Cloud knelt in the dirt, hidden from sight. Night had fallen and he’d walked all day, avoiding the main road, traipsing through fields in sandals that were not meant to take such abuse, until he came across this old farmhouse where he was currently hiding in the shadows, trying to gauge when the occupants would go to bed so he could break in and steal clothes and food. His fair skin – mountain pale – was now red with sunburn from being out all day without proper protection. It would blister and Zack would laugh at him.
No, he couldn’t think of Zack, or Angeal – Planet he’d probably gotten the older slave in serious trouble. He hoped the masters were lenient. It wasn’t Angeal’s fault. Thinking about the place he’d wanted so badly to call home sent a pang of regret through his heart. He’d never see one of Master Genesis’s smiles or lay with his head in Master Sephiroth’s lap again. He’d never laugh with Zack or listen to one of Angeal’s lectures again.
Cloud felt the sadness from the loss and then let it go. He had to live in the present moment and not get caught. Running away four times now – surely even Master Sephiroth’s patience would be worn thin at that – there was no way they’d take him back. If he was caught they’d probably just kill him because he was too much trouble to train and sell. That’s what any reasonable master would do. At least he could trust them to do it painlessly. Even so, Cloud didn’t want to die.
He forgot himself for a minute and came back just in time to hear the sound of a door opening and a woman’s voice calling, “I’ll be back in a minute dear, just let me check on the animals.” He had enough time to duck behind the edge of the house, away from the back door, and hide in the shadows as a woman with long dark hair stepped out and crossed the wide back yard to a barn offset from the house. Cloud had considered entering the barn but was now glad he hadn’t because he’d have upset the animals and been discovered when the woman went in there.
Now he was waiting with baited breath as the woman entered the barn and came back out a few minutes later. If the woman circled the building she’d see him. He ducked behind the trashcans placed at the edge of the house, out of sight.
“Hey!” The woman called and Cloud knew he’d been spotted. Like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck, he froze and then made a run for it. “Hey!” the woman called again, giving chase. “Wait! I’m not going to hurt you!”
Like Cloud believed that. He made for the fields but the woman was faster and wearing better shoes, she caught up with him easily and tackled him to the ground. Cloud fell with a sharp cry as he tried, and failed, to struggle free of her grip. Damn, she was strong.
“Just wait, it’s okay.” The woman said. “You’re okay. Don’t try to run. I’ll let you go if you promise me that.”
Cloud nodded warily, not feeling Particularly trusting.He sat up reluctantly when the woman let him go hoping this wasn’t some trick. Even in the pale moonlight he gasped when he saw who it was. “Tifa?”
Tifa Lockheart had been a girl Cloud knew growing up. Everyone knew Tifa, the mayor’s daughter and most popular girl in the village. She was somebody when Cloud was just a nobody, the poor widow’s son.
“Cloud!” Tifa exclaimed, equally surprised. “When I heard I –“ She cut herself off. “Are you all right? You’re not hurt are you?”
“I’m fine.” Somewhat dazed from hitting his head on the ground but otherwise just fine. “You live here?” What even were the odds of that?
Tifa nodded. “With my wife. We help runaways get to Cosmo Canyon where the law can’t follow.” She flung her arms around Cloud’s shoulders and hugged. “Oh, my Cloud, I can’t believe it’s really you! I thought I’d never see you again.”
Cloud returned the hug lightly, still trying to sort out his feelings on the subject. He’d only known Tifa in brief moments when their paths crossed. When his mom died, Tifa had been at the funeral, but the next day Cloud was gone, never having known her as anybody but the daughter of the man who sold him.
Tifa didn’t seem to mind his silence. She stood up and offered him a helping hand, leading him back towards the farm house. “C’mon, it’s going to be okay, you’ll see.”
What luck he’d had, running into Tifa and finding out she was an abolitionist. That she was willing to help. Cloud felt relief wash over him. Everything was going to turn out fine. He felt the adrenaline that had carried him this far fade away, leaving weariness behind. It was late and he’d had a long day. He needed water, food, and rest. Hopefully Tifa could provide all three.
Tifa went inside the house first, cheerfully announcing her return. “Aerith honey, I’m home! I brought somebody with me.”
“Found another runaway did you?” A familiar voice announced from somewhere near the kitchen. The home was smaller than Master Sephiroth and Master Genesis’s home but cozy and lived in, radiating warmth. A woman turned the corner into the living room and froze at the sight of Cloud. Cloud froze too. It was the doctor from his first day! The one who knew Master Sephiroth so well. Dr. Gainsborough.
“Cloud!” Dr. Gainsborough said. “You ran away? What happened? You were doing so well with Sephiroth and Gen.”
“I don’t understand.” Cloud said before he could stop himself. “If you two are abolitionists why do you work with the slave breakers?”
Suddenly trusting Tifa didn’t seem like such a good idea, considering who she was married to.”
“Well the simple answer is they pay me.” Dr. Gainsborough said brightly. “Now answer my question. You were doing well. Last time I spoke to Zack he told me they were going to sell you. What happened to make you run away?”
“They were going to sell me.” Cloud replied sullenly, almost muttering the response.
“Oh,” Said Dr. Gainsborough. “Oooh, you have a crush on them, don’t you?”
Cloud flushed. “It’s not just some silly crush that I’m going to get over given time. I don’t want to belong to anybody if I can’t belong to them.” He snapped. He was tired of people dismissing his feelings as if they didn’t matter. He knew it was genuine. He did.
Dr. Gainsborough and Tifa shared a look with each other, the silent communication of the married. “Why don’t we call Genesis and Sephiroth and work this out in person.” Dr. Gainsborough suggested.
Cloud startled. “You promised.” He accused Tifa. “Don’t turn me back in to them, they’ll probably just euthanize me since I’m so much trouble.”
“They won’t.” Tifa assured him calmly, even as he debated making a run for it. He wouldn’t get far dressed as he was and if Tifa came after him again she’d catch up easily enough. He couldn’t get away. “I promise. They’ll let you go if that’s what you really want but it’s best to actually talk to them, first.”
I don’t believe you. Cloud wanted to snap at her, but years of learning to hold his tongue had made him reluctant to speak, even as Tifa pushed him down on the couch while Dr. Gainsborough came back out holding her PHS.
Dr. Gainsborough said into the phone, “Hello, Genesis, missing someone? No, I’m not joking with you… okay… okay… give me a minute.” She held out the phone to Cloud. “Gen wants to speak with you.”
Cloud looked at the phone like it was going to bite him. The verbal lashing he was surely about to get was not worth it. He debated running again. Maybe he could surprise Tifa and get a head start on the woman. In the end, he finally took the phone. “Hello.” He said dully.
“Cloud, baby!” Genesis’s voice sounded harsh, but in a way that spoke more of stress than of aggravation. “Please tell me you’re all right. We’ve been so worried about you sweetheart.”
It was all Cloud could do to keep from crying. This was kindness he in no way shape or form deserved. He’d never deserved Master Genesis and Master Sephiroth and even then what had he done? Betrayed their trust and run away. “I’m fine, Master, sunburnt and tired but I’m okay.”
“Good. Good.” Master Genesis exhaled and said. “Can you stay there? Sephiroth and I will be on our way soon and we can talk when we get there. Do you want to stay with Aerith and Tifa? They can take you to Cosmo Canyon and you’ll be safe there.”
“I want to stay with you.” Cloud replied. “Please believe me. I want to belong to you and Master Sephiroth and no one else.”
Master Genesis sighed into the phone. “Cloud.” He began but Cloud cut him off.
“Please. If I can’t stay with you then I want to go to Cosmo Canyon.”
Master Genesis didn’t say anything for a long time. “We can talk about this in person, Cloud.”
Which was a no.
Dr. Gainsborough made Cloud some soup and rubbed aloe vera on his sunburn but otherwise Cloud sat at the dining room table staring at his hands while Tifa and her wife talked quietly at the other end of the table about chocobos and crop yields and the kinds of things Cloud never imagined Tifa would do. She was a farmer now, and wasn’t that something else when she’d been so privileged growing up?
Eventually, a knock on the door startled Cloud and Tifa ran to get it, inviting in Master Sephiroth and Master Genesis, who were dressed much as they had the day they’d gotten Cloud – in clothing meant to intimidate. Master Sephiroth didn’t even wait to greet Tifa and Dr. Gainsborough, just crossed the room and backhanded Cloud across the face. Stunned, Cloud went with the force of the blow, nearly falling out of his chair. He kept his face turned down and away, ashamed to face the man who must be so furious at him right now.
“What were you thinking?” Master Sephiroth said. “There are monsters in the plains outside of town. You could have been attacked and killed.”
Cloud wanted to apologize, but another part of him – that terrible, angry part that was broken and hurting from rejection – refused to let him. Instead he stayed silent, refusing to meet Master Sephiroth’s eyes.
Master Sephiroth sighed. “You’re so stubborn, like I am. Maybe you really aren’t cut out for the life of a slave. We’ll let you go.”
Cloud startled, glancing upward to see if there was any truth to the words in Master Sephiroth’s eyes. There was; he was gravely serious. “No!” Cloud cried. “I can do it, I really can. I just want to be owned by you…”
Master Genesis had come up behind Master Sephiroth at that point and was regarding Cloud with a calculating stare. “Cloud,” He began and Cloud just knew what he was going to say. “You really are stubborn. Sephiroth and I discussed it. We think you’d be better off in Cosmo Canyon, but until you feel ready to leave, you can stay with us.”
Cloud couldn’t jump out of the chair fast enough. He launched himself at Master Genesis and before his more rational brain kicked in he had his arms wrapped around the Master. But rather than a reprimand, Master Genesis just laughed as Cloud gushed. “Thank you! Thank you so much you won’t regret it, I promise.”
“Oh Cloud.” Master Genesis said. “What I wouldn’t do to see that beautiful smile of yours. It lights up the whole room and makes me want to spoil you rotten.”
Cloud couldn’t help the grin on his face so he buried himself against Master Genesis’s chest, hugging as hard as he could. They were going to keep him! He couldn’t believe it.
Master Sephiroth interrupted by saying, “You do realize if you come home with us you’ll need to be punished for running away.”
Even that couldn’t dampen Cloud’s spirit. “I understand.” He replied. “I’m not looking forward to it, but I trust you.”
And that was perhaps even more important than the growing love for them he had in his heart. Master Sephiroth wrapped his arms Cloud and Genesis, sandwiching Cloud between them. He leaned down and kissed the crown of Cloud’s head. “I don’t understand you.” Master Sephiroth admitted. “We offer you the world and you choose a cage.”
Cloud said, “It’s not a cage when I’m with you.”
Two days later Cloud was lying on his stomach on the couch in the den, dozing off from painkillers that made him sleepy and left his consciousness drifting. His head was on Master Genesis’s lap while he read from his loved and battered copy of Loveless. The door to the den was pushed open and Angeal stepped in. They hadn’t punished him for losing Cloud – too concerned with finding him before he died (which, after Master Sephiroth’s lecture about monsters was perhaps almost an imminent thing had Tifa not found him when she did), but he’d forgiven Cloud with surprising ease, grateful that he was safe.
“How are you feeling?” Angeal asked Cloud as he leaned down to give Master Genesis a kiss. “Still sore?”
“Yeah.” Cloud replied sleepily, but he was too content lying in Master Genesis’s lap to move, even when Angeal leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. Cloud yawned.
“I think it’s time for a nap.” Master Genesis said, setting aside his book. “Where are Zack and Sephiroth?”
“In the training room.” Angeal answered. “They’re playing around – I heard Zack laughing when I came in.”
“Lucky.” Cloud said through another yawn. Zack loved it when Master Sephiroth paid attention to him, loved it when Angeal and Master Genesis did too. He was such an attention hound. Like a puppy, eager for approval.
“Soon, Cloud.” Master Genesis promised. “For now, let’s go upstairs and see if they’d like to join us for a nap?”
Angeal nodded and Master Genesis playfully shoved Cloud off his lap so he could stand up. Cloud rolled upright reluctantly, still feeling the dazed from the medication. His ass was sore and he winced as he put weight on it. The punishment hadn’t been too bad but it’d still hurt and Cloud wasn’t eager to be in that position again. But it meant he was here, and that was more important than pain that would fade. Pain that didn’t leave scars on the heart.
Angeal picked Cloud up and carried him like he weighed nothing, which for Angeal he probably did, being so small and light weight as he was still recovering from previous ill treatment. Cloud put his chin on Angeal’s shoulder and sighed happily as the bigger slave carried him out of the room and up the stairs. Master Genesis went to the play room to talk to Master Sephiroth and Zack while Angeal carried him into the master bedroom and set him on the bed. It would be a tight squeeze for five people to share the bed, but nobody really minded. What was one more in their happy little family?
Angeal laid down on the bed beside Cloud, pulling back the covers so he could tuck it around them. Cloud curled up against Angeal, seeking the warmth as they waited for the others to join them.
“I’m sorry about the market.” Cloud apologized, yet again. He really was. He’d made Angeal worry about him. The man had searched everywhere when Cloud had run, fearing the worst – kidnapping, death, anything. Cloud hadn’t even thought about the impact of his decision. He’d been selfish.
“It’s fine. What matters is that you’re safe.” Angeal reassured him. “I’m sorry we didn’t listen to you.”
Cloud was here now, and that’s what mattered.
“Why did you come back?” Angeal asked. “Why choose us over freedom?”
It should have been obvious. As Master Genesis entered the room followed by Master Sephiroth and Zack who was still wearing rope bracelets and a harness, Cloud said, “Because I love you.”
“We love you too, Spikey.” Zack answered, snuggling up against Angeal’s back. He tapped Cloud on the arm gently. Master Genesis came around to the other side of the bed and curled up next to Cloud while Master Sephiroth sandwiched Zack in.
“Yes.” Master Genesis said with a kiss to Cloud. “We love you, and we’re happy to keep you.”
“Thank you.” Cloud said, and drifted off to sleep in the shelter of their arms.