Rain Falls Softly
A blood-curdling shriek filled the air.
The dull, numbing blare of sirens blasting forth, and the loud screeching of tyres nearly completely drowned out the heart-wrenching sound. Burning rubber and scorching metal seared through the dry summer air, the acrid scent of a coppery tang, and freshly torn limbs mingling with the dirty rust of blood and twisted metal against the dusty, tarred road.
Men in uniforms rushed out of their cars, lips moving rapidly into small devices as long films of thin, yellow tape was stretched all along the streets. A small gathering of people had already flocked around the perimeter, whispering in swift, hushed tones with one another.
Shouts and panicked tones flitted through the air in a rush of commands, the hasty clanking of metal and aluminium rattling loudly against one another as a pair of heavy doors were thrown open, minute wheels colliding into the ground, throwing the knitted belts and straps of a medical stretcher upwards in a harsh jerk.
On the ground, a young boy was covered in blood.
His arms were covered in deep bruises and incisions, tender white skin ripped violently from its flesh. He was on his knees, bent over as the tears refused to cease flowing. His young throat grew hoarser still with each scream and howl as pain and terror engulfed his entire being, drowned beneath the blood that oozed down his face, staining his hands completely as his shaking, nimble fingers clawed at his eyelids that were closed tightly.
"My eyes...! My eyes!"
x x x
The sun glittered brilliantly in the bright blue sky, golden rays of light bouncing off pristine glass display cases and reflecting small, artificial rainbows onto the sterile walls of shop interiors and the dusty sidewalk. The streets were sparse with people, roads made fairly busy by the occasional passing car.
Spring had arrived, and the cool breeze that rippled through the streets brought with it the saccharine scents of honeysuckle and dew. A distinctly saline tang hung in the air, evidence of the nearby ocean's zephyr that washed coolly through the town. Great waves rolled and swelled, crashing onto the white shores, accompanying the smooth caws of the seagulls. The sounds were distant, but ever-present.
Squinting at the sunlight that glared into his eyes, Leon brought a hand up to protect his vision. He was dressed lightly in a plain white unbuttoned shirt that was rolled up to his elbows at the sleeves and a pair of black trousers, his long brown hair combed back with only his wispy bangs grazing his eyes. Blinking to adjust his gaze to the light, the brunet glanced to his right before crossing the street, gripping the plastic bag he held in his left hand tightly.
Cautiously, he made his way down the sidewalk lightly, carefully so. The man frowned at a handful of people who bumped into him as he stumbled into a crowd walking against his direction. Protectively, Leon held the bag close to his chest, to his heart, and braced himself a touch, making his way out, dodging here and there.
Tripping over a stray foot at a junction, Leon managed to stagger upright, plastic bag still safe in his arms as he stood up straight, brushing away a few stray pockets of imaginary dust that had somehow settled on his clothes. Unconsciously, the brunet found himself patting down his hair as his eyes gazed dully through a reflection of himself in a display case of a shop.
Why he even bothered primping up, he didn't know.
It wouldn't matter, anyway.
The cars at the end of the street slowed to a halt as the traffic light flashed red. Leon snapped out of his reverie and walked quickly along the zebra crossing and down the street to a quieter section of town that was dominated by sidewalks and trees. His eyes immediately narrowed, scanning the area, expression growing thoughtful.
The brunet looked up, a little startled. He saw a young girl a stone's throw away, one hand cupped around her grinning mouth as the other waved wildly in the air to attract his attention. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, her short, neatly cropped hair pulled back with a floral bandana.
A light, barely discernable smile pulled at his lips as he adopted a more sardonic expression, walking easily towards the girl and her companion. He arrived at the bench she was standing beside, setting the bag down.
"Leon? Is that you?"
A tanned, scrawny young man who was sitting on the bench raised his head up at the newcomer, his golden spikes bouncing with the movement of his head. He was wearing cheap, faded jeans and a dull grey sweater. His bony hands were clasped together between his legs, fingers curling around a thin, long white pole as he turned his body smoothly to face Leon.
His long, blond lashes hooded his eyes that were shut firm and tight, but – as though he could actually look at Leon – the blond allowed a minute, almost serene smile to slightly upturn his lips as he nodded at the man he was not able to see.
A man he would not ever be able to see.
Leon felt his lips parting slightly, a crooked grin threatening to surface as he merely nodded affirmatively, murmuring a brief, "It is," in response.
The blind man nodded absentmindedly, that diminutive smile unwavering as he brought his hand to his side, feeling around for whatever had been set down. Gripping the edge of the plastic bag carefully, he pulled it towards him, shifting a little to the left of the bench and patting the empty area beside him, gesturing for Leon to take a seat.
"Argh, I'm late," Yuffie grumbled, scowling at her wristwatch. "I need to go – Dad has something he needs me to do." The teenager started jogging off, raising her voice as she sped away from the two men. "I'll catch you guys later! See you around, Cloud! Leon!" She disappeared around the curb.
Leon let out a soft sigh at her antics, shaking his head, arms already crossing as he shifted his weight to his right foot. The other man who had taken to chuckling softly – shyly almost – caused Leon to pause, his breath hitching. His eyes averted to the blond, gaze lingering on the man, completely enraptured.
A smile flickered across his lips.
"Sit," Cloud said this time, face trained straight ahead at nothing in particular though he was patting the seat beside him again. The brunet paused a moment, eyes raking in the blond's appearance before he nodded habitually, stepping to the side and gripping Cloud's wrist loosely. He slid onto the bench that had been warmed by both Cloud's body and the afternoon sun's heat and leaned back a little.
"Thank you. You don't have to buy me lunch everyday, but… thank you," Cloud spoke with a gentle smile. The plastic bag was pulled away from the blond. Leon's gaze averted meaningfully.
"It's nothing. Don't worry about it," he managed a little timidly, fingers deftly undoing the knot that secured the bag. Cloud chuckled again, relaxing. "Okay, then. I won't. What did you buy?"
Leon dug through the contents, pulling out each item and studying their labels. "Tuna sandwich… chicken pie… potato bun… chocolate éclair…"
"Éclair?" Cloud piped up, tone amused and strangely hopeful at the same time. Leon couldn't help but smile at it. "You spoil me too much, Leon. Please tell me you're going to eat half of all that."
"Of course I'm going to. Just because you can get away with most things doesn't mean you can steal my food."
Cloud laughed. "Touché." He allowed his hand to briefly rest on the brunet's elbow, raising it up to the man's chest level and offering his palm. Leon pressed the plastic packet into his hand, nudging Cloud gently in the side with his arm as a smile flickered on his lips once again, Leon himself taking out a sandwich and peeling off the packaging.
They ate in relative peace, the silence that stretched out between them comfortable and companionable. Some idle chatter would be exchanged now and then, but they both soon grew quiet; Cloud enjoying the food and company, and Leon thoughtful in his silence. In the background, the distant and jocose giggles of young children running and playing could be heard, accompanied by the light tunes of jingles being played from nearby shops.
It was like this a lot. They did nothing else but sit quietly – Yuffie wondered how they even managed to sustain a friendship considering the fact that they rarely spoke a word to one another. And even when they did, it usually seemed absolutely mundane to the young girl. Yet somehow, the two could relate on a such a deep level that – and even though Yuffie had known them both much longer than Leon and Cloud had known each other – the bond was so much so that words weren't even necessary.
Cloud was the most reserved individual that Leon knew. He had cut himself off from the rest of the world, living in his own; struggling to survive alone as he was. He held profound knowledge that one only so jaded should possess, and he kept everything to his heart. No one would ever know what he had learned, what he had experienced. But Leon was jaded, too, and he wanted Cloud to at least share a part of his soul with him. It was frustrating, but he knew that Cloud had accepted him. That meant the world to the brunet.
Leon finished his food quietly, folding the cling wrap into triangles before tossing it into a nearby rubbish bin. Heaving a light sigh, the man ran his fingers lightly through his hair, raking it back before glancing at the blond. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and hands clasped together, resting his cheek against his entwined fingers as he kept his eyes on Cloud who had taken to chewing his éclair politely and thoughtfully.
A car drove past, very fast, and beside him, the blond man stiffened, freezing mid-bite before, after a very gentle nudge on Leon's behalf, he inhaled a little, trying his best to relax completely. He slouched, but it was apparent that he was still at least a little bit on edge. A smile ghosted across Leon's lips as the brunet grew heavy-lidded, gaze diligent and fond. He watched the other man brush away his long blond bangs, exhaling through his teeth as a slight and sudden wind chilled him.
Leon wondered what Cloud would have looked like had he eyes.
His blond spikes stuck up in a manner almost aristocratic, accentuating his well-defined cheekbones and straight nose. He had fair patches of freckles here and there, and his lips were firm and full. Cloud had a slight, healthy tan due to the amount of time he spent outside, and his lashes were long and delicate.
The brunet let out a soft hum, keeping himself in check and resisting the urge to brush away Cloud's bangs himself.
"Is there something on my face?"
Cloud's voice was awkward and held a touch of shy embarrassment, swiftly pulling Leon away from his stray thoughts and completely stealing his attention once again. His hands were folded daintily on his lap, his white cane resting against the bench by his side and the plastic packet that had once held his éclair empty, crumpled up in his soft grip.
Leon inhaled smoothly, raising himself and smiling at the blond, his gaze darting downwards before sliding up to meet Cloud's slight flush.
"You have some chocolate cream by your mouth," the brunet replied, tone a little amused.
With a startled sound, one of Cloud's hands immediately darted to his lips and his fingers groped around to clean the mess. Leon chuckled softly at that, reaching forward and pulling Cloud's arm down, shifting closer and leaning in. He murmured something softly, his hot breath rolling and caressing Cloud's cool skin, causing the man the suppress a slight shiver at the intimacy of the contact.
Swiftly, Leon had a thumb by the corner of Cloud's mouth, wiping away a smudge of chocolate and cleaning it on the plastic packet that he had retrieved from the blind man's hands.
"There." His tone held a measure of satisfaction, and, strange though it may be, triumph.
Cloud inclined his head to a side, lips pressed together slightly in what would have been a reproachful look. "I could have cleaned my mouth fine on my own, you know."
"I know," Leon said after a while, lips pulled up in a smile.
The corners of Cloud's own mouth curled upwards shyly at his quiet mirth.
"You seem happy," the blond mentioned offhandedly, his voice soft. "Did something happen?"
Leon paused, breath hitching in his throat as he turned his body to face Cloud with wavering certainty. He tilted his head to the side, crossing his legs and leaned against the back of the bench. His sharp blue eyes slid away from Cloud's small figure, staring at some vague object in the distance, lips parted slightly, expression that of hesitation.
"I…" he began softly. "I suppose."
Cloud nodded encouragingly, reaching over to squeeze Leon's elbow. 'Go on,' his look said. Leon glanced up at him weakly, hand hovering over Cloud's and faltering for a moment before withdrawing it, fingers accidentally brushing the blond's wrist. He looked away, exhaling sharply.
"It's not… it's nothing. Just in a good mood is all."
"Oh," Cloud replied awkwardly, sounding somewhat disappointed. He pulled back his hand, lips pursing thoughtfully as he inclined his head to the side, still facing Leon. After a brief moment of contemplation, an enlightened expression graced his face and a gentle smile ghosted across his lips. It was almost sincere.
"Is this about your engagement?"
Leon winced internally.
"… let me guess," he managed, forcing himself to sound as normal as possible. "Yuffie?"
Cloud nodded; smile unwavering, somehow – somehow – just a little strained.
Suppressing a groan, Leon deflated slightly, leaning forward and burying his face in one hand, his fingers deftly massaging his temples as he did so. He sighed a little, shaking his head. Mistaking this as a mix of contentment and exasperation, Cloud chuckled delicately, resting a hand on the brunet's back, his voice soft and pleasant.
"I'm sorry if she got to me first," he said quietly, with a hint of what might have been a laugh. "You must be very happy. Do invite me to the wedding when the date is set, okay?"
Leon swallowed down the lump in his throat. He felt something heavy and uneasy weigh down on his shoulders, constricting his chest tightly, burning behind his eyes. Weakly, the dark-haired man looked up at Cloud, brows knitted together. He opened his mouth to speak, the words jumbled even on the tip of his tongue, a stuttered sound that might have been the beginnings of a sentence hanging lamely in the air as the words refused to form, and so he closed his mouth once again, looking down at the ground.
Leon pried out a single syllable, feeling a surge of resentment at everything around him, at everyone else, but most prominently, at himself.
x x x
The calm hooting of sleepy tawny owls swept through the air, responding airily to the fiery cries of the blackbirds and wrens as the dawn chorus began, marking the fresh start of a brand new day. The sky was still a mellow mauve, dense rain clouds from the evening before receding by a slight, scattering across the expanse of emerald fields with the clean dew-scented winds.
The gentle gurgle of boiling water filled the small home, a thin sliver of smoky white vapour swirling from the spout of a tarnished kettle as its low whistling gained verve and grew louder, more high-pitched, until an unsteady hand groped at the knobs of the stove and switched off the fire.
Cloud had been awake about slightly more than an hour before, drowsily settling down on one of wooden dining chairs in his typical bouts of insomnia. He had hoped to nurse away the remnants of sleep with some hot tea and maybe something warm to eat.
The blond man paused for a moment, ears pricking as a new song joined the dawn chorus of the birds. Perhaps this was the dainty song thrush, with its sweet, loud melody that constantly reminded Cloud of rain for a reason inexplicable. Soon, the greenfinch and the dunnock would chime in, completing the bird song for the first light before the sun finally perched higher than the treetops and scattered them off for their morning hunt.
A tired sigh fell from his lips, Cloud idly fingering the ingrained marks that had been etched into the plastic stove knob as the damp and wispy traces of steam curled into the air and lightly caressed his nostrils. The house was cold, not yet warmed by the tender spring sun, and the streets were as silent as the slumber of winter. It was still very early in the day. Everyone else should be asleep.
Cloud leaned back a little, taking a step to the side as he inclined his head to the window at the light hearted twittering of a robin. With a sharp exhalation, a smile twitched across his lips before dissolving completely, the blond returning his focus to the task at hand.
He firmly gripped the handle of the almost full kettle with both hands, raising the heavy thing to about his chest level before taking a memorized number of steps to the right to set it down on an empty countertop. Fingers whispering tentatively to the side, he managed to feel a cool cylindrical plastic container pressing against his palm and allowed his hand to run across it fleetingly until he popped open the lid with a large button. Cloud cautiously poured the boiling water into the plastic container, face dampened with the steam that gusted upwards softly.
Emptying the contents of the kettle, he knocked the lid of the plastic container down carelessly, left hand feeling around for the sink to run some cold water over the receptacle.
He groped the cabinets above him for a tin and a glass jar, Cloud letting out a slightly irate huff when he realized that he had been attempting to pry open the lid of the tin with a dessert fork instead of a spoon. Little things like making himself tea, or fixing a sandwich were always fraught with small obstacles, and, whilst trivial and easy to overcome, constantly frustrated him.
Eventually, Cloud had successfully stuck in a teabag into his mug and spooned in two teaspoonfuls of sugar after ensuring that it was indeed sweet and not salty, replacing both containers in their respective places and dispensing the boiled water into it until it reached the level he had stuck his thumb in.
He wandered away as he stirred his tea, steps small and careful so that he wouldn't bang into anything even if he had already learned the layout of the building by heart. The dawn chorus had become fainter though it was ever present, and as Cloud stopped in front of an open window, he could feel small slivers of sunrays peeking over the horizon and streaming into the house.
"It's unhealthy to get the amount of sleep that you do, you know."
Cloud tilted his head to the side slightly. He hadn't heard Aerith approach, but he wasn't easily surprised. He paused for a moment, a slender finger running along the mouth of the mug he held before he let out a soft breath, forcing a slight, barely-there smile for the woman.
"Been up long?" he asked in his quiet voice, as though afraid to disturb the serenity of the morning. He lowered his head, turning once more to face the open window. Had he eyes, he would have probably been gazing over the muted greens that bloomed over the land and coloured in the greyness of the dull cement as sunlight began to wash through the city.
Something warm rested on his arm, gently dropping to his wrist and squeezing slightly before withdrawing. He felt Aerith shift to the side and pick something up, listening to her slight hum, knowing that she was probably rearranging something. He could hear the muffled sliding of small something hollow and solid across a wooden surface.
After a while, she finally turned to him with a sweet smile.
"Not as long as you, but long enough," Aerith said amiably. "I really wish you'd get regular hours of sleep, Cloud. It's not like there's anything to be afraid of when you're unconscious."
A smile ghosted Cloud's lips and he raised the mug to take a sip of his tea. His free hand stretched out, fingers curling into the hem of the loose, too-long sleeves of the light sweater he wore and pulled it out so that his hand was comfortably wrapped up in it and shielded from the cold. His lips tingled pleasantly with the warmth of his drink.
"There's a note here for you, in any case," Aerith said, catching Cloud's attention. She picked up a piece of paper, the light rustling carrying across the minor distance between them, and read it. "Leon says that he won't be able to make it to the park for the next few days and would like it if you could catch him later on at noon at the lake."
"Does he say why?" Cloud asked, tone tinged with mild intrigue. The brunette shook her head, folding up the slip of paper in her hands before she realized that Cloud was still silent, awaiting her answer. "No," she amended quickly, a slight note of apology in her voice. With a listless, "Hmm," Cloud returned to gazing out the window, drinking his tea, only imagining what he would be able to see if he could, and wondered what Leon would possibly want to see him for.
The slender woman delicately placed her hand on his elbow. Just a light touch. Coaxing. She withdrew her hand gently. "Would you like me to drive you?"
The question hung in the air like poison.
He took a long, drawn-out sip from his drink, never saying a word. Aerith merely watched him for a moment, eyes lingering on the hazy steam that dissipated into the air as the sun broke through the treetops and scattered the birds from their song.
x x x
The gentle chirruping of crickets filled in the void of words as a smooth, chilly breeze whispered through the clearing and swept soft ripples across the surface of the lake along with it. Overhead, a sleepy owl was cooing drowsily, perched comfortably in its nest of twine and reeds.
I don't believe you.
Beleaguered from the dusty cemented paths of the city, and the busy roads that twisted around the flat expanse of land settled upon with skyscrapers – roads that eventually stretched to the ocean – an almost ethereal atmosphere remained in the soft flickers of light that glimmered with the gentle sway of the trees.
There was a quiet sigh, a sound swept away by the wind.
"You're not," he forced as firm as he could; voice a fine tremble. His palms were sweaty, hands slipping away but tightly gripping the head of his cane with all the force he could muster until his knuckles were as white as his walking stick.
Oh God, he was shaking.
"I guess you're right. I'm not."
His hot fingertips gently brushed Cloud's cold cheek and the blond man jerked away, feeling himself sear with shame, with vulnerability. His head was light and he felt dizzy and oh god, why oh why was Leon taking advantage of him like this? He wanted to run as far away from him as fast as he could but he didn't know the path well and he might run into a tree or trip into the water and oh god, why, Leon, why?
"Shut up," Cloud rasped. "Shut up." Please.
"But it's you."
"I swear it is."
"I wouldn't have said it was if it was no-"
"Don't you use me as some sort of pathetic excuse," Cloud interjected hotly, voice bitter. "How dare you do this to her – do you think you have the right to do whatever you please because of cold feet? That marriage is a joke?"
There might have been another sigh, but Cloud wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of anything. His eyes were burning but he squeezed them shut and bit down on his quivering lip. Oh god, why couldn't he stop shaking?
"It's the truth," that voice spoke again, tone soft as before. Cloud shuddered involuntarily, furious that he couldn't stop the sensation of being plunged in pure heat at that warm voice. He hated that pleasurable tingle that ran up his spine. Despised it. Loathed it with all his being.
"Do I disgust you, Cloud?" Leon asked quietly, stepping forward, a hand raising and gently caressing the blond's cheek. The blond shuddered again, looking away, but not turning his face out of the touch. "Marrying someone I don't love. Loving someone I can't have. Am I disgusting to you?"
Leon was nose to nose with Cloud, his breaths gently rolling and washing over the blond's face in smooth waves. The dark-haired man's fingers curled slightly, splaying across his cheeks and gently cradling Cloud's head in his grip, forcing him to face Leon straight on.
"Do you hate me for loving another man?"
Cloud's breath hitched as those hot, pliant hands gently fell to his arms before wrapping securely around his delicate frame, enveloping him completely in a tight embrace. Leon pressed his own cheek against Cloud's, burying his face in his shoulder as he squeezed him a slight. He murmured the smaller man's name softly, eyes fluttering shut once more, eyebrows knitting together.
"I want to deserve you," he sighed, tone conveying a sense of resignation and tiredness. Cloud swallowed, absolutely sure of the deep flush on his face and the disappointment he would feel once this… this entire… fiasco was over.
I don't believe you.
"Tell me what I need to do so that I can deserve you."
He wouldn't stop shaking. Oh god, he wished he would just die like that, in those arms. Cloud had never been in love before, what did he know about Leon, how could Leon love a blind man, why did he feel so safe and warm and… happy, why was he still protesting and shaking and why why why. The questions were jumbled in his mind and caught in his throat and Cloud was frightened to the very core.
Cloud was hurting.
That, too, could have just as easily been swept away by the wind, but in all his hope and anxiety, Leon had heard him clearly enough.
"If you… if you loved me for so long, why did you propose to her?" Cloud muttered, head tilted downwards and fists clenched to keep them from instinctively twining around Leon.
Leon remained quiet for a very long time, breaths long and drawn out against a patch of the blond's shoulder. He was at a complete loss. Why? That question rang ominously in his head and he started to feel a bit dizzy from all the thinking. All he could feel and smell and, to an extent, taste was Cloud, but nothing was going right and though he should have been feeling happy, he was weighed down by worry.
"I was- I am… scared."
Had his eyes been open, Cloud would have blinked.
Bemused, he turned his head a little towards Leon, whose grip around the blond had loosened.
The brunet tried to make the words come, but he didn't know at all what to say. He couldn't describe his feelings, the sentiments that ran through him, and it was so hard to tell Cloud what he had always wanted to say.
He could only settle for something close enough.
"I never," his voice faltered. "I never thought I would fall in love. Never."
Leon took a deep breath.
"But I did. And I never imagined that it would be with a younger man."
Cloud inhaled shakily, his chest tightening.
"When I met you, I," Leon's voice wavered softly, fondly, apprehensively. "I felt so scared."
The silence stretched out uncomfortably between them, the brunet hesitating before pressing his lips against Cloud's forehead, gently cradling the blond's face in both his hands as he slowly kissed Cloud's brow, his cheek, and as he hovered uncertainly above Cloud's mouth, Leon was pushed away.
"You're engaged," Cloud forced out hoarsely, his tone hollow. "We're both men."
Leon remained silent, gaze burning right through Cloud so much so the blond couldn't take it and looked away, lips pressed firmly together, his face hot. Leon's hands slipped gently, falling to Cloud's wrists and squeezing softly, tenderly.
"I love you."
Cloud went cold, shaking his head and jerking his fists out of the brunet's limp grip. He staggered backwards, tripping over a tree root and falling down. He flipped over onto his knees, wildly feeling for his cane and painfully ignoring Leon calling his name beseechingly. His fingers finally curled around something familiar and smooth, grasping it tight as he scrambled onto his feet and walked away as fast as he could.
Cloud wished he could have run.
x x x
Leon could feel the wind picking up, chilling him slightly. He unrolled his sleeves, buttoning the cuffs as he absentmindedly nodded to whatever idle talk his companion was providing. Mutely, he glanced down the deserted street and up at the thicket of dense grey clouds, knowing it would rain soon – 20, 30 minutes maybe.
Eyebrows furrowing a slight, Leon obediently followed Tifa and Yuffie into a shop, feeling a little irritated at the cheery bell that rang overhead. The women were already chatting animatedly with the salesperson, being led to the back of the store where more apparel could be found.
Bitterly, Leon's eyes scanned the bridal store, fingers running across a rich blue velvet fabric that was folded on the table. He lightly picked up a minute pair of sugar dolls that had been melted together, the one to the right wearing a black suit made of liquorice and the one to the left a white dress, lace sewn into the headpiece to serve as a veil.
Pursing his lips, Leon's gaze dropped to the tabletop before darting backwards past his shoulder, to Tifa. Pressing a white gown to her slender body, she looked happy; glowing in quiet delight as Yuffie tittered over her and showed her a tiara to match the dress. The shopkeeper took a roll of lace and spread it out before her, holding it to the tiara and pointing out how they complemented one another. She giggled softly, the dimple in her left cheek apparent even after she covered her mouth modestly with her hand.
She was beautiful.
Leon dropped his head, sighing as he set down the dolls onto the table. Raking his fingers through his hair, he stood up to his full height and flashed the shopkeeper a half-hearted smile as she brightly showed him a photo album with pictures of various suits, asking the girls if he was planning on tying his hair up or getting it cut on the real day.
With a chuckle, Tifa said that it was up to him, though she would like to see him with short hair like when he had been a teenager.
The shop erupted in quiet laughter, Leon's forced smile fading away as they continued perusing the goods in the store. He looked around tiredly, walking past a glass cabinet and peering at some photo albums being showcased.
He froze mid-step, turning around slowly, his eyes widening at the sight that met him.
On the bench – on his bench – was none other than Cloud.
But it couldn't be! After what had happened, there was no way that Cloud would still go to the park, would still sit down and wait like he always waited. But it was him. It couldn't be anyone but him. The hair, the stance, the height, the body shape… it was. It was so impossible, but it really…
In a matter of moments, he was back at the entrance, Leon's hand flying to the door handle and pulling it back with such force that the bell that hung above rang violently.
"Leon? Where are you going?"
He turned around, meeting Tifa's concerned gaze with some strain.
"I'm taking a walk. I'll be back in 5 minutes."
"But we're nearly done. Couldn't you wait just a little longer?"
"I-" he couldn't finish his sentence, overwhelmed by the sincerity in her eyes. He felt utterly guilty, so ashamed, and with that, his hand fell to his side. He closed his mouth in resignation, difficultly dropping his gaze as he turned to look back by just a little, though he stopped himself mid-way. He clenched his fists tightly.
Tifa and Yuffie noticed this, curious over his behaviour. They had never seen him act like that before. The teenager slowly turned to meet Tifa's questioning eyes, shrugging a little before she wordlessly looked at the groom-to-be once again.
"You know," Tifa began slowly. "If it's very important to you, we can take our time here and just meet you later at the car…"
He was out just like that.
Aware of the looks he was receiving, but not caring in the least, Leon half-walked, half-jogged down the road, narrowly colliding with a handful of pedestrians as he weaved in and out of the sparse crowd, stumbling every now and again. Breathlessly, he looked around, eyes straying wildly for any sign of the blond; any sign at all.
Finally, he reached Cloud's bench.
There was nothing there but a dry leaf, fallen, from the old maple tree that was rooted just nearby.
Exhaling loudly with a huff, Leon let out a weak chuckle, his body shaking with bursts of silent laughter as he exhaustedly dropped onto the bench. The force of the drop caused a small gust to blow that single leaf away, the leaf twirling midair before floating indolently to the grass.
He paused a moment, slowly bending over and picking it up with the edges of his fingers. He brought it up at eye level, studying it intently. The edges were crisp and brittle, torn at some angles, and the veins of the leaf were hard and thick. Staring silently at it, Leon exhaled through his nose before his hand dropped to his side, fingers still grasping the leaf though loosely now. He leaned back fully, allowing his head to hang from the bench back, Leon gazing listlessly at the overcast sky.
As he had predicted, rain soon fell. The first drops had landed on his cheek and scar, slowly trailing down to his jaw and leaking to the ground as the rain gradually intensified. He shut his eyes and mouth, inhaling smoothly through his nose as low rumbles of thunder gently caressed his ears, skin growing white and almost translucent through the dim light as the icy wind slapped against his wet, chilly body. His clothes grew drenched by the minute, sagging from the weight of the water.
A bitter smile curled at his lips, his brows knitting together as he let out a desolate sigh, releasing the leaf and bringing his hand up to cover his eyes and the corner of his mouth. He could feel the storm swell, a flash of lightning slicing through the clouds above as the shrill yowl of a stray cat from an alley some paces away accompanied the loud clang of an upset trash can.
Leon pried his eyes open a slight, tilting his head to the side and peering hazily at the garbage overflowing from a dented bin that was rusting from the inside. He blinked some of the water out of his eyes. The heavy rain was nullifying everything into a muted swirl of blue and grey, filtering out the buildings and streets and signboards with a curtain of mist.
He raised his head, sitting up and squinting through the downpour as a familiar sight met his eyes, hunched over and shuffling down the slightly flooded pavement.
He knew that person.
With lightning reflexes, Leon had jumped over the bench, running towards the blond. Slipping on some loose stones and onto a patch of mud, he ignored the sharp pain spiking his wrists and left knee, as well as the dirt clinging to his face and sleeves as he struggled to his feet and finally managed to run onto the tarmac.
Breathing heavily, Leon jogged down the curb where Cloud had disappeared and stopped for just a moment, bending over to catch his breath and to rake his hair out of his eyes. He managed a glimpse of drooped blond spikes from the corner of his vision and immediately dashed towards it. His legs were burning, screaming for him to stop, but he kept going – thankful that Cloud was walking at a slow pace.
An arm extended, he reached out for the delicate figure hugged by a light coat just a distance away. He grasped Cloud's elbow, forcing him to halt, to turn back. The dark-haired man's breath was still harsh and ragged, his hair sticking to his face and neck as leaned in exhaustedly towards the other man.
Cloud's eyes, as usual, were shut. However, contrary to the puzzled, or even defensive expression Leon had been expecting, what greeted him was a mask of… resignation. His grip loosened only slightly in that moment of weakness, but almost immediately, Leon was bolstered once again, strengthening his resolve and pulling Cloud just a little closer.
"Cloud," he started, controlling his breaths and forcing his heart to stop racing. "Cloud, what are you-"
"Leon?" the blond interjected, voice strangely vulnerable, tone gaining an icy edge. "Why are you here?"
Bewildered, Leon found himself stopping for a moment, the wheels in his head turning furiously as he tried to remember something that was surely important… something…
"Your note," Cloud replied in his quiet voice, slowly turning away. "You wouldn't be around."
"Oh," Leon breathed, everything clicking at once. "That's not important."
"Isn't it?" Cloud countered, guarded and, to some extent, weary.
Leon fell silent, gazing at the younger man in earnest, lips parting to respond, but the words refusing to form. Everything was on the tip of his tongue, the emotions that had been stirred since then rushing through him and overwhelming every thought, every notion, every sensation as he instinctively stepped closer to Cloud, hungry for the warmth of his touch.
His eyes darted from Cloud's face to his slightly shivering body, baggy clothes clinging to him stubbornly, heavily, the walking cane absent from his grasp. The brunet noticed the scrapes and cuts adorning his white knuckles, a souvenir from that time – when he had tripped, had fallen.
Cloud had run. From Leon.
What right had Leon to speak to him now?
But he wasn't pulling away now, was he?
Was this a second chance?
"Cloud," Leon began softly, eyes gently straying to the man's face once again. "Are you… angry with me?"
Cloud let out a bark of empty laughter, shoulders shaking with detached mirth as he shook his head and turned around fully to face the other man. Leon's grasp loosened, slipping slowly to the man's wrist, and then falling further until his index finger and Cloud's pinkie were hooked together loosely.
The bitter laughter subsided, and the rain, too, began to diminish to a steady shower. Both men stood there, face to face, their breaths drawn out, tingling the other's skin with warmth as the silence that filled the void of words melted into the gentle patter of the rain.
"I don't know," Cloud said finally, his voice acrid. "I don't know what to think, how to feel. I don't know."
Leon closed his eyes for a brief moment, taking a final step forward and leaning in, resting his forehead against Cloud's, his own breath hitching when he felt the blond tilt his head back by just a little, at just the right angle. He couldn't begin to fathom the unbroken tranquillity between them, there and then.
Tightening his grip, lacing his fingers with Cloud, Leon dipped his head lower, breathing quietly, his hot breath rolling across Cloud's drenched skin as his lips were just about to lightly graze the corner of the blond's mouth.
Cloud pulled away gently, taking Leon's hand with his own, and prying it off.
"Leon! Hey, Leon! There you are!"
He wasn't spared even a moment to be crestfallen. That had been Yuffie. Turning to his left, Leon saw a pair of women approaching them, both sheltering from the rain beneath their own small umbrellas. He could see a handful of paper bags dangling from Yuffie's elbow, a long, flat box sticking out of one of them by just a little, whereas Tifa had in her hand only one large plastic bag.
A grim expression graced Leon's features as he took a step away from Cloud, turning to face them.
"You're going to get sick, caught in the rain like this," Tifa started in her smooth, concerned nature as he tilted her umbrella slightly over the brunet's head. He shook his head a little at the gesture, already thoroughly soaked. Her kindness was appreciated, but useless in such a circumstance.
Understanding, Tifa flashed him a small, exasperated smile before righting the umbrella over herself once again. Her eyes averted to the stranger standing beside Leon. Tilting her head questioningly to the man, she asked, "Is this a friend?"
"Cloud! What are you doing here all by yourself?" Yuffie exclaimed before Leon could reply.
The blond's expression eased, a miniscule, forced smile upturning his lips as he nodded stiffly to the teenager.
"The usual, for me. I didn't count that it would actually rain."
"But you always listen to the weather forecast!" Yuffie frowned, crossing her arms and leaning forward in slight scrutiny. Cloud shrugged; frown returning to his face as he deliberately turned away.
"Seymour, the weatherman, is synonymous with 'liar'."
Tifa chuckled at that, looking in Leon's direction to catch his eye, but mildly surprised to find that the man's gaze was trained devotedly on the blond, his expression that of anxiety; eyebrows raised and knitted together, lips white and parted slightly, face almost pale – but that could have been from the cold. He seemed worried, exhausted with concern.
"Is this a friend of yours?"
Tifa snapped out of her reverie, slightly disoriented before she managed to regain her bearings and smiled apologetically at the stranger.
"I'm Tifa, Tifa Lockheart," she replied with a smile, offering her right hand to the handsome man.
"Cloud Strife," he nodded in her direction, pausing for an instance before raising his head as if gazing at her, assessing her. His voice held a strangely hollow quality to it, but it was barely discernable through the light tone he had adopted. "You sound far too pretty to be hanging out with the likes of Leon and Yuffie."
Chuckling again, Tifa decided that she rather liked this friend. She grinned at the blond, hand still outstretched. "Not one for handshakes?" she joked lightly, her good humour evident in her voice.
Cloud's lips flickered with a tired smile.
"If only I could see your hand."
Her smile disappeared as she turned to look at Yuffie, who could only nod with a slightly doleful look in her eyes. Her gaze travelled to Leon, but he was looking away. Tifa stood straight, her right arm curling inwards already, returning to the handle of her umbrella. Her expression grew mellow, her fine brows raising and her long lashes hooding her eyes in sympathy. She was about to breathe an apology before she caught herself in time, the smile – a little awkward – returning to her face.
Leaning forward, Tifa grabbed Cloud's right hand and pulled it out for a firm shake.
"Well, if you can't see my hand, at least you can feel it."
Cloud's lips twitched upwards, a slightly amused expression on his face then as his hand made its way back to his side once Tifa had released her grip. He turned to Yuffie.
"I like this friend."
"You had better!" the girl replied with a grin. "She's Leon's fiancée, so you'll be seeing more of her in due time. We've just been to that boutique there, picking out the dresses and motifs and all for the wedding!"
Leon's smile faded at that, quickly stealing a glance of Cloud's unchanging expression – a well-disguised mask that had been glued into place – noting that his minute smile was now frozen on his face. Bitterly, Leon shot Yuffie a reproachful glare, unsuccessful in catching her eye as she continued to jabber on and on about the things they had bought, and how gorgeous Tifa would look, and why couldn't she shut up?
"I think we should get going, Yuffie. These men are standing in the rain, mind you," Tifa interjected politely, smiling at the grateful look Leon threw her. "I'm not very sure of any arrangements you might have, but if you'd like, Cloud, we have a car parked at the end of the street. We'd be more than happy to drop you off at your home."
Cloud shook his head gently, though his body had tensed – it didn't escape her eye.
"I live on the other end of the road – just 5 minutes away. The caretaker is always there, and it'd be best if I just get back as soon as I can," he declined politely, offering the lady an appreciative nod. He paused hesitantly, voice almost a mumble this time, "I don't like cars."
She smiled in return, about to reaffirm his answer when Leon, surprisingly enough, cut in.
"I'll walk him back. He left his cane and it's dangerous for him to walk alone when it's slippery like this."
Tifa and Yuffie looked at each other, confusion and a sense of intrigue clouding their thoughts before the teenager suggested that they all walk Cloud back to his home. Taken aback, Leon had mulled that suggestion over for a moment before he told them that they had to drop their things off at the car, and that he and Cloud would be quite all right on their own.
Tifa offered Leon her umbrella for the two men to share, but Leon told her that she needed it more than they did, and that it was too small for two people anyway.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of mothering, the girls took their leave and left Cloud and Leon in peace. Leon stepped towards the blond man who had remained silent all the while, resting his hand on his shoulder briefly. Cloud turned around, turned away from the other man, and shuffled a little to his left as his hand groped blindly through the air until his fingertips brushed a small post box.
Confident, Cloud straightened up and began to take small, calculated steps down the street. Leon soon fell into step beside him.
The rain fell softly. A slight gale had picked up, and the water had started to fall harder. Leaves were billowing gently through the area, reeds and dried twigs whispering across the road and onto the tangle of grass in the park. The road was a dark blur of colours as the taciturn rain mingled with the shadows of the eventide; wind faster and a little colder, but through and through, solitude stayed, and the silence in which Leon and Cloud walked together in remained uninterrupted.
Leon raised his head towards the blond, a little surprised that he had been the one to break the quiet.
"You were going to be away… shopping for your wedding ceremony."
Leon forced himself to look ahead, staring at nothing in particular as a slight numbness began to overpower him. He felt almost detached from his body, like some spirit that was floating overhead and observing everything from a distance. Maybe it was because of the cold he had submitted his body through, the rain – he could barely feel anything at all. So he kept quiet.
"I don't understand you," Cloud said bitterly at the lack of response.
Leon couldn't blame him. He had told Cloud that he loved him. Loved him. And yet, he had then gone on to buy things for his marriage to someone else. It was inexcusable, unbelievable, unforgivable – Leon wished he knew how to make everything right again, but he was lost in his own feelings and the confusion he was experiencing because of it.
But Cloud wasn't pulling away.
Leon's heart fluttered just a little at the prospect of it.
He swallowed hard, eyes darting to the side, to Cloud's neutral profile as he continued to walk on in his steady pace, unfazed by the rain. His face was troubled, almost… sorrowful.
He felt enraptured.
"Do you…" the question died on his lips, and Leon refused to pursue it any further. He was blindly following his emotions, completely ignoring the consequences and the repercussions, and after all that had happened so far, Leon knew that he couldn't dare take anymore risks where Cloud and his feelings were concerned.
Cloud did not speak, did not acknowledge having heard the enquiry, but he had heard.
And he was disappointed.
The walk was plunged in silence once again.
They had been walking on for what seemed like hours already, and beneath the tense, awkward atmosphere that hung between them, Leon managed to step just a little closer, slowly touching Cloud's hand with the light caress of his fingertips. Often, the brushing of their hands would be nothing more than an accident, or mere coincidence, yet Leon could not help himself from wanting to be just a little closer to Cloud.
Little by little, their fingers finally intertwined.
Loosely linked together by touch, Cloud curled his fingers gently over Leon's knuckles and they continued walking side by side. Hesitant, the blond was torn between squeezing the brunet's hand and taking his own out of that terribly loose grasp. That meeting at the lake was still fresh in his mind – he wasn't keen on even being near Leon, but as circumstances would have it, he didn't have a choice. He couldn't release himself from the asphyxiation of this situation.
And even so, he just couldn't bring himself to let go.
Their shoes sloshed in puddles of water, the small splashes getting mud on the hem of their wet trousers. The road eventually changed to cemented gravel, a path leading up to the driveway of a relatively large wooden building. They approached the door, Cloud taking a step forward and grasping the worn knob in his free hand, turning it and pushing the door open.
Leading Leon into the home, a wave of heat washed over them, embracing them in warmth as Cloud heard the distinctive crackling of fire in the hearth. With a firm click, the door was shut behind them. In the distance, the scraping sound of a chair being pushed backwards captured his attention, light footsteps gently padding into the room. He waited patiently.
"You're wet, both of you," the soft, concerned voice said. Aerith's deep green eyes flickered briefly to Leon, giving him something of a nod before she disappeared down the hall, only to return with a pair of towels.
Accepting it graciously, Leon's eyes remained on the woman who had retreated to the kitchen to make a pot of tea for the pair.
The home was darkness; no lights switched on, with only few curtains drawn back to allow the passage of the dim twilight through. Shadows veiled each corner, illuminated weakly by a minute flame that was slowly turning into mere embers, firewood nothing but cool ash now.
Somehow, the brunet was almost comforted by the gloom.
Leon heard the light rustling of paper, a clack of metal. Turning his head to the side, he saw, seated on a faded, downy couch in front of the fireplace a young boy – maybe no older than 14 or 15. He had a head of sandy blond hair, swept to the side in dishevelled spikes. Unlike Cloud, this boy's eyes were open, but his pupils were a discoloured grey – almost white. They stared ahead at nothing at all, but his mouth moved rapidly and his fingers ran smoothly across a great album, fitted with hard, metallic pages of embossed dots.
The woman appeared at his side, setting down a few large mugs on the coffee table before him.
"Something warm for you, Roxas."
The boy paused, fingers glued in place as he slowly turned his head and blinked those opaque eyes, nodding by just a bit. "Thank you," he rasped softly, politely. Her lips twitched upwards in a smile, Aerith gently ruffling the teen's hair. Standing up, she eyed the newcomer wearily – gaze wary.
"I insist that you stay here at least until the rain stops," she said quietly. The sincerity of her request was questionable, yet Leon remained grateful for her consideration. She flattened the tray against her stomach, lowering her eyes to the fire. "When it does, I can help call you a cab. Or if you live nearby, I could lend you an umbrella."
Leon shook his head. "I'll make my own arrangements. Thank you, I appreciate the offer."
Aerith remained still, frowning deeply, unblinkingly as the flames diminished and the light that managed to softly illumine the room slowly died. She was silent, expression unreadable. The orange light made her eyes seem almost brown. "Perhaps you should take your friend somewhere to clean up."
Cloud started at this, raising his head in acknowledgement, lips parted and about to retort. He stopped himself in time, before the words left his mouth, and let out a smooth breath instead. Reluctantly, he twisted his body in the opposite direction, squeezing Leon's hand weakly as a gesture to follow.
Leon obliged, hesitantly squeezing back, slowly locking their fingers a little more securely.
Cloud didn't respond.
Their steps echoed through the long passages that twisted deeper and darker into the building, Cloud never once stumbling or losing his footing. After a second turn, he inclined to the left, fingers of his free hand gently splaying on the wall as he walked, thumb and index finger still hooked around the towel firmly. He stopped as his ring finger brushed against a slightly dusty doorframe. Groping it slightly, he pressed his palm against a cold metal plate with raised dots beside the entrance, lashes fluttering slightly as he read. He dropped his hand when he had confirmed that he had found the right room.
He released Leon's hand, opening the door and waiting for his guest to enter before him. Leon's gaze remained on him for a moment before he obediently stepped into the room. Cloud followed after, the door closing behind him.
The room was only slightly small, but it was brighter than the rest of the house. The curtains had been pulled back to reveal a large glass window, the dim light dancing into the room as the rain beat against the pane. A cheap bed was in the corner, a thin layer of dust covering the yellowed pillowcase. The blanket that had been laid out across the mattress and tucked into the sides of the frames had many visible creases and wrinkles – having being sat on and lied upon many times, but never slept in.
Turning back to face Cloud, Leon saw him disconsolately lean back against the door, gaze averted. His lips were pressed firmly together, eyebrows furrowed. The towel in his hand had been dropped onto the ground, lying limply by his feet. There was a restless feel to him, something that wanted to break free and escape. Leon contemplated asking him about it, but he realized that he was afraid of saying anything at all. But he wanted to touch him – touch his face, stroke his cheek… Leon wanted to hold him.
But he couldn't hold him. He would never be allowed. Instead, Leon walked silently to the blond, quietly enough so that there were no footfalls to warn the man of his approach.
Leon draped his towel over Cloud's head so that it covered his eyes a little. He gently dried the blond's hair, eyes diligently trained on his face as he watched the slightly taken aback look that graced Cloud's fine features. He was questioning now, tilting his head up at the slightly taller man.
"You'll catch a cold," Leon replied quietly after a while.
Resigned, Cloud dropped his gaze to Leon's chest, allowing the man to continue his ministrations on his hair. He forced himself to take long, controlled breaths, inhaling and exhaling through his nose as he swallowed a little. Leon was very tender, smoothly massaging Cloud's scalp and running his fingers through his damp tresses, the towel gliding softly across his skin.
Slowly, Cloud raised a hand, grasping Leon's wrist and halting him.
Leon paused, leaning forward as his gaze remained on the blond's downcast face.
"Why are you doing this?"
A smile ghosted across Leon's lips.
He took his time, smouldering blue eyes drinking in every freckle dusting his skin, every drop of water clinging to Cloud's lashes as the brunet pulled on one end of the towel, sliding it off Cloud's head and allowing it to fall to the floor. Inhaling smoothly, Leon dropped his hand still in Cloud's grip to his side, gently leaning in and pressing his cheek lightly against the blond's.
"You know why," he murmured softly, lips brushing Cloud's ear.
The blond shook his head tiredly, a hand planted firmly on Leon's chest to push away. Leon sighed quietly, obligingly leaning out of the close proximity, but paused when Cloud's fingers curled into the front of his wet shirt.
He didn't move as Cloud's other hand slowly rose to the nape of his neck, resting there almost tiredly, pulling him just a little forward. His fingers whispered across Leon's cold face, tracing his jaw and gently caressing his temple, Cloud's expression almost studious now.
Leon breathed quietly through his nose.
"Do you," his voice was barely a whisper. "Do you ever wonder what I look like?"
Cloud didn't answer immediately, carefully stroking Leon's brow before his gentle exploration of the man's face dropped slowly to his eyes, to which the brunet faithfully closed. He could feel Leon's calm breathing, his slightly fluttering lashes, and as Cloud traced the bridge of Leon's nose, felt a line of broken skin; a sharp scar. His breath hitched slightly at the sensation, and he traced it to the very tip, ending on his cheek.
Softly, Cloud replied, "All the time."
His fingers grazed Leon's lips, slowly running over them as Leon closed his eyes and grasped that hand, pressed it flat against his cheek. He kissed Cloud's palm, squeezing softly as the blond slowly leaned forward. Their foreheads were touching, noses brushing as Cloud pulled the other man closer by just a little, breathing uncertainly as he began to lose himself to the haze of his desire.
There was loud knocking from behind.
"Excuse me. Yuffie and another woman are waiting for you in a car. They're parked at the entrance, so you won't have to worry about getting wet," Aerith's voice, muffled through the door, was calm and unwavering – that tone of tiredness ever present. Yuffie and Tifa; they were in the car – that meant that they were waiting for Leon. The sound of Aerith's shuffling feet slowly receded, leaving nothing else but the gentle patter of rain in her wake as the two remained absolutely still.
The longest quiet stretched between them; unbearable, but necessary as Leon let out a shaky breath, willing himself to ignore his duty to return as quickly as possible to the girls. Cloud did not move, but his grasp tightened and he refused to let go.
"Do you…" Leon said softly, the question he had left alone before resurfacing, demanding to be asked.
"Do you love me?"
Cloud didn't respond; couldn't respond. Not to that.
As the seconds trickled into minutes, Cloud finally released Leon, pulling back and stepping aside to allow him exit. He turned away, expression hollow, lips tingling. Leon touched his cheek, raising his face towards him.
"Let me see you again," the blond whispered, clutching Leon's hand. The brunet nodded slowly, forgetting Cloud's blindness. But Cloud knew. He just knew. He pressed his lips to the Cloud's forehead.
And without another word, Leon left the room.
x x x
He could hear nothing but the smooth cawing of seagulls, the receding waves that swelled and crashed onto the powdery shore. The salty breeze swept across his face, blowing his hair back, blowing his long fringe into his eyes as the distant rumble of cars in the city remained just that – distant.
Waiting had never been so difficult before.
All his life, he had been waiting. Waiting for his father, waiting for surgery, waiting for someone to take his hand and to lead him to a new home. Waiting came so naturally to him, it was like breathing. Waiting had made him so forbearing, so imperturbable, he couldn't recall ever losing himself to anger.
With each second that ticked by, Cloud felt something inside him die a little.
He was so afraid, so scared that Leon would never come. He was scared of these feelings, scared they would overwhelm him and make him explode. He had never felt this way before, and then Leon had come along and swept him in a whirlwind of emotions, and now he was waiting and his heart was aching so bad, being made to wait.
Cloud sighed softly.
He was seated at the edge of a small wooden pier at the beach, trousers rolled up and legs dipped into the water. His cane was beside him, wedged against the frame of the structure so it wouldn't roll away. There was nothing else here but the gulls and the ocean – people too busy with some aspect of their lives to bother about an untouched stretch of seaboard.
Somehow, he knew that it was getting very dark. He could feel it. He could smell the rain clouds gathering and dispersing with the wind. He knew the sun was being stolen away, beginning its decline. He'd been here for what seemed like hours, like days already, and he was starting to doubt that Leon would show.
Cloud knew nothing about love.
He had been shown platonic affection, of course; that, he was no stranger to. He'd had his own share of platonic affections with Aerith and Yuffie. He'd been courted with their romantic stories and whimsies of true love, eternal love. They were lovely tales to hold faith in, but Cloud found that he held an almost derisive stance against romantic love.
He was blind, for god's sake. Who could love a blind man? How could a man love another man? Everything was ridiculous and he didn't want to have anything to do with it.
But Cloud felt himself hurt whenever Leon was near him, whispered in his ear, touched him. He felt like he was floating with happiness one second, and then suddenly burning with anger, with frustration. Nothing made sense and sometimes, when he thought about Leon, his heart would start to race and he'd feel like breaking down at the utter sorrow that was eating away at his very being.
Was this love?
Cloud couldn't love Leon. Wouldn't. Didn't want to. Couldn't.
Leon was engaged. Leon was a man. But, why. . ?
Why did he love Cloud?
How could he love Cloud?
Cloud felt his heart lurch, throbbing almost painfully in his chest. Withdrawing his legs from the water, the blond made to stand. He couldn't take it anymore; Leon wasn't coming. It was ridiculous. Leon hadn't even responded when Cloud said that he wanted to- Wanted to- He-
A pair of strong hands rested on Cloud's shoulders, pushing him back down to sit.
Extremely surprised, Cloud's head had whipped back, completely caught off-guard as he felt someone take a seat next to him. He felt disoriented, bewildered, vexed almost; yet, as the man beside him gently dropped his feet into the water, a part of him quivered with happiness. A wave rolled beneath them, beneath the pier, onto the shore.
Cloud hardly believed he had been so jittery before, so pained. Time was at an absolute standstill and it was almost surreal how he was being embraced in tranquillity. His heart had calmed down now; absolutely slow, almost stagnant as he felt Leon's body warmth gently soothe his cold skin. He felt hypersensitive to every sensation now, lips tingling in remembrance, fingers twitching slightly in want.
Their sides were pressed together, skin of their exposed legs brushing gently as their feet bobbed along the water's surface with each saline wave.
Cloud felt like his body had sighed, relaxing slightly as the companionable silence that he had been so accustomed to engulfed him warmly. He rested just a little against Leon – nothing more than a slouch – lashes fluttering by a slight as he began to push aside his thoughts; focusing on his feelings, on his senses.
Leon closed his eyes, tilting his head back as the zephyr whittled along strongly, a large wave crashing onto the sand shortly after, guided by the wind. The wind itself was cold, but the air was as warm as the water. His breaths were smooth and drawn out; Leon savouring the serenity, relishing the blond's presence as, slowly, his hand crept on top of Cloud's and held it securely, comfortingly.
Time lost all meaning then. They lost themselves to the whispers of the ocean, sitting silently for hours and hours until the sun had begun to sink past the clouds, evening approaching with the tide. Lulled by the coaxing breeze, Leon had nearly succumbed to the temptation to lean his head against Cloud's shoulder, but he knew he would be pushed away, brushed off. He didn't dare lie down on the pier; he didn't want to risk moving a muscle at all, afraid that he'd shatter the peace and break the spell.
But then, he heard Cloud softly murmur his name.
Leon remained still, eyes still closed, hand still poised over Cloud's. He could feel the smaller man lean forward, heard a small splash as Cloud gently kicked at a wave. The wind. It was the wind.
He gazed out across the horizon before slowly turning his head to face Cloud.
"What colour are your eyes?"
Leon stayed silent for only a moment, stirred by that almost childlike query so enveloped in ambiguity, his reply nearly a whisper.
Cloud's lips curled upwards in a hushed chuckle as he dropped his head, the atmosphere growing even lighter with the sound. The brunet said nothing, obediently waiting as his gaze darted to the glittering sea beneath them. He heard an almost content, almost forlorn sigh, "My eyes were blue."
He didn't respond immediately. There was no need.
"Do you?" Cloud asked, a hint of a smile in his words. Leon was aware of Cloud's fingers curling gently around his own, the heavy weight that had been burdening his shoulders suddenly lighter as he felt Cloud lean into him, a quiver in his sigh. The older man hesitated greatly, a hand gradually sliding up Cloud's side and threading in his fair hair, pulling him down, pulling him closer.
What thoughts could there be on something as trivial as eye colour? At that very moment, Leon felt moved; hurt shooting through his chest as the rejection he had been submitted through, and the unrelenting, unadulterated love that he felt for Cloud – the love that he wished would fade or die yet that would never, never leave him be – filled his entire being, making his head dizzy and his chest painful.
Leon squeezed his eyes shut, the arm draped around the blond tightening as he buried his face in Cloud's hair.
"I really do," he whispered, voice cracking, but by only a little. "I really do, you know?" I love you.
Cloud nodded into the embrace, squeezing Leon's hand.
"Okay," he breathed. "Okay."
x x x
His footsteps were heavy on the sidewalk as his hand firmly gripped around the head of his white walking cane, swinging smoothly from left to right in automatic, practiced motions. His feet were starting to feel just a touch numb, but Cloud disregarded it and continued walking in his usual pace, oblivious to his surroundings, growing a little cold.
He had on a very cheap and light coat – one of the few possessions he owned that had been donated to the home – and though it had worn down comfortably through years of wear and tear, it did little to keep the blond warm. The chill of spring was harsh in the icy, northern region, in spite of the fact that the ocean was only stones away.
His legs were moving on their own, trudging perfunctorily as the wind soughed, his hair bristling in the breeze. His thoughts were straying tiredly to warm hands, warm breath, low voice, soft skin, gentle lips. Cloud was beset by a haunting gaze he couldn't see, but so help him, he could – would – always feel those pensive eyes with every heartbeat that resonated through his chest.
Cloud felt a part of him stir. Somewhere deep inside. His soul had always been fast asleep, but now, something was yearning to rouse, to break free. Ever since the day he had lost his eyes, Cloud had resigned himself to this never-ending slumber within the strides of human advancement. He had shelled himself up behind his sightless world, building a wall, a barrier that would somehow shield him from the normality of the lives of others. From the pain of being forsook. From being left behind as others moved on with their lives and loved and lived and left.
Cloud couldn't love.
He had never loved – he knew absolutely nothing about it. Yet, somehow… somehow he wanted to know, to feel like… like he was loved. Like someone wanted his everything. Like someone truly saw him beyond the blindness, beyond the disabilities. Like someone could see him.
Maybe it was because he had never been in love before.
Maybe it was because he had been startled so by Leon's feelings that he was starting to feel utterly disoriented, like his life had lost its direction. It would be false for him to say that he knew he was in love with Leon, but… when Leon was beside him, he felt so… free. And Leon, he… he was someone Cloud could love. Platonically, romantically; it didn't matter. Cloud knew that his heart lurched whenever Leon left him; the feelings were there.
But could it be merely platonic love if his lips tingled whenever Leon leaned in close? Or if he felt a slight shiver ripple down his spine each time Leon touched his face? Or if he had to stop himself from twining his arms around Leon's waist whenever the man managed to embrace him?
Of course it wasn't. He'd have to be an absolute idiot to believe so.
Cloud halted mid-step, biting on his lower lip and dropping his gaze to the ground with a breath.
Was it really?
Cold droplets pattered against the back of his slightly exposed neck, a flimsy curtain of drizzle falling lazily to the earth. He raised his head, thunder rumbling indolently above. Expression growing depreciative at having to be caught in the rain yet again, Cloud quickly snapped himself out of his musings and gripped his walking stick, accidentally knocking it against something hard. Outstretching his hand to the side, Cloud found himself groping a brick wall.
Edging against the wall, he shuffled along in as straight a line as he could until his fingers grasped a metallic partition; something that managed to identify as a hinge before he quickly withdrew his hand for fear of getting it stuck and bloodied should someone swing the door open.
Slowly, he stood up straight; his other hand running across the wall as it gently brushed against the bottom of something cold and solid. A signage. He raised his hand, carefully pressing his palm flat against the front and tracing out the wording with his fingertips. Cloud mouthed the words with a little struggle, going over the sign a few more times before he eventually managed a, 'King… -llery'. Celery, raillery, gallery. Gallery. Most definitely…yeah, it felt like a 'g'… Gallery. King-something Gallery. God, this was tedious work. He really wished the sign had some Braille somewhere.
But wait a minute.
He never remembered there being a gallery in town.
He must have really been absentminded enough to venture out of his usual haunts. Where was he? Uptown?
"Welcome to Kingdom Art Gallery. Would you like to come in, sir?"
Startled, but by only a little, Cloud turned his head towards the source of the voice. Kingdom Art Gallery. Okay, then. He certainly had not a single clue as to where he was. The blond man frowned a little, crossing his arms thoughtfully as he tried to figure out how on earth to get back to more familiar ground.
"Um, sir? I've noticed you standing outside for sometime. If you want to get out of the rain, you're more than welcome to enter. There is no admission fee for entry here," the young voice resumed after a while, tone a little uncertain.
Cloud paused. Letting out a sharp exhalation of air, he nodded to the boy, murmuring a thank you as he listened carefully for the bell that rang overhead the glass doors as the attendant returned into the building. Accurately, his hand gripped the metal door handle and pushed.
A blast of warm air welcomed him as the glass door shut with a slight click. Barely audible, lazy jazz music was playing over the speakers, silent mutters caressing his ears every now and again as an indication that only a few people were present. Exhaling in soft relief, Cloud stood upright and grasped his cane tighter as he carefully sidled over across the passage into what he expected to be a wide, open space with panels exhibiting paintings.
He was right.
Quickly enough, the tip of his cane rapped the bottom of something padded with a quiet, 'thud'. His fingers automatically reached out to grab a hold of whatever the surface was, gently grazing a solid wooden frame.
Hesitantly, Cloud paused, wondering if it were allowed to touch the displayed paintings. In these kinds of establishments, surely they were supposed to stand back and just admire the art, right? But he was blind – maybe they would offer him some allowance? Or maybe they'd laugh at him for coming into an art gallery in the first place. Yeah, a blind man in an art gallery. What a laugh. Like a bull in a china shop. Perhaps he should find a divan to sit on or something. Before Cloud could decide on a proper course of action, he could already feel the presence of another person approach him from the other end of the exhibition panel.
He… was in trouble.
"Cloud? Is that you?"
Cloud would have blinked if he could.
He leaned back, body twisting towards the speaker as he pressed his lips together, absolutely sure that he had heard this voice somewhere before.
"Gosh, it really is you. It's me, from yesterday. It's Tifa."
Cloud's expression didn't change much, but he regarded her pensively. There was something on the tip of his tongue, something he wanted to say, but he couldn't bring himself to, somehow. Instead, he simply asked, "Tifa… Lockheart?"
He could feel her smile on him. "Bingo. Good memory."
Cloud managed a minute, polite smile in her direction, nodding in acknowledgement. He heard her chuckle softly and wordlessly returned to the painting before him. His fingers were stagnant, hovering unsurely over the frame – only inches apart from contact. Cloud knew her eyes were on him again, and finally, Cloud decided that he had to withdraw his hand. It fell limply to his side.
Tifa eyed the man studiously, that curious sensation that had engulfed her with Leon the previous day rushing back, making her feel almost light-headed with inquisitiveness. Her hands twined around her back, fingers locking together as she took slow, deliberate steps around the man's back, approaching his other side.
"Do you come to art galleries often?" she asked innocuously, gaze trained on his face. Cloud shook his head mutely, cocking his head towards her enquiringly. Tifa smiled. Slowly, she stood beside him and delicately took his hand, placing it gently on the canvas. Chancing a glance at his expression, she could see he was perplexed. She chuckled again. "I'm the curator here. It's fine."
Cloud relaxed visibly, his expression softening almost fondly at her. With a nod, Tifa released his hand and he began to slowly trace the painting, fingers running over the ridges of hard, dried paint. He outlined something flat, like a shore, or plateau, or coast.
"Would you like me to describe it for you?" Tifa asked quietly.
"One does not need eyes to appreciate art," he replied frankly, his other hand – the one clutching his cane – mindlessly slipping itself into the little black loop attached to the head of the stick, tightening his grip on it.
"Oh?" Tifa asked in slight amusement, crossing her arms. "How do you manage that?"
"No clue. Trying to figure it out right now, actually."
She giggled, inclining her head to the side and silently, appreciatively, watching the blond man continue to explore the picture. The music and his breaths were all that could be heard as feet shuffled across the marble floor and echoed once, twice before they disappeared into the quiet. In the distance, a clock was ticking steadily. Finally, she broke the silence in an almost subdued tone.
"The painting," she began softly. "Is of a great expanse of sky, rolling out above a valley. The sun is setting, but it can't be seen in the painting, and it shines over everything that sunlight can touch. There's a small silhouette in the right-hand corner – it's of a house and a tall, lush tree, and the tree has a tyre swing hanging down from one of its branches. There is a lake right up front, right near the painter, where you were touching, and the water is completely calm; without a single ripple. It's reflecting the clouds and the colours of the sky. Burning orange. Drowsy pink. Sky yellow."
Cloud stopped feeling the picture with his fingers, though his fingers remained on the canvas. He held his breath, devouring each word avariciously and savouring it – depending on them as though his life would end if the woman stopped speaking. Her voice had declined into a reverent whisper, completely beguiling to Cloud because Tifa spoke with such fire – it was as if she was describing a painting that had totally embraced her soul, that had pulled each heartstring she had, and Cloud knew that Tifa was a woman with a huge heart.
That made the painting all the more beautiful.
That made Tifa beautiful.
"There is a small boy on the grass, hugging his knees as he looks up across the valley. He's so tiny in the picture, it looks like the sky and hills will swallow him up whole. But he just sits there, chin on his knees. He's a silhouette also, sitting near the lake, and you might miss if him because the valley is so wide, and the sky is so beautifully big, but he's just sitting there. He's still sitting there. Waiting."
Cloud sucked air in through his teeth, pressing his palm flat against the canvas, a sudden urge to touch the little boy coursing through his blood. His fingers brushed against the flat, thick layer of paint. The lake. He slid his hand to the right, searching for a small bulge of paint among the layers, and he cursed his blindness for preventing him from doing so. If he had been able to see…
He stopped then, feeling absolutely hollow at the thought. A ringing sound filled his ears, Tifa's word suddenly filtering out completely as he heard his sluggish heartbeats pounding in his chest and slowly resonating in his head. If he had been able to see. What then? Would he be married? Would he be with other people? Would he have a job? A life?
Would he have met Leon?
Cloud felt himself growing number, second by second, he just stopped feeling. He was just a shell now, like his spirit was far away from his body. He was still – corpse-like, in a sense – and he felt something settle in the pit of his stomach, and he wondered what it was.
Why did Leon matter?
The words were out of his mouth before he realized that he had even said it.
"Do you love him?"
Tifa, who had been about to talk a little more about the artist, stopped; closing her mouth and turning to look at the blond. Her expression was almost dull, bland to a point, and somehow, she had broken away from her impassioned trance. That overwhelming curiosity had returned, and now, she felt herself being swept away by a mere stranger and his small, seemingly insignificant questions – drawing her in deeper into something that she couldn't even begin to fathom. Carefully, her gaze lifted to his face, glancing briefly to the ground before darting back upwards.
Cloud raised his head, turned it towards her as his hand dropped to his side.
"But you do now?"
Tifa looked away, shifting her weight to her other foot.
At the lack of response, Cloud turned around to face her fully, feeling disturbed. This was not what he had been hoping for. He had no idea why he had even asked her such a question when she so obviously loved Leon enough to want to marry him. What had Cloud wanted to hear? 'I actually love someone else'? 'Our parents arranged the marriage'? This wasn't some ridiculous TV soap opera. Leon had proposed to Tifa and she had accepted and they were to be wed. There was nothing more to it.
Cloud felt like everything that he had been making sense of was crumbling slowly all around him.
Erstwhile, Tifa had let out an almost miserable sigh, staring at her daintily folded hands as she weighed out the words she was going to say. She was not aware of the predicament that Cloud was going through, didn't know how hard his usually moribund heart was pounding, how fast his blood was racing. She inhaled slowly, staring out the great glass display wall beaten against by the gentle shower.
"He doesn't love me. I knew it, he knew it; it never had to be said. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy. But even so…" her voice faltered then, the Tifa biting down on her lower lip and dropping her gaze to the ground. She wanted to continue speaking, but she couldn't. Her voice was caught in her throat.
It all made sense.
"You fell in love."
Cloud knew that it was cruel of him to do this; to rub it in her face. Tifa was an amazingly strong woman, and she had believed that she was strong enough to constrain her heart, but Cloud knew, Cloud especially knew that the heart would never listen to one's head. Her heart had stubbornly disobeyed her will and had fallen for Leon – someone she knew would forever be lost to her in matters of the heart.
And suddenly, everything just clicked.
Cloud and Tifa were just so alike.
This was why there wasn't any awkwardness between them with Cloud knowing what he knew. This was why they were so comfortable around each other, so willing to speak to one another. If only he had met this woman earlier – much, much earlier. He could have loved her so dearly then.
But Cloud and Tifa both had grown to love a man they couldn't have. And so help him God, if Cloud could, he would have poured his very soul into hating Leon.
"He doesn't love you," his voice cracked, "But you fell in love."
He didn't know why he had to say it again, to hurt Tifa even more, but maybe some part of him wanted the reassurance that things did make sense. They made sense in a horridly twisted way.
"He said that he won't hold me," Tifa began as lightly as she could, attempting to not make a big deal of everything even though it was obvious that she was bitter, simply from the tone of her voice. "He couldn't go to bed with me. I… I stupidly, stupidly said that it didn't matter."
"Why?" Cloud's was a sorrowful whisper, completely understanding.
"Because he makes me feel safe," Tifa's eyes searched his face desperately. "He makes me feel like he can protect me from the world. I thought I would be fine with that. I thought it wouldn't matter even if he were in love with someone else. I told myself that. Because he is. He is."
The dread in Cloud's stomach settled. He knew all too well how Leon made him feel.
"Even so, I can't help but wonder… somehow, would he grow to love me back? What if he did and I had left him before that happened? The future scares me so much. I don't want to live with any regrets. I can't bear…"
They didn't say anymore then. Tifa's gaze grew downcast; eyes squeezed shut as the fought to keep the tremble out of her voice, to keep the tears away. She turned away from Cloud, running a hand through her hair and trying her best to take deep, even breaths.
She was strong. How Cloud envied that strength.
He was still caught in a haze. He was still utterly lost, still unsure of his feelings. Tifa's logic was prodding him incessantly, making him think of things he wished he didn't have to. But she was right. What if Cloud left Leon, knowing that Leon loved him and that he loved Leon back? How could he live with himself then, with that kind of regret?
And then he knew.
"Would you," his voice was uncertain. "Would you fight for him if he loved you?"
Tifa looked up at the opposite wall, letting out an exhausted chuckle as she wiped her eyes.
"I don't think I'd have the will to."
Cloud nodded. She was wearing out. Throwing the towel in. She had lingered around with those unresolved feelings for far too long. Whereas he… he had just entered the game. That was what it was in the end, wasn't it? Just a game.
What he lacked in animosity towards Tifa, he made up with pure sympathy for the anguish she had been going through. She had loved Leon for so long, so much, and now, she couldn't force herself through any more heartbreak. She was close to completely breaking down. How long had she tried to somehow get Leon to love her? Years. It could only be years and years. Cloud could never compete with that kind of devotion.
Yet everything was clear now – like the emergence of a rainbow after days of downpour.
He loved him.
His breath hitched, heat rushing to his face then. A small part inside him felt horrified; scandalized, to a point, at the revelation; but every other part of him, everything that had been distant and detached from him suddenly snapped into place.
It made him feel whole.
Everything in the world suddenly just made sense, and Cloud could scarcely believe how he had been able to live with such hollowness before this. He felt an almost endless emptiness echoing through him, making him feel so much lonelier than he had ever felt before, and it hurt. It was almost like he had stepped out of his body and become a totally new person. Everything had changed, and nothing would ever go back to the way it used to be.
But somehow, it didn't matter anymore.
It was Leon.
It had to be Leon.
He felt his chest constrict, heart clenching and he just knew. It was what it was, and he knew that he just couldn't push it away anymore. He wanted to be with Leon. In silence, in idle talk; he didn't care. As long as Leon was there with him, close enough so that Cloud could touch his face, and taste his breath, and hold his warm hands, nothing mattered.
Cloud had never wanted anything before in his life. He had never needed anything, and had therefore never asked for anything, because that was how he was and he had been completely fine with how things were. But now, he wanted Leon with such desperation that he felt like his heart would explode and he would just die.
He bit down on his lower lip, gaze falling to the ground as his hands clenched the white walking stick with a deathly grip. His knuckles had turned white, fingernails digging into his palms, fist shaking slightly from the sheer force. He wanted to see Leon, but he had no idea where Leon was. Whenever they were together, it had always been because Leon had sought him out. Cloud didn't know where Leon lived. He didn't know if Leon was even around in the first place. He didn't have Leon's number, either. He couldn't ask Tifa.
At that moment in time, Cloud felt like the stupidest man alive.
They had been together for almost one year.
Leon knew where he lived, knew what he liked to eat, knew so much about him. And Cloud? He had been so busy keeping Leon away, afraid that he'd get too close that that year had flown by in vain. He was a book Leon could just pick up and read anytime he wished, but Leon himself was still a complete stranger to the blond.
Maybe he had even picked up the feelings that Cloud had begun to harbour, even if Cloud hadn't realized it yet. He had still been there when Cloud had pushed him away, after all. Leon had always been there for him. But Cloud still kept him away. All because he hadn't known about how he truly felt for the other man. But now that he did know, Leon wasn't there for him. There was no Leon to tell.
Had he truly been that ignorant? Cloud certainly hoped not, but he also knew that harping on it would never solve anything. What's done was done. He had learned about regrets, and he knew that regrets weren't worth lingering on. He had moved on. And it was a good thing, too, because he had rebuilt his resolve. He had a direction now, a purpose.
He would see Leon.
There'd be a Leon to tell.
He'd make sure of it.
"I have to go," Cloud found himself half-whispering to Tifa, voice growing clearer, steadier. "There is someone I need to see."
She looked up at the man warily, eyes darting from his slightly fluttering lashes to his firmly set jaw. He had a strange new stance about his demeanour, and she rubbed at her eyes, inhaling slowly before she took two small steps towards him, her fingers clasping gently around his hand and squeezed it gently.
Her delicate lashes hung low, her head cast downwards as Tifa silently counted the seconds that passed. She raised her gaze, lips parting to speak, but she hadn't the energy to muster the words. Her expression wore futility, desolation, loss. Cloud could sense it, and tenderly, he raised a hand and touched her cheek, thumb caressing her tear-stained face with mildness.
Cloud wiped away the tears soothingly, "No more crying."
His voice was the warmth of the sun and the gentle calm of an oasis. She inhaled shakily, eyes darting up shyly at Cloud's face, receiving his understanding and good-natured smile and she let out a quiet burst of feeble chuckles. She grasped Cloud's hand over her cheek, curling her fingers tightly around his and smiled, eyes fluttering shut, nodding again and again.
Slowly, her grip loosened and he withdrew, waiting. Waiting.
The weary expression returned to her face, but with it came contentment. She closed her eyes, smiled, and said but two words:
x x x
He often wondered why it rained so much during spring.
He didn't particularly hate the rain, but it wasn't like he liked it, either.
Leon was sitting down by an open window, the heater humming quietly beside him as the soft coolness of the wind blew into the house, droplets of water skimming in and intermittently hitting him, clinging to his almost translucent skin. The lights were off, the home engulfed in a gloomy dimness as Leon tiredly leaned his head against the frame of the window, eyes glazed over, half-lidded.
A small wall clock chimed sharply, marking the hour of evening. The sound echoed hollowly through the empty house, making it seem even emptier than it already was.
Leon scoffed quietly, closing his eyes and tilting his head backwards by a little. He had been living on his own for years already. He was used to it. It was ridiculous to think that the house seemed larger than it used to be. No one had come, and no one had gone from here to make him feel this way. It was still the same old house.
Eyes fluttering open, he gazed listlessly at some faraway object by the long stretch of road, arms crossing.
He knew why he felt that way.
Sighing tiredly, Leon pried his eyes open by a slight, glancing to the side before turning back to look at his dark, empty home. It was a little more cluttered than usual, a handful of squashed shopping bags visible underneath the coffee table. The logo of a bridal shop was printed on it, very large, very eye-catching. He eyed it wearily, wishing that he didn't have to look at it at all.
Leon was a spineless fool.
Sighing dejectedly, the brunet ran his fingers through his hair, raking back his bangs as he stood up and closed the window latch. He trudged tiredly towards the kitchen, doing well not to look at the aforementioned shopping bags as he bypassed them and went straight for his coffee machine.
Staring at the maker as he waited for the water to boil, Leon wondered how on earth he was going to attempt breaking off his engagement. He had been stalling for such a long time already. Tifa was tired of it, of his childishness, and had already set a date and started shopping for the wedding. Somehow, he wondered if she knew why he was waiting for so long. When she looked at him, he could barely understand the underlying emotions that flickered in her eyes. It was a hypnotic mix of far too many feelings – he could never fathom whatever it was Tifa would be thinking. What she would say if he told her that he loved some else. A man. A blind man. Cloud.
The smallest hint of a smile twitched at the corner of Leon's lips.
Cloud. When had it been when he had finally fallen for him? Years and years ago, it seemed. Far too long for him to be able to remember. He hadn't known it was love until he realized that he hated seeing Cloud with anyone else. He wanted to keep Cloud for himself. His smile. His laughter. His awkward kindness. His clumsy affection. His happiness. He wanted to be the only one who knew everything about Cloud, to monopolise the blond man for himself. Was that selfish of him? Yes, it probably was. But he didn't care.
He had a right to be happy, didn't he?
And Cloud – Cloud deserved happiness, too.
He could make Cloud happy.
The coffee maker beeped loudly.
Startled, Leon accidentally smacked his forehead against the edge of a suspended kitchen cabinet just in front, hand automatically slapping over a lump that was already beginning to swell. Cursing softly under his breath, the brunet staggered to the refrigerator, fumbling blindly for an ice tray with one hand for a few good minutes until he was certain that his fingers were blue.
He found himself lying back on his sofa quite some time later, with ice cubes wrapped in a damp towel in one hand, placed gingerly on top of the bump by his brow. A large mug of steaming black coffee was on an antique wooden stand right beside him. How he managed to get himself a mug through all the blundering, he didn't know. He didn't feel like he wanted coffee at the moment, in any case.
Leon leaned back heavily into the furniture, eyes fluttering shut as he attempted to ignore the violent throbbing in his forehead, and the chilly numbness in his right hand.
He felt absolutely mortified at his own clumsiness.
He'd been doing a lot of it lately, blind stumbling. Spacing out, that's what Yuffie liked to call it. Leon didn't know why he couldn't control his thoughts; he was usually more focused and disciplined than this. He never allowed his mind to wander, but lately, he had just been too lost on his own thoughts. So many things were happening and… he honestly didn't know what to do with himself. Leon never knew what to do with himself, not emotionally. He felt completely unstable, and everything was affecting him in all the wrong ways.
It was frightening him more than he knew.
Leon had never been one who spoke with his heart. Never. What passion he harboured for life had constantly been suppressed, coldly analyzed from a distance and looked over again and again almost mechanically, without ever taking into account how he felt about it – whether it was something he yearned to do even if he was bad at it, or whether it was something that needed to be done simply out of moralistic conscience to do so. He never followed his dreams. He had never believed that he was capable of doing so much more than any other average guy if he had only put his heart into it. And so, he had never once been depressed over losing anything, over missing a chance because his heart, his feelings had never been at stake.
Insecure. That was what Leon had always been. He had always been afraid of the perceptions of other people. Ever since he was little, ever since the day he received the scar that had sliced through his eyebrows and cut into his cheek, Leon had become such an aloof, withdrawn person that being physically close to someone else scared him. And when people ceased to be near him anymore, his heart slowly sealed itself off from the rest of the world he so dearly wished he could reach out for with both his hands, and Leon stopped even attempts of another at building some sort of emotional bond with him.
He wasn't worth it.
Leon didn't want to be pushed away, so he pushed others instead. He didn't want to be hurt, so he hurt others, even if he never meant to. He didn't want anyone to hate him, so he tried his best to keep himself in a position where it wasn't possible for him to cause any ripples whatsoever, and somehow, he ended up keeping himself so far away that it wasn't even possible for anyone to truly care for him.
With that kind of stigma tainting him, what faith could he have held in himself?
The confidence that he so tireless carried himself with was just a façade of the true insecurity that enveloped his soul. He didn't know what to do, how to handle himself and try to become someone better, so he simply walked away from everything that wished he could confront and allowed himself to slowly self-destruct from deep inside, cold and alone.
That was why, when he had first seen Cloud, he had felt absolutely stricken.
Leon would never ever be able to describe anything that was even an inch close to how he felt as he stood across that semi-busy street, staring reverentially at the seated blond man, his own face growing paler by the second, everything phasing out of his senses and leaving him with an indescribably numb emptiness, leaving him utterly hollow.
He had never before felt anything like it.
He had been so scared.
Of what? This person? This sensation? His feelings?
There was absolutely no way that Leon could have been afraid of that blond man sitting across the way. Absolutely no way at all. With a resigned, world-weary expression that made him as meek as a lamb, and with his amiable face that made him as though he was cherubically resting, that man was not fear. He did not maliciously frighten Leon in this amazingly intense manner. It wasn't the person. Or was it?
What about the sensations that jolted and left his body, then? What of it? That certainly didn't happen on a normal basis when you met someone. It was so utterly inexpressible that Leon had given up long ago trying to match words to that experience. He could feel his breath picking up, chest rising and falling more rapidly than before, his cold hands clenching and unclenching mindlessly as his entire body tightened. He could feel all of that, but it was all so hazy and seemed to be playing like a badly preserved film negative on slow motion.
He didn't know what he was feeling. He had never felt… this ever before in his life. It was… he didn't know, it was something so frightfully similar to fear that his mind just went blank and he couldn't even think of it being anything else. But… somehow, there was an almost lighter quality to what he felt… something almost admiring. Admiration? Did he admire that blind man? He couldn't possibly have admired someone he didn't know. It was just that… if it as not admiration, the only other word he could have thought of was…
Why had he felt that way?
In the coming months that came to pass, Leon spent what time was available to him trekking to that street every other day, desperate to know the answer to that question. Whenever he reached the edge of that road, that man would be there. He could do nothing else but watch, but stare, because he was even more scared of being faced with the task of unskilfully talking to the man with his already pathetic social abilities. And when he was tired of standing, he hobbled into a café just behind him, across that street so the blond would constantly be in view, nursing a few cups of strong coffee as he did so. And finally, when it was late and he could no longer stay, he would quietly leave, head bowed in shame.
For some strange and incomprehensible reason, Leon realized that he didn't want to screw up. He didn't know what there was to screw up, but that was all he knew. To him, screwing up was taking those few steps and initiating conversation.
The man would most certainly think he was a lunatic. A shameless, stupidly irritating lunatic who randomly spoke to people on the streets. Or even if he didn't, Leon was sure that he would blurt out something so embarrassingly obtuse that he would be laughed at. In both cases, there was no doubt that the blond man would simply up and leave. And then Leon would be left with nothing.
Yet, somehow, beneath all the excuses and apologia that he had started to anxiously use as the reasoning for his behaviour, Leon couldn't deny the lively spark of curiosity that had begun to crackle warmly in his cold, mechanical world. The dullness of living gently ebbed away – not abruptly or immediately, but gradually enough – and soon, Leon began to realize how big the heart he had locked away truly was. He still never immediately reacted, still used his head when it came to everything, but even so, he knew that something was happening to him, that he was undertaking a slow, massive change. And he was certain that, somehow, the people around him knew it, too.
Nevertheless, everything remained as it usually did. People still acknowledged him, and sometimes he would go so far as to even help them out with favours, but that was the extent of it. The change he had been faced with was still far too big a leap for him to take, so he decided that he'd take his time and build up his confidence as much as he could. He was still terribly shy, still terribly insecure, and the solid wall that encased him was still there, but he was trying. He was. And he knew that this was the only way he could go about it.
Even though it meant keeping far away from the person he truly wanted to be close to, he'd do it.
It hurt, but he did it.
As the indolence of summer came to a close in that small, empty café, Leon would sit alone for hours by the window, eyes hazy, yet so devotedly trained on that man and his bench, sometimes chatting with a person or the other who specifically sought him out, sometimes delicately running his fingers along hard, embossed dots of a thick, metallic tome.
Sometimes, he would fall asleep under the heat of the languorous sun, head slightly tilted to the side and half-resting on his shoulder, half-leaning against the top of the bench, his cane sloping by a little between his legs as his long, spindly fingers wrapped themselves loosely around the tip of it.
Sometimes, the sunlight would shine on him at just the right angle, and the light would bounce off his pale hair, casting an illusion of a halo that only made him look even more seraphic than he already seemed, and it was these times when Leon wished he could look away but just… couldn't. He wished he could just go up to the blond, say something, but he kept telling himself that he couldn't. He couldn't.
Leon didn't know why he made himself go through something as indescribably stupid as that, but he did. He had convinced himself that he would be perfectly content with gazing from afar, and he had repeated that line over and over again in his head until he had begun to actually believe it. After all, if he didn't go near, he wouldn't be able to hurt the blond man, and that way, he wouldn't, in turn, be hurt either.
He didn't count on hurting his own feelings.
Leon wished dearly that he wouldn't feel as miserable as he had. Countless nights did he spend tossing and turning in bed, chest absolutely tight, head so heavy that thinking straight was completely lost to him. He stopped eating, and began to survive on nothing else but coffee. He was growing skinnier by the day, face sallow and pale, dark rings and bags growing more prominent underneath his eyes. He couldn't do anything, and he just… He felt like he was going mad.
He didn't know why it hurt so much.
He remembered, one day finally, Yuffie had gotten tired of seeing him mope and had told him to follow her into town and watch a movie. Like the dutiful older brother figure he had become to the girl, he begrudgingly attempted to resist before he found himself shabbily dressed only minutes later, pushed outside into the sun for the first time in two weeks. Hanging out with the girl did nothing to make him feel less queasy about everything. He wondered if anything would.
That was why, when Yuffie introduced Leon to Cloud, he was certain that he would die.
The words just wouldn't come to him, and he didn't know what to do with himself because he had dreaded this very moment, imagined countless times in his head. He panicked inwardly, totally disoriented, wanting to just bolt out of there, but he knew he couldn't run away this time. He knew that Yuffie was looking pointedly at him and discreetly gesturing for Leon to do something, but he ignored it and tried to recollect himself as best he could.
Inhaling deeply, he opened his eyes and allowed it to rest Cloud's gentle countenance, trying to retrieve his wits. It was a face he knew well, so memorized and familiar, it was almost surreal to be able to see it right before him. Those fluttering lashes, and slightly sunken eyelids, and those light freckles, and faintly upturned lips…
The shrill ringing of the house phone tore Leon away from his thoughts.
Blinking out of his disorientation, the dark-haired man looked up to the side, eyes homing in on an object that was partially hidden by a bowl on the countertop. His gaze flitted to the carpeted floor briefly, and without a word, Leon rose to his feet, taking the makeshift compress off his forehead and walking towards the kitchen. He set the wet rag in the sink, wiping his hand with a towel as he answered the phone with the other. As he opened his mouth to greet the speaker, he was cut short.
"Leon? Is it- Is this the right number?"
His eyes widened, mouth dropping by a slight in shock.
There was overwhelmingly relieved sigh on the other end as the voice spoke once again, a little shaky, but clearly less anxious than before. He spoke in his usual tone, voice as soft as it normally was, though, this time, there was an almost nervous quality to his words.
"I got your- Yuffie gave me your number. I- I've never used a payphone before. I've never- This is my first time making a call. I kept getting your number wrong," Cloud let out a strained, sheepish chuckle, certainly grateful that he had finally gotten the right person on the other end of the line. He had wasted a good amount of money on this single payphone, having had to resort to asking a passer-by to spare him some loose coins, and to even guide his fingers over the numbers of the phone.
The fact that Cloud had actually taken the time and initiative to call Leon was still taking a little time to sink in for the brunet. This was possibly even more surreal than meeting Cloud face to face for the very first time. He felt absolutely apprehensive, feelings torn between happiness and anxiety as he realized that something was going to happen, and it was something important if Cloud was taking the trouble to seek him out.
He still felt rather incredulous at the voice he was hearing over the phone, taking a quick moment to reassure himself that he wasn't dreaming and that everything was for real as the blond mumbled distractedly on the line, stalling for time. What would Cloud call him for? Did something happen? It was then that it occurred to Leon that not only could Cloud be in trouble, but he was also probably running out of money for the call. He spoke quietly, politely interjecting the blond man as he tried his best to mask as much of the worry from his voice as humanly possible.
"Is something wrong?"
Leon could hear a sharp intake of breath from the other end, and the longest moment of quiet hung over them like a wet blanket. He could hear Cloud's quick, fluttery breaths, stifled a little by some static, and he could just imagine the younger man trying to get the words right, biting down on his lower lip, pressed for time. He was trying his best to contain his impatience, but he didn't want to rush Cloud, so he spoke again, softly, coaxingly.
"Cloud, once your cash runs out, you'll have to call me again."
There was a pregnant pause.
A smile twitched at Leon's lips at that almost stifled curse as he relaxed slightly, leaning against the side of the counter and pouring himself a fresh mug of coffee as he waited for Cloud to recollect himself once again, listening intently. As he raised the mug of slightly cool coffee to his lips, he stopped mid-sip.
"I need you."
The silence of the room and the irritating static from the phone blared to a deafening buzz as his mind started to reel, eyes glazing over as Leon felt his body go weak, arm lowering mindlessly and mug slipping from his grip, toppling over into the sink and staining the wet rag from before.
He couldn't have heard right.
"What did you say?" Leon could barely manage a whisper, grasping the phone with both hands now as if his life depended on it, on what Cloud was saying.
"I need you," was the almost quiet, almost breathless reply. "I want to see you."
The words wouldn't come, not the words to that question, not over the phone.
"Please, Leon," that soft voice made his chest tighten. "Please."
Before he knew it, he had already grabbed his coat.
Everything that came after that was just a grotesque blur of sounds and colours, his surroundings phasing out into a faint swirl of white and grey as human voices filtered out of the background and remained nothing but a still record, all the movement around him slowing and slowing until nothing seemed to barely move at all as he ran and ran down the wet, slippery sidewalk, skidding once but throwing his body back up and racing down the road to the only place his feet would ever carry him when he had stopped thinking, when his body stopped functioning; even on verge of death his legs would never fail to get him there.
There will never be a time when Leon would recall ever having run as fast, as painfully, as desperately as he did then. His lungs would never burn so for air, legs never would so hurt as he leaned into the run and went even faster, heart pounding in his ears, fists clenched so tightly that his hands were white from the pressure. There would never be another moment in time when he would feel such a burning desire, a strength of will and purpose in his life to seize something that he truly wanted, to hold someone so close and tight that it almost scared him to think of the sheer feeling overflowing in him for another person.
Oh, he ran.
He ran and ran and never once looked back.
Because just down the block would be a zebra crossing that had been painted across a road. And beyond that road would be a park with its sparse trees and long grass. And in that park, right by the pavement, would be a bench.
And on that bench…
What value could be placed on the oxygen his body lacked when it meant that right before him was a person so beautiful, so breathtakingly soulful that the incomprehensible completion he felt from being right beside him could fill in the gaps of a thousand decades of forget, could wipe away an eternity of sin. Leon had always known that he had been attracted to Cloud's soul, Cloud's person, but he had never realized how strong those feelings were until then.
And now he understood why he had been so miserable before.
It wasn't enough just to love Cloud, and deep inside, he was certain that his heart had always known. With all his soul, he wanted to reach out, touch Cloud's face, embrace him, kiss him, and now he knew that just that wasn't enough. It would never be enough.
He wanted Cloud to love him back.
Was it so wrong? He wondered desperately if everything he wished for, everything he felt was so indescribably wrong that just wishing for any hopes of reciprocation would make the earth split and swallow him whole for even daring to think such thoughts. Leon didn't know what else to do, how else to make himself not feel the way he felt, but the one thing that his heart had made absolutely clear to him was the one thing he would never, ever be able to ignore again.
We choose to love; we do not choose to cease loving.
"Leon? Is that you?"
The brunet was still panting lightly, hunched over as he struggled to regain his breath, but his eyes were trained devotedly on the blond man who was standing by the damp park bench, clothes rumpled, hair unkempt, a white hand clamped tightly around the edge of the seat for support, walking cane discarded on the ground.
Cloud took an uncertain step forward, hands falling to his side as his unreadable expression took a more strained edge, clearly relieved, yet…
"It's me," Leon stood up a little straighter, chest still rising and falling rapidly, though at an obviously less terse pace. His eyes searched Cloud's face frantically for any sign of what was to come, wishing that he was considerably calmer, but he couldn't be. Not now. Not with Cloud. Not like this.
The blond man stepped closer towards the road, towards Leon, a hand raised, outstretched as he delicately touched Leon's lips, tracing it lightly before he pressed his palm against his cheek, fingers threading into his dark hair, Cloud's breath caught in his throat as he leaned in by a little, knowing for certain that this was Leon, that it couldn't be anyone but Leon. Eyebrows knitting together in an almost desperate expression, he threw an arm around Leon's neck, the other curling around the small of his back and holding him tightly, face buried into the older man's shoulder as he squeezed his eyes shut, Cloud letting out a shaky breath when he felt Leon's strong arms almost immediately twine around his body.
"Oh god, I love you," he could only whisper, voice cracking as he tightened his grip around the other man. "So much."
Leon squeezed him hard, eyes screwed shut, holding him so tightly, almost afraid that everything would be nothing more than a dream if he opened his eyes, almost afraid that Cloud would disintegrate if he let him go. His entire body trembled slightly, head light and limbs heavy as his fingers curled into the back of Cloud's jacket and pressed him taut against his chest.
"Tifa called me. We've ended it'," he whispered. "I won't be with anyone but you."
They stood there, embracing, never letting go, never caring for the darkening sky, never caring as the seconds rolled by and the minutes ticked past. Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing ever would. Not when they were enfolded in each other's arms. Not when they had finally come to terms with these feelings. Not when the dark-haired man pulled away and pressed his lips against the younger man's temple, squeezing him tighter.
Most certainly not when the shriek of tyres wrenched them out of what would have been bliss, the acrid stench of exhaust fumes and burning rubber overwhelming their senses as they heard sharp skidding, a steering wheel spinning out of control, brakes engaged, but jammed, refusing to budge. What happened next was too hazy, too fast to truly recollect, but with a chillingly loud, bone-shattering crunch, Cloud felt his entire body lurch as the scorching metal of the heavy car slammed into Leon's side, dragging them mercilessly along the cement pavement before crushing them against the park bench.
A deathly silence overcame the area. There was no breathing, not even the stirring of a leaf, or a rustle of grass. There was only the sputtering and choking of the engine before the driver threw the car into gear and gunned down the road in reverse, drifting sharply at a curb and crashing into a post box before lurching back straight onto the street and disappearing from sight.
It all happened so fast, too fast.
Too fast, in fact, that, when Cloud dared to breathe, his heart was pulsating in his tightly constricted chest, entire body trembling violently as his heavy limbs moaned with pain, his repressed lungs threatening to burst from the crushing sensation of broken bones and the dearth of oxygen. He tried to push himself upright, but his arms were shaking so terribly that he collapsed onto the ground once again, curling up slightly as the pain that seared through his body became far too great than he could handle, the hurt melting away with an icy numbness that began to drown him, make his head light and almost lethargic.
It had been a car.
Like that day.
Cloud couldn't stop shaking, saliva gathering at the corner of his mouth and dribbling out slightly as he felt the already thin breaths leave his body, making him twitch and flinch as the fear took over and began to drown him, slowly, steadily, engulfing him in true darkness for the first time in many, many years. He rasped for air, voice cracking as he squeezed his eyelids shut and clawed at the mud and stone beneath him with his white fingers.
The blond man managed to roll slightly onto his stomach and crawled a little, just a little, legs caught in some twisted metal and bleeding and burnt and unable to move as he relied fully on his feeble, thin arms, choking and gasping as the trembling merely increased in its furore, making him drop flat and shiver quietly into the soft earth, letting out an intermittent sob that wasn't much of anything because he couldn't cry outright even if he tried.
He tried to roll onto his back, but he couldn't. There was something limp and soft wedged into his side.
Wobbling, Cloud raised his head, lashes fluttering rapidly as he groped harshly to his left, palm tickled by a smooth sensation and running along rumpled fabric before realization dawned on the blond.
He couldn't breathe at all now, panic coursing through his blood and mingling with his absolutely chronic terror, plunging him into an utter state of hysteria as he forced himself onto his knees, ignoring the harsh pain from the brittle bone and exposed flesh, and threw his hands onto the body laying on the ground beside him, shaking the man deliriously as he screamed his name at the top of his lungs, willing for him to wake up, willing for him to breathe, willing for anyone to save Cloud from this nightmare, anyone at all. He wished desperately that he could see then, see how hurt the other man, see so that he could know for sure because…
This couldn't be real.
"LEON! … LEON! LEON! … OH GOD, LEON!"
x x x
He had barely registered what had been going on. Voices everywhere, arms and hands gripping him, pulling at him. Sirens. Shouting and screaming, and more and more cars. Tyres scratching against the road. Metallic doors slamming open. Small, skittering wheels. More voices. Lots of shouting. People pulling him up, running their hands over his arms and face. More cars. Cars, cars, cars. Cars. His legs being hoisted up. More tugging and pulling and someone ripping off the bottom of his torn trousers. Cold, icy fluid. Dry cloth. Some crackling noise from walkie-talkies. Crying. Someone was crying. Maybe a little girl. His shirt was unbuttoned, something wet pressed taut against his chest.
And then, the feeling of Leon's hand slipping away from his grip.
He didn't know how hard he had screamed then. He could feel the coppery taste of blood on his tongue, knowing that it was rolling down his hoarse throat. It had been all the shouting and screaming that had caused it. He was on the verge of losing his voice completely. He had flailed savagely, punching and elbowing people indiscriminately as he threw himself forward and simply refused to let Leon be taken away from him, clawing at the air, struggling to reclaim that cold, lifeless hand.
He had been wrenched away after that.
And then, someone had pierced him with a needle. And all the rage and hysterics slowly ebbed away, an incomprehensible numbness swallowing him whole as strength left his body, causing him to slump into arms and arms and arms and made everything seem to slow down to a near stop as he felt nothing else but probing fingers, wet cloth, and soon enough, he couldn't feel anything anymore and he slept.
And when he woke up, he could barely breathe.
He wished to God that he could see. He couldn't see. He could only smell, and the smell of medicine was so strong that it made him want to vomit. He was reposing in a chair, his back felt a little stiff from the thin, worn padding he was resting against, and his arms and legs were heavy, unbearably heavy. For the first time, the reality of the pain his body was suffering from stung him bitterly, and he could feel the cuts and bruises underneath the thick, sterile bandages wrapping his limbs sear with heat, throb with hurt.
In the back of his mind, he was aware of the soft, probing beep that was bleating in the background, a humming machine.
With a groan that resonated through his bones, Cloud stood wordlessly, hobbling onto his feet before he staggered backwards. He grasped backwards, hands clutching automatically for something to support him, fingers splayed against the wall behind him. His left foot hurt particularly, he couldn't put his weight on it.
A stir of dread swirled in his chest, yet Cloud somehow managed to turn away from it, extremely hesitant as he pushed himself forward, knees wobbly, body still shaky. Everything was still inexplicably surreal to him, and all he could do was put one trembling foot in front of the other as he trudged forward, not knowing where to go, walking into busy nurses without really caring. He moved aimlessly, somehow ending up at a counter.
If he could have seen, he would have noticed the sympathetic look that the nurse gave him.
If he had noticed it, he wouldn't have cared.
His head was buzzing, fingers curled into the edge of the countertop as he remained still, expression dull, lips parted meaninglessly. Everything was still a haze in his mind, nothing registering or making sense, so when the nurse told another nurse to walk him down the hall, he didn't resist, didn't enquire. He stumbled obediently, following the woman who gently grasped his arm and led him into another part of the building.
When they finally stopped, Cloud was standing in the entrance of a room, not knowing that right across him was a bed.
There was that beeping again, that humming, only this time much louder. Cloud was only vaguely aware of the nurse that had withdrawn by a step, retreating behind him to give him a little space as he found himself raising his head, words that he had tuned out slowly detaching from the dull buzz of the background and becoming clear. An aged man was speaking, his tone haggard, somewhat concerned, a little clipped with that professional efficiency doctors usually possessed.
"The injury is certainly extensive," he said, the sound of paper rustling accompanying his somewhat muffled voice. He spoke in a lethargic, wavering manner as he flipped through a clipboard. "Aside from some broken ribs, trauma to the spinal cord… vertebral fractures below the thoracic spine… grade D paraplegia, from the looks of it."
"Poor thing," sighed a woman on the opposite side of the bed.
"Lucky son, more like," the doctor responded, exhaling heavily. "I don't know how the patient managed to survive a direct collision with a car without getting anything more than a few fractures to his spine, but he should be grateful that he's only suffered an incomplete injury."
"But the patient now…"
"He was hit in a bad spot, I'm afraid," the doctor said with a tired finality in his voice. "But, really. 10 years ago, there would have been no spinal fusion advanced enough to help eliminate pain from vertebral motion. With immediate surgery and thoroughgoing therapy, he'll be able to walk within a year."
Someone stepped beside Cloud, clearing her throat.
There was surprised shuffling, a terse silence that overcame those in the room, low mutterings of 'Doctor,' tones embarrassed to an extent.
"That's quite enough, I do think," this new person said. "Speculation isn't part of our medical routine."
"Of course, Doctor," the woman quipped. Cloud raised his head unsteadily towards this new addition to the room, expression weary, tired as he leaned heavily against the doorframe.
"When has the surgery been scheduled, Doctor?" the man asked, circling the room and passing his clipboard to her. She retrieved it lightly from his grip, flipping it open and quickly scanning the chart.
"Unfortunately, our hospital is too small to facilitate the apparatus required for his operation, so he'll be flown out of the country to a more specialized institute," she murmured distractedly, frowning by a little. "Rehabilitation for this one will take up to fifteen months."
Fifteen months. The words echoed ominously in Cloud's mind as he opened his mouth, hesitant to speak, wondering if it was all right to. His entire body ached so, and he really needed to sit down, sleep everything off. His nerves were utterly frayed, and he didn't know what it would take to make him break down. Not very much, obviously.
The doctor either was not aware of Cloud's quandary, or chose to ignore it. In any regards, she approached the bed, the nurses quickly shuffling to her side as she leaned in closer, the vaguest hint of a smile on her voice, on her lips as she spoke to the comatose man who was blissfully unaware of everything that was happening.
"Well now, Squall Leonheart. I hope you don't mind, but we're going to get you out of here, help you overcome your paralysis. Hope you won't be a grouch when you finally wake up."
. . Sq. u. . all… L. e. . on. . h. ear. . t… ?
"Did you just. . ?" the blond man breathed, speaking up for the first time, expression totally unreadable. He was shaking again, everything in his mind swirling and dissipating before he staggered, grasping onto the wall to keep upright as his lip quivered. They turned around, regarding him for the first time. "You just say…"
"Who is this man?" the doctor asked.
"… Squall…Squ. . all… Leon… heart?"
"Today, a drunk salary man driving uptown swerved off the road and crashed into an eleven-year-old boy before slamming into a lamp post. He was pronounced dead on the site. The boy suffered severe wounds to the head and has lost sight in both eyes."
"But he's- Isn't he- His name," Cloud was starting to raise his voice, losing his wits, not caring in the least that he was starting to attract attention. "His name is Leon, isn't it? His name- He can't be- He's Leon! His name is-"
"Calm down, sir. Just calm-"
"HIS NAME IS LEON!"
"Someone, get a tranquilizer," the doctor uttered, receiving a nod from the nurse who cautiously dashed off.
"Leon, wake up! Wake up, god please, wake up, Leon," he was shouting deliriously now, voice cracking as he stumbled forward, towards the bed. "You're not- Tell me- You- Your- Tell me your name. Why did she say 'Squall', why-"
"Buddy, you wanna sit down," the male doctor stepped closer, gently placing his hands on Cloud's arm. Almost immediately, Cloud lashed out, roaring angrily as he backhanded the man, the force throwing him backwards. He tripped on his feet, falling hard to the ground. Crawling forward, he was suddenly filled with more vigour than he had possessed moment before as he groped at the blanket that hung off the edge of the mattress, clawing and pulling at it, fingers brushing against Leon's cold skin. His voice trembled.
It was getting dark and there was one streetlamp that was flickering, throwing shadows all over the place as he made out the silhouette of a skidding car.
"Why are you Squall?" Cloud's hysteria returned as a rush of feet stampeded through the halls, charging into the room and pulling the blond back, stopping him from advancing any further. "You can't be him! You can't! Why- Why-"
"Sedate him!" someone shouted over the tussle, struggling to restrain Cloud.
"YOU CAN'T BE HIM," Cloud tried to fight, tried to resist as he threw his body forward towards Leon's bed. "YOU CAN'T."
Someone stumbled into the room, over the mess of feet and hands as he waved a syringe in the air, passing it to a nurse as she hovered over a threesome of men who had gripped Cloud firmly, exposing a stretch of skin on his arm for her to inject.
he let go of the steering wheel
"WHY WON'T YOU ANSWER ME, LEON?" Cloud yelled, throat tight.
the car swerved
"Aren't the sedatives working? Give him a stronger dose!"
he smiled drowsily
"LEON! Please, oh god, please wake up!"
"Hold him down!"
"Get him away from the drip!"
"I think it's working!"
"Why the hell isn't he in a ward? His femur is-"
"YOU CAN'T BE THE ONE I GAVE MY EYES TO!"
And there was a boy.
x x x
The sun was starting to set, the light in the sky a mix of the palest shade of yellow, the boldest streaks of red and orange swirling amongst the clouds. A saccharine scent hung indolently in the air, ushering the coming of a quiet autumn. The leaves were browning, starting to rust the lush greenery of the thick trees.
Cloud had been a smallish kind of boy, twiggy, quiet. His quietness made him even more unnoticed than he already was, but sometimes, the other kids would let him in on their games because he looked so pitiful. They echoed their mothers' whispers about his parents, about his family having no money after his dad made a bad investment even if they didn't know what 'investment' meant. The way they made him out to be, because he was so shy, he was viewed as a poor, pathetic kid who needed to join the games now and again when they didn't have enough people to play.
Today, he had been playing football with the other boys, boys who were always bigger than him, and he had tried his best to run faster than the tall boy from the other team. He was kind of short, but he was fast. Unfortunately, his team had lost today. It was nothing new, though. His team lost every other day.
Now, it was time to go home. He had tried his best to clean the mud from his hair and clothes, and, with his school bag propped up against him on the sidewalk, he sat and waited for his father to pick him up. His mother was always unhappy with him getting the car dirty, so he had started to bring a change of clothes each time he went out to play. He would use a tap to wash his hair and face, but his mother didn't want him to get anything wet either.
So Cloud sat, waiting and waiting and waiting until the streetlights were finally lit. He wasn't really afraid, but he was sort of wondering where his father was because he had never come this late to pick him up before. His mother had always told him to be careful when he was alone because bad people could come up to him, bad things could happen.
It was starting to get cold, too. He had used a bit of water to clean his face and arms, and the icy water had rolled down his back and soaked his thin shirt by a little. He was cold, tired, hungry, and soon enough, he huddled to keep warm and tilted to a side, lashes fluttering, threatening to close and plunge him into a nap.
After a while, Cloud heard a loud creak and click, opening his eyes sleepily and staring across the street to see a boy tip-toeing to close the front door to his house. He was holding a sort of purse in one hand, casually calling his dad loudly and telling him that he was going to buy some milk and bread from the store. There was a muffled response that couldn't be heard very well from the other side of the street, but it was probably an affirmative answer because the boy seemed satisfied. He turned around and walked towards the edge of the pavement, approaching the zebra crossing and stopping at the red light.
As he got closer, Cloud could make this other kid out better. He was sort of tall, sort of bony, and his face was round, eyes were big. He had really white skin, his dark hair trimmed neatly and pulled back and out of his eyes. He was wearing a loose, oversized, faded shirt and a pair of Bermudas, feet clad in nothing more than modest flip-flops.
It was then when he heard the rev of a familiar engine.
Cloud sat upright, rubbing the sleepiness away from his eyes before he grabbed his backpack and slung it over his shoulder, getting to his feet and brushing the dirt off his bottom. He waited, looking down the curved road.
There it was.
He could clearly make out his father in the driver's seat, a big and lopsided grin plastered on his face as he swayed from side to side. The rusty red tin can he was driving was swerving and skidding in a messy zigzag, leaving tyre tread marks on the edge of the sidewalks and slamming into the side of a post box. The car spun round twice before the driver blindly stepped on the accelerator and drove towards a tree.
Cloud watched, taken aback as he felt nothing but surrealism engulf him, the horror taking time to set in.
Then, his father had seen him. Had smiled and waved.
Had started driving towards him.
The streetlight flickered a little more now, shadows running all around the trees and streets as the car's tyres shrieked, its grip on the road weak.
He had frozen then, eyes widening and jaw slackening in a silent scream as he raised his arms to protect himself, blinded by the glare of the headlights.
Everything after that just seemed to pass him by, making him feel like he was floating on a bubble, because the next thing Cloud knew, the car had crashed head-first into the boy who had been crossing the road – he had stupidly, stupidly run forward, probably to push Cloud away – and he had been caught in the fray. And then the car had swerved violently, smashing its side into a lamppost. After a while, the lamppost croaked loudly and fell over, crushing the car and flattening it like a badly mutilated pancake.
Cloud had been nicked a little by the sharp dent in the car door when it skidded, had been thrown onto the road and had cuts and bruises and swelling all over his legs but that didn't matter. Nothing seemed to matter.
Because, when he had shakily gotten up, all that he could hear was the piercing cry from the other boy, screaming out his lungs, clawing at his nauseating 'face'. There was blood everywhere, flowing so profusely from the brunet's head and smearing all over his bleeding arms and hands. His face had been burned, hair ripped out from his scalp, flesh wounds adorning his white thigh.
That was the clearest image he would ever possess as long as he lived.
Because all he could see was blood.
x x x
Cloud had never been in a hospital too many times before, and, to him, it was supposed to be a place for only the privileged. He had been raised to look up to those with professions of 'class', of 'esteem'. Doctors, lawyers – people who never had to get dirty or work in the sun, yet would earn a salary that the people from his part of the neighbourhood would never dare dream of. He wasn't like the other kids. He had no fear of hospitals or doctors. What he had was awe, reverence. Yet, after the accident, the utter sterility of hospitals began to scare him. Everything was so white, so clean, so pure that the blood that stained his vision and penetrated his memories seemed all the more red. Cloud knew that he was being morbid, but he had lost all sense of feeling a long time past. He felt so numb, so devoid of… anything at all. No matter what he did, or how hard he tried, he couldn't block out the blood. The cries. He felt absolutely hollow. Dead. Cloud had begun to fall into his own trance-like state, nothing bearing any weight as the world sped up past him in its inordinate white, passing him by, treating him as a mere spectator to this stage of life and death. He just sat down, eyes glassy, expression vacant even as the nurses came to him time and again, trying to talk to him, trying to feed him. They came and went in what seemed to him a movie being played in extremely fast-forward beneath the whiteness of a tenacious fluorescent light. He didn't move a single inch, not once. The father died onsite. No money. Can't pay for anything. Poor kid. Courts are having trouble. Totally right tore through the eyeballs. Terrible scar. In a coma. The other kid? The other kid's as good as in a coma. Oh, shh, he's right there. Never mind, he's stopped caring. Poor boy, lost his dad, his mum is going through trouble, too, I hear… Shh, stop talking. The head nurse had sat by Cloud for about an hour or more. He had never been really sure. He had just sat and sat and waited, because this was the head nurse and there was no way that there would be 'nothing' if she was taking her precious time to sit beside a nonentity. His heart thundered in his small chest, threatening to burst, but he was still, hazy, everything out of focus for him. And then, she had finally put her arm around him, squeezing him gently, the words smooth and soft. Her tone conveyed the fact that she knew, she knew that he knew, but she still had to say it and she was going to do her best to make sure he was going to face everything brave as ever. Maybe she had been too gentle with him. Even hours after she had gone, he was still in his stupor, the words echoing in his mind, but never yet registering. He knew, he knew, he knew. Still he didn't move, didn't react. Everything remained just the same for him. Nothing made sense. The other nurses were worried, a little upset that he hadn't yet reacted. He hadn't flinched, hadn't scowled, he hadn't even thrown any fits. They were concerned over his trauma especially. The deceased, his father, he was just that. Deceased. The boy in a coma would wake up, and he probably would have extremely vague recollections and from there they would be able to paint his way for him. But Cloud… Cloud had witnessed everything. His father had died before his eyes. He had seen a boy being hit by a car, had seen him bleed and scream and cry. A child his age was so awfully impressionable, and if he kept everything bottled inside, who knew what sort of terrible thing it might become for him once he was older? Just how long would it take for him to break down? How long would it take to get him to let it all out? As it turned out, not too long at all. Four days. Four days, and when the nurses made their usual rounds, he wasn't at his usual corner. It was as if someone had turned on the panic switch in that small hospital. Everyone was in an uproar, every able staff member who had time to spare combing every inch of the building and the surrounding compound for the small boy. He had been so absolutely mellow before, no one had bothered to keep a nurse with him at all times. They hadn't expected him to react quite like this. And it was a scary thought. The things that could happen to him were far too numerous to count. And what of the repercussions the hospital was to face? Losing a patient as well as an important member of a pending court case would be detrimental to the ego of the hospital staff as well as the credibility of the institution itself. It was a short-breathed intern who finally managed to track down the blond boy. And it was in the most astonishing of locations. He had been found, fast asleep, by the side of the comatose boy. There were smeared trails of drying tears that stained his cheeks – so he had cried – and in his feeble grasp was the other boy's cold, limp hand. His tiny body was rising and falling erratically, the boy's breathing harsh and laboured as he rested his head against the brunet's blanketed thigh, a sleep that was certainly far from dreamless. The head doctor had stumbled in on that scene, having been briefed by his subordinates on the goings-on with regards to the accident and the two boys victim to it. The utter perplexity of it all rendered him wordless, and after a moment's hesitation, he sat down by Cloud and ushered everyone else out of the room, telling them to get back to their scheduled duties now that the boy had been located. He felt old and weary, sitting there in that cold ward with two unconscious boys. The violent car crash had startled the small community, brought out some issues about poverty, alcohol and the like. The hospital had gone into overdrive. He didn't recall ever feeling as exhausted as he did then. He glanced at Cloud, his tired heart swelling with pity as he only thought about everything that was going wrong for such an innocent, blameless child. He had no father, and from what he had heard, he had no home now, either. They had been evicted while he was at school. If there had been no car accident, he'd be sleeping underneath the stars. A blessing? The head doctor snorted, resting a hand on the boy's blond head and stroking his hair soothingly. There was no blessing in this. A man had lost his life, a boy had lost his eyes, a family had been broken up, and this boy… this boy had no one, had nothing else in the world left to him. He was so bright, so smart, so full of potential to be something great, but now… Where was the justice in any of this? What was the silver lining to this cloud? It was then when Cloud stirred softly, blinking his red eyes drowsily and slowly sitting upright, a slight dazed. The head doctor still had his hand on Cloud's head, the boy looking up at him with sleepy eyes, looking at his wistful smile. He stroked Cloud's head a little more, sliding his arm around the boy's shoulder and giving him a quick squeeze before he set it down on his lap. Both of them turned forward, eyes trained on the peaceful face of the slumbering boy, whose eyes had been covered with copious amounts of cotton and bandages. A hint of an angry red slash was visible, ending at his cheek. A silence settled between them. It felt like something between honest compassion and dutiful resignation to fate, something along those lines. The head doctor had never been terribly religious before and he wasn't likely to start anytime soon. But Cloud had a maturity that the doctor found both comfort and worry in, and as it eased his weary soul, it made his mind fret over how the boy was really coping with everything. Cloud had a melancholic air about him that was so difficult to explain, and there was nothing much that could be said. He knew that Cloud knew about everything. It was in his eyes. The moment was broken by his soft voice. "What's his name?" Sometimes, the head doctor wondered what god's role in all of this was. He forced a smile on his face, looked at the bed-ridden patient's serene expression and leaned forward, eyes flickering to his white hand, still in Cloud's grasp. "He's," the man rasped, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat twice. "Squall. Squall Leonheart." Cloud didn't respond; lips still turned downwards as he stared at Squall's face – what was visible of it, at least. The head doctor leaned back in his chair and removed his glasses, closing his eyes and massaging them with one hand as a heavy sigh left his lips. He was being drained of all his energy. It was hard to be strong in front of this kid. What he needed was rest, a nap. That would certainly be good for him, no doubt about it. "I want to give him my eyes." He froze. "Give him your-" "My eyes," Cloud turned to look at him for the first time, his gaze holding a certain fire that made the adult feel a little weak to be confronted with. His melancholic expression was swept clear of its despondency. His body had lost all its frailty, all its delicacy and he was sitting upright, stronger than before, so much resolve visible in such a small person. The head doctor cleared his throat nervously, his glasses slipping from his grip and falling onto the floor. "You can't just give your eyes away," he said patiently, tone holding a note of delirium. "They're not something you can buy and sell. When you give it away, you give it for good." "I know," Cloud nodded simply. "I read in a book upstairs that there's a surgery where you can transfer someone's eyes to someone else who needs it." "You need your eyes," the doctor attempted firmly, voice a little louder than the boy's. It was the first time he had ever felt vexed enough to want to set the hospital's well-stocked library on fire. "I don't deserve them." The head doctor felt his blood boil. "I don't want to hear any of this nonsense. I know you feel bad about what's happened, but it wasn't your fault that he was hit in a bad spot. You hear me? It wasn't your fault, Cloud. Nothing you do will change that fact. Nothing you do will change the past." "But giving him my eyes will change his future." "You have your future to think about! There's a saying that goes, 'Help yourself before you help others,' and too rightly, too. If you give him your eyes, where will that leave you? You'd be blind, you hear? Blind. For the rest of your life. You wouldn't be able to see the sky or the ocean or the trees anymore, and you still have so much in the world to see. "So what should I do?" The doctor hesitated. "There's nothing that can be paid to compensate him for the accident." It was so simple a statement of fact that it should never have come to him as powerful as it did. The head doctor had started to sink in his seat. "If it can count as some form of compensation, I don't mind giving him any part of my body," Cloud muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor. Guilt; it was written plainly on his face. "He's got a better shot at anything even if I kept my own eyes. If he gets mine, at least he'll be able to live the life he was meant to." "But what about you?" the doctor asked desperately, grasping Cloud's shoulder, shaking him, gazing at the boy searchingly, wanting to know just where all this courage, all this strength came from. It just wasn't possible that an eight-year-old would… would… A crooked, feeble smile widened across the blond's lips. "If I can give him back his life, maybe it can make up for losing my dad's." Make up for- "… it wasn't your fault." "I want to give him my eyes." "Cloud…" "It has to be me." The doctor opened his mouth and hesitated, knowing that he was digging his own grave, yet…this was the right thing to do, wasn't it? He honestly didn't know anymore. "Are you… are you aware of how you will live after the operation?" Cloud nodded, eyes flickering downwards. "And you don't mind?" The boy shook his head. "You don't mind being blind, living in a home with other blind people, being poor for the rest of your life? You really don't mind?" Cloud's eyebrows knitted together, his eyes flashing with a mixture harrowing emotions that were swirling in his chest. "… it's the least I deserve."
Yet, after the accident, the utter sterility of hospitals began to scare him. Everything was so white, so clean, so pure that the blood that stained his vision and penetrated his memories seemed all the more red. Cloud knew that he was being morbid, but he had lost all sense of feeling a long time past. He felt so numb, so devoid of… anything at all.
No matter what he did, or how hard he tried, he couldn't block out the blood. The cries.
He felt absolutely hollow.
Cloud had begun to fall into his own trance-like state, nothing bearing any weight as the world sped up past him in its inordinate white, passing him by, treating him as a mere spectator to this stage of life and death. He just sat down, eyes glassy, expression vacant even as the nurses came to him time and again, trying to talk to him, trying to feed him. They came and went in what seemed to him a movie being played in extremely fast-forward beneath the whiteness of a tenacious fluorescent light. He didn't move a single inch, not once.
The father died onsite. No money. Can't pay for anything. Poor kid. Courts are having trouble. Totally right tore through the eyeballs. Terrible scar. In a coma. The other kid? The other kid's as good as in a coma. Oh, shh, he's right there. Never mind, he's stopped caring. Poor boy, lost his dad, his mum is going through trouble, too, I hear… Shh, stop talking.
The head nurse had sat by Cloud for about an hour or more. He had never been really sure. He had just sat and sat and waited, because this was the head nurse and there was no way that there would be 'nothing' if she was taking her precious time to sit beside a nonentity. His heart thundered in his small chest, threatening to burst, but he was still, hazy, everything out of focus for him.
And then, she had finally put her arm around him, squeezing him gently, the words smooth and soft. Her tone conveyed the fact that she knew, she knew that he knew, but she still had to say it and she was going to do her best to make sure he was going to face everything brave as ever.
Maybe she had been too gentle with him. Even hours after she had gone, he was still in his stupor, the words echoing in his mind, but never yet registering. He knew, he knew, he knew. Still he didn't move, didn't react. Everything remained just the same for him. Nothing made sense.
The other nurses were worried, a little upset that he hadn't yet reacted. He hadn't flinched, hadn't scowled, he hadn't even thrown any fits. They were concerned over his trauma especially. The deceased, his father, he was just that. Deceased. The boy in a coma would wake up, and he probably would have extremely vague recollections and from there they would be able to paint his way for him. But Cloud… Cloud had witnessed everything. His father had died before his eyes. He had seen a boy being hit by a car, had seen him bleed and scream and cry. A child his age was so awfully impressionable, and if he kept everything bottled inside, who knew what sort of terrible thing it might become for him once he was older? Just how long would it take for him to break down? How long would it take to get him to let it all out?
As it turned out, not too long at all.
Four days, and when the nurses made their usual rounds, he wasn't at his usual corner.
It was as if someone had turned on the panic switch in that small hospital.
Everyone was in an uproar, every able staff member who had time to spare combing every inch of the building and the surrounding compound for the small boy. He had been so absolutely mellow before, no one had bothered to keep a nurse with him at all times. They hadn't expected him to react quite like this. And it was a scary thought. The things that could happen to him were far too numerous to count. And what of the repercussions the hospital was to face? Losing a patient as well as an important member of a pending court case would be detrimental to the ego of the hospital staff as well as the credibility of the institution itself.
It was a short-breathed intern who finally managed to track down the blond boy. And it was in the most astonishing of locations.
He had been found, fast asleep, by the side of the comatose boy.
There were smeared trails of drying tears that stained his cheeks – so he had cried – and in his feeble grasp was the other boy's cold, limp hand. His tiny body was rising and falling erratically, the boy's breathing harsh and laboured as he rested his head against the brunet's blanketed thigh, a sleep that was certainly far from dreamless.
The head doctor had stumbled in on that scene, having been briefed by his subordinates on the goings-on with regards to the accident and the two boys victim to it. The utter perplexity of it all rendered him wordless, and after a moment's hesitation, he sat down by Cloud and ushered everyone else out of the room, telling them to get back to their scheduled duties now that the boy had been located.
He felt old and weary, sitting there in that cold ward with two unconscious boys. The violent car crash had startled the small community, brought out some issues about poverty, alcohol and the like. The hospital had gone into overdrive. He didn't recall ever feeling as exhausted as he did then. He glanced at Cloud, his tired heart swelling with pity as he only thought about everything that was going wrong for such an innocent, blameless child. He had no father, and from what he had heard, he had no home now, either. They had been evicted while he was at school. If there had been no car accident, he'd be sleeping underneath the stars.
A blessing? The head doctor snorted, resting a hand on the boy's blond head and stroking his hair soothingly. There was no blessing in this. A man had lost his life, a boy had lost his eyes, a family had been broken up, and this boy… this boy had no one, had nothing else in the world left to him. He was so bright, so smart, so full of potential to be something great, but now…
Where was the justice in any of this?
What was the silver lining to this cloud?
It was then when Cloud stirred softly, blinking his red eyes drowsily and slowly sitting upright, a slight dazed. The head doctor still had his hand on Cloud's head, the boy looking up at him with sleepy eyes, looking at his wistful smile. He stroked Cloud's head a little more, sliding his arm around the boy's shoulder and giving him a quick squeeze before he set it down on his lap. Both of them turned forward, eyes trained on the peaceful face of the slumbering boy, whose eyes had been covered with copious amounts of cotton and bandages. A hint of an angry red slash was visible, ending at his cheek.
A silence settled between them. It felt like something between honest compassion and dutiful resignation to fate, something along those lines. The head doctor had never been terribly religious before and he wasn't likely to start anytime soon. But Cloud had a maturity that the doctor found both comfort and worry in, and as it eased his weary soul, it made his mind fret over how the boy was really coping with everything. Cloud had a melancholic air about him that was so difficult to explain, and there was nothing much that could be said. He knew that Cloud knew about everything. It was in his eyes.
The moment was broken by his soft voice.
"What's his name?"
Sometimes, the head doctor wondered what god's role in all of this was. He forced a smile on his face, looked at the bed-ridden patient's serene expression and leaned forward, eyes flickering to his white hand, still in Cloud's grasp.
"He's," the man rasped, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat twice. "Squall. Squall Leonheart."
Cloud didn't respond; lips still turned downwards as he stared at Squall's face – what was visible of it, at least. The head doctor leaned back in his chair and removed his glasses, closing his eyes and massaging them with one hand as a heavy sigh left his lips. He was being drained of all his energy. It was hard to be strong in front of this kid. What he needed was rest, a nap. That would certainly be good for him, no doubt about it.
"I want to give him my eyes."
"Give him your-"
"My eyes," Cloud turned to look at him for the first time, his gaze holding a certain fire that made the adult feel a little weak to be confronted with. His melancholic expression was swept clear of its despondency. His body had lost all its frailty, all its delicacy and he was sitting upright, stronger than before, so much resolve visible in such a small person.
The head doctor cleared his throat nervously, his glasses slipping from his grip and falling onto the floor. "You can't just give your eyes away," he said patiently, tone holding a note of delirium. "They're not something you can buy and sell. When you give it away, you give it for good."
"I know," Cloud nodded simply. "I read in a book upstairs that there's a surgery where you can transfer someone's eyes to someone else who needs it."
"You need your eyes," the doctor attempted firmly, voice a little louder than the boy's. It was the first time he had ever felt vexed enough to want to set the hospital's well-stocked library on fire.
"I don't deserve them."
The head doctor felt his blood boil. "I don't want to hear any of this nonsense. I know you feel bad about what's happened, but it wasn't your fault that he was hit in a bad spot. You hear me? It wasn't your fault, Cloud. Nothing you do will change that fact. Nothing you do will change the past."
"But giving him my eyes will change his future."
"You have your future to think about! There's a saying that goes, 'Help yourself before you help others,' and too rightly, too. If you give him your eyes, where will that leave you? You'd be blind, you hear? Blind. For the rest of your life. You wouldn't be able to see the sky or the ocean or the trees anymore, and you still have so much in the world to see.
"So what should I do?"
The doctor hesitated.
"There's nothing that can be paid to compensate him for the accident." It was so simple a statement of fact that it should never have come to him as powerful as it did. The head doctor had started to sink in his seat.
"If it can count as some form of compensation, I don't mind giving him any part of my body," Cloud muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor. Guilt; it was written plainly on his face. "He's got a better shot at anything even if I kept my own eyes. If he gets mine, at least he'll be able to live the life he was meant to."
"But what about you?" the doctor asked desperately, grasping Cloud's shoulder, shaking him, gazing at the boy searchingly, wanting to know just where all this courage, all this strength came from. It just wasn't possible that an eight-year-old would… would…
A crooked, feeble smile widened across the blond's lips.
"If I can give him back his life, maybe it can make up for losing my dad's."
Make up for-
"… it wasn't your fault."
"I want to give him my eyes."
"It has to be me."
The doctor opened his mouth and hesitated, knowing that he was digging his own grave, yet…this was the right thing to do, wasn't it? He honestly didn't know anymore. "Are you… are you aware of how you will live after the operation?"
Cloud nodded, eyes flickering downwards.
"And you don't mind?"
The boy shook his head.
"You don't mind being blind, living in a home with other blind people, being poor for the rest of your life? You really don't mind?"
Cloud's eyebrows knitted together, his eyes flashing with a mixture harrowing emotions that were swirling in his chest.
"… it's the least I deserve."
x x x
The head doctor, a surgeon, and five nurses were assembled at the hospital lobby, all of them standing pensively as a small blond boy was being helped out of his wheelchair, a sterile tourniquet wrapped around his head firmly, over his eyes. As he took two wobbly steps forward, a man approached him from the entrance and held his hand. 39 hours and a successful operation later, all that was left now was for them to receive payment from a private donator who was willing to cover all medical costs for both boys. The head doctor didn't know how many kind enough souls there were in the world, but there was no limit to the gratitude he felt for this particular individual who was selfless enough to fork out hundreds of thousands of cash for these two boys. The head doctor had, in turn, surreptitiously been searching for eye donors of his own for Cloud, but there was nothing, no suitable matches. And when he had told Cloud about prosthetics, about fitting him with glass eyes or anything else of the ilk, the boy had just smiled at him and shook his head. This was the last time he would be able to see that smile. It was short, and sweet, and brief, but the doctor felt at a loss when Cloud turned around to say, 'thank you,' and to say it with that small, wavering smile on his face. It was hard to be strong. It was harder still to be strong enough to give away your sight to a stranger, to someone you would never meet again or have anything to do with once this phase of life was over. Fate had such a strange sense of irony. As Cloud climbed into a van and sat beside his mother, the man who had received him, the caretaker, gunned the engine. The hospital staff could see Cloud gripping his mother's hands tightly, trembling just a little even though that thin smile remained on his lips. The van drove away
39 hours and a successful operation later, all that was left now was for them to receive payment from a private donator who was willing to cover all medical costs for both boys. The head doctor didn't know how many kind enough souls there were in the world, but there was no limit to the gratitude he felt for this particular individual who was selfless enough to fork out hundreds of thousands of cash for these two boys.
The head doctor had, in turn, surreptitiously been searching for eye donors of his own for Cloud, but there was nothing, no suitable matches. And when he had told Cloud about prosthetics, about fitting him with glass eyes or anything else of the ilk, the boy had just smiled at him and shook his head.
This was the last time he would be able to see that smile. It was short, and sweet, and brief, but the doctor felt at a loss when Cloud turned around to say, 'thank you,' and to say it with that small, wavering smile on his face. It was hard to be strong. It was harder still to be strong enough to give away your sight to a stranger, to someone you would never meet again or have anything to do with once this phase of life was over.
Fate had such a strange sense of irony.
As Cloud climbed into a van and sat beside his mother, the man who had received him, the caretaker, gunned the engine. The hospital staff could see Cloud gripping his mother's hands tightly, trembling just a little even though that thin smile remained on his lips.
The van drove away
x x x
The passage of time is a scary thing. Impressions, voices, feelings, sensations that had been seared into memories, everything that had been so painstakingly learnt by heart, all of it could fade away so easily and lapse into nothing more than a mere blur in one's mind. Days and weeks fade into months, slowly turning into seasons, and as seasons pass, a memory loses its strength and dissipates into nothing more than a sliver, a shard in the back of an idle mind.
It wasn't long before a year passed by, the leaves changing colour, falling, and fusing with the earth before the thin snow of winter melted clear as the sun began to rise up high in the sky, marking the coming of spring. The robins had not yet sung and the frost still bit the air, but he disregarded all of that and continued to leave the warmth of his home, preferring the chill of the outside world on his bench as he waited and waited, patience never once wavering, the hope in his heart a glimmer of starlight through the endless depths of darkness.
Hope, that, one day, he would hear a voice he was afraid he had already forgotten, would be wrapped in arms that would still be familiar.
You see, Cloud remembered nothing of Squall Leonheart's face. What he saw those crucial moments before the car crash had been mere flashes before his eyes, engulfed by the glare of headlights and the smell of burning rubber. In the hospital, Squall had been nothing more than a living corpse, buried beneath the whiteness of sanitized bed sheets, disinfected cotton and thick bandages. He had been an absolute stranger, one that Cloud had decided not to get to know because he had thought it better that way.
Cloud remembered nothing of his father now, though it was his death that he had been reliving in his dreams night after night. His mother's memory was starting to go as well. It was a chilling thought, because he once loved them so dearly and now he had released them from his head, from a part of his heart. How long had he stopped thinking about them, mourned their deaths? A decade past, perhaps. He had learned to move on from those dark days fairly quickly, and sometimes, he wondered if he had been wise in doing so. He had wanted to so much to forget not just their passing, but their laughter and their smiles because the love he had cherished had been so great, remembering any of it made him tremble with anger, with sadness. And so, he had forgotten, had forced himself to forget, and now… their faces were nothing more than a smudge of uncertainty in his memories.
If Leon never came back to him, Cloud was scared that it might be the same.
His thoughts were always straying these days, back to the time when he and Leon had first met. He didn't remember much of it, and that made him a little upset, so he would think about Yuffie and Leon, and the way they would bicker like they were brother and sister. Sometimes a smile would twitch at his lips when he remembered the way Leon laughed, yet somehow, he would always feel a bitterness taking hold of him at the thought, and that smile would dissolve into nothing.
He would always remember the way Yuffie came up to him the days after the car crash. He had been sitting on his bench, feeling hollow, feeling lost, and she had descended upon him like an angel that was taking pity on a poor, wretched soul. She sat by him, trying to instigate some meaningless talk because that was how she dealt with pain, but he had said nothing. And when she knew that meaningless talk would neither lighten the mood nor make her words come along any more easy, she fell silent. The minutes passed on slowly before she finally spoke of the accident, the tone in her voice waking him from his grievances because her voice shook, yet it was powerful and rang clear in his ears.
Leon was gone.
He had been taken away, flown out of the country, and no one knew when he'd be back, if he even planned on returning. His surgery was major, important, and if he didn't go, he would be terribly paralyzed for the rest of his life.
But he had woken up from his coma a day after his operation.
There wasn't much he remembered, but everything was coming back to him slowly. She had received a call, and one of the doctors told her that his brain was still recovering from the trauma, so as his spine healed, so did his mind. He had remembered his name only a few days past. Now, he was starting to recall his family members.
But what they had called her for wasn't really to update her on Leon's situation. There had been a few folded letters in his wallet, and they wanted to fax them over to her because her name was on them. Some of them were memos, one of them was a small birthday card, and of the letters, one, as it turned out, had been written for Cloud.
There wasn't much that had been written into that letter. Nothing substantial, even literary. But when he heard Yuffie read it to him, he drank in every word and memorized them, urging her to read it over and over again so that he wouldn't forget. She obliged willingly, because she knew Cloud was hurting and that this was some form of closure for him. It wasn't a long letter, anyway.
Leon had known all along, as it turned out. He had heard rumours from the hospital staff that Cloud had been his donor, but he didn't believe in rumours. When he asked his surgeon, the man refused to tell him who it was. He had continued to press the man for answers throughout the years, and eventually, when he had entered secondary school, the doctor had relented and confirmed his suspicions. Yet, even with the knowledge, there was nothing he could do. The doctor didn't know where Cloud was. It wasn't likely that they would even meet again.
But what he had really wanted to say all those years was, 'thank you'.
It was a childish letter, and had ended just like that, and Yuffie said that it was written ten years ago from the date that had been scrawled into the margin. The image of the paper in the fax was all crinkly and worn, she said, with folds and wrinkles in it, and smudged ink. He had been fifteen when he wrote the letter, and he had kept it all those years.
Cloud didn't know what to think, what to make of any of it, so he had taken it all in uncertainly, without words to soothe his thoughts or Yuffie's anxiousness.
Even after a year had passed, the words were still clear in his mind, in spite of the fact that they, too, were beginning to fleet away, like snowflakes under the sun.
The bitterness of winter bore no weight to him. Even with the danger of slippery ice and snow, Cloud had ceased to care, had forsworn his previous vigilance, had made his daily trek through even the coldest days to sit and wait, for what did it matter how cold he felt if that day was the day he would finally meet Leon?
Some days, he would stagger home well into the night, his mind aloft, elsewhere. Aerith was starting to worry about him, but nothing she said seemed to settle with Cloud. In fact, nothing anyone said seemed to settle with him. He was worlds away, obsessed with only one thought, and was intent on realizing it no matter what. She didn't like his wandering back home at unspeakably godless hours, but she could see the restlessness in his soul, the desperation in his spirit. She didn't have the heart to tell him off, to dissuade him. What scolding she had somehow managed had not even affected the blond man, and Aerith couldn't help but worry.
There were days when Cloud didn't even come home, and those times were the ones that worried her the most. Sometimes she wondered if he had died in the emptiness of winter, in the vast white of snow, completely alone, without the person he had been searching so hopelessly for. Sometimes she wondered if he had leaned back against the tight embrace of winter to sleep, and never then woke up again. He was detached from the world, the longing in his heart taking over his thoughts and actions, like a wandering ghost. It was as though he had found a direction, a purpose to live for the very first time in his life, but that purpose had slipped away from him, and he was desperate to find it once again, a dead man who had lived and was on the brink of death.
He was a ghost. A shadow.
But Cloud returned. He always returned, shivering from the frost, hungry for the warmth of the hearth. As he sat down before the fireplace with a towel wrapped around his bare body, he would rock back and forth, face buried in his arms, murmuring and murmuring apologies, yearnings to the crackling flames that licked into the air and eventually disappeared. Sleep would engulf him for days at times, as if to seek redemption for the years he had spent awake, troubled by dreams that he now barely remembered. He was being purified, it almost seemed.
Winter had ended, though, and the cycle of purification was at a close. The scent of spring was in the air, sure to arrive at any given moment.
It was already late in the afternoon, with the sun rolling high in sky, stolen away by irregular patches of clouds that cast an uneven shade throughout the region. The streets were silent, yet the sounds of people still reached his ears, air cool, with the sun giving out just the right amount of warmth. Cloud was sitting on a different bench this time around, one that had been placed only a little further into the park and not just at the side of the road like his usual seat. There was nothing there now. All that remained was exposed soil stripped neatly of grass, and a hunk of twisted wood and metal lying in some landfill somewhere.
The blond man felt a tiredness aching dully in his bones as he raised his head, feeling a cool breeze gently gust through the area, washing over his skin. He could smell the ocean in the wind, nostalgia smoking in his mind; the wind, it carried with it the lazy cawing of seagulls, brought with it the gentle touch of warm skin against his own, long fingers in his air, soft lips against his ear.
He lowered his head now, grasping his arms and leaning forward as his sloping shoulder shrugged towards his body. He remembered the feeling of those strong arms, holding him tightly, hands curled around his own, stroking his face, cupping his chin. He had pushed away, had always pushed away then, and he felt incredible regret surging through him as he realized how much he missed those slender hands. He held his fingers to his lips, sighing quietly. They had traced Leon's face once, touched his eyes and nose and he had, in that oh so brief instant, seen him. Seen his face. He had touched Leon's lips with these fingers. This would be an indirect kiss.
Cloud couldn't take it anymore.
He had been waiting all his life, waiting for something or someone to save him from the emptiness of his existence. All those years ago, Cloud realized that he hadn't just given away his eyes; he had given away hislife somehow, had passed on what spirit he had for living to Squall Leonheart, hoped that the boy would be able to live on for both of them. For him and his father.
And he had. He had.
Leon came back to him, took him by the hand, gave him a reason to live and look forward to a new day. He had given him back his soul, taught him to be selfish and impatient and to want and to work for what he wanted. He had never felt so pained, so hurt before, and it was breathtaking how utterly alive he felt now, because he could reach out and whisper his name and even with the hurt, comfort and affection would come and embrace him.
Leon had given him love.
He wanted more of it.
He wanted Leon.
Each passing moments were agonizing eternities to him now. Seconds, minutes, days… he scarcely believed that he had managed to survive, to pull through almost a year of waiting and hoping. His heart hurt so much.
And he honestly couldn't take it anymore.
Cloud buried his face in his hands, angry and sad at everything around him, at Leon, at himself. He couldn't move on – he had never moved on – not from his father's death, not from the accident. He still lived in the past, still clung to his guilt, and he was afraid that moving on would mean purging Leon from his heart. Squall Leonheart still haunted him – there wasn't a day when he didn't think about how he was living, if his sight remained well – and he hadn't allowed himself to let go of the image of that cold body resting on a hospital bed. He was afraid of moving on, afraid of forgetting. He didn't want to forget Leon. He had never loved anyone before, knew that he would never love again, or even if he did, he wouldn't love as desperately as he did now.
Why wouldn't Leon come back to him?
He had come to terms with himself, had fallen in love with a man, had fallen in love.
Was that not enough?
The wind picked up in a steady rush, cold air billowing through the park, blowing through his hair as he slowly raised his face, his hands falling uselessly onto his lap. He turned his head to the side, away from the bite of the wind, breathing silently through his nose as he heard the chime of bells in the distance. Another hour come to pass – or was it a church bell? It didn't matter, not to him.
He leaned back in his seat, the walking cane that had been leaning against his thigh rolling to the side and onto the edge of the bench, tilting at an angle as its tip wedged between a patch of grass and a small stone. He heard someone cycling past, swiftly down the sidewalk, disappearing past the curb. There was shop closing in the distance, some laughter resounding in a small group of people. He tuned out all those noises, for the first time weary and not enthralled by sounds that people made. He was just absolutely tired of it all.
Which is why, perhaps, he had not heard it the first time.
In an instant, the world had ceased to be.
He knew that voice.
Cloud didn't move, couldn't move. His whole body trembled, lip quivering as Cloud stopped breathing, stopped thinking, his lips parted as he tried to call out a single name, tried to say anything at all. He knew that voice. It couldn't have been anyone else at all. It was him, and all the pain that he had been forced through throughout that one long year came back to him, throbbed painfully in his heart, causing his chest to tighten, his throat to constrict. He was afraid, afraid that he had died in the middle of a park and that this was merely an illusion cast to lull him out of the security of living. He was afraid that this wasn't real, that he was imagining that voice.
His body and his mind had become completely detached from one another. He was shaking, shaking so hard, somehow ending up on his feet. And turning. And shivering. He was clenching his fingers so tightly around the top of the bench, certain they were white from the pressure. His expression held hope, held fear, held grief. Yet…
When that warm hand touched his cheek, he let out a shuddered breath, squeezing his eyes shut even tighter as he pushed himself forward and wrapped his arms around that body, that warm, familiar body, pressing his face into the crook of his neck, something clenching in his heart and slowly releasing it, breaths coming more evenly to him now as he whispered one thing.
"Please tell me it's really you."
Leon closed his eyes, resting his head against Cloud's and embracing him tightly with one arm, lips pressed by his ear as he inhaled shakily, nodding. "It's Leon," he said breathily. "It's really me."
Cloud could only hold him tighter as he felt a weight being lifted from his shoulders. He leaned out of the embrace by just a little, taking a moment to himself before he spoke, his expression melting into one of wistful mirth.
"You're… Squall, aren't you?"
Leon hesitated with his answer, closing his eyes and leaning forward, resting his forehead against Cloud's. He nodded after a while, his fingertips brushing the line of Cloud's jaw before caressing his cold cheek. "Why didn't you tell me?" he heard the other man whisper, fingers curling into his shoulders, his breath rolling smoothly across his face.
"I don't know," he whispered back. "I didn't want you to stop smiling."
"Were you planning on telling me at all?"
"Not if I could help it," Leon admitted, opening his eyes to look at the blond man, a smile whispering across his lips at the soft chuckle he was receiving. He pressed his lips gently against Cloud's forehead, his hand now cradling the back of his head and pulling him closer, making him rest his temple against Leon's chest, tucking it beneath his chin as he stroked Cloud's hair soothingly. His eyes were trained above, looking at nothing in particular as silence reigned over them.
"Leon," Cloud breathed. "What happened to you?"
A humourless smile curled at the brunet's lips at that. His gaze lowered, a hint of ire visible in his eyes. He licked his lips, opening his mouth to respond before he paused just a while, getting the words right, eyes darting upwards once again.
"The surgery was a success. Just, my legs are slightly paralyzed. I'll limp for the rest of my life, but at least I'm not bound to a wheelchair," he said in his quiet voice. He unconsciously grasped onto the head of his own walking cane with his other hand, wetting his mouth again, swallowing a little. Cloud nodded into the embrace, letting out a slight breath as he relaxed, eased into Leon.
Cloud never wanted this moment to end. All the pain he had gone through, all those days of waiting and almost freezing to death was worth this meeting, worth this moment. Leon was worth it all. He never wanted to let go of the man, never wanted to be apart anymore. He tried to remember everything that encompassed this moment; the wonderful feeling of Leon's fingers in his hair, the warmth of his body, the clean smell of soap that clung to him, the cool air that drifted through them. He never wanted to forget this, any of this.
It was Leon who broke the silence.
"Cloud," Leon began softly. "I'm sorry for falling in love with you."
The younger man raised his head a little, an unsuccessful jerk backwards, his lips parted and his eyebrows knitting together as those words played through his head, resonated through his ears, but failed to properly register in his mind. His fingers curled tightly into the fabric of Leon's clothing at his shoulders, his breath hitching as he held his breath, feeling a part of him grow cold.
"Wh-what? Leon, what're you saying?" he asked, voice just a little shaky.
The brunet kept calm, kept a cool head. He didn't respond immediately, instead allowing his eyes to flutter shut as the words caught in his throat, refusing to form. He took in a long, drawn out breath, steadying himself before he spoke again, voice clear, but holding a note of refusal somehow.
"I'm leaving," he said quietly. "I'm leaving and I'm not coming back."
Cloud stopped breathing.
"I." Leon had the momentum, he had to keep going. His voice was shaking a little now too, but he tried to be strong. Tried to keep out the tremble. "I don't have anymore money. All of it went into paying for the operation and physiotherapy. I don't have medical insurance, I don't… I don't have anything left."
"I had to sell my house and all my furniture, and what's left over won't last. I- I have a relative. An uncle. Where I had been hospitalized the past year. He's not… All he has is a bicycle shop, but he's willing to give me a home. He's all that I have, Cloud. I-"
"When I go, there will never be enough money for me to come back, and-"
"Leon, stop it."
"Please, Cloud, I-"
"Don't go, don't leave me, don't-"
"Take me with you! Let me come along!"
"I want to, Cloud, but I can't. I can't-"
"Don't do this, Leon, please don't do this."
"I want to stay with you, I don't want to go, I-"
"Then stay. Stay. I'll ask Aerith if you could-"
"Cloud, you know I can't-"
"I'll beg her if I have to-"
"He wants me to marry, Cloud, I-"
"Why are you doing this to me?"
He stopped, shoulders shaking uncontrollably as he clenched the front of Leon's shirt in his hands, eyes squeezed shut completely as his body went limp, Cloud leaning heavily against the brunet as he buried his face in his shoulder. He was breathing harshly, angrily, sorrowfully, hating Leon, wanting to follow him, wanting him to stay, wishing they had never met, wishing Yuffie had never introduced them, wishing that he hadn't stupidly stood at the side of the road when he had finally… finally
"… Do you love me, Leon?"
Leon grasped Cloud's head in his hands, allowing his cane to fall to the moist soil with a muffled clatter as he squeezed his eyes shut and finally, finally pressed his lips against Cloud's, sucking on them gently, tenderly moulding them with his own before Cloud let out a single gasp for air, the brunet immediately closing in once again as Cloud pulled Leon forward, pulled Leon closer.
The kiss was soft and sweet, carrying with it more meaning, more words than both men could have ever expressed. He could feel the other man shuddering into it, pressing back gently. It held nothing of passion that Leon had once experienced, held nothing of absolute want that he had known once before. This kiss held sorrow, held pain, held needfulness, and as they gently pulled away, he wished to god that he never had to stop kissing Cloud. He hated that they had to kiss like this, at this time, in this place.
This kiss was their first.
And it would be their last.
"Please," Cloud's voice came out in a sob as his gripped Leon's wrists, pleading. "Please don't leave me."
"I do. I do love you. I do. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"How could you say that?" Cloud demanded, wishing he could see Leon's face when he said those words. Would it have been of pure remorse? "Why did you have to make me love you back?"
"I'm sorry," he whispered, closing his eyes, pulling Cloud forward, so close that their noses brushed. In that instant, Cloud couldn't speak anymore. No matter how hard he tried, nothing would come. All that he could do was resign himself to harsh, laboured breaths, body trembling with tears that would never fall. "I'm sorry. I don't want to leave you, but if I stay, I could... I'll die. I'm sorry. But please," he looked at Cloud carefully. "I will never love anyone as deeply as I did you. There will never… be…" Teardrops fell silently from Leon's eyes, flowing down his cheeks, clinging onto his chin before falling to the earth. Leon tried to calm himself down, but his breaths were coming in short pants. He couldn't look at Cloud anymore. He couldn't bear to see the expression on his face. So he let go of him, eyes peering at the ground in humiliation, in self-hate.
"I have to go."
Cloud shook his head; refusing to release Leon, refusing to let him leave, but Leon prised his arms away, taking a wobbly step back and turning around, leaving behind his walking cane because his knees couldn't bear the weight of his body if he were to bend down. He hobbled away, fists clenched so tightly that his knuckles were white, tears refusing to stop as he inhaled shakily, trying his best to not look back – if he looked back now, he'd never be able to go away, never would be able to leave Cloud's side.
Cloud would never know how much he would hurt. His heart contained a wound no amount of time would heal. Cloud, Cloud could move on. All he had done was to fall in love. But Leon… Leon would never be able to live a single day without being haunted by that smile, that soft voice. Everything he was, everything he had become, his eyes, his body, his voice; all of it belonged to Cloud. And Leon knew that, so long as he even breathed, the only name that would resonate in his heart was Cloud's. He had fallen in love too long ago, had fallen in love with everything Cloud was, had nurtured that love deep inside him. It was a fire that would never die, but now, he was being forced to douse it. He would live with this physical suffering that would forever remind him of that day, with the anguish of knowing that he would never be able to go back, or to love ever again. It is said that those who are left behind are the ones that suffer the most, but Leon knew it was a lie. Because walking away was like ripping apart the soul, shredding the heart, doing so over and over again and hurting precisely because he knew that he could stay if there was a way.
But he could do nothing.
There was no way for him.
He couldn't even comfort Cloud, for who was there to comfort him?
As Cloud fell to his knees, his entire body shook violently, the fair-haired man leaning forward and burying his face in his hands. He would not cry. For what need did he have to cry? He had no eyes; he was not able to cry. He could only take comfort in the fact that Squall – no, Leon – Leon was his eyes now. He had wept for him, for both of them, had he not? So there was no reason that Cloud would want to cry, would fall down and sob uncontrollably, would feel like he was being torn apart from the inside. There was no reason for him to long for the sweeter times before when they would sit and chat without a care. There was no reason for him yearn for those arms, for those lips. There was no reason for him to want to die because of the pain, the unbearable pain that was filling him.
There was no reason to cry.
All around him, the world began to fade out of existence. He heard nothing but the slowness of his aching heartbeats, his chokes and gasps as he sobbed without tears. He was a grown man, he was meant to take all this in maturely, without breaking down. But none of it mattered anymore. Nothing would fill the complete hollowness inside him, or heal his vulnerable feelings. How he had feared the pain when love began.
It was nothing compared to love's end.
And as a lone robin sang, the darkened clouds above began to rumble smoothly, marking the start of spring and its endless showers.
And like all springs, the rain fell softly.
A/N: It's finally done. I started writing it in December 2006, shelved it, and started on it again in February 2007. I am absolutely tired and weary, and this my longest oneshot ever, and in my opinion, my best written fic yet. And at 73 pages and the expense of a bunch of untouched textbooks, it honestly had better be.
I have many people to thank for help with this monster, and quite a number of dedications. This is to Leon, Take, Rem-chan and Bec for being with me all the way, coughing up just as much blood as I have in creating the story, as well as being willing test subjects and reading and feedbacking, and never once murdering me for being a pest. I love you all. This fic, in its completion is for you guys.
This story is dedicated also to high & down, Lynnie, Kelly (angelofflaws), Drea (whom I pray will somehow accept and fangirl the CLC ship some day soon), Ling (FlippingJinx Inc.) and Chan Chan-chan.
Please don't forget to review. I didn't cough blood and churn out 73 pages of fic for nothing, y'know.
A/N 2: (26 August 2008) I've edited the ending and the hospital scene, as promised. I may not go through the whole fic again because I think it's time to lay it to rest. Also, I've been thinking of converting the original Rain Falls Softly into an original story, with my own characters and slightly altered twists. Hope you enjoyed, guys.