Cloud was blinking the sun out of his eyes.
"Hnnn..." What time was it? He was tangled up in blankets and someone's arms were snug around his waist. "Zax?" He tried to focus, and shifted his gaze away from the sun-soaked square of brilliance that was the window. Cloud found he could make out the shape of his hand, then his arm, then the spill of black hair beneath his arm...
"ZAX!" He sat up in a flash, fright spearing the pit of his stomach at the sight of the foot and a half of black hair pinned beneath his arm, unconnected to anything. Only a wealth of hair, and no Zax. Visions of a headless Zax ground into him for a moment, or a bloody Zax or even worse, a defeated one.
The body behind him stirred. "He's gone, Cloud. He left earlier this morning." Sephiroth's warm voice purled around him, deep and satisfied.
Cloud shook. He picked up handfuls of hair and they slipped through his fingers. "But...his hair..." ... do you know how long he's been growing out his hair?
A very long time.
"He probably just didn't want to disturb you," Sephiroth said in a sleepy voice.
"No, there's something else..." Something from last night disturbed him in the worst way, more than just recalling the feel of Sephiroth's body against his as Zax kissed and soothed and teased out further response... It's all right. If he had said that, why was he gone now?
Zax had broken his vow.
Cloud pushed at Sephiroth's arm. "I need to go."
"Stay for awhile," Sephiroth told him, in that same drowsy voice.
"I can't. I need to find Zax." He collected the fallen hair with his two hands, noticing the edges where it had been shorn off with a sharp object, probably a knife. He would have wondered where Zax got a knife, but with a SOLDIER and a renowned general in the same bed, weapons weren't far off.
"Why?" Sephiroth's voice sharpened. "So that he can discard you in a year or two? Why bother trying to hold onto something that will slip through your fingers in the end, anyway?"
"Is that how you really feel?" Cloud pulled away from the pinioning arm, trying to keep his hold on the slick black hair. Strands of it kept falling, drifting to the mess of white sheets. "Sephiroth?"
"Yes! Is there any other way I should?" Sephiroth was the one pushing him away now, green eyes like chips of ice. "Everyone leaves you sooner or later, Cloud. All we have are transient pleasures where we can take them. No one stays with you forever. The younger you learn that, the stronger you become."
Cloud drew away, shaking his head slowly. "No, that's not true." He looked down at his hands, and hurriedly scraped up all the hair that was escaping his palms. He knew it was important to Zax, so he wanted to keep it.
"Isn't it?" There was bitterness in the older man's tone. "Tell me, then, Strife. When hasn't someone left you, in your life? Even parents disappoint you; if you have them to begin with, that is."
Cloud felt like saying 'I'm sorry' even though he'd done nothing he should apologize for. Not to Sephiroth.
"I need to go, Sephiroth," he said instead. He needed to find Zax, and make sure everything was 'all right' as he'd promised. He half-tumbled out of bed, somehow managing to keep a grip on unruly hair. When it wasn't connected to a scalp, it really was impossible to hold onto.
"So you're going to leave me, too." Sephiroth's voice was smooth and level but there was a catch to it, like so much of his personality.
Something in Cloud tried to shiver to pieces. He had felt the same way, he had been in the same place. Tifa had turned her face away every time the other Nibelheim boys had bullied him. His mother had told him to be strong, but she hadn't helped him. No one had stayed with him long enough to stick up for him. No one until Zax.
"Like the way you left Zax?" Cloud managed to force out, spending all his courage on a moment of bravery. Sephiroth could crush him like a flea. "You think you've learned that everyone you care about will abandon you, so you'll save them the trouble and dump them first? That is what happened to Zax, isn't it?"
Sephiroth stared at him for a moment, feline-green eyes studying him. He was expressionless. Then, least expected of all, he laughed.
"You can go now, Strife."
Cloud regarded him distrustfully. How was he supposed to know if Sephiroth meant it? He had seen the general change moods more times in a minute faster than anyone else he knew.
"Go!" Sephiroth flipped a hand in a dismissive gesture, and his expression turned hostile. "I've gotten what I wanted. If you want to go back to your love affair with Zax, by all means, go."
That is how it's going to be, Cloud thought, almost pained. He wondered if anyone had ever had a chance with Sephiroth. If anyone could affect him so deeply, maybe it had been Zax. But Sephiroth had shut him out of his life long before Cloud had come to Midgar.
He scrambled out of the general's bedroom, pausing long enough to tug pants up over his hips. Bare decency was enough in a free town like Costa del Sol. He had to find Zax. He knew the one thing that had to be on his lover's mind the most. He wanted to prove to him that he'd won, after all.
I don't want to wake up in anyone's arms but yours, ever again.
Someone was saying his name, over and over.
"--ax! Zax? It's Zax, isn't it?" The tone shifted, from excited curiosity to concern. "Zax Darklighter? Are you all right?"
Zax came up from his daze, turning from the sun-dazzled harbor and its gilded waters. He was faced with a vaguely familiar teenager, somewhere around Cloud's age but carrying an air of self-possession about him, an awareness that Cloud hadn't quite achieved. He tried to concentrate. "...Rufus?"
"Lord Rufus," a stern voice corrected him.
He looked up and over, at the crisp black uniform and the unsmiling face of Tseng, leader of the Turks.
Zax looked back at the golden-haired teen, a frown centering itself between his brows. "Ah, that's right." It was Rufus Shinra, the heir to the accumulated wealth and power of Shinra, Inc. He really must be in a daze, if he hadn't figured it right away.
"Tseng, don't be so stuffy," Rufus told the Turk with a toss of his head, taking a step towards Zax. "I remember you, Zax Darklighter...SOLDIER Second-Class, right?"
"Actually, it's First-Class now, sir," Zax corrected respectfully, a smile tugging at his lips.
"Of course!" Rufus gave him a nod of approval, a gesture oddly adult for his age. "I knew you'd have the skill to progress higher."
Zax looked at the disapproval on Tseng's face, then the curiosity on Rufus's. "Lord Rufus, what are you doing in Costa del Sol? It's an awfully long way from Midgar."
"Never mind that." Rufus flicked a hand. "I've some business to attend to, but it's family business and not very important, at that. Are you doing well? You looked like you had seen a ghost, for a moment there."
Or like someone walked over my grave, maybe. Zax smiled at the young Shinra heir. "It's nothing, Lord Rufus. I'm not used to having so much time off, I suppose." An image flicked through his brain, Cloud grinding on top of him, Sephiroth's face visible over his shoulder for a moment before turning to nuzzle the blond's neck.
He'd had plenty of time off. "It's nothing," he repeated.
Rufus tilted his head. "All right," he said, amiable. The young Shinra heir didn't believe him for a moment. Was he so transparent? "Would you like to have lunch with us in the villa? Tseng and I are alone, you see, and I remember when..."
"Yeah, I remember," Zax interrupted, aware of Tseng's gaze on him, the memory of a Rufus flanked by knife-carrying goons rising up unbidden. The lordling had managed to dodge his keepers, that day. That was a secret he'd promised to keep. As obsidian eyes flashed outrage, he added at the last possible minute, "Lord Rufus."
Rufus laughed. "He's a lot like Reno, isn't he? I told you, Tseng."
Tseng was regarding Zax critically. "I suppose," he said with a shrug, "but marginally more presentable than that one."
Zax was getting the feeling that if he accepted that lunch invitation, he would be intruding on something private. And if what he suspected was true, they didn't get a lot of time alone to begin with. He grinned in earnest now. "That's all right, Rufus-sama, I've got other plans for lunch." He only wished.
"Ah, I see." Rufus was still examining him with an inquiring look. "You've cut your hair, haven't you?"
With a quick, embarrassed gesture, Zax reached up to run fingers across the ragged fringe that stopped centimeters beyond his nape. "Yeah, well." All he could think of was Cloud, of waking up beside him and the peaceful look on the blond teen's face and then his overwhelming need to get away. And so, rather than wake him, he had cut his own hair away to avoid rousing Cloud.
"You were growing your hair out--"
"For a long time, yeah," Zax interrupted roughly. Before Tseng could interject, he tacked on a "Lord Rufus."
"We should be going, milord," Tseng said, giving Zax a hard look. "If Mr. Darklighter has other plans, we can hardly impose."
"Yes, you're right." Rufus glanced at his bodyguard for a moment, and Zax caught the content of that complicated look only because he was watching for it. Rufus had offered him lunch, and would still willingly provide if he asked, but he was looking for some of the privacy that a villa like Costa del Sol offered. "Mr. Darklighter, it was good to see you again."
"Lord Rufus, thank you," Zax said, saluting. There was an extra quirk to his smile that no one but a SOLDIER could get away with.
Tseng was still giving him a thoughtful look as he ushered his young master away.
And I wish them luck. More than anything, right now Zax felt cynical.
He turned back to the quay. There were ripples rolling inward, but nothing large enough for the surfers to take up residence in the water. He wondered if there was anything else to do in Costa del Sol. It was a tourist's town, or a lover's.
For the second time that morning, someone called his name. This time it was a voice he recognized. "Cloud?"
The blond was running up to the end of the jetty, looking smaller somehow in his civilian clothes. He skidded to a halt near Zax, panting for breath. "Zax, I've been looking for you everywhere since I woke up." He looked upset.
"Cloud." Zax wanted to reach out, but he knew that even if he could put his hands on Cloud's body, someone else could still possess him. He was wary instead. "Did you sleep well?"
"No." Embarrassed, Cloud looked at the waters of the harbor. An awkward silence fell over them.
Zax wanted to explain himself, to articulate why he had woken and left so suddenly that morning. It was because he couldn't stand the thought of Sephiroth taking something away from him again -- especially when Zax had moved beyond where the silver-haired man had left him. Instead of saying any of this, he started talking.
"Do you know what Summon materia is, Cloud?"
"Huh?" The blond looked confused by the apparent non-sequitur. "Well, yeah, but I've never seen any. We've only learned about it."
"They say Shiva can be found over these waters, somewhere." He looked out at the ocean, and Cloud looked with him. "I'm not sure where or why, though. Maybe you have to prove you're worthy first."
"But what about the Summon materia...?"
"I'm getting to it," Zax cut him off gently. It was only a half-formed thought in his own brain, anyhow. "When you cast a Summon materia, you know, you lose yourself completely. You become subsumed completely in the creature you've Summoned."
Cloud was quiet for a moment. "And?" He sounded scared. "What happens afterwards?"
"After?" Zax wasn't sure. He'd never cast a Summon materia, himself. "They say some people have trouble pulling themselves together, becoming exactly what they were before the casting. After they've become a part of something so great, after all, who would want to come back?"
"Zax," Cloud said, not sounding contrite but sounding really damned sorry, after all. "Here." And he held out double handfuls of long, long black hair.
Zax looked at it, then at Cloud's sincere, very human blue eyes. "You're coming back to me?"
"Always," Cloud told him, in a fierce tone that refused to choke up. He was so young. Zax forgot sometimes; Cloud wasn't even sixteen yet.
He didn't care if anyone was watching on the pier. He pulled Cloud into his arms, into a rough and very relieved hug. Zax could hardly believe Cloud would choose him over Sephiroth, but he was grateful for that more than anything in the world.
And unnoticed by both of them, handfuls of black hair were picked up and scattered on the wind.
That night, Cloud sat with his back to Zax, feeling the man's knees press against the small of his back.
"You're sure about this?" Uncertainty, chagrin, maybe a bit of regret.
"I'm sure." Resolution, and he wouldn't waver.
With each gleaming stroke of the scissors, a length of blond hair slithered to the floor. In moments Cloud's long blond ponytail was gone.
"Better," Cloud said, running his hands through the short-cropped hair at his nape, meeting Zax's eyes with half a smile.
Zax hesitated, then tucked a lock away in his breast pocket when Cloud looked the other way.
Zax was pacing again, in the cramped quarters of the Shinra truck as it rumbled its way across the field in the foothills of the Nibel mountains. It was making Cloud dizzy, and he stared at the back of the truck, the tied canvas flap swaying to and fro as the truck bounced along. /Ugghhh.../ Shit. That wasn't any good, either.
"It sure is raining hard," Zax said, making another tight loop from the front of the truck to the back. He stopped near Cloud's elbow. "Hey, how are you doing?"
Cloud's stomach made another lurch in time with the truck, and he waved the anxious older man off. "I'm all right." Just stop pacing for a few minutes, would you? he wanted to say. It was jarring.
"I wouldn't know," Zax said worriedly, "I've never had motion sickness." But he straightened up and moved away, and for a moment Cloud was grateful.
"If you're motion-sick, why don't you take your helmet off?"
The steady motion, Zax's knee-bends, the dull gleam of the Buster Sword along his back, it was all making Cloud feel sick. It didn't help that he was facing the rear of the truck, and their driver seemed determined to hit every single bump along the road to Nibelheim.
Good idea. The stuffy confines of the helmet were probably making his motion sickness worse, since he could breathe only with difficulty. Cloud pulled the helmet free, looking down into its concave depths. In a pinch, he could use it for a pail if he couldn't keep it down anymore.
"Everything okay?" Zax was asking Omega. His tone was harsh now, and if Cloud turned his head he was sure he'd see Zax looming over the smaller man.
Sephiroth lifted his head and spoke up at last, "Hey." His green eyes were composed, his hands folded in his lap. "Settle down." He looked as cool and at ease as if he were seated in his own office rather than the bumpy back of a truck.
"They gave me some new materia!" Zax started doing knee bends again. "I can't wait to use it."
He had a sweeping sense of deja-vu. He'd already been here before. He would be here again. Cloud clenched his teeth and tried not to gag. Closing his eyes made it worse, because in the blackness behind his eyelids he felt like everything was spinning out of control.
He opened his eyes.
"...just like a kid," Sephiroth nodded.
He'd heard this before, hadn't he?
They were half a day past Gongaga, and their stop in that village had been long enough to drop off the buggy, commission the truck, and go. Zax had looked disappointed, but they hadn't had any privacy since Costa del Sol. It was only to be expected. There was a distancing kind of indifference about Sephiroth now, as if he'd lost any reason to care for anything. He was hardly willing to permit them a few moments alone. They moved together as a unit.
Cloud's birthday had passed while they were on the road. He didn't dare bring up the fact. Once they reached Nibelheim, he wasn't even sure if he would be allowed to see his mother. They were on a mission, after all, and Sephiroth was in no mood to grant favors.
Just endure it, Zax's eyes had told him, more than once. After this is all over, we'll be back in Midgar and it'll be done.
Cloud had wondered if he would be allowed to put in a transfer.
"You going to brief us about this mission?" Zax prodded.
Oh, yeah. They were so close to Nibelheim, and they hadn't even been told the reason for making the long trip out here. Cloud tried to sit up and marshal himself into some semblance of a professional soldier.
"This isn't a typical mission," Sephiroth began.
"Good!" Zax made an emphatic gesture.
"Why do you say that?" Sephiroth asked.
"Well, I didn't join Shinra's army so I could stay fat and lazy back in Midgar," Zax said, his pacing coming to a halt again.
Stop it, the words were on Cloud's tongue. Instead, he clenched his teeth.
"Heh," Sephiroth chuckled quietly. He didn't seem to take any affront.
"Say, how do you feel, Lord Sephiroth?" Tension crackled in the air. Sephiroth and Zax looked as if they were about to start some close-quarters fighting. For practice, of course.
"I thought you wanted a briefing?" Sephiroth raised a silvery brow.
Zax said nothing, only folded his arms.
"Our mission is to investigate an old Mako reactor," Sephiroth began. "There have been reports of it malfunctioning, and producing brutal creatures. First, we will dispose of those creatures. Then we'll locate the problem and neutralize it."
"The Mako reactor at Nibelheim."
The words gave Cloud a terrible feeling. He'd felt that there was some sort of connection to the reactors and the increased rate of monsters lately. The only question was, did Shinra know about it? Or were they just using it to their advantage? Politics made his head ache.
The truck ground to a screeching halt, brakes locking, tires spewing up clots of mud. Cloud jolted against the wooden side of the truck and controlled the sudden, violent urge to vomit. He was having a hard time holding himself together.
Some soldier he was.
"Sir, something strange just crashed into our truck!" the driver called out, voice shrill with fear.
"That would be our monster," Sephiroth said, green eyes glinting with Mako light as he stood.
Beside him, Zax's grin was fierce.
Zax turned briefly as Sephiroth leapt from the truck. He touched Cloud's knee. "You guys stay here, okay?"
Cloud lifted his head, baring his teeth in more of a grimace than a smile, and nodded.
Then Zax was gone, out into the cold and the rain to fight.
By the time they had reached Nibelheim, nestled in the cleft range of the Nibel mountains, the rain had stopped. Cloud felt shaky as he climbed out of the truck, and Tom Omega looked white-faced. The monsters that had been hurling themselves at the truck for the past hour had shaken him, and their driver was trembling fit to fall apart as he scrambled out of his seat and ran for the safety of Nibelheim.
"Coward," Sephiroth said softly, expression hard.
"That last one was a great dragon!" Zax said cheerfully. "Hey, check out this Gold Armlet I got from it!"
They weren't even fazed. Cloud rubbed at his head. His stomach was still affecting his balance. How had Sephiroth ever seen potential in him? He and Zax were the only ones capable of bringing down those monsters, which were far more brutal than the ones haunting the waste around Midgar.
"Let's go," Sephiroth said with a wave of his hand.
Just outside the gates to the town, Cloud caught sight of a small, hunched-over figure.
Oh, no. He recognized the girl, more tomboyish now than the last time he had seen her two years ago. Now she wore a flat wide-brimmed hat and plain, functional clothing -- a white blouse and maroon shorts. It's Tifa. Cloud turned for a moment, heart fluttering up into his mouth in a panic.
Tifa had known him. She'd heard him state his childish dream so boldly, that night two years ago, declaring that he would leave for Midgar and become a SOLDIER. And he had sworn to himself that he would make the dream true and he wouldn't even come home until he'd lived up to it. Now here he stood, wearing the plain blue uniform of a Shinra regular.
This is bad... I can't see Tifa like this!
Cloud flipped his helmet on. At least he could breathe, now that he wasn't cooped up in the bouncing vehicle.
As they approached the gates, he saw Tifa jump up, examining the four of them. Her face fell in an expression of disappointment and she was turning on her heel, running back into town.
That was...has she been waiting for me?
The thought gave Cloud an odd pang. He'd thought he had sorted himself out; he had dealt with his feelings, his attractions for Zax and Sephiroth, and it determined him as the kind of boy who was interested in other men. But now, seeing Tifa, it called up all the old feelings of that powerful first crush. He had cared for her, so much that it hurt every time she had turned away or pretended not to see the way her group of friends bullied him.
Tifa... But he couldn't see her now. Not after bragging how he'd make it big in SOLDIER.
Sephiroth had come to a halt, just in front of Nibelheim's gates. He turned, fixing Cloud with a peculiar look.
"How does it feel?" Sephiroth asked him. Cloud stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. "It's your first time back to your hometown in a long time, right? So how does it feel? I wouldn't know because I don't have a hometown..."
"Umm...how 'bout your parents?" Zax put in, when Cloud remained speechless.
What was he supposed to say to that? He was returning home a failure. He hadn't been able to get in, and he'd never be able to get in, because of his 'sensitivity to Mako.' Such a stupid thing...
"My mother is Jenova," Sephiroth said unexpectedly. From the way Zax stiffened, Cloud figured they were getting a rare moment of revelation. And Sephiroth wasn't done. "She died right after she gave birth to me. My father..."
Sephiroth began to laugh, hunching his shoulders. It wasn't a happy sound. Cloud and Zax traded anxious glances, as Omega shifted from foot to foot. What was he...?
"What does it matter?" Sephiroth finished. His expression was dark for a moment as he looked at none of them. He pivoted to face the down. "All right, let's go."
They had no choice but to follow.
"Hey," Zax whispered to him, with an edgy grin. "When do you think was the last time the general had a vacation? I think he needs one..."
Cloud shushed him with a gesture. If Sephiroth caught him mouthing off in public, there were no excuses.
"The Mako smell is pretty bad here," the silver-haired general commented as they moved to the center square of the town. Nibelheim was small, a lot smaller than he remembered it, and that surprised him. Two years in a big city like Midgar could affect a country boy's perceptions, he guessed.
The town square was empty. Even at this time of day, he remembered people being out, running their errands, chatting with neighbors, children scuffling in the yards and chasing each other around the lantern, old Marron catering to the needs of the town's sole chocobo.
"Everyone must be staying in their houses because they're afraid of the monsters," Zax said, unconsciously mirroring his train of thought.
"Or maybe they're afraid of us..." Cloud answered, hardly aware he was speaking aloud. People still remembered the influence of Shinra, Inc. in this town. At one point it had been a crushing fist dictating the way of life for every villager.
"We leave for the reactor at dawn," Sephiroth informed them crisply. "Make sure you get to sleep early."
They formed a loose semi-circle around Sephiroth, taking in his orders. The general tossed back his heavy fall of silver hair. There was something different about him, something in his face, maybe. He didn't seem as unflappable as his norm. Even earlier that day he'd possessed his normal composure, slogging through rain and mud to kill the monsters that attacked the truck. Now there was something...restless? Like a roused feline, maybe.
"All we need is one lookout," the general told them, pointing to Omega, "so you others, get some rest." He finished with a curt gesture and turned to the inn. He paused, glancing over his shoulder. "Oh, that's right. You may visit your family and friends."
Cloud's stomach bottomed out.
Right. He'd asked Zax to meet his mother. After the way he'd been in Gongaga Village, Cloud hadn't been expecting Sephiroth to give them any free time. It was almost a relief. He knew his mother wasn't going to be pleased by this kind of surprise.
The door to the inn snicked shut.
Zax turned to him with a brief grin, then cocked his head at Tom Omega. "Well?"
"I'm excited," Omega said. His shaky tone gave the lie to his words. "For tomorrow, I mean."
"Don't blow your chance to become a hero," Zax told him, and strode around the square, hands tucked in his pockets.
"Zax, hey...wait!" Cloud jogged to catch up. "Wait, don't you..." He paused. He owed Zax the chance to let himself out of this, because he hadn't been able to hold up his end of the bargain in Gongaga. He'd actually seemed disappointed by that, if anything.
"Hmm?" Zax turned to him, golden eyes cautious.
Cloud revised what he was going to say. "You don't have to meet my mother, if you don't..." He stopped in the middle, at the hurt look on Zax's face. "I mean, do you still want to?"
"Not if you've changed your mind," Zax said harshly.
Zax might as well have reached out and hit him. "I haven't!" he protested. He finished lamely, "I just thought...since I didn't get to meet yours, you might not want to be forced into meeting my mother." He stumbled over the words. It didn't make sense coming out of his mouth.
"Hey," Zax said quietly.
That got his attention.
"I want to meet her, okay?" Zax rocked back on his heels, looking perfectly at ease. "She's your mother, and you asked me to. Actually, I feel kinda nervous, you know? I'm not sure I'll measure up."
Cloud was incredulous.
Zax dragged a hand through his spiky black crest. "Let's go, huh?"
"Un." Cloud nodded. "It's right over this way..."
The door was unlocked. Cloud was able to push it right open, and he shook his head as they crossed the threshold. "She never changes," he told Zax with a smile. "Even though monsters are raging up and down the countryside, she still doesn't lock her door."
Zax was feeling extremely self-conscious. He was starting to think he should've taken Cloud up on his easy way of letting him out. Or maybe he should have at least let Cloud meet with his mom privately first. As walked into the house, Cloud made a show of clearing his throat. "Um..."
"Ye~s?" Mrs. Strife was washing dishes in the kitchen sink. She dried her hands as they entered the large room, and turned.
Mrs. Strife was a petite woman, smaller than her son, with a sheaf of golden hair caught back in a ponytail. She was garbed simply in a brown house-dress and white apron, but there was a delicate beauty in her features that no amount of plain clothing could disguise. In short, she was an older, female version of his Cloud.
"Cloud!?" Mrs. Strife sounded shocked, but happiness welled up in her face. "Welcome home, Cloud!" Her quick steps carried her across the kitchen.
"Hi, Mom." Beside him, Cloud rubbed his head, a sheepish gesture.
"Oh." Mrs. Strife pressed a hand to her mouth, tears standing in her eyes for a moment. Then she crossed the remaining distance between them and folded him into her arms. "My boy. You've grown so much, I almost didn't recognize you. Two years...is such a long time."
Now Zax wanted to disappear through the floor. What was he doing here? This was time that should be spent alone, mother and son. It was the reunion-time.
She drew away, wiping bright specks from her eyes. "And who's this?"
"Mom, this is my friend Zax," Cloud told her, taking a step towards him. "Zax Darklighter. We're both on a mission here, to the Nibel reactor."
Mrs. Strife put out a fine, slender-boned hand. Her eyes were as blue as Cloud's, and just as guileless as the fifteen-year old's he had met in a mess hall, all that time ago. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Darklighter."
"Zax is fine," Zax told her, giving her his best winning smile. "Mr. Darklighter is my dad. I can't get used to honorifics."
"My." She gave him a slightly flustered smile, and turned back to her son.
"Come, come...let me take a look at you!" Mrs. Strife said, fluttering around her son. Her eyes were shining. "Hmm... You look so handsome. So this is a SOLDIER uniform?" She looked up and down with appreciation at the neatly-pressed navy uniform of the Shinra regular.
Zax tucked his hands into his pockets. That's right, Cloud had told her two years ago he was leaving to join SOLDIER. Knowing Cloud, he'd made some sort of resolution not to come back until it had happened. Zax knew he knew he didn't look like much, still spattered with mud, crest unruly after the rain, his lavendar-faded fatigues looking nothing like a uniform. Appearances were everything and in his battle-worn gear he looked like the regular, maybe.
"Mom, I..." Cloud ducked his head, and shot Zax an agonized look.
"Yeah," Zax said, putting on his best solemn expression. "Didn't he tell you? He made SOLDIER, First Class."
Cloud's eyes widened.
"Cloud!" Mrs. Strife pressed her hands together. "That's wonderful!"
Zax grinned and scratched his ear. He was going to catch holy hell for this. Damn, thinking about all that time he'd spent in the truck made him realize the last time he'd taken a piss, he'd been back in Gongaga Village. "Hey...is it all right if I use your toilet?"
"Um, of course!" Mrs. Strife gestured to the rear of the house. "It's just over there, ah...Zax..."
It felt like he was beating a strategic retreat. After taking care of pressing bladder concerns, Zax stared at himself in the mirror, then scrubbed his face with cold water. Now that the adrenaline high had faded, he was starting to feel the after-effects of the day's dozen-odd battles or so. He hoped they were going to get dinner before they rejoined Sephiroth at the inn.
Habit made him pause just outside the bathroom, listening. He always liked to go into a situation prepared and eavesdropping was just another way of gathering information. From where he stood, he could just barely make out the figure of Cloud sprawled on the sole bed of the single-room house. Poor kid must be exhausted, he thought affectionately. It was tough to ride in a car all day with motion sickness.
Mrs. Strife was talking. "I'll bet the girls never leave you alone."
Cloud's voice answered, "Not really." He sounded wooden, tired, as if this was the continuance of an ongoing conversation and he already knew his own responses.
Zax's mouth curved. Cloud hadn't really met any girls in Midgar, period, and he'd had a lot to do with that himself.
"...I'm worried about you," Cloud's mom continued. "There are a lot of temptations in the city...I'd feel a lot better if you just settled down and had a nice girlfriend."
Now Zax frowned. Maybe she suspected? ...No, she wasn't the type. Mrs. Strife was probably just asserting what she thought was best for Her Only Son.
"...I'm all right."
Thanks to you, I think we both are. Zax lowered his head for a moment, incredibly grateful that they had managed to pull through the aftermath of that night together. He began to walk into the room, pausing once more on the threshold.
"You should have...an older girlfriend, one that'll take care of you." Cloud's mother nodded for emphasis. "I think that would be the perfect type for you."
Zax froze. What kind of domineering... Ah, this was a woman. She might look frail and pretty, but Zax was convinced that deep down, all every woman wanted to do was boss around the males in her life.
"...I'm not interested," Cloud informed her. A hint of defensiveness lurked in his tone, danger flags for a surly Cloud.
I'm just overreacting. Zax pasted on a bright smile and strolled into the room. I know him so well, but I've never seen him around his mother. Everyone's different around their parents, right?
"Hey, did I miss anything?"
Cloud sat up on the bed, running a hand through his blond hair, messing it up but looking adorable nonetheless. "Just catching up," he said neutrally. He didn't look very happy.
Mrs. Strife gave him a hesitant sliver of a smile, then turned back to her son. "Will you both be staying for dinner, Cloud?" There was something in her attitude that hinted she was uneasy with Zax's presence in her home, or at least uncomfortable with the stranger. Why had her son brought a stranger home to a family reunion of two?
It was a good question. Zax looked around. There was no place for him to sit. He leaned against a cupboard, golden eyes intent on Mrs. Strife. Any moment now, if she was the type of woman he thought, she'd be dredging up childhood friends as prospective partners.
"Are you eating right?" Her hands were grasping her apron, tangling in the strings, a slow dance of nervousness.
"I'm all right," Cloud told her, still sounding stiff, as if he'd rehearsed this dialogue before and gotten sick of repeating it. Maybe two years of distance wasn't enough to recover from fourteen of over-mothering, and Cloud was having his face rubbed in it. "The Company takes care of me."
Zax wondered if going home would have been the same for him, finding himself irritated over his mother's fussing, exasperated that the lapse of so much time only left her seeing the boy he had been, and not the man he was now. But then, it had been five years for him. He'd really wanted to see his parents.
"Is that so?" And Mrs. Strife turned her head, and by the Planet, she shot him a suspicious look. Him! Zax! "You can't cook, right? I was worried sick about how you were doing..."
"Mom, I'm all right!" Now Cloud sounded openly exasperated. "Zax and I split up cooking duties. I eat in a small executive cafeteria with my squad. I'm taken care of, okay?"
"Cloud Strife!" Mrs. Strife's voice sharpened, and she put her hands on her hips. "I'm only worried for your sake, you know that. It's my job."
"Yes, Mom," Cloud mumbled, ducking his head. Zax noted in that instant between them where most of the bashfulness in Cloud's nature had come from. And it surely explained how he had come to Midgar with such complete naivety -- Mrs. Strife had kept him sheltered all his life, never pushing him to stand up for himself. She wanted him to lean on a woman.
Zax pushed away from the cupboard and strolled all the way into the room, fixing an easygoing smile on his face. "I'd say he does just fine for himself, Mrs. Strife," he told her. "There's no need to worry."
Mrs. Strife turned her sharp blue gaze on him now, letting him know exactly how much of an intruder he was. "Zax, I'm sure you can respect how a mother feels for her son, especially when she hasn't seen him for such a long time." And stay out of it, the tone added.
"Of course I can," Zax agreed with her, putting his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels a bit. He probably seemed like an amiable buffoon Cloud had brought home, tagging along for the free dinner involved. "And I can respect how a son feels for his mother, wanting her to understand but not wanting her to be upset by anything different, though he's been gone for two long years."
Mrs. Strife frowned.
"Zax!" Cloud hissed at him, mixed expression telling him to butt out of it; he would fight his own battles.
Zax knew he wouldn't, though, not against his own mother.
"Cloud...?" Mrs. Strife turned back to her son, and swiftly changed the subject. "Have you seen Tifa yet?"
"Ah...no, Mom." And now Cloud looked, and sounded, strained. This was a likely reference to the childhood friend.
"You know, Cloud..." she began, moving into the kitchen area, gathering up vegetables on the counter, "Tifa has seemed so lonely ever since you left Nibelheim."
Zax rolled his eyes. From the expression on Cloud's face, this wasn't any kind of welcome topic for him, either. Zax decided to bite the bullet and walked over to the bed, seating himself a measured distance away from Cloud.
Damn, it had been weeks since they'd shared a bed together.
Just the two of them.
"You should at least drop by her house; say hello, catch up on things."
Zax glanced over at Cloud. His lover had his hands on his knees, and he was staring at his shiny black combat boots with a somber expression. At this rate, Cloud wouldn't be able to say anything. And Zax would tease him a little later, but he wouldn't blame him.
"Hey," he said softly, reaching over to nudge Cloud's navy-clad arm. "It's okay."
Cloud looked up, and gave him a little smile.
God, the world stopped when he smiled.
"...isn't that right, Cloud?"
"Uh?" Cloud blinked up at his mother, who'd turned with her hands on her hips again. "Huh?"
"You and Tifa were always such good friends," Mrs. Strife said slowly, with emphasis. "Isn't that right, Cloud? I want you to go talk with her, before you leave Nibelheim."
Zax sucked in a breath. Well, that was blatant. Even if Mrs. Strife didn't suspect that he'd gotten Her Only Son involved in something nasty, one of those nebulous temptations in the city, it was certain she was fixed on aiming her son down the path of the straight and narrow.
Cloud was rubbing at his head again. "Well, Tifa and I were never really..."
Expelling a sigh, Zax got up from the bed. He was sure there was another place in town he could get a decent meal.
"Zax?" Cloud's puzzled tone drew his eyes down.
He gave the teen a reassuring smile. "It's okay, Cloud. I'm just gonna find another place to eat tonight. You and your mom have a nice family dinner, all right?"
Cloud jumped up from the bed. "No! Don't leave. Please?"
"Oh, Cloud..." His mother turned from the stove, a wooden spoon in her hand. She brushed back a strand of pale golden hair. "I think it's very polite of Zax to recognize that a mother wants time alone with her son."
Zax forced a smile onto his face as he looked over at her. "Mrs. Strife, it was nice to meet you."
"Likewise, I'm sure."
"Zax," Cloud said, tone low, pleading, as he stood too. "I want you to stay."
Zax blinked. "I'm only in the way here." He wanted to reach out and pet Cloud's cheek to assure him it was nothing personal. I thought this was going to be something different. Now I don't think you're going to tell her and I'm wondering why you brought me here, after all.
"Now, Cloud," Mrs. Strife began, tone admonishing.
"No, Mom," Cloud responded, sounding strained. "I brought Zax here for a reason. I wanted you to meet him."
"Well..." she started.
Cloud cut her off again. "It's because Zax is important to me, Mom. We...we're living together, okay?"
Mrs. Strife's hand went to her mouth. "Oh...well...lots of people have roommates," she said inanely.
"Not like this, Mom," Cloud told her firmly. "So...so you don't need to try and pair me up with Tifa. Okay?"
"Oh," Mrs. Strife said again. "Oh." She gaped for a moment, a fair mimic of a landed fish.
"And...and I'm sorry if I'm disappointing you," Cloud stumbled onwards, "and I really...I re-really hope you don't disapprove, but..." He took a deep breath.
Zax touched his arm encouragingly.
"This is how I am," he finished up. Then he added, with a lopsided frown, "And Tifa and I never really got along like that, anyhow, Mom."
"Cloud." Mrs. Strife was quiet for a long moment, eyes downcast, before finally lifting her head. Her mouth worked. She summoned up a smile for him, a bit watery but trying to save face. "I will always be your mother."
"Hey," Zax put a hand on Cloud's arm, stopping him in the middle of their walk back to the inn. "You okay?"
Cloud gave him a tired smile. "Yeah, I think so."
Dinner had been strained. Cloud's mother looked, at a few points, as if she would burst into tears if anyone so much as dropped a fork. The rest of the time she was perfectly cheerful, even if it was a forced kind of cheer.
When she had hugged Cloud goodbye, Mrs. Strife had shot Zax a complicated look over the teenager's shoulder.
Take care of my boy, even if I don't approve of the way you're doing it. Take care of him because he's mine as much as yours.
Mothers were scary.
"Let's just go up to the inn, okay? I'm tired...and full." Cloud scrubbed at his face; combed a hand through his hair. "It's been a really long day."
"I hear that."
Upstairs in the inn, where the whole top floor had been rented for them, they found Sephiroth immobile at the window. He looked like a Petrify had frozen him in the moment, staring out at the view of the Shinra Mansion to be had from the casement. Only his eyes with their faint seething radiance indicated anything lifelike about him.
"What are you looking at?" Zax moved over to him, curious. He had the pose of a man who'd been fascinated for hours.
"This scenery," Sephiroth replied. After a moment, he deigned to turn his head. "I feel like I know this place." There was something in his eyes that made Zax uneasy.
He didn't know if he could call it vulnerability. The general wasn't built for things like that, things so weak.
As soon as he'd noted it, it was gone, smoothed over by the marble impassivity of Sephiroth's typical expression. "We have an early start tomorrow," the general said crisply, seeming to look at him fully now. "You should get some sleep soon."
"Yeah, let's get some sleep." Zax turned and nodded to Cloud, knowing his tone had been defensive but unable to help himself. There were four individual beds in there and he thanked his lucky Amulet that there was no possibility for 'special arrangements' again.
"I've hired a guide to the Mako reactor," Sephiroth said behind them. "I've heard she's young; I hope we can rely on her."
Zax slung his arm carelessly across Cloud's shoulders on the way to bed.