Long Time Passing
Author's note: fics written prior to the release of Advent Children use Zax Darklighter instead of Zack Fair.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
Snow in Midgar always seemed like it knew it was getting away with something. Nature was not easily welcomed in the city; most greenery had given up long ago and rain conformed to the city's sensibilities by being as smelly and polluted as possible. But snow snuck in and silvered the top plate with a memory of the way things ought to be. Especially when it first started and before it became a muddy sludge that never seemed to melt, snow was the one trace of a real season left in Midgar's two-part cycle of shimmering smoggy heat or bitter, sharp-edged cold.
Zax Darklighter was feeling pretty charitable towards it, thinking he too was getting away with something and would get caught any moment. The fact that he really did have quarters in the upper level officer's barracks and enough gil in his pockets to buy Gongaga had not quite managed to sink in yet. It had only been a week ago that he was neck-deep in steaming jungle, and Sephiroth had graciously accepted Wutai's unconditional surrender in exchange for withdrawal of most of the ShinRa troops.
He knew he had been promoted, of course. That went through a month ago. But in a combat environment, being a SOLDIER First Class just meant that there were twice as many people trying to kill you. Only when he got back to Midgar did the full number of privileges afforded to his rank finally hit home. Zax my man, he told himself, standing in the spacious main room of his new company housing with his duffel sagging from one shoulder, you have arrived.
His first winter in Midgar had been less comfortable, sharing an abandoned pipe in a squatters' slum in lower Sixth. There had been no snow there, only biting cold that never seemed to relent. He would have given anything for a snug apartment then, and would never have left it. Now, he pulled on a leather coat that he could never have afforded back home, waved his ID at the gatepost, and plunged willingly into the decadent flurry of a midwinter snowfall in the city.
Neon gleamed in the darkness, countless bar signs and streetlights strung together in a glittering web, warm welcome out of the cold. Ipsen, in rehab now, had recommended The Saucy Summoner on Centra Avenue as the best beer and burgers in the whole of the city. It was easy walking distance even in the snow, but Zax let himself get a little bit lost, circling down side streets and gambling on the outcome. The alley he was following opened unexpectedly onto a train station plaza, quietly abandoned in the way after a city rush-hour, when the "next arriving" sign counted the minutes in double digits. The benches were covered in a thickening blanket of white, and even the busy traffic on Nortune one block over was hushed.
Zax stood under the halo of an orange streetlight and looked up into the falling snow, drinking up the hush and the dizzying whirl of falling flakes, feeling intoxicated on nothing but the air he was breathing. It was like being in his own personal snowglobe, the kind they used to sell around Christmastime in Gongaga, where it never even snowed. He felt like plunging up into the sky, into the lights and the snow and the darkness, like a meteor burning on the glory of realized dreams.
"You'll fall over like that."
Zax, startled, promptly did so-- right into a snowdrift that was mostly gravelly plowed ice under a thin coat of snow. He groaned, shifting his weight on a sore tailbone. "Ugh. That looked more fluffy than it felt."
"I'm sorry!" the girl said, putting down her basket and reaching down to help him back up. "I didn't expect you to jump like that!" The hand that closed on Zax's was ungloved and inexplicably warm. Almost as warm as the smile right above it, shining bright in a pair of lush, leaf-green eyes that had no business being in Midgar. "Are you all right?"
Oh hell yeah, Zax thought, though the most of that sentiment he let get out was a lopsided grin. "Look at me. Not out of combat for a week, and I'm already getting rusty!"
"I thought you might be in SOLDIER," the girl said, brushing snow off the front of Zax's jacket. "Though you must be new; I know most of the ones that take the train from here. I'm Aeris."
Zax blinked at her. A lone girl at a train station who claimed to know most of the guys in the corps? If he had heard it, and not seen her, he would have drawn a few conclusions as to her occupation. But there was no way that smile belonged to a girl of negotiable affections. She was pink and cheerful even though her coat seemed far too thin for the weather, her hair drawn up in a green bow. She bent down to pick up her basket and belatedly Zax saw that it was filled to the brim with flowers. Not the waxy, hard, greenhouse blooms hawked out of buckets for outrageous prices at Midgar street corners. These blossoms were soft and fragile and white, as real as springtime, the sort of flowers Zax had not seen since leaving home.
"You're a florist girl?" He asked, looking idly around the square to se if there was a nearby shop she belonged to, or perhaps a stand next to the shuttered newspaper vendor. His glance was only cursatory; he really didn't want to take his gaze off her for long.
Aeris giggled. "Nothing like that. I grow these under the plate, and come up here to sell them. You'd be surprised how many people like to buy flowers in this town!" She proffered her basket shyly, as though not wanting to impose.
Zax cupped his hand under one of the heavy white blossoms, golden stamens powdering his gloved fingers like stardust. They didn't smell like lilies did usually, there was something too fresh and clean about them. "They're beautiful," he said, but his eyes were distracted by the shape of her hands around the worn handle of her basket, the cheerfully chaotic jumble of silver bangles on her wrist. She smelled like the flowers.
"You like them?" Aeris beamed, as though he had just complimented her on something dear that no one else had ever noticed. "You know, if you just moved into the barracks up here, some flowers might spruce up your place a little."
Zax glanced up at her, his mind flickering through the conversation even though he knew he had never mentioned that. "How did you know I just got promoted?"
For the first time she was uncertain, and did not quite meet his eyes. "Oh! I-- was just guessing. Because I hadn't seen you before."
"It's a pretty good guess." Zax stuffed his hands in the pockets of his coat. "How much are they?"
Aeris shrugged dismissively. "Just a gil each."
Zax found his gaze drawn back to the flowers, whiter still than the snow falling lightly on their petals, unbowed and unseasonal in the frost. "That's not much to pay for something that gave up its life."
Aeris' eyes flickered for a moment, something moving greenly beyond them like a slow dream. Zax was inexplicably reminded of his first session of mako treatments. "They have to be picked now, or there won't be more flowers later. Sometimes flowers have to be picked early, for the next ones to bloom." Her smile turned impish, as though to counter the weight of the words. "I can't let them all go to seed, you know! My garden is pretty tiny."
"I'm surprised it's a garden at all, under the plate." Zax looked in his wallet, and frowned. He had only just gotten paid, and even if he bought her whole basket, he didn't have anything close to small enough change. "Looks like I've only got big bills."
"Oh." Aeris lowered her basket slightly. "I see."
"But," Zax continued, "I'd be happy to buy them off you once I break this fifty... say, over dinner someplace? I hear there's a spot on Centra that's got the best burgers in town...?"
Aeris put her fingertips to her lips, as though she wanted to restrain a smile that was a little to revealing. "I'm a vegetarian," she said. Zax's expression must have mirrored her own disappointed one from a moment before, as she added hurriedly, "But if we're thinking of the same place, they have the best onion rings anywhere. Strawberry milkshakes are good, too. But I can never finish one by myself, they bring you a whole extra canister."
Zax crunched a step forward in the snow, and offered his elbow. "Sounds like everybody wins, then."
She tucked her hand in the curve of his jacket, snowy wind blowing one loose curl across her cheek. "It seems we've got a deal then, Mr..."
"Darklighter," Zax said, leading her across the snowy plaza. "Zax Darklighter, SOLDIER First Class."
"That's strange," Aeris said, slowing a step. "I thought--"
Zax cocked an eyebrow at her. If anybody here was strange, it wasn't him. "What?"
Aeris picked up her pace again, smiling in a way that made up for any earlier hesitation. "Oh, just something silly. You know how sometimes you look at people and think you know their name? I'm usually really good at it." She laughed a little. "But boy, I had you wrong! You must be distracting."
"I'm hoping that's a good sign," Zax said, shaking snow out of his hair and taking Aeris' basket. As he hoped, once both her hands were free she tucked them together in the crook of his arm. Watching the springtime of her face in the falling snow, he never noticed that the flowers had begun to go transparent at the edges, freezing in a cold they were never meant to know.