Well, I've dusted my Leon/Cloud off to write a birthday gift for the Awesome (with a capital A) Fey.

Standard Disclaimers Apply.

Slash pairing, so if you don't like it, bugger off :).

Rated for the most insignificant amount of potty mouth I think I've ever used in a fic. Seriously, I think there's only one bad word in the entire thing, not that I was counting.

The Darkness

Part I

Squall hasn't changed as much as he thinks. He would still fight his way to an early grave if his friends weren't there to stop him. Cloud wants to be there to stop him, but it's painful to watch. The man calls himself 'Leon', as if changing his name can change his sorrows. Out of respect for the effort, Cloud calls him Leon, too, but in the privacy of his own mind, Squall will always be Squall.

And, Squall is someone that Cloud absolutely does not want Sephiroth to find out about: a secret obsession that must not be discovered. Cloud can't lose Squall – even a Squall who calls himself Leon to hide from all that he's lost – so he never stays long. Leaving is as painful as watching. Staying is as painful as leaving, but he knows – when Squall comes home from patrolling for heartless with a bloody gash running all the way up his forearm and pulls out a sewing kit along with a handful of potions to put himself back together – that for the moment leaving will be less painful than staying.

"I'll make dinner," Cloud volunteers. Squall is a better cook and they both know it, but if he's busy cooking, then he doesn't have to watch, and Squall doesn't have to try to maintain a stoic expression on his face through the pain. It's mutually advantageous.

"Sounds good," the brunette answers gruffly from hall, as he pulls out a towel that was once white, but now has so many bloodstains on it that it nearly looks tie dyed. Cloud knows that towel very well, because it's always an active effort to ignore it when he's rummaging through the linen closet. It's on the list of things they don't discuss, right up there with why Squall is using the heartless threat to try and kill himself, why Cloud took up residence on his couch without a word three years ago, and why Squall never asked him to leave. Cloud knows that all of these whys are related, but he also knows that the unspoken answer at the center of them is something he doesn't dare say aloud, not until he puts Sephiroth behind him once and for all. Whether or not Squall's body would survive his self-destructive personality long enough to see that day was up for debate.

Cloud frowns at the cupboards, searching for something edible, sniffs a package of meat he finds in the refrigerator. Deciding it seems like it won't kill them, he puts it on the counter with a bag of potatoes, and pulls one of the kitchen chairs toward the stove so that he can get a frying pan from the overhead rack, all the while cursing Squall's long arms. He feels like a midget in this house. Cloud had decided long ago that he was very happy in his delusions that he was 'not that short' and so remained contently in denial on the subject for the most part. Except, the last time he decided to cook, he tried to use the hilt of his sword to free a pan from the rack, and had very expediently learned his lesson when the whole rack came down on his head. He remembers Squall standing in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, smirking. He'd said, 'I'll buy you a stool'. Cloud can't remember Squall ever looking so entertained, before or since – smug bastard. Squall had, in fact, purchased a stool, but Cloud refuses to use it, as a matter of pride. He puts the pan on the stove top and pushes the chair back toward the table, the memory of the clatter and crash still quite loud in his head. He also remembers Squall holding an ice cube to a lump on his forehead, the close proximity, the brunette's musky scent, and how quickly the ice melted under the assault of a blush that darted straight up to his hairline and down the back of his neck. He should be too old for feverish infatuations, but, glancing back toward the door to the living room, wondering if Squall is alright, he knows there is no such thing as too old for feverish infatuations, and sighs. He has been intrigued by Squall since they first met, when the brunette was carried into Twilight Town covered in blood and the unmistakable stench of despair. Since then, Squall has become the nerve center of the Radiant Garden – a natural born leader – but that stench hasn't entirely left him; it's only been covered over by the scent of more recent turmoil, and possibly a desire for revenge that Cloud grudgingly admits he knows only too well. Cloud had been intrigued, now it was something stares blankly at the meat on the counter, but rather than thinking about how to season it, he wonders when intrigue had become infatuation, and puzzles about how thin the line must be that one can step over it without noticing. Cloud can't identify when he fell in love with Squall. It troubles him that he never noticed. This is another reason – on a list of many – that he can't breach the subject with a man in such desperate need of something to hold on to.

'Well, we're both like that. Maybe soldiers always are,' Cloud thinks a little bitterly, snapping himself out of his reverie just in time to hear a loud crash from the adjoining room.

"Squall!" he declares as he reaches the doorway, forgetting, in his haste, to correct himself before the name slips out.

He doesn't see Squall's head and shoulders – as customary – stooped forward on the couch while he works. Worry and uncertainty overtake him as he skirts around the edges of the furniture. Worry is confirmed when he finds the man collapsed and only partially conscious on the floor. His arm has been treated and bandaged, with dapples of blood peeking through where the potions are still trying to work their magic, but now that the brunette's shirt and jacket are off, bloody and cast on the hardwood flooring, Cloud can see the gash, that had so worried him was the lesser of Squall's injuries. Beside a large scar on Squall's midsection that Cloud has never found the words, opportunity, or nerve to ask about, a hole the size of a coin pierces straight through the brunette. A hi-potion spills out onto the floor beside the body, gone quite pale from blood loss, but still conscious at some rudimentary level. His lips are drawn tight; his brow furrows; his eyelashes flutter.

Cloud freezes, if only for a moment, remembering the pain of a sharp blade passing through his own midsection, once upon a time. The memory is vague now, very nearly a dream, but his hand, for an instant, comes to the site of the old injury all the same. Then, reality comes crashing back in. Squall is losing blood, and a lot of it. A hi-potion isn't going to be nearly enough. All the same, it should slow the bleeding. He grabs another out of his own pocket; Squall's stock has shattered to the floor with him, and the prone man is surrounded by a minefield of broken glass. Glass is the least of Cloud's worries for the moment. All the same, he is careful to avoid it, if only to keep from giving Squall any further injuries and pulls the brunette's head into his lap, forcing the liquid past his lips. A curaga is next on the agenda – then several more cast in sequence, until Cloud's nerves tingle from the exertion and he can't summon the energy to cast another. The bleeding stops, the wound begins to close. Cloud knows an injury like this won't heal overnight – not with all the magic in the world, but Squall's peaceful countenance shatters something in him; unconsciousness looks so like death he fears, for a moment, burying another man who should have been a lover, but who isn't, because for the second time in his life, Cloud has found himself too afraid to make his feelings clear and risk ruining the imperfect bliss that comes from camaraderie. 'How can I be so stupid?!' he demands of himself, petting dark hair away from a feverish brow – the fever comforts him, if only because it means Squall's body is warm. He forces himself to focus on Squall's injuries rather than his own inner turmoil. It's clear which of the two things is more important. He reaches for the first aid kit to bandage the man's midsection. It's a clumsy job, performed from an awkward angle with Squall's dead weight hindering his progress, but he makes doubly certain the bandages are tight, and fusses over them until he's satisfied. Once he is, he lifts the taller man easily – after years of carrying the buster sword, even Squall's densely packed musculature is no cause for significant strain. Cloud carries him upstairs to bed.

Once there, he paces. He chews his nails. He pulls a chair to the side of the bed and sits, but only for a moment before the pacing resumes again. Eventually, when he's allowed his worry to crescendo to the point that weariness overtakes him, and his feet have become so sore that he can no longer maintain his pacing, Cloud finally relents to compulsion and settles gingerly onto the bed beside the other. He caresses Squall's face: the knit brow, the strong jaw, lets his fingers pass gently over lips he's longed to kiss, and sighs. He curls in close to the man – Squall's body heat a comfort that reminds him the worst has not yet come to pass – and presses his forehead lightly to Squall's bare shoulder.

"Squall," he whispers the man's name so quietly he's not sure he said the word aloud at all. "I've been such an idiot. I should have said something sooner. I should have said from the beginning."

"You don't need to say anything," Squall rasps, his voice still tight, though more from weakness than pain as the magic knits him slowly back together.

It startles Cloud, who jumps, and sees Squall's brow knit with pain at the sudden movement of the bed. He quickly apologizes. Squall hasn't opened his eyes, but it is clear that he's awake from his wrinkled nose and sullen pout. It is less clear whether or not he wants to be.

"I – I'll let you rest," Cloud stumbles. "Do you need anything?"

"Just lay back down, Cloud. You're warm," Squall answers.

Cloud does so, uncertainly and very carefully. His brain seeks reason, and decides to blame Squall's unusual frankness on the blood loss.

Leon, or Squall, whatever he might call himself in the privacy of his own mind, nearly laughs. It is only the thought of how painful it would be to do so that stops him. "I'm injured, not made of glass," he tells Cloud, who gets the message and curls in close, rests his hand lightly on Squall's uninjured hand. Cloud doesn't know why it surprises him so when Squall turns it over so they might lace their fingers together. He doesn't let his surprise stop him from taking the offer. If it weren't for the dire circumstances, Cloud is certain he would be overcome by bliss at the fingers curled around his own. As it is, he isn't sure how to react or what to say. Squall's consciousness curbed his confession, which would have been far easier to say for the first time when he knew the other man wasn't listening. Reality threatened to crash back in. It was only Squall's hand squeezing his own lightly that held him firmly in this incomplete moment that left his pulse racing with wonder. Would it become a perfect memory? A bitter disappointment? Either seemed equally as likely, and Cloud found speech impossible; he felt like whatever he might say would alter his life into something unrecognizable.

Squall saved him the trouble. "This sort of thing never really works out for me," he said tentatively. "But, I've been informed, rather incessantly, that that shouldn't stop me."

Cloud blinked. Squall finally opened his eyes and turned to look at the blond, and a small smile graced his lips when he saw the dumbfounded expression the blond was wearing.

"I don't explain it well," Squall says apologetically. "If you'd met my father, he was always better at speeches. He used to tell me...let me think, what was it...I've forgotten the exact words."

Cloud thinks it upsets Squall that he can't remember it precisely. "Paraphrase it, then," Cloud says, squeezing the brunette's hand tighter, because he wants to distract him from everything in the world that causes him to suffer, even his own memory, or the holes in it.

Squall sighs. "It was something like, I shouldn't let fear of the future ruin the present. I think that's more or less what he was getting at. He talked so much that I always ended up tuning him out. I regret that, now. Ah," Squall says, startled, as the sudden epiphany hit him. "Maybe that's what he was trying to get at. Regrets."

Cloud watches the process of Squall's thoughts play across his face for an extended moment before, with his pulse racing, taking the chance. "It's easier to regret things you haven't done, then things you have, you mean."

Squall grimaces as he rolls to his side to face Cloud more properly. Cloud tries to stop him, but Squall will have none of it. He caresses Cloud's cheek lightly. Cloud's eyes widen. His spine tingles.

"I don't want to have any regrets about you, Cloud," Squall says.

"Me either," Cloud answers, wondering how Squall managed to take over his awkward and stumbling confession. 'The same way he's taken over your heart, Cloud Strife – one gesture at a time. He's taking pity on you and leading the conversation so you don't have to.' Cloud feels his pride as a man sink a little as he realizes it, and determines not to let it sink any further. Squall parts his lips, but Cloud is the first to speak this time. "I love you." He says it as such a bundle of syllables that his pride as a man takes a blow in spite of his efforts to the contrary. He looks away, embarrassed by his nervousness and says more slowly. "I love you, Squall. So, when you go off half cocked like this and come back barely breathing, I...!"

"I know," Squall answers, biting his lip against the pain of stretching the half-healed wound in his abdomen, as he pulls Cloud in close. "And, I'm sorry. I'd sooner die than see anyone I care about hurt again. I know that worries you, but I won't change."

Cloud sighs as he curls into the embrace. "You're so stubborn."

"I know," Squall answers. "That won't change, either."

"I know," Cloud sighs again. "I'm going to have to put up with your macho shit forever."

"Mn," Squall replies. "If you can tolerate me for that long."

"I can," Cloud answers, "if you can keep yourself alive that long."

He feels Squall's smirk press against his brow. "I'm not so easy to kill."

The words resonate in Cloud, who remembers his own near death encounters, and his body tenses in spite of being wrapped in Squall's arms. A feeling sinks into the pit of his stomach. Was it really just the Heartless that had put Squall into such a state? He'd fought alongside Squall dozens of times against the Heartless and rarely did the man end up with worse than scuffed boots. The Heartless, really, were only a threat because of their multitude. But, Squall was battered. He could have been killed. Cloud doesn't believe that the Heartless could be to blame for this.

"Squall, what happened?" Cloud asks.

"Patrol," Squall mumbles, burying his face a bit deeper into the pillow.

Cloud knows that the blood loss must have exhausted Squall, but he can't let it go. "Bull," Cloud replies frankly. "Who were you fighting?"

"It's not bull. You run into all sorts of things on patrol," Squall answers the first question but not the second. Cloud doesn't miss that.

"Squall," Cloud presses.

"I'm tired, Cloud. And, I don't want to argue with you right after you told me you love me. I'll be fine in the morning. Just leave it be, and sleep."

Cloud sighs dramatically, but Squall's convinced him on the point that they shouldn't fight right after he's confessed. Squall is embracing him, which, in spite of his worries, is really rather nice, and for the moment, Cloud accepts that as enough. He determines that in the morning, when Squall is feeling better, that he'll get an answer to that question. For now, he relents by repeating the words he's waited far too long to say. "I love you, Squall. Pleasant dreams."

Squall places a tender kiss to Cloud's forehead and answers, "They will be," as if, with Cloud beside him like this, it's impossible for them to be anything else.

Cloud blushes, and finds it difficult to sleep for his excitement. Squall may not have returned those three words, but Cloud gets the message loud and clear. Things will be better now. He's sure of it, so he'll stay; he'll stay for as long as he can.

Part II

Six months later, Cloud wonders if he's become too complacent. He never did get an answer to that question. Mostly, he forgets to think about it, and Squall is more careful now. Cloud often goes with him on his patrols of the city, but even when he doesn't, Squall seldom comes home as battered as he used to. The months have flown by. They're a blur of patrols and stolen kisses, idle caresses and behavior too inappropriate to put to the page, long walks, elaborate dinners, and even the occasional visit to the rebuilt theater – when Squall's hectic schedule allows the time.

Squall no longer sulks at Cloud for calling him 'Squall', but it is a privilege Cloud alone enjoys, and Cloud likes holding the special place beside the brunette, who smiles much more readily and often these days.

Cloud thinks, if not for the nightmares, his life would be perfect. But, there are the nightmares. Like today, when he wakes at dawn in a cold sweat, and his pulse races in horror at the empty half of the bed until he realizes the shower is running, and listens as the water turns off. Even so, he can't feel at ease. He grips the covers and waits. He determines to wait this time. He feels like a fool every time he pushes open the bathroom door just to be certain it's Squall on the other side. He makes it an extra twenty seconds before he curses himself and gets out of the bed, padding to the adjoining lavatory and gingerly pushing the door open, peeking inside.

Squall is in boxers, shaving. The six month old scar is still dark on his skin, and Cloud can't help but focus on this, as he remembers how terrifying it was to fear the loss of his beloved.

Neither man says anything as Cloud stands in the doorway, but as Squall finishes, he turns and reaches out to pull him close. "Bad dreams again?" he asks, running his hand down along Cloud's bare back to try and soothe him.

"Don't make fun of me," Cloud complains. The nightmares are an embarrassment. He hates that Squall knows about them.

"I'm not making fun of you," Squall says, and dips his head to kiss the side of Cloud's neck. "I'm distracting you."

Cloud knows what an expert at distractions Squall is, or he'd not have spent six months trying to ask the same question. Now it feels too late. The longer he delays, the harder it is to work it into conversation.

"Don't," Cloud blushes and pushes against Squall's chest even though his body is screaming, 'Do!' "You'll need to take another shower."

"Mn, but I'll have company for the second one," Squall answers suggestively, maneuvering them out of the minuscule bathroom and into the more moderately sized bedroom. The tone, and Squall's lips on his jaw, are so tempting, Cloud barely manages to remember why he is protesting.

"I don't want to be distracted," Cloud insists, finally pulling away in spite of the way his body tingles at Squall's touch.

"Do you finally want to talk about these nightmares of yours, then?" Squall asks as he sits on the edge of the bed to pull on his socks, then is t-shirt.

He hasn't gotten so far as his pants yet when Cloud snips back, "Do you finally want to talk about that scar?"

Even though Squall has several, he knows exactly to which one Cloud is referring. He sighs. "Are you still hung up on that? We're soldiers, Cloud, both of us. Scars are going to happen. It's not something to make such a fuss over. I'm perfectly fine now, and in a few years, it will have faded so much you'll hardly notice it."

"I don't care about the scar!" Cloud declares, spinning about angrily. "I care about the fact that every time I ask you how you got it, you dodge the question! What are you hiding from me, Squall? Why are you hiding things from me?" he demands.

Squall sighs again. "Not 'things', just the one," he finally admits. "I don't like telling you things that I know will piss you off." He hedges.

A chill runs down Cloud's spine at that hesitation, and his anger evaporates in favor of fear, a feeling previously only Sephiroth could engender. He gets goosebumps, drawing a connection instantly in his mind.

"...I like having you here," Squall admits awkwardly, dragging his fingers over his facial scar, the way he always does when he's troubled. Cloud doesn't know when he noticed that habit, but he pulls the hand away and squeezes it – a recent custom he's developed that seems to calm Squall's nerves.

"I don't want to tell you anything that might change that," Squall finishes.

Squall doesn't show any sign of saying anything more, so Cloud says it for him. "It was Him, wasn't it? Him and his stupidly long sword."

Squall sighs again, confirming everything for Cloud. "He caught me off guard. I don't think he ended up any better off than I did, or we'd have run into him again by now, most likely."

"He'll be back," Cloud says. He doesn't know how to explain. He only half understands it himself. He and Sephiroth are connected. "As long as there's darkness in me, he'll keep coming back to try to destroy all that's light and good in my life."

Squall looks perplexed, but eventually shrugs. "Then I'll just have to keep getting stronger, and keep kicking his ass."

"Keep kicking is ass? You nearly died the last time!" Cloud protests, though he doesn't know why it seems funny now.

When a tiny smirk graces Squall's lips, Cloud laughs, as senseless as he knows that is.

"Then you're going to have to stick around to help me train, because all of our friends are wimps," Squall jokes. Cloud doesn't know where the hysterical laughter is coming from, because the joke really wasn't very funny. Squall's jokes generally weren't very funny – small, subtle things that they were – but Cloud always loved them.

Squall pushes him back down against the bed and kisses his throat. It tickles, and Cloud laughs even more. In response, Squall smiles rather brightly down at him. The twinkle in his pale eyes takes Cloud's breath away. "I dare you to say that to Yuffie's face," he eventually responds.

"Not going to happen. She'll never shut up. She's so loud."

"I don't want to hear from you about people being loud after last night," Cloud replies.

This time, Squall laughs. It's a little rumble from deep in his chest that makes Cloud's abdomen tingle. He pulls Squall down into a kiss, which Squall is only too eager to return. They would train later.

As for the Darkness, to hell with it. Cloud had true love to keep it at bay, and that would just have to be enough.

~The End~