Title: The Likes of You
Summary: Cloud and Reno come to an arrangement.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Squaresoft.
Half the clouds are empty, so the sun burst through the sky
The puddles show reflection of a face about to die
Just around the corner, I was goin' round the bend
I ran into a staggerin' fool who said he knew my name
This is how it ends: you win and it feels like you lost.
You knew you were going to. It didn't matter how, and it didn't make you happy to know it. After your final battle (and it's not the final battle but it was your last one, and that's what's important) you hear people talk about it as though they always thought it would come out all right, and they didn't ever think they were going to die.
So you move. And you keep on moving until you find a place where no one talks about much at all, let alone winning. Gongaga is a jungly green dampness where vines can grow over you in your sleep, if you want, and people know how to disappear completely.
Every Sunday, you go and help his parents with odd jobs-- repairing a roof, digging in the garden, feeding chickens. No one else asks much of you, but you kill the more troublesome creatures in the surrounding forest area, even the frogs. Especially the frogs. Annoying little pissants.
They have a grave for him, but no one's buried there. You take care of that too, even though no one asks.
"I'm sorry," you told them.
It's meant for a multitude of things, and yet they're so kind to you, too kind by far. His mother is careful to never ever compare the two of you, and she rations out her stories of him to you carefully, tactfully. She always offers you water when you work outside on hot days. She uses a tall glass, filled to the brim and slick with condensation on the outside. When you take it from her it almost slips, and it makes you think of her smile when you told her, how it trembled and threatened to spill over and finally broke.
She invites you to dinner every week, but you never go. His father sometimes visits the grave; you pick up his cigarette butts and you know that he knows you are doing so. You're grateful in a way; it's one more thing he allows you to do to try and make up for being alive when he isn't.
Today's glass of water has a slice of lemon in it. You've been waiting to drink until you finish hoeing the row you're working on, prolonging the anticipation of how the lemon will bump against your mouth and bits of pulp will catch in your teeth, puckery-sour, until the coldness of the water washes them away.
You feel like someone's watching you. You look up, and there he is, the same rumpled mess as always with his shades over his eyes and a blue scrap of tie hanging out one pocket.
"Figures you like hanging out in the middle of fucking nowhere, Strife," he says, and puts his hands in his pockets.
You suddenly can taste the water and the tartness of the lemon, even though you haven't put the glass to your mouth yet. You've been working all day, you should be tired, but the last thing you want to do now is sit down.
"Go away, Reno," you tell him, and of course, he doesn't.
It's been at least two years, and maybe closer to three because you don't keep track of time, and he bangs on your door for a solid hour when you won't let him in.
When you finally give in, he pushes past you, insults your choice in furniture, and asks for a beer.
The funny thing is, you actually think about giving him one.
"Why are you here?" you ask, because there's no point in making small talk.
"Donovan owed me money from the last time we went drinking," he says, and then looks you up and down. "Which one of you was he fucking on the side, you or the Ancient girl?"
Your materia is mostly gone, and the little that remains is in your nightstand, gathering dust until the next time you have to go out to the forest and kill something. But some things you never forget, like combining magical spells, thinking on your feet to try and get the best result-- Yuffie was good at it, and that probably had to do with that fact that she had an imagination that was at best expansive, and at worst horribly inventive. But there was the time in the Gelnika where you somehow combined a poison spell with something good, because Tifa told you that she could swear that she actually managed to punch him in the lung after it, thanks to the fact that his rib cage had, in her words, 'sort of melted'.
You don't have materia to fight him with this time, but you have the immense pleasure of punching him in the throat as hard as you can and watching him gag for breath. You can see why Tifa likes working with her hands.
It's a hollow victory though, because asshole or not, he knows how to brawl and he dives at you-- something crunches but there's no time to check if it's the lamp or you. In the resulting fight, you break three pieces of your already scanty store of furniture and he won't shut up about it.
"Now I gotta stay," he says afterwards. "Someone needs to teach you good taste." He rolls over and grins. "You fight like a girl, Strife. How'd you ever win?"
You close your eyes and pretend that it doesn't actually feel good to cut loose and break something after weeks of trying so hard to be muted. To be anything but yourself, because that's not really you, and you still don't know who the hell you are, and it looks more and more likely that you probably never will
"Shut up," you say. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't.
Gongaga has one inn but he stays with you because you can't figure out how to get him to leave in a non-lethal way, short of equipping a sleep materia to knock him out, and even so he's too tall for you to carry. You do know where you can find a wheelbarrow, but it just seems like too much work.
He doesn't talk to you about anything that matters, just a blend of insults, demands, and occasional sexual propositions. He trails after you on Sunday but doesn't help and you don't ask him to. He went through your closet, yelled at you for being too short, and stole one of your shirts anyway. He wants to know what you have against sleeves.
Zack's mother isn't sure what to make of him, but with his jacket off he isn't looking overtly Shinra-ish. She brings him water, and he throws it at you when your back is turned. It feels sort of good, but you throw a clump of weeds back at him anyway, hard enough to leave a dirt smear on the chest of the shirt he took from you.
He smokes a lot. You think about picking up the butts but he's trying to spell his name with them, so you leave it alone.
"What about your friends?" you ask him abruptly, stressing the possessive even though he hasn't asked you anything. "The other Turks. Your friends."
"I've still got them," he replies, looking almost surprised. "Don't you?"
At the end of the second week, patience stretches thin. You fight a lot, and you ignore each other a lot, but mostly you fight.
It starts small, like you saying go away, and him saying make me, and it just escalates. He snarls a comment about Zack, and did you make blowjobs part of your service payment plan in Shinra for just Zack or was it Sephiroth too or was it everyone and you scream at him and punch him in the face, and this time you keep punching wildly without aim until he knocks you down and sits on you. His mouth drips blood that lands on your face and your nose drips blood that runs hot and backwards down your throat. You keep on yelling at him and he yells back, and then you go back to screaming incoherently and trying to buck him off. He tells you to stop but you don't listen, just go on trying to claw and kick and even bite, and you must've succeeded because he jerks away and swears. You sit halfway up and the heel of his hand hits your chest and knocks you down again. He winds up sitting on your stomach, pinning your legs with one arm, and trying to yank your pants down to mid-thigh with the other while you call him all the worst words you've heard, ever.
The thing is, it's hard to do what he wants to do from that position, and he can really only get your belt off partway, so that hinders things. He gets up, sits you down on the couch, and disappears into the kitchen. He comes back with a bag of ice that he tells you to hold over your nose while you tilt your head back, and then he starts pulling at your pants again until he can shove your knees apart and blow you while you breathe open-mouthed.
You let him without knowing why. It seems almost stupid, after you fought so hard. It occurs to you to wonder if his bleeding mouth is the worse injury to try to perform this act with, as opposed to your bleeding nose. You wonder if the blood is dripping on the floor.
The ceiling has a crack in the corner. You'll need to fix that, have to borrow a ladder. Who has a ladder? Maybe you can stand on the table and do it, even though the table needs a book shoved under one of the legs to keep it from rocking. It's too hot in the room, your blood rises too quickly to your skin to betray you in expression or action, always has. He has rough hands which is funny, because he keeps them in his pockets so much and he certainly hasn't been helping to shovel or hoe, but then again you haven't seen him with gloves lately. He keeps one on your cock and lets the other one scratch lightly against your lower belly. It's sort of nice that he doesn't move them very much because you don't want to move, or think of things that do.
You think it's the least arousing thing ever because the back of your thighs itch against the rough material of the couch, and there's still blood going down the back of your throat and you can taste it as you hiccup for breath, and then because you're coming unexpectedly. You're thinking of the taste of the blood when you come, of the way it reminds you of electricity somehow. His hands pin your hips down, refusing to let you pull back.
He doesn't kiss you, but he looks like he at least considers it. That probably says something about him. He pushes you in the direction of the bed, and says you need to sleep, you'll feel better later and fuck if he's sleeping on the couch so don't take up all the room, he'll be in later.
Afterwards, you think he's right-- psychotic, but right-- about one thing so far. You need a better couch. You go to sleep, so you can see if the other things he said are true.
It takes you a few days to realize it, and another week to actually admit it, but.
Things go on. The days are beginning to have a sameness to them again, like the disturbance he made in your life is settling as inevitably as a puddle reforms after being stomped in. Today, Reno's on his stomach in the grass while you pull weeds from around the grave. You've been thinking of maybe putting some flowers in that aren't from the garden, digging some up from the forest or something. He'd like it. She'd like it. But it hasn't rained in days and the ground is parched dry; they'd probably be dead before you could even get them back to the village. It's the longest dry spell Gongaga has had in years, or so his mother says when she brings you your water.
"And that's why they have days with my name as the theme in every bar in all the even-numbered sectors," he says (with deep satisfaction). "Are you even listening to me?"
"No," you tell him honestly, and wipe sweat off your brow. You can't decide on the color. Maybe something blue. He liked blue.
"He's not even buried there," he says.
"I know," you say.
"You keep digging him up," he says, and looks ridiculously pleased, like he thinks he's said something so clever and figured out all your problems and really it's just too fucking hot to get in a fight. "And he's not even there."
"Shut up," you say, because it's a good all-purpose response to use with him.
Things go on. A few hours later, he's on his back now while you're still pulling weeds from around the grave.
"He's not even buried there," he says.
"I know," you say, and savagely rip up a thistle. It hurts your palm.
It's still too hot to fight. Still too hot to fix things. To hot to do anything, really, let alone crawl around weeding. The grass crackles dryly when you lie back on it; the sun spears through your closed eyelids until you throw an arm over your eyes. There's a drop of sweat slipping down the inside of your elbow. You can practically smell the sunlight itself, hot and yellow and baking the insides of your nostrils when you breathe too deeply.
It's hard to pin down smells. It worries you that you can't remember the way her hair smelled, except that it was like flowers. Wasn't it? Which flowers? Maybe you just think that because that's what seems logical. It worries you that you can't remember at all what it was like to bury your face in the crook of his neck and inhale, laughing like hell while he swung you all over the apartment and tried to dance. But you know you've done that, so why can't you remember?
Some memories come back at unexpected times, unconnected to anything, bright and useless as shards of broken materia. It's just. It's frustrating-- like looking at a picture in a book and you can see it so brilliantly, savagely clear in your mind but there's nothing else. No smell, no sensation, no, taste, no sound.
Grass always smells like the color it is. You can't decide exactly what this shade is, somewhere between yellow and brown. When you ask him-- it must be the heat getting to your brain-- he just snorts.
"I never did hold with all of that shit, Strife," he says.
You say nothing. Reno always has a tinge of something metallic around him, like the air is five seconds before a bolt spell hits, like dried blood. Like electricity, or maybe metal. Maybe it has to do with the nightstick.
"You keep digging him up," he says again. And it's like he thinks this should mean something.
And you say, "I'm not."
And he says, "You do."
And you say, "So what."
And he says, "So don't."
This is the part where you should say "Fine," because he answered your accusation like a question, or punch him or kiss him or something… conclusive. But instead you just kick the dirt and he stubs his cigarette out, and you go back to the house you're calling home for now, walking if not side by side, at least not actively trying to trip each other. On the walk, you think maybe you should have picked up the cigarette butt, but it doesn't bother you for too long.
You let him fuck you when you get back, but you've been thinking of letting him do that for a while. He has everything on hand, so he must have been thinking about it for a while too. It was too hot to fight and it's really too hot to fuck, but you let him, and it's decent enough. The end result makes up for the slick way the insides of your thighs slide while trying to hold onto his waist, the way your calves rub against the dampness of sweat collecting on his lower back, the way your skin catches and drags at his while you move together like two halves of a badly-made lock.
Your mouth keeps falling open. You hardly have to do anything but lie there and breathe deep and then deeper as sullen colors swirl across the inside of your eyelids, getting brighter and brighter until you have to open your eyes as wide as you can-- strange, it's normally the other way around.
And you don't talk anymore about fixing things.
It's been over two months and there must be something he wants from you. You think about it and tell yourself that you're thinking about it because to want is to have a weakness. If you can figure out what his is, you'll have an advantage and be ahead. It's just gotten to be second nature to try and figure these things out, learned somewhere between the bluffs of Midgar and the crater's rim.
It's like a crack in a wall. If you look through the crack, you may be able to see what's coming because as it is now you have no fucking clue. And that way you'll know if you should run away like hell, or…
When you think about it, a crack in the wall is the first step to bringing down a wall. And to bring down a wall is to confront what lies beyond it.
He knows things.
You have no idea how he knows these things; he says he got them from experience and select reading material, and it makes you seriously wonder about some of the rumors you heard about the Turk staff room. He knows drinking songs and slang from everywhere you've ever been (but he also knows how to request oral sex, insult the quality of sake, and excuse himself to the bathroom in formal Wutanese) and more about sword-technique than you'd thought. He knows every type of illegal gun to be found in Midgar; he knows how to perform an emergency tracheometry with a pen and how to sew up a knife wound with ordinary thread and needle; he knows how to fly a helicopter. He knows how to set and defuse a bomb, even if he's more familiar with the first.
He knows how to cook.
He's not there when you wake up one day, and it's funny how much smaller the house seems without him in it. You'd think it would be the opposite.
When he finally walks in late at night with his pants legs spattered with mud and holding a brown paper bag under his arm, he doesn't do anything except grunt in acknowledgement as you sit up on the couch and stare. The bag has words like KEEP REFRIGERATED and PERISHABLE scrawled all over it. He pulls out things you can't get in Gongaga-- clams, mussels, shrimp, and two very disgruntled lobsters.
He just shrugs at the look on your face.
"I know a guy."
And you could say something but. By now you know that yes, calling in a favor for someone to deliver fresh seafood from across the continent just because he was in the mood for it is exactly something he'd do.
He sends you out to the garden to stumble around in the dark for tomatoes and onions while he starts throwing things together. The inside of the house starts to smell like the boardwalk at Costa del Sol. You lay out plates and he stirs with intense concentration, automatically shifting as you squeeze past to get the silverware. You both know how to do the necessary dance to get around in the tiny kitchen space; he even has a routine where he juggles condiments and makes you twitch nervously.
"I didn't know you could cook," you say while opening the beer for him. He's de-veining the shrimp in the sink.
"Specialty dish," he says, and somehow clamps his teeth around the lip of the bottle, tilts his head back, lifts, and sucks down half of it without using his hands. "Tseng's advice. You should always know how to cook one specialty that uses all the dishes in the kitchen. Impresses people, or some shit like that. It's the only thing I can do."
"Oh," you say, and go back to sweep up all the mud he tracked in. It doesn't hit you until later to wonder if and why he's trying to impress you.
"Hey," he later says to you out of the blue during this meal that's taking place at eleven at night. "You gotta quit going to bed so damn late these days. I got a lot of things I like to do when I know for sure you're asleep."
You blink and try to ignore the extremely disturbing nature of that statement. There's a whole host of things in your life that you'd rather un-know, and he's added a respectable number of them to that list. He'll never catch up with… others, but he gives it a good attempt.
Thinking that still hurts, but you know it's nowhere near as bad as it used to.
In the beginning, you went to bed early because that way you were in bed first and he was the one intruding. Now, you always get woken up when he crawls in, and you could buy another bed or at least a better couch but it seems like much less hassle to just go to bed shortly before he does so you won't get woken up twice.
"Why don't you just wake up earlier?" you ask him.
"I'm nocturnal," he says, chews and swallows. "Are you going to eat that shrimp?"
"Yes," you say, and spear it yourself.
He knows how to cook the best paella you've ever had in your life. And you know now that he'll come back. It's good to know.
Since you've been going without it for so long it takes a while to realize that you're not kissing, and it takes even longer to figure out why you're not, and it takes the longest to think of what to do about it. It's surprisingly simple when you do figure it out, though.
He doesn't do anything out of the ordinary to provoke it. He's just himself--- which, being Reno, means lounging bonelessly in such a way that he fills up the couch completely and gives the impression that any minute now he'll put a rangy elbow or knee through one of the (in your opinion) tastefully painted walls. Your arrival causes him to squint with one eye and tilt his chin up. And with surprise, you realize you know that look. Sometimes you think that you know Reno awfully well for someone you don't know.
He squints with the other eye. He closes both of them, sucks air over his teeth, and lifts his shoulders. The springs are terrible on this couch (which you still haven't replaced) and you're sinking inevitably back anyway, and your head is going to rest on his shoulder unless you keep your chin tucked against your chest, and that strains your neck too much. So you keep sinking, and he shifts, and then he has his goddamned arm around your shoulders. So you might as well just kiss him.
A minute later you're feeling rather upset for wasting time with things like fighting, eating, sleeping, and breathing when you could have been doing this.
Both of you stretch out lengthwise on the couch-- this couch seems to see a lot of action-- and he climbs on top, kissing and pushing your shirt up. There's no pattern, no rhythm. Most of the time you're at each other's mouths, although he also licks your earlobe (weird), mouths your cheek (better), and bites your chin (weirder, but mostly because you're ticklish). Being on the couch reminds you how hard you hit him that time that you fought; his lower lip had looked like a piece of crushed fruit, slick and pulpy. It probably would have felt very strange to be kissed by that.
The center cushion is where you sag the deepest and his hips push neatly into yours. It feels almost like being buried, surrounded on all sides by scratchy blue fabric and him. He has, you estimate, at least five hands, all of which are under your clothes. The couch material still itches and you wonder why you keep ending up here. You can almost tell already how it's going to end-- muffled grunts, hard and sloppy thrusts, and both of you coming hard without waiting for the other, because you'll do that in the second round, after a nap. And you'll still be on the damn couch because you'll both be too lazy to get up.
When he bites your neck harder than necessary it brings you back and makes you hiss, and you push him away as far as you can, which is about a foot.
He laughs. You glare. Then you think to hell with it, scramble out from underneath him through judicious application of elbows and knees, and then climb right back on top. In the space of the thirty seconds it takes to settle your legs comfortably astride his thighs and stick your hand down his pants he seems mildly surprised, wholly skeptical, somewhat intrigued, vaguely annoyed, and far smugger than he has any right to be.
It all leaves you breathing harder than just the simple exertion of climbing out from under someone should make you. It's all this… action. Having to care enough to do something of your own will. You're not used to this. And it's certainly been a while since you've tried to coordinate making out with someone and giving a handjob at the same time.
"I dare you," he says, looking straight at you without a smile. Deliberate words, spaced out like beads on a string.
You think absently that you don't know how you keep finding yourself in these situations, really, you don't. And hell, at least this one isn't happening in the Gold Saucer gondola.
"Shit, Strife," he says afterwards. The shape of his grin fits exactly against your forehead. "I didn't know you cared."
You didn't either. It's certainly something to think about.
There is a hole inside of you, in the shape of Zack. It has ragged edges because it was ripped away so suddenly, but there are smoother areas where you've forgotten what was originally him and what was you. The tattered edges sometimes stay still for days, but then there are other days when the wind blows sharply through. On those days, you stutter around your words, forgetting things you should know and remembering things you shouldn't.
There's no hole inside of you shaped like Sephiroth. Sephiroth broke you completely and you're still putting the pieces together and you always will be.
You don't think about Sephiroth if you can. Ever. If you started, you'd never stop.
Zack lived free and easy, and his words fit altogether too easily on your tongue; times later you would find yourself saying them as though they were yours to begin with. Wherever Zack went, that was the best possible place for him to be, and he made you believe that it was the best possible place for you too. He made you think there would always be a place for you.
Zack is an out-of-focus picture that is sometimes sepia-tinted; Zack is a series of brilliant, colorful flurries of motion. Zack is the one swatch of memory you have that is so grim the colors won't stay and it immediately turns to black and white in your head, but if you close your eyes hard enough it bleeds away into the soothing negative space beyond the edges of the picture. Zack used to smile all the time, and you can remember a thousand different ways he had of doing it.
Zack's name has been forgotten by just about everyone, but you know that he was maybe the most important person of all. Maybe he's just a minor, minor cog in the dusty machinery of everyone's memory, a blur in an overcast background, but you know otherwise.
At some point, you wonder when Zack got his name back and someone else became the ubiquitous he in your thoughts and life.
Zack was always trying to figure out what would make you happy. And then, he'd give it to you.
Life moves on and that's just the way things are. It usually happens eventually, without a fuss, just like the way clouds form while you're weeding and it rains, and then the sun comes out afterwards, and you're pretty sure it'll rain again one of these days and the sun will come out again that time as well. And even though you still miss the old life you can't altogether remember, especially when he uses all the hot water or accidentally sets the sheets on fire while smoking in bed, at least you don't fight more than half the time, and he says he'll teach you how to make the paella.
You both like to take walks up near the ruined reactor and he usually comes back with a pocketful of broken materia shards picked from among the wreckage because he automatically takes anything that isn't nailed down. They're useless for anything except looking pretty, about the size of your thumbnail with smoke-clouded centers and different colors. First he left them on the table, and then you swept them into a bowl, and now they just get added to a clear glass jar that sits on the windowsill of the bedroom. Sun comes through it in the morning and you get used to waking up in the center of a rainbow splash of fragmented colors-- red-violet-green-blue-yellow. Every morning the pattern is different but it always clashes horribly with his hair.
They're broken and you could never use them in a fight but you're starting to like them. Yesterday, it rained. It had been very dark in the room, but you could close your eyes and still see little flashes of light and color moving across your eyelids. You had thought that probably they were happiness.
Today, the sun is out. The colors move across the bed and down the floor as the sun rises. When they hit the opposite wall you know it's time to get up, and you shake his shoulder to tell him so.