In Shadow

Words: 9970
Pairing(s): Cloud/Leon
Notes: Porn and old Kingdom Hearts (not KH2) WIP after 2 or so years. What the fuck.
Summary: There was a man who bore the mask of a monster so that he could live another day, fight another fight. And then he lost.
Warnings: Porn! Teeny bit of gore!
Rated: NC-17


i.

Cloud's eyes were cold, but breathtaking.

His eyes were as expressionless as his face, but they held a strange quality, a kind of quiet anger that kept you wary of making any sudden movements. Leon couldn't look away, stunned by how impassive Cloud seemed, but the sneer shot his way quickly erased all doubts he had concerning the man.

No matter how weak he may have been perceived to be, only a fool would think him so. He was the strongest there was. Leon found out first hand – knew from the domineering sneer, the eloquent trash talk and the incapacitating blows he suffered in the ring that he would never win against such a strong man. He would never win against his experience, his skills, his mental strength, but most importantly, Leon would never win against his hatred.

Cloud never fought outside the ring. He was bound to Hades, and the terms of his contract explicitly stated that he was not allowed to raise a fist against another contestant, against another person, unless it was during training time or for the purpose of honing his abilities. However, his opponents, beaten in the ring, had pride. Ego. They disliked his cold conceit. They wanted retribution for the shame they suffered in front of a crowd of hundreds.

In the shadow of the Coliseum, between sparring sessions, they would surround him, taking him down altogether, but never once would Cloud flinch. He was like a lissom leaf, floating calmly with the movements of each punch, each strike, each kick, never dodging, never reacting. He always fell down. Until they wrenched him to his feet, he stayed down. Cloud never once broke character, focusing instead on memorising their faces through a dull, unwavering stare.

When they were done, they were never satisfied. He was never a gratifying target because he never responded. They would stand over him, panting, breathing heavily, looking down at him with unspent adrenaline, trying to feel superior because they were looking down at him – because he was bloody, and they were not.

But Cloud, Cloud would raise his head from where he lay limp, looking up at them to meet their angry eyes and they would suddenly be aware of that rage, the rage that had always burned on inside him, the rage that was secretly threatening to tear out of him and to rip right through each of them all the way to the river Styx. His gaze was so overpoweringly hateful that it almost seemed as though his eyes were homing in squarely with each and every one of theirs, all at once, even if he wasn't actually able to see anything through his watery stare; just content on being triumphant with his arrogance.

Then his lips parted, a feral grin on his face, that of a predator. It was a look of promise.

Before the thugs could respond, could use that haughtiness as another catalyst for his torture, they would feel a shiver ripple up and down their spine. And then they would know. They would know. They would dread the upcoming battle. They would try everything; from feigning injury, to attempted escapes, even to suicide – anything to avoid facing him in the ring. But Hades was a cruel God. He had his ways, and whatever he did, he did solely in pursuit of his sadistic lusts.

Cloud left none of them alive.

Leon had heard the stories, he knew all the foibles; Cloud was semideus, Cloud was an extension of Celaeno and Eris, Cloud was a God Killer… really ingenious stuff. There were hushed words about his wing, about his similarities to the Heartless, about his callousness and cruelty. And then, there were the high flung stories about his supposedly genocidal actions, that he had wiped out an entire country at a simple command. They whispered about rape and murder and plunder and sadism, and they attributed it all to Cloud Strife. It was hard not to associate any of those rumours with Cloud, but to Leon, even if he sometimes could not help but feel them true, they were just that: rumours.

Leon never indulged in trash talk – it was a waste of time, a show of amateurism. He ascribed it to weaklings, those who relied on that kind of verbal distraction to gain an upper hand in battle. When he had first become a Coliseum participant, he had always reminded himself to be wary of Cloud. He tried his best never to underestimate the man, even if he knew that that was his aim. He knew that Cloud was a mercenary – life and death was a business to him – and that, unlike Leon, who participated for leisure, Cloud relied on the tournaments to stay alive a few more days. He did not doubt that Cloud could kill, he never doubted it, but when he witnessed it for the first time with his own eyes, the disgust that clawed at his throat merely reaffirmed in his mind that Cloud was not one to be crossed.

Cloud spared no one in his quest for survival.

However, when Leon stepped into the ring against Cloud for the first time – he was nervous, a little scared, but he held firm, had to be strong, show no weakness – Cloud had trash talked. For that one vital moment, Leon's vigilance wavered. Trash talk was for the weak. He had felt himself foolish for his nerves, and confidence returned to him.

And then he had lost.

It had been harrowing and terribly humiliating. He was glad for the mediocrity of the tournament, glad to be out of the dusty ring as he tried to limp away in a dignified manner, glad to have escaped with his life. Those lips were hidden behind the thick mantle, but Leon could feel those eyes taunting him, gaze piercing him from behind. He was being dared, being challenged, and he nearly gave in to his wounded pride but there were too many aches in his body and that kept him at bay.

Days passed him by as those wounds healed and newer bruises began to scar his torso. He fought and fell and stood up again, winning battles and losing fights. His Coliseum days were a pleasant buzz, like the drunken haze of too much beer, and he relished the exercise sparring provided. His movements became smoother, stamina more impressive. And in between, he would find himself watching quietly whenever Cloud fought in the ring.

There was such a great divide between them. Leon wondered how much training he would have to force himself through for him to ever be almost as strong as Cloud. He knew that there was a great deal of Darkness within the warrior that contributed to his inhumane strength, but he also knew that Darkness had nothing to do with Cloud's sheer skill. Cloud could read the movements of any opponent accurately, his experience in battle almost as illustrious as the scars Leon had glimpsed on his body. He was cold and cruel when he delivered his blows, taking out his odium on the hapless fighter opposite himself.

Mercy... in Cloud, there was none.

But that, Leon supposed, was what distinguished them. Leon still retained his compassion, whereas Cloud had been cheated of his. 'Forever walking alone' – Leon never wanted to be like that again… and he wondered if Cloud had ever been given the chance to experience real camaraderie. Trust. Friendship.

The answer was, 'no'.


Another day, another thrashing from scorned combatants, another savage smile; Cloud was on the ground, bleeding much, much more than he was usually made to. His red mantle hid a great deal of it, but there were stains all around him in the dusty stone floor. A pool of crimson was gathering by his thigh where he had forced himself upright. His breathing was harsh and short, painfully abrupt; they had done some damage to his ribs.

Cloud was half-thinking about what he was going to do to his assailants when they met in battle, and half-thinking about what the hell he was supposed to do with himself in his current condition. He raised a hand to rake back his overgrown bangs and only barely realized how it trembled from strain and swelling, a sharp hiss leaving his lips. That hand fell uselessly to his side, and the impact caused him to bite his tongue to keep from making any sounds.

Muffled steps stirred the dust. A pair of feet stood before him. Cloud looked up lazily, contempt in his eyes. As recognition came slowly, his lips pulled into a sneer.

Black Leather.

He remembered this one. He was one of the better fighters Cloud had been made to face, in terms of both skill as well as conduct. It had been a welcome change from all the rabble and Heartless he had wasted his breath on. Black Leather, he had given Cloud a nice workout, a good leg-stretching. If he had to be completely honest with himself, Cloud had actually looked forward somewhat to seeing Black Leather back in the ring, better prepared to lose whilst still providing a little challenge before going down.

The strange thing was that Black Leather… didn't actually come back. Which was strange in that… they always came back. Always. They came back unsatisfied with the outcome, irritated by Cloud's seeming nonchalance in battle. Which was, truly, understandable; Cloud never exerted much effort when it came to Coliseum skirmishes, and that infuriated his opponents to no ends.

Of course, you had to get fighters like Black Leather once in a while; the ones who were all about honour and integrity and being a good sport. It was… refreshing, to say the least.

However, Cloud never spared anyone his optimism. So when he saw Black Leather towering above him with that lukewarm expression on his face, that sneer turned bitter and he bared his teeth a little in an unsmiling grin. He was going to get beaten up a bit more. In retrospect, it was hardly surprising at all.

That was why, when Black Leather grasped his arm and tried to pull him up to his feet, Cloud's cold stare bored defiantly into his eyes. Black Leather's gaze swept briefly over Cloud before it settled on his bruised face, the man's lips pressing together primly. Black Leather let go of Cloud's arm, lowering himself into a squatting position at eye level with the rumpled mercenary.

Cloud raised his brows as Black Leather's eyes started to rove, that frown deepening with every gash and rip. Cloud didn't like the attention, but he couldn't very well move. Hell, even breathing was a chore. In fact, Cloud's lips were slightly parted, trying his best to breathe easy without appearing as though his ribs had been crunched into his lungs. Which they had been. Go figure.

Cloud blinked once, twice when Leon dropped himself gently onto his knees and leant forward, not a flicker of discomfort on his face as he began to coolly, systematically undo the front portion of Cloud's clothing.

He let out a squawk of indignant protest, about to shove the brunet off when the warmth of a leather glove pressed down on his abdomen, softly at first, and then hard, and his body writhed violently in response, gasping at the jolt of pain where contact had been made with a particularly deep wound. Cloud's eyes narrowed dangerously at Black Leather as he bit on his lower lip, fingers twitching, ready to fuck his shit up when he heard the snap of a leather strap being pulled out of its buckle. Dry air slithered over his exposed body and he glared at the man, daring him to go further.

… and it was duly ignored by Black Leather. Cloud hated to admit that this man was impressing him more and more as things moved along.

Actual sexual molestation. This was a first – from a Coliseum fighter, of course. And while Cloud relished some variation now and again in his assaults, he wasn't quite keen on rape when he was already quite so busted up. He didn't think that the extra damage would serve him too well when he fought in the ring tomorrow. Never mind rape, he didn't think he could fight well at all tomorrow, period. Not with these injuries. He winced as he felt his trousers being yanked down over some harsher injuries on his hips and blinked once again when he realized that that was as far as it had gone.

Those hands withdrew and Cloud looked up with a frown as he saw Black Leather rummaging in a leather bag at his side. 'Condoms?' Cloud wondered bitterly, almost snorting at the thought when the man turned to face him again, this time with a few bottles in hands. Potions. Hi-potions.

… what.

This was ridiculous.

The whole situation was just unbelievable. Cloud spent the next few minutes staring dumbly after Black Leather, not reacting much as the man began to slowly patch him up.

He stared even more so when Black Leather met his gaze wordlessly for a single moment and then walked away.


ii.

"Hey, hey! Leon! C'mere! You want a beef in the Hades Cup or what?"

Leon rolled his eyes, "Sure, Phil."

"Okay then, okay. Your little gal pal there registered by herself so you gotta partner up or no go, know what m'sayin'? 'Course ya do, you're one smart cookie."

"No, I don't," Leon frowned at the teenager by his side. She hadn't informed him that she wanted to fight alone… not that he minded, of course.

"Do I hafta spell it out for youse?!" Phil narrowed his beady eyes at the man. "Three words! Superfluous participation!"

"That's two words, you silly goat," Yuffie giggled. Leon was surprised that she knew 'superfluous' was one word. Phil ignored her.

"We're over by eight matches! If you wanna do some fighting then you either partner up with another guy, or you come back next week!"

"I'll come back next week, then."

"Fine! Beat it, kid! I got work to do!" The satyr yelled for another participant.

"Come on, Leon, don't tell me you wanna wait until next week to get seeded!" Yuffie looked up at him, attempting persuasion. Leon's arms were crossed. He shrugged, "No hurry."

"You're a killjoy, that's what you are," she pouted, copying his pose. "There's no harm in asking a registered Cup fighter if you want to fight with. Who knows, maybe you'll make a new friend."

Leon snorted, "Highly unlikely."

"Aww, come on! You never know!"

Leon raised his eyebrows at her statement and gracefully retreated to the practice arena. The passages echoed quietly with his footsteps, twisting and winding deeper into the Coliseum where sunlight could not reach, air cold, stones colder. The pitch black corridors were barely illuminated by wall-mounted torches, pungent with the mingled scents of sweat and oil and sand. His steps slowed instinctually as he heard voices, head raised to find the people speaking. He approached an archway that led to dim room, catching glimpse of blue fire. Without meaning to, Leon did not step past the column flanking the entrance, standing still instead, listening.

"So Jerkules is gonna be entering the Hades Cup, and you, pretty boy, with your current condition, I'm gonna say you're not in any condition to be fighting on your own, am I right or am I right?" False cheer and a machine gun mouth. It was Hades for sure.

He heard a muffled response but couldn't make out what was said, or who the voice belonged to. Hades, however, was very clear, reply quick as ever.

"Yeah, and whose fault was that? See this contract here…" There was the sound of parchment being conjured. "… gives you absolutely no leeway in terms of injuries, comprende? You see anything in here that looks like holiday plan? Off-duty, you take care of yourself like a big boy. Or else…"

Leon saw a blue hand outstretching in the slim view of the room that he had. It curled tightly, abruptly into a fist. What followed was a strangled cry, suffocated breathing, the sound of thrashing against the stone floor.

"…you get what m'sayin'? You have no business backing out of the tournament, pretty boy. You're fighting. I don't care if it means pitting you with an entire stadium of Heartless, you're fighting! You hear me? You're fighting!"

The last word was shouted and the room glowed with a sudden burst of orange, flames licking into air quickly, shooting through the archway and charring the stone wall opposite it. Leon had carefully staggered back at Hades' outburst, narrowly missing a scorching. He had been taken totally by surprise and froze in place, counting the seconds ticking away before he heard the crackle of flames and swishing mantle that marked the god's exit. Taking his time, he stood still, wanting to go by undetected. He controlled his breathing, listening and matching the harsh pants of the room's occupant, trying to hide his presence and retreat slowly.

Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of him. Considering the conversation that had just taken place, Leon could only surmise that whoever was in the room was working directly under Hades against Hercules, and by extension, Sora. If it was someone else… the identity of whomsoever was in the room was vital to their efforts. After what he deemed an acceptable period of elapsed time, Leon slowly poked his head in, eyes widened in surprise at the sight that greeted him.

Cloud, crumpled on the floor, drenched in sweat and clawing at his back where his wing sprouted and was trembling in the air stiffly, like it was broken. The base of the wing was a mess of arteries and veins that transformed the skin from a human smoothness into a black, ragged, leathery appendage. There was something oozing out, like blood but with a rotting kind of pungency, with a blacker kind of colour. He had ripped his shirt off and it lay in a corner of the room, shredded beyond repair.

Leon flinched as Cloud's entire body, wing and all, convulsed, so caught up in his discovery that he had forgotten to do any more than stare. Snapped out of his trance, Leon immediately strode in and kneeled down by Cloud, a hand on his shoulder, asking what was wrong before Cloud shuddered, grabbing Leon's wrist and desperately pressing it against his wing, causing it to twitch painfully at the contact.

"Drain it out, drain it out," he gasped, his own reddened fingers already digging into skin and scratching out pus and blood and bits of flesh from underneath his nails. Alarmed, Leon smacked Cloud's hand away.

"Drain it out," the blond persisted, about to reach again for the wing when Leon quickly took control of the situation and began to wipe as much of it away and off Cloud's body as quickly as he could, glad for the thickness of his own leather gloves. From what he could infer, the pus was burning into Cloud somehow. Everywhere it touched, the skin was a violent red, temperature almost scalding. Cloud's fingers were bleeding, skin broken from the prolonged contact with the pus.

His efforts weren't enough, though. He heard Cloud telling him to drain it out yet again, and the only thing that came to mind was to squeeze it out. He pressed his palms flat on the tense expanse of skin and flesh along both sides of the wing and brought them together as tightly as possible, alarmed at the sudden influx of pus and the violent spasm wracking through Cloud. He faltered.

"Don't stop, don't stop, until blood comes out, keep-" Cloud's voice broke and he shook, clawing against the cold stone floor, refusing to let himself scream. Leon staunchly obeyed, continuing to squeeze as much as possible out until the utter blackness that dripped along Cloud's reddening skin began to thin out and brighten into a more familiar crimson. Letting out a long breath, Leon wiped everything off of Cloud's back with his hand, disgusted at the smell. He removed his gloves and tossed them aside, hesitating before touching a smear of black against Cloud's skin. The muscle underneath his touch tensed automatically in response even though the man himself was lying prone on the floor, panting from the exertion, having experienced too much pain to react to that single point of contact. Oddly enough, Leon himself felt nothing. The pus did nothing to him. He could see the redness swell on Cloud's skin, but his own was unaffected.

Wordlessly, Leon stood up and surveyed the room until he found a stray towel. It was near Cloud's sword and gear, and he helped himself to the man's potions, drenching the towel in it and using it to clean Cloud's back. He watched the self-inflicted wounds knit and mend under the blue sheen of the potion with a hiss, pressing the towel specifically against the gash in Cloud's back that had been the source of the pus.

Leon's eyes moved from the bruised body and scalded skin to Cloud's face. Eyes closed, lips parted, sweat rolling down from damp blond spikes and brows that were no longer furrowed in pain, he could see that the man was relieved, calmer. He silently continued the treatment until the wounds closed.

Without much more to do, and to be honest Leon was well aware that Cloud was the sort of man who refused to be anything but independent, Leon lingered for a moment, unsure of whether he should stay or leave.

"Will you be all right?" A direct approach was best.

Cloud let out a breathless chuckle, barely moving beyond the wheezes that were beginning to spread out evenly and make his chest heave less.

"And you care why?"

Leon almost expected that reply, eyes narrowing but replying in an even tone, "It's human decency."

He heard Cloud echo his reply with a snort, reaching out but stopping himself from helping as the man began to shakily raise himself up into a sitting position. Cloud stared straight ahead at nothing in particular, the furrow returning to his eyebrows as he seemed to focus on keeping the pain at bay. After a minute, Cloud finally spoke.

"I suppose I should thank you."

"That would be polite."

"Fine. Thank you."

It wasn't particularly earnest nor was it mocking. He wouldn't call it half-hearted either. He attributed the lack of a clear cut tone to the fact that Cloud was still in pain. Instead, Leon gave him a look.

"…you're welcome."

Leon didn't move, eyes wandering from the man to his oversized sword, resting against the wall. He remembered being smacked around a lot by that thing. He really wanted a rematch but it was obvious that it was out of the question. He was pulled out of his reverie when movement occurred in the corner of his eyes. Cloud was standing up shakily.

"You fighting?"

"Yes."

Leon frowned. "That's not a good idea."

"Antagonising me is a not a good idea, but you're doing it anyway."

"Well that's," Leon halted briefly, mid-argument, telling himself to get his mood under control. Cloud did this. It was just what he did. He couldn't fall prey to it. "That's something entirely different. I could choose not to do it. And even if I did it, I know how to take care of myself."

"Everything you just said, but applied to me." Cloud replied tonelessly. Leon was about to continue arguing but stopped when Cloud exhaled sharply, turning to meet Leon's eye. "I've already thanked you for your help. Your involvement is over. Now clear out, Black Leather. I need to prepare for my match."

Leon glared but reluctantly did as he was told, the blond not bothering to spare him a second glance. The corridors echoed with rapid pattering meanwhile, and as Leon neared the doorway, Phil appeared, nearly smacking into his legs.

"Cryin' out loud, Leon! Watch where yer goin'!"

Leon rolled his eyes, ignoring the satyr's little outburst.

"How'd reshuffling your roster go?"

"Dandy," Phil replied immediately, somewhat distracted. "You still ain't got a place. Sure you don't wanna team up with Perky McFistypumps? Youse was a team last time."

"I'm sure, Phil," Leon said as evenly as he could, trying not to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I would rather never repeat the experience."

"Eh, your loss. Anyway, beat it, kid. I got bigger fish to fry."

"Going," Leon side-stepped around the satyr and walked off, trails of conversation echoing the walls as he made his way out.

"You're in luck, Cloud. Our participant lost early so your match's been cancelled—"


Leon returned to the Coliseum, sporting a subtle but lighter gait. He'd been practicing over the course of time since his last visit to work off the tension that Cloud had caused in him, trying to keep his mind away from those bleeding fingers and powerful stare. He was drawn to him now that they had spoken, feeling strange that a man who looked so cold could sound so very ordinary. It was almost as if Cloud had defied some sort of otherworldly expectations that Leon had attributed to him, as if Leon had been anticipating a resounding baritone or angelic aria to leave his lips rather than the deep voice of a twenty-something-year-old. He supposed the way Cloud carried himself had a lot to do with it. He couldn't help but wonder if Cloud ever fought again since the incident with Hades, if he was still broken and mending, or if he'd been killed outside the ring. Leon knew the man would survive. It was in his blood. Leon, at least, was eager to see him fight in the ring again.

For now, his nimble steps were for the fact that Phil had managed to give him a place to fight in the Hades Cup. Granted, he'd had to sit through an earful of bitching and moaning before it came to that, but the payoff was certainly well worth it. He was looking forward to fighting, sure that Sora would turn up just as soon as the Cup itself was announced as being underway.

The Coliseum lobby was a welcome sight after the endless patrols and skirmishes of Traverse Town. Phil was, as expected, at the entrance of the arena, clipboard in hand. He looked up as Leon approached.

"Kid! There you are! Sheesh, and here I was sweatin' bullets!"

"What is it, Phil?" Leon asked, casually leaning against his sword.

"'Bout time you showed up is what! I know y'ain't fightin' immediately but I need you to prep a few hours ahead'a time."

"What for?"

"Eh, let's just say for this Cup, y'gotta be on y'toes always. Never know when you're gonna get challenged. Anyway, s'good time as any to introduce you to your partner. He'll be here in a—"

"Wait," Leon narrowed his eyes, halting conversation. "Partner? You didn't mention anything about a partner when you told me I got in."

"Hey, hey, hey! Don't go trying to burn a hole in my head. I'm just doing my job here! You wanted a place in the Cup and I had a spot open."

"Yeah, but I meant alone."

"No offence, kid," Phil snorted, tucking the clipboard under a fat arm and raising his palms. "But y'ain't exactly big shit, know what I'm saying? Consider yourself lucky you even seeded so high. You actually brought down your partner's rank a little. If he didn't specifically ask for you, you can kiss the Hades Cup goodbye."

Leon scowled at that. He knew he had to remember to keep humble, but to be told so bluntly that he'd been pitted with a far superior fighter and had actually brought the man's rank down was a punch in the gut that he'd been hoping to circumvent altogether. However, something else caught his attention: he'd been requested by a fighter who was better than him.

Footsteps interrupted his attempted enquiry.

"Phil. Black Leather."

"Cloud! About damn time, too. This here's your partner. Leon, this is Cloud Strife. You know who he is, be grateful you're even fighting together considering what happened to you last time. Cloud, you don't forget what I told you, got it?"

Cloud raised his eyebrows wordlessly in response.

"Good," Phil replied, satisfied. "Now don't go breaking anything else or Hades is gonna turn me into rump roast."

The satyr tottered off in the direction of the arena, leaving both men alone.

They said nothing, Leon watching Cloud warily and Cloud waiting for him to say something. When it was clear that Leon was hesitating, he shook his head and turned around.

"Come on," were the only words Cloud said.

It broke the ice, in a sense. Leon usually felt a little indignant at being ordered around, but with Cloud, it was different. He felt different.

"Why did you ask me to be your partner?" Leon finally asked, moving in step beside the blond.

Cloud let out a slight huff of air, having anticipated the question but not enjoying having to answer at all.

"You're different. It interested me. I also like the way you fight."

Leon shot him a dubious look.

"You don't strike me as the type to fight with a partner."

"I'm sure I don't strike you as many things. Warm up, we're sparring."

With that, Cloud broke away to set his gear down and to stretch his muscles. Leon lingered a little before doing the same, but all the while, he could not help but wonder about what an odd character he was fighting with. He certainly defied appearance as well as expectation, but Leon was still unconvinced that Cloud picked him to be his partner simply because Leon 'interested' him, whatever that meant.

By the time Leon had holstered some potions at his belt, Cloud was ready to fight in the middle of the practice arena, having swung his enormous blade with practiced fluidity enough times to get his muscles working. Leon walked towards the centre, opposite Cloud, not yet in a battle-ready stance.

"You wouldn't fight together with me under normal circumstances," he accused.

"I wouldn't," Cloud agreed easily, confirming some suspicions and making Leon frustrated beyond belief. "But it so happens that the circumstances weren't normal and you were the first person I thought was good enough to cover my back."

"Well that's an honour," Leon replied dryly, finally readying his sword.

Cloud didn't even blink.

"Don't disappoint me."


It went without saying that Cloud beat Leon up severely.

He continued to do so several times after, but Leon began to get into his fighting routine and learnt how to dance around Cloud's incredibly swift footwork. He began to get the upper edge in a few aspects, prolonging their spars slowly from several minutes to drawn out hours of battle, privately proud that Cloud Strife, renowned warrior of the Coliseum, was sweating profusely and evading successions of slashes at Leon's behest. Leon could never beat Cloud at raw strength, but he was catching up in terms of stamina at the very least. Loath as he was to admit it, he could easily get used to the idea of being Cloud's partner.

"All right, stop."

Leon halted, sword raised and ready to strike, chest heaving, hair and clothes sticking to his skin from the sheer sweat. Under the sweltering heat and the strenuous fights, Leon had given into the adrenaline to keep himself from collapsing. He was more than happy to take a break, hard worker though he was.

"You know," Leon said between pants, letting his swordarm fall to his side. "You're pretty bossy for someone younger than me."

Cloud placed his sword on the ground and leant it against the wall, less uncomfortable than Leon, but worn just the same.

"Do you only talk to me because I speak less than you?"

"What makes you so sure this isn't how I am normally?" Leon retorted.

Cloud raised his eyebrows in response. Leon and Cloud both knew that he wasn't, but Leon wouldn't back down all the same. His pride was almost stubborn.

"Why me?"

"I told you why," Cloud replied easily, sitting down on the ground and rummaging for a vial of ether to replenish his magic energy. "You're different and I like the way you fight."

"That's not what I," Leon didn't finish his sentence, keeping his exasperation in check. "Why even bother?"

"Why do you ask so many questions?" Cloud grumbled in response.

"I just…" Leon flushed subtly this time, aware that he wasn't acting himself. But he was also fully aware that breaking character was completely justified whenever he was around Cloud. It just was. Cloud was different, strong. Cloud was his ambition, so to speak. He couldn't help wanting to know about him, especially since he never volunteered information about himself. Leon was also vaguely aware of how hypocritical that attitude was.

"I want a fresh start."

"What?"

Cloud glanced at him, and for the first time, Leon saw something almost kind on his face. Cloud lowered his gaze to the ground shortly after, sighing faintly.

"I want a clean slate. To do that I must fight. That means I have to do all sorts of different things. I was too injured to fight alone, so I had to be partnered. A partnership isn't normal for me. It's something different." He looked up at Leon again. "But it's worked out so far. Satisfied?"

Leon nodded mutely, caught off-guard. Cloud resumed wrapping the bandages around his blade, sighing again after the silence that bridged the gap between them lingered.

"You're not done, are you?"

"I guess… I didn't expect you to answer my questions so easily."

"You assume too much," Cloud replied simply.

"You don't seem to assume at all."

"That's because I don't."

Leon's expression fell subtly. It meant that Cloud wasn't as interested in him personally as Leon was. It irritated him to know that Cloud didn't think even a little highly of Leon. He didn't know why he felt so scandalised at the fact, but he did all the same. He didn't like this one-sided feeling. He hated the fact he even felt it more.

"So there is nothing you want to know?" Leon persisted quietly.

"I'm not a curious man."

Cloud looked up at Leon pointedly, knowing that he was beating around the bush. He decided to address the issue before it disrupted either of their performances. The Cup drew near and Cloud couldn't afford Leon to be too preoccupied with something that wasn't worth beating himself over for.

"I trust a man as much as he puts trust in me. I find that that's enough."

Cloud picked his sword up and pocketed the gloves he had taken off. He glanced back at Leon briefly and gestured lightly towards the baths.

"Take off earlier. You're distracted. I need a break."

Leon nodded, a little disappointed that the sparring had drawn to a close, but more than grateful to rest his aching body. In a sense, he could understand why Cloud was acting the way he did. They weren't friends, but they were partners. They had to know each other well enough to be able to rely on each other in battle; this meant allowing the other man in to an extent that could almost be considered intimate, but there would always be a boundary that neither of them could cross. Cloud was humouring Leon because he knew it would make Leon trust him. Leon trusting him meant both of them would fight flawlessly, able to play off each other's strengths and cover their weaknesses. This was all for the sake of battle. Cloud knew instinctively as a fighter how to rely on others if need be, but what he needed was for other people to rely on him too.

Leon reminded himself that their trust was artificial, that the partnership didn't extend beyond the Hades Cup.

That would be dangerous ground.


iii.

They had been together for so long now that Leon had forgotten who Cloud had been before then.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Five pairs of eyes swivelled up to meet his narrowed ones, four of them apprehensive and shocked, one of them impassive. He approached sharply, body tense and expression dark. A man who'd had his fist in Cloud's hair immediately relinquished his grip and shuffled to hide behind another man. There was a murmur, a mention of Leon's name. Cloud may hold himself back, but they were never sure when it came to Leon. And with Leon's presence, it could even incite Cloud to act.

"If you know what's good for you, you won't even look at him or me ever again."

They tripped over each other as they scattered, and Leon sighed, massaging his temple, feeling a stab of anger threaten to overtake him. He squatted by Cloud, scowling, privately relieved that he had come before they'd done any real damage.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Nothing," Cloud replied blandly. "Same as usual."

"You know why I'm your partner?"

"Because I picked you."

"No!" Leon grabbed Cloud's arm, dragging him up to his feet. "I'm your partner because they need someone to take care of you! Because heaven forbid the Coliseum's most powerful warrior take care of himself!"

"I was fine before you came into the picture and I'll continue to be fine once you go," Cloud responded quietly, glaring.

"Bullshit," Leon growled. "You were broken up so bad they needed someone to cover your ass. You want to get even more beaten up that they call on three more people to help you out?"

"Are you aware that I could kill you where you stand?" Cloud asked almost chillingly. "I could destroy this entire world in an instant if I was ordered to. I am holding myselfback."

"Then why don't you tell them to stop? Why don't you just stand up for yourself?"

"It doesn't matter what they do."

"It does!" Leon's eyes narrowed further, brows knitting together angrily. "They're hurting you outside the ring."

"It doesn't matter. It doesn't bother me."

"You're lying." Leon set his jaw, leaning in so close their noses almost touched. "It does affect you. You feel pain. You were begging me to help you that time, after Hades made you bleed and your wing—"

Cloud's eyes widened, shaken that Leon would go so far as to use that time to gain the upper hand in the argument. Suddenly, there was an unbridled rage coursing through him, an angry betrayal that completely clouded his vision, and before any of them knew what was happening, Cloud had grabbed Leon by his throat and slammed him into the wall, pressing him high up that his feet dangled and he choked. Leon sputtered, hands clawing at Cloud's grip face red.

"Don't you dare. My reasons and your reasons are different. Do not make us the same." He tightened his grip, fingers digging into Leon's neck. "Do you understand?"

Leon flushed angrily but nodded, unable to speak. Cloud let him down, letting his hand fall to his side. He waited by him quietly, trying to collect himself as Leon eased his breathing. The brunet coughed, massaging where he'd been choked, feeling bruises forming there even as he touched the tender red swelling.

In that instant, Cloud's voice was laced with a bitterness that was almost hurt.

"I thought you weren't like the rest."

Leon didn't know how to interpret that, confusion flickering across his face briefly before he reaffirmed his true feelings.

"I'm worried about you."

"Don't be."

"I'm entitled to."

Cloud closed his eyes and shook his head, fists clenched tightly at his sides, tone bland now, but its control shaken.

"Leave before I hurt you more."

"You're angry."

"I am."

"You're angry because you know I'm right."

"Damn right I'm fucking angry!" Cloud spat, tension spilling into his voice, speaking more than Leon had ever heard him say. "You've got no business telling me how to feel or what to do. I'm different from you. I'm different from you in every way. Get it already! Before I literally rip that pretty head of yours from your shoulders and cause some realtrouble, you'll leave right now. And that's me being worried about whether or not you'll live to see another fucking day."

Leon pressed his lips together, glaring but keeping himself from lashing out at Cloud any further. This was the first time they had been angry at each other, and they didn't know the right way to handle it. Cloud was very dangerous – Leon had forgotten, but he was reminded then – and there was a very real chance that if he persisted he would be seriously injured and it would be his own fault. He said nothing more, not wanting to push Cloud over the edge, but he gave the blond a look that indicated he would continue later when they were calmer. Cloud didn't seem to care. Leon turned and walked away.

He regretted it.

As he reached the end of the corridor, he heard voices and a roar, a crash, a scream. Everything moved slowly as he turned around, eyes wide and mouth agape at the sight that greeted him. Each step he took as he ran seemed to take an age. Everything sped by too fast for him to comprehend. His chest constricted, even worse than when Cloud had been choking him, and he could barely breathe. He stopped breathing. Everything stopped for him.

By the time he came to, he was kneeling by the side of a man who was dead, skull crushed, body limp and cold in his arms, blood and brains everywhere. Nothing registered, so he wasn't able to feel quite yet the need to vomit. Bricks, whole and fragmented, littered the body, a wall crumbled where there had been repeated impact. Leon stared at where it had once stood, aghast, barely able to comprehend the fact that he had been exactly there in the man's position. He turned to Cloud whose back was facing him. He could only see the silhouette of his body trembling slightly, bloodstained fists clenched tight against his sides. It was too late then.

Hades appeared from the shadows, forcing a pale Phil aside as he approached.

"…Cloud, Cloud, Cloud. Not again. If I recall you told me that was the last time you'd breach the rules of our little contract, but look at this. What a mess." Hades shook his head, eyes shining with something sly. He placed a hand on Cloud's shoulder. Cloud barely twitched. "You and I need to talk."

They disappeared into a void of shadow.


The sound of water echoed quietly through the cold, dim room, bouncing off the dusty walls and ceiling, trickling and dripping and lapping against stone. The light was blue and soft, coming from the outside world, muting the earthiness of the chamber to which the baths were connected. Here, Cloud stood by a long horizontal stone slab that had been affixed with taps, forming a continuous sink or drinking fountain – however the Coliseum fighters saw fit to use it.

"…You're being gentle."

Leon looked up from where he was softly touching the wounds that had begun to slowly close up. This time, Leon hadn't needed to squeeze anything out. Cloud had handled them on his own, in the Underworld where Hades had taken him. At least, that's where Leon assumed he had been taken. The fighter's quietness had been more hollow, more tired than usual. He didn't seem as alert or nearly as alive as during the empty moments when they exchanged small talk between their bouts. Leon did not reply Cloud immediately.

"It could have been me, couldn't it?"

The question hung in the air like poison. Leon was stiff, numb at the sheer possibility, and Cloud's soft sigh and, "Yes," did not make his improving ability to understand Cloud comfort him. He didn't move, rooted to the spot, fingers lingering on a tip of a thin scar on his shoulder blade even as Cloud shifted under his touch and replaced the (even newer now) shirt over his body. He leant over, cupping water in his hands and washing his face with slow, tired movements.

The bruises on Leon's neck hadn't disappeared yet, and though they were nearly healed, at that moment they began to burn hotly. He reached for his throat, fingers itching to press into the bruises. It was as though invisible wires had coiled around his throat, threatening death at any moment; death he had barely escaped. Death that had been intended for him.

"It wasn't you," Cloud broke the silence, as if he was aware of just how the cogs in Leon's head were turning, as though he could see just what Leon was doing without even having to turn around. "I told you to leave and you left. So it wasn't you. It wouldn't have been you."

Leon stepped closer. He leaned into Cloud's back and grasped his chin gently, pulling Cloud's face to turn toward him, Leon himself leaning closer so that they met over Cloud's shoulder.

"If it ever came to it, would you kill me?"

Cloud's pause was hesitant, answer slow, somewhat cautious, but he met Leon's eyes with honesty. "Yes."

Leon wasn't fazed. "Would I be killed by you?"

That made Cloud fall silent.

"Would I?" Leon insisted.

"…no," Cloud finally admitted. "You know better."

"You understand what that means, right?"

"…unfortunately."

"I need to hear you say it, Cloud. Tomorrow we fight. It's important."

Cloud closed his eyes and shook his head, unable to believe that Leon was forcing him to do something like this. He averted his gaze, appalled at the situation. Even if he were younger than Leon, he refused to be toyed with. Only too aware of how much the blond wanted to avoid saying it altogether, Leon decided to play his trump card. Even if he looked down upon them, he wasn't above dirty tactics.

"Please."

He felt Cloud stiffen, saw those eyes widen in surprise, and then narrow in irritation. He remained staunchly silent, glancing to meet Leon's eyes and glaring. Before he could try to coax the man again, Cloud finally said it, albeit extremely reluctantly.

"…I trust you."

"With your life?"

"With my back," Cloud half-grumbled, making Leon smile, more than happy to see that Cloud had returned to normal. They didn't move beyond Cloud turning his head back to the front, gaze falling to the dripping water.

"You're surprisingly childish."

Leon raised his eyebrows, but didn't respond. Instead, his hands fell to Cloud's torso, palms pressing flat against his body, sliding under his shirt, accepting the sudden arch of surprise into his own body as he closed his eyes and buried his face in the nape of Cloud's neck nuzzling lightly.

"What are you doing, Leon?"

"Convincing you that I'm far from childish."

"It's not working," Cloud bit his lip as Leon's fingers traced a scar along the plane of his stomach and up to his chest, the other hand sliding down to his inner thigh and massaging gently. Leon was pressing soft kisses down his neck, trailing to his ear. He could feel Cloud tremble slightly and upped the ante, hand moving to Cloud's crotch, rubbing circles with his palm and squeezing.

"You sure you don't want to take that back?"

"Children would try to convince someone they weren't…" Cloud gasped as a hand slid down the front of his trousers. "Leon," he warned, somewhat urgent.

"Just be quiet," Leon murmured breathlessly. "You trust me, don't you?"

"You're crossing the line…"

"Just be quiet," Leon reassured, free hand sliding down from Cloud's chest and gripping his chin again, turning Cloud's head closer, lips meeting. "And cross the line."

Cloud could only grip the base of the sink as Leon broke the kiss and occupied his mouth with Cloud's neck. Those hands moved fast, but worked slowly. It was almost maddening, but Cloud was strong by nature. He tried not to react but he knew it was in vain; they were partners, Cloud and Leon. They knew each other too well, physically and more or less emotionally if Leon's incitation from earlier in the day was anything to go by. Cloud gasped as those calloused fingers roved lower, gripping firmly but not nearly tightly enough, toyed with him. It seemed like Leon was determined to take his time.

He could do whatever he wanted to was the single thought that ran through Cloud's mind as he groaned, low and soft and drawn out, back arching again as Leon moved his hand up and down, biting at the lobe of Cloud's ear, grinding against Cloud almost in rhythm. He was breathing harshly now but Cloud was not all gone. He was fully aware of how Leon was trying to distract him with another kiss as those hands worked him out of his trousers, nudging it down over his knees, grip tight and strong now as he pumped at a much less frustrating pace. Cloud's wing quivered in anticipation and he leaned over the sink, gripping until his fingertips were white, eyes squeezed shut as he moaned again.

He came with a shuddered breath and it was over. Cloud was light headed, almost dizzy, and as he slowly allowed his eyes to flutter open, the room seemed almost too bright, lightly warping, vision unfocused. He felt Leon's clean hand on his shoulder, manoeuvring him so that he leaned against the sink and they faced each other. Leon kissed him again, deeper this time, taking advantage of Cloud's breathlessness to lazily explore his mouth. Cloud didn't respond beyond tilting his head back and closing his eyes, and by the time they broke apart, he had, more or less, come back to his senses.

Cloud tucked himself in and zipped up.

"You can take care of that yourself," he said, palm on Leon's chest, pushing away gently so he could move.

"How cold," Leon smirked faintly, allowing Cloud to pass and leaning against the sink. "I thought I could get you to repay the favour."

"You thought you could convince me you weren't childish. You failed that too, by the way," Cloud bent over casually, picking up his gear. He frowned, thoughts flitting briefly through his mind before he stood upright and turned his head towards Leon, catching his attention.

"You realise this partnership is temporary, don't you?"

Leon's expression darkened a little, his lips tightening, but he did no more than nod.

It clicked.

"We'll see," Cloud offered, somewhat uncomfortable at what he was saying, turning away so he wouldn't see the expression on Leon's face. "We'll see."


iv.

"Oh god."

Leon threw his head back, gasping as he clawed against Cloud's shoulder blade, body wracked with tremors, responding pleasantly to Cloud who was thumbing the tip of his cock, teasing it mercilessly. Leon's eyes fluttered and then widened, moaning when he felt Cloud pressing his thigh up against his body, spreading his legs further apart, driving right into him. His wing was outstretched over them and trembling with each thrust, Cloud's eyes quietly intense as the man focused on Leon's face, shivering when he felt the ring of muscle around his cock clench and pull him further in.

He cursed, arching his back and digging his fingers into Leon's smooth skin, gripping harder as he swayed his hips even faster. Cloud's sigh was shuddered, grip tightening on Leon's cock as he began to pump more generously, slamming into the man until his stamina wavered and he slowed. Leon swore and hit him.

"Don't tell me you're tired," Leon gasped, exasperated. Cloud could only mumble, "Yes."

He wanted to explain the fight he'd had only a few hours earlier, how it had spent him, but he was too tired to think, let alone speak, and when Leon pushed him down, he didn't even bother anymore. The soothing stone tiles were mercy unto his tense back and he relaxed completely, hands on either side of Leon's hips, watching the man position himself through half-lidded eyes.

"Don't you dare fall asleep on me," Leon warned sharply and Cloud's eyes snapped open. Leon was too frustrated to be smug and lowered himself with a slow groan and a hitched breath. He grabbed Cloud's right hand, poising it over his groin and waited for the man to close his fist. Cloud obeyed, squeezing to hear a gratified moan, and continued his ministrations as before, sighing at the relief both the new position and the sex was giving him. Leon felt good and Cloud knew that the overwhelming regret he'd feel later was completely justified and totally worth it.

Cloud's breathing became ragged as Leon moved, thrusting upwards a little in time with the rhythm, paying more attention to the man's impending orgasm and wanting to encourage it along as best he could because he was impossibly close to coming. He could feel the tell-tale signs; Leon becoming a little more vocal, Cloud becoming a little more vocal, the irregular thrusting, the tightening muscles, the feel of fingernails breaking skin…

Cloud gasped, let out a shout as he finally came, throwing his head back and moaning as Leon took in pulse after pulse of come, still moving. He squeezed Leon's cock instinctually, grip strong and movement as quick as he could manage until Leon's knees gave way and he crumpled in a heap on top of him, orgasm quieter but no less intense. They remained still for a moment, chests heaving and breathing short and laboured, eyes closed, hypersensitive.

Cloud forced his eyes open, tiredly reaching out to rake Leon's hair back, exposing his perspiration-beaded skin and the smooth scar that cut across his face in the dim light of the room before he pulled the man down for a kiss and blacked out.

When he opened his eyes, he saw a blur of murky white and then felt the coldness pressing against his skin. He reached up, feeling a damp towel sprawled neatly across his face, and tugged it away. With bleary eyes, Cloud scanned around to see Leon resting beside him, leaning against the Coliseum wall with his sword on his lap. There was wide open sky above them, bright and blue. It was a good day.

"You awake?"

He averted his gaze to see Leon looking down at him. He realised for the first time that he had foregone the jacket.

"Yes," Cloud replied, voice addled with sleep. "What's this?" he asked, referring to the damp towel.

"It's hot," Leon explained. "Didn't want you to get sunburnt."

Cloud snorted, squinting around as he propped himself up on his knees. He could feel himself in the most basic layer of clothing, without the additional gloves or straps. They were in the practice arena, and a far distance away, he could make out some gladiators. There was an extremely short one among them, who so happened to have spiky hair.

"…are you satisfied?"

Leon didn't turn his head, continuing to focus on polishing his sword.

"Yes."

"Good," Cloud said, about to settle back in for a nap when Leon interrupted his thoughts.

"I'm taking you back to Hollow Bastion."

"What?" Cloud opened his eyes, looking at Leon without comprehension. "Why?"

"You belong there," Leon's voice had a resounding finality to it, as though he'd been thinking about the issue for a while. "And having tasted your masochistic training regimen, I don't think I'll be satisfied on my own."

"What makes you think I want to go?"

"You don't want to stay," Leon pointed out.

"That's my decision to make."

"You don't have any plans for yourself beyond the Coliseum. I do. I'm taking you back once Sora's done what he's had to do."

Cloud's eyes narrowed a little.

"The Cup ends tomorrow."

It was a loaded statement. The Cup ended many things, most important of which was their connection to each other. With its end came the end to their partnership, to theirproclivities and to whatever sense of entitlement Leon felt he had over Cloud. The possessiveness Leon displayed had almost been charming were it not for the fact that Cloud wanted it to end. Their partnership was unseemly, and worst of all, was inciting Cloud to do things he never expected of himself. He hated this uncalculated unpredictability.

Leon rolled his eyes, putting his sword down for the first time and looking at Cloud in the eye. "Get a clue. It's an excuse."

Before Cloud could open his mouth to argue, Leon leaned in and kissed him soundly on the lips, in plain sight. Cloud didn't react, more shocked than anything by the bold display from someone he knew firsthand was a private person… not that it mattered, since they were on the opposite end of the practice arena and no one was paying them any attention.

Cloud stared at him, frozen.

He vaguely recalled an escaped moment of tenderness in which he had kissed Leon for the first time, that time when he had been struggling to keep awake for as long as it took them both to achieve what they had sought for. He thought he had kept himself in check. He thought he had controlled himself, exercised unrivalled restraint in trying to satisfy Leon as superficially as he could. In that one instance of failure, Cloud had given Leon every excuse he hadn't wanted to give.

Leon, for the first time, knew exactly what Cloud was thinking. He smiled faintly.

"It's useless to think about it. I'll give you your clean slate."

Leon returned to his sword, inspecting the blade for any dirt he had missed.

"We still have a few hours. Go back to sleep."

With a sense of futility and relief, Cloud closed his eyes and laid back down.