Win to Lose
By S.J. Kohl
Part One: Innocent

Rating: Pg-13

Summary: Cloud sees more than anyone gives him credit for.
Disclaimer: They aren't mine. Apparently, they're Cloud's.

Cloud Strife was not innocent.

He saw the heated glances Zack shot his way when he thought Cloud wasn't looking. And he knew what they meant, too. And he certainly hadn't missed the speculative gleam in the General's eye every time he watched Cloud practicing, shirtless and sweat soaked. He saw a lot of things, understood a lot of things, but no one would believe it to look at him. Zack and Sephiroth certainly didn't believe it. No, in their eyes, and in the eyes of the world, he was a small, wide-eyed innocent still stumbling to get his feet planted firmly on the ground. Cloud snorted derisively as he stomped down the light-flooded hallway of the exercise complex, his footsteps echoing sharply against the tiled floor. Like the world--and his friends--knew anything about him.

He'd been an outcast in Nibelheim--he no longer really thought of it as home. He'd been scorned, reviled. He certainly hadn't been sheltered. No, Cloud might be young, but he was not an innocent. And he knew exactly what he wanted.

The problem was getting it. Zack and Sephiroth were stubborn, too caught up in their own misplaced notions of protecting his virtue and his damned innocence to recognize that he might want to have a say in his own future. They wanted him. It was obvious to his eyes, trained by years of judging the facial expressions and body language of others in order to decide his own course of action. It was chancier to walk past someone who was feeling cruel and angry than someone who was sleepy and contented, after all, and he'd been spared many bruises and black eyes in Nibelheim through his ability to read people's moods. No, Cloud was dead certain by this point that both Zack and Sephiroth had fallen for him. Hard.

But neither of them would approach him. They wouldn't ask him to dance or take him to their beds. Just as they wouldn't approach one another. Cloud growled and ground his teeth in frustration as he stepped into the empty practice room, abandoned this late in the evening. It was dinner time and he should be eating with the other cadets, but he wasn't hungry.

Pulling a long, wide-bladed sword from the closet in the far corner of the huge room, Cloud stepped into the room's center, far from any walls or any of the practice room's scant furnishings. Taking a deep breath, he began to move. As he worked through the simple motions of one of the first sword dances he'd been taught, he synchronized his body with his blade, allowing his muscles and limbs to flow along with the tilt and turn of the metal as it sliced the air.

They were idiots, both of them, too caught up in their honor and their self-pitying lust to see what was before their eyes. They were in love with one another. Cloud had seen it the first time he'd stumbled upon them in a private conversation. The easy companionship they shared, the sharp gleam of desire lurking in the backs of their eyes. Sephiroth's smile, Zack's husky laugh--were they blind?

Cloud snarled, slashing at the empty air and imagining a pair of teasing, dark blue eyes before him. He knew the answer to that question already. His dance grew faster, more complicated as he fell into the rhythms, his breath coming in quick gasps, his muscles warm now from exertion. But still he went on, thrusting and parrying, battling against an invisible enemy, twisting and flipping to avoid the wide sweeps of a ghost blade. They were blind, Zack and the General both. Neither of them could see the love Cloud knew flickered behind both blue eyes and green, and their friendship was too important to them to make any admissions or advances that might be unwanted, that might destroy what had been built between them.

And now they'd drawn Cloud into the mess they'd made of their lives. Of their love. He could see the battles raging within them whenever they saw him, whenever they spoke to him, sought him out. Wanted him. They were torn, the both of them, suffering from identical desires and identical agony. They had always loved each other. And now, they both loved him.

Letting lose a wild, bitter howl of rage and frustration, Cloud charged at the empty air, seeing Zack's and Sephiroth's faces mingling before his blade. Why was he the only one who saw the solution to this problem? Why was he the only one with any kind of sense and skills of bloody observation in this whole damned army? Sephiroth was the General for fuck's sake! He could have anything and everything he wanted. How could he even imagine that Cloud wouldn't give in to him, that Cloud wouldn't love him? He was brilliant and beautiful, strong and powerful and gentle, and he was everything that Cloud had never known he needed.

And Zackā€¦ Cloud screamed again, spinning on his heel and lashing out with a fierce kick as his sword leapt out in a slicing sweep before him. His brow was dripping sweat, his breaths coming in labored gasps. Zack had been his first friend, the first person he'd ever known who'd cared about him, who'd listened to him and taken him seriously. Zack was, in a word, amazing. He was talented and skilled, a genius tactician, and he was friendly and open, honest to a fault. How could Cloud not have come to love him? Zack was what had given Cloud hope that there was some good in the world after all.

Zack and Sephiroth. He loved them both.

And it was time--more than time--to do something about it.

With a final forward dash and a furious sweep of his blade, Cloud beheaded his enemy and collapsed, gasping for breath, to his knees. Then he looked up with a feral smile and shook a lock of blond hair from his eyes.

He had some work to do.