Burn Like the Sun
Part Five

by Talya Firedancer

"I'm home!" In the apartment, a door opened and shut.

Cloud looked up from maps of the Mount Nibel area. When Zax entered rooms, he banged doors with vigor. That door had shut too softly for his comfort. It meant he knew. Somehow, he'd heard about Cloud's new assignment. He gulped and went through his re-revised speech; a litany of phrases intended to convince Zax that everything was fine when he wasn't sure of that himself.


He looked up. Zax had a bag of take-out dangling from one hand, and a bag from Cloud's favorite bakery in the other. Cloud blinked at the contents. Their favorite Wutai food, and his favorite pastries for dessert. "Zax? Is something wrong?" On the other hand, maybe Zax didn't know about today?

"I, um, I've got something to tell you, Cloud." Zax deposited the bags on the table and rubbed his hair sheepishly. "I figured I'd come home bearing gifts, first. You wanna eat?"

"It's too early to eat," Cloud said absently, folding up the maps. What was going on?

"Okay." Zax dropped into a chair beside him. "You know I love you, right?"

THAT set off danger alarms. "Zax? What have you done?"

Zax leaned forward, leaning his arms on his knees, an earnest expression on his face. He touched Cloud's knee. "Um, I know you just got back from the mission to Fort Condor, so I hope you won't be too upset. But I've been assigned my first mission as First-Class SOLDIER."

"That's great!" Cloud exclaimed. "Why would that be something to apologize for? Zax, this is wonderful news!"

"Yeah, well." Zax waved a hand, looking everywhere but him. "Not when the mission is with Sephiroth."

Cloud felt the temperature of the room plunge about ten degrees colder. "What did you say?" He had the oddest feeling that Zax was talking about Cloud's mission, not his own. Wait a minute. This was...they were... No. Oh, no. There was really only one way to take this.

He started laughing.

"Cloud?" Zax's expression altered from uncomfortable apology to confusion. "What the hell -- have you lost it?"

"It's funny," he gasped out, reaching across the table to grab the bag of takeout, "because I was wondering how to break that news to you, Zax. Because I'm going out on another mission, and it's with General Sephiroth."

Zax twitched. A gamut of expression crossed his face, from anger to puzzlement to resigned humor and back again.

In another minute, he started laughing, too.

They spread the food out on the table, ignoring the maps and other scattered debris of the studying military man. They ate in companionable silence for a time. He could feel that Zax wasn't tense any longer, but he knew the conversation was far from over. But as long as they were both going on this mission, everything was going to be all right. He didn't care if he was in Zax's shadow as long as Zax was there.

"You know he did this deliberately," Zax said around a mouthful of da-chao mein.

Cloud nodded. "It's easy to tell that everything he does is deliberate." He could see that now, when his eyes weren't so hero-blind as they used to be.

"The new orders came in today right after Sephiroth left Shinra Headquarters for his office, I'll bet. I don't think he wasted a minute, Cloud. He was told to take a SOLDIER along for the mission, and he chose me." Zax used his chopsticks to snatch a piece of sweetened sour chicken from Cloud's carton. "And he told you in the same hour, I'll bet."

"He told me as soon as he got back from Headquarters, more or less," Cloud affirmed. "So what does this mean?"

"It means he's taking an opportunity he's been waiting for," Zax said. He looked at the chicken and let it drop to his plate. His golden eyes were turned inward, not angry but not calm by any stretch. "I don't like this, Cloud."

Cloud grimaced agreement. "What does he want?" When Zax admitted to discomfort, that was enough to make him more than a little nervous.

Zax gave him a dark look. "What he always wants."

"Zax, I don't understand." Cloud was beyond frustration. "You've never told me the whole story, only bits and pieces. And Sephiroth -- I don't know how much to believe from him. Zax..."

"...All right." Zax sighed and pushed away his food entirely. "I'll tell you my side of the story, okay?"

Cloud looked at him. ...there are three sides to every story. His, mine, and the truth. Sephiroth's words. "All right," he said, and nothing else. And as he refrained from saying anything, he wondered about his own omission. The naive boy who had come to Midgar with the dream of a hero would not have kept things from Zax.

Then again, the naive child from Nibelheim wouldn't have gone and gotten a SOLDIER boyfriend, either.

"Yeah, well...a few years back, four or five I guess, I joined SOLDIER," Zax said, scratching his head. He seemed unable to meet Cloud's eyes again. "I was about your age, I guess. Fifteen, first time I'd been to the big city and all. I wouldn't exactly say I was green--"

Like I was, Cloud thought, but didn't say this either.

"--but I was cocky. I thought I knew more than I did." Zax's expression turned sheepish. "Sephiroth was putting together his first special unit back then. And he wanted me, a raw recruit, one of the newest third-class SOLDIERs, to be in his unit." His face echoed the sensation of awe from back then, of being overwhelmed. He had been swept along in the great Sephiroth's presence.

Cloud made an affirmative noise. He knew the feeling.

Zax's golden eyes shifted to him again. "So, anyway." He shrugged, trying to downplay the moment. "I was reassigned to his unit, and not long after that we became lovers. And he didn't tell me anything special, or make any promises, but somehow, I thought..." He flushed.

The way he looks at you, those green eyes seeing everything from your eyes inward, it's as if you're the only thing there, you and he and the space between. Without saying a word, Cloud understood. It was the fact that he knew exactly what Zax was talking about that prevented him from making a response.

"...When Kirin came along, I was so surprised. I hadn't seen it coming even though Sephiroth had done everything with him the same he had with me. New, beautiful recruit -- Kirin grew up in Midgar, though, and he wasn't nearly so green as I was. He tumbled right into Sephiroth's bed a day after he got his transfer slip." Zax still couldn't meet his eyes. "I felt...I felt used, and angry. Yeah, really damned mad. I wasn't thinking straight, and I confronted him. Right in...right in public." Zax ran a hand through his hair again.

Cloud thought of Zax's mouth kissing him in the mess hall, lips urgent on his, hands on his face and then in his hair. He flushed. So Zax had felt this way over Sephiroth, too? What made him, Cloud, any different to Zax? And then he remembered what Zax had said when they first met. ...you're the prettiest face that's tried out for SOLDIER since Sephiroth...

Cloud felt cold. Was he some kind of substitute?

"Zax," he said, barely audible.

"I'm almost done, Cloud." They had both given up on their food, and picked at the leftover bits of da chao-mein. Zax twirled a chopstick between his fingers, not looking at him.

I want you to be done now, Cloud thought with uncharacteristic anger. He'd heard enough. But he couldn't say it.

"Sephiroth gave me one more chance. He said...I could stay with him if I could accept how it was then, with him and with Kirin." Zax's chopstick cracked in half and Cloud looked up, startled. "So...so, I tried it. And then--"

No. No, he didn't want to think about Zax spooned up against Sephiroth's body, all of that silver hair draped over them both -- let alone Zax with two lovers.

How could he ever be enough in comparison?


Zax kept talking. "--And then, I got to see what Sephiroth was really about. Why he wanted to sleep with me, with Kirin, with any new, pretty face that crossed his field of awareness," Zax continued obliviously, fiddling with the broken pieces of chopstick. Hadn't he heard him? "It's about power. All Sephiroth cares about is having that power over me, and now he wants..."

"I said enough!" He pushed away from the table, chest heaving. He couldn't draw in enough air.

Zax's gaze snapped to him at last. "Cloud?" Golden eyes blinked, and grew alarmed. "Cloud, what's wrong?"

"I thought I wanted to know," Cloud said, lowering his head, "but I was wrong. Now I know too much." He turned away. Could he stay here now? Could he be with Zax, knowing that he was some sort of poor fill-in for Sephiroth?

"Cloud..." Zax's chair scraped back from the table. "I'm sorry."

Cloud moved away, glanced at the couch and his things there, and began to gather them up. He felt as if he were moving underwater, an odd sensation of unreality layering over what was happening.

"What are you doing?" Steps scuffed over the floor behind him, approaching.

He hurried, scooping his files and scattered paraphernalia into a sketchy pile. "I'll just get my things." He had clothes here, and other gear as well, but he could always collect it later. Or Zax could throw it out. He didn't care right now; he just had to leave.

"What?" Zax's voice was rough with astonishment. A hand was on his shoulder, gripping him. "What the hell are you talking about!?"

"I need to go." Cloud fumbled and dropped a file. He avoided Zax's eyes.

"What do you mean, go? Have you been listening to me?" Zax grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "I'm telling you these things because I don't want it to happen again! I don't want to lose you!"

"Why!?" Cloud tore at Zax's hands. "Because you don't want to lose your Sephiroth-substitute? Oh, you played me really well, Zax. Get me while I'm still green, right? Then screw me until I don't know any better!"

Zax's grip loosened. His face was slack with shock. "You think..." He regrouped, and grabbed Cloud by the shoulders again. "You dumbass! What do I have to say to get it into your head? I love you, Cloud, and I don't want him to take you away from me!" He let go, expression angry.

Cloud punched him.

He felt a curious sort of exhilaration as Zax's head flew back. The older youth was stronger than him, he knew, and could kick his ass, but he was at the point where he didn't care. Cloud felt as if he'd been used -- not knowing the whole story, both sides had taken advantage of him. But Zax...Zax had actually slept with him, made love with him and professed to care for him. His was the worst offense by far.

Zax wiped a trickle of blood from his mouth, gold-glowing eyes hot on him. "I suppose you think I deserved that?"

Cloud nodded, mouth taut.

"All right." Zax backed away a step at a time, holding his hands up. He looked angry but confused. "What do you want me to say?"

"There's nothing you can say!" Cloud exclaimed. He was angry, too. "All this time, you weren't jealous over me. You were jealous because it was Sephiroth showing interest in someone other than you, again."

Zax looked down. A red mark stood out livid against his cheek, and Cloud fixed his eyes on that. "All right," he said between clenched teeth, "maybe I did deserve that. Maybe. But I don't know where you get off thinking I'm trying to turn you into some sort of Sephiroth-substitute."

"Oh, really?" Cloud said bitterly. "You made a point of saying I was the prettiest face since Sephiroth. Are you saying that didnít mean anything now?"

For a moment, Zax blinked and looked astonished. Then he laughed. "Is that all?" He reached out.

Cloud smacked his hands away. "Don't even," he warned. "Zax, don't think you can make everything all right just by coaxing me into bed."

"That's not it, Cloud, that's not what I think at all." Zax raked a hand through his hair in a frustrated gesture. "I misspoke myself before. I shouldn't have compared you to Sephiroth. I...you're...damn!" He stared at Cloud for a moment, then turned away.

Cloud's stuff was spread over the couch again, and a file had exploded paper all over the floor. He bent to pick it up, stuffing handfuls of paper into the file folder, not caring if he bent or creased the pages.

"Don't go."

Cloud looked up. The line of Zax's back was rigid and his voice was full of strain.

"If you think I don't love you, you're wrong. Sephiroth was...well, he was my first. And it was overwhelming to be with him, and it was the infatuation and hero-worship of a teenager. But that wasn't enough to stay with him. Now he's doing the same thing to you, Cloud, and I don't want to lose you to him. I've been there."

It was the most coherent thing he'd heard from Zax in awhile. He put the file down, still wary. "Why me, then? Why did you pick me?"

Zax swung around, golden eyes filled with frustration. "What!? Cloud, are you still..." He paused. "Have you taken a look at yourself in the mirror lately? No, I don't suppose that would do any good either."

Cloud got to his feet, brow creased. "I don't understand." He didn't see anything unusual in his mirror. All he saw was a skinny kid with shiny blond hair, a would-be soldier who was a little on the thin side; not very strong. He was weak compared to Zax, and couldn't hold a candle to Sephiroth.

"No, you wouldn't." Zax snorted. "You're lucky I got to you first, kid. At least I'm honest about my feelings for you. Anyone else would be taking advantage of you, and nothing else."

Cloud scowled at him. "You don't have to be that honest, Zax."

"Hey." Zax spread his hands. "I'm the one who's not taking advantage of you, Cloud." He grinned but it was only a fraction of the cocky, mischievous smile he was used to seeing. His face was full of strain.

Cloud's shoulders slumped. He was always willing to believe the worst, and he knew it. Now his own bitter self-scrutiny had turned against someone close to him -- he didn't value himself but somehow Zax did. And because he was willing to believe his own worthlessness, he was ready to push away the only good thing that had happened to him.

"Stop it." Zax stepped closer to him, threading a hand into the hair at Cloud's nape, tugging at his short ponytail.

"Stop what?" Cloud protested, but he already knew.

"You're beating yourself up," Zax accused, pulling him close, holding him but making no other overtures. "I almost like it better when you're mad at me. I don't know everything that's going on in your pointy head, but you don't have the biggest ego in the world, Cloud, and you need one a few sizes larger."

"Hey!" Cloud tried to hit him, but the most he could manage was a blow to Zax's kidney. From his angle, it didn't do much damage. "When did this become a conversation about me?"

"It's not." Zax sobered. "This is about Sephiroth. He's not even here and he's causing trouble."

He was right.

"I'm sorry," Cloud said earnestly. He'd even admitted to himself, sort of, how powerfully attractive Sephiroth was, and now he was letting himself blame Zax. "What do you think he's going to do? You never said."

"I'm not sure." It was Zax's turn to frown. "I can only think of two options, and I don't like either of them."

Cloud had a moment of clarity. ...do you know how long he's been growing out his hair? Of course. It made sense. Sephiroth didn't want him; he wanted Zax again, and if he had to go through a skinny little regular to do it, why, the regulars were the most expendable members of the army.

"He wants you," he told Zax, trying to pull away. His fingers were locked in Zax's vest. "He said something about how you swore you'd cut your hair before you would sleep with him again. And then he asked if I knew how long you'd been growing it out."

It made perfect sense, he decided. There was no reason for Sephiroth to show interest in him other than as a means to an end. He must be using Cloud to get to Zax, and he wanted Zax because he couldn't have him anymore. It fit with everything Zax had told him, too.

Zax cursed under his breath.

"What was that?"

"Nothing," Zax muttered. "Bastard."

Whatever Zax had said, that hadn't been 'bastard.' It had been something a great deal more explicit. Cloud shrugged, and pulled himself free of Zax while ignoring the hurt flash of gold that came his way. He wanted to stand on his own two feet. "So what do we do now?"

"Do?" Zax's smile was grim. "Tomorrow, we leave for Nibelheim, that's what we do."


It was the day of departure.

At 0600 hours, Cloud and Omega were joined by First-Class SOLDIER Darklighter, and General Sephiroth disclosed the full details of their mission as they climbed into the truck that would transport them to the Mines. Once past the Mines, they would capture chocobos to take them to Junon Harbor and take a military ship across the ocean to Costa Del Sol.

"You heard of Costa Del Sol?" Zax had asked him.

"Yeah, are we going there?"

"Probably." Zax made a long arm and pulled him from the other side of the bed into his arms. "It's a real pleasure town, did you know that?" Teasing grin.

"Oh, really?"

"We'll have a day of down-time in Costa Del Sol," Sephiroth continued the briefing, cutting into Cloud's remembrances. "The locals have some kind of tradition called a 'week-end' where they do not work for two days, and vehicle rental won't be possible. From Costa Del Sol, we'll take a buggy to Gongaga where we can commission a military truck to take us to Nibelheim. That's all you need to know for now."

Cloud and Omega nodded. With a rumble and a bang, the truck started up and they were on their way out of Midgar. Zax got up from the narrow bench on one side of the truck and started pacing. There was room for two on each bench, Cloud and Omega on one side, Sephiroth and Zax on the other. Beneath his helmet, Cloud grimaced. He could understand why Zax would want to pace.

"We'll have to arrive at the truck separately tomorrow morning, you know."

"I know that."

"And...I might be a little late."

"What? Why?"

"There's someone I have to say goodbye to," Zax had said. He didn't say anything more.

Cloud didn't want him to. He knew who that someone had to be. He'd never even seen her, but he thought he hated her -- whoever she was. Even though she didn't have a fraction of the Zax Darklighter that Cloud got to be with, as far as people were concerned she was the most important person to him.

"Are you going to pace for the whole trip, Darklighter?" Sephiroth asked dryly.

Zax started to do deep knee-bends. "I don't know. I just might. They gave me some new materia for this mission!"

"Just like a child." Sephiroth's green-glowing eyes were intent on the dark-haired man as Zax went up and down, up and down.

The truck lurched. Cloud felt as if he were getting sick.

Somewhere near dawn Zax had woken him. "Your birthday's coming up during this mission, you know that?"

"Stupid. Like you even need to ask me."

A flash of teasing grin. "Well, I don't know if we're going to get a chance to be alone or not..."

Cloud had twisted in the sheets, thinking resentfully that Sephiroth probably wouldn't give them a single moment alone. "Probably not."

"Then I'd better give you your present now, huh?"

"Maybe... Or maybe we should wait until we get back."

"Hunh...something to look forward to?"


"Well, then, I guess I'd better give you something for waking you up so early..." And the teasing grin turned wicked.

Cloud put his head between his knees and tried to remember how to breathe.


"There's Costa Del Sol!"

Tom Omega was leaning over the railing, getting his face blown by the wind and the sea-spray and looking as happy as a pup hanging his head out the window. He had divulged early in the trip that he'd never been on a sea voyage, and he was thrilled at the chance this mission afforded him. Of course, he didn't have seasickness.

Cloud had spent most of the trip curled up around a pail, sicker than a cat with a fist-sized hairball. At one point he tried to stagger up to the top deck with his pail, to enjoy the sea-view everyone kept raving about but Zax had put a stop to that, hauling him back to bed and ignoring his weak tirades. The general had been in to visit him several times, but he hardly remembered it.

"Between the general and the SOLDIER First-Class, you're pretty well taken care of," Tom Omega had remarked on seeing him today, sheet-white and clinging to the ship's rail.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. Forget it."

Now that they were about to disembark, Cloud was thinking seriously about kissing the ground in his joy to be on firmament again.

"You okay?" Zax paused near his elbow long enough to murmur the question.

"Just fine," Cloud gritted back, hating the furtiveness of Zax's manner. He'd never had this rubbed in his face before; their movements were so restricted in the public eye. They were allowed to be less than friends because of the rumors that had made circles in the soldiers earlier -- the rumors sparked off by Zax's very real kiss. "Just go away...urrk!!" He leaned over the railing.

"Cloud?" Zax said anxiously. "Shouldn't we get you back down below?"

"I can't," Cloud managed to get out between dry heaves. "We're disembarking as soon as we dock. I hardly think Sephiroth would appreciate having someone go hunt me up and drag me up here, delaying his schedule."

Zax said something colorful, blunt, and very descriptive about what Sephiroth's appreciation could do.

Cloud had a few seconds to admire the phrasing before he had to hunch over the railing again.


An hour after they had disembarked, they were free to do as they like and partake of Costa del Sol's 'week-end.'

Sephiroth had been merciful enough to get them to the inn as soon as possible, taking note of Cloud's condition. After two days at sea, he was in desperate need of re-hydration -- and some nourishment, if he was capable of keeping it down. Tom Omega volunteered to get him settled, being the eager sort of duty-conscious type. Cloud had accepted, as it was the first offer that came his way and he was sure Zax wouldn't think he could offer something like that under Sephiroth's watchful eye.

"Hey, that's all right, I've got him," Zax had said, waving off Omega with a cheerful grin.

"What are you doing?" Cloud had hissed, as Zax approached him and offered him a supporting arm that he shook away.

Zax had leaned close, golden eyes intense. "I'm not letting you out of my sight."

Now he lay flat on his back in the cool inner sanctum of one of the inn's rooms. He remembered Sephiroth discoursing on something-or-other not too long ago, but his sense of time was still foggy. Being sick for two continuous days could do that to a person.

"Here, drink this." Something in a cool wooden cup was put to his lips.

Cloud tried to half-sit and Zax's arm went around his shoulders. "Why are you doing this?" he mumbled. "Omega's probably going to feed the rumor mill when we get back." The other regular was a decent guy, but he blurted out everything and anything that crossed his mind.

The cup eased against his lips, and he drank. It was fruit juice, mild with a slight hint of tang. He swallowed gratefully and realized his stomach was starting to growl.

"Well, for starters Omega is frolicking on the beach, trying to learn how to surf. He's such a city kid," Zax told him with a chuckle. "And...well, I'm starting to think it doesn't matter so much."

"What?" Now he tried to sit up all the way, and struggled when Zax restrained him. "What do you mean? You're a SOLDIER First-Class, you can't just--"

"Yeah, I can," Zax said, light-hearted expression turning to a frown. "I've told you before that I don't want to lose you, Cloud. Sephiroth is pressing this issue, and I'm making it easier for him because he's counting on me to try and keep it out of the public eye; for my need for discretion. If the only way for us to stay together is for everyone to know about our relationship, then that's how it has to be."

"How romantic," Cloud muttered, taking the cup in his own hand and taking a bigger swallow.

"What do you want from me?" Zax's arm loosened around his shoulders. "I was wrong, Cloud, I should've let them damned well say what they wanted to. What's between us is our business, and they can go to hell if they don't like what they see. Does that make you feel better?"

It should, he thought. But that wasn't the only thing that had weighed on his mind.

"My mom," he said slowly, trying to muddle things through. If things were going to change like this, it would have to be everything.

"Yeah?" Zax helped him sit up all the way, and sat further down the bed.

"When we go to Nibelheim, will you meet my mom?" There. He'd said it. If Zax was really serious about this, then it would be okay.

Zax blinked for a moment. "Uh..."

A sour feeling collected in the pit of Cloud's stomach.

"Yeah!" Zax flashed him his rakish grin, and rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, I guess so...if you want me to, I mean. I'm nothing much, but...hey, do you want to meet my parents in Gongaga Village? If we have the time, geez, Sephiroth might not give us any downtime in Gongaga..."

Cloud gave him a brilliant smile in answer. "Yeah. I'd like that." What was Zax talking about, not much? He was everything.

"Feeling up to some food?" Zax touched his knee.

"I think I'm getting hungry," Cloud answered. When was the last time he'd been able to keep something down? The more he thought about it, the more he was ravenous.

"Let's go eat, then. I know a nice little restaurant on the beach," Zax suggested, eyes warm. "And then maybe afterwards, we can find a quiet corner and I can make you feel even better..."

Cloud knew better than to ask what Sephiroth might think.

"That sounds good to me."


It was the same dream every time. He was drowning in a wave of green-blue water, smothering him without choking him, his lungs filling up instead with endless light.

Cloud felt sick again. Where was he going? Where had he been?

Someone was saying his name, over and over.

"--oud. Cloud?"

Cloud tried to speak, fought against his own clogged throat, then realized that he could speak. He turned his face away from the pillow. "...don't wake me..."

A dark chuckle answered him. Part of his mind was still caught up in the cascade of blue-green that was his personal nightmare, but he was aware enough to gasp out, "Wh-what are you--?" Zax wasn't bold enough to climb into his bed, was he? Only a thin partition separated him from the other beds, each one having a cubicle slot for nominal privacy.

"Are you ready?" A hand was moving over his thigh.


Cloud sat up bolt upright, staring into darkness. His eyes were still seared with the turquoise aftermath of the dreaming.

If everything's a dream, then don't wake me.

"Quiet." There was a hand over his mouth.

He turned his head blindly, trying to shake off the bad dream. He had felt so alone, drowning in the end of the world, or at least the end of everything he knew. He didn't...who...Cloud inhaled, and the scent of skin was different. He couldn't say how he knew, but the warm length of body dipping the mattress beside him was not Zax.

Cloud pulled away and his mouth was freed. "Sephiroth," he spoke in a low whisper, upset. What right did he have stealing into his bed in the middle of...he glanced to the side, and noticed the paling indigo stripes on the floor. No, it was only dusk, and he couldn't have been asleep for long. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to see how you were," Sephiroth said, then paused. "You've been sick."

"I'm better." Cloud swallowed. "You didn't have to come see me yourself, sir. Zax was taking good care of me." There, that was a broad enough hint, wasn't it? ...He felt a little dazed. His head was swimming with scent. It was surrounding him; was the fragrance coming from his hair? Was it the scent of Sephiroth's skin?

"It's all right." Silver hair was curling over his wrist. Sephiroth was telling him it was all right? That didn't seem to fit somehow...Sephiroth was the most dangerous thing around.

This was Sephiroth. He felt giddy all of a sudden. The man had never been this close to him before. The silver-haired one-man army, the great Sephiroth was sitting on his bed and he had always wanted to be just like Sephiroth but perhaps, when it came down to it with the sinuous length of the man sitting beside him, perhaps he just wanted Sephiroth. Zax had shown him what to do with these feelings, and now Sephiroth would take them.

He moved forward, wanting to take the shadowed figure in his arms, but Sephiroth had a hand on his wrist and now it was Cloud being pulled forward, tumbling, swept away in vertigo.

"Are you sure you're all right?" The murmur touched his ear. No, it was lips against his skin.

"I don't..." He stopped, confused. He could see the faint radiance of Sephiroth's Mako-green eyes. It troubled him.

The eyes that had always gazed at him with heavy-lidded, lusty radiance were golden, and burned him like the sun.

"This is wrong!" He pushed Sephiroth's face away from his neck.

"Cloud." There was a frown in Sephiroth's voice. "I don't give people three chances."

"What?" He stopped his struggles. When had he gotten any chances with Sephiroth? He'd never had a first chance... But, a sly voice wormed its way to the fore, there was a reason Sephiroth had chosen him for his task force. There'd been a reason he took Cloud as his sole support to Fort Condor. Sephiroth wanted him.

The great Sephiroth wanted him.

But Zax said he loved him.

"Come with me, Cloud." Sephiroth's eyes glowed at him, pinpoints of light in the darkness. "There's a larger bed in my room, and it is a private room." Cloud felt like he was tumbling back into the blue-green wave of his nightmares, sucked into Sephiroth's eyes.

Cloud was still trying to pull away when Sephiroth kissed him.

He froze in that instant. Sephiroth's lips. Sephiroth's scent. From a distance of centimeters, Sephiroth's green eye searing into his soul. He felt like he was falling, pitching down into restless fever-dreams, into the grip of harsh glaring light. But he wasn't dreaming. It wasn't that easy.

Sephiroth released his mouth and Cloud steadied himself on the only thing available. The general captured his hands as they reached for broad shoulders, and fixed him with a heavy-lidded stare. "Come to your senses, Cloud?"

He tried to free his hands and failed. "I can't." And you know why I can't so why are you even asking? the thought chased frantically through his mind, but didn't last farther than that.

Sephiroth's mouth descended on his again, gently, so gently, and the dream sucked him under again. He was the green light that beguiled him, the sensation that pulled him on to places unknown, the strong proud soldier who had inspired him in his darkest moments in Nibelheim.

"Haven't you wanted this too, Cloud?" Sephiroth murmured, silver hair sweeping over him, lips hovering over the hollow of his throat. Cloud was entangled, sucked in and going under in the aftermath of his dreams, in the reality of the general's presence here.

"I..." He tried to speak and a fine-boned, callused finger was placed over his lips.

"You were lying here alone," Sephiroth told him, a trace of some indefinable emotion darkening his green eyes. "I was alone, too, Cloud. Join me, and we can be together." At the last, his voice dropped to a beguiling pitch, but what flayed Cloud's sensibilities was the raw loneliness disguised within. There was need standing naked in Mako-green eyes, and every particle of Sephiroth's formidable will was focused on him.

Now the general held out a hand, not compelling but asking him. "Join me. Please."

"Sephiroth..." Dazed, Cloud groped for that outstetched hand, eyes shining. Sephiroth understood. He felt that loneliness. And he, Cloud, could ease that pain.


Zax woke up with a sour taste in his mouth and the beginnings of a headache. Shit, what was in that Corel Punch, battery acid?

It was a soft sound that had woken him, he realized, as he heard it again. Bare feet over floorboards made very little sound, but a trained SOLDIER could catch it. The sound that had woken him had done so right away, as it registered in his danger levels as 'furtive.' What...? Damn, his head was starting to hurt.

"Who's there?" he called out, keeping his voice low. Sephiroth was in the adjoining room -- he actually got a room, while the rest of them got partitioned beds -- and Omega was on the other side, and he didn't want to wake either of them if it was Cloud sneaking in for a quickie.

A faint shuffling sound was his only answer. The bare feet were moving hastily away from his room.

Zax got up out of bed on stealthy feet of his own. If it were Cloud, he would have answered or even likelier, come into his room. And Sephiroth would never be so clumsy; he prowled more quietly than a cat.

In the hallway, he lunged and caught the fleeing figure by one flailing wrist.

"What the hell are you doing skulking around?" Panic sharpened his voice. There was no reason for Tom Omega to be running around the hallways at...he checked the angle of the light...well, it was still early evening. "Got lost on the way to the bathroom?"

"Well... Not exactly." Omega didn't try to pull away, but he did look pointedly at the wrist Zax had in his grip.

Zax didn't take the hint. "Mind telling me what you are doing, then?"

Omega's eyes slid away from his. "I'm not sure if you're classified to know, sir. I'm following Sephiroth's orders."

"Huh?" Following Sephiroth's orders...in the middle of the night?

Now Zax wrenched on the man's wrist, all but throwing him against the wall. "If it's something that has an impact on our mission, private, I'd better be in the know."

Omega flinched, trying to pull his arm away and failing. Zax was the better SOLDIER. "It -- it's not much, sir!" He eased his wrist in Zax's grip, expression conciliatory. "Just a little regular getting his comeuppance. I'm sure it's nothing you'd be interested in."

Zax's expression turned to stone. "Just exactly what do you mean, private?" He grabbed flimsy handfuls of the man's nightshirt and slammed Omega against the wall in earnest. Where Cloud was involved, he was hardly 'uninterested,' -- he'd just admitted today how far he would go for Cloud. "Just in case I might be interested, after all."

"Ahh..." Omega hesitated, then winced again as Zax twisted his wrist, grinding tendon against bone. "Ow! Sephiroth -- it's Sephiroth, okay? He's taking Cloud to his bed tonight. It's not as if the boy hasn't asked for it!"

Zax shoved Omega to the wall one final time and released him, slumping his shoulders. He turned away. "How could he possibly..." He was muttering to himself, but Omega heard him. The man snickered.

"It's all in the atmosphere," Omega said with the air of a conspirator. "A dusky Costa del Sol evening, a lovestruck boy still recovering from illness... We've known Sephiroth had his eye on him ever since we all joined up. But tonight he's making his move."

Zax glared at him for a moment, then turned away, stalking up the hallway towards Sephiroth's sole room. The words sank like leaden pellets in his guts. 'A lovestruck boy...' The presence of a near-naked Sephiroth in one's bed would be enough to overwhelm almost anyone.

He ought to know.

"Wait...you're not gonna go IN there, are you?" Omega's anxious voice followed him.

He stopped, and turned on his heel to glare once more. "Cloud Strife is not a plaything," he said clearly. "Least of all Sephiroth's plaything. So yeah, I guess that means I'm going in there."

Zax left Tom Omega gaping behind him and stormed into the den of the serpent. He was already dismissing the regular from his thoughts; whatever role Sephiroth had assigned the man, as far as he was concerned it was over.

"Sephi--" Zax started, shouldering aside the door like a maddened Dual Horn. A few steps carried him into the room by sheer momentum, and then he pulled himself up short. He could see the scene before him in pieces, but somehow his eyes wouldn't register the whole thing put together. It wasn't what Sephiroth was doing that disturbed him so much, his hands combing through the fine disheveled blond crest of the boy's hair. It was Cloud, and he could only take it in a bit at a time. The placement of his hands on Sephiroth's pale muscled thighs. The bow of Cloud's neck. The slow pendulum motion of his head beneath Sephiroth's coaxing hands.

Sephiroth's eyes glittered at him out of the darkness.

"I...I'm going to kill you," Zax hissed. He was immobilized with rage. He meant every word of it.

Cloud's head jolted up, and the boy pushed away Sephiroth's hands. His eyes were shadowed in the darkness where Sephiroth's emitted radiance, but Zax knew they would be wide and panicked. "Z-Zax? I...I don't..." He sounded as if he were waking from a dream, bewildered and a little bit frightened. With a cry, he tried to scramble away from Sephiroth, and slipped on the bedclothes back into Sephiroth's arms.

"The way I see it, Zax," Sephiroth's voice wrapped around him like the dark, like crushed velvet, "you have few options."

Zax clenched his fists harder. His nails were blunt-cut but with enough pressure, they could force a trickle of blood down his palm. "I'm going to kill you," he said again. His mind was suddenly still and very calm.

"No, that's not one of the options," Sephiroth told him, his tone chiding, stroking long fingers low over Cloud's belly. Cloud made a soft sound, almost a whimper, broken between anguish and pleasure. "You can turn around and walk out of the room, or you can stay here and join us." Now he lifted his other hand, palm-up in invitation.

"I hate you," Zax whispered, glaring at the man. Cloud's eyes were shadowed pits, but he could see the fear in his boy's posture, and the arousal too. Sephiroth had always been skilled at inciting one emotion or the other. Or both.

He didn't really have a choice. He hadn't had one then.

Zax could leave, and lose what he wanted most, or he could stay and hope his heart's desire would still come back to him in the morning.

Just give me a moment, he wanted to say, but there was no choice in the matter. Sephiroth had maneuvered him neatly, again, but this time what he wanted most to keep was wrapped in Sephiroth's arms, draped in Sephiroth's silver hair, and he was so afraid of losing Cloud because he knew how compelling it was to be with Sephiroth.

He approached the bed. Two sets of eyes tracked him, Sephiroth watchful, Cloud scared. He didn't care. As long as he was with Cloud, he could still hope everything would turn out for the best.

"You're staying?" Sephiroth's hold on Cloud was possessive now, even as the sixteen-year old tried to squirm away.

"Of course I'm staying!" Zax tried to insert scorn into his voice, but it came out sounding tired. He'd lost again. How much more would Sephiroth take away from him? "Cloud..." He climbed onto the bed and went to Cloud first, taking his face in his hands, kissing him, feeling knowing hands on his body as he felt Cloud respond. Sephiroth stripped him as he tried to lose himself in Cloud, to crawl into him from the mouth downwards, trying to prove he was the only one who could make Cloud react in just *that* certain way...

Cloud gasped against his mouth, and he knew that his lover felt it now, the attentions of Sephiroth's wandering hands, and the general's teeth were on the nape of Zax's neck. The silver-haired man could possess them both and he wasn't even trying hard. A part of him had always wanted this, he knew, and this was why he couldn't walk away.

And there was something desperate in Sephiroth's seduction that the part of him that had loved Sephiroth couldn't ignore.

"It's all right." Zax spoke directly into Cloud's mouth. It was the only way to say 'I love you' with Sephiroth touching them both in the most intimate parts of their bodies.

And faintly, in response, he thought he heard "You promise?"

Zax buried his face in Cloud's neck as Sephiroth began to caress his blond lover in earnest. It'll be all right, he thought again, then vaguely, but this feels too good to be 'all right.' All he could do was hold on.

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