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Labyrinth of Heart and Thought

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It was a long marble bench Cloud rested his folded arms and head upon, feeling beyond boredom and loneliness to a kind of fatigue that set itself in his bones.  He had been walking the labyrinth for a year, trying to map it, but it was so large.  As soon as he had mapped one floor, another appeared.  And when he grew tired, he went back to his camp and slept, only to get up the next day to start his exploration anew.

There was a tapping noise, like fingernails.  Like impatience.

“Let’s set the scene,” he heard Kuja say.

Cloud lifted his head and blinked at him.  Kuja was standing on the other side of the long bench, giving Cloud a confident, heavy-lidded half-smile.

Kuja spread his arms.  “This is our stage.  Shall it be, hmmm…” He tapped his chin once in thought.  “…A public house.”

“A what?” said Cloud.

“A ‘pub’ for short.”

“You mean, like, a bar?”

Kuja’s lips thinned with impatience.  “Yes Cloud, a bar.”  He spread his arm out wide, gesturing to the empty room at large.  The whole room was made of black and white marble and nothing else – cold and bereft.  But Kuja said, “There are many tables and chairs.  You even have some patrons sipping their beverages and discussing current events.  In the corner, a bard is playing a song on his fiddle.”  He turned back to Cloud and looked at him expectantly.

“Oh, um,” Cloud cleared his throat.  “Welcome to Seventh Heaven.  What’s your poison?”

Delight flashed in Kuja’s eyes.  Cloud supposed Kuja was a bit like a child, wanting someone to play with him.

“I’ve got – “ Cloud looked around at nothing, but in his imagination his bar was stocked with all kinds of alcohol.  “Wine?  Or um, I’ve got beer on tap.  Pale ale, or lager – “

“Do I look like a plebeian?” said Kuja.  “No.  I desire two fingers of whiskey, and give me something aged at least four years; none of the cheaper, watered-down muck you sell to the locals.”

Cloud didn’t actually have any whiskey. Or beer, or wine, for that matter.  But he summoned a flask of potion into his hand, unscrewed the cap, and poured a shot of the green liquid into the cap, before placing it on the bench in front of Kuja.

Kuja took a sip.  “Adequate.”  He looked up and down the bench.  “Some public houses offer hors d'oeuvres.”

Cloud raised his eyebrows.  “Like peanuts or something?”  Cloud wished he had food; there wasn’t any food in this realm at all.  It seemed that no one felt hunger or needed the sustenance, but regardless, Cloud missed eating.

He thought about it.  Then, he removed his shoulder pauldron and placed it on the bench.  With one hand, he summoned some of the little items he’d found around the labyrinth throughout his travels: shards, crystals, orbs, and the occasional ring and pendant.  They dropped into the pauldron that now acted like a bowl.

Kuja looked into it, then raised an eyebrow at Cloud.  “Or something.  Some of these accessories are pretty useful, you know,” he added, breaking the act for a moment.

Cloud shrugged.  “I haven’t got use for that stuff.  I’m not interested in fighting anymore.”

Kuja’s eyes widened in surprise, before his expression changed into keen interest.  “Understandable.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Cloud hadn’t seen anyone in months, unless he counted the odd manikin, which he didn’t.

“I’m just passing through,” said Kuja.  He was examining a ring from the bowl.  “Think of me as a weary traveller.”

Cloud poured him another cap of potion.  Kuja lifted it in salute and said, “To not fighting in this pointless war.”

Cloud nodded as Kuja drank, and felt a sudden overwhelming wave of relief.  All this time Cloud had been running from the fight, running from Sephiroth too, and it felt good to find a comrade who understood how he felt.

Kuja put the cap back on the bench, and made a point of looking around.  “Seems like most of your patrons are leaving.  Are you closing up soon?”

Cloud frowned, reluctant to let their little improvisation come to an end.  But it was Kuja who started it, and so it would be Kuja who ended it, it seemed.  “I knock off in five minutes,” said Cloud.

Kuja flicked his hair over one shoulder.  With the action Cloud caught a whiff of Kuja’s sweet scent.  “Invite me to your humble abode then, for a nightcap.”

Cloud examined him, unsure if he’d heard correctly.  Kuja was smirking, ever confident.  They were playing a game but what, exactly, were the rules?  Was Kuja… flirting with him, or… was it just friendship he was after, perhaps a place to relax and talk?  Cloud had always had difficulty sussing out people’s intentions, and today was no different.

But Cloud did agree to take Kuja back to his camp, which was only around the corner.  Kuja didn’t walk next to Cloud so much as float effortlessly, wisps of magic hovering around him.

As they approached Cloud’s home, Cloud started to feel embarrassed at what he was about to show him.  Cloud hadn’t taken anyone to his camp before, and he had never intended to as he didn’t want anyone to know.  Fact was, he was hiding, but he felt tonight that he could trust Kuja with this secret.  It was just – his camp wasn’t anything fancy or nice, and it very much seemed that Kuja liked fancy and nice things.

When they arrived, Cloud pulled back the material flap that was the makeshift doorway, and looked at Kuja, feeling his cheeks heat.  “Welcome to my humble abode… I guess?”

Still holding Cloud’s pauldron in one arm, Kuja stepped into the room, sweeping his eyes over it.  Cloud stepped in with him but could not discern Kuja’s blasé expression.

Cloud’s little home was small, with a table he had scavenged in one corner, and a pallet bed with nothing but a blanket and a pillow he had made out of mixed materials in the other.  The war-torn world they lived in did not have much to work with, but what Cloud did find he tried to make use of.  He decorated the wall near the bed with artistic shards of glass and mirrors, while mobiles made of beads and orbs dangled from the ceiling above the table.

But what caught Kuja’s eye was Cloud’s map of the labyrinth on the far wall.  He put the pauldron on the table and went over to it.  “You made this?” He ran his fingers over the drawn rectangular rooms and their connecting lines.  He looked over his shoulder at Cloud.

Cloud nodded.  He leaned over Kuja and pointed at the line that lead to a dead end.  “I’ve mapped as far as the forty-fifth floor; beyond that, I don’t know how far the labyrinth goes.”

Kuja didn’t say anything.  He was looking over his shoulder at Cloud with lowered lashes, and Cloud belatedly realised he had pressed himself up against Kuja’s back.

Cheeks feeling hot, Cloud took a step back, but Kuja turned to face him and followed, stepping into Cloud’s personal space.  It could have been a threat – and Cloud knew Kuja was dangerous – but it didn’t feel like a threat, it felt like something else entirely.

Kuja looked at Cloud’s mouth, and then his eyes.  “Why don’t you,” said Kuja in a low voice, “give me the grand tour?”

“Uh…” said Cloud.

Kuja stared at him piercingly.  “Can’t you tell when someone is courting you?”  He glanced at the bed and back again.  “To start, why don’t you show me the bedroom.”

“…Actually,” said Cloud, stepping away a little, “I would rather show you this table.”  He put his hand on the flat surface.

Kuja narrowed his eyes, but played along: “It is a fine looking table, to be sure.”

“Yeah, uh.” Cloud cleared his throat.  “Do you want to sit on it?”

Kuja gave him a speculative look before gliding up and over, settling himself to sit on the table’s edge, legs crossed.

Cloud went over, pulling his gloves off as he went, and grabbed Kuja’s thighs where the bare skin met his hem of his boots, and spread his legs.  He leant in close, but didn’t close the distance between their mouths.  Kuja was looking at him wide-eyed with renewed respect, like he didn’t expect Cloud to be so forward.

Cloud could be forward, if he wanted to be.  “Are you enjoying the tour?” Cloud asked, as he maneuvered Kuja until their hips were pressed together.

Kuja slid his arms around Cloud’s neck.  “Very much so,” he answered, before leaning in for a deep kiss.

Cloud gathered him in his arms and ran his hands up Kuja’s flank, feeling the smooth, bare skin.  He unhooked the codpiece while Kuja rapidly yet decisively undid the button and zip on Cloud’s pants, before shoving them down his thighs.  And then they were gasping into each other’s mouths as they pressed their sex together, Kuja’s hands on Cloud’s ass to pull him in further, while Cloud ran his hand’s up Kuja’s back and under his jacket.

*

The next morning, Cloud awoke to find Kuja gone from his bed.  He looked over his shoulder and saw him at the table, back to him, as he worked on something.  He was wearing nothing but Cloud’s boxerbriefs, which were loose on him, hanging off his hips.  Cloud pressed his face to the pillow regardless, feeling hot all over.

Kuja must have heard him stir, because he looked over his shoulder, then came back to the bed, tail swishing, and crawled back under the blanket.

Last night, Kuja’s lavender-coloured tail that Cloud didn’t even know he had had appeared suddenly while Cloud had moved his hand down to touch Kuja’s hole.  Kuja had had to quickly explain to a shocked Cloud that often the magical glamour he had on the tail sometimes came off if his tail was ever touched accidentally.

Now it curled coyly over the blanket and rested there, like a sleepy cat.

They shared the pillow.  “What are you exactly?” asked Cloud.  “You have a tail like Zidane.”

“Zidane is my brother,” Kuja told him.  He pursed his lips.  “Well, he and I have many brothers and sisters.  Our father called us both angels of death.”

“He’s your brother…” Cloud mumbled.  There was so much about Kuja he hadn’t known.

“Our father was always emotionally absent.  When he made Zidane to replace me, I was jealous, so I threw Zidane to Gaia, hoping he’d die.”

He said it so matter-of-factly.  Cloud side-eyed him, this cold, lonely, beautiful creature.

“My world is also called Gaia,” said Cloud, latching onto something else.  Something that didn’t make him shiver, didn’t make him think that he had slept with the devil.

“My father’s name was Garland,” Kuja told him.  “He was an android.  I try not to think about the similarities between our worlds – the names, the language…”

“An artificial intelligence created you?” said Cloud.  “I knew an AI once, though he was often controlled by a person.  If he ever wanted to create anything, he’d probably just make mogs.  Moogles, I mean.”

Kuja rolled into him.  “I used to dine with kings and queens.  I would whisper poison into their ears, make them trust their enemies and make war with their friends.”  He looked up at Cloud, smile proud and cruel.  “And you?”

“I was a delivery guy,” Cloud told him.

Kuja spluttered, sitting up.  “I was an aristocrat who commanded armies and controlled royalty, and you- you-” He was angry with himself, it seemed.  “You were a delivery boy - !”

“I lived in the slums,” Cloud said, trying not to laugh.

Kuja touched his hand to his forehead like he was light-headed, and slumped back down onto the mattress.

Cloud rolled on top of him.  He shrugged one shoulder.  “I guess you’re out of my league.”

Kuja’s body curled up into him, even as he glared up at Cloud, pouting.  “And I suppose I’m ‘slumming it’, so to speak.”

Cloud smoothed a hand up Kuja’s thigh to finger at the waistband.  Cloud himself was naked, and it wasn’t fair that Kuja wasn’t.  Kuja arched up as he allowed him to slide the boxerbriefs down and away.

Kuja spread his legs and moaned softly.  “You should – “ They kissed.  “ – take me…”

Cloud shook his head.  They didn’t have penetrative sex last night, and he didn’t want to now.  “I don’t have any lube, it could hurt.”

“I’m not human, remember?”

“But I am,” said Cloud.  I think, he thought but didn’t say.  “It will hurt me, too.”

Kuja sighed as Cloud kissed his throat and down his chest, inhaling his scent as he went.  He tongued his bellybutton then went down further, and further, until he had Kuja moaning loudly, biting his own fingers, and coming into Cloud’s mouth.

*

Later, it was goodbye.

They stood outside Cloud’s camp.  Kuja flicked his hair over one shoulder nervously, and Cloud unconsciously clenched his fists.

“I have to keep moving,” Kuja told him.  “You should too.  You shouldn’t be staying in one place if you are trying to avoid them.  It’s a wonder I’m the only one who has run into you.  So far.”

“Yeah,” said Cloud.  “But I might go back, see what’s happening.”

Kuja seemed disappointed in him.  “There’s nothing happening, I can guarantee that much.  All the Chaos warriors are just as controlling as ever.   If you go there, they will just try to use you, or bully you.  You’re almost better off chasing down Cosmos pawns and fighting them – at least they’re predicable.”

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Cloud reminded him.  “And our allies aren’t all that bad.  There’s Tidus, and Ultimecia – “

Kuja scoffed.  “Yes, the halfwit and the witch.  Goodbye, Cloud.”  And with that, he glided away.

Cloud watched him go with sadness and regret.  We could have stayed together a little longer.

He went back inside his little home, now devoid of the brightness that Kuja had brought into it, fleeting as the moments were.   Cloud tidied his bed, then took the map from the wall and rolled it up.  After visiting the Chaos Shrine he would map more of the labyrinth.  It meant not coming back to this camp for a while.

He felt a presence in the room with him…

He turned and saw Her standing next to the doorway.  She looked at him with sadness and disappointment.

Cloud sighed.  “Why are you looking at me like that?”

As usual, she didn’t answer.

“Is it because I slept with him?”

This time she gave him a look that said Oh please, don’t insult me.

“Okay, so if you’re alright with Kuja, then it must disapproval of me going back.”

 Bingo! her eyes and expression seemed to say.

“I have to go back eventually,” he told her.

She looked at him disappointedly again.  Then, she lifted one arm and pointed to the table.

Cloud went over, but there was nothing on the table except the pauldron he’d used as a pretend bowl for his pretend peanuts.  He snorted at the memory. 

He peered at it.  His little trinkets were still inside.   But then he realised, as he slowly pulled one out, that all the small accessories had been linked together, like a necklace, and its centrepiece was a small, purple feather.

“Kuja must have made this while I was asleep.  Is this what you wanted to show me - ?”

He turned to Aerith, but she was gone.

Cloud pulled the necklace over his head and collar, and adjusted it so it sat neatly.  He held it for a moment, thinking.

He didn’t know what Kuja wanted, or expected.  He didn’t know what he himself wanted… no.  That wasn’t right.

He knew what he wanted.  He wanted Kuja to stay, to be permanent.  And he knew, on some level, that Kuja had been looking for a one-night stand.  Or so it had seemed.

He didn’t know.  He just… he didn’t know.  He never knew; he had never been good at discerning people’s emotions.

Cloud exited the camp, and didn’t look back.

*

He had walked half a day before he encountered voices.

Cloud stayed behind a pillar and listened.  It was Garland, Exdeath, Kefka and Sephiroth, and they seemed to be on the verge of arguing.

“You’re more eligible than the rest of us,” Exdeath told Garland.  Sephiroth crossed his arms and Kefka put his hands to his mouth and gasped over-dramatically.

“My path has been written; it is not my destiny to succumb to the Great Will.”  Although Cloud could not see his face through his armour, he could tell that Garland was angry, and that Exdeath had over-stepped.

“Give the Great Will that annoying Blitzball player,” said Kefka, with an offhand gesture.  “Nothing of value will be lost.”

Cloud frowned.

“Tidus is a dream and not eligible to be a sacrifice,” said Garland, sounding impatient.  “Not many in this world are.”

“Kuja, then,” Kefka suggested.  “He is a genome, a creature created to be a vessel for a soul.”

Something leaden and cold went through Cloud at Kefka’s words.

Sephiroth side-eyed him.  “How do you know this?”

Kefka spread his hands, chuckling.  “It’s important to know things about your friends.”

Cloud tucked the necklace under his shirt collar and strode out into the open.  They all turned to look at him.  Cloud was especially wary of Septhiroth who watched him piercingly.

“You have returned to me,” said Sephiroth.  He turned to Kefka and raised an eyebrow.  “You see?  I do not need constant displays of control as you do; my puppet will always come back.”

“Oh really?” Kefka tilted his head.  “This one has been gone a year.”

Sephiroth placed a hand on Cloud’s shoulder; Cloud let him, for now.  “What are you all talking about?” Cloud asked.

“Your accent is so grating,” Kefka muttered at the same time Exdeath said, “Our god, known to you as the Great Will, has asked Chaos by extension his warriors to find him a body to inhabit.  But it cannot be just any body; it needs to be one created for that purpose, such as a manikin.”

“There are manikins slowly leaking from the Rift,” said Cloud, mentally noting that there was apparently another god they had to serve now.  Great.  “Can’t he just take one of those?”

“Weaklings,” said Garland, dismissive.  He added to all of them, “We shall give our god Kuja, as Kefka suggested.”

“Wait,” said Cloud, stepping forward towards Garland and away from Sephiroth’s grasp.  He took a deep breath – he was about to do something incredibly stupid but he had to save Kuja…

Cloud remembered the feel of Kuja’s long hair flowing through his fingers, of the way he smiled into a kiss, the way he arched into him while Cloud smoothed a hand down his back.

He felt the feather of his necklace pressed against his chest.

Cloud looked right at Garland and said, “Sacrifice me instead.”

“No,” said Sephiroth, from behind.

Cloud ignored him.  Garland was watching Cloud closely.  “I’m a clone,” Cloud explained. “I was... created… to become a puppet that would accept Sephiroth’s Will.”

“Be silent, Cloud,” Sephiroth growled.

“No, no, let the puppet speak,” said Kefka, amused.  “Seems he has a mind of his own after all.”

“Why don’t you sacrifice your girl instead,” Sephiroth shot back, voice like ice.

“There’s no way,” Kefka gritted out, anger visibly bubbling to the surface, sudden and hot.  “She is half Esper; too strong for even the gods themselves.  Too strong for you!”

“I’m right here, offering myself,” Cloud told Garland lowly.  “Kuja isn’t even here.”

“A noble sacrifice,” Garland conceded, but Sephiroth grabbed Cloud by the shoulder and turned him to face him.

“You cannot give yourself over to someone,” said Sephiroth, “when you belong to me.”

“My body is my own,” Cloud argued, face heating.  “What I do with it is up to me and me alone.”

“You’re wrong,” said Sephiroth, voice like silk.  He leaned in close.  “Your body, your soul, has always been mine.”

“I will not have two allies arguing,” said Garland.  Exdeath was still standing to the side, observing.  “We will find and capture Kuja, and be done with it.”

They all seemed happy with this, about to move away, like the meeting was over.  “Wait,” said Cloud, desperate.

They ignored him.

“Kuja has a brother,” said Cloud.

Garland looked at him.  “Go on.”

“Another genome named Zidane.  On Cosmos’s side.”

Cloud could feel Sephiroth and Kefka’s eyes upon him.  Garland and Exdeath exchanged glances.

“It is possible,” said Garland.  “But we do not know where this Zidane is.”

“But you don’t know where Kuja is, do you,” said Cloud.  “I can find Zidane; I have a plan.  Let me do this, and then you will have no need to sacrifice one of our own.”

Garland nodded.  “Do what you must.”

Cloud nodded back.  He ignored Sephiroth, instead turning to Kefka.  “I’m going to need Terra’s help.”

“Forget it,” the clown growled.

“Give him what he needs,” said Garland.

Kefka snarled.  Cloud turned to Exdeath.  “You have the power to summon almost anything from the Void?”

“Correct,” said Exdeath, slowly.  “You want something?”

Cloud ran a hand through his hair.  “If I do this, I want a reward.  A specific item.”

Exdeath crossed his arms.  “So long as it is within my power.”

“Understood,” said Cloud.

*

Squall saw him just before Zidane yelled in triumph and pranced around Bartz like an idiot.  “I won!” Zidane sing-songed. “I won!  I won!”

“Well yeah,” said Bartz, “Only took three losses.  Squall!  You want a turn?”

Bartz and Zidane had been playing noughts and crosses in the sand of the beach while Squall stood to the side.  Squall frowned at Bartz.  “We’ve got company.”

A few yards away, a tall man with sharp eyes and flamboyant, dark attire stood on the tall wall connecting the nearest gate.  He held a sceptre outwardly, and watched, head held high, as Squall, Bartz and Zidane walked towards him.

“Who are you and what do you want?” Squall shouted up at him.

The man narrowed his eyes.  “What tiny insect, this slithering slug… how dare he even posit, even have the fleeting thought, that he could speak to me, and in such a manner, no less?”

“What?” said Zidane, cocking his head, at the same time Bartz muttered, “Oh jeez, one of those.

Then from far away, through the open gate, Squall heard a timid cry.

A girl rounded the corner of a tall hill; and then Zidane was dashing off towards her before Squall could even register that she was limping and crying out for help.  “Please help me!” she cried.  “Please, he’s coming after me - !

Squall and Bartz went to follow – only for the gate to come down with a loud BANG! right in front of their faces.

“The way is closed,” drawled the guy with the sceptre.

Squall looked at him, then through the gate at the girl – who was running away from them now – to Zidane, who was following her, and then he exchanged glances with Bartz.

“Fuck,” said Squall.

The girl and Zidane disappeared around the hill.

“We gotta go,” said Bartz.

“Yeah, no shit,” said Squall, who was already moving past the gate and to a part of the wall that looked easy enough to dash up.

The guy with the sceptre was moving, casting spells, throwing mines and traps on the other side of the gate.  Squall grabbed Bartz’s arm as he came up beside him at the top of the cliff, wind whipping their hair into their eyes.  “We can’t dash after Zidane – the whole valley is full of mines.”

“Yeah, don’t worry,” said Bartz, “I can see that.  I just can’t believe… Zidane… he fell into such an obvious trap!”

I can believe it, Squall thought but didn’t say.  “We’re going to have to walk across, carefully.  I’ll lower you down first.”

“I hope we get there in time,” Bartz agreed, as he allowed Squall to hold his hand and help him get over the cliff and onto the nearest ledge.  He looked over his shoulder and shuddered.  “Did I ever tell you I’m kind of scared of heights?”

“Many times,” Squall drawled.  “Just don’t look down.  Look at me instead, if it helps.”

Bartz smiled at him shakily.  They picked their way down the wall, then walked gingerly past mines and traps set out by the annoying asshole who still stood near the gate.  “Run amuck!” he shouted after them, casting a large ball of fire to slowly follow.

They finally made it outside the range of traps – even after Squall had to pull Bartz from one that sent bolts of lightning up and around both of them – and then they were running and dashing as fast as they could –

Squall rounded the hill and saw Zidane and a soldier with blonde, spikey hair fighting, while off to the side the girl and Exdeath stood near an open portal.

Squall shouted Zidane’s name, which he regretted instantly when Zidane looked towards the noise, and the soldier took advantage of his distraction to swipe down with his large sword, making Zidane stumble backwards into the portal to the Void.

“Go,” the soldier said to the girl, who leaped after Zidane.  The portal closed behind her.

Many things happened in a very short amount of time:

Exdeath teleported and then reappeared, ramming himself into Bartz –

The soldier dashed at Squall and performed a spinning attack.  Squall dodged – if the attack had hit, Squall would have had no head –

Squall and the soldier fought.  Their blades clashed, shards of light glancing off and shooting away –

There was a moment when Squall got close and caught the soldier’s dead-eyed gaze.  His eyes were blue, but they were also green – the kind of bright, artificial green that suggested poison or acid or evil –

Squall slashed at him.  Though Squall kept missing, he was still able to drive the soldier back.  “Why did you take Zidane!” he demanded.

There was a quiet moment where for just a second the soldier looked regretful.  “The things we do for love, I guess,” he said, his voice deep but his accent surprisingly country.

They dashed away from each other.  The soldier threw fire magic which Squall blocked, then countered with a rain of bullets from his gunblade.  The soldier planted his huge sword in the ground and hid behind it, blocking all of Squall’s bullets.  Then the soldier pulled the sword from the ground, spun it around his head and shouted, “Stars, rain down - !”

Squall heard the whizzing sound of the meteor shower before the fiery rocks landed on the hills and ground, and splashed into the ocean nearby.  He heard Bartz yell as he dodged.

“Exdeath, we’re leaving!” the blonde soldier shouted as he ran towards his ally.

“As you wish,” said Exdeath, before opening a portal.  The two Chaos warriors went through, and the portal closed behind them, and then they were gone.

Squall dodged two more meteors before they finally died down.  Bartz ran over to him, breathing heavily from his fight.

Bartz grabbed his arm.  “They kidnapped Zidane!”

“I know.” Squall was furious.  “Don’t worry too much; he can take care of himself.”

“Who was that guy?  Why did he take Zidane?”

“’The things we do for love,’” Squall quoted.

Bartz looked at him.  “What?”

“It’s just something he said.  Don’t ask me what it means.”

Bartz spread his hands out in cluelessness and frustration.  “He kidnapped Zidane for love?”  He shook his head.  “Exdeath…” Bartz looked into the distance, where the portal last was.

“What about him?”

Bartz’s eyes narrowed.  “Exdeath is… powerful.  And seriously up himself,” Bartz added with a snort.  “But the way he acted around that blonde guy… it was like, Exdeath respected him.”

“That soldier I fought…” Squall started, “he was really strong, and had some long-range magic up his sleeve.  But he’s slower than I am; he just makes up for it with tactics.  So next time,” Squall promised, knowing there had to be a next time, “I will be prepared, and I will defeat him.”

“Yeah!” Bartz gave a fist pump, resolute.  “And we’ll get Zidane back!”

Squall was looking out over the river, thinking, planning… He hadn’t realised Bartz had moved into his space, and was looking at Squall closely, breath warm and feather-like on Squall’s neck.

Bartz put two fingers to Squall’s chin and Squall looked into his eyes, then down to his mouth.  It seemed an incongruous moment after battle, but at the same time it wasn’t because Squall’s veins were pumping hot, and he could smell the heady salt of Bartz’s sweat, and Squall was aware that they were alone –

Bartz tilted Squall’s chin up and leaned forward to inspect Squall’s neck closely.  “You’re bleeding.”

Squall scowled.  “What?  No I’m not.”

Bartz pulled away and ripped a strip of material from one of the sashes he wore.  Then he pressed the material to Squall’s neck.  “You’re bleeding all over the place.”

Their hands brushed as Squall took the material from him to hold in place himself.  “An exaggeration,” he grumbled.

Bartz sighed.  “We have to find him.  We’re going to find him, aren’t we?”

“There’s only really one place they would have taken him,” said Squall, “so there’s only one direction we will go.”

*

Emperor Mateus confronted Cloud upon his arrival.  “You have done well, peon.”

Cloud rolled his eyes.  “Thanks.  Where’s Zidane?”

“The genome is being prepared for possession.  The sacrificial ceremony will begin shortly at the Chaos Shrine; you should make haste if you desire to view the forthcoming entertainment.”

“Sure, I’ll meet you there,” Cloud lied, then waited for the emperor to leave before turning to Exdeath.

“Name your reward,” said Exdeath.

Guilt settled heavy on Cloud’s bones, making him grit his teeth.  He didn’t think a reward for what he had done was appropriate, particularly the kind of reward he wanted to ask for.  “Forget it,” he said.

“I do not give out favours lightly,” Exdeath warned.  “You may not get this chance again.”

Cloud had been turning to go, but at Exdeath’s words he paused and looked at him over his shoulder, too embarrassed to show Exdeath his face.  “Okay.  I need some water based lubricant.”

There was a long pause.  Then Exdeath said, “Your sword will rust; an oil based lubricant should be sufficient.”

“I don’t want it for my sword,” Cloud told him, looking away.  “You’ve been around a long time; I’m sure you can guess what it’s for.”

Another pregnant pause.  “I was under the impression your relationship with Sephiroth was unrequited.”

Irritated, Cloud ran a hand through his hair and finally turned to look at Exdeath properly.  Irritation, it seemed, was strong enough to chase away embarrassment.  “Sephiroth and I are not in a relationship; we will never be in a relationship.”

“It matters not to me,” said Exdeath, and Cloud sensed embarrassment from him, too.  “I will get you want you require, in time.”

“Thank you,” Cloud exhaled, relieved.

*

He travelled back to the labyrinth and away from the Chaos Shrine and its surrounding territories.  He felt regret at having not met up with Tidus or Ultimecia, but going back for even those four days had been enough.

He tracked another floor of the labyrinth, taking his time, going through the motions yet distracting himself from his leaden guilt.  He eventually built up the courage to go back to his lonely camp; he was reluctant now, because it had been inhabited by Kuja, if only briefly, but that had been enough to feel like the camp was theirs and not just his.

Cloud moved the material aside and stepped in.  He went over to the wall and pinned the map there once again.  Then he turned –

Kuja was sleeping in his bed.

He was curled around Cloud’s pillow, long hair a wild, tangled mess around him.

Trying not to wake him, Cloud slowly climbed in and curled himself around him, Kuja’s back pressed to Cloud’s front.

When Cloud next awoke, Kuja was already awake and looking at him.  Cloud looked away.  “I've done a bad thing – “

Kuja shushed him and got on top, hair flowing down like a curtain hiding them from the world. “I didn't think you'd come back.”

Cloud examined his face. Kuja was smiling slightly. “But...” said cloud, “you're here.”

“Yes,” said Kuja, and kissed him, slow.

Later, Cloud heard his name being called from outside.  It was probably Hanly, or one of the other moogles who lived in the labyrinth.  Cloud quickly dressed and went to the curtained door, pulling it aside.

“Good morning, kupo.  You've got mail!” Hanly floated in front of him, swinging from side to side in excitement.

Cloud thanked him as he accepted the golden envelope. Kuja appeared at his side, and accepted his own letter.

Hanly watched avidly while they opened them and Kuja read it aloud:

“’Dear Warrior of Darkness,

‘I, Cid of the Lufaine, also known as The Great Will, hereby invite you to my coronation, to be held tomorrow evening in Chaos’s Great Hall.

‘All our dreams will come to pass.’  And there's a signature at the bottom.”

Cloud stared at the crisp, elegant letter, a feeling of foreboding sinking in his gut.  Hanly said, “Very ominous, kupo.”

“Indeed,” said Kuja.  “What kind of God decides to be a king instead?  Did he get bored on that nice fluffy cloud of his?”

Hanly shrugged his little shoulders.  “You want to make any purchases while I'm here, kupo?”

“Not for me, Hanly, not today,” said Cloud.  He knew Hanly only took Kupo Points, and Cloud had spent all of his on utilising the Mognet to find Zidane.

Kuja bought a potion, while Cloud went back inside and considered what to take with them and what to leave behind.

Kuja came back inside after bidding Hanly farewell.  “I suppose we have to go,” he sighed.

Cloud rubbed a hand through his hair.  “We may not have a choice,” he agreed.  “I don’t think we’ll be back here for some time.”

“No,” said Kuja, a hint of sadness coming though in his voice.

They had to travel on foot half a day.  Cloud was nervous about making small talk with Kuja, but it turned out Kuja was very good at getting Cloud out of his shell, and conversation flowed easily between them.

“…And you lived in the slums,” clarified Kuja, a few hours in to their travels.  “Must have been awful.”

“I don’t remember much of that life,” Cloud admitted, “but I think it was okay.  People looked after each other and no one really judged you.  I mean, yeah, you’d often get your stuff stolen, but I had started to gain a reputation for being strong so I think people trusted me to deliver their packages safely.”

“You are very strong,” Kuja drawled, throwing Cloud a leer.

Cloud smirked at him briefly.  Then he said, “All I ever wanted was to be a Soldier First Class.  A hero like Sephiroth.  I was so stupid,” he added quietly, almost to himself.

Cloud walked through ruins of an old castle while beside him Kuja just floated, his magic carrying him effortlessly along.  How powerful Kuja must be, Cloud marvelled, to be able to have that kind of control.  Granted, Cloud’s mana allowed him to cast powerful spells, but they never lasted; they only burst into life before fizzling out after about a minute.

Cloud continued, “I didn’t exactly get my dream in the end, but I still became as strong as a Frist Class, if not stronger.  It’s funny: you want something so bad, but then when you get it, you can’t just – you know – retire, sit on the couch and watch TV for the rest of your days.  You have to take the thing you gained and use it, and hope that you’re using it for good.  For the right reasons.”

Kuja’s eyebrows shot up.  “Like being a hero and saving world?” he said sarcastically.

“Like being yourself and saving the planet,” Cloud told him seriously.

“What’s the difference?”

“Saving the world implies you’re saving the people living on it.”

They looked at each other.  “You wanted to help the planet even at the expense of human lives,” Kuja summarised, “and I wanted to save the Terrans at the expense of Gaian lives.”

Cloud shrugged.  “Guess we’re the same then.”

“No.  I am a warmonger, you are a terrorist,” said Kuja.

“Sounds like the same thing to me,” Cloud grumbled, “except you’re rich and I’m poor.”

Kuja snorted, amused.  “You wanted to be strong,” he said, steering the conversation away from politics, “and I wanted immortality.  I despised even the very concept of death.  And yet, my anger had lead me to wish death upon everyone else.

“It’s remarkable how sometimes you want something so badly, and then when you get it, you hate it.  Look at us – “ he swung his arms out wide – “we’re all immortal, and it is Hell.  We have to fight, but we can’t die.  We just exist here, in this broken world.”

“Immortality is a kind of prison, I guess,” Cloud agreed.  “Death is frightening but it is also a door, or door you can only pass through once, but opening that door can be your choice.”

“And immortality means taking that choice away,” said Kuja sadly.   “And then you’re trapped here with no way out.  Yes, a prison.”

As the sun was setting, they finally reached Chaos’s castle.  With great reluctance, Cloud and Kuja entered, and met first with Tidus and Ultimecia.

“Dude!” shouted Tidus, giving Cloud a good, hard hug.  He pushed him away but kept him arm-length, looking him up and down.  “Sephiroth wouldn’t shut up about how you came back but Ulti and I never saw you!”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Cloud, running a hand through his hair.  “I couldn’t stay.”

Ultimecia nodded to Cloud and Kuja in greeting, arms crossed, which Kuja returned.  “So what is happening with this weird invite, huh?” Tidus continued.  “Very mysterious.”

“Couldn’t say,” Cloud mumbled.

“Perhaps we should all move into the Great Hall,” said Ultimecia.  “The coronation will start in time.”

The hall was long, dark, gothic and led straight to the entrance to Chaos’s Shrine. It seemed that the four friends were the last to arrive.  Exdeath, Golbez and Garland stood near the foot of the stairs, conversing; Golbez turned to them and gave Kuja a nod, who inclined his head in return.

Right, thought Cloud, they're friends.

Sephiroth was standing with Kefka.  He gestured Cloud over, and he and his friends came to stand near them, wary.  “You’ve returned,” stated Sephiroth.

“I guess so,” Cloud mumbled.  

“Unsurprising,” said Kefka silkily, with a little giggle, “that the two of you should arrive together.”  He meant Cloud and Kuja, not Tidus and Ultimecia, who were standing behind them a little ways.  Sephirith looked at Kefka, then at Cloud, eyes sharp, and Cloud felt a dawning sense of dread.

Kefka was still talking.  “Did you try to sacrifice yourself for Kuja because you love him?” Cloud could feel Kuja’s curious gaze, but Cloud couldn't look at him.  Kefka peered at Sephiroth and his narrow-eyed expression and gasped in over-dramatic horror.  “Did you not know, Sephy?  Did you not figure out that Cloud tried to save Kuja’s life because they are – what is the right word – lovers?  Is that too old fashioned of me?  Oh I don’t know what you kids are calling it these days.  Perhaps I am wrong – “

Cloud was watching Sephiroth closely.

“ – Perhaps you are not lovers yet. Perhaps Cloud wants to be, but it's unrequited, or they’re still courting each other, holding hands, running  through fields of flowers... no that's not it.  Oh no.  I can see by how close they are standing, by the way they had arrived, walking so close, they've found their happy ending.  Or should I say,  end in -

Cloud reacted by pushing Kuja behind him just as Sephiroth whipped out his sword with his left hand and grabbed Cloud around his neck in a headlock with his right, Kefka cackling all the while.  The tip of Sephiroth’s Masamune scratched the flesh of Kuja’s stomach, leaving a shallow, red welt.

Sephiroth had meant to impale Kuja through his middle, and he would have succeeded had Cloud not pushed him away in time.

Sephiroth’s lips brushed Cloud's ear.  “Seems I have allowed you too much freedom after all,” Sephiroth murmured.  “But thank you for showing me what you cherish; now I have the pleasure of taking it away.”

Cloud made a noise when he saw Kuja move closer, the Masamune making a dent in his stomach without penetrating the skin.   Cloud was scared for him, but Kuja was smirking.

“Don't even try anything,” Sephiroth warned him.

“Why would I do that?” drawled Kuja.  “I'm enjoying this moment immensely.  Watching as your world falls apart, as your heart breaks and crumbles into a million tiny shards...” His smirk widened.  “You’ve always tried to make Cloud yours and then I come along, take him in just a moment, and now he’s completely out of your reach...”

Cloud gasped as Sephiroth’s arm tightened around Cloud’s neck.

Kuja’s lips thinned.  “Proverbial reach.”  

Chaos was emerging from the arched entrance to his shrine, his large body and half unfurled wings imposing.  There was someone riding his shoulder. Kuja was distracted by this new arrival.

“I can’t kill you,” Sephiroth was saying, “but I can take away what you hold dear, turn him against you – “

“It won't work,” said Kuja with a dismissive wave of his hand.  His focus was no longer on Sephiroth or Cloud, but on –

“Zidane?” murmured Kuja in confusion.

Sephiroth’s grip on Cloud loosened and Cloud took the opportunity to step away from him.  Tidus grabbed Cloud’s arm gently and asked if he was okay, but Cloud was distracted by Kuja gliding slowly away from him and towards Chaos and Zidane, who was perched on Chaos’s massive shoulder.

Except it wasn’t Zidane, not really.

Cid of the Lufaine had possessed Zidane’s body, and now Zidane was almost unrecognisable in a new, dark suit, long blonde hair flowing over one shoulder, and eyes lined with kohl.  He still had a kind of cheeky expression about him, but his eyes were harder, older…. madder.

For a moment the hall was quiet.  Everyone watched as Chaos presented a golden circlet and placed it on Cid’s head.  “Behold!” Chaos boomed, voice like drums and gravel.  “Your new king – Cid of the Lufaine.  Bow down.”

Everyone except for Kuja lowered their heads – Garland even going so far as to get on one knee.  Cloud watched from under his fringe as Kuja glided up the stairs to the dais where Chaos stood.  Kuja called Zidane’s name again, and Cid floated from Chaos’s shoulder and to him.  They faced each other.

“Zidane,” Kuja implored, “what has happened to you?”

Cid spoke, touching Kuja’s face gently with his long dark fingernails.  “I am sorry, young thing,” he said, his voice deep and slow, “but I have taken over your brother’s body, and I have locked his mind away where you cannot reach him.”

Kuja looked desolate.  He grabbed Cid’s hand.  “Zidane.  If you can hear me, understand that I will find a way to get to you.  Please do not give up or give in.”

Cid gave him a look of patronising pity.  He put both his hands on Kuja’s cheeks.  “Look at you,” he said in wonder, “look at how beautiful you are.  You are a work of art.  Your creator must have been truly inspired the day he made you.”  One of his hands moved to the back of Kuja’s neck –

And then Kuja’s eyes were rolling back and he was falling –

Cloud called out his name and tried to run to him but was seized with a sudden intense pain that had him gasping and falling to his knees, clutching at his head.  He could hear Sephiroth laughing cruelly both in the hall and in his mind, while his brain felt like it was being crushed from the inside.

When the pain finally eased and Cloud could see and feel again, he found that Tidus and Ultimecia were on either side of him, keeping him steady.  Ultimecia cradled his head as it lolled.

Kuja was passed out in Golbez’s arms, lavender hair flowing down over his arm like a waterfall.

“Imprison him somewhere safe,” Cid was saying to Emperor Mateus.  The emperor led Golbez and his burden out of the hall.

“He’ll be alright,” Golbez told Cloud quietly as he passed.

“I hope,” Cid began, floating calmly and looking at each of them, “that you will all accept me into your hearts. We all have plans and predictions for the future; some of you believe that we can make this place better, that we will live here for eternity...”

Cid was speaking slowly and precisely yet it seemed with little substance, like a politician.  Cloud grunted a little as Tidus and Ultimecia tried to help him up.  But then Cloud yelled out as pain shot through his head.

“Stay on your knees,” said Sephiroth, “I prefer you there.”

“...as is my goal DO NOT SPEAK WHEN I AM SPEAKING!

Everyone froze.

Cid floated over to Sephiroth, who seemed both amused and unamused as he tracked Cid’s approach with hard, green eyes.  Cloud stayed on his knees and panted through the aftershocks of his migraine.

“Do not be confused, my friends,” Cid said quietly now, but no less dangerous, “that I will tolerate insolence. I had stolen the body of Kuja’s brother, and so I had allowed him a small amount of impertinence to go unchecked out of sympathy.  But understand that I will not do so again.”  He stopped in front of Cloud and lowered himself to his level. He touched two fingers to the underside of Cloud's chin and looked him straight in the eyes.  “I know what you did,” said Cid.  “I know you offered yourself to me, and I know when that failed, you gave me the body I now possess. I know you did it out of love for someone and not in reverence to me, but still I thank you.  Help him stand,” he added to Tidus and Ultimecia, who did just that.

“We should all follow Cloud Strife’s example,” he told the room at large as he slowly floated back to the dais.  “As I was saying, some of you believe we will all go home one day.  Some believe time here is irrelevant and we all will return to the Void.  Perhaps we will be stuck here for all eternity – who is right? Who is wrong?  Point is, we are all here together for quite some time.  So I propose – “ He made it to the dais, stood next to Chaos and turned, pausing for dramatic effect – “that we consider... world peace!”

The room was quiet.  Cloud and Tidus looked up.  Ultimecia tilted her head.  Kefka froze mid-yawn.  Everyone stared.

Chaos looked conflicted.  He leaned towards the small figure that was Cid and said lowly, almost whispering: “Father, Shinryu will not approve – “

“Shinryu is in the Void where he belongs, where he will stay,” Cid hissed, teeth bared, eyes blazing in utter anger.  Then his expression smoothed over as he looked back at his people placidly.  “First step to realising this dream is to make peace with each other here.  Many of you are already friends, but some of you are at war with each other even though you are on the same side.  For the next few weeks we’ll be working towards better harmony and a deeper understanding of our peers.  Eventually, once we are all confident in our community, we will take steps to make peace with those sided with Cosmos.  I know,” he added, when he noticed some of the uncomfortable expressions from some of Cloud’s allies, “that it won’t be easy, but I promise you, it can be done.”

 

*

Kuja was waking up.

He was in a cage made of lightning magic.  Cloud watched from afar and hidden behind a pillar as Kuja gingerly pulled himself into a sitting position before standing and facing Golbez and Ultimecia through the crackling, vivid bars.

He looked wan and defeated. Cloud swallowed down the lump in his throat, heart clenching at the thought of Kuja being hurt.

“Are you here to gloat?” Kuja asked his visitors.

“Far from it, my friend,” Golbez said sadly.  “Nevertheless, I am glad it was neither you nor I the Great Will chose to possess.”

“The tables have turned on this war,” Ultimecia mused, “and in such a short amount of time.”

“And yet,” drawled Kuja, eyes cold, “neither of you are helpful in any way.”

Tidus came up beside Cloud and touched his arm.  They stayed hidden in the shadows.  Tidus crossed his arms, lips upturned a little even though his eyes were serious.  “You want to know an interesting little titbit about prisons?”

Cloud side-eyed him.  “I don’t know, do I?”

“Sure you do.  So, like, magical prisons or traps or dungeons or whatever, they can’t just exist on their own; they need a power source.”

Cloud frowned.  “What like… mako?”

“I don’t what that is,” said Tidus.  “I was thinking more on the lines of a sphere.  A magical stone of some kind, which can stay in one place for a long time without degrading.  And it’s usually placed close by, like in the wall or the floor or even the ceiling.  If someone were to… look for something like that, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long for them to find if they knew what they were looking for.”

Cloud stared at Tidus.  Then he gave his friend a small nod.  “I’m going to need some time,” said Cloud.

“I’ll make sure nothing happens to him in the meantime,” Tidus promised.

*

Cloud had seen Kefka’s rooms once, all ostentatious and colourful, like the guy had found a cushion and throw rug sale and had gone mad with decorating.  Ultimecia’s room in Chaos’s castle was similar to the ones she had at her own castle: Victorian and classic, full of beautiful antiques of the highest quality.

Sephiroth’s room was the opposite.

It was bleak and unremarkable, with a desk against one wall and a bed against the other.  He had his own shower, though, which Cloud envied.  The whole place was rather small.

It reminded Cloud of the Shinra barracks.

Cloud let himself in.  Sephiroth stood from his desk chair and watched as Cloud ran his eyes all over the sparse room.  Another time, another place, this really could have been Shinra, and Cloud and Sephiroth could have been SOLDIER First Classes; allies, co-workers, comrades, friends… even lovers.  Once upon a time, Cloud would have loved to work under Sephiroth, in more ways than one.

But this wasn’t Gaia, it wasn’t Shinra, and despite his clothing Cloud had never been a SOLDIER First Class and he and Sephiroth had never been friends.

Cloud looked over one shoulder, trying to be coy.  “You know when I was a teenager,” he began, “living in a quiet little mountain town, I had this poster of you on my wall.”

Sephiroth inhaled sharply, tilting his head to the side.  His eyes never left Cloud’s face.

Cloud turned to face him proper.  “I wanted to be as strong as you.  I wanted to leave and go to Midgar and be your subordinate, work by your side.  But mostly I just wanted you.”

Sephiroth moved towards him, intent.

“At night I would look at that poster…” Cloud swallowed as Sephiroth cupped Cloud’s cheek and rubbed a gloved thumb over his bottom lip.  “I would look at that poster, and I would touch myself – “

Sephiroth kissed him hard.  Cloud pulled away almost as soon as it had started, and said, “Get on the bed.”

Sephiroth didn’t oblige at first, just took his time running a hand over Cloud’s face and through his hair.  Eventually, Sephiroth took off his jacket and lay down on the bed, and Cloud straddled him.

Then he summoned the Buster Sword and stabbed Sephiroth with it so hard the sword went through the mattress and hit the floor.  Blood splattered on the wall and Cloud’s face and Sephiroth shouted “You fuck!

Cloud leaned down over him, eyes blazing.  “You think I would ever come to you willingly?” he hissed in Sephiroth’s face, now twisted in pain.  Sephiroth summoned his Masamune in his left hand but Cloud grabbed his wrist and slammed it down.   “I will never love you, or come to you, or be yours, do you understand?  You attack my friends.  You torture me with your will.  And you murdered…” he looked to the side – “her.

Sephiroth looked to where Cloud was looking, and his eyes widened when they landed on Aerith.  “How?” he grunted.

Cloud got off him and went to stand beside her.  “Make sure he doesn’t die,” Cloud told her.  “I need him to stay in this room for as long as possible while Kuja and I escape.”

She nodded.

“I will come after you,” Sephiroth told Cloud dangerously as Cloud left.

I know you will, Cloud thought, but didn’t say.

*

Kuja still looked fatigued as Cloud approached the prison.  They were alone now.

Cloud traced his hand along the wall as Kuja watched him, eyes hooded.  “I’m getting you out of here,” Cloud told him, “and then we’re leaving.”

Kuja seemed disappointed.  “I can’t leave without Zidane,” he said.

Cloud dug his fingers in a crack in the wall and frowned.  “I don’t know how to save Zidane, I only know how to save you.”  He made the crack wider, wall crumbling away under his fingers.  “Do you know how to save him?”

Kuja hissed at him like a snake.  Cloud wasn’t looking at him, but he could imagine the flash of his eyes and his face twisting in anger.  Cloud dug his hand into the hole in the wall he had managed to make and pulled out a glowing pink orb.  The electric prison around Kuja dissipated with a splutter and a low hum.  Tidus had been right.

Cloud looked at Kuja, and he looked back, scowling.  Cloud dropped the orb with one hand and tried to grab Kuja with the other, but Kuja pulled away.  Incredibly, the gesture only made something inside Cloud soften more; Kuja was like a cat, curious and cautious, wanted to trust but finding it very difficult to do so.  Cloud said, “If you go to Cid of the Lufaine, and you fight him, then what?  Engaging Cid in battle may only strengthen him but weaken you and Zidane.”

“You think I don’t know that?” spat Kuja.

“Let’s go,” Cloud implored.  “If you hang around and they find you’ve escaped, they may imprison you again in something stronger.”  Cloud gently held Kuja’s hand.  Kuja let him, but didn’t hold his hand back.  “We can figure something out, plan something, get help from someone.”

Kuja seemed to deflate at that; he really did look tired.  He squeezed Cloud’s hand briefly before letting go and nodding.

So they ran away.

They fled for some time through the many floors of the labyrinth.  Eventually, they came to a glade encompassed by four high stone walls, and which had a sparkling blue stream that ran by a crop of trees.  “I need to stop here,” Kuja told him, already lowering himself to sit on a smooth rock.  There was only one magic ball circling him.

“Sephiroth may come after us soon,” said Cloud, not sitting with him.  “We should keep moving.”

Kuja sighed.  “He will not; we have been travelling for some time, and we are deep within the labyrinth.”  He ran a hand over his eyes.  “I remember when Zidane was born; he was so small.  Our father told me he would be making another genome, one better than I, and I loathed him then.  But then Zidane came out of the tubes… this little baby.  Crying and crying.  And when I held him in my arms he held onto my finger and ceased his wailing straight away.  I knew then that I couldn’t let him live how I had lived, with a father that wasn’t programmed to love.”

Cloud said, feeling like Kuja had punched him in the heart, “You told me you threw him to Gaia because you were jealous of him.”

Kuja shrugged one shoulder.  “It was a half-truth.”

Cloud took a deep breath.  “I have to tell you something.”

Kuja gave him a side-along look, eyebrow raised, and made a gesture that basically said, Okay, get on with it.

Cloud took a deep breath.  “I’m the one who kidnapped Zidane.”

Kuja looked up at him, frowning.  Cloud kneeled in front of him and put a hand gently on the bare skin of Kuja’s thigh.  “Garland, Kefka, Exdeath and Sephiroth were talking about kidnapping you and sacrificing you to Cid.  Somehow Kefka knew you were a genome.  So I offered myself instead, since I’m a clone, according to Sephiroth, but Sephiroth and Garland wouldn’t allow it.  So I made a plan to capture Zidane instead, which I did.  Emperor Mateus took him – “

“How did you find Zidane?” said Kuja quietly.

“I asked Hanly to use the Mognet to find him.”

Kuja looked away.  “Very clever.”

“Kuja,” Cloud breathed, “I am so, so sorry.”

Kuja didn’t say anything at first.  Then he said quietly, still not looking at Cloud, “I need to be alone for a while.”

Cloud clenched his jaw and nodded.  Then he left.

One section of labyrinth over, he came across a moogle who introduced herself as Mardi.  “I could use a new sword,” Cloud told her.

“You’ve come to the right moogle, kupo,” she said, before a long set of weapons appeared before him, rotating slowly in the air.

Cloud stared at one he recognised.  “That’s the Ultima Weapon,” he breathed.  Then he remembered: “I don’t have much KP left.”

“No sweat, kupo, I also take gil and trinkets.” She eyed his necklace.  “Like that pretty thing around your neck.”

Cloud touched it gently, stroking a finger down the mauve feather.  Although he and Kuja were on the verge of breaking up, Cloud couldn’t part with it.  “It’s not for trade,” he said, giving the sword one last longing look.  “I have plenty of gil; anything else you can offer me?”

In the end Cloud chose the nail bat, and he swung it round until it disappeared into his inventory just as he walked back into the glade.  Kuja was lying on the grass now, taking a nap.  Cloud tried to shake him awake.

He wouldn’t.

He finally awoke when Cloud pulled him into his lap and said his name.  Kuja peered up at him through his long fringe.  “I forgive you,” Kuja mumbled.

Cloud caught his breath.  Kuja leaned his forehead on Cloud’s arm.  “Now it is time to forgive yourself," Kuja said, just as some of his hair parted from his neck…

There was a crystal thorn there, stuck in his flesh.  It had spidery lines coming from it, under the skin like an infection.  Cloud touched it –

Pain shot through his head and he pulled away –

“Kuja, there’s something – “

“I know.  Cid did something to me.  I don’t know if I’m long for this world – “

“Don’t say that.  Even if you die, you’ll respawn.”

“I feel like it might be different this time.”  Kuja turned in his arms so they were facing one another.  “I think perhaps… this is it…”

Cloud kissed him quickly.  “I love you,” Cloud told him as they pressed their foreheads together.

Kuja tried to say something, then couldn’t, clenching his eyes closed tightly.

And then he was glowing, the light from his skin growing brighter and brighter until Cloud couldn’t look and had to shield his eyes against it –

And just as suddenly it was gone, and Kuja’s eyes were wide.  He was breathing heavily, clutching his chest.  Cloud lifted Kuja’s hair up and away from his neck to check: the crystal thorn was gone.

“You – “ said Cloud.  “How did you – ?”

“I don’t know,” Kuja panted.  “I just thought that I loved you too, and then there was this light from within me, and suddenly I feel… I feel…”

“…Sick?”

Incredible.

Kuja kissed him hard, pushing him back onto the grass.  He unbuckled Cloud’s pauldron and pulled his shirt up over his head.  “Give me this.”

“I can’t,” said Cloud, even as he watching Kuja remove his own clothes.  “What I did – “

“I told you,” said Kuja impatiently, “I forgive you.  Do not let your sins get in the way of what I need.”  Then he got back on top of Cloud and they slid their mouth together, eyes closed against the daylight.  They got Cloud’s boots and pants off, and then Cloud was flipping them over so he was in between Kuja’s legs.

“I have something,” Cloud said, before summoning the item Exdeath had given him.

Kuja looked at it, then smirked, eyes smouldering.   “See?  You do get some things right.”

It seemed that with lubricant and a little preparation, Kuja could take Cloud’s cock within himself smoothly.  Kuja was noisy in bed, which Cloud already knew, but this was another level.  It was if Kuja needed sex in that moment to live, like his skin was on fire and Cloud’s mouth and hands on his skin were cool and soothing but never quite enough.  He was always wanting more and more of him.

More than an hour later, they lay on the grass, Kuja’s head pillowed on Cloud’s shoulder.

They talked about what to do next.  “We cannot go back.  We shall have to seek help from Cosmos.” Kuja sounded doubtful, which mirrored Cloud’s thoughts.

“None of the gods can be trusted,” said Cloud.  He shuffled a bit.  “Chaos mentioned something to Cid earlier, something about someone called Shinryu.”

“A legendary summon, if I’m not mistaken,” said Kuja.

“If we could get that summon materia…  It’s a long shot; we don’t even know where it could be.”

Cloud felt Kuja’s eyelashes flutter against his bare skin.  “Then we shall head towards Cosmos’s territory, and we’ll ask the moogles on the way if they know where we could purchase Shinryu’s summon stone.”

It was a plan, at least.