Three's a Crowd
author's note: fic written prior to Advent Children's release uses the name Zax Darklighter in lieu of Zack Fair.
Well, Zax thought, his fixed smile threatening to fracture across his face as he summed up the situation, this is awkward.
The neon light of the diner sign flickered in lurid pink and green over the pale spikes of Cloud's hair, his noise of surprised greeting dying in his throat. Aeris' hand had gone suddenly tense in the crook of Zax's elbow, but he had no way of knowing if it was disapproval, or surprise, or some other emotion beyond Zax's ken. There was no telling, with that one.
The Friday night crowd of patrons surged around them, flowing by as they stood outside on the sidewalk, as fixed as Midgar's plate pillars in a flash flood. Zax's brain did somersaults as he tried to work out how to manage introductions. Hi Cloud, this is Aeris, my girlfriend. Aeris, this is Cloud, the guy I've been boning daily in the shower room for the last three weeks. You kids get to know each other, and I'll russle us up some strawberry ice cream sodas, hey?
What came out of Zax's mouth, unfortunately, was, "You're off duty tonight?"
"I moved my schedule around," Cloud said, blankly. "I thought--" He broke off without finishing. His eyes and the set of his shoulders said everything else, guilty little facts ripping through Zax like a silent hail of gunfire. It was a nightmare for a grunt to try and change his duty shifts. Zax was due to ship out to Mideel the next day. This was his last night off until he got back to base. Cloud had braved the wrath of his duty sergeant to take the night off, and from the looks of him, he had run all the way from the train station in the hopes of catching up to his superior.
"Oh," was all Zax managed to say. In his head, it was followed by, Darklighter, you're a dick. In reality, he finished off with a rather sickly-sounding, "Right."
Aeris, at least, did not seem to have parsed the situation. Or maybe she had, those eyes of hers unraveling everything around her, knitting it up into a fresh, orderly whole that nobody would ever recognize as the tangled knots it had been before. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" she asked. She was saintly and unassailable there on his arm, her smile like Shiva, half-summoned.
Zax shook himself. A man couldn't choose all his battles, after all. "Oh, Sorry. Aeris, this is Cloud, one of my--he's a--" Zax failed, completely, to find a way to say it nicely.
"I'm bullet-fodder for the brass," Cloud cut in, his sterile expression ruining any chance of humor in his words. "Like him."
"He's infantry," Zax said, with profound belatedness.
"You're in SOLDIER?" Aeris asked, still smiling.
"No, just a soldier," Cloud answered. "Nobody's hitting capslock for me anytime soon." He shrugged down inside his uniform jacket, and shrank back against the windows of the diner. "Anyway. I was just passing by. Have a good night, Sir."
Zax flinched. The guy was soft-spoken, but he was a northerner, and under that snowy disguise he could be as sharp and ruthless as Mount Nibel when he wanted. Sir. Brutal.
Not, Zax considered, that he didn't deserve it.
Cloud half-turned to melt back into the crowd, but suddenly Zax's elbow was empty, and Aeris' slim, white hand was on Cloud's shoulder.
Cloud froze, staring at her. She was, Zax knew, a creature beyond his ken, a flower inexplicably blooming in the urban wasteland of Midgar's Upper Sixth. He looked from her hand to her face, and in his eyes he tried to reason what this fragile, sweet-smelling thing was, and what in the world it wanted with someone like him.
"It's a shame for you to waste a train trip up," she said, her hand moving down to his. "And this place really does have the best burgers in the sector--Zax says so, anyway, I don't eat 'em myself--why don't you stay and have dinner with us?"
"Ah, no," Cloud stammered. "That would be--I mean, kinda awkward--you two--"
"I won't take no for an answer," Aeris said, and steered Cloud back to the diner entrance like a schoolmarm pushing a truant schoolboy back to his studies--a curvy, redheaded schoolmarm in a very short pink dress.
Somehow, under the thrall of her mysterious powers, Cloud found himself squashed together with them in a corner booth of the diner, sharing a platter of cheese fries. As much as she could coax flowers to bloom under the shadow of Midgar's plate, Aeris coaxed Cloud out of his permafrost. In her presence, he uncurled like a reluctant snowdrop, and the first time she made him laugh he startled himself with it. By dessert he no longer sulked back against the taped-over booth upholstery, and with three spoons they did their best by the diner's famed Moogle Mountain: a truly intimidating ice cream sundae. Aeris was still going at it even when Zax and Cloud had surrendered to the greater power of fudge ripple.
Cloud clambered out of the booth to find the men's room; Aeris put down her spoon and leaned on Zax's shoulder with a contented little sigh. "This has been really nice," she said.
"Yeah." Zax thumbed bright-colored 1000 gil bills out of his wallet, leaving them on the table for the waitress to take, before Cloud could come back and try to pay for his share of dinner. "It really has."
She stretched out her arms, silver bangles jingling. "But you know," she said, with mock severity, "You could have told me you had a boyfriend, too."
Zax's arm slipped in the motion of putting his wallet back in his pocket, he fumbled with it for a second. "I--but--Cloud's just... you know, a friend--"
Aeris arched an eyebrow, and Zax's voice dwindled to nothing. There was absolutely no way of lying to the girl. "I'm not blind," she said, and twiddled with her spoon. "In fact," her voice went soft, distant. "I can see you tied up together, all along one gold string through your hearts. It floats in the air between you, shining in the shadows, something I don't understand yet. They haven't told me..." She trailed off, the tip of her spoon tracing curling, elusive paths on the glittery plastic tabletop. There was a hidden light in her eyes when she spoke that way, some green, velvet-deep mystery that always made Zax think of his time in the SOLDIER mako tanks, and of the dreams he had there.
She shrugged it off, laughing. "Anyway," she finished. "I think he's sweet. Cute, too."
"He's not your type," Zax said, with a sudden burst of possessiveness. Whenever Aeris drifted into one of her reveries, he couldn't fight the feeling that she was slipping through his fingers, vanishing like the Mist of legend.
"No," she said, still smiling. "But he is your type." She swept a hand through his dark hair, leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Make sure he comes home with us," she added, in a meaningful whisper. With a wink, she was sliding out of the curved booth, on her way to the bathroom before Cloud could come back and sit down again.
Zax was left with his pulse roaring and his mouth open, staring after her as she slipped through the crowd. She passed Cloud as she went, her wave startling a smile out of him. Possibilities unfolded in Zax's mind, in several different positions, and for the first time that night he forgot that he would be up to his neck in mud and mosquitoes in a scant twenty-four hours. He held up the money on the table, waving it vigorously to get the waitress' attention.
Morning would come early, after all, and time was flying.