The Beast Within

Chapter One

One More Chance

"We just worry about you."

Blue eyes rose slowly from the ground he stood upon to settle on the kindly female before him. Her hands were clasped and resting in the middle of her chest, her own green eyes quavering with worry. And as they both lapsed into silence, she became more anxious. She bit her lip a little, edging closer to the man and touching his shoulder.

Cloud Strife turned his head aside, eyes averted.

"Speak to me..." The brunette woman whispered, lifting her hand shakily to stroke a blond bang of hair on Cloud's cheek. His skin felt like soft, yet so cold. But even her warm touch wouldn't make the swordsman word his thoughts. He wouldn't even look at her.

Aerith withdrew her hand slowly, keeping it halfway between his cheek and her chest for a moment, before bringing it back to its previous position. Her heart ached. For here was a man she loved, and believed her loved her in return. He never had said it, but the embraces, the kisses... Could all of what she thought they had, they shared, been a lie? No; this must be temporary…

"Please..." The brunette female pleaded, feeling her heart break. She clamped a hand over her mouth when Cloud simply turned his back on her, muttering "I need to be alone."

Aerith took a step forward to follow him, only to have someone's hand on her shoulder. She gave a soft cry and turned quickly, rushing away in the opposite direction. She knew not whose hand it was that had come to rest upon her shoulder, but knew why Cloud had said what he had. It wasn't that he needed space.

It meant what they had, or what she thought they had, was over.

--

His friends had saved from the darkness so many times. So it didn't surprise him when nobody followed him as he walked away this time. He didn't feel anything when Aerith turned away. His excuse, if he'd been bothered to give one, would have been that it was too dangerous to love a warrior, someone who could fall in battle and leave her heart broken either way. But the truth was that if she was to love him, and him love her in return, he'd probably have killed her.

The darkness in Cloud had now taken over him; taken over his thoughts and words, his actions-- Which was probably the reason why he hadn't responded when Aerith had spoken to him. Nor when she cried and ran away. He hadn't the time to follow her and explain. The darkness inside of him was growing stronger by the minute; he needed to get away as soon as possible.

It was late afternoon, and when Cloud reached the border of the town, where the gummi ships were docked, he turned on the spot, once baby blue eyes looking over the town. He pictured the faces of his friends for the last time, fearing he wouldn't be able to do so when darkness consumed him completely.

In his mind he saw Yuffie, giving him a 'peace' sign with two fingers, grinning widely. He saw Cid sat at the computer, having a smoke. He saw Tifa with her hands on her hips, leaning forwards and saying something to him, probably teasing or joking. He tilted his head sideways when he pictured beautiful Aerith standing with her flowers, offering him a warm smile. And then he saw Leon, leaning against a wall with his arms folded, inclining his head slightly in greeting.

The blond opened his eyes, frowning as he couldn't remember shutting them in the first place. A bell sounded for the beginning of the next hour of the afternoon. He took a step forward, readying to leave the town.

That was when darkness gripped him tightly, pulling him back and he choked, doubling over before jerking back, head tossed back and he gave an almighty roar. The sound rippled through the quiet of the area, the people around him freezing or backing off with terror.

He stood like a statue for a minute, fingers curled into his palms to form tight fists, head thrown back and teeth gritted, eyes clenched shut. When he thawed from his position, slowly moving back to a normal, albeit tensed, stance, he was panting softly, eyes glowing brightly.

Not the pretty blue they were before, but like liquid sapphires.

The blond swordsman gave a soft snort, whirling on the spot, checking the area as if he'd never seen it before, breathing in and out quickly like he was sniffing. It was as if his nose had become hypersensitive, he could smell everything and everyone, the scents confusing and mixed, varying from the oil of the gummi ships to the faded smell of mint chewing gum stuck to ground.

One particular smell wafted around and he turned slightly, seeing an oddly patterned, colorful path in front of him. It was as if a toddler had been let loose with paints of all colors and had ran in a certain direction, splashing the paints as they went.

Face creased in confusion, Cloud backed away, inhaling. The path was what scent that stood out amongst all the smells. He followed the path, the aroma becoming stronger as he went along.

--

"I... I just don't know what's brought all of this back." Aerith spoke quietly. She was sat down at Merlin's house, slender fingers wrapped around a warm cup of coffee. Sat next to her was Tifa, and at the table was Yuffie cleaning a shuriken, lips pursed in concentration. Leon was stood next to the computer, where Cid had swiveled around on his chair to face the brunette.

The house was warm compared to outside, where the sun was setting now and people were making their way back from work. The Restoration Committee had taken the afternoon off for some well-earned rest after rebuilding the school and fixing the pipes within it. It was supposed to be time spent thinking for themselves, relaxing and having fun.

Cloud was on all of their minds.

"I thought he'd finally done it. Defeated the darkness, that is. He seemed..."

"Oh yeah? He just keeps doing it." Yuffie let out an annoyed sigh, "What's so special about the darkness anyway, huh? I think that--"

"Shut yer trap. Y'ain't helpin' no-one with your f'ing blabber." Cid interrupted Yuffie vulgarly, drumming his fingers on the computer's keyboard. The young ninja just huffed and pouted, wiping her blades clean as the group lapsed into silence. It seemed no-one found anything wrong with it, and for a moment they were left to their own thoughts.

Even Merlin, who was by his bookshelf, was stroking his long thick beard thoughtfully. None of them had seen Cloud that day, excluding Aerith, and after the healer had told the group what had happened between them, there'd been a discussion of the reasons Cloud had turned to the darkness again.

And only one of them was losing sleep over the matter.

A low voice broke the silence and tore everyone from their thoughts, "Maybe he didn't turn to the darkness." It was Leon, and everyone's eyes settled on the gunblader as he continued, "Maybe something else is wrong." The rest of the group stared at the male in confusion.

"What do you mean, 'Maybe something else is wrong'? What else could it be...?" Tifa questioned, tilting her head slightly.

Leon said nothing. Aerith lifted her head, brunette bangs falling behind her ears, "This time was different..."

Tifa frowned, "Huh?"

"I..." Aerith stroked her rim of her mug with a delicate finger, "Well... Usually... He talks." She paused, blinking at the others' confused faces, "He tells me why he needs the darkness, or says something about Sephiroth. This time was different… he didn't even lookat me."

Yuffie snorted, "Huh?? Well… That's not enough proof to say it isn't the darkness this time." The ninja put her weapons down on the table, looking over at Aerith who just lowered her head again. Yuffie scratched the back of her head, and mumbled "Well... I don't know... I suppose..."

The brunette shook her head "Will he keep doing this? How many times will we be able to bring him back from the darkness? We have to find him before we lose him completely, there might be hope...! Gosh, what was I doing just letting him go?"

The female stood suddenly, putting the mug down and heading for the door. But before she could reach it, Leon stepped sideways, blocking her path.

"It's late." He stated.

"No, no!" Aerith exclaimed, eyes widened "There might still be hope for him, if we could just--"

"No." Leon murmured, arms folded, "I meant it's late; it's dark. We can search for Cloud tomorrow."

Aerith opened her mouth slightly in protest, but met Leon's grey eyes, seeing that she wouldn't win even if she did decide to argue. Nodding, she turned around and gathered her flowers. She then left for bed.

Tifa finished her beverage, washed through the dishes and did the same. Yuffie followed a few minutes later. The blond mechanic muttered something about the computer, stood abruptly then left too.

Only Merlin remained, sitting down with a thick, torn magic book and stroking his beard, lost within the book.

That was when Leon opened the front door, and, without a word, disappeared into the night; with only the door creaking in protest.

--

It was a dark, cool evening. Thick grey clouds in the sky threatened rain or even a storm as they shone dull silver due to the obscured moon lingering behind them. Streetlamps illuminated the town in an amber glow, and house windows were lit behind drawn curtains. There was no-one to be seen in the streets at this time in the night.

Leon was out searching for Cloud.

He didn't particularly want to. He'd much rather be at home, relaxing after a busy day's work.

His excuse was; he disliked seeing Aerith in any other state than her normal happy self. Everyone did.

Cloud was nowhere to be seen, and after around an hour of searching, Leon was starting to wonder if the blond swordsman had left the town this time. Usually the male would have been found brooding somewhere. And he wasn't at his house. It wasn't like Leon knew Cloud that much; the only words they'd ever rarely exchanged were ones of greeting and work tasks.

By then he had looked everywhere, from the Bailey to Crystal Fissure. Perhaps the blond swordsman had left town already. It wasn't like anyone could have stopped him; if his mind was set to going- nobody could have stopped him. But what concerned the brunet was the suspicion that Cloud was falling to the darkness again, or something else, he could be a danger to the people; whether it was his hometown or another town.

Hyne above, where was he? Not there, that was for certain.

Leon snorted, pinching the bridge of his nose and turning to leave for his house. It was only then that he felt a change in the atmosphere around him.

The air had gone colder, a light wind picking up that made his clothes ripple slightly against his body, feathery brunet locks swaying gently. Narrow gunmetal eyes skimmed over his surroundings warily. Suddenly he felt like he was not alone.

He whirled on the spot, hand flying to the hilt of his weapon as he did so, only to find himself nose to nose with a stranger in the darkness. It was a moment of total stillness, the mystery person's breathing warm on his lips.

He held his own breath, stiffened, before a sudden movement had him sprawled awkwardly on the floor without warning. His back felt the impact first, pain shooting up his spine and then the back of his head thudded dully against the ground. Only a quiet groan of pain left his lips, head aching slightly.

Leon inhaled sharply, blaming the fall on letting his guard down during that moment of complete standstill. This time his opponent would not be so lucky.

"… Who's there? Show yourself…!" The scarred male ordered in a growl, already getting to his feet, right hand by his hip, ready to draw his weapon when he was attacked again.

There was an eerie silence. Leon growled into it before falling silent himself. But then the silence was broken abruptly by the sound of muffled pattering, like rain falling on a window. Brow creasing in confusion, Leon held out his hand uncertainly. It wasn't raining, but it was windy.

So what in Hyne's name was that sound?

In truth, Leon didn't know. He was soon to find out though, as he saw what looked dozens of moving shadows in the distance. And as they approached, he realized they were Heartless, yellow eyes coming into view, all of them seemingly locking onto him, hungrily. In the dark it was just a swarm of glowing eyes advancing on him, quite a frightening sight. The darkness was blending with the deadly sharp claws, hiding them from view.

And with no one else around, except, perhaps, the being that had caused him to land on his back previously, it seemed the battle was all his. Casting a few buffing spells on himself and drawing his weapon, the brunet didn't have to wait long before the creatures were crawling for him, those little black claws extended, raring to rip into him. Of course, Leon was not going to let that happen.

He hacked through the Heartless with practiced ease, completely focused on his battle. A few mistakes were made, which resulted in a minor wound on his left side and a ripped leather trouser leg. He eliminated the last of the shadowy cluster with a fire spell, flames briefly illuminating the area around him as the creatures dissolved in the magick.

The fire spell was all it took to see what was beside him. And it was a male human being, silent. The flames died before he could even attempt to identify him, and before he could begin to cast another fire spell to do so, the sparks were extinguished and his hand was left soaking wet.

The unfamiliar person had used a water spell.

Leon growled again, lunging blindly at the male, grabbing a handful of the man's shirt and latching onto the male even as he began to move away. Leon dragged the male with him as he began to look for the nearest light of the streets. But before he could go any further he was pulled to the floor by the retaliating mystery man. Bringing the stranger with him, Leon landed with a thud, rolling them over so he was in control, grabbing the collar of the man's… vest?

Using a fire spell, Leon held the flames in his hand, placing it threateningly at the stranger's throat. His eyes narrowed further when he found out who the male was.

It wasCloud.

Leon merely snorted. He should have expected this; after all, he'd found what he'd been searching for. He was restless now and would have much preferred to have been at home instead of chasing after the bastard blond.

"You sent those Heartless, didn't you." He stated rather than questioned. When the blond remained silent, Leon sighed, standing and pulling the man to his feet too, shoving him. "You've gone back to what we've pulled you from again and again. Why do you do it?"

No answer.

He didn't really expect one either. He guessed he'd never understand why the male gave in. Was he doing it for attention or something? What could be so appealing about the darkness that it made him want to turn to away from his friends, betray them, and hurt them?

"We can't chase after you forever, Cloud." He stated matter-of-factly, keeping his blade drawn and ready to strike back if and when he was attacked again, "Just tell me why." He muttered to the blond, keeping the spell on his hand active, watching as the blond simply stared past him instead of at him, blue eyes vacant. Was he being ignored, or could the blond simply not hear him?

But then, the blond spoke, in a low, dark voice. If it had been any quieter, Leon wouldn't have known it was him.

"Only the lion would be pleased."

Leon frowned. What was that supposed to mean? It was completely irrelevant to anything he'd just said to the swordsman. What lion? And why would it be pleased?

It was a random thing to come out with if anything and the brunet just grunted, "Whatever. It's clear you have no idea what you're saying. If I didn't know any better; I'd be calling you a lost cause." There is hope. They have faith in you.

Cloud merely laughed; whether or not he had understood what the male had just said was unclear.

What mattered was that he brought the not-quite-sane man back to Merlin's house; where he and the others could decide what they'd do to help him. Even though, quite frankly, Leon was getting fed up of Cloud selfishly turning his back on everyone and switching to the dark side every five Hyne-damned minutes; he was prepared to go out of his way to help the blond. Because he knew he would, by doing so, be helping the others.

If only Leon had known Cloud and not the others, he'd already have left the man to whatever the darkness had for him. It was his friends that he was looking out for, not the blond.

He simply didn't understand what was so great about the darkness that made him betray his friends- the ones who had pulled him out of said darkness every time. Perhaps the blond couldn't help it, and the male had forever been searching for his light. Cloud was a warrior, not a weakling.

And they had all been certain it was the last time Cloud would go back, that he would stay with his light, his friends, forever.

Leon turned to the man, looking over him studiously. The blond was staring past him again. Taking a step forward, the brunet took a moment to look at the other. Cloud's clothes were rumpled and quite dirty, like he hadn't changed them for a few days. His hair looked like he'd dragged his fingers through it hundreds of times, the usually neat soft spikes looking quite unkempt. His eyes were blank, skin pale. He looked like a completely different man.

"The lion's roar and the wolf's howl is the perfect symphony of portraying their domination. May the victory be theirs."

Leon saw Cloud's lips move slightly, but otherwise, if his back had been turned, he wouldn't have known it was the blond. The voice in which he'd spoken had been a low growl. The brunet gave a snort, inwardly noting he'd have to get used to these random comments Cloud made. He had to remind himself that Cloud wasn't in the right frame of mind, and anything he did say was not of importance.

"Alright, let's go." The brunet muttered, taking Cloud's arm, twisting it behind him and muttering a quick binding spell. He was exhausted and in dire need of a hot bath, a meal and then a good night's sleep. He pushed the man forward, and was relieved when Cloud's feet began to move; glad he didn't have to drag the man there.

He'd been up half the night searching for him for Hyne's sake.

Having instantly forgotten what Cloud had said previously, the journey back was silent and easy. Cloud went without a word, moving a little sluggishly which was probably due to lack of sleep and Leon knew the feeling, eyelids drooping slightly. Leon kept his hands on the male constantly, in case he suddenly decided to bolt, and so couldn't see what expression Cloud had on his face if any.

Pushing open the door to Merlin's house, he sat Cloud down and addressed the wizard with, "Hope I wasn't gone long."

The elder just gave a hearty laugh, shaking his head and waving a hand dismissively, "No, no. Not at all…" He paused, "How is he?" As if he already knew Cloud wouldn't be able to speak for himself. That or he didn't want to talk to the darkness-riddled blond.

Leon gave a grunt, leaning heavily on the table. "He's fine. No wounds to speak of, only… He doesn't talk too much and when he does speak, it's just nonsense. And that's all." The gunblader stood up straight, back clicking as he did so.

He brushed brunet bangs aside and murmured another binding spell, keeping Cloud to the sofa. "That should hold for the rest of what's left of the night." He spoke, mostly to himself, and then added a 'good night' to Merlin before retiring to his own room back at the castle.

The scarred male was confident that the spells would hold out for the rest of the night, and as he climbed into bed after a quick meal- he erased Cloud and his words from his thoughts, turned over, flicked off the lights, shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

--

What in the worlds were they doing? Teeth grinding together in frustration, the bound male struggled for freedom. He actually could not leave the couch, like he was magically glued to the worn old thing.

Sneering, he curled up slightly. The room smelt of many things. Previously cooked food and old books were the ones that stuck out from the rest of the scents. Bright eyes took in his surroundings. It was dark now, and only the old magician was awake and sat some distance from him. He wouldn't waste words on him, though.

What were they planning to do with him? Eyes flickered in the limited light. He could hear movement- but thought nothing of it. The blond supposed he could wait- bide his time even. It made no difference to him; he had all the time in the worlds. He had all the time in the worlds to wait for his lion.

That was all that he wanted. His lion was a being of true pride and loyalty- not to mention power.

Cloud was practically tingling with excitement at the mere thought, liquid sapphire eyes shining at the prospect of joining his lion. It's what this new being always longed for; something deep inside him feeling a void and pushing forwards to be let loose to fill it. And here he was, letting it loose whilst being magically bound to an aging couch.

As one could see, Cloud's plans were going very well.

Growling with impatience, Cloud knelt on the sofa and listened intently. He wished to be roaming the streets, wanting to find his lion- be reunited with his lion after all this time.

He was a wolf.

He was also becoming impatient, raking his nails down the side of the sofa- clawing slowly out of sheer boredom. It made a terrible noise, and he peered at the elderly magician across the room, waiting for a reaction- Anything to ease the boredom. But the dull wizard just turned the page of his worn book. Cloud gave a snort, lying down.

Lion will be here soon… He will… They can't keep me here forever…

--

Quite a beautiful day in Radiant Garden, it was. The sun was shining brighter than it ever had and children were laughing and rushing to their newly restored school- unable to contain their excitement at seeing the rebuilt building for the first time in a year.

Leon was up early. He had shadowed eyes and his shoulders drooped. He wasn't as bad as he'd been in the past- working overnight; hardly paying attention to anything anyone was saying and falling asleep over cups of coffee in his breaks the next day. He could cope. At least he'd had a few hours sleep, anyway.

With a soft groan, he opened the front door. A new day, more work. But first he had something else to take care of.

Cloud.