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a little bit of levity

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It started before Cloud disappeared the first time around and Radiant Garden fell to darkness; back when Leon was still called Squall and the gunblade was awkward in his teenage hands.

Squall was all long limbs and one word responses in those days, hormones making him annoyed with the world and the way his words tended to jumble up in his mouth. So he scowled down at his work, scowled as he trained, and said little. A castle guard didn't need to speak, anyway; so long as he could follow orders, he could get away with being quiet. That attitude didn't win him any friends, really, but Squall was okay with that.

That was why he was understandably bewildered when Cloud, another cadet roughly his age with hair as golden as the sun, started to hang around when he could. The blonde seemed to be somewhat popular among their class of cadets, though their commanding officers often commented that Cloud's attitude left a lot to be desired. He was a decent fighter and hungered to be the best, so Squall chalked it up to Cloud wanting to fight someone who might be of the same fighting caliber. He never asked for a reason--he didn't exactly care, too good by then at keeping to himself and avoiding making connections with others. Squall resigned himself to the fact that Cloud would more often than not follow at his heels during the course of the day and went about his business.

This meant that Cloud often joined him when Squall settled onto the castle lawn in the late afternoon to sort and clean his equipment. Quickly, Squall learned to tune out most of Cloud's ramblings--it started off as bragging about himself, his strengths, his friends and family. As the days went on, the one-sided conversations drifted to admiration of their superiors, and sometimes even complete silence. More than once on the quieter days, Squall caught Cloud staring at him. The blonde would turn pink and hurriedly look away, grumbling something that Squall never caught. Squall would go back to cleaning his gunblade, knowing that he would forget these interactions before long.

[ Later, after the world falls, snippets of these afternoons sometimes drift to the front of Leon's mind, as if they were some till-now missing memory that held the ultimate secrets of the universe. They never actually did, but Leon remembers them better than he expected. ]

On one such afternoon while lying in the sun, Cloud began the conversation with, "I'm thinking of messing with Yuffie for my birthday this year."

Squall, sitting beside him, glanced up from cleaning his gunblade at the ensuing pause. The blonde apparently expected him to respond. Squall only squinted at his companion in reply, clearly not following the thought.

Cloud looked up and met his eye when he gave no verbal response. "She doesn't actually know when my birthday is."

Squall did not know Cloud's friends personally, and did not necessarily care. He gave Cloud a blank stare before finally mumbling an ambivalent, "Okay."

"You see..." Cloud sat up as he continued. "Yuffie is extremely forgetful about that kind of thing--so it doesn't matter that my birthday isn't until August. I can just act like she missed my birthday, and she'll immediately want to celebrate it. And then she'll inevitably forget by the time my actual birthday comes along, so she'll throw a party then, too. If I manage to make sure she forgets, I might be able to keep this a running gag. Not too bad for a prank, huh?"

Squall paused in cleaning again, frowning. Eventually he said, "I'm...not sure that really qualifies as a prank."

Cloud flopped back down onto the ground. "It's one of those time things--the longer it takes for her to realize what's going on, the funnier it gets."

That still didn't seem to make any kind of logical sense. Squall narrowed his eyes. "If you wanted to prank her, surely you could do something less involved."

Cloud pursed his lips and gave Squall a sour look. The blonde seemed to be particularly upset that Squall didn't agree that it was a good idea. "You just don't get it."

Squall did not respond, instead returning to his work. He focused in on the revolver mechanism of the gunblade, letting Cloud's continued commentary about the upcoming spring festival drift through one ear and out the other. Like most of these conversations, Squall expects to completely forget what's been said.

 

[ Cloud is long gone before the spring festival arrives, chasing one of the other castle guards who left to become a true hero. Soon after comes the fall of Radiant Garden.

Squall is left behind in the swarm of Heartless attacking the castle. By the time they reach Traverse Town, Leon has taken his place. He is no longer allowed to be the sullen and quiet boy in the guards' ranks, forced into the role of a leader that most of the stranded citizens of their world turn to for protection, for guidance. Leon thinks he is ill suited for the job, but nevertheless vows to protect those he can and search for those who are lost. It takes time for everyone to come around to his newfound leadership role, but Leon makes progress.

Years pass. Leon meets a mouse who calls himself King, and learns of the Keyblade, the inevitable clash to protect the worlds to come. This universe of worlds seems entirely too big for just one person to protect, and Leon feels for the poor sod who's going to get saddled with that responsibility someday soon.

He has more important things to worry about now. ]

 

Aerith and Yuffie trail a few steps behind as Leon makes his way to the place where the dalmatians he'd rescued had settled in. The girls usually don't join him on patrols, but the moment Leon had brought home two cold and wet dogs, both made a point of joining him when they could see Pongo and Perdita.

Yuffie, as usual, is complaining. Good naturedly. "Look, I'm just tired of doing nothing but patrolling and helping out at Cid's all the time! Plus, there's only so much training a girl can do before dying of boredom."

"Well, it's true that there isn't exactly a lot to do here. But we've managed just fine so far, Yuffie." Aerith says, always the voice of reason.

They turn down a side street to get to the apartment. Leon takes out his keys, sifting through for the right one to unlock the door.

"Yeah, I guess." It sounds as if it's taking tremendous effort for Yuffie to agree. Leon resists the urge to roll his eyes. "But I miss having parties! I missing having a reason to celebrate something instead of being sad about losing worlds that aren't even ours. I get that we're on the King's side and going to help the Light and all, but still. It's nothing but work all the time. We've stopped really doing birthdays, even!"

Aerith hums quietly in agreement. Leon approaches the door and starts to open it.

Yuffie continues. "We've got too much doom and gloom going on, and Mr. Serious here doesn't help make the mood any better!"

Leon purses his lips and gives Yuffie a look over his shoulder.

Yuffie just turns to Aerith, gesturing. "You see?"

Aerith's smile is radiant, even when she's laughing. "When you put it that way..."

"Ugh. It just gets to be too much, you know? You can't be sad all the time." Yuffie steps close enough to smack at Leon's elbow. "Not all of us can manage it."

Leon breaks his silence as he opens the door. "Just because I take the situation we're in seriously doesn't mean I'm sad all the time, Yuffie."

Yuffie huffs quietly. She doesn't get a chance to answer immediately as Pongo and Perdita start barking the moment the door is open, their tails wagging. Leon pets them both briefly before going to check on their food and water. The girls coo over both dogs as Leon does so, and the conversation is dropped as they wait for the dalmatians to finish their food and water. Eventually, Leon fishes out their leashes so they can be let out for a walk. Only once they've gone back outside does Yuffie try to resume the conversation.

"Just...I think we need a break. We need to spend one night being happy and celebrating something."

Aerith taps her chin with her finger, thinking. "Well, the easiest way to do that is a birthday. You're right, we have been neglecting those with all that's been going on. But mine isn't until next February."

Yuffie huffs somewhere to Leon's left. "And mine is in November--still a few months away! We can't wait that long!"

"Is this just an excuse to have a party tonight?"

The ninja falls suspiciously silent. Aerith only laughs. That's when Leon feels two sets of eyes turn his way.

Unfortunately for Yuffie Leon's birthday was a month ago, towards the end of August, so it's a bit late to be celebrating it. Leon's never really made a big deal out of his birthday, anyway. Birthdays, to him, are just a sign of the passage of time. Who cares if he's a year older? Certainly not Leon.

But he understands why Yuffie wants something to be happy about, though. Their lives certainly aren't as exciting as they used to be, and he and Cid especially have gotten only more serious as years have gone by. The only thing keeping them all from just sitting and doing nothing is the threat the Heartless presents.  Were it not for his patrols, Leon might be left to pace their apartment endlessly. (...He technically does that already, but he won't admit that too readily.) Maybe they really have been letting the gravity of the situation get the better of them.

He's about to open his mouth to explain they'd just have to wait until November to celebrate when a long-forgotten memory drifts to the front of his mind. He remembers the cool afternoon breeze, the sun beating down on the back of his neck. Cloud, how earnest and carefree he had looked before running off after Zack.

Leon still doesn't see how it was a prank, but looking at it now he supposes it's not a terrible idea. The girls sound disappointed enough as it is--he'd like to make them happy, even if it's just for a night or two a year.

He closes his eyes and lets out the tiniest breath, hoping it comes off as either surprised or disappointed. The girls catch on in an instant.

"Leon?" Yuffie asks. She trots forward to fall into step beside him.

Leon furrows his brow, a bit more than he would normally. He hopes he isn't being too obvious, he's never actually lied like this before. "What's the date?"

"September 19." He can feel Aerith's eyes on him, and he knows that she can sense what's going on. She's always quick to catch things.

Leon holds the silence for a moment, unintentionally keeping Yuffie in suspense. He feels the ninja drift closer, enough for her to take hold of his upper arm as she waits for what he'll say.

With a tiny laugh that's almost entirely foreign to him, Leon says, "You know...my birthday was actually a few days ago. I forgot about it, given everything going on."

Yuffie is instantly beaming, and that alone is worth the lie. Her eyes sparkle with the prospect of a party. "Wait, are you serious?"

Leon raises an eyebrow at her, amused. "Did you, or did you not, call me Mr. Serious earlier?"

"Oh, right. Jeez, it kinda sucks that you forgot your own birthday, but it doesn't surprise me one bit!" She whoops with delight, startling the dalmatians a little. "We can have a belated party for you then!"

"Yuffie--" Aerith huffs out an amused breath. "--shouldn't you ask if he even wants a party?"

"Nope! Too late! Already planning it!" Yuffie's hopping from foot to foot, and Leon can practically see her mind whirring away as she comes up with party plans. "Besides, why else would he tell us he forgot his birthday? You know how he is!"

Aerith glances at him anyway. He shrugs at her. "Well, so long as Leon's alright with it..."

Leon can't keep from rolling his eyes as Yuffie steamrolls right over them both. "Of course he's okay with it!" She skips a few steps ahead. "I'm gonna go home and get things started! Leon, what kind of cake do you like?"

He doesn't know. "Uh--"

"Eh, we'll come up with something. Aerith, you're on cake baking duty."

Aerith snorts. "Oh, am I?"

"Yep!"

"So you really want to try to have everything ready by the time dinner rolls around tonight, then." The brunette shakes her head. "I don't think that'll work on such short notice."

"It's okay." Both girls turn to Leon. He's being more talkative than he usually is--of course, he's become a lot more talkative since coming to Traverse Town, but today even more than usual. "I've never really done a party before, so you really don't need to go all out."

Aerith's shoulders droop just a bit--maybe she had hoped Leon might dissuade Yuffie from jumping headfirst into party planning--but after a moment she smiles anyway. "I should have guessed."

"Anyway, we need to get moving!" Yuffie grabs Aerith's hand and tugs. "Sorry, Leon, but if you're gonna have a halfway decent birthday party, we need to go get started!"

He wants to say, As if you don't leave me holding the bag most of the time anyway, but he just smiles in the minimal way he usually does and waves them off. He takes a deep breath as he watches them disappear around the corner before looking down at the dalmatians at his feet.

"That wasn't too obvious, was it?"

Pongo barks and begins to pant, his tail wagging happily. Perdita sniffs primly and yawns.

"..." Leon frowns. Why he decided to ask the dogs, he does not know. With a sigh he starts off again, letting the dogs lead him through the districts as they like.

In spite of the rise in Heartless that the King had reported, Leon has yet to see the numbers around Traverse Town increase. He quickly dispatches the handful that appear on the patrol route, careful to keep Pongo and Perdita out of harm's way. The whole affair usually doesn't take very long, but today in particular is longer than usual as Leon is stopped by many of the citizens who all seem to have some kind of issue to discuss. Most are the same as always--scared of a stray Heartless they'd seen recently--but several people ask after Leon and the others holed up with Cid. Leon does his best to reassure them all, offering to come back for those who have housing concerns.

By the time he returns the dalmatians to their home, it's already evening. Leon locks up the apartment behind him, trudging his way home. It's only when he's got his hand on the door that he remembers what he'd told Yuffie.

A good thing, too--Yuffie, Aerith and Cid are standing around the kitchen table when he opens the door, shouting out, "Happy late birthday!" Yuffie sets off a few makeshift poppers, leaving Cid and Aerith to use noise makers to fill the apartment with sound.

Leon blinks, mouth dropping open just a little. After a moment he huffs, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "Guess you did manage it after all."

Yuffie puffs out her cheeks. "Of course I did! You think I'd lie about this?"

He holds up a hand to placate her. "No, just--surprised is all."

"I was surprised ya didn't speak up about yer birthday sooner." Cid grumbles, but his smile is fond--for some reason, he seems to have taken a shine to Leon. (Yuffie claimed it was because Leon was a gruff old man trapped in a younger body.) "Most people don't forget their birthdays."

Leon shrugs, ignoring the weight of Aerith's gaze as it settles on him.

"Too bad we don't really have presents for you yet--but we'll make sure you get something soon." Yuffie says.

"Just dinner with you all is fine." Leon says, perhaps a bit quietly.

They eat dinner--a fancy dish that Yuffie had found the recipe of when searching--and talk for a while. Having talked so much earlier in the day, Leon is content to let the others speak instead, only answering when he's asked a direct question. He finds that he doesn't have much to talk about; when it comes to the status of Traverse Town or what happened on his patrol, he's fine, but he's still grasping at straws when it comes to idle chatter. More than once, Leon stares down into his drink, unsure of how to break into Yuffie and Cid's conversation about what they plan to do on their upcoming trip off world.

Aerith notices him doing this once or twice once they've put their dinner plates away, and he catches her eye. She just smiles gently and pats his shoulder. The third time he catches her, she rises to her feet.

"Yuffie, can you find the candles for me?"

"Is it cake time?" Yuffie springs from her seat the instant Aerith nods, chattering excitedly.

The cake they bring out isn’t extravagant like any of the cakes Leon had seen in the bakery in Radiant Garden’s main square, but he prefers the simpler pound cake that’s set before him. His smile is nervous, just a little, as the girls and Cid start up a song, wishing him happy birthday once more.

He may have lied about the actual date, but it’s still a birthday party--the first he's had in...well, longer than he'd care to admit. His breath catches in his chest as he peers down at the candles, the cake haphazardly decorated with icing and strawberry chunks. Before he knows it, the girls are finishing up their song and Yuffie is shoving at his shoulder, urging him to blow out the candles and make a wish.

Leon hesitates, unsure of what to wish for. A moment passes before Yuffie starts shoving him again so he takes in a big breath and blows, the candles extinguished in an instant. Cid and Aerith take out them, leaving Leon with the task of slicing the cake.

As they eat their desert, Yuffie shuffles her chair closer to Leon's. "So, what did you wish for?"

"It's bad luck if you make him say it." Cid says, always the superstitious one of their ragtag group. "Won't come true if he tells us."

Yuffie sticks her tongue out at the older man, but doesn't press Leon about it again. Not that she'd have gotten a good answer--Leon didn't have a wish. He really isn't the wishing type, and hasn't been for a long time. But he thinks about it again, letting the others' conversation carry on without him.

He thinks of Cloud, of all the others that they've all lost. Were he a man that made wishes on stars or birthday candles, he might wish to see them all again someday.

But for now, there's Yuffie, Aerith, and Cid. That's enough.

 

[ Aerith caught on instantly, just as he expected her to. She just smiles, telling him that he has a soft heart underneath it all ("Just like I thought you did, you know.") and that he really did help lift the dark cloud that had settled over them. When he explains the conversation with Cloud so long ago that inspired the whole fake birthday, she goes quiet, her expression thoughtful. When he tells her he wants to keep up the fake birthday parties to keep them from getting too serious again, she laughs so hard she snorts and then asks if she can help him pull the wool over Yuffie's eyes.

A few more years pass. Leon has plenty of birthdays--real ones, not the show he puts on for Yuffie. He goes off world more often now too, trying to understand the state of the worlds around them. There's only so much he can know without seeing it firsthand. It's hard to not let it get to him, but Leon makes an effort to try and be happier. The others seem to follow his lead.

Worlds continue to fall, one by one. The night sky above Traverse Town slowly, slowly, begins to lose more and more light. ]

 

He finds Cloud in the world with the Coliseum. Their eyes meet across the courtyard, and at first Leon has to do a double take.

Cloud is harsher now, his eyes no longer just the cornflower blue Leon remembers. They are intense, sharp and quick to wound, and there's something otherworldly to them that wasn’t there before. There is a golden gauntlet on his right arm, a wing sprouting from his shoulder. This Cloud is so, so different from the one Leon remembers, lying next to him on the castle grounds in the soft afternoon sun.

“What?” He hears, and Leon startles. The blonde is scowling at him, brows knitted together. “You got something to say, Leonhart?”

Leon opens his mouth to do so--to ask. To ask why Cloud left, to ask why he’s changed so much. To ask if he’d like to come back to Traverse Town, to let Aerith and Yuffie and Cid know that he’s alright.

He has learned to speak more since Radiant Garden was overrun, but the messy things--emotions, thoughts, concerns--still leave Leon grasping for something he just can’t quite voice. He still hates himself for that. For not being able to speak the way others do, so easily.

Leon finds himself unable to say anything--unable to ask why Cloud is here, why Cloud left right when Radiant Garden needed him most.

The blonde makes an irritated noise through his teeth--one Leon recognizes as something he himself did when Squall still existed--and brushes past, leaving Leon to stand in the courtyard of the coliseum, still trying to form the words he wants.

He lets Cloud slip through his fingers.

He won't look the girls in the eye for days afterward, knowing that he failed to bring them all back together again. He does tell them eventually when he visits the Coliseum again and finds Cloud once more. Leon can’t understand what ties Cloud to such a place, fighting for a god he probably doesn’t believe in.

His third visit finds him with some time to talk with Cloud--it’s in a lull in events at the arena, leaving Cloud wandering the world aimlessly. Leon works up the courage to approach and lean against a nearby wall as Cloud tends to his sword.

“...They’re all safe.” He says, quietly.

Cloud pauses, but doesn’t look up at Leon.

“Yuffie and Aerith and Cid, at least.” Leon crosses his arms across his chest almost nervously. “We haven’t seen Tifa in some time but she was alright the last time we saw her.”

Silence looms over them and Cloud returns to sharpening his sword. Leon thinks he might understand what Cloud must have felt before their world fell, when their positions were reversed. Leon wonders why Cloud even bothered to be friendly if this kind of silence was what he got in return.

Leon swallows, unsure of what to say next. His words are sticking in his throat again. Cloud seems content in the silence now; before he seemed to hate it, but he’s said nothing since Leon approached. He’s hardly acknowledged Leon’s presence.

“...” Leon shifts, wetting his lips. Finally, he says, “They all miss you.”

That gets Cloud to turn and settle his otherworldly gaze on the brunette. His eyes seem to bore holes right through Leon’s skull, leaving him to hesitate.

“And what about you?” Cloud asks. Something in his tone is...quiet. Contemplative. Vaguely reminiscent of the Cloud that Leon remembers, but not quite right.

"I've missed you too." He has missed Cloud, more than he’d anticipated. He misses their quiet afternoons, their sparring. Leon cares for Cid and Aerith and Yuffie, but their company isn’t like what Cloud’s presence was when they were cadets. Sometimes he wants those moments back. "We've all been worried about you. The girls most of all."

Cloud regards him for several long moments, and the weight of his gaze makes Leon fidget minutely. The blonde used to be more open with his expressions, enough for Leon to get an idea of what he was thinking; now, his face is completely blank. Leon thinks he sees Cloud relax, just barely, after a minute.

"I see." Cloud turns back to his sword, inspecting the edge. Leon wonders if that's going to be the end of the conversation, when Cloud goes on to say, "...Thanks for letting me know."

"Sure." Leon is quiet for a moment, before asking, "You want to come visit them, perhaps...? I think they'd like to see you."

The blonde is turned to the side so it's hard to see, but his expression darkens. "I've got something to take care of first."

Leon nods, unsure of how else to respond. Sometime later, when neither of them resumes speaking, Leon straightens and starts off to finish up his own business here at the Coliseum. He makes a quiet comment about seeing Cloud again some other time, but doesn't hear if he gets a response.

In the following years when Leon finds Cloud in the Coliseum, their conversations tend to go similarly. It's something, at least.

 

[ He meets a boy with a key, and a mage and a knight. Sora, the Keybearer, has a heart so big that wants to protect everything it can; a smile so bright that it blinds. Leon knows this kid deserves better than being the savior of the universe. He deserves to be happy.

"I'm...a little scared." Sora admits to him, one day while he's dropping off more dalmatian puppies. "I don't know what's going on, sometimes."

Leon can only imagine. Once again, he feels sorry for this boy who's been weighted down by a universe of problems. "I'd be surprised if you weren't scared. ...I think I would be too."

He’s done his best to keep Sora up to date on what he knows. Leon tries to word it so it's easy to pick up--it’s hard, when there’s so much happening and it all seems to involve twenty different things. Not to mention when Leon himself doesn’t have the entire picture yet.

Sora scuffs his shoe along the tile floor of the item shop, frowning. "...I feel like 'm letting people down. That I'm not saving worlds fast enough."

He doesn't know what to say to that. Not at first, anyway, and it's odd because it's been some time since his words have jumbled in his throat like this. It's only when he walks Sora back to the gummi ship that he finds his words.

“Sora…” He starts, hesitating as the teenager turns to him, eyes wide. He wets his lips, the words coming a little haltingly. “...You’re not letting anyone down. Not--not us, at least. You’re doing what you can with your Keyblade, which is more than anyone else can.” He shifts on his feet. “So it might not be easy, but...we’re with you.”

Sora searches Leon’s face for a long moment, mulling over those words. But then his face erupts into a smile--one Leon has seen so often on his face--and he laughs. “I’m just happy that I’m helping so many people. Thanks, Leon.”

Before Leon knows it, Sora has rushed forward to hug him. Just as quickly the boy is gone, and Leon is left standing in the gummi hangar, watching as Sora and his companions fly off to another world. ]

 

Hollow Bastion is as different from the way the world was when they left as it possibly could be. Heartless are still wandering around, in spite of what Sora has done to eradicate them. There's hardly anything remaining of the town--some destroyed outer walls, the ruins of buildings and homes and lives that were destroyed in the mayhem ten years ago, but not much else. The once grand castle overlooking the town ruins is in poor shape on top of that.

A few buildings have managed to retain some tiny thread of structural integrity, so they take to searching them for what they can. There's a couple houses that are completely trashed--the inside smells of wood rot and mildew, and whatever personal effects could have been saved have been torn to shreds by Heartless claws. One of the better off structures is what remains of Merlin's house (Leon only knows because that fogey old wizard bent his ear about what it was like before they made the trip back), though a lot of repairs will have to be made if the old man ever wants to move back in.

The last of the buildings is what appears to be an old bar on the outskirts of town. What might have been living quarters above the storefront have been swiped away, and half of it is open to the elements. Leon inspects what remains of the cabinets behind the counter; he produces a few miraculously untouched bottles of wine, but grimaces as he opens them all to find that the contents have all gone bad long ago. He sneezes as the smell hits his sinuses, sending dust swirling through the air.

Cid drops heavily into a bar stool, Yuffie and Aerith doing the same barely two minutes later. Leon continues to rummage as they peer around the dilapidated building. “This brings back some memories.” Cid says. “I came by this place a lot before the world fell.”

Leon makes a quiet, interested noise, glancing in Cid’s direction.

“Lady who originally owned this place was a right beauty—she died before any of you were around.” Cid scrubs at his stubble. “Place could be in worse shape, I guess.”

"The whole town is in worse condition than I thought." Aerith breaks in, brows drawing together. "I guess that's to be expected, but..."

"Kinda different seeing all of it in person." Cid agrees. He chews the end of his toothpick a little more harshly. "Looks like we're building from the ground up, kids."

Leon tugs roughly on one cabinet door below the counter, grunting as he finds it sticking. He tugs a bit harder, putting his weight into it; the door gives way, and Leon is sent sprawling back into the cabinets opposite the counter with a pained noise. He waves off the others' concern, brushes off the dust he finds himself covered in, and peers into the cabinet.

"Got something." He says, fishing out a squat bottle of amber-colored liquid. When he brushes a thumb across the label, he finds that it's a bottle of brandy. Leon sets the bottle down. “Cid, help me find some glasses.”

The older man grumbles a bit, but seems as ready for a drink as Leon is. He even seems excited about the kind of brandy Leon’s found. Yuffie wrinkles her nose, and Aerith huffs a breathy laugh at the expression.

There’s no clean or even unbroken glasses in the destroyed bar, so Cid wanders back to his ship for the tin ones they brought with their supplies. Silence takes over until he gets back, everyone too tired to do more than sit and wait.

“Yuffie, are you even old enough to drink?” Cid asks as he trudges back, four cups held in his hands.

“I doubt anyone is going to be able to enforce the drinking age around here.” Leon mumbles to no one in particular. He gets the bottle opened, pouring a fair amount into three of the cups and a little less into the last. Leon slides this one to Yuffie, leaving Cid and Aerith to take the others.

At her first sip Yuffie makes a face and her head whips from side to side in displeasure, prompting laughter from the other three.

She slides the cup back to Leon. “I think I’ll like alcohol more if it doesn’t actually taste like alcohol.”

“Aw, this is the stuff that’ll put hair on your chest!” Cid says, nudging her.

“I don’t want hair on my chest!” Yuffie complains.

Aerith knocks back the rest of her drink before laughing right along with Cid. Even Leon has to crack a small smile as he leans onto the counter.

They talk a little before heading back to the ship, trying to get a handle on just what they should do. Hollow Bastion is in worse shape than they ever imagined—it’ll take a lot of work to get it back to the way it was. But Leon is hopeful about what they can accomplish.

 

[ The barracks for the castle guards are at least mostly salvageable as is, so Leon and the others find it suitable for their temporary shelter as they begin the long and arduous task of rebuilding their world. In their searching, they find some blueprints for a few features from the original town and the castle; he and Cid spend many sleepless nights to organize them and come up with plans for the town's rebuilding.

The first weeks are spent clearing out the ruins of the town and the castle, disposing of what’s unusable and marking out where things will be built. All of them spend many long days in the hot summer sun working, hauling things to and fro, building temporary structures to be built upon later.

Cloud appears, after a little while. They all welcome him back with open arms and scarce questions about where he’s been, and he’s put to work just like the rest of them. The blonde is still distant, and sometimes it seems like he gets quieter with every passing day. Leon finds that he isn’t the only one sometimes watching Cloud from behind as the blonde works, but he’s the one who does it the most. Sometimes, he catches Cloud doing the same to him.

Soon, buildings begin to take shape, the beginnings of the reborn town rising up from where ruins once stood. Cid begins to bring back citizens that had been in Traverse Town, and Hollow Bastion starts to feel lively once again. Slowly, Leon feels as if he really is making good on his promise to fix things—to make up for not being able to stop their home from falling to darkness so many years ago.  

Eventually Leon gains access to a computer terminal in the castle guards’ operations center and gets the town security system back online. The patrol routes that have been set up are altered to account for what won’t be covered with the security system, but the changes are soon ironed out. The computer system is a treasure trove of data about the town before it fell, and it makes the reconstruction effort much easier.

It’s slow progress, but their world is on the mend. ]

 

Six months have come and gone since they returned to Hollow Bastion. Aerith and Leon have managed to get Yuffie to start planning another fake birthday.

Cid’s been made aware of this whole charade by now—this will be the ninth fake birthday Leon’s had in four and a half years and the old man had been getting suspicious after the second—so it’s easier to pull it off now that everyone is involved. It’s also been a long month, so something to celebrate is warranted.

Cloud has started to come and go from town, to the girls’ dismay. He’s not as harsh as Leon remembers him being that day when Leon first found him in the Coliseum years ago, but he’s still unnaturally quiet. Aerith and Yuffie try to hide their concern, but Leon quickly picks up that they worry Cloud will leave again and never come back this time. Tifa, who had recently returned to Hollow Bastion, shares their concern and tends to hover close to Cloud every time he reappears in town. Leon gets the feeling he might leave the way he did when everything went to pieces again, but he doesn’t want to make the girls worry.

But today is meant to be a cheerful day. Yuffie’s been organizing for about a week (Aerith thought it would be nice to give her a chance to really do a big party for a change, now that they’re home) and the big day has finally come around. It’s been fun watching the ninja run around the house, trying to hide all of her party supplies from him in an attempt to keep it a surprise.

Leon wonders if this will be the one where she finds out--he’s been thinking about that for the last few parties. He tries to imagine how she’ll react to learning that he’s managed to get nine fake birthdays out her. He can’t help but laugh to himself as he does.

Cloud gives him a suspicious look over their construction work for the morning, eyes narrowing. “What’s got you laughing?”

“Nothing.” Leon says. He gestures to their building materials. “Hand me the next stone, please.”

The blonde hands it over, and the two fall into silence once again as they both resume their work. The bailey is all but finished, and once it is then their group can turn their attention back to the castle. Leon and Cloud spend the majority of the morning continuing to build up one of the few perimeter walls that still need to be built in the area.

Aerith finds them at about lunch time where she’d left Leon earlier in the morning. She calls them down from their perches to eat the meal she’s brought them.

“Leon,” She says as she sets out their food, “Yuffie told me earlier that she wanted the party to be an early dinner sort of thing, so you’ll both want to go get cleaned up at about mid-afternoon.”

Leon hums into his canteen, ignoring the look Cloud gives them both.

“Party? What party?”

Aerith smiles knowingly, winking at Leon. “Birthday party for Leon.”

Cloud frowns. “Really? Already?” When Leon nods, Cloud makes an irritated noise. "Man, thought I was keeping track of time better while I've been travelling."

Leon shrugs. The blonde makes a small ‘huh’ noise, before agreeing to do as Aerith suggested. Something seems to occur to Cloud a few minutes later, however, and he pauses in standing up to resume working.

“Wait a second--it’s October.”

“And?” Leon rises to his feet, stretching out his arms.

Cloud purses his lips. “You told me your birthday was in late August.”

Aerith and Leon both turn to Cloud now, watching the blonde as realization dawns on his face. It’s actually a very comical series of expressions that cross Cloud’s face, and Leon finds himself chuckling again as Cloud gets to his feet.

“You--!” He starts, his face steadily turning redder. “You sticky-fingered Heartless!

Leon is finding it hard not to laugh. “Yes, Cloud?”

“You stole my idea!” Cloud sounds honestly offended at the notion. “You said it was stupid, and then you stole it!”

Aerith is doubled over with giggles now, and Leon rolls his eyes. He crosses his arms. “Well, it’s not like you’ve had a chance to use it. And besides, it was less of a prank and more to give Yuffie reason to throw a party every so often.”

The jab is meant to be good natured--a brief nod to Cloud’s absence in their lives for ten years. Cloud’s face falls just a hair and a look of understanding flits across his face. The blonde huffs angrily, and settles for punching Leon in the arm.

“Asshole.”

Leon just shrugs, not willing to argue the point.

Aerith bids them farewell and leaves them to continue their work for the afternoon. The time is spent mostly in silence, something that pervades most conversations Leon and Cloud have. (Leon is thankful--he’s getting better, but his small talk skills still leave something to be desired.)

As they finish up for the day, Cloud asks, “...How long have you been doing it?”

Leon frowns, not following. “What?”

“How long have you been getting Yuffie to do these birthdays for you?”

Leon straightens, settling his hands on his hips. “...Four and a half years.”

“And how many…?” Cloud tries to sound impassive, but the curiosity on his face betrays his interest.

Leon smiles, wider than usual. “This will be the ninth.”

A look of pure delight flickers across Cloud's face, something reminiscent of the cadet he once was. It's an arresting sight, and Leon is rooted to the spot he's standing for several long moments.

Cloud turns pink under Leon's stare. "What?"

Leon shakes his head a little, turning pink himself. "Nothing. Sorry. We should get a move on."

Cloud agrees, and murmurs a quiet comment about the impressive length of time this prank has been going on for.

They arrive to a chorus of greetings from around the barracks, and orders from Yuffie to get cleaned up. By the time Leon emerges fresh-faced from his quarters, the entire commissary has been transformed into one overly-streamered mess. Yuffie, Aerith, and Cid are all wearing their usual party hats. It seems they’ve gotten Cloud in on the fun as well, because he has a hat hanging precariously on his head and a party horn in his mouth that he blows on half-heartedly.

“Happy birthday, you old geezer!” Yuffie shouts once they’ve finished singing and Aerith gestures for them all to sit at the table. “How old are you now, anyway?”

Leon’s 28, but he’s been changing the number every time to help keep up the illusion. “Pretty sure this is 27.”

Yuffie looks a little horrified. “Wait, what? You don’t look 27!”

Leon reaches over and pinches her nose. “What your mouth, kid.”

A round of laughs erupts throughout the room, and they settle down to dinner. It’s comprised mostly of Leon’s favorites, some that he hasn’t actually had since they left this world a decade ago. It’s the nicest of these little parties that they’ve had so far, and it’s even better now that it’s actually back in Hollow Bastion.

Yuffie had demanded they all get presents for Leon, since up till now they haven’t really been able to. Cid and Aerith get him more practical gifts: new cleaning supplies for his gunblade, and a few books on programming for when he works with the castle computer. Yuffie cracks up laughing as he opens her gift to find two new belts. He doesn’t know why he expected anything else.

All eyes turn to Cloud, who shrugs. He doesn't look particularly upset as he says, “I didn’t get you anything. Didn’t know this was happening.”

Leon manages to hide his snort of laughter fairly well. “That’s alright.”

They settle into dessert shortly after. Tifa arrives with Merlin, who’d moved back along with most of the other residents of Hollow Bastion, and both are gifted with slices of cake as well. Conversation shifts to the town’s restoration pretty quickly at that, a conversation Leon can break into easily.

Partway through his explanation of what needs to be done throughout the rest of the castle, Yuffie interrupts.

“Hey--I just thought of something.” She tilts her head as everyone turns to her. “I know we’re already this group working on fixing Hollow Bastion, but isn’t it time we actually make it official?”

“How do you mean?” Tifa tilts her head, curiosity written all over her face.

“Oh, I think I get it.” Aerith hums. “Come up with a name for our group, be organized about it. Maybe then we’ll get the townspeople to volunteer more often. We’ve started to have fewer people come by to assist.”

Merlin strokes his beard in thought. “Perhaps. Like a committee?”

Leon leans back in his chair. “Well, we do all have a say in what projects we work on. If we don’t agree on it, then we either haven’t been doing it, or compromise on it. Sounds like a committee to me.”

They fall quiet for a moment. Cid leans back in his chair, swirling his cup of whiskey. (He’d found an old stash of more liquor with that old duck, and was slowly whittling away at it.) “The ‘Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee’ sure does have a nice ring to it.”

There’s some quiet murmurs around the table, and it seems the matter is settled. The Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee is born.

Sometime later, Merlin excuses himself to go home for the evening. Tifa follows after him not much later. Yuffie is yawning all the way back to her quarters, Cid grumbling about being too old to stay up late. Aerith stays with Cloud and Leon in the commissary as they clean up the birthday decorations, filling the silence the two men leave with idle chatter about the flowers she’s started to grow in town.

Once she’s left for bed, Leon brings out his bottle of brandy, holding it up for Cloud to see. The blonde nods and Leon pours two glasses.

Silence fills the space between them for some time, before Cloud finally speaks.

“...So, do you remember a lot of our conversations from when we were cadets?”

Leon glances up from his glass, mouth open just slightly. He rubs the back of his neck as he says, “Some of them, but not very well. Just snippets, really.”

Cloud makes a quiet noise. “Do you remember anything specific…?”

Leon purses his lips. “The birthday thing. Your stories about the trouble you used to get into with Yuffie and Tifa as a kid.” He thinks for a moment. “You talked a lot about that yearly festival in town, right before you left. I don’t know why, I always thought it was kind of dull.”

Cloud snorts into his drink, shaking his head. “Yeah, I wonder why.”

Leon frowns. “What’s so funny?”

Cloud heaves a breath, smile still dancing around his mouth as he meets Leon’s eye. Tongue in his cheek, he says, “Nothing. Just…remembering.”

It certainly doesn’t seem to be nothing. Leon decides not to pursue it.

“You’re a lot different now.” Cloud goes on, finishing his drink. “You talk more. For a while back then, I thought you didn’t know how.”

That earns Cloud a smile. Leon rolls his eyes. “You and everyone else.”

“I dunno. Kinda liked that about you back then. Tifa used to say it made you mysterious.”

The brunette pauses, glancing up at Cloud. The blonde isn’t looking his way, as if on purpose. Leon feels his face flush.

“Have I ruined that illusion now that I’m not silent?”

“Yup.” Cloud shoots him a mischievous smile. “Still like you, though.”

Leon rolls his eyes, shaking his head.

They talk for a little while longer, about the things they (mostly Cloud) got up to as cadets. Leon thinks he has a better idea of why Cloud tried to hang out with him so much—something about liking who Squall was, how dedicated he was—and the whole conversation leaves Leon feeling light.

They head to their own beds no much later, parting ways at the door. Leon can feel Cloud’s eyes on him as he shuts the door behind him.

 

[ Cloud is gone again about a week later. They can all tell that Leon thought this was going to happen, but the only one who seems angry about it is Tifa. She leaves Hollow Bastion after having sucker punched Leon in the stomach. (He’s in a constant state of forgetting just how strong she is. Leon’s wheezing for two days after she leaves.)

Their committee goes from seven members to five almost overnight. Cloud and Tifa’s committee membership cards end up sitting on the computer console in Merlin’s house for months. Both of them flit into and out of town on occasion, but never collect their cards.

Another six months have passed before long. With a start, one day, he realizes that he’d somehow forgotten Sora and the others. Although he chalks it up to how busy he’s been with the reconstruction, unease settles into the back of his mind. One evening, he pulls Merlin aside and asks him to make three more committee membership cards. Merlin just gives him a knowing smile, winking and tapping the side of his nose in a quaint kind of way. In the blink of an eye, Leon is holding three cards emblazoned with the words Honorary Member.

He quickly pens in the proper names, and places them next to Cloud and Tifa’s. He’ll have to make sure they get to their proper owners. ]

 

[ Sora’s sprouted up like a weed since Leon last saw him, and it looks like he’s being pulled in about fifty different directions. The teen seems excited about his membership card, though, and is quick to thank Leon for it.

Leon just smiles and nods. “No problem.”

Sora beams, waving as he heads off on his next big adventure with a promise to come back. Leon settles his hands on his hips, unable to help the smile on his face.

That kid sure is something. He’s really grown into his role as a Master--maybe Leon doesn’t have to worry about him so much any more.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Leon from nearly having a heart attack when Sora finds himself trapped in the castle computer. They get control of the system again because of it, but Leon definitely lost ten years off his life as he watched Sora and his friends vanishing right before his eyes. ]

 

[ The fairies are becoming a thorn in his side.

He’d been understandably confused when they appeared before him and demanded he hand over any “treasure” he may have. A bit of explaining convinced them pretty quickly to help the committee without demanding payment, and hopefully the explanation he’d given of Sora’s mission would keep them off the teen’s back as well.

But the blonde one has taken to tugging sharply on Leon’s hair when she wants his attention, and the silver-haired one tends to outright ignore him when he tries to talk to her. The brunette--Yuna, he learns is her name--is the only one actively helping him around the castle. She flies along after him, handing him tools while he’s working and holds his flashlight when he needs it to shine on hard-to-reach places. She’s certainly the friendliest of the three, too.

The Gullwings just need to stop flying up behind him silently and startling him. Yuffie does that enough as is, so he does not need three more wandering around.

Leon’s getting too old for this. (And then he realizes that he’s starting to sound like Cid, and he winces.) ]

 

The Battle of a Thousand Heartless did not leave Hollow Bastion—well, Radiant Garden, as they all remember now—as bad off as they’d thought. Not even the town’s computer systems going haywire put as much of a damper on the restoration as Leon might have thought it would. He knows Sora is to thank for that, and he’ll have to do so the next time he sees the teenager.

It’s been a little over two months since both events, and life seems to have returned to the lull it had been in before Sora came back into their lives. They’re missing Cloud still, but most everything is moving as smoothly as it had been.

Leon is in the middle of hauling a fresh set of wood beams to the next building being restored when there’s excited shouting from the edge of town. It’s easy to hear that Yuffie is involved (her voice tends to carry whenever she’s excited), and the noise persists long enough to draw Leon away from his work and to the source.

It takes a moment for Leon to see what's happening because the ninja is hopping up and down on her feet and obscuring his view, but soon he realizes that she and Tifa are walking Cloud back into town. The blonde is honest to god smiling, his face brightened as he laughs quietly at whatever Tifa is saying. Leon swallows thickly, rooted in place as it hits him just how beautiful that smile is.

The trio draws closer, and when they’re a few feet away Tifa notices him.

“Oh! Leon, hey.” She beams, clapping Cloud on the shoulder. “Look what turned up!”

Cloud meets Leon’s gaze and nods.

Leon nods back. “Uh. Hi.”

“Hey.”

Yuffie rolls her eyes. “You two are made for each other.”

Cloud turns pink, as does Leon. Cloud is the one who splutters out a quiet, “Wh—what is that supposed to mean?”

Tifa just laughs, smile spread from ear to ear. “We’re dragging Cloud back to Merlin’s to get him settled. You wanna knock off early today and join us?”

If he were anyone else, he’d probably take them up on that offer. But it’s Leon.

“I have to—“ He starts, gesturing weakly back to where he had left he beams.

Tifa rolls her eyes and waves a hand. “Right, forgot who I was talking to. We’ll see you later for dinner, then.”

Leon nods a little, watching as the others turn to go. As they get about halfway down the street, Cloud turns back and waves at the girls before heading back to where Leon is still standing, a little dumbfounded.

“I thought you were going to Merlin’s...?” Leon starts.

Cloud shrugs. “Didn’t want to go back just yet. Figured I could help you some.”

“Oh. Right.”

Leon leads Cloud back to the work site, the entire time hyper aware of himself. He’s not sure why he’s acting like this all of a sudden; he’s known that several people he knows are attractive. This is maybe the first time it’s hit him this way, and it’s probably just because Cloud’s been in and out of his life so much that he’s realized it so suddenly.

“What’s wrong?” Cloud asks eventually, when it’s become obvious that Leon is distracted. They’ve made short work of moving everything, and Leon has decided that maybe he should take off early.

“Oh—nothing. Nothing. It’s fine.”

Cloud purses his lips and gives Leon a look, but doesn’t comment on it. Instead, he lets their hands brush together briefly as they walk. The blonde grips Leon’s hand the second time they brush together. “Sorry, by the way.”

Leon opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, before quietly saying, “For what?”

Cloud watches him, his eyes wandering over Leon’s face. After a moment he smiles and squeezes Leon’s hand. Leon feels his heart beat double-time in his chest.

Cloud releases his hand, leading the way back to Merlin’s house. Leon is left standing slack-jawed in the pathway, staring after him. He spends the rest of the evening trying to wrap his mind around just what he’s feeling.

  

[ “...You’re daydreaming, Leon.”

“What? No.”

“...”

“Aerith, are you going to hand me that wrench or not?”

“What’s got you so distracted lately?”

“Nothing. Now give me the wrench.”

“You’re certainly being defensive for someone who says it’s nothing.”

“Aerith--”

“--What, you got a crush or something?”

“...”

“You’re turning pretty red, Leon!”

“--If you’re not going to actually help me with fixing this piping, Aerith, you should find something else to do.”

“Alright, but next time I’ll be asking about who it is~!”

“...” She’s terrifying when she wants to be. ]

 

[Leon, may I ask a personal query ?’

Leon raises a brow and pauses in his typing. Tron’s been pretty talkative since he apparently took over the computer from the Master Control Program. “Shoot.”

Tron does not say anything.

“Oh. That means yes, you can.”

I see. More User language?

“Kind of.” Leon goes back to the keyboard to resume his work. “What’s the question?”

I noticed your file in the computer system, listing you as a cadet here at the castle before Radiant Garden fell ten years ago. Something about it must be incorrect.

Leon pulls up the file in question and filters through it. “Looks right to me.”

I see...the reason for my query is it has come to my attention that Yuffie has begun mentioning that your birthday is soon. However, it is only May, while records indicate that your birthday is the 23rd of August.

It takes Leon a moment to realize that he’ll have to explain himself to a computer program. When he does, he heaves a long-suffering sigh and rubs a hand over his face.

“Tron...it’s…” He sighs again.

For the next twenty minutes Leon tries to explain the fake birthdays to Tron, who definitely doesn’t seem to understand the reasoning behind it all. The concept of a prank seems to elude him; to be fair, though, this whole thing doesn’t fit the normal definition of a prank in the slightest.

Eventually, Leon says, “Just...please don’t tell Yuffie. For now, at least.”

Very well. Thank you for your assistance, Leon.

Leon nods, happy that the matter seems to be settled. He glances down at his papers--detailing the program he wants to build that would allow Tron to become something like a town-wide AI system--and resumes his typing.

This is what you Users would call a ‘secret’, yes?

Leon pauses, blinking. “Well...yes, yes it is.”

Tron makes a noise--it sounds slightly tinny through the computer’s speakers, so Leon can’t quite tell what it means. He thinks it might be excited. ‘ I see. I will happily keep this ‘secret’ for you, then.

The first thing Leon thinks of is how proud Sora would be of his computer program friend. ]

 

It’s early in the morning, but the majority of the committee is already starting their day. Leon, Cloud, and Cid are in for another day of rebuilding with the assistance of the old guards who reappeared in Ansem’s lab; things are coming along nicely, but there’s still things to be built if they ever hope to have the town better than what it was.

Leon is always the earliest riser, starting his day before everyone else so he can be sure to finish his list of projects for the day. He’d begun by doing the sunrise patrol around town, dispatching any nearby Heartless and guiding new arrivals to town to their destinations. By the time he’s finished, the sun has risen above the wall surrounding the town proper and breakfast is waiting for him when he gets back to Merlin’s house.

The old wizard’s home has been remodeled to accommodate the six people that Merlin begrudgingly found himself living with. It’s currently the tallest building in town, barring the castle, with enough space to fit the main committee members. Aerith and Cloud are the only ones in the kitchen when Leon steps inside and they greet him cordially. Soon he’s sitting down to a modest meal and a cup of coffee.

As he eats, Leon catalogues the remainder of his daily list in his mind. There’s more programming work to be done on the castle computer, a few roofs to be fixed, and then the fountain in the square has sprung a leak. The fountain will take up most of Leon’s day, he knows, so he’ll just have to get on the roofing work as soon as he can. Cloud and the others will just have to do the construction tasks on their own.

Leon’s about to stand and put away his dishes when Cloud abruptly takes them for him.

“I got it.” The blonde says. “Get some more water before you go out, it’s supposed to be hot today.”

Leon’s brows draw together, and he blinks. “Okay.”

“You off?” Aerith asks, glancing up from her own chore list.

Cloud nods. “Yep. Roofs in the eastern section need repair. I’ll be back for lunch, though.”

Leon tilts his head as Cloud leaves. He wasn’t sure how Cloud knew that was on his list of things to do--the blonde does that a lot as of late. He seems to work out what the smaller projects Leon needs to do on any given day, often taking care of them himself. Leon appreciates the assistance because that often means he could focus on the big, immediate problems for as long as he needs to. He’s still just a bit puzzled about how Cloud works it all out.

Aerith huffs as Cloud disappears down the street. “He doesn’t drop everything to do things on my list.” She grumbles, but as always she still sounds good natured about it. She shoots Leon a pointed look. “You, Leon, are one lucky guy.”

“...I’m not sure I follow.”

Aerith just shrugs. “Never mind. It’s not important.”

Leon purses his lips. He’s not sure he likes how much Aerith has been implying something is going on between himself and Cloud lately. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s nothing actually going on between them.

At least, not that Leon’s aware of.

Leon’s aware that Cloud is attractive, and as of late he’s been increasingly aware of how much time he spends thinking about the blonde, watching him. He’s never actively pursued any kind of relationship—first he didn’t care to have one, and then he’s been a little too preoccupied with other things to even think about romance. He’s not sure where to begin, or if it’d be too forward to outright ask Cloud. But, that’s something to worry about later. He has work to do.

With a shake of his head, Leon rearranges his list of tasks and finishes his water. Yuffie and Cid come downstairs while Leon is doing this, eating their own breakfasts and chatting amiably.

“Oh, where’s Cloud?” Yuffie asks. “I had something I wanted to talk to him about.”

“He left already.” Leon says.

When Yuffie gives him a puzzled look, Aerith chimes in. “He’s taking care of some roofs for Leon this morning. He said he’d be back at lunch.”

Yuffie rolls her eyes. “Ugh, why am I not surprised.”

Leon’s brows draw together as he scowls. “Not surprised by what, Yuffie?”

She makes a noise with her teeth. “You’re a walnut, Leon--you won’t get it.”

Leon gestures vaguely with his hands, looking to Cid for help.

The older man makes a face. “Don’t you get me involved in that nonsense.”

Leon should have expected that response. He eventually just sighs, rubbing his temple. “Look—if this is about you both continually implying that something is happening with Cloud and I, nothing’s happening. So you both can stop.”

There’s a moment of quiet, before the girls exchange looks and heave sighs of resignation.

“Spoken like a true walnut.” Yuffie shakes her head. “And here I was, thinking you’d gotten better. Oh, well, guess I was wrong.”

“You can’t win them all.” Aerith says.

Leon stands and starts for the door. Behind him, he hears Tifa enter the room.

“What have I missed?” She asks.

“Leon being stupid.” He hears Yuffie say. He shoves the door open and strides off towards the fountain as quickly as he can.

In the following days, though, Leon takes notice of just how often Cloud drops what he’s doing to take things off of his plate. It’s definitely more often than he’d thought.

How curious.

 

[ “Hey, Captain Tight Pants.”

“...” Leon, for not the first time today, would like to wring Lea’s neck. He won’t, because Sora and the others need him--but Leon wants to.

“What are you glaring at me for? It’s true.”

“...”

“Anyway, Kairi said you needed me to help out around the castle today. Restoring….something or other.”

“...”

“Not sure why you want me helping out. Merlin’s got me working to the bone learning this Keyblade business, so it’s not like I can help you all out very much.”

“...”

“What would I be getting out of it, anyway?”

“...”

“...You know, for someone who pretends to not have emotions, you have an extremely expressive face.”

“...”

“Okay, yeah, I’ll shut up and get to work. Sheesh, no need to be pissy about it.”

“...” ]

 

Cloud finds him one afternoon in what was once the castle lawn, where they used to sit so many years ago. He drops to sit next to Leon, leaning back to bathe in the sunlight.

Leon glances up from the blueprints he’s been altering. “Something you need?”

“Company, but not much otherwise.” Cloud smiles faintly. “This feels familiar, huh?”

Leon makes a noise of agreement. “Guess I should be quiet to really make it feel like how things used to be.”

Cloud snorts and gives Leon a look, and seems surprised to find Leon giving him a mischievous sort of smile. He laughs quietly, shaking his head.

“What?” Leon asks.

“Nothing, just--thinking about how I’d have responded if I’d seen this side of you when we were cadets.”

Leon shrugs. “Dunno if it existed back then.”

“It could have. Maybe it was just buried really deeply under your scowl.”

Leon rolls his eyes, but can’t help the smile that tugs at his mouth.

It’s been not quite two years since they returned to Radiant Garden, just a little bit longer since Sora entered their lives and started to turn things around. So much progress has been made towards fixing their town, and sometimes Leon still can’t quite believe they’ve gotten as far as they have.

Cloud still has his quiet days, when something haunts his mind and he doesn’t speak very much. But those days are few and far between now; in general, he seems as though he’s had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. Leon still doesn’t know all the details of what’s happened in Cloud’s life, and to be honest he’s okay with that. Whatever it was, it’s in the past.

Leon pauses in his work for a moment, letting his mind wander. Cloud perks up as his companion goes still, watching him curiously.

“Something wrong?”

“No. I’m just...thinking about things.”

“Sounds pretty dangerous.” Cloud mumbles, trying to joke about it. “You sure you oughta think that hard?”

Leon reaches over and shoves at him. “I could say the same about you.”

“No, but what’s on your mind?” Cloud rests back on his elbows. “Maybe I could help.”

Leon sits back a little, not sure how to phrase it. Eventually he says, “I’m just a bit surprised at how different I was, the last time we sat here like this.”

Cloud is quiet for a long moment. “Yeah, you were a bit of an ass.”

Leon gives him a look.

“Well, you were still okay. Just really quiet and rude.”

“Says the arrogant one who only ever talked about himself.”

Cloud blinks. “What?”

“For a while, all you ever did was talk about yourself. Bragging about how great you were in training, how good your grades were. I tuned a lot of that out eventually.”

Cloud looks stricken. “...I was trying to impress you.”

Now it’s Leon’s turn to blink, confused.

“I was trying to make you think I was cool. ...I’m guessing that didn’t work.”

“Not really, no. I thought you were pretty full of yourself at first.”

Cloud makes a displeased noise. “Well damn. No wonder…” When Leon frowns at him, he continues. “I did a lot of stuff to impress you. Try to get you to talk to me. I thought I’d gotten on your good side.”

“You were more tolerable than anyone else, if that makes you feel better.”

The blonde sighs. “Right. Because I wanted to be tolerable.”

Leon wants to say something, but for several long minutes he can’t seem to find the right words. Eventually, he says, “Why did you ever try to be friends with me? I never really figured it out.”

Cloud raises an eyebrow. “What do you think the reason was?”

He thinks it over for a little bit. “I assumed it was because we were some of the stronger cadets. From what I could tell, you were wanting to be the best in our class.”

Cloud’s eyes close, and he nods. Based on his expression, Leon can tell that his original assumption was wrong.

“Was I really that far off?”

The blonde sighs. “Well, considering that I was trying to flirt with you...”

Leon feels some of the color drain from his face. He makes a quiet noise, not sure he understands.

“Trying to impress you? Talking about going to the spring festival and hoping to see you there?” Cloud sits up, tilting his head to watch Leon’s expression turn embarrassed. “I figured you might not have been interested, but you were really just that oblivious to it.”

Leon feels his ears turn red. “The festival talk was…?”

“Me trying to ask you out, yeah.” Cloud bites the inside of his lip, a smile dancing in his eyes. “To be fair to you, I wasn’t exactly being obvious.”

Leon drops his head into his hands. He’s not sure he’s ever felt this embarrassed in his entire life.

“…You okay?”

“…”

“…Just realizing that it’s taken you over ten years to figure out that I was flirting with you?” It’s clear that Cloud is trying his best not to burst out laughing.

“Yep.” Leon says, quietly.

Cloud leans over enough to drop his forehead on Leon’s shoulder, unable to hold his laughter in any more. Leon is smiling in spite of himself, shaking his head.

“Well, I’m still interested now.” Cloud eventually manages. “If that’s something you’d want.”

Leon sighs, trying to rid himself of the embarrassment lingering in his mind. He smiles, and his hand finds the blonde’s. He squeezes. “I’d like that.”

They walk hand in hand back to Merlin’s, smiles soft.

(Halfway to Merlin’s, Leon groans, realizing just why Yuffie’s been calling him a walnut recently. He groans loudly, and it doesn’t help that Cloud bursts out laughing when he explains.

Cloud’s beaming smile is one of the most beautiful things Leon has ever seen.)

 

[ “Hey, Lea.”

The redhead blinks, glancing up from the book Merlin had shoved into his hands as Leon approaches. His expression sours, just a little—Lea and Leon have always tended to rub each other the wrong way, though some uneasy truce has settled between them now. Leon tolerates the other’s jokes more at the very least.

“Leon. You got something else you want me to drop everything for?”

Leon shakes his head, rummaging in his jacket pocket for a second. “No. Got a present for you, though.”

Lea’s eyes go wide when Leon holds out an honorary committee member card, the redhead’s name written on it in Leon’s careful handwriting. He takes it gingerly, as if it might explode in his hands, and stares down at it.

After an uneasy moment of silence, Leon says, “You’ve helped out around here enough to warrant an honorary membership, same as Kairi—it’s made the restoration go by at least a little faster, and we appreciate your work. So...thought you might want the card to make it official.”

Lea still doesn’t really respond, but his grip on the card tightens. When Leon tilts his head to look at the redhead’s face, Lea looks to be on the verge of tears.

“…Are you crying?”

No.” Lea say defensively, though the effect he wants is ruined by the way his voice cracks slightly at the end of the word.

Leon tries not to smile too widely. He lets out a breath, clapping Lea on the shoulder as he starts off to the front of the house. “Thanks again, Lea.”

When he glances back, Lea is wiping at his slightly splotchy face and shoving the card into his coat. ]

  

It's been two years since the Restoration Committee was officially formed, not quite three since they came back to their world. The battle for the Light is still underway, but Sora’s assured Leon that everything is going to be fine. Leon’s been trusting Sora since the beginning of this fight, so he’s inclined to believe what he’s told.

Radiant Garden seems to be at the eye of the storm, a calm oasis surrounded by worlds in turmoil. Leon’s focus as of late has been to take preventative measures to ensure that this place won’t fall again to Xehanort or his lackeys. It’s been a tough job so far, but everyone in the committee is going above and beyond their usual duties to be prepared.

Cloud’s quiet but constant support at his side is one of the things that Leon has appreciated the most.

The patrol schedule and tension filling the streets of town is reminiscent of the years spent in Traverse Town. They haven’t gotten to the point where they don’t celebrate birthdays again, but Leon knows that they could do so very easily. In any case, it’s about time for everyone to get Yuffie to throw another fake birthday party for Leon.

The day of the party also happens to be the day that Riku and Mickey return from the Realm of Darkness with the missing Master Aqua. The trio stumbles into Merlin’s house as they’re slicing the cake, and the party grinds to a sudden halt. Sora and Kairi are almost instantly at Riku’s side, guiding him to a chair and quickly doing the same for the others.

The celebration is put on hold as Aerith and Kairi tend to Aqua, and everyone listens to Riku and Mickey’s tale. It puts a somber mood over the whole room, but the relief in the air is also palpable. Leon’s aware that this is a big step on the way to securing victory for their side of this conflict, and it seems that everyone else is aware of it, too.

Aqua soon falls asleep on one of the couches in the room, draped in three blankets to keep her warm. Riku and Mickey have collapsed on the couch opposite her, leaving Kairi and Sora to perch close by to be near their friend.

“Well,” Kairi says, patting Riku’s knee gently once their story has concluded, “We’re glad the three of you made it out okay.”

Mickey hums a short set of notes, clearly happy that they survived the Realm of Darkness too. Aqua makes a quiet noise in her sleep, but doesn’t really stir.

“Sorry we ruined the party.” Riku mumbles, stifling a yawn. He takes the slice of cake Cid offers him but doesn’t immediately dig in.

“Nonsense!” Merlin crows. “We’re delighted that you could join us for the celebration.”

“You get to make fun of Leon being an old man with the rest of us.” Lea grins deviously, and Leon has to resist the urge to tell him off.

He catches Cloud and Aerith both smirking into their drinks. Leon feels one tugging at the corner of his own mouth. The group of people who knows about this has only grown as the years have passed, but it’s still just the three of them who get the biggest laughs out it.

“...Wait.” Everyone turns to see Riku frowning, looking more than a little horrified. “Were we really gone for a full year?

Everyone falls quiet.

“...What month is it.” Riku demands, sitting up straight.

“It’s April.” Tifa says. “It does feel like summer, though.”

Riku hurriedly turns to face his mouse friend. “Mickey, when did we leave?”

The mouse frowns. “I thought we left in early March.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.” Riku’s nose scrunches up as he thinks. “...Why is Leon getting another birthday party?”

Yuffie scoffs. “Please. As if he gets more than one party a year. He gets one, just like the rest of us.”

Cloud, who’s leaning against the counter next to Leon, has to hide his huge smile into his cup of coffee. Leon himself is miraculously keeping a straight face.

“But we had a party for him the last time we were here, before we left for the Realm of Darkness. It was like...December or something the last time we were in Radiant Garden, but we were here for it.”

Leon looks up to find that Mickey is watching him suspiciously. Leon pretends to be incredibly interested in his coffee, schooling his face into something innocent.

“Well, I know you guys were here for it.” Yuffie frowns. “But it wasn’t December.”

“Are you sure?” Lea’s got a dangerous tone to his voice now. It was clear that Lea had caught on to the charade in spite of not being told about it, and given his record of ruining surprises, it was only a matter of time before the redhead took the chance to let Yuffie in on the whole thing.

“Yeah, positive.” But now Yuffie’s looking lost. “I mean...I think so.”

“Was it before or after the Christmas tree?” Lea continues, grin widening on his face.

“I don’t remember.” Yuffie frowns, shoulders drooping.

Leon glances up to see Aerith turning away to hide her reddening face as she tries to hold back laughter. Tifa is chewing the inside of her lip, eyes scrunched closed. Mickey is boring holes into Leon’s skull while it’s clear that Riku is entirely lost.

Suddenly, Yuffie sucks in a sharp breath through her nose and her eyes go wide. She shoves her slice of cake at Cid, and shouts, “When is Leon’s birthday?”

She’s met with silence—well, as silent as it can be with six people trying to stifle their laughter.

From the computer terminal in the corner, Tron says, “Leon’s birthday is August 23rd.”

“How many of you knew about this?” Yuffie demands.

It’s easier to count the number of hands that don’t go up in response to the question—aside from Yuffie, only Mickey, Riku, and Aqua don’t move.

Yuffie’s face turns red, and almost instantly she’s jumped at Leon and is pounding her fists against him. “You ASSHOLE!”

The room erupts into sound as almost everyone starts to laugh, drowning out Leon’s quiet protests to the ninja’s attacks. Yuffie slowly relents, her eyes welling up with tears.

Quietly, Leon explains what’s been going on—that she’d been so disappointed that their ragtag group in Traverse Town had been so glum, and he hadn’t wanted to break the news that they’d missed his birthday by a whole month. So he’d lied, and kept it going to be sure that they would remember to not let the situation get to them as much as it had.

Yuffie sniffles, trying her best not to cry. Leon pulls her into a hug, apologizing to her for it all and promising not to do it again. She kicks him sharply in the shin.

“You better not, you jerk.” She grumbles. She swipes at her face again. “That’s the last birthday you’re getting for a few years.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Leon says.

Cloud knocks his arm against Leon’s, expression fond. “You’re such a sap, you know that?”

Leon meets Cloud’s gaze, smile tugging at his lips. Then, as Yuffie walks off, Leon says, “Oh, Yuffie, by the way—it was Cloud’s idea.”

“HEY!”