The walls echo with the sound of Barret’s distant fight as Cloud follows Tifa down the railways, and every step brings with it a jarring, agonizing pain. He’d known as soon as he hit the ground that something had broken on impact. Tifa’s weight and the momentum of the train had only exacerbated the issue of colliding shoulder first with the stone cold ground - bouncing off of the concrete and rolling end over end on battered ribs.
He doesn’t regret it, of course. Landing with Tifa had been the only option. Helping her - protecting her - had been worth the injury. Yet now his ribs ache and his chest stutters and his shoulder feels like it’s on fire. Breathing hurts almost as much as moving his arm does, and walking makes something shift in his side that has him desperately wishing he could break composure even for a second to shudder through the pain.
They’re on a mission, though. Already one woman down and waiting on a deadline. Tifa trusts him to do this and Barret would be more than angry at the inconvenience. Cloud isn’t weak, either. He’s a SOLDIER and a damn good one. No small, insignificant injury should be able to stop him from doing his job. Any fighter worth their salt should be able to power through something like this. Tifa probably could and Cloud knows Barret could, and Cloud’s not going to be the one holding the party back when anybody else would just keep going.
So he ignores the pain, grits his teeth through the worst of it and runs down the railways behind Tifa like he means it. Every step makes his stomach turn as he fights back the crawl of bile up his throat, and when Tifa turns to him from the gate between her and Barret. Worried and rushed and saying “we’d better hurry." All he can do is let out a breathless, pained “yeah,” and power through in the hopes that she won’t notice.
Dashing up the stairs is dizzying. Worryingly so, if Cloud were to truly focus on the extent of his injuries, but he doesn’t. Instead, he pushes it all from his mind, blank and soundless in a void of calming white as the world rushes by around him. Crossing over to Barret and pulling his sword from his back when even so much as lifting his arm makes his chest flare and his shoulder burn.
But he doesn’t think about it. Doesn’t think about anything as he fights, movements that much more reserved, and it’s only by the sheer skin of his teeth that he doesn’t end up getting torn to shreds right then and there when he falters on an offensive strike and overreaches. Saved by Tifa’s furious blows and a ring of gunfire from Barret. They’re both still focused on their own battles, intent and unaware of his current state, and he’s more than grateful that they didn’t see his fuck up - that they didn’t witness his pathetic show of weakness like he’s some sideshow attraction and not a SOLDIER.
Shame wells in him when the battle ends. A confusing mixture of wishing he’d told them and being grateful he hadn’t. At risking their lives by allowing them to rely on him when he’s so weak and at being so damn weak in the first place. For letting it get to him and for even being hurt at all when he’s not supposed to be.
He’s supposed to be better than this.
Cloud’s fingers twitch with the need to wrap around his shoulder and hold it steady, but he swallows the urge and puts away his sword, blinking away tears as he walks over to Barret and Tifa. They’re standing together, happy and pleased as Barret sings a victory song, and Cloud's overwhelmed with another burning surge of self hatred as he realizes that he’d been the one to almost take that away from them.
He clenches his jaw and pulls inward, arms crossed and muscles shaking from the tension as he listens to Barret and Tifa explain their plans. He tries to act natural through the haze of pain, but standing still doesn’t settle it down nearly as much as he’d hoped it would, and when they start moving again he can barely remember where the hell they are, let alone anything Barret had said in the past few minutes.
Fool. He’s a fucking fool. He’s going to get them all killed because he can’t keep his head through a few bruised bones. Telling them about the injury would help them, but if he speaks now then they’re definitely going to know what a failure he is. That he’d tried to be strong and he still couldn’t do it. That he’s as worthless and as selfish and incompetent as Barret had thought he was the very first time they met. That he isn't even worth the time of day.
Cloud thins his lips against a whimper when they come to a halt in front of a set of stairs, trying to hide the shaking in his arm as Tifa and Barret go up ahead of him. Gathering the courage to follow after them is a quick endeavor, because he can’t let them know and because if he waits too long then he won’t ever end up doing it, but every step up has him biting his tongue to stop from screaming.
When he reaches the top alongside Tifa and Barret and sees another set of robots waiting to hold them off, the nausea that pools in his gut feels a lot like dread.
“Well, come on! These bots ain’t gonna fight themselves.”
“Little set of stairs got you winded, SOLDIER boy? Maybe we should have brought Jessie along after all.”
The sting of the words has nothing on the pain Cloud’s feeling right now, but for some reason they hurt so much more. His heart drops, throat tightening, and Tifa’s sigh isn’t enough of a defense when Cloud knows Barret’s right - knows he’d been a poor substitute when a simple fall has him out for the count.
He doesn’t say anything in response, raising his hand with forced speed to grab the hilt of his sword. Lifting it has his entire torso protesting, but he steadies the shake of his hand and brings his other around to help prop it up, charging in right alongside Tifa and Barret. Just as he had the last battle and the battle before that. Just as he should be doing for every battle afterward.
Cutting through the first bot is no trouble. Lighting arcs through the air and fire explodes around it, and within seconds he’s turning to another and swinging his blade in a wide arc. Only this time his arm explodes, acid burning him from his shoulder to his fingertips as he cries out in pain, buster sword clattering to the floor. He staggers, clutching his arm to his throbbing chest and curling inward as he tries to push through it. He just needs to-
“The hell is going on, merc?!”
“It’s fine,” he forces out, diving for his sword as a deadly flash of steel cuts through the air where his head had once been, “I just-” He’s cut off with a gasp when he tries to lift his sword again, choking back another cry as he’s forced to abandon it, dodging beneath another blow. Scrambling to put some distance between himself and the bot attacking him, he looks around wildly for the others, relieved to see that they’re both safe and holding their own.
Then there’s a glint and a hiss as a bot’s blade snaps down for a killing blow and his arm gives out completely as he falls to the floor. His heart hits the back of his throat in fear, and when Tifa’s hair whips in front of his eyes, gauntlet catching against the blow to deflect it aside, the flood of relief is indescribable.
“Cloud, are you alright?” Tifa sounds worried and stressed, already fretting over whatever she thinks might have happened, and Cloud can’t even speak through the shame. Can’t do a thing as Barret shoots down the last bots in front of him and Tifa puts hers into the ground with such ferocity Cloud thinks she might’ve sent it straight into the underworld.
As soon as it’s dead she turns to him in a panic, eyes wide as she falls to her knees beside him and looks him over. He pushes himself to a sitting position on one arm and wavers as his vision spots.
“Is he okay? Shit, kid, you had my heart nearly jumping out of my chest with that stunt! Think I lost ten years of my life…”
“I’m fine-” his voice breaks unconvincingly on the word and he scowls, “really, I- I only…”
“You only got injured,” Barret huffs, “shit happens. We’ll look it over and see if we can’t heal it up.”
Tifa nods with a smile, relaxing ever so slightly when he doesn’t appear to be on death’s door. “No need to push it, Cloud.”
He blinks, not quite processing, and has to swallow against the gathering of tears in his eyes. “I’m not- It’ll hold up for the mission.”
“Mission ain’t goin’ anywhere until everybody is ready to go!” It’s Barret who says it. Barret, of all people, who Cloud knows hates him. It’s Barret who wants to hold up his own mission to take care of someone like Cloud.
“I’m already ready to go,” Cloud pushes, because he’s not fucking weak like he knows they think he is, now. Like he knows he is every second of every day that he has to live with himself and with Sephiroth- “I can take care of myself.”
“Cloud.” Tifa’s voice is gentle and soothing as she puts her hand on his knee, and he has to look away from the compassion in her eyes before he drowns in it, “we just want to help. Let us take a look?”
“It won’t fix anything.”
“It’ll fix plenty,” Barret huffs, and the next thing Cloud knows there’s a hand grabbing his good arm and hauling him up. Pulling until Cloud is gasping, nearly collapsing from the surge of pain that sears through his body as Barret moves him. “Sorry, kid. Shit, I’m so sorry.”
Cloud’s seated on a box of some kind, heaving with each strangled breath as he teeters on the edge of consciousness. Fingers prod at him, a large hand in his hair to keep him steady as someone pulls up his shirt and draws lines of agony across his skin.
“Shit, that looks bad.”
“This didn’t happen a couple of minutes ago, Barret.” Tifa’s whispering but Cloud still hears her anyway, and the tears are harder to keep at bay when he can hardly think from the pain.
“What the hell?! Have you been hiding this from us? For how long?!”
“I’m sorry,” Cloud finally breaks, squeezing his eyes shut as Tifa keeps prodding, “I’m sorry. I- I fucked up.”
“Damnit. Look, I didn’t mean it like that, okay? You can’t keep things like this from us, though. This could'a killed you, do you understand?”
“I’m not weak. I can still...I can still do the mission. I didn’t fail you. Please don't abandon me, I swear I didn't fail you.”
"Hey!" Cloud jumps. "Nobody's abandoning anybody. Is that really what you think of us?"
"No...no. 'm sr..." he slurs and fades, world spinning sickeningly.
“Is his head okay?”
“No, I- Shit, I think he hit it.”
There’s more prodding, this time with thick fingers running over his forehead and through his hair, carding at the strands in a way that would usually make him want to purr in satisfaction. Except this time the fingers brush against something swollen and hot and his head splits in two at the feel of it. He whines and jolts, attempting to twist away from his attacker. Yet not two seconds later there’s a small apology, fingers smoothing away the pain in a bid for forgiveness, and he submits again to the touch.
“That one’s recent. It has to be from the fall.” There’s a sigh, irritated and frustrated and lengthy enough to make guilt swarm in Cloud’s chest, another apology falling from his lips before he can stop it.
“It’s okay,” Tifa whispers, patting comfortingly at his knee. Cloud reluctantly opens his eyes, expecting to see any number of accusations or deceptions, fearful of her inevitable fury. Yet all he sees is her peering up at him with a furrowed brow, expression one of complete concern. It isn't enough, though. Because he knows he failed - he knows he fucked up - and now they know it, too.
“I’m not weak,” he repeats desperately, “I can still go on. I won’t fail again, I swear.”
“Nobody here thinks you’re weak, merc. Hell, don’t tell anybody I said this, but you might be the strongest damn person I’ve ever met.”
Affection makes Cloud dizzy for a moment, high on the feeling of caring for someone - of knowing they care back. Then Tifa speaks as well, and his heart bursts.
“You didn’t fail us, Cloud. We failed you. We should have noticed and we should have done something. I could never think you’re weak.”
“I’m not...I’m not like I promised I would be.”
“Oh, Cloud," she sighs, and it sounds like grief and understanding and something he could never name, strung together by a heart of gold. His chest pangs even with the sound of her voice. "Everyone needs help every once in a while. Would you blame me for needing it. Would you call me weak?”
“Of course not.” Cloud would never. He riles just at the thought of it, head aching with the sudden rise of emotion. Barret’s chuckle is a low rumble above him, accompanied by Tifa's hum of amusement as she rummages through her bag for something. After a time she brings out a glowing green materia, giving it a triumphant look before turning her beautiful red eyes back to Cloud.
“Then you shouldn’t do so to yourself, either. You aren’t held to a different standard here. Nobody in the group is expected to hurt themselves and punish their bodies just to get a mission done. We care about our own.”
“You are,” Barret states, firm and unrelenting, "you're one of ours and you're one of mine, and we care. All of us."
"...oh." It's small and pitiful, but Barret doesn't seem to take it for a sign of weakness, either. Instead he turns joking as he ruffles his hand through Cloud's hair.
“Uh-huh. So I think you owe Wedge an apology or twelve.”
“And you owe him several as well, Barret, now hush and let me work.”
Cloud fades after that, lulled by the gentle cradle of Barret’s hand on his head and the wash of energy through his veins, light and healing as it wipes the pain away. Until his eyelids are heavy and his limbs limp, exhaustion tugging at his bones until he's falling into a warmth, wrapped in a tender embrace. There's breath across his cheek when he rests his head against a steady shoulder, thumbs rubbing soothing circles into his hands as Tifa speaks.
"Sh..." She presses a kiss to his forehead, soft and loving. "Sleep. Trust us. Don't worry about a thing."