone here. Chicha was so grateful to Aerith for saving her unborn child and preventing a traumatic early labour that she wouldn't hear of anything else. As a result, Aerith and Cloud now find themselves surrounded by unfamiliar things: dun-coloured clothes, ceramic pots, a clothes-peg doll – scrappy items collected to remind Chicha and Kuzco of their lost world.

Leon stayed to do crowd control and recover the bodies. Two people were crushed to death in the stampede, but Leon took on the job of dealing with them the same way he takes on everything – stoically and sensibly. The light of battle drained out of him as son as the Heartless were gone, like water down a plughole, leaving nothing but a dirty bath-ring of sweat, bruises and grim detachment. Somehow that was just as unsettling as Zack's condition, though not nearly as scary.

"And how are you?" Cloud touches Aerith's lower arm.

"Confused," she admits. "Worried. Nauseous. Strangely hungry." The last one slips out of its own accord. She follows it up with a mocking laugh that makes Cloud stiffen all over. "Where's Kairi?"

"Tifa has her. She's safe. We got away before the Heartless could sense her."

"If she wasn't the reason they appeared."

Cloud shakes his head. "I spoke to Leon. He said large gatherings of people in a single place, especially if the veil between worlds is weak in that place, can attract Heartless. so many hearts together is like a beacon for them, especially if they're raised in high emotion, and the fabric of this world is a lot thinner than most, so the party was really - " he searches for the right word " - attractive."

"So everybody's supposed to be lonely to avoid being detected?"

"I don't …" Cloud falters against the heaviness of her words. "Uh, that llama woman wasn't in labour after all, huh?"

"It was a false alarm. She was under a lot of stress. It's understandable, really." The words come easily, even though Aerith thought she'd have nothing to say. She looks at Zack. He seems so pale, lips drawn back in a grimace that has yet to ease. He looks in pain no matter what she does. This wasn't how their evening was supposed to go. She never even got to dance with him once. "Cloud, what happened?"

He stares at her like he can't believe she's forgotten. "The town was attacked by Heartless," he says uncertainly. "Remember how Leon says it happens sometimes-?"

"Not that. I mean what happened to Zack?"

"I … don't know," Cloud confesses in a tone that conveys just how much he isn't sure what answer she wants to hear.

"You didn't see him," she murmurs, and goes on to fill him in on Zack's wild frenzy and subsequent collapse, even though the others must already have told him when he arrived. Cloud lets her talk.

When she has finally finished he drops his head. "I'm sorry; I should've been there instead of running away -"

"You kept Kairi safe. Don't apologise for that."

"But -"

"Don't apologise, Cloud." Aerith's voice drops to a whisper. "I thought he was gone. He stopped breathing. His lungs just seized up. His heart stopped. I had to touch it with my power to get it started again. He was … he was …" She stops.

"But he's all right now."

"For how long? Until another Heartless attack? What if next time he's not so lucky? What if next time all of us are killed, or turned into those things? What if next time it's Kairi who gets trampled to death, or Tifa who's crushed, or Yuffie who has her heart torn out? What if next time it's you who -" She can't go on.

"Aerith -"

She cuts him off. "I hate this. I hate this whole situation. I hate being here, I hate living in fear, I hate the Heartless and what they're doing to us, and I hate that Ansem man for creating them in the first place. I hate him." Her features twist up into an unfamiliar expression. It feels strange. Before, she felt empty and exhausted, but sudden boiling hatred surges through her veins like acid.

For a second she wonders whether this is how Leon feels all the time. He has locked his emotions up tight because of Ansem and the Heartless, but she remembers his face in battle. Under that stoic veneer is a human soul eating itself alive.

She shakes her head. "If Ansem weren't already dead, I'd -"

"Aerith, stop it. This isn't like you."

"I'm not allowed to hate things? Well I do. I hate what's happened to us. Why us? We're not bad people. Why are we being punished? Something is wrong with the universe if good people aren't rewarded, Cloud, and something is broken if they're punished when evil people are allowed to get away with whatever they want." Her voice has been getting louder, until she's almost shouting at Cloud. "Why Cloud? Answer me that. Tell me why I should hate what's happened!"

"That's not what I said -"

"It is!"

"No it isn't. I just said this isn't like you."

"Why not? You always act like I'm perfect, or like I need protecting all the time so I'm not … not tainted or something. I'm not some sweet and innocent maiden, Cloud. I'm a human being. I'm capable of hating, and wanting to hurt things, and being scared … so scared I want to throw up … and cry … and go to sleep so I never wake up again …" Her voice catches in her throat like cloth on a gorse bush. "Cloud, I was so frightened that he was dead. I don't know what I'd do if he … if either of you … I couldn't go on. I couldn't do it."

Cloud impulsively reaches out to hug her. She's rigid against him, staring at Zack over his shoulder. Cloud just holds her close even though her elbows are locked, digging into his stomach, and her spine ramrod. He's not sure what else to do, and it's obvious.

Eventually the feel of his hands tentatively rubbing her back and the sound of his breathing relax her. She sags into the embrace. She doesn't cry, partly because she's not sure she'd be able to stop, but also because her hatred has evaporated all her tears inside her. She feels horribly hollow, like the hatred scraped out part of her to make room for itself. She hates feeling like this even more than anything else – hatred of the hatred. The irony falls into her like a pebble sinking into a deep pool.

"Promise you'll never leave me," she says suddenly, unreasonably, pleadingly. It's a stupid and selfish thing to ask for, but she can't help herself. She clings to Cloud, asking him for the impossible – a promise to control the future, which nobody will ever be able to do, even if the very universe depends on it.

"I promise," Cloud says without thinking. "We'll stay together no matter what. All of us."

Aerith sighs, not caring that it's an impossible promise. She just needs to hear the words. Her arms lift to hold Cloud tighter to her, as though trying to bind them together through sheer force of will.

The shock of nearly losing Zack and the tiredness from the potency of the magic pulled out of her have left her shaky in body and spirit. Cloud's warm body is grounding and exactly what she needs right now. Cloud and Zack have always been her anchors. Whenever there are problems, they've been there for her like she's been there for them. She nuzzles his neck, breathing in the scent of him, feeling the strong muscles in his back.

Cloud freezes. "Aerith?"

She realises what she's doing and freezes too. For a long moment they stay this way, pressed close together, until a groan from the bed makes them jump apart.

Zack clasps a hand to his forehead and slurs, "Whu h'ppn?"

Relief detonates in the room like a bomb filled with warm honey.

Aerith holds the readied glass of water to his lips. Cloud helps Zack to sit upright as he takes small sips, wetting his throat and coughing as Heartless gunk sluices into his stomach. Aerith worries this will affect him badly, but it's too late to stop it, so she resolves to keep an even more careful eye on him to ensure there are no side-effects.

"What happened?" Zack asks again, more lucid this time. He's still blinking a lot, but his eyes become brighter with each passing second.

"What do you remember?" Aerith asks.

"Fighting Heartless ... and losing control. Did I pass out?"

"A little more than that," she replies cagily.

"How much more?"

She doesn't answer.

"Aerith? Cloud?" Zack glances around. "Where am I? This isn't home. How long was I out?"

It's Cloud who answers in the end. "You weren't breathing for a while, and your heart stopped. Aerith had to bring you back using her powers."

Zack's eyes widen. "I died?"

"No," Aerith says quickly. "You only … almost died." It's not as reassuring as she hoped.

"Fuck." Nobody corrects Zack for his language. Given the circumstances it seems entirely justified. "I … oh fuck. Thanks. I mean … thank you. Really. I knew I was tired after the Buster Sword went crazy, but I didn't realise I was that bad. Are you okay?" He asks Aerith, obviously remembering the state she was in after trying to heal Kairi that first night. That was the last time she used her magic.

"I'm fine. For some reason my powers are stronger than usual. I was able to help Chicha and Kuzco and heal you as well, and I barely broke a sweat." Now Zack is awake and more like himself her outburst seems childish. She's too embarrassed to look at Cloud, though he's entirely fixed on Zack.

"Your magic is stronger than usual?" Zack repeats, a thoughtful expression cutting through his astonishment like lemon juice in milk. "So was the Buster Sword's. It was fine until I called on it to help me fight the Heartless and then 'whammo!' It tried to fry my brain. I wasn't used to that much power at once, but I couldn't stop. If there hadn't been so many Heartless maybe I could've broken the connection sooner, but I got so focussed on fighting them that I couldn't let go. I guess that's what drained me so much that I …" He finishes the sentence with a shaky gesture.

Cloud frowns. "Both of you had a power surge?"

"That's a good way of putting it." Zack shifts sideways and winces, holding his head.

Aerith leans forward to press her fingertips to his temple. Before she's made contact, however, an iridescent pool of magic gathers above him. The rough shape opens upside-down, showering Zack with sparkles like a flower scattering pollen.

His grimace clears. "Wow."

"I know." Aerith stares at her own hand. "Usually I have to touch people to heal them, and it doesn't look like that." The fear that motivated her disturbing outburst of hatred rears its head again. "What's happening to us?"

"Where's the Buster Sword?" Zack asks, casting about. His eyes fall on it, propped up by the door. He scoots off the bed before either Cloud or Aerith can stop him. Instead of picking it up, however, he just stands in front of it as though locked in a staring match. After a minute he grasps the hilt in one hand and his arm spasms. When he turns back to them his face is troubled. "Either I'm much more sensitive than I used to be, or something's augmented the Buster Sword's magic the same as yours, Aerith. It's always enhanced my own abilities when I call on its power in a fight, but nothing like as strong as this. I don't get it."

"It means you've finally become acclimatised to this world." The door swings open without the person behind it doing them the courtesy of knocking. When they see it's Leon not one of them is surprised. "You're awake." Leon narrows his eyes. "And unharmed."

"Aerith fixed me up," Zack says.

Leon transfers his gaze to Aerith. "You're a Healer." It's not a question, and there's a hard, almost accusing edge to it. "You never mentioned that before."

Aerith feels Cloud move closer, protective against the implicit hostility. Leon's voice doesn't rise or fall, but he radiates some ill-defined emotion that makes her uneasy.

"Yes, I am," she replies, squaring her shoulders. Her bare feet and tangled hair don't help her image. She's not even sure where her shoes are. "What do you mean 'acclimatised'? What does that have to do with anything?" She knows she should be asking about those poor people, but the changes in her powers unsettle her. She hasn't had a Green Dream since coming to Traverse Town and fears dealing with these changes without that guidance.

"Exactly what it sounds like. Just like it takes time to acclimatise to a different altitude or a different pressure-depth underwater, it takes time to acclimatise to a different world, including the nuances of its magical field. The upsurge in your powers was due to you finding your own place in the fabric of this world and the world accepting you into it as more than visitors. This world lends itself to magic because the fabric between worlds is so thin here, but the field is uneven for that same reason, so it can take a while for an individual's powers to compensate. You were probably affected by that when you consciously called on your powers."

"How long were you listening at the door?" Zack not-quite-demands. He folds his arms and it's abruptly clear that although Leon is taller, Zack has a broader and more muscular chest.

"You talk loudly," Leon replies without missing a beat. "You should both be careful about overreaching yourselves. Emotions play a part in how your magic will develop from now on. If you channel yourselves properly you won't have any problems, which will mean training yourselves not to have a repeat of tonight." This time the accusing edge is firmly directed at Zack.

"You know a lot about this for someone who doesn't use magic," Zack replies.

"You don't have to possess magic to know how it works in this kind of situation."

"Is that the voice of experience?"

Something flashes behind Leon's eyes; the same something that flashes whenever people call him 'Squall' and when he first saw Tifa at the party. "Yes," he says unexpectedly. He doesn't elaborate, however, and Aerith stands up to prevent Zack from antagonising him further.

"We'll practise," she says. "There won't ever be a repeat of tonight."

Leon gazes at her for a moment before nodding. "Good." He glances over his shoulder. "There are some people who want to speak with you."

Aerith expects Tifa or Yuffie, so she's surprised when José saunters in with another humanoid bird wearing a wide-brimmed hat. José beams when he sees them.

"My friends! You are all right. Eu fui preocupado! I was worried when I could not find you, and even more when I was told what happened."

Greetings and reassurances are exchanged, during which Leon removes himself and José's companion is introduced as Panchito Pistoles, the sole other survivor of José's dead homeworld. It was his return to Traverse Town, after exploring outside it for several months, which led to José's decision to leave. Panchito talks with a slightly different but even heavier accent and wears a gun belt, but despite this he's mellow and friendly. Aerith finds herself instantly liking him. There's a cheery twinkle in his eye and he instantly treats them all like they've known each other for years.

Tifa, Kairi and Yuffie seep and burst into the room respectively. They're still dirty, but ecstatic to see that Zack is okay. Yuffie wraps herself around his neck when she learns he won't collapse from it, eliciting chuckles all around when Zack claims she's going to kill him all over again. Kairi immediately demands that Tifa hand her to Cloud. She nestles possessively against him, watching everything with a thumb in her mouth. She doesn't seem badly affected by being once again attacked by Heartless. Aerith is uncertain whether she should be relieved or worried about this.

"I promise you, my friends, our parties are not usually so dangerous," José says. "They can get a little wild sometimes, but this is the first time anything like this has ever happened." He's saddened by the deaths and takes off his boater as a sign of respect. "All I wanted was to leave Traverse Town on a happy note."

"You did not know this would happen," Panchito reassures him, patting him on the shoulder.

"Even so, eu sinto responsável." José catches their uncomprehending looks and shakes his head. "I feel responsible."

"If that is the case then I am equally responsible," Panchito declares. "It was my idea to hold a party, but I do not blame myself the way you are trying to blame yourself. It was not our fault at all, but those Heartless who caused the panic that resulted in this tragedy. Neither you nor I could have predicted or prevented what happened. Am I correct?" He looks at the rest of them.

"Of course," Tifa says instantly.

"Ours was simply the misfortune of bad timing, uno quién amo." Panchito presses his beak against the side of José's head in an equivalent of a kiss, shocking everyone who sees it. The casually possessive arm around José's waist finishes the thought.

Everyone wears the look of people whose carpet has suddenly been swept out from under them, and now they're trying to tap-dance on quicksand.

José flicks his eyes up at them, reading their reactions. "You are surprised, meus amigos?" he asks carefully.

Yuffie recovers first, bouncing back a quick, "Only that you'd be dumb enough to try and blame yourself for what those creepy Heartless did. I mean, I understand about wanting credit and acknowledgement and everything, but seriously, couldn't you have picked some better thunder to steal?"

Panchito throws back his head in a laugh. "The scrawny one makes sense. You should listen to her."

Yuffie's crowing is interrupted only by her own wagging finger. "Hey, buddy, I'm not scrawny, I'm just waiting for my hormones to kick in properly and grow me some ribcage fun-bags."

There's a cough from the doorway. Kuzco leans against it, both left feet hooked over both right in a startlingly human stance for something with four legs. "Hate to interrupt, kiddies – wait, actually, no I don't. Chicha wants to know who's hungry and alive enough to eat. She phrased it nicer than that, but you catch my drift. So if you're all done with the big love-fest, someone with opposable thumbs and no baby-belly had better come help set the table."

 


 

The dressmaker is extremely displeased at the state of the dresses when the girls bring them back. In fact, 'displeased' is an understatement of epic proportions. You could fry eggs on the heat of her rage. Even their explanations of what happened at the party aren't enough to pacify her. She shrieks for her husband and everyone is shocked when Mr. Snoops appears from the back room of her shop.

"Yes, sweetness?" All colour drains from his usually florid face at the dressmaker's murderous expression. "Oh no."

This is the terrifying wife who keeps him in his niche as a nervous wreck. Watching her rant and rave, throwing up her hands and threatening that if the creatures hadn't disappeared with her world, she'd feed them to her pet crocodiles, Tifa can understand why Mr. Snoops goes through life with enough nervous ticks to drain a cow of blood. The woman seems in a state of PMT – as long as it means Permanent Menstrual Tension.

Eventually they calm her to merely simmering through a mixture of compliments, apologies and promises to pay for the ruined dresses. Mr. Snoops runs through a gamut of pet names, so many that Tifa realises she has no idea what the woman is actually called. However, what finally makes the dressmaker's voice drop below ear-bleeding is a familiar figure in the shop doorway. Tifa hasn't even realised Yuffie is gone until she reappears behind Cid.

Against all expectation, the dressmaker transforms into a completely different woman the moment she realises Cid is breathing her air. She bats her eyelashes and flutters her hands, giggling and cooing that of course it's fine, the girls were just defending the town and they shouldn't dream of paying for something like that. She even skins her lips back over her teeth enough to commend them for their fighting skill. Mr. Snoops's face falls with every word and Tifa's heart goes out to him.

Yuffie grins fit to burst when they leave. "She'd jump your bones in a heartbeat, Highwind."

Cid actually shudders. "When you said Tifa was in trouble, you didn't tell me that … woman was involved." He says the word like it's a piece of chocobo dung discovered on his front step in the morning.

"Would you have come otherwise?"

He grunts. It's quite an eloquent grunt; at least to Tifa, who's getting used to them. Cid hates leaving his workshop when he's got a project on the go. The fact he's here at all speaks volumes.

She thanks Cid, not needing to force the sincerity into her voice. "She was scarier than any Heartless."

"Goddamn witch," Cid mutters, cigarette slewing from side to side.

"She was looking at you like she's on a diet and you're a piece of chocolate cake," Yuffie says wickedly. "And she'd like to take a big bite out of your -"

"Yuffie!" Aerith cuts her off.

"What? What? She did. You can't deny she was totally hot for ol' Ciddy-poo here." Yuffie leans against Cid as they walk, tipping her head to rest against him even when he quickens his step. "Why else do you think he was my first choice for a rescue instead of Hero or Cloudy? I'll bet she's got all sorts of wild fantasies about you and her, Highwind. And who wouldn't, being married to Mr. Snoops? I'll bet when they climb into their twin beds at night she's imagining the creaking springs are actually you and her, bodies all slick with sweat, hands exploring everywhere -"

The cigarette falls from Cid's mouth. He has bitten right through the middle. "Kid, get away from me before I get really pissed."

Yuffie does dance away, but carries on talking. "That's kind of noble of you, not wanting to move in on another man's wife. I can admire and respect that."

"Yuffie," Tifa warns.

"What? I'm paying the guy a compliment!"

Tifa can't help listening for the sound of the other shoe dropping.

"But if he wasn't noble and principled and 'I'd rather cut off my genitals with a blunt scalpel', she's not so bad to look at. Maybe too much make-up, and she's getting a bit saggy around the bosom area – not that I'd know what it's like to have any freaking sag-meisters attached to my chest – and a bit saddle-baggy, and turnkey-necked, and her hair dye needs to change so it's not so scoop-out-your-retinas-with-a-rusty-spoon-to-get-the-same-effect blinding … but I hear painted trolls are really in this season."

Cid grunts again, shoulders so far up they're almost past his ears. "Kid, even if all worlds disappeared and we were he only two left in the whole fucking universe, I'd still rather crawl into an engine and turn it on than look twice at Madame Medusa."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

"Who's Rinoa?

Cid looks up from the mound of fresh gummi on his workbench. "What?"

Tifa folds her arms, staring at him with a 'don't-even-try-to-palm-me-off-because-I've-had-enough-of-you-doing-that-whenever-I-bring-this-up' expression. She's learned how to put a lot of meaning into a look since coming to working for Cid. When he gets really into his work – really into it – she could bring a live chimera into the shop and fillet it with a rusty hacksaw while singing dirty limericks and he wouldn't hear the noise. If he glances up she has to be able to communicate a lot in a short space of time, and she can't rely on his ears to absorb her words when his brain is clogged with thoughts of mechanisms, custom jobs and system glitches.

"Who's Rinoa?" she asks again.

Cid scratches behind one ear, discovering a spare cigarette he was saving for later. He puts this into his mouth and works it between his teeth before answering. "A man's pain ain't supposed to be for other people to gossip over."

"That's a silly answer."

"It's the best you're gonna get outta me, toots."

"No." Tifa pulls back the second chair at his workbench – the one he brought in when he started teaching her about gummi and his precious machines. Mostly it's basic stuff, but sometimes he waxes lyrical about whatever invention he's been working on while she deals with customers. She sits down and stares hard at him. "It's not."

"Kid -"

"Today I went to collect the moogles' tab like you asked, and they called me Rinoa. It's not the first time it's happened, either, but any time I ask you suddenly have something else to do. Whoever she is, I apparently look a lot like her and I think she has something to do with why Leon has women's clothes in his apartment but has never, since the night we arrived in Traverse Town, had anybody but Merlin visit him there."

Cid's eyes widen. "He kept her clothes?"

"So you do know!"

Cid stares at her. For a second she thinks he's going to tell her to leave him alone again. Cid might be better with her than he used to be, but he can still be snappier than a piranha, and he's not above calling her unrepeatable names to make her leave him alone. Of course, she's now not above smacking the back of his head the way Aerith lightly smacks Zack or Cloud when the situation calls for it. Tifa and Cid have developed a rhythm that squeaks out of tune only when one of them pushes the other too far, and they're constantly learning the limits of each other's boundaries are so they can push them.

"She came with Leon and Merlin from Radiant Garden," Cid replies, surprising her. He doesn't sound happy about telling her this, so she leans forward eagerly in case he changes his mind. You don't have to be a genius to tell that he'll probably never repeat this story.

"Really?"

"I got here after. Had time to set up shop here and make a bit of a name for myself before they came into my life. I found all three of 'em outside town when I was scouting for bits of fallen gummi. It was about two, maybe three years ago." His eyes become distant for a moment. "Yeah, just short of three years ago, I reckon. I lugged that damn ice-crystal home using a mini Gummi Ship – called it the Gummi Hover. Too many design flaws to keep making them, but it worked at the time. Three people wrapped in magical ice, all human at a time when practically all I could see in Traverse Town was bipedal animals, monsters and fuck knew what else. They were human, alive and that was good enough for me, but I was fucked if I could figure out how to break them out of that ice. I tried every tool I had – even put them under a roaring engine to see if the heat blast would melt it, but nada. I kept them here, trying to figure out what might work, asking around town, but no shithead had a fucking clue. I found out where all the regular humans lived, but not one of them could help." He shakes his head. "Fuckers. Ignorant jackass fuckers. Too busy worrying about their own skins to help out someone else."

"What happened? Did the ice melt on its own?" Tifa recalls Merlin saying it wasn't his best spell and wonders whether magic has a shelf life like food.

"Not exactly." Suddenly Cid looks embarrassed. Tifa's curiosity piques. "I hate magic. Had it on my world but never had much time for the fucking stuff. Technology's the key, I say, but … well, turns out you can't use technology to break magic spells the way you can use it to break everything else."

"You used magic to break them out?" Tifa is shocked.

"No! Well, kind of … um … you ever hear the story of the princess who has a spell cast on her by an evil witch to make her sleep for a hundred years?"

"I think I've heard of something like that." Tifa frowns, remembering. "But in Hollow Bastion it was a pig farmer's daughter and the spell was supposed to last until her favourite piglet had licked a mountain made of salt down to the size of a thumb, or until true love's first kiss woke her."

"I think every world has some variation of it." Cid still looks extremely uncomfortable. "Well, it turns out that in real life it doesn't necessarily have to be true love's kiss."

There's a loaded pause while Tifa turns this over in her mind. "You?"

He nods.

"All of them? Even Leon? Even Merlin?"

Cid's embarrassment gives way to alarm. "Fuck, no! Just her – Rinoa, the girl. Just the girl! I kept the ice crystal at the back of the workshop, and one day I slipped and fell on it, and my mouth must've lined up pretty much with hers when I landed because the next thing I knew I had this girl sitting in the middle of my fucking floor with melted ice all around her, staring up at me like I had horns and a pitchfork. She couldn't punch for shit – still too wobbly – but she had a slap that could knock the tarter right off your teeth."

Tifa snorts. She can't help herself. The image of Cid being slapped like a dirty old pervert, coupled with his outraged expression, is enough to make giggles ripple up her throat. "So she kissed Leon and Merlin to wake them up."

"Once she'd calmed down enough, yeah." Cid touches the side of his face as though remembering the sharp feel of her palm.

"How come neither of them ever mentioned any of this before?"

"They got their reasons. Probably Merlin's like me – figured it wasn't his story to tell. He, Leon and Rinoa worked together back in Radiant Garden. When the shit went down that landed them here, they were protecting each other. As for why Leon never told anyone, that kid's clammed up tighter than a glass-blower's asshole. He's pretty ashamed of himself for not being able to stop the Heartless from spreading and getting himself trapped in a magic spell for twenty years, and he wasn't exactly Mr. Sparkly Happy Shit before that, from what Rinoa told me."

Tifa thinks back to the conversations she's had with Leon – few, far between, brisk and usually with other people around. In fact the only times she can remember talking to him alone are when she first arrived and tried to kick him in the head, and one evening when they met by the chocobo's shed. She was running through kata when Leon arrived home, bloodied and torn from seeing off a clutch of Heartless on the other side of town. Tifa tried to take him to Aerith but Leon refused. When she told him he was being irresponsible he snapped off a reply she now recalls with perfect clarity.

"I'm responsible for more than you'll ever know, now leave me alone."

Leon always seems like he's punishing himself for something. Tifa chooses her next words carefully. "Cid, what happened to Rinoa? Why isn't she around anymore? And why are you, Merlin and Leon so cagey about even mentioning her?"

Cid sighs and stares at the lump of gummi instead of her. "We didn't wanna hurt the kid. He blames himself, the stupid fucktard. One of the smartest people I ever met, good head on his shoulders, but can't see past his own nose to appreciate the truth when it comes to that girl."

Something clicks in Tifa's head. "He was in love with her, wasn't he?"

"Still is."

She's not sure whether that means Rinoa is still alive or whether Leon is in love with a memory – and she doesn't get a chance to ask because at that moment someone coughs behind them. They both whip around to see Leon himself standing beside the shelves of custom-item order forms she alphabetised last week.

"I came to pick up my gunblade shells," he says icily. "You said to call in today when they're back from the moogles." Cid knows the shape of a bullet better than his own hand, but the moogles lather up each shell with spells that make them extra destructive. Cid may hate using magic, but he's too good a businessman to ignore an individual customer's needs.

"We were jus t-" Tifa starts.

"Second shelf down," Cid interrupts her. "Got your name on it."

Leon grabs the box and leaves.

Tifa whirls on Cid, but he just glares up at her, face slammed shut and no chance of him finishing the story now. He hunches over, shoulders at ear level, and Tifa recognises the signal for her to leave him alone unless she wants an argument. She considers whether an argument would answer her questions, but decides not. Chasing after Leon wouldn't reap anything, either, and seeds of guilt at discussing him behind his back gnaw at the inside of her stomach. She knows more than she did, and though she has even more questions now, Leon's diamond-hard eyes trouble her and she withdraws to think about what she's learned.

 


 

"Cetra!

"Gesundheit."

"No, no, my dear boy. Your sword – it was made by the Cetra!"

Zack blinks at Merlin, completely nonplussed. "Excuse me?"

"The Cetra," Merlin says again, obviously becoming irritated that Zack doesn't understand. "You've never heard of them?"

"Should I have?"

Merlin makes a huffy noise in the back of his throat, like a moogle having an epileptic fit, and explains, "A very old race of people, believed to be some of the first to combine traditional workmanship skills with magic. They invented many of the basic principles of magic still used today – the law of exchange, for example, which is the idea that all magic requires an expenditure of equivalent energy in order to work. Unfortunately some cultures believed this meant actual sacrifices needed to be made, which led to the creation of dark magic, but the principle itself is sound. The Cetra were extremely wise. They created a great many magical weapons, although most have been lost over the centuries."

"And you think the Buster Sword was made by them?"

"Didn't you say you found it in an abandoned temple?"

"I didn't; my uncle did."

Merlin waves a hand, as though this is mere quibbling in the face of a momentous discovery. "It was found in a temple, which was probably a Cetra holy place. Their culture regularly communed with the spirits of its dead ancestors, though most texts regarding them reference seers entering a fugue state first – they spoke with the dead in their dreams, if you will, although my own studies lead me to think it was more likely some early form of astral projection. There are records of some fugue states lasting years, but that's debateable and may be a result of mistranslation. Most likely the state itself was induced, which required their sleeping bodies to be protected, which, in turn, necessitated the creation of weapons such as this one to use on those who would harm them while they were at their most vulnerable."

Something small and silvery flickers in the back of Zack's mind – a half-remembered though that slips away from him when he reaches for it. "What … happened to the Cetra?"

"They died out." Merlin shrugs, but it's a sharp movement, as though not having a better explanation irritates him.

Since coming over more often to work with him, Zack has noticed that Merlin values knowledge above all else. This might be why the moogles do such a brisk trade in magical items while Merlin, who has much more skill, prefers to stay out of the public eye and conduct research. Sometimes he leaves Traverse Town for day, and returns with armloads of books, scrolls and computer discs he grudgingly has to ask Cid to help him access.

"Just like that?" Zack snaps his fingers. "Poof, and then no more Cetra?"

"They weren't the only early race to use magic. It was common for entire races to become insular when they felt themselves to have evolved above common humans, so a plague or a war would wipe them all out and that would be that. Luckily there were ample scribes around to chronicle their work, plus there are relics that give judicious researchers key insights into their lives and cultures."

"Like the Buster Sword."

"Indeed. I've never seen a Cetra weapon so perfectly preserved," Merlin admits.

The sword is laid out on a series of metal stands in the centre of the brown-panelled room. Initially Zack was wary of letting Merlin inspect it. Glass phials of multicoloured liquids and other bubbling experiments flourish in Merlin's house like the clutter flourished in Cid's shop before Tifa got hold of it. Once, Zack accidentally knocked over a phial and its contents burned a hole in the floor.

Merlin has treated the Buster Sword with none of these, however, instead comparing its shape with illustrations in his books and tapping it with tiny tuning forks. Today's revelation comes at the end of long study with dozens of crystals that shimmer and wink like they're alive. They may be pretty, but watching Merlin hold them over the sword, press them to the metal and then note down the results has left Zack bored and itchy to be anywhere but inside.

"This is a great discovery – or rather it would be a discovery of great archaeological significance if we were still in Radiant Garden. Uh, Hollow Bastion. Home. If only I could speak to my peers about this sword's metal composition – it has elements in it I've never seen before! And there's a residual magical charge that resonates like psychic ability does in humans, which might suggest the Cetra had discovered a way of inspiring sentience within inanimate objects." Merlin sighs. "Alas and alack, this discovery will mean nothing to anyone but ourselves and others from our world. The secrets of the Ancients mean little to those without a vested interest in who they were."

"Ancients?" Zack hears the capital letter as clear as a bell ringing. "I thought you said the Cetra made the sword?"

"A colloquialism – an idiom, if you like." At Zack's blank look he goes on, "A vernacular term. A lingua franca." At Zack's continued blankness he impatiently says, "Ach, it's a simpler word that refers to the same thing, much like the synonyms 'humans' and 'people'. The Cetra are also more commonly known as simply the Ancients, since they lived so long ago and so much magical history can be traced back to them."

A memory, slippery as melted butter, slides away from Zack. He has heard that name before, he's sure of it. It was a long time ago, though, and he can't remember when exactly it was …

"The reason I am so interested in the origins of your sword, my boy," Merlin interrupts, "is not actually because of the archaeological significance of the Cetra at all. No, no, in point of fact it is because the Cetra may have been one of the last races to make contact with other worlds, before they were separated from each other with the protective gummi barriers. I have a hypothesis, based on my research, that the Cetra may have been involved in the creation of the keyblades!" He rocks back on his heels, thumping his staff against the floor in triumph.

Zack frowns slightly. The memory has really done a bunk now. He focuses on what Merlin is saying. "So keyblades were made in our world?"

"Not necessarily. They are beyond simple physics and dimensional limitations – they can unlock any door, remember, including the doors that lead to other worlds. They may have been created in a limbo between worlds to prevent them from becoming too tied to one. All the same, I believe the Cetra had a hand in their creation, though they may not have been the sole creators. It's more likely it was a collaborative effort between many races from many different worlds. Nobody can say for certain. There is so much we don't know about keyblades that it's difficult to theorise with any degree of accuracy, and without one to study theory is all we have."

"Merlin, if you don't mind me asking, how the heck do you know any of this stuff about the Cetra if you were sent to this world with just your staff and the clothes on your back?" Given the lack of anything else to think about while Merlin is absorbed in his work, it's something Zack has wondered about with every book and scroll the old man brings out.

Merlin taps the side of his nose. "Ways and means, my lad. I am a practitioner of the arcane, after all."

This doesn't explain a thing. Zack's frown deepens. He'd dearly like to get out into the sunlight – his skin feels tight and dry in here with the dust and odd smells – but he's interested despite himself. "I have no idea what that means," he says honestly.

Merlin's smile widens, though it's difficult to tell under his moustache. "You are referring to my books, I surmise. They do indeed reference the history and magic of our world, but if I told you I brought each one with me you would not believe me."

"You're right."

"Ah, but I did! Highwind thinks he is so clever, fitting large amounts of information onto his shiny little Compact Discs." Merlin sneers the word, though his smile doesn't waver. The effect is somewhat disconcerting, akin to a fluffy kitten cawing like a crow. "But magic perfected data storage and transportation long before technology decided it was a good idea. Look here, dear boy." Merlin motions Zack to a bureau crammed with sheaves of paper, pots of ink and paperweights. From the mess he extracts a quill with a long, curling white plume. He shuffles the papers until he finds a blank sheet, dips the nib of the quill in one of the inkpots and places it against the page. "Summon. Mustrum Ridcully's Alphabetised Digest of Magical Creatures."

At once, the quill begins scribbling frantically. When Merlin takes his hand away it carries on unaided, and soon the entire page is covered in neat script. When the quill floats back to the inkpot Zack reads what it's written: This being a true and accurate account of the legendary beasts and monstrosities beyond the natural realm, completely the author's own work and in no way influenced by the works of Hughnon Ridcully no matter what he might tell you to the contrary. Chapter One: So You're Cornered and the Dragon's Eaten Your Left Arm…

"That's amazing."

"Most of my library is in that quill," Merlin says proudly. "I had it in my pocket when we were sent here – a happy twist of fate, I think you'll agree. Unfortunately it does need precise names of books and their authors in order to recreate a hard copy, but on the whole it's a boon to my research. I only wish I'd had a chance to insert Ansem's Report before that dratted last battle …" He trails off into a string of mumbled self-recriminations and wishes that he could remember exactly what he read of it before being cast out of Radiant Garden.

Leon and Merlin's scrambled memories are a sore point for both of them. Mostly they remember everything about their lives in Radiant Garden, but certain aspects remain clouded – the enemy they fought in their final battle being a major one. It's not they don't remember anything at all, but more that their memories are like teabags – riddled with tiny holes through which current thoughts swish without ever being able to touch all the leaves within at once. They remember random snippets – Merlin's opposition to the creation of the Heartless, the nature of the enchantment that froze them, Ansem's Report – but have to link these recollections together with speculation and guesswork, like sewing a patchwork quilt together with mismatching threads.

"It detailed so much information about the Heartless and their nature that it would be invaluable to us now, but its pages were scattered and expelled from the world as we were. There could be pieces in hundreds of different worlds with porous barriers."

"We're learning a lot about the Heartless as we are though, right?" Zack marshals his tone to keep it hopeful instead of whiny. He doesn't like the idea that all the effort they've gone to – fighting invading Heartless, recounting battles in excruciating detail, scraping black dust from their wounds so that Merlin can experiment on it to find a way of defeating them totally – could be a waste of time.

"Indubitably, but the fact remains that Ansem's Report would further our knowledge a great deal. Even a short time with it whole and in my hands would be immeasurably useful. An impossible dream, I know." Merlin sighs and bangs his staff on the floor again, this time with resolve. "Nevertheless, with this new information regarding your Buster Sword, mayhap we are a smidge closer to discovering the location of the legendary keyblades. I feel that not even the Heartless would be able to stand up to them; nor, indeed, to those able to wield them. Keyblades can only be used by those who are truly pure of heart. What else would be so splendidly appropriate for defeating creatures of darkness like Heartless than warriors whose hearts are filled with light? It has somewhat of an ironic flavour to it, don't you agree?"

Zack nods because it's what Merlin wants to see, but at the mention of keyblades and purity of heart his thoughts turn to Kairi and what that might mean for her.

Merlin points at the still-writing quill. "Release."

It freezes like it's had an electric shock and falls onto its side, leaving an ugly blue splotch on the paper. Merlin tuts, but rather than clear it away he turns and leaves the bureau in chaos. He has no Tifa of his own to tidy up after him, and this observation leads Zack to conclude that, whatever their differences, Merlin and Cid have more in common than they could ever bring themselves to admit.

It's only a short while later that the door opens and Leon strides in. He strides everywhere unless making a conscious effort not to. It's his natural gait and has a way of making people want to snap off a salute before they realise what they're doing. Today, however, his eyes are shadowed with something other than his usual repressed frustration.

When he first met Leon, Zack thought him incapable of feeling anything except short bursts of anger. Now he knows different – Leon is a container for some pretty nasty emotions that sometimes flare but always simmer. Zack has never seen him smile, which strikes him as an unhealthy way to live, but nobody has been able to coax even a smirk from Leon yet. Not even Yuffie, who seems to have made it her mission, has met with success. Looking at Leon now, Zack wonders whether anyone ever will.

"My boy! How delightful to see you!" Merlin is incongruously pleased to see Leon. Where Leon is concerned Merlin is strangely attentive, as though he once promised someone he would take care of him and nothing – not lack of warmth, rudeness, nor resistance to his help outside of fighting Heartless – will make him break his word.

When Leon has had the news of the Cetra and Buster Sword explained to him he narrows his eyes and looks sidelong at Zack. There's something in the look that pricks at Zack, but before he can try to understand it Leon asks, "Have you ever fired a gunblade?"

"Excuse me?"

He holds up the weapon that is never far from his hand. "Have you ever fired one of these?"

"No. I'd never even seen one before coming here."

"You should always be versed in the basics of your unit's other weapons as well as your own, in case you need to use them in an emergency. Or in case the enemy ever get hold of it, so you know its weak points."

Zack can appreciate the sense of this, but the word 'unit' has him frowning. Leon talks as though they're part of an army platoon in the middle of a war.

"Are you offering to teach me?"

They're two of the strongest weapon-based fighters in town. Yuffie takes second place, with Tifa reigning as foremost hand-to-hand expert, and there are a couple of others with fighting ability they're willing to use against the Heartless, though their skills are lacklustre and more showy than effective. At least one is from a world where combat has become a flowery means for the rich to entertain themselves using blunter rapiers. Zack has an uneasy feeling that Leon plans to make them all into some kind of troopers.

Leon grunts and holds the gunblade out handle-first. It's heavier than Zack imagined, which is ridiculous, as the Buster Sword is twice its size. Then again the gunblade isn't a magical weapon, despite using enchanted bullets. He can't swing it inside to get an idea of the heft, but Zack can picture the damage he could do with a sharp edge like this. Not to mention the trigger he cautiously keeps his fingers away from. The gunblade isn't cocked but Zack has a natural aversion to guns, preferring the control of a weapon that never leaves his hands.

"Is this because you think I can't handle the Buster Sword's magic?"

Leon says nothing, but it's clear this is exactly what he thinks. Zack has been careful about calling on the Buster Sword to augment his abilities after what happened at José's party. He refuses to admit it's because he's scared – he has spent too many years facing the prospect of death at monsters' claws to not consider the danger of battle – but a thorn of uneasiness jabs the bottom of his mind when he remembers that night. Despite Aerith's assurances, he knows that for a brief time he was medically dead and that brings forth thoughts he really doesn't want to have.

Zack realises with a tiny jolt that Leon is, in his own way, trying to be thoughtful. Leon, too, knows what happened to Zack that night, and Leon probably understands better than most what's been going through his head ever since.

"I can handle it," Zack says resolutely.

"You should be ready for every eventuality," Leon replies. "That's the mark of a good soldier."

"Except that I'm not a soldier."

Leon pauses before speaking again. "No." Another pause stretches between them. "Aerith's magic went out of control as well, though not as badly as yours. You both need to be careful. That involves forward planning and practise. Do things in increments. You, in particular, took on too much too fast. Build yourself up. Work in stages. Learn how not to let the magic overwhelm you."

Zack nods, holding Leon's gaze.

"Neither of you ever told me you had magic."

"It never came up." Plus you were rarely around for more than a bare-bones conversation.

Leon takes back the gunblade. "I'll train with you."

"You will?" That throws Zack. Leon has never sought out their company before. Mostly he seems like he's avoiding them unless their paths cross by accident. Phrasing it as 'train with you' implies that Zack is his equal, too.

Until this moment Zack has always felt like Leon is … not exactly threatened by him, but circumspect about which of them is more powerful. Lurking somewhere under that austere exterior is decency and fierce pride, and up to this point Leon's prior experience with fighting Heartless has put him on a higher footing than Zack and his friends. Now, with a major battle behind them and a better idea of Zack's skills, Leon is clearly rethinking the situation and where they both stand in relation to each other's strengths and weaknesses.

You've been in charge of fighters before, Zack thinks. He can see in Leon's eyes what he once saw in Angeal's – the ability to assess a warrior's potential and flaws with unerring accuracy, and the ability to understand what each one would mean on the battlefield. It's odd to see it in someone not much older than himself, though. Angeal's was born from years of seeing cadets and training them into soldiers. Leon's is based more on natural talent and intuition.

"Excuse me," Merlin interrupts. "Leon, am I to take it that conversation with Mr. Fair the only reason you graced us with your presence?"

Leon grunts an affirmative.

"It's just Zack," Zack puts in. "Mr. Fair makes me sound about a hundred years old."

"And just what is wrong with being a hundred years old?" Merlin asks pointedly.

Zack's eyes widen. "You are?" he blurts before he can stop himself, and immediately wants to slap his forehead and pinch his lips together with a clothes peg.

"No, I'm not," Merlin replies with a mischievous smile. "But be careful about ageism around arcane practitioners. Some types of magic keep you looking young and let you live longer – often in return for a quick temper and a fondness for turning people into amphibians."

Zack gulps. "I'll bear that in mind."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 


 

"She had a slap that could knock the tarter right off your teeth."

-- Taken from an episode of Everybody Hates Chris.

 

"Summon. Mustrum Ridcully's Alphabetised Digest of Magical Creatures."

-- Mustrum Ridcully is a character from Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, though he's only making a cameo here so there's no need to have read those to get this. Hughnon Ridcully is his brother.

 

I should also have mentioned last time that Panchito Pistoles is the third part of The Three Caballeros alongside Donald Duck and José.

Chapter Text

Aerith is just packing up when Dr. Sweet enters. He's a large man, well-built and sturdy with it, with skin the colour of melted chocolate and a not a single hair on his scalp. He has a habit of sometimes talking too fast to be understood, but his face is so expressive this isn't often a problem. He's rubbing his hands on a towel, which he slings around his shoulders when he sees her.

"Hey, Aerith girl? I thought you came to me to work as a Healer."

"Technically I'm just your nurse."

He raises an eyebrow. "Now that's just splitting hairs, girl. You're a darn good nurse – good bedside manner and a smile that shows off all those pearly whites – but that ain't my point. My point is you ain't healed a soul since that party where your friend went ape fighting the Heartless. Yeah, I know about that. Don't look so surprised. You think I go home and hang myself on the back of a door until I come to work the next day?"

Aerith sighs. "Dr. Sweet, there hasn't been any call to use my magic since then. There haven't been any major injuries to attend to and -"

"'Cept that kid who done broke his collarbone."

"Well yes, except for him."

"Did you heal him?"

She bites her lower lip. "No, I didn't."

"'Zactly my point. When you first rolled up on my doorstep looking to work for me, you were so gung ho about using your powers you darn near blinded me. Ever since that party you couldn't blind a guy with a white stick and dark glasses. What's up with that?"

"Nothing. I've just been a bit … tired."

Dr. Sweet's aerobic eyebrow goes up again.

"Using so much magic to heal Zack that night … it left me drained. I'm still not fully recovered."

"A Healer who can't heal herself?"

"That's the irony of my magic," she replies truthfully. "I'm the one person I can't use it on." She knows this because she tried to the day Zack discovered the Buster Sword, when the bat-monsters attacked and left her with wounds of her own. All attempts to heal herself had failed. She might as well have been a regular person holding her hand over her skin and waiting for a miracle to happen.

That didn't stop her going to Tifa the morning after José's party and asking her to teach her how to fight. Aerith couldn't bring herself to ask Zack or Cloud, felt odd about asking Yuffie, and thought Tifa would be more understanding about her reasons for wanting to learn. Plus, the thought of Yuffie's wild recklessness in battle versus Tifa's measured precision made Aerith approach her friend instead.

However, Tifa had startled Aerith by gently but firmly refusing.

"Why not?" Aerith had demanded, hurt and confused. "There was a time you told me I should learn how to fight."

"That was a long time ago."

"I've even more reason to learn now. I need to be able to protect Kairi."

"And Zack and Cloud?" Tifa replied shrewdly.

Aerith hadn't replied to that. "Why won't you teach me?"

"I'll teach you how to defend yourself, but I won't teach you how to go into battle. You, of all people, can't afford to throw yourself in harm's way. If you got hurt you couldn't heal yourself, and if anything really bad happened to you it'd kill Zack and Cloud. I couldn't live with myself, knowing I'd had a hand in putting you in harm's way. I won't do that to you, and I won't do that to them."

"But -"

"The best way you can protect Kairi is not to run off and die and leave her." There was a kind of sense in Tifa's words, but it was an unpleasant one. "She needs security. She needs to know someone is always there for …" she added, looking contemplatively at Aerith, "there are some people who just aren't meant to fight. It'd spoil them."

"You make me sound like some pampered princess who can't take care of herself." The words reminded Aerith of the way she'd shouted at Cloud in Chicha's house. Embarrassment at the memory took the sting from her words, but she was still irked. Did nobody think she was capable of acting like an actual human being?

Tifa had laughed. "I'd never be stupid enough to suggest you can't take of yourself, Aerith."

"But that's exactly what you're doing. I'm not an invalid. There's nothing wrong with me. I should pull my weight. I want to be able to do something."

"You think you don't do anything?" Tifa stared at her in open amazement.

"Don't twist my words around."

"I'm not."

"Yes you are."

"Aerith, I never thought I'd say this, but you're acting like a child."

"I am n-!" Aerith caught herself. "I just hate being treated like I'm something that needs to be protected all the time."

"Don't you mean someone?"

"I mean what I said. It's bad enough that Cloud and Zack seem to think I'm made of glass. I thought you, at least, would understand."

"I'm not sure what I'm meant to be understanding here. You do so much already. I don't get how you can think you don't do anything."

"Domestic things."

"What?"

"I only do domestic things. That's me doing my part – I keep the apartment nice and I change diapers. I'm like … I'm like everybody's housewife!"

Tifa started to laugh.

"Don't laugh at me. I'm serious."

"I know you are. It's just … your face."

"What?"

"You're pouting!"

Aerith resisted the urge to roll her eyes. It really wouldn't help her cause. "I just want to be able to defend the people I care about," she murmured. "Is that so wrong?"

Tifa stopped laughing. She put her arm around Aerith's shoulder and gave her an awkward half-hug. "Not at all, but being able to defend them doesn't mean going looking for trouble. Aerith, you're our only hope if we get hurt in battle. What would've happened to Zack if you'd been unconscious from your own wounds? Or if you'd been busy fighting Heartless someplace else when he needed you. You have to face the fact that, as a healer, you have a responsibility the rest of us don't have, and part of that means keeping yourself in one piece, which means letting us do the dangerous stuff. It might feel like taking a backseat, but believe me, it's not. Your healing is crucial. We rely on you to be there when we need you. That's way more important than being able to throw a good punch."

It took a moment for Aerith to reply. "Although learning how to block a punch might be good idea." She leaned towards her friend, more grateful than ever that Tifa came to this world with them even as her words made something unpleasant, like the echo of cold fear, stir in Aerith's gut.

Tifa smiled, lifting her chin to balance it on the crown of Aerith's head. "Now that's idea I can get behind."

"Fancy that," Dr. Sweet whistles, dragging Aerith back into the present and another dash of that cold echo. "You'd better be dang careful about them Heartless, then – especially if you're gonna hang around with the rest of them heroes and put yourself in the line of fire. Like I said, you're a mighty fine nurse and I'd hate to have to train another one how to make my coffee just right." He winks and tugs both sides of the towel, as if acting out a full stop for the end of his sentence. "Look, I don't pretend to know much about magic, but I know when a person's scared of something, and girl, you got F-E-A-R wrote all across your face when that broken collarbone came in."

"I was just -"

"You'd best not be about to lie to me, girl. I told you when you started here I got five rules: no smoking, no drinking, no hanky-panky at the office, no trying to murder me in my bed and no lying to me. So what's about to come outta you mouth ain't gonna be no lie, right?"

Aerith sighs. "I'm not scared. I'm not!" she exclaims at his disbelieving look. Tifa's words resonate in her mind: You have to face the fact that, as a healer, you have a responsibility the rest of us don't have. Your healing is crucial. We rely on you to be there when we need you. The weight of that responsibility pulls her thoughts towards what-ifs that terrify her. She shoves them away. "I'm just being cautious. I need to learn more about what's happened to my powers before I start using them willy-nilly."

Dr. Sweet squints at her. "'Willy nilly'? What are you, an old biddy? Nobody uses words like 'willy-nilly' anymore. Next thing, you'll be telling me not to 'shilly-shally' or 'dilly-dally'. If you get all the way up to 'hey-nony-nonny' I may have to anaesthetise you for your own good."

A small laugh works its way out of her. It feels good.

Dr. Sweet believes in the power of laughter as medicine and beams at her for her response. "You're all worried about your friend, too, right?"

She nods. "Next time I may not be there to pull him back. That scares me. I know he can't go forever without using his sword, but part of me wants him to never use it again."

"Heartless don't come here as often as you seem to think. This was the biggest attack I ever done seen in these parts, and I've been here more years than I like to count. Traverse Town may have a lot of people in it from other worlds, but it ain't as much a giant refugee camp as you'd think. There are folk who've lived here since long before anybody ever heard of Heartless. You wouldn't know it now, but in the beginning there was a lot of resentment about folk from other worlds moving in on their patch, taking their jobs and living in their houses."

"Really?"

"Dang skippy." Dr. Sweet places a hand on Aerith's shoulder. It's comforting, even if it does feel like he could accidentally snap her collarbone like a twig. "Girl, you can't spend your whole life worrying about what might happen. You do that and you'll miss everything that's happening right now, then before you know it you'll be sucking your dinner through a straw and smacking kids off your porch with a cane. You want to end up that way? No, you don't. Concern is fine and dandy, but don't let it dictate how you live your life."

Aerith smiles and pats that back of his wide hand. "Thank you, Doctor. Do I have to pay for that advice?"

"Call it a freebie. Glad we got this out in the open. Now scat and go home to your family before they come after my hide for working you too hard."

She pauses for a moment, startled. Images of Zack, Cloud, Yuffie, Tifa and Kairi flitting across her brain. Yes, they are a family. It's a thought that has loitered in the back of her mind like a shy guest at a party, but hearing Dr. Sweet say the word makes it shuffle forwards to shake hands with her conscious mind. They're not just friends or people who live together anymore; they've been through too much and know each other too well.

"I thought I'd check in on Chicha on the way home," she says.

Dr. Sweet nods. "Good idea. She's about ready to drop that sprog any day now. Should be a simple birth. No breach, and all my scans indicate the baby's healthy. Can't say that llama won't be a hygiene concern when it comes to who's gonna be midwife, though."

"Kuzco cares about Chicha more than he lets on," Aerith says, remembering how he lashed out at Heartless with his hooves and tried to bite them with his blunt teeth when they threatened Chicha. He was obviously terrified and Aerith got the feeling there was a time when he wouldn't have thought twice about running away and leaving her.

"Just so long as he don't teach no baby how to chew grass or poop in the street."

Aerith pulls a face. "No! I have to talk to him, and now all I'll be able to think about is that!"

Dr. Sweet grins. "Glad to be of service."

 


 

Cloud is aghast. "But I can't use the Buster Sword!"

"Why not?" Zack asks reasonably.

"Because it's yours!"

"So?"

"But it's yours! You nearly burst a blood vessel when Yuffie tried to use it."

"Because she tried to run off with it in the middle of the night without permission. I'm giving you permission."

"But … I can't."

"Why are you so against learning how to use it?"

"Because …" Cloud averts his eyes and studies the pan of soup on the hob, moving the wooden spoon in continual circles. "Because…" he says again after a moment, but still can't finish his sentence.

Zack comes to stand beside him. Rather than stare at his friend and intimidate him, however, he fetches a breadboard and a loaf and begins slicing it up for dinner. It's always simpler fare when they're in charge, mainly because Aerith's been cooking for them for so long they have to look up the recipe for ice cubes. Recently, however, Tifa let them know that it's about time they stop assuming Aerith will do all the chores unless she asks them to do some.

"She's not a housewife," Tifa said as pointed them both at the kitchen and lay in wait with a broom for Yuffie.

"You already know how to use a sword," Zack points out now.

"Not that sword."

"You don't have to use the magic if that's what's worrying you."

"Zack, just look at it. It should be impossible with that tiny handle and huge blade. Just picking it up requires magic."

Zack concedes the point. Since his conversation with Leon he has thought hard about this and come to the decision that Cloud should learn how to use the Buster Sword in case Zack himself is ever injured in a fight. This also means teaching the sword that Cloud is to be trusted, since Zack is its chosen wielder and it's protective of him and their bond. It wouldn't do any good if Cloud tried to fight off a Heartless attack and the Buster Sword suddenly weighed its true amount. All of this leads up to the fact that Cloud should have a couple of sparring sessions with it, to brush up his reluctant swordsmanship as well as acquaint him with the weapon on a deeper level.

"I still think you should have a go," Zack insists, but Cloud shakes his head. "Why not?"

"Zack, I'm not a warrior. I'm a delivery boy and a chocobo nut. I learned some bits about how to fight while living with you and Aerith, and Yuffie's tried to teach me things since the day she moved in, but I don't have much talent for it."

A snort escapes Zack's nose. He hastily searches for a tissue to clean up the sticky mess that follows. "Ew, gross!"

"You sound like Yuffie."

"Be careful what you say. I'm the one with the breadknife and you only have a wooden spoon." Zack presses a tissue against his face and then shoves it up his sleeve. When he makes to pick up the knife, however, Cloud stops him.

"You need to wash your hands first."

"And now you sound like Aerith."

"So we're even."

Zack shoots him a sceptical look while running water over his hands. "You're wrong about having no talent. I've sparred with you before, remember?"

"And you beat me every single time."

"Not every time."

"Close enough. Seriously, Zack, if I hit anything it's more out of luck than because I'm aiming at it. Tifa taught me some hand-to-hand moves and I practically knocked myself out." A faint blush creeps into his cheeks at the memory, though whether at embarrassing himself or because it was Tifa he did it in front of is debatable.

Zack frowns. He was watching that time too, and he didn't think Cloud's skills were too shabby. "You don't give yourself enough credit."

Cloud waves a hand at him, not dismissive but shucking the praise like an uncomfortable shawl. "I'm not a fighter," he says again. "Plus, the Buster Sword will always be yours. You've had it since you were fourteen and sometimes it feels like it's your first love. I remember the way you used to get all googly-eyed over it, the way boys at school got googly-eyed over their girlfriends. I wouldn't feel right trying to use it."

Zack shakes his head. In the time it takes him to dry his hands and finish cutting the bread he explains about Leon's visit to Merlin's and his own subsequent conclusion that Cloud should learn how to use some weapons.

"This is a far cry from what you used to say," Cloud says at the end. "I remember you once told me I shouldn't learn how to fight. Now you're pushing me into it."

"I'm not pushing you -"

"So what would you call it?" He turns off the hob and clatters around getting bowls from cupboards.

Zack moves aside to let him pass. He pulls out a drawer to fetch what cutlery they need. Cloud scoots around him. the movements are so perfectly timed it's almost as if they've rehearsed them. "Okay, so maybe I am, but it's only because I want you to be able to defend yourself if anything happens to me -"

Cloud slams a bowl down hard on the table, breaking the rhythm with the finality of shattering glass. "Don't talk like that! Nothing's going to happen to you, so there's no reason for me to learn how to use your stupid sword!"

At once the truth dawns on Zack. Cloud isn't worried about what the Buster Sword's magic will do to himself, he's worried about what it will do to Zack if he starts training with it again. Cloud was really cut up about not being there when his friends needed him at José's party. Even more than the pain of that memory alone, however, Cloud is worried that by taking up Zack's sword and learning to fight he's tempting fate to take his friend away. what need would there be for Zack if the Buster Sword could be used by someone else? Cloud hasn't talked much about what happened that night, but Zack sees now that his own near-death experience has affected his friend more than Cloud is willing to admit.

"I'm not going to die on you," Zack says quietly.

Cloud's fingers grip the sides of the bowl so tight they're white at the tips. He's so awful at keeping his emotions hidden that it'd be laughable in different circumstances.

Zack moves closer to him, as though approaching a spooked animal: softly, softly, no sudden movements. "You learning to fight isn't asking for me to disappear."

"I know that." Cloud forces his muscles to unclench and runs a hand through his bangs, making them spikier. "I just … it sounds so corny when I say that I don't want to lose you, and what you're suggesting feels like you're preparing me for exactly that."

"That's not the reason. I just don't want you to be left defenceless in a bad situation. The Buster Sword is a dependable weapon, but only if you're used to it and it's used to you. I'm its chosen wielder, so it's different for me. You think I want to lose you? You're my best friend, Cloud. That means I don't want to take any chances with your safety, especially not here and now, when Heartless are a very real, very dangerous risk."

Cloud says nothing for several seconds. Zack can hear the soup, bubbling faintly on the afterglow of the hob's flame, and the faint sound of voices from outside. The girls will be back soon, and they'll hungry for dinner. There will be no chance for he and Cloud to talk then. Aerith is the one who pulled him back from death and neither of them wants to remind her how close they all came to being separated.

"I was absolutely terrified out of my head," Cloud murmurs, not looking at Zack. "I wasn't there when you collapsed. I was running in the opposite direction like a coward and I didn't come back until after you'd been taken away."

"You were keeping Kairi safe," Zack starts to protest, but Cloud cuts him off.

"I had to learn about what'd happened from Leon. I didn't know where Chicha and Kuzco live, so I couldn't run as fast I wanted to find you guys. I had to ask directions when all I wanted was to be there already. I imagined you'd already died while I was on my way, like Tifa's mom did. I hated myself for not being there when you were hurt, even though there wasn't actually anything I could've done to help you. I probably would've gotten in the way, but I wanted to be there for you and Aerith and I wasn't."

"But I'm okay now," Zack says, equally softly. "And you were there when I woke up – you and Aerith both. That meant a lot to me."

Cloud says nothing, just stares at the pattern on the bowl like it can tell him the right thing to do.

"Cloud -"

"I promised Aerith we'd always be together, all three of us. When you were unconscious, she made me promise never to leave her. I promised for you, too."

"Good. I'd have made it myself if I hadn't been dozing."

"I never want to be running away when one of you needs me. Never again." Cloud sighs. "I guess I should learn how not to get myself killed in battle if I'm going to help keep all my promises."

Zack smiles. "Atta guy." Then to break the tension he wraps an arm around Cloud's neck and rubs his knuckles into his scalp. "But I get to noogie you for being so maudlin."

"Hey, no! Ow! Zack, no!" Cloud yelps, but he's laughing as well. "Quit it! I mean it, Zack Fair! Quit it right now or I'll put hotroot in your soup when you're not looking!"

"Just try it, chocobo-head. I have plenty more noogies where this came from."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 


 

Aerith is just packing up when Dr. Sweet enters. He's a large man, well-built and sturdy with it, with skin the colour of melted chocolate and a not a single hair on his scalp.

-- Doctor Joshua Strongbear Sweet is a character from Disney's 2001 film Atlantis – its 40th animated feature and the first to receive a PG rating from the MPAA for 'action violence' since The Black Cauldron in 1985. I always thought Sweet was the best character in the film, although when I went back, seven years after first seeing it, to re-watch Atlantis for this fic I fell in love with most of the cast. I think it's one of those films you appreciate as you get older. Try as I might, I couldn't find a good-sized picture of him that wasn't the ubiquitous poster, but you can get a pretty good gander at him alongside Milo, the main character, at disney. munkyisland. com/images/atlantis/sweet2. jpg

 

"'Willy nilly'? What are you, an old biddy? Nobody uses words like 'willy-nilly' anymore. Next thing, you'll be telling me not to 'shilly-shally' or 'dilly-dally'."

-- Side-fling to Tifa's line in Final Fantasy: Advent Children.

 

"If you get all the way up to 'hey-nony-nonny' I may have to anaesthetise you for your own good."

-- Side-fling to something Edmund says in Blackadder II – still one of the best British comedies ever made, in my opinion.

Chapter Text

"Now if you'll just hold still for me …" Aerith concentrates, keeping her eyes closed. She can feel the glow of her magic starting like a tingle in her toes, except it's outside her body. She has tried explaining the sensation, but it's difficult. The air in front of her suddenly feels like it's a part of her, and if she links together the dust motes in it she can use them as a bridge for her magic to slip along –

"What're you – no!" A high-pitched voice rises in sudden terror. "No, stop!"

Aerith opens her eyes and gasps. She was trying to heal her patient's broken collarbone, knitting together the fragments the way she has many times before. The body could've done it alone eventually, she just speeded things along. The bulging shoulder she sees now shows that she has speeded it up too much.

"What did you -" the patient starts, and then screams as the bulge rips and a crooked twist of bone thrusts out through the torn flesh, still growing. It trails cords of sinew. Aerith can hear tendons snapping like string pulled too tight.

She wants to throw up.

Still the bone grows, wrenching the rest of the body sideways as its sudden weight drags the rest down. Almost at once the other shoulder also swells and a second horrific bone rips free. There's a tearing noise as kneecaps give way, shooting forward in impossible curls, and the forehead explodes into bloody ridges. Cheekbones, elbows, ribs, pelvis – they curl and jut and extend until the body is more streaky red bone than flesh and the pained groaning has stopped.

Aerith backs away, hands at her mouth. She hits something behind her and whirls to see what it is. Her relief is tempered by guilt and remorse.

"I-I didn't mean to … I didn't …"

"You didn't realise your own strength," Leon says, but his face is melting into Dr. Sweet's. "You were only supposed to heal one break. You weren't supposed to kill him."

"My magic … it got away from me -"

"Fat lot of good that does him." The figure is smaller now, petite and wearing a distinctive yellow scarf. Yuffie gestures at the body, and even as she does so her hips fan and her face changes, becoming Tifa's beautiful soft features. "Isn't this what you were scared would happen?" The voice is Tifa's, but the tone is sharp and accusing. "You think you're dangerous. You think you'll do more harm than good." She grips Aerith's head and turns her to stare at the body.

Aerith shuts her eyes, unable to look at it. She's frightened that she'll recognise the face. What if it has changed into someone she loves, too? What if it's Zack under all those bony growths, or Cloud, or Kairi? "What if I can't stop my powers anymore? What if I do too much and I hurt someone?" She can feel tears slipping from under her closed lids.

Tifa's hands release her head, but others take their place. Their touch is rough and calloused against her skin. "You can cope."

"Zack?" Aerith opens her eyes, but it's Cloud's face she sees.

"We trust you," he says, using Zack's voice, her two boys together and supporting her, just like always. Blue gives way to violet and Zack shoots her his special everything-will-turn-out-okay-in-the-wash grin. "Do you trust us?" he asks in Cloud's slightly higher voice.

"It's not me you're asking to trust, it's this world and what it might do to my magic if I use it again -"

"Do you trust us?" he asks again, more insistently.

She stares at him. "You know I do."

"Then trust us when we say you can do it." He wraps her in a sudden hug, wiping her tears on his shoulder. He's warm and smells like her whole life – soap and feathers and antiseptic and motor oil, burnt toast and dust and flowers, plus that prickly taste in the back of her mouth when she smiles …

Aerith tumbles back into her own head and sits up in bed, gasping.

The room is dark. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust. When they do she instantly becomes aware of a warm weight next to her, huddled against her side. She looks down and is surprised to see Kairi. Her eyes are nearly luminous in the gloom, and for a moment Aerith could swear she sees something far too adult flicker behind them. Then it's gone and Kairi is patting her cheek with one fat little hand.

"You go sad," she says seriously. "Kiss."

Without really thinking about it, Aerith leans down for Kairi to plant a quick peck on her cheek. It happens all the time; Kairi is affectionate and loves giving hugs and kisses to anyone who'll have them. She's especially adept at finding the person in a room who's saddest and using her natural babyish charm to coax out a smile. So far only Leon's cheek (and thus his smile) has eluded her.

Kairi screws up her face. "Nasty – blech!"

There are salty tears on Aerith's cheeks. She wipes them away with the edge of the coverlet. "How did you get out of your crib?"

"Climbed," Kairi says proudly. "Good climber."

"You have to go back in."

"No, stay with Aeris." She always mispronounces the name. It's funny, as she doesn't have problems with all words containing a 'th' sound, but staunchly refuses to pronounce Aerith properly. "You sad. Kiss."

Aerith bends for another peck. Kairi takes the opportunity to enfold wrap her head and neck in an awkward hug.

"Stay."

Aerith knows she should insist, but Kairi is warm. The smell of her, redolent of shampoo and the barest hint of talcum powder, makes Aerith feel safe in ways she can't define. "All right." She pulls back the cover between her and Tifa for Kairi to climb in. "But this is a one-time thing."

Kairi snuggles down. She sleeps in a foetal position, head and knees curled towards her stomach, and nestles with her head pressed into Aerith's middle as Aerith lies on her side. One of Aerith's arms snakes protectively around the little girl, holding her close and feeling her breathing even out as she falls asleep.

Beyond Kairi, Aerith can see the rise and fall of Tifa's back. Tifa always sleeps facing away from the middle of the bed, though she's long since gotten used to platonically sharing it with Aerith. Aerith knows Yuffie is probably sprawled on the couch by now, snoring from whatever kept her out so late. The knowledge that she's out there is soothing; a part of the rhythm them fell into in Hollow Bastion that they've been able to bring with them.

"Bad dreams?"

Aerith is startled. She thought the Tifa was asleep. "Yes."

"Was it a Green Dream?"

Aerith thinks back and then stops herself. She wants the dreadful images to fade as quickly as possible. "No, just a normal nightmare."

"You get those?"

"You don't?"

Tifa rolls over. One side of her face is waffled from being pressed against the pillow. "What's up?" she whispers.

"Nothing."

"You don't get the kind of nightmares that make you cry in your sleep and then sit bolt upright over nothing."

"Just … thinking about my magic," Aerith admits sheepishly.

Tifa half-nods. "I thought so. You're worried."

"It is that obvious?"

"You flinch every time someone mentions it and go white whenever Zack and Cloud say they're going out to train with the Buster Sword. Plus you haven't used your powers in weeks."

"I …" Aerith can't think what to say. She's still tired and sleepy, but afterimages of her nightmare dance across the backs of her eyelids even when she blinks: the bulging shoulder, the pile of reddened bones, the feel of Zack-Cloud's arms around her … Well, okay, maybe that last part wasn't so bad. She'd like to hang onto that, but the rest makes her shiver. "I wish I could do more," she finally says, not sure whether she means more to get over her fears or more to help in other ways.

Tifa looks thoughtful. "You're not going to ask me to teach you how to fight again, are you?"

"You wouldn't agree."

"In the morning would you like to me go through those self-defence moves that I taught you?"

"Yes please." Maybe doing something physical will help ease the knot of tension that has taken up permanent residence in her tummy. Aerith also thinks she'll go down to her church tomorrow as well. Perhaps she'll take Kairi with her. Kairi likes playing hide and seek amongst the pews and is gentler than any regular toddler with the delicate flowers.

Aerith always feels calmed after a visit there. Nature is a third party in the vortex of human emotions and she can be sure nobody else will disturb them. Nobody seems to ever go there except her. She's drawn to the place, and not just because of the flowers. There are plenty of other flowers in Traverse Town – one of the major pluses it has over Hollow Bastion – but Aerith keeps gravitating back to the church. There's something there, something that beckons in the scorched brickwork and broken floorboards. Once or twice she has wondered what happened there to make it so dilapidated, but having answers and knowing other people have been there would spoil the illusion that it's her special, private place.

Tifa still looks thoughtful. "It'd be useful if we had more in our arsenal than just the Buster Sword and Yuffie's weapons. Maybe that would make you feel less antsy about Cloud and Zack throwing themselves into battle."

"We have Leon's gunblade."

"I guess, but that's … I don't know. I could … never mind."

"What?"

"Forget it. It was just an idea." She shakes her head and the lines on her forehead clear.

"What was?"

"It's not important. Listen, Aerith? Don't worry about your magic. Take all the time you need and speak to Merlin if you have to. He's a powerful wizard. Maybe he can give you some advice for how to cope with all this new energy you have." Tifa turns over to face the wall again. "There's no rush, and we're all here for you. We're a team now, remember? That means we can count on each other in a pinch."

Aerith stares at her back for a moment before settling down onto her own pillow. Kairi snuggles into her and Aerith breathes in the scent of her clean hair.

Not a team, she thinks drowsily, remembering Dr. Sweet's words. A family.

 


 

José and Panchito are finally leaving Traverse Town. Their original plan was to go the day after the party, but in the end they don't make tracks until over a month later. The weeks that make up the interim are mainly given over to helping clean up and make peace with those residents of the town who believe them responsible for the tragedy, and for helping the families of those who died. The group don't see much of the two birds in this time, but when word arrives that they plan to go in the morning, everyone is there at the edge of town as soon as the sun peeps over the horizon. Even Kairi is already awake and sitting on top of the covers, having once again climbed out of her crib, when Aerith opens her eyes. It's as if she, too, knows this is worth getting up for.

"We'll miss you."

José pokes Aerith in the stomach with the end of his umbrella. "Nenhum grito. No tears or needless unhappiness, menina bonita. We are not leaving forever. You will see us again."

"¿Por qué hace usted toda la mirada tan triste?" Panchito asks. At their blank looks he translates, "Why do you all wear such sad faces? We are embarking on a new stage of our lives. You should be happy for us."

"We are," Tifa replies as he enthusiastically pumps her arm up and down.

"Then show it. Smile. Show your teeth. Act happy." He grabs José and pulls him close for a mock-pose. "Commit us to memory as we are – vibrant and filled with the promise of bigger and better things. You are all too gloomy – except for you, little one." He breaks off to tickle Kairi into a giggle-fit. "You have the correct attitude. You should all copy her smile whenever you can. It will extend your lifespan and prevent wrinkles."

Aerith wonders whether Madame Medusa would like that beauty tip. She came into Dr. Sweet's surgery last week, having heard that Aerith is a Healer, and demanded that Aerith make her turkey neck disappear. When Aerith explained she couldn't do that because it wasn't technically an injury the woman took up her usual shriek, which summoned Dr. Sweet out of his office. After Aerith unfroze herself from the combination of Madame Medusa cuddling up to him and Dr. Sweet's scalded-cat expression, and the woman finally left, Aerith laughed and laughed until she felt like she might need stitches to sew herself back together.

The day is warm and the weather holds as Panchito climbs into their vehicle and starts it up. It's a kind of horseless carriage without wheels. Cid would probably know its proper name, but he isn't here. The blast from underneath kicks up dust and emits a sharp stench, like rotten eggs mixed with cigar smoke.

José lingers longer than his partner. Aerith is closest, and since Kairi has decided she wants to stand on her own next to Cloud Aerith's hands are free and José takes one. "Panchito is right, Aerith. You all need to smile more. There are reasons to be gloomy, but you have each other and you are all safe. This is enough, yes?"

"Oh José, I'm going to miss you."

"I will come back to visit once we are settled in Wander Harbour. It is only a few days away from here, and we will exchange stories and chitchat then, all right? We shall share some of your delightful butter-biscuits, which you shall of course bring with you; you shall compliment our new home; I will enquire as to what the Three Harpies have done to raise people's dander since our departure, and all shall be enjoyably gossipy, yes?"

His genteel kindness and mischievous eyes make her clasp his hand tight. Since the night of the party, when Panchito kissed him at Chicha's house, nobody has really talked about José himself. They've discussed the party and what happened there, and been over the upsurge in their powers, but the subject of José has been tucked out of the way and not touched upon in any great detail.

Apart from Yuffie, everyone grew up in Hollow Bastion, where boys married girls as soon as they were old enough and had bouncing babies nine months later. One boy for one girl, possibly through marriage interviews if normal routes reaped nothing. It was stuffy and sometimes businesslike, but it was the way things were. Marriage. Babies. Family life. Boys didn't go with boys, and girls didn't go with girls – not the way boys and girls went together. It just wasn't done, and even something as innocuous as too much physical contact was cause for ridicule until a comforting touch to the arm became a shoulder-punch to inject more masculinity into it. Likewise, girls who weren't married by childbearing age were an oddity. Aerith usually found herself on the end of disapproving stares because of her living arrangements – one of the few things about her home town she doesn't miss. The pettiness and closed-mindedness created a natural instinct in her to rebel against what Hollow Bastion thought of as normal, but this has clashed with some of the more deep-set conventions of her upbringing until this moment.

Even if he was human, Hollow Bastion would view José as an aberration. Yet he's not. He's still the José who was so nice to her and Cloud on their first morning in Traverse Town; who invited her out for tea and crumpets, and who showed her where to buy good quality fabric so she could make Kairi some new clothes. He hasn't become someone else just because she knows more about his personal life than before. That's reassuring in a way she can't really understand, and also makes her feel guilty for ever doubting him.

Evidently he understands her thoughts, or at least the parts that show in her face. He pats her elbow, feathers silky with the faintest hint of a prickle at the tips. "We do not fall in love with bodies, Aerith; we fall in love with people."

"What?"

"Never mind. Nenhum grito, remember? No tears or needless unhappiness."

José and Panchito leave amidst good feelings and warm wishes, the little knot of people watching until their vehicle is nearing the horizon. Traverse Town is like Hollow Bastion in that it's surrounded by harsh environment, but the bleakness is broken up by patches of green and the knowledge that no unusually bloodthirsty monsters lurk in it. Wildlife in this world is much more indifferent – some if it's dangerous, but if people don't bother them they're content to leave everyone alone. It's nice not to have to worry about a rouge chimera attacking José and Panchito, or Vetalas chasing them over the horizon, but Aerith still hasn't gotten over the little thrill of alarm that comes from looking out across a wasteland like this. Barren Region is a boogieman that will never completely go away.

"Bye-bye!" Kairi waves furiously. "Bye-bye! Bye-bye!"

"Do you think they'll be all right?" Tifa asks.

"Panchito spent a long time scoping out a safe place for them to go," Cloud replies. "Apparently it's a lot like their old world. I don't think he'd have come back to fetch José unless he was convinced they'd both be safe." A pensive expression circles his features like a dog herding unruly sheep into a pen.

"He cares about José a lot," Aerith agrees.

"Aw, sweet." Yuffie tips her head on one side and then spins on her heel. She marches back into town, arms swinging. "Right, now the mushy stuff's over, what are we having for dinner?"

"You really have to ask?" Tifa replies, taking slightly longer to break her gaze from the horizon.

"Not soy!"

"You know the alternative."

"But beans make me fart and there's nothing cute about farting in company. I'm kick-ass, not smelly or noisy-ass! C'mon, Teef, we gotta have something apart from beanfeast and soy."

"We have pumpkin."

"Oh, big whoop."

"Are you okay?" Zack draws close to Aerith, touching her elbow to let her know he's there.

She sighs. "I'm fine. I just don't like losing friends – for whatever reason. I know they'll come back, and we'll visit them in Wander Harbour, but it's not the same."

Zack nods.

"Bye-bye, José," Kairi enthuses, and turns her beaming smile on them. "Home now?"

Home. Traverse Town, not Hollow Bastion. Aerith takes a deep breath and pushes all her bad feelings aside. It's difficult to keep hold of them when Kairi smiles. Sometimes Aerith thinks Kairi must have magic in her smile – the power to wipe away the glooms like chalk off a board. "Yes. Home now."

"Cloud?" Zack pokes him in the ribs.

"Huh?" Cloud, a million miles away, startles. "What?"

"You do want to come home with us, right?" Zack asks teasingly. "Or are you happy trying out as Traverse Town's newest gargoyle. We can leave you here and your face can drive off intruders."

The insult takes a moment to register. "Hey!"

Zack laughs and dashes off a few steps, leaving Cloud to follow him. It's childish, but it's exactly what's needed to lighten the mood. Cloud had a face like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, but now he's back to his unpretentious smile. He has the capacity to look like all bucks stop with him and demand that he find a way to solve them, but smiles like he's a kid allowed to play in the dirt after a life of keeping clean. Trust Zack to be the cause for the switch.

Aerith watches them: her boys. She can't ever imagine one of them without the other, or herself without either of them. She will do whatever she can to keep them safe and in this happy little world they've made for themselves– even confront her fears about her magic.

"C'mon, Aerith!" Zack calls back. "Or do you want to be the gargoyle instead?"

"Slowpoke," Cloud adds.

"Be careful what you say to me," she warns. "I can do unspeakable things to your food." She grins at them both, takes up Kairi's hand and together they make their way home.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

Tifa stares at the boulder. It's a big one, easily twice her size and dense as … well, stone. She presses the palm of her hand against it. It's cool to the touch, since it's evening and the heat of the day has leeched out of the boulder into the dirt. She couldn't come out here until now and spent the day nursing the same bundle of ideas that have been stewing in her head for a while, but were only given proper form while talking to Aerith.

She centres herself like Master Zangan taught her. Before every lesson, even those where they did no actual fighting, he would make her find her centre and wrap herself in its cooling steadiness.

"Life is about balance, Tifa," he'd say until she felt like her ears might bleed from hearing it so much. "Yours and the rest of the world's. Without balance we pave the way for our own defeat. Nothing can survive without balance."

Tifa's centre is like a well-worn old shoe. She finds and slips into it easily, feeling the special calm of a warrior suffuse her. Emotions can be useful in battle, but she always returns to her centre if she really wants to win. Eyes still closed, she runs through the opening moves of her favourite warm-up sequence, limbering up her muscles and feeling out her own chi.

Like a lump of clay, chi is always hard and difficult to use at first, but softens and becomes more malleable the more it's handled. Tifa can sense hers like a small ball of blue-white flame around her heart, which she imagines spreading outwards into her limbs. Concentrating, she marshals it in specific directions and feels the energy move like iron filings following the path of a magnet. She has done this before, channelling it around her body to improve her manipulation, perfecting her fine control, but today she intends to experiment.

Her eyes snap open and she lets out a brutal yell, slamming one fist against the boulder. To anyone else it just looks like her punching a big rock, but Tifa can actually visualise the dancing flames of chi across her knuckles.

The boulder crumbles to dust.

Tifa has to leap backwards to avoid being hit by falling debris. She doesn't lose her focus, but she's a little surprised at the force of the strike. Usually a move like that would lay an opponent flat, but punching a hunk of rock would crush the bones, tendons and muscles in her hand to red pulp. Though it was what she was hoping for, it's still amazing to her that she can cause so much damage to a solid object with just one punch. She stares at her fist, unclenching her fingers and examining them. There are tiny cuts on her knuckles but otherwise she's perfectly fine.

"Wow." She raises her eyes to the pile of rubble. "Intense."

So she was right. Chi is linked to magic, and the magical field that has enhanced Zack and Aerith's powers can affect her too. The few times Master Zangan channeled his chi this way he was able to cause mini craters in the ground and shatter wooden blocks with just his little finger, but it left him so breathless that Tifa worried about his health. Master Zangan was not a young man, and his body was scarred from years of battles he didn't like to talk about – or else couldn't fully remember because of the enchantment from the castle. She can feel sweat trickling down her back but her iron self-control keeps her breathing steady.

She tries the trick another couple of times, not punching anything bigger than the first boulder or putting any more chi into her fists than feels comfortable. What happened to Zack weighs heavy on her mind, as do Aerith's worries about what might happen if they overexert their magic. Tifa isn't stupid. She doesn't want to end up the same way, especially when she didn't tell anyone she was coming out here. Since she has never tried this before she thought her friends might fret and try to stop her – or even if they didn't, that they might insist on coming with her, and she would've had an audience if she'd failed. Her pride got in the way of good sense, but since her theory has been proved correct she's sure – or at least hopes – they'll understand.

"This was very foolish of you."

She spins around in surprise. She was so intent on not letting this world's magical field influence her chi control that she didn't hear anyone approach.

Leon stands with arms folded, watching her with an indecipherable expression.

Tifa falters. This is the first time she has seen him properly since the incident in Cid's workshop, when he caught them talking about the mysterious Rinoa. The only contact she has had with Leon since then is to glimpse him going past their apartment to his own. She never sees him leaving, though he must. Sometimes it feels like sharing the building with a ghost.

There's never any noise from upstairs, as though Leon picks a spot as soon as he gets home and stays there until he goes out again, or climbs over furniture rather than touch the floor. The apartment Tifa shares is always boisterous, with Yuffie, Kairi and Zack all vying to be noisiest. Aerith can really yell as well, not to mention the ruckus that always fills the place when bangs pots and pans together while cooking. Tifa remembers from Hollow Bastion how Cloud can raise his voice, though he's not exactly prone to it. Leon, on the other hand, never so much as creaks a floorboard.

He stares at her now. She feels uncomfortable under the force of his eyes. Since they're blue it feels like the heaviness of an entire ocean is bearing down on her, and she realises she still feels guilty for prying into his privacy.

Coupled with this, however, is indignation at his tone. She draws herself up tall against it and demands, "What are you doing out here?"

"Watching you."

"Why?"

"It's a good thing I did. This could have gone badly wrong. You've nobody to help you if you got into trouble."

"I can handle wildlife, and Cid said bandits don't come around here much."

"That's not what I was talking about."

She knows what he is talking about. She's not sure why she's skirting the issue, except that Leon talks so little and part of her thought that maybe he'd go away if she used up his reserves of patience. "I didn't get into trouble. I was experimenting with my Zangan-Ryu chi control and it was a success."

"I can see that." He looks at the scattered piles of rubble. Dust hangs thick in the air, a pale brown pall settling over everything like soot from a freshly cleaned chimney. Tifa's arms and the front of her clothes are also covered in it. "I remember Master Zangan from when Hollow Bastion was Radiant Garden. He said chi is like a body's naturally generated spiritual and magical energy. You were lucky."

"He was a good teacher."

"I think you know that's not what I meant."

"I knew what I was doing."

He looks sharply at her. "No, you didn't. You thought you knew what you were doing and took a dangerous risk to prove yourself right."

Tifa opens her mouth to disagree, but she has to close it again. He's right. Irritation flickers within her. Leon has a natural capacity to ruffle feathers and, despite her guilt, she can feel her own feathers starting to fluff. She's proud of what she has learned, and even more at what she has achieved. This could be useful in fighting the Heartless, which Leon is usually all about, but for some reason he has decided that, on this occasion at least, being an ass is more important than his war. Tifa was hoping that the first person she told would be pleased and share in her satisfaction. Instead all she has is Leon's penetrating stare and an uneasy feeling in her gut.

"It paid off, didn't it?" she says sourly. "If I can learn more about how to control my chi this way I can use it to fight the Heartless more effectively."

Leon says nothing. She can't tell what's going on behind his eyes.

"A 'well done' would be nice." She's pouting. Why is she pouting? She gave up pouting when she was a kid! Why the hell is she starting up again now? If she weren't so irritated she'd be embarrassed. "You don't do the positive praise thing very well, do you?"

He grunts.

"Look, I'm sorry I asked Cid about Rinoa," Tifa blurts. "If you're mad at me because of that then I'm sorry. I just wanted to know why people keep mistaking me for her. I didn't mean for you to overhear."

Leon does something slightly too long to be a blink. "I'm not mad at you," he says evenly. "Not for that, at least."

"So you are mad? How can you tell? You basically have two expressions and there aren't any Heartless around to change this one into the other." Tifa could clap her hands over her mouth in shock at her own offensiveness. That sounds like something Yuffie is more likely to say. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that -"

"Yes you did. And for the record, I'm mad at you for putting yourself at such a stupid risk. You have a lot of people who care about you, yet you're willing to endanger yourself like this without a thought for how it might have affected them if things went wrong."

"I thought of them …" Memories surface of how careful everyone has been, how extra concerned with each other's welfare since José's party. The recollection of Cloud in particular rises in her mind like a corpse in a pond, as well as Aerith's shadowed, worried face. Tifa was trying to ease the pressure on everyone by giving them an extra weapon, but she was so intent on that part she neglected the part where they'd be worried about her. She flushes. "I only wanted to see if I was right about chi being affected by this world as much as their magic. I was just doing it so I can use my skills to keep everyone safe."

"Commendable but misguided."

Tifa is startled. Was that a compliment? From Leon? Granted, a backhanded one, but still – from Leon?

"How much did Cid tell you?" The question bullwhips into her and stings just as much.

Tifa flinches. She doesn't have to ask what about. "Not much. Mostly about how you got here and how he broke the spell keeping you frozen in that ice crystal." She wets her lips, which feel suddenly dried out and itchy. She doesn't know how much Leon overheard and how much she should tell to fill in the blanks. Leon always seems like he's punishing himself for something and suddenly she's afraid to know what for. "He also told me you and Rinoa were in love."

Leon doesn't flinch but he might as well have. He has obviously steeled himself for hearing that. "Anything else?"

"No, that's the point where you came in."

He drops his gaze and turns away from her, back towards town.

"Hey, wait -" Tifa tries to follow but her body has other ideas. She may not have gone out of control the way Zack did, or put on a spectacular lightshow like Aerith, but underneath her tightly controlled movements and even more tightly controlled chi her body is running on empty. The landscape whirls. She stumbles. "Urgh …"

She doesn't see Leon move. He's just suddenly there.

And she's in his arms.

Shock hits her first, closely followed by embarrassment. Nobody has ever picked her up like this before; like a damsel in distress who can't defend herself – not even Master Zangan. The touch of Leon's leather gloves under her knees and back burn like a branding iron, which would be only slightly cooler than her cheeks.

"Put me down."

"You can't walk."

"I can -"

"You're exhausted." He starts walking.

Tifa's blush increases tenfold. She doesn't want anyone to see her like this – especially Cloud. She's the strong, sassy one who can kick anybody's ass. This doesn't go with that image at all.

Now she's off her feet, however, her achy muscles make themselves known. Is this how Zack and Aerith felt the first time their powers surged? Ow. Having little other option, since she's not actually sure her legs would bear her if Leon does put her down, Tifa folds her arms across her midriff and her mouth begins to settle into another pout. She quickly forces this off her face. Honestly, she's getting worse than Yuffie – and isn't she going to have a field day if she spots Tifa arriving home like this? Just imagining Yuffie's reaction makes Tifa feel even more tired.

"You do look a lot like her."

"Huh?" Tifa stares up at Leon's chin. For a second her brain doesn't make the right connection. She looks nothing like Yuffie.

"Rinoa," Leon says without looking at her. She has a perfect view of his Adam's apple going up and down. "You have the same eye colour and hair – both dark and cut to approximately the same length. Your facial structures are very similar as well, but your nose is slightly longer and your jaw is squarer."

Her hand rises automatically to touch her face. A square jaw? Obviously Leon never learned the fine art of complimenting women. She's about to say something when he goes on, speaking quickly, as though ripping off a bandage that has stuck to a wound with crusted blood. It will hurt to remove it no matter whether you do it fast or slow, but slow will hurt for longer.

"She was very beautiful."

Tifa contends with this information as she might a new martial arts move – examining it from several different angles and anticipating what it means for her, before taking it into herself and making it a part of her mind.

Rinoa was very beautiful. Past tense. Also, she looks a lot like Rinoa. Tifa's cheeks colour. Being carried like this and getting roundabout compliments from Leon – Leon! – is both uncomfortable and flattering. The words carry more weight because he has never said anything like them before, but at the same time she's not sure how she's supposed to react to them. Nobody's ever sure how they're supposed to react to Leon anyway. Mostly they each come away feeling somehow incompetent – even Zack, who has sparred with him and proved they're pretty evenly matched. Just hearing the word 'beautiful' in Leon's rough baritone is bizarre.

"Were you very in love with her?" Tifa asks in a small voice, as though coaxing a shy animal out from behind a rock and trying not to scare it away.

"I was."

She can't ask what happened. The words stick in her throat. She wanted to know before, but now she doesn't. She overpoweringly and categorically does not want to know what happened to Rinoa, because it can't be a happy story, and Tifa wants the ability to get away under her own steam if she has to hear something awful. She may not like Leon in the traditional sense of enjoying his company, but she doesn't want a guided tour of his pain.

Unfortunately she has already opened this can of worms and they've wriggled too far to be scooped back in without squashing and murdering them.

"She died."

Just like that. Two words, but they answer as many questions as they inspire.

"Don't you want to know how?" No malice. Not even any curiosity. Leon's voice is flat and dispassionate, separating him from this terrible thing.

Nodding would be insensitive. Not to mention it'd be so creepy to want to know the details. Rinoa died and Leon … died inside, Tifa supposes, thinking back to what Cid said.

"He blames himself, the stupid fucktard. One of the smartest people I ever met, good head on his shoulders, but can't see past his own nose to appreciate the truth when it comes to that girl."

"She had magic. She was born with it inside her, but she didn't start learning how to use it until she was a teenager. It was part of her bloodline, she said, and developed during puberty. She didn't like a lot of it but there were parts she enjoyed. Mostly it scared her, so she preferred not to use it if there were alternatives."

"What kind of magic?"

"Shape-shifting. Some elemental abilities. Her mother was a sorceress and her father was a warlock. Apparently her mother's side could trace their lineage all the way back to some millennia-old race called Timbers, who were one of several pivotal races when most modern rules of magic were still being invented. She once told me she was conceived under a blood moon, which augmented the gifts from both parents when they were passed on to her, and females are naturally predisposed towards being the more magically potent in her family. Despite having all that power, however, she wanted to be accepted for the abilities she'd cultivated herself. She didn't want to rely on something she felt she hadn't earned, no matter how impressive She said she felt like she couldn't accept other people's respect if she didn't respect herself first. She was … exceptional." There's no mistaking the rusty pause when he says this; a tiny glitch in his rehearsed words.

This is all wrong. Tifa huddles in on herself.

"I'm making you uncomfortable."

"That's pretty perceptive."

"For someone with only two facial expressions?" It's deadpan, but it might almost be a joke.

She blinks. She … wasn't expecting that. Really, Leon just keeps surprising her today. "I said I was sorry for that -"

"Don't be." He stares straight ahead. "It sounds like something she'd say."

Uh-oh.

"She didn't use her magic for a long time after we woke up from the enchantment. It just never occurred to her. There was no need – Traverse Town was peaceful and we could live as normal people, once we realised we couldn't go back to Radiant Garden, and that there might not even be a Radiant Garden to go back to even if we could. We didn't know the final outcome of our battle against Ansem, since our memories were affected. Merlin wanted his privacy, so he split off from us. There weren't any Heartless attacks back then. We thought we'd left them behind along with everything else. We were wrong."

"Leon -"

"I don't know when her magic became acclimatised to this world, but it'd fallen into sync by the time the first attack came. We weren't ready. She called on her powers to fight them. It was far more powerful than she could handle." His throat convulses. "She died." Those two words again. They're spiked all over with thorns. Tifa can practically feel them pricking her own skin.

How many other people has Leon talked to about this? Not many, she'd wager. His fingertips press into her skin through his gloves and her clothes. His stare is a little too fixed and a little too blinkered. Leon always looks around him, eyes flicking left and right, scouting for danger even in his own apartment. Now he stares ahead as though he can drag their building to them to save him walking so far to reach it. His eyes are slightly hooded, shielding any emotion that might have leaked into them.

"I'm sorry," Tifa whispers.

"Why?"

"Because …"

"Because that's what you're supposed to say to something like that?"

"No. I'm sorry because it obviously caused you a lot of pain. I'm sorry you had to go through that. I lost my mom a few years ago and it hurt so much. I can relate to how you must've felt, losing someone you care about."

Leon glances down at her then, catching her unawares. His eyes are like chips of ice. She doesn't like the look in them because she can't put a name to it. It's hard and cold and burning and sorrowful and disbelieving and sceptical and angry, all at the same time. The jumble and depth of conflicting emotions is so out of place in his normally unreadable gaze that Tifa's breath catches in her throat. Above all it's a dangerous look because it shows that, under his veneer, Leon is bursting with feelings that might rip him wide open if he keeps them suppressed the way he does.

He walks all the way into town and has almost reached their building before either he or she speaks again.

"I thought you were her."

"What?"

"When you came to Traverse Town. I thought you were her, dead on the ground in the middle of the street. Once I got close I saw the differences, but that's why I was there when you came round."

"So it wasn't just you being a selfless hero?"

"I'm no hero."

Tifa's eyebrows angle downwards. "I think all the people you've saved from Heartless would disagree."

"I'm not a hero," he says again, flatly.

He stops. They've come to the chocobo shed and the apartment building looms in the poor light of encroaching evening. The chocobo itself comes to the window and peers at them, as if trying to figure out what the hell this creature with too many arms, legs and heads is.

Leon sets Tifa down. Her legs wobble uncontrollably and he makes to pick her up again to carry her up the stairs.

"I'm fine," she insists, pushing him away.

"No you're not." He catches her under her arms and levers her upright when her knees start to buckle. "It's safer if you travel on my back up the stairs. Here."

Carefully, he manoeuvres her around and crouches so she can cling to his back with her arms looped around his neck from behind. She could choke him in a hold like this, but there's precious little power in her arms. Rather than help, resting for the journey back seems to have sapped even more of her energy. It's leaving her like air from a punctured balloon. She feels like she couldn't go three rounds with a fruit fly right now – a comedown for someone who was smashing boulders into powder less than an hour ago.

"Tighten your grip."

"I'm trying."

"You should count yourself lucky this is all that happened to you. It could've been much worse."

"I know. Thanks for bringing me back."

He says nothing but stands up and she falls forward, hands gripping opposite elbows while trying not to cut off his windpipe. Her face is next to his ear and she can smell his hair and the skin of his throat – slightly musky with sweat and something reminiscent of Aerith after she returns from that abandoned church. Strong hands catch the backs of Tifa's knees and hitch them to waist height as Leon leans forward so she won't tumble backwards while they ascend the stairs. He lets out little puffs of air with each step, but he doesn't talk again until they're outside her front door.

"Thank you," she says again, leaning one shoulder and a hip against the wall. "I can take it from here."

"Don't ever do that again. Don't endanger yourself needlessly when you have so much to lose."

Tifa bites her lip. "I get it." She manages not to sound too much like a teenager being chewed out for being irresponsible.

Leon stares hard at her, eyes back to being unreadable. He leans forward to push hair from her face. It's jerky and sudden, and entirely too intimate based on the distance between them until today. It's even worse than being carried because that, t least, it was necessary. This is needless but deliberate. His fingers twitch like he's afraid he might hurt her.

Tifa turns her face away, conscious of the shadow lurking in her too-long nose and too-square jaw. "Leon, I'm not Rinoa," she says softly.

"I know that." Snappishness edges his tone like gilt. He straightens up and raps on the door, then turns and leaves without saying goodbye.

Tifa watches him go, confused and angry at herself, but also sad for him. When the door opens she smiles tiredly at Cloud and hopes it covers her uncertainty about all that's just happened. Everything feels slightly unreal, deadening her senses and wreathing her mind in the kind of fog that usually comes with waking or falling into a dream. She's aware of the scrape of wall against her skin, tearing a little at her elbow, and realises belatedly that her knees have buckled again. Only Cloud catching her and picking her up the way Leon just finished doing pulls her back into herself.

Cloud isn't wearing any gloves. She can feel the heat from his hands against the bare skin on the backs of her knees. This is the second time in her life she's had to be carried this way by a man, but this time … maybe she doesn't mind so much. Cloud's blue eyes aren't hard like ice, but warm and concerned. He's asking her what happened, except suddenly all she wants to do is sleep.

"Tifa? Tifa!"

Her eyes drift shut and, unable to fight them, Tifa drifts away.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs

 


 

"Apparently her mother's side could trace their lineage all the way back to some millennia-old race called Timbers."

-- The original Rinoa from FF8 was originally a member of a resistance group in a place called Timber.

 

She feels like she couldn't go three rounds with a fruit fly right now.

-- A riff off a line from Angel: The Series.

Chapter Text

"Is she okay?" Cloud hovers like a dragonfly searching for a perch, jittery and impatient.

Aerith opens her eyes and fixes him with a stare caught between mildly cross and very irritated. She never gets irritated with Cloud, so he drops back and leans against the wall for as long as it takes her to close her eyes and his fingers to start twitching again.

"She's lost a lot of energy," Aerith mutters, eyes still shut. Concentration rolls off her in waves. There's a large dose of tension in it, too. The room is so full of expectation that it's almost a smell in the air – one Cloud feels like he's choking on.

Above Tifa's bed a large blossom of light opens slowly, like it's trying to force itself through a hole much too tiny or it to fit through intact. It's as though Aerith is trying so hard to keep control of her magic that she's nearly stopped it entirely, but it gives Cloud the opportunity to marvel at the new turn her powers have taken. Aerith hasn't used her powers since José's party, so Cloud hasn't really appreciated the differences. It makes sense, he supposes, that her magic should take on the appearance of a flower. Whenever he thinks of Aerith he thinks of flowers – first the flowers in her mother's shop, and those she used to gather from Dark Forest when they were kids, and more recently the flowers that grow in the abandoned church in the centre of town. He wonders whether all people in her family were attracted to flowers, or whether their healing took on the form of whatever interested them most.

Pinpricks of light rain down from the petals. Tifa stirs slightly in her sleep, her face scrunching up as if in pain. Aerith's eyes snap open. "She … feels like Zack did when he nearly died," she says in shock.

Cloud frowns. "But Tifa can't use magic."

"Apparently," Aerith stares at her, open-mouthed, "she can. She never told me."

"She never told anyone," Cloud says, hearing something strange in Aerith's voice. After that bad business between the two girls over Aerith not telling Tifa about the true extent of her magic, he doesn't like to think what the repercussions might be from Tifa doing the same.

"Not even you?"

He shakes his head.

The bedroom door is open, so Zack doesn't knock when he strides in. The first indication they have of his presence is him standing between them looking thunderous. Moments later the bang of the front door hitting the wall resounds in the other room.

"Leon told me Tifa's been 'experimenting' with magic and her Zangan-Ryu, turning boulders to rubble outside town."

"You've seen Leon?" Aerith asks, not rising from her chair or moving her hands from her lap. She's facing away from Zack, pointed at the bed and her patient, and so has to twist her neck to look at him. "When?"

"Just now. He gave me a message for Tifa when she wakes up." Zack's usual cheer has been engulfed by jagged eyebrows and a worried glare. "He said 'You're allowed to tell them everything'."

"Everything about what?" Aerith wonders, looking back at Tifa and frowning.

"Everything … about her magic, probably," Cloud replies, also looking at Tifa. She looks smaller than usual, covers drawn up to her shoulders and face strained. There's a wrinkle between her eyes, as though horrible thoughts occupy her even at rest.

He was shocked when he found her in the hall and she fainted into his arms. If something was enough to leave Tifa like this it must've been pretty serious. Then again, if she really has been messing around with magic when she's not used to it, and in this world as well, with its strange but potent magical field … Sudden anger at her recklessness erupts inside him. He nearly lost Zack that way and has no wish to lose anybody else in the same fashion.

Especially Tifa? a little voice pipes up from the back of his mind – the one that used to encourage him to peep over the fence between their houses but also made him too tongue-tied to speak to her at school.

Cloud isn't in love with Tifa anymore – if, in fact, he ever really was. His feelings for her were as close to love as he has ever come, but they don't glow with the same white-hot intensity as they did when he was fifteen and full of more hormones than sense. Back then he convinced himself he was in love with her, and as nothing more than a naïve teenage boy from the rarefied atmosphere of Hollow Bastion, who was he to doubt the power of feelings so strong they made him walk out onto a rickety rope bridge and nearly plunge to his death just to impress her?

But nothing is as simple as Tifa's old romance novels would reduce it to, especially intrigues of the heart. Cloud is only just coming to realise for himself how many different types of love there are, but also how many different layers each of those types can have. He looks at her now and love stirs within him, but it's not the same one that struck whenever he looked at her in her short-skirted uniform, or saw her walking into town with Master Zangan or her parents. He wants to protect her and keep her safe, even though she could kick his ass six ways from Sunday. He wants her to be happy. He wants to see her smile and know it's genuine. To all intents and purposes, he does love her, but he isn't in love with her – not the way he always thought he would be if her father and the stigma surrounding his own family were no longer issues.

Tifa rouses, breaking Cloud from his reverie. He's crouching at her side in an instant, a swirl of mixed-up emotions flaring like fireflies taking flight around his gut. Aerith leans forward and Zack stands over them both as Cloud grasps one of Tifa's hands. The cuts and bruises from earlier are gone, though her palms are still calloused and rough to the touch. He suddenly remembers her telling him how Master Zangan presented her with a rough branch and, in order to strengthen her grip and her skin, used to make her twist her palms around it every day, as though giving it an arm-burn.

"Tifa?"

She blinks vaguely at him, still not quite awake. "Muh?"

"It's Cloud. Remember?"

"'Course I remember you. M' not brain-damaged, jus' tired…" She fades out again, eyelids drifting shut, and then snaps them open so fast Cloud can practically hear them hit the skin above the sockets. "OhmygoshCloud!" She focuses behind him. "And Aerith. And Zack. You're all … performing vigil at my bedside? Crap, how long was I out?"

"No Yuffie or Kairi, though," Cloud informs her. "They're at Chicha's. Apparently Kairi's the only one Kuzco has ever allowed to ride on his back."

"I …" Tifa fumbles for words. "I didn't say anything really embarrassing in my sleep while surrounded by so many witnesses, did I?"

"No," Aerith murmurs. "But an explanation would be nice."

"Leon left a message for you," Zack says tightly, obviously relieved Tifa is awake, but still angry. Zack doesn't do emotions by halves, so the two are at war in his face, each struggling for supremacy over the curve of his mouth. He relates the message word for word.

Tifa nods with her own peculiar relief. "You might want to pull up your own chairs," she says with a sigh. "This may take a while."

 


 

Aerith isn't sure how to feel about Tifa's news. She's thankful her friend hasn't been lying to her about having magic but hiding it, is cross with her for not telling anyone what she was up to, and feels sorry for her after the story of Rinoa. Mixed-up alongside all that is shame over her own hypocrisy. Aerith winces even to think about the first stab of emotion when she felt the familiar contours of the sickness that had damaged Zack mapped over Tifa's senses. How dare Aerith feel even slightly upset at the idea Tifa might have kept secrets from her after her own track record? The relief Aerith felt afterwards, when she learned this is the first time Tifa has ever tried using her chi this way, only intensifies her shame.

Tifa was embarrassed when telling them how she apparently resembles Rinoa so much, and how Leon reacted to that – though she became strangely cagey when she got to the part about arriving at their front door. Tifa claimed she was already half asleep by then and can't remember Leon leaving, but Aerith doesn't believe it.

Leon. This explains a lot about him – his reticence, his brusque compassion, the ferocity of his war against the Heartless. It also explains the décor and clothes in his apartment. Aerith has never thrown away the outfit he gave her when they first arrived in Traverse Town, though he refused to take it when she offered it, freshly washed and pressed, back to him. Aerith knows that even if she'd planned to, she'll never wear it again now.

"Poor guy," Zack says, all his anger having drained out of him. It is genetically impossible for Zack to hold a grudge. Even keeping bad feelings going for long is difficult when he has nothing to stoke his wrath. The story of Rinoa dumped cold water over his feelings, and now he sits at the kitchen table like a damp squib examining its soaked fuse.

Aerith places a plate in front of him. It's one of her ways of providing comfort. "Here," she says softly, pushing it towards him. "Eat."

Zack glances at the sandwich. Yuffie and Kairi are eating with Chicha and Kuzco, so dinner was always going to be a simple affair. Yuffie has developed a taste for Chicha's spicy cooking, and Chicha doesn't mind making extra, so Yuffie goes over as much as she can get away with. Chicha's invitation is open and extended to all of them. When she made it she confessed to Aerith that having multiple guests reminds her of the family she lost when her world was destroyed. She doesn't even mind when Yuffie and Kuzco bicker like little kids, and of course she has fallen for Kairi. With a new baby on the way Chicha has fallen harder than most, and the way she acts around Kairi is redolent of practised motherhood. Aerith has learned a lot from watching her.

"Why do I feel so weird about this?" Zack asks suddenly. "I didn't even know this Rinoa girl. I feel sorry for Leon – I'm not a complete jerk – but … I don't know." He pokes the sandwich and rests his cheek on his other fist. "I just feel weird. Like I'm supposed to do something."

"You can't do anything," Aerith replies. "It happened a long time ago."

"Not long enough for Leon to start being sociable again."

"I don't think he was all that sociable to begin with."

"I guess you're right," Zack concedes. "That was your first time using your powers since the party, wasn't it? Healing Tifa, I mean."

The question is sudden and catches Aerith off-guard. "Yes," she admits after a moment. "It was."

"You looked stressed."

"Really? I can't imagine why." Sarcasm sharpens her tone.

"It's been over -."

"I'm aware of how long it's been."

He levels a penetrating look at her. "You did great."

His encouragement falls a little flat, but still, the fact that he's trying warms her. "Like Leon said, we have to be careful and take things slowly. In a way it was lucky Tifa was only drained of energy. I knew what to do for that."

"That's good."

Zack's gaze slides to the bedroom door, closed now and with Tifa once again asleep on the other side. Cloud has gone to tend his chocobo, which he always does when he has troubling things to think about and wants to get his own head sorted before talking about them. In a way, bringing that bird along was the best thing for him – though Zack still refuses to get on it. He swears only an earth-shattering catastrophe would prompt him to ride a chocobo ever again. He's convinced this one in particular has taken against him, and watches him only to spot the best opportunity for maximum pecking-damage – completely not fair, he has asserted more than once, since Yuffie's the one always wheedling for a barbeque with complimentary yellow feather headdress.

"What are we doing?" Zack asks suddenly. "I mean really. What are we trying to do here?"

"What do you mean?" Aerith asks with a small frown. "You make it sound like we're on some sort of mission. We're not trying to do anything except live our lives as best we can."

"We said we'd stay in Traverse Town because we could protect Kairi here. Heartless can appear anywhere in this world, so no place is safer than the next, but it feels like we're just … surviving. Leon's war is personal. Yeah, it was awful what happened to him, but that doesn't mean we should become soldiers in his crusade."

"You're suggesting we leave?" Aerith says in complete surprise. Zack has never run away from a fight in his life, especially not one in which innocents could be hurt if he isn't there to defend them. For Zack, everything is built in at bone level – nobleness, pride, dreams, decency. They're integral parts of who he is that not even Angeal had to teach them to him; he just unearthed what was already there.

"No. Yes. I don't know." Zack scrubs at his face with both hands. "You guys are my top priority. I like Leon. He's a good guy. I like Cid and Merlin and Chicha and Kuzco – hell, I don't think there's anyone in this whole town I don't like, with the possible exception of Madame Medusa. Even so, keeping you guys safe is number one for me. It's always been number one and will always be number one."

"I don't understand what you're saying."

"Neither do I, if I'm being honest. I think what I'm getting at is that we're not really living, and we haven't been since we got here. We're just … hanging around waiting for the next disaster and filling in the spaces between with something like living. I'm tired of it. I want a proper life, Aerith. I don't want just a skeleton of one."

She sits down beside him. The admission is heartfelt and she doesn't want to say the wrong thing, but she has no idea what the right thing might be. "We're building a life for ourselves, but lives take time. They need time to grow and take root. We've only been here six months."

"Six long months."

"It's still not enough time to put down the kind of roots we had in Hollow Bastion."

Zack exhales noisily. "I guess homesickness comes in all shapes and sizes, huh?"

"Is that what this is?"

"…Partly. I think." He still looks troubled. It's clear to Aerith that there's far more bubbling beneath the surface than he's letting on. "I just have a bad feeling about the way we're going about things." Abruptly he shakes his head, picks up the sandwich and bites into it. "M' prolly jus' bein' shtupid. How long 'til Tifa c'n get up?"

"Sleep is the best remedy for her now." Aerith reaches out without even thinking to flick crumbs from the corner of his mouth. "Don't talk with your mouth full. I made the sandwich, but I don't want to wear it."

Zack swallows and drags a wrist absently across his lips. "Aren't you going to eat anything?"

"I'm not hungry."

Zack eyes her critically and pushes his plate in her direction, indicating the remaining sandwich. "You just used up a lot of energy healing her. You need to keep your strength up."

"Zack -"

"Did you poison this?"

"What? No!"

"Then what's the problem?"

Rolling her eyes at his style of arguing, she breaks off part of the sandwich and nibbles at it.

"I don't want to live my life based around the Heartless," Zack says, eyes distant. He's tried to break away from these troubling thoughts but apparently they're not ready to let go of him just yet. "I think that's the long and short of it. I want my life to be for me, not for them. They already take too much. They've already taken too much."

Aerith leans sideways against him, still nibbling her half of the sandwich and holding it with both hands. "That sounds reasonable."

"Not selfish?"

"It's not up to you or any of us to save everyone." A tiny thorn of doubt pricks her mind because she knows on some level, perhaps not even consciously, Zack will probably never see it that way. He's too much of a hero – a true hero, someone who's willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of others, and all his hopes and dreams for the happiness of those he cares about.

In his own way, Zack is even scarier than the Heartless.

"Sometimes," she says quietly, thinking about how much it took for her to sit down beside Tifa and summon her magic, frightened of what it could do to her friend if she got it even slightly wrong, "you have to save yourself before you're able to save anyone else."

 


 

Tifa wakes up with a sharp 'whuff' noise and a heavy pressure on her chest and stomach.

"Idiot."

Something latches around her neck like the world's biggest limpet. "Yuffie!" Tifa cries, half-hazy with sleep and blinking to clear her vision. "What the-"

"Shut up. Anything you say right now is totally going to make me want to hit you, and Aerith said I was only allowed in here if I promised not to."

Tifa is startled. Yuffie doesn't do hugs – not proper ones, and certainly she doesn't initiate them like this. This is almost … tender. It's like someone has put on her skin for a moment but doesn't know how to be Yuffie Kisaragi. Tifa freezes, not sure what to do next in case she spoils the moment. Eventually she raises her arms to return the hug, but the instant she does so Yuffie pulls away, returning to form by sliding down the bed and smirking up at Tifa.

"So you can use super-strength to smash rocks with your bare fists now?" There's devilish glee in her voice and her face is a study in approval with a touch of admiration.

A grin creeps unbidden to Tifa's lips. This is the reaction she was hoping for, not the disapproval everyone else seems to have treated her to when she was only trying to help. "Yeah."

"Coooool."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

 

"What's that?" Kairi asks, pointing to a pale yellow flower.

"That's a lily."

"Lily. Liiily. Lilllly." Kairi giggles. "Lily! What's that?"

"That's another lily."

"What's that?"

"Another lily. They're all lilies."

"Oh." Kairi looks around the church, searching for something. Eventually she finds it and points. "What's that?"

"Kairi, I already told you -"

"What's that?"

"That's a lily." Aerith gives up and just answers the questions as they come, until Kairi determines she has identified every flower in the patch and waddles to pick up the little plastic spade Cloud bought for her. It glints as she holds it in one pudgy fist. "I help you!"

Aerith smiles, drawing the little girl onto her lap when she comes close enough. Kairi wriggles, leaning forward to stab the spade into the soil. Aerith catches it before it can decapitate anything.

"Gentle," she chides.

"Huh?" Kairi twists awkwardly to look up at her.

"Gentle. Like this." Aerith takes her own trowel and lightly turns over the topsoil to aerate it. It was becoming too hard packed for the delicate roots, but the clods underneath are dark and rich with moisture.

Aerith has never been able to figure out how this soil is here, or how it stays so fresh when only a hole in the ceiling provides access for rainwater. She has decided not to think about it too much though. This is a place of quiet reflection, not hiving questions.

Kairi watches her hands with huge eyes. "I help you," she says again, and once more tries to stab the tip of her spade down without skill or finesse.

Aerith stops her again and pulls her hand back, restraining her squirming arm. "No, Kairi. Gentle. Remember?"

"Gentle?" Kairi looks nonplussed at the word.

"Yes, gentle. Like this." Aerith strokes her cheek with the back of one finger. "Ahh." She makes a soothing noise, like she used to when Kairi was troubled in sleep or weepy and she used to stroke her like this to comfort her. "Gentle. Geeentle. See?"

"Gentle." Kairi reaches up and clumsily strokes Aerith's cheek the same way. She catches the corner of one eye, making Aerith blink and tears flood into it, but Kairi's intentions are clear. "Ahhhhhhhh."

"Yes, now gentle with the flowers too."

"Gentle with flowers." Kairi looks thoughtful. She drops her spade and leans forward, stroking the back of one hand across the droopy petals of the nearest lily. "Ahh. Gentle. Ahh. See?"

Aerith can't help but chuckle. "Good."

Kairi beams and promptly slips off Aerith's lap to circle the edge of the flower patch, treating every lily she can reach to the same treatment. She knows not to try trampling into them to get to the middle ones.

As she bends back to aerating the soil, Aerith can hear her little voice piping, "Gentle. Gentle. Ahh."

When she can't hear it anymore, however, her head instinctively jerks up. She scans for the familiar red hair and pink dress. Kairi is the kind of little girl who suits pretty dresses, and Aerith, with her own affinity for skirts and skill at sewing, is only too happy to play at dressing her up.

"Kairi?"

No answer.

Aerith jumps to her feet. She has brought Kairi here before and taught her the safe places to go – the places where no rubble will fall on her, and there are no suspicious beams or crumbling stonework waiting to fall on her. Kairi is peculiarly good at remembering that sort of thing – perhaps a throwback to being threatened so many times by bad things. Or maybe it's some instinct buried deep within her. If Kairi is told something is dangerous she's fastidious about staying away from it – which once resulted in a tearful evening of trying to convince her the automatic can opener Cid gave Tifa wasn't going to hurt her, after Kairi heard Yuffie remark how it was 'a dangerous death trap and freaking ugly besides.'

"Kairi?"

A muffled reply is enough to ease the sudden clutch of fear in Aerith's stomach, but she can't figure out where Kairi could be to be so barely audible. She doesn't sound in pain or frightened. Aerith paces around, calling her name, tracking her location by the answering noises.

"Kairi?"

"Aeris!"

There! Aerith pulls back a faded red drape to reveal a door at the very back of the church. She drops to her knees and pulls at the pile of rubble in front it. Rather than the haphazard piles around the rest of the church, this one seems almost like it's been stacked here deliberately. The door itself is locked, but the hinges have recently come away and that side hangs open, allowing Aerith to peer into the dark room beyond. The gap is enough to admit a small body, but nowhere near large enough for Aerith to pass through until she tugs and the door squeals open wider in a flurry of wooden splinters. She squeezes through, feeling the edges scrape against her as though trying to hold her back.

"Kairi?"

Kairi shoots out of the gloom to wrap herself around Aerith's legs. She's absolutely fine. "Aeris! Look!"

Relief washes through Aerith. She bends to take Kairi by her shoulders, staring sternly into her face. "You must never wander off to where I can't see you. Do you understand? Never. I was worried."

Unperturbed, Kairi just keeps pointing behind her. "Look, Aeris! Look!"

Aerith raises her eyes. They're becoming adjusted to the dimness, lit only by the sliver from the doorway and a tiny hole in the ceiling. The hole casts a single, watery ray of sunshine into the middle of the floor. It's small room, possibly some kind of vestibule, with a floor of stone slabs and dark wood shelves along the sides that have been long since emptied of their books. It's actually in much better condition than the rest of the building, Aerith reflects – right before she spots what Kairi means and gasps.

Kairi grins. "Pretty fevvers." Her on-again off-gain lisp reappears. "Pretty, pretty fevvers."

There are so many feathers Aerith doesn't know where they could've all come from. They're all huge; all snow white, and gathered together on top of …of …

"Oh my -" Aerith picks Kairi up and backs towards the door.

"No! Pretty fevvers!" Kairi protests, struggling to get down and add to the handful she's already clutching. She must have gathered them while Aerith was searching for her. "Want fevvers!"

"No, Kairi." Aerith's throat feels smaller than it did when she came in. There's a name, carved in the stone by the tip of something sharp and metal, below the carefully arranged pile of feathers that Kairi has dislodged. "We have to go now."

"No -"

"Yes."

 


 

"Rinoa's grave?"

"It was more of a … crypt."

Yuffie's eyes widen. "Cool."

"Yuffie," Aerith says sharply. "It is not cool."

"Yes it is. If Teef hadn't already found all this out, you would've totally solved the mystery of where this Rinoa chick is. Unfortunately you're a day late and a munny short. Them's the breaks, Ponytail."

Aerith wraps her hands around her cup of tea. Tifa made it, and it's just as sweet and pleasant as Cid's best batch. "Someone had been tending it. They'd put all these white feathers on top, like a wreath of flowers."

"I suppose feathers wouldn't wilt and die like flowers," Cloud reflects. "Do you think it was Leon?"

"Or Merlin," Zack interjects. "Or even Cid. They were closest to her, after all."

Tifa frowns. "Cid would've told me when he chewed me out about experimenting with my chi. He knows I'm interested in Rinoa after what Leon said about me looking like her. Merlin … I don't know about him, but Leon wouldn't so something so sensitive," she says decisively. "He's not the sensitive type."

"Do you really think so?" Yuffie does a passable job of keeping her voice blasé, but nobody's fooled.

"Yes," Tifa replies, but somehow Aerith doesn't believe her either.

"But Leon did keep Rinoa's clothes," Cloud points out, and nobody can think what to say about this uncharacteristic bit of behaviour.

Aerith drains her teacup and sets it in its saucer. Then she stands up decisively. "I'm going back. I was a little shocked the first time, and I wanted to bring Kairi home, but I want to see it properly."

"Why?" Zack asks.

"Because I have a feeling it's important."

"We already know what happened to her," says Tifa. "What more can you learn from looking at where she's buried?"

"I don't know, but I still want a better look at it." Aerith wonders if she should tell them about the strange pull working at her, drawing her back to that little vestibule. It's like a half-lidded memory; a song lyric, book title or name of a plant teetering just out of reach in her mind. There's something there she knows she needs to see, and she wants to know what it is.

"I'll come too." Yuffie propels herself off her perch on the back of the sofa and stretches until her spine pops. "Things have been mega quiet lately. I could use something to take up my attention before it wanders away and does something stupid without me. I've never been to your church, Ponytail. I'll bet you've been storing all sorts of cool crap in there – apart from the dead bodies of old girlfriends, of course." She looks around at their appalled faces. "What?"

"Don't pull your punches, Yuffie," Zack says with a wince.

"I never do." It's unclear whether she just missed the sarcasm or is pretending not to have registered it.

"I'm coming with you." Unexpectedly, Cloud also rises. He has barely touched his tea, but doesn't seem to notice the flash of hurt on Tifa's face when she glances at his brimming cup. He's too focussed on Aerith and Yuffie.

"Why?" Yuffie wants to know. "Not that I'm complaining about having you around, you big hunk of man flesh, you. Sizzle! You get cuter every day, Cloudy, and I noticed the other week that when you smile you get dimples. Do you understand exactly how attractive a man with dimples can be? I just didn't realise ogling crypts and graves and mausoleums was your kind of thing. Are you hiding some actual kinks in that innocent head of yours?"

"I thought you could perhaps use the company."

Aerith is grateful to him. Yes, she feels she needs to go back and look again, but she doesn't really want to do it alone. Having both Cloud and Yuffie there will make the whole experience less creepy.

"Thank you."

"Hero, you're on babysitting duty." Yuffie points an imperious finger at Zack, then jabs it at Tifa. "Teef, you're on babysitting duty for the babysitter. I left a slice of pie for later. Don't let him eat it."

 


 

"Wow, I could get some brilliant swing going from those chandeliers." Yuffie whistles, admiring the church's vaulted ceiling. "And those statues would be great to practise my tumbling. Why've I never been here before? This is a major oversight."

Aerith brushes past her, heading straight for the hidden doorway. "It's this way." Cloud is right behind her, with Yuffie following them, eyes still everywhere but the way in front of her. "Don't step on the flowers."

It quickly becomes apparent that Cloud isn't going to fit through the gap. The three of them work at widening it for a few minutes, until the lock snaps and the whole door swings crazily outward. They catch it before it can flatten them and prop it against the wall.

There's now far more light to see by. The feathers seem to shine in it. Aerith can now see that they're not as clean as she first thought; they're old and one or two are blackened around the edges, almost as if they've been burned.

Why would someone put  burned  feathers here?

"That's it?" Yuffie isn't impressed. "I was expecting something showier." She trundles around and then hunkers down beside the stone rectangle. It's the determined grey of a thundery sky, barely as high as her knees and long enough for her to lie on without her feet jutting over the end. "What are we looking for?"

"Aerith?" Cloud looks expectantly at her.

Aerith can't answer, mainly because she doesn't know. At the apartment the urge to come back was irresistible, but standing here now she feels silly and a little weird for making a second visit to a dead body – to this dead body. She didn't know Rinoa. She barely knows anything about her, just that she came from Hollow Bastion when it was still Radiant Garden, that she and Leon were once in love and that she died tragically because of her own magic.

Maybe that's the real reason she wanted to come back – not because of any persuasive force, but because she wanted to remind herself of what could happen if she isn't careful with her powers. Looking at the humble marker, Aerith feels suddenly close to this dead girl she never knew. Like her, Rinoa also grew up with her powers and tried to use them for good, even though she was frightened and unsure of them. Like her, Rinoa was expelled from her own world and left to try and survive in this one. And like her, Rinoa was expelled alongside people who were dear to her. However, unlike Aerith, Rinoa's story didn't have a happy ending.

So is this marker a warning? Was she meant to find it?

"Aerith?" Cloud gently shakes her shoulder.

"Hm?"

"You were spacing out." Yuffie peers up into Aerith's face, startling her with her proximity. "Anything interesting going on that head of yours, or did you just tie your ribbon too tight?"

Aerith is prevented from answering by a sharp hiss from behind them. They all turn to see a silhouette framed in the open doorway.

"What are you doing in here?" Leon demands. His fists are clenched. His voice coils around a snarl. He sounds like when he's discussing Heartless, but with an extra jagged edge that slices into the suddenly tense atmosphere and leaves it to bleed out.

Guilt suffuses Aerith, as does the sensation that they're trespassing. "We found it by accident. We didn't know what it was at first -"

Leon's gaze flicks to the disturbed feathers. "Get out."

"Hey, we weren't -" Yuffie starts, but he cuts her off, voice low and menacing.

"I said get out."

"All right." Cloud steps in to play mediator. "We'll leave. There's no need to get wound up."

Aerith is glad of Cloud's reassuring bulk. Leon is far more intimidating than she would've thought possible, given his recent openness with Tifa. There's no trace of that side to him now, just barely suppressed rage burning in his eyes. He takes a step into the room, forcing them to either go around him or back further into it, towards the burial marker.

"Go."

Something flickers in the depths of Aerith's mind. She blinks, distracted, and trips over a chunk of rock. Trying to keep her balance, she ends up toppling forward. She throws her hands out in front of her and falls against Leon. He shoves her off him. He isn't gentle, although Cloud catches her before she can hit the shelves.

"Hey," Cloud says indignantly. "There's no need for that."

"You shouldn't even be here," Leon spits, advancing as if to check they haven't damaged anything. "This is private." He pushes past both Cloud and Aerith, his entire back so tense it's a wonder his muscles haven't cracked open his ribcage like a ripe fruit. His shoulder catches Cloud, propelling him backwards a couple of steps. It's entirely unlike Leon, who can carry a giant gunblade on his shoulder through an apartment full of people and furniture without hitting a thing.

"Hey!" Cloud says again. "Watch it."

It only takes one spark to light a fuse. Leon, possessed of some strange mix of grief and anger and … something else, but Aerith isn't certain what it is yet, turns and socks Cloud in the jaw. There's no warning. There's no reason. Aerith lets out a startled cry as Cloud's head ratchets back like his neck is about to snap.

However, rather than fall down, the punch only rocks Cloud back on his heels. He rocks forward again and brings his own fist up in an equally unusual act of violence. Leon ducks, avoiding the punch, and lands a second one of his own in Cloud's stomach. Air whooshes out of Cloud's mouth, but his knee comes up just as fast to crash into Leon's chin. Leon pitches backwards, sets his feet and abandons all finesse. He throws himself at Cloud, wrestling him to the ground like a wild animal bringing down prey. It's as if by stepping into this room the layers of Leon's self-discipline have been stripped away, leaving him a seething mass of raw, unpredictable emotion.

"Stop!" Aerith yelps. "Cloud, Leon, stop this right now!"

"You heard the lady, boys." Yuffie bounds into the fray, or at least she tries to, but they're too close and thrust her away again, hands fisted in each others' shirt-fronts.

"Cloud, stop it!" Aerith shouts, since there's more chance he'll listen to her. "Don't fight him. Cloud, stop, this isn't like you!"

Leon's expression frightens her. He hasn't brought out his gunblade, but that's not to say he won't. Until now she never would've said he and Cloud could be in a fistfight, let alone such a dirty one, so all bets are off.

They swivel around and Aerith's cries die on her lips. Cloud's face is just as frightening, but for an entirely different reason. While Leon's is creased up with sudden, uncontrollable emotion, Cloud's brow has smoothed and his expression is blank. It's as though someone has punctured the swollen balloon of his heart and there isn't enough pressure left for any feelings to rise into his face. He looks alien, like a stranger.

He catches Leon's fist in his palm, twisting the whole arm around until Leon gives a yelp of pain. Even this doesn't summon anything to Cloud's face except a slight frown of effort when Leon yanks out of his grip, clutching his wrenched elbow. Leon lashes out with a side kick to Cloud's solar plexus, slamming him against the wall. Cloud responds by grabbing Leon's foot and yanking it towards him. Leon's balance is broken. He hop-skips onto Cloud's waiting fist. The crunch of bone heralds a spurt of blood from his nose as it breaks.

The sight of Leon's blood spurs Yuffie to act with more dynamism. The room isn't big at all, but there's enough space for her to run at the opposite wall and takes a few steps up it. She uses the momentum to flip backwards and land exactly between the two men like a nail sliding into a pre-drilled hole. Sticking out her hands, she grabs a handful of each shirt and shoves both Cloud and Leon backwards to arm's length.

"Time! Out!"

"You shouldn't be here," Leon spits, mumbling through the snot and blood flowing down his throat. He coughs, still glaring, scarcely resembling the Leon they know.

"Back off," Yuffie snaps at them both. "I'm all for watching you two get sweaty and grapply, but actually kicking the shit out of each other? Not in the game plan. Now back off, shut up and calm the hell down."

Leon coughs some more. It's a wet, gurgly noise that brings up a lot of bloody phlegm. Aerith instinctively moves towards him, wanting to heal his painful nose. Yuffie releases his shirt and Leon bends double, apparently choking, bracing his hands on his thighs. He's not looking at her, so Aerith touches him to let him know she's there before releasing her power on him.

However, the moment her fingers get within touching distance some instinct of Leon's kicks in and he whips upright. He knocks her away from him. It's not a punch, his fingers aren't even curled into a fist; in fact it seems more reflex than anything, but there's still enough force behind it to propel her into the wooden shelves. She glimpses his sudden dismay as she yelps, the sound of a female voice raised in pain bringing him out of his irrational fury faster than all the punches in the world.

Not so Cloud. When Aerith cries out he surges forward, possessed of something terrible. Despite all his protests that his hand-to-hand skills are dreadful, he twists out of Yuffie's grasp, ducks past her and strikes Leon in the face with the heel of his hand, shoving upwards and forcing Leon's head so far back there's no way he can keep his balance. Cloud follows this with a savage backhand that completes Leon's journey to the floor – and sends his skull crashing into the corner of the stone block.

"Leon!" Yuffie rushes to his side as he lays, unmoving, where he fell. There's a rapidly spreading pool of blood under his head and what looks like a piece of scalp caught on Rinoa's marker.

Aerith, pulling herself upright, stares aghast at the scene. The whole thing has taken less than three minutes. Cloud is breathing hard and stares, bits of himself trickling back into his expression like jelly finding the tiny crevices in a mould. He looks in horror at his hands, at Leon, and then at her, as though he can't believe what he's just done.

"I – I –"

"Ponytail," Yuffie says urgently, "get over here, quick. He's bleeding. He's bleeding a whole bunch and … shit. Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshittyshittums -"

Aerith scuttles over. Yuffie never overreacts. She's genetically incapable of it. Her unusual panic infects Aerith, making her magic snake out before she's truly ready. The magic finds the gash on the back of Leon's head and links her to him when she's still halfway across the room and can't even see the cut with her eyes.

White light blossoms above him. It erupts like a mini sun, but there's something wrong. It's too much. It doesn't open smoothly like it should. The edges of the upside-down flower ripple and change from white to yellow to pinkish red. It half opens, closes again, and then splays wider than ever before. Aerith's worst fears come true, as power gushes out of her like a broken water pipe.

There wasn't time to prepare herself, she's not set, it's too much – too much! Her eyes widen and her mouth forms an 'o' of alarm as she tries to stop the tide of power. She feels like she's connected to everything, can see bolts of energy between her and the floor, the ceiling, Yuffie, Cloud and everyone beyond this building as well. The connections are latent now, but she can still feel them, ready to be used if her friends and family ever need her. Those links will be able to channel devastating energy that will stir their organs to cook from the inside out, stimulate them to swell and fix what isn't broken, over and over, until bones crack and can no longer contain their insides if she doesn't stop the raw magic from going every direction at once. Magic wrapped in emotion, wrapped in even more magic; all of it streams from her into Leon, sparking his cells to regenerate and fix the devastating wound that will surely kill him if she doesn't do something –

Help, she thinks. I can't do this. It's going wrong. He's gong to die. I'm going to kill him.

It's like a password, but she won't realise this until later. In that moment Aerith's magic connects with something long-dormant and everything explodes in a wash of colour.

Images streak past her like sleet; but, like sleet, some of them stick. She sees the interior of the church, unbroken. She sees someone like Leon, but younger, hair cut short and no scar on his face. He's turning, murmuring something she can't hear, smiling at her. She sees yellow eyes under the pews. She sees dozens of soft black explosions. She sees his face again, but this time through eyes she knows are black all over, as though they're all pupil. She sees a detonation of light, a splash of red, the stripe of tears down sooty cheeks as he shakes his head. She sees a burst of white feathers like a bird being shot out of the sky and feels a sudden, heavy pain in the centre of her chest.

She feels her mouth forming words she never said –, please, please, oh gods, please help me, before it's too late, you've got to help me, you've got to – just like she feels pain welling in her veins as they threaten to split open to let the power out faster. She smells the musty odour of dusted Heartless, like old attics and mothballs. She tastes unrefined magic leaking from under her fingernails as they peel back and bleed sparks. She feels her own dripping blood become scales, talons, fins, and then give way to raw bone, all her flesh incinerated. She feels raw energy sear into the church's walls and floor and ceiling, changing and destroying and morphing. Beams crash and become twisting vines. Tiles skitter off the roof but twist into smoke before the hit the ground. Wooden floorboards become soil. Raw magic crackles along her skin until her ribcage feels like it's caving in under the pressure.

"Help … me …"

Cool green light floods Aerith's thoughts, dragging her back from the images.

"… Not your memories … different bloodline, rival people, they have their own magic … you are not one of them, you are not for their mysteries, you are one of us … you are Cetra, not Timber … come back to yourself, little one, come back with us to the body our bloodline gave you … we will not let that one's memories take you, the last, the only, our sole heir … "

The green light recalls and reclaims her like a thousand clasping hands. A thousand layered voices call to her, warm and sure and achingly familiar. Aerith allows them to pull her back, allows them to wrap around her and push her consciousness back into her own head.

"Ponytail!"

"Aerith, no!"

Aerith feels herself falling as if from far away. She's aware of Leon's warm chest against her cheek, and her head lifting slightly as he takes a shuddery breath, and then … nothing.

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

Everything feels like a dream to Cloud. He can't quite believe what's happening. Even more, he can't really believe what he's done. It all feels too unreal.

"What were you thinkin'?" Dr. Sweet bends over Leon but talks to Cloud. Anxiety and anger sharpen his usually mild accent. "You realise a couple millimetres more and he coulda had nasal bone fragments in his brain? Aerith's good, but ain't no healin' gonna be fast enough to stop a person dyin' from that. He woulda been dead before he hit the floor!"

At the mention of her name Cloud glances at Aerith, apparently asleep except to those who know better. Her crinkled forehead and deathly paleness make Cloud's stomach sink even further.

"I wasn't …" He fumbles for words that won't come. "I couldn't help …"

He can't explain what was going through his mind when he fought with Leon. It was like some icy blanket descended over his senses, starting in the centre of his chest and his brain, rippling outwards until he was taking damage without registering it, making moves he didn't even know he knew, and doing things he never thought himself capable of. He only snapped out of it when it was too late and everything was already going to hell faster than he could stop.

He remembers Leon's nose being suddenly, miraculously fixed, and whatever other damage Cloud had also done to him also healed by Aerith before she slumped like she'd taken it into herself and it was killing her instead. Cloud remembers the different sort of cold that suffused him then – the cold of fear that froze him in place until Yuffie told him to make himself useful and stop Ponytail compressing Leon's freaking chest, damn it. Then Yuffie was gone, vaulting over pews and across rooftops to fetch Dr. Sweet while Cloud held Aerith in his arms, pleaded uselessly with her to wake up and apologised in garbled half-sentences to Leon's prone form.

"I wasn't … myself," Cloud says. It's not the right answer but it's all he can come up with.

Dr. Sweet looks hard at him before turning back to his two patients.

Cloud has never met the man before this. He only knows the doctor from what Aerith has told him. According to her, Dr. Sweet is pleasant and competent, with a sense of humour that borders on cruelty and a penchant for coffee so strong it's like an oil slick. Cloud can see his competency in the way he moves between Aerith and Leon without once having to stop and think what to do next. His hands are steady and work with reassuring confidence – unlike Cloud's own, which feel like they will never stop trembling.

What came over him? Why did he go off the deep end like that? And how did he not only fight but beat Leon?

"You done starin', bucko?"

Cloud blinks back to reality. "Bucko?"

"Seems to me like he's fine, just nappin'." Dr. Sweet nods at Leon. "Aerith done healed any little thing wrong with him. Clever girl, though I'd still like to get him back to my surgery for a more thorough examination. Aerith's sufferin' from acute exhaustion, so for definite she's comin' with. She needs a saline drip at the very least."

"She's just … tired?"

"'Tired' would be the pansy way of puttin' it, and there ain't no 'just' about it. Girl's runnin' emptier than a gas tank in the middle of a desert with no map, no oil, no end of buzzards and no oasis for miles."

"Uh … what?"

"Never mind." Dr. Sweet scoops Aerith into his arms and looks expectantly at Cloud. "Well?"

Cloud realises what he's waiting for and recoils. After beating him so soundly, he now has no desire to even touch Leon. At all. Leon may be 'just napping', but he's still pale and smeared with his own blood. It has all dried into browny-black clumps, giving his face the impression of a corpse. Resting so close to Rinoa's grave only completes the image. Cloud shivers.

"We ain't got all day, bucko; or don't you care about her?" It's a low blow, but it works. Apparently Dr. Sweet isn't above emotional blackmail.

Cloud awkwardly hauls Leon up off the floor, slinging one arm over his own shoulders and grabbing his waist to steady him. He takes a few steps before realising this isn't going to work and pulls Leon up further into an even more awkward fireman's lift. "Ngh. Ready."

Dr. Sweet raises an eyebrow but says nothing. Together they leave the church without looking back at the sad pile of feathers that scatter in the draught of their passing.

 


 

Zack pounds through the streets without seeing anything. His mind thrums with a single manic intent. If anything is foolish enough to get in his way right now it's likely to find itself either run over or on the business end of the Buster Sword. Heartless, monsters, grandmothers bearing trays of cookies, a plague of vampiric winged monkeys – nothing could stop him from getting to Dr. Sweet's surgery.

He had Kairi in his arms when Yuffie burst through the front door, panting and gabbling even faster than usual. In amongst the run-on sentences and typical Yuffie-ish digressions he gleaned enough to make his blood turn to concrete in his veins.

"… bad shit went down and there was yelling and Cloudy and Leon had a fistfight, only Cloudy was weirder than Weirdy McWeirdo, a real nutjob episode, and Leon got injured and Ponytail collapsed while she was healing him from, like, this majormajormjor head wound, and there's was blood, like, every-freaking-where, and I think he might be okay now, but she's hurt bad, Hero, and we don't know what's wrong with her because there aren't any marks, but she won't wake up …"

After that things get a bit hazy. He recalls thrusting Kairi at Tifa and dashing out after Yuffie. The pair found nobody at the church, surmised that they must've gone to Dr. Sweet's and took off – Zack through the streets while Yuffie flung herself across roof tiles and chimney pots to beat him and get there first. It took a lot for her to leave the others and come find him. The sight of Yuffie actually panicking is one Zack won't forget in a hurry.

She's still up there now. He can hear her feet and see her shadow out the corner of his eye. It's all sharp enough for him to realise the Buster Sword must be enhancing his senses, since he's on the ground and his heartbeat is loud enough that it should be blocking any sound as faint as Yuffie's accelerated breathing and muttered curses. He marshals the sword's power back, thanking it but not wanting to risk losing control when it's so important he keep his cool. He's already struggling not to do something stupid. Blowing up right now would be a Very Bad Thing and not helpful to anyone.

That doesn't mean he doesn't feel like it. The urge to pound something is strong, as his mind conjures images of what state he might find Cloud, Aerith and Leon.

His head has never been completely right again after José's party – not just the incident where he freaking died, which was enough of an kick in the teeth on its own, but the bit before that, when he was painfully aware of how red satin can cling like a second skin and how long Aerith's hair actually is when she lets it down. In the aftermath, mind all full of his own mortality and making sure magic wouldn't overwhelm him or anyone else he cares about, those inklings (because that's all they were, he swears it, just inklings, because Aerith is one of his best friends, someone who has seen him at his worst and his lowest and his most embarrassing, and because it'd be like fancying Cloud, for pity's sake) were shelved. He had other things to concentrate on, he reasoned at the time. They all did.

Zack hasn't really given over much time to think about it since, but imagining Aerith covered in blood, even though Yuffie said Leon was the one bleeding, somehow unites with the red satin, creating a horrible patchwork of soft curves, torn flesh and wide green eyes. Cloud acting out of character is just as disturbing, and lends wings to Zack's feet.

Yuffie lands in front of the surgery door moments before him. They both push inside to find … Cloud sitting in a plastic chair, looking demoralised and staring at his hands like someone cut his off and lent him a pair that don't fit properly.

"Cloud!"

His head jerks up. Zack sees a welter of differing emotions flit across his face, but dominant is such deep shame that it momentarily drives the red-red-red satin from his mind. Here is his other closest friend, uninjured except for a swelling jaw but obviously hurting badly.

"Zack. Yuffie." Cloud gestures. "Dr. Sweet is just examining them both. He says they should be fine."

Relief swamps Zack so hard it very nearly knocks him onto his butt. "And you?"

"I'm fine too." Cloud looks away, so awful at lying it's not even funny.

Yuffie hops from foot to foot, a bundle of adrenaline with nothing to channel it into. Twice her hands stray to her belt pouches and the tiny silver shuriken inside, but both times they drop back to her sides, clenching and unclenching into fists. Her movements are aimless. Eventually she spins on her heel and runs out the front door without explanation, banging it open so hard that it judders on the rebound.

Cloud and Zack look at each other.

"Is she okay?" Cloud asks.

"Less than fine, but better than she was earlier," Zack says uncertainly. Maybe she's just gone to run off some nervous energy before they go in to see Aerith and Leon. He swivels back to Cloud. "Are you all right?"

"I said I'm fine -"

"Liar."

Cloud meets his eyes, knowing he can't lie to Zack. Zack knows him too well to be fooled. "I nearly killed him, Zack. He hurt Aerith, but it wasn't on purpose, not really, and I still … I went for him like some … some rabid attack dog. Leon was just upset because we were at Rinoa's grave. He didn't know we were going to be there. He punched me, and this … I don't know how to describe it. It was like this red mist just kind of descended and then I … I don't know what I was …" He licks his lips and says hoarsely, "I almost killed him."

Despite everything, a tiny part of Zack is impressed. He figures it's allowed to be, since Leon didn't die and isn't going to today. Leon is a trained warrior and taller than Cloud by a good few inches. Cloud's strong from working with heavy animals and hauling deliveries, but Leon's strength is sinewy; the kind that makes him more dangerous in battle than a muscle-bound eight-feet-tall prize-fighter with a grudge and a two-by-four. Only Cloud's palpable regret stops Zack from feeling proud.

"He was grieving. You could see it – he's still grieving for her, even after all this time. Us being there without permission was … I guess it was like we were defiling the place or something. He said it himself; we weren't meant to be there. It isn't ours. And I nearly killed him for it. If only he hadn't walked in at that moment …"

"Coincidences are all well and good, but sometimes, some things are just meant to be," Zack says firmly. "There's no point in beating yourself up about it. What's done is done and everybody's still alive, which is the main thing."

Cloud doesn't look convinced.

"What happened to Aerith?"

"I don't know. One moment she was healing Leon, the next she froze up and started shaking like she was having a seizure. Then she collapsed. Dr. Sweet said it was just exhaustion, but I think it was more than that."

"When can we see her? Is she awake?"

"No. Neither she nor Leon have regained consciousness yet." Cloud's face plumbs new depths of misery and self-reproach. "This is all my fault."

"How the hell do you figure that?"

"If I hadn't gotten into that fight with Leon none of this would've happened."

"Bull. You might as well say if Aerith hadn't discovered Rinoa's grave this wouldn't have happened, or if Kairi hadn't wanted to go with her to her church this morning, or if Yuffie crayoning flowers with her last night hadn't inspired Aerith to want to go there in the first place. It was a bunch of things and you'd better not try and take all the blame yourself or I'll put hot sauce in your dinner – the kind that blows out the roof of your mouth and flays your throat."

Cloud opens his mouth to answer, but then closes it again.

"You said he threw the first punch," Zack points out.

"Because we were trespassing. That's a private place and we just wandered in like we had a right …"

Zack huffs slightly, pursing his lips and belatedly realising that's exactly what Aerith does when trying to reassure one of them that the world's ills are not their sole responsibility. "Well it's all out in the open now."

There's a clatter from the closed door to the examination rooms. Seconds later Dr. Sweet emerges, headband askew and white labcoat hanging off one shoulder. "Could y'all please tell your friend it's customary to use a door?"

"Huh?" Cloud and Zack exchange glances. "Yuffie."

 


 

All things considered, that could've gone way better. Yuffie's not embarrassed, because being embarrassed is for pussies, but she's casually mortified that she landed on top of the doctor instead of in the empty space she was aiming for. Leon makes entering buildings using windows and skylights look so easy, and besides, she's a freaking ninja. Breaking and entering is a snap for her. She blames the fact she was distracted by the sight of Leon and Ponytail laying so cold and still. Hard to avoid landing on people, even people as big as Dr. Sweet, when you're all sidetracked and unfocused and junk. Even tiptop super-ninjas can have their aim thrown. Yeah. Totally.

Leon is silent. Usually Yuffie doesn't mind this. With other boys she's hung out with, including Hero and Cloudy, it's always about words. She throws them around like they're going out of style, and people around her are forced to do the same or drown in a sea of letters and bobbing punctuation. With Leon it's never been like that. She shoves and he shoves back, but he does it in a different way than everyone else. With him, he just has to look her way and it feels like he's inside her skin looking for the off switch to her mouth. She's never had that with anyone before.

Trust her to fall for the guy devoted to his dead girlfriend.

This silence from Leon is the wrong kind of silence. Likewise Ponytail. Yuffie isn't cold-blooded; she doesn't want either of them to be hurt or, worse, to die. Just because she's forever playing power games with physical contact doesn't mean she, y'know, wants touchy-feeling people like Ponytail or touch-me-and-I'll-turn-your-hand-into-a-jaycloth-to-clean-my-gunblade-with Leon to snuff it. She hates the idea of losing either one of them – any of her friends, for that matter – she's just inept at showing it. Or, actually, not inept because the Great Ninja Yuffie isn't inept at anything … but slightly inexperienced.

Yeah, inexperienced. Good word. It brings up connotations of virginal young maidens, which is always good for a giggle.

"Man, Leon, you look like complete shit," she says. "Is that the fashion now?"

Dr. Sweet comes back in, closely followed by Hero and Cloudy.

"Howdy," Yuffie greets them. "I got tired of waiting for permission. Sorry about the boot to the head, Doc. Although you really shouldn't have been standing right under the skylight like that anyhow. You could get sunburn on that bald head of yours, standing right under a big ol' magnifying glass like that one, and then what would you do? I'll tell you what – you'd have to slather all that gunky grease onto the top of your freaking head to keep your skin from drying out and cracking and coming off in giant ugly cakey lumps – yuck with side order of blech! And you'd have to walk around with everyone pointing and laughing and saying 'there goes the guy who makes ogre snot into a fashion statement'. You mark my words, it'll happen." She wags a finger at Dr. Sweet, who looks bewildered.

"Is she always like this?"

"Yup."

"Always."

"I can prescribe some sedatives. You could slip 'em in her food."

"Tried that," Hero replies without missing a beat. "Didn't work." He's so convincing that even Yuffie wonders whether he's telling the truth. Only the sparkle in his eye – part relief, part humour, part pure Zack – tells her he's doing his usual trick of trying to lighten the mood. Yuffie brings her own humour and crams it into situations, but Zack tries to find whatever sliver is already there. This time, apparently, it means lying through his teeth to make a good punch-line.

She grins. She's rubbing off on him at last.

Zack and Cloud edge toward Aerith. Yuffie sighs inwardly and steps towards Leon, not because she doesn't care about Ponytail, but because someone has to show willing to be the first thing the cantankerous bastard sees when he wakes up. It's a sacrifice she's willing to make, and very selfless of her, even if she does say so herself.

It's always been Aerith, Zack and Cloud. Even in the midst of their sprawling, constantly growing circle of friends, it always comes back to those three. They're bonded in ways nobody else can hope to break – nor even understand sometimes.

When Aerith first bought Yuffie a toothbrush and left it sitting on the side of the sink with toothpaste already on it Yuffie thought she was taking the piss. But no, it's just something she'd done for Zack and Cloud since they moved in together. Likewise Zack's habit of constantly trying to make pancakes because the other two like them, always getting it slightly wrong but trying again next time like he's never failed before in his life; or how Cloud always brings home a tiny bag of their favourite candies on Fridays when his customers settle their tabs – and never once has to ask what their favourites are. They can make each other smile with a look, ease a frown with a gentle squeeze, and soothe any kind of pain because if one of them is hurting they all are. They're full of little customs and deceptively simple patterns into which you think you can slot, but which nobody really can. Other friends add their patterns on at the edges, forming elaborate Celtic knots of interconnecting relationships, or they create whole new patterns. Still, it always comes back to those three, in the middle of it all, fastened to each other too fully and seamlessly for even them to notice.

Le sigh. Yuffie looks down at Leon. She wonders whether, now this whole Rinoa thing is out in the pen, he'll become a proper part of their circle. After all, there's nothing more for him to hide from them anymore.

Which is when Aerith sits bolt upright as if from a nightmare. She stares around her, wide-eyed and obviously disoriented. And well she might. She conked out in the church and in between blinks she has changed location and her audience has increased.

"Good morning," says Zack. "Glad you could join us."

"We were so worried about you," Cloud adds, dampening the atmosphere a little by injecting reality into it so fast. "Are you okay? How do you feel?"

Aerith stares from one to the other. Then she puts her head in her hands and starts to cry.

Zack and Cloud are aghast. They immediately try to comfort her. Yuffie is so caught by watching Zack's hands and Cloud's elbows encircling her shoulders, fingers pressing as though they can cure her tears with acupuncture, brushing against each other in a tangle of limbs and emotion they are still too dense to freaking see, that she totally has her own dense moment and misses Leon's eyelids flickering.

"H-He …" Ponytail sobs. "I s-saw … her memories … th-they were still th-there, still waiting for someone suitable to c-come along so they could rep-play themselves … her last moments … her magic – it was all still there! It got all mixed up with mine when I started losing control and I saw!"

"What?" Zack is confused.

"Move over, please." Dr. Sweet tries to reach her.

"Aerith?" All thoughts of Cloud's own guilt are wiped away by fresh concern for her.

"I saw it. I s-saw …"

"What? What did you see?"

"… Rinoa …"

"What about her?"

"I killed her."

They all whip around.

Leon drags himself upright on his cot. His face is flinty but his eyes are raw like unprocessed metal ore.

"I killed her," he says again. "I killed Rinoa."

 


 

To Be Continued …

 


 

Chapter Text

"This really is quite remarkable." Merlin strokes his beard. "Quite remarkable indeed."

Personally, Cloud thinks it's anything but.

The old wizard had appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the doorway of Dr. Sweet's surgery like it was an extension of his own home, plunking himself down at Dr. Sweet's desk and effectively curtailing any conversation following Leon's shocking words. Merlin said something about sensing a huge magical disturbance and tracking it here, then produced a pot of tea and a cup for everyone – literally.

"It may not help to solve any problems, but it will at least help to calm the nerves," he said, his words cutting a chunk out of the heavy, disbelieving silence.

That wasn't so long ago, but it may as well be a lifetime. Time seems unreal right now – seconds stretch into hours. The whole room vibrates with such nervous energy it's amazing the walls don't bulge.

Dr. Sweet looks bemused and keeps shooting Leon suspicious looks, as though he has come across crazy people before and recognises their traits in this disturbed young man. Aerith sits on her cot with a blanket drawn up to her waist, Zack and Cloud beside her like knights apparent. Merlin just sips his tea, asking questions and nodding as he learns what happened at the church.

"It really is a remarkable coincidence, the heirs of two allegedly obsolete ancient races landing in the same world like this. It's almost as though it were predestined for you to come here, my dear," he says to Aerith. "And there was I thinking I was lucky just to know the last remaining Timber. And now you as well. Not bad for a barmy old codger in a silly hat. Remarkable."

"I don't…" Aerith starts, gaze sliding between him and Leon.

Leon clammed up the moment Merlin arrived and has said nothing more. Nobody can really process what he said. He killed Rinoa, the girl he purported to love. Until he said that, they'd all assumed Rinoa died from her own wild magic. His confession, if it's true, throws all their preconceived ideas into the air like a set of jacks, and they're still waiting to see where each piece falls.

Cloud tightens his grip on his teacup. He's vaguely surprised the delicate handle doesn't snap off in his hand.

"Your Cetra blood was perfect for Rinoa's Timber blood to react with," Merlin goes on blithely. "When your magic connected with her remains it unlocked the magic built into her cells in a psychic phenomenon. I've heard of such things occurring before, but to actually meet someone who has experienced one -"

"Cetra?" Zack's head jerks up. "Weren't they the ones you said made the Buster Sword?"

"Indeed I did."

"But they're all dead."

Merlin sighs as though talking to a slow child. "Not as gone as one might think. Pureblood Cetra may have died out millennia ago, but strains of their bloodline remain. Just as Rinoa could trace her ancestry back to the Timber, another historical race of powerful magical people, I'd speculate that Aerith here has some Cetra in her family history."

"I'm not human?" Aerith asks in alarm.

"You're perfectly human. You're exactly who you've always been, and exactly who you always will be, you just happen to know more about yourself than you did when you greeted the sunrise this morning." Merlin thumps his staff like a schoolteacher telling a pupil the importance of accurate spelling. "Your magic is your birthright. It's a gift from your ancestors."

"My … ancestors." A curious light comes into Aerith's eyes. Her gaze drifts in thought. "'The sole heir'. I'm the last one. The last Cetra."

"Perhaps," Merlin says gently. "Certainly, Rinoa was the last Timber. Your magic sought out hers and interacted with it, which is how you were able to see through her eyes. Her final memories were literally resting with her as a piece of free-floating magical excess."

"Excuse me?"

"It's rather complicated to go into. Higher theory of the influence of particularised paranormal fields and ambient energy on resonant soul matter. Very convoluted. It's probably easier if you think of it as a magical echo that only you and others descended from early magical races are capable of hearing."

Aerith doesn't look very comforted by this.

Cloud struggles to understand it as well. Zack told them all about the Cetra; how they made the Buster Sword and how they may have had a hand in the creation of the keyblades. Cloud's brows pull together. "Were the Timber … did they help to create the keyblades as well?"

Merlin obviously approves of this question. "Possibly. There were five races that had a significant influence over the development of our world's magical structures at that time – the Cetra, the Timber, the Spira, the Viera and the Espers. Any or all of them could have had a hand in creating the keyblades. They were all quite powerful in their own way. The Cetra were healers, the Espers were telepaths, the Viera were innately connected with the natural world, the Spira were ocean-mages, and the Timber were bodily magic users."

"Bodily magic users?" Aerith echoes.

"Meaning they could change their shapes and use their own bodies to channel elemental magic – earth, wind, water, fire and suchlike." Merlin sighs. "Which is probably conjuring some things in your mind, my dear, about poor Rinoa's final moments. Am I correct?"

Slowly, Aerith nods.

"Leon?" Merlin looks at him. "This isn't my story to tell. I can explain the theory and the history, but this portion of the tale is yours, and yours alone."

Leon says nothing. He just stares straight ahead like he's wearing blinkers nobody else can see.

"There's no shame in them knowing." Merlin glances at Aerith. "Not now."

Leon's throat convulses. Beside his bed, Yuffie quivers with a palpable need to be up and doing something, but she forces herself to stay still. The effort clearly costs her, though not as much as Leon's effort costs him. His smokescreen is dissipating, as though someone opened a window to suck out the grey pall obscuring the truth of who he is and what really happened – to Rinoa and to himself.

"No shame?" he mutters. "What world are you living in, old man?"

"She didn't blame you." Aerith is quiet. "She … told you. When she was still lucid, she told you to do it."

"She was wrong. was wrong."

"She forgave you. She loved you and wanted to protect you from herself. She was … grateful that you did it."

Something in Leon breaks at this. Cloud swears afterwards that he heard it shatter. The pieces of Leon's resolve land in his lap, by his sides, catching in the collar of his jacket and glittering in his hair like broken glass. He looks suddenly smaller, younger, and Cloud reflects that they don't actually know how old he is. Leon always radiates a kind of hard-bitten maturity. Well, it's gone now, scorched away to reveal a surprisingly vulnerable and young man underneath.

"She was out of control," he whispers. "We went to the church because she said it was beautiful there. She wanted to show me the stained glass windows. The Heartless … they came out of nowhere, but she destroyed them all. Really easily. Stupidly easily. I'd barely got my gunblade out and they were already gone, but … she couldn't stop her magic afterwards. It took over. It … changed her. She didn't look the same, didn't act the same, didn't even think the same. Her wings … she could grow beautiful … big white wings. She learned how when she was a kid. It was the first shape-shifting she ever got completely right; the only one she ever seemed to truly enjoy. But they were different – her wings, they weren't rightShe was different. She kept screaming. She just … kept … screaming …" His throat convulses again.

The air in the room has gone eerily still. It's like being trapped inside a sigh.

"I still hear her. Every day. Every night. Whenever I close my eyes I see her face, all twisted, only half human and sometimes not human at all. And she's always screaming -" His voice catches. "My gunblade carries six rounds. Six enchanted shells. They can cut through any magic to hit a target. She knew that. We worked together, back in Radiant Garden. I was her commanding officer, even though we were the same age. I always said everyone had to know about the weapons of the rest of their unit, so she knew my bullets wouldn't be turned away by her magic even when it was getting out of control and destroying the whole damn building."

Cloud can see where this is going. He can see clearer than if he was there that day. He can see it written in the way Leon's knuckles blanch and in the jumping muscle in his cheek.

"I refused." One hand rises to touch his scar. "I kept refusing. I'd rather have shot myself. But she was afraid. She was so afraid. If she broke out of the church with that much power … she knew she'd go on a rampage. She was fading in and out, becoming something else, something evil, but she knew and she kept … kept begging me …" He shakes his head. "She was screaming in pain. I could see … the things happening to her … her whole body was in agony, but she was thinking about other people. Too fucking selfless for her own good."

"She forced your hand," Aerith says in horrified comprehension. "You really would have put her life above the rest of Traverse Town's."

Leon doesn't reply.

"You refused to shoot, so she attacked you. She got control enough to make you think she was going to be okay, enough that she could get close to you, and then she attacked. She didn't give you time to think. She made you react instinctively. Leon -" Aerith pauses. "No, Squall. You were Squall in the memory."

"I stopped being Squall when she died," he says gruffly. "She called me Leon because it pissed me off and made me smile at the same time. Nobody else could do that. Nobody else could get away with it, but for some reason I let her. You can say she forced my hand, but I've been over that day a thousand times and I've come up with countless ways I could've stopped myself when she flew at me. After I pulled the trigger I couldn't be Squall Leonheart anymore. Without Rinoa there is no Squall. Just Leon. Just half a name. Half a person. Just … me."

And Leon cries. He actually cries; big anguished sobs, like someone has tipped back his head, reached down his throat and dragged up the tangled mess of putrid emotions that have fermented inside him since the day he killed his lover. Even more than the shards of his resolve, they can see these oozing from him. Cloud hears the sticky dripping, like thick black poison welling up from a wound that has been left untreated for too long, and which has begun to rot. It's embarrassing and excruciating for Leon to feel, and for them to watch.

Cloud looks away. From the corner of his eye he can see Yuffie. Unlike everyone else, who is twitching or fidgeting, she has gone totally still, her face a complete blank. She stares at Leon, but Cloud can't even begin to wonder what she's thinking. He doesn't think he has ever seen Yuffie immobile before.

Aerith throws back her blanket. When Cloud looks back she's already at Leon's side, wrapping her arms around him like Cloud and Zack wrapped their arms around her when she was crying.

"She forgave you," she murmurs brokenly. "She'd already forgiven you when she asked. She wanted you to forgive her for having to ask. She hated that she had to make you do that, but she loved you and she knew it had to be done. She was so in love with you, right up to the end. It was what kept her coherent enough to do what she did. She was in so much pain and you gave her peace, you stopped her from doing things she knew she'd regret. You stopped her from killing you. More thananything, she was grateful to you for that. She never wanted you to hurt so much because of her. Oh, Squall …"

"It's Leon," he replies, anger burning in his eyes even through his tears. "It's only Leon…"

"Not to her."

"You just don't get it, do you?" Leon shoves her hard. She refuses to let go. He tries to prise her arms from around his neck. She clings to him in a way that would've been unimaginable only a few hours ago. "Let go of me."

"You're not a murderer," Aerith says.

"It didn't mean anything when they," he gestures at Merlin, "said it. They weren't there. You weren't there."

"But I was," Aerith insists. "Or she was, and I've seen what she saw. I've felt what she felt."

"But none of you felt what I felt!" Leon shoves Aerith again. This time her grip does break. She falls back. Cloud jerks forward instinctively, but there's a blur of movement to his left.

Suddenly Yuffie has broken from her stupor and launched herself onto Leon's bed. She scoots behind him, making room for herself and shunting him forward so she can fit. She pins his arms to his sides by wrapping her own around him from behind and holding her own wrists.

"Get a grip," she says fiercely. "Stop treating us like the enemy, you moron."

For a second Cloud thinks Leon is going to twist from her hold the way he twisted from Aerith's. It wouldn't take much. He has a lot of weight over her, almost all of it muscle; but instead of breaking her grip too, he freezes. He shudders once, all over, and then slumps, neck bent and hair obscuring his face. Yuffie may be the smallest person there, but she has done what Cloud is fairly sure nobody else could: she has brought Leon's rage and pain to a shuddering halt.

"Did you love her?" Yuffie's voice is strangely harsh and grating.

It takes a second. "Yes," Leon eventually replies.

"More than anything?"

"Yes."

"Will you ever forget her?"

"No."

"Then quit being such a moron and keeping her hidden away like some dirty little secret. That's not what love is supposed to be like. Love is all shouting from the rooftops and stuff. It's being proud of the person you're in love with. It's not being able to help how you feel, but you got it backwards and all screwed up, because you seem to think it's about not feeling like you can ask for help. You're miserable without her, aren't you?"

This time Leon just grunts.

"That just proves how much you loved her – and still love her. She's a part of who you are. How the hell can you say you're not the same person without her? Seems to me you're still the same person you always were – even more than you were then. Which doesn't make a lot of sense to hear, but does when you think about it. You aren't living without her, you twit. You're living because of her. You're alive because of her. You get up each day and breathe in and out because of her. You do everything you do because of her – she, like, informs who you are. Tell me I'm wrong. Go on." She waits for him to reply, but he doesn't. "She is who you are now. So the name doesn't really matter. It's just packaging, y'know? Just something people can call you to get your attention across a busy street. What's important is knowing how much she's a part of you and not forgetting how much she gave up so you could go on living. You live your life like a miserable hermit and you're just flipping her the finger every time you take a breath."

Leon tenses. Cloud watches, unable to move, unable to do anything except wait for his response. Finally Leon half turns his head, not enough to see Yuffie behind him, but enough that it's clear who he's talking to.

"My name is still Leon."

"If you say so. It's still just packaging to the rest of us. Maybe I should start calling you Fluffer McKitty just to prove it. Now are you gonna let us be friends with you, and care about you, or are you going to pretend nobody else is allowed to think you're human just because you have tragedy in your past? Because, you great big idiot, if you'd just look around at the people who have been worriedly waiting at your bedside and nearly had coronaries when you were so badly hurt they thought you might die, we already got plenty of tragedy to go around. And, strange as it may seem to you, we all still manage to care about each other in spit of that. If all you're gonna do with your heart after Rinoa saved it is turn it to stone, then maybe you don't care about her as much as you say you do."

The air ripples with Yuffie's stark words. Cloud actually flinches, recalling the exchange between her and Zack before they went to the church earlier.

"Don't pull your punches, Yuffie."

"I never do."

"So what's it gonna be?" she asks now. "You gonna choose to live, or are you gonna choose to pretend like you're living?"

The loudest sound of all is Leon's whisper. "I choose …"

"Yeah?"

"I choose to think you're a pushy, upstart kid with a big mouth."

Yuffie's grin is strained but wide. "Hey, it's a start."

 


 

Time is a strange thing. Sometimes it passes so slowly you'd swear ice ages have gone faster, and sometimes it goes so quick that you blink and everything has changed by the time you finish raising your eyelids.

The first time Tifa goes back to work, Cid looks up at her, mumbles, "Ah shit," and his cigarette droops. "The kid told you, right?"

Tifa can smell Merlin in the workshop – that mix of incense and ink that overlays even motor oil. "No. Aerith told me." She remembers the strain in her friend's eyes, dealing with the news about her own heritage as well as Leon's … Leon-ness. "She told me a lot of things. Did you know all of it?"

"Know it? I helped bury her." Cid looks sad and depressed – or as sad and depressed as he can look. Mostly he just looks frustrated. Or like he's constipated. "It was a fucking terrible business from top to bottom, and it screwed the kid up so badly Merlin and I have been looking out for him ever since. He tell ya he used to be Captain of the Royal Guard back in Radiant Garden? Youngest ever to get the job. A real prodigy. One of them natural born leader types."

"I'd heard that."

"Couldn't lead his own dick to the bathroom for a piss after Rinoa died. Practically had to have his mouth and ass wiped for him or he'd forget to do it."

Tifa winces, but supposes she shouldn't expect any less from Cid. If he started pulling his punches she'd be worried.

"He was a mess. Changed his name and got real mean when we slipped and called him by the old one. When he did talk it was half-baked shit about her trying to save the town from him. We figured he was just crazed with grief, but then he started going out alone at night, keeping weird hours and looking for things to beat up. It was like some fucking crusade or atonement or something. Good thing I know triage. The number of times I had to patch him up from knife fights until the dumbfucks he went after got smart enough to run when they saw him. There used to be crime in Traverse Town. It's a big place, and anywhere big enough for people to fall between the cracks is big enough to have a seedy underbelly dirtier than a dog's asshole. But the kid took care of that. He was a fucking tornado on that shit, a regular one-man army. He made the streets safe and kept them that way. And then, after that, he waged war on the Heartless because it was a good way of punishing himself while pretending he was being so fucking righteous."

"He killed her."

"She died," Cid corrects fiercely. "And he was there. It fucked him up. End of story."

Tifa can't imagine what that must be like, to know the only thing standing between the one you love and their worst nightmare is you, and the only way to stop them falling into darkness is to rip them away from your side forever. She tries to picture Cloud, wracked with pain and about to kill innocent people if he isn't stopped; and herself pointing a weapon at him in more than idle threat. She can't go past that point her head. The images won't come and she doesn't want to force them.

Then she tries picturing him with Yuffie, or Zack, or Aerith, and it's impossible to even get to the first image. They'd all die together before they'd let themselves be pulled apart. Or they'd find a way to save the one who thought the only way out was death; they'd demand the universe provide a third option. They're good at pulling miracles out of thin air.

Tifa sucks in a strengthening breath. She needs more than a few of those around Cid, chiefly because she's getting better at recognising things she knows will piss him off. She still needs to ask this one, though.

"Did you agree to hire me because I remind you of Rinoa?"

"The fuck-?"

"I look like her. You were fond of her."

"And you think that's why I-? Fucking fucktards in a fuck-basket, girl!" Cid thunders.

It's testament to how much he cusses that she doesn't even flinch. "That's not a real answer."

"Then how's this for a real answer – fuck no!"

"No what?"

"You are seriously trying my patience, Tifa -"

"No what?"

Cid's strengthening breath rasps between his teeth like sandpaper over untreated wood. "No, I never hired you 'cause of Rinoa. I hired you 'cause you got in my face and damn well demanded that I hired you. Happy now?"

No, actually, but she does feel better. Tifa has never lived as two people before, and she doesn't like it. It's nice to know she doesn't have to do it for everyone who knew and loved Rinoa.

 


 

Aerith doesn't have another Green Dream. She's disappointed. She wants to talk to the voices now she fully understands who and what they are, and what she is in relation to them.

It's surprisingly easy to accept that she's Cetra. Or part-Cetra. Or whatever. It was harder accepting the death of her mother and the advent of her powers. At least this time there aren't any huge consequences to what she's learned – except that Merlin keeps looking at her like she's a prize-winning chocobo and trying to talk to her about Ifalna. When he realises she doesn't have anything more to tell him he's disappointed, but too wrapped up in his delight at her very presence to let it keep him down for long. A true scholar, Merlin is happiest when he has a research project to work on, and she has suddenly become a part of his favourite – the nature of the fabled keyblades.

Bizarrely, Cloud and Zack react more than she does. Zack keeps looking between her and the Buster Sword, and for a few days is on the verge of saying something, but always shakes his head and backs off again. He mutters about how stupid he was not to realise it earlier, and more than once mentions the bat-monsters that attacked them when they were fifteen, but he doesn't make much sense. Eventually Aerith forces him to tell her what's on his mind and he asks, falteringly, whether she'd like to hold the sword. She's never done so before, and if her ancestors made it them perhaps … she might like to make friends?

Aerith doesn't know how to respond to this. The idea should be an absurd one, yet in the impossibility that is their lives, it's actually one of the most reasonable things she's heard. Maybe she should be more bothered by that than she is. She's willing to do what Zack suggests, but nervous about mixing the sword's power with hers after losing control in the church. Zack compromises by keeping his hand wrapped around the hilt and letting her hold it just below his reassuringly confident grip, so the sword's burbling presence is in both their minds at once, and quietened by the feel of his mind while it explores Aerith's.

"It likes you," Zack murmurs, as a sensation like a sneeze curls through Aerith's head; not invasive, but lissome as a thought just before dropping off to sleep. "It respects you," he corrects at an idle flick, like the tip of a snake's tongue or the irritated twitch of a mouse's tail.

Cloud still feels guilty over his fight with Leon and setting up the situation for Aerith to lose control of her powers in the first place. She tries to tell him it was all for the best in the end. She doesn't blame him.

She doesn't mention how he frightened her when he lost control, because he's doing a fine job of hauling himself over the coals, as usual, and her energy is much better spent pulling him out of his funk than forcing him further in. They wouldn't have found out about Rinoa and Leon if that hadn't happened, she reminds him, poking Zack in the ribs to make him back her up. It takes a while and a lot of insistence, but eventually Cloud's guilt alleviates, or at least stops showing so much in his face.

And there's the crux of the whole thing, really: Leon. Nobody has any idea where to go next with him. Apparently he doesn't have any idea either, because despite the talking-to Yuffie gave him he shuts himself up in his apartment for a week and doesn't speak to anyone, or even leave it to do such mundane things as get food or empty his garbage. He even stops patrolling for Heartless. Zack picks up the slack, but that's always been a core part of Leon. His sudden disinterest sends a spike of alarm through everyone.

Eventually Yuffie takes it upon herself to break in, but her urge to break and enter is curtailed by Merlin's spare key and its sudden presence in his hand – indeed, the sudden presence of his hand – as she makes to ram her shoulder against Leon's door.

"Yoo-hoo! Leeeeeeon!"

"You did say he'd locked himself in here." Merlin looks around at the lack of anything Leon-shaped. "Didn't you?"

"Give me a break, grandpa; my memory hasn't deteriorated with age like yours."

"Unspeakable little wretch," Merlin mutters, but refrains from turning her into a toad because she's here and looking for Leon despite the very real fact they don't know what they'll find.

Leon was a wreck when they saw him last, humiliated and broken in both new ways and old ways only just being allowed to show themselves. Merlin has known him since he was Squall, and has charted the changes in him, including how he alienated everyone except those with more loyalty than sense – those like himself and Cid, who refuse to leave him alone. Merlin is impressed with Yuffie's tenacity. Not that he'd ever admit this to her, of course. Yuffie's ego, so far as Merlin (and Cid, which makes this one of the few things they agree on) is concerned, does not need the boost.

They find him in the bedroom. The wardrobes are empty and Rinoa's clothes are scattered around him, not flung but organised into neat piles according to colour and item. He's folding a long blue sleeveless cardigan when they come in, calm as a millpond. He looks at them a little challengingly, and before they've even exchanged a word, both Yuffie and Merlin understand that Leon is still Leon, not Squall. Perhaps he always will be in his own mind.

He doesn't, however, throw them out or snarl at them for entering without permission. And when Yuffie idly tosses a balled up pair of socks from hand to hand he doesn't snatch them away or tell her to put them down. He's still Leon, but perhaps Leon is different than he was.

"So what's this in aid of, Squall?"

That gets a narrowing of his eyes. "It's Leon."

"Whatever." It's neither, actually, and both at once, but it'll be a long time before he's ready to accept that. Yuffie has already decided to call him Squall because that was the time when he was happiest, and damn it, he needs more happy in his life. "I'm your happiness fairy," she tells him at a later date, to which he just raises an eyebrow and she does some mental air-punching because it's not a scowl.

But that's in the future, and this is the now. "I was just sorting out a few things," he replies, laying the cardigan down on a pile of other blue clothes. Rinoa, apparently, liked blue. A lot. And also feather motifs, because they're everywhere; although if she could grow and use a pair of wings then that's understandable.

They rented the top apartment because she had a habit of opening windows and just flying out of them when she needed to unwind. She did silly, reckless things like that all the time, and seemed to enjoy giving Squall-Leon near-heart-attacks with her antics. She had her own special weapon, like he has his gunblade. It was a bladed boomerang called Blaster Edge, which fired from a holster on the back of her wrist. It used to knock her onto her backside with its recoil when she first started training with it. She fed strays even when they tried to claw and bite her. In Radiant Garden she became especially attached to a ragged little puppy, which she called Angelo, until it died of parvo virus. The tiny body had to be cremated so the virus wouldn't spread, but she kept the ashes in a box on the mantelpiece and said good morning and goodnight every day.

Leon starts telling them things like this, fleshing out the story of Rinoa into a real person. It takes a long time, and they don't push him (well, apart from Yuffie, but she only pushes as far as he can take, and then maybe a little bit more). The dynamics between he and the rest of the group have changed, are still changing, and will continue to change for years to come. Every nod, incrementally less curt than the last, every not-frown, every deviation from his previous frostiness is a little inroad into something new and precious.

He's still not their friend, but when he looks down at Kairi, holding out an unidentifiable crayon squiggle for him, and he doesn't breeze past her, they guess it's only a matter of time before they can count him as more than just an ally. When he not only doesn't breeze past, but bends awkwardly to take it from her (awkward because she's so tiny and open and happy to see him, this little person who doesn't understand or care what he's done, or how he's failed, as long as he has arms to hug with, and he's apprehensive of hurting her by accident or letting down her simple childish desires like he's already let down so much and so many people in his life), and without being asked or told to he puts the drawing in his pocket, the perceptive ones guess he'll one day be counted as a member of their extended family.

He's never truly warm, but there's an approximation of warmth that grows there. He still doesn't smile, but unlike before there's the potential for smiles now. Sometimes, when Aerith invites him over for dinner and Yuffie bullies him into accepting; when he walks through the door and Kairi runs at him and hugs his knees, or Zack gives him a friendly punch on the shoulder, or Cloud stops whatever he' doing long enough to nod a greeting, Leon gets a look that indicates there may be dormant smiles in the vicinity.

It flickers and dies when Tifa appears, because she's still so much like Rinoa and he's still too caught up in that to see her first and his dead lover second. He'll learn, but it's one of the things that takes longest, and which he has to fight hardest to overcome. Rinoa still follows him around, hovering behind Tifa's shoulder and making them both uncomfortable around each other.

All this takes time, but time is a strange thing. It doesn't, actually, run straight. It wanders off the path, stops to sniff flowers, rushes around in circles and collapses, breathless and tied in so many knots it has to sit and untangle them all. They slide from one event to the next and clamber over these knots, so that whatever order they learn their lessons in, they often go back and look at things again to help them understand what comes after that.

Aerith, Tifa, Zack and Cloud go to clean up the vestibule where Rinoa is buried, and find a whole new door already attached. Tifa recognises Cid's handiwork, but it's Leon who instigated the changes they find behind the pulled-back curtain and unlocked door. The blood has been cleaned up, the rubble cleared away, and the burned feathers are gone. In their place is a small bunch of yellow lilies. They've been cut from the soil inside the main hall of the church, where Rinoa's magic allows things to grow where nothing should be able.

Aerith nods in a satisfi