Warnings: Boys who like other boys. Extended canon deviation. Non-explicit sexual situations. The works.
Summary: Zack and General Sephiroth find a stranger lying in the trees. A stranger with mako eyes, reflexes on par with Sephiroth's, and so much anger, so much hate. What's a pair of SOLDIERs to do?
Disclaimers: They belong to Square-Enix.
Prologue: Dead Man's Oath
Chapter 01: This Is How It Was
Chapter 02: This Is How It Is
Zack was not a stranger to screams. Or to loud explosions. Or even to bright flares of blinding white light. Especially after three years of fighting in a war that was now, only now, beginning to reach its grand conclusion.
But all of that—the screams and the explosions and the impressive searing light show—in the middle of the night, almost fourteen feet away from where he and the General were standing on patrol duty was something new, even in wartime. Wutains relied on stealth at night, on their ninjas and snipers, not usually on their magic.
…And even if they were trying new tactics in their surge of desperation, even then they wouldn’t usually start screaming first.
Sephiroth was tearing past him within moments, the black of his coat swallowed in the darkness of the surrounding trees as the white flares died down and began to fade. The silver of his hair was like a flag to follow as Zack dashed after him, sword naked and ready in his hand.
Zack couldn’t be sure what Sephiroth was expecting… a trap? A stampede? But he sure hadn’t expected a single figure dressed in a SOLDIER uniform—well, kind of, he was missing a shoulder-guard, and the one that he did have looked a little worse for wear—lying passed out on the ground in a circle of white fire, with one hand fisted around the hilt of a—
“Zack…” Sephiroth said quietly from his position further up, standing just outside the ring of dying flames with the unsheathed Masamune lowered. There was surprise and confusion in that voice if one cared to look for it, seemingly apparent only to him who’d spent veritable months learning the minute changes in the other man’s voice during the times when he couldn’t watch the man’s eyes. “The sword he’s holding… why is he holding your sword?”
And then the world was changed forever because there was only one Buster sword on the whole of the Planet, and that was in Zack’s own hand right that very moment, singing out to its twin in a call of like to like that he could feel thrumming through him from its very core.
Then the boy’s eyes flew open.
His eyes hurt; the ground burned and he was pressed against it, the sharp spines of coarse wild grass prickling his cheek, but there was no fire, no flame. Still, there was light, so much light, sharp and white-hot and he was screaming as he turned away and clawed at the ground, fighting to force his muscles to bring him up to his elbows, to look away. The scent of trees told him forest, the reddish light in the distance told him he was near a camp or—and it could very well be possible—Nibelheim?
Sephiroth and the Cetra wouldn’t have sent him back to that night would they?
He forced himself to his feet, grunting with the effort, and only his grip on the hilt of his sword kept him up when he felt his legs nearly give out from beneath him, his eyes on that reddish light.
But no… the light wasn’t burning bright enough to be a village in flames though he could smell the char, and there was no screaming. Relief washed over him as he picked out the details; the stars were strange and the trees were unfamiliar and—
—there was nothing at all unfamiliar about that figure standing almost dead center behind him, half-hidden by a tree with those strange glowing eyes of his.
The man actually had the audacity to look startled; blinking at him with those eyes of his like he didn’t know him, like he didn’t know what he’d just put Cloud through, crushing him under the weight of the Lifestream until there was no breath left, no feeling, nothing but the feel of his sword hilt clenched hard in his fist. He could hate him. He could hate him, he could blame Sephiroth for this in a way he could never blame Aeris…
“You have mako eyes… are you not a SOLDIER?” the words were calm, so deceptively calm, but Cloud could see, see the grip tightening on the Masamune, the narrowing of those cat’s eyes. “What is this insubordination?”
And that might have stopped him if he were thinking straight, might have made him recognize that grave solemnity like the man didn’t quite know how to smile, much less laugh. But right then, just then, there was only the pounding of blood in his ears, and the all-consuming rage as he charged forward.
Whether he needed saving or not, if Sephiroth was asking for death, Cloud was going to give it to him.
Whether he wanted it or not, Sephiroth was going to pay.
It must have been a shock. Zack could only stare from the sidelines, watching as the guy stopped screaming in an obvious attempt to orient himself, head flicking this way and that at the vague glimpse of sky and starlight the sparsely-leafed branches afforded beyond the glare of the dying white fire. Even from that distance—SOLDIER senses again?—he could see the guy’s nostrils flares, breathing in the smell of the place.
Zack breathed in too, testing; the scent of the surrounding trees, deciduous and nothing like the range of thick jungle they’d passed through several hundred miles back which had been both wet and sticky to navigate. And something new—cool and quiet and green. Mako? No… wilder than that… Lifestream? But this was nothing like Mideel.
There was a reddish glow from behind him, the faint light of the camp. It was far from main base of course, and so there were a good deal more campfires set up in it which were much more convenient when the soldiers carried a good deal more Fire materia than they did proper lanterns.
But that seemed to be what set the guy off though, if the way he suddenly hauled himself up and lurched to his feet to see better was any indication. From his vantage point, Zack could see the confusion, the look of this isn’t right… that seemed to steady the guy somehow, enough to make him look away and sweep around himself again to get his bearings.
Maybe he was harmless after all. Someone they could just bring in quietly, tag, and forget about without there being any more excess bloodshed that night.
And then the guy noticed Sephiroth, who’d made no attempt to hide. In half a second he was alert, fully alert, and furious, his voice thundering with an intensity and depth of rage that seemed utterly alien for someone who looked that young.
Even from where he was across the clearing, he knew Sephiroth was mentally trying to catalogue this boy’s face and profile from the thousands the man had been faced with. He also saw when General Sephiroth came up blank and tried instead for speech. Which apparently wasn’t good enough, because every line of the stranger’s body was taut with anger, rage, something.
And then the crazy bastard charged, running to meet the Masamune’s steel with his Buster.
There were a good many things Zack had gotten used to while in a combative position in the middle of one of Shinra’s wars. He’d seen a lot.
He had never seen anyone with the balls or hell, the utter lack of brains to challenge the General like that, had never seen a man brave enough, stupid enough to even dream of taking on the greatest warrior so far known to man and challenging him to do battle with the one weapon Sephiroth had perfected beyond what any master could possibly teach him.
He had never seen anyone who could do that, and could keep up with him.
Zack gaped like a cadet fresh from first training as the blond wielded the Buster sword—it had to be the Buster sword, he’d recognized his beauty anywhere—with an ease unlike anything he’d ever seen. Not even after all his training, and the new round of mako injections could he even think of moving with such grace, like gravity didn’t matter, like it weighed almost nothing. And gods, the way the two of them fought, leaping at each other as if it’d been choreographed.
He’d probably hit himself over the head for thinking it later, and it was probably beyond cheesy, but they fought like it was a dance, some great cosmic routine that they’d both known since birth and had been dying to perform until now.
It was like finding out that the General’s true reason for existence was not to lead the greatest army on the Planet, but only to fight this stranger from the heavens, in a blur of silver and gold and arcs of steel and sound.
It was like they fit together, like equals, and finding an equal to Sephiroth was like finding…
Zack couldn’t think of a single simile that would fit to describe how seeing something like this could ever compare with anything else because there was nothing like this.
And Sephiroth was interested, was intrigued. Zack knew this as well as if it were him feeling it, as he tracked the silent battle above him and watched the General putting effort, true effort into his attacks, as if the fighting he’d done thus far from the saddle of his chocobo was nothing compared to this, was nothing compared to being faced with an opponent that could keep up with him, even without reservation on his part. That he’d always been holding back, maybe even delaying the end of the war for a reason, and perhaps that reason was this.
Which was insane. Sephiroth didn’t know this man, didn’t understand the anger or the rage or the reason why he’d attacked any more than Zack himself did.
Why weren’t any others coming? He glanced quickly over his shoulder. That blast had been enormous and even on a busier night, someone would have seen something, heard something, if not the entire camp. This was a camp intermingled with SOLDIERs; why was there nothing? The smell of Lifestream became even thicker as he thought it, and for a moment he wondered just what the Planet was trying to hide, if in fact She really was trying to muffle the sounds of their fighting with pure magic.
A strangled “ghhrk” sound made him turn back so fast, he nearly gave himself whiplash as he started in shock, catching just the end of the wraparound check that the blond delivered, as quickly as if had been by reflex, with the back of the Buster sword.
It was the fact that the wraparound check had connected, and that Zack’s sharpened ears heard the sound of ribs cracking—ribs cracking! Sephiroth! Did he even have crackable ribs??—just before Sephiroth was flung back with the stranger’s momentum into a tree trunk. Branches snapped around him as Sephiroth plummeted to the ground, catching himself the minute he touched earth where he automatically swept his long legs into a crouch, ready to spring. Zack was far from an expert, but even from here he could see the General’s eyes burning with a swordsman’s delight.
They were going to kill each other!
That thought was enough to break Zack from the spectator’s position standing dumbstruck at the tree line and send him dashing in. His blade was moving in the air almost before he knew it, the low moan of it singing through the air as it bore down on the stranger in a straight vertical slash; with a blade as big as his Buster, it made for the distraction it was meant to be. Enough for the stranger to swing his beauty’s twin up to block him with a shrill squeal of steel on steel.
His first clear sight of the blonde was of blue eyes that glowed; a more brilliant blue than anything he’d ever seen outside of the depths of a linking materia. Mako eyes; blue over blue. His first thought was, fuck, the guy’s gorgeous.
His second was, thank gods, more structured, more relevant; a SOLDIER, maybe a deserter?
The blond was older than Zack had first thought; there were faint lines that Zack’s sharpened eyes could barely pick out between the brows, and a deep-laid weariness in the eyes that the man’s glare couldn’t hide, nor the bizarrely-spiked hair, that faintly resembled his own, cover.
Those eyes widened when they locked with his, and he watched in what felt like detached fascination as the blond leapt back as if singed, the little color he had left draining from his face until he looked as white as a sheet and rather as if he’d seen a ghost.
Pushing the advantage while the stranger seemed so preoccupied, his words were a growl. “I’m not going to let you hurt the General!”
Digging the balls of his feet into the ground, he held his sword straight and level. He’d take what advantages the stranger gave him since it was obvious that in a straight fight he’d be hopelessly outclassed.
He didn’t dare even look at Sephiroth, who might still be so caught up in the rush of fighting an equal that he might order Zack to go. And Zack wasn’t leaving the General, even if he meant him ending up dead, just to satisfy Sephiroth’s desire to see who would defeat whom.
“Zack,” murmured the blond in a broken whisper, the tip of his sword falling to the ground as if those powerfully-muscled arms had suddenly lost all their strength. “You’re Zack.”
Those glowing blue eyes whipped around to focus on Sephiroth who was standing, sword in hand and the cloud of Cure magic dissipating fast around him, his expression never belying the fact that forcing your body to re-knit itself in the span of seconds was a painful son-of-a-bitch to go through.
The stranger’s buster sword fell, dropping from nerveless fingers as he slumped to his knees, staring, his eyes back and apparently fastened on Zack’s face. “They sent me back…” he whispered in that barest croak of a voice. “They really sent me back…”
And in that moment, he looked like a lost little boy and not like some hotshot SOLDIER at all. Zack felt his heart give a painful jolt even as he jerked himself forward, hitting the stranger hard in the back of his head, striking a nerve cluster. The man’s body crumpled almost instantly, and slumped back down the ground in what looked like a dead faint, not very unlike how they’d originally found him.
Zack pragmatically kicked the stranger’s weapon aside anyway before he spared a single startled glance at Sephiroth that spoke volumes of shit, now what do we do?
The carefully blank look he got in return could have meant anything, but Zack suspected Sephiroth was just as clueless as he was.
“Right… so, what does the rule book say we do in this situation, General Sephiroth sir?”
“The penalty for treason as I remember it is death.”
But there was hesitation there, and not just because Sephiroth wanted to continue their little duel until one of them dropped dead.
“I would’ve recognized hair like that, sir. And the sword. And… look at him, who could forget the way he moved?”
“But if he’s not one of our troops…”
“And there haven’t been any reports back of any other renegades, have there?” Zack continued, pressing his point. “We’d have heard of him, if he were. The whole world would have known his name if he could come that close… you know, to being you.”
“What exactly are you planning, Lieutenant?”
Zack quirked the wry little half-smile at the General’s suspiciously bland tone and his use of Zack’s rank as he stared down at the figure in the grass. “Thinking of pulling rank on my good ideas, sir? I just want to know more.”
“If we brought him back…”
As if Sephiroth knew exactly what he’d propose, he stopped him short. “No. I won’t have you endangering your life with him.”
But the guy had stopped when Zack had tried to fight him off. When he woke up… wouldn’t it be better for Zack to be there instead of the General?
One thing you just don’t let your friends do was sit up waiting on a madman who was after that friend’s blood. Unless he attacked just because he hated Shinra, but even then, Sephiroth was still a far cry from the real power in Shinra.
…Ugh. There was something logical he was missing here and he didn’t know what it was. Hell with it.
“So what are you going to do?”
“We should… question him.”
“…Yes. Well. I was getting to that part, sir, when I said we should bring him back.”
“What you were getting to, Lieutenant, was sneaking this stranger past several hundred soldiers of assorted rank to keep in your tent like a pet when he wakes up, am I right?”
“…Er… something like that,” Zack agreed sheepishly, scratching at the back of his head, “you missed the part where I would’ve offered water and an assortment of cookies?”
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to give you one for yourself you know, but—”
Zack felt something inside him deflate, “Right,” he said finally, even though the smile never really left his face, “Proper conduct and respect towards a superior officer, right?”
Sephiroth hesitated, and for a moment looked truly frustrated, as if he wanted to apologize and didn’t know how to. “It’s not… we should report this…”
“…But you don’t want to…” Zack murmured, “You know they’re either going to firebomb him or haul him away or test the hell out of him and his crazy-ass reflexes or something, and you don’t want that to happen.”
“That should not matter.”
“But it does, and you know it does,” Zack argued. “I want answers just as much as you do, sir, but he’s not going to give them to us if we clap him in irons. Hell, I doubt even if we pumped him with truth serum he’d open his mouth, not if he’s anything like you.”
“Your plan is ridiculous. We could never manage to pull it off.”
That made a strange warm feeling flutter in his chest; maybe he was actually getting somewhere because Sephiroth had said we, the two of them, as naturally as if that were the way things should and would be. It was a good feeling.
He didn’t let that stagger him for long though, “I don’t know… what’s one more SOLDIER trying to drown the bad stuff out through a jug or two of rotgut? You can take custody of his sword, sir, and I’ll take care of him… nothing new about me doing a good deed and bringing some poor shit-faced comrade back to camp now, is there?”
“We are supposed to be guarding the perimeter.”
“…Waiting for the next shift might not end up so good,” Zack murmured, looking down at the gold hair that glistened in moon- and starlight.
“Bring him back first. Your… skills… at this sort of subterfuge are likely to be far greater than mine.”
“That a nice way to call me sneaky, boss?” Zack replied ruefully, chancing the less formal title with a customary grin, “But yeah, I agree with you. Anyone hanging unconscious off your shoulder would look both like a rag doll and suspicious beyond all reason if it weren’t some form of cow fit for roasting on a spit.”
“Then do so. I will keep his sword here and bring it back with me once the next shift goes on. I want you to watch him and make sure he is not a threat to the rest of the camp.” Sephiroth’s eyes were serious, more serious than Zack had ever seen them, and they’d been through what felt like some of the toughest years of the Wutain War together to put in comparison for him to be able to think something like that. “If he attacks…”
“I know, sir.”
Sephiroth’s mouth tightened. “I am trusting you not to get yourself killed,” he said in warning, “and you know as well as I do that I don’t do that often.”
No. No he certainly didn’t. Zack was hit with a pang of sadness for the man; everyone needed someone to trust in. It was followed by what felt like a little rush of happiness for the intimation that perhaps he could be that one person, at least a little at a time.
“Yes sir,” he replied, snapping a salute before going down to his knees next to the stranger. A fireman carry would have been the most efficient way to get the guy back to camp, but whatever cover story he dreamed up along the way probably wouldn’t follow through very well if he strode in wearing the blond like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder. He draped one of those arms around his shoulder instead, steadying the blond with a hand around the slim waist as he hauled them up to their feet, swaying dangerously as he fought to get a proper hold. The guy wasn’t light, that’s for sure. Small—you didn’t find a lot of SOLDIERs who made it with that kind of height—but muscled, and even with the gloves and wrist guards he could see that the guy had the thickened wrists of a damned practiced swordsman. Probably had the calluses to prove it too.
Tossing another salute back at the General, who’d picked up the stranger’s sword in his other hand and was watching them warily as he set off, he began to shuffle back towards camp, the stranger a dead weight on his shoulders. “Better not wake up and try to raise hell,” he muttered under his breath, “I’ve got a promise to keep to a certain silver-haired General, if you know what I mean, and I’m not letting even someone as pretty as you fuck that up.”
It was almost an hour later—Zack had never been good with mentally keeping track of time, something that his instructors and various superiors had tried to drum into him with little success—before the blond stranger began to stir. By then Zack had brought the guy all the way back to camp and doused him with a good bit of brandy to keep up with his bullshit story of dragging a drunkard back to camp instead of leaving him for the ninjas to spear through in the morning. There’d been plenty of SOLDIERs around who probably could have noticed that the smell of alcohol wasn’t thick enough for even a normal person to get drunk off of, even a normal civilian, and certainly not anyone fit to wear the SOLDIER charcoals, but nights were often entirely too self-involved anyway. No one wanted to be here. It was the beginning of the end of a war that had lasted nearly a decade already, and everyone was tired.
Zack had stumbled into his tent with a groan of relief, rubbing at the knots in his neck ruefully, “You’d better be grateful not being killed on the spot, and putting my and the General’s career on the line for dragging you in here. I’m going to kick your ass all the way back to whatever souped-up training ground you popped out of, and make you wish you’d never even thought of picking up a sword like my beauty if you even think of attacking.”
When he’d received no answer, he’d resigned himself to the fact that he’d still have something of a wait. Maybe he shouldn’t have hit the guy quite so hard…
Either way, he stripped off the guy’s armlet that glittered with materia and several runes, stuffing it out of sight into his bedroll as a precaution. Now he only had to look out for the guy trying to break his neck. He could handle those odds. He hoped.
When the guy did wake, Zack had to hand it to him, he was quick. The eyelids fluttered once, before they snapped open, blue eyes focusing instantly on him without a trace of the disorientation that should have come after taking a blow like the one he’d dealt him. A second later Zack was on top of the guy, clamping down on the guy’s wrists and struggling to hold him down while the blond thrashed beneath him. Clearly he wasn’t all awake yet, just running on the most basic of instincts, and Zack just had to wait until he did wake up enough. But however small the guy was, he was strong—Zack knew he had had to be, having seen the way he’d had Sephiroth on the defensive like he had—and he was down on his back with a grunt, the guy pinning him down, with a grip like warm iron… Shinra charcoals suddenly felt too thin between the two of them as the stranger’s hips ground against his in the process and those weren’t thoughts he should be thinking at a time like this.
Also, struggling like that brought the stranger’s face an inch or two away from his, enough to bring the light dusting of pale freckles on the blond into sharp focus, as well as the faint beginnings of lines in that youngish face. Almost instantly, the guy stopped, and Zack heard the sound of a sharp inhalation.
“Zack…” the guy breathed, burying his nose in the side of his throat, voice thrumming in what could only be described as a purr.
It took a lot of nasty, nasty images of Palmer-on-Heidigger action—hey, desperate times, desperate measures—to keep all the blood in his brain from flooding between his legs at the sound of that. The fact that he had very little distinction whether this was approaching dryfucking or death helped matters a little. But only by a little.
He managed to keep back a groan, only by way of spouting the only other thing he could think of besides why are there pants? which was, “Uh… yeah. That’s me.”
Hardly fitting words to say to someone whose faintest brushes of his lips against Zack’s throat sent crazy fluttery feelings through the center of his chest, and hardly fitting words to say to someone who might break his neck at any given moment either.
The guy jerked his head up at the sound of his voice, and his eyes sharpened, Zack could see the pupils in those blue eyes dilate as they swept across his face.
The first expression that crossed his face was of shock, and then incredulous wonder, as if the guy didn’t quite believe he was really there.
And then the guy blushed. Hard. Like a tomato. Which somehow still managed to be ridiculously attractive, even when said tomato was topped with a shock of rumpled gold hair. “Oh shit, Zack. Fuck, I’m sorry—”
“Unngh,” he managed in reply as the guy slid off him immediately.
The blond didn’t stop until he’d retreated to the corner of the tent and seemed to realize what exactly he was in. Didn’t look all that happy about being enclosed, either, thin canvas walls or no. “Where am I?”
“Uh… I brought you back to my tent. Need to conduct an interrogation.”
Zack nearly flinched at just how unprofessional he sounded as he informed his ‘prisoner’ of this.
And it was dangerous. Who knew what might set this guy off?
One corner of the guy’s mouth lifted fractionally, the blush fast disappearing under the weight of something new, something altogether like resignation although Zack couldn’t figure out for the life of him why this guy would be resigned to anything, considering he probably had the capacity to bodily twist Zack up into a human blitzball and punt him all the way across camp. “Isn’t it proper Shinra military procedure to at least handcuff me?”
Well hell if the guy didn’t have a sense of humor. Maybe not all impossibly good fighters grew up in one of Hojo’s labs. Maybe it really was possible to be great without being born and bred that way.
And the idea of this guy cuffed and chained, and purring at him like he had been just a few seconds ago…
No. Concentrating. Focus. Zack was SOLDIER, damn it, and he would not be sidetracked by pretty.
Although being in SOLDIER certainly gave him the enhanced sense to notice the pretty all the more, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he had questions and he damned well wanted answers!
“I… I don’t know what I can tell you.”
Zack realized he’d said that last part out loud. Barely keeping himself from visibly fumbling for a reply, he came up with the obvious. “Okay… we’ll start with the basics then. I’m not going to bite, I swear. Got a name to you so that I can stop calling you ‘stranger’?”
The blond hesitated for a moment, and Zack almost regretted letting someone as dangerous and so damned freaking suspicious into his tent of all places, especially without backup. Then that weird determination was back in those big blues of the stranger’s and his lips twitched upwards into a faint little half smile. “Cloud. I’m Cloud.”
Something told him the blond wasn’t try to lie to him. Maybe it was the way those eyes shone, and not because of the mako, but as if they were incandescently lit from somewhere in their very depths, trying gamely to answer all he could, even if there was something he was damn well determined to keep locked up. And there was also something faintly bitter about that figure with his hands clasped together and watching him with those eyes, as if half-hoping for something, and yet was laughing at himself for trying, for even thinking it. It was faintly unnerving, as if Zack should know something, should be able to get what the man expected, but he’d never met this guy in his life, ever, and it wasn’t like he could forget a guy like this.
He’d stayed silent for too long, Cloud broke off eye-contact with him, and his lashes fluttered low as he stared at his hands instead; half-lidded blue framed in dark lashes, and Zack had to keep talking in order to keep from staring. “So… your eyes… were you… are you in SOLDIER?”
There was that little half smile again—yes now Zack was sure of the irony Cloud could not seem to really hold back from the twisting of those lips. “No. I pretended to be for a while… and hell, I believed it too. But it was all… all in my head. Someone set me straight about that, soon enough.” He glanced up at Zack, pinning him with those eyes again, as he choked out what sounded like the most self-deprecating laugh Zack’d ever heard, “I thought I was my best friend. Dreamed up some great grand past that wasn’t ever real.”
Zack wanted to reach out and touch him, reach out and wrap his arms around him and hug the guy close as if that would be enough, as if that would make everything better. He’d often felt the same way with Sephiroth… frustrated as if all the talking in the world couldn’t seem to help, and he wanted to understand and be understood, as if touching would actually help divine the truth that he was trying to relay to the man.
But he’d never try with Sephiroth, certainly wouldn’t yet when the man shied away from the least touch like it was a blow struck out against him—Zack hurt to think that was the only way the man had ever been touched. And he would hardly try with this man who was still a stranger, even though he had the same eyes as the General—the kind that said he was somehow broken and quite possibly beyond repair.
“So your eyes…?”
“Not quite sure what they did to me.” Cloud passed a hand in front of his eyes, grimacing. “Never wanted to go back to find out.”
Zack wasn’t entirely sure what the guy was talking about because it hinted of darker secrets, stuff he’d always suspected and what Sephiroth himself had sometimes hinted at, but it was something he didn’t know. He made a mental note to tell Sephiroth that important bit because if this stranger was spilling out dark little Shinra secrets that weren’t supposed to be heard by the common SOLDIER, that might mean he was one of those black marks the Turks were after. And it was never really a good idea to mess with those if one wanted to keep up a healthy aversion to bullets. The Turks caught up with everyone in the end, after all.
“And your—” Zack hesitated in his attempt to change the subject before he continued boldly on, “your sword?”
“I guess you recognized it?”
“What can I say?” Zack replied, feigning carelessness in his shrug, “A beauty like that’s pretty damned hard to miss. Especially when I thought I had the only one on the Planet.”
Cloud let out a short bark of laughter that still somehow managed to come out slightly strangled. “You’ve looked it over, haven’t you? Does it meet your standards?”
“It’s been used, but not lately. It isn’t your only sword, is it?”
“You catch on quick.” Cloud slapped his pockets in an empty gesture anyway, “Don’t have the others though; broke them, sold them, handed them off to the next generation of mindless killers and left the only other I kept with it back in my own… home.”
Zack didn’t comment on that slight pause of a hesitation, but he certainly filed it away as well. “And how do you know Sephiroth?”
Cloud’s eyebrow quirked up, “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Come on, don’t be like that to me… what dark little secrets are you hiding?”
“I know a lot more about him than he does himself right now.” Cloud gave another hollow little laugh that hurt to listen to, because whatever knowledge he had had to be downright painful to bear. And whatever it was, he was probably not going to just blurt it out to some ambitious Second Class who couldn’t even hold the man down.
“Then… how do you know me?”
The blond was silent for a moment. “I sometimes think I know you better than I know myself,” he answered cryptically, and refused to say any more. From the haunted look in his face, Zack didn’t press. He really wasn’t cut out for this interrogation business. Too nice for one, didn’t want to press when the guy didn’t know what to say, wasn’t even sure if he was asking the damned questions properly.
And there was something about that man…
Perhaps he was just royally fucked in the head, because he wanted to make things better for this guy, make that look wash away like it’d never been there. He wanted to see this man’s real smile, not that faint and fractional lift of the corners of his lips. Maybe after Seph, he was just keen on adopting each and every ridiculously over-leveled killer he found.
Or perhaps it could be the curve of the man’s lips, that deep clear blue of his eyes under gold lashes, and that hair like a—
Cloud’s head jerked up, staring at him. “What?”
Note to self, Zack thought hastily to himself, never speak without thinking when in the presence of crazed psycho killers. Very, very detrimental to health and personal safety. But Cloud didn’t look mad, just… startled.
“You haven’t looked in a mirror lately either, have you?” Cloud muttered, cocking his head and watching him keenly as he spoke, probing him, waiting for an answer with a look so like Sephiroth when the man was trying to play Zack’s game.
Zack blinked, recovering quite quickly if he did say so himself, considering he didn’t know what on earth Cloud was getting at. “Well what can I say? All the time roughing it out here, marching dawn and dust without a bird to take me, haven’t had time to find something shiny enough to primp with. Tin mugs only go so far to help elucidate my dashing good looks.”
“Big words for someone who never noticed he had hair like a hedgehog.”
And that made him splutter. “Hedgehog?”
“No?” Cloud paused, and what might have been wry laughter flickered in his eyes for a moment, and Zack wondered if the man really had a sense of humor somewhere in all that dark melancholy. “Perhaps you should ask Sephiroth if he’d like to stop prowling around this tent and come in and give his opinion on the subject. I promise I won’t try to kill him.” Those full lips tightened, “Yet.”
“You’re a reassuring person, I see. Your friends ever tell you that?”
Cloud shrugged, looking quickly down at his hands, but not before Zack had seen the twisting of his lips, and quite possibly even the faintest beginning of an unshed tear. “It’s as good as I can give.”
“You know he could spear you through right this very instant, don’t you?” Zack wasn’t entirely sure when the General had finished off his patrol and made his way back here, but someone else on his side was a hell of a good thing, especially if this Cloud could stand to play nice.
“All too well. And that’s an experience I’d rather go without while unarmed, if it’ll please him.”
Well it wasn’t exactly flowers and fluffy green chocobos kind of humor, but this guy still had Seph beat when it came to trying.
When the General appeared in the entranceway, both Zack and Cloud could see the glint of moon- and firelight on the Masamune. Cloud immediately tensed, blue eyes stony, but he didn’t move, and his gloved hands were clasped together hard enough to make the weathered leather squeak in protest.
Zack was quick to intervene. “Oh no sir, we’re not letting you bring that flagpole of a sword in here… place isn’t big enough for the three of us and the embodiment of your ego too.”
Cloud let out what sounded almost like an unwilling snort of amusement, “I’d listen to him, Sephiroth. He won’t quit the euphemisms until you do.”
Zack had a wounded look on his face when he returned the majority of his attention back to the blond, “Now that’s just plain mean. I have nothing against his need for—”
“—propor—” Zack stopped, frowning at the idea of being predictable. “…overcompensation.”
He cast a quick glance at his superior immediately afterwards. Sephiroth was frowning at him, but he didn’t look ready to cut out Zack’s tongue just yet. Zack could live with that.
“Ah. Convenient answer, Zack. How long’d it take you to come up with that one?”
The corners of Cloud’s lips had flickered upward again, and something about his voice told Zack the blond was being far from condescending. He was playing with him, and though this was a hell of a situation to be doing that in, it didn’t mean Zack didn’t appreciate.
“Has Zack been able to ask you anything of relevance in this apparent sham of an interrogation?” Sephiroth finally asked in a deceptively mild voice, watching the boy warily but with an interest his solemn face couldn’t hide.
“He hasn’t offered me baked goods yet,” Cloud murmured, eyes flickering to the canvas wall of the tent as if to avoid looking at the General. “So I guess that means he still hasn’t officially broken the rules.”
Zack blinked at this all-too-accurate judge of his character. “How long were you out for?”
“…However long after you hit me. Not even I can take a good blow to a nerve cluster and come out singing.” Cloud grimaced and rubbed the back of his head with one hand, “And I was starting to ignore it properly too.”
“Er… yeah about that. Think you need a Cure?”
“Non-regulation uses are strictly forbidden in times of war,” Cloud and Sephiroth both replied at once, as if they were quoting directly from the Shinra procedural manual. Which they probably were if Zack knew anything about Sephiroth.
Their eyes darted to each others’ immediately after as if it’d been orchestrated and they held that look for a long moment. Cloud dropped his eyes first, looking down and away, his lips pursing in a way that Zack would probably have found irresistibly kissable if he’d come across them while ranging the bars under the Plate back in Midgar and not skulking around in a tent with a possible—hell, probable¬—fugitive from the law. Still, whatever he was, Cloud knew Shinra if he could quote the manual verbatim. And an encyclopedia had nothing on Shinra’s Complete and Unabridged.
“If you’d give me back my armlet,” Cloud commented dryly, “I could probably do it myself.”
Zack and Cloud both turned to look at Sephiroth again, who’d given a firm shake of his head. “No matter your actions at this moment, you still acted hostilely against a high-ranking officer in the Shinra army in the middle of a war, and I will not trust that all you will cast is a simple Cure on yourself.”
Cloud’s lip quirked up again, “You might have just said, ‘no way in hell, you’d just call Odin down to spear me in the ass’ and I’d have believed you then, too.”
That caused Zack to blink, because it sounded suspiciously like something he’d say if he were ever in a similar situation while facing the General. And wasn’t in any danger of being mauled.
Clearly Cloud thought it must’ve been something odd for him to say too because he stopped and blinked. “Er… well, I mean it’s minor, anyhow.”
Zack wasn’t sure, but the glance the guy shot to him was like one you’d give to your best friend when the conversation between him and a pretty girl started to flag, like someone he needed to toss the ball to and quick. Which was weird, because you didn’t just get that kind of reflexive assumption, the kind that seemed to bypass the brain and all the thinking involved entirely, unless you were really close with them. But he could take a hint nonetheless.
“In any case, sir. He tells me his name’s Cloud.”
“Somehow it doesn’t surprise that that might be the only piece of relevant information you were able to obtain in all the time I left you with this man.”
“…He also tells me he’s not in SOLDIER, sir.”
Cloud was watching them both, with a slight frown as if he didn’t altogether understand what was going on. Which was ridiculous, because Zack was just regurgitating information he’d just given minutes before. But Zack could see how Cloud’s eyes flickered from him to Sephiroth, and then back to him. There had also been surprise, Zack had noted, especially when he’d referred to his superior officer as ‘sir’, as if that was surprising instead of anything else Zack might have addressed the General as.
One of Sephiroth’s eyebrows had risen at the SOLDIER comment though, and Zack looked sharp to pay attention to how Sephiroth digested this information, taking in the mako eyes and the obvious—if somewhat battered—SOLDIER-issue charcoals the guy was wearing, anew. “I see.”
Zack thought he’d done a pretty damn good rendition of a proper interrogation if that was as far as Sephiroth was going to pick up where he’d left off.
Wow, this is the first time a single chapter of mine's been way too big for a single post in LJ. Next part can be found here.