Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy, Dissidia, and all these lovely characters.
A/N: Welcome to my second Dissidia fic! Now, before I say anything else, I just want to thank everyone who reviewed my first Dissidia story. Being a new writer to this fandom, it was great to get some feedback on how well I'm doing, and your words have inspired me to continue writing for this fandom, especially since I'm annoyed at Kingdom Hearts fans! I have quite a few ideas for stories to come, and my next one will most likely be a Firion x Lightning story for a reviewer from my last fic, who goes by the name of Have a Little Faith. I also want to write something with Prishe, Gilgamesh, Shantotto, and Gabranth, whether all together or in separate stories, and I'd like to write the bad guys some time, as well. Basically I want the chance to write every character in a least one story of mine, which will give me great practice with characterization. Look for future stories to come, and once again, thank you to all you lovely Dissidia fans for giving me such a warm welcome into the fandom, as I am a long time Final Fantasy fan. So, with that being said, drop me a review and let me know if I've got another hit or an epic failure on my hands. Enjoy! (Oh, and this story takes place during the 013 war and does fit with canon.)
In a world where the forces of harmony and discord raged war against one another in an endless cycle of conflict, most would agree that the land of discord was not exactly what one would call an excellent place to recommend to any unlikely wandering travelers, especially for sightseeing purposes, as the moogles were always quick to point out, but regardless of the imminent threat of being attacked by manikins, or any one of the warriors working for Chaos, who were thought to have been defeated after the crystals had appeared to their respective owners, though the remaining warriors of Cosmos were on the verge of finding out that that wasn't exactly the case yet, the land where the god of discord sat upon his throne was still beautiful and scenic in its own right, though as the warriors of harmony had learned early on, it was important to watch your step if you didn't want to tumble over the edge of a cliff into one of the numerous pools of molten rock bubbling up from deep within the ground in a threatening sort of manner. Step into one of those pits and even the warrior known as Cloud Strife, who once believed he was a former 1st Class member of Shinra's elite military group known as SOLDIER , though he still didn't really remember all that much about Shinra as of yet, or the false memories and persona that had ended up confusing his true past with that of his deceased best friend, (a man by the name of Zack Fair) wasn't so sure if Cosmos herself could save the poor unfortunate soul unlucky enough to have suffered such an unpleasant fate.
Especially now that Cosmos was no longer with them.
All that's left is the power of the crystals. The power she entrusted us with to end the cycle of conflict. Even if we keep on fighting, even if we don't give up...will it still be enough?
The barest hint of a frown appeared on the mako-infused warrior's handsome face, and lowering his gaze to the crystal in his hand, Cloud studied it with mild curiosity, his thoughts turning back to the conversations he had shared with Terra and Firion, which seemed like a lifetime ago, though really not that much time had passed since he began the journey to find his crystal.
Contrary to popular belief, and regardless of what some of the other warriors might think, if their occasional teasing remarks were to be taken into account, Cloud did not in fact spend all of his time brooding.
Okay, so most of his time was spent brooding over one personal demon or another, at least more so than what was normal for the average warrior of harmony, except perhaps when it came to a certain dark-haired young man wielding what Cloud had learned was called a gunblade, who could rival him any day in the brooding department, and also the amount of time he spent immersed deep within the darker corners of his mind, and today was no exception.
For both of them, it seemed.
Though Cloud would never admit it to his fellow warriors, he was definitely brooding at the moment, but in spite of his tendency to prove quite spectacularly that most of the teasing he endured from his comrades on a daily basis was well deserved, he felt a small sense of satisfaction in knowing that not only did the previously mentioned dark-haired warrior brood just as much as he did, the one known as Squall Leonhart also put up a decent fight when it came to their, shall we say, lack of social skills.
Thus, Cloud resolutely continued to brood with a clear conscience, not feeling the least bit guilty for taking a few moments here and there to spend some quality time alone with his often morose thoughts, trying his best to make sense of what it was he was still searching for. A reason to keep fighting. A dream worth fighting for. The answer was there, just out of reach, and so it continued to elude him, and his resolve to keep fighting kept him moving forward, his determination to end the conflict, to break the shackles binding them to an endless cycle of war and destruction resonating with the hopes and dreams of the warriors who fought by his side, friends and allies, who even now were still smiling and laughing, refusing to give in to the fear and despair for what awaited them at the end of their journey.
Chaos. The god of discord himself.
After fighting through what seemed like an endless hoard of mindless manikins to reach their final objective, Cloud and his fellow warriors had managed to successfully intrude upon the land of discord with only a few scratches, and upon entering the realm that existed under the watchful eye of the god of discord, the Warrior of Light had announced that it would be best if they took a short break before continuing on with their journey.
Whenever they stopped to rest, whether it was just for an hour to gain back their strength or to have a meal and get some sleep, their fearless leader always insisted someone remain on watch duty in case they were attacked. An ambush wouldn't exactly be anything out of the ordinary, especially when it came to the manikins, and Chaos' minions had been known to pop up seemingly out of nowhere in the past to either taunt them or send them scrambling for their weapons, so it was understandable that they needed to be on high alert at all times. Cloud didn't normally mind being recruited for watch duty, as it gave him time to be alone with his thoughts, but as the Warrior of Light always insisted they take up watch in pairs, never allowing them to perform the task alone or to wander off by themselves, it could more often than not become a headache inducing nightmare, particularly when he got stuck with a partner like Bartz, Tidus, or Zidane, who never seemed able to keep quiet.
That was not to say Cloud didn't take interest in the conversations going on around him, though he wasn't one to join in himself unless prompted to, preferring simply to watch and observe, allowing the warm, comforting voices of his friends to flow into him, creating a protective barrier of sorts to free him, if only temporarily, from the confusion and uncertainty that often plagued his heart, but there were also times when he preferred the serene atmosphere of silence, which warriors like Tidus rarely let him indulge in.
For this particular round of watch duty, Cloud had been coerced (forced would actually be a more blunt and slightly more accurate term, since one simply just did not say no to the Warrior of Light when he gave you that particular look of his, the one that could cause even the most battle hardened warriors to cower in fear, indicating he took watch duty very seriously) into taking his turn with Squall, who had also been persuaded (forced) into what could sometimes be a rather menial and boring task, especially if nothing interesting happened and they weren't attacked, but seeing as how Cloud had just gotten the perfect chance to be alone with his thoughts and most likely would not be interrupted from his musings, (his partner was Squall, after all) Cloud was content to honour the Warrior of Light's request, even going so far as to forgive the man for the not so subtle push he had received earlier towards the edge of camp when he'd still been inwardly sighing over thoughts of being paired with one of his more rambunctious comrades.
Needless to say, his mood had improved considerably when the Warrior of Light had given Squall a similar push, sending the stoic warrior stumbling into Cloud, who just barely managed to catch himself in time before almost falling flat on his face and impaling himself with his own Buster Sword.
And that, coming from the Warrior of Light, had been a gentle push. Sometimes the man seemed to forget his own strength, and Cloud, who was by no means fragile or weak, was still nursing an aching spine from where Squall's elbow had connected painfully with his lower back.
Due to the Warrior of Light's unshakable belief in watch duty, which Cloud had been in favour of from the start, though he didn't think it quite necessary to indulge in such an obscene amount of enthusiasm for a task any self-respecting soldier with half a brain practiced on a daily basis, Cloud found himself sitting comfortably on the grass overlooking the sea, the pale glow of Order's Sanctuary shining faintly in the distance. In the land of discord, the light of Sanctuary didn't seem to pulse as brightly as it did when you gazed upon the tall structure from Mt. Gulg, the Elven Snowfield, Pravoka, or the Cornelia Plains. It looked dull and dim, as if the light emitting from its pristine walls was slowly being leeched away, flickering and dying under the waves of darkness spreading forth from the land of discord.
Unlike the warm blue skies hovering over the lands belonging to the goddess of harmony, the darker grounds belonging to Chaos thrived under heavy clouds and streaks of crimson light, creating a striking contrast between the two continents, and lifting his blue eyes to the sky, Cloud wrapped his fingers more tightly around the crystal he was still holding almost unconsciously in his hand. To his left, sitting close beside him, was Squall, who, at the moment, was also frowning at the sky, his gunblade lying next to him on the grass within easy reach in case he needed to grab hold of it quickly, and though both parties were silent, Cloud suspected they were having similar thoughts.
Harmony and discord.
Glancing between the two continents, it was like looking from the first rays of dawn to the slowly sinking light of sunset. Two forces forever entwined in a never ending cycle, where one phase begins and the other ends, only to start the whole process all over again. And thus the cycle continued. So closely were the two forces weaved together, it was almost like they were one and the same, creating their own harmonious dance teetering towards the edge of destruction.
"It's quiet," Squall murmured, the deep, rich tones of his voice effectively bringing Cloud out of his dark thoughts, though outwardly his expression never altered from its usual neutral mask of indifference. "A little too quiet."
Cloud hesitated before nodding slowly in response, his blue eyes narrowing and his fingers reaching out to brush against the hilt of his Buster Sword, making sure it was still close at hand and within easy reach, his actions mirroring that of his dark-haired companion.
"They're coming," Squall added, his gaze remaining focused on the fading light of Sanctuary pulsing weakly across the ocean. "Manikins. Maybe not right away, but they'll be here."
Squall, seemingly satisfied with the answer he had received, promptly fell silent again, and Cloud let his crystal dissipate slowly back into thin air, his head tilting slightly to the side to study the stoic warrior next to him, who seemed to be lost in thought. Cloud was mildly surprised that Squall had spoken at all, let alone made an attempt to strike up what could tentatively be called a conversation. Like him, Squall was not normally the type to start up a conversation with anybody. At all. As a general rule, warriors like himself and Squall simply responded to others, albeit somewhat reluctantly, when spoken to, if they decided to respond at all, though Squall, as Cloud was quick to note, was actually more guilty of that sort of thing than he was. Out of the two of them, Cloud was generally the more talkative one, if only slightly, thus if either one of them had felt the need to talk, Cloud would have expected himself to be the first to speak. Since both of them were quiet and reserved by nature, the chances of them holding a conversation were few and far between, or completely hopeless as Zidane had put it, his statement having been enthusiastically backed by Tidus and Bartz, but despite their cold exteriors and standoffish attitudes, the silent atmosphere between them was surprisingly comfortable, free from any tension or awkwardness.
It was common knowledge that the two of them hadn't spent much time traveling together, since circumstances had prevented them from doing so, but even though their journeys to find their crystals hadn't crossed paths, there seemed to be a mutual understanding resonating between them, a sensation that had been there since the day Cosmos had first summoned them, but which neither of them had been fully aware of, due to its subtle nature. Often, despite their lack of quality bonding time, they seemed able to communicate more to one another without using words than if they had spoken verbally, which was, in retrospect, a breath of fresh air for Cloud.
Now that the warriors of harmony were all together again, traveling towards a single goal, Cloud, to his great surprise, had found himself unconsciously spending more time with Squall, who in turn had not objected to his presence, and during the course of their recent journey to reach the land of discord, Cloud wasn't surprised to find that their ability to communicate on a more subconscious level had intensified, the mutual respect and acknowledgment they each felt towards the other's skills in battle adding to the subtle admiration that existed on both sides. Thus, they had established a bond of sorts that, if Zidane and the other carefree warriors hadn't been so caught up in poking fun at them, dismissing any thoughts about what appeared on the surface to be two strangers instead of friends, they might have noticed.
Maybe, but probably not.
Sometimes words aren't always enough. Most of the time, they get you nowhere.
Squall, having sensed a pair of eyes on him, suddenly turned his head, their gazes meeting, and realizing he'd been caught staring, Cloud merely continued to watch his fellow warrior, an expression every bit as unreadable as Squall's playing across his handsome features. The slight breeze ruffled Squall's dark hair and the fur trim on his leather jacket, and resting an arm on his raised knee, Cloud wasn't surprised to find the gunblade wielding warrior staring back at him with an equally neutral expression.
Cool and aloof, Squall Leonhart was not an easy person to get to know, but Cloud could sense that the often blunt and uncooperative warrior's difficult nature was merely a ruse, making him more complex than he appeared to be at first sight, and because of that Cloud did not doubt that upon meeting Squall he had finally met someone who might actually understand his feelings, if only slightly, allowing him to believe that perhaps his way of thinking wasn't so out of place, which often seemed to be the case, if vague memories of his companions from his home world were anything to go by.
It was comforting to think so, and sensing his thoughts, at least to Cloud that appeared to be the case, Squall let his sharp gaze shift to the other warriors of harmony, who were engaged in various conversations, their battle weary bodies taking a moment to rest upon the grass.
A few feet from where Cloud was sitting with Squall, Tidus was attempting to explain the rules of a game known as blitzball in his home world to Firion, Zidane, and Bartz, and sitting a little bit apart from them were the Onion Knight and Terra, both of whom were chatting easily to one another and smiling as they rested their tired limbs. At the edge of their temporary camp, Cecil and the Warrior of Light were talking in quiet voices, their hands occasionally gesturing at either a nearby gateway or the domain of Chaos in the distance.
All eight of the aforementioned warriors were alert and ready to fight if need be, but it was also pleasant to see them relax a bit, giving themselves time to gain back their strength, and also to reaffirm their goals and the reasons why they were willing to fight to begin with.
Cloud had not known the other warriors for very long, but even so, he had come to respect not only their skills in battle, but also their ability to dream without any reservations. There was so much on the line, and yet he knew any one of them would step in and take a hit for him, whether he wanted them to or not, placing not only their dreams, but also what could possibly be their only chance to return to their home worlds in jeopardy, which was why, more often than not, he unconsciously found himself doing the same without even having to think twice about it. There was no denying the other warriors of Cosmos were having a positive effect on him, and though he would most likely never say so in words, he was glad to have met them, and he valued their friendship more than he had ever thought would be possible.
Even if some of his comrades could be quite a handful, in particular the three Firion was currently dealing with, a half-amused, half-exasperated look on the silver-haired warrior's handsome face.
Firion had to be good-natured to put up with those three all at once, and Cloud, who was quite fond of Firion, as the two had grown close in their travels together, felt a spark of sympathy for his fellow warrior, for Tidus had interrupted the silver-haired weapons master yet again in the middle of a sentence.
"I don't know who's more annoying, Tidus or Zidane," Squall muttered, snorting softly before turning his attention back to the impressive view of Sanctuary glimmering across the water.
Cloud shrugged his shoulders, glancing sideways at the stoic man beside him. "Tough choice."
Though Squall hadn't exactly been complementary towards his fellow warriors, there was no malice in his voice, and his tone was casual, indicating he meant no offence, though both Zidane and Tidus would probably disagree in that regard. Cloud was well aware of the fact that Squall was actually very fond of Zidane, as well as Bartz, and that the three of them shared a close friendship. Insulting Zidane was just Squall's way of showing affection, something the dark-haired warrior rarely let himself indulge in, and Zidane never resisted an opportunity to return the favour. Bartz, as a general rule, tended to join in on the teasing, and though the two treasure hunting troublemakers were as different in personality from Squall as it was humanly possible to be, somehow the three made their friendship work. Cloud wasn't exactly sure why, but for reasons best known only to each other, Bartz and Zidane had firmly attached themselves to Squall, both figuratively and literally, with the way they tried to drag him along with them all the time, and Squall, who in the beginning had repeatedly tried his best to shake them off, had finally given up and resigned himself to their presence, if somewhat reluctantly, for Zidane and Bartz were known to pester Squall relentlessly whenever they felt he was either slipping back into his old ways or just being antisocial in general.
Why Squall had decided to open up to them and allow them a glimpse at what was hidden deep within his heart, Cloud could only guess at, but judging from the stories he'd heard from both Bartz and Zidane, Squall 's sudden change in attitude seemed to have something to do with the three of them getting their crystals.
At least, on the surface.
In Cloud's opinion, he doubted very much that Squall had changed at all. The gunblade wielding warrior must have had his reasons for traveling alone at first, and once he had done what he felt was the right thing to do, securing his crystal in a way that was suitable for him, he had allowed himself to open up to his fellow warriors, joining their ranks and fighting along side them in the name of Cosmos and all that she stood for. His opinion of both Bartz and Zidane had never changed. He had always considered his two cheerful companions to be nothing less than friends, right from the very moment he had first met them. He just hadn't been willing to reveal his feelings on the subject until he felt he was ready to do so.
Though Squall tended to work solo, he was never really alone.
And he knew it.
Cloud could see the respect and admiration in the eyes of his fellow warriors whenever they looked at Squall, and though his own fighting skills matched that of the dark-haired warrior, Cloud envied the way Squall carried himself. Always calm and reliable, always self-assured and comfortable in his own skin, despite his brooding tendencies, it was no wonder the other warriors admired him. Dependable and worthy of the trust that was placed in him. That was Squall Leonhart. The man was a natural born leader, even if he accepted the role somewhat reluctantly, and he was always moving forward, even if the past might occasionally haunt his thoughts. Squall focused on the here and now, and he worked towards the future, and Cloud often clung to the past, even one he could barely remember, often wondering if he would ever really escape the shadow lurking deep inside his own heart.
Maybe he would and maybe he wouldn't, but after having met the other warriors of Cosmos, and Cosmos herself, he was more inclined to believe that maybe there was a chance for him after all, even if it was only a small one. Perhaps Squall had come to realize the same thing, partly in thanks to Zidane and Bartz, who may very well have been the best thing to have ever happened to him.
As hard as that was to believe.
And speaking of Bartz and Zidane...
"Squall! Hey, Squall!"
Upon hearing Zidane's sudden shout, Cloud let out a soft sigh, a slight frown once again marring his fair features. There went his chance to have a few peaceful moments alone with his thoughts.
Squall, doing his best to ignore Zidane, let his eyes fall closed, the fingers on his right hand coming up to rest against his forehead. There was a slightly irritated look on the stoic warrior's face, though he didn't seem all that upset about the sudden interruption. "Why is it always me?"
A vague image of a young woman wielding a four point shuriken, along with a cheerful, dark-haired young man brandishing a sword that looked suspiciously like his own, and another man with long, red hair, suddenly flashed across Cloud's mind, and leaning back on his hands, he said somewhat dryly, "Join the club."
"You too?" Squall asked, a hint of curiosity in his tone.
"I got Tidus, didn't I?"
"People like us always get stuck with people like them."
Cloud shifted slightly to look at Squall, his tone carrying the barest hint of amusement. "I stopped trying to get it a long time ago. You're fighting a losing battle if you think you can win against types like Bartz or Zidane. Best not to think about it too much. It'll save you a lot of trouble in the long run."
"Still...what's the attraction?" Squall muttered, almost to himself.
"Any self-respecting warrior likes a good challenge."
Squall stared at him, and Cloud merely shrugged his shoulders in response, having already said his piece.
"A challenge, huh?"
"Something like that."
Or in other words, they were too good of an opportunity to pass up. They were like magnets with an irresistible pull to those gifted with a more playful nature, and as a result the attraction for types like Bartz and Zidane was instantaneous, whether types like Squall or Cloud himself liked it or not.
Squall, having apparently understood the meaning behind his words, let his hand fall back to his side, a resigned look on his handsome face. "They're coming over here, aren't they."
Cloud glanced around his fellow warrior's shoulder, and spotting a certain golden-haired thief, he reached out to give Squall a rather unsympathetic pat on the back. "Good luck with that."
Cloud made to stand up, but before he could reach for his sword, Squall grabbed his wrist and yanked him back down again, sending him tumbling onto his backside, the hilt of his Buster Sword jabbing painfully into his right buttock.
In response to his somewhat confused look, Squall simply said, "Can't sit watch duty alone, remember?"
Was that a hint of a smirk on Squall's face? Cloud suspected it was. Curse that damn Warrior of Light.
Resigned to his fate, Cloud slumped forward in his seat and proceeded to brood in silence as he watched Zidane and Bartz, followed by Tidus and Firion, approach the spot he had chosen to survey the territory with Squall, while at the same time reaching beneath his thigh to remove the sword still digging into his backside.
He was never taking a turn at watch duty again. Ever. No matter how many looks the Warrior of Light gave him.
Then again, it wasn't like he could avoid being ambushed even while not on watch duty, which would actually be worse, since watch duty at least gave him a legitimate excuse to avoid the other warriors when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. Really, it was a no win situation either way.
And then the other warriors had the nerve to wonder why he was so antisocial all the time.
"Hey, Squall!" Zidane called out cheerfully, dropping down beside the stoic warrior, both an arm and his feisty tail curling around Squall's back and shoulders in an affectionate gesture, sending the dark-haired man falling into Cloud. "Didn't you hear me calling you?"
"Nice to see you, too," Zidane snorted, rolling his eyes at Squall's lack of a response. "We, as in myself, Bartz, and Tidus, have a little proposal for you."
"And you can't say no until you hear us out first," Bartz quickly added, seeing the look on Squall's face and dropping down on the gunblade wielding warrior's other side, the side where Cloud happened to be sitting, sending him sprawling sideways onto the grass. There was a smile on Bartz's face, and he draped his arm over Squall's right shoulder, the look in his gray eyes a cause for some concern.
Once again, Squall declined to comment, and for the second time in less than a minute Cloud found himself being unceremoniously pushed to the side as Tidus stepped over both him and Bartz, a smirk on the blitzball player's face as he sat down in front of Squall, which did not bode well for the stoic warrior any more than the glint in Bartz's eyes did.
Which was just fine with Cloud. The longer they ignored him, the better. Maybe if he slipped away now, nobody would notice...
"My apologies, Cloud," a voice on his left suddenly said softly in his ear, a slight hint of embarrassment in the words. "I did try to stop them, but you know how it goes."
Cloud turned to find Firion sitting next to him, a warm smile on the silver-haired warrior's face, and shrugging his shoulders, he said, "No use fighting a losing battle, the way I see it."
"Indeed, my thoughts exactly."
"So, you ready to hear us out?" Zidane asked, smiling mischievously at the pour, unfortunate Squall. "Tell him, Bartz."
"Watch duty," Squall said blandly, interrupting before Bartz could launch into a big speech about whatever it was they were trying to convince him to be a part of. "Maybe next time...but I doubt it."
"Come on, you don't even know what it is we want to ask you yet," Tidus shot back, punching a fist into his opposite hand. "Stop being so uptight already. You're even worse than Firion, you know that?"
"And what, if may I ask, is that supposed to mean?" Firion interrupted, raising an eyebrow.
At the look on Firion's face, Tidus let out a nervous laugh, his hand coming up to scratch sheepishly at the back of his blond head. "Just...you know, I keep telling you. You need to lighten up a little. We have to keep our spirits up if we want to take down Chaos, right? Don't want to bring down the whole team, do you?"
"Whatever," Squall replied, interrupting before Firion could answer. The stoic warrior was making a valiant effort to ignore the two energetic, self-proclaimed treasure hunters invading his personal space, but considering they were draped all over him, he wasn't having much luck in that regard. Cloud felt a small stab of sympathy for Squall, but it didn't bother his conscience enough for him to take pity on the man, and he wasn't about to help Squall out of his current predicament either. After all, he still hadn't forgotten who had gotten him involved in the whole fiasco in the first place, and because of that he felt Squall deserved at the least some of the suffering he was being forced to endure.
Apparently Firion didn't agree with him, though, because the weapons master continued to frown at Tidus, who quickly scooted back a few paces, moving closer to Zidane and putting some more distance between himself and the silver-haired warrior. "So...yeah...Help me out here, Zidane."
Zidane, unaware of the potential danger he was currently placing himself in, quickly rose to the challenge, a sparkle in his bright blue eyes. "Tidus is right, you guys are no fun. Let's try this again. Bartz, tell him what's up."
"No, that moogle we suckered into giving us a free chocobo summonstone," Zidane replied, rolling his eyes. "Of course Squall. Who else?"
"I don't know why you bother. He'll just say no," Firion sighed, shaking his head in amusement.
Bartz, as Cloud very well knew, was not the type to be dissuaded so easily, so instead of taking Firion's words to heart, he merely ignored the silver-haired warrior and said, "Tidus, Zidane, and I have a bit of a competition going on, and we were wondering if you wanted to join in."
"What kind of competition?" Squall asked, his cold blue eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"Always thinking we have an ulterior motive for everything we do," Zidane snorted, throwing up his hands in a hopeless sort of gesture, though he didn't remove himself from where he still sat practically attached to Squall's side. "Quit being such a pessimist, Squall."
Cloud finally decided to take pity on Squall, even if the man didn't deserve it, and glancing at Zidane, he said, "Can't say I blame him. If it were me, I wouldn't trust you guys either."
"Cloud," Bartz scolded, feigning a look of hurt and poking him in the chest, which Cloud ignored, "you're not supposed to take his side."
"...Who said I was taking sides?"
"Don't encourage them," Squall interjected, trying and failing miserably to remove Bartz's arm from where it lay draped over his shoulder.
"Who's encouraging anybody? Watch duty and all. It's not like I can leave, right? Might as well find out what this is all about."
Firion, who must have seen their earlier exchange, resulting in Cloud injuring his backside, coughed lightly into his hand, trying unsuccessfully to hide his smile, and Squall glared at the both of them, his heated gaze having absolutely no effect whatsoever on Cloud, who merely returned the stoic warrior's look with a perfectly innocent expression of his own.
Forget pity. Victory was sweet indeed, and Cloud wasn't going to let his gunblade wielding comrade forget it.
Take that, Leonhart.
"...Fine, start talking. What do you guys want?" Squall said shortly, giving up on his attempt to free himself from Bartz and deciding to work on Zidane instead, who simply wouldn't budge, and if anything held on tighter.
"Well, I'd tell you if everyone would stop interrupting me," Bartz pointed out, a slight smile on his face.
"I'm listening, but the answer's probably still no."
Bartz finally abandoned his perch on Squall's shoulder, much to the stoic warrior's relief, and sitting next to Tidus he beamed at Squall, a carefree smile lighting up his youthful face. "As I was saying, Tidus, Zidane, and I have a competition going on to see who can pick off the most manikins before we reach Chaos. We were wondering if you wanted to join in."
"We're starting fresh now that we're in the land of discord," Tidus explained, glancing sideways at Zidane. "Monkey boy here won the first round back on friendly territory, so now that we're starting a new round, we thought we'd see if you wanted in on the fun. Winner gets all the KP we manage to snag in the gateways before we get to Chaos. Sound tempting enough for you?"
"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll pass."
"Oh, come on, you know you want to be a part of this!" Zidane protested.
"Will you get off me?" Squall said bluntly, attempting yet again to push Zidane away.
Naturally, Zidane refused to let go, his bright blue eyes pleading with Squall to accept their offer. "You have to join in!"
"Why? What's the point? It wouldn't be much of a challenge. No offence, but I'd win easily."
Zidane abruptly sat back on his knees, a teasing smile on his face. "Ouch, Squall. You sure don't mess around with words, do you."
"You're the one who wanted an answer."
"True, but if you think I'm giving up, think again. Like hell I'm gonna let you get out of this without a fight. I won the first round easily and I need a challenge. That's where you come in."
"Hey, you only beat me by one!" Tidus shot back, glaring at Zidane.
"And I would have beaten both of you if Zidane hadn't stolen the last three I was only a couple of stabs away from adding to my list," Bartz added, also glaring at Zidane, though he looked more amused than angry.
"Details," Zidane said nonchalantly, waving off their protests and once again attaching himself to Squall's arm. "So, you game?"
"You can't be serious!"
Squall, who had to contend with not only the Genome's iron grip but also the tail wrapped securely around his waist, gave up on the struggle to free himself and instead crossed his arms over his chest, refusing to budge. "Do I look like I'm joking?"
"What? Scared you'll lose?"
Zidane abruptly let go of Squall and turning his back on the dark-haired warrior, his long tail not quite accidentally smacking Squall in the face, he said, "Fine then, but don't blame me if you miss out on all the fun."
"Watch it with that thing," Squall shot back, giving Zidane's tail a sharp yank in retaliation, causing the Genome to let out a yelp of pain before tumbling over onto his side in a heap of flailing limbs.
"How about you, Cloud? Care to join in?" Bartz asked curiously, ignoring Zidane, who was moaning pitifully on the ground next to him.
Cloud, watching Zidane clutching his backside with mild interest, chose to respond in his usual manner. "Not interested."
"You guys are no fun at all," Tidus complained, leaping to his feet and moving over to sprawl next to Firion, who favoured the blitzball player with a wary look.
Cloud took note of the fact that Firion proceeded to edge closer to him and further away from Tidus, making him wonder just what exactly Tidus was up to. He got his answer when Firion spoke up, a disapproving frown on the silver-haired warrior's face. "Tidus, I already told you, I'm not joining in on your game. I have a difficult enough time as it is just trying to keep you three out of trouble."
"Come on, you have to join in, especially now that Squall and Cloud are being so...well...Squall and Cloud-ish, if you get my meaning."
"I'm sorry, but I must refuse. Cecil already warned you not to-"
"Who cares what he thinks!" Tidus interrupted, dismissing the paladin with a wave of his hand. "I am being careful, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a little bit of friendly competition on the side."
"Besides, Cecil only warned us not to let down our guard while fighting the manikins. He didn't say we had to stop playing our game. You're the one who keeps ragging on us all the time."
"I merely think you should be a little bit more careful, is all, and that goes for Zidane and Bartz, too. I never-"
"Like I said, you really need to lighten up a bit," Tidus smirked, leaning back on his hands and favouring Firion with a teasing smile.
Firion must have felt he'd had enough of Tidus, having been interrupted one too many times, because he promptly turned his back on the blitzball player, his cape rustling angrily at his sudden movement. Cloud watched Firion for a moment, and giving him a warm smile, the silver-haired warrior reached out to briefly touch his shoulder, the beads on the scarf tied around his head and his armour clinking softly at the sudden movement. Cloud acknowledged the friendly gesture with a simple nod, and climbing to his feet, Firion abruptly stalked off in a huff, leaving a bewildered Tidus staring after him.
"Huh? What was that all about?" was the blitzball star's intelligent response.
Cloud favoured Tidus with a bored look, unwilling to take the blame for his fellow warrior's lack of tact. "Don't look at me. I'm not the one he's mad at."
"Huh?" Tidus gaped at him for a moment, his bright blue eyes widening to twice their size, and scrambling to his feet, the blitzball star proceeded to chase after Firion, nearly tripping over Terra and the Onion Knight in his haste to reach the silver-haired warrior, who had hurried off to join Cecil and the Warrior of Light. "Firion! Hey! Hey, Rosebud! Come on, wait up! I didn't mean it! Honest!"
Firion's abrupt exit was enough to capture the attention of the three warriors still within Cloud's company, and watching Tidus chase after the silver-haired weapons master, Bartz exchanged a look with Zidane and said, "What's with them?"
Cloud suddenly realized everyone was looking at him for an explanation, but instead of explaining, since he wasn't all that interested in going into detail about the peculiar friendship between Firion and Tidus, he merely turned his gaze back to the crimson sky and said, "Long story."
"Who cares about them," Zidane interrupted, sitting up and crossing his legs to get more comfortable, one hand reaching out to gently rub his injured tail. "Last chance, Squall. You sure you don't want to join in?"
"I'm not going to say yes just because you keep asking me."
"But...I took out forty-three manikins on the way here! Impressive, right? I need an opponent who has a chance of beating my record."
"Hey, it was forty-one manikins, not forty-three!" Bartz interrupted, elbowing Zidane in the ribs.
"Forty-one and a half! I totally helped take out that last one you killed."
"Then that makes it a tie between us because those three manikins you stole from me, I helped you kill!"
Bartz and Zidane proceeded to strike up a spirited argument over the final outcome of their first round of competition, debating over who had actually won, and Cloud, watching the arguing duo, suddenly felt Squall lean close to him, the stoic warrior's voice drifting into his ear, effectively blocking out the squabbling of their fellow comrades. "Hey, how many manikins did you take down?"
Cloud raised his eyebrows at Squall's response, and the stoic warrior returned his gaze with what appeared to be a suspiciously smug look. "Better keep up, Strife. You're falling behind."
"Just remember, our competition isn't over until we reach Chaos. Talk big while you still can, Leonhart. We'll see who ends up falling behind."
"Fine. Can't say I didn't warn you, though."
Cloud responded by elbowing his fellow warrior in the ribs, but before Squall could retaliate, a female voice behind them suddenly said, "Is there something wrong with Firion?"
Turning, Cloud spotted Terra hovering behind Squall, and motioning for her to take the seat Firion had so recently vacated, he said, "Sort of."
"What happened?" the Onion Knight sighed, sitting down on Terra's other side, a slightly disgruntled look on his face. "I don't much appreciate almost being trampled half to death while in the middle of a conversation. Care to explain?"
"Tidus," Cloud responded, as if this explained everything. Which it did.
"I know that. That's not what I'm asking. I mean, what did he do to annoy Firion this time?"
Cloud glanced over to where Tidus was still pleading with Firion to forgive him, while Cecil looked on in obvious amusement, and standing there as regal as any fairy tale knight, the Warrior of Light proceeded to regard Tidus with a slight frown on his face, demanding to know in that sensible way of his what was causing two of his warriors to behave in such an undignified manner. "The usual."
"I do feel bad for Tidus," Terra said softly, glancing sympathetically in the blitzball star's direction. "I don't think he means to upset Firion."
"Yeah, well, you know Firion," Zidane interrupted, giving the female warrior his charming smile, the one he specifically reserved for the ladies. "He'll get over it."
"Yes, but...maybe if Tidus would...well..."
"Learn to think before he speaks?" the Onion Knight supplied for Terra, crossing his arms over his chest. "If he did, he might not get into trouble so much, and Firion wouldn't have a reason to pull his hair out all the time."
"Well, Tidus is right," Zidane countered. "Firion can be a little uptight sometimes."
At this, the Onion Knight turned his attention to Zidane, a frown on his face. "I wouldn't let it go to my head, if I were you. You would benefit from the same lesson as Tidus, just to let you know."
"He does have a point there," Squall said unsympathetically, glancing at Zidane with a satisfied look on his face.
Zidane, in turn, was not impressed, and pointing an accusing finger at the Onion Knight, he said dramatically, "I'm just fine the way I am. I don't need advice from a kid like you."
"A...a k-kid!" the Onion Knight sputtered, leaping to his feet. "Just because I'm the youngest doesn't mean you all have to keep pointing it out all the time!"
And with that, the Onion Knight stomped off to join Firion's group, looking very much annoyed and slightly put out.
"Huh," Bartz said, staring after the Onion Knight. "Can't say I was expecting that."
"Please don't be upset with him," Terra pleaded, a worried look on her face. "He can be a bit sensitive sometimes."
Cloud reached out to place a reassuring hand on Terra's shoulder, and nodding he turned his head towards the Onion Knight and said, "Can't say I blame him. The kid definitely has his reasons for getting all defensive."
"Thank you, Cloud," Terra replied, smiling at him and giving his hand a grateful squeeze. "I'll go talk to him. I'm sure he'll calm down once he's had some time to cool off a bit."
"Sounds like a good idea."
True to her word, Terra bounced lightly to her feet, and setting off she left to join her young friend, who appeared to be complaining quite loudly to the Warrior of Light about Zidane. Cecil, in turn, was trying to console Firion, who still refused to speak to Tidus.
"Good one," Squall said in that calmly sarcastic way of his, kicking Zidane none too gently in the hip with the heel of his boot.
"I was just kidding," Zidane complained, making a face. "I don't see what the big deal is. He is just a kid, and Tidus and Firion will make up like they always do. You can't blame that one on me. Everyone knows those two are close. Friends are allowed to poke fun at each other once in a while."
"Just like we poke fun at you, Squall," Bartz joked, smiling at the stoic warrior.
"And we're your friends. Right, Squall?" Zidane added.
For a moment, Zidane merely stared at Squall, his reason for coming over in the first place having been entirely forgotten, and climbing slowly to his feet, he promptly stormed off with his tail twitching in fury, leaving an astonished Bartz to chase after him.
There was a minute of silence, which Cloud was instantly thankful for, and turning to face him, Squall said, "And they all say I can't take a joke."
Cloud, to his complete surprise, felt his lips turn up in a small smile, and Squall, in turn, favoured the mako-infused warrior with a faint smile of his own.
It was probably for the best that the other warriors of Cosmos missed the exchange, for if they had seen it, they might very well have suffered from simultaneous heart attacks, leaving Cloud and Squall to face Chaos all on their own. Thankfully, though, the rest of the warriors of harmony were too busy making a scene and carrying on in a most un-warrior like fashion, forcing Cecil and the Warrior of Light to step in and act as mediators, to notice, and thus Firion and the others were saved from what would have been a rather unfortunate fate.
The best part about the sudden lack of allies, though, was the fact that Cloud was once again left alone with only Squall for company, and relishing the silence, he lay back on the grass, his arms curling behind his head in a gesture of laziness, though he was more than ready to leap up at a moment's notice to take out any unwanted visitors. "Watch duty tonight. Partners?"
It was only one word, but Cloud understood its significance, and reaching out to give his fellow warrior's shoulder what could be considered an affectionate squeeze, which Squall returned with a surprisingly playful nudge to the ribs, he proceeded to once again brood in silence, though truthfully his thoughts were rather light at the moment.
Cloud had to admit, he hadn't expected watch duty with Squall to be so noisy, but if the stoic warrior didn't mind the occasional interruption, then he supposed he could deal with a few here and there, as well. Besides, if the manikins did attack, they would gain the upper hand on Zidane, Bartz, and Tidus, allowing them to continue their friendly competition unhindered, while at the same time getting first pick of the manikins.
He'd have to remember to thank the Warrior of Light later.
Maybe. If he felt like it.
At the moment, though, Cloud was just happy to enjoy a session of mutual brooding with a fellow warrior who didn't feel the need to ramble on for an extended period of time. Or at least, he would have been brooding if he hadn't suddenly spotted the Warrior of Light stalking towards both him and Squall, a triumphant Zidane following behind him.
Scratch that, he was never forgiving the Warrior of Light.