Game Rules
July
2008

 

[Cloud]

Standing on a sunlit street, I can't exactly recall how I got here.  It feels wrong in a way that evades me like a faded dream, or more suiting my headache, like a drunken night that I'll never remember properly.  The sky feels too clear, too blue, but it has always been that way in this place that used to be called Radiant Garden.  And though the city is in the middle of reconstruction, the place is serene and painstakingly clean, making me feel like a smudge of soot against the wall that I lean against.  It's wrong, everything is wrong, but I don't know where else to be.

"Oh, Cloud!"

I glance up at the young voice calling my name, and once recognizing Sora and his odd friends, I close my eyes to prevent further damage to my headache.

"Whatcha doing?" the duck asks, unafraid to bother a grumpy soldier.

Still clueless about how I got here, let alone why, I grasp onto the only thought that feels clear in my mind.  "I'll get him.  This time we settle it.  Me, and the one who embodies all the darkness in me."

They all stare at me, only the duck brave enough to comment, "I thought you looked kinda different, Cloud."

It's hard to decide what part looks different about me: my clothes, my attitude, my soul... "If I do, it's his fault."

"Whose?" Sora asks, honestly curious and always eager to help.

"Sephiroth," I say, the name burning in my mouth.  "Tell me if you see him."

Sora nods.  "Okay.  What's he look like?"

"Silver hair.  Carries a long sword."

"Sure...  Well, be seeing you, Cloud."  Sora's tone is too light, like a child promising to give his mother a message about a phone call.

"Be careful," I warn earnestly as I push up from the wall.  "He messes with your head, makes you think darkness is the only way."

Sora and the duck look at me strangely, perhaps considering that I'm already messed in the head, but the dog seems to give my warning some thought.  I don't know if that means anything when a character named 'Goofy' is the one who believes me, but at least someone is listening to my words.

"Is something wrong?"

The gentle tone somewhat startles me, vague memories surfacing at the woman's voice (flowers, a motorcycle, a materia sphere, a striking sword), and then I remember my own voice, broken and tired while sounding within darkness ('Aerith will no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry... or get angry...').  It physically hurts to be assaulted by those memories and I can't cope with facing the woman who gazes at everyone with warm green eyes, eyes that I've seen misted over with death.

I turn my back to Aerith and move in the direction of the nearby stairway.  Unfortunately, I can clearly hear her steps following behind me, the young woman ignoring Sora's inelegant attempts to offer a reply in my stead.

Once I conclude that Aerith will follow me until she gets an answer, I stop and turn around to face her.  "It's nothing."

She hums skeptically at my response and leans in overly close as if that could give her better insight into my thoughts.

"I don't want you involved," I maintain, knowing that it's probably a foolish hope to scare off the intuitive woman.

She straightens at the comment, a fisted hand moving to her chin in thought before she eventually states, "You mean you don't want me there when you go away again?"

"I just--"  Damn this woman and her ability to see things a normal person shouldn't be able to see.  "Listen, even if I go far away, I'll come back."

"Do you mean it?" she asks, not out of doubt, but to make certain I understand what I'm promising.

I glance to the side and consider (remember) a life where Aerith doesn't exist.  Frankly, I don't like the idea no matter how much she interferes in everything I do.  Exhaling a harsh sigh, I know that history may repeat itself if I don't settle things with Sephiroth.  I need to take him out of the picture before something happens, even if my memories aren't true.

Though facing Sephiroth may mean my death, I try to mean it when I reply to her question.  "Yeah."

"See?  You don't look so sure," she taunts, once again reading everything in my voice and expression without needing real words.  "Well okay, I understand.  Go, get things settled."

A surprised 'huh?' escapes me at receiving her permission.

Meeting my glowing eyes without fear, she explains, "No matter how far away you are... once you find your light... I'm sure it will lead you back here again.  Right?"  Only that last word reflects any of her worry, as if she wanted to make certain that I wasn't planning a suicide mission.

"I suppose."

"So I'll stay here... and I'll cheer for you.  Okay, Cloud?"  In other words, I have something to live for and return to beyond my need to confront Sephiroth.

"Okay."

First glancing away from her keen eyes, I turn around and head down the set of stairs with no other intention than running away from Aerith.  Unfortunately, it does nothing to quiet the sound in my head, a faint chiming that mimics a fragile sphere rolling down stone steps.

From behind me, I hear Aerith comment sorrowfully, "Wonder if he'll be okay."

Sora replies, "He'll be fine.  I'm sure there's some light in him somewhere."

When Aerith gives the hopeful reply of, "You're right," it hurts to know that she wants to have faith that I'm something more than a soldier with a mission.

My boots sound on the final steps of the cement stairway and I consider that I don't know where I'm going aside from 'not here'.  Maybe it would be best to retrieve my buster blade from its hiding place and go practice where I won't scare anyone with my inhuman actions.  Turning the corner, I cover three paces before I notice the dark-haired man leaning against the lower portion of stairway.  Arms crossed over his chest, Leon looks at me from his hiding place, and though his lips are set into a neutral line, I swear that he's grinning.

"If you can't be convincing, you shouldn't bother lying like that."

My hands tighten into fists, the leather of my gloves creaking at the action.  "What does it matter to you?" I ask, something about this man setting off every warning signal in my head.  ...Which isn't how should be considering the cleaner memories that exist in my rattled brain.  In this place, in Radiant Garden, I knew Squall Leonhart as a friend and a sworn blood brother, both of us kids who played with toy swords and saved imaginary damsels.  That was nearly two decades in the past and long before this 'Divide' and Heartless crap.

All of us who played together in Radiant Garden were separated for various reasons, not fully reunited until two years ago.  At that time, this man welcomed me back along with the others, but he wasn't 'Squall' anymore.  He was... is 'Leon'.

His not-grin still in place, Leon replies, "I trust you in a fight.  It'd be a shame to lose you again."

It's funny he can say that when I'm reluctant to show him my back.  "I have things to settle."

"Hn, that Sephiroth business," he comments in a pensive tone.  "I've been meaning to ask you about that."

I stare at him, prepared to battle the point that I need my revenge, I need to stop that bastard no matter the cost.

"I haven't met the man, so I'll have to trust your word about his immoral ways, but what exactly did he do to ignite this obsession of yours?"

I scoff out a harsh laugh, amazed that Leon even needs to ask the question, but when I open my mouth to reply, I find no words available to me.  In that panicked moment, I can't think of a single event behind my deadly fixation with Sephiroth, but shaded memories assault me (raging fires, the tip of a sword, green all around) and offer nothing I can use.  Typical.

When I blink away the aftereffects of those memories, I find Leon staring at me with a knife-like gleam to his eyes.

"There's a reason," I state firmly, maybe a touch desperately.

"I'm certain there is," Leon says without the mocking edge I would have expected.  Demonstrating a fighter's grace, he lifts up from the wall and walks toward me, but passes by without stopping.  "Sora will be looking for me soon, so I can't stay.  Meet me at my place tonight whenever you want - I'll be awake."

I don't bother turning around, certain that it wouldn't matter.  In this universe, the Keyblade Master and his tasks are considered high priority no matter the frivolousness, so I know that Leon won't stop to answer any of my questions.  If nothing else, Leon is a responsible leader who knows the proper times to act.

Glancing up at the sky, I figure there's a good half day left before I need to decide if I really want to face Leon and his odd questions.  Plenty of time to collect my blade and work off some extra energy in the Great Maw.  I just hope my headache doesn't worsen beyond the dull thud behind my eyes.  The last thing I need is to be irritable and trapped in close quarters with a man who wields an unnatural weapon mixed between a sword and gun.  He'd gut me and fill my chest with bullets before I could swing my buster blade and hit flesh instead of furniture.  While it would be a quick cure for a headache, it'd also be a shitty ending to the day.

After a deep breath, I renew my path to where I left my blade and dully wonder if I can find some challenging prey around here.  I'm growing tired of these Heartless bugs that die when you breathe on them.

~ > < ~

My fist knocking against wood, I'm somewhat surprised to find myself here at Leon's doorstep.  It took an afternoon of Heartless slaying and most of a wasted evening to come to the reluctant decision that it wouldn't hurt to hear whatever Leon has to say.  And if I wanted to be truthful about it, I'm curious what made him question my reasons for chasing Sephiroth, reasons that I apparently don't have, but I'm still determined to hunt down the smug bastard.

The door opens to reveal Leon, the man not wearing his short-sleeved jacket or his typical overabundance of belts, though two still hang off his waist.  More than those identifying accessories, I'm surprised to see him without his leather gloves and heavy boots, something about the sight making the skilled fighter appear oddly vulnerable while facing me.

Without the need of words between us, Leon simply nods at my arrival and steps aside as his permission for me to enter his apartment.  The place isn't much of a surprise with its general lack of decorations and a sparse collection of furniture which includes a bed, nightstand, a small kitchen table, and two chairs.  It's pretty much as I imagined down to the sword case resting in the corner and a sharpening kit on the nightstand, but I must admit that I wasn't expecting the rich smell of chocolate in the air.

Stepping past me, Leon comments, "I made hot chocolate if you're interested.  I don't care for coffee this late at night."

Hot chocolate?  It's almost comical to imagine the fighter performing such a domestic act, but in the same sense, there's something strangely comforting in the idea of having a cup of hot chocolate.  I nod in acceptance of his offer, and then lean my buster blade against the wall next to where Leon had hung his jacket.  After briefly fingering the bandages of my blade, I move into the kitchen area and take the seat across from Leon.

Nothing is said for a long time while Leon sits with his eyes closed in thought and I stare into the depths of liquid chocolate, the heat of the mug not immediately felt through the barrier of my leather gloves.  It's somewhat disturbing to see part of my face in the reflective surface, my eyes glowing with energy... 'Mako energy', a term in my head, but I don't know what it means.

"Why am I here?" I eventually ask, wanting this over with.

Cracking open one eyelid to reveal a sliver of blue-gray, Leon counters, "Which 'here' are you referring to?"

I stiffen at the unexpected question, a simply inquiry that makes me stare at the soft-spoken fighter.  The hysterical thought comes to mind that Leon knows.  My dreams, my visions, my headaches... Somehow, he knows about all of it.

Both eyes closed again, Leon sighs deeply and crosses his arms over his chest.  "First things first - whatever I tell you tonight, I would rather that it remains in this room, never to be repeated."

I smirk at the request, wondering if it'll break me to keep another man's secrets along with my own.  "I'm not certain that's something I can promise.  I don't even know what you want to talk about."

Eyes of metallic blue look at me, calm and deadly in their stare.  "You have some idea or else you wouldn't have met with me."

Locked between denial and uncertainty, I say nothing while meeting his gaze.  Silence again reigns between us until Leon decides that whatever he needs to talk about is more important than my pledge to keep my mouth shut.

"Lately, you've been unbalanced, Cloud," Leon begins in a candid tone that takes away the insulting sting to his words.  "Since you returned two years ago, you've been on a dangerous slope and you don't seem to recognize how far you have fallen."

"You don't know that," I state defensively, implying the reality that Leon and I haven't spent much time together in those two years.  Whatever time we did share together was spent battling invasions of Heartless or Nobodies, not talking.  If there's one thing we share beyond our swordsmanship, it's our dislike of idle chatter.

"I've overheard some things and was told about others," Leon says, and then asks with honest confusion, "Tell me, what's mako?"

I stare at him, my rattled mind not understanding that 'mako is mako' isn't a constructive response.

"All right, then what about materia?  The Ancients?  Lifestream?"

"I don't know!" I blurt out, not intending the outburst, but I had to make him stop.  My breaths rushed as if I had battled for hours, I place my elbows on the table and rake my fingers back through my hair.  Sitting there with my head in my hands, I wonder if it's possible to physically hold my sanity together like this.

After allowing me a moment to calm down, Leon says, "We have all heard you mention those things, Aerith more than the others.  They think it's associated to your obsession with the man you call 'Sephiroth'.  I, however, have a different theory that I wish to discuss with you and you alone."

I lift my head enough to look past spikes of blond hair, my only encouragement for Leon to offer an explanation.

"You remember another life."

My mind goes silent at the statement, as if all I needed to stop the madness was to name it and give it a purpose.  I think through every strange memory and realize that they are all connected no matter how little sense I can make from the mess.  It's the same people, the same places, the same dialogs, but definitely not here.  Some place else, some other time - another life.

Once I accept that possibility, I renew my focus onto Leon and question how this guy could've guessed something so outrageous and yet frighteningly true.

Enduring my stare, Leon takes a moment to sip at his hot chocolate before asking, "Am I right?"

"Maybe.  But what do you know?"

His lips curl into a sardonic smile.  "More than I'd like to, but there's nothing to be done about it."

I straighten at the obvious reason, that this man suffers from my same troubles, but I never would have guessed it with his controlled mannerisms.  And then I abruptly realize the reason for Leon's demand for secrecy about this matter.  "I don't exactly understand what you're talking about, but if you're willing to tell me your side of this, I swear to not betray your confidence.  I just want to get things straight in my head again and it looks like you're the only one who can help."

Leon shifts his gaze to his mug and wipes chocolate from its edge.  "My story is complex and wholly convoluted, nothing I could explain all at once, but... most of my memories come from another world that was nothing like the collection of worlds in this universe.  I lived as a mercenary in a group called SeeD and things fell apart when we were given a specific mission.  In short, I failed someone who was very important to me, but because of the nature of the mission, I was ultimately given the impossible chance to change everything that had happened and save that person from ruin."

Confused, I ask, "Change everything?  How?"

"I went back in time," Leon says, as if not believing it himself.  "I relived those weeks and prevented the chain of events that would have led to war.  The details of how are incredibly complicated and something we can discuss another time.  For now, it's only important to know that it had happened and how that occurrence is probably the reason why I exist in this universe, but all of my memories are intact from a world that is forever lost."

Though still trying to process his account, I frown at the last part.  "Wait, I'm not the same.  I'm just now remembering my other life and there's no sense to it."

Leon considers my argument.  "It may be different symptoms of the same disease.  I have a vague theory about the existence of parallel worlds, and that under the right conditions, a soul can travel between them.  Depending on those conditions, there could be different outcomes.  In my case, both my body and soul were tainted by incredibly strong time magic which kept my soul intact between worlds.  When I first woke up in this universe, I had no memory of this life and it nearly killed me to get acclimated to the oddities of this universe."

A breath of laughter leaves me.  "That was five or six years ago, right?  Aerith told me about you acting strangely back then, but everyone assumed you had been attacked by a Heartless.  They said that's when you got that scar between your eyes and when..."  My eyes widened at the sudden realization that makes Leon's story frighteningly believable.

Finishing my thought, the dark-haired fighter says, "That was when I changed my name to 'Leon'.  I was 'Squall Leonhart' on my past world, a world that was stolen away from me to be replaced by... this.  I'm not the same 'Squall' who used to exist in this body, thus I changed my name as a constant reminder that I don't belong here."

My headache coming back at too much knowledge, I struggle with the concept that this isn't my childhood friend in front of me.  "How aren't you the same person?  I mean, you certainly look like the 'Squall' I knew."

"Again, I can't say that I understand everything, but somehow, my soul and its memories invaded this body and took over its existence.  This scar," Leon says when he points at the line between his eyes, "and the others across my body have nothing to do with this world."

Surprised, I reach out and grab his left hand to look at his palm, a move that startles Leon, but he allows my examination.  As I feared, the scar of us becoming blood brothers isn't there, the faded line on my hand now without its partner.  My eye is then attracted to something of more interest and I thumb the golden ring on his finger.  "You're married?"

"Not officially, but everything I did was to protect his life and honor.  A government recognized marriage meant very little after that."

Eyes widening as I stare at the scratched ring, I ask dumbly, "His life...?  You were with another man?"

"Is that a problem?" Leon asks while pulling back his hand.

I look up at his face and find hidden concern in his frozen eyes.  "Not particularly.  Just... unexpected."

"Hn, you have that right.  Two men or two women together seems like a foreign thought in this world."

And yet he trusted me enough to purposefully not wear his gloves tonight.  "So, you remember everything of your past life and nothing of this world.  What does that say about me to have the reverse true and past memories just now seeping to the surface?"

Leon shrugs.  "Perhaps something divided your soul in that other life and a piece of exists in you right now.  With you playing around in Hades recently, maybe that piece of soul was awakened and it's currently battling with the soul of this universe.  It's all conjecture, but just because we don't have a reason, it doesn't mean you don't have to face your memories.  You've let them fester and take over your mind and actions.  This mess with Sephiroth--"

"I won't stop hunting him," I declare harshly.

Leon looks at me for the interruption, but eventually nods.  "Very well, but he doesn't belong to this world, which suggests that he has something to do with your other past.  You can't continue to chase him blindly."

Deciding there was a measure of truth to his words, I claw a hand back into my hair and agree, "They are coming more often, the memories.  I can't control them and... fuck, Aerith... Aerith dies in those visions.  I don't know how it happened, but I look at her now and I see death in her eyes."

Leon appears unsurprised as he leans back.  "From what I've seen, this universe has... selected pieces of other universes and changed those pieces per its will.  Sora once mentioned a 'Selphie Tilmitt', a girl his age who sounds exactly like a friend I had in my own universe, but she should be my age.  I imagine there are going to be other examples and you have to be prepared for meeting someone whom you know better than yourself, but they won't recognize you."

I look at eyes of cold blue-gray and wonder how this man could face this alone for however many years when I can hardly keep myself together after two brief years.  "I... I'm not used to asking for help."

"None of us are," Leon says with a bitter laugh.  "Don't think of it as helping each other.  It's just talk."

I almost miss it, but it's clearly there - Leon needs this as much as I do.  He needs to talk about the life he remembers, the people he knew, and the love he lost.  He needs someone who believes him and he's stuck with me.  Sighing, I glance over at the window and figure it's later than I imagine.

"You must be tired," Leon says while standing and collecting our empty mugs.  I don't even remember drinking the stuff.  "This is a lot of information to digest in one sitting.  Go home and sleep on it.  If anything bothers you, come see me no matter the hour and we'll get you through those memories."

Still looking out the window, it abruptly seems too quiet out there, the type of silence that makes me hear faded voices that mutter nonsense into my ears.  "Would it be too much trouble for me to stay here?"

"I only have one bed," Leon comments, not a refusal, but a statement that he has little space for me.

"I'm used to the floor.  And I don't exactly feel like being alone right now."

He shrugs at my reasoning.  "I have some spare sheets you can sleep on, but you should shower first.  I'll let you borrow some clothes."

I whisper my thanks, somewhat surprised by the amount of hospitality Leon is offering to someone he doesn't really know, not like 'Squall' knew me.  Standing up from my seat, I move to the bathroom he had pointed out and begin to remove my clothes when I abruptly catch a glance of myself in the mirror.  Though my eyes glow like usual, there's a calmness to them that I haven't seen in years, not since before I suddenly knew that Sephiroth had to pay for his actions... whatever those actions may have been.  Shit, I've been so focused on that mission that I never realized how insane I sound.  It's no wonder Aerith and the others have been openly worried about me.

Removing my gloves, I turn over my left hand and stare at the line that crosses my palm.  We were young and I barely remember what made us consider becoming blood brothers, but we both had cut too deep and my mother had to take us to the hospital for stitches.  I fist that hand and mourn the lost of its partner on Leon's palm.

A knock sounds against the door and Leon enters at my permission, a stack of fresh clothes and towels in hand.  "I'm going to sleep.  Wake me if you need anything."

"I shouldn't, but thanks."

Watching him leave, I smile at the reassurance that Leon is here to watch over me even without that little line on his hand.  And I suppose that's what matters most - a man you can put your back to in times of need.  It's been awhile since I've had that luxury and I can only hope that I don't manage to fuck it up.


My buster blade resting against the wall, I sit on Leon's doorstep with one leg bent against my chest and the other one stretched out in front of me.  It has been weeks since our first meeting, and yet I still find myself here night after night, usually to talk about the latest barge of visions and sometimes just to sit together without saying a damned word.  It's a relief to be with someone who doesn't break comforting silence with an idiotic question like, 'What are you thinking?'

"The door is unlocked, you know."

I glance up at the dark-haired fighter, Leon standing with a fist planted against his hip and a tired look to his eyes.  "Long day?"

He sighs and runs a hand through his hair.  "I've never been good with computers, especially not ones that talk back at you."

I chuckle at the comment, twice witnessing Leon try his hardest to ignore Tron's inquisitive nature about the world outside of his meager box.  Sora was a welcomed relief for both parties whenever he was around, but the Keyblade's Chosen One has been off world for over a week now, something about pirates.

Leon steps past me to enter his apartment and leaves the door open for me to follow behind.  With my blade placed in what has become its usual spot next to Leon's hanging jacket, I move to the kitchen area and take a seat at the small table.  From the spotless surface, I pick up the notebook Leon had left open and glance over the neat print of entirely capital letters.  Over the past weeks, Leon has been documenting my abrupt visions and hazy dreams as best I can remember them.  Slowly, a story is coming together with some assumptions made to connect the dots, and as of the other night, one of the most important pieces has fallen into place - I now know that Sephiroth was responsible for Aerith's death in that other life.  It should have been a relief to discover that, to finally understand why I despise that man, but something else is still missing.  Something important.

"So, you weren't here last night," Leon comments while reaching into his fridge.  "Should I take that as a good sign?"

I glance over at his bed and the empty floor next to it, knowing that the futon I use on occasion is stored in the nearby closet.  Leon had purchased the storable mattress and spare sheets after my second night staying here, the man never commenting on the cost of the items or the burden of my presence.  I don't stay every night, but it happens more often than not and I'm grateful for his consoling presence.

Leon sets a bottle of beer in front of me, making me realize that I still have a question to answer.

"I had something to think about," I tell him, followed by a deep drink of the alcohol.

Dark eyebrows furrow at my comment, wrinkling the scar between his eyes.  "Anything I can help with?"

I don't answer immediately and instead focus on that scar he gained from his lover, an all important mark that his soul couldn't forget when coming to this universe.  Leon says other deep scars decorate his body from that time, but none hold the same meaning as that distinctive line.  He's taken and that's what makes this so awkward.

I blame Leon in the end.  The other night, I didn't sleep well for a variety of reasons - Sephiroth remains felt, but unseen; Sora's troubles with Organization XIII have steadily increased; and of course, I continue to struggle with the persistent memories of a past life.  And while lying awake on the futon he had prepared for me, I came to the unsettling realization that I would have fallen into madness if it hadn't been for Leon's interference.  He saved me from the darkness I thought I was fighting, and just when I came to that conclusion, Leon touched me.

Leon had been hardly awake, his eyes unfocused when he stroked his hand through my hair and asked why I was on the floor.  He called me by another name ('Seifer') which Leon has been careful to never speak during our conversations.  It had been nothing more than a brief moment and a complete sham at that, but he touched me without fear and I had forgotten what it meant to be caressed like that.  It's not a matter of love, but a soul-burning desire to feel human for the first time in a long time.

Sighing at the pathetic memory, I look to Leon and find him halfway through his beer, already lost in his own thoughts.  It's just like him to ask a question once and wait until an answer is given or not given, the man rarely prodding for information that a person may not want to share.

"I have a proposition."

Leon straightens at my statement, his brows furrowing once again in silent inquiry.

"Let me say first that I don't want you to mistaken this for something it's not.  You kept me from walking blindly into darkness and I will always owe you for that.  Despite the fact you're not 'Squall', you're still my brother in arms."

"Spit it out, Strife."

I smirk at his tone, bored and irritated.  "Do you miss having a good fuck?"

Leon stares at me for a long moment, his steely eyes studying my face before he says lowly, "I belong to another."

"And that's why I said you're my brother," I state with a widening smile, pleasantly surprised that the brunet hasn't pulled a weapon on me yet.  "Frankly, we're two adults with similar tastes who are both in tense situations - you with that Keyblade Master nonsense and me with a past that should've stayed forgotten.  Sex can be a relief and a comfort if done right."

The dark-haired fighter stands up and moves to the counter, his hands braced on the edge as he leans forward in a tense pose.

"Hey, I don't want to threaten the trust we have built up in the last few weeks, but it's because of that trust that I decided to ask for this.  You're tired, Leon, just like I am and I think we both need something a little more than some talk and heavy sparring."

"... Get out."

Acknowledging the hoarsely spoken demand and his right to kick me out, I stand up and retrieve my buster blade.  My hand on the doorknob, I say sincerely, "I don't know who your lover was, but I hope that he was the type of man who would understand what it means to be alone in this sadistic universe."

Leon scoffs, but doesn't retract his demand.

"I'll be around.  Talk to me when you're ready."

With nothing else from the brunet, I open the door and step out into the early evening air.  It's strange to be leaving when there's still some light left in the sky, but I don't regret making the offer.  Leon isn't the type to hold a grudge against someone for speaking honest thoughts; it's the lies that will make him lose respect in a person.  That said, I don't know if he'll believe my intent to suggest mutual comfort between two tired souls.  All I can do is wait for him to reach his own decision and hope that I don't end up on the wrong end of his gunblade.  That fucker hurts when he decides to put it to use.

My buster blade heavy against my back, I smile weakly at the whispers of a nonexistent world and know that I'm not going to get much sleep tonight.


[Squall]

My pace slower than usual, I walk through town and toward my apartment, my steps echoed by the man following behind me at a safe distance.  Both Cloud and I must make quite the sight, dusty and sore after an overdone battle against more Heartless than we could count.  The shear mass of shadows made the fight interesting for once, even though these creatures are as easy to defeat as swinging a blade back and forth.  But more than the excitement of battle, it was strange and exhilarating to have a man at my back who wasn't Seifer, but still a person I could trust with my life and whose presence gave me the freedom to act in a more reckless manner.  Despite his odd 'proposition' from a few days ago, I don't feel awkward around Cloud and that in itself makes me more concerned about the decision I need to make.

Glancing over my shoulder, I look back at the spiky-haired blond who has his head bowed in deep thought, an understandable state after coming face to face with his darkness, a man by the name of 'Sephiroth'.  I must admit that I had been surprised to see the impressionable man in the middle of the battle, partly because of the poor timing, but mostly because I questioned his existence.  Understandably, Cloud lost his control at the sight of the man, chasing him into the worst parts of the battle.  Aerith and a young woman in black tried to pull Cloud out from that madness, but in the end, it had been my voice to revive him.

I have never seen such a lost expression on a man before that moment and something in me sympathized with that crushing sensation.

The battle left behind and night fast approaching, we eventually reach my apartment, and though I open the door and step inside briefly, Cloud doesn't follow me.  Moving back to the doorway, I lean against the frame and address the man intently focused on the steps to my doorstep.

"Hey..."  At my call, Cloud lifts his head in a sharp movement that causes golden hair to sway.  "Are you coming in or not?"

He nods a bit dumbly and follows me inside.  I remove my jacket and hang it on a hook near the door, giving Cloud plenty of room to place his buster blade against the wall.  As Cloud sorts himself, I cross the room to store Lion Heart within its case.  I have to give the Heartless and Nobodies one credit - after slaying an army of them, there isn't a mess of blood and guts to clean from weapons and bodies.  Just a lot of dust.

Turning around, I notice that Cloud is taking his sweet time, which gives me the opportunity to break our routine to this point.  My steps quick, I move between Cloud and his typical seat at the kitchen table, surprising him with my interference.  Leaning back against the questionable support, I grip the edge of the table and ready myself for the discussion that I've spent three days avoiding.

"I've considered your 'proposition'," I state in a hopefully unreadable tone.  "But before I give you a decision, I want to know what made you request something so preposterous."

Cloud smiles in an oddly fond fashion.  "I can't tell you the exact moment when I thought of it, but when I did, it seemed right.  Sparring with you is a blessing compared to kicking around those Heartless.  I suppose sex seems like the next step in challenging each other and comparing our abilities."

I scoff at his wording.  "Instead of a step, it's more like a leap of faith."

"Perhaps, but it doesn't make it any less interesting."

I shift my eyes to the safety of the refrigerator, unwilling to admit that he has a valid point.  "Since you seem to be serious in suggesting this, I should warn you - the man I belong to had blond hair, shorter than yours, but he was growing it out when everything was lost to darkness.  He was also taller than you, but your body types are similar enough."  I return my gaze to the blond soldier.  "I'll admit being attracted to you, but it's because you remind me of him."

Appearing wholly unsurprised by my statement, Cloud steps close such that we're almost touching, but still very much apart.  "Then let me warn you - whenever I'm with someone, I lose control of my strength and I end up hurting them, especially the women.  But I've noticed that you take on more damage while sparring with me and never wince at being battered.  Sometimes, you seem to enjoy it."

My lips form a shadow of a smile.  "My partner used to claim that I was a masochist and that I got off more from his gunblade than his dick."

Cloud breathes a rare laugh at the comment, his unusual eyes bright with interest.  "While it may seem strange to you, I'm perfectly fine with serving as his replacement.  I owe you for my sanity and I'd like to return the favor, even though I'm hardly sacrificing myself in this matter."

With a steeply arched eyebrow, I show open skepticism toward his theory that sex is the path to a sound mind.

"For years you've been alone, Leon.  Hell, you can't even use your given name in this world because you don't feel a part of it.  Doesn't it make you question being alive?  Don't you want to feel something again?"

It's hard to meet Cloud's searching gaze as I realize that he identifies with my reality of hiding in a world where I don't belong.  I close my eyes for the chance of thought, never guessing that I would be additionally attracted to Cloud and his proposition simply because he understands what it means to be tormented in this damned universe.  Though I should outright refuse him on principle, I find myself considering many reasons for and against his ridiculous proposal.  In the end, all of my thoughts turn to Seifer and how much I miss the feel of his hair between my fingers, the touch of his muscles flexing above me, and the weight of his body when he would lie at my back.  When I found myself reliving the worst months of my life, Seifer made me want to live again when I thought I had no energy left to stand.  For him I changed the world, but only because he held me together when all I wanted to do was fall apart.

'Focus on me, alive and close to you,' he had once told me.  And now, when I've forgotten what that feels like, I want to remember it again.  Seifer is lost to me, perhaps forever, and Cloud is right - Seifer always understood what it meant to feel alone in a ruthless world.

My decision reluctantly made, I open my eyes and meet the softly burning gaze of sapphire.  "We need rules."

At the implied acceptance of his offer, Cloud dares to place his gloved hands at my hips and grins with confidence when I don't knock aside the intimate hold.  "Rules, huh?  Such as this is only sex, not a relationship and not love?"

Though surprised by sensations caused by his hands touching me, I manage a casual tone when saying, "That's Rule #1.  In addition, the moment one of us believes our motives have changed, we need to have a very long discussion about it."

"Agreed," Cloud replies, then nearly chokes on his breath when I experimentally roll my hips forward to press against him.  "Rule #2... Obviously no one else can know about this."

"Obviously.  They wouldn't understand."

His eyes brighter than I've ever seen them, Cloud smirks before leaning forward with clear intent, something that causes a dull pain in my chest and prompts me to lift an interfering hand.

My fingers pressed against his lips, I say, "Rule #3 - No kissing."

Cloud initially frowns at the rule, his expression questioning how a kiss could mean anything.  When I don't back down, he shrugs in surrender to the concept, but still complains, "That sounds boring.  How about kissing is only allowed at the neck and lower?"

I mull over the amendment, eventually coming to the conclusion that Cloud may have a point since many acts during sex could be considered a form of kissing.  At my nod of agreement, Cloud immediately takes advantage of the accord by kissing hard against the juncture between shoulder and neck.  I shudder at the biting kiss that also presses his body against mine such his stiffness can be felt along my thigh.  Dumbly, I wonder if we both get horny as Hades after a heavy battle like the one today, something that should make our spars a bit more interesting if this works out.

Eventually growing bored of our under-the-sweater games, I push Cloud back such that I have the proper space to pull at the zipper of his black outfit.  Never slow on the uptake, Cloud tackles the belts at my waist while questioning under his breath if I started wearing the excess of belts to keep my former lover in his place and out of my pants.  I chuckle at the irritation that Seifer had shared and that was when I wore half as many belts as I do these days.  I don't quite understand the obsession myself.  Maybe without Seifer at my side, I've resorted to physical means of keeping myself together.

In little time, we find ourselves across the room with me reduced to my briefs and Cloud fully naked as he apparently doesn't see any use in underwear.  His eyes meeting mine, Cloud hooks his thumbs at the elastic waistline to remove the final barrier between us, but I quickly place my hands on top of his.

Breaths slightly rushed, I manage to say, "Rule #4 - anything discovered during sex can be asked about once and only once, and the person has the right to not answer."

Cloud stares at me with unblinking curiosity, the man no stranger to secrets, but there is little that I've held back to his occasional questions.  Instead of vocalizing my rationale behind the rule, I release my hands with silent permission for him to remove the boxers.  In mere seconds, Cloud discovers the reason for my hesitancy and he pauses in shock at the ragged 'SA' carved into my partially aroused penis.

Bothered by his prolonged stare, I tell him, "It was a mistake."

His eyebrows furrow while trying to imagine how something so brutal could be a mistake.  "Yours or someone else's?"

"Not mine," I reply in a near laugh.  "I'm masochistic, not crazy."

"Very well, then I'll save my other questions for when you're ready to answer them," he states much to my dread.  What is it with the blond bastards in my life who all seem to know the right tricks to draw reluctant answers out of me?

Cloud bends down to help me step out of the boxers and I make the poor choice to watch him do so.  My hand seems to reach out on its own and I stroke my fingers through the golden spikes that can't be controlled with any measure of gel or other hair products.  Still bent over, Cloud glances up at me for the sudden touch, his subtle expression reacting to the forlorn expression I must be showing him.

His smile gentle, Cloud straightens and places his bare hands at my sides.  "Rule #5 - this ends the moment either of our lights return to us."

I frown at the wording of the rule.  "You never mentioned that you have someone waiting for you."

"I haven't mentioned it because I'm not certain the person actually exists.  It's mostly a feeling that there's a light out there, someone who has kept me from succumbing to darkness after all these years.  Maybe with your help, I'll find memories of that person and be able to properly search for my light.  But as of right now, Sephiroth is my only clue and I'll chase him to the ends of the universe to figure out what he knows."

My hand renews its caress of golden hair, a purposeful touch of empathy.  "I thought Aerith may have been your 'light'."

"No, she's my angel of mercy."

I smile softly at the candid response.  "Very well, then Rule #5 - this ends when we find our lights, but only if we can continue to love them."  At his uncertain glance, I clarify, "My lover shouldn't have memories of our past, which means he may not want to be with another man in this lifetime.  More so, for all we know, this universe could have turned our lights into babies or talking cats or some other inane thing."

Concern fills Cloud's expression in the moment before he reaches out and wraps his arms tightly around me.  I don't fight the unexpected hug, the reaction most likely proof that I revealed too much of my greatest fear in my voice.  Held like this, bare skin against bare skin, I abruptly feel like nothing can be hidden in such a state and I allow myself that release to grieve at the strong possibility that one day I may find Seifer and he won't want me.  My hands at Cloud's back, I clutch at the warm skin and press my face against his shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent of sweat, dirt, and musk.

I don't need much time to collect myself, and after those few moments, I find my mind strangely clear of thought and worry, an opportunity where I can simply feel for a change.  With that momentary freedom, I decide that Cloud deserves something for his patient support and his recognition that this is something we both need.  I slowly slip out from his encircling arms and lower to the ground such that I kneel at his feet.  Cloud's somewhat confused expression is amusing, but not as comical as his reaction when I place my hand beneath his dick and finger the area just in front of his sac.

"Smaller than I figured," I comment dryly while stroking the average length, efficiently limiting Cloud's rebuttal to a low growl.  "Not that it's small," I amend in a humoring tone, "but with you supposedly being an 'enhanced soldier' and all, you can imagine my error."

"Not this life," he bites out, one of his hands moving to my shoulder and squeezing with near crippling strength.

"Oh?  Then something was done in your other life to 'enhance' this region?"

Before Cloud has the breath to respond, I lap my tongue against the tip of the penis that is thicker than what I'm accustomed to seeing.  Though mildly concerned about that girth, I draw the head into my mouth and proceed to experiment with my tongue to discover the things Cloud prefers compared to the only other partner I have been with.  After finding the right pressure and point of attack along his dick, I prevent Cloud's vague attempt to step back by placing a hand at his thigh and holding him in place with a clawed hold.  He growls lowly at the harsh touch and returns the favor with his hand moved to my neck and his fingers twisting tightly in my hair.

Just as Cloud nears the edge, I squeeze the right places in the best way to prevent his release.  Cloud mutters an inventive curse at the situation, but after a moment, visibly relaxes out of his tense pose and eyes me in a somewhat thankful manner, the man probably relieved that he didn't come in my mouth like an impatient virgin.

"In control again?" I ask with amusement at his situation.

He nods vaguely, a sign that prompts me to release the painful hold, an apparently unwise move as Cloud immediately grabs my upper arms and pushes me to the ground with enough force for my Griever pendent to lift up from my chest and drop onto the carpet above my shoulder.  Though trapped beneath the potentially dangerous man, I continue to smile at his overly aroused state, unsurprised and not the least bit concerned by his actions.  His sapphire eyes burn with intense pleasure and his firm grip tightens such that bruises should appear in the morning.

Stretching back at the mix of sensations that course through my body and ignites my blood, I inform him, "Oil is in the nightstand."

The words of reason wakes Cloud from lust and he dutifully retrieves the half-used bottle of oil.  Once again leaning over me, he thinks to ask, "What position do you prefer?"

I frown in thought before my gaze is ultimately drawn to golden hair and I lift a hand to stroke the dusty strands.  "Take the lead."

Cloud gradually smiles and nods in acceptance of the reality that he promised to fill a role for me, but he still insists, "We switch next time."

I don't agree or disagree, but smile in memory of Seifer constantly promising that same line.

Perfectly comfortably on the floor, I don't suggest use of the bed that would only force me to change the sheets, the mix of dirt and cum never a pleasant one.  Amused, Cloud gently removes my hand from his hair and shifts into a better position for applying the oil, but then pauses when he gets a good look at my bodily state.  Not limp, but no more aroused than I was previously, it's a reasonably discouraging sight for the proud fighter.

"You don't want this," Cloud says, no disappointment sounding in his voice.  To him, it's simply a statement of fact.

It would be easy to agree with him, to end this madness now, but my body feels warm for the first time in years and everything is Cloud's fault.  Considering my words, I eventually say, "It's not an issue of what I want.  I have survived six, maybe seven years alone and I'm so tired.  I need to feel something again and I think... No, I know Seifer would forgive me.  The bastard would probably be proud that I learned to live when he's not around."

A sword roughened hand squeezes my thigh and Cloud leans closer over my body.  "That's the first time you've told me his name," he points out, something in his voice raising my suspicion that he's not telling the full truth.

Ignoring my paranoia, I reluctantly admit, "It's ridiculous.  Superstitious, really, as if saying his name would summon his ghost."

Cloud's sapphire gaze narrows with pained understanding, the man certainly experienced when it comes to ghosts of the past, both in the figurative and literal sense.  Bending down, he presses a kiss against my neck and proceeds to trail alternating kisses, bites, and licks down my chest.  He discovers my hot spots too quickly, forcing me to claw my fingers in his hair and try to divert him from the more sensitive regions, one of which being the nasty scar that reflects my cruel meeting with an icicle.  Cloud chuckles at the halfhearted strength to my resistance and proceeds to tongue the edges of smooth flesh while opening the oil bottle with his free hand.

I shift to grant him the best access, already well experienced in the positions that will get the job done faster.  Cloud accepts that direction with humored grace and proves his own experience by curling his fingers at interesting angles that Seifer's fingers were too thick to try.  It takes little time to reach the point where my apprehension wins out over the potential for pain, something I indicate by wrapping a heavy leg around his waist.  With a final graze of teeth against a nipple, Cloud moves forward to lean on his elbows and stares at my face with obvious intent in his eyes.

I glare at him for the unnecessary delay and interrupt his 'obligation' to make certain that I want this.  "Fuck me or I'll finish it myself."

Cloud smirks at the demand, his expression an interesting mix between satisfied and hungry.  A hand pressed against my chest, he uses the support to lift himself back before raking his fingernails along my pale skin.  He braces his hands beneath my thighs and helps to raise my hips off the ground.  Just as his heated tip touches me, I briefly think to worry about his extra thickness, but Cloud is a true soldier to follow orders and doesn't hesitate before entering me.  I gasp at the forgotten pain of that first penetration, my fingers clawing at the cheap carpet beneath me while Cloud presses forward.

Almost fully buried, Cloud exhales deeply, and then meets my gaze with a subtle darkness to his eyes.  It's not the uncontrollable monster I've witnessed during the occasional spar, but something else, something new about this complex man.

After the momentary pause, Cloud starts into a careful rhythm that gradually builds into something that causes my chest to burn with every strangled breath.  It's almost silent compared to what I'm accustomed to experiencing, neither of us talkers or screamers when it comes down to the final moments of sex.  Cloud, however, is definitely a biter, and his teeth against my inner thigh creates a worrisomely incredible sensation that pulls a deep groan from my throat.  Hyne, maybe I am becoming more of a masochist with every year I age.

It's a surprising moment when my body jerks with release, warmth splattering against my scratched skin.  Cloud's orgasm peaks after a few more thrusts, his teeth drawing blood from the forceful release.  For several minutes, we don't move during our recovery except for Cloud's tongue lapping at the trickle of blood that seeps from broken flesh.  I try to ignore how my skin shivers at each pass of his tongue across the obvious teeth marks.  Eventually, Cloud removes himself and lowers to the ground to lie at my right side, his shoulder against mine.

"You seemed shocked that you came," Cloud comments dryly.

I don't acknowledge the statement, and instead reach for the hand next to me.  Lifting it for inspection, I uncurl the callused fingers and brush my thumb along the scar line that exists on his palm.

"You... Do you remember...?"

Surprised at the hopeful tone, I turn my head to look at Cloud.  At the first mention of his proposition, I assumed that Cloud was hiding behind friendship to form something intimate, but looking into his unusual gaze, I find nothing except the desire regain the sworn brother he had lost years ago.  With so many people afraid of him, Cloud craves a person whom he can trust completely with his damning secrets, his severe pains, and his vulnerable body.  Love is a foreign thought that is a step too far for this mercenary, and I'm not the one meant to lead him forward.

Returning my gaze to the scar, I trace the line with a fingernail.  "Sorry, I don't.  Aerith told me about it several years ago and I didn't remember her story until you grabbed my hand that first night we talked.  You seemed disappointed that I lost the sign that you and 'Squall' had become blood brothers."

His fingers twitch at the comment.  "It was a surprise, but... Since then, I've decided that it was for the best.  If I met 'Squall' like I am now, he wouldn't have been able understand me, let alone help me.  As I already said, you saved me from darkness and I will always owe you for that."

Letting his arm rest on top of my stomach, I close my eyes and say, "Then help me remember how to live."

"Hn, a tall order when I'm trying to figure that out for myself, but I'll try.  The question is, will you let me?"

I don't answer in fear of committing myself to a dangerous contract with a fellow mercenary.

Cloud breathes a laugh at my silence, his hand patting my bare skin.  "Don't worry, Leon, I'll figure out what you need.  It just may take some time."

"... ..."


[Many months later...]

[Cloud]

With an old backpack hanging off my shoulder, I walk unhurriedly back to Leon's place while looking up into the sky, curious about what Leon and his toy see when they focus on the dark star that is visible to them and them alone.  I'll admit to a dose of jealously when it comes to them sharing something I'll never understand, but more than that petty emotion, I've been struck by overwhelming relief that Leon has discovered his light when he assumed it was forever lost.  And to see the difference in his soul, in his own light, it renews my desperate hope that the darkness within me can be tamed if I can only find that right person, a man I know (spiky black hair, deep blue eyes, an invincible smile), but he remains nameless in my memories.

Reaching Leon's apartment, the door opens before I'm close enough to knock.  The lights off beyond the threshold, Leon ducks outside into the moonlight and closes the door lightly behind him.

It's easy to assume the reason behind his actions, which causes me to complain, "Don't tell me he fell asleep.  I was hoping that he'd stay awake with his back to a wall, terrified that one of us would molest him in the middle of the night."

"He's not smart enough to make that assumption," Leon declares coolly, but then adds in a gentler tone, "His exhaustion got him to sleep, but I think he's in for a long night."

I nod, remembering my own nightmares after my first mission as a trained soldier.  "He's strong willed.  He'll get through it."

The brunet glances back over his shoulder, his desire clear in his actions if not in his schooled expression.

"This is all I found in his room," I say while handing over the backpack.  "There were also a couple of pillows in the bathroom."

Leon stares at me with the silent question of why that would matter.

Smirking at his unimaginative mindset, I suggest, "Best guess - the kid threw them at his unexpected visitor."

At my words, Leon places an embarrassed hand over his face, but doesn't think to oppose the theory.

"If you ask me, I think that's a sign he needs a real blade and not that children's knife hidden in his backpack."

Leon sighs at that reality.  "I suppose there's no other choice with Ultimecia's appearance."

While Radiant Garden's leader and prince stares at the backpack in his hold, I recognize the man's reluctance to grant Seifer permission to wield the gunblade that has been waiting for its master.  With a true blade in his hands, Seifer will be more than a stupid kid and that's the last thing Leon wants.  Or rather, the last thing he thinks he wants.

"It's not the end of the world, Leon.  Or at least not yet if Sora does his job."  I hit a fisted hand against his shoulder in parting.  Turning around as if to leave, I wait until Leon opens the door before I say, "By the way, I'm invoking Rule #5.  Tonight was our last night."

"What...?  But Seifer isn't--"

"I saw it when the kid said he fought off that sorceress' spell.  You're in love again."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Think about it," I say with a small wave of my hand, never turning around to meet his eyes.  "I'll see you bright and early in the morning."

Despite the hard stare of an experienced killer following my every move, I walk away with no hesitation in my step.  I knew our time together had become limited the moment I heard Leon went off-world to check on someone named 'Seifer'.  And when Leon returned with the kid trailing him like a lost puppy, I thought everything had come to an end right there and then.  Instead, Leon had other plans with repeated declarations that the kid wasn't Seifer, he wasn't his light, and Leon's need for sex increased at that soul breaking frustration.  I obliged per our set rules, which were valid until that defining moment when Seifer said that he essentially refused the sorceress because it would mean killing Leon, something unacceptable to the youth.  And Leon's eyes glowed silver.

Rounding a corner, I slow to a stop and stare up into the sky that holds an invisible dark star.  Though this universe has its cruel side, I have to wonder if there's also a purpose in what appears as madness.  A mouse is king and an advisor to the wisest scientists; a child is the Keyblade Master and hope for us all; and the dead have been given a second chance at life without ever knowing their previous sacrifice.  Despite it all, nothing has fallen apart at the obvious insanity.  Instead, there's hope for peace, hope for happiness, and hope for love.

My eyes still focused on the night sky, I reach back to grip the handle of my buster blade (not mine, his) and ask quietly, "What do you say, Universe - will you let me find my light?"

Nothing sounds at the foolish question, and just when I nearly glance away, a bright star catches my eye.  The falling star streaks across the black sky, beautiful in its final moments of life, but then disappears beyond a shadow that I assume to be one of the many planets Sora has visited.  Another light lost, another question unanswered...  And yet, it doesn't seem so dark anymore.

 

{Owari}

 

Author's Whining -- Whee, another request done.  For those either confused or else suffering from deja vu while reading that first piece of dialog between Cloud and Sora/Aerith, it's because I stole it directly from the game.  While thinking about this side fic, I remembered that part of KH2 and how Cloud seemed very... off.  It was an easy realization from there that this was the point when Cloud started going a little crazy.  For those who haven't played KH2 and are curious about the scene, look here at minute 4:10.  And I'd just like to say, youtube user 'KHFF123', whomever you may be - you are my hero.  I can't tell you the number of times I've gone back to your clips to refresh my memory about the game.

Also, I'd just like to remind people that I never intended to write this prequel of sorts, so it doesn't quite mesh with the main storyline in that things were written there to account for, well, this information that I kept in my mind as background information, but wasn't going to write out.  Hopefully it's nothing too glaring and distracting for you all.