Disclaimer: I don't own FFVII, FFVIII or Kingdom Hearts. That credit goes to the brilliant mind of Tetsuya Nomura and the staff of Square Enix International.

Feathers on the Wind

For once, Merlin's place was quiet. Yuffie's usual antics and endless jabbering was absent, along with the girl herself. It had been another long day for the Radiant Garden Restoration Committee (just recently changed from 'Hollow Bastion') and those members who'd been out on patrol showed it. Leon, looking a bit scuffed-like a shoe someone dropped a brick on-lounged in a corner, lost in his thoughts. Aerith was off on a quick errand. Cid had just taken break from typing at his computer to fiddle with some of the parts he was collecting to fix one of his old machines. Merlin-more eccentric-looking than normal with his simple blue robe slightly scorched and his beard all in a frizz-occupied his ample time with his next batch of potions, humming merrily as he stirred and fiddled away.

Suddenly, there came a knock at the door. Since no one else seemed interested, Merlin harrumphed and went to answer it. "Ah, today's mail!" he exclaimed as he opened the door and accepted the sheaf of letters. "Thank you!" He backed away and awkwardly booted the door shut with a slipper-shod foot before sorting the mail. As he turned back towards the living areas he was muttering to himself about an upcoming meeting.

Once settled at the table, Merlin flicked his staff to make the tableware and his newly-added potbellied stove prepare a hot, steaming kettle of Earl Gray tea, opening the first letter. The letter's addressees (and, after a brief skim, its contents) made the old wizard fume and hunch his shoulders in annoyance. "Oh, hang it all! Another complaint about my magical research. Confound those ungrateful higher-class upstarts!" The letter flew over Merlin's shoulder, accompanied by more typical 'old fart' grumblings. "Those wicket-witted idiots and their prattling about the" (he shifted into a simpering tone) "'possible effects of noxious gases produced by your potentially hazardous activities'…Oh, I'll show them just what mumble…" The complaint letter was quickly followed by three more letters in rapid succession. "Bills…bills…bills…" The fourth Merlin kept. "Ah, a letter from Yen Sid—no doubt regarding Sora's victory. Ah, bless that lad; his heart's in the right place…" He paused, sending it off to his desk with another wave of his magical staff.

He stopped at the fifth letter abruptly with a frown and a wordless exclamation. After musing over it for a moment before he got up and turned towards the half of his house dedicated to the Committee's daily meetings. "Ah…Leon, my boy! Something came in the mail for you!" Merlin called, waving the letter as he descended the steps to his small parlor table and made his way towards the other half of the room. Then he paused and frowned beneath his beard, glancing at the name on the envelope again. "Er, that is, a-at least I think it's for you."

From his spot by the wall near Cid's computer, Leon grunted. "Why's that?"

"Well, it's addressed to a, ah, 'Squall Leonhart'. No return address; just the, ah, name. Might you know anyone by-?" Merlin faltered; Leon had raised his head so fast he'd almost given himself whiplash.

"What?" His voice was strained. The tone of it was like nothing Merlin had ever heard from him before.

Merlin let the hand holding the letter drop to his side. "Are…are you all right, m'boy?"

Leon stiffened, but then he shook his head as though warding off a headache. "Fine. And yes, that's for me."

Merlin frowned as Leon walked over. "Ah yes. Well…this is rather odd. Perhaps it's someone you know from your past," he remarked as he handed Leon the letter. "There have been some former residents who've returned lately, you know. Missing, I believe, since the Fall, correct?"

"Mm." Leon's noncommittal grunt was his only reply. He slit the letter open with his finger and retreated to his usual brooding spot over by the far wall, leaving Merlin scratching his head at the man's vague answer. Once the old wizard went off to his usual business (magic and, of course, making Cid cuss a blue streak), Leon opened the letter. Pulling out the single sheet of paper he found inside, he unfolded it and began to read. What he saw on the page made him freeze. No one noticed.

There was not much to see, just three simple sentences and a drawing of two angel wings, formed similar to a butterfly's. To anyone else it would be puzzling and leave them confused. But for Leon, it was something else entirely.

Squall, I'm alive.

Laguna and Elle are with me, and I'll be home soon.

The rest is a surprise, ok?

Love you.

His eyes felt wet all of a sudden; wet with unshed tears. He couldn't believe it. Barely realizing what he was doing, Leon traced the drawing with his fingers, letting a single name slip.

"Rinoa…"

There were literally years of heartache behind that name. He'd spent ten years—ten years-searching for her. Years of waiting and hoping since their world had fallen; now almost one since they'd come back.

He'd nursed nightmares in Traverse Town, seeing her vanish under the Heartless, or disappear into a black void, always crying his name—his worst-or watching her grow smaller and smaller as they took off, while their world fell—by contrast the mildest.

He'd had dreams, too, mostly of her voice, or her endearing smile, or her face. Some had been memories; but of all of them, one was the most prominent: that of her in a short, simple cream-colored dress, her finger raised in an obvious question at that SeeD cadet graduation ball where they'd met. "One dance?" she seemed to be asking with that one gesture, as the scene played over in his mind. He could remember her… unusual… greeting—she'd walked right up. "You're the best looking guy here. Dance with me?" His reply: "I can't dance." She'd smiled. "Oh, I see…you'll only dance with someone you like." She'd held up a finger and waved it back and forth in what was intended to be a hypnotic pattern. "You're-going-to-like-me, you're-going-to-like-me…Did it work?" Leon smiled to himself at the memory of the following—and rather embarrassing—dance; a waltz. Oh, he'd been clumsy, disastrously so because of his temperament back then, while she'd forgiven every stumble and misstep. That smile of hers—so endearing-had broken him and he'd given up not trying.

They'd met again just a few weeks later. When that sorceress from Esthar woke up from stasis and started a siege on Radiant Garden, they'd ended up fighting together. Along the way Rinoa had taught him to open up, and they'd fallen in love in the process. Sappy, yes, but it had happened.

But then the new 'Ansem'—really Xehanort, he knew now-came along and screwed everything up, bringing Maleficent down on all their heads in the process. Damn that black-hearted bastard…

He looked up briefly to nod at Aerith when she came in (with her basket full for the week's Committee dinner) before he went back to re-reading the letter again.

Even when he'd been separated from her and his light had nearly died inside him, even when he and the soon-to-be "Restoration Committee" had returned to this world to find it in ruins, even when the Heartless had attacked barely a month ago…hell, even when they'd remembered city's true name, he'd never stopped looking.

Lately, more memories of that radiant time, dim from ten years' disuse, were starting to return in force as the restoration continued. In fact, Leon had remembered something he'd been kicking himself for forgetting ever since. He'd forged a unique bond with Rinoa once her powers as a sorceress had appeared…they'd been bound together in a sense, heart to heart. That bond was still there.

Sighing, Leon glanced down, and his attention refocused on the second line.

Dad… The memory of his father coaxed the hint of a rueful smile to his lips. Resident smart-aleck and hapless goofball, accidental politician and eventual president, and a former soldier to boot. Who'd've thought it? He'd found out only a few days before the Fall. And his sister...of course: 'Sis' was another reason he'd changed his name. He still missed her.

He'd thought they were dead…or worse. All of them.

This…this could change everything.

And who knew? Maybe the others would come back soon.

But his reverie was broken when Yuffie came bursting through the door, shouting (good grief!) at the top of her voice, "Who wants ice cream?"

Leon rolled his eyes. Oh, great. His ears were screaming at him already.

"Cid, I got some for ya," Yuffie chirped.

"Hey, I was jus' getting' hungry, Yuf," Cid remarked as she handed him an ice cream bar. One went to Tifa, and the last went to Aerith, who'd just arrived. Leon grunted; no one had noticed him. Good. Meanwhile, Yuffie was blabbing and didn't notice the Gullwings sneaking up on the last ice cream in her hand. Leon groaned, knowing what was coming. Sure enough, Yuna, Rikku, and Paine nabbed the ice cream bar and flew off with it, with Rikku giggling up a storm. Yuffie noticed right away of course and went after them, yelling "HEY! GET BACK HERE!" Aaaannnnd here they come, Leon thought with a mental groan.

Feeling a bit ironically playful for once, he waited until the Gullwings—minus Paine by now-were almost on top of him. Then right as the Gullwings passed him he reached out and grabbed the stick of the ice cream bar, yanking it away before they had time to realize what had happened. "Thanks," he said in passing.

Yuffie skidded to a halt in front of him. "You got it! Awesome!" Leon ignored her and held it up to take a bite. When she didn't budge, Leon paused and regarded her with his best 'You're Kidding, Right?' glare. Did she really think he was going to let her have it back after all that screeching? Uh, no. No way in hell.

Rikku was arguing with her two friends over who'd lost the bar. After what sounded like "Oh, foofie!" from Rikku, the trio departed in a flurry of sparkles.

Over in his own respective corner, Cid was about to take a bite from his ice cream bar, but then his computer started acting up and he practically used it like a baton while he began yelling obscenities at Merlin. Merlin retaliated by returning the favor with some very wordy (and tactful in comparison) insults before he fired a few choice spells that blew Cid backwards off his seat onto the floor. At that, the computer went completely haywire from overload...either that or it just felt like it was a good time. Leon shook his head as the new printer Cid had built began to beep ominously.

"Givvit!" Yuffie whined, oblivious to the old-man argument. She tried to grab it. Leon moved the bar out of reach.

"Not gonna happen. You get careless, you pay the price. Besides, it's been awhile since I tried this stuff." He took a small bite and nodded as the taste came. Salty but sweet, with a hint of vanilla. Must mean Scrooge recreated that old Sea Salt flavor. He flicked the ice cream bar at the door, otherwise not budging. "If you want a new one, go ahead. Not too far to the marketplace."

"Awww, Leeeoooonnn…"

He smiled slightly. "Here." He dropped fifty munny in her hands, to Yuffie's surprise. "Use this. Should cover it."

"Huh—?"

"Go, before I change my mind."

Yuffie did a backwards handspring. "Thanks, Squally!" She ran for the door.

"That's Le-"

BAM! The door slammed before he could finish. Cid groaned and peeled himself off the floor just in time to get swamped by the now-runaway printer. More swearing followed—some of which was VERY crude-until the printer ran out of paper, leaving the mechanic almost up to his neck in the resulting mess. Finally, the former air jockey managed to dig himself out...just in time to see the printer's spur-of-the-moment decision to have a complete and utter meltdown. Cursing some more, Cid stomped out of the room.

With a sigh, Leon glanced back at the letter. He did so just in time to see the wings on the page glow, and he frowned.

Had he just seen…?

Then the symbol flapped twice and flew up, right off the page. His amazed eyes tracked it as it flew up before his face, before continuing on its way towards the rafters, where it shimmered and vanished.

Magic.

See you soon, it seemed to say. He didn't doubt it for a second.

"Leon?"

He shifted slightly and looked down from the ceiling to see Aerith in front of him, gazing at where the butterfly had just vanished. The girl looked down and her forest-green eyes focused on him. "What was that?"

"Nothing."

Aerith pinned one of her gentle, smiling 'I-don't-think-so' looks on him. "You're sure?"

Leon fidgeted. For some reason, she could see through his shields just as well as she could see through Cloud's, and that bothered him a bit. "…" He didn't bother replying, hoping she'd come to her own conclusions.

Aerith just nodded, smiling sweetly. "Well, if you want to talk to me about it later, feel free, okay?"

An unbidden smile curved Leon's mouth and he stepped away from the wall, heading for the door. "Thanks, but…I don't think I'll need to."

He turned away again and pocketed the letter (not noticing when something slipped out of his back pocket) grabbed his gunblade from its temporary resting place and swung it swiftly onto his shoulder as he headed for the door. He paused just as he was about to leave. "I'll be back later. Might as well see if any more Heartless have shown up."

"And if one more makes it tough?" Leon smirked to himself when he heard the teasing tone of her voice. She'd heard about his banter with Cloud, then. He glanced back. "Then that one's yours." With that, he departed, closing the door behind him with a creak and the thud of wood on stone.

Aerith giggled at Leon's reply and smiled to herself, wondering what had him in such a good mood. Something certainly did. Suddenly, she caught sight of something on the floor over in the corner. She cocked her head curiously as she bent down; it was a folded slip of paper. Dusting it off, she realized what the paper was as she opened it.

It was a small photograph, folded once so it was just the right size to tuck into the back pocket of someone's pants, or keep tucked inside a wallet. The colors had faded slightly with age, but were still vivid, and the scene depicted conveyed a sense of happiness and blooming sunshine. It had obviously been taken in a rather spur-of-the-moment situation. Depicted in it were two people; a young man and a woman, obviously in their late teens, seventeen or eighteen at least. The girl was impishly hanging onto the young man's shoulders and neck from behind, riding piggyback, her chin nestled in the curve between neck and shoulder blade.

The man was obviously Leon, only younger, dressed a little bit differently and with much shorter hair than the man Aerith knew. His face was set in a rather odd expression somewhere between annoyance and tenderness, obviously directed at the young woman, who was beaming ear to ear for the camera. The woman was…well, different. Her favorite color was blue, and Aerith could see she wore it very well. Her primary article of clothing was a long, sleeveless knit duster (worn for the most part open, except for the fabric ties that were tied in a bow knot just under her chest.) Under that, she wore a black tank top, a dark blue skirt and zippered black shorts. Thick-soled black boots shod her feet. Her forearms were covered by knit warmers that extended from her elbows to her wrists, made from the same fabric as her duster. Long, silky-looking black hair accented by slight caramel-brown highlights framed a beautiful face and spirited dark eyes that seemed to glow with exuberance even in this tiny photograph.

The woman seemed familiar, now that Aerith thought about it. She flipped the photo over to glance at the date and found a note there as well, scribbled in a lo ose, sprawling script.

Squall & Rinoa

Come on, you two, run off and get hitched already!

Irvine

"Squall…?" Aerith murmured, confused. Then she remembered: Leon had changed his name on purpose after the Fall; he'd said something about not being able to protect the ones he cared about. This Irvine fellow who'd written the note might've been one of them. And…Rinoa. Hm. Rinoa … Then a sad smile crossed Aerith's face as she realized who Rinoa was. She was Leon's girlfriend. A good sorceress on their side she'd heard rumors of during Adel's Siege. Judging from the photo, it had been taken a few days after that battle. And that letter…it could only mean…

They look so happy, she thought. The photo was well-creased and the edges were frayed. Leon obviously brought it out often. Aerith looked up from the photo and headed for the door. She had to give this back or Leon would come to the wrong conclusions.

Cid finally managed to dig his way out of the pile of paper. "Where're you goin'?"

"Leon dropped something—I have to give it back to him." Aerith grabbed her bladed staff from its own place near the door. Running out, she barely paused to say a hasty "I'll be back soon, okay?" to Cid before she closed the door behind her.

Once outside Merlin's she stopped, sensing the gathering darkness. Heartless wriggled out of the pavement or warped out of thin air. "Sorry, boys," she said in a deceptively sweet voice, pulling out her staff. "I'm in a hurry." Confused but determined, the Heartless hesitated…and paid dearly for it. Aerith quickly twirled her staff once with a shout of "Ultima!" A blaze of green-white light flared out of her staff and exploded on three of the monsters, blasting them to powder. Aerith then readied her staff and ran towards one of the weaker creatures—a Soldier. The thing-dumb and clumsy and not at all prepared for this-was an easy kill, torn to shreds of darkness by Aerith's bladed staff as she swung it down in a quick chopping motion. Two more Heartless fell to the flower girl's weapon as she whirled around with her staff held horizontally, but more arose to take their places. Aerith retreated a bit, holding her staff ready in both hands. I need to put an end to this. Leon needs that photo back.

Rallying her strength again she flung herself at the Heartless with a grim look on her face. The creatures—a bit more wary of her now—came skittering in eagerly despite the obvious danger of magic. Aerith was no longer holding back and she would have looked surprisingly swift to anyone that saw her at the moment. Ducking a Morning Star's pummels, she swept her staff underneath it and flung it upwards with assistance from a Tornado spell, then leapt and hammered it to the cobblestones with enough force to make the ground shake. It was not as…flashy as Sora's usual maneuver, she knew, but she had her own ways. Landing swiftly she blocked a few Shadows' sloppy clawings, blasting them with several spells, but a nearby Large Body burst clear through her guard. A heavy fist smashed into her, knocking her off balance. Aerith's world spun for a moment as she stumbled backwards, dazed from the heavy blow.

She wiped her mouth, feeling a slight trickle of blood, and a heavy frown appeared on her face. "That's not nice, you know," she admonished the rotund beast, which was looking rather pleased with itself. She raised her fighting staff and ran her hand up its length. The long bladed pole began to glow greenish white before she let go, letting it float in front of her of its own accord. Aerith then conjured a ball of seething green-white light in her hands. She let it build until it was large enough, then flung it gracefully into the sky. "Holy!" Another flash-this one even brighter than the previous-shot down and engulfed the giant Heartless, shining bright enough to nearly blind those citizens unlucky enough to be looking out a window. But Aerith was barely affected by the light. She lashed out in the dimming aftermath, flinging Firaga, Aeroga and Blizzaga spells—as well as others-left and right, doing her best to dodge the worst of the retaliators' blows. A Neoshadow managed to claw at her back, tearing her red bolero jacket. Aerith staggered and kicked out with driving force, landing a solid blow to the monster's face. She retreated up the street to the stairs up to the town wall, fighting off any weaker Heartless that showed up as she retreated. The Neoshadow—definitely ticked off now—followed with a vengeance, dropping into the shadows whenever she tried to fight it head-on

Then more Neoshadows swarmed in, encircling the young woman and trapping her at the area at the top of the stairs. Aerith swallowed. Ten of them? This might be tricky…

"I won't lose to you!" she snapped. The Neoshadows twitched and Aerith felt a sickening feeling of dread come over her. The feral disdain evident in those gleaming yellow eyes was chilling to behold. The monsters were obviously unimpressed by her and were eager to finish the battle. They swarmed like insects, leaping up with lightning speed to pile on and latch onto her. Aerith dodged as best she could. She destroyed the first two with a tremendous blast of fiery energy that melted the Heartless into globules of black goo. The third was easier, more reckless, and died under sharp lashes from her staff's twin blades; the fourth one was impaled through the torso with a sharp cry of effort from Aerith as she thrust her staff home.

Then one got hold of her, its sharp claws digging in, and she cried out in pain. Then another. And another. Aerith fell to on knee and felt despair well up as she tried to get up, failing after a few struggled tries. "HELP!" She collapsed a moment later under the weight of a fourth Heartless.

This can't be the end… she thought. A grinning face with spiky black hair and sky blue eyes (a SOLDIER trademark!) welled up in her memories, and hot tears welled up. "Zack…" she managed, her breath crushed under the shadowy heap atop her.

A shout of rage registered just as she was about to give in to the encroaching shadows. "AERITH! HANG ON!" A gloved attached to a lean arm yanked her out of the Heartless and onto to her feet, and a hiss from the Heartless brought her back just in time to see Leon raise a hand at the gathering Heartless, his expression downright thunderous and his gunblade gleaming dangerously. Aerith shivered as her wits and her magic reacted to something: a powerful aura of otherness that seemed to be emanating from the gunblade wielder.

When Leon spoke, there was an oddly leonine growl in his voice that was not normally present. "This is your end!" He gestured, flicking his arm out before bringing it back towards him and holding his hand up before his face, his fingers curled into a tight fist.

A deceptively small orb of seething blue energy swirled into existence in the midst of the Heartless. As Leon began to focus, the orb began to expand, creating a vortex effect around, dragging the Heartless in slowly and growing all the while. A low thrum quickly built to a whine of evident doom. Leon's steely gaze was filled with fury. Aerith watched her friend, oddly entranced...but then she flinched as she sensed that strange presence, which was almost snarling at the Heartless by now. It felt proud and strong much like the man himself, yet it wasn't him at all; the anger it held towards the monsters was truly fearsome. Leon's fist clenched tighter and there was a split-second of abrupt, loaded silence as the energy compacted abruptly with a sudden shwip. He spoke. "Shockwave Pulsar!" The orb exploded with all the force of a supernova, making a muffled, thundering FWHUMP as it expanded, vaporizing the Heartless. A shockwave of transparent blue energy passed the two of them, the force of its wake blowing heavily at their clothes in passing before it vanished.

As the blast died, Aerith could feel the odd energy emanating from Leon fade slowly. He turned to her with a look of angry disbelief. "What in all hells were you thinking? You could've been killed!"

He didn't shout it, but the anger in his voice cut deep and made Aerith flinch. Nevertheless, she held her ground. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulled out the still-folded photograph. Thankfully, it hadn't been damaged. With a solemn expression, she held it out to him. "You dropped this." Leon stared at it. "I thought you might want it back," she added when he didn't move.

Hesitating at first, Leon accepted the photo and unfolded it, staring down at the image. His expression shifted as he stared at the image. At last he looked up, and for once Aerith saw an emotion other than guilt, brooding or detachment in her friend's gaze. It was gratitude. She smiled tremulously. "You okay?" she asked.

"Yeah." He paused, searching for the right words. "Thanks, Aerith."

She beamed. Leon turned to leave when a detail of the last few minutes occurred to Aerith. "Oh, Leon?"

"Hm?"

"What was that…presence?" She saw his back stiffen.

"You felt that?" he asked.

Aerith nodded.

He turned his head to look over his shoulder. "It's Griever."

"What? What's that?"

"My summon. No, no—that's not quite it." He shook his head. "It's my Guardian. He's part of my bond with…" He trailed off.

Realizing what he meant, Aerith finished it for him. "With Rinoa?"

Leon nodded reluctantly.

"Okay. Treasure it."

"What?"

Aerith smiled. She couldn't fault him for feeling sad. "It's your link back to her. And just for the record, I wanted to give that photo back so you wouldn't go chasing Yuffie around town."

That garnered a slight snort out of him. "As long as you're heading back, would you mind making sure the neighborhood is in lockdown? I don't want any more casualties, and you were too close."

"Okay." She paused. "Hey…That letter…" she started, "…it's going to change a lot around here, isn't it?" A slightly raised eyebrow was Leon's only response. Aerith smiled gently, much like she did whenever she talked to Cloud. Those two…are more alike than they think, Aerith thought to herself. "I'll cheer for you, okay?" she said. "When they're back. This is good...for all of us."

Leon simply stood there.

"Because that's what friends do for each other. They give support."

"Okay." He turned a little more. "I'll hold that promise in mind if," she winced at the sentiment "and/or when," Leon added in a heartbeat, "your SOLDIER boy comes home."

Aerith smiled, and this time she felt a teardrop trickle down her face. "All right."

"Now go on and tend to the Garden. I'll handle the bugs." With that, he departed with his gunblade propped on his shoulder, leaving Aerith standing in the deserted, peaceful street watching his back and the twin red angel wings emblazoned on the back of his jacket.

She looked up at the sky and for once she felt hope bloom. "Hurry home, Zack," she whispered to the sky. "We still have a date to finish, remember?"

Behind and above her on a higher portion of the wall, a flicker of green-white light tendrils rose up, revealing the tall frame of a well-built man; a black-haired SOLDIER 1st Class with a kind, craggy face and a pair of white angel wings (one larger, one far smaller) sprouting from his right side. He smiled down at the strong-hearted girl and folded his arms, nodding both to himself and to her. His larger wing rustled as it extended, opening fully.

Aerith heard the rustle of feathers and turned to look, but she saw nothing: Angeal Hewley had already vanished back into the netherworld. But a white feather left behind drifted down on a light breeze, heading slowly to earth. Her eyes widened at the sight of the wafting feather, and as it slowly descended she reached out and caught it in an open palm. A happy tear trickled down her cheek and she looked back up at the precipice, smiling.

"Thanks, Angeal." She knew that somewhere, the SOLDIER 1st heard her. Zack would come back. That's all that mattered.

To be continued...


A/N: Well? What do you think? So far I've got what would amount to five or six chapters worth. Please review! I could use a lot of feedback.