Sharing a room with Reno had to be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of Cloud's battle-hardened life. When Reno wasn't busy talking Cloud's ears off about how closely Leon and the exSoldier resembled each other, he was blathering on about how annoying Yuffie was, or complaining about the extent of his aches and pains that came from the every day reconstruction work.
"Man, I think I'm startin' to wish those key kids had just left me back in New York." Reno signed loudly, flopping back onto his bed that lay across the room from Cloud's. The action caused his hair to splay across the pillow in dark auburn clumps, it being wet from sweat and the water that Reno had poured on it not long before coming inside. Cloud hummed, pulling his sword and sheathe off and laying it on the floor before he took a seat on the edge of his mattress. Reno turned his head to watch the man with scrutiny.
"Y'look hot, Spike, why not take that sleeve thing off, yo?" He asked lazily, kicking his shoes off and pulling his legs onto the bed. After Reno had come along, Aerith and Tifa had both made a day about getting him new clothes that better suited the redhead for hard labor. They consisted of a black jacket, a white undershirt, and black pants littered with pockets- a color scheme similar to his suit, since nobody could see him wearing otherwise- but more work efficient for the reconstruction efforts.
Cloud ignored Reno, standing up again and walking out of the room to get a glass of water from the tap. Reno watched him leave before rolling over to face the wall and curling up with a pillow held tightly to his chest, cuddling it with a relaxed sigh.
Most everyone was in their rooms, resting up before dinner. To Cloud, it was like having a large family inside of a very small home. It was almost too-comfortable for Cloud, which was why he often would leave for days on end without a single word. He'd come to realize that it wasn't the wisest thing to do, judging by the way Leon and Tifa would scold him upon his return.
Staying with Reno had made it difficult for Cloud to tolerate anyone, it seemed. The obnoxious redhead was an invasion of the very privacy that Cloud had agonized over keeping, and it made the exSoldier wary. Reno had made a show of clapping Cloud on his arm one too many times for him to think that Reno didn't have suspicions about what lay underneath the dark cloth. Reno, however brash and loud he may have been, was still a Turk, and it shone through in the way his eyes would become beady in thought, or his lips would purse when Cloud would wake up with a sudden jerk and sharp inhalation.
This was why Cloud was heading for the kitchen to retrieve a small bag of food, why he ignored Aerith's greeting and Merlin's inquiry as to whether Cloud needed something. He grabbed the satchel from atop one of the many cabinets that lined the old kitchen, reaching past Aerith while the woman sliced up carrots and grabbing a loaf of bread from the three that sat on the stove. Merlin huffed at the action, looking as if he were about to give the man a tongue lashing about reaching past people, when Leon stepped into the kitchen.
"Aerith, do you- " He paused, eyes catching Cloud's movement and seeing him pick up a handful of apples to place in his bag. His pale eyes narrowed, causing his scar to purse with the movement of his eyebrows.
"Cloud." The aforementioned man ignored Leon, instead reaching under the counter to open a cabinet that he kept flasks of water in, procuring two and placing them in his satchel.
"You're not leaving." Leon's voice was harsh, filled with a stern command that made Cloud feel like he was a child being scolded by his older brother. Anger rose up in the blond, but he ignored it in favor of standing up and shouldering the pack.
Their eyes connected, and for a few seconds, Cloud felt enough shame to look away. He stepped forward, preparing to brush past Leon's normally complacent form. Stepping to the left, Cloud barely brushed shoulders with Leon when he felt a strong hand grasping to his good arm, stopping him.
"We have too much work for you to just leave when you want." Cloud wrenched his arm away, mouth pulling down into a scowl.
"Things are under control without me." He retorted, making sure to keep his voice level in lieu of getting riled up. Turning, Cloud headed back to his room to retrieve his sword, Leon's footsteps making it evident that he was following the blond man.
"You're not leaving in that condition." Cloud stopped before reaching the door to his and Reno's room, head shifting to the left, but not turning. He seemed to contemplate Leon's words, weighing them in his head before reaching out to grab the knob and open the door.
"There is no condition." He said, stepping over the threshold and into the room, glancing over to Reno's snoozing form that was intimately holding a pillow. He knelt down, strapping his sword's sheathe to his back and lifting the heavy weapon in order to slip it into the leather holster.
Leon didn't seem to be satisfied with this, judging by the unhappy grunt that left the man after Cloud brushed him off. The exSoldier turned to level Leon with his most powerful stare.
"I'm leaving." The words came out of Cloud as more of a demand than a request, his arm rising to the hilt of his sword, showing Leon that he wasn't ready to back down just yet. Leon's eyes flickered wide for a split second, obviously surprised at how adamant Cloud was to leave, though it did little to hinder the man's resolve.
"You're staying." Leon replied just as forcefully, a gloved hand reaching out to push Cloud back into his room, his heel kicking the door shut. Cloud's arm shot out, grabbing onto Leon's hand as his elbow shot forward in an attempt to connect with the older man's chin. Leon jerked back, his other hand catching Cloud's forearm so that they were trapped in a stalemate.
Cloud pursed his lips, wriggling his hands free of Leon's grip and stepping back. If he was going to leave, it obviously had to be done when the brunet man wasn't in such a foul mood. He unclasped his buster sword, all-but throwing it to the ground at Leon's feet and whirling around.
The pain struck him before Cloud could really register it. Flashes of Sephiroth, Midgar's destruction, and the wrath of the heartless all flickered in his mind's eye-- things that had plagued the blond man's mind at one point or another. His left knee buckled, but Cloud was able to reach the bed to sit down before the stigma's effects truly set in.
His arm was shaking so viciously that it seemed to be vibrating. He could feel something slick seeping from his skin, thicker than sweat, as if his very pores were bleeding. He hissed, ignoring the way Leon approached him in lieu of clutching to his infected arm.
Sephiroth was most likely within the vicinity if his arm was reacting so badly. Black fluid dripped down off of his arm and hit the mattress, soaking in and leaving a dark stain as the shocks of agony began to travel up his shoulder and to his neck and collarbone, intense enough that it was difficult for Cloud to grasp a decent lungful of air.
Leon, sensing this, knelt before Cloud, reaching out to grab the blond's good hand and jerking back when he found his own coated in a sticky black fluid. Cloud turned his head in shame, body trembling as pain continued to ricochet through his nerves.
"it's the Stigma, yo, that's what y'got, ain't it?" Reno's voice called out from across the room. "Th'disease of th' life stream." Leon turned his head to peer at Reno with scrutiny, though he was given a half-hearted shrug in return. Cloud didn't see much past the exchange as things began to swim dangerously in his vision. Leon's hands rose to his face, strong fingers clasping to Cloud's cheeks and forcing him to stay focused.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Leon hissed, his voice barely audible above the ringing in Cloud's ears. Cloud drew a shaking breath through his nose as his arm jerked and twitched like a thousand volts were being shot through is muscles.
"Don't tell nobody, Spike ain't gonna like that." Reno warned loudly from wherever he he'd chosen to stand in the room. Cloud was too focused on his own pain to even begin to comprehend where the redhead was located.
"Cloud." Leon barked, trying to rouse Cloud back from where he had started to drift into the realms of unconsciousness. Cloud grimaced as the pain began to hit its peak. "Cloud, stay with me." Regardless of how hard Leon tried to keep Cloud awake, the blond man swayed dangerously, black liquid pooling around his arm and rapidly soaking into the bed sheets.
It was a vile, putrid scent, the epitome of death and darkness itself, overwhelming Cloud.
Suddenly, the pain stopped. It left him as fast as it had come upon him, nothing but inky stains and his thundering heart as proof that it had ever existed. Cloud trembled, feeling Leon's fingers digging into his cheeks as the man tried to coax him back into reality.
He straightened, eyes slowly rising to connect with a pair of eyes so pale of a blue that it was like looking into a sky before a storm. Leon's gaze, filled with a concern, wavered as Cloud pursed his lips and rose a hand to tug Leon's own away from his cheeks.
"I'll stay." He uttered softly, ignoring the relieved sag of Leon's shoulders in lieu of shaking excess pus from his hand. He glanced to the shut door, standing after a moment and swaying on his feet enough for Leon to hover net to him.
"I'm fine." Cloud croaked, his good arm reaching out to signal Leon to back off. The man did so, though reluctantly, as Cloud stumbled for the door, his path obviously set for the bathroom to clean himself up.
When Cloud returned, Leon was gone and Reno was sitting on the bed, running his fingers through his hair in a makeshift form of combing. Cloud shut the door, flicking the lock and instantly wrenching his sleeve off, ignoring the startled noise from Reno.
"Fuck man, that can't be healthy." Reno murmured quietly. Cloud ignored him, tossing the sleeve into a pile of dirty clothes and approaching his dresser to root through it for something suitable to wear. He was displeased to find that the only other clean article of clothing with a long sleeve was a black turtleneck that Aerith had gotten him last winter.
Withholding the sigh that wanted to escape him, Cloud began to divest himself of his gloves and then his shirt. It was difficult to ignore the appreciative whistle from Reno, but Cloud managed to do so in stride, tugging the turtleneck over his head and wincing at how snugly it fit his neck and chest. Dinner would be ready soon enough, so he discarded his boots by the dresser, keeping his socks on and shutting the drawer.
"Y'know, Spike. Me'n'Rude… we were close." Reno drawled quietly, laying back on his bed and continuing to comb his fingers through his hair. Cloud paused mid-way to the door and turned to look at the redhead, curiosity piqued.
"Loved him more'n a hot shower and a warm bed t'sleep in." Reno continued idly. "Hated him fer leavin' me, though." Cloud took a step back towards his own bed, sitting down on it, silent. "But…. I never cried before that day, 'cept when my ma left us when I was a kid." Reno rolled on his side, back to the exSoldier as he continued.
"Turks die, ain't something' new… just …never Rude, yo, never Rude. Barely had time with him, best partner a man could ask for.." Reno's voice cracked and he released a soft laugh, going silent.
Cloud frowned. "Why are you telling me this?"
Reno rolled over. "Y'gotta take yer chances, yo." The way he said this struck Cloud deeply, understanding the meaning of the redhead's words without explanation. He looked away, face heating up with embarrassment.
"Its not like that."
Reno gave a dry laugh at the blond's protest and sat up. "Spike, puppies and kittens ain't like that, you'n' tall-dark-an'-handsome? Yer like that, really like that." Reno made a connecting motion with his hands, brows wiggling suggestively. Cloud rolled his eyes, standing up.
"Its too dangerous." He made his way for the door. Reno scowled, calling out to Cloud's retreating form.
"Everyone's gonna leave you at some time, Cloud... but ya gotta take what you can, that's the life of a Turk…" He paused for a moment before adding on, "…and a Soldier."
Cloud shut the door behind himself.
"So that stigma shit, y'gonna do anythin' bout it?" Reno huffed as he dug his shovel into the ground, boot stepping on it to force it deep into the rocks. He and Cloud were sectioned off on one part of the Great Maw's tall ledge. Pairs had been split off along the entire Maw, all with shovels and picks in order to wear down the steep sides of the Great Maw so that the crane was able to reach the top to tear it the rock face down. Tifa and Leon were a good twenty feet away from Cloud and Reno, helping out some newer volunteers with their work.
Cloud didn't reply, shoveling some rocks over the ledge and into the Maw itself before repeating the process. Reno grunted, shovel digging into the ledge, chunks of dirt and rubble breaking off and falling down the rock walls. After a moment, the redhead stood back, swiping an arm across his brow with a loud sigh and turning to watch the others work.
He leaned on the pole of his shovel, obviously admiring the bent over form of Leon, who was adjusting the head of one of the volunteers' pick-axes before standing up.
"S'got a nice ass, yo." The Turk drawled, glancing back to the working blond. Cloud ignored the coil of irritation that churned in his gut, shoulders rising and falling in response to the redhead's statement. Reno sighed, looking away from Cloud to watch Tifa and Leon talking quietly to each other amidst their work.
"Looks like Tif's got some chemistry goin' on with tall-dark-and-handsome, eh?" Reno stood straight, pulling his shovel out of the ground and getting back to work with a huff. "Maybe Leon's got a thing for dark hair. I like 'em bald myself." He scooped up another load of rubble, chucking it over the ledge.
After the Geostigma incident the day before, Leon had been wary of Cloud - in the same way that Tifa had been when she had first found him- as if afraid that a single action would cause him to disappear into thin air. Cloud himself was uneasy about leaving the Garden when his stigma was so prone to having a bad reaction to his emotions or the presence of Sephiroth. It was the very same reason that he hadn't left in the middle of the night, besides having heard Reno shifting until early hours of the morning.
As it was, the Turk's words, however true or untrue, had left Cloud with more jumbled thoughts in his head than he liked to have had. With Sephiroth on his mind, Cloud didn't worry as much about how he felt towards the rest of his 'family', let alone what he thought of Leon, the stoic man who was everything that Sephiroth wasn't, yet so very much the same. Leon had made himself known to Cloud as the head of their dysfunctional household, he'd asserted himself in Cloud's life like a father, a brother, and the understanding best friend that Cloud hadn't had since Zack had died back home.
Leon had opened his home to everyone, allowing the refugees of Midgar to take solace in the Garden that had once housed all of the man's loved ones, who were either scattered across the world, or dead. To do such a thing was one of the greatest acts of kindness that Cloud had ever witnessed, and yet Leon made it so much less simple by taking the survivors and requesting their help in making the Garden a better home than it had ever been. Cloud admired Leon's integrity, as begrudging as he was to admit, and it was part of the reason that Reno's words had put a spin on Cloud's entire mental world.
"Yo, Spike, you listenin' t'me?" Cloud was pulled out of his thoughts by a hand waving in his face. Startled, Cloud took a step back, the heel of his boot teetering over the ledge. He opened his mouth to speak when the gravel beneath his feet gave way and Cloud suddenly found himself falling.
"Shit!" Reno yelled, lunging forward to grab Cloud's arm as the man disappeared over the ledge. His fingers wrapped around the cleaned black sleeve of Cloud's shirt, grabbing the blond's wrist. "I got'cha, Spike!" The Turk huffed, barely keeping himself from propelling over the edge of the Maw with him. Cloud nodded, the only thoughts in his head seeming to be how gravity was so insignificant when he worked for Hades, and that it suddenly pulled at his body like lead weights trying to drag him back into the depths of Hell itself.
"F-Fuck!" Cloud felt his shirt rip before he saw it, the sleeve tearing off as Reno's hold on his arm began to give way. He caught a glimpse of Leon and Tifa running over before the Turk lost his grip completely and Cloud dropped. The fear that suddenly grasped him was like a noose, the stigma reacting violently in turn and causing pain to take over his paralyzing fright. He hit the wall, vision fading to black before sharply focusing on the blur of his surroundings and Leon and Tifa yelling his name as he tumbled down the rocked slope. Dirt was in his eyes, nose, mouth, ears, gravel cutting open every inch of skin that it could get ahold of.
Just before he hit the bottom, Cloud couldn't help but realize that Reno's words had rung true.
He hit the ground, and then there was nothing.
"Fuck, man, m'sorry Spike, but y'gotta wake up, tall-dark-and-handsome ain't actin' right without ya." A hand pressing to his arm, shaking it, squeezing it, and then stroking it apologetically.
A warm cloth wiping over his face, down his cheek and along his neck. "Leon, his fever isn't going down, I don't know what to do." A pause, the cloth continued moving, and then a sob. "He should have told us..." A thin-fingered hand pressing against his cheek, cold against his too-hot skin.
Silence, breathing that wasn't his own, heavy and sleep-laden. A door creaking. "Leon? Dinner's ready." A chair groaning and shadows moving from somewhere beyond his closed eyes. A large hand pressed to his forehead, resting there before it left, along with the owner.
"Merlin, how is he doing?" A tingling sensation in his numb arm, heat floating over his chest and right leg. An aged sigh. "There's not much I can do with this infection on his arm. It seems to be immune to my magic." A wrinkled hand running gently along Cloud's arm, shivers of pain shooting through it.
"I'm afraid he might not make it."
"Cloud." A sob, thin arms resting over his abdomen, clutching to him. "Cloud, you have to wake up." Bracelets jingled as tears pattered against the skin of his chest - it must have been bare. Clothing shifted, the sobbing increasing as a petite hand ran along his arm, caressing the stigma as if it were glass.
"Cloud... Leon's scared, we're all scared. If you can hear me, you have to fight it." Tears pattered against his arm, generating a warm and soothing sensation.
The Postern was silent, except for the echoes of construction that came from outside the Castle Gates. Without his formerly-mandatory black sleeve, the cool wind penetrated the skin of his left arm and left a chill through the blond. He'd woken up after almost an entire week of being comatose. He'd landed more on his side than on his back, causing a break and a fracture to his left arm, along with a crack in the rib that his elbow had connected with upon hitting the ground. His leg had also landed oddly, breaking just below the kneecap. Cloud had been under a sleeping spell for a good portion of the time, though, apparently, after the second day, the spell had faded into a bad fever induced by his fluctuating stigma infection that had prevented Cloud from waking up at all.
According to Aerith, her tears had been what had removed the Geostigma from Cloud's arm. It made sense, in a way, given that the girl was the last living Ancient of their world.
He'd distanced himself after the incident, avoiding Leon's hovering presence as much as he could. It was a comforting feeling to know that the older man was worried, but at the same time it left Cloud feeling like he was a weak link in the chain of fighters that lived in their household.
Eyes falling shut, the exSoldier allowed himself to lean against the outer walls of the Postern, arms crossing as the fabric tied around his hips flapped in the early morning wind.
Footsteps crunched along the gravel pathway towards Cloud's location, too heavy to be Reno's and too strong to be Cid's. Cloud's eyes remained closed as Leon walked towards him, stopping just before the blond man.
"You should be resting."
"I'm fine." Cloud answered, dropping his arms to look up at the man. Leon stepped closer, as if hesitating with his next words.
"You almost died." He uttered, voice softening at this statement as he shifted uncomfortably in front of the younger man. Anger coiled in Cloud's gut, fused with embarrassment and what little attraction had managed to wriggle its way through. He looked away, pushing himself off of the wall and brushing past Leon.
"Stop acting like you care." He paused mid-step, memories striking him like rapid fire. "Sephiroth did that." It came out as a low murmur, barely audible above the wind and distant sounds of construction. He continued forward, heart clenching in a way that had him clenching his jaw to ignore the burn in his chest.
Leon's arm was around his bicep before Cloud could even properly react, his words snapping out of him with a sudden coil of anger. "Don't compare me to your darkness, Cloud."
Words escaped Cloud, startled at the blunt manner of Leon's statement. His eyes connected with stormy gray that searched his own for an answer Cloud wasn't sure he could give. Cloud stepped back, arm pulling out of Leon's suddenly-lax grip. He turned, walking off of the platform. His feet barely hit the gravel path when Leon shouted after him.
"Don't walk away from this!"
Cloud stopped, fingers curling into fists. Indecision, denial, guilt, all feelings that he'd suffered with for years, came back tenfold at Leon's desperate command. Shoulders sagging, Cloud rose his head regally, clamping down on the emotions that raged inside of him.
"There is nothing to walk away from." He replied curtly, heading down the beaten gravel pathway and towards the Bailey. The sound of a sword becoming unsheathed caused the man to tense in his stride, barely dodging Leon's gunblade as it shot past him, stabbing into the ground a few feet ahead of him and shaking from the sheer force. Hearing Leon approach, Cloud's arm pulled back to grab the hilt of his sword, unable to draw it much further than a few inches before Leon grabbed him and whirled him around, strong hands clutching to the blond's wrists, shaking them.
"Don't tell me you can't feel it, or are you just that indifferent?" Leon barked, his hazy eyes narrowing and lips pursing into a scowl. Cloud froze, body heating at the sheer proximity of Leon, how his breath ghosted over Cloud's mouth, his scar prominent on unhappy features. Reno's words came back to the blond, the despair in the man's voice, the encouraging way he told Cloud to take the feeling and go with it.
Cloud's eyes fell from Leon's gaze. "What if I don't want to feel it?" A barely audible murmur to the man before him. Leon caught the words, fingers tightening on Cloud's wrists and pulling the blond even closer.
"That's too bad." Cloud's head snapped up to stare at Leon, gaping. A faint smirk darted over thin lips before Cloud realized that the older man was leaning forward. Their lips connected chastely, and Cloud's breath seemed to disappear, his heart thundering in his chest madly. Leon's released his hold on the blond's wrists, one arm encircling the strong waist and pulling Cloud flush up against himself.
Cloud, hesitantly, returned the kiss, vaguely realizing that it wasn't always a bad idea to take advice from a Turk.
Commission by Mitsuru Aki
I don't like how the ending turned out. Its too rushed, but I had to make sure it was at twenty pages exactly. -sigh- oh well. drop a line and tell me what you think.