For the love of Ifrit and all things holy, Cloud could not find Zack anywhere.
He wasn't home, wasn't in any of the VR rooms. He wasn't in the lab, any of the cafeterias, or even out with the cadets. Cloud had no idea where his boyfriend was and he was genuinely starting to get worried. Zack wasn't even answering his phone and considering that he practically had that thing glued to his hand, that was a major red flag for the Third.
Honestly, today was the first day in weeks that Cloud and Zack happened to have off together, and Cloud had kind of been hoping they could hang out, maybe do some stupid cutesy boyfriend things together. Instead it was getting close to dinner time and not a single person seemed to know where Zack was.
Cloud was just leaving Genesis and Angeal's apartment, having been confiding his worries in the two Firsts while they attempted talking his anxiety down. Apparently, once in a while Zack tended to do this--that is, vanish for a whole day, and then come back acting like nothing had happened at all. It bothered Cloud that not even Angeal was more concerned about this, but then, he supposed he knew what it was like to want to be alone sometimes.
As he closed his mentor's door, bidding Genesis and Angeal a meager goodbye, Cloud paused in the hallway. He leaned against the door with closed eyes, heaving a great breath and pleading for some kind of lead to his boyfriend's whereabouts.
"Do you often barricade doors with your body, Sergeant?"
The cool baritone utterly spooked Cloud, made him flinch like a gun had shot off next to his ear. He glanced up, only to have to look up further at the really tall man standing just out of his arm's reach. And then he had to do a double-take because of all people, that was General Sephiroth standing there. The General Sephiroth, in the flesh, Cloud's childhood hero, right there.
He hadn't actually gotten to meet the great war hero yet, though Genesis had promised a while ago that he'd get the opportunity "eventually." Meeting him now, in a cramped hallway, literally right outside Genesis and Angeal's apartment was hardly the ideal scenario. Cloud definitely would have preferred their first meeting to not be when he was out of uniform and all up in a tizzy over his missing boyfriend.
Still, despite the heat flaring up over his cheeks, Cloud dutifully stepped away from the door and tried to square his shoulders. Regardless of his overall anxiety, the last thing he wanted was for the General to think poorly of him from a bad first impression.
The only problem was that Cloud had no friggen idea what to say and to his terror, Sephiroth started to smirk at him when the silence stretched a little too long. Just long enough to make it awkward as hell.
"Cat got your tongue, there?"
It was such a simple, playful question but it really only made Cloud blush darkly, heat surging across his cheeks too fast to contain or even attempt to hide. His body seemed to react instinctually, raising a hand to at least try to cover his embarassment of a face. "Ohmygod," he squeaked out--and immediately wished the floor would open up to swallow him whole when the great Sephiroth laughed.
"At ease, soldier. It's after hours. Your name is Cloud, right?"
...The... the General knew his name? Knew who he was?! Wait, actually that made sense considering who the man was and who his friends were (i.e. Genesis) but Cloud never imagined that his childhood hero would actually know who he was, much less would want to have a conversation with him.
"Y-yes, Sir," he still managed to stutter of course, but at least this seemed to be going relatively well. As he dropped his hands from his face (trying desperately to keep from fidgeting them) he didn't miss when those cat-like mako eyes looked him up-and-down. It was impossible to tell what Sephiroth was thinking, or what he was looking for exactly, but his smirk didn't faulter even an inch. Actually, he cocked his head a bit to the side and damnit, Cloud had never expected the great General Sephiroth to look so endearing.
"You've been training with Genesis for about six months now, haven't you?"
"Um--" still trying to wrap his head around the fact that Midgar's biggest celebrity even knew his name, and his training thus far, Cloud nodded shakily. "Yes. Almost seven months, Sir."
"But still no mako Jump?" Only after that question did the smirk begin to shrink and those glowing eyes threatened to narrow. "Has Genesis scheduled your assessment yet?"
Assessment? Jump? Why would Shinra's pride and joy be so concerned about one Third Class SOLDIER's progress? Was it that he was being extra critical of Cloud's training because of who his mentor was? Because Sephiroth and Genesis were friends just as much as they were rivals? Well, whatever the reason, Cloud didn't exactly want to throw his mentor under the bus if his teaching plan was a little behind schedule... So although he shook his head in answer, Cloud wasn't about to leave it at that. "He said he wants me to be at the top of my Class before I receive the Jump, Sir. I-I'm still only third best right now."
Something of a thoughtful glint passed through those eyes, but his answer seemed to appease the General for now, as he nodded once with a quiet hum. "Typical. Very well, then. You'll reach the top sooner if you don't show your opponents mercy--sparring with someone rough may prove useful to you. Like that Roche-fellow--even Zack would put up a decent fight, unrefined though his tactics may seem."
Somehow, hearing Sephiroth, the all-powerful hero of Shinra, knocking on Zack's fighting ability made Cloud grin. Nearly laugh, in fact, and after that it was significantly easier to relax around his idol.
"He is a little unrefined, huh? Actually, I-I spar with him at least twice a week. Probably would have done it today but I can't find him anywhere." He shrugged his hands out to the sides, shaking his head to emphasize the fact. "No one's seen him since this morning and he's not answering his phone, either."
Sephiroth canted his head to the side again. Cloud had no clue why he was even bothering to tell the General of all people, and kind of expected the man to just shrug and walk away or something. Instead, much to Cloud's surprise, Sephiroth set a hand to his chin, furrowing his brow with thought. A moment later, he glanced Cloud's way again. "Did you check the Sector 5 slums?"
...The... slums? Maybe Cloud's confusion was obvious because Sephiroth smirked at him again.
"He has a friend down there that he visits from time to time. And because it's under the plate, there's almost no reception--cell phone service is spotty, at best. I'd wager he's been with her if you can't find him."
How... did Sephiroth know that Zack had a friend in the slums when even Angeal didn't seem to know? Or at least, he hadn't mentioned it. Actually, no, Cloud didn't want the answer to that--he also wasn't sure what to make of the new information (what friend?) But it was better than continuing to grasp at loose straws. He finally had a lead and whole-heartedly planned on punching Zack in the gut when he found the idiot.
"I'll go look before it gets much darker," a heartbeat's hesitation, then a short bow forward. Because it felt right even though their conversation had been so casual. "Th--thank you, Sir!"
"Mm," Sephiroth nodded and turned towards the closed door of Genesis and Angeal's apartment. "Give him an extra punch for me when you find him."
Uh? Cloud tried to catch the General's eye but he was already letting himself in to the apartment. Confused, but with no time to question anything, Cloud practically sprinted for the closest elevator.
Zack was certainly in for it whenever Cloud found him.
It took forever to get down to the parking garage, but was smooth-sailing once he hopped onto his Shinra-issued Hardy Daytona. The highways leading out of Sector 0 were all too familiar as Cloud zoomed his way through. It took about half an hour, give or take, to reach the Sector 7 slums, since that was the area he was most familiar with. Yet the whole drive down, he couldn't keep his thoughts from swimming in circles about Zack.
First of all, if he was only visiting a friend, why wouldn't he say anything to Cloud? To be fair, it wasn't like Cloud expected Zack to report his every move, but it would have been nice to know he'd already had plans on their one shared day off. Maybe that way Cloud wouldn't have spent all day looking for the First when instead he could have gotten caught up on his reading assignments, or even gone to visit some friends of his own. It felt like the whole day had been wasted and that could have been completely avoided if Zack had just talked to someone about where he was going.
Aaah, well. Not much Cloud could do about it now but he definitely planned on smacking Zack at least once for the trouble. For Sephiroth, that is.
Seventh Heaven wasn't very busy when he got there, which wasn't all that surprising since it was barely 5:30 on a Wednesday night. He still parked his bike in the spot behind the bar that his longtime friend (the bar's owner) let him use, and meandered his way around to enter through the front door.
There were a few patrons inside, mostly faces that Cloud didn't recognize. More interesting was the huge tattooed fellow manning the counter, and the little girl sitting at the bar with coloring supplies all over the place and a half-eaten plate of food that had been pushed off to the side.
Cloud didn't need to announce his presence. The man was already grinning and waving him in.
"'Ey, Stamp! Don't think I ever seen you 'round on a W'nsday b'fore."
"Yeah?" Cloud made himself comfortable on a stool next to the girl, who beamed happily at him, then turned back to her crayons. She'd barely touched her food... and Cloud was sorely reminded of the fact that he hadn't really eaten today because he'd been so worried about Zack. "Had the night off so I figured I'd come by. How are you, Barret?"
The man shrugged haphazardly despite his huge, toothy grin. "Same old."
"And you, Marlene?"
The girl glanced up at him with a big beaming smile that matched her father's. "I'm good!!"
"Oh, really? Then how come you aren't eating?" Both to be a tease and to partially sate his suddenly growling stomach, Cloud stretched an arm across in front of Marlene's nose to swipe a handful of french fries off her plate. Immediately she whined and protested, but Cloud didn't return the stolen pieces; just snickered at her as he ate them quickly.
"Cloud!! That's my food!!"
Barret burst into loud laughter at the sight. Marlene continued to pout at him, even as she made it a point to take her plate and coloring supplies to the far end of the bar where Cloud couldn't reach them. It was damn near impossible not to laugh by then, but the Third didn't push the envelope with her.
Barret swiftly grabbed his attention back anyway, leaning closer over the counter's edge with an undeniably nosy glint in his eye. "So? You get any good dirt on Shinra for Avalanche yet?"
Cloud's whole face fell. He leered sharply up at the man while Barret continued to grin at him.
It took a long minute before even he gave up, shoulders dropping as he sighed loudly. "Ugh, y'er killin' me, Spike. Just gimmie one useful piece'a intel! Jus' one!"
"I've already told you that nothing I find will be useful to Avalanche." Already bored with this topic, Cloud set his chin in one hand, leaning his elbow on the counter. "I'm a SOLDIER. Shinra's brawn-with-no-brains, remember?"
Barret grumbled something under his breath that Cloud couldn't exactly make out. That was fine though because it seemed like Barret was getting just as tired of receiving the same response every time he asked. Audibly, he added as he turned away, "Yeah, yeah. Damn shame, but I g'it it. Anyways, you want a drink'r somethin'?" He thumbed to the collection of bottles on display behind him. "Tifa's out, so I'm runnin' th'show t'night!"
Why Tifa would ever feel that Barret Wallace made a good stand-in bartender was completely beyond Cloud. He politely declined anyway, not at all interested in drinking on an empty stomach. Plus, there was something Barret had said that was far more curious for the blonde anyway.
"You said Tifa went out?"
"Tchyea!" Barret snickered. "She almost wasn't gonna, but I told 'er I'd hold th'fort since it's usually so quiet on W'nsdays."
Cloud squinted at the man. "Any idea where she went?"
Barret made a thoughtful sound, scratching his chin with his metal hand. "Uuuhh. Sector 5 I think. To see some girl pal'o hers."
...Seriously? Cloud stared at Barret for what felt like the longest time. Hadn't Sephiroth said that Zack's friend was a girl too? What were the chances that...?
"Must be some girl," he all but mumbled. It was hard not to let his tone reveal too much of the jealousy he was pretending he didn't have. "Friend of mine went there to see a girl today too."
"No kiddin'?" Barret sounded just as surprised. "Huh. Wonder if it's th'same one?"
Yeah, Cloud inwardly grumped to himself. I wonder.
Out loud he only sighed, weighing his options and attempting to figure out if it was worth continuing his search for Zack or if he should just give up. He could always punch Zack later, after all. But he knew the stupid little voice in the back of his head wouldn't rest until he had some form of confirmation on the First's whereabouts.
Seriously, though. What were the chances that both Zack and Tifa were galavanting around with the same mystery girl from Sector 5?
He didn't bother restraining the frustrated groan that slipped out. At that, he started to draw himself out of his seat feeling like all his energy had vanished in one fell swoop.
Barret watched him, and Cloud didn't miss how his chocolate-brown eyes swam with a whole bunch of different emotions. Finally, though, the man reached behind to scratch the back of his own head, seeming to struggle to find something to say.
"Uhhh--look, Stamp. I dunno 'bout your other friend, but Tifa an' this girl--"
Cloud turned his face away. Not because of what Barret was trying to tell him, but because the bar's door had suddenly yanked open and three people were shuffling their way inside.
Three loud, laughing, familiar people. Or, well, two of them were familiar at least.
Tifa was leading the way, grinning and giggling from over her shoulder. She was holding the hand of a second girl, with long brown hair, whose face was flush and damp, likely from laughing so much. And taking up the rear, nearly towering over the two girls, was a bright-eyed and beaming Zackary Fair, in the flesh.
That was about when Cloud realized for the first time ever that there was actually someone in the world that he wanted to punch more than that idiot Roche. Unfortunately, at the moment that person was Zack.
All three of them seemed to glance up at the same time to see Cloud there and they each froze like deer in headlights. Cloud stiffly, grumpily crossed his arms over his chest.
Now he knew how his mother used to feel whenever Cloud came home after curfew.
"Uh--" Zack was the first to react, squeezing around the girls to come up towards Cloud cautiously. "Heya, babe! What, um--whatcha doin' here?"
He started to reach a hand towards him, but immediately retracted it when Cloud glowered darkly. "Don't touch me, Zack."
A few paces away, Tifa hung back with the brown-haired girl. Cloud noticed her lean down to whisper something and a moment later, they started to circle around Cloud and Zack (who was pouting) to get to the hallway behind the bar counter. Tifa even waved meekly at him as she passed but Cloud was too upset to return the gesture. Instead he watched them leave, or more specifically, the girl he didn't know. Just who was she? How the hell did both Zack and Tifa know her? What kind of small world was this?
He looked up at Zack, releasing a heavy breath through his nose. The First was definitely reluctant to say anything more, probably because of the look Cloud was giving him. Still, he visibly steeled himself before thumbing towards the door over his shoulder. "Caaaan we, uh. Do this outside?"
Though his immediate instinct was to say no, Cloud wasn't so upset as to force Zack to talk to him in front of the bar patrons. Plus, Marlene was watching them, and even though Barret was hastily cleaning a part of the counter, anyone could see he was actively paying attention to whatever was being said between Cloud and Zack.
That didn't stop him from continuing to leer at the First though. "Fine."
Zack smiled, clearly relieved, and led the way out the door.
They settled on the stairs outside, side by side with plenty of room for anyone to enter or exit the bar without having to trip all over them. Cloud was glad for the nice weather at that moment, the crisp evening breeze helping to ward away the majority of his irritation right off the bat. He was still upset for sure, just not as close to decking Zack in the face anymore. Even though he definitely planned on doing that at some point still. For Sephiroth.
"Sooo..." Zack idly clasped his hands over his lap. He wasn't looking at Cloud, though that was fine since Cloud wasn't really looking at him either.
"So," he parroted quietly. Zack shifted awkwardly, remaining silent. Probably because he didn't know where to start. Cloud, on the other hand, was pretty sure he could help with that. "You, um. Could have told me you had plans today." Zack whipped his head towards him, clearly surprised. Cloud shrank into himself, keeping his own gaze diligent on his feet. "I spent all day looking for you."
"Cloud..." Still seemingly lost for words, Zack turned away and sighed. "...I'm really sorry. It wasn't exactly a planned visit. I just needed someone different to talk to about something."
Someone different? Cloud tried not to feel hurt by that. Zack clearly had his reasons for coming to the slums, and it wasn't Cloud's right to pry even if they were dating. Besides, it wasn't as though he didn't know what that was like. Sometimes talking to someone different, someone removed from the usual circle of friends, was the best mental salve a person could have. He was guilty of it too, coming down to Seventh Heaven more than once to confide in Tifa and, occasionally, Barret.
What was bothering Zack so much that he needed someone different to talk to?
Cloud finally glanced up. Shyly at first, not exactly sure what expression he was going to find on Zack's face, but he was determined to talk this out like adults, damnit, and adults looked at each other when the conversation got heavy. Or... something like that, anyway.
"So, you... came to visit that girl then?"
Zack met his eyes, silent for a long moment--well, it felt long to Cloud at least. But the First was quick to smile, a tiny little thing that was a farcry from a typical "Zack grin" that could light up an entire room.
"Her name is Aerith," he explained warmly. "I've known her since I was a Third. She's helped me more times than I can count, an' she lives here in the slums."
"In Sector 5, you mean."
At Zack's nod, Cloud furrowed his brow. So they must have been friends for... four or five years, if he had to guess. Zack had supposedly climbed the ranks of SOLDIER faster than average, but even still, no one made it from Third to First in less than three years.
Either way, that meant Zack had known Aerith longer than he'd known Cloud, and the blonde just couldn't stifle the pang of bitter, irrational jealousy in his chest when he realized that.
He tried not to let his pout be too obvious. "So did you ever...? I-I mean, with her--?"
"Huh?" Zack stared at him, blinking cluelessly. When the words suddenly clicked, his cheeks welled red but he grinned in that doofy way of his and instantly soothed away Cloud's worries.
"Y-y'mean, like, date her? Hah, well, I used to have a crush on her, but then I found out she'd been dating some dumb girl named Kyrie an' it kinda dashed my hopes an' dreams at the time. Now she's more like a sister to me than anything else, y'know?"
That had to be the biggest relief Cloud had ever heard. He'd never been so possessive over a boyfriend before (not that he'd had many in the first place) but he felt loads better knowing that he had nothing to worry about. He felt like a total idiot for jumping to conclusions but it was better to be safe than sorry, right? Or something like that.
He finally allowed himself to lean in to Zack's side, humming a light note while the First wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Cloud let his eyes close to revel in the warm embrace his boyfriend provided while Zack peppered affectionate butterfly kisses everywhere he could reach.
"M'sorry I worried you, Cloud," Zack went on to murmur, voice low and gentle. "I promise it won't happen again."
"Better not," the blonde shot back playfully. "M'still gonna punch you for disappearing like that. Honestly, just shoot me a text or something next time, especially if you think you're gonna be gone all day."
Zack laughed quietly and tightened his hold around the Third, nuzzling his cheek into the fluffy blonde spikes. "You're right. Totally fair, and I definitely deserve getting punched, so that's fine. One punch."
Cloud snorted, tilted his head back to attempt peering into Zack's face. "Pfft. Well, Sephiroth wants me to punch you too, so, uh, so much for that."
"W-wha?! Whaddya mean? Even Seph is out for my blood?!" Zack whined and groaned as dramatically as possible. It was clearly his attempt at brightening the whole conversation and, frankly, despite how upset Cloud had been all day, the chance to laugh at his goofball boyfriend was the last thing needed for Cloud to truly begin to feel better.
They sat together on those stairs for longer than either of them had intended but neither of them minded. They snuggled and laughed and maybe shared a kiss or two. No one bothered to disturb them, though it ended up being Barret's booming laughter from inside the bar that spooked Cloud out of the blissful haze they'd fallen into.
"Wonder what that's about," Zack chuckled. "Sounds like a rowdy guy."
"He is," Cloud groaned. "Literally everything about Barret Wallace is rowdy. Rowdy and way too social. Seriously, he knows everyone in the slums."
"That must mean he's a good person. Besides, Tifa trusts him, right?" The First twisted himself around a bit, gazing up towards the building. Cloud started to nod, started to comment that he didn't know why she trusted him so much, but a passing thought snagged his attention and derailed the rest of whatever he wanted to say.
"Hey, so, did you know Tifa before today?"
"Hm? Uh," Zack scrunched up his face as he considered the question. "Nope. Aerith introduced us today. Didja know that they--well, actually, you haven't met Aerith, so you probably don't know, but they're a thing I guess?"
"You don't say," Cloud deadpanned with a playful roll of his eyes. Anyone could have found that out just by looking at the two girls together. "Jeez... what a small world."
"I know! Right? And they're super cute together! Aer can be a bit of a chatterbox sometimes but Tifa seems really patient. I think they're a good match! Ohhh, we should totally go on a double-date sometime! What do you think, Choco-Head?!"
...Talk about being a chatterbox. No wonder Zack and Aerith sounded like such good friends if they could both talk each other's ears off like that. Zack's enthusiasm was certainly contagious though, and Cloud wondered if Tifa really would be up to something like a double-date. She was a major workaholic, after all, and would probably need some serious convincing to take a night off.
"Sure. We can run it by them sometime. It sounds fun." Although, mustering a vaguely serious expression and tone, Cloud tugged gently on Zack's sleeve. "Hey... can I ask--um--why did you have to come visit Aerith so suddenly?"
Surprisingly, Zack clamped his mouth shut immediately and even turned his face away from Cloud. But a reaction like that just left the blonde hesitating to say more, a sinking pit forming in his gut before he'd even realized it.
Had Zack needed to talk to Aerith... about him? Or their relationship? Had Cloud done something wrong without even realizing it?
Zack blew out a heavy breath that made his shoulders droop. He still wouldn't look at Cloud though, and that concerned the blonde the most.
"Aah... My Mum called last night," Zack finally said softly. "I... guess my brother's out of jail. And she wants him to stay with me for a week."