Redemption Day : Chapter 3
Author's note: There's some juicy yaoi in this part, people.
Two little trails, Cloud had been thinking, vaguely. His toes were making two neat little trails in the mud. He really should pick up his feet and walk, but it was so much easier to just stare at the upside-down ground, and at the two fascinating, wobbly little paths his boots were making. These weren't his boots, were they? These boots were brown. His boots were black, shiny ones. With buckles. They made him keep them polished all the damn time...
Neat little things, those matching grooves. Deep mud, here. Red. Like all the green had been sucked out of it. Cloud frowned. He couldn't remember seeing grass for a while. Something was making a lot of noise, somewhere far away. Small objects hit the nearby rocks with amazing force, spitting off flecks of stone that hurt as they stung his cheek. The world shifted, and he was lowered to the ground in time to see a pair of boots that looked just like his.
The noises got louder. Gunfire, some part of Cloud's brain remembered, as he stared vacantly at the heavy grey sky. I'm hearing gunfire. There was a staccatto of muffled sound, and something slumped down nearby him. Cloud struggled to lift his head, succeeding in time to see boots that he recognized--
shiny, black, make you polish them all the damn time, and blue uniforms
--Run past him, and between those patent-leather ankles something twitched and jerked and moaned over that same awful sound, and there was something dreadful, something terrible, horrible in that sound that he didn't understand, and he wanted it to stop, wanted them to stop, but the sound poured on into his mako hazed brain, loud and relentless--
oh god he's dead, he's dead he has to be dead just leave him alone you fucking bastards!
Rattatattarattatattaclickclickclick and the body that looked like Cloud's--
not my boots, these boots are brown, don't have to polish these
--Finally, blissfully went still, and the shining boots flashed black past his face and were gone again.
Two neat trails. His knees making them this time, his hands fumbling though cold and mud until they landed on something hard and warm and unfamiliar: the still-hot handle of a buster sword.
...Zax, Zax, oh, god, Zax, it's all my fault, my fault, if only I'd been like you, like you, your clothes your sword your blood running hot on my hands Zax Zax Zax...
Something was terribly still, in the grass over there. Something was warm on the ground, warm and wet and sticky and the two intriguing little paths his knees had dug in the mud were filling up, welling up with rich red like twin rivers spinning giddily to the ocean, spiraling away from the profile that lifted to the unraining sky like a mountain spattered all over with sunset.
Cloud jerked himself awake in the early pre-dawn haze, chest aching as his heart careened against his ribcage. The nightmare was already fading, familiar in its delirious pattern of mako-dream. Ten slow breaths and his heart began to go back to normal, subdued and steady under his breastbone.
Cloud wiggled up from under the weight of Vincent's left arm, squinting across the room. Zax's section of mattress was already abandoned, and in the dim light Cloud could see a long shadow lying along the floor, moving steadily up and down. Oh, of course. He used to do four hundred push-ups every morning. Cloud could barely make it to two dozen, in those days. And then only when he tried. It was almost as if nothing had changed: Cloud lying warm in bed with the rhythmic noise of Zax's breathing, the sound of his palms slapping the floor as he lifted himself into the air on each upswing. But then Cloud's eyes got used to the fuzzy light and he could see Zax favoring his good leg, could pick out the tiny round shiny scars working their way up Zax's back. Cloud counted the bullet marks there in the pre-dawn, counted them in time with each exhalation of Zax's breath. His mind fumbled on the slender masamune scar on Zax's back, and at the same time Zax's count stuttered, the slap of his hands came too soon as he caught himself on the floor, his breath exploding out in a rush. His fist hit the hardwood with a muffled thump, something violent and futile sworn under his breath.
He'd only made two hundred and three.
"It'll take a while," Cloud whispered, careful not to disturb Vincent.
Zax started, then smiled ruefully up at Cloud. "Sorry if I woke you."
Cloud shrugged. "It's only been a few months, Zax. Barely even a year. You're lucky to be alive."
Zax pushed himself to his knees, grimacing. "Spending five years in a jar didn't help much, either."
"I can empathize." Vincent said, without so much as a yawn.
Cloud started. Even first thing in the morning, even after a night like they'd had, there was nothing to ruffle Vincent Valentine. "Vincent -" Cloud began, but was waved silent.
"You didn't wake me." Vincent quietly stood, dressing in a swirl of red fabric, the soft clicking sounds of him checking his materia and buckling his holster as familiar to Cloud as a measure of music. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go arrange our provisions." He gave Cloud a long look, crimson eyes dark with subtle meaning. "Come down when you're ready."
The door swung silently shut behind him.
Zax blinked, still sitting on the floor. "He is always like that, isn't he?"
"Yes." Cloud yawned, reaching downwards in hopes of recovering his pants. A warm hand wrapped around his wrist, and he blinked down at it, confused. "Zax?"
"You always have nightmares about me?"
Cloud frowned, trying to read the intent in those gold irises. "Was I talking in my sleep? Vincent says I do but I'm not sure that -"
"I felt it." Zax was the one frowning now, his eyes absently on the bedside lamp, voice going distant as if he was gazing northward again. "God, did I feel it. Vincent must have too." Zax stood uneasily, leaning on the bedpost for support.
"He left us alone on purpose." Cloud ran his hands through his hair. It was sticky hot already outside, and the sun wasn't even up. "Beats me why -"
"It must have been awful." Zax was quiet, and this time his eyes were unwavering on Cloud. "Inside your head. I don't know how you did it."
Cloud let his boot fall from his hands, losing interest in getting dressed. "I thought I was someone stronger."
"You always had a stupidly high opinion of me." Zax sat down on the bed, sighing.
"Who wouldn't?" Cloud narrowed his eyes, remembering. "You were so cool. The sword, the outfit, the earring, the City-boy accent -"
"Was all cultured." Zax was grinning. "You should have seen me when I first landed in Midgar. I'm a complete hick, Cloud. I'm from Gongaga, for the love of the Planet."
"I know." Cloud smiled. "We went there. Your parents still don't know what happened to you."
"I should go see them," Zax said, wistfully. "They probably think I'm dead. I'll go after we -" He stopped abruptly. "Anyway, who's the cool one now? Right down to the accent and the earring. You don't sound like you're from Nibelheim anymore. Tifa, now, she's still got her dialect."
"I already had the earring." Cloud reached up, fingers absently securing the small bit of jewelry. "Remember? It's a piece of vertigo materia. You gave it to me, in Nibelheim. So I wouldn't get sick on the ride back home."
"You didn't even have your ear pierced." Zax's hand slid easily into the gold weight of Cloud's hair, his palm warm on the side of Cloud's face. "I did it for you."
Cloud half-closed his eyes. He was still tired and the steady scratching motion Zax's fingers were making over the back of his head was enough to send him right to sleep. He was too drowsy to predict the kiss, and far too complacent under Zax's hand to jump. Zax's mouth was warm, slow and as lazy as his fingers moving in firm strokes down the back of Cloud's neck. Cloud made a contented noise in his throat, opening his mouth against Zax's, and Zax's weight as he leaned forward carried them both easily to the bed, arms in a tangle, the kiss unbroken.
Cloud remembered this. This was winter nights after he'd stood on patrol, hours in the cold, fingers frozen in his gloves. This was the blurred early morning after a leave-day, in Zax's private room in the SOLDIER dorm, his mind still hazed with whatever he'd drunk the night before to prove to Zax that he could. This was summer thunderstorm rain in Midgar and the familiar hot weight of Zax's body pressing him into the mattress, when it was slow and easy and nobody asked why Cloud hadn't been on duty, he was Zax's boy and not even command would give him any flack. This was, Cloud realized in retrospect, the way Zax had been protecting him, every day, from what the ShinRa military was really like.
This was never after Zax had been on a mission. After missions, Zax belonged only to Sephiroth. And Cloud would lie curled alone on his lumpy barracks bed and hate and want them both. Because that was what they were, and what he wasn't.
"You're awfully quiet."
But this really wasn't any of that. Not that Zax was any more his than he had been in those days, his very cells inextricably bound to whatever was left in that desolate glacier. But Cloud was something else. Cloud was Cloud, and Zax was Zax, and only one of them had saved the world.
Zax blinked surprise as he was rolled over, landing on his back in the dent in the middle of the feather bed, Cloud's hands on his shoulders. "What?"
"I'm not a little boy anymore, Zax."
Zax's mouth went tight, one finger tracing the line of Cloud's jaw, gold with shadow, and the irrevocable shape of his lowered eyebrows. "I know. We can stop, then."
"That's not what I said." Cloud lowered his head to Zax's shoulder, his mouth moving with slow aggression up Zax's throat. "I said," and his hips rocked for emphasis, "I'm not a little boy anymore."
Zax arched up into it with a startled little gasp, not expecting that. Cloud was grimly mollified. "Cloud, what d'you -"
"Want you." And Cloud was brushing open-mouthed kisses over every perfectly circular scar, even when they ran together along his thigh and became one shiny blur of remembered pain. "the way he had you. Just once." And his lips found the perfect precise entry wound of a direct thrust of sword, a wound made by pure instinct to kill and without Sephiroth's usual slashing grace.
Zax made a small noise in the back of his throat, his hands surrendering to Cloud's hair. "Cloud, all you had to ever do was ask."
"I never would have, you know that." Cloud was too busy fumbling with Zax's shorts, eager to have them off.
"Well, you can ask now, can't you?" Zax's hand was remarkably deft, slipping easily between Cloud's legs. "Since you're not a little boy anymore."
Cloud growled, low in his throat, and the seams of Zax's shorts protested as the garment was removed. "I don't ask for things now, either."
He could have been wrong, but it sounded like there was approval in the small sexy sound Zax made, his hands sliding warm down Cloud's back. Cloud half-fell forward as Zax shifted in the tangle of sheets, and his hips moved easily into the warm space between Zax's legs. Zax pressed up against Cloud's belly, hot and eager as he rolled his hips underneath Cloud's. "C'mon, Cloud," Zax breathed, and there was a challenge in his eyes that hadn't been there before, the mako-fierce glare of an equal. "If you're gonna prove something, get on with it."
Cloud's hands moved easily to the back of Zax's knees, the force of his fingers making Zax's tanned skin go white as he carried Zax's legs high, hooking them over his own shoulders. "Did he make you wait?"
"Never," Zax gasped, sliding his hands between his legs. "We were never-- at ease."
"Dangerous." Cloud said, leaning over him, and Zax made a soft noise of protest as Cloud pressed against him. "Fast. Angry. Right?"
Zax nodded. "After battle it was just - well you know, don't you?"
"Yeah." And Cloud moved forward, into the slow slick heat of Zax's body, Zax keening quietly in his throat, shifting his hips up and coaxing him greedily in. "I know, Zax."
And the competition was over as if it never was, Cloud wondering what he had found so enviable about the whole rivalry when all he had ever wanted was just this, Zax and only Zax, underneath him, all around him, engulfing him with his warmth and scent and sweet need, rocking with impatience. They found an equilibrium, a balance of equals, as Zax moved unashamed hands on his own sex, dark hair clinging to his damp skin and his mouth saying the things that Cloud had always said, more, yes, there, harder, don't stop--
Cloud clung to Zax's legs as if desperate for an anchor, his palms slick on the smooth scar, feeling the slide and strain in every muscle as Zax thrust his hips up, the tension making his thighs shake. Cloud had almost always shut his eyes back then, when he was the one underneath. This time they stayed open, gleaming hot blue in the dim light as Zax cried out, only once, coming just as the sun crept over the mountains and spilled gold over Cloud's hands. Cloud shuddered, his body responding instinctively to Zax's, and for one second Cloud felt the movement of a contact that was more than mere identity theft, and Zax's mind echoed inside his own.
The square of sunlight had crept up to his shoulders by the time Cloud lifted his head from Zax's damp hair, his breathing no longer ragged.
"You okay?" Zax smoothed back Cloud's hair from his face, one arm wrapped firmly around Cloud's waist. "Thought you were gonna pass out on me."
"I'm okay." Cloud's fingers were lost in the landscape of Zax's back, trying to map each mark, counting the ones he remembered and the ones that were new. He pressed his face into Zax's throat, not needing or caring to be the one in control anymore. it was familiar, this way their bodies curved together, the way Zax breathed under his hands.
"We should go soon," Zax said, after a long moment, his eyes on the window. "Vincent'll think -"
"Vincent knew what he was doing when he left," Cloud said, rolling away a little. Familiar was one thing, but it was hot in the small inn room.
"Do you love him?" Zax asked, curious.
Cloud shrugged. "I don't know."
"Fair enough," Zax nodded, and swung his legs out of bed. He limped over to the water basin and poured in a measure of the tepid water in the pitcher, and began to clean himself up. He was just twisting his hair into a sloppy ponytail when he turned to see Cloud watching him, still in bed. "What?"
"You haven't changed, have you?" Cloud put his chin in his hand, thoughtfully. "You never were ruffled by anything. You were always the normal one."
Zax, at that precise moment, had been making a rather silly and disgusted face at himself in the mirror. "S'yeah, right I am, punk. You're the only one not hearin' voices." He chucked Cloud's shirt at him. "C'mon. Let's go find out if I'm insane or not."
Vincent had the trio of chocobos saddled and provisioned by the time Cloud and Zax thumped down the rickety wooden stairs of the inn, jostling each other like a pair of teenage boys. Zax frowned at the hot sticky air, and eyed Roni with suspicion as Cloud swung easily into the saddle. "Not looking forward to riding a hot feathery bird."
"You know how, right?" Cloud asked. Zax looked affronted.
"Of course I do."
Vincent tossed him the reins to a pale gold female, and settled himself on a male so gold he almost looked bronze. "Am I correct that Gongaga used to be quite famous for breeding chocobos?"
"Yeah." Zax clambered onto the bird with something a little less than grace, hampered by his leg. She warked disapproval at the undignified manner of his mounting. "Get over it," Zax told the chocobo, gathering her reins one-handed. "But," he continued, to Vincent, "all we ever had was standard yellow." He tucked his knees in behind her wings, settling his weight. "What do these babies do?"
In answer, the chocobo shot off like a rocket, leaving the inn behind in a blur of color and motion.
Air blew up from the crater, slightly warmer than the frigid temperature at the edge. Cloud shivered, looking down.
"I don't even know how we're gonna get down there. It all crumbled as we were leaving." He kicked a clump of ice, watching as it rolled down the steep side.
Zax, still sore from riding the chocobo that was standing fluffed against the cold, rubbed a had over his leg. The temperature was sinking in painfully. "Well, I'm not exactly up to rappelling, if that's our only option."
"We can get to the first level though that cave." Vincent pointed. "It should be mostly intact." His crimson eyes turned to Zax, who was staring down into the dark center of the crater. "You hear him now, don't you. Is he sane?"
The former SOLDIER scowled. "I don't think any of us here are fair judges of sanity." Zax folded his arms across his chest, and limped heavily through the snow, past Vincent, to where Cloud stood waiting by the mouth of the cave.
The world was made of greenfire ice, and beyond his frozen fingertips he could feel the slow heavy breath of the Planet, her sighs and mutterings, her slowing rage.
She would not speak to him.
Cold had always been a simple thing before. Cold was snow, or rain in the jungle, wet to the skin in a Wutai monsoon. Cold was the way they always had the air on too high in the ShinRa building, cold was the narrow icy wind that seeped through the crevasses of Mount Nibel. Cold was an adjective.
Not here, where cold was a thing he could taste, brittle on his tongue, where he could see the fine lines of frost across his own irises, where he could imagine the shattering of his body if he was to move too quickly, skin made brittle as birdbones.
He remembered fire. searing, too hot, behind his eyes and inside his skull and the cool smooth voice like water that took the burn away, that moved his fingers and eyes and mouth when he was still frozen inside, the fire inside his mind not melting the cool veneer of horror across his soul. even when the blaze was quenched in the non-wet glow of liquid Mako, the voice continued, a soothing lullaby, a mantra to keep away the nightmares. Through the thick haze of his dreaming he could remember forcing out words, begging the planet to take him in, praying to just die, so he wouldn't feel the cold anymore, dangling limply like a puppet whose strings refused to sever.
it had stopped, suddenly. and no memory of fire or warmth or coffee hot from the thermos in Wutai monsoon could make his mind remember what it was to be warm, to be alive.
I will be one with the planet.
Ah, if it were only so easy, he would have gone long ago.
Voices. Not so strange, to hear voices, spinning as he was in the eddies of the planet's own blood. The Girl came to speak to him, sometimes, but he was not With the Planet, and could not respond. Something fell heavily into the sphere of his existence, and he rocked in the wake of motion. There had been a time of great motion, years or days ago, when the world fell down. Stillness and cold since then; this sudden splashing riot was almost unwelcome. It stopped soon enough, and his closed face lifted once again to the cold light of the liquid around him, the ice sliding like a lover against his skin.
Fingers seized his wrist, warm and jarring. He was being pulled and his soul protested at the motion, clawing to get back into the inertia he knew, but force propelled him upwards into brutal frigid air, and a mouth clamped hard over his, forcing his lungs to fill, to accept oxygen.
And Sephiroth used his first breath to scream.