Cloud Strife stood just inside his tiny dorm room at Shinra military, and he shivered.
The room felt cold. In every way possible. He had not been in this room for a long time; he had been living with his lover Zack until now.
The room had never really been the centre of warmth and love, as Cloud had spent much of his time alone here, before he met Zack, feeling miserable because he really had a hard time at Shinra. He had no friends; people either ignored him or tormented him. And so he had spent many a night here nursing wounds and wishing that he had someone.
And then Zack had come along, and he had been that someone…God, he knew it sounded cheesy, but it was true. Zack had been the friend. Zack had always been there. And Zack had asked Cloud to move in with him, so Cloud no longer had to come to a cold-feeling room and nurse wounds alone and miserable. The room would feel warm, and Zack would be there to nurse the injuries for him. He had felt happy. And warm. And…not alone.
But now, that was all gone. Zack…wanted someone else. He had said that he still loved Cloud and would always be there for him; that he could come round any time he wanted. But that wasn't quite the same, now, was it? It all felt different. Despite Zack's genuine care and love for Cloud…the old warmth wasn't there.
Zack had even told Cloud that he didn't have to move out; that he wanted him to stay. But how could Cloud possibly stay? Nothing felt the same; it all felt…desolate.
And now he found himself back in this room that suddenly felt colder than ever before…almost like laying alone in cooling bed sheets when your lover was somewhere else.
Somehow, being alone in this room now felt worse than being alone in it before had felt.
Cloud Strife felt humiliated as he cried himself to sleep.
Zack worried his lip as he watched the cadets training from his office window.
He felt so bad about Cloud; he knew that the cadet was deeply thrown off by everything that had happened. And he didn't want him to suffer.
He remembered the day Cloud was packing his things to go back down to his dorm room, and he remembered feeling so helplessly worried and…sad.
He had told Cloud that he didn't have to leave; that he wanted him to stay. And it was true; he was worried about the boy on his own, and besides, he still didn't want the boy to leave…just because he loved another, didn't mean he wanted to lose his Cloud.
But at the same time he knew that what he was proposing would be turned down; how could he expect Cloud to still live with him? It would only hurt the blond more, and make both of them miserable. But despite this, if Cloud had said that he would stay…it would still make Zack happy.
But, Cloud did not accept. And Zack couldn't blame him.
Cloud's instructor shook his head as he told the blond as gently as a military instructor could that, once again, he had scored lower than expected in some small test.
The blond just nodded, his pale, drawn face and dull eyes with the bags under them striking the instructor, not for the first time, as looking so incredibly wrong on one so young.
He didn't know what to say. The blond had been doing fine – better than before, even – until some short time ago; then he had become listless, withdrawn and just…melancholy. And it seemed as though he had simply given up caring about anything. It was like he just…didn't have the energy to care any more.
Zack knew. He didn't need the other instructors to tell him that something was wrong with Cadet Strife. He didn't need to hear that the boy looked kind of ill, and that he was acting weirdly.
Because he knew. It was what he had been afraid of.
Besides, he could see it when he taught the classes that Cloud was in.
God, those classes were difficult. While they were still together, maintaining a professional relationship in class had been difficult. But now… it was a nightmare.
Whenever he had to correct the kid's posture or give hints and tips, it was just agonizing for the both of them.
And then he had to deal with Cloud's attitude himself. He had to see the lacklustre look in those eyes and the obvious lack of sleep.
He had once or twice, despite his own mind's warnings that it would be so awkward, tried to call Cloud back at the end of class to have a word.
But his mind was right. It was awkward. Cloud would look at him, and his eyes would show mostly that same listless look, but it could not hide the hurt and the anger there.
And most of the time, those little talks would end with Cloud begging softly, but forcefully, "Don't…just please…don't."
Cloud knew. He knew who it was. He knew the identity of the thief who had taken away his rock.
Long silver hair. Powerful but svelte frame. Piercing, catlike eyes.
His hero. His idol.
Cloud had had to stifle first an anguished choke, and then bitter, ironic laughter when he had first realized it.
It had been one of the inspections of all the Cadet units had to go through. All of the platoons had stood on the inspection ground while the senior members of SOLDIER stood in front, looking them all up and down, and quietly conversing with one another.
And the General had been there. With his Second, Zack Fair. And Cloud had known.
The minute that they had leaned over to whisper in each other's ears, and the moment they had touched, so very briefly, Cloud had known. It could have been something completely innocent; a commanding officer talking with his Second in Command. It could have simply been a military procedure. It could have been. But it wasn't.
There was just something different. Perhaps the way they lingered just a fraction too long. Perhaps it was the way that they smiled to each other. And perhaps it was the way that they looked straight at Cloud, and their eyes had shown guilt. Even the unmoveable General had had a trace of guilt lingering in his eyes.
The eyes of the two who he had idolised and loved had also shown pity.
That night Cloud had snuck out after lights out, and he had crept to the cliffs overlooking a portion of Midgar. And he had howled in anguish. In sadness. And in immense anger.
His hero and his lover. His idol and his best – and only, his mind had whispered cruelly – friend.
Life wasn't fair.
He wanted his rock back. He wanted his 'Zacky' back. That thief had stolen his Zacky from him. His idol was a thief and had stolen his only support.
Life really wasn't fair.
Sephiroth sighed as his secretary buzzed and told him that Cloud Strife was here to see him, as he had requested.
Shiva, this was not going to be pleasant. For anyone involved.
Sephiroth turned and was struck by how Strife looked. He used to be so striking in his beauty.
It wasn't that he was not still beautiful – Gods, anyone could see that the boy had beauty, its just that…he was no longer striking in the same way.
Now he was striking because of his gaunt, pale face and suddenly dull eyes. They weren't bright anymore; somebody had dimmed the light.
And Sephiroth had a sudden extremely rare feeling accost him like a chilling wind.
He shook his head slightly to clear it.
"Come in Strife, sit down."
He gestured to the chair in front of his desk, and Cloud moved slowly and but resignedly to sit in front of the General.
Sephiroth tried to smile and put the boy at ease, but he found that this was probably not going to soothe the boy, so he settled for a gentle tone.
"Cadet Strife, do you know why you are here?"
Eyes trying to remain blank.
"Quite frankly Cadet Stri…Cloud," Sephiroth amended; he owed the boy at least that much, "I am concerned. I have been getting many reports from your instructors that disturb me."
Cloud flinched. He was hurting enough already; he didn't need to now be told that he was a useless SOLDIER wannabe.
"I'm sorry Sir, I'll try harder…I've just…had things on my mind." At this, Cloud's lips twisted into a bitter smile, and Sephiroth had to repress a flinch.
Like you don't know what I've had on my mind, Cloud thought.
Like I don't know why he's been preoccupied, Sephiroth internally shuddered.
"Cloud, no." Sephiroth interrupted gently.
"It's not that. It's just that…everyone who knows you agrees that you are not yourself. I have been told, and indeed have observed for myself, that you just…no longer seem to care about anything that concerns yourself; your studies, your training…your health."
Cloud closed his eyes and released a shuddering breath. He would not fucking cry right now, damn it!
He opened his mouth to deny it, to say that he was fine. But what came out was something totally different that shocked them both.
"Forgive me, sir, but I seem to be finding it difficult to care about much these days."
His voice was bitter and laced with past tears.
Sephiroth leaned closer and said softly, with a sense of almost urgency, asked, "Why?"
As soon as Cloud felt the fat tear dribble down his cheek, something in him snapped.
He stood up and thumped his hands on the table, leaning across to Sephiroth, and choked in a broken yell,
"Because he loves you!" Cloud felt the rest of the tears finally escape and his body begin to tremble as the strain of what had happened finally caught up with him.
"Because he loves you. And not me." Cloud whispered. "Because you make him happy. You make him happy like I can't. And because I'm not enough for him. I'll never be enough for him; how can I compare to you? I saw how fucking happy – no…ecstatic he was whenever he came back from being with you. And do you know what it felt like knowing that I would never be able to offer him that; that I would never be able to make him as happy as you do. Knowing that I'd lost."
Cloud swallowed another sob, and Sephiroth did wince this time; he could practically feel the boy's pain, as well as another stab of guilt.
This stab of guilt would not let up this time, as he saw Cloud's fists clench, and his mouth twist with pain, the tears rolling down his face fat and quivering.
Cloud took a shuddering breath to continue.
"It felt like the end of the fucking world. And, goddamnit, I know that it's dramatic, but that really was what it felt like to me." Cloud whimpered, trying not to feel the pain all over again. "You may think that it's ridiculous, but then again, you're the General. Not some unpopular, scrawny recruit. Do you want to know why it felt like everything was coming to an end, hmm? Hmm?"
Cloud's eyes were wide and almost crazed as he hummed his question in an eerie, melodious voice, tears still falling from those blue eyes.
Cloud did not wait for an answer to his question.
"It felt like everything was ending because I knew that what we had together was ending. And Zack was my everything damn you!
Oh I know, I know…once again it's melodramatic. But you see, who else do you think I have? My mother? She loves me, but she can't help me now.
Friends? Never had any; I've always been somewhat unpopular.
The other cadets here at the academy? They are all divided into two groups where I'm concerned; the ones that hate me, and the ones that ignore me.
My instructors? They don't really pay me any particular attention, and why should they? I don't have spectacular talent; I'm alright, but that's it really. I'm not one of the ones who have obvious potential that needs nurturing. So they pretty much ignore me as well…"
And here Cloud drifted off, and a strange, faraway smile took hold on his face, despite his tears. It was as if he had suddenly remembered a wonderful memory.
Then the boy spoke again, and it was so quiet that Sephiroth had to lean closer to hear what Cloud said.
Sephiroth closed his eyes. He knew what the young cadet meant.
"Zack didn't ignore me. He was nice to me."
And now Cloud's voice, that had been so soft and sad, turned loud and angry as he pointed at Sephiroth accusingly.
"And then you took him away!" He sobbed viciously. "You took him away from me, and he was all that I had. He was the only one who liked me, who was kind to me. He helped me after they hurt me. He told me I wasn't weak. He held me when I was sad. He was my support. And you stole him! You stole him away from me and now he's not coming back! I needed him!"
Here Cloud tried to compose himself, his mind telling him to shut up now. He had released too many weaknesses. He should be quiet. But he couldn't.
"But you! You don't need him. You don't. You're the General; you're strong, and everyone loves you. You don't need Zack. Please! You don't need him. You have people who at least support you." Cloud accused, voice quivering and quiet and defeated.
"I don't. Zack was the only one. And now I don't have him anymore. You took him."
Cloud collapsed limply into his chair, no longer caring about decorum, completely drained from the emotional outburst, and all the emotions warring for dominance in his body. Now all those feelings had taken a back seat. They were still there, but they were somewhat dormant. Now he was just tired.
Sephiroth was also somewhat slumped, seemingly wiped out by Cloud's emotional barrage.
"My God." He whispered, his tone one of incredulity, his temple resting on his fist, looking suddenly tired and…older.
"I'm sorry, Cadet Strife, for all the pain that you are suffering."
This was said in a choked murmur, and although the regret and the apology was all too genuine, the voice also held a note of helplessness, as if to say 'But what can I do?'
After all, he wasn't going to just give up Zack.
And Cloud couldn't blame him. After all, he hadn't wanted to give up the brunette. And giving up Zack now would not make anyone happy. Zack and Sephiroth would be unhappy with their separation, and Cloud would be unhappy because even that wouldn't make Zack love him in the right way.
And because he would be hurting Zack and the General. And he didn't want to do that.
At least, he didn't want to hurt them that much. He didn't think he could hurt anyone like that.
Even though that tiny, cruel part that lurks in all human's minds was crying out for vengeance, and was happy at the thought of the two hurting like that. Was crying to Cloud to make them hurt like that. Make them hurt like he hurt.
But that was only the one, dark part of Cloud's mind. The rest of him couldn't bear to hurt them like that.
And so Cloud just sat slumped in defeat in his chair, and did not look up, even when Zack, who had heard everything, whispered his name.
"Cloud." Zack whispered again. "Cloud, please look at me."
Cloud finally looked up, and saw that Zack's eyes were shining with tears and pain.
The other man gently held Cloud's face between his hands, and stroked the soft, damp cheek with his thumb, a world of care and affection in the gesture.
"Cloud…" Zack almost begged. "You think I've…abandoned you? I would never do a thing like that. I haven't left you alone. I'm still here for you. I-"
Here he broke off, looking over at Sephiroth for a moment, before continuing.
"I love you, Cloud. You don't really think that I'd abandon you do you?"
The dark haired SOLDIER was standing by Cloud's side, and was keeping hold of Cloud's face, despite the fact that the youth had marginally turned away after having caught himself leaning into the touch.
"I'm always here for you. You can come to me any time."
Cloud slowly turned his face to Zack again, and he found that he couldn't bring himself to feel any great amount of anger by this time, and so when he spoke, it was a flat, defeated statement.
"Then where are you Zack, hmm? When can I come to you? When you're teaching? In front of the other students; I don't think that would go down well.
When you're inspecting the garrisons with the other high ranking officials and SOLDIERS? I'm always standing right at the back, while you're at the front with the others. And besides, all of the people inspecting the ranks disappear before we're dismissed, and I don't think you'd appreciate a heart to heart in front of the entire army.
The SOLDIER barracks? Troopers aren't allowed near them.
Your office? Again, I'm not allowed near it, and I know that you're busy working.
Your room? I'm not allowed there anymore, seeing as I'm not your roommate anymore. Besides, you can't honestly tell me that I wouldn't be interrupting anything if I came to your room, or that it wouldn't be painfully awkward."
Zack looked pain stricken as he gazed at Cloud, and reached out to once again caress Cloud's skin.
"I'm sorry Cloud." He said quietly, as he came to understand how hard it actually was for Cloud to see him anymore, and how it was affecting Cloud.
"But you know that I'm not abandoning you. I'll come to see you–"
"Zack." Cloud said quietly, and the other man looked down to the blond. "It's not that I don't appreciate it but…just stop."
And the three people in the room found that, for once, there simply wasn't anything to say back.