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They were still days where Zack let his thoughts get the better of him. Those days where he couldn't bring himself to smile or sound cheery. Everything felt terribly dreary on those days and he hated every moment of it. It always managed to hit him the hardest at night though.

Whenever he tried to just sleep it off, every possible lingering thought tormented him in his mind. He never was an insomniac before, but he felt like he was slowly starting to become one each with passing day.

"I guess it's just another one of those nights, eh Cloud?"

He waited as if there would actually be a response.

"Yeah… I thought so. I just gotta find a way to manage. I know we'll get through this."

Zack turned his head and looked at the blond that was laying next to him. His eyes were still left in that eerie half open state. The mako still faintly glowing in his vacant looking eyes.

Humming softly Zack started to ruffle Cloud's hair. "You gotta give me something at some point Cloud. I don't know if you honestly can hear all my rambles… but I don't know how much longer I can go on like this… You know, I'm a people person… I need people to talk to… and to have them talk to me in return."

Zack stopped ruffling Cloud's hair when he saw many strains of hair had now fallen in front of Cloud's unmoving face. Slowly Zack stared to brush them away, as he let out a sigh. "Just keep hanging in there, buddy. I know you must be trying… if you can keep going, I'm sure I can too."

Zack pulled Cloud a bit closer to himself before he finally closed his eyes, hopping to drift off into sleep. "G'night Cloud."

"Zack…"

Zack's eyes shot open. He blinked a few times before closing them again. "I probably just imagined it. Lack of sleep… yeah probably…"

"Mm… Zack…"

Now he was sure he had heard something. Pushing Cloud back a bit so he could see his face, Zack looked directly at the blond. His heart was racing by this point, unsure if he was hearing it or if he had finally gone crazy.

"C-Cloud?"

Cloud blinked. His eyes still hazy, but for once after many months there seemed to be some focus. His eyes slowly shifted until he was looking right at Zack. "Zack?"

Tears filled Zack's eyes as he brought Cloud into a hug. He hated to cry in front of others, hating to seem so weak. The only exception to see like this was Aerith, but now none of that seemed to matter to him anymore. "Oh Gaia! Cloud! You're talking!"

"Yeah… talking…" Cloud murmured, his voice muffled from being pressed up against Zack. A moment later Cloud gave a thoughtful sounding hum. "Zack… your close."

"Huh? O-Oh…" Quickly Zack pushed himself a little bit away. "Sorry. I guess I had gotten used to being that close. But now that you're really waking up there, it will just be kind of awkward."

Cloud slowly furrowed his eyes to look confused. "Why?"

"Why would it be awkward? Or why was I doing it?"

Cloud blinked slowly but didn't give an answer.

"Ah… I guess you're still kind of waking up there. I um…" Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "You've been catatonic from mako poisoning for months now. I know it leaves you unable to do anything, but I… I was worried whenever I would try and sleep that I would wake up to find you gone. So I always kept you close. I guess it seems kind of silly now that I'm trying to explain it."

"Not silly…"

"Huh?"

Cloud suddenly scooted forward and buried his head against Zack's chest. "Always good when you're near."

Zack felt a bit startled from Cloud's sudden choice of movement, but he couldn't find himself to push Cloud away. "Is it just cause I've gotten used to him being this close? But what is he talking about? I don't get it… Maybe it is just because he is a bit hazy in waking up."

"Cloud?" Zack asked. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Staying close."

"Yeah, I got that part, but why?"

Cloud tilted his head up towards Zack, his eyes still having that mako glow to them. They were in fact becoming more focused, but mainly they were still looking a bit foggy. "Why not?"

Slowly Cloud moved his hand up to Zack's face. His fingers gently brushed against Zack's chin. It sent a slight tingling sensation down Zack's body, only further adding to his own confusion. Before it could go another further, Zack took hold of Cloud's hand and held it back, looking at his friend, trying to understand just what was going on.

"Are you okay Cloud? Or maybe… is this the mako doing this to you?"

"What? But thought…you wanted…" Cloud trailed off as he blinked a couple of times. "Is this… not a dream?"

Zack furrowed his brows, still trying to understand what Cloud was trying to talk about. "No Cloud. This isn't a dream. We've been heading to Midgar and camping out a lot in areas where we won't be found."

"O-Oh…" Cloud quickly managed to pull his arm away from Zack. He lowered his head, averting his eyes from him now.

Though it was nighttime, the moon was still out and enough light was shining down that Zack could tell Cloud clearly looked upset… and was blushing? Zack narrowed his eyes and looked more carefully. With his SOLDIER enhanced vision, he could see clearly that it was blush that was showing on Cloud's face.

"Cloud? You okay there, buddy?"

"Sorry…"

"Now why are you sorry?" Zack asked, seeing as Cloud was still not extremely talkative yet. He needed the proper prompting if he was to give any answers.

"I thought this… was dream. Sorry…"

It still didn't give him enough. Zack sighed before placing a hand on Cloud's head, warranting him to look up at him. "Can you tell me why though? If it's too hard for you to explain it can wait."

"I thought dreaming… because… the dreams were good. With you." The blush did not once fade from Cloud's cheeks as he tried his best to continue talking. "Because I…"

Cloud stopped and frowned and averted his eyes again. "Nevermind…"

"No way, Cloud. We've gotten this far. I am not going to just let this go. I still have too many questions. I need to make sure you are all right and that there isn't something else going on."

"I'm fine…"

"Then finish what you were going to say. Please."

"Because I like you."

It was said in a whisper, far too quiet for the normal ear to hear. But it wasn't too quiet for Zack's hearing, it just wasn't what he was expecting. It was blunt and to the point, yet it just opened up a flood gate to many more questions.

"You like me? As in…?"

Cloud gave small nods. "Always have admired you… You inspired me… made me feel happy and confident again. Handsome too…" The last part was murmured, but it was still easily heard by Zack. "Never was able to tell you before… I love you."

It left him with an odd fluttering in his stomach. Something he had not ever felt… or had not felt in a very long time. Zack wasn't too sure on which of the two it really was at this point. He was far too caught up in the moment to truly anasly what his own feelings were. Though as he thought about it, something came to mind.

"Is… is that why you always sent me emails thanking me and stuff but not actually saying to my face?" Zack said as he recalled the few emails he had gotten from Zack during their time at Shinra. Cloud would write sometimes short emails just rambling about how he was thankful for what Zack did or said to him. Inspiring him and giving him confidence. Or sometimes just asking to hangout, even that was never said to his face but only asked in an email.

"I don't remember… can't remember what was said…" Cloud frowned as he spoke. He groaned slightly, looking pained a little from the thought of not being able to remember. "But too shy before…"

Zack frowned as well. It worried him that Cloud wasn't able to remember something that seemed to mean a lot to him. That was probably the mako's doing. He noted that he was going to have to look into trying to deal with that as soon as they got to Midgar.

"You're mad?"

Zack's eyes widened. "No. No I'm not mad. Just worried about your memories is all. Nothing to do what you just told me."

"Then?" Cloud asked, his voice lingering on his one simple word.

"I… I just don't know Cloud. I can't think straight. Haven't gotten much sleep lately and then you wake up and confess to me something like that? It's a lot to take in."

Zack breathed in deeply before continuing. "Just give me some time, okay? I just need to think."

"Okay… Sorry…" Cloud's voice stayed soft, wavering slightly with his few and simple words.

Zack rolled his eyes and pulled Cloud into another close embrace. "You don't gotta be sorry about your feelings Cloud! Don't think that you did anything wrong." Zack started to rub Cloud's back as soon as he started to hear the faint sniffles coming from the blond.

"Hey… it's okay. Just take in some deep breaths. If anyone has to be sorry here, it should be me cause I can't give you a good answer."

Cloud hummed, but didn't say anything after that.

Zack sighed and rested his head on top of Cloud's. "Just get some sleep, okay? We still got a lot of ground to cover before Midgar."

He felt Cloud nod and then after that his spiky haired friend was quietly breathing and fast asleep. Zack let out another long sigh now that he was the only one left awake. Even now when he was alone in his thoughts, he couldn't make any clear lines from any of this. None of this was what he expected to hear from Cloud when he woke up.

After so many months, Cloud finally was able to talk again. At least that was what Zack was hoping. The smallest fear he had was that he had dreamt all of this and it was all in his head. But all of this felt too real. The way Cloud spoke to him and said what he did, there was no way he could have dreamt all of that up.

But that meant Cloud in fact had confessed his feelings. Apparently always having them but being too shy to admit it. Honestly he knew that Cloud already was a bit shy from time to time when they were back at Shinra. It wasn't all the time, but he did remember a good few times where Cloud was just a bit too shy to give a proper answer.

But now it was out in the open, and Zack knew eventually he was going to have to figure out what he felt on the matter. But for now, he just needed to try and sleep. Maybe with sleep he could finally figure out all of this and know what he could do.


"How are you feeling Cloud? Not too motion sick?" Zack asked.

Cloud tilted his head slightly towards him. "You ask that a lot…"

Cloud wasn't wrong. For the past couple of hours they had been riding on the back of a truck. It was going to take them straight into Midgar. Every 20 minutes or so Zack ended up asking the same question, remembering back to the Shinra days when Cloud told him about his motion sickness.

"I know, I know. But I just gotta be sure you're feeling all right."

Cloud closed his eyes and nodded. "I'm still fine. Thanks though."

His words were still short or broken up most of the time, but either way it excited Zack to see Cloud talking again. Though he still had the lingering thoughts from nights ago. Cloud didn't seem to want to talk about it after that night. He never tried to bring it anyways, though Zack was sure Cloud still had it deeply on the mind. He knew that he had it on his own mind and couldn't make heads or tales of it.

"It's still so strange to think… he's always had these feelings for me. I still can't seem to wrap my head around it… I can't stop thinking about what he said, but I can't just get a good response."

Zack sighed slightly as he looked out at the passing barren land. Soon they would be at Midgar, and soon they could finally figure out a better hiding plan than just jumping from place to place. Maybe once they were settled in one area, Zack could finally clear his head and get everything sorted out.

"So Cloud," Zack said as he turned back to Cloud. Even if his words were short, it was finally something he could work with. "What do you think you'll wanna do when we get to Midgar?"

"Huh?" Cloud asked, sounding a little sleepy. He opened his eyes and stared at Zack, looking a little confused. "I thought… stick with you…"

Zack couldn't help but laugh a bit. "Yeah I know that bit. No way I'd let you go out on your own, we need to stick together. But I mean like what you'll do. Like if we start looking for jobs and stuff cause we're gonna need it."

Cloud sighed, looking more relieved. "Oh… I don't know…"

Zack smiled and leaned in closer to ruffle Cloud's hair. "Hey, that's okay. We'll figure it out together. I'm thinking of being a mercenary. Sound good for someone like me? Hey, maybe when you fully recover you could join me in doing that."

Slowly Cloud's cheeks reddened. He smiled slightly. "Yeah… sounds good."

Zack suddenly stopped and pulled his hand back. "You okay Cloud?"

Cloud seemed to shrink back a bit. "Yeah… fine. I'm fine."

"Huh… I guess now that his feelings are out in the open he just isn't trying to hide them?" The longer he stared at the blushing Cloud he couldn't help but smile once more. "I mean he does look kind of cute when he blushes like that."

Zack found himself leaning forward to ruffle Cloud's hair again. "Hey Cloud you're going to turn as red as tomato if you keep this up."

"Maybe… don't tease…" Cloud muttered.

"Aw, but where's the fun in that?"

Before Cloud could respond, a bullet shot over the truck. Zack tensed up looking around. He wasn't exactly sure where it was coming from, but he knew that he was not going to let this innocent trucker get hurt.

He shouted for the trucker to pull over quickly as he went to pick up Cloud in his arms. While Cloud could mostly walk on his own, his movements were still slow. "Come on Cloud, looks like the rides over."

As soon as the truck stopped, Zack jumped off and singled for the guy to keep on driving. He could only hope that the trucker would make it. Now that they were on the ground, Zack moved closer to a large rock that would be good cover.

"All right. Cloud you stay here… I'll go deal with what is most likely a Shinra 'welcoming present'."

Zack gave Cloud one last ruffle of the hair and turned around. But before he could even step away, Cloud latched onto his wrist. Zack looked back to see Cloud staring at him with the widest eyes he had seen yet on him.

"Zack…"

Zack sighed. "I need to go Cloud. I'll be back though, okay?"

"But Zack…"

Moving slowly, Zack knelt down and smiled at Cloud. "It's going to be all right Cloud. It's nothing I can't handle."

"Let me help."

Shaking his head Zack frowned. He could see the wanting in Cloud's eyes. He wanted so badly to stay by Zack's side and help. But he was still recovering. It was far too much of a risk for Zack to take.

"I can't let you Cloud. I want you to be safe. You know, a hero has got to protect who he cares about after all."

Suddenly Zack was pulled forward, his forehead now resting against Cloud's. The young blond was staring at him with his eyes the most coherent that they had looked yet. There was nothing else that happened though.

Cloud stared into Zack's eyes as he breathed slowly. There was a longing look in his eyes from what Zack could see, but there was still no action that was taken. He just kept staring deeply and nothing more.

Eventually Zack pulled away quickly. Remembering that dawdling would only make things worse. "Cloud, I promise I'll come back. Just please promise that you will stay safe for me?"

"Okay…"

Not waiting to wait a single second later, Zack turned around and walked he came to a wide clearing, but far up ahead he could see hundreds of men. Hundreds of Infantrymen all readied their weapons as he stepped closer. There were even two helicopters flying around overhead, no doubt filled with more men.

"Boy oh boy…" Zack said as he let out a long sigh. He stared at what was before him, feeling the slightest sinking feeling in his chest. "The price of freedom sure is steep."

He almost was able to turn the corners of his mouth into a smile but he held back. Reaching up slowly, he pulled his sword out to the front, surprised that none of the Infantrymen started to attack yet.

"They're waiting for me to make the first move… how nice…"

He brought the sword up to his face and closed his eyes. Before he could go any further with his, he knew what he needed to do. What he needed to recite to give him strength. "Embrace your dreams. And, whatever happens, protect your honor… as SOLDIER!"

Though honestly he was through with SOLDIER, it was all a part of what he felt was right. To speak those lines and feel the strength in him rise. He could already feel his heart racing. He knew this was it and this battle would be probably the longest and hardest yet.

But he was ready.

"No matter what comes next… gotta give it my all! Can't give up after all. I got Cloud waiting on me. I gotta get through this."

He breathed out sharply before running forward, sword at the ready to attack.

"Come and get it!"

Chapter Text

The skies overhead were darkening.. It wasn't late into the evening or anything, far from it. The sky was filled with dark rain clouds, just waiting to release their rain at any moment. It seemed the skies themselves wanted to express their sadness for what was happening below on the ground.

Zack heaved out a breath as he dropped to one knee. He had taken out so many men… so many young men killed by his blade. So much blood… yet he wasn't done yet. But he was so tired…

He looked up to see that there were three men left as well as a helicopter. They slowly were closing in, not firing right away.

"They just love making this tense don't they…"

The helicopter flew overhead, only supplying light for the infantrymen that were closing in on him. Zack could already feel his strength failing him. The sword already felt way heavier than before.

"Can't give up… not yet…" Zack murmured, trying his best to lift his sword up.

He was already out of all potions and he didn't have any cure materia anymore. Not that he thought they could do much for him at this point. He had so many wounds… so much blood loss. He wasn't sure if any of those things could heal him up enough.

Even then, a potion or a cure materia could not heal fatigue, and for the first time in a very long time Zack was extremely tired. Soon the infantrymen would be close again and they would most likely go straight to shooting as many bullets at him as they could.

"Maybe… this is… I can't win…"

Zack hated to think such thoughts, but there was nothing else he could figure out from this situation. It was cruel and unfair to him and he knew that Shinra intended it to be that way. If he couldn't take out the remaining three as well as deal with that last helicopter… then he would be…

'Because I like you.'

Suddenly he could hear the words from Cloud cycling in his head. The words that Cloud had spoken to him when he finally started to wake back up.

'Always have admired you… You inspired me… made me feel happy and confident again. Handsome too…'

Zack sighed to himself. "Cloud… dammit. I never even got time to figure out what to tell you…"

'Never was able to tell you before… I love you.'

Suddenly there was a fluttering in his stomach once more. The fluttered tried to seemingly eat away at him, but quickly it changed into something else. It moved up into his chest and began to swell, giving him a rather comforting warmth.

"He loves me… and I…"

Though the final men were still approaching, Zack briefly closed his eyes. He needed this moment to think. It seemed to be coming to him at the worst time, but everything started to seem clear in his mind.

"I want to protect you Cloud. I can't imagine letting you out of my sight. Not after everything we've been through. And now the thought of messing up and dying… I'd be leaving you alone and hurt. I'd be breaking my promise… I can't let that happen."

That warmth flowed throughout his entire body. A new sensation of strength that he thought was all gone finally filled him. It almost shouldn't have made any sense. He should have been at his end here with no way to recover quickly, but now there was a surge of feelings riding in him.

"I cannot die. I need to live. To keep my promise to Cloud… and to tell him…" Zack breathed in as deeply as he could.

He narrowed his eyes and saw that the infantrymen were carrying some potions and materia on them. He knew already that a few of the men had been using materia during the battle. Though it wasn't supposed to be given to Infantrymen to use, he figured that this battle must have been an exception to that. He could only hope that one of those was a cure materia.

"I gotta tell him I love him too!"

With all the strength Zack had left he swung his sword as hard as he could at the first man closest to him. It only took a split second to cut him down. Right away he charged as he could hear the bullets being fired from the remaining too and he had to do his best to dodge the bullets that were now practically raining on him.

He picked up the potion and did his best to chug it down while still trying to dodge. Many of the bullets were still hitting him, but the potion was doing what it could to heal up the newest wounds.

He still grimaced each time a bullet either grazed him or actually hit him. But he didn't stop there. He tumbled forward and snatched up the materia that had rolled out from the dead infantryman's pocket.

"I'm not giving up! I won't die, not like this!"

He didn't waste any time on equipping the materia and using it to heal himself. Feeling many of his more dire wounds being healed up, his strength seemed to rise again. He kept his thoughts locked all on the same thing though.

It wasn't just about not wanting to die, that was just a side note. What he really focused on was getting back to Cloud. Everything was about Cloud now and he couldn't get the kindhearted blond out of his mind. Every moment or conversation they ever had filled up in his mind. There were not all too many, but Zack was cherishing each and every one of them. Now he wanted more. To create more moments with Cloud and spend time with him… how nice that would be after all of was all he needed to keep him going, and it seemed to be pulling him through.

With his strength restored a little he used the energy he had to slice through the remaining two guys. His body was still sore and screaming at him every step he took, but he refused to cave in. The two infantrymen were taken completely by shock. Neither of them were expecting such a sudden burst of energy from the one they were designated to kill.

It didn't take long for Zack to do enough blows to the remaining men, leaving them dead on the ground. Now all that was left was the one remaining helicopter, which Zack was entirely unsure of how to handle.

Though he noticed the remaining materia that was still on the helicopter. His strength had recovered slightly, but it was not enough to take it out like he had for the first one. He needed to try and do something else. Quickly he used the cure materia again before looking through what materia was left.

Thankfully it was just what he needed… an elemental materia. He only had enough focus to try this once, and he hoped that it was going to work. When the helicopter made it's round and got closer to Zack, he made his attack.

Lightning shot out and struck the helicopter head on. A moment later he could hear shots coming from within the machine and the helicopter surviving out of control. Zack had to push himself to get out range fast enough before the machine came crashing down.

Zack closed his eyes despite facing away when he heard the explosion from the helicopter. Just another couple of deaths to add to his list… he really honestly hated doing all of this but Shinra forced his hand.

"They wanted me dead… after all I did for them this is how they 'thank' me. Really nice…"

Now that the grounds were quiet, the rain finally started. The rain hit against his skin, stinging some of the open wounds that had not been healed by the cure and potions. It only made sense as it seemed these infantrymen were only given the minimal level for healing items. They were just easily expendable unfortunately.

Zack stayed still though as he let the rain was over him. Eventually he would heal up, SOLDIERs had that enhanced healing ability, but it was just going to take him some time at this point. But knew one thing that was far more important… he had done it. He had won. If there was nothing else to come… be could finally be free.

Zack looked around the land again. All the blood was being washed away by this rain, making it seem as if it never even happened.

Suddenly he saw something off in the distance. Something moving closer… and it was a very familiar blond that he knew too well.

"Cloud!"

Zack ran forward as best as he could until Cloud was wrapped tightly in his arms. The impact made his muscles ache and scream once more, but Zack ignored it for the time being. The warm swelling filling had returned and Zack embraced every second of it. It made everything feel so much better.

"Zack… you're… you're bleeding."

Zack pulled Cloud back a bit, seeing that there was now some blood stained in his light blond hair. "Oh, sorry Spike. But it's okay. I'm going to be okay."

Cloud pursued his lips together. He didn't look too convinced. He kept eyeing all of the blood that still was all over Zack's body. So many bullet holes in his clothes, revealing various wounds. Some were healing, but many had not yet and were still open and bleeding slightly.

"Hey…" Zack cupped Cloud's chin and titled his head up. "I told you. I'm going to be okay. I promised I'd come back didn't I?"

"Yeah. You promised," Cloud agreed.

"And now I've kept my promise."

Zack stared into the deep blue eyes that were Cloud's. Though there was that warmth, now the fluttering returned to his stomach. Thinking of Cloud was what got him through the last part of that battle. Finding his feelings and putting them in place to give him the strength, but now he found himself too nervous to say anything.

"Am I really…" With his free hand, Zack stroked Cloud's cheek gently and he didn't seem to protest it. The blush quickly did return though faster than ever.

Zack laughed softly at Cloud's embarrassment. It was still extremely cute to see. There was no denying that. "I guess after all this… if I really want to know…"

Zack leaned forward and gently pressed his lips against Cloud's for a moment. In those few seconds that it happened, everything felt a whole lot lighter.

When their lips parted Cloud's face was practically burning red at this point. "Z-Zack?!"

Zack laughed, trying to act as cool and casual as he could. If he could tease Cloud this easily over these things, then he felt like he was going to have a lot of fun. Plus with teasing Cloud, he could easily use that as a way to cover up his own embarrassment.

"What? Can't give my thanks to you? You were what pulled me through the battle. If it weren't for you and your feelings… I may not have had the strength to make it."

"O-Oh… I g-guess… um… th-thanks? No...ah… y-you're welcome?" Cloud asked, still far too flustered to get his words straight.

"Oh no," Zack laughed. "Did that kiss break you? And we were so close for you recovering."

"Hey! I'm not broken!" Cloud shouted, quickly snapped from his embarrassment. But a second later it returned just as fast. "I just… I didn't think you would…"

Placing a hand on top of Cloud's head, he ruffled the soft spikes. "It just took me a bit to figure things out Cloud. Sorry if I made you wait or worried about it."

"So you mean… you…?"

"Yes. I love you too, Cloud. I want to protect you and keep you by my side. Can't imagine it any other way."

Cloud embraced him after that, no longer worried by the blood. "Thanks Zack."

Zack gently patted Cloud on the back of the head. "You're welcome."


Now that the rain had cleared up, the two men walked closer to Midgar. There was no one to stop them now though Zack still kept a close eye on everything around them.

"Zack…" Cloud's voice came softly as he walked right by Zack's side.

"Yeah, Cloud? Something on your mind?"

Cloud hummed in agreement. "Something I remember…"

"You're remembering stuff? That's great to hear!"

Cloud's walking pace slowly down. He stared down at the ground while continuing to walk. "I guess…"

"Well what is it then? You can tell me." Zack reached out to Cloud once he saw him falling behind. He placed an arm around the blond and pulled him closer.

"I remember… you talked about a girl… Aerith. I thought that… she was your…" Cloud stopped after that. His voice was becoming weak and he was sure if he tried to finish, it would break.

Zack nearly tripped over his own feet. His heart twisted slightly and then felt heavy. Now both of them had come to a dead stop in their walking.

"Oh… Aerith… I can't believe I nearly forgot…"

Zack sighed deeply as he let his thoughts sink in. He had started this journey to Midgar with Aerith as his focus. She was what he kept holding on to… she was what kept him going. But then that changed at a point and Zack knew exactly when that was and what the cause was. It was all before Cloud even admitted his feelings. The realization Zack had about Aerith but shoved away to deny what he feared most happened all the way back in Banora.

"I… I don't know what Aerith must think of me anymore. She sent me letters for four years while we were stuck in that manor… but then she stopped. I don't know if that meant she was giving up on me or moving on… or if it was just too hard for her at that point. It wasn't super clear in her final letter…"

Zack took in a sharp breath. He never thought he would get to talk about it, but with Cloud awake there was no better time to try. Taking out a piece of paper from his pocket he read over the last letter again.

Zack,

How are you?
I wish I knew where you were.
It's already been four years now.
This is the 98th letter that I've sent to you, but I don't even know where to send them anymore.
I really hope that this final letter that I am writing gets to you.
By the way, the flowers are selling very well.
They make everyone so happy, thanks to you, Zack!

-Aerith

Zack had read the letter probably a hundred times over at this point, yet he could not get a clear meaning on it. All he knew was that Aerith had stopped writing letters to him after four years.

"I'd wanna believe she never gave up on me, but now it's been another year… five years… After half a decade of waiting, I wouldn't put it past her if she wanted to move on from me. It probably felt like a lost cause to keep waiting when she had no idea what happened… That's why she probably stopped writing. Why write for a lost cause after all?"

Slumping his shoulders Zack let out another long sigh. He placed the letter back in his pocket, too hurt to reread it again. "I bet she has given up on me at this point… I failed her and probably really hurt her even if it wasn't entirely my choice with what happened."

"Oh… Hmm… Well… even if you don't know what her feelings are anymore … I'll never give up on you."

Zack started to smile once more as the warmth filled his chest again. A few tears trickled from his eyes as he let everything sink into his mind. The tears didn't make him sad though. In fact it was the complete opposite. The words were so simple yet they moved him deeply, bringing him to tears.

"Since when did I get this emotional over just some words? I guess I never gave enough time to think things over and it just kinda built up… either way…"

Leaning forward Zack pressed a gentle kiss on top of Cloud's forehead. "Thanks Cloud. I really needed to hear that."

Cloud was already blushing by the time Zack stood back. "You're… you're welcome."

"We're still going to go see Aerith of course. I gotta explain my absence either way," Zack replied as he looked at the city before them. "I'm sure she doesn't hate me at least, I'd hope not."

"No one can hate you," Cloud replied before the two of them started to walk again. "You're too likable."

Zack laughed. "How come you always know what to say to cheer me up?"

Cloud just shrugged. "Don't know…"

"Hmm maybe it's cause we're both backwater boys. We just got that understanding between each other."

"Maybe…"

"Aw but you're right. Aerith wouldn't hate me. I'm sure she will be happy to see me again. Though now I'll have to explain about you too. I'm… I'm sure she'll understand." Zack paused, reflecting back to Aerith and every moment he had ever spent with her. "She was always good at that sort of thing. Yeah! She always was so understanding. Even if she gave up waiting for me, I know she'll understand! In fact…"

Zack grinned at Cloud, his entire mood shifted back to extremely cheerful. "I'm sure she'd be glad to meet you!"

"You think?"

"Sure! I bet she'll agree that you're cute as well. But you're already mine of course."

"Z-Zack…"

Cloud tried to bury his face into his turtleneck, but it wasn't extremely effective. It didn't work as well as his own infantry scarf had done in the past. He could hear Zack laughing again, no doubt because of his face burning with embarrassment.

But this was what he got for telling Zack his feelings. It was bad though. Even if he kept feeling embarrassed with his heart pounding at every compliment Zack made, he wouldn't trade it for anything else. Zack actually loved him back, and that was more than enough. He had never expected to ever have his feelings returned.

Ever since meeting Zack he assumed he'd never be able to admit it. He'd hide in the shadows with his feelings, keeping them hidden in the dark. But now he managed to tell Zack the truth. It was still all hazy to him and he wasn't even sure how he managed to do it. But it was dome and now he had the feeling he was going to have to deal with teases from Zack ten fold. But still, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Chapter Text

Zack snuck carefully around the slums. Even if there weren't any signs of Shinra, he knew full well that they could be hiding. They had already made it this far into the city undetected, he wasn't going to let anything slip them up now.

Though he still had to always check on Cloud. He could walk on his own now, but he was still a bit slow. Zack was certain that there was still far too much mako in the poor guy's system and only waking up a little over a week ago wasn't enough time to adjust. All this moving and running around didn't hell either. He needed to rest and relax properly.

"We're almost there, Cloud. Just a bit further. Just let me know if you wanna rest, okay?"

"I know," Cloud said softly.

They proceeded further through the slums with ease. A few people gave them glances and others would avoid eye contact entirely. Zack sighed wishing he knew exactly what Shinra has been up to after all these years. He knew fully well that most people already had a negative opinion of SOLDIER and Shinra but now it felt a whole lot worse.

Then there was also the fact that Zack's outfit was riddled with bullet holes. Sure his body had healed up at this point and the rain had helped clear away all the blood, but the outfit was still a mess. No doubt that also factored into why people gave him such odd looks if they dared to stare at him.

"Guess we should probably look for some new clothes, eh Cloud? Something more casual to blend in better."

"Yeah that sounds good."

"Thankfully with all the traveling we've done and stuff I managed to find enough gil that should be good," Zack replied. "Hey, maybe we can find something matching. I bet it would make us awfully cute."

Quickly Zack turned to see Cloud was already bushing. "I don't… know about that…"

"Oh my gosh, Cloud. You make this too easy!" The way Cloud reacted to his teasing now that their feelings were out there in the open, it was all just too much fun for Zack. The little tease would send Cloud into a full blushing mess. Though honestly there could have been another reason why it was so easily. A less favorable one.

"It's possible that the mako is just enhancing his feelings. To make them way stronger than what would be considered normal. I really hope not… it's too much fun to tease him like this. But if it is… maybe once the mako clears or settles or whatever, he'll still have some good reactions. Overall I think the mako is in his head too much cause he still is pretty emotionless except when it comes to embarrassment. I guess I just really need to keep an eye on his emotions."

Sighing, Zack put aside all the difficult thoughts. When he felt like they could just relax and nothing else, then he would think deeper into it. For now the focus to getting to a safe point was what he needed to keep in mind.

Suddenly a familiar sight up head was enough to shift his thoughts entirely. "There! Look ahead Cloud! There's her church!"

Pulling Cloud by his wrist they ran all the way up until they reached the doors. Once there Zack stopped and closed his eyes. He started taking in deep breaths before he opened his eyes again. "Okay, here goes nothing. Let's hope she's here today."

Zack pushed the door open and peered inside and right where he expected to see Aerith, he did. She sat in front of her flower garden that looked as vibrant as ever, tending to them. Though at the sound of the door opening she turned around and her eyes widened.

"Zack?" she asked in a soft voice before raising a hand to cover her mouth. Slowly she stood up and continued to stare, as if confused by why she was seeing before her.

Right away Zack ran over to her and embraced her. He couldn't bring himself to speak to her, but he still held on to her, resting his head against hers.

"Zack…" Aerith whispered. "It's really… You're actually here."

"Course I am," Zack replied. He pulled away and smiled at Aerith as best as he could. "I guess I got a lot of explaining to do."

"You really do," Aerith replied. Her tone was light, seeming to be playful. But there was an lingering feeling in her words. Eventually she sighed and stepped away from Zack.

"It's been five years, Zack."

"I know. Just let me explain," Zack replied.

"I will, but this is all a lot to take in. I… I was," Aerith wrapped her arms around herself. "I wasn't sure if you were ever coming back at this point."

"I know," Zack repeated. He felt like he was going to be doing a lot of that at this point. "I'm so sorry if I hurt you cause of this. But… it was all on Shinra. After the mission went south… we were captured and held in a lab in the basement of a mansion."

"We?"

"Oh!" Zack said turning around. Cloud was standing in the doorway, looking a bit awkward as he shifted from foot to foot. "Come on Cloud, you can come on in."

Cloud slowly moved until he was standing next to Zack. Right away Zack put an arm around him and gave him a quick side hug. He could tell Cloud probably was worried being around Aerith, considering what had been talked about before. But Zack kept on believing that he could get this to work. He knew that everyone could hopefully be okay once he was able to talk about it.

"Cloud and I were both captured. A lot of stuff happened… I don't really remember much though. Just read the reports that Hojo had been trying to experiment with us." Right away he could see that Aerith became tense, so he thought to try and deviate to something else quickly.

"We escaped though of course! Just took this past year to travel back to Midgar while trying to avoid Shinra."

"But isn't it more dangerous to be here because of Shinra?"

"Yeah… but there were reasons I wanted to come back…" Zack said, his eyes drifting to Aerith's. Her eyes were still so gentle and beautiful. Zack couldn't deny that he still thought that about her… which only made his newer feelings feel more conflicted. He knew he had to figure it out though. He had time now to just relax and think all of this through.

"Plus! Once Cloud and I have rested enough, we were thinking of becoming mernaciaries. That way we could get back at Shinra for all they did to us!"

That made Aerith laugh at least. "It's good to see that you are still the same as ever. Such energy."

"You bet!"

After a moment Aerith took a step forward towards Cloud. She smiled kindly towards him. "Hi Cloud. It's nice to meet you."

"Oh… Yeah… Hello."

Zack ruffled Cloud's hair slightly. "Cloud's still recovering from some bad mako poison, so he is a bit quiet. But he has been getting better at least. Isn't that right, Cloud?"

Cloud nodded. "Yeah. Getting there."

"I was wondering though… Do you think you could help him in any way?" Zack asked Aerith.

"Hmm, I wouldn't know what to do. I'm not a doctor or anything. But if there's anything," Aerith said as she trailed off. She reached out and took Cloud's hand. "Come this way."

She led him over to her field of flowers and smiled again. "I've heard that flowers and their nice scents can be a way to clear the head. Why don't you take a seat and see?"

"I can sit here?" Cloud questions as he looked from Aerith to the flowers. "They're pretty…"

"Thank you," Aerith replied. "Just make sure not to step on or crush any of the flowers."

Cloud took a seat right at the edge of the flowers and started to breath in deeply. Slowly a small smile came on to his face. Zack couldn't help but smile at the sight, hoping that it would help Cloud in some way. "Now, if Cloud you wanna sit there, I wanted to talk to Aerith a bit more privately. If that's okay with you. Nothing to worry about though! Just ya know, gotta do some catch up."

"Oh… Okay," Cloud replied softly. "I'll stay here then. It's nice."

Zack sighed with relief before motioning Aerith to follow him to just outside the church. Once it was just the two of them standing outside he sighed again. "I'm still so, so sorry Aerith."

Aerith shook her head. "You don't need to keep apologizing. You told me what happened."

"But… I found your letters… well one of them at least." Zack said as he pulled out the now crumbled letter from his pocket."I read it and it made me want to come back to you again, but I started to wonder how much all of this had to have hurt you."

Aerith looked away from Zack, crossing her arms before she finally looked back at him with a solemn look. "I was hurt… for a while. I feared that you weren't coming back. I even lead myself to believe terrible things to make it not hurt as much… if anyone has to be sorry it has to be me."

"Huh?" This was not what he expected to hear. "Now what do you mean by that?"

Aerith looked away again. "I waited and waited… but I sometimes let doubt grow in my mind. I had a feeling something bad had happened. I didn't want to believe it though… so I let myself believe that you just didn't want to come back. That maybe you had found someone else…"

Aerith now filled turned away from Zack, her voice growing soft at the last few words. "I regretted ever thinking such things… After that I tried to just forget about it all entirely. Just trying to figure out how to keep going with my life…"

"Aerith…" Zack said as he placed a hand on her shoulder. "I know this is all just a lot of messed up stuff, but… I understand. I wish I just could have done something to tell you so you wouldn't have had to worry so much. Honestly, I really am sorry for any hurt you went through."

Aerith gave thoughtful hum before facing Zack once more. "Yeah, that's the good thing. You're back and alive and that is what matters most!"

"Yeah… though there is still something else on my mind. But it's a whole lot harder to talk about…" Zack started to scratch the back of his head while trying to gather all his thoughts. He knew that it was best to just try and get it out of the way. Waiting and letting things build up would only make it worse later on.

Aerith looked at him inquisitively. "And what would that be?"

"It's a bit hard to explain… and I know it's only going to make things all the more messy… but… It's about Cloud… and me."

Zack waited to see if Aerith had anything to say, but she stayed quiet as she listened. With that Zack continued on though now his heart was beating so much faster. "Along our journey here, Cloud woke up from his catatonic state… and he kind of confessed something to me. That he… loved me."

There was a pause while Zack lowered his head. "And I think I love him back."

Zack waited. He waited for the crying or for the shouting. He waited for anything, but instead he was met with silence. Nothing was said at first and he found that to be more worrying than Aerith actually shouting and getting mad at him. He didn't dare raise his head though. Far too afraid to see what exactly her reaction was.

"Oh. I see…"

There was silence again after that. But then Zack felt a hand on his shoulder. He carefully raised his head to see Aerith giving a rather bittersweet smile.

"I didn't expect it Aerith. But just… I've been caring for Cloud this past year, and after all we've been through, I can't bear to leave him or anything. I think it's love, but I just… ah…"

"Have you listened to your heart?"

Zack now stood back up straight. "What?"

"Listening to your heart, so you know what you're feeling."

"Oh… uh I guess maybe. I don't know." Zack closed his eyes as he tried his hardest to think. "I think so… Thinking of Cloud in the tricky battle I had outside of Midgar is what kept me going. Thinking of him and what he felt for him, it gave me strength."

"Then… I think you have your answer," Aerith said with far more calmness than Zack expected. "Don't worry, I understand and I'm happy for you."

"What? A-Are you sure? I mean what about… you know us?"

"I know," Aerith said. "But it has been five years. We're not teenagers anymore. I guess fate just had something else planned for us. But…" Aerith reached out and took Zack's hand. "We can still be friends, right?"

"Oh of course!" Zack said as quickly as he could. He took Aerith's other hand, holding it tightly. "A hundred percent we can be the best of friends!"

"Good. Sounds like a plan," Aerith said before Zack wrapped his arms around for a hug. She laughed and hugged him back in return.

In all honesty it had gone better than Zack had expected. Now a huge uncertain weight had been lifted from his chest. Though he knew he still had a lot to think on, he was glad that Aerith had remained the most understating. She really was something special and he was glad that they could still be close.

"I'm still really glad to see you again, Aerith," Zack whispered.

"Me too," Aerith replied.

"And me too."

The extra voice was not what Zack had expected… but it was a voice he knew well. Pulling away he looked at the bottom of the church stairs to see a young man dressed in casual clothes. While the outfit was not all too familiar the face surely was, even if he hadn't seen it in five years.

It was a lean face with straight dark brown hair that fell to his shoulders and hung across his eyes. Just like Zack he had the striking bright blue mako enhanced eyes. He had the lightest dusting of freckles though over his nose. He smiled cheerfully at Zack whose eyes were growing wider by the second.

"Kunsel!" Zack nearly tackled the man to the ground in a large hug. A moment after he looked at his old friend feeling very confused. "Wait, what are you doing here? And in casuals too?"

"Were you really not able to read any of my emails?' Kunsel asked. "I'm sure I said in one of them that I was checking in on Aerith for you. But Shinra's getting tight about things so I gotta go 'incognito' when coming out here."

"Ooh yeah… I think I remember reading that."

Right away Kunsel gave him a light punch to the arm. "You mean you've been reading them this whole time and didn't reply or anything? Dude do you know how worried I was about you?!"

Zack went right away to rubbing the back of his neck. A usual tick of his when he felt bad about the subject at hand. "Yeah… I know, but I was trying to keep a low profile. I didn't want Shinra tracking me any further if I sent out an email or called."

"You know I could have kept it low profile and encoded so no one would know. I told you I was willing to do whatever I could to help you."

"I get that, but I didn't want to get anyone else involved. Still…" Zack grabbed Kunsel, pulling him back into a hug. "Thanks man! I'm glad you're still on my side. And hey… I made it back, just like you wanted me to."

"I'm glad too," Kunsel replied before laughing. He hugged Zack back while also resting his head against Zack's shoulder, taking in the moment. "And you're welcome. I'm just really happy to see you again."

"Same here Kuns."

Zack had already let go from his hug, but Kunsel still held on. Zack didn't say anything though and just let his friend continue on. Zack didn't really get it at first, but now he saw how much Kunsel must have been worrying. It made him feel happy though to know how Kunsel cared. He knew that Kunsel was a good, true friend. He was willing to go against Shinra just to help him. Honestly it made Zack feel really honored that he knew someone like that.

After a few more seconds Kunsel finally let go. "Right. So now that you're here, you're seriously going to have to lay low. After that stunt you pulled outside of Midgar, while I gotta say is highly impressive, Shinra knows you're still not dead."

"Oh so you heard about my great battle?" Zack boasted cheerfully as they walked up the staircase. Aerith was still standing there smiling at the two reunited friends.

"Well you did wipe out an entire infantry battalion all by yourself right? When no reports came back I could easily piece it together."

Zack went from being boastful to seeming more solemn. "I didn't really want to fight that battle. But as you know… Shinra wanted me to stay 'dead' and it really sucks after everything I did for the company."

"It's just gotten worse these past five years…" Kunsel replied. "I'll fill you in later though, okay? Let's just take the time now to relax now that you're here." Kunsel then took the moment to give Aerith a quick hug. "And now I finally can have the chance to say good afternoon to you."

Aerith gave a light, friendly laugh. "Good afternoon to you Kunsel."

"Oh! I guess I gotta thank you as well for watching out for Aerith all these years," Zack said.

"Just did what I could to keep company," Kunsel replied with a nod.

After that the three of them stepped back into the church. Right away Zack froze up when he saw that Cloud was laying down on the floor. Quickly he ran over to him and knelt down before him. "Cloud! Hey, you okay?!"

"Huh?" Cloud turned and looked up at Zack. "Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"

"Then… why are you laying down?"

Cloud titled his head to the side, as if Zack's question was really odd. "To see the flowers better. Can see them closely this way."

"Oh… Oh okay yeah I get it. Sorry buddy. Guess I just got a bit worried for nothing."

"It's okay. Who's that?" Cloud was now looking at Kunsel who supplied a friendly smile.

"Oh, that's my friend Kunsel. He's a 2nd class SOLDIER, but don't worry. He's on our side. I guess you never really saw him cause you were in the infantry."

"I guess… don't remember much though…"

Zack sighed. Cloud still couldn't remember too much from before waking up. There were a few things, but everything else seemed to be forgotten. He knew full well that it was just the side effect of mako poisoning, but that didn't make it feel any easier.

"I doubt he would have remembered me anyway," Kunsel said as he stepped forward. "Rarely was seen without my helmet, remember? Not many people knew what I actually looked like."

Zack nodded before going to sit down next to Cloud, who had gone back to watching the flowers. "Yeah, I guess I forgot about that part."

"Either way, so this is the other guy you escaped with? Cloud? Where did you get the out-"

"There was an extra in that manor. Wanted to get Cloud some fresh clothes… hoping it would help some with the mako poisoning. You wouldn't happen to know what to do for that would you Kuns?"

"I mean I've read a lot of reports. Sometimes if it's severe enough it can be pumped out, but most times you just have to wait for it to fade out. Looks like he is doing well though."

"Yeah…" Zack said as he went to ruffle Cloud's hair lightly. It was almost instinctively at this point. "Just keep on recovering Cloud. Got you that?"

"Hmm yeah. I will."

"Well now that we got that settled, Zack what's your plan now that you're here?" Kunsel said as he took a seat. "If I can, I want to try and help."

"I got some plans don't you worry!"

While Zack started to talk about his plans and ideas, Aerith walked over to where she had been tending to her flowers. Sitting down she listened to Zack talk and explain things in his usual cheerful manner. While he talked she noticed that Cloud had begun to smile more, leaving her to figure that hearing Zack's voice brought out more expression.

There were still some lingering thoughts from before once she laid her thoughts on the subject. The conversation had gone as well as she could make it and she was glad that nothing bad had become of it. Her heart did ache slightly the longer she thought about it, but she knew it would pass in time. She had gotten through these past five years as best as she could and now she could proceed to do the same. No matter what though, as long as she could see Zack again, that was what mattered most.

Chapter Text

Eventually Zack had planned his plans to Kunsel as best as he could. It had taken a bit but he knew that Kunsel was patient and would listen to everything Zack had to say. Once he was finished Kunsel nodded and started to look thoughtful.

"All right. Well as I said before, Shinra knows you are probably not dead. They still may be looking for you but they still got all their other plans going on. Best thing right now is to lay low until you can properly figure out that mercenary thing."

"Right, I got ya there. I think I could use the rest anyways."

"Good you're using your head there and not continuously jumping into danger," Kunsel teased before he stood up. "I'll make some calls. See if I can get you a place to stay."

"Great, thanks Kuns."

While Kunsel went to make his calls, Zack let himself fall into his thoughts about all of this. The sound of having a proper place to rest and relax honestly did sound really nice. He had already thought about it before, but he was so tired. From the months on traveling and fighting monsters, to taking down the infantrymen, he felt so exhausted. Not physically, but instead mentally. It was hard to keep his thoughts straight anymore and still everything in his mind that was constantly running around made it all the more confusing in feeling. Even though he knew he should try and rest, he couldn't stop himself from thinking about nearly everything else.

He thought of Kunsel, the only friend he had left now, who was basically his secret insider for Shinra information. He thought about his plans to get revenge on Shinra. So much trouble and pain was caused in his life because of them and he wanted to get back at them for it. But he knew that would take time. That was a whole other thing that wrapped around his mind on how in the world he was ever going to plan something like that.

He thought of Aerith… Aerith, his former love and now friend. He still thought about her and still couldn't get her out of his head yet at the same time he couldn't find those same feelings he once had. He was sure they were there before, but everything was starting to feel muddled the further he tried pressing on it.

Then there was Cloud. Adorable little Cloud who still was suffering from the mako poisoning. Cloud… the one who admitted his feelings upon waking up from months of being catatonic. Those thoughts were beginning to feel foggy as well. Everything had seemed so clear before back when they were still outside of Midgar. Zack had thought he had sorted out everything and that he could just keep on moving with his life in this new direction.

Everything feels so out of place and off putting and Zack couldn't understand it. The further he dug into it, the further it made his head hurt. He just wanted things to make sense and be all right but for some reason he couldn't stay worrisome thoughts off about every single thing.

"...ck…"

"...Zack…"

"Zack!"

Suddenly there was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him lightly. He turned to see Aerith looking at him with a concerned expression. "Zack, are you all right? You weren't listening to anything I said."

"Oh, you were talking? Sorry… I guess I must have zoned out pretty badly," Zack said as he laughed sheepishly. "And yeah, I'm fine."

Aerith hummed, narrowing her eyes slightly. She wasn't so easily fooled by Zack's avoidance of the subject of his own wellbeing. "Zack… I can tell there's something on your mind. What is it?"

Zack shook his head. "Nah, honest it's nothing to worry about. I'm just…" Zack started to rub his hand over his face, hoping maybe that way his mind would be cleared up. He didn't know how exactly that would work but it was all he could hope for. "Just tired. I haven't had any good sleep in days… but I'm sure now I'll be able to rest easy!"

He was clearly hiding again. Hiding his thoughts and feelings behind a solid brick wall. Despite always being there for Zack before and always lending a ear when he needed it, there was still so much that he kept hidden. Sure he had told her many things before and opened up about some of his feelings, but there was still so much he tried to lock away. He didn't seem to care though even though Aerith had told him before that it wasn't smart to bottle things up like that. All he wanted to do was smile for everyone else and look like he didn't worry at all.

Aerith sighed. "Zack…"

"I'm serious, Aerith. I'm going to be fine. I just need some time to relax. You'll see."

"All right. If you say so." If Zack was choosing to be this stubborn, Aerith knew that there would be no winning for now. She would have to try again later if this persisted after Zack got his well deserved rest.

Ater that was over, Kunsel had finished up with his calls and headed back over to them. "Okay, got you set up with a small apartment down here in the slums. Sector 7. It isn't going to be anything grand of course, but it's all I could get."

"Hey, a place to stay is a place to stay! Thanks buddy! I have no idea how you do it, but boy am I thankful! You know, if you weren't in SOLDIER I'm sure you would have been quiet the Turk with the way you get all your stuff."

Kunsel shrugged. "I just have my way about things."

"The man of mystery as always." Zack laughed. "You hear that Cloud? We'll finally have somewhere to sleep that isn't the ground!"

Cloud didn't reply. He laid there quietly while his chest slowly rising and falling. Zack couldn't help but chuckle at the sight. "Heh, he still must be pretty tired. Well I guess it will be all the more surprising when he wakes up."

He started to gently ruffle Cloud's hair. "He's just so peaceful when he sleeps. Like nothing has happened at all. I really hope he can recover soon."

"Just give it time Zack, I'm sure if he made it this far he'll continue to improve."

"You're right! But now you gotta show us the new place." Zack bent over to scoop up Cloud into his arms. He was still so light and easy to carry. Either that or it was all in Zack's strength… maybe it was both.

No matter the way he kept him cuddled up close. Quickly he turned to Aerith And gave her the broadest smile he could give. "We can come back to visit right? I think your flowers were really helping Cloud."

"Of course. I'd love for you two to stop on by again." Aerith returned the smile and nodded her head.

"We'll be back soon then!" Zack said before he headed towards the doors to the church.

"I'll catch up with you in a minute. Just gotta tell Aerith something I almost forgot about," Kunsel said before he walked over to Aerith.

Zack nodded and then stepped outside of the church, figuring whatever it was he didn't need to listen in on. Once the two were alone, Kunsel placed a hand on her shoulder. "You'll be all right?"

Aerith nodded again. "Yes. It will be like before, just need some time. But this time it will be better. He's alive, and I think that is what matters most."

"Yeah, you're right about that."

Aerith gave Kunsel a soft smile, looking at his slightly distant gaze. "What about you though?"

"I mean I'm trying. I just didn't expect to see him like… I mean…" Kunsel sighed while lowering his head. "I may have slightly overheard you two when I came by."

"Oh Kunsel. I know, I didn't expect it either. But Zack seems happy and we should support that."

Kunsel straightened up and smiled slightly. "You're right, and it's like you said, Zack's alive and that's the best thing to come from all of this. But hey, if you ever just need to talk about all this, you know I'm the guy to come to."

Aerith laughed. "Thanks, Kunsel. I'll remember that."

After that Kunsel headed out of the church to find Zack at the bottom of the stairs, still holding a sleeping Cloud in his arms. Kunsel had to take in a deep breath before he proceeded down the stairs and over to Zack. "All right, you ready to had out? We need to make it out to Sector 7, hopefully won't draw too much attention with you two still in uniform. Probably should get you guys some new clothes. You have any gil on you?"

"Yeah I got some. Haven't counted it all yet, but I am sure I can get something at least."

"Then let's make that our first mission. Probably should get some food as well, when was the last time you properly ate?" Kunsel asked as the duo began to walk further into the slums.

"Ah… well I've had some stuff here and there. Enough to get by obviously. It was harder for Cloud though, cause you know… I could only really feed him soft things and you can't easily find soup out in the wild. But we managed to pull through it."

"We'll make that the second mission then. Come on, let's get a move on."


After some searching through shops, Zack and Kunsel had gathered the necessary supplies that Zack and Cloud were going to need. Throughout all of it though Cloud still was fast asleep. Internally Zack was starting to worry as since Cloud had woken up he had been sleeping normally. Now he was just zonked out in the middle of the day and showed no signs of easily being woken.

Zack's worry currently was easily readable as he was far too distracted thinking about Cloud to realize he was showing off more emotions than he would have liked. "Hey Zack, relax. Cloud will pull through. You believe in him don't you?"

"Of course I do!" Zack exasperated loudly than he expected. "I'm just worried about him having some relapse or something. Those first few months… where he was so lifeless… it was torture. I couldn't do anything to help him but carry him along and just keep hoping he would get better."

"And now he has. Just give it time. You said that he just recently woke up, right? There is still probably a lot of mako in his system making everything foggy. But I am sure he will continue to get better each day."

Zack's expression shifted quickly, going back to his default cheerfulness. "Yeah! You got this Cloud." Zack smiled as he adjusted Cloud's a bit, who now was being carried piggyback style.

Kunsel and Zack kept on moving through the city, taking what they needed to get to travel to the other sector. Eventually they reached Sector 7 and Kunsel led the way to where most of the apartments were. Once they got to the area Kunsel went ahead to get the keys from the landlord.

From there they went to the apartment and Kunsel unlocked the door for Zack. Once the lights were switched on Zack saw that it was a fairly small apartment. The living room and kitchen were basically one room all together. Though there were at least three doors, two on the right and one on the left. Zack could only figure that one had to be the bathroom and the other two probably bedrooms.

Walking in further Zack headed over to the couch and set Cloud down onto it. He then took the bags from Kunsel that held the clothes while Kunsel went to put the food into the small mini fridge.

"This is great." Zack said as he flopped onto the couch next to Cloud. "Seriously Kuns, I don't think I can thank you enough. I can't wait to sleep in an actual bed tonight!"

Kunsel smiled to himself as he finished putting away everything. Once he was done he walked towards Zack. "Well I guess that means you are ready to crash for the evening?"

"Probably. I did a lot of walking the past few days anyways. Could use the rest."

"I'll leave you to do that," Kunsel started to turn around but then he stopped. "Oh, I guess we should probably look into you getting a new phone that isn't tied to Shinra's network. That way I can contact you with my private number and keep on touch better. Especially if you are serious about that mercenary thing."

"Totally. If I find a way to take on Shinra to get back at them for what they did, I'll wanna make sure that you are safe and out of the way. Though… Why don't you just leave? You could join us."

"It's a nice offer, but as I said before things are tight at Shinra. There's a lot going on and there aren't too many SOLDIERs left you know. It might raise too much suspicion if I just up and left, but if I can figure out a plan, I'll take you up on it."

"Ah yeah, well I'll wait for that time then," Zack said before he stood up. "Guess you gotta get back?"

Kunsel gave a nod while headed towards the front door. "Yeah, but I'll try and stop by tomorrow if I can. Just take it easy for now, okay?"

Zack chuckled while running a hand through his hair. "I don't think I know the definition of easy anymore."

Kunsel let out a snort. "You've forgotten that much already? Guess I gotta reteach you everything don't I?"

"Hey!" Zack pouted dramatically. "I'm not that forgetful."

Kunsel rolled his eyes at the comment. "Sure you are, mr 'I can't remember where the meeting room is'."

The two men kept staring at each other, neither saying a word after that. Seconds later they broke into laughter. It was a good and long bit of laughter and Zack enjoyed each second of it. He couldn't remember the last time laughter made him feel this good. It was just natural and normal.

"Yeah yeah, I get it. But I'm older now, I should be able to remember more, hopefully."

"We'll see how that goes then," Kunsel replied before he finally opened the door. He then turned to face Zack once more and smiled. "It's good to see you again, Zack."

"Good to see you too, Kunsel."

Before Kunsel even said anything else he gave Zack a sudden hug. Zack blinked a few times, surprised by the suddenness of it. Kunsel was holding onto him tightly while burying his head against Zack's shoulder. He had never known Kunsel for being a hugging type of person, but this was the second hug in the day from him. Both times the hug was tight and yet still comforting. It almost seemed strange but then he had to factor in that it had been 5 years. A lot can change in that time, and he was one of Kunsel's best friends.

After a moment Kunsel still didn't let go, he just kept on hugging Zack as he did. Zack cleared his throat slightly after that. "Kunsel? You okay there?"

He could hear a long sigh from his friend. "Yeah… I'm fine. Just making sure this is all real. That you're really here."

Zack could sense that there was a bit of uneasy in Kunsel's voice… some worry that came with those words. Zack wasn't entirely sure why though. But either way, he slowly placed a hand on the back of Kunsel's head. He could only hope that would ease whatever Kunsel was feeling. "Hey, I'm here. I made it back and I am pretty certain I am real."

Thankfully he was able to get a laugh from Kunsel. "It's good you're back. I really…" Kunsel paused, letting his words linger in the air. "I'm just really happy to see you again."

Though Zack wasn't a good expert on reading others with their words, he had a feeling that wasn't what Kunsel really wanted to say. Whatever it was though he didn't seem like he wanted to bring up, so Zack thought not to question it. He didn't really think it was right to just suddenly go prying into someone's thoughts like that, considering he kept so many to himself.

"Me too," Zack finally replied.

After that Kunsel finally let go and straightened up. There was a look of worry in his face but after a few deep breaths he was able to clear it out. "See you tomorrow."

"See ya, Kuns."

Once the door closed he could hear some faint murmurs coming from Cloud. It seemed that he was finally waking up from his nap. Walking back over to the couch, Zack stood in front of him. "Hey, guess you're done sleeping? If that's the case I guess I should start making some food for us. Though…" Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll admit I'm not the greatest at cooking. Thankfully Kunsel made sure we bought a lot of things that we can just heat up to eat."

Cloud's eyes finally opened, blinking slowly. "Sounds good."

"Right! Let's see what I can make for us!"

Zack marched over to the kitchen area and opened up the fridge to figure out what would be best to eat. He couldn't help himself from smiling again, now feeling like everything could get on a nice track of things being peaceful. Well… as peaceful as they could get until Zack figured out a way to be a mercenary like he kept going on about. But that would be for another time.

Chapter Text

After a lot of debate Zack decided to start with something simple, which just ended up being cups of noodles. They were super easy to make and of course were delicious and it seemed Cloud managed to eat it well enough on his own.

Just as they finished eating Cloud started to look around the apartment. "So we're staying… here?"

"Yeah, you like it? I bet once we get some more gil we can get a bigger place. But you know, we gotta start small."

"I guess."

"So how are you feeling? Any better than before?" Zack asked once he had thrown away the noodle cups.

"I think… not tired at least. Still a bit though…"

"Well at least that means you will hopefully be able to sleep tonight."

Cloud nodded simply before making his way over to the couch. "How was seeing Aerith?"

"Huh? Why are you asking that?" Zack asked as he sat down next to Cloud.

"I fell asleep… don't remember what else happened…"

"Ah… I guess your memories are still all hazy?" Zack still had the thoughts over what Cloud had said all those days ago. He could remember some things but a lot of it he could not recall.

"I guess…"

"Shoot. I should have asked Kunsel about the memory thing. Maybe he could try looking into that. Tomorrow though, I'll ask him then."

"Well… anyways. It was really nice to see her. Kunsel too. It's nice to know that I still got friends after all these years."

"Years?" Cloud tilted his head slightly.

"Yeah, I told you before. It was just after I took out the infantrymen. Or wait, can you not even remember that?"

Cloud shifted slightly, looking more and more pensieve with each second. He hummed softly trying his best to think, but still overall he looked worried. "N-No…"

"It is worse than I thought… how can he not remember what just happened the other day? I get if he can't remember all the way back five years from the mako… I guess I gotta just see what he does remember."

"Cloud, can you tell me how much you remember since walking up?"

"Um…" Cloud started. He continued to fidget in his spot as he tried to think. He gave a soft uncertain sound as he kept trying to figure out what he was missing. "We were walking… a lot of walking and moving. And… there was… there you… something."

Cloud groaned before gripping his head. "So many gunshots. So many screams. You were there… You were… I don't…"

Right away Zack saw that Cloud was beginning to hyperventilate. Not only that but his entire body was trembling. Zack reached forward and pulled Cloud into a tight embrace with his head resting against his chest. "Hey hey. You don't have to think about it anymore."

"You weren't there though! I was alone and… and…" Cloud's breathing got faster and faster with each passing seconding. There were now tears that streamed down his face but he showed no sign that he had even noticed.

"Cloud," Zack whispered as gently as he could. He had no idea how to deal with this. It was clear that Cloud was having some PTSD. After all he had been through there was no other explaining. From the burning of his hometown to facing Sephiroth, to the experiments Hojo put them through. It was all building up against Cloud, and Zack had figured it would eventually show.

It would make things a lot harder in the future for them if it hit Cloud randomly, there was no real way to control something like that. But Zack wasn't going to give up. He made his goal to be there for Cloud and that was what he intended to do. He just hoped he could manage to get through to him.

"Cloud, please listen to me. Focus on me talking, not whatever you are thinking. Can you do that?"

Cloud stopped muttering incoherent words, but he still shook. At least that was a sign that something could be going in the right direction. Zack continued to Cloud right next to him, not once loosening his grip. "Just keep listening to my voice and take in a deep breath. I'm right here, you got that?"

"You're… here?"

Zack nodded. "Yup. That's right buddy. Everything's okay. There's no more danger. We're safe."

"We're… safe…" Cloud breathed out slowly. His tremors were finally slowing down and his breathing was starting to straighten out. "Safe…"

"Yeah, you got it. We're safe. Just keep thinking that, okay?"

"Y-Yeah… okay. Safe…" Cloud murmured. He slowly blinked away his remaining tears once it looked like he was finally calming down. He stayed resting against Zack though, just listening to his heartbeat. His voice was enough to get through to him and help, but hearing his steady heartbeat also brought calmness to Cloud. It reminded him Zack was alive and that everything was all right just as he said.

Now that Cloud was calm enough, Zack started to run his hands through his hair. "Are you feeling a bit better now?"

Cloud nodded.

"Good. Sorry I asked you to remember. I guess it was probably too much too soon."

"It's fine," Cloud answered softly.

"No it isn't." Zack shook his head slowly. He had caused Cloud to freak out. He asked him to remember and it set off the PTSD that Cloud had developed. Though it did show Zack that Cloud was far more shaken up by recent events than he originally thought. It was just taking its sweet time before trying to hurt Cloud. "I shouldn't have asked you to remember something like that. You don't have to think about it anymore though."

"But… shouldn't I remember? Should remember… why your shirt has… holes…"

"Honestly… no, I don't think so," Zack sighed. He remembered how worried and concerned Cloud was when he saw the blood and tattered outfit when it was fresh. That must have left a huge scar in his mind that now was probably going to haunt him for a while. "I don't want you to hurt yourself thinking over it. Eventually maybe, but right now isn't a good time. We should be thinking about other things to take our minds off it."

"Like thinking…" Cloud lifted his head and looked up at Zack. "About us?"

"Huh? What?" Zack's eyes widened. "That was rather sudden."

Cloud was staring at him intently… well as intently as he could. He still was pretty hazy and spacey in his eyes overall, but he was trying his hardest to focus on Zack. Still barely any expression in his face, but Zack could tell that Cloud was trying to express something other than fear or embarrassment.

Though once he realized he had been staring back at Cloud without an answer, Zack shifted and looked away. A strange sense of embarrassment was wrapping around him and it was just a surprise how suddenly it hit him.

"Uh… yeah yeah. I mean that's something. Or… we could talk about what we plan to do to become mercenaries too. Cause you are going to need to recover a lot more before we do any of that."

He didn't really like diverting away from the topic. But just for some reason he felt too uncertain to get into it. Now that he was sitting and thinking once more, his thoughts were still all over the place. Still so much was muddled and he still couldn't get the focus he wanted. Because of that he didn't want to take a risk saying the wrong thing to Cloud. He didn't want to hurt him or mess up anything. All he needed was to wait for when he felt right and had enough time to think it over.

"Oh… okay. How will we?"

Zack finally looked back to Cloud. "How will we become mercenaries? You know, I didn't get to thinking that far ahead." Zack laughed before he went to rub the back of his head. "I guess I really gotta think more on that. I'm sure we can figure it out. Maybe after some good sleep."

"Sleep…" Cloud let out a long yawn. "Sounds good…"

"Ha ha! Glad you agree! How about it then? Let's hit the sack and finally get some proper rest. But first I think we could both probably use a shower and change into. Beats just jumping into a lake to try and stay clean."

"Hot shower… sounds nice."

"Yeah! So you wanna take one first? I can see about seeing if the other rooms are set up and all."

"Sure."

"You'll be able to handle it on your own?"

Cloud gave him a nod before standing up. "I'll be fine."

After that Cloud walked over to one of the doors and opened it up. Upon discovering it was in fact the bathroom he entered and closed the door behind him. Once Zack heard the water running he decided it was about time to get up and do what he could to get something ready.

Walking over to the bags of clothes he pulled some sleepwear and placed them by the bathroom door. "Cloud, I've left some clothes for you to change into when you're done outside of the door."

He heard a soft 'okay' over the water and went to the bag of clothes. Once he had pulled out the sleepwear for himself all he had to do was wait for Cloud to be done. "Maybe a hot shower will do good for him. Hopefully it will clear out some of that mako."

Now that Zack was technically alone he sat down and just let out a long sigh. After that he just breathed deeply while trying to just clear his mind. It had been far too long where he had peace like this and he wanted to soak up as much as he could. But of course it couldn't last forever. His mind was constantly being bombarded by his never ending nagging thoughts.

Thoughts about his plans.

Thoughts about Cloud.

Thoughts of Aerith.

So much of it was cycling around in his mind, he wasn't sure if he would ever get another quiet moment again. It was starting to give him a headache but he was sure no medicine could help him clear it up. It was his problem to deal with and only his. He was just going to have to try and push through it and figure out how he could just get his thoughts quiet enough that he would finally be happy and not so restless.

But always in the end of his intense thoughts it somehow wrapped around to Cloud, and what he was going to do with the poor blond. Just about everything was about Cloud now, or somehow related to Cloud. After a year of taking care of him, making sure he was safe on their journey, it was hard not to think of anything else.

"Still can't believe that he loves me. Who would have thought it… I would have thought that he would have liked…"

Zack trailed off as the memories resurfaced in his mind. The image of flames everywhere danced in his mind, plaguing him of what once was years ago, but to him only felt like less than a year.

"I still don't know what happened with Nibelheim… I am sure it burned down now five years ago… I can still remember the heat of the flames… the girl, Tifa…"

Letting out a long sigh, Zack let the words come in to haunt him once more.

'I hate you! I hate Shinra! I hate SOLDIER! I hate you all!'

"Well we can agree on hating Shinra at least…"

He still couldn't stop his thoughts from going further. He kept thinking of Tifa and what he remembered about her. How she had asked him questions about SOLDIER and that Cloud knew her but was too afraid to talk. It added up to just more and more questions in his head that Zack knew he couldn't have the answers for.

"I'd wanna ask Cloud about her, just to see… but I think asking him to remember back to Nibelheim would just cause another attack. That's the last thing I want to do." Zack ran a hand through his hair, his fingers slowly getting caught on various snags. "I guess I am going to have to keep a lot of things from Cloud until I feel he is ready to handle it."

With another heavy sigh Zack stood back up and started to do some squats. It was one of the few things he knew could help keep his mind from getting him too antsy. He could feel the anxiety rising in him now. It was already there from before but he tried his best to keep it back. After everything he had gone through, the last thing he wanted was to get his anxiety spiking up. He just wanted to be calm, he didn't want to struggle or have his issues show themselves. He knew he was better than that. He could keep that calm facade and stay strong, that way no one would have to worry about him.

No one… but Aerith of course. She could see past those cracks in his defense. She knew him when he showed weakness. Honestly he was grateful she never judged him or saw him as weak because of it. But he didn't want it to keep happening. As much as he knew it was nice that she would notice these things, Zack didn't want to keep slipping up.

"I gotta stay strong. If I am to keep protecting others I care, I need to not be weak. If I… if I am to carry out a legacy with dreams and honor, weakness can't be a part of it."

Zack continued to do squats for as long as he could until he finally felt too tired to proceed. Once he was at his limit he flopped back down to the couch just as he heard the shower shut off. He waited a bit, hearing the door open for Cloud to grab his clothes and then close again. It only took a few minutes more before the door opened up again and Cloud walked out now dressed in sleepwear.

"So how did that feel? Any better?"

Cloud nodded as he used a towel to dry his hair. Despite it still being wet, his spikes were still sticking out in every direction. Zack laughed before he walked over to him. "Geez, I thought you had to have been exaggerating those spikes at least a little."

Taking the towel out of Cloud's hands, Zack started to rub it over his hair, trying to fluff it up more. "You know the fluffier we make your hair, the more like a chocobo you'll end up looking."

When Zack took the moment to stop fluff drying Cloud's hair, he could see that his face was burning red. "Zack…"

"What?" Zack chuckled. "Your hair is just really spiky. I can't help it."

"Your hair is spiky too…"

"Yeah I know, the hair gel helps though. Honestly now that I think about it, I'm pretty impressed as somehow just molded my hair into this position."

"Still was spiky before."

"Huh?"

"I remember the day you changed your hair," Cloud started, far more matter of fact than Zack expected. "The day you inspired me."

"Hm, seems like it's rather selective what he can remember. Things having to do with me seem to be easier to recall than others… for the most part. Just gotta go along with it and make sure it doesn't deviate to something worse."

Zack gave Cloud a smile before placing a hand on top of his head. "You really like this look better?"

Cloud nodded quietly. "It's nice."

"Glad to hear it, I guess that means I won't change it. Now I think it's about time that I get to taking a shower. You go ahead and sleep though okay?"

"Okay… and you'll be there… after?" Cloud said. His words were coming together better than before, but now that he was becoming more and more tired, it all started to space out. Sooner or later he was going to just pass out if he didn't head off soon.

Though the question had caught Zack off guard a little. "Whoa hold on there. Don't you think that might be jumping too soon to-"

Zack cut himself off. Why would he dare try to say something like that when he had been sleeping with Cloud next to him their entire journey. He wasn't sure if Cloud could recall that part of it, but denying it now would be lying to himself. But at the same time it left him with a weird feeling. The more awake Cloud got, the more differences there would be than when he was just catatonic. It just left Zack with a weird feeling he could not understand no matter how hard he tried thinking about it.

All at the same time he knew he couldn't just leave Cloud to sleep on his own. After that attack he had, leaving him to sleep on his own brought too much anxiety into Zack's heart. "If we slept in the separate rooms and he started having another attack… what if I didn't wake up to hear it? He would just be suffering alone… he may even think I left him again. I can't hurt him like that again."

Clearing his throat, he resumed speaking. "Just pick out whichever room looks better. I didn't get the chance to look yet. After that I'll meet you there, okay?"

Cloud nodded, not seeming to pick up on Zack's hesitation from before. While he headed into the bedroom, Zack grabbed his clothes and headed towards the bathroom. Once there he started to undress and turn on the hot water. "Maybe a hot shower will do me some good too. Maybe I could get some good thoughts cleaned out."

But strangely enough nothing came to him during the shower. It was just quiet and foggy, both in his mind and literally in the room. The shower was over faster than he could have thought and now he was just left with the steam everywhere.

Eventually as he started to dry off, the steam faded away and he could see himself in the mirror reflection. He looked at his face and he could see just how tired he actually was. There was an easily noticeable weariness in his eyes aside from the bags that persisted beneath. Most certainly Aerith and Kunsel had noticed but neither of them chose to say anything on it, not that it mattered to Zack if they did. "Wow, didn't realize I looked like total crap." Zack laughed lightly to himself. "Guess that's what I get for taking the slow route to Midgar and dealing with all the other stuff."

Running hands over his face, he wished that he could just get the fog out of his head as easily as it faded from the bathroom. How nice that would have been, but unfortunately it remained clouded in his head with no signs of clearing anytime soon.

"Maybe sleep… just anything at this point," Zack murmured once he was dressed and ready.

He stepped out from the bathroom and saw that the door across the way was open. Walking down there he peered inside and saw that this was the bedroom Cloud decided to choose. Either that or he just flopped down right away after checking just the one.

But he was fast asleep on one side of the bed, sleeping soundly and looking so peaceful. Letting out an exhale he made his way to the bed and sat down on it, his eyes fixed on Cloud the entire time.

"There's nothing weird about this," Zack told himself. "Stop thinking about it that way. It's just protecting him in case he needs me to be there. Nothing else to it."

With keeping that in mind Zack finally laid down and got under the covers. He could tell that the bed was most likely cheap given the small apartment, but it felt so much better than the ground. After sleeping so much in the outdoors this cheap bed felt like a luxury.

Turning onto his side, he now faced Cloud dead on. The guy was still sleeping quietly without any signs that he had been disbursed by Zack laying down on the bed. His face was so smooth and calm. Almost no expression to it at all. It would have worried Zack, but he could notice there was the smallest smile on Cloud's lips. It was enough to reassure Zack that Cloud was waking up, that he would recover, and that everything would be fine. All he had to worry now was how to figure out what to do next.

Chapter Text

Streams of light crept into the bedroom from the window. There were curtains, but they were not the thickest so light was making its way through to rudely wake up Zack before he was really wanting to get up. Not that he could really get super deep sleep for being a SOLDIER made him a rather light sleeper. But either way he knew he couldn't just sleep the entire day away even if he really wanted to.

He had his goals and plans set to get his life back on track and in a new direction. All he had to do was try to keep things from getting out of hand. Though in reality with the plans that he had, he knew that would be no easy feat.

"Just keep reminding yourself to take it one step at a time. You can do this Zack. You got this," Zack reminded himself before he fully opened his eyes to focus.

When he did he saw that Cloud must have shifted closer in the bed overnight. He was now much closer to Zack, with his head resting against Zack's chest. It was just like all those nights Zack had spent out in the world, keeping Cloud right by his side. Though that was all a choice made by Zack to keep him close, but now this time it was all on Cloud.

Though he still slept so peacefully and quietly. He was still tranquil with slow and steady breaths with no signs of stress or worry. Without even realizing it Zack started to smile as he continued to look at the sleeping blond.

"I gotta admit Cloud, you do look pretty adorable when sleeping. Who would have thought it." Zack slowly started to run his hand through Cloud's hair. It was so soft and light and he still had to seriously wonder just how it managed to stay spiky as it did.

"Hmm…" Cloud hummed quietly before he began to stir. His eyes fluttered open to meet Zack's. It was a relief to see that his eyes were looking far more blue than the other day. A good sign that the mako was starting to clear up from him, but there were still flickers of green in there. That and the fact he still looked so spaced out and dazed, but there was hope within those soft eyes.

"Zack?"

"Yeah spike, I'm here. You feeling better?"

Cloud stared at him, his eyes still trying to focus. After a bit he blinked again with a quick nod. "I think…"

Zack smiled and ruffled Cloud's hair. "That's good to hear! Just keep up waking up for me, okay buddy?"

"Yeah, okay."

"Now!" Zack quickly jumped up to his feet. "How about we get some breakfast?"

Before Cloud could give any form of response, Zack started to do a series of squats. Even if he wasn't a part of SOLDIER anymore he still knew he had to keep up his exercises. Though the more he let his thoughts run, with Cloud having enough mako in his system to basically classify him as a 1st Class… he was going to need some training.

"Hey Cloud, how about after we eat, you and I do a little training?"

"Training?"

"Yeah! Can't have you sitting around all day doing nothing after all." Zack said as best as he could as he continued to do his squat sets.

"And you'll… train me?"

"That's what I said, I bet you could be even as strong as me with my help" Zack replied laughing slightly. After a few more squats he finally stood back up straight. "All right, get going already and get out of bed. I'll see what we could eat and try to make up something."

"Right."

Zack headed out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen, thinking over what would be best to eat. "Hmm I think I trust myself to make cereal over trying to cook an omelet or something." He sighed softly. "Guess I should have paid attention when I was a child and Ma would cook."

Not letting the thoughts get to him, he shook off the thoughts of his parents and went to grab some bowls and the box of cereal. After pouring milk into them he set them down on the table and saw that Cloud was already sitting there ready.

They began to eat quietly but soon enough Zack started to feel it was too quiet. Even though last night they had eaten dinner without any words, today it just felt different. "So, anything going on?"

"Huh? What do… you mean?" Cloud asked as he tilted his head to the side.

"You know, thoughts or stuff that you might be thinking."

"Oh…" Cloud closed his eyes and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he opened his eyes and shrugged. "I don't know?"

"You don't know? Seriously? Come on, there's gotta be something kicking around in that head of yours."

Cloud shifted slightly as he started down at his cereal. When his eyes met Zack's again he smiled a little. "Well there's you."

Zack turned his head away the moment he felt his cheeks grow warm. He scratched the back of his head all while he continued to look away. "Yeah I know that much. But anything else?"

"I… don't know." The way Cloud spoke, aside from sounding spacy, he sounded the slightest bit confused. It made sense after all. He probably knew that there was more to think about, but for some reason nothing was coming to him. "Everything else feels hazy… like I can't… think it."

"It's okay, Cloud." Zack finally turned to looking at Cloud once he felt the warmth from his cheeks fade away. "You probably just need some more time to rest without too much worry. So… I guess your training may have to wait."

"What? Why…?" Cloud tilted his head to the side, clearing too confused to understand.

"Cause, I don't want to put too much stress on you. After thinking about it, I think you just need to rest. We were on the move for so long you never got the chance to just sit and take the time to relax peacefully. Now that our little on the run adventure is over you can do that. Maybe that will help clear out the haze in your head."

"Oh… I guess that makes sense. But…" Cloud frowned slightly. "I thought it would be nice… to train with you. You'd be good…"

The warmth was back in Zack's cheeks, though this time he didn't look away. He couldn't understand it. It was just a simple complement… why was it making him feel so much more nervous? "Y-You think?"

Cloud nodded quickly. "You have good energy. It works."

"Well!" Zack started to smile broadly. "I promise once I feel you have recovered that I will train you, okay? How's that sound?"

"Good."

"Then it's settled. You keep on resting and recovering so we can get to training you soon,"

Cloud was smiling again. "Thanks Zack."

After breakfast was finished and the table was cleaned up, Cloud went to sit on the couch. Though Zack quickly noticed that the blond was beginning to space out quickly. In all honesty Zack wasn't too sure what was best to do. He didn't want to have Cloud just sit there and space out all day, but he didn't want to push Cloud more than he could and have him have another freakout.

Though it could prove to be risky, Zack knew he would have to see just how far Cloud could exert himself without overdoing it. "Maybe there are just some simple tasks he could perform. Like stuff easily done around the apartment. Hmm maybe I gotta buy some board games or books. That would help, right?"

It wasn't long before there was a knock at his door. Even though he had a feeling who it probably was, he still chose to look through the peephole first. As his guesses were right he flung the door open and smiled. "Hey Kuns! Great to see you again."

"It's only been less than a day."

"Yeah but it's still been five years! That's a lot of time missed and I miss one of my best buddies!" Zack wrapped an arm around Kunsel into a side hug.

Kunsel chuckled while trying to playfully push Zack away. "Yeah yeah, I get it." His eyes then fell to Cloud, who was already becoming more spacey than before. "Is he doing all right?"

Zack placed his hands onto his hips and sighed slightly. "He's doing better than when he first woke up. But he is still just zoning out a lot. Oh! That reminds me. Hey Cloud, I just gotta talk privately with Kunsel for a bit. You'll be all right?"

"Yeah, I'll be all right," Cloud replied.

"Okay, good."

With that Zack led Kunsel into the bedroom and closed the door behind them. "I don't want Cloud hearing too much right now, but would you happen to know anything else about mako poison without being able to remember?"

"Already ahead of you. I thought you might have some questions, so I did some research last night. It's pretty amazing how he is recovering. Most cases, if they can recover, take much longer. As for the memories, when under the poisoning they are so out of it they cannot do or seem to acknowledge anything. I didn't see anything really for when someone recovers."

"Oh… I guess maybe it also has to do with whatever the hell Hojo must have been doing to us coupled with the mako. Maybe?"

Kunsel's expression hardened at the mention of Hojo's name. "It's possible. There are no online files I can access though about whatever he was doing to you. Only knew that you were and Cloud were two 'experiments' he was keeping."

Zack hummed as he tried to think back to when he first broke out from the lab. But after a moment he slumped his shoulders. "Ah… I know I read something about it. Like sheets and stuff at the lab there but… It's been so long now I can't remember."

Kunsel placed his hand on Zack's shoulder, giving him a reassuring look. "It's all right Zack, you don't need to recall it. But we can keep an eye out for things in case that has something to do with it."

"Right… Right. Yeah I get it. But at least for Cloud, I need him to start on his way to recovery. You think having him read or play games would be a good idea? Like, I don't know it would stimulate his brain or something but not too much to overwhelm him? He kind of had a bad freak out yesterday when I asked him too much, and I don't want it happening again."

"It sounds like a good idea. Worth a try. Now, if there isn't anything else. We can get to the next important thing." Kunsel handed him a phone. "This phone isn't connected to Shinra's network. It has my private number already added though. So any time you need me just text that one."

"Cool, thanks Kunsel. Hey! How about we take a picture to commemorate the moment?"

Not waiting for Kunsel to give an answer, Zack pulled him into another side hug. He flipped open the phone and switched on the camera and grinned. As soon as he saw Kunsel smile, he snapped the picture and saved it.

"Awesome. Seriously thanks though, I don't know what I would do without you."

"And I wouldn't know what I'd do without you…" Kunsel said as he lowered his voice.

Though after a moment, Zack realized that Kunsel wasn't just lowering his voice. He instead was trying to whisper it or mumble under his breath. But a meer whisper could not go past the ears of a SOLDIER. Though with those words left Zack confused. The tone was unlike what he usually expected from Kunsel and it was such a quick shift from how he was moments before.

"Kuns? You good there?"

Kunsel snapped his head to Zack. His expression became mixed with a bit of confusion and what looked like to be worry. "Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking to myself and I guess I spoke aloud."

This was still not what he expected from his friend. He knew him well enough, but to have him actu quiet and hide things… it felt odd. While he had the thought not to pry, he still wanted to be a good friend, and a good friend made sure that the other was doing all right.

"Kunsel, is there something going on? Even though it's been five years, we can still talk and stuff right?"

Kunsel shook his head. "This isn't something that can just be easily talked about. Not now at least."

"What do you mean 'not now'?"

Kunsel sighed and opened his mouth, but then there was a beeping sound. He pulled out his Shinra issue phone and flipped it open. After a second he closed it and started to move towards the door. "I gotta head back. Some meeting is going to go on in an hour or something, I don't know. But they need me there."

"Oh, guess I can't really stop you then. But… we'll talk again soon?"

Kunsel averted his eyes. He started down at the floor while his hand gripped the door handle. "Yeah… just after I sort out some of these feelings. Nothing major though. Don't gotta worry about me."

He left the room and the apartment entirely before Zack could even say goodbye. It felt to him with an odd feeling… a strange twisting emptiness. It was so weird to see Kunsel act that way, but Zack couldn't find anything that would make sense. "He was fine the other day… well until we got here and he gave me that hug… I know he said not to worry, but I can't help but wonder a little."

Sighing Zack headed back out to the main room. Cloud was now standing by the window, staring out at the slums that they now lived in. Standing next to Cloud, Zack watched Kunsel walk away, heading in the direction of Shinra headquarters.

"I don't get it… what feelings could he… Ah… I don't know. Maybe I'll figure it out later."

Once he let out another sigh, he looked to Cloud and started to ruffle his hair again. The more he kept on doing it, the more fun it was becoming. Not that it wasn't fun before. But now he was just getting really used to it whenever he wanted to either tease Cloud or get his attention. Or both… both worked as well.

Then as on que, Cloud abruptly turned to look at Zack, almost surprised to see him suddenly standing next to him. "Zack? What's up?"

"I don't know. Just thinking I guess. Maybe we could get out of the house for a bit. Just talk a walk around the slums. Whaddya say?"

"Sounds good."

"Right! Then let's get dressed and ready to go!"

After the two got dressed Cloud went to the bathroom before they were going to leave. While Zack waited he started at the buster sword that now laid against the wall. Staring deeply at it he went over to it and picked it up.

"I don't know how dangerous out there it could be. There's always a chance for something… But if there is danger I don't want Cloud to get caught up in the middle of it. Perhaps it's better if I have Cloud stay at home and I'll go out to buy some stuff in the meantime. But… if I leave him alone and something happens, I wouldn't be there for him."

Zack rested his forehead against the flat side of the blade. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply like he always did when he wanted to try and meditate. But his thoughts still were everywhere with all the different outcomes playing in his head.

"What do I do… Angeal… what would you do?"

A few moments later a new thought came to his mind. "Protect your honor…"

The bathroom door opened after that and Cloud walked out and over to Zack. He looked at Zack inquisitive. "Zack? You okay?"

Zack blinked. "I'm fine. Why? Do I look funny or something?"

Cloud shrugged. "Just serious."

Zack let out a laugh. "I guess me trying to be serious must look pretty strange."

"Are we going?"

Zack placed the sword back down, still eyeing it heavily. "Yeah… about that…"

Facing Cloud, he looked at him directly. Now that he was right in front of Cloud, he found the thoughts coming in much faster now. Cloud was still waking up and he still didn't have too much to say, but there had been so much improvement over the past few days. Zack didn't want to risk anything happening that could cause a relapse.

A relapse… every time the word crossed his mind, he shuddered. To have Cloud possibly go back to being catatonic, where he couldn't speak or act much on his own. Those countless nights where Cloud just sat there, eyes half open but void of all expression. It still haunted Zack deeply.

"I can't let that happen again… but what's the best option to prevent it?"

While he was thinking, he suddenly felt arms wrap around him. Snapping from his thoughts he realized Cloud was holding on to him. He almost was perplexed by it, but Cloud looked at him with his eyes more focused than ever before.

"It's okay, Zack. Don't be worried."

Zack gasped slightly. Even if Cloud didn't know the exactness of what he had been thinking, he clearly could figure out something was going on. Zack could feel the warmth of Cloud's body pressed up against his own, bringing an unexpected sense of comforting.

Returning the hug, Zack rested his head on top of Cloud's. He soaked up as much of the warm feeling as he could, and it actually managed to calm down some of his nerves. It was just a simple thing, just a hug, but somehow it really made things feel so much clearer. "Thanks Cloud. I think I really needed that."

"All right! One second," Zack said, feeling more confident than before. Quickly he ran back into the bedroom and grabbed the harness from his uniform that he needed to keep the sword on his back. Once it was in place he came back and set the sword into position. "Let's head on out and take a stroll around the slums. Just stick close to me okay? Just in case anything happens you know.

Cloud nodded and with that the two of them headed out of the apartment. Now that they were outside, Zack took in a breath of air. "I gotta protect Cloud no matter what. On my honor I gotta do that, and that means keeping him safe as best as I can."

Chapter Text

The slums thankfully showed no signs of danger as far as Zack could see. Everyone seemed to be just enjoying their lives as best as they could considering it was the slums. The Sector 7 slums were not the worst thing at least, but it was still the slums either way. But there were always people about enjoying their day, doing what they could to pass the time.

While they walked Zack looked up above. Where he normally expected to see the sky he saw the plates. Sure far off in the distances outside of the city he could see the actual sky past the plates and everything, but the plates were still above, blocking most of the skylight. "Never thought I'd really be staring up at these again… it's been so long…"

"Is it… bad?" Cloud asked.

"I don't know… I think it is a mix. Like it brings back memories of exploring around before, but also just reminds me how hard it must be to live under the plates," Zack answered. "I just never got a good chance to look up until now."

As they walked, Zack noticed the occasional glances from various civilians. Humming softly he began to think over the situation. "Maybe it would be best to find a smaller weapon to walk around with when just in these areas. Don't wanna draw too much attention or suspicion. But still leaving it back at the apartment is risky too… I guess keeping it with me is better than leaving it to be possibly stolen."

"Where are we going?" Cloud asked suddenly.

"Huh? Oh yeah, sorry." Zack shook out the thoughts from his head and got back on track. "I was thinking about walking around and seeing what the stores had to offer. I know I probably don't have enough gil for anything after buying what I did yesterday, but maybe this is where I can start finding some odd jobs. You know, to earn a little more gil so we can buy some stuff we really need."

"Like a weapon for me?"

"Yeah… that's one of them. That's going to be one of the more expensive things. but I was thinking about some other stuff. You know books or games. Things to make it more fun at home so we aren't just sitting around twiddling our thumbs."

"Oh, okay."

"So let's see what to do at least for today! There's bound to be something fun we could end up doing," Zack said, trying to sound as cheerful as he could.

They walked by several small little vendors, all of which tried to gain their attention to no doubt sell them something. But the two of them kept on walking through the area. Eventually Cloud brushed up a little against Zack's arm. Glancing over, he could see how thoughtful Cloud looked. Every time Zack saw him starting to think more, he couldn't help but smile. It was all good signs that Cloud was improving.

"Hey, anything on your mind?"

"No… not really…"

"There's gotta be something. You actually are the serious one right now. You know you can tell me if you got anything on your mind."

There was a short hum from Cloud. "What if… Could we hold hands?"

Zack found himself nearly stopped in his tracks. Why was it that he always ended up being caught off guard by the random comments Cloud had to say? It wasn't extremely frequent, but there were just those few things Cloud did say that just seemed completely out of nowhere. Not only were they somehow surprising, but they still kept making his face feel warm.

"Why would you wanna do that?" Zack asked as he rubbed the back of his neck, as if rubbing it would make the feeling go away. "Isn't that kind of like… you know, cheesy stuff?"

Cloud shrugged. "I don't know… just thought about it. Don't have to though…"

The thoughtfulness from Cloud's face started to fade away, going back to his neutral near expressionless look. Without even missing a beat, Zack reached over and grabbed Cloud's hand and laced his fingers between his. He gave a gentle squeeze after that and waited to see how Cloud would react to it.

Cloud flinched at the sudden movement but then his eyes began to widen. He stared at Zack as if he was confused by the gesture that had just happened. But after a moment that confusion changed into a small smile that lit up his entire face. "Thanks."

Zack could see the lightest dusting of red on Cloud's cheeks as he continued to smile, and it honestly made Zack smile back in return. There was just something about Cloud's calm and relaxed face that looked so nice when he actually was expressing an emotion. "Damn Cloud, why do you gotta have such an adorable soft smile?"

The redness increased slightly with Cloud now lowering his head, but he tried his best to keep his smile going. "Th-Thanks…"

With a laugh from Zack, the two started to resume their normal walking pace. "I think this has to be a pretty good sign. Cloud's still blushing and stuff, but it's a far more natural feeling than how he was just days ago. Crazy to think what just a good few days can do for him. Plus he is starting to show other emotions now aside from just embarrassment."

After a little bit longer they came to an area that led off to more alleyways, but there was one large building in the area that really drew Zack's attention. His eyes widened greatly and an excited smile crossed his face. "Cloud look!"

He pointed to a big building to which the sign read 'Seventh Heaven' in large letters. "You have no idea how happy I am to see this place! You know I actually helped name it?"

"Really?" Cloud said as he looked up at the bar.

"Yeah! I completely forgot that the guy said it was going to be in Sector 7!" Zack said before letting go of Cloud's hand so he could run up the stairs and look through the window. He pressed his face against it and started to look around.. "Dang it looks great. Though… says it is only open in the evening. We totally gotta come back here in the evening when it's open. Hopefully by then we will have at least enough gil for a drink cause that really sounds nice right about now."

"Yeah, sounds nice," Cloud agreed quietly.

"Then it's a plan!" Zack said before heading back down the stairs. "Let's start looking around for anyone who might need some help and see if we can do any gil earning. But hmm where to start…"

"You don't know?"

"Hey, give me a minute, it's been some time since last I did something like this. I just gotta think," Zack said as he hummed in thought. "I guess we just gotta start asking around if anyone needs some help. Let's get started okay?"

Right away Zack went to one of the nearest areas of small shops and began to ask if there was anything that could use some help. Most of them said that they didn't need anything in the moment but could keep the thought in mind if they ever did. Zack kept on trying though with Cloud trailing quietly behind him. He knew that there had to be something at least that he could do, he just had to find it.

After a bit of exploring and asking around, he did find some people that said if Zack really wanted to help, he could deliver some items for them since they were too busy at the time to do it themselves. Zack gladly accepted the tasks and got the items needed. It was only one devilry for the time being, but as long as he could get paid for it Zack was going to do it.

"Looks like we're off to a good start, right Cloud?"

"Right."

The two of them made their way to the location that Zack had been given and quickly delivered what was needed. They made sure to get a signed note by the person as proof they did do their task before they started to make their way back to where they started.

Just as they were getting closer Zack caught a glimpse of something in the corner of his eye. Though he assumed it was just another person walking by, he couldn't help but turn to look for some reason. Coming from the other pathway was a young woman with long black hair. Though that wasn't what drew in his attention, even though she was a little ways away from here he could tell with his enhanced vision that her reddish brown eyes were very familiar.

"No way…" Zack mumbled as he stared, and it seems she must have noticed him too for she was staring with eyes just as wide. "Tifa?!"

Tifa came closer, his eyes continuing to widen. Though once she was close enough he could see her eyes were not fixated on him, but instead on Cloud, who also looked to be just as confused. But eventually Tifa's eyes drifted back to Zack and it seemed she couldn't decide what she wanted her expression to be with it wavering between angry and relief.

"What are you doing… I mean how are you even… Where have you been? And Cloud, you're here too?" Tifa asked, nearly fumbling over her questions. Though she then breathed in and glared at him ferociously. Zack had a feeling he knew that he would have to choose his words carefully with her now.

"Ah… it's a bit of a long story…" Zack replied. "But please, if you let me explain I could try."

Tifa crossed her arms and exhaled. "You can explain… but first…" she looked over at Cloud and her anger faded away. "Cloud… Are you all right?"

Looking back at Cloud, Zack saw how pale Cloud had become. He had barely moved an inch from where he stood with his eyes still fixed on Tifa. "Cloud? Hey buddy, you with us?"

"Tifa…You're..." Cloud muttered. Suddenly Cloud cried out and gripped the side of his head. "Ah!"

Right away, Zack grabbed onto Cloud's shoulder. "Cloud hey, it's okay… It's okay."

Cloud gritted his teeth together, nearly dropping down to his knees, but Zack kept him supported. Still gripping his head, he started muttering something. It was a bit jumbled and slurred, but Zack could make out a few key words which were; "Tifa… Fire… Injured…."

The words kept cycling around and around, and the more he kept talking the faster his breathing got. It was clearly another attack just like the time before. Zack still wasn't entirely sure how well he was handling Cloud's PTSD. He knew he could only try what he could, but if he got worse… no… Zack didn't even want to consider that. All he knew was that he would be here for Cloud to calm him down… or at least hope that he could.

He heard Tifa ask him something and probably a few other things on what was happening, but he was in no mindset to properly answer. All his attention was on Cloud and figuring out what he could do to get through to him. Trying to keep a clear head, Zack embraced Cloud like he had before, keeping his head near his chest. "Shh… Cloud it's all right. I'm here for you."

"But the… the fire…"

Zack placed his hand on Cloud's head, weaving his fingers through the light blond hair. Hoping if it worked before, it would work this time as well. "There's no fire, not anymore. We're in Midgar now. Remember what I told you?"

Cloud groaned again, letting out the softest whimper. He went back to grabbing his head, tring to grasp whatever pain was striking him. Zack continued his gentle strokes over Cloud's head though, not letting up even for a single second.

Before Zack could say the words, Cloud started to shake more violently. His breathing adding to the jerky movements he was now presenting. He even tried to push away from Zack and he almost did if Zack didn't keep one firm arm around him.

"Hey come on Cloud. You're listening, right?"

"Cloud," Tifa interjected. She placed a hand onto Cloud's shoulder, causing him to flinch slightly. "I don't know what you've gone through, but there's nothing to worry about."

"Yeah, listen to Tifa," Zack whispered. "We are both here to help you. Just keep remembering we're safe."

"S-Safe…" Cloud repeated. "But… T-Tifa… she… she."

"Tifa's right here. She's safe too, you see?"

Cloud finally lifted his head from Zack's chest and looked over to Tifa, "Yeah, I'm here Cloud. You see?"

"You don't gotta stress yourself. How about we think of something else. You know that isn't… um the stuff you got going on in head. Like ah… oh! The flowers! Think of Aerith's flowers."

"Flowers… they were nice…" Cloud muttered. "Pretty…"

The rapid breathing slowed and Zack could feel Cloud's body finally relax. He started to nod slightly. "Can we… see the flowers again?"

Zack laughed with relief. "Sure we can go and do that later. Maybe I'll even buy some for the apartment. But, feeling better now?"

"Better," Cloud said as he gave a quick nod.

"Thank goodness," Zack sighed deeply before giving Cloud a large hug. "Don't scare me like that buddy.

"Sorry…"

"No, you don't gotta be sorry. Scratch that. I'm just glad you're all right."

Tifa cleared her throat after a few seconds. "If everything is okay, maybe we can get to explaining things?"

"Oh huh?" Zack asked as he turned towards her. It only took him a moment to snap out of his confusion, finally remembering what started all this. "Gotcha. Uh… maybe we should head inside though first?"

"You can follow me and we can head to Seventh Heaven where I work."

"Wait you own the bar now?!"

Tifa tilted her head to the side. "Yeah? What about it?"

"I named the bar!" Zack exclaimed cheerfully.

Cloud snorted slightly. "You make it sound like you should get a medal."

"Well I uh!" Zack fumbled slightly. "I mean… you know, I gave it the name and it's still called that after all these years. It just feels nice to know."

Tifa smiled and actually laughed a little. "Well I guess I would have never expected that. Come on then, let's head over there."

"Sure, but I just gotta go do one quick check in with someone first who I helped out. Just give me a minute to take care of that."

Tifa nodded and waited for Zack to quickly finish the task. With Cloud by his side as usually, he ran down as fast as he could to the person and gave them the letter. Afterwards he was given 150 gil from what he could tell. It wouldn't get him a whole lot but he knew it was best to save it. But it was still a start for him and soon enough he hoped he would be racking up enough money to really get some good essential things.

Once it was taken care of, the boys headed over to the bar where Tifa was waiting for them. As soon as they were close she opened the doors and let them inside. Zack made sure to take a long look around the bar now that he was actually inside, seeing every detail and thing that it had to offer. It was just as cool as he imagined it would be. Totally fit the name that he had decided to give all those years ago.

"All right, before we start, how about a drink for you guys?" Tifa said as she walked behind the bar and got out some glasses.

"Sounds good," Zack said before taking a seat.

"I don't about a drink," Cloud said. "Head is still a bit sore… from before. Maybe just water…"

"Sure thing, I understand," TIfa said kindly. "So Zack, what about you?"

"Ah… I don't really know, just give me whatever you think would be best."

"Sure thing." Tifa went right away to make a drink, mixing a few things together and putting on quite a little show all for mixing a drink. When she had finished she poured it into two glasses and then slid one of the glasses down to Zack. A moment after she filled a glass of water and did the same to get it down to Cloud.

Now that she had her own drink before her, she walked over to them and leaned forward on the bar. "So… about where you have been?"

Zack took a sip of the dink. Whatever it was that she had created, it was strong but tasted great. "Yeah… I guess the best place would be…"

Zack paused as he took a quick glance to Cloud. He seems to be listening in to the story, but that left Zack to be a bit worried. If he started talking about everything, would it just set Cloud off again? If he mentioned things like Nibilheim being on fire… that would totally set him off considering he had been muttering it back there. Then there was Hojo… Zack knew Cloud probably didn't remember much from then, but still to take the chance and mentioned the man that caused them so much pain… that was something Zack felt was far too risky.

While Zack didn't want to take those chances, he knew he had to talk… Tifa deserved to know the truth after all. But he figured he was just going to have to give a rather light censored version as best as he could. Then maybe later if he got a chance to talk to Tifa along he would tell her everything in full.

"Okay… so let's begin with something easy I guess," Zack said as he exhaled slowly. "I guess the best spot to start is just from when you last saw me… or us really."

Chapter Text

"Us?" Tifa asked. "But I don't recall Cloud being-"

"I was the infantryman…" Cloud murmured much to the surprise of Tifa and Zack. "The one you helped… carry back to town."

Zack eyed Cloud carefully. While he didn't mind having help telling the story, he wasn't entirely sure if Cloud speaking up would be the best thing. He still had far too many worrying thoughts about before. Just seeing Tifa was what triggered him before so surely talking about the event could be just as bad. But as of right now Cloud seemed fine. He seemed quiet, but overall fine.

Tifa on the other hand frowned slightly. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Cloud lowered his head. His fingers tightened around the glass before he finally exhaled deeply. "I… I didn't want to seem like a failure… didn't make SOLDIER."

Tifa hummed softly before placing a hand on Cloud's arm. He whipped his head up to meet her gentle gaze. "That's all right Cloud. What matters is you're here and alive. I'm just happy to see you again."

Cloud lowered his head again. "Oh… oh okay then. Thanks."

While Zack didn't have a need to invade into the moment, it did leave him to wonder again. Was there really anything between the two of them? Or had there been something before? It was still no place to ask, but it left a weird uneasy feeling in the back of Zack's mind. Eventually though… he figured he would get to the bottom of it at some point and maybe then the feeling would go away.

After Tifa stepped back and looked at Zack again, he cleared his throat. "Right… where were we? Oh yeah… so we were there, doing what we were. Then you know the stuff with Seph…. Sephiroth happened."

As Zack talked he could see that Cloud was tensing up and he knew it was probably at the mention of Sephiroth. He hadn't realized it at first when they were journeying from Nibelheim to Midgar, but he concluded Sephiroth had left Cloud with scars that would never heal. Or more really they were found too late for the scars to be healed away.

But after a few times when Zack would stop by a lake or river to have them wash up, he would notice the pale skin that ran vertical across his abdomen and back. The length equal on both sides… which Zack eventually came to grips with that it had to have been done by Sephiroth. Hojo had messed with them a ton, but this was something else.

It honestly left Zack feeling a little guilty. He had not been able to stop Sephiroth and asked Cloud to handle it for him. It seemed like Cloud actually pulled it off but it left him weak and near death, Zack could remember that much before they were found by Hojo. But he had no idea what had gone down between Sephiroth and Cloud in full.

Suddenly he heard a voice calling to him. He shook his head and saw that Tifa was giving him a confused look. "Zack? You okay?"

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"

"You just kind of started spacing out after mentioning Sephiroth."

"Huh? I did?" Zack scratched the back of his head, giving a quick chuckle. "Sorry about that. I guess I got distracted." He cast one last look to Cloud who was looking back at him. He looked far less tense than he had just been moments ago.

With that, Zack finally continued. "So Cloud and I both ended up defeating him… but it took a lot out of us. To put it simply… a certain creep of a Shinra scientist, who shall not be named, found us. Kept us down in that manor. The next four years… well I think that would be best explained some other time…"

Cloud was tense again, no doubt having an inkling of a feeling to what Zack was alluding to. Though Zack swore he could almost see Cloud's hands begin to tremble. Carefully reaching over he placed a hand on top of Cloud's and slowly laced his fingers between the blond's. Giving a gentle squeeze he could feel the trembling slow down and Cloud started to feel calm again. He looked to Zack giving a thankful small smile followed by a nod.

"We made it out of there after that," Zack said. He was still telling Tifa the story, but he kept his focus on Cloud this time. "Then we spent almost an entire year traveling to get here, and now… well we made it."

"Wow… I never knew… Shinra would just turn their back on you like that? Weren't you one of their best?" Tifa asked.

Zack smiled bitterly. "Yeah, but I guess when they saw no use for me anymore, they wanted to just get rid of me. But hey! That's in the past now and now Cloud and I can start our new lives!"

"You have plans then?"

"Yup, within due time Cloud and I are going to become mercenaries. Could do some good around here for the people who need it.

Humming thoughtfully Tifa leaned forward on the bar. "So got any good starts?"

"I mean I delivered something today for someone, it isn't much but gotta get my name and effort out there somehow."

"Well…" Tifa stood back up and stretched a little. "If you guys are interested in earning a little bit of gil, I think I could help you guys out?"

"You mean like work at the bar?" Cloud ended up asking.

"Not quite. What I mean is this… I am working with some friends. They wanna stop Shinra from destroying the planet, so there are plans to get back at them and stop them."

"Isn't that kind of dangerous though? You know you guys are going up against Shinra, right?"

Tifa placed her hands behind her back, rocking on her feet slightly. "Oh we know, but we are still going to do it. But… if you think we don't know what we're doing, then don't you think it would be nice if you helped us out? You did want to be a mercenary after all. I'd say this would be the perfect opportunity."

Zack stroked his chin. It was a rather interesting opportunity that was now presented before him. Not only a chance to make some money, but also a chance to get back at Shinra. Killing two birds with one stone… it was all just rather perfect sounding. Besides, he was a former Shinra employee, he would be rather beneficial to help out Tifa and her friends. Even if it had been 5 years… and plus he still had Kunsel! That was a definite bonus, though that information could come later once he met these friends of Tifa.

Though there was a moment of concern. If he joined in on fighting back against Shinra… he had to figure out where Cloud would factor in. He still didn't feel like Cloud was ready to head out into anything dangerous yet. If they were to go against Shinra… if they came across Hojo… there was a good chance that it could trigger another episode for Cloud.

"I don't want to turn down a deal like this… but I can't bear Cloud getting hurt or having an attack. Maybe he will recover before we do anything too crazy. Or maybe… I don't know… I'll just figure that part out later."

"Okay! It sounds like a good deal. So just who are these friends of yours?"

"We're in a little group called AVALANCHE."

Zack jumped up to his feet, nearly staggering backwards. "A-AVALANCHE?! Tifa! Do you even know who-"

"They're not the same!" Tifa interrupted. "I mean, it's the same name, but it is just for getting people to pay attention compared if we just had some random other name. We aren't like that old AVALANCHE."

Zack breathed in slowly, letting the tension leave his body. "Okay… sorry if I freaked out about that. Just… past experiences you know."

"I understand. I'm sorry I should have explained that first," Tifa said with a nod.

Zack went back to sitting down. "We're good now though. I'll still be happy to help."

"I'll help too," Cloud whispered softly.

"That's great to hear, Cloud. Besides, we have a lot to catch up on since it's been."

"Right. And… gotta make sure to actually keep my promise this time, even if I'm not… not SOLDIER."

This drew Zack's attention more so than before. "Wait… they had a promise to one another? I mean I know how it was before to an extent… but…"

Tifa was smiling. "Thank you Cloud. That means a lot to hear it."

Zack cleared his throat suddenly. "So now what? When should we do all this? Like meeting your friends and stuff?"

"We're having a meeting later tonight. I'll be closing the bar earlier for it. So just stop on by a little past eleven tonight and I'll let you guys back in."

"Okay, guess that means Cloud and I can wander around the Sector some more and try to help out some others."

"Okay, but feel free to stop by any before that, just in case you guys need anything else," TIfa offered.

Zack smiled cheerfully. "Sure. Oh! How much do we owe you for the drinks?" Zack asked as he started to pull out his freshly earned gil out of his pocket. Though he wished he could have saved it for something else, he did plan on getting drinks anyways later on. So it still all worked out in the end.

Tifa shook her head. "You don't need to pay me. It's on the house."

"You sure about that?"

"Seeing the two of you again is enough payment, trust me. Plus you need it more," Tifa said before she smiled.

With that out of the way there wasn't much else to do at the moment. It was still daylight outside so Zack wanted to make sure to get around and help out some others if he could. "All right then, time to go hunting for more jobs then!"

"You know actually," Tifa said suddenly. "If you really want something to do, you could help collect some things that need to be brought to the bar."

"This day just gets easier and easier!" Zack grinned happier. "Whatcha need us to deliver or get or whatever it is?"

Tifa went to explain the items that she needed and where they needed to go. She even made sure to give Zack a list of the places to stop in Sector 7 just in case he somehow ended up getting lost. He highly doubted he would, but it was always nice to be safe.

When the two of them were out and about, they walked side by side like before and after a few minutes Zack went forward to reach for Cloud's hand. He looked at him in surprise though when he did it, as if he were confused by Zack doing so.

"What's the matter, Cloud? Don't you still want to hold hands?"

"O-Oh yeah," Cloud murmured.

"Something on your mind again?" Zack asked as they walked.

"Maybe…"

"Is it about Tifa?" Zack asked slowly.

Cloud looked at him again, once again looking confused. "How did you… oh, we did just see her."

Pressing his lips together, Zack tried to think of what to say. He had no idea what he was even trying to ask or what he was expecting Cloud to say. Clearly he was thinking about Tifa though, but what it meant for the two of them, he wasn't sure. It actually made him feel a little worried though he knew that he shouldn't feel like that. Cloud and Tifa were childhood friends after all. Anything that they had was something that he couldn't get between.

"Do you wanna maybe… you know go back and stay at the bar? So you can be with her?"

"I… I don't know," Cloud answered. "I didn't think she'd be here."

"Hey me neither man, but isn't that a good thing she survived?"

Cloud nodded. "Of course. It's good to know. We probably got to catch up… like you and Aerith. I just… I don't know what to say."

"You just need to talk with her, that's all there is to it. But you can take your time, no one's rushing you."

Cloud gave a small hum. "Thanks. But I think I'll stick to helping you."

"All right then! Let's get a move on!"


The remainder of the day was spent roaming around the sector, collecting what Tifa needed. Though along the way the two of them did have to stop back at the apartment for a meal, but other than that everything else seemed to just move rather smoothly.

Zack had done most of the talking between them as he was used to, but slowly Zack saw that Cloud was finally coming around. He was talking more and engaging in more of the conversation so Zack couldn't end up hogging it all.

It was just the light things that they were talking about, as Zack did want to keep it simple. Noting things they saw around the sector or items they were considering buying. There were so many little things to investigate and take a look at, but Zack knew it could all be for another time.

"Besides," Zack continued. "Once we get enough gil we will totally try and get up to Sector 8. Cause you know that is where all the really cool stores are."

"Yeah, that sounds nice. But wouldn't a place up there be more expensive?"

"Oh for sure. But… I wasn't thinking like moving up there. Kunsel probably did enough to get us the place we have now, so I think we should stick here. It would just be for a fun visit if anything."

"Plus we can get to Sector 5 easier from here and see the flowers in Aerith's church," Cloud added.

"You really like those don't you?"

"I can't really explain it… but I felt really relaxed."

Zack smiled. "Okay, I am definitely remembering this time now to make a note that we will visit Aerith tomorrow. I will make sure I can buy as many flowers as you want."

The slightly bit of pink began dusting Cloud's cheeks. "You don't need to do all that."

"Of course I gotta. It's to help you feel better."

"Because when I get better, you're going to train me right?"

Zack blinked as he stared at Cloud for the moment. "Oh, still thinking about that are you?"

"Yeah, cause I really want to train with you. Even if it is just small things."

"I know Cloud, I also think it would be cool. I just don't want anything bad to happen if you got too stressed."

"So!?" Cloud snapped suddenly. "It doesn't have to be like fighting monsters or stuff like that. But can't we at least do running or some exercises? I doubt a jog or something else would stress me out too much."

Zack gapped at Cloud, still completely caught off guard by probably his most coherent moment yet. He tried to find his words but for the moment he seemed to be lost. Cloud was still staring at him with wide and determined eyes, not wanting to give up at all. He wanted to get stronger rather sooner than later and he wasn't just going to sit around and wait.

There was also the fact that Zack honestly knew that he couldn't keep Cloud just sitting contently at home, even if there were fun things to occupy him. Just trying to keep him from danger or anything… it wasn't going to cut it. Zack knew Cloud and he knew that Cloud had a strong heart.

Smiling Zack reached out and placed a hand on top of Cloud's head. "Aw you're right, Spike. I can't keep trying to baby you like this. If you really think you can, we could start doing some morning exercises like how I used to do back when… well you know, when I worked at Shinra."

Cloud's face lit up, a complete switch from the glare he had been sending a moment ago. "Really?"

"Of course, really. I want to keep you safe, that is true, but having your strength up would benefit the both of us," Zack said before slowly ruffling Cloud's hair. "So be prepared first thing in the morning to listen to your drill instructor; Mr. Fair."

Cloud snorted as he pushed away Zack's hand from messing up his hair any further. "And is it really proper for my instructor to be messing with my hair?"

"Well is it really proper for my student to be in love with me?" Zack asked with a light laugh.

Though he had meant it as a fun joke, it seemed to have sapped away all of Cloud's confidence. Now all that was there was his quiet and shy self, with his face slowly turning more and more red by the second. He turned his head away slowly, as if he thought he could hide his face from Zack. But they were just in the middle of the street with no real place to just run off and hide.

Zack stepped closer to Cloud, who was still refusing to look at him at the moment. "Hey… everything all right?"

"Yeah… it's fine."

"Maybe… maybe he is thinking about this more now that he is awake. Thinking about his feelings… just like me? Should I maybe…"

Zack cleared his throat. "Do you wanna talk about it?"

"Huh?" Cloud finally turned to look at Zack, the redness fading from his cheeks. "Talk about what?"

His usually tick kicked in and Zack was rubbing the back of his neck again. It wasn't that he felt bad about the subject that he was trying to talk about, he just wasn't sure how to go about it. Where could he even start? It all felt so confusing even now. "You know, like us? You and me?"

"O-Oh… I mean if you wanna talk about it…"

"It's just if you got something on your mind, you know you can tell me Cloud," Zack said as he wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "That's what I'm here for."

"I… I don't know how to really give it words," Cloud said. "I just keep thinking about what I already know, and how much better I feel since I have told you."

"Huh, really? You mean, like you really have thought about me like this for a while?"

Cloud nodded his head. "Yeah… I just never said anything cause I never thought it was going to go anywhere. Like… why would a 1st Class have any interest in just some random infantryman?"

Zack could feel his heart twisting slightly. It ached at Cloud's words. He never had thought Cloud would have been so pessimistic, not until he saw how Cloud was when they got to Nibelheim. But that was just because Zack thought the guy was in his hometown and was only an infantryman. He had no idea that it was actually applied to more than just that, and it hurt to know Cloud was that pessimistic about himself.

"Oh Cloud," Zack said before pulling him into a tight embrace. "Never think that it has anything to do with rank. You were still one of my best friends back there. I could spot you out in a crowd even with your helmet on, remember?"

Cloud didn't say anything verbally, but he gave a slow nod instead.

"Plus we aren't working for Shinra anymore. Ranks mean nothing and as I said, it never did. You and I became friends back then because we found something to connect on. I didn't care that you were just an infantryman, you were just another backwater boy like me. So don't you ever think that you aren't worth anything, cause that is never the case."

"Thanks Zack," Cloud whispered softly. "That really helps to hear it."

"You're welcome. Just never forget it, okay?" Zack quickly went to ruffle Cloud's hair as he laughed, knowing it would most likely frazzle Cloud again.

It did as he expected and Cloud scrambled away briefly from Zack, trying to fix his messy spikes. "Hey! C'mon, cut it out."

"What? Seriously? There's no way I will stop messing with your hair. It's way too fun."

Cloud pouted at him, trying to glare, but Zack could see the underlying embarrassment that was building. Eventually Cloud sighed and closed his eyes. "Let's just get back to the bar, okay?"

"Fine fine," Zack said as he shrugged. "But I am totally not going to stop teasing you."

As the two of them walked again Cloud smiled slightly. "I guess I gotta find a way to tease you back."

"Ha! Good luck with that," Zack said as he smiled smugly. "I'd like to see you try."

Chapter Text

When the two of them reached the bar, it was already late into the evening. Patrons were filing out of the building, some of them more drunk than others. But none of them seemed to pay attention to Cloud and Zack as they made their way up the stairs and into the bar.

Inside the boys saw that Tifa was clearing up tables as well as kicking out the most drunk people that were still lingering. But there were four people over by the dart board that Tifa had not interacted with yet. Zack could only guess that those were her friends that she talked about before.

One of them was a large rather tall man who wore shades and had a gun attachment over his arm. The other three looked to be younger with all of them sporting some form of red bandana. All of them seemed to be engaged in their own talk, not even noticing that Cloud and Zack were staring at them.

Eventually Tifa had cleared out everyone else and closed the doors to the bar. She smiled at the boys afterwards and cleared her throat as she approached the other group. "Okay, now Barret, remember what I said, please."

"I remember Tifa, doesn't mean I don't think these guys are sketchy as hell." the man with the arm gun shouted. "Even if they claim to have left Shinra they still could be loyal dogs!"

"Hey," one of the others said. It was the youngest looking of the other three, a young looking guy with a round but kind face. "Tifa said they were friends of theirs so I doubt they would still be loyal and stuff."

"We're not," Zack interrupted. "I'm done with Shinra."

"And like I'll believe that just cause you're saying it," Barret scoffed after a moment. "You could just be lyin' to nose your way into our group."

"I said I am not! Shinra not only turned their backs on us, but they left us in the hands of a scientific nutcase for four years!"

Zack had not meant to raise his voice and shout. He hadn't even expected to snap so suddenly. But there was just something turning inside of him. Something that he felt needed to be said. But now all eyes were on him, all wide and shocked at Zack's words.

While he had not expected himself to shout out his frustrations, he felt like they were far from over. The feeling pushed against his chest, burning his lungs. "I worked for Shinra. I worked for them and was loyal as you could have expected. But they didn't care. They didn't care about any of that. They had me do things I never wanted to… I was forced so many times to do things I never ever wanted. And at the end of it?" Zack laughed weakly. "They claimed I was dead for all these years while that sicko Hojo messed with me and Cloud. I can't even remember most of it… I just know I lost four years of my damn life in that basement! And then after all that escaping to here, Shinra had the nerve to try and send an entire army to gun me down! So if you think I would still be loyal to Shinra after all that, you're really off the mark."

The silence still followed once Zack had finished. He could feel his hands were trembling. He was shaking after that, and he couldn't even control it. Looking down though he saw that it wasn't just his hands that were shaking, but also Cloud's. Cloud had one hand, gripped tightly to Zack's as he looked to him with his eyes wide and tearful.

Right away Zack felt less frustrated and more worried. He remembered more from those events than Cloud did, and he already knew Cloud was struggling to remember. Now he had spewed out an entire thing about what they had gone through and no down that was bringing up though buried away memories. The memories that Zack wanted Cloud to avoid from remembering.

"Oh… Oh I'm sorry…" Zack muttered as he wrapped his arms around Cloud. He pressed him against his chest as he ran his hands up and down his back. "I'm so sorry Cloud. I didn't mean to yell like that or make you remember anything."

He could hear Cloud's shaky breath breathing in and out, no doubt trying to hold back the pain he was feeling. It only made Zack feel worse. He had let his own anger and frustration get in the way of things. "Just take it easy. Remember the flowers. They're your focus right?" Zack whispered softly to Cloud as he continued to stroke Cloud's back. "I'm sorry…"

Even though he wanted to just for Cloud to calm down, he could still feel his own heart racing. The heat from his words still within him and showing no signs of a quick and easy cool down. With his legs starting to feel weak he started to move towards the opposite end of the room. "Uh… w-we're just going to sit down for a bit okay? Don't mind us or anything… just need a moment…"

"Uh yeah," Barret said, his tough and rough voice noticeably softer now. "Take your time."

Sitting down, Zack pulled Cloud practically into his lap. He still had not said anything else, and Zack wasn't sure what to make of it. Cloud wasn't frantically mumbling like the times before, which Zack thought would be a good sign, but the silence was actually worse.

"Cloud? You okay buddy? I'm really sorry if I scared you," Zack said as he held Cloud tightly against his chest.

"Y-Yeah…" Cloud's voice finally came. "But… you?"

"What do you mean?"

"What about…" Cloud breathed in deeply before looking up at Zack. "What about you? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, totally," Zack lied. Despite Cloud not having a panic attack, that didn't ease all the pain that was bothering Zack. But he still had no reason to let Cloud worry about him like that. It was his job to look after Cloud, not the other way around. "I just needed to vent a little I guess. Maybe I overdid it. I'm just really sick of Shinra, you know?"

"Yeah, me too."

While Cloud and Zack sat together, whispering quietly, the others in the room had a hard time looking away. It wasn't that any of them wanted to pry and see what they boys were thinking, but after such a random snap from Zack it was hard not to stare. Tifa was the most shocked out of all of them. She had just seen Zack hours ago, seemingly fine. He was watching over Cloud and had seemed sound and sturdy.

But that outlash was just so sudden and out of nowhere. It was so unexpected and she wasn't expecting it. Was Zack really hiding that much resentment? How much was buried underneath that kind and warm exterior? She could only wonder how much pain he was carrying without letting anyone know. She knew all about that too well and she had a feeling that Zack was doing the same.

But she saw the way he held Cloud, the way he whispered to him. Just like earlier when Cloud was having a panic attack, Zack focused on nothing else but him. She had noticed it earlier too when Zack was telling her his story. The way he looked at Cloud, holding his hand to give him reassurance.

She had chosen not to say anything as she didn't want to pry. With all those years that she hadn't seen them, she had no idea what it must have been like. But she could get a pretty good idea from the way Zack spoke. There was just a small guess that they were all each other had during those years, especially with a year of travel all the way to Midgar.

There was a closeness between them. A closeness she had never expected to see from Cloud, a boy she always knew as quiet and distant from others. While he still was quiet, he was close with Zack and Tifa didn't want to come between them, even if it did leave a little pain in her heart.

But she couldn't let that get the best of her. She was still Cloud's friend after all, or at least she believed herself to be, and that meant being there to support him. With Zack being Cloud's friend, Tifa sought to also try and make friends with Zack. At least that part seemed the easier out of everything else.

Eventually she cleared her voice, stepping closer to the boys. "Hey um, if you wanna leave, you could come back tomorrow. We don't need to do this if you aren't feeling up to it."

Zack shook his head. "No no. It's okay. I just lost my cool for a bit there. I said more than what I should have."

Zack breathed in as he moved to stand up. Cloud practically clung to Zack's side in the process, but he didn't seem as stressed before. He remained calm and at Zack's side all without a word.

Letting in one last deep breath, Zack faced the group. "I hope my outburst didn't leave a bad impression of me. I'd hate to start off on the wrong foot. So… could we start this again?"

"Yeah," Barret said with a nod. His expression was still far from his typical harsh and hardened. He looked at these two, studying them, trying to understand just how much Shinra must have hurt them.

"All right! Let's start with introductions then!" Zack exclaimed as he pointed to himself. "Zack, Ex-SOLDIER, and my best buddy here is Cloud, Ex-Infantryman but still just as durable as me."

The rest of the group finally introduced themselves, with the remaining three being Wedge, Biggs, and Jessie. After the formalities were taking care of, Barret finally went into his plans and Zack learned quickly that Barret really enjoyed ranting.

The man talked for nearly the entire time, and Zack was sure his ears were going to fall off by the end of it. Thankfully that didn't end up happening, but he did know to not try and hold up a conversation with Barret on Shinra. It wouldn't even be a conversation if that happened. But overall Zack could see the man was passionate and Zack had to commend him for that.

But by the end of it, Zack had learned what exactly AVALANCHE's plans were. The reactors… they wanted to take them down, hoping it would stop Shinra if they couldn't continuously pump out mako. It was really risky, since they were going to have to sneak into Shinra Headquarters itself. But that would be where Zack and Cloud came in. They knew the building for all the in and outs. At least Zack hoped, there was the chance every changed in five years, but he highly doubted that.

Then Zack remembered there was also Kunsel. He truly was his insider man who would definitely be a good card to have up his sleeve. Though Zack had yet to bring that card up to Barret. Figuring out how he didn't trust Zack and Cloud at the start, he for sure wouldn't trust a current working Shinra employee. But maybe for another time, maybe once Zack talked to Kunsel and also Barret some more. It was all something that was going to take time. The team didn't even have all the supplies yet that they needed so the attack on the first reactor would still take time.

By the end of the meeting, there was still plenty more that Barret wanted to talk about, but then others decided to call it a night. Zack looked to his side and saw that Cloud had fallen asleep. Breathing in and out slowly, his head leaned against Zack's arm.

A smile stretched Zack's lips as he ran a hand through Cloud locks. "I guess all that talking wore you out, eh?"

Cloud kept ok breathing peacefully, nothing seemed to be keeping him from his sleep. Chuckling Zack moved carefully to pull Cloud into his arms. If Cloud wanted to sleep, he would let him. No reason to wake up the guy at this point.

He was ready to head out but first he walked over to Tifa. The other members had already left to head to their own homes, but Tifa still had to clean up and close up the bar for the night. "I wish I could help you close up, but this little chocobo here decided it was time to sleep. So I might as well get him back home."

"You guys got a place to stay?"

Zack nodded. "Yup, don't worry we aren't living off the streets. We'll see you tomorrow then? I'd still like to help you out to pay you back for your kindness and everything."

"Show up tomorrow as soon as you can and I'll see what work I can give you. I'm sure you'll just take on about anything," Tifa replied, letting a light chuckle escape her lips.

"You know it. And I'm sure if Cloud hadn't passed out on us, he'd be wanting to help to."

Tifa let her eyes drift down to Cloud. His head snuggled up against Zack's chest, trying to stay warm from the looks of it. Zack didn't even seem phased by the action all while he continued to hold Cloud in a bridal style fashion.

Slowly she focused back on Zack. "You care a lot about him, don't you?"

"Huh?" Zack asked, caught off guard by the question. When he looked down to see Cloud's sleeping face, he smiled right away. "Of course. After all we've gone through, I can't imagine being without him."

There was a pause before a light sigh came from Tifa. "That sounds nice."

Zack took note of her tone, his memories pulling on what he heard earlier. A little bit of uneasy twisted in his stomach. He couldn't bring himself to ask about it though. The feeling in the stomach proving to be too much for the time being. But perhaps for another time.

"Yeah… well um… We'll be heading back, okay? See you tomorrow?"

"Hm, yeah. See you then. Goodnight Zack," Tifa said. "And if Cloud wakes up on your way back, let him know I said goodnight."

"Can do. Night to you Tifa."

Heading out of the bar, Zack adjusted how he was holding Cloud, bringing him a little closer to his chest. It was cooler out at night, he could feel it nipping at his neck. Picking up his pace, Zack sped towards the apartment, thinking of how a nice warm bed would be after the long day. By the time he got back there, Cloud still had not woken.

Zack set him down on the bed and went to go change into his pajamas. He thought to do the same for Cloud but he was just so peaceful. The last thing Zack wanted to do was to wake Cloud up, especially if he was half way through changing him. It was one thing for Cloud to be completely out of it, but now he was just sleeping.

Zack already knew he would feel awkward if it happened, but he wasn't even sure how Cloud would feel. Either way, Cloud would be just fine, it wasn't like they had worked up a huge sweat during the day. Maybe he was just overthinking everything. There was always that.

Yawning Zack went back to the bedroom once he was ready. As expected Cloud had not moved an inch. Snickered, Zack laid down beside him and pulled the covered up over the two of them. "Man I wish I could fall asleep as fast as you, and stay asleep too. Maybe one day… once we can finally get some real peace…"

Chapter Text

Ch.10

Morning came just as it did before and just like the last time Zack woke up to the early lights and Cloud snuggled up against his chest. He pretty much was clinging to Zack's shirt as if he was a little child who was holding onto a beloved blanket. His face was blank, but still he thankfully looked peaceful and not uncomfortable or in any distress. Zack smiled warmth as he went to ruffle Cloud's hair in order to wake him up like he had previously.

But this time Cloud didn't stir like he had the other morning, instead he remained still and without any expression on his face. Zack tried his best to keep his own breathing at a calm rate as he went to ruffle Cloud's hair again. "He's just really tired from yesterday, we did do a lot of walking after all."

Clearing his throat, Zack thought to finally use his voice, "Cloud, hey you ready to be awake yet?"

Cloud still did not answer him.

Zack swallowed as he scooted closer to Cloud, He could see that he was breathing, thank the planet, but he wasn't reacting or making much of any sound at all. There was the possibility that he was just far more tired than Zack thought, but unfortunately his mind was jumping to other conclusions.

Shaking Cloud, Zack stared to hold his breath. "Cloud! Come on, wake up already!"

He rolled Cloud onto his back and pressed an ear to his chest. Despite seeing Cloud's chest rise and fall, he needed to hear the heartbeat. He needed to find some reassurance. Something to tell him he wasn't going crazy or that there was hope. He needed something… anything.

Thankfully he could hear Cloud's heart beating steadily. But that still didn't answer why Cloud didn't wake up yet. "Cloud! Hey come on man! This isn't funny!"

After a few more shakes, Cloud's eyes opened half way, revealing vacant, green, glowing eyes.

Zack yelped, nearly falling off the bed, "No! No no no! This is not happening!"

He was now cradling Cloud in his arms, rocking him back and forth. His breathing had already jumped right to being rapid and uneven. With his throbbing he finally took a look at Cloud again. He slumped in Zack's arms, his eyes still only half open.

"Cloud! Come on Cloud, please hear me!" Zack shouted feverishly.

No matter what he did, no matter what he said, Cloud did not even react. The only thing that he did 'do' was lay there with his eyes unmoving, clouded by the green mako. It was all like before. Everything second of his blank stare was just like how this had all stared. All those months Zack spent alone with his thoughts, with no one to talk to but himself. He was back to that again unless he got Cloud to wake up, but even now he was getting worried.

"Please…" his voice broke, already sore and scratchy from the sobs caught in the back of his throat. "Please wake up Cloud. I can't deal with this again! I can't be alone!"

Another moment passed but it was all the same. Cloud was taken by the mako again and he showed no signs of being anywhere close to conscious. Tears were pretty much flowing down Zack's face now as he clutched Cloud to his chest. The pain in his heart was hurting so much he could barely handle it. He finally let out another loud sob as everything blurred around him.


Zack gasped heavily as his eyes shot open and he found himself laying back down in bed. With his breathing already increasing he turned to his side to see Cloud sleeping peacefully as he had before. Right away Zack went to shake his shoulder, trying not to be too harsh with it, but it was hard to control his emotions.

"Cloud! Cloud please tell me you're awake!"

He watched as Cloud's face scrunched up with a small groan. His eyes started to flicker open after that and Zack felt a huge sigh of relief when he saw Cloud's deep blue eyes. "Z-Zack…?" he asked, clearly still waking up. "What's… wrong?"

"Oh thank Gaia!" Zack shouted as he lunged forward to wrap his arms around Cloud. He buried his face into Cloud's hair as he kept him close to his chest. "You're all right… you're awake…"

"Of course I am… are you okay?" Cloud asked.

"Yeah… Yeah I'm fine…" Zack said as he lifted his head to look at Cloud. He placed his hand on Cloud's cheek and sighed, "Everything is fine now. Nothing to worry about."

As long as Cloud was awake and conscious there would be nothing to worry about… nothing for Cloud to worry about anyways. Zack had been worried, that was true, but he just didn't need to let Cloud know that. Everything could go back to how it was and there was no need to worry over anything. It was how Zack wanted it and how he thought it needed to be. That was what he indeed kept doing, all he needed to do was remember to breathe and keep the rest to himself.

"You sure? You're still kind of crushing me."

"What? Oh oh! Sorry!" Zack said as he pulled away from Cloud. "But trust me when I say nothing is wrong. Just woke up a bit out of it, but it's nothing. How about I get breakfast started? Sounds good?" Zack jumped to his feet and was out the door before Cloud could even reply.

Now out in the kitchen Zack felt like he could finally have a moment to breath normally. He made his way over to the kitchen counter and started running a hand through his messy morning hair. "It was just a dream… just a really bad dream. Nothing to worry about, don't forget it. Cloud's okay, he is recovering. He's not going to fall back to that state. I'll make sure of it."

With a new sense of relief Zack finally went to preparing something easy for the two of them to eat. He decided to try his hand at something other than cereal today, this time trying to make some omelets. Thankfully the thought of making good food was enough to clear up his mind and move away from the thoughts from before.

By the time Cloud rolled out of the bedroom, Zack had just finished up the seasoning details on the food. He placed the plate down in front of Cloud and took his seat shortly after. "So, how did you sleep last night? You passed out pretty early at the bar."

"I did? Oh I guess I did, I don't really remember falling asleep."

"Nah it's okay, as long as you're feeling okay. Just remember to let me know okay?"

"Yeah I know. So what are we going to do today?"

"I was thinking of heading back to Tifa's bar to help her out. Gotta repay her somehow for helping us get a job and everything you know? Though I think I may wanna try to make a call to Kunsel. I was thinking if I can tell him what's going on, he could prove to be a big help for us."

"Cause he still works for Shinra, right?" Cloud asked in between bites.

"Yup, though I know what he would rather do. Maybe after all of this, if we can really take down Shinra, he'll be able to just relax. All of us could finally just relax…" Zack sighed. "It'd be nice wouldn't it?"

"Yeah," Cloud nodded. "What would we do after though? Would people still need mercenaries?"

"I don't know. There may always be a need for that stuff, but honestly… if we can take down Shinra… I'd like to just sit back and relax. Maybe help Aerith sell her flowers again. You'd like that right? Since you already enjoy being around her flowers."

"Sounds nice," Cloud replied.

"Once Shinra is gone, just imagine it, we could help her set up a little flower shop. She could be the most popular florist in all of Midgar, or even better all of Gaia! People could come from all around to see her flowers. Though… I still gotta keep my promise to her."

"Your promise?"

"I promised that I would take her to see the sky one day and that she didn't need to be afraid of it. She's lived under the plate her entire life you know."

"Wow… I couldn't imagine that… never truly seeing the open sky."

"Yeah, that's why I am going to take her out there so she can see just how beautiful it is. I gotta keep that promise to her at least…" Zack trailed off slightly, letting his thoughts fall into the fog that was his mind. Quickly he snapped back before he could wander too far off. "But hey! How's that sound? Working for Aerith in a flower shop?"

"I don't know much about flowers… but I guess?"

"Well there are always plenty of other things we could do. Like um… oh chocobo farmers! Yeah I bet you'd be great at that!"

Now Cloud was staring at him with a rather unamused expression. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Well you know, you already got the look down, so why not just take care of little chocobos all together?" Zack asked as he chuckled.

"Hey!"

"What? You should take it as a compliment Mr. Chocobohead," Zack teased. If he had not been sitting across the table from Cloud he would have easily reached over and ruffled up Cloud's hair. Though he knew he could just stand up and walk over to do that anyway if he really wanted to. In fact… he really did want to.

Getting up he walked over to Cloud and started to mess with his hair all while Cloud was trying to back away without falling out of the chair. "Come on Zack! Cut it out!"

"Nope! Not till I've fluffed you up a bit!" Zack laughed as he continued to mess up Cloud's hair.

Cloud fumbled and slowly tried to push Zack off and away, but he was no match for Zack's determined strength. Eventually he just gave up and laughed as he let Zack mess up his hair, making it look far more messier than normal. "Are you done yet?"

"Hmmm yes, no wait…" Zack pulled a few strands of hair down in front of Cloud's face. He then stepped back and smiled. "Okay now I'm done!"

Cloud smiled back and shook his head. "You're really something you know?"

"Thanks!" Zack stated proudly. "Good to know I am still something! Gotta keep my uniqueness anyways cause ya know normal is overrated."

"I wouldn't want you to change anyways. I like you this way, just you being you."

"Huh?" Zack stared at Cloud for a moment, seeing the blush on his cheeks. "Is he… trying to flirt with me? Of course he is trying to flirt with me! Geez! Why can't I think of anything to say back!"

Zack continued to stare, knowing most likely that he was looking dumbfounded. But for some reason he just couldn't find the right words to say to Cloud, and Cloud's words were so simple too. Some small compliment that was all there was to it.

"Zack?" Cloud asked as he stood up. "You all right there?"

Zack shook his head quickly and stood up straight. "Yeah, perfectly fine. I guess I'm just not all here yet this morning."

"When are you ever all here?" Cloud whispered as he smirked.

"Hey!" Zack shouted before he lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Cloud tightly. "Since when did you get so cocky?"

"I don't know, I just woke up today feeling better. You know? Like my head's more clear or something."

"Aw that's great to hear!" Zack shouted happily. "You're getting back to being normal!"

"I thought you said normal was overrated?" Cloud asked, chuckling lightly.

"Ah! Well I… you're not normal either, but what you're normal is, is really far from the actual normal!"

Cloud started to laugh. "Yeah sure, whatever you say. I guess I gotta take that as a compliment."

Bending over slightly, Zack pressed his face up against Cloud's. "Oh you bet, and there'll be plenty more compliments where that time came from."

"Can't wait to hear them," Cloud said as he stared at Zack. His eyes seemed to fall deeply into Zack's own and for a moment the world seemed to slow down around them.

Zack didn't even realize what was happening until he had his lips pressed up against Cloud's. There hadn't even been a thought to it, he had just done it, but he wasn't regretting and wasn't pulling away. Instead he stayed there for a few more moments until he actually had to pull away to catch the breath he had been holding.

"Um…" he started running the back of his neck as he averted his eyes. He was sure though Cloud could see the blush that was burning into his cheeks. "Sorry…"

"Why?"

"What do you mean why?"

"Like… why are you sorry?"

Zack breathed slowly, trying to find some level of calm before he faced Cloud again. "You know, I just kissed you without asking. I feel like I should have at least asked…"

"I don't see why. I'm not upset… cause you know… I thought we were…" Cloud trailed off as he licked his dry lips.

"Starting to date?" Zack finished again without even realizing what he was saying. But again like with he kiss, it all felt so natural and easy to say it.

"Yeah… that."

"Well you know…" Zack started to say, but after those first three words he stopped.

What was he even trying to say? He wasn't even sure at this point but he knew the last thing he wanted was to upset Cloud. He just needed one moment to breathe, one moment to try and gather coherent thoughts. Just a moment… that was all he needed, and he only hoped it wasn't too long to worry Cloud.

He knew Cloud was special to him, and he was special to Cloud. They had a connection unlike any other and Zack couldn't imagine a time or place now where he would be without Cloud. He had spend an entire year dragging Cloud across the world, not letting him go. If he really put it into perspective he could see how much he had grown since the start. It still came to he a surprise for him, but he was going to try his best to act on what he felt.

"Might as well make it official. Why not go the whole way and say it how you… we fell on it? As of this moment on, I dub us boyfriends."