A/N: Happy birthday to you, Squashed tomatoes and stew, May you always be my Tobi~, Happy birthday too yoou~ *claps and throws confetti* Yaaay! I hope you've had a wonderful day and that you enjoy this last chapter like woah. ::heart::
3:30PM and the atmosphere was pleasant. Not as hot as the previous week had been but warm enough to feel comfortable in jeans and a plain t-shirt. Before entering the mayhem of Sector 8 Cloud took a moment to absorb the plethora of colours and flags. Banners fluttered in the breeze, streamers hung from street-lamps, paper lanterns zigzagged above the streets and rides were crammed into compact areas.
He laughed to himself at the sight. Dark, stuffy Midgar had been transformed. As he inspected the food stalls first, wandering aimlessly, he also admired the yukata worn by women; no one wore them in the city any more. It was a nostalgic sight. The pattern of blossoms reminded him of his mother and he slowed, wishing he was in Nibelheim with his family and childhood friend, Tifa.
Cloud had to buck up. It was a gorgeous day and, with or without company, it was the perfect way to spend time off work. Pushing hair out his face, he smiled up at one of the lanterns that read "happiness" and straightened up. You know what, Cloud felt confident, calm and zealous. Realising this, he grinned and strode on with a bounce in his step.
"Hey! Get yer butts over here and buy the best candy floss you ever tasted!"
Laughing, Cloud halted at the end of LOVELESS avenue in search of the squeaky sales girl.
"Oi, you! Lady, lady, lady. The only way you'll make yer kid smile is if you buy him candy floss, ain't that right, kiddo?"
In a travelling food wagon that was laden with multicoloured sweets and treats, a young girl half leant over the counter in attempts to lure people over. She was Wutainese looking with short black hair and a rosy face. Cloud watched a moment longer as she hollered at the top of her lungs.
"Bird boy!" she cried as he made to walk away. He paused and glanced back. "Yeah, you. Ha, you responded. Come buy something yummy! I swear it's the best, and all at a decent price. Honest!"
"I..." He hadn't wanted to buy anything but he supposed food would add to the festive feeling. "Why not." Cloud picked out a bag of candy floss. He was never skilled enough to eat it off a stick. It always spun away from his mouth or stuck to the stick or flew off the end.
"That'll be ten gil," she said handing it over.
"Ten gil?" he cried. "For a bag of candy floss!"
"I've opened it for you now! So you had better pay for it."
No wonder she wasn't over flowing with business. Glaring, Cloud fished into his pocket and slapped the change into her outstretched hand. "It had better taste like heaven," he muttered.
"It'll taste like my fist in a minute," she said. "Now stop crowding, you're cramping my business."
Biting on his tongue, Cloud refused to engage and skulked away with a tainted mood. Swinging his expensive purchase, he cheered at the sight of a Ferris wheel peeking over the rooftops somewhere in LOVELESS avenue. It wasn't a large construction but it was impressive enough. Speeding up, he pushed through the crowds until he came to the Ferris queue.
Cloud tipped his head back to admire the swinging baskets and lights flashing along its spires. He checked the price before joining the line, however. Sensible enough. There were two lines either side of the main steps that led up to the Ferris' seats. People from either side were called up together to share a basket, each one able to hold four people. When Cloud saw that Green and his friend were in the line opposite he felt his limbs stiffen.
As three girls ran from the newest basket, Cloud raced up the steps, shoved gil into the conductor's hand and slammed the door shut before anyone else could join him. He sighed with relief, watching Green grow smaller and smaller. He then made to acknowledge the one person who had stayed inside the basket.
"Hi," he said, attempting a smile.
The man grinned in reply, legs apart and arms draped over the back of his seat. Sunlight was glaring off the goggles on his forehead – a style that oddly suited him, Cloud thought. "Yo. You were in a hurry to join me, heh?"
Blushing Cloud looked away. "Yeah," was all he could say.
"How come you're by yourself?" the red-headed man asked, sliding a little closer.
Cloud cleared his throat and shifted away, not that the seating permitted him much escape. "Ah, well, y'know. I prefer my own company sometimes."
His companion straightened and leaned his head closer, as if trying to be sleek and suave. "I see. Well, I hope my company doesn't bother you."
"No, no, it's fine," Cloud said with a nervous laugh, almost hanging off the edge of his seat now.
"Where are you from? Your accent has a little spice to it."
"No where, really. Where, uh, are you from?" As the man began to reply the Ferris wheel completed a turn and Cloud dived out of the basket. He didn't care that it meant he had wasted more money. That was far from the relaxing ride he had hoped for, not that he had let the ride get moving in the first place.
Groaning, he delved into his candy floss bag and removed a cotton puff. As it melted on his tongue, he was relieved that it tasted of nothing but sugary-goodness.
Back at the main plaza, Cloud chose another street to explore. Above all the bobbing heads, he spotted the tip of a rocket – he was sure of it – and as he got closer, a strong voice demanded their attention.
"Step raight up, folks! This 'ere is the best ride yer ever gonna see. Home built by these very hands – the best roller-coaster ride you gonna find anywhere. The Rocket Ride!" He was an unshaven man, waving his arms around with a cigarette clenched between his teeth and a pole in one hand. Cloud stared at the rusty contraption behind him, two people screaming as they hurtled around in their carriage – shaped like a mini-rocket.
"You there, boy!" A pole was thrust in Cloud's face and he leapt back, almost losing his candy floss. The man jumped down from his podium – a wooden crate – and looped an arm around Cloud's shoulders. "How's about it? Think you got enough balls give it a trai? It's only three gil a spin! I fine-tuned this girl m'self, it's made out o' real rocket parts."
"N-no thank you." He ducked out of the man's grip and backed away.
"Ah, ya chicken. Wassa matter?" But, puffing out a funnel of smoke, the man returned to his crate and yelling.
If only Zack were here, Cloud thought. If only Sephiroth were here...
After browsing the trinkets and telling himself not to spend any more money, Cloud returned to Sector 8 once more. It was gone four o'clock and he was beginning to feel tired. In truth, he wasn't having fun and his earlier zeal had turned to fatigue. He wasn't sure if he could hang around until it was dark just to see fireworks. Who was he meant to talk -
Cloud froze. On the other side of the fountain, adorned with a basket of flowers and dressed in white, was Aerith. He grinned and jogged to her side. "Aerith!" Startled, she yelped and almost hit him with her basket as she spun around.
"Oh! I – I'm sorry,." She gasped. "Cloud?" They stared at each other and he could see the apprehension in her eyes. How foolish of him. Had he expected things to feel normal? "How are you?" she asked and Cloud hated the formality of her posture.
"I'm good, thank you. I mean..." He stared at his hands, twisting and pushing holes into the candy bag. "How have you been?"
"Not too bad." Cloud glanced up and was glad to see her smiling. "I'm selling flowers at last. Look, don't you think those two are suited for each other?" Aerith tiptoed closer and pointed behind him. As Cloud observed a red headed female (dressed in a suit of all things and talking to a SOLDIER he couldn't see the face of), Aerith gripped his elbow. "I'm going to embarrass them by encouraging that guy to buy her a flower! It's worked perfectly on three others already."
"Is that so?" Unable to fathom who the SOLDIER might be, he gazed back at Aerith's snowy face. He had missed her. She was a calming presence and a loyal friend but something was different now. Their former bond was broken. It should have saddened Cloud even more but it didn't. It was good to know she didn't resent him.
"Yes... Want to buy a flower? I have two left, and one is for those two I pointed out."
Touching the hand still on his elbow, Cloud inclined his head. "Sure, although, it's not going to cost my soul, is it?"
Giggling, Aerith shook her head. "No, no. Don't be silly. In fact..." She removed a white one from her basket. "I remember how much you liked my flowers. Have it for free, Cloud."
"Seriously? Are you sure?"
She nodded. "Why don't you press it? Then you can keep the smell for years."
"Yeah, I think I will. I've got study books the size of tombstones back at the barracks."
"You just never learn, do you Strife?" Aerith and Cloud paled, stepping apart from each other. They hadn't even been that close! What had they done wrong? Were they prohibited from speaking to each other forever? Cloud bowed his head at Cadet Green and his friends. With a small smile at Aerith, he didn't linger for the sake of small banter. Was he a coward? Maybe, but Cloud tried to see it as being better than Green – not sinking to his level, as his mother would have put it. Still, he felt ashamed and doleful.
As he came to the wagon with the wailing Wutainese girl, Cloud couldn't help peering over his shoulder. His eyes widened in horror. Green and two of his friends were stalking after him. Knowing that Cloud would have to face him now or later on at the barracks (and with more of Green's friends), he turned and fled.
He pushed and squeezed through the people in LOVELESS avenue, past the Ferris wheel and back, around, into the square where Aerith was now trying to sell her flower. Where could he hide? Where, where, where?
"Over there!" They'd caught up.
He sprinted down another Sector, past The Rocket Ride and trinket stools. A narrow side alley, perfect for escape! Cloud sneaked into the shadows, took a right and was horrified to see a dead end. It just wasn't his day, why was he even surprised? Panting, he did not turn around. He knew who was striding up behind him.
Forced to turn about, Cloud stiffened his jaw and glared up at Green. "Get off," he said. "I wasn't doing anything – just leave me alone."
Green shoved him hard and Cloud stumbled into the wall. "I saw how she was looking at you. She's not mine, she's yours. You keep luring her in." His face softened and he seemed upset. "Look, please, I really like her. Can you just stay away? She's my girl and I'd like to keep it that way - keep her away from temptation, know what I mean?" For a moment Cloud considered this, surprised by the pleading in Green's voice. But why should Green decide Aerith's friends? If he trusted her then why would he be jealous of other men stealing her affections? If they were happy together, then why would he be jealous?
"She's not anybody's! A person isn't a possession. Just fuck off, Green!"
"You fuck off, Cloud. Stay away."
Cloud clenched his fists, trembling from head to foot. He couldn't tell if it was anger or fear pumping through his blood but, whatever it was, it made him want to hit Green until he was blue. "No, I won't. We're friends."
"Gaia, are you asking for it?"
"I'm not asking you for anything – or your permission."
Shaking his head, Green massaged his fist, chewing on his lip as if struggling not to explode. "No, it is not OK. She clearly likes you, I swear..."
"I don't care! I wouldn't – I wouldn't even... Just no!" Cloud took a deep breath, shaking harder. "You're a... You're a dick anyway. You don't deserve -"
Lurching at him, Green seized Cloud's shoulders and bashed him into the wall again. He tried to retaliate by punching him in the ribs but this only made him angrier. A blow to the stomach and a sharp knee in groin made Cloud crumple to the floor. They kicked his legs and stomach – places that wouldn't be seen. It didn't last for long but to Cloud it seemed as if it would never end. With every muffled yell he begged in his mind to be transported somewhere else, to the tree in the courtyard. If he was there, then Sephiroth would see the injustice done to him and rush to his side. That's what he wanted. To feel Sephiroth's arm around his back and a hand on his cheek to catch his tears. Instead, he cradled Aerith's flower and did whatever he could to protect it.
They only stopped when he screamed in pain and curled up to grip his calve.
"Shit," said one of them and they ran.
Cloud squeezed his leg, yelling and thrashing and swearing into the ground. It hurt so much! Was it broken? Bleeding? He bashed his foot against the stone, not thinking, only wanting to make it stop. In his head, he heard the voice of his instructor shouting about how to deal with broken bones. "You've got to make them calm down, they have to stop moving." Gulping for breaths – between his yelps and swearing – Cloud managed to make himself lie still. He let go of his leg and writhed on his back, grinding his teeth together. "You do more damage the more you shift them. Stop moving his arm around, Woodworth! It's broken!"
As he calmed, staring at the sky far above the alleyway shadows, he was surprised to realise he wasn't crying. A pain this great usually had him in floods of tears by now, or so he thought. He continued to lie there, his breathing steady, and eventually smiled. Cloud was proud of himself. Tomorrow he probably wouldn't feel the same way but right now he was dizzy and pleased. He had confronted Green and not been reduced to a stammering fool. Kind of.
Oh Gaia, how was he going to stand up?
Gritting his teeth, Cloud hobbled up against the wall and began to hop and stumble his way back. He soon learnt that hopping was exhausting and groaned. So much for improving his fitness. When he found his way out of the alleys Cloud thanked the Lifestream for the pile of crates just waiting to be sat on. Dumping himself on the middle stack, he began to roll up his trouser leg – wincing at the slightest pressure. Nothing seemed to be sticking out in the wrong direction and with a few tender pokes, Cloud decided it could be fractured or internally bruised. That was a minor relief.
The world was large and he was small. His leg was in pain but he couldn't bring himself to ask for a stranger's help. How would he explain it? How would he suffer the humiliation of hobbling through Midgar wrapped around some old man's neck? Cloud watched the nearest merchant selling jewellery made from monster-parts (like teeth and claws) and everyone who milled about their business. Their jovial, companionable, business.
After a long while, sitting as still as a statue to avoid disturbing his leg, Cloud dropped his face into his hands. In one of them was the stem of Aerith's flower. It was squashed and leaking juice across his nose, a potent smell. He lowered his hands to examine it. One of the pollen anthers was missing and one of the petals had a crumpled, browning line through it, but for the most part it was undamaged. Smiling, he stroked the soft white petals and brushed them across his lips. Perhaps Sephiroth would like one of these flowers for valentine's day, or his birthday, or something.
A breeze rushed up the alley behind him and Cloud shivered. The sun was beginning its slow decent and, when it was eventually dark enough, the firework display would begin. He had to head back to ShinRa. Maybe, after he'd seen a nurse and the sun was down, Zack would be free to watch the fireworks with him. They could watch from his office if he was still on duty at nine o'clock at night, but Cloud doubted that.
He got a few odd looks from people as he winced and stumbled back to Sector 8 with a leg that felt like jelly. All I want is a really cold glass of water and a comfy seat. He imagined Angeal's office chair to keep him going. When Cloud reached the fountain, he paused to catch his breath and if the water hadn't looked so disgusting he would have drank it. Perhaps if Aerith was still here she could spare him a drink.
But it wasn't Aerith who he saw through the spray.
Cloud's breath disappeared and he gripped the rim of the pool, hoping Sephiroth would see him. Then, he hoped that Sephiroth would not. What would they talk about if the General approached? He couldn't look away, eyes glued on the man he'd watched and loved through a window for more than a month. Yes, staring at him up close like this Cloud couldn't deny that he was drawn to Sephiroth with every fibre of his being.
Their gaze met.
The wind rushed from Cloud's lungs and he smiled, Sephiroth smiling back. Being discreet, Cloud pinched his wrist a few times and even harder when Sephiroth began to negotiate his way through the by-standers. He was approaching, yes! No. But yes! Oh Gaia, no. It was a dream come true! Shiva, he was doomed...
"Hello Cloud," said Sephiroth as he came to stand at his side. Cloud was glad he was sat down. "It's good to see you here."
"It is?" he whispered. "Hi."
Sephiroth smirked and he gestured to the space beside Cloud. "Oh, er, yeah. Sorry," Cloud babbled, straightening his posture and Sephiroth lowered onto the fountain edge. "I... I'm glad you have time off, sir. It must be nice to have a break, eh-heh."
"Yes, it's a relief for all SOLDIERS, I should think."
"Well, the lucky ones, I guess."
"The lucky ones?" As Cloud made to reply, he stopped, thinking he had heard a familiar laugh. Glancing away from Sephiroth's dreamy face, he did a double-take. Talking to Aerith with his flirtatious smile fixed in place, was Zack. Feeling hurt Cloud stared at him. The red-haired girl he had seen earlier was none-too-impressed with Aerith's presence, and he felt his heart sink further when Zack looked his way but did not notice him.
"I thought Zack had to work..."
Sephiroth tilted his head and followed his gaze. "Ah, yes. I...don't think you should judge him just yet. Speak to him later, perhaps. He's a good friend, that one."
"Is he?" Cloud hated how he felt a mix of bitterness and longing, but he wanted to trust Sephiroth's wisdom. Clearing his throat, he found his smile and focused on the man by his side. He felt his cheeks redden at Sephiroth's steady gaze. So, his eyes were a potent green. "Are you, uh, enjoy the day, sir?"
"Indeed, although I would have preferred company. Angeal stole Genesis from me today and Zack said – well, they all said – it was for my own good. So, I thought I would humour them."
"By going to the festival alone?"
Sephiroth gave him a sly smile. "You could say that."
"They said the same sort of thing to me." Cloud sulked at the memory. "But I, well, I mean..." I'm not alone any more. "It's been a long day without company." He regarded Sephiroth's pensive expression and rushed to change the subject. "These lanterns are pretty, aren't they?" He gestured to the ones bobbing around the square. Sephiroth took note of them and nodded his head. He stared at them with a fondness Cloud had never seen on his face.
"Genesis once told me that if you light one with a wish written on the paper, the fire makes the words glow. When the words glow, the Goddess can read what it is you desire and it is more likely that your wish will come true."
"That's lovely," breathed Cloud.
Pushing long hair behind his ear, Sephiroth gave him a genuine smile. It made him look lively, gentle, and Cloud couldn't believe that it was for him. He turned away, embarrassed. "What would you write on a lantern, sir?"
He heard him chuckle. "Ah, I don't think I'll part with my wishes just yet." Shifting forward, Sephiroth seemed ready to move on. "Say, I'm tired of roaming by myself and it's a long wait before the fireworks. Would you like to buy a lantern with me? I've never tried it before."
Unable to speak for a second, Cloud spluttered and waved his hands. "You – really – I would, yes. Yes please. I – ow!" He cringed and gripped his knee. In his excitement, he had forgotten to watch how he moved his leg. For a moment he struggled with himself and held his breath, refusing to make a fuss.
Sephiroth twisted in his seat and his brow creased. "Are you alright?"
"What's wrong? Are you injured?"
"My leg just hurts." As Sephiroth inched closer, apparently unconvinced, Cloud rushed to rescue the flower he had placed between them. His gasp made Sephiroth recoil, until he noticed the flower.
"That's a rare sight," he said. "A flower in Midgar. Did you buy it? I don't think I saw any stalls selling imported flowers today."
"My friend grows them. Even she doesn't know how they survive here." He glanced across at Zack and Aerith – the red-haired girl had excused herself from their company. "There's loads of them though. Yellow and white. She's selling them if you want one, if there's one left, I mean."
While he spoke, Sephiroth had rolled up the sleeve of his right arm and Cloud stared as he saw a green light radiate through his skin. "With a friend like Zack," he said as he regarded Cloud's awe, "it's best for keep a Cure materia on you." Sephiroth placed his hand on Cloud's leg. "Here?" The cadet nodded and a warmth spread through his muscles. The light blushed through Sephiroth's fingers and tingled into Cloud's leg. "That won't have completely fixed it," he said as he pulled away, "but it shouldn't hurt as much. Here..." Standing up, Sephiroth offered his hand. "Let's get some lanterns."
Cloud, despite having a limp, could not stop beaming. What dream was he in? He couldn't take his eyes off Sephiroth as they searched the stalls and was hooked on every word he said. In return for Sephiroth's amiableness, Cloud tried his utmost best to make engaging conversation. For the most part, he felt lame. It was a good thing that Sephiroth was a calm and confident person, if he hadn't been, Cloud suspected things would be painfully awkward. His cheeks felt hot no matter how the minutes passed, and every time Sephiroth gave him a lingering smile his chest flooded with butterflies. In a way, he was thankful to Cadet Green. If he hadn't been forced to snail his way through Midgar, wishing he could cut off his leg, Cloud would have headed back to ShinRa sooner and probably have missed bumping into Sephiroth.
"Ah, at last we're in luck," said Sephiroth and Cloud turned to follow his gaze. A cramped, home-made booth was decorated with swarms of paper lanterns. They approached the owner who looked dainty in her summer yukata. "Do you have any plain ones?" asked Sephiroth as he touched a lantern hanging by his head.
"Of course," she chirped. "Just tell me what colour you want and I'll find them out."
Sephiroth turned to Cloud. "What colour will you get?"
"Oh, um, er... A green one, please, ma'am." The young lady tittered and handed him a folded paper bag at the price of twelve gil. Cloud peeked inside and was glad to see that the lantern was a pale green, just as he'd wanted. He watched Sephiroth's face again as the man made his choice.
It was easier than Cloud expected to find cheap brushes and black paint; thank Gaia. He needed to sit down and rest his swollen leg. With crafts under their arm and the light glowing dimmer, the two of them found a quiet courtyard. A mother and child sat across from them, babbling to each other, and a group of teenagers sat on the ground. Now was the time to traditionally eat food, play Koi-Koi, watch the priests parade through the streets and wait for darkness.
Instead of eating, however, Sephiroth and Cloud pulled out their lanterns and unfolded them. "Wow," said Cloud, "they're bigger than I expected." He stroked the soft tissue, nervous about how delicate it was.
"All the more room to write your wish," said Sephiroth. "Extra large words, just to be sure She'll see it."
Cloud laughed. "Yeah, and you too." He wasn't sure if he dared to write his heart's desire on a lantern. He didn't want Sephiroth to see it, he wasn't ready – he wouldn't know how to explain it.
"Hmm..." Sephiroth touched his lips. "How about we hide our wish until the moment we light the candles."
"You like that, huh?" He smirked at Cloud's eagerness and the cadet tried to shrug it off.
"Well, it's a wish. Best not jinx it, right?" Cloud pulled his 'innocent face', an expression that made his mother coo and ruffle his hair. To his surprise, Sephiroth chuckled and nodded his head.
In companionable silence they mixed the black paint and turned their backs to each other, twisting around only to dip their brushes in the ink between them. Every so often, their eyes met and all he could do was smile. The summer sky in Midgar was cleared of most of its pollution by breezes brought in from Mideel in the south. It allowed the sun to shine at its best and illuminate Sephiroth's face. The joy this made Cloud feel confirmed what he wanted his wish to be.
With delicate strokes, trying his best not to write like a five year old, he painted the words: I wish for a chance with Sephiroth. He stared at them, examined each word and blushed at the thought of sharing this. Could he really do it? He'd painted them now, he supposed. When the ink was dry, Cloud folded up the lantern and set it by his feet. Sephiroth had finished before him and Cloud checked to see that the man wasn't peeking. It was a relief to see that he was watching the mother and child instead.
A loud grumbly-whine made Sephiroth look at him. "Hungry?" Cloud pressed his hands to his stomach and nodded. "If you watch our things, I'll return in a moment."
"I... Thank you."
Sephiroth came back ten minutes later with steaming boxes of noodles. "I can never resist these," he said as he handed a box to Cloud. "They always taste so much better from a festival man trying to rip me off."
Grinning, Cloud thanked him and accepted the box. It warmed his hands and flushed his face as he ate, for the shadows were longer now – colder. Time had flown by and he was surprised by the hour when he checked his watch. "You know what this place needs?" asked Sephiroth.
Cloud glanced around the courtyard. "Um, more benches?"
"I see." Cloud finished his mouthful and couldn't pretend he understood. "What are those?"
Light sprinkled into the night sky and thunder rumbled across the rooftops. The drops of light fell through the air and vanished against the stars. Then again, another firework, streams of them lighting up their faces. Grinning, and unable to resist, Cloud inched closer to Sephiroth. He felt the distance between them had shrank in the hours together and he longed more than anything for a sign of approval.
Sephiroth gazed down at him, colours flashing across his skin and said, "Shall we light our lanterns?"
Nerves clenched his stomach and made Cloud feel cold. He was afraid and eager, ready to confess and run away – time had turned his longing into an emotion he feared would be spurned. But there was never a right moment for such things. "Yeah OK."
They placed their folded lanterns in front of their feet and set the tea-lights into the holder provided. The wick spluttered when Cloud lit his and he hoped it was not a bad omen.
"Ready?" asked Sephiroth, blowing out his match.
"Yup," nodded Cloud.
They took the metal hoop at the top of the tissue paper and eased the lantern up to its full shape. The symbols Cloud had written stood out bold and clear but he didn't dare look across at Sephiroth's yet. Only when it began to float off the floor did he let go and turn to read Sephiroth's. I wish to know Cloud better.
The two stared at each other, their lights drifting away to join the fireworks. Shivers of delight covered Cloud's skin and he chewed his lip, trying not to grin like a fool. An ache filled his chest and he bowed his head for a moment. He screwed his eyes shut, unable to believe it, unable to breathe steadily before meeting Sephiroth's gaze again. "I – I don't know what to say."
"I noticed you," said Sephiroth in his gentle voice. "And so did Zack. At first, I didn't want to know. Zack tried to convince me that you and I would get along..." He raised his chin and watched the fireworks instead. "I'm not sure what changed. I saw you, heard you laugh and soon Angeal was on board with Zack's plan to set us up. They talk about you a lot, you know, much to your credit. I wondered...why you always waited for me." Cloud attempted to shrug away his jitters. "It made me happy anyway, to see you there. By that point, I think I believed Zack when he said that I should stop pushing his advice aside."
Cloud cleared his throat and hugged himself. "I didn't realise he was trying to...set us up. Is that the real reason why he said he couldn't come to the festival with me?"
Sephiroth nodded and it was followed by a tense pause. Cloud thought he was ready to burst, gripping the bench beneath him until his knuckles were white. "I would like to, well, know you better," said Sephiroth. With a deep breath, Cloud closed his eyes to let the words sink in. When he opened them again, he did not meet Sephiroth's expectant look but slid his hand closer until it bumped his leg. When he felt Sephiroth's warm hand enclose around it he smiled and glanced across, too shy to share a prolonged look just yet.
Their lanterns, now tiny and insignificant against the summer display, danced close together as they drifted towards the sea.
With his hands on his hips and a smug look about him, Zack swaggered closer. "Goooodmorning, mister." Cloud narrowed one eye. Either Zack was being presumptuous, or he knew. "Man, you're sure looking strange, everything OK?" he asked, pursing his lips as if resisting a smile.
Cloud folded his arms. "Yeah, how was the festival?"
"Me? Eh, but, you know I couldn't go. I er – did yooou have a good time though?"
"Yup." Raising his head, Cloud strolled (limped) past as if he had the grace of a noble. He moved down the corridor with purpose, hoping Zack would say something before he actually reached the end.
"Hey, where are you going?" Cloud slowed down and turned his head to show he was listening. "Er, I, did you see me yesterday? It wasn't – I would have gone with you but Angeal and I made a plan, right, and it was for you and Sephiroth, y'know? Do you know? And well... Are you mad?"
Grinning like a clown at last, Cloud whipped around and raced back to Zack. He swung his arms around him and hugged him tight. "Thank you!"
Sighing and laughing with relief, Zack held him close. "You two and your lovey-dovey eyes, I couldn't say if it made me feel sick or fuzzy inside." He gave Cloud an extra squeeze. "It was time for a hero to step in."
With a noise of disbelief, Cloud pulled away and beamed up at him. "Thanks, hero. I'm not indebted to you though."
"You so are."
"For a day."
Cloud skewed his mouth. "Is that what you wanted?"
"There's a new monster in Hojo's labs. He says no one can defeat it, let's try together – tonight! I'd put my name forward to fight like any other SOLDIER, but Angeal says I'm not ready and has told Hojo not to let me try. I'm so ready! Ready like a – like a panther." Zack bounced his fists as if preparing to face a boxer and Cloud dropped his face into his palm.
"This can't end well."
Zack gasped and gripped Cloud's shoulders as he remembered something apparently exciting. "Actually, I met this great girl yesterday – her name is Aerith."
Cloud tightened his lips and tiled his head to the side. "...I'll help you with the monster."