A/N: It's been a while since I played any of these games, or even watched Advent Children, so forgive any timeline discrepancies. Squall/Cloud - that means it's gay, and it you don't like it, don't read it. Flames are pointed and laughed at and shared with everyone I know, so they can point and laugh, too, and make fun of you. SO, if you're cool with that, and it really makes you THAT happy to spew your small-minded views all over the internet and make yourself look like a moron, then, by all means, I won't stop you.
Written as a birthday gift for the awesome Fey, and in part inspired by 'Hang' by Matchbox 20 and 'Exit Wounds' by the Script. This is NOT a KH or Dissidia Squall/Cloud, but rather a mash-up of the two original worlds.
They'd called it a 'much needed vacation', but Squall knew his friends well enough by now to call it a conspiracy. They'd been plotting something ever since Rinoa left him, as if she was ever really with him in the first place. All she'd ever actually been with was a clay model of a man she intended to mold into her own personal ideal of perfection. When his personality and temperament didn't prove as easy to shape as she would have liked, things went downhill fast.
Apparently, he was falling apart without her. At least, that's what people kept telling him. He thought they were just seeing whatever they wanted to see. Maybe it would be better if he was falling apart. But, after all the times he went running to her rescue, and the year she spent trying to teach him to do tricks, the only thing about Rinoa that Squall could bring himself to miss was her dog. The rest just seemed pointless. He didn't realize that was exactly what had his friends so worried, and exactly the reason they'd sedated him and thrown him on a train headed towards Esthar. They thought if anyone could get his head back on straight, it was Laguna. He severely doubted both their methods and their sanity, but he had to admit, if only to himself, that some time away from the mountain of paperwork on his desk might not be so bad a thing. He could spend a few days reducing the local monster population, try to collect some rare items, do some shopping. The Estharians had probably invented a new sword upgrade by now; that might be worth checking out.
The more that he thought of it, a bit of time in Esthar didn't sound so bad. The only glitch was that he would have to spend time with his father. He still had mixed feelings about his father. Laguna talked too much, and if that wasn't bad enough, he'd never met anyone worse at cards. He'd do what he always did – avoid the man as much as possible until he could decide how he felt about being his son. That tactic had worked pretty well for him so far. He doubted it would work indefinitely, but he intended to push his luck as far as it would go.
When he arrived at the last stop, Laguna was standing there in a ponytail and an island shirt, waving a silk flag, which he'd obviously painted himself, that said 'Welcome Squall!' with a lopsided smiley face on either end. Squall frowned at the display. So much for luck. "Don't you have a country to run?" he complained before Laguna even managed to get out 'hello', and the no doubt endless diatribe that would follow the greeting.
Laguna grinned, holding the flag over his shoulder. "Only on Tuesdays," Laguna joked with a warm chuckle. "Most of the time, it's just reading proposals, signing papers, and 'accidentally' turning the ringer off on my phone. I told Kiros I was going for a walk," he shrugged.
Squall didn't want to admit just how much that sounded like his typical day if you substituted 'proposals' for 'missions'. "Some walk," he answered. The train was still a mountain and half a desert away from Esthar.
"It's okay! I had company!" Laguna answered cheerfully as he led Squall away from the platform. "There's a guy who makes deliveries for me. He happened to be in town, so I convinced him to tag along so Kiros wouldn't yell at me for wandering off on my own. We even drove part of the way. Well, I wanted to walk, but Cloud convinced me we'd never make it before your train arrived if we had to stop for every monster on the way," Laguna rambled in that way he had that made Squall's head spin. On the up side, that let him forget for five minutes that the next train wouldn't be coming this way for three weeks, and unless he stole one of his father's airships – which he didn't actually know how to fly, and which he thought would probably upset the citizens of Esthar, which would then upset his father enough to lecture him over a video-conference (which happens to be much more intimidating a thought than it sounds) – he was stranded in Esthar for the duration.
Laguna interrupted his own train of thought. "Ah, there he is!" The older man waved his hand high over his head, as if he needed to struggle to be seen in the nearly deserted station. At the end of the platform, a spikey-haired blond was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, and answered the exuberant gesture with a slight incline of his head. He kicked off the wall.
"You disappeared," Laguna complained.
"There was a life stream wellspring. I've heard this country is covered in them, but I've never seen one."
Laguna blinked. A who the what?
"We call them draw points," Squall said. He'd heard all about the life stream from some assistance SeeD did with an organization called the WRO on an island in the East. 'What was the name of that island?' Squall struggled to remember for a moment. "A man name Reeve told me about the life stream when I was working in Mideel last year."
"Hn," Cloud answered. "You don't use it as an energy source," he observed.
"We use electricity, mostly," Squall answered. When Cloud gave him a perplexed look, he shrugged. "It's science."
Cloud nodded. He didn't need Squall to say 'Ask a scientist. I don't know how it works.' It was implied, and he understood. And, Squall didn't ask for a little personal space when the blond peered past his shoulder to see how magic was drawn out as Squall took a few thundagas to add to his magic stock. The silence was refreshing, after Laguna's endless chatter.
"All set?" Laguna asked.
"Let's go," Squall answered. He hated wandering around the Estharian desert after dark. It was freezing, and everything looked the same. With the three of them, they passed through the mountains quickly. Yes, Squall would even give Laguna credit – even at his age, the man was better at dodging and break-falling than anyone he'd ever met. 'That must be how he survived falling off of so many cliffs,' he thought dryly. Cloud, though, was impressive. Squall would never say it aloud, but he was easily on par with the upper level SeeD. So then, what was he doing wasting his time being Laguna's delivery boy? It had bothered him all the way through dinner, when Cloud excused himself to return to his hotel.
"If you come by tomorrow afternoon, I'll have a few more packages I need delivered," Laguna said, before wishing him a goodnight.
Squall thought, for a moment, there was a silent conversation going on that he wasn't a part of. The way Laguna sounded just a bit more business than usual, the way Cloud's gaze lowered a bit as he inclined his head. 'I must be imagining things.' Laguna couldn't have held a silent conversation if he had laryngitis.
The next day, after an enormous breakfast, Squall was left to his own devices. Laguna apologized in good humor, "I'm sorry, if I don't get through the proposals on my desk this morning, Kiros will eat me for lunch." He laughed. "We'll do something tonight. I promise."
Squall didn't need those promises, but as he wandered through Esthar on his own, he realized he was a bit disappointed that, his first day here, Laguna wasn't trailing after him like a bad smell. 'I don't care,' he told himself as he looked at accessories, unable to work up a real interest in them. And, when he picked up the new Weapons Monthly, and an issue of Combat King he knew Zell had been looking for since March, he didn't flip through them right away. When he did, he found himself skipping the articles and just skimming for the items needed for the latest upgrade on his gunblade. He paused though, when he saw a picture of a familiarly large blade. 'It's called a buster sword, huh?' It seemed like a really impractical weapon to Squall, but he found himself reading the article weighing the pros and cons pretty closely. It was silly. It had nothing to do with him. Frustrated with his boredom and listless energy, he decided to head out into the desert for the day. He might as well try to collect some of those items for the upgrade. He had nothing else to do. But right around one in the afternoon, he heard a motorcycle. 'In the desert?' he wondered. Just when he was certain he had to be hearing things, it stopped a mere three feet from where he was standing, and Cloud tossed him a brown-wrapped parcel. Before he could ask what the blond was doing, Cloud said, "Special delivery from the President of Esthar. Sign the delivery slip and get on." He patted the back of his motorcycle, where he could fit another person, were he so inclined.
Squall decided to concede and got on. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know the names of places in this country," Cloud answered, but Squall had the feeling that he was just making an excuse to keep him guessing. When Rinoa used to do that, it would annoy him. He didn't like surprises. That's probably because most of the ones he'd had when he was a kid had been bad, but right now, somehow he didn't mind.
Cloud brought him up a narrow mountain pass he didn't know existed stopping his motorcycle once he reached a cliff face with a large tree on it. He didn't say anything as he walked to that spot. For a moment, Squall was taken by the way the sea breeze ruffled his hair. Wait. Sea? Yes, that was definitely the sea. He grew up near Balamb, it was a scent that would probably remind him of home his entire life. He jogged forward to join the blond. The cliff overlooked the ocean on the other side of the mountains. Below, there was nothing but a cobbled shore and the breaking of waves.
Cloud propped his sword in the dirt and leaned back against the tree.
"How did you...?" Squall started to ask. How did Cloud know how much he'd appreciate this view?
"Open your package," Cloud said before he could finish the sentence.
Squall rolled his eyes and sat down in the shade of the large tree with the blond and peeled the brown paper away. There was a cooling unit inside. When he removed the lid he found four sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a thermos full of tea with two disposable cups. On top of it all, a note from Laguna said 'Share with Cloud. He works too hard,' and had a smiley face on the bottom.
"...Idiot," Squall said, stuffing the note into the corner and handing Cloud a slightly battered peanut butter and jelly sandwich and pouring two cups of tea.
"Oolong," Cloud asked, taking a sip. "With honey?"
Squall looked down at his cup. "It's my favorite. I wonder how he knows that?"
Cloud shrugged. "Maybe he likes it, too. You're family, right?"
"I don't even really know what that means," Squall admitted.
Cloud shrugged. "I guess it means you affect each other. Your lives are intertwined."
Squall nodded shortly. "Some good, some bad, huh?"
'I guess it might be nice, if that were true,' Squall thought, but he wasn't ready to believe it just yet.
Over the next week, he'd made a habit of spending half the day out in the desert, fighting monsters. Likewise, Laguna made a habit of sending Cloud out to him with lunch. That much, he could understand. It was an incredibly Laguna thing to do, but why Cloud kept going along with it – that was beyond his ability to reason.
He sheathed his gunblade. "You're sure you don't have something more important to do than bring me turkey sandwiches?" he asked as he signed for the parcel.
"How do you know it's turkey?" Cloud returned as Squall climbed onto the motorcycle with him to head toward their usual spot.
"It's Thursday," he said. "Last Thursday was turkey, spinach, tomato, and dijon mustard. Laguna's schedule so far this week matches last week exactly."
"So does yours."
"I've found you in the same place every day this week as I did on the same day last week," Cloud elaborated. "It's easy to form habits, but not so easy to break them."
Squall almost laughed. "Is that your reason for continuing to bring me lunch?"
Cloud shrugged. "The job is easy, the pay is good, and I get a free meal."
"Fine. Whatever. Don't tell me," Squall scoffed. He knew a bald-faced lie when he saw one. "You're allowed to have secrets."
"So are you," Cloud answered.
Squall was startled by that. "Do I seem like I have secrets?"
Cloud answered the way he always did; he shrugged.
Squall sighed. "There was a girl."
"There always is," Cloud replied.
"The me she saw was only a mirage."
Cloud offered a wistful smile. "It usually is."
"It was exhausting," Squall finished.
Cloud nodded, as if those three small sentences told him the entire story of Squall's life. What they didn't say, he'd already learned from the time they'd spent together this past week and a half, and unlike the girl who couldn't handle reality when the fantasy was over, Cloud thought that Squall had a lot to share with a person who was willing to listen to what he wasn't saying, just as much as what he was – like how lost he felt, not because he loved her, but because he was so incredibly tired of being hurt, and like how, for the same reason, he was afraid to call Laguna his father, because that was just one more person who would eventually disappoint him. Cloud had talked to Laguna, so he knew that Squall had come a long way from where he was when they met, but it was a journey that had been traveled in baby steps and second guesses, and this girl, whoever she was, had cast him backwards down the dark pit he'd been so busy climbing out of. It was no wonder Squall was so emotionally exhausted. But Laguna? Laguna had just said 'please be patient with him' and sent Cloud off into the desert with lunch after lunch as if he'd already figured out that Squall had known too many liars to trust words, so the only way to communicate with him was without them. Cloud had learned a lot about both of them through the gesture.
"There's something Laguna's trying to achieve. I want to help him get there, that's all," he said at last as Squall handed him – sure enough – a turkey sandwich with spinach, tomato, and mustard.
Squall let him hear a bitter little laugh. "Then you're in on it. A busybody, just like the rest of them."
Cloud laughed. "And if I am?"
Squall shrugged. "I don't know."
"Then Laguna will keep making you lunch until you do, and I'll have to keep bringing it to you."
"Because the pay is good," Squall observed.
"Because the pay is good," Cloud agreed with a slight smile, even though he knew the real reason was full of words that Squall wasn't ready to hear, and wouldn't trust even if he heard them.
That left Cloud with quite a dilemma. He had never been the most chatty person, but even so, he didn't know how to tell a person you liked them without coming right out and saying it. The trouble was, he only had three more days to figure it out, unless he could stop the train from coming, or stop Squall from getting on it. 'Three days, huh?'
Cloud wanted to tell Squall that he was interested. He wanted to admit that he found him kind, brave, handsome, and appreciated his dry wit. But, there was no point in saying any of those things until Squall was willing to believe him. He'd even considered a reckless kiss – but the time was never right, and even that might only make matters worse. He was seriously considering taking drastic measures and sabotaging a certain train, which he knew could only go badly. So, he didn't know how to feel when, two days later, Laguna collapsed after dinner.
They'd had a nice meal, if you could ignore the pointed looks Kiros kept giving Laguna, and the way Ward shifted his weight nervously on more than one occasion. Cloud noticed these things, but they'd been static to him, mere background noise to the debate father and son were having about international politics and Esthar's current level of involvement in world affairs. Squall was concerned that Laguna was extending his resources to aid a few morally questionable officials, but Laguna waved it off, saying simply, "Helping people is never a bad thing, Squall." They proceeded to bicker about how Laguna was too trusting and how Squall wasn't trusting enough. The conversation arched far away from the political matter it had started on, but it was only a natural lead-in to what each man really had to say to the other anyway.
Cloud thought it was a nice meal, in spite of the arguing, because Squall and Laguna were finally saying something other than 'please pass the gravy' to one another. He spent most of it reading between the lines, trying to think of how he should talk to what would, no doubt, be an annoyed Squall once the meal was over, and if it might open an opportunity for a more meaningful interaction between them as well. And this is exactly what he was thinking about when Laguna got up, took two steps, swayed only for an instant – just long enough for Kiros and Ward to leap to their feet – and collapsed to the ground before anyone could get nearly close enough to catch him.
He could only watch in shock as Squall jumped to his feet, hopped over the table, and elbowed past Kiros and Ward to reach him first. "Laguna!" he'd cried out in an obvious panic.
Laguna had broken out into a cold sweat. Squall struggled as Ward pushed him away to lift the President.
"What are you doing? What's wrong with him?" Squall demanded adamantly.
Kiros had to intervene to keep Squall from getting in Ward's way. "He needs rest. Ward is taking him back to his room."
Squall threw his hand out to his side, as Cloud had noticed he often did when he was frustrated or angry about something. "That's not an answer!" Squall demanded.
Cloud stepped in right before the distraught SeeD grabbed Kiros, pulling him back by the waist half a step. He didn't think the withering glare Squall shot him for the intervention was any help to his cause. "Calm down!" he shouted at the brunette. "Let them get Laguna in bed, then ask your questions."
An hour later, Cloud found himself getting dizzy just from watching Squall pace in front of his father's bedroom door. "Squall," he said quietly, but the brunette didn't respond. There was only one person in the world that mattered to him right now, and that person wasn't Cloud.
The bedroom door opened. Kiros looked exhausted. "He's awake," he said. "Let him explain it himself." Kiros glanced back over his shoulder. "Don't keep him up all night. He needs to rest, whether he wants to believe it or not."
Laguna gave Squall a sheepish smile when he entered. Invited or not, Cloud followed, quietly keeping to the edge of the room. "I got a little dizzy," he said, rubbing the back of his neck the way he always did. In his pajamas – a pair of cotton pants covered in moombas – and a white undershit – when he scratched his head like that, a rash became visible on the back of his arm.
Cloud noticed it before Squall. And, he knew exactly what it was. "Geostigma," he mumbled.
Laguna's hapless expression faltered. It wasn't very convincing when he looked so pale, anyway. "You know about it, huh?"
Cloud looked off to the side. "I have it too," he mumbled, but with just the three of them in the half-lit room, it sounded far too loud. "I didn't realize it had reached this far."
"...it was my own fault," Laguna admitted.
Squall glared between them. His father had something, something Cloud also had, and he didn't know what it was, but it sounded bad, looked worse, and neither was explaining anything to him. Laguna put his hand over Squall's. "You were complaining about it at dinner, that I was helping Rufus Shinra with a pet project. He got in touch with me a while ago. The people in his country were getting really sick, he said because of something he did. He asked for my help. People are dying. I couldn't turn him down. We were so sure, if he sent me all the data, that Dr. Odine would be able to figure it out, find a cure, or at least a vaccine." Laguna shrugged. "There was an accident in the lab early on." He shrugged. "He's still working on it. I just get tired sometimes. It's fine, really!" he assured Squall. "Odine will have it figured out in no time, so there was no reason to worry you. I'm a bit tired right now though, and you have a train to catch in the morning, so..."
"Don't be stupid!" Squall snapped. "How can I worry about going back to Garden to do paperwork when my father is ill? I'm staying until you're well again, you idiot!"
Laguna and Cloud both looked stunned. For Laguna, it was more about finally hearing his son use the f-word, for Cloud, it was more about the emotional outburst.
"Go to sleep," Squall said stubbornly. "Kiros said you need to rest."
"I'm fine, really," Laguna smiled.
"Sleep, or I'll cast sleep on you," Squall replied stubbornly.
"Fine," Laguna laughed, sliding down his bed and readjusting his pillows. "I get it. Old men need to be in bed before the sun goes down. I see how it is."
Cloud knew Laguna was just acting tough for Squall's sake. Even from across the room he could see the man could scarcely keep his eyes open.
Back in the hall, Squall looked to Cloud. "How bad is this Geostigma, really?" he asked.
Cloud looked out the window at the setting sun. "It's fatal," he answered frankly. "Sometimes it kills quickly, sometimes slowly, but it always kills." He knew that's not what Squall wanted to hear, but the truth was better than a lie if they didn't find a cure before...well, just...before. He felt guilty now. What had he been doing these past two weeks? Wasn't he supposed to be trying to find a cure? And he'd been wasting time bringing Squall lunch. For what? Because he was cute? Cloud knew he was in no position to be thinking of silly things like falling in love now, not when he didn't even know if he'd live long enough to follow through. And now, to find Laguna in the same state...
"I see," Squall answered. His voice sounded dead, like if he let even the slightest hint of one emotion through, the rest was bound to come spilling out with it. "...I have to call Garden to let them know I'll be staying on longer than expected. I'll see you..." He trailed off as if he was going to say 'tomorrow', but couldn't bring himself to force a schedule on a dying man.
'And that's all he sees you as, now,' Cloud thought. 'One more person on the list of...what is it Laguna called it? 'The List of Could-Have-Beens, I think. When it's put that way, it sounds as if I might as well be dead already, but...there are still things I need to do before I can let that happen.' Like, save Laguna, if not for his sake, then for Squall's. It was a selfish desire. There were so many people dying of Geostigma, so many people who needed a hero, but Cloud never claimed to be a hero. He did what he could just to be a man. And, as a man, he wanted to save the person he loved... 'Is it love? Isn't it too soon to know for sure?' … from a broken heart.
When he managed to pull himself from his thoughts, Squall had already disappeared up the hallway. He decided the first thing he needed to do was go see this Dr. Odine, find out if he was any closer to the cure that Shinra and the President of Esthar had entrusted to him.
Squall beat him to it. When Cloud got to the lab, Odine was already cowering under a desk in the corner to try to protect himself from the SeeD's withering glare. "Squall!" Cloud actually exclaimed.
Squall shot a look over his shoulder, but found he couldn't make eye contact and turned back. "It's not what it looks like," but he said it in that tone that implied it was exactly what it looked like.
Cloud dared to move closer and put a hand on Squall's shoulder. "He can't work on a cure if you're holding him hostage," he said softly.
Squall shrugged the hand away. "He can't cure it anyway," he answered. "He just said as much."
"I zaid, I cannot cure it vith my current rezzzources!" Odine sputtered. "But zere is a zing, a zing!" he insisted, for fear of his life. "Ze acteev ingredient! Very rare plant, on ze Island Clozest to Heaven!" He cowered, covering his head with his hands, but Squall's frustration deflated. A plant? That was something he could do, rather than just sit here and wait for his father to die a painful death.
Noting his interest, Dr. Odine inched out carefully from under the desk. "Very rare. It blooms only at midnight, once a year. Ze roots of ze midnight flower go very deep into ze earth, so, ze pollen from zis flower should contain antigens to reverse ze effects of ze stigma."
Squall grabbed Odine's arm and pulled him to the nearby computer. "Show me what I'm looking for," he said.
It was a violet flower with petals tipped a vibrant blue that seemed to glow. 'Like Cloud's eyes,' Squall thought before he checked himself on that. Cloud was the last thing he needed to be thinking about now. They were only friends, anyway, and barely that. But Laguna, and all those other people too. There were a lot of people dying. He would do it for all of them, and pretend his motives weren't entirely selfish. He turned on his heel and jogged all the way back to the castle to stock up on potions and anything else he might need for the journey.
"Squall," Cloud said.
"Stop following me. Shouldn't you be resting, or something?"
Cloud nearly sighed at him. "I'm coming with you."
"No. You're not."
"Don't be stupid, the monsters on that island are strong."
"So am I."
"And if you die trying to get this flower?"
"And if he dies before I get that far?" Squall snipped right back. "Dying isn't an option. I can handle the monsters."
Cloud rolled his eyes. "I'm still coming with you. We can find it faster on Fenrir than on foot."
"…" Squall couldn't quite argue that logic. "Whatever."
Cloud smirked. He knew he'd won that fight as Squall slung a pack over his shoulder and left the room. "You're not going to stop by to see Laguna before you go?"
"No. I..." Squall trailed off. If he saw Laguna now, the older man might talk him out of it, send someone less qualified to do the job, and not get his remedy in time. He might be talked into it, because he really didn't want to leave Laguna's side when he was ill. "Better to let him rest."
"Better for who? You, or him?"
Squall didn't answer.
The Island Closest to Heaven was less than an hour away by spaceship. Once again, Cloud found himself amazed by Estharian technology. He tried to start a conversation with Squall once or twice, but he was focused on the task at hand and not open to chatting with someone he was obviously intent on not getting any closer to.
Cloud wasn't the most social person either, but what Squall was doing to himself couldn't be blamed on social awkwardness; it was a deliberate avoidance. He sighed. "Fine. I get it. If you don't get close to anyone, they can't hurt you. It makes perfect sense. But, they can't help you heal, either, Squall. Didn't you already learn that lesson?" Squall had been the one to tell him that. 'I owe them a lot,' he'd said about his friends. He hadn't meant just the monsters they'd helped him defeat, or the war they'd helped him end, either. He called them his 'anchor' during one of those lunches they shared, but now he'd cut himself adrift, and over what? A girl that wasn't good enough for him? No, this wasn't about the girl anymore. It was about Laguna, who's boundless optimism had wriggled its way into Squall's heart, and whose mortality threatened to make it burst.
Cloud was sure he was probably the worst person to try to talk Squall down from this, but right now, he was the only option.
"Do you want to be the pot, or the kettle?" Squall retorted. "When was the last time you answered that phone that never leaves your side?"
Cloud heard the hidden connotation 'you don't want to talk to YOUR friends, either. You don't want to get to close. You're exactly the same as me.'
"That's not the reason," Cloud answered. "They don't know I have it. Geostigma. They have no idea."
Squall turned a sharp gaze on him.
"They've suffered enough for my sake. I don't want to cause them any more pain. That's all."
"So rather than making them worry that you're dying, they worry because you never answer their calls. Good plan," Squall answered sarcastically. He hated this. He hated feeling this way, and he hated the bitter words that Cloud managed to pull out of him when his emotions were on a rampage. He sighed, disgusted with himself. "Listen, I'm sorry, okay? I don't want to talk. Let's just get this flower and get out of here."
"I don't really think of it as dying," Cloud said quietly. "I'm going to find the cure, so this is just extra motivation to find it quickly."
They were silent for a long time after that. They both thought about Cloud's words hard as they cut through the vicious monsters on the island, looking for the field of blue flowers Odine was so sure would be there. Squall wanted to believe him. He didn't want to lose anyone else, whether it be to death, or to his habit of closing himself off. He knew it was unhealthy, but habits are hard to break, and old ones are the hardest.
Cloud had other reasons for being silent, and when they finally located the field, it was well after dark. The entire field seemed to sparkle and the pollen from the blooming flowers looked like mako-colored fireflies drifting in the air. 'Is this it?' He was afraid to hope that he'd found the cure on this remote island, but he had to hope, for Squall's sake. He bent down and plucked one. "How many do you think he needs?" he asked.
"I don't know. Too much is better than not enough, probably. We'll fill the bag." His heart thundered in his chest as he bent down to the near-translucent flowers. 'Just hang on a little longer, Dad. You too, Cloud. I won't let either of you die.'
He was so focused on that thought, that he didn't even notice the monster coming up behind him.
"Squall! Watch out!" Cloud dropped the bag and rushed forward, swinging his buster sword wildly at the beast.
Squall rolled out of the way just in time to miss being consumed by a column of fire and jumped to his feet as Cloud landed back beside him. "What the hell is a ruby dragon doing here?" he muttered. "This is way too far north for this kind of monster."
"I don't know, why don't you ask it?" Cloud quipped.
They both ducked another column of flame.
"I don't want to. Seems like he's in a bad mood."
"Do you want to be the pot, or the kettle?" Cloud repeated Squall's earlier words right back at him.
"You're hilarious," Squall answered. "Let's finish him off quickly. We've wasted enough time here."
When they'd finally defeated the beast, it was with a sense of horror that they looked out over the once plentiful field. It was burnt to cinders. There wasn't a flower left.
"No." Squall gasped, breathless from the recent battle. "No!"
Cloud picked up the bag and checked inside. One flower. They still had that. "Squall," he said. "Look." He held the lonely flower in the palm of his hand.
Cloud tucked the flower away safely and straddle Fenrir. "It's better than nothing. Come on. Let's get back."
Squall held tight to the blond as they raced back to the Ragnarok. He tried to convince himself that one flower would be enough, that once Odine had it, he would be able to synthesize this active ingredient and cure everyone. His father. Cloud. Everyone. By the time they got back to the ship, he had himself mostly convinced. Even so, they made the long ride back in silence, afraid of jinxing themselves by saying anything too hopeful.
"You should be in bed," Squall chided when Laguna wandered down to the lab.
"Sitting around in bed doesn't stop it from spreading, Squall," Laguna laughed. "I'm fine, really. I'm just a little tired."
Cloud thought he looked more than a 'little' tired. He was pale and half-dressed, like he'd started to get ready to face the day, but ran out of energy halfway through. His shirt was only half buttoned, his hair was loose about his shoulders, and Cloud would put money on his pajama pants still being on underneath his slacks. It was a bet he felt pretty confident he would win. Laguna had probably been hiding the Geostigma for a long time. That fit well with the impression he had of the man.
'You ran off so suddenly, I thought something must be up." Laguna carded his fingers through the fur at Squall's collar. Some of the hairs had been burned black. "It looks like I was right."
"It's nothing. We just went looking for an item that Odine said he needed. Come on. You're going back to bed." He didn't give Laguna enough breathing room to protest.
"You're not my mother," Laguna whined as Squall pulled his arm over his shoulder and dragged him bodily from the lab. The way Laguna stumbled and tripped trying to keep up for the first few steps thwarted any protests he might have had that he was 'fine'.
"No, I'm not. And thank Hyne for that," Squall answered. "I'll let Kiros keep that job."
Laguna laughed. "Don't let him hear you saying that, or he won't like you anymore," he joked.
Before Squall could manage to reply, the slender man appeared around the corner, arms crossed over his chest. "Laguna Loire, what do you think you're doing out of bed!" he huffed.
"Going back to it, if my adorable son has any say in the matter," Laguna conceded as Squall handed him over to the other man.
"He must have got his sense from his mother. He certainly didn't get it from you."
Squall listened to Kiros lecturing his father all the way up the hall. He wondered if he should follow, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. As much as he wanted to be with him, he couldn't bear to watch his condition deteriorating like this. He stared out the window at the sparkling city. "The rash has gotten worse," he said flatly. Only a few hours, and it was that much worse!
Cloud answered with a short nod. Squall didn't need his assurances. He just needed someone to stand there so he didn't have to talk to himself, so he wasn't alone. After a long while, Cloud finally said, "Do you want to go back to the lab? Check on Odine?"
Squall startled out of his, no doubt, depressing thoughts. "You go," he said. "I think I'm going to sit with Laguna a while. Make sure he doesn't try to escape again."
Cloud offered a slight smirk and squeezed Squall's shoulder gently as he got up. "He'll like that," he answered. "I'll come get you if there's any progress."
It was two weeks before Cloud heard anything but twittering about and heavily accented cursing in the laboratory. Squall spent a few days hovering and staring before he realized his presence only made Odine nervous, and there were too many mistakes. With such a limited amount of the flower that was supposed to make all right with the world again, Squall decided not to risk it. He couldn't sleep, barely ate, and Laguna's health continued to deteriorate to the point Squall was starting to think the geostigma had turned him part feline, for all the hours of the day he spent asleep.
Kiros was trying his best to keep it a secret from the citizens of Esthar, but Laguna hadn't been seen about town in a while, or done any interviews, so rumors were beginning to brew. Squall's presence had helped with it for a while – Kiros used it as an excuse: spending some time with family, he called it. That had worked for a few weeks, but Squall's extended visit only made everyone more nervous, as he wasn't in the habit of staying in Esthar very long.
Even Laguna's endless optimism was starting to feel the weight of the disease as his body started to fail him. He still managed to smile, but Squall could tell he didn't really mean it, because when he slept, his lips pulled tight and his brown furrowed as if he was in pain.
"I have something to say," Laguna said, forcing himself to sit up.
"Lay back down," Squall chided.
"I won't. Help me up. I want to walk." His voice was weak, as if every word was an effort.
"You can barely sit up. Standing is out of the question," Squall protested as Laguna carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. He managed to hold himself up like that, but he didn't seem to think he could trust his own stigma-scarred arms to hold him that way for long.
Laguna shook his head. "Just out into the hall. The sun will rise soon. I want to watch it."
There was a finality to those words that Squall hated, but couldn't deny. "Slippers and robe first," he compromised. "You'll catch cold." That was the least of his problems and they both knew it, but Laguna conceded this much, and let Squall help him pull the robe loosely about his sunken frame and help him walk out to the hallway for a good view of the city.
Laguna leaned onto the windowsill, eyes fixed on the view as the first hints of gold haloed the city he'd devoted such a huge chunk of his life to. "For once in your life, listen to me, would you?" he told his son. "We both know I'm probably running out of time."
"Don't say that," Squall replied. He couldn't face it. He wasn't ready to.
"Shush. Let me talk. What I'm trying to say here is, nobody has forever. That's no reason not to appreciate the things you have while you have them." He squeezed Squall's hand. "Don't be so afraid of change. When you cut away all the bullshit, the future never comes. All we have is 'today', and, if we're lucky, more good memories than bad ones. Do me a favor. If you ever let anything I've said through that thick skull of yours, let that be it, huh? Stop making everyone worry about you so much."
Laguna shook his head and pat the back of Squall's hand. "It's okay. You don't have to say anything." He smiled – a genuine smile, if a bit worn down – "though, I'll admit I like hearing you call me that."
"Then stop being so fatalistic and rant at me about how many Father's Day presents I owe you."
Laguna chuckled weakly. "A ton. How old are you now? I guess I've got a major backlog of birthday presents, too, so why don't we just call it even?"
"We'll start from now," Squall answered. "Will you please stop being so stubborn and get back to bed now?"
"Just let me have a little longer," he said. "Esthar is so pretty at this time of day."
"Don't be so stubborn. You're shivering," Squall replied.
Laguna looked down at his hands in surprise. He wasshivering. Why hadn't he noticed? And then, all at once, his body refused to acknowledge his will. The shivering became violent for a moment, and he collapsed. This time, Squall was there to catch him, for what good it did.
Laguna wanted to respond, but couldn't seem to make his mouth move the way he wanted it to. He saw the horrified expression on Squall's face, and for the first time since this began, felt honestly scared. He realized he wasn't ready to die yet. He had so much he still wanted to do. 'Fine time to realize that...'
"Squall!" Cloud hollered as he barreled up the hall to find Squall kneeling on the ground holding Laguna, who seemed to be suffering from some kind of seizure.
"Cloud. I..." Squall trailed off, feeling helpless. He couldn't kill this. He couldn't even fight it. He had no idea what to do.
"Odine finished the serum," Cloud gasped, out of breath from running all the way here. "Hold him still."
Squall blindly obeyed Cloud, who poured the thick blue liquid down Laguna's throat and used his hand to force him to swallow it. The seizure ended, and Laguna lost consciousness. The black marks of stigma started to fade almost instantly, and the young men carried him back to bed.
Squall fell asleep in the chair, waiting for Laguna to wake. When he did, he sat up abruptly, and his stomach growled loudly. "Oh man," Laguna declared. "I'm starving."
Squall startled awake at the sound of his father's voice and in frustration, grabbed a pillow and whacked him in the arm with it. "That's all you have to say?"
"But, I am," Laguna pointed out. "When was the last time I ate?" His stomach rumbled loudly.
Squall was ready to give him hell for worrying him so much; he was obviously just fine, if all he could think about was food, but Cloud snickered. The snicker became an outright laugh, and it surprised Squall so much he couldn't help but feel laughter bubble in his own stomach. "Idiot," he groused.
Laguna grinned. "Still, I've gotta give the doc credit where it's due. I feel awesome. Hungry, but you know, other than that."
"Fine, what do you want. I'll cook," Squall said at last.
"Chocolate cake!" Laguna declared.
"You're not serious."
"I'm always serious," Laguna complained. "I want chocolate cake, but I'll settle for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
That night, Squall found himself standing uncertainly on the other side of Cloud's door. He'd already knocked, so there was no turning back now. When Cloud answered, the words spilled out. "You gave my father the only dose," he blurted.
Cloud shrugged and stepped aside. "Come in, then," he said. He could tell that's what Squall wanted, though he wasn't sure he could tell Squall anything he didn't already know. The brunette's eyes showed a war going on in his head. He was glad that his father was alright, but worried about Cloud.
Cloud tried not to be a bit pleased that Squall thought enough of him to worry, but he failed at that much.
"What will you do now?" Squall asked after a long silence passed between them.
"I was thinking of looking for a movie on the television," Cloud answered frankly.
"Cloud, I'm being serious."
"So am I," Cloud answered. "Odine said he might be able to create a synthetic replica of the antibodies in the President's blood. He's working on that, so I guess I won't be going anywhere for the time being. A movie seemed like a good idea. Have you seen the Sorceress's Knight? It has good reviews."
"Laguna is in that," Squall answered. "It's really old."
"He's an actor, too?" Cloud asked. "Is there anything he hasn't done?"
"Origami," Squall said the first thing that came to mind, but he was distracted from the conversation. For some reason, the words Laguna pushed on him when he thought he was about to die just kept bouncing around in his head. The future never comes. All we have is today, and if we're lucky, more good memories than bad ones. "...Cloud."
"Would it be alright for me to join you?" he asked. "...for the movie?"
Cloud's face broke out in a smile. He'd wanted this breakthrough with Squall for a while now. "All you had to do was ask," he answered. "Do you want beer, or tea?"
"I don't usually drink, but, after the day I've had..."
"Beer, then," Cloud conceded. "I'll get it. The remote is on the couch. You pick the movie. It's all foreign to me." If things went well, they wouldn't spend much time watching it, anyway.
Squall yawned, stretched, and stared at the ceiling for a moment as his eyes remembered how to see after the best night's sleep he'd had in a long time. He could hear bacon sizzling in the nearby kitchenette as he fumbled half asleep to pull on his t-shirt and boxers. He could see his jacket cast over the back of the couch, his shoes and socks neatly placed by the door...
He shuffled to the kitchen counter. "Have you seen my pants?" he asked.
"Mmhm," Cloud answered.
"Are you going to tell me where they are?"
"Maybe after breakfast," Cloud teased, smirking.
"You're holding my pants hostage?"
"You won't leave without them, right?" Cloud answered, setting the bacon off the flame and turning to face the sleepy brunette. He reached forward, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and pulled him in to a passionate good morning kiss. "Why don't you take a shower? Breakfast will be a bit longer."
"Mmn. Fine, but if you don't tell me where my pants are after breakfast, I'm taking yours," he said.
Cloud laughed. "They got kicked under the bed. My side," he called to the closing bathroom door.
It had been another two weeks since Laguna's miraculous recovery. This morning, Cloud was supposed to go to the lab for the new, synthetic serum. He was torn between fear and hope. There was no guarantee it would work, but since Squall had taken to spending the night, he fell into the false security that nothing could possibly go wrong in the world. Logically, he knew that was insane, but life had been anything but logical since he'd come to Esthar. 'Laguna's optimism must be wearing off on me,' he thought, but as he felt Squall's arms wrap around him from behind, and those soft lips graze over the shell of his ear, he acknowledged, if only to himself, that Laguna wasn't the issue.
"You may think I'm edible, Squall, but I'm not a replacement for breakfast. Set the table for me, and check the toast."
It was a bit later in the morning than planned when Cloud and Squall finally got to the lab. Laguna was sitting in the waiting room. "Good morning, sleepyheads," he teased.
"You didn't need to be here for this," Squall told Laguna.
"Of course I do! For moral support!" Laguna said, full of his customary gusto. "I wanted to go over it all with Odine before you got here, make sure he didn't overlook anything. I'm not really a science wiz, but I've learned a lot on the job. It seems sound, as far as I can tell."
Two hours and a needle later, Cloud shrugged. "I don't feel any different," he said.
No sooner had the words spilled past his lips than he was racked with agonizing pain, and a seizure much like the one Laguna suffered from right before the antidote took effect. He could feel Squall beside him, hear him shouting his name as if through a thick layer of water. The seizure ended as quickly as it started, but when he sat up, the look on Squall's face told him all he needed to know. "It's gotten worse," he said flatly. He felt his heart sink into his stomach.
Squall answered the only way he could – he pulled tightly to his chest, where he couldn't see the distress clearly etched on his features. Cloud took the opportunity to clear his mind. Okay. It didn't work. What now? He could hear Laguna and Odine arguing in harsh whispers, but all he could quite make out for certain was that thick accent saying 'ze formula eez perfect!' and then something about 'eet cannot be replicated.'
'So, that's it, then.' He didn't feel as devastated as he knew he should. He didn't know if it was shock, or just the fact that he had gotten so used to the idea that he was dying, that the fact he was still dying didn't seem to change his life that much. It just meant he had to keep looking.
He stayed on in Esthar for three more days, until Squall calmed down a little, but on the third morning, he knew it was time to go. He didn't want to leave Squall behind, but he had to find a cure, before it was too late. He was careful not to wake his lover, but when he was about to rest a note on the pillow, Squall rolled over. "I don't even get a goodbye?" he asked.
"This isn't goodbye," Cloud answered, memorizing every dip and shadow of the SeeD's skin, reminding himself for the thousandth time that there was something he absolutely had to live to come back to.
"Then what would you call it?" Squall asked a little bitterly.
Cloud sighed and sat lightly on the edge of the bed. "It's just a trip," he said. "I'm coming back." He sounded so sure of that, he managed to convince them both.
"I'll come with you," Squall said.
Cloud shook his head. "I'm not the only person depending on you. Go back to your friends. Once I've done what's necessary, I will find you, Squall."
Squall didn't look entirely convinced, so Cloud leaned over and kissed him softly on the mouth. "It's a promise," he said. "One I intend to keep. Just because those flowers won't bloom again doesn't mean there's not another way. I have to believe there is, and I'll find it."
Squall knew a lost battle when he saw one. He also knew, a little too well, that determined and unflappable look on Cloud's face. "Whatever," he muttered.
"I'm serious," Cloud said. "So don't go picking up any more good-for-nothing girlfriends while I'm away. I'll get jealous."
"I'm going to hold you to that promise," Squall said petulantly. "This time, I'll be the one waiting."
Cloud quirked a brow. What exactly did that mean? Squall obviously wasn't going to tell him. He pulled Cloud down into one last kiss. "I'll be waiting," Squall repeated, "for you to find me, so don't make me wait long."
"Hn. I'll call you," Cloud said.
"No you won't," Squall answered. "We both know you won't."
Cloud kissed the corner of Squall's mouth. "Fine. Maybe I won't, but mostly because you don't carry a phone."
Squall shrugged. "I always break them."
Cloud melted into another 'one last kiss' – how many of them had they had now? He put his hand on Squall's chest and pushed him back a little. "As much as I'd love to stay in bed with you all day," he smirked, "we both know I can't."
"Do we?" Squall quipped. He understood the logic. He did. They both had things they needed to do. That didn't make it suck any less.
"We do," Cloud said. "The sooner you let me leave, the sooner I'll come back."
"Then hurry up and get lost," Squall sighed, defeated, and flopped back against the bed.
Cloud leaned over him, one last time – for real this time. "You trust me, don't you?"
"More than I should," Squall answered reticently.
Cloud kissed his forehead. "We were up late. Get some more sleep," he said, before brushing out of the room. Squall listened for the familiar sound of the blond's motorcycle, but Esthar was a big city, and all he was left with was silence.
One Year Later. The Slums of Midgar.
Cloud stood in the pool in Aerith's church, watching the Geostigma fade to nothingness, and found himself torn between laughter and tears. It seemed like the twisted path he'd walked in his life had somehow come full circle. The light played tricks on his eyes. He thought he saw Zack standing with his arms crossed in the doorway, but when he blinked the vision before him was of another man. His hair had grown long, so it took him a moment to recognize him, but those belts, and that scar. How many times had he longed to press his lips against that scar this past year?
He fumbled quickly out of the water and rushed forward to meet the brunette, who pulled him into a strong embrace and a soft kiss, witnesses be damned. It had been a year.
"I thought you were supposed to be waiting for me," Cloud whispered through a wry little smile.
Squall shrugged. "Turns out I'm not the waiting type," Squall answered. "I got impatient."
"Well, I guess I'll forgive you," Cloud answered, resting his head against the taller man's shoulder.
"Cloud?" Tifa's voice cut through the moment to remind him there was still a world out there beyond Squall's arms.
"Right," he said, smiling up at the SeeD. "I should introduce you to my friends." As he straightened himself up, he could see an eclectic group of strangers past Squall's shoulder – a bouncy girl in a yellow jumpsuit, a cowboy, an energetic blond with a goofy grin and a facial tattoo, and a blonde woman with glasses looking oddly bemused.
Squall looked back over his shoulder at their stupid, yet morally supportive, grins. "...yeah. I guess that works both ways," he answered. "Those idiots follow me everywhere."
"Nothing wrong with that, right?" Cloud asked, stealing one more kiss before Tifa reamed him a new one.
"I guess not," Squall answered. "But don't tell them I said so."
Predictably, the other brunette in his life interrupted him more firmly. "Clouuddd, " Tifa huffed.
Cloud looked back with a smile so vibrant, it startled her. "I know, Tifa. It's a long story. You've got to bear with me."
"I like stories!" Denzel piped up.
Cloud frowned thoughtfully, not sure where to start. "Well, alright," he answered awkwardly. After all he'd put them through, he could manage at least that much, couldn't he? "So, uh, once upon a time," he hesitated, not sure where to even start. "There was a Knight," he decided on.
"What was his name?" Marlene interrupted.
"Laguna," Cloud replied.
"You're starting that far back?" Squall asked.
"If I don't, it doesn't make sense, right?"
Squall shrugged. "Whatever. It's your story."
Cloud chuckled. "Obviously. That's why I'm the one telling it."
"What kind of story is it?" a child he didn't know asked. "Is it an adventure story?"
Another child he didn't know said, "nu-uh! It's got to be a love story!"
Cloud looked back over his shoulder at Squall and answered, "It's both. Now, do you want to hear it, or not?"
A chorus of childish voices declared, "Yeah!"
Squall rolled his eyes, but couldn't hide the faintest of smirks. He egged the children on. "Go on," he said. "Tell your story. Even I'm wondering how it ends."
Cloud shook his head. There were a lot of things that could be said without words, and some of them carried better that way, but he knew, for all the things he could say to Squall without words, there was an equal number of things he could say with them.
"Once upon a time, there was a Knight named Laguna," he began again. "He was always cheerful and happy, so everyone loved him, but, this story isn't about Laguna. It's about his son who was also a knight, and not very cheerful or happy at all..."
"Did he become cheerful and happy?" one of the children interrupted.
Squall curled his lip wryly. "Eventually," he said on Cloud's behalf.
"Eventually," Cloud agreed, curling his fingers into the SeeD's. "I don't think you really want to hear this story," he said.
"We do!" Denzel insisted.
"Tell us, Cloud!" Marlene begged.
Tifa giggled. "Yeah, tell us, Cloud. I'm sure there's a princess," she teased, already seeing where this was going.
Cloud blushed. "Actually, it was a prince."