Redemption Day : Chapter 2
"Hey. Hey, Strife. C'mon, wake up."
Cloud mumbled into his folded arms, dull blue eyes trying to focus. He would have protested that the bar was really a lot more comfortable than his barracks, but his tongue got twisted around the words and they just came out in a dazed sort of slur.
"Jenova, Strife, you didn't need to drink EIGHT of those. C'mon, you can come back to my place..."
Strong hands picked him up by the armpits, slinging him easily over one shoulder. Cloud turned his face into warm dark hair that smelled like gunsmoke and sunshine, and murmured sleepily. "mmbut... curfew..."
Someone swatted him across the ass. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it."
Cloud, grateful to have a friend who could pull strings, passed out cold on Zax's shoulder.
"Cloud, Cloud, are you okay? Wake up!"
Cloud blinked, his eyes looking for the sky that had been there a second ago, but all he saw was a rather large expanse of soft, curved white. "huh?"
Tifa sat back heavily on her heels, and the sky came back as her chest moved out of Cloud's vision. "Oh, good, I thought you'd gone off on me again!" She fussed over him, brushing the hair out of his eyes and bits of greenery off his chest, and Cloud batted her hands away impatiently, rubbing at his eyes.
"Musta banged my head," he muttered, sitting up despite Tifa's protests.
"Cloud, maybe you should stay down." She put her hands on his chest, trying to enforce her statement. "You still look a little green. I told you to get out of the sun before you gave yourself heatstroke!" She scowled faintly at him, still managing to sound relieved.
"Yeah, musta been." Heatstroke, of course. He'd been sitting in the sun all morning working on that generator, and it had dazed him somehow, because he was sure he'd seen-
"Is he awake?" Someone asked, the voice ricocheting through Cloud's memory. He swayed on the spot, and Tifa flung her arms out to catch him.
"I told you not to come over here! You want to give him a heart attack? Showing up out of the blue! Honestly!"
"He's not THAT much of a wimp, Miss Lockhart. And what did you want me to do, send out 'back from the dead' notices?"
"Well at least-" Tifa began.
"...the hell?" Cloud mumbled, and pushed Tifa out of the way, trying to focus on the shadow above him. Different clothes, and the stance not quite right-favoring his left leg. But then he tilted his head and gods the grin was the same, like three years ago, like jarflies in Nibelheim buzzing with summer, like smoke and fire and a madman's laughter. "...zax?" and even to his own ears his voice sounded small, sounded sixteen, sounded disbelieving. "...alive?"
He took a step forward and Cloud's mind fumbled on small details, following the uneven gait and the leg that didn't work quite right underneath him, the hollowness in his eyes, the way his clothing hung loosely on his frame. A jagged white streak threaded its way through spiky black hair and Cloud found his fingers twitching in the grass, aching to touch it and see if it was real.
"So," Zax said, his voice a bit rough, "what did I miss?"
Tifa made a small noise and put her hands to her mouth, Cloud didn't need to see her to tell she was waiting for one or the both of them to run into the other's arms. He didn't, though, getting to his feet slowly and absently brushing dirt off of his pants - the ones that had once been Zax's.
"Not much," Cloud shrugged, wishing his voice more casual, his hands less shaky. "Just the end of the world."
"I was awake for that bit," Zax said, and flashed his grin, and maybe Cloud would run to him, Tifa watching or no. "So you gonna tell me what happened, or what?"
"...that's it?" Hours later, sitting outside with the slow breathy sound of the gas lantern on the table between them, moths fluttering gleefully around the light. "You always were a shitty storyteller, Strife." Tifa had brought the lantern after the sun had gone down and they showed no signs of finishing their conversation at the inn, where the rooms were hot and stuffy and not conducive to either sleeping or catching up on the past. There were four empty bottles on the table between them; Tifa had brought those too, with dinner, mumbling something about once a waitress, always a waitress.
"You should have asked one of the others to tell it." Cloud peeled the label off his bottle and held it to the small flaming mantle of the lantern, watching as it curled and turned black between his callused thumb and forefinger. "they could have told it better."
"I doubt it." Zax lifted his head to the stars. They shone more here than they ever had before on the outskirts of Kalm, without Midgar's overpowering glow on the western horizon. The whole world seemed brighter in those days, green and rich and thrumming with life, even this late in summer. Cloud supposed that all things considered he should not be too surprised to be sitting at a picnic table behind the Black Chocobo Inn in Kalm, toasting the past with Zax Darklighter.
"what happened to you, Zax?" Cloud asked at last, trying not to memorize his profile, some part of him intent to never forget again. "I thought -"
"I don't really know," Zax said, and Cloud tilted his head, not sure if it was the glare of the lantern between them or if Zax was avoiding his eyes. "I don't remember much after - after I was shot. I think I must have passed out, or something. I came to somewhere in the slums, with this practically useless," he gestured to his leg, "and flat on my back. Don't know how I was alive. I didn't remember anything, then. Some old lady had found me while she was scavenging around the outskirts of the city. She was a little..." Zax gestured to his temple, implying mental instability. "Thought I was her son." Zax shrugged, sighing. "He's probably been dead for years, but I was so out of it I didn't know I wasn't her kid. I spent most of the time unconscious, anyway. Couldn't walk." The gold mako glow in his dark eyes seemed to fade a little, hands turning the beer bottle slowly, one thumb smoothing the label. "But then something happened. It was like half of me was trying to peel away and leave the rest of me behind. Somebody calling for me. I started remembering." He looked up at Cloud, and the night seemed suddenly heavy, pressing in around the small flame of their lantern, making Cloud's fingers twitch for his sword-hilt.
"You know, don't you?" Zax sounded young this time, and he fumbled with the sleeve of his work shirt, the one that looked so wrong on him. His skin was pale from years without sun, the muscle not as firm as Cloud remembered. In the lamplight the tattoo shone like ink in fresh snow, Zax's number etched with scientific precision into his skin.
"I never got one," Cloud said, running one finger over the lines. "It probably saved my life."
Zax shook his shaggy head. "You're allergic to everything, Strife. Onions, ragweed, mako..."
"Oh, shut up." Cloud said, but he was grinning. "So I'm a loser. It saved my ass."
"Yeah." Zax's eyes narrowed and the glow was back, hot gold in his brown irises, still pale next to Cloud's unearthly blue, overexposure to mako causing them to almost shine through his shut lids. "Guess it did."
"Go on," Cloud encouraged, as a moth caught fire in the lantern and died in a tiny flare. "I know you heard him."
"It didn't matter." Zax swatted a mosquito that had landed near his tattoo, flicking it away. "I couldn't go anywhere. Just lay there screaming for a few weeks. Got me this." He ruffled his fingers through his hair, the white stripe silver in the lamplight.
"I think it looks cool," Cloud demurred. "Dye it purple or something."
"You would say so." Zax yawned, stretching. "It stopped, though. Real sudden-like. No voices in my head, nothing. I started tryin' to walk, moving around. Finally was getting somewhere, and then the whole fucking world tried to come down on top of my head. Killed my old lady." Zax sighed, frowning at his hands. "Her heart wasn't good. Couldn't take it. I don't think she ever realized who I was. Taking care of me was all she was living for, anyway."
"Reeve said he tried to evacuate the slums..." Cloud looked over his shoulder to where Midgar lay, silent under the skies. "I suppose she wouldn't go. Lot of people already going back, beats me why."
"Home is home, I guess. We were in a refurbished drain pipe, dunno if anybody knew we were there." Zax said. "but the plate didn't come down on me and the next morning I was able to drag us outta there. Got a few guys to help me bury her, and what were they all rattling on about but the great fucking hero of the world, Cloud Strife."
Cloud had the presence of mind not to blush. Too much. "People say all kindsa shit."
"Yeah, well the dish they were laying out on you was that you single-handedly polished Him off." Zax arched an eyebrow. "You can see why my interest was piqued."
"It didn't really happen like that," Cloud mumbled, to the peeling paint on the picnic table. "I told you like it was."
"I would have tried to look for you anyway," Zax said, shoving the lantern to the side to catch Cloud's hand in his. "Least this way I knew you were still alive."
For a long moment they were silent, no sound between them but the sigh of the lantern and the cries of peepers in the long damp grass by the well, a chorus of crickets singing gleefully.
"It's late," Cloud said finally, standing and letting Zax's fingers slide from his. "You must be tired. Vincent went to Nibelheim this afternoon to take some parts in that Reeve wanted; you can stay with me."
"I appreciate it." Zax gestured to his shirt. "I haven't got much gil to my name."
"You think I don't owe you more than a night's bed?" Cloud shook his head, smiling ruefully. "By rights I ought to be putting you up in the Midgar Palace Hotel."
"It's not there anymore," Zax grinned, and they smirked at each other in the lamplight.
"Fuck, Zax, it's good to see you," Cloud breathed.
"Yeah." Zax's eyes narrowed, and there were faint lines at the edges that Cloud didn't remember being there. "Yeah, good to see you too."
Cloud picked up the lantern and their shadows bounced on the dark grass as they walked back to the inn. "I got the key here somewhere." Cloud dug in his pockets. "oh, yeah, Tifa left it open for me. Zax, you comin'?"
Zax stood with his back to the starry sky, his eyes tilted to the northern horizon. He had gone almost completely still, watching the sky. He didn't appear to have heard Cloud.
"Huh?" Zax tore his eyes away, and blinked once. "Oh, yeah. Sorry, Cloud." And Cloud couldn't help but notice as he limped across the inn-yard that twice Zax's dark head lifted to the northern stars, his eyes unblinking, breathing stilled as if listening to the sky.
"...it's just not natural, don't you think, Tifa? Just because Cloud -"
"Just because Cloud what?" Cloud asked, And Yuffie jumped, her hand to her mouth.
"Cloud! I er, I didn't hear you coming." Yuffie put on her best smile.
"Yeah, I'll bet you didn't." Cloud put down the load of sylkis greens he was carrying and rubbed at a crick in his neck. "what're you two whispering about?"
"Nothing!" Yuffie trilled, hands behind her back.
"She doesn't trust Zax," Tifa said, without looking up from the transmitter she was tuning, and missing Yuffie's indignant glare.
"Really, Yuffie?" Cloud said evenly. "and why is that?"
"Wellll..." Yuffie twisted her fingers together. "He's just... he's just awfully quiet."
"I can see how someone like you would find that threatening," Cloud grinned, and Tifa chuckled as she reached for her soldering tool.
"He has got a point. You said the same thing about Vincent, too."
Yuffie put her hands on her hips. "I'm still not sure I trust Vincent, either. He's been weirder than usual lately."
Cloud picked up the greens again. "Well neither one of them ever ripped off my materia, Yuffster, so I think you can give up on the untrustworthy factor."
Yuffie flushed. "that's something else entirely. He's a clone, Cloud."
Cloud's face darkened. "So am I, Yuffie."
Yuffie bit her lip, and said nothing as Cloud brushed by her. Once he was past he heard her scampering off, and Tifa swearing under her breath. He forgot, too often, how young Yuffie was. Oh, well. It didn't give her an excuse to be a brat.
"Feeding time?" Zax asked mildly, looking up as Cloud approached the broad shady tree where an impromptu rope paddock had been set up. Zax sat underneath it, a pile of rusty gear parts in his lap. "Good thing, since this overgrown chicken of yours has been trying to eat my hair for the last hour."
"Roni is not an overgrown chicken," Cloud said, grinning. "He's a five time racing champion and the reason we've got as much money and supplies as we do. His ass is worth more than mine." He ruffled the gold chocobo's neck feathers, and the large bird crooned appreciatively. "And once the other two are old enough to ride we won't have to rely on the Highwind and the choppers all the time. Rufus already wants to buy three, once we get them ready."
"Still can't believe you trust that guy," Zax muttered, groping in the grass for his wrench. "but I'll take your word that he's not like his old man. What the hell did you do to this generator, Strife?"
Cloud shook some greens into Roni's trough. "You know I'm not mechanically minded."
"I'll say," Zax muttered, reaching up to scratch the Chocobo's head as it dug greedily into its trough. "At least it makes me feel useful."
"You've been a great help, these past couple of weeks." Cloud folded his legs underneath him, sinking to the grass with a sigh. Zax had known almost as much about the Highwind as Cid did, and his training in SOLDIER had not gone to waste, since he knew the locations of three hidden munitions storage facilities, which had turned up much-needed supplies, materia, and rations. Yuffie may not have trusted him, but Cloud was glad to have an extra ally. Even if, like now, he would sometimes turn his face to the sky, a faint frown between his eyebrows, his hand moving absently over his bad leg.
"What?" Cloud asked, knowing Zax would dismiss it.
"Nothing." Zax shrugged. "Just thinking." The weeks of hard work and Tifa's exceptionally good cooking had put the bulk back into his shoulders, his gait was not so uneven now. Long hours in the sun had turned his skin to gold to match his mako-eyes, black hair threaded with amber.
"Thinking about what?" Cloud pressured, trying to corner him.
"That I didn't mean to upset your teamwork." Zax nodded meaningfully to the inn. "Yuffie never has anything nice to say to me."
"Yuffie," Cloud said, with a pained noise, "is sixteen. She drives us all to drink."
Zax chuckled. "I think she has a little crush on me." He grinned. "I didn't mean to hurt her feelings."
"Well, it's not like I blame her." Cloud winked slyly at Zax. "The crush part, I mean."
Zax rolled his eyes. "Hey, you keep away from me, Strife. You gotta vampire ex-Turk boyfriend that I sure as hell don't want to cross." He glanced around the meadow behind the inn, where Cloud and his group had set up shop. "Speaking of which, I haven't seen him."
Cloud shrugged. "Vincent comes and goes. I've learned not to try and keep tabs on him. Haven't seen him for a few days."
Zax raised an eyebrow. "I'd hate to think I'm intruding on a normal, functional relationship."
Cloud just laughed, and it felt good to do it, in the shade with the wind in the tree. "Vincent? Normal? Yeah, right. Besides, he's probably just giving us some space, you know. To catch up. Anyway, you wanna take a break for a beer or some -" Zax wasn't listening, instead gazing steadily northward, his hand hovering over a spark plug on his knee, eyes distant. He didn't even notice as Cloud stood up and backed away, trying to fight the uneasy feeling that maybe, for once, Yuffie was right.
"I have to go."
Sunset made the whole sky red and violet, clouds blossoming like golden flowers. Their shadows were long, emaciated things, flickering over the high blowing grasses. Cloud hesitated, then hopped down out of the Highwind's engine access panel. "Cid wanted another tank of extra fuel, Zax, could you remind me to put it in tomorrow before he takes off for Mideel?"
"Cloud, I have to go."
Cloud ran a hand through his hair, talking a bit too fast. "I'll forget, you know, without somebody to remind me, and Cid'll have kittens if he's got to buy fuel in Mideel, it's so fucking expensive..."
"Cloud." Zax held out both his hands as if in supplication, and Cloud hung his head.
"I know. I know, Zax." He looked up at him, and his eyes were bright with more than mako. "You think I don't know what you've been hearing, the past month? I'm not stupid."
Zax lowered his hands and looked away. North, always North. "I know you're not stupid, Cloud."
"You shouldn't go." Cloud hugged himself, chilled as the sun dipped towards the western horizon. "I don't know what he's telling you, but you shouldn't go."
"He's not telling me anything," Zax said, and his voice was soft, barely audible over the wind. "I don't think he knows anyone's listening."
Cloud gritted his teeth, realizing suddenly that he was bitterly, insanely jealous. "I don't hear him."
"He's cold," Zax continued, as if he hadn't heard. "So cold, and confused, and ...lonely..."
"It's a trick," Cloud said, and in his mind the words were calm, even. "It's a trick, Zax. It's a lie and he's dead and I don't care and I don't care and you can't you won't I won't let you damn you damn him I won't let him have you!"
And it penetrated Cloud's mind that Zax had been yelling it for some time now, that there was blood trickling down his nose and Zax's shirt in his fists and they were both in the grass, and Cloud was sobbing for air, his voice raw as if he'd been screaming. Zax slowly released Cloud's shoulders and slid out from underneath him, wincing as it jarred his injured leg.
"Cloud?" Zax reached out a hand, but it fell short of Cloud's shoulder. "Cloud, are you all right?"
"He's dead." Cloud said, rather desperately, punching the ground with his fist. "He's dead."
"I -" Zax began, obviously uncomfortable with disturbing Cloud's reality. "I'm not sure that he is, Cloud."
The sun had gone down.
Cloud was silent a long moment, hugging his bruised ribs. They must have fought, and fought badly. He rubbed at his bleeding nose and sat back on his heels. "How long have you heard him, now?"
Zax shrugged. "What, coherently? You mean the confusion and the cold and not 'come-here-do-my-bidding'?" He sighed. "A week or so after meteor fell. I knew I had to come find you." He looked Cloud squarely in the eye. "I can't go alone."
Cloud caught his breath. "You want me to come with you?"
Zax made a derisive noise and gestured down at himself. "Yeah, fine sight I'd make, hobbling down the North Crater, using my buster sword as a crutch. I'm in no shape for that. I don't know that I ever will be again." He pulled at the grass furiously, shredding it with his fingers. "Now I'm the weak one, Strife. Now I need you."
Cloud blinked. He had seen Zax's leg, the fine mesh of machine-bullet scarring that ran the length of his left thigh, had traced the fine thin twin scars, front and back of his abdomen, that marked the entry and exit wound of a slender steel blade. Never, in all those nights had he thought of Zax as he thought of him now, as someone wounded, broken. "Does he...remember... anything?" Cloud had struggled not to ask, does he remember me?
Zax shook his head. "I don't think so. Like I said, it's not like he knows anyone is hearing it. It's just this keening, like, as if he's - "
"Calling for help."
And both of them jumped, fumbling for weapons before a red-cloaked shadow detached itself from the side of the Highwind. Vincent's gold arm flashed in the twilight as he waved them back down.
"Can't you say 'hello' like a normal person?" Cloud demanded, a bit peevishly.
"You hear him, too?" Zax asked, using Cloud to get to his feet.
Vincent inclined his head. "Of course. If possible, my Jenova-cell count is even higher than yours. However, not being a proper clone, the connection is somewhat - unclear. I've spent the last few weeks under the gracious hospitality of the Turks. Tseng was more than happy to let me investigate Hojo's notes on the subject."
"Why don't I hear him, then?" Cloud demanded, knowing it was useless to hope that Vincent would say he'd missed him.
Vincent turned summon-materia red eyes to Cloud, and made an apologetic noise. "Jenova cells never grew properly in you, Cloud. An empathic response would be the most you could get, probably. You have a high percentage of mako influence, yes, but very few Jenova cells."
"Onions, ragweed, and mako, Strife," Zax was grinning. He had a black eye.
"Shuttup," Cloud said, but there was no heat in it. He turned his face north, to where the first stars were creeping out. An empathic reaction? If he closed his eyes he could imagine, even with the warm summer night air on his skin, the swirl of ice crystals and snow, the dull green glow of a mako pool, a ripple of silver hair - He stopped and shook his head violently. "Sephiroth is dead." Cloud said, and he turned to face the other two. "I saw the Lifestream take him in. Maybe I was almost dead then, too. Maybe it wasn't real. So I'm going with you."
Zax took a step forward, and Cloud held up his hand. "With the understanding," Cloud continued, "That if he is there, and he turns out to be malevolent, I'll kill him again if necessary. And anyone supporting him. Got that?"
Zax blinked, and Cloud got the impression that for the first time Zax was seeing him as he was, not the inept ShinRa guard he remembered. "All right, Cloud."
Vincent just nodded.
"We can leave tomorrow. The two new Golds should be ready to ride, we can take them. And we probably shouldn't tell anybody what we're doing; Tifa would pop all her capillaries if she knew."
"Right." Zax nodded. "We can say we're looking for another munitions stash."
"I know the sword is your first weapon, Zax," Vincent said, starlight flickering on his gold claw. "but as you may temporarily have problems with that, I am certain I have a handgun you can equip yourself with."
Zax looked at him a long moment, thoughtfully. "Yeah, you're a Turk, all right. Something about the way all of you talk. Terrorist diplomacy." He grinned. "And I like the way you say 'temporarily'."
Vincent bowed. "I have no doubt that you will make a full recovery, Zax."
The wind scuttled through the high branches, cool with the approach of night. They all turned their faces to the sky at the same moment, and Cloud could believe in a faint noise on the wind, a sigh, a question, a cold kiss like a snowflake from a summer sky. There were no words, but for a moment he remembered being wet to the skin with mako, swirling endlessly in the Lifestream. He shook himself to find Zax with his eyes still half shut, leaning into the wind, and Vincent watching Cloud's face, concern in his eyes and his fingers curved into the hollow of Cloud's shoulder. Zax sighed at last and turned his face away, and the last three survivors of ShinRa's scientific legacy stood close together as the moon lifted herself out of the eastern ocean.
"We should get some rest," Vincent suggested, his eyes on Cloud's bruised cheekbone. "We have a long way to go."
They crossed the field in silence, and Cloud was grimly mollified that Zax didn't look back at the sky. "Just one question," Cloud asked, pausing at the inn door, "just which one of you am I supposed to sleep with tonight?"