"Strife, you're here. Good! Come on over."
Cloud looked up, headgear gangling from one hand. "What's going on?"
Lieutenant Gainer beckoned him over. "You've got your first real mission." The man looked energized.
Excitement uncurled tentatively within him. "We do, sir?"
"Well, wait a minute," Gainer told him, "it's not 'we,' it's just you, Cloud."
He blinked. "What? Wait -- just me?" The excitement shriveled into a ball of panic in his stomach. He wasn't a SOLDIER; he didn't think he was up for independent missions...
Gainer was nodding, oblivious to Cloud's discomfort. "Yes, General Sephiroth needs support for a reconnaissance to Fort Condor, to apprise the situation there. He requested you personally, Strife, you should be proud."
That was another shock. Just Cloud and Sephiroth? At the General's request?
"Oh, I am, sir," Cloud nodded, managing to say what was expected of him. "Do you have the details of the mission, or do I wait for General Sephiroth to brief me?"
"All I know is it'll take you both a day or so to get there, a few days are estimated for the mission, and it will take a day or two to return to Midgar. No air or sea transport is available, so you'll have to go overland, possibly by chocobo for part of the journey." Gainer put a hand to his chin. "That's all I know. The General should be able to brief you on the rest; he's in his office."
"Thank you, sir," Cloud nodded. His first thought was for Zax's response to this 'mission.' Maybe he shouldn't mention it was just he and Sephiroth. No, avoiding the truth in this particular case would be even worse than an outright lie.
Now he had to face Sephiroth.
When given a task of that proportion, he decided he'd rather go up against a nest of Garudas guarding live young. Since he didn't have the option, he found himself standing at the red portal of Sephiroth's door. Before he could lift his hand to press the intercom, announcing himself, a voice spoke up from within.
It was positively creepy, the way the man could do that.
With a glance over his shoulder for hidden cameras that might or might not be there, Cloud entered Sephiroth's den.
"Sir, Lieutenant Gainer told me you wanted to see me."
"Sit down," Sephiroth told him, attention fixed on one of his consoles.
Cloud did, very conscious of the fact that his helmet was still in one hand, and he was sweaty and disheveled from practice. He didn't look the image of a snappy Shinra soldier. Sephiroth was going on a mission that required one of the regulars for backup, and had chosen him.
The part of him that was given to idol-worship was stunned, and exhilarated. The great Sephiroth had picked him for a mission; he felt Cloud would provide good backup for him. Cloud had never even dreamed of being in Sephiroth's presence, although he'd aspired to his caliber. Who didn't? But the part of him that was someone's lover, tempered with Zax's cynicism, noted that it would be just the two of them on the reconnoiter, and how much backup would a regular be expected to provide in occupied territory? Cloud was going along for appearances; he was just an escort for Sephiroth. To seem more friendly to the Fort Condor people, it was an escort of only one rather than four or more armed regulars.
Sephiroth's status demanded he had to go with some kind of entourage, but if it came to a fight -- it wouldn't -- then he knew the general could defend himself. This was Sephiroth. Everyone knew his name, and either feared him or was in awe of him.
All this went through his mind briefly while he waited for the general to take notice of him. The office, as usual, had dim lighting, but Sephiroth's face was thrown into stark relief by monitor-glow. The eerie effect was that his green eyes glowed back.
Cloud's sense screamed at him that Zax was right; had been so all along. He didn't believe for an instant that Sephiroth had picked him on his own merits. He was a failure, after all.
"All right." Sephiroth swiveled his chair in Cloud's direction. "I believe Lieutenant Gainer gave you the gist of the mission?"
Cloud nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Good." The general steepled his hands. "This is more a diplomatic mission than anything else, Strife. I don't expect a conflict; that's why I chose to go with only one soldier to the Fort. Do you know the background of Fort Condor, Strife?"
Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, green eyes heavy-lidded. "Enlighten me."
Now he was glad for his textbook memorizations -- someone had asked a question, and he did indeed know the answer. "Shinra, Inc. built a reactor at Fort Condor shortly after the Liberation War," he began. Textbooks made no mention of why the war was so named, but then, the textbooks came from Shinra and they could say whatever they liked.
"The forces occupying Fort Condor during the resistance were peaceful environmentalists with hired mercenaries, so once the war was over, there was no reason to drive the occupants out so long as Shinra left a contingent of regulars there." He paused, eyes locked with Sephiroth's unblinking gaze, painfully aware of how inadequate his own words were when Sephiroth had lived through all of that 'history.' He swallowed.
"Continue," Sephiroth told him.
"Yes, sir. Ten years later, Shinra, Inc. reviewed the situation at Fort Condor and decided a garrison was no longer necessary. The contingent of regulars returned to Junon Harbor," Cloud related. He felt confident, at least, in this area. He had always enjoyed studying history. "But recently, a Condor landed atop the reactor at Fort Condor. At this point, not much is known beyond the fact that the residents of Fort Condor expelled the scientists from the reactor at the Fort. From the testimony of the scientists who were stationed there, mercenaries were the force behind that effort."
Sephiroth nodded. "You know your facts. Yes, that's the current situation. President Shinra considered sending a SOLDIER or two to Fort Condor to reason with them, but decided instead to send me."
Cloud could see why. With Sephiroth's reputation, even activists would be hesitant to send a force of mercenaries against him. They would hear him out first.
"When do we leave, sir?" He was apprehensive. Would he even get to let Zax know he'd gotten his first mission, or would they be going right away?
"Tomorrow morning," Sephiroth told him. "You'll meet me at 0700 hours at the Transport Center and we'll set out. Make any preparations you need to, Strife. We'll be gone for approximately a week."
Cloud nodded again. "Yes, sir."
He had the proverbial 'bad feeling' about this mission.
"A WEEK?" Zax was incredulous. "You're spending a week alone with Sephiroth?"
"Zax..." Cloud dropped his head into his hands. There was nothing Zax could say that he hadn't considered yet. Most of his suspicious thoughts were due to Zax in the first place, of course -- he never would have thought ill of his idol before finding out more about the man from his lover. Who, apparently, had been his idol's lover at some point. It was enough to give him a headache.
Zax slumped down onto the couch beside him. "There's nothing I can do, is there?"
"No," Cloud agreed. He was a little surprised. Zax was taking this better than he had thought. "We have tonight, though." He wasn't quite so innocent anymore. He expected, and wanted, a night of vigorous sex before he was deprived of his lover for a week. And he was savvy enough to realize that he would miss the sex while he was gone, and being attracted to Sephiroth could be a very tempting but ultimately bad-for-his-health experience.
Beside him, Zax had gone into brooding mode. "Yeah...we've got tonight, but..."
"Stop that," Cloud said in a firm tone. "I told you before, I'm not going to give you up for Sephiroth."
"Don't be so sure." Zax was firmly in angst-mode now. "I remember how it was. I was seduced by him, too, remember? In the end...it's Sephiroth. He's irresistible."
Cloud was becoming irritated. Did Zax want him to sleep with Sephiroth? Or was he merely anticipating the prospect of Cloud being overwhelmed? "Zax...I thought the same way, too."
The dark head jerked up. "Cloud?" Zax sounded shaken.
"Zax, I said I thought that way. It doesn't mean I feel that way now." Cloud leaned closer to Zax. It wasn't enough. "You're the one I care about, Zax. You're the one I'm leaving behind, and the one I'm coming home to. That's all that matters to me."
Golden eyes peered up at him. "You mean that." It was a statement of fact.
"Yes." He felt hopeful. Maybe they could salvage something out of tonight.
Zax surged up, grabbing him in a hug that was almost as uncomfortable as a headlock. "I love you, Cloud."
Everything stopped around those four words.
It wasn't that he hadn't considered it before -- he cared about Zax, he felt very deeply for Zax, life wouldn't be the same without Zax...yet somehow, he had never wrapped them up in that particular phrasing. 'I love you.' He knew it was true, though. He loved Zax, so was it any great surprise to have it reciprocated?
"Yeah!" Zax plastered an enthusiastic, but sloppy, kiss on his ear. "Wanna get takeout for dinner?"
Cloud was somewhat dazed. Zax made a profession of love, and now he wanted takeout? "Uh...whatever."
Zax leered. "Wutai takeout, then...I'll call the place that delivers. You're going to need your strength when I'm through with you."
Now, that sounded promising.
The morning sun was still nothing more than faint streaks on the horizon. Cloud loaded his pack onto the back of the chocobo's saddle and regarded his mount dubiously. He didn't remember the last time he'd ridden on a chocobo, but he thought it hadn't been the best of experiences. It had been a scatterbrained creature, meandering and pecking every time it thought it saw a tasty-looking green.
Sephiroth was already sitting astride a sleek dark beast with a fearsome appearance. There would be no chocobo rides for him -- it was some kind of Shinra prototype for cavalry units.
"Let's go." The creature moved into a smooth, ground-eating lope.
Cloud nudged his green chocobo into motion, bobbing behind Sephiroth at a rapid pace. The plains surrounding Midgar were brown and denuded at first, but the further they got from the city, the more green crept back into the landscape. He was glad they were the only travelers in sight. He was aware of how ridiculous he must look, puttering along on the chocobo while Sephiroth was regally astride the dark prototype beast, several feet higher.
They were attacked by monsters half a day out of Midgar, but it amounted to no more than a handful of random battles.
Sephiroth, in battle, was frightening in his deadly efficiency. Masamune rose and fell, the General darted forward and back, and the monsters died in a shower of red. Cloud hadn't gotten a single hit in. It was humiliating, but awe-inspiring.
They camped overnight at a rough establishment in the Mythril mines. The mining settlement there was primitive, bedrolls strewn in caves, a meal cooked in a huge cast-iron pot over an open fire, and Cloud expected Sephiroth to express disgust in his surroundings. He was surprised when the general chatted calmly with the miners, accepted a mug of local-brewed rotgut, and sat by the fire on a greasy wooden bench.
That was when Cloud began to understand that part of Sephiroth's power was his ability to make himself completely at ease with a situation. He seemed congenial as he discussed a point with one of the Mythril miners; even friendly. It came as a shock.
Perhaps he had misjudged Sephiroth?
The general was his commanding officer; Cloud was the subordinate. It was only natural that Cloud hadn't seen a less-reserved side of his superior. And seeing this other side to Sephiroth made him think. Was it possible he'd mistaken the general's attitude for something else?
The niggling thought wouldn't go away, even after he'd bunked down for the night. All of his suspicions had been given to him by Zax. Sephiroth himself hadn't displayed any indications of wanting to seduce him or even go so far as to give him improper orders. But...Cloud had been suspicious of him the other day, too. He ascribed it to a hypersensitive imagination -- /come on, Strife, how much d'you think you're worth?/ and fell asleep before he could finish pondering that line of thought.
Sleep was dreamless.
"Wake up." A hand was shaking his shoulder.
Cloud looked up, eyes blurry with sleep, into Sephiroth's radiant green eyes. He shot into a sitting position, away from the hand that had been on his shoulder.
The pause that followed was awkward.
"You've been talking to Darklighter, I see," Sephiroth said, tone level. "Let me remind you that there are three sides to every story. His, mine, and the truth."
Cloud blinked. He hadn't expected Sephiroth to be so honest. "And what's the tru--no, what do you think the truth is, sir?" There was hair clinging in messy strands to the side of his face. With an impatient hand, he pushed them away.
Sephiroth nodded. "Canny," he acknowledged. He looked around for a moment. Camp was deserted and the miners had gone to work for the day. "Darklighter and I were lovers for a time, Cloud. There was no commitment between us. He grew jealous and suspicious of me after a time, and I was forced to break things off before he ruined both of us. When I took a new lover, he flew into a jealous rage and had to be transferred. That's all. So I'd be careful were I you, Cloud. It looked as if he was already starting on the same path with you."
Cloud couldn't believe his ears. Zax had done that? He wanted to protest, to speak up and say "no, Zax wouldn't do that," but the kiss in the mess hall rose up in his mind. Zax had taken his mouth in full view of Midgar's off-duty Shinra regulars and SOLDIERs. What had that been, if not a kind of jealous rage?
I love you.
He shook his head, then met Sephiroth's gaze again. "Shouldn't we be going, sir?"
Sephiroth rose to his feet. "Just be careful, Cloud." He turned and moved over to the dark beast that had been hobbled a safe distance from the green chocobo.
Uneasiness rose up in him again. That was the first time he'd ever heard Sephiroth use his first name. He didn't know what to think anymore.
"There's the Fort. It's not far now."
They emerged from the Mythril Mines into light that was dazzling, eye-watering in its intensity. Cloud squinted and released the reins with one hand, shielding his eyes. In the distance he could see it, a faint smudge, a tiny blue shape with the dark bulk of the Condor above.
"A half-day of riding, perhaps less, and we should be there," Sephiroth told him, looking out at the fort.
Cloud nodded, and looked at the back of his chocobo's neck in a resigned fashion. He would almost be attached to the creature -- it was a good animal, keeping pace with Sephiroth's beast without strain, and taking his direction with no fuss or wandering -- if not for the absurd contrast between the bobbing gait of the chocobo, and the smooth lope of the pacing beast beside them. Not to mention the height difference.
Battles on the other side of the mountain range had been scattered and sparse, but now that they had come through the mines, they were hit with wave upon wave of creatures.
For Cloud, this meant a lot of opportunities to see Sephiroth in action again. The general was quick, his sword so deadly, that Cloud was only able to score once or twice and at that, his hits were puny in comparison.
For the battles, he had been dismounting and the chocobo, trained for situations like this, would dart off to a safe distance and peck at a handful of tossed gysahl greens. Sephiroth, too, leaped from the back of his creature, which waited with burning eyes.
A few hours from the Mythril Mines, disaster struck. They were hit by a trio of large monsters, by far the largest Cloud had ever seen. Before Sephiroth could dismount, his beast was charging for the closest monster, snarling out a challenge.
Horrified, Cloud trained his gun on another monster and began to fire, hoping that Sephiroth would be able to take care of it. His bullets bounced off impervious scales and he ceased fire, not willing to risk a ricochet hitting the general.
The general had unsheathed Masamune. Using his mount's charge as momentum, he sheared cleanly through the first monster, then they were heading for the second one. With a howl, Sephiroth's beast attacked the next monster and the general was airborne -- Cloud watched with dismay -- no, Sephiroth had vaulted out of the saddle and he was dashing for the third monster.
Sephiroth's beast killed its opponent, then turned with hungry, glowing red eyes. The beast had Mako eyes.
Uncertainly, Cloud trained his gun on it. He wasn't sure if the creature would attack him or not.
Beyond the prototype that was stalking him, Sephiroth sliced his last opponent in half. The bloodless pieces fell to the ground like halves of a split, useless husk.
"General," Cloud called, hating the waver in his tone but he didn't want to be responsible for killing Sephiroth's mount. Trying to kill, at any rate; the thing had a feral intensity in its gaze and he had seen how fast it could move.
Sephiroth turned. His green eyes were blazing, but it was cold fire that came from them.
The creature leapt.
Cloud was firing his gun, and teeth and fangs and five hundred pounds of muscle were aimed and flying at his throat. He thought, later, he remembered yelling. His ears were buzzing and the rounds were tearing into the sleekly-furred body and not doing enough damage and it was going to hit him, and it was going to hurt.
A flash of silver lanced through the air.
The prototype's hindquarters were tumbling, so much meat dropping to the ground with not a drop of blood to show for it. And the front half of the creature, still airborne, plowed into Cloud with fangs still snarling and slobbering to pierce into him.
*You're the one I'm coming home to.* Zax's voice was in his ear; golden eyes winked at him.
A gust of hot, rank breath hit his cheek, then no more. There was nothing but a heavy weight sagging onto his chest. Dead. /He/ was alive. Relief spread through him and he used his gun to push the creature off of him, grimacing in disgust.
Then Sephiroth was there, hair bright and streaming around his face, eyes piercing as he offered a hand, just like the first time, and pulled Cloud to his feet.
"You're all right." It was a statement of fact.
"Yes." Cloud was breathless, and grateful. "Sir..."
Sephiroth made a curt gesture. "Don't thank me, Cloud."
Cloud swallowed the words. He looked at the dead prototype, then at the green chocobo wandering nearby, lifting its head once the gysahl greens were finished. "What do we do now?" He supposed he could let Sephiroth ride the chocobo, while he ran alongside.
Sephiroth was looking at the dead beast, too. "I should have known anything that came from Professor Hojo would be useless to me," he said, nudging it with his boot. He turned to Cloud. "We'll have to double up."
"What!?" Cloud stared at him. He added hastily, "Sir."
"Call the chocobo over," Sephiroth said with a trace of impatience. "This is no time for squeamishness, Strife. We need to get to the Fort."
"Yes, sir," Cloud said automatically. He clucked to the chocobo.
Sephiroth rode in front, which he should have expected. The general was in charge at all times, commanding the situation. He took the reins, and Cloud's arms went around the narrow waist. He held himself stiffly. This was all wrong; it was Zax's body that he got close to in this kind of intimate sway. Sephiroth's body-heat was radiant. He found himself wondering things he should only be thinking of Zax.
"It's not much longer now," Sephiroth said over his shoulder. "I'm sure we can get a chocobo from Fort Condor, or capture a wild one on the way back."
"Yes, sir." Cloud hesitated. They were approaching another denuded patch of land, devoid of any traces of life. It made a wide, barren circle around Fort Condor. He wondered if all places that harbored a Shinra reactor suffered like this. "General, there are a lot more monsters on this side of the mountains."
"Yes," Sephiroth agreed. And left it at that.
The 'peaceful' activists at Fort Condor let them in, once they realized it was General Sephiroth. Years ago, towards the end of the war when Fort Condor fell, it was Sephiroth who planned and led the final assault. There was a wary respect for the man.
"I'm sure it was a long, hard journey for you boys," the old man told them, giving them both assessing looks and speaking without regard for rank. He seemed to be in charge. "We'll show you to a guest room. You can say your piece later."
"That will be acceptable," Sephiroth said, response curt. "I hope we can expect refreshments."
The old man paused. "That...can be arranged," he conceded. "In your room right away, or later?"
"Right now." Sephiroth turned and presented his back, stalking after the girl who was acting as guide.
Cloud bowed to the old man. "It was a long trip here," he said by way of apology, "and the general's mount was killed in battle."
The old man's eyes widened. "Those damned monsters," he said in disgust. He hawked and spat on the ground beside him. "They're getting so thick in these parts, we can hardly step outside anymore without being attacked. Soon we may not even be able to leave the Fort."
Cloud gave him a half-bow and followed Sephiroth.
Once they got to the room, which was reached by the dubious method of shimmying down a thick rope, the girl bobbed her head and said something about finding refreshments for them.
Sephiroth swung on Cloud, and his eyes were filled with the same cold fire as earlier. "Let us get one thing straight, Strife. You do not question my methods, and you do NOT apologize for me." His words fell with clipped precision. "It undermines my position here for you to act in such a fashion."
"Y-yes, sir," Cloud stammered, sinking to the bed. He wanted to pull his boots off but wondered if he dared to breathe without Sephiroth's permission.
"Now," Sephiroth's tone became less steely, and he seated himself as well, "the Fort Condor people expect a certain kind of behavior from me."
Cloud nodded, cheeks burning. He'd received one of the most scathing reprimands an officer could give him, short of demotion.
"I've given them that behavior, just now," Sephiroth continued. "When we have our meeting later, I'll give him the behavior he won't be expecting; polite, reasonable, accommodating. It's a disarming tactic, Cloud. We may not be completely successful on this mission, as the Fort Condor activists are stubborn people, but we will pave the way for future progress."
Cloud nodded, feeling stupid. "Yes, sir."
"Meanwhile, relax," Sephiroth said. "There's nothing for you to do, for now. Make yourself comfortable."
Cloud had been ready to take off his boots before Sephiroth spoke. Now, there was no way he was removing any article of clothing in the man's presence. He considered getting to his feet and making some excuse about checking on the refreshments, but that was thin. Perhaps if he said something direct...and there was a question he'd been meaning to ask since that morning.
"Sir, permission to speak freely."
Sephiroth arched a silvery brow at him. "Interesting. Please do."
"I was wondering, sir, if you took a new lover after Zax's transfer, or before it." Cloud held his breath. He could be scorched for this, literally. Sephiroth's materia glowed dully at him in their slots on his dragon armlets.
"Before I broke things off with him, you mean." The expression on that pale, narrow face was amused. "The answer, Strife, is none of your business."
Cloud's face flamed. "I'm sorry, sir." It was time to backpedal.
A soft chuckle told him he wasn't in any imminent danger. That, or perhaps he really should fear. "As long as we are speaking freely, Cloud, you may address me as Sephiroth." The silver-haired man peeled off his gloves and set them on the bed. "Do you think, if I offered him the choice to join in, he would still fly into a jealous rage?"
"S-sir!?" Cloud regretted saying anything. He thought he would prefer not knowing to having Sephiroth speak so bluntly.
"Relax, Cloud." Sephiroth pulled his boots off one at a time. "I speak of the situation as it was before. I misjudged Zax; I offered him that option, and he took it. In the end, he was unable to take what he was given."
"Oh." Cloud wanted to sink into the coverlet. How was he supposed to respond to this disclosure? Not just Zax and Sephiroth together, but his lover and his commanding officer and... And why was Sephiroth telling him, anyhow!?
Sephiroth's green eyes were melting; he was amused. "Do you know what he said to me, that last time?"
Cloud was beyond being uncomfortable. He just wanted to run. "No." But I'm sure you'll tell me.
The silver-haired man nodded slightly, as if hearing the thought. "He said, 'I'd rather cut my hair off than sleep with you again, Sephiroth.' And do you know how long he's been growing out his hair?"
Cloud felt faintly sick. "A very long time." Zax hadn't told him, but he knew.
"That's right." Sephiroth smiled. A feline expression again, and predatory. "A very long time."
That was more than just breaking things off, that was a vow. Cloud was getting an inkling over why Zax was so upset over Sephiroth's 'interest' in him.
This was building up to something. Sephiroth would never speak so freely, otherwise. However he might imply his words were describing the previous situation, Cloud knew it had bearing on this one. Cloud had been naive but he was savvy enough to know Sephiroth had plans -- again, he was getting the feeling that he was being toyed with. And if he knew what those plans were he might have some kind of defense, but the general was by far the greater strategist here.
"General Sephiroth?" The timid voice reached them from above. "I have a basket of tea and snacks. I'm going to lower them down by rope."
"Please do," Sephiroth called back. He looked at Cloud. "Tea, Strife?"
Cloud took this to mean their session of freetalk was closed.
"You've got something...hmm. I'll get it." One pale finger reached out.
Cloud did his best Zuu-in-headlights imitation.
The finger stroked along his cheek. Sephiroth held it up to display the crumb he had taken. Then he put it to his lips and ate it.
Cloud remained frozen. This wasn't seduction; it was torment.
To say he was unattracted to Sephiroth would be a lie. He knew himself well enough to admit that. Zax had awakened a part of him that appreciated sex, and until now, had enjoyed all of the benefits. But here with Sephiroth, Cloud was painfully aware of the man's appeal. He exuded more than just power; he was beauty and grace in a razor-sharp package. He was deadly but keen to the touch.
Cloud swallowed. His superior's expression was speculative, eyes focused on some vague point as he lifted the tea to his lips again.
Zax had been right to worry.
"Finish up. It's time for our discussion with the old man."
Two days later, they were no closer to resolution of the conflict between the Fort Condor residents' intentions, and the demands of Shinra, Inc. Cloud came to respect the old man's tenacity and passion for what he believed in. The leader of the environmentalists never did reveal his name. Cloud discovered later that he might fear retaliation against any of his relatives by Shinra, Inc.
Sephiroth soon took to calling the old man 'antiquated, stubborn old bastard' in private. His own steely resolve had been equalled by the old man's moggish refusal to budge.
"We will withdraw for now," Sephiroth told him, radiant eyes turned inward with thought. "Shinra's executives can decide on whatever policy they choose to implement next."
As much of an 'antiquated bastard' as he might be, the old man still managed to find a spare green chocobo for Sephiroth. He disagreed with the general, and was even at cross-purposes, but he would not hear of Sephiroth walking on foot all the way back to Midgar, or even doubling up on a single animal. If they traveled non-stop, they would be able to make it across the mountain range, stopping for the night at Kalm.
"When you get back to Midgar, just slap her on the rump and that'll send her home," the old man said amiably. "She knows her way."
Sephiroth held the reins with an air of distaste. He had scorned Hojo's prototype cavalry beast when he killed it, but now he looked as if he'd rather ride anything but the green bird.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Sephiroth unthawed enough to say.
The old man waved as they nudged the birds into motion. He was the only one who had come to see them off; everyone else was walled up within the Fort. Cloud felt an odd sense of distortion, as if he had seen this before, or knew what was to come. If Sephiroth had been unable to settle the matter, they would use force next. SOLDIERs, perhaps, or a contingent of regulars. They would not try the nicety of words again.
Cloud's chocobo had been docile on the way in, even pacing alongside Sephiroth's great brimstone-black ride, but as they made their return trip it was restive. It nearly threw him twice as they crossed the Mythril Range, and seemed prone to chasing shadows.
Restless was how Cloud felt too. He'd thought he hated Midgar with its dank, narrow streets and the buildings that towered high and close together to shut out the sky. In his absence, he found his reasons to return and they weren't all centered around Zax. There was something sleeping in the heart of the city; maybe the collective heart of the people themselves. It all seemed so hopeless, but there was something underneath that was strong enough to resist the Shinra's rule.
All told, despite the 'honor' of riding at Sephiroth's side, even though it was only a regular mission, Cloud was relieved to see the jutting dark shapes of the reactors. Midgar reached up to block the sky, the way the Shinra had built it.
Staying at Kalm had been an unnerving experience. Sephiroth hadn't made any odd remarks since that night in Junon, but he felt green eyes prickling the short hairs of his nape. He felt the constant shudder of being watched.
Cloud knew that Sephiroth was waiting for something. He only wished he knew what.
Without the benefit of a Sense spell, Cloud could sense the atmosphere of the apartment as he walked through the door. It was near dark but the lights were off, excepting a small lamp in the direction of the kitchen. Zax was somewhere here, lurking, building up his suspicions in silence.
This made Cloud bristle. He had been in the role of a model regular for the entire trip. If Sephiroth had made advances -- if they'd been such; it was still unclear -- then it wasn't Cloud's fault and he didn't need to accept responsibility for it. "I'm home," he called out, dropping his dusty bag on the floor. Everything in it would have to be laundered, but he had no energy right now.
'No energy' was why it felt exhausting to come home to a brewing fight. What he most wanted was a shower, a cold Little Dragon beer, and a night of being curled up on the couch with his boyfriend, watching the programs cycle until his eyes were heavy enough to sleep.
Feet thudded through the apartment.
"So," Zax said, tone level.
"So." Cloud ran a hand through his hair, then grimaced. He was probably dragging all sorts of road dust and chocobo dander through it. Zax's face was not set in a welcoming expression. This was the last thing he wanted. "Can we put off the fight until later? I'm tired, I want to shower and eat."
Zax blinked at him for a moment.
Then he turned away with a chuckle and headed for the kitchen, raking a hand through his hair in a gesture very like the one Cloud had just used. Cloud spared a moment to wonder if he'd copied it from Zax, or if Zax had taken it from him. "Go ahead and shower, okay? I'll make you something to eat."
Cloud sighed in relief.
"I'm that transparent, am I, kid?" Zax was giving him that grin now, the blend of mischief and sex.
Cloud shrugged. "I just know you, Zax. And the place felt like Death Sentence was hovering around, waiting for a victim."
"All right." Zax was headed for him. "Welcome home." And arms went around him, and Zax's mouth was on his, and for the moment he could believe that was all there was to it.
"Go shower." Zax smacked him on the rear.
Cloud socked him back just as fast, hitting the hollow point of his shoulder. Don't underestimate me; I'm not a kid anymore.
"Ouch." Zax rubbed his shoulder. "Go on. We can talk over dinner."
He retreated, pleased that he hadn't let the older man get the better of him. It felt good to strip all of his clothes off and revel in a hot spray. The dust of the road was washing down the drain. If he turned it up hot enough, maybe he could wash away the feeling he got whenever Sephiroth looked at him. It wasn't like the look in Zax's eyes, the mix of affection and lust.
It was introspective, but focused on him. And that made Cloud shudder.
He realized he was standing in the shower, thinking of Sephiroth's eyes, and ducked his head under the spray to rinse. He was home now.
And damn, if he was daydreaming of Sephiroth's eyes, he wasn't home a moment too soon.
A plate clattered in front of him as he seated himself at the kitchen counter.
"Your favorite. Midgar Grease-burgers and a side of Corel fries." Zax leaned up against the counter.
"You're not going to eat?" Cloud reached for a fry.
"I ate earlier."
Cloud chewed in silence for a while. He had been right. This tension was thick enough to have built up every day since he'd been gone. Zax was looking at everything in the kitchen but him.
"All right, say it," he said, putting down his Grease-burger.
"Say what?" Zax stepped back from the counter and folded his arms. His body language couldn't pull off the innocent tone; he just looked defensive.
"You want me to ask how the trip went, right?" Cloud figured his best defense was going on the offensive. "But what you really want to ask is about Sephiroth."
Zax put both hands on the counter. His gold eyes were already sparking. "Yeah, all right, I want to ask about Sephiroth."
"You didn't tell me everything, did you, Zax?" Cloud reached for his fries again, and found he had no appetite. He pushed the plate away instead. "You and Sephiroth...it ended because he found someone else."
Zax looked away. "Is that how he put it?"
"Not in so many words," Cloud said. "Is that what you think is going to happen? He's found someone new again, and you're going to be left in the cold?"
"Dammit, Cloud!" Zax slammed his hands on the counter. The plate jumped. "I know you can feel it, because everyone feels it! There's something about Sephiroth! A charisma, I don't know, the aura around him, the mystery... I do know that when Sephiroth wants something, he gets it! It doesn't matter if it's a promotion or winning a battle or getting the affections of the new pretty boy on the block! And if he..." He turned away with a convulsive swallow.
"If he wants to get me, he will?" Cloud finished for him.
"Yes!" Zax made an abrupt gesture. "You think I'm underestimating you but I'm not! I'm giving every ounce of credit to Sephiroth that the man deserves!"
"I get it." Cloud nodded. He pushed away from the table, feeling more tired than before. They were at a crossroads here, both talking past the other and neither one saying enough to satisfy. If he wasn't living here, maybe he could get some peace, a place to rest...
What was he thinking? This was what he'd wanted, wasn't it? Living with Zax? He wasn't going to give up so easily, and neither should Zax.
He lifted his head. "Zax, I'm not him! Whoever it was, whether Sephiroth dumped you for him, or he swept Sephiroth away from you, or if you wanted him and Sephiroth took him first, it doesn't matter anymore!"
Zax looked up at him now. His eyes were liquid gold and that hot. "Cloud, you don't have a clue!" In a couple of swift strides he was around the counter, and seizing Cloud by the shoulders. "You think that's how it was? Maybe you won't admit yet how much he's getting to you!" Every other word, he punctuated with a flex of his hands, shaking Cloud hard.
"Ouch," Cloud said between clenched teeth. Zax didn't often choose to flaunt it, but he was stronger; WAY stronger.
Zax released his shoulders. "My bad. I forget." He ducked his black head. "You're only sixteen, Cloud, you're so young. I'm sorry."
"Then explain it to me!" Cloud exclaimed, stepping away from Zax. He made an impatient gesture. "You're so busy telling me I wouldn't understand that you haven't even bothered!"
Zax stared at him for a moment. Then he chuckled. "I'd say I'm sorry again, kid, but I've only got a few apologies in me per year."
Cloud regarded him warily. "Will you tell me everything?"
For a moment, it looked as if Zax was considering it. Then... "Later, okay?"
His stomach sank. Why not now?
That grin lit up golden eyes, a slow-starting fire that made him feel warm again. "You said you were tired, right? So let's go to bed."
"Zax..." It was a half-hearted protest.
"Whaat?" Now he pulled off the innocent look well enough. "To sleep!"
Cloud thought that he must be young enough, or at least optimistic, when a night's sleep and a morning tumble could make the day's prospects and everything that came before it seem perfect. Zax headed off for the SOLDIER division with a satisfied grin on his face. On Cloud's part, a regular couldn't get away with insouciant behavior but he knew his expression was probably more foolish than usual.
His mood was improved when it seemed Sephiroth was nowhere about their floor. Lieutenant Gainer ran them through drills and combat simulations for the day; routine stuff. It felt good to return to a regular schedule.
Over lunch, rumors made the rounds that Sephiroth was accepting another mission not even twenty-four hours after completing the most recent one. The general had gone to Shinra Headquarters that morning to make his mission report, and hadn't returned.
Gainer wouldn't confirm or deny anything, and so they were reduced to baseless speculation. Sephiroth's absence wasn't unusual; there were many duties required of him and he was not a general suited to paperwork.
They were learning more about materia, which fascinated Cloud. As regular soldiers, their primary weapons were guns, grenades, and the like. The way it was now, a lieutenant like Gainer could sometimes receive special permission to use materia. SOLDIERS and the high-ranking military like Sephiroth were the ones who used materia-laden weapons. They had learned recently that there was a growing black market for materia in the slums, which was troublesome news. Now, even Shinra security guards might need to go around using it. Of course, Sephiroth was allowed to give his regulars the training he thought necessary, so they were learning.
"Hey, Strife." One of his peers, Turbold, tapped his shoulder. "The general is back, and he wants to talk to you."
"He does?" Cloud started up out of his perusal of the unappetizing lunch tray. Great. This made his day even better -- with any luck, Zax would hear about this, too. "All right. Acknowledged."
This was only the third time he had been in Sephiroth's office. He realized as he stood in front of the red door that he was the only man in their little unit who'd had the privilege of three audiences with the general. Turbold and the others had been in to see him on the day they joined, and that was all.
It was strange; a year ago, his life had been filled with hero-worship centered around Sephiroth, the great name, the war hero. And if he had met the general before Zax, then maybe he would have fallen at his feet and been seduced before he'd realized what happened.
The door opened for him as he stepped close enough. How did Sephiroth do that?
Sephiroth's cool green gaze fixed on him. Cloud amended his earlier thought. He would have given it up to Sephiroth before he'd even realized what happened. He had been that naive, after all.
"Is it something about the mission to Fort Condor, sir?"
"No," Sephiroth said. "The case has been passed on to the executive branch." He turned his attention to a file spread on his desk.
After a moment, it appeared Sephiroth had forgotten his presence in the room. "Sir?"
Sephiroth lifted a finger.
Cloud felt uneasy, but remained at parade rest. Was this another of Sephiroth's little mind-games that Zax had warned him of? He had to wonder why Sephiroth was taking an interest in him. Was it only for his connection to Zax? That had to be it, he decided...there was a lot anyone could want from Zax, but he knew he had very little to offer despite Zax insisting he was good-looking.
Sephiroth looked up. "Enter."
The door slid open with a faint hiss. One of the other regulars, Tom Omega, stepped in to take a position beside Cloud. "Sir, you wanted to see me?"
"Now that you're both here," Sephiroth said, fixing them with his luminescent eyes, "I've been given a new mission. I need to take a small team over to the Nibel Mountains, and the reactor there." He straightened the file folder in his two hands.
Cloud couldn't contain a small noise of shock.
Sephiroth's eyes slid over him. "Your hometown is Nibelheim, correct, Strife?"
"That's why I want you on this team," Sephiroth told him. "And you, Omega, were raised near Icicle Inn so you're familiar with mountain terrain."
"Yes, sir," the other man said.
"Once I've selected our fourth party member, we'll leave for Nibelheim. Our job is inspection of the reactor premises, and relocation of certain items there that have scientific value." Sephiroth's expression was unreadable.
Cloud was filled with dismay. Nibelheim? He couldn't! He'd sworn he would not return until he was a member of SOLDIER, a hero, something to prove himself to everyone who'd thought he was a loser before...
To Tifa, and the others...
And he'd just gotten home. He knew Zax would not be pleased by this. That was tough, though. These were orders, and his lover would have to understand.
"How soon should we expect departure, sir?" Omega was asking.
"Not for a few days yet," Sephiroth replied. Something that might have been a smile crossed his lips. "You'll have time to say goodbye to the wife and child, Omega." His eyes flicked to Cloud.
Cloud wanted to hit something. He was being helplessly drawn into Sephiroth's politics, and he hated it.
"You're both dismissed."
Omega turned to go. Cloud hesitated, searching the general's smooth expression for answers. Why was he doing this? Or was Cloud genuinely misunderstanding, and Sephiroth thought he was a good pick for the missions? He pivoted, already imagining a green-eyed monster with fangs and bad breath taking up residence on Zax's shoulder.
"Sir?" He turned back, stance wary.
Sephiroth's eyes were steady and cool on his. "Don't look so tense, Cloud. Just think of this as a paid vacation home."
Like that made it any better.