Hard centre

Cloud thought that, over time, it would have got better. After all, people seemed to band about the phrase 'time heals all wounds' like there was no tomorrow.

So he assumed it to be true. Several million people can't be wrong, right?

No. Not right.

Not right at all. Since he had left the General's office a few months ago, after the final confrontation with him, Zack and the Silver General, he had found that this particular wound would not stop bleeding.

And so he had decided to simply cement over the wound. Because that's all time did. Cement over the wound; make it so that you had to simply ignore it, because if you didn't, it would consume you, and you wouldn't be able to live your daily life.

And so Cloud had had to ignore all those feelings to be able to function. But the wound did not go away with this neglect; it simply festered. The feelings just all got pushed back, and eventually began to form a little ball in his centre, until he was walking around, no longer outwardly devastated, but with a hard core of pain at his centre that would not go away.

The hard, cold little centre hurt. It followed him everywhere he went, whispering malicious and miserable thoughts. And it didn't want to go away.

He didn't like walking around with it, but…he just couldn't thaw it.

Although he couldn't make it go away, he did the next best thing; he buried himself in his work in an effort to simply take his mind off of it, and to prevent people from interfering.

It worked too. He was so wrapped up in his studies, be it physical or academic, that he could almost ignore the biting cold in his chest.

And people learnt, after a while, to leave him alone again. Like they had in the beginning.

To the other students and the instructors, it had been a sudden – although not unwelcome – surprise to find that Cloud had gradually been getting more approachable, and – dare they say the word? – Sociable.

And although this change was pleasant, they were all rather sceptical about how long it would last. They all bet about a week.

And so they had been surprised when they were wrong. And they had lulled themselves into a false sense of security, forgetting how volatile Cloud could be.

Ergo, they were all quite shocked when he had suddenly become the miserable, angry recluse again.

But by now they had just learnt to once again keep out of his way and not talk to him. He didn't seem to like it, or need it.

Cloud's cold, hard centre released another glacier. He looked away from Zack as the SOLDIER tried to make eye contact.

He just hoped he didn't sit down. The hard centre seemed to stab at him whenever he saw Zack or the General. He didn't even want to know how the man had managed to come into his dorm room without Cloud hearing him.

"Spike? Can I talk to you?"

Cloud gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.

"Don't call me that."

Cloud saw from the corner of his eye how Zack recoiled, looking sad and hurt at the order. Cloud almost felt bad. But he just couldn't cope if Zack called him that.

"Why not?" Came Zack's unusually quiet voice. He sat down slowly, despite not having permission.

"Because it reminds me too much of then." Cloud replied in a low voice that really shouldn't, in Cloud's opinion, still sound so pained.

Zack practically drooped in his seat, and that cold centre in Cloud laughed.

Good. Let him be sad. Let him feel bad. He should. Does he have any idea how much it hurts to hear him call me that?

It reminded him of all the times when Zack had affectionately ruffled his hair and called him 'Spike'. It reminded him of that warmth that his dorm room was missing.

"Cloud," Zack implored, a note of desperation in his voice, "I'm -"

"Don't!" Cloud snapped. He wouldn't be able to stand it if the older man apologised again.

"I don't want to fucking hear it Zack, so either piss off or tell me what you want!"

Zack swallowed and fought back a burning in his eyes. His Cloud never swore. The blond had changed.

"Cloud…" He trailed off, momentarily lost for words. "What's happened to you?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Cloud snarled savagely, thinking that if Zack was just going to speak in riddles, then he really wasn't going to listen to any more of this.

But Zack continued hastily.

"You've changed. You never go out any more. No one even sees you. All your squad mates are saying that you won't talk to them anymore. You're…cold towards everyone. My Cloudy was never cold to people. And my Cloudy never swore."

Zack said mournfully, trying not to sound too upset, but wanting to understand.

"Yeah, well I guess I'm not 'your Cloudy' anymore, right?!"

Zack flinched. The venom in the blonde's voice actually hurt him. The guilt rolled off of him in waves.

"You didn't want me to be 'your Cloudy'. You wanted someone else." Cloud spat, his face a mask of fury and betrayal. "It's 'your Sephy' now, isn't it? He's yours. You're his. You wanted that. Not me. So no, I'm not your Cloudy anymore. You can't expect me to do that. You can't just throw away a toy in return for a better one, and then expect the old toy to still belong to you. YOU CAN'T!"

The boy screamed in frustration, and as much as he hated it, the hurt was starting to show through the fury.

"I know!" Zack choked, looking up at Cloud with guilt laden eyes. "I know. I can't expect you to do that. I just…I never wanted this to happen to you; I didn't want you to change. I didn't want you to hurt."

Cloud gaped.

"WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?" He screamed. "You LEFT me! For someone else. You were with him while you were with me! You were there, with him, doing the same things, whispering the same damn sentiments in his ear as you were mine. And you didn't want me to get hurt?!"

"No, Cloud, I never wanted -"

"Well I guess you shouldn't have FUCKED HIM THEN!"

Cloud screamed, all his anger and bitterness and hurt hurdling out of that one howl.

He stood up and prepared to leave. Kicked out of his own dorm room.

A hand grabbed his wrist.

"No, please Cloud, stay." Zack's voice was pleading, and Cloud stopped his progress but didn't turn around.

"I know that the way I put it sounds awful. Of…of course I knew it would hurt you." Zack's voice was strained, obviously having difficulty with that admission.

"And it makes me feel like the worst person in the world for going ahead and doing it anyway, but…I still didn't want to hurt you. Even though I knew it would, I still didn't want it to hurt you. I…" Zack was obviously having trouble explaining his feelings, but Cloud did not help him by softening.

"And I…I didn't think that it would affect you to this extent. I don't like seeing you like this. I still love you-"

"Be quiet!" Cloud gasped, covering his ears as though Zack had just insulted Cloud's God.

Zack bit his lip to keep from saying or doing anything. The kid looked so young and vulnerable, standing there with his hands over his ears and angry tears welling in his eyes.

"Be quiet, I don't want to hear it! You've told me this before Zack. But how can you love me if you did that? I don't understand!"

Zack sighed sadly. Cloud seemed to be imploring him to give him an answer that would make him understand, that would make everything ok. That would somehow mean that none of this had ever happened.

He couldn't give him that. And as much as he wanted to make the boy happy, he couldn't do that.

"I'm sorry. I do love you. But I started to love someone else too. And I went with him because it felt right. Even though it felt so wrong to hurt you." Zack explained quietly, painfully candidly.

Cloud dipped his head and slumped his shoulders, looking so defeated that it made Zack ache.

"But you went and did it anyway." Came his quiet voice, small and cold like winter, yet with a searing amount of pain bubbling beneath the surface.

Zack wanted so much to just take the boy in his arms and kiss and hug all the pain away, as cheesy as it sounded. But he couldn't. Because that would just complicate things for the poor kid even more. Cloud would be confused. Maybe he would think that Zack was promising things that he no longer could.

But he had to do something. He couldn't bear this.

"If it helps – which I know it probably won't – he's not 'my Sephy' right now. He suggested that we cool it; a temporary split, so that we both have time to think."

Zack admitted, his voice a little scratchy.

Cloud cocked his head slightly in morbid happiness, but this soon died out, only to be replaced with that ache once more.

He stared dully at the wall, as though seeing nothing.

"You loved him enough to hurt someone else that you loved. Even though it felt so very wrong to you. Wow." Cloud said in a dull voice. "Wonder if you ever loved me enough to do that."

Both Zack and Sephiroth had been hearing things.

About Cloud.

And quite frankly, at first, they did not believe what they were hearing.

That Cloud, reclusive though he still was, was now a major slut. Sleeping around. No commitments or attachment or emotions. That he had been seen coming out of different bedrooms on many dark nights. Just one big slut.

Zack refused to believe it. He didn't want to believe it. He knew Cloud.

Sephiroth simply did not believe it because Cloud had always seemed to be one of the more innocent troopers, the green ones who were oblivious to all the military standard sexual innuendo.

But then, after several nights of quiet watching, Zack had had to accept that it was true. And Sephiroth really had no reason to doubt him.

Especially having seen it for himself.

Cloud tried to keep his mask of indifference in place as he once again sat before the General's desk. He had thought that, after last time, Sephiroth would have merely gotten another member of SOLDIER to issue reprimands.

But no.

"Private Strife, myself and the other instructors have recently become aware of certain behaviour on your part that cannot be ignored any longer."

Sephiroth informed Cloud in an admirably calm tone.

Cloud said nothing. Merely nodded, not even attempting to play dumb.

Sephiroth sighed at his lack of response.

"It concerns your sexual behaviour, Private Strife. It has been rumoured, and indeed confirmed that you have recently taken up…rather loose morals when it comes to your sexuality around Headquarters." Sephiroth paused again to allow Cloud to defend himself. The blond said nothing. Sephiroth sighed again.

"The Shinra company prohibits sexual relationships between members of its military. However, over the years, this rule has come to mean little to your everyday SOLDIER and regular. It is an impractical and harsh rule. However, it is still a rule, and although relationships between members of the military are largely ignored, there are still some very powerful people who frown upon it." Sephiroth explained calmly, feeling like such a hypocrite.

"Ergo, under normal circumstances, we would simply discreetly ignore it. However, when it gets to this level of promiscuity, I am afraid action must be taken, as you yourself Private Strife, have not been exactly discreet."

At the end of this talk, Cloud finally looked up into Sephiroth's eyes. The fury and hurt that lurked there was violent.

"I hardly think you, General, should be lecturing people regarding their sexual behaviour." Cloud's voice was small and cold and accusatory. "Seeing as you yourself are not only participating in a sexual relationship with a member of the Shinra military, but you also did not even take into account that he was already involved with another member of the military."

At that moment, Sephiroth's emotions boiled over, and to his shame, he felt his anger partially win out, his sympathy for the boy momentarily replaced by outrage.

"Private Strife, I will thank you not to pry into my personal affairs – especially here and now – there is a time and a place, and this is not it. I will not have a repeat of last time." Sephiroth said sharply, feeling very cruel to simply dismiss the boy's hurt, but sincerely wanting to avoid a repeat of the events a few months previously.

"We are here to discuss your behaviour, Private Strife, not mine. As far as yours is concerned, it must either stop immediately, or you must be a great deal more discreet about your personal affairs."

Cloud simply stared at the man for a while, his eyes dark and stormy. Then his small mouth opened, and as the words poured forth, the contrast stunned Sephiroth momentarily; lips red as warm blood, yet words with all the biting cold of winter.

"You rob me of my only support, to keep him for your own wants, and then you tell me that my relationships – my only possible form of comfort – are not accepted?"

Cloud's eyes narrowed, and Sephiroth saw in those glassy, cold orbs, such a tangle of feelings that his head began to ache from the intensity of the stare.

Anger and hurt shone the brightest in those eyes.

And although he did feel a painfully large amount of guilt and sympathy, he could not help the anger that flared through him at that moment.

"If you insist on delving into personal affairs, Private Strife, may I remind you that Lieutenant Fair chose me."

At those simple (and rather childish, Sephiroth thought) words, Strife's mouth simply snapped shut, and his face was swept over with a stunned expression. The silence in those few moments was near unbearable. And then Cloud spoke.

"And that's it, isn't it? Despite Zack's assurances, and his declarations of love, when all's said and done…he chose you. Not me. And that's what matters, isn't it?"

Cloud's voice was quiet and stricken. He could not believe how much those words had hurt. How they had hit him like a tornado. Because it wasn't as if he hadn't known that they were true. He had.

But there was a significant difference - Cloud decided that day - between knowing, and being told.

The end.

AN: Did anyone get my little 'Secret Window' reference? Sorry, I couldn't help myself; it just seemed so appropriate.

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