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Later that same night, when Tifa heads over to the Brake and Body, she finds Leon there as if nothing had happened, in the parking lot, the others ranged around him, waiting. Biggs and Wedge seeing how far they can spit. Irvine picking at his teeth with a sliver of matchwood. Tifa looks at Leon, one eyebrow up in question. Leon stares back at her, puts out his cigarette in the palm of his hand. Zell give a low whistle.

Leon leans up against the hood of his car, a Puerto Rican bullet in his shoulder. He isn’t speaking. He never says much anyway, but tonight the Mexican bullet in his chest is making every breath he takes feel like the air is on fire.

“Well?” Tifa says. “Leon?”

Leon shakes his head, mutters “hey, man, give me a cigarette,” a grim little smile on his lip as seven packs appear out of the darkness beyond the halo of brake lights. Zell already has one lit for him and Leon takes it in one hand, throwing the beer bottle he’s been holding at the wall of the parking lot where it shatters, shards of glass and Dos Equis blooming across the brickwork.

“Leon?” Tifa says again. “What happened?”

“Dead,” Leon grunts. “All dead.”

“All of them?” Tifa’s eyes widen in surprise.

Leon nods, and Zell whistles again.

“So now what?”

Leon shrugs, wiping at the blood that blackens the chrome.



Earlier that same night, Leon had been kneeling on the tarmac in the rain, drops like diamonds under the cone of streetlight, Cloud’s carcass cradled across his thighs, his cold dead head pressed against Leon’s chest. Tifa had been crouched behind the dumpsters crammed into the alley beside the diner, calling to him and calling to him, trying to make him come back out of the light, but either he can’t hear or he is just ignoring her. She runs out in a low crouch, hesitating on the edge of the pool of light.

“Leon! Please!” She hisses.

“I’m not leaving him.” Leon’s voice was flat, expressionless, and he wasn’t looking at her.

“Then bring him! But get out of the light!”

“I’m not leaving him.” Leon wasn’t looking at anything except the wet dead face crushed against the t-shirt clinging to his chill flesh.

“Leon! Please! It’s not safe.”

“It makes no difference.”

“Come out of the light,” she says, more gently. “Do you want to get killed as well?”

For a moment Leon doesn’t answer. “It makes no difference,” he says again.

Tifa wants to shout at him, to grab him, to drag him back into the darkness of the alley away from the eyes of the men she knows are hiding out there in the night, down the street, watching Leon. But Leon is kneeling on the tarmac, rain dripping off his fringe into Cloud’s cold dead face cradled against his chest.

“Please, Leon,” she says again.

“Why?” Leon says, and Tifa knows that nothing she says will mean anything to him now.

“Leon,” she says, waiting.

“What?”

“Why did you never tell him?”

Tifa reaches out a hand, takes Leon by the shoulder, recoils as he turns his face towards her, just for a moment. Tifa has never seen Leon cry before, and doesn’t want to now, but even the rain can’t hide his tears.

Leon mutters something that Tifa doesn’t quite catch.

“What?”

“I said,” he lifts his head towards her again and just for a moment she sees something in his eyes that is even worse than his tears. “‘Because it would have made me weak’. And because it would have made him weak. And because we can’t be weak. Not us. We’re the fucking heroes, Tifa. The big fucking heroes.”

Tifa squats in the rain, just outside the circle of light, wondering if there is anything that she can say that won’t sound callous, or patronising, or facile. Probably not, she decides.

“Cloud…” she says, and sees Leon stiffen at the sound of his name. “Bring him out of the rain, Leon”

“It makes no difference now, does it?” Leon says, and looks up at her again. “He’s dead.” His voice cracks on the word, and he is sobbing openly now, shoulders shaking, great shudders racking his body as he hunches over the corpse in his arms, pulling it to him. “Oh, god, Tifa, what am I going to do?” he says, and for a moment it seems to Tifa that this isn’t Leon at all, but a lost and helpless boy, alone in the world he has walled himself up in, terrified by the very thing he has created to protect himself.

“Squall?” Tifa says, so quietly that the falling rain is louder than the sound of her voice.

Leon is pushing the wet hair out of Cloud’s eyes. “Cloud,” he says, and kisses the cold, slightly open lips. “Cloud.” Tifa watches Leon’s fingers on Cloud’s cheeks, wondering how often he has imagined doing exactly this, only with Cloud’s eyes closing instead of open and staring, and the blood rising under his cheekbones and Leon’s breath not the only breath in Cloud’s mouth.

“What’s the point, now?” Leon says, and Tifa opens her mouth to reply before she realises – just in time – that he isn’t talking to her, probably doesn’t even remember that she’s there, and he is pushing the wet hair out of Cloud’s eyes and kissing the cold dead lips and Leon’s tears are smeared across Cloud’s face – grey now in the leaching light under the streetlamp – and he is talking, talking, talking, the words spilling out of him as if they had been building up for years inside him until he couldn’t keep them in any longer. And the words that Leon is saying are the most beautiful, most unbearable things that Tifa has ever heard and she doesn’t want to be hearing them and she doesn’t know if it’s the rain or her own tears but suddenly she can’t see and when she hears Leon crying “I love you so much” she starts to back away, but not quite quickly enough not to hear what he is whispering into Cloud’s ear and as she clambers to her feet she hears someone away down the road calling out something in Spanish.

“Hey! Pachuco!”

Tifa backs away from the light, glancing down to road, down to Leon, and back. In the distance, four or five figures are coming towards them.

“Hey, pachuco!” one of them steps forwards, arms in the air.

“Leon,” Tifa says.

“Hago la lucha!” the man shouts, and then “dáme esa pistola, hombre!”

“Leon!” Tifa says again, more urgently.

“Hijo de la chingada madre!”

Leon glances up. “You’d better go,” he says, quietly.

“Leon!” Tifa says. “You have to come!”

“I’m not leaving him.”

“Me la tiré, hombre!” one of the men shouts, and the only thing Tifa wants more than Cloud to still be alive is for Leon not to speak Spanish, or Mexican, or Puerto Rican, or whatever mix of the three these men speak among themselves.

“Pinche fresa!” one of them spits, and she sees Leon stiffen.

“Tifa, go” Leon says quietly.

“Dijo que yo era mejor que tú!” the man laughs, grabbing at his crotch.

“Ay, que pinche pancho!”

Leon gets to his feet, very slowly, and steps forward, over Cloud’s body.

“Go, Tifa,” he says again.



Later that same night, when Tifa gets to the Brake and Body, she finds Leon leaning against the hood of his car as if nothing had happened. The others are ranged around him, talking about a shoot-out in South Deering, but Leon isn’t saying anything. Only Tifa can see the blood that is pooling around his shoes, black under the sodium lights.

“Leon,” she says, but he just shakes his head, gestures for her to get in, brodies through the stop light into three lanes of on-coming traffic before the others know what’s happening, leaving them gaping at the blaring horns, hiking the cuffs of their trousers up out of the spray from Leon’s whitewalls.

“Leon?” Tifa says again, and then “Leon!” as she sees the blood that has soaked into his white t-shirt.

“It’s over,” Leon says, throwing the car onto the ramp onto the freeway.

Tifa tries to talk to him, to reassure him, to make him explain, but Leon says nothing until the car rolls to a halt where the concrete service road runs out, under the skeleton of a dead tree. Leon climbs out of the car and stands on the sloping gravel where the factories peter out and the sprawling railroad yard unravels into a wilderness of scrub running down to the lakeshore.

“It’ll get better Leon,” Tifa is saying, “you just have to give it time.”

“How much?” He turns back towards her. “A week? A year? It’s not going to get better, Tifa. He’s dead. How much time will make that better?”

Tifa shakes her head, hot angry tears in her eyes. “I don’t know,” she says. “But it will. People survive this. They get over it.”

“Get over it? He’s dead, Tifa. And I love him. I don’t want to get over it. I want him back.” Leon would be shouting, only there is a Puerto Rican’s bullet in his shoulder and a Mexican’s bullet in his chest, and the breath is rasping in his throat. Tifa sees the bloodstain on his t-shirt darken and shimmer as more black blood wells up.

“Where is he, Leon?”

“There,” Leon gestures towards the blocky concrete building that sticks up like a broken tooth by the lakeshore. “He’s in there.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing.” Leon shrugs his jacket off his shoulders carefully; peels the sticky t-shirt off his torso. Tifa sees him wince as the cloth pulls away from his flesh; gives a little gasp as she sees the bruising around the entry wounds, the blood smeared over the darkened skin.

“Oh, god, Leon!”

Leon smiles, and Tifa’s heart would have broken to see it, had it not already been broken. “It makes no difference,” he says. “He’s dead. What would I do? I can’t get over it, not if there was forever to try in. I just can’t.” He pulls something out of his trouser pocket and tosses it at Tifa. “You should go, probably.”

Tifa stands looking at the bunch of keys in her hand. None of the things she wants to say will fit past the big chunk of grief that is sticking in her throat. “Why didn’t you tell him, Leon?” she whispers at last.

Leon has already moved away towards the little concrete building where he had laid Cloud’s body earlier that same evening, but he must have heard her because he stops and looks back over his shoulder. “I did,” he says. “I told him an hour ago, when I came to find you. And an hour before that, when I brought him back. And an hour before that, when we found him.”

Tifa stands in the darkness, holding Leon’s car keys in her hand, watching his back as he walks away from her. “There’s no love as true as the love that dies untold,” she hears him say. He hesitates, and just for a moment she thinks he’s going to change his mind, come back, ask her for something. But he ducks his head under the low lintel and vanishes through the dark doorway.
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