A Hard Time: Looking Forward (1)

If you’re new to the series and you want to start at the beginning, go here; for once I’m actually organized 😀


Authors: Cloud is played by  Zildk, Reno and Rude are played by Jaded Grin
Characters: Reno/Cloud/Rude sandwich in that order
Rating:
R – you have been warned!
Warnings:
Light D/s, man sex, etc. This is purely (almost) porn, people!
Summary: Cloud has moved in with the two Turks and is slowly beginning to adjust to his new life. With Tifa upset with him and everything up in the air, the only thing he can do is look ahead to what may come.


1


            When Cloud woke up, he found himself snuggled close to Reno and practically wrapped in his warmth and comfort. For a while he just stayed there, too content to change anything or even move, because this was what he had been dreaming of for so long. This intimacy, this feeling of safety and comfort was what he had been missing for so long.

            After some time he drew in a deep breath, stretching a little and catching the scent of something that instantly made his stomach rumble in an almost furious manner. Food! The delicious smell that had wormed its way into the bedroom reminded Cloud that he hadn’t eaten anything all day long, and the hungry growls from his stomach made that thoroughly well known to anybody within hearing distance.

            Cloud couldn’t help but smile because he still didn’t really want to untangle himself from Reno, but he knew that he would have to in order to get to the source of that delicious smell. He turned his head and placed a kiss right onto the still-sleeping redhead’s lips, and he nuzzled into Reno’s face with his nose, enjoying their closeness and the realization of what they shared.

            When his thoughts for a brief moment touched the confrontation with Tifa he found the memory surprisingly subdued, like some kind of easing relief had dulled the pain a little. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what it was. Knowing that he was in the right place, knowing that he was loved and that he had made the right decision had put his mind at ease, and even though it had cost a high price, he now knew that there had been no way around it.

            He knew that it had hurt Tifa, and he understood it perfectly now. If Tifa had felt even just a fragment of the love for him that he felt for Reno and Rude, he could easily imagine why she felt so hurt and betrayed, and realizing that, he made up his mind to work his butt off to make things right with her. He didn’t want to lose her friendship, and he would fight for it with everything he had, but for now he would give her the time and the space she needed to think things through, and he would be there for her, if she ever decided to forgive him.

            But he would not leave his lovers for her. This was one decision he would not back down from and looking at Reno lying here in his sleep, resting so peacefully in Cloud’s arms was the most convincing argument he could ever find. He just hoped that, in time, Tifa would realize that this was the right thing for the both of them.

            Cloud’s eyes rested on Reno’s face again, and he felt that wonderful warmth he was starting to familiarize himself with brew in his stomach and spread throughout his entire body.

            “My beautiful Reno,” he whispered softly, reaching up and gently caressing a wild strand of hair away from his face. So perfect, so delicate and beautiful. “Thank you. For setting me free.” The words weren’t meant to be heard really, it was just something he felt so strongly and they just slipped before he had the sense to think to keep them inside.

            And then his stomach growled again, and Cloud couldn’t help but chuckle. Trust his body to ruin a perfectly sappy, romantic moment!

            Reno only half-heard Cloud’s soft statement. He was still floating somewhere in pleasant, formless dreams, but the man’s slight shifting was enough for Reno to wake himself up. It was the rumble of Cloud’s stomach, however, that brought a smile to his pink lips and made his eyes slip open, lids heavy and half-lidded.

            “My my, worked up an appetite, yo,” he teased, tipping his head up to meet Cloud’s gaze, his smile widening to a grin. He was still draped half atop the young swordsman, one hand lying loosely on Cloud’s shoulder. He twirled the fingers of that hand against Cloud’s soft skin and laughed, saying, “You totally earned it, baby. That was one hell of a little stress-relief session we had there.”

            He leaned closer and nipped Cloud’s soft, delectable lower lip just hard enough to remind him that Reno was a biter, and pulled back to murmur, “Glad you came, Cloud. Glad you stayed.”

            Cloud’s wild chocobo hair dipped over his bright blue eyes, but there was no mistaking the expression of love and joy on his face. Cloud felt at home here, in Reno’s arms, in Papa Bear’s bed, between the two Turks who had once fought him so fiercely yet with such doubt in their own orders.

            “Y’know…” Reno said, giving Cloud a sly look and reaching up to stroke the soft curve of his cheek. “I’m glad we found you that day, Baby Bear. Me and Papa…we been lookin‘ for a long while. We never expected it to be you,” he added, a soft, pleased laugh escaping him. “But gods help me, Cloud, I’m glad it was.”

            He felt that huge emotion swell up in him again, that brilliant flare of something so like what he felt for Rude, yet so different. This, he knew, was what Papa Bear always felt about him – protective, fierce, adoring, and patient. Gods yes, for Cloud Reno could be as patient as a saint, he just knew it. And that was saying something for a man who got fed up with the time it took to hard-cook an egg.

            “You’re home, Baby Bear,” he whispered, his smile wide and happy. He ducked his face against Cloud’s neck and sighed deeply, enjoying the scent of him, the feel of him, and wishing Rude were here to make it that much richer. “And I know exactly how it feels.”

            “You know, I hated you for finding me at the bar that day. I hated you for making me come to that room and even more for waking something in me I hadn’t felt in such a long time. I was so scared, and when I left that room afterwards, I didn’t know what to do, because oh gods I wanted to feel it again.”

            Cloud’s words were soft and he felt so peaceful lying here, confessing what he had kept bottled up inside because he couldn’t share it with anyone else.

            “I was certain that you would use it against me the next time we met, but I didn’t want it to be like that. I didn’t even really feel like that deep inside. I just… Well. hope hasn’t exactly been my forte,” he said with a shy smile. “But…you came back. You came for me, and I…I was terrified, Reno, terrified that you were only there to deliver the final blow. I didn’t dare to believe at first that… that this was real. But then you were just there, outside my apartment door, looking all smug and delicious, and you never really gave me a chance to turn you away. I didn’t want to, either.”

            He smiled and reached up to caress Reno’s cheek, slowly letting his fingers slide into Reno’s long hair while he looked into those beautiful deep blue eyes. The strands were so soft, like an ocean of silk, and Cloud absentmindedly let his fingers follow the stream all the way down Reno’s back.

            “I think you saved my life that night, when you brought me back here to Papa. I really think you did.” He smiled that beautiful, liberated smile that seemed to suddenly come to him without any effort at all. He knew it was true, and he wasn’t afraid anymore. “I’m finally home.”

            He leaned in and kissed Reno, soft and light before he pulled back with his cheeks blushing a bit from the strong emotions that were roaming inside him.

            “But I’m still hungry,” he said then, chuckling because he was in such a sentimental mood and just feeling wonderful about it. “Wanna go see what Papa is cooking for us before I drown you in sap?”

            “You’re starting to sound like Reno,” Rude said, his low voice rumbling from the doorway, his big arms crossed over his wide chest. He looked comfortable and relaxed in a pair of track pants and a loose, soft tee-shirt, and without his familiar sunglasses his eyes were sparkling and beautiful in the dim light of the bedroom. He watched his two boys with pride and affection, and no small measure of amusement. “Am I going to have to get the hose after you two? You’ve slept half the evening away.”

            He grinned at Reno’s sly, shifty look and laughed aloud when the redhead lolled onto his back at Cloud’s side and stretched his long, lean body in a slow, lazy movement, yawning with deliberate strength.

            “I dunno, yo,” Reno sighed, trading a teasing smirk with Cloud. “We’re awful comfortable in here, you big bear. How’s about dinner in bed?”

            “How’s about dinner in a bowl on the floor?” Rude offered, and chuckled when Reno snickered, remembering that particular punishment rather vividly. “What do you say, Cloud? Are you hungry? I didn’t have the heart to wake you sooner – you needed your rest after what you’ve been through.”

            “What about me?” Reno inquired, draping over Cloud again, both of them sultry and soft with sleep. “What do I need?”

            Rude laughed and crossed the room in two quick, graceful strides to land a stinging swat on Reno’s round ass, earning a startled yelp and an immediate, wide grin.

            “More of those if you think I’m serving you dinner in bed,” Rude told him, and roughed two shaggy heads with his strong, fine hands. “Get up and get showered, or you won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

            Reno looked at Cloud, and then at Rude, and said with a mischievous grin, “Maybe we shouldn’t sleep tonight?”

            Cloud couldn’t help but laugh at Reno’s comment and the way the teasing just flowed so naturally from him. Not sleeping tonight was the best idea Cloud had ever heard, and he just had to play along.

            “We definitely shouldn’t,” he added to Reno’s mischief, and exchanged another look with the slender redhead before he turned towards Rude with the most adorable puppy-dog expression on his gorgeous face. Zack had been the master at that, and Cloud had learned from the best! With the most adorable smile he finally pushed himself up from the bed and extended his hand to pull Reno up with him, pulling him towards Rude.

            “Come on, Red, Papa is calling the shots,” he purred, voice sultry and low, and he practically radiated with the warmth filling his heart as he said it. He looked up and met Rude’s gaze, and he felt like he was drowning in those marvelous glowing amber orbs.

            He loved the way Rude looked at him, like he really saw him, and it made Cloud feel pride and joy well up inside of him. Rude really wanted him there, and Cloud could only wonder how the big man seemed to know every little detail about what he needed and when. It was amazing, and a puzzle he would gladly spend the rest of his life solving, if they would want him around for that long.

            Once they both stood in front of the muscular man, Cloud snaked his arm around Rude’s waist and leaned up so he could kiss Rude’s neck just above the tee.

            “It smells delicious,” he purred, nuzzling into the crook of Rude’s neck and just taking in his wonderful scent. “The food I mean.” He felt so wonderfully playful and light headed, and Reno’s small rebellions were like an infection, spreading inside him and goading him on.

            Right before Cloud pulled back and left his comfortable spot at Rude’s neck, he opened his mouth and nipped the hard, corded muscle right there with his teeth. It wasn’t a bite per se, Cloud definitely didn’t have the guts to pull that, but it was definitely a love-nibble and his bright blue eyes were sparkling when he looked into Papa’s again to see what this little playful teasing would result in.

            And right before Rude reacted, Cloud pulled Reno in for a deep, sultry kiss, hoping to distract the big man and maybe influence the punishment a little…

            That softly whispered comment about delicious smells made Reno stir closer. He always had been a sucker for the aftershave Rude used, a faint and rich fragrance atop the warm, almost vanilla-sweet but spicy scent of his skin. It was a fragrance that clung to him, delicious and appetizing, and on more than one occasion Reno had bluntly told him he smelled good enough to eat. Cloud’s murmured reference to the food didn’t fool Reno one bit – he’d meant Papa Bear, and Reno couldn’t blame him.

            Reno grinned when Rude’s brows rose in surprise at Cloud’s soft nip. The big man had learned to expect such things from his more temperamental lover, but he hadn’t foreseen Cloud teasing him like that. But Rude wasn’t displeased, as was apparent by the warm smile that followed and the way his lids dropped to half-cover his amber eyes. Rude always liked impulsiveness, always liked the unexpected, and Reno knew he loved having a lover who felt comfortable enough to play openly.

            Pulling a trick out of Reno’s book, Cloud uncoiled and snagged the slender redhead for a long, luscious kiss that was an excellent way to distract the large, quiet man watching them with such amusement and affection.

            Cloud’s hot tongue slid into Reno’s mouth and he opened to him, trading a deep soul-kiss that made him a little breathless. He reached up to clasp Cloud’s shoulder and steady himself, the fingers of his free hand tracing an absent trail up the rippling muscle of Cloud’s belly. It quickly deepened, and even as exhausted as his libido was, Reno felt the pull of rising heat.

            “That’s enough of that,” Rude said, pulling them apart, and – surprisingly enough – he landed a light swat on Cloud’s ass. With a teasing smirk, the big Costan rumbled, “That’s for not giving Pápà more sweet nibbles.” He swatted Reno, too, just for good measure.

            “Hey, what was that for?” the redhead complained, unhappy to have been pried off of Cloud in the middle of that awesome kiss. But he knew there were more where that came from, and that Rude would never try to truly, seriously part them. His complaint was more habit than anything, and treated as such, because Rude easily told him, “For not being a bad influence on Cloud.”

            Surprised, Reno asked, “Huh?” He still held on to Cloud’s shoulder, and traded a bewildered look with his blond lover.

            “If you had been more of an influence,” Rude told him, a twinkle in his amber eyes. “Then he wouldn’t have stopped at just one bite.”

            Reno grinned and slid his hand down to squeeze Cloud’s fingers in his, saying with a throaty, deep laugh, “Come on, Cloud – I’ll try to be a bad influence while we shower, then.”

            Cloud practically beamed when Reno pulled him by his hand towards the bedroom, and he looked back at Papa Bear with a truly happy look on his face before he chuckled and let Reno drag him off.

            Once in the bathroom, Cloud let Reno adjust the shower and settled by draping his arms around the slender redhead from behind and kiss his nape meanwhile.

            “How does he always know?” he asked, kissing a trail down behind Reno’s ear and nibbling at the lobe. “Exactly what to do, exactly what to say. I have never met anybody like him before. He just… knows.”

            He let his hands trail up along Reno’s beautifully tattooed belly, let his fingers delve into every dip and curve of his surprisingly muscular frame despite his slender build.

            “So…” he whispered, his voice trailing into a low and sultry level he wasn’t exactly used to but couldn’t really help either. “How exactly do you plan to corrupt me, baby?”

            The endearment slipped before he had a sense to stop it, and he felt his cheeks blush. He wasn’t exactly used to talking like this with anybody, and the few and far between sexual encounters he had allowed himself before Reno and Rude had always been with complete strangers, far away from Edge and anybody he knew.

            It had been cold and mechanical, a release of pent up energy and nothing more, and no words had been exchanged once the action had moved on to a bed somewhere at a rented room. He never saw any of them ever again, and he made sure they could keep their mouth shut before he even went with them.

            But now he couldn’t help it. Something inside of him had been loosened, and even though he was pretty sure it would still only be within the safety of their home, it felt so liberating to just dare, to call his lovers names and maybe, once he worked up the courage to do so, whisper dirty, sultry words in the heat of passion, too.

            Reno smiled at Cloud’s words, goosebumps lifting on his pale skin in the wake of Cloud’s fingers over his belly. He straightened and turned to the slightly shorter swordsman, his blue eyes alight with mischief and his lips curving into a fierce, self-satisfied grin as he said, “Oh, you’d like to know, Baby Bear.”

            He reached out and pulled Cloud close to him so that he could lay a rough, bruising bite on his shoulder – the opposite one that he’d bitten earlier. Smugly, he told Cloud in a husky, low voice, “There. Now you got a matched set, yo.”

            He didn’t wait for Cloud to respond, he slipped under the hot spray and dragged his lover after him, telling him, “C’mon, Rude has got dinner finished and I’m hungry as hell. I know you must be starving, too. We’ll make it quick.”

            He paused, cocking his head to one side, his usual cocky expression fading to one that was a little uncertain, a little raw, still. Lowly, he said, “He’ll want us tonight, you betcha. That’s his way of saying to save it up. I hope you’re okay with him calling the shots, Baby Bear, because the only Alpha male allowed to rule in this house is Rude.”

            He reached out and cupped Cloud’s cheek, wet from the spray, and ran his thumb over the man’s high cheekbone.

            “I think you’ll be happy here, Cloud,” he whispered, and grinned, saying, “Let’s don’t keep him waiting. He’s liable to come in here and hurry us if he thinks we’re getting up to anything.”

            Rude, in fact, was entertaining the notion of collecting them when he thought their shower had lasted rather longer than he figured it should. But then he heard them coming into the dining room from the hallway, the sound of their low voices mingling softly, floating atop their laughter. He hadn’t heard Reno so relaxed in a long while. It made him a little reluctant to have any kind of heavy discussion tonight at the table, but Cloud needed to understand a few things about them, about their work. The longer he kept it from him, the more it seemed like a secret, and Rude didn’t believe in having secrets from the people he loved.

            “Hurry up,” he called, sitting down at the head of the table, his stomach growling. “Unless you want to eat on the floor.”

            Cloud and Reno both scurried to the table and sat down, beaming like good little boys, and Cloud’s stomach once more chose to loudly reveal the fact that he was starving, too.

            He knew that Reno had been right. He would be happy here. He would find the peace and love he had looked for, for so long, here in Rude’s house, and he had told him so in the shower. When Reno had whispered the fact that Rude was the sole ruler of this household, Cloud had felt a peace of mind he had never known before. He was here because he was wanted – needed even – and he was expected to let go of the reins and just let Rude take over. The thought of Rude as Alpha touched Cloud all the way to his core, and he remembered the collar Reno had worn around his neck when Rude had decided it was time for discipline.

            Never before had Cloud wanted anything more in his life than to earn a collar of his own and for the first time in so many years not be expected to lead, not be expected to make the right decisions and think of everybody else. He was done saving the world, and now it was time to save himself.

            When they entered the dining room and saw Pápà sitting at the head of the table, everything fell into place, and Cloud felt a slight chill run down his spine at the thought of the light smack to his butt Rude had had administered as punishment for his small insubordination, and he lit up in a bright, happy smile at the memory of the slight sting. He felt a sweet sense of expectation from knowing that it wouldn’t be the last.

            “Sorry we’re late, Pápà” he said, smiling. “We were just… thorough.” His eyes quickly slid to Reno in a mischievous smile, unconsciously rubbing his neck where Reno had placed the beautiful imprint of his perfect set of teeth, before he turned his attention back to the table and looked at the food set out for them.

            “Oh gods, it looks delicious!” he sighed, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere in the company of his lovers. “I’m starving!”

            Rude’s brows rose a little at Cloud’s wording, and he cut his gaze to Reno, who sat up in his chair with an easy, smug grin.

            “Good, I’m glad you’ve got an appetite, there’s plenty,” Rude told Cloud, and took the first serving before passing the dishes around so that they could both have a portion of rice, vegetables, and some delicately seasoned broiled fish. He was considering how to proceed, and his preoccupation had a tendency to make him look grim.

            “Hey, Papa Bear,” Reno said, handing a dish to Cloud and giving Rude a lopsided grin. “It ain’t as bad as all that, yo.”

            Rude smiled slightly and shook his head, saying, “Sorry, I’m just thinking of all the things I need to say, and where I should start.”

            Reno shrugged a little and easily told him, “Wherever you like, yo – it’s all the beginning if you start there, anyways, right?”

            Rude nodded and took a thoughtful bite of his dinner, but came to a decision, which smoothed his expression back into that of calm ease.

            “Cloud,” he finally said, looking at the slender, beautiful new addition to his household. “Do you remember when we first met, how Reno and I assured you that we’d find a way to keep Rufus off of your back?”

            Reno deflated a little across the table and muttered, “You didn’t have to start there, yo…”

            Rude ignored him. “I want you to understand that anything Reno and I do outside of this house stays outside of this house. Outside, we’re Turks, and we do what we must. Inside, we’re just us, and there must be a distinct difference. That said, I want you to know that both Reno and I have been intimate with Rufus ShinRa at various times throughout the years, most recently when we convinced him there were better alternatives than barking up your tree.”

            “Yeah, we pulled a number on him,” Reno said, and sniggered, his eyes alight with mischief.

            Rude gave him a sidelong look that silenced him but in no way subdued him, and explained, “He usually asks for Reno, but there are times he asks for me. It is only fair for you to know under what terms we are involved with him, that it goes beyond the normal employer/employee relationship. But I also want you to understand that neither one of us is involved with anyone in truth except for each other. It’s work. Do you understand?”

            He paused expectantly, waiting for Cloud to speak, for any negative response, any confusion, any questions he might have. He was used to this, to patiently explaining something and waiting for what might come. Reno tended to be volatile and prone to outbursts, but Rude had the feeling that Cloud was made of more subtle stuff than that, and he wanted to be very, very careful that the young swordsman didn’t draw the wrong conclusions but say nothing to him. It was delicate work, but he was willing to do it, because Cloud was worth the price.

            Cloud considered Rude’s words for a little while before he said anything. He had felt a little nervous at the serious look on Rude’s face before he seemed to ease back into the relaxed, calm expression Cloud knew and loved, but in reality he knew that he had nothing to worry about. There were things that needed to be said, and this would make a huge impact on all of their lives. But for a slight second he had been a little bit worried about this conversation, because, gods, he still could hardly believe that he was actually here!

            “Yeah. I… was wondering how you made Rufus change his mind and back off,” he said, thoughtful and then smiling a little. “And I understand about you being Turks. I know that what you do on the job is none of my business. It never was. I just…” He smiled a little bolder. “…wasn’t very good at minding my own business back then.”

            He was referring to the old battles, back when Cloud had been with Avalanche and had fought ShinRa with every fiber of his being. He remembered the clashes he’d had with the Turks, the hate he had felt for anything ShinRa had touched and for good reason. But it seemed like a lifetime ago, and he was glad things had changed. He hadn’t spent much time with Rufus after the Remnants were defeated, hadn’t really spent time with anyone, but sometimes he wondered how the young heir to the ShinRa Empire had really turned out, after he was cured from the Geostigma.

            “He really did change, didn’t he?” he asked, looking at Rude, hoping it was true. It wasn’t any of his business what they did as Turks, and he could easily respect that, but he wanted so much to believe that things would be different, that the past was buried for good.

            “Will you get in trouble now? For… this?” He gestured towards himself sitting there at their dinner table, living with them. “I don’t think he’ll be thrilled to hear that you took me in, considering what he thinks of me.” Cloud wasn’t sure how this would be received, once Rufus found out what was going on. He didn’t doubt that both Rude and Reno would stand up for him, and that they wouldn’t allow Rufus to dictate their personal life, but he couldn’t help but worry a little, if he would cause problems for them from now on.

            Rude considered the question, but it was Reno who said with his usual irreverence, “Hell no! He doesn’t dictate what we do in our personal lives!”

            “True,” Rude said, and urged Reno to eat with a soft gesture his direction. “And the past is behind us, now. None of that matters anymore.”

            “He means it when he says that,” Reno put in, nodding. “And that’ll have to go for Rufus, too, yo – he ain’t like he was before. The ‘stigma changed him.”

            “It’s true, Cloud. Rufus has changed substantially, and he allows us quite a bit of leeway with our private lives, mostly because I explained to him years ago the exact conditions of our particular brand of privacy. While he may not be ecstatic to find you at home here, he certainly knows better than to be openly irritated by it. Things have changed since ShinRa ruled the world. He relies on us, and all of us have come closer due to the catastrophic changes in the last few years.”

            He leaned back in his chair, his fine lips curving up in a wry smile.

            “Actually, it wasn’t until Meteor that anyone outside of Elena knew that Reno lived with me,” Rude said, and Reno uttered that wicked snicker of his. “Turks know how to keep secrets. If you wished it,” he added, his voice going neutral, “No one else would have to know. I don’t believe that Tifa has any desire to tell anyone else, after all. I am not, however,” he stressed, holding Cloud’s gaze to show he was serious, “Not encouraging you to be our secret or vice versa – this is your home, we are your lovers, and there is nothing in any of that to shame us.”

            “Damned straight,” Reno said, hurriedly swallowing the food in his mouth so that he wasn’t speaking with his mouth full. He chased it with a deep drink of his iced tea and added, “Don’t bother me a bit, yo.”

            “And this from the man who was spending his nights cuffed to my bed and still telling people he was straight as an arrow,” Rude teased, bringing a flare of pink heat to Reno’s cheeks and a sheepish grin to his lips.

            “I still do girls,” Reno reminded, and switched his attention to Cloud, saying, “That’s another thing, yo – I dunno how this one will play out, ’cause it’s Rude’s call, but I been known to chase a skirt or two.”

            “We’ll worry about that later, I don’t think it will come up anytime soon,” Rude said, and gave Cloud a searching look, “Unless you’re still drawn to women?”

             “I…” Cloud hesitated, thinking again before he spoke. “I… honestly don’t know,” he said then, his cheeks blushing and feeling a bit stupid for admitting this. “It has been so long since I ever even considered…” The blush deepened.

            “It’s not like I can’t see that Tifa is attractive or anything. She’s beautiful. I just… It would have been wrong to take advantage of her like that, just because I needed to get laid.” He paused a little again, trying to find the right words.

            “Zack was… everything. I’ve been with others since him, but…” He looked at both his lovers. “I’m sounding really stupid now, aren’t I? Before I met you two at that bar, I can’t even remember the last time I had sex with anybody.” He felt his cheeks burn and he lowered his gaze to his plate, feeling so stupid. How could a guy not know if he liked girls? There had to be something seriously wrong with his head.

            He felt almost like the fumbling teenager he had once been, unsure about everything related to sex and how he felt about it. Zack had pretty much swept him off his feet, and Cloud had been so in love with him that he only now realized that he hadn’t ever really had any ‘wild teenage years’. Hojo had made sure to fuck that up since he captured Cloud at the tender age of sixteen, and growing up had come quickly after that.

            He had been fighting for his life – and the world – ever since, grieving Zack’s death so heavily it had quenched any want to venture out on that field to experiment much. Nobody could fill the void in his heart Zack had left behind. Or so he had thought, right until two Turks had turned his world upside down.

            “Cloud…” Rude reached over and touched his trembling hand, concern darkening his topaz eyes.

            Reno put his fork down and looked at his plate, not knowing how to react or what to say. That he hated what had happened to Cloud was clear on his strained face, but he knew all too well the Turks’ culpability in what had befallen Cloud. While Cloud had been a teenager consigned to torture in Hojo’s labs, he and Rude had been part of the corporation that had put him there. It didn’t sit well with either of them, but there was no way to atone for the sins they’d committed. The best they could do was try to forget them.

            “Don’t say things like that,” Rude gently told him, shaking his bald head. “Don’t say that you’re stupid or put yourself down. I don’t choose lightly, Cloud. I wouldn’t pick someone stupid or someone unworthy. Your feelings are never ridiculous to me, they are important. It would be natural to be confused right now – you’ve had some shocks, you’ve made some pretty substantial changes in your life, and you’ve had a very confrontational meeting with your dearest friend. Don’t push yourself, and I apologize if I pushed you by asking. We’ll worry with all of that later, like I told Reno. Right?”

            Reno nodded a little, subdued, still a little dismayed by Cloud’s unhappy expression and confusion. “He was a good guy, yo,” he said, unexpectedly responding to Cloud’s distress, trying to ease it by sharing something of his own. His blue eyes lifted to find Cloud’s, holding them with mute understanding. “We was pretty close before the whole world went to shit. Friends. Played a lot of pranks at work, especially on poor Reeve…I’m glad he had you in the end, Cloud. He deserved to have something good. He was a real hero. Like you.”

            He blushed but didn’t shy away. Instead, his familiar, cocky smile returned in full force, trying to draw Cloud’s sadness away, trying to remind him of the good things.

            Rude smiled warmly at him and said to Cloud, “You haven’t had it easy, Cloud. But we’re going to see that that changes, aren’t we, Reno?”

            Reno’s grin widened and he said, “You betcha.”

            “Cloud,” Rude said, his voice low and silky, his eyes softly shuttered in an unconsciously sensual look. “How would you feel about going to Costa del Sol at the end of this month?”

            Cloud looked up, surprise evident in his eyes, and he was immediately drawn in by that beautiful look in Papa’s eyes. “To Costa? You mean… on vacation?” It sounded so amazing, so full of promise and warmth and love, and just the thought of it brought back the shy smile on Cloud’s lips. “I would love that! I would… That would be amazing!”

            He instinctively held on to Rude’s warm hand as he reached out to him, and just that little gesture was enough to calm him down and allow himself to let go of the negative feelings. Cloud hadn’t meant to ruin the mood at the lovely dinner, and he was grateful that both Reno and Rude seemed determined to patch his scattered heart back together, no matter how many fragments they uncovered.

            It was a powerful feeling – to be loved like that, to be comforted without any need to ask for it and without any expectations. When Reno spoke of Zack in such a beautiful way, holding Cloud’s gaze with his own, Cloud could almost feel how sharp shards of glass were slowly peeled from his heart, allowing warmth and love to pool in there instead.

            “Thank you, Reno,” he softly said, smiling more easily once Reno’s cocky smile returned to his handsome face. “I’m glad that you remember him like that. I’m glad that… you don’t mind.” He knew that they would both know what he meant – that Zack would always be a part of him, that Cloud would always love him, but that it didn’t mean that he wasn’t able to love anybody else. He had thought so for such a long time, but Reno and Rude had shown him that he had been wrong. And oh how he loved being wrong in this!

            “Mind?” Reno echoed, and laughed softly, tucking back into his meal with gusto. “Baby, we all got people we’ll hold close forever. Me and Rude just concentrate on the here and now, and that does us just fine. You’ll learn, yo. We’ll show you how to live it, right, Papa Bear?”

            “If we can’t, the family can,” Rude said, cocking an eyebrow and going back to his own meal with a smirk at the bewildered but hopeful look on Cloud’s face.

            Reno grinned, all sharp white teeth and satisfaction, and said, “We go every six months for two weeks and stay on the peninsula. It’s right on the beach with the rain forest out the back, smack in the middle of a reserve. He’s been taking me ever since we started in deep.”

            “Which is longer than he cares to admit,” Rude put in, urging Cloud to eat. “Go on, eat. You need your food.”

            “Hey, don’t let him bully you,” Reno said. “He’ll keep making you eat until you pop, I swear it. He gets that from his ma, Mária. You’re gonna love her, Cloud, just you wait.”

            “Oh, that’s the other thing,” Rude said, smiling slightly. “We’re staying with my family.”

            “His very extensive family,” Reno corrected. “Throw a stone and hit a – “

            “Enough,” Rude said repressively, but there was a twinkle of mirth in his eyes that belied his firm tone. “You’re scaring him.”


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29 responses to “A Hard Time: Looking Forward (1)