This is the birthday fic for my beloved becki. My partner, my best friend, my love who puts up with all of my eccentricities and general pissiness. For your eternally-28th birthday! ^_^
All my love,
It was the same every time.
Lunchtime in the mess hall was his least favorite time of day. Cloud stood at the edge of the large room, feeling as if he were swimming or perhaps submerged in a dream. Only this wasn't the dream he'd seen himself in; not by a long shot. He gripped his tray and looked down, seeing the plain blue uniform of a Shinra regular and polished black combat boots. A year later, when he was supposed to have come a long way towards success, he was still staring at his toes like a shy country-bred boy.
"Hey, move aside, kid. You're blocking the door," a voice sneered in his ear, and then he was being jostled out of the way.
Cloud let himself be moved, wrenching his eyes from the floor and scanning the cafeteria listlessly. There were faces he recognized; his roommates, the guys from his squad, a few others who lived in the blocky dormitory that housed the Shinra regulars. On the far side of the mess hall, there were three rows of tables set apart for the SOLDIERs. The small, elite group of military trouble-shooters; he had come to Midgar to be one of them.
Apathy was replaced with a feeling like despair, but more resigned. Cloud had applied, but he hadn't passed the rigorous exams and physical tests necessary to be part of SOLDIER. 'Just a kid,' had been clear in the contemptuous gazes of his impersonal examiners.
He was still here. He was trying to be a good Shinra regular, but a fifteen-year old was at the bottom of the food chain. 'Too green,' even his roommates snickered. 'Tiny little guy.' Why was he still here?
Cloud headed for the unoccupied end of a table. Even someplace like this, where men were supposed to work as a fighting unit, to get along, he was shunned. Why had he thought things would be different once he left Nibelheim? The city was only different in that there were even more cliques ready to exclude him.
A man in a scruffy, patched black coverall slid into a seat opposite from Cloud. "Hey, kid, you don't look like you want to be sitting alone." He put his tray down, making himself comfortable. "So why are ya?"
Cloud looked up, summoning a fierce glare. "Don't call me kid!" He was sick of that, of being called young, and treated it too. There were plenty of boys his age in the regulars, and a few SOLDIERs, too. He didn't think he was *that* small. Then his mouth went dry when he met the eyes of the slouching, black-haired man.
His eyes were yellow, like liquid gold, and they glowed with faint radiance even in the cafeteria lighting. They were Mako eyes. That meant this man was...
"So what's your name, then?" asked the black-haired man. He was smiling, a small cocky grin, as if realizing the effect his eyes had on Cloud.
"You're in SOLDIER," Cloud blurted, forgetting his manners. Why was the man *here?* Shouldn't he be eating over there, with the others? Cloud glanced inadvertently over his shoulder.
"Yeah," the man replied, extending a hand across the table. "I'm Zax Darklighter, SOLDIER second class."
"Cloud," he replied, wiping his hand beneath the table on his leggings before bringing it up to clasp Zax's. His palm had been damp. "Cloud Strife."
"I know," Zax grinned, pumping his hand. "I've heard a bit about you."
Cloud quashed the urge to wrench his hand away. "Oh?" he said instead, wary. He'd already been the butt of too many jokes since joining Shinra's regulars, and being made fun of by a high-ranking SOLDIER had no appeal. He wanted to *be* a SOLDIER, not sit here and get mocked by one.
"Yeah," Zax said. His grin was warm, and disarming. There didn't seem to be any mockery there, which only made Cloud more cautious. "You're fifteen, young and hungry for SOLDIER, but signed up with the regulars instead. But you don't quite fit in with them, do you?"
"What?" Cloud stiffened. "Why are you...?" He clammed up. This was none of a stranger's business.
Zax laughed. "Relax, I'm not like them." He hooked a finger over his shoulder, indicating the row upon row of regulars digging into their mess hall fare. "I'm not trying to make fun of you."
"Why are you here, then?" Cloud asked, feeling resentful. Zax was SOLDIER and if he was just going to flaunt that in Cloud's face...but no, he didn't get that sort of impression. If anything, Zax was dressed down, because what he wore looked like something out of a ragbag, rather than the typical SOLDIER uniform.
"Well, because of what I said before," Zax told him. "You look like you don't want to be sitting by yourself."
Cloud tensed up. He didn't, but saying anything like that would be an admission of weakness. It would be admitting that they got to him, with their mind games and their groups of established friendships that Cloud wasn't allowed to sit in on, let alone become a part of.
"Take it easy, Cloud," Zax said, forking into his meal. "I'm just going to eat lunch with you. It's not like I'm putting the moves on you, or anything."
"Huh?" Now Cloud was confused. 'Putting the moves...' What did that mean?
Zax gaped at him. "You really are, aren't you?"
"I'm what?" Cloud said stiffly, still on the defensive.
"A total innocent." Zax tapped his fork against the tray. "I thought rumor had to be exaggerating, but..." That part sounded as if he were talking to himself.
"Excuse me!?" That was it. Cloud stood up, intending to snag his tray and storm out of the mess hall. He didn't have to sit here and be insulted.
"No, wait!" Cloud was jerked to a stop.
Zax had clamped onto his wrist. Those intense gold eyes were searing into him. "Don't go, Cloud. I wasn't making fun of you, I swear."
"I don't know how much your word is worth," Cloud muttered, but sat back down anyhow. It was true, he didn't have any friends here. Was that what Zax was offering him?
Then what had he meant by 'putting the moves' on him? Cloud didn't know what that phrase meant. It was true; he'd been pretty sheltered. His mother had been protective of him, her only child.
"Hey! You've got a mouth on you," Zax retorted, releasing his wrist. Then he grinned again. "I suppose I deserved that, though. I've never been noted for my tact."
They were both quiet for a moment, eating. Or in Cloud's case, pushing the food around on his tray. He'd been hungry before, but it had evaporated for some reason. His stomach was tying itself into a large, uncomfortable knot.
"They've been spreading rumors about me?" he said into the silence. Was that why he was so unpopular? Even with other regulars his own age, they all seemed to veer off when he approached, or shut up as if they'd just been talking about a secret. Talking about him, he'd guessed. It had happened often enough in Nibelheim that he remembered all of it with painful clarity, and here it was happening again.
Cloud thought he must have some kind of hex, or a dark materia had been cast on the day of his birth. He didn't think he'd ever done anything to make people dislike him so much.
"Well..." Zax was pushing his food around now, too. "Shit. I'm sorry I opened my big mouth, Cloud. I didn't mean to make you upset."
"What are they saying?" He was determined to know, at least, why he was so unpopular.
"Ah, Cloud. It doesn't matter." There was a faint hint of red creeping up Zax's neck. Was he embarrassed? "I thought you knew, otherwise I wouldn't have...damn."
"If it doesn't matter, then just tell me," Cloud said, feeling stubborn.
"Ahh...well--" Zax rubbed his black hair, which was gelled in a spiky crest at the front, and gathered into a long, loose ponytail in back. "--all right. Ch'. What I said earlier, it's making rounds with the regulars. That you're a total innocent, and you're the prettiest face that's tried out for SOLDIER since Sephiroth."
"What!?" Cloud's fork clattered to his tray and bounced off, spurting up food and falling to the table.
A morsel of potato hit Zax in the eye. His mouth twitched, and he lifted his napkin to wipe food away.
Cloud stared in horror for a moment. He'd hit a SOLDIER with mashed potatoes. This was...he was...then he was laughing, and he couldn't help it. He hadn't laughed like this since...well, the longest he could remember. Not since he really had been a little kid. After a moment, Zax joined in, wiping his face off with a napkin.
"Sorry," Zax said, after they'd calmed down and belly laughs tapered into watery-eyed chuckles. "I made a total jackass of myself, didn't I? I just wanted to come over and get to know you."
"It's okay," Cloud replied with a shrug, feeling more at ease. "I always knew there was some kind of reason they don't like me. But...the prettiest face since Sephiroth? Why say something like that?" He grimaced. He was a man, well, a teenager, and boys weren't pretty.
Zax stared. "Have you ever seen Sephiroth?"
"No," Cloud admitted. He had tried out for SOLDIER at fourteen, when he'd first come to Midgar.
He'd been hoping to catch a glimpse of Sephiroth during that time. That part of the Shinra building he'd been in was only for testing SOLDIER candidates, he had found out later. And a general of Sephiroth's caliber would never be caught dead in a mess hall. He had never seen his idol but he hoped to, one day.
"Well, he's gorgeous." Zax turned his attention to the food, avoiding Cloud's eyes. "I wanted to see if it was true, and it is. You're the prettiest thing since..." He stopped, and picked up his tray.
Now Cloud was *really* confused.
"Sorry, Cloud. Didn't mean to come on so strong," Zax said with a rueful grin. "I guess I'd better take a hike, huh?"
"Wait," Cloud said, nearly inaudible. Zax was getting up, and turning away. He felt desperate; Zax was the first one to show an interest in him here, and he wanted to know what the man meant by his words. "Hey, wait!"
Zax turned back, eyes gold and hot on him. "I don't know if I should wait," he replied. "If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you don't know what you're getting into."
Cloud digested this. He discovered that he didn't care -- no, it wasn't just that; he *wanted* to know, to be initiated into the things of which he was so ignorant. "Please, wait," he said, and he knew he had Zax's attention with his quiet tone. "You're the first person who hasn't ignored me, or picked on me. So I don't want you to go." The way Zax was looking at him stirred up a strange feeling, and it wasn't just the prickly 'I'm being stared at; my nape hairs are rising' sensation.
In a fumbling sort of way, Cloud began to realize what Zax might be after. Then Zax was sitting again, hooking the chair close with one ankle, leaning forward with a winning smile. He lost that flicker of comprehension, wrapped up in the prospect of having a real friend for the first time.
"I'm glad, Cloud." Zax rested his chin on interlaced fingers, eyeing him and smiling. "So, do you wanna go out later?"
Cloud stirred his potatoes with his fork again. "Sure." He was surprised, and a little excited. He hadn't done much of anything but hang around his bunk since he'd joined the regulars. "So...friends, right?" He thought about putting out his hand again, and decided it would look stupid.
Zax tilted his head to the side. "Friends," he repeated. There was something a little different about his smile now. "I'll pick you up at your building after your afternoon drills, okay?"
That was right, SOLDIERs didn't stay in the barracks like the rest of them. Zax probably had a place somewhere in Midgar. Cloud wondered what it was like. Maybe Zax would show him, sometime, and he could get a glimpse of the life he'd been aiming for.
"All right," he agreed.
A friend. He'd have someone to sit with now; a SOLDIER who didn't care about rank or any of the rumors that spread behind his back. That was all he needed. He would have one person to do stuff with, to laugh with like that, and it was enough.
The deep-throated rumble of a motorcycle engine ripped through the air as a big, black bike revved up the road bearing two passengers. Black tires splashed through puddles on the street that glowed with faint luminescence in the dusk. All around them, neon lights bounced off the storefronts and any surface that grabbed at the light.
"So how do you like Midgar?" Zax called over his shoulder, revving his bike down the street.
Cloud Strife was clinging to his waist. "What?"
They idled at a stop sign for a moment. "I said, how do you like Midgar?"
There was a twitch in the arms around him as Cloud shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. Big and crowded, and people aren't very friendly. But I'm used to that."
Zax pondered that as he maneuvered his bike up the packed streets, weaving in and out of traffic. He was heading for one of his favorite bars, a place no Shinra regular would ever go, let alone an elite member of SOLDIER. They'd serve Cloud booze without asking questions, and wouldn't look twice at the fact that his date was a pretty young boy and not some floozy.
Of course, he didn't think Cloud realized this could be classified as a date.
The poor kid seemed like he hadn't had much by way of a social life, and it was easy to see why. Cloud *was* the prettiest thing he'd laid eyes on since Sephiroth, and the air of innocence only lent even more appeal. It wasn't anything a straight soldier would be comfortable with, and that was why Cloud was shunned, and why baseless rumors had been spreading. Zax was sure of this fact; he knew how things went around here. And Cloud was so innocent, he didn't realize his fey appearance was what put a distance between him and everyone else.
Zax was only too happy to get to know Cloud. It wasn't just being a SOLDIER that distanced him from the regulars. He'd been comfortable with his sexuality for a long time. And once he'd laid eyes on the kid that had been making the run of the rumor mill, the prospect of helping Cloud discover his own sexuality was very appealing, indeed.
"Okay, we're here." Zax pulled up and switched the engine off, toeing the kickstand.
Cloud released him, climbing off the bike and looking shaky on his feet.
"Hey, you all right?" he inquired, concerned.
"Fine," Cloud managed. "That's the first time I've ridden a motorcycle."
"Oh. Sorry," Zax said, offering him a grin. "I didn't realize. C'mon, let's get a drink in you. It'll make you feel better."
Cloud followed him into the Laughing Unicorn. The bartender lifted a hand. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with a shock of white hair and pale blue eyes; very handsome if one liked the type who worked out a lot. Zax wondered if Cloud would notice that everyone here was a guy. Not only that, but most of the younger ones rimmed their eyes in kohl and smudged shiny makeup, and some wore glitter-gloss on their pouting lips.
He looked behind him at Cloud, gesturing him to follow to a table. He preferred Cloud's innocent, pretty looks to the jaded boys who hung out here, waiting to be picked up. "This way. I've got a table in back." It was a nice, secluded booth that Setzer, the bar's owner, kept free for him on the weekends. Zax found himself looking forward to seducing Cloud and he chided himself to remember control. If he started right in on the seduction, he had a feeling Cloud would bolt like a startled chocobo and he'd never be able to get close to the kid again.
"Hey, Zax," Cloud spoke up as they squeezed into the booth. "Where are all the girls?"
"Ah..." Zax grinned at him, waving the server-boy over. "You could say this is a guys-only kind of club."
Cloud's eyes rounded. "Really?"
"Really," Zax said. "You look so surprised."
Cloud bent his head and mumbled something. God, but he was the cutest teenager Zax had ever seen.
"Two of the Midgar Sewage Shots," Zax told the server boy, as he came up to their table and put a hand to his hip, eyeing them appreciatively, "and two Rocket-bottle beers."
Cloud blinked. "What did you just order for me?"
"Something good," Zax promised. /Something to loosen you up a bit, kid,/ he thought. It was tempting to get the kid drunk, but he wouldn't do that. A little tipsy, maybe... He wanted to steal a few kisses, but he knew even that wasn't realistic. Cloud really was innocent. He must have grown up someplace very isolated. Zax remembered being that young, but he didn't think he'd ever been so innocent. "So, where do you come from, Cloud?"
"Nibelheim," Cloud said, in a tone that discouraged further questions.
Zax decided to ignore that. "Oh, yeah? That's right beyond Cosmo Canyon, isn't it? I think I know where Nibelheim is. Never been there, though. I'm from a little place called Gongaga Village."
"I've never heard of it," Cloud admitted. "Is it nice?"
Zax shrugged. "It was all right. I don't think living in a small town was for me. I didn't really like any of the kids my age."
"You didn't?" Cloud propped his head in one hand. He looked adorable. "I don't know if I liked the kids my age or not. I just know they didn't like me. They shut me out."
The server arrived with their drinks. He gave Zax a flirtatious wink, to which Zax responded with a cool nod. He'd seen this boy before, and he wasn't interested -- the boy hung off the arm of every new man in the bar. Zax wanted something different. He wanted Cloud, and he figured it would be worth the patient wait and coaxing it would take.
"Maybe they felt threatened," Zax suggested, passing a bright green Midgar Sewer shot over to Cloud.
"Threatened? By me? Hah!" Cloud snorted derisively. He toyed with the shotglass, looking at the bright green fluid with suspicion. "Zax, what's in this?"
"Some high-grade liquor, Cloud. And maybe a few drops of Mako, who knows? This is Midgar, after all. Drink up, it's on me," Zax said with a grin, picking up his glass and tipping it towards Cloud.
"Well..." Cloud looked uncertain, but he picked up his shotglass. "Cheers."
"To new relationships," Zax added, clinking his glass against Cloud's.
"Yeah." And Cloud smiled at him. He downed the shot.
Zax was riveted. The kid had a breathtaking smile, when he cared to show it. In one burning gulp, Zax emptied the contents of the glass down his throat and slammed the glass to the wood.
Cloud was coughing, his eyes watering. Zax grinned and pushed the tall bottle of beer at him. "Drink that, you'll feel better."
"You're joking, right?" Cloud gasped. But he took the bottle and swigged from it.
"Whoa, go a little easy on the beer!" Zax cautioned. He was still grinning; he couldn't help it. Cloud was cute, even if he knew the kid would protest at the use of that term. "If you don't have a head for alcohol, you'll get drunk pretty fast."
"I don't care," Cloud asserted. He tipped his bottle back again. Already, his cheeks were flushed. "Maybe I want to get drunk."
"Well, then it's a good thing you're with someone who won't try to take advantage of you," Zax said with a chuckle.
"Zax, what do you mean?" Cloud was staring at him with earnest blue eyes. "You've said some weird things. Well, besides when you said I was pretty. I want to know what you meant by all of it."
Ah, damn. He was hoping this part of the conversation could've waited until Cloud was a little less sober. He might be more accepting. Even a fifteen-year old regular might get up and punch a SOLDIER in the face if he thought his virtue was being assaulted. Well, and if he didn't *like* it.
"Sure," Zax agreed. "Hey, do you want some food with your beer?"
"Well, I..." Cloud floundered. "I don't know. I don't have a lot of money on me, Zax."
Zax cursed himself for being such an honorable SOLDIER, who followed his scruples. If he had no principles, like many men in Midgar he would pounce on the boy in a heartbeat to take advantage of him. No, dammit, he liked his boys to be willing. So it was a good thing Cloud had been found by Zax, and not someone else.
"Don't worry about it," Zax told him. "Tonight's on me."
"You mean it?" Cloud sucked at his beer bottle again. He was smiling again. "Thanks, Zax! I really like you!"
"Well, I like you, too," Zax replied with warmth. It was all he could do to contain himself from reaching out and squeezing the boy's thigh, which was so close to his under the table that they were almost pressing together. "I'll order some food."
After the server had departed with their order, giving Cloud a wink this time, Zax turned back to his beer. Cloud was leaning towards him.
"Hey," Cloud whispered, overly loud. "Zax, I think that boy was wearing makeup."
Zax tried not to smile. Maybe now was the time. "He was wearing makeup, Cloud."
"Really!?" Cloud shot straight up, bumping the back of the booth. "But...but I thought only girls wear makeup."
"Oh, no," Zax assured him. "There are plenty of boys that wear makeup in Midgar. You could say they're advertising."
"Advertising what?" Cloud asked him with big eyes. He sipped at his beer. The level in the bottle was going steadily down, and Cloud didn't seem to realize this.
"Well..." Zax rubbed at the back of his head, feeling sheepish. He'd never had to explain this before. "Advertising the fact that they like other boys and men, Cloud, and they're looking for a date."
Cloud was quiet for a moment.
The moment lengthened into several minutes.
Zax started to worry. Cloud still wasn't looking up. Had he misjudged the boy? Was he just a very pretty, but heterosexual kid? Cloud wasn't saying anything. His head was lowered, and he was gripping his beer hard enough for his knuckles to show white against the skin.
"Are we on a date?" Cloud said at last.
Zax relaxed somewhat. The kid was sharp, even if he was innocent. "I wouldn't call it a date, 'cause you didn't know that's what I wanted when I asked you."
"So you just want to be friends?" Cloud looked up, now, and his blue eyes were penetrating. He seemed as if he understood, now. Zax wondered how much he thought he understood.
"Well..." Zax leaned back, took another swig of his beer, and stretched his legs. Cloud was close enough to bump into, beside him. He still wasn't going to push his luck. "I want to be your friend, for now, because you need one and I like you."
"Okay." Cloud nodded. He tipped his beer back. He traced the wet ring his bottle had left on the table. "Zax, I don't understand."
Oh, boy. Zax raked a hand through his black spikes. "Some men prefer other men, Cloud, or boys."
It took a bit for this to process.
Finally, "You mean for sex?" Cloud said, tone hushed.
"Yes, for sex," Zax agreed.
"That's what I don't understand," Cloud confessed. He drank some more beer.
Zax was tempted to order another one for him, but decided he'd better not. The kid might fall off the back of his bike on the way back. "Well, you know what kissing is, right?"
"Ye-es," Cloud agreed, sounding cautious.
He grinned. "Have you ever thought about kissing a guy?"
"I...uh...NO!! Well..." Cloud trailed off, sounding miserable. "I don't know. Maybe?"
"It's okay," Zax assured him. "You think I'd be asking if I wasn't the same way?"
Cloud widened his eyes at him. "You mean you have?"
"Yeah," Zax said. "I've kissed guys, and done other things, too."
"Do you think of me that way?" Cloud asked this in a very small tone.
"Well..." Zax rubbed his chin. Should he be honest right away? He didn't know if Cloud could handle it; there was still something in the boy's face that indicated he might bolt if he was told too much. "Yeah, Cloud. I like you. Not just the way you look; I think you'd be a good friend, too."
"All right." Cloud was silent until the food arrived, and Zax respected it. He could see the kid was thinking things through, turning it over until it made sense and he could accept it. Cloud sipped at his beer again before digging into the plate of spicy ribs and wings.
"Have you done it before?"
"Done what?" Zax asked, hoping the kid wasn't asking what he *thought* he was.
"Had sex?" Cloud gulped, then hid his face in his beer.
"What, you wanna know what it's like?" Zax asked with a grin, leaning back. "Or you just want to know if I've done it?"
Cloud mumbled something unintelligible, his face burning red.
"Yes, I've had sex, Cloud," he said, gesturing with his beer. "It can be even more exciting than a good battle." He omitted the fact that he'd done it with men *and* women before. He wanted Cloud to get used to the idea of doing it with him, first. Then he'd introduce him to the idea of cultivating a girlfriend for cover. Shinra knew that it happened, but preferred their SOLDIERs and regulars to keep it discreet. Even Sephiroth had to keep his bed-partners out of the public eye. Especially him, since Sephiroth's partners were never women.
"How...so how does it work? Two guys having sex?" Cloud looked mortified by his own audacity. He was sinking lower in his seat.
Zax waved the server over for more beer. Hell, if it came to that, he'd strap the kid to his back on the way home. "Don't worry about it, Cloud."
"But..." Cloud objected.
"I said, don't worry about it," Zax repeated. "I'm not going to push you into anything. If you want to, you'll know it. And then I'll show you."
"Okay..." But Cloud still looked ready to argue, or at least ask again.
"So, have you been to Wall Market, yet?" Zax asked him, switching topics with good cheer. He figured Cloud would be easy to distract, with his beer-flushed cheeks and unresisting attitude.
"No," Cloud said, blinking owlishly. "I haven't been anywhere in Midgar besides the SOLDIER testing unit, and the Shinra regular base."
Zax smacked his forehead. "Cloud, that's criminal!"
"It is?" Cloud sat back and started on the new bottle their server had delivered. "But I haven't had anyone to go with, in my free time."
"That's another reason it's criminal," Zax growled. "Cloud, it's going to be my mission to show you the best parts of Midgar!"
"You mean it?" Cloud squinted at him.
"Of course! You need someone like me, Cloud. Otherwise it would be all work and no play, and that makes Cloud a dull boy, indeed."
"All right," Cloud agreed. "I always wanted to get out more, but my roommates would never let me tag along."
/Your roommates never wanted to get into your pants,/ Zax thought to himself, slugging down the rest of his bottle. But it was true that wasn't the only reason he wanted to hang around Cloud. The rest of his SOLDIER cronies were no fun, and most were too battle-scarred or drone-minded to make friends with. None of the regulars had been any great shakes before he laid eyes on Cloud. And Sephiroth was...well, he was gorgeous, of course, and very skilled, but he very little humor. Sleeping with Sephiroth could be like bedding with a living ice statue if the older man wasn't in a playful mood.
He had a feeling Cloud was going to be fun, once he loosened up a little.
"Hey, Zax?" Cloud had turned lambent, beer-hazed eyes on him. "Can we go back to your place later?"
Zax *really* wished he didn't have so many scruples.
Over the next few weeks, Cloud grew to enjoy having a second-class SOLDIER for a friend. True to his word, Zax was taking him out to see Midgar, bit by bit.
Zax and Cloud didn't discuss what had been brought up that first night in the Laughing Unicorn. Not much, anyway. Zax was sticking to his word and seemed to be waiting for Cloud to decide if he wanted more or not.
Cloud still wasn't sure what 'more' meant, but he was getting a better idea.
Cloud stepped out of the squat building that the Shinra regulars called home, and waited by the curb. The cement gutters were clogged with grime and trash, and the citron lights cast sickly yellow pools at regular intervals. Even the upper levels of Midgar were stagnant with the results of pollution and overcrowding. The shining, floating city of Midgar existed now only in peoples' dreams, if it had ever existed at all.
He was waiting for Zax, as he did every night he had free. Zax would roar up on his big, black motorcycle and they'd take off for a new part of the city that he'd never seen. Midgar might not be shining, but it did have bits here and there that were lovely and free of grunge. Zax had taken it upon himself to show Cloud all of them, even though he had the exam for first-class SOLDIER coming up soon.
A huge, long black vehicle was pulling up to the block. Its windows were dark, opaque glass and it was the latest Shinra model. He recognized it from the commercials, the ones that had described the powerful, purring engine and the special wishbone axle for increased steering power.
Cloud liked Zax's bike, but he preferred sleek, fast cars; he'd been saving up for a car like this. He didn't think he'd need opaque windows, though. It must be someone important, a dignitary or high-ranking Shinra official come to speak to the squad leaders.
The door opened and Cloud moved back, trudging on something wet and slimy as he tried to get out of the way. He fell flat on his backside. "Damn!"
Someone stepped from the car, a black trench coat swirling around the tall figure. Cloud stared up, and up, into a narrow face framed with a spill of silver hair. Green eyes looked down at him, and they glowed with more than just intensity. Mako eyes.
Cloud tried to scramble to his feet, and fell again. He was sure to be sitting in trash and would have to go change his pants. It was just the kind of undignified situation he was prone to.
"Here." The tall man held out a hand, one wing of silver hair whispering over his shoulder. It was long, falling well past his waist.
Cloud took the man's hand, feeling a lance of weird sensation burn his guts. It was how he felt when waking from odd, heated dreams he couldn't remember, or when Zax looked at him for too long, liquid-gold eyes intent on his face or body. But this was a complete stranger. He flushed.
The man drew him to his feet like he were made of feathers. "You should watch your step," he chided, green eyes running down, then up the length of Cloud's body.
"Sorry, sir," Cloud apologized. Without asking, he knew this man was someone high-ranking. His eyes alone were proof, but his bearing and his cultured voice stood out above anything else. He felt as if he were being disloyal to Zax in making the assessment, but it was true.
"Name and rank?" the silver-haired man asked, the corner of his mouth turning up in something that might have been a smile, but wasn't quite.
"Cloud Strife, sir, Cyan Squad of the Shinra regulars," Cloud said, snapping to attention. He didn't salute, as the man was still relaxed, nothing approaching parade ground behavior.
"Really." The man appeared to muse over this. "Have you tried out for SOLDIER, Strife?"
"Sir, it's an honor I can only dream of," Cloud replied, feeling pained. Did this man think he was worthy of SOLDIER? What did he see in him, then, that even Zax hadn't mentioned? Everyone thought he was a kid, too young for much of anything..
"Hmm." One black-gloved hand touched his chin, tipping his head up. "Too good for Cyan Squad." The silver-haired man was looking at him, but appeared to be talking to himself.
"Sir?" Cloud said, confused.
With no warning, the man broke away and he was striding for the main building, black coat swirling about his tall frame. "Expect a reassignment soon, Strife."
Cloud could still feel the touch of leather against his skin. "Yes, sir..." He blinked. What had just happened? And who was that?
He came up out of the daze of Mako-green eyes, and patted his butt. No, nothing slimy or wet. He looked down at his black combat boots, the spare pair he wore everywhere, and wondered what he'd tripped on.
"Hey, Cloud!" The familiar roar and bang of Zax's loud pipes ripped through the air.
"Zax?" Cloud said with relief. Things didn't feel quite so strange anymore. The evening could resume.
The big bike pulled up behind the car. "Hey, sorry I'm late," Zax said. He patted the rest of the seat behind him. "Had to stay for the rest of the cram session for all the second classes taking the test. Whoa, nice set of wheels -- that's the newest model, isn't it?"
Cloud hopped on behind him. "It's no problem." Zax had already skipped a few of his cram sessions; it was important that he attended the whole class for the ones he went to. Cloud had nagged him about it but Zax didn't seem too concerned. "Yeah, it's a great car, isn't it? Let's get out of here; I'm starved."
"Right." Zax revved up. "I bet it belongs to some fat Shinra official."
"No, it doesn't, it--"
"What??" Zax yelled over his shoulder, gunning up the street.
"Never mind." Cloud put his arms around Zax's waist, leaning against him. It felt comfortable, and warm. Maybe soon he'd have the courage to let Zax know he was interested, because he had realized shortly after the revelations in the Laughing Unicorn that he *was.* Both a boy who was interested in other boys, and a boy who felt *that way* about Zax. "Where are we going?" He put effort into projecting the question.
"It's a SECRET," Zax shouted back, laughter in his voice.
"Fine, be that way," Cloud grumbled. He worked his fingers into the criss-crossing straps of Zax's leather jacket and held on tight.
Zax was a wild driver. He took the curves fast, sometimes accelerating into them, laughing into the wind. He had no fear. It was one of the things Cloud liked about his friend, and wished he could emulate. Cloud could only cling to Zax when he threw his bike into traffic, weaving past slower cars and whipping into the turns. He liked Zax's bike, but he could never drive it with the same skill. That was another reason Cloud was saving up for a car, and not a motorcycle.
Last time they'd gone out, Zax had taken him to a nightclub. When Cloud had seen where they were going, he begged Zax not to make him go through with it. He couldn't dance and as far as he knew, he had two left feet. Zax had dragged him in and they'd stayed at the bar area for a while, while the older man plied him with drinks. After his third Rocket-bottle beer, Cloud was too tractable to resist as Zax drew him onto the dance floor. He hadn't thought it unusual for two boys to be dancing together, because there were other guy couples scattered on the floor.
Zax had told him he danced very well.
Cloud still didn't know if this was the truth or not. He did know that Zax had almost kissed him that night, and he would have let it happen. When Zax had pulled back, he'd been disappointed. What was Zax waiting for?
He rested his cheek against Zax's leather jacket, feeling the wind tug at his hair. He knew what Zax was waiting for. Cloud was almost ready, but not quite. It was so difficult.
The city flew past them, black and sulphur-yellow, red neon casting light onto the street here and there, or the blaze of turquoise signs spilling onto the street. He looked up as they hit the highway. The billboard for "My Bloody Valentine" loomed over the on-ramp, plastered over the entire side of a building.
He wanted to ask where they were going again. Zax knew he wasn't overjoyed by surprises, but didn't know why. When he was a kid in Nibelheim, a 'surprise' for him had ended in being the butt of someone's dumb joke. He hated being surprised; he hated the other kids for being so low. And Tifa, the girl he'd admired, had always watched it happen from afar, looking upset but never doing anything.
The wind whipped through their hair. Cloud could feel Zax's ponytail curl around his neck and he smiled.
He wasn't a child anymore, and he could learn to like surprises. As long as it was Zax spiriting him away, he felt he could trust it.
After a few minutes, he was half-dozing as he leaned up against Zax. It had been a long day full of lessons, drills, and more lessons. His eyes opened as they came to a stop, and the noise of the motorcycle banged once, then fell silent.
"Hmm? Zax?" he mumbled.
"We're here, Cloud." There was a grin in Zax's voice. He'd gotten good at predicting his friend's expression. It was easy to say when he was smiling, because he almost always was.
Cloud sat up straight, unhooking his hands from Zax's leather jacket. "Oh, sorry." He climbed off the bike. "Hey, where are we?" It looked like part of the highway, but it was deserted. It ran off into nowhere, with no barriers or tape to prevent someone from driving right off the edge. He turned back to his friend.
"Zax, if this is some kind of--hey!!" Hands descended over his eyes, and he cut off what he was going to say.
"Shh. It's awesome, I promise, just trust me." Zax pressed him forward, and Cloud took a shuffling step. "I'm not going to push you over the edge. Stop worrying."
"Fine," Cloud sighed. "I want you to know, though, I'm not thrilled about this."
"Give it a minute," Zax said, that infectious excitement in his voice.
Zax guided him onward, directing him to the left now and then, turning him completely once, and moving forward again. Cloud was completely disoriented and had no clue where he was facing now. They came to a stop when Cloud felt resistance against his toes. He leaned forward and felt a rough, low stone wall.
"Okay, you can look now."
He opened his eyes, blinking for a moment as Zax took his hands away. Then he smiled with slow incredulity. "It's amazing!!" Beyond the massive dome that sheltered their sector of Midgar, a field of light rippled to the north. "What is it?" Cloud felt like holding his breath. It was an iridescent shimmer composed of every color imaginable. Rather like a rainbow, the lights blanketed the horizon, twisting and blending into one another, icy blues and bleeding reds, sun-yellow and sharp green. It was like watching a living light-fantastic.
Zax's hand was on his shoulder. "It's the Northern Mako Lights," he replied. "You like it?"
"I've never seen anything like it before!" Cloud exclaimed. "Zax, what...how...?"
"Sometimes, on a really clear summer night, you can see the Northern Mako Lights on the horizon," Zax told him. "No one is sure why, but Professor Gast theorized that in the summer, the sun hits the Mako-rich peaks on the other side of the world up North, and it reflects down towards us."
"Wow." Cloud was holding his breath now. "I never saw anything like this in Nibelheim. We were surrounded by mountains."
He felt hair whispering against his cheek, and knew Zax had nodded. "I never saw them in Gongaga, either. We were too far south."
"It's beautiful," he said, swinging around, heart seizing up in his throat as he realized how close Zax was to him, body inches away and the space between them vibrating with tension. If there was any moment to do this, now was the time. "Zax."
"Hmm?" Zax looked down at him, golden eyes warm and intent.
Cloud came to a second realization, that Zax had placed himself close with deliberation. He wasn't going to do anything, though, unless Cloud moved first. So it was up to him.
He thought he saw a shimmer of reflected Mako in Zax's eyes as he leaned forward. Then he was pressing up against warm lips and forgot about fanciful notions. Their noses would have bumped in his clumsiness until Zax took control of the kiss, tilting his head, one hand cupping the base of Cloud's skull. He was the one who eased their mouths together in a sweet mesh, then nudged his lips apart and kissed him open-mouthed, catching Cloud's lower lip in both of his.
"You have no idea," Zax breathed, breaking away, "how long I've wanted you to do that."
"Since the first time you saw me, right?" Cloud put on an innocent expression, but he was no good at *trying* to look innocent.
Zax laughed and cuffed the back of his head. "Right. Don't get too cocky, brat, remember I'm the one with more experience here."
"As if you'd let me forget," Cloud muttered. Then Zax was bending down, fingers kneading into his neck as he kissed him again. Cloud uttered a groan as Zax's tongue ran over his lip and he opened his mouth to it. It slid inside. Zax's tongue in his mouth felt right, like the heated dreams he woke from, feeling desperate and too hot. This was real, though, and he was running his own tongue along Zax's and clutching at the front of his lover's leather jacket. Lover? Yes, because that was what he wanted.
"A few weeks ago, you wouldn't bring me back to your place," Cloud said, voice steady but feeling breathless anyhow. "Do you think now you're ready to take me there?"
Zax leaned into him; worried at Cloud's lower lip and gave him a deeper kiss. "No."
"I think now *you're* ready to come with me there," Zax chuckled, raking fingers across his nape. "You're fun to tease, Cloud--ouch!!"
Cloud removed his fist from Zax's ribs. "Just take me back to your place." He smiled, feeling a little shy but ready to explore. "I want you to show me everything."
Zax's eyes were heavy-lidded and feline in their intensity. "Well, that might take awhile."
"I'm an apt pupil," Cloud promised. "I'll stick with it as long as it takes." And -- who knew? -- maybe a little longer. Zax was a SOLDIER and couldn't promise anything, but they would always be friends.
It was more than he could have hoped for, before.