Burn Like the Sun
Part Three

by Talya Firedancer

General Sephiroth had an entire floor in the Shinra Headquarters to himself, to use as a base of operations. This was where the Shinra Elite took Cloud. Sephiroth himself lived somewhere else in Midgar, as did everyone attached to his retinue.

"The first thing you'll need to do is find an apartment in the city," Lieutenant Gainer told Cloud, as they climbed towards the sky in a glass elevator.

Cloud was trying not to gape like a country boy. Even after Zax had shown him around Midgar, there were still sights that could grip him with awe. Then the Shinra Elite's words registered.

"An apartment? Oh, uh..." Cloud scratched at his head.

"Is there a problem?" Lieutenant Gainer seemed friendly, and willing to help. He wasn't stern-faced and absolutist like the squad leader had been. "Everyone in Sephiroth's unit will have their own accommodations. You're not in any old regular unit anymore, Strife, so the general likes for his soldiers' living arrangements to reflect that."

"Well, money," Cloud hedged. He hadn't been staying at the Shinra barracks because he liked the room and the company.

"That's not a problem," the lieutenant assured him. "Now that you're working for General Sephiroth, you'll be drawing a much higher pay rate. You should expect to move out of the dormitory today or tomorrow -- is there someplace you can stay until you find an apartment?"

"Uh, yeah," Cloud said, turning his eyes to the spangled city shrinking below them. He thought of Zax, and knew his lover would offer him space in his apartment, even if he was still busy cramming for the upcoming exams.

"Oh." Lieutenant Gainer seemed surprised.

"Am I going to get to see Sephiroth?" Cloud asked, feeling a coil of apprehension thread its way through his guts.

"Well, of course." The lieutenant gave him a reassuring smile. "This is the first unit of regulars the General has had working for him in a few years, Strife. Of course he'll speak to you all personally. You should feel honored; you're the first the General has chosen."

The apprehension doubled. He trusted Zax's warnings, but on the other hand, he was hoping his lover would be proved wrong.

This was Sephiroth, though. Thinking something ill about him just seemed wrong. He was the general who'd liberated Nibelheim, whom Cloud had been idolizing for as long as he could remember.

"Here we are." After the elevator, the lieutenant led him to the right, down a sleek gray corridor. They stood in front of a dull red portal.

"General Sephiroth's office?" Cloud glanced at Lieutenant Gainer.

"Yes. You can go on in; he's expecting you." The lieutenant gestured at the door, then turned and left him, his boots clicking along the polished floor.

Cloud stared at the door for a moment. Then he walked forward, and the door slid aside to give him admission. He stood frozen for a moment -- the silver-haired man he'd seen before was seated at a large desk, surrounded by clusters of consoles. It was Sephiroth, and this time he knew whom he was facing.

"Cloud Strife." Intense green eyes were turned on him now. In the dim office lighting, they radiated with a faint glow.

"It's an honor, sir." The words almost stuck in his throat. This was the Sephiroth. How could he have been so blind, the first time he saw him?

"Just call me Sephiroth." The general made a dismissive gesture, standing up. "You're part of my unit now, Strife, and we don't hold with much formality."

"Thank you, si--Sephiroth." Cloud swallowed. The general was walking towards him.

Something gripped him. A fragment of a memory, maybe, or the vagueness of a dream born of the Mako-green eyes locked on his, coming closer as Sephiroth advanced. It threw him into the roil of feelings that had swallowed him alive when they tested him for SOLDIER, giving him a dose of Mako to see how well he would take it. Panic crawled all over his skin, replaced in the next heartbeat by an anticipation so keen he was almost sobbing. He wanted to become.

He wanted to rejoin...

He wanted...

Cloud was clawing his way up through a world of turquoise and green that cascaded around him. His surroundings changed with each finger hold as he climbed towards the light. He was drowning, or starving, or both -- he was dying for the lack of something. And he could feel now, as he'd felt then, that this was the future surging around him and he'd forgotten it, and he would forget again. Some things, the mind protected from itself no matter what.

He heard a keen cry, reverberating, penetrating to the marrow of his bones with pain and sorrow.

Cloud gasped, opening his eyes wide, and was sucked back into himself; the world was moving backwards. The space around him collapsed into the green of Sephiroth's eyes, looming close now. Too close. Kissing distance, and his body vibrated in equal promise.

"--right? Strife, are you all right?" Sephiroth's arms were around him. He had crumpled in a dismayingly undignified fashion.

Feeling weak, Cloud managed a nod. What had happened? All he could remember was cerulean and green light.

"Have you eaten today, Strife?"

Sephiroth was offering him an easy way out. There was something in the general's eyes that let him know Sephiroth was aware that wasn't the reason. "No, sir, I haven't."

"No, Sephiroth," the general corrected, lifting him to his feet with as little effort as the first time.

It made Cloud feel like a rag doll. Maybe Zax was right; he couldn't see how he could be of any use to a strong war-hero like this, not when he fainted on the spot, walking into the man's office.

Sephiroth was still cupping his elbow. "Then let us go downstairs to the mess hall. It's the closest place to eat, I believe. I can brief you over lunch on what to expect in your new situation."

Cloud nodded, cheeks flushed. He realized in the same instant that Sephiroth was touching him, and that he hadn't thought of Zax since before drill. Guilt cramped his stomach. He didn't think he would be able to eat.


Zax heard the news after his first cram session for the day.

He cut the second one.

He stormed into the mess hall, vision blurred with red and black. It was strange, he'd never agreed with the notion that a person's sight could be altered by nothing more than a mood. He was so angry now, though, that 'seeing red' was no mere saying. He hadn't seen Cloud since their one night together. He thought the boy would be able to understand, at least until he got through the hell of this exam.

Someone wasn't wasting any time.

Cloud was easy to spot. He was sitting alone, as ever, and he was the only angelic face in the room.

Zax stormed up to him and slammed both hands on the table. Everyone within a ten-foot radius jumped, including Cloud. Those blue eyes turned up to him, startled; he was groping for a weapon in an admirable soldier's reflex.

"Didn't I warn you!?" Zax shouted. "Didn't I tell you this would happen? He's going to get to you, Cloud. But dammit, no matter what it takes, I am NOT going to let you go without a fight."

And he leaned forward, grabbing Cloud's face in both hands, and kissed him hard. He didn't care who saw. Let them all be shocked, or not -- they all judged based on opinions, anyhow; let them see the real thing.

Silence was deafening in the mess hall. It was punctuated by cutlery dropping to the floor somewhere on the far side.


Cloud was fighting him. Zax came to this realization as he was trying to slip his tongue into the blond's mouth, and meeting teeth that remained closed. Not only that, but hands were prying at his.

Zax let him go with a feeling of defeat. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Cloud's eyes were wide and shocked. The crimson anger was starting to seep away, leaving him cold in the knowledge of what he'd just done. This was total, utter public humiliation, and Cloud would not thank him for it.

If he ever forgave him enough to speak to him.

All Zax could say in defense was that he'd lost control. And if he could lose it over Cloud, well...wasn't it a measure of his feeling?

"Excuse me. You're blocking my seat."

The cultured, deep voice rolled over him, forcing him into motion. Zax looked down and noted the second tray that lay on the table. No, that's my spot. His tongue was numb with outrage.

Sephiroth moved to stand in the space Zax had vacated. His green eyes bored into Zax's still-angry gold ones. He took another step, close enough to speak without anyone else overhearing.

"Your public conduct leaves much to be desired, SOLDIER," Sephiroth was saying, in his soft tone that was always the most dangerous. "I wonder what a review board would say, to hear of this? If I weren't taking Strife under my wing, his reputation in the regulars would surely be damaged."

Zax stood and seethed. It was true, he'd made a colossal fool of himself. Not only that, but it grated on him that Sephiroth was right. If he didn't take immediate action, he'd hurt not just Cloud's chances in the Shinra military, but his own. He was headed for First-Class SOLDIER but a review board could put those hopes to rest for good.

"Sephiroth," Zax uttered, tight and controlled. Cool, the way he wished he'd acted when he first walked in here. "Lowering yourself to mess hall standards? You must have it bad."

One silver brow rose in a graceful, studied arch.

"I would say you're the one who has anything bad, Darklighter," Sephiroth murmured, then turned back to Cloud, dismissing Zax with the gesture. The broad-shouldered general seated himself. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Strife."

Cloud was very carefully not looking at Zax. Zax could sense it. And all of a sudden he was sick, he was fed up with the whole thing; there was nothing he could do. Not here and now, when he'd almost trashed both of them. Zax balled up his fists and turned away, stalking out of the mess hall.

It was time to find a pretty, gullible girl. Not only that, but keep her picture in his wallet and wax eloquent about her many virtues -- the most important of them, how good in bed she was. That was the only thing that would erase his mistake this afternoon.

But he'd be damned if he would concede the field to Sephiroth for good.


The rumor mill was churning with a tale of how Sephiroth had protected one of his hand-picked regulars from the unwanted advances of a SOLDIER who had cracked in the middle of cramming for his First-Class exams.

A pair of SOLDIERS asserted, in a counter-rumor, that the young regular, Strife by name, had been trying to seduce SOLDIER Second-Class Darklighter and then threw himself at Darklighter in the mess hall. Darklighter had a really hot babe, a woman his own age who kept him satisfied, so of course he'd never put the moves on a scrawny kid. He'd been nice to Strife, showing him around Midgar, and Strife had taken advantage of the friendship.

The event became warped even to those who had been there.

Strife's roommates asserted that he had made passes at them both more than once. He'd probably been trying to throw himself at Darklighter and failed. He was probably sleeping with General Sephiroth because everyone knew that secretly, the General went for that sort of thing.

Strife's squad leader stood up for the 'kid,' and told everyone who would listen that Darklighter should be brought before a review board, or at least reprimanded. Strife had been chosen by the great Sephiroth, after all, and he'd always seen merit in the 'kid' himself...

No word came from Sephiroth's quarter. He was above rumors.

Cloud Strife no longer ate in the mess hall, and he'd been moved out of the dormitory that housed the majority of Shinra's Midgar regulars. Being under Sephiroth's direct command came with perks of increased rank. He fell out of the interest of the rumor mill soon enough.

Zax Darklighter remained, sitting with other SOLDIERS now, and he was loud about the new love of his life, showing her picture to anyone who'd stand still long enough to look.

Soon enough, the rumor mill turned to other juicy gossip. A scruffy redhead named Reno had made it into the ranks of the Turks, and everyone wanted to know how he'd gotten his promotion...


"Open up, Cloud! I know you're in there!"

"Go away! I'm packing!"

"I'm not leaving until you talk to me, Cloud!" A fist banged on the door to emphasize the sincerity.

"Piss off, Zax. I'm trying to pretend you don't exist. You're making it difficult by being here."

"Open the damned door!"

"Public humiliation, Zax! Does that ring a bell? I thought you cared a little more than that!" He thought Zax knew him a little better than that, to shame him like that in front of everybody.

Something slumped against the door. "I'm not leaving, Cloud."

Cloud stared at the door for a moment. "Well, you can wait forever, then," he muttered. He'd leave by the window if he had to. Didn't Zax realize what he'd done? Every single bad thought those regulars had ever entertained about him; Zax had confirmed them all by doing that. Kissing him in front of everybody, including his new commanding officer, Sephiroth.

Sephiroth had been the only gentleman in the entire situation. After saying whatever he'd said to Zax to get him to leave, the silver-haired general had turned and seated himself with the calm of true confidence. He had begun to tell Cloud what to expect from being part of a small, elite unit of regulars under his direct command. Not a single word or gesture had alluded to the kiss that had passed between Cloud and Zax.

Not that Cloud hadn't thought of it unceasingly.

Cloud had been so grateful. It was only Sephiroth's composure that kept him from retreating in confusion and shame from the mess hall.

"I'm sorry." Zax's voice reached him, sounding defeated.

"You're sorry?" Cloud repeated. "You said that the other night, too. And I told you to trust me. Did you even try to have a little faith? No, you came down in a squall of fury the minute you heard Sephiroth sent for me."

"Cloud." There was a thud against his door, then another. Was Zax beating his head against the wood? "Cloud, dammit, I'm sorry. I'm not going to grovel. But admit to yourself, even if you're not going to admit to me, how Sephiroth affected you when you spoke to him in private."

Guilt clotted in his throat, precluding a quick denial.

"Cloud?" The door thumped again, fainter this time. "Shit. You win. I'll leave." That wasn't Zax; it couldn't be. He never sounded listless. He was the energetic one, always cheering him up.

"Zax!" He hopped over scattered belongings on the floor and a half-packed crate, and wrenched the door open.

The black-haired man turned, features sharp with anxiety, ponytail whipping over his shoulder. But he waited for Cloud to speak first, his golden eyes clouded.

"You were an ass again."

Zax nodded slow agreement, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, I'm thinkin' of turning it into a line of work. I may as well make some kind of profit, huh?" His laughter was bitter. "I don't deserve your forgiveness."

"I won't forget this," Cloud told him. There was part of him, still, that was very angry. If he was staying in the dormitory, the afternoon would have spelled total disaster for him. But he was moving out. It was the part of him that would've offered himself to Sephiroth without a second thought that was offering this deal, for both their sakes. "I won't forget it, but I can forgive it, okay?"

"Fair enough," Zax said, nodding again. He was looking over Cloud's shoulder. "Where are you planning on moving to?" He tried to sound so casual, but his voice was laced with strain.

Cloud looked behind himself. There were a few items on the floor, some flung on the bed. His uniforms had been easy to transfer from drawer to rucksack. Nowhere, was on the tip of his tongue. He had no plans. From the dormitory, he'd thought of taking a car with his pitiful belongings. Perhaps to Sephiroth's floor of the Shinra building.

He flushed.

"Your place," he said to Zax.

From the inside out, Zax's face lit up. "You mean that?"

Cloud shrugged. "It would save on rent, wouldn't it? I'm getting higher pay, and I guess I wouldn't be able to see you any other way..."

Zax whooped. "Yes! It's the perfect solution!" In a lower, huskier tone, he added, "Cloud, I could kiss you."

He felt himself turning red. "You did that earlier," Cloud pointed out. "Will you help me move, then? I want to get my stuff out of here before my former roommates get out of afternoon drill."

"Yeah." Zax paused. "Will you be getting a car, though? I can't carry everything on my bike."

Cloud felt awkward for a moment. This was Zax's way of saying 'I fucked up.' Before kissing him in the mess hall, it wouldn't have been unusual to see Zax Darklighter helping young Cloud Strife move his stuff out of the dorms. Now, though... "Are we still going to be able to go out?"

"Sure," Zax replied right away.

That made him feel better.

"We'll have to be careful, though," Zax said, rubbing his head in a sheepish gesture. "I screwed up, Cloud. I'm sorry."

Ah, there was the catch.

"But...hey..." Zax approached him, touching his face with one hand. "Now we'll be able to live together, okay?"

"They said I should get my own place..."

"Well, my place is your place, right?" Zax grinned with determination. He dropped the expression after a moment, when Cloud continued to look at him with steady eyes. "I screwed up, okay? I admit it. My fault, in more ways than one. But I want you to live with me, Cloud."

He didn't ponder it for very long. It was what he wanted.

"All right. Just let me finish packing." Cloud turned back to his one-third of a room. It wouldn't take long.

"What can I do?" Zax asked him.

Cloud bit his tongue. "Just throw the stuff that's on the floor into that crate." It could have been worse, he reflected. They could have broken up. One or the other of them could've said something so harsh and final, nothing else could pass between them.

Zax chattered aimlessly as they finished packing, which involved a lot of haphazard tossing-Cloud's-things at crates. He talked about the possibility of the two of them getting an even bigger apartment, or one in a higher district; of nights out on the town when Cloud wouldn't have to worry about getting back to the dormitory before closing hours. Cloud listened with half an ear. He had to admit, it was a fair trade to get more of Zax in private.

He dumped the last of his socks in the bag. He'd had to search under the bed for the rest. "So, are we going to go back to your place and have great make-up sex?"

Zax blinked at him, eyes like golden coins. Then he grinned, and the mischief flashed in his face again. "The best."


In the end, Zax needn't have worried about things changing for the worse.

If anything, Cloud's promotion to Sephiroth's unit was the best thing that happened to their relationship. He'd barely been able to see his lover in the days following their first time together. Zax had worried during those days, and in between that, cramming for his exam, and the prospect of Sephiroth luring his new lover away, it had driven him a little crazy. Without seeing Cloud, it was hard to remember how much he trusted the boy.

Now whenever Zax was home, Cloud was there too. He smiled more these days -- he liked his unit, and Lieutenant Gainer was a good instructor. Zax thought he was relieved that Sephiroth hadn't taken a more active role with his new unit, yet. They both were relieved that Zax's warnings appeared to be unnecessary.

Zax flopped down on the couch. He was thinking of some kind of deliver-in for tonight; maybe the new restaurant down the street that served Wutai cuisine. Neither of them could cook -- he teased Cloud about burning the water for coffee -- and they had enough money, anyhow. All either of them did was study, go to drills, eat, and have sex. Occasionally they went out for a night in Midgar.

Sex with Cloud was great; it was the best. Even after this many times, there was still some core of purity in Cloud that made every experience fresh and exciting. He could never get enough of Cloud's reactions; of the taste of him, or the noises he made. Zax didn't want to share him with anyone.

He made a long-arm for the remote and turned the television on. A Shinra newscaster began to blather about monsters roaming the Nibel mountains. He changed the channel.

Somewhere in the house, a door slammed.

"I'm home!" Cloud called.

Zax grinned. "I'm here!" he called back. He amused himself with trying to think if there was a surface in the apartment that they hadn't had sex on, yet. It had been a few weeks since Cloud had moved in with him, after all.

"There's nothing to be done about it," Zax announced, as Cloud entered the room. "We're just going to have to get a new apartment."

An odd expression crossed Cloud's face. "Shouldn't you be studying? Your exam is in two days."

"Hah," Zax waved a hand. "Having sex is much more vital, Cloud."

"To your loins, maybe," Cloud laughed, and chucked a textbook at him. "Study, Zax. You wouldn't be saying that if you failed the exam."

"Ch'! Stingy," Zax accused him. He adopted a pious tone. "I'm a growing boy, and sex is a part of my daily exercise and necessary requirements. And I neeeed you, Cloud. I'm starving for your love..."

"Yeah, yeah." Cloud wandered off, peeling bits of uniform as he went.

"Oh, come on! You're getting naked and I'm not allowed to be a part of it?" Zax lifted his voice. "You're definitely not as high-maintenance as my girlfriend, Cloud." He could tell the spiky-haired blond was barely listening to him anymore.

When the word 'girlfriend' crossed his hearing threshold, Cloud gave Zax his full attention.

"What did you just say?"

Zax blinked at him, confronted by blue lasers. "Well, you'll have to get one, too, probably. But my name is a little more well-known, so I had to get a girl to help me squash those rumors right away."

"You have a girlfriend?" Cloud Strife, as much as he wanted to be strong, had few tones that qualified as 'dangerous.' This one prickled fear in Zax's gut.

"Well, yeah." Zax rose up on his elbow. "Can hardly call it that and be honest, though. I've taken her out on a few dates, I've got her picture in my wallet, and I showed her around the SOLDIER barracks right after...uh...my screw-up." He was asking Cloud, with his eyes, to understand this.

Cloud dropped his gaze. "Zax, do I belong here?"

Zax jumped off the couch. "What!? Look, don't ask me something like that -- you know I want you here. This is your home, too, now. It's just..." He stopped, frustrated, and ran a hand through his hair. "You know how Shinra is. You knew even before you moved in with me. Being in Shinra requires that you keep a certain standard, in public, that you may not agree with in your private life."

Cloud released a small, frustrated sound. His toe scuffed the carpet. He looked so young it made Zax feel like a pervert. "I know. I don't have to like it, though."

"Hey." Zax moved over to him, and messed up his hair. It was so silky, even where the gel spiked it up. "You know, even President Shinra doesn't hold to his own public code of conduct?"

"What?" Cloud leaned into him, face relaxing. "You're joking."

"No, I'm not! Got it right from someone who saw President Shinra at the Honeybee Inn," Zax said with a smirk.

"Oh, gross." Cloud made a face. He'd been hanging around Zax long enough now to know what the Honeybee Inn was, and what sort of fetish activities went on there.

"Yeah, you don't want to know the kind of bondage and dominance he's into," Zax told him, relishing the appalled look that Cloud gave him.

"No, I don't!" Cloud shuddered.

Zax put his arm around Cloud's shoulders. "So, are we okay?" It was too much, now, to ask him for some afternoon friskiness.

Cloud shrugged. "Just tell me one thing, Zax. And be honest, okay? Have you..." He looked away, a frown pinching his brow.

"No," Zax said, without hesitating. "I haven't touched her, Cloud."

The blond cast a dubious eye on him. "What about when she's on the back of your bike?"

Zax grinned. "She hates motorcycles. She would never ride on the thing with me. We took the subway. So she's never had her arms around my waist, Cloud."

Cloud gave him a grudging smile. "Good. She'll never know what she's missing."

"That's right." Zax bumped him with one hip. "Hey, you wanna go out to eat?"

"You have to study," Cloud said automatically.

"Some things are more important, Cloud."

Like a flower opening up once coaxed the sun was going to stay, after all, Cloud smiled at him. "Then let's go."


"Cloud, if I asked you to dress up for me, would you do it?"

"Umm...that depends."

Wounded. "Cloud, you don't sound as if you trust me."

"Zax, how far do you think I could throw you?" Reflective.

"Cloud!" Laughter. "I'll get you for that...here...and here..."

"Ah!! Aha! Haa ha ha, stop it Zax...haha..." Smothered curses; helpless chuckling. "Never...heh...should've told you I'm ticklish...ha ha..."

"I would've found out sooner or later." A feline smirk. "A SOLDIER always finds and exploits weaknesses, no matter how subtle."

"Stop...ahh...ohh..." Laughter shifted into breathlessness. "Mmm. And that, is that a weakness too?"

Stated simply. "You're my weakness."


Then, "Come here and kiss me, Zax."

Rustling sheets. "Always."


He clawed up from dreams that were drenched in Mako-green and harsh, merciless blue. The blue was ruthless in its honesty; the green whispered sweet lies.

It was the same dream every time.

He died for the lack of the sun, and the colors that rippled around him, all green and blue, were not the sky. He couldn't escape.

Was he...'Cloud?'

Or was this someone else's dream of Cloud?

He never remembered the dream for more than a minute after waking, only long enough for the fear to soak into him, clinging the way the sweat sheened his body. "Zax!" His voice was raw. He was gripped in the conviction that something terrible had happened, or was just about to. Everything he'd ever cared about had been ripped away. Cloud shuddered, and realized with his thudding heartbeat that he was still alive.

"Cloud?" The bedside lamp switched on. Sleepy golden eyes blinked at him, giving him the soft radiance of that Mako-laden gaze. "Something wrong?"

Cloud grunted. If he tried to speak now, he would break apart.

"Come here, Cloud."

Zax knew him better than that. The black-haired man knew how to draw him down, not taking his stiffness for resistance, and clasp him to his bare chest, pulling the cool silk sheets up around them. He let Cloud shake for a moment and didn't ask again.

Sometimes Cloud thought he hated Zax as much as he loved him, because his lover was strong in a way he couldn't imitate. It could only come from inside. Or maybe he wanted to become Zax, now and then -- crawl up inside him and wear the skin and confidence of Zax, swagger in that way of his; wield the Buster Sword of a SOLDIER with ease. He felt small and weak when Zax tucked him against his body like this. But he felt protected, too. As long as Zax was with him, everything was okay. As long as he and Zax were together, nothing could go wrong.

Then, "You want to talk about it?" Zax said, so careful to be casual, the way he always asked. As if it didn't matter, when they both felt it ran deeper than that. You had to trust your instincts as a part of SOLDIER, Zax had always told him, and Cloud believed. "How about some hot chocolate?"

Cloud resented being babied. His mother had blanketed him in enough of that to last a lifetime.

"No," he said, voice hollow, as he had before.

Was it wrong to need someone, for just a little while? If he promised he wouldn't do it forever?

"Hey." Zax's hand swept over his forehead. "You're still young. You've got a long wait before you're allowed to sound so old." So serious, his tone said, like it had before. You've still got time to grow.

And in the wake of the dream, Cloud knew he didn't have time to find out what it meant. But he always forgot by morning.


"So, Strife. How do you like your new accommodations?"

Cloud looked up, nearly dropping the materia-laden Platinum Bangles he was carrying to the training room. "Sephiroth," he exclaimed, startled. He wasn't accustomed to seeing his superior officer every day. So far, Sephiroth had kept to his offices for the past few weeks.

"Well, oh..." He tried to focus on what the man had said. "Fine. Great! I'm enjoying having my own place in Midgar."

Sephiroth's direct stare was penetrating. He stepped closer to Cloud, taking a stack of the Platinum Bangles from him. "Here, I'll walk with you to the training room."

"Oh, you really don't need to..."

"I insist." Sephiroth gave him a smooth smile. "It's no trouble, and you seem to have the armlets stacked high. We wouldn't want to damage the materia."

He didn't have much of a choice.

After a silent moment of walking, Cloud thought he was going to escape unscathed from Sephiroth's presence. Then the general spoke again.

"You don't have to hide the truth from me, Strife. I prefer my subordinates to be honest even in small matters. I know you don't have your own place."

When Cloud glanced sidelong, startled, one green eye was fixed on him. "That's not a problem, is it, sir?" How could he have found out!? Did he know it was Zax that he was living with? He stumbled, and a bangle fell from the top of Cloud's stack.

Cat-quick, Sephiroth's hand darted to catch it. He retrieved it before it fell half a meter. "It's not a problem, Strife. I just wanted to make one thing clear. I'd rather hear something that you think may be unpleasant rather than be surprised by it later. That goes for something as small as living accommodations, to something as large as a weakness in strategy I may have missed." He placed the bangle on top of Cloud's pile, eyes intent. "Understand?"

Cloud was still trying to process the thought of Sephiroth making a flaw in battle strategy, let alone any impact he could have on that. "Yes, I understand, sir." What he perceived most clearly was that Sephiroth was giving him the opportunity to tell him the truth now.

"Good." Sephiroth's stare was still penetrating.

Zax Darklighter had kissed him in that mess hall, and rumors had flown thick over it for awhile. Zax had admitted it himself. Though things had died down, if it surfaced later that Cloud Strife was actually living with Zax Darklighter, Sephiroth might have to take official notice as his commanding officer. So he was being given the chance to warn him and possibly avert a future situation.

He knew Zax wouldn't see it quite that way. His lover would rant over how it was an invasion of privacy, none of Sephiroth's business, and rage that it was evidence he was 'interested' in Cloud. All of this went through Cloud's mind in a blink, then he was making his reply.

"Actually, sir, there's something I hadn't told you." He paused, unsure how to phrase it. "I'm not living alone, there's someone...I..." Cloud faltered. Sephiroth's green eyes were daunting when their full attention was directed at him.

"You're living with SOLDIER Darklighter, I presume, Strife?" Sephiroth supplied for him. "You wouldn't be so embarrassed if it were anyone else."

"Yes." Cloud was wishing a Gravity materia would activate and drop him right through the floor. This wasn't something he should talk about with a commanding officer. This wasn't just any officer, though, it was Sephiroth, hero of the Liberation War, and the man he'd been idolizing since he was a kid. That made it even more embarrassing.

"Just be sure you know what you're getting into, Strife," Sephiroth said. With an enigmatic glance, he resumed his measured tread up the hallway.

Cloud stared at the top Platinum Bangle in his pile, studded with Magic and Command materia, green alternated with yellow.

He could sense, without materia even, that Sephiroth had had plans for him. This was a deliberate sort of man, and he hadn't picked Cloud out of a large pool of regulars by chance or accident, no matter how modest or unworthy Cloud felt about it. And he felt with equal certainty that the plans had changed once the general had seen Zax kissing him in the mess hall. He felt like the prey being tormented at the whim of a lazy feline. He knew he didn't have the strength to resist.

Cloud hurried to catch up.

At least he could look forward to Lieutenant Gainer's lecture on materia today. One major benefit of being under Sephiroth's command was the more advanced training they received. It made Cloud feel as if he could stand on his own two feet -- he was succeeding on his own merits here, and no one could say he wasn't.


A door slammed in the house.

Cloud lifted his head sleepily from the table. He must have dozed off. The sound of the television not far off was listing a series of recent monster assaults in some of the country areas. Attacks were getting bolder, striking not just individual settlements but small towns now.

"I got it! Cloud? I got it! AND I DAMN WELL PASSED!"

Zax stormed into the room, eyes excited, grin stretching his face, riding an energy high. He brandished a blue folder. "I got it, Cloud!"

Cloud pushed up from the table. "I'm shocked," he said. "With all the cram sessions you blew off, you still made First Class SOLDIER?" His expression was wry.

"Ha, ha, very funny," Zax said, ear-splitting smile not wavering for a moment. "Hope you didn't have any plans, because we are going out and damned well getting hammered!"

"Congratulations," Cloud told him, giving him a smile now. "I knew you could make it, but passing the written exam, who knew?"

"Ah, it was a breeze," Zax waved the hand with the folder, fanning it around. "And guess what else I got?"

Cloud tilted his head. "From the way you're holding it up, I'd say the folder."

"Yeah!" Zax's eyes were brimming with mischief. "But it's not just any file. You'll never guess. Now that I'm First Class, they gave us a tour of certain top-secret installations in the SOLDIER building."

"So?" Cloud prompted.

"Soo..." Zax drawled the word out, "I snuck into the testing records for SOLDIER. Tried to get in before, but I wasn't a First Class SOLDIER like I am now."

Vertigo assaulted Cloud's stomach. "No, Zax." He took a step back. Whatever it was, he didn't want to know.

"Yes, Cloud," Zax mimicked, only he took a step forward. "I pulled the file for one Strife, Cloud, who tested out for SOLDIER a year ago."

"No!" Cloud sank into his seat, head in his hands. "Zax, I don't give a damn anymore, I'm happy where I am. I don't want to hear their meticulous notes about what a failure I am."

"Cloud?" Zax's voice was puzzled. "It's not that bad...c'mon, I thought you'd be happy about this. Here, let me--"

"Well, I'm not happy!" Cloud said harshly, lifting his head. "I failed, okay? I came to the city to sign right up with SOLDIER and found out what a stupid country boy I was! I thought I was so different, but every kid straight out of the pastures and hayfields flocks to Midgar when they turn fourteen, wanting to be a hero! Only Cloud Strife's not a hero. I'm..."

"You almost made it."

"...just another useless grunt, and I'll never..." Cloud paused. "What?"

"You passed all the physical and mental tests," Zax told him gently, pulling up a chair beside him and spreading the folder open on the table. "You would have been in SOLDIER if it weren't for one thing." He flipped through the file.

Cloud rubbed his face. He peered at the papers on the blue folder, catching a few words here and there. "...responsive subject..." "...intelligent..." "...good reflexes..." "...promising learning indices..." It was unbelievable. Zax must have swiped the wrong folder. "You're sure my name's on that one?"

"Look." Zax found what he'd been searching for and put a single paper in Cloud's hands. "They gave you a Mako test, remember? It says here you're hypersensitive to Mako. Since they bombard all candidates undergoing SOLDIER training with high levels of Mako, the doses that we can handle, and become adjusted to, probably would've killed you."

Cloud looked at the page. "Subject Strife subjected to small amount, 15ccs of Mako, administered by Doctor Stayne. Less usual amount by 15cc recommended by unusual skin-patch response." There was more, a scrawl of doctor's handwriting, but the verdict was spelled clearly at the bottom. "Subject Strife HYPERSENSITIVE to Mako in miniscule amounts. Response projected dangerous in larger quantities."

He felt a shock across his senses; a wash of cool blue-green. He flinched.

"Cloud?" He felt Zax take the page from his hands. "Hey...you okay?"

"Fine." Cloud looked up, feeling odd, meeting Zax's Mako-gold eyes with a spasm of fear. He was fine. He'd be fine. He summoned up a grin from his reserves. "Zax, what are we still doing here? You made SOLDIER, First Class! That's something worth celebrating."

"Yeah..." Zax said slowly. "I thought you'd be more excited, Cloud. Are you sure you're--"

"Really, I'm okay," Cloud brushed him off. "It doesn't make that much difference. I'm still here, aren't I?"


"And I met you," Cloud added, "and that's the best thing that happened to me since coming to Midgar. And I'm in a special unit, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm on top of the Planet and we need to be celebrating your well-earned promotion."

Zax grinned at him and stood. "Then let's get going!"

Cloud stood too, glancing at the folder on the table. There was a part of him that was mentioning blurrily that there was something important about this; he shouldn't let it go, he should try to pick to the heart of it. The larger portion of Cloud's psyche forgot the thought instantly. Sanity was more important than truth.

"You'd better change out of that sweaty uniform first," he told Zax.

His lover made a face. "What, it's not manly to smell like this?" He took a few steps towards Cloud, making grabbing motions.

Cloud ducked away, laughing. "You REEK. Go change, or at least put some cologne on!"

"Right, right." Zax paused on the way to the bedroom. "Cloud? Be honest. Did it do a little good, even, to hear you would've been in SOLDIER?"


...going into shock; get the hypoder...

Cloud blinked furiously, clearing away the cerulean haze. His ears were ringing.

"Zax?" He smiled. "It helped. Thanks." Just a small lie wouldn't hurt. The gesture had been well-intended, but no matter what the file said, the fault still lay in Cloud. He never would have made SOLDIER.

Zax gave him a thumb's-up and a grin, clearly feeling appreciated.

"Hurry, okay? I'm starving."

previous part
next part