Chapter 1: Broken Glass
He hadn't expected to get used to it, but most of the time he didn't even see the green anymore. Somewhere along the line, his eyes had adjusted until the world seen through mako-blur looked normal. It made him wonder just how long he'd been in, this time, to have that kind of acclimatization-- but his sense of time had been one of the first things he'd lost, if by no means the last.
Nearby, the words in the glass of his cage caught the light, glinted in the corner of his eye. He'd been able to move, back when he carved those, digging in with breaking nails and a strength he'd never had before, and it was a cruel irony that it had taken this to make him a SOLDIER. But somewhere along the line, something they'd done between then and now-- he flinched, mentally, from the fragmented memories of cold steel and bright lights and avid, dispassionate eyes-- something had changed. He had become a prisoner within himself, as if there was a wall between him and everything else, transparent and strong like the glass of his tank, only inside instead of out. When he was awake he could see and hear and feel but not do anything about it.
When he wasn't awake, he floated in an empty grey place, alone and aching and unable to remember anything. Or he visited warped parodies of places from his past, like Nibelheim before the flames, blown up out of proportion. Or he reeled through flashes of faces and things that were gone too quickly to know them. It was a long, twisted nightmare that he couldn't break himself free of, leaving him confused and aching when he finally did come out of it.
And the worst of it was-- he wasn't sure whether reality was any better.
He thought that Zack was still near him. He thought he could feel eyes on him, at least, other than those of the white-coated technicians, and he was reasonably sure it wasn't his imagination. That was a small comfort, even though he couldn't turn his head to find out for sure. The weight of those eyes helped him through the interminable waking hours, let him imagine that his friend was still scratching him messages in the glass, still plotting their escape-- even though in his darker moments, he was so terribly afraid that whatever chance they'd had was gone.
He had been drifting more and more into the grey, as it became harder to keep the dreams from dragging him under, when he roused to the feeling that something was changing around him. His vision blinked back on and the green was fading, and the technician was on the ground-- he saw red, achingly bright on the white coat before his view was blocked.
Zack was there, catching him when he fell through the opened panel, pushing back his hair and looking down on him with a desperate hope burning in his eyes. Calling his name, and calling again in a strained voice when Cloud didn't answer. Couldn't answer; his mouth wouldn't open.
And then Zack was moving him, and everything faded out again.
He thought he dreamed again, because it seemed for a while that he was in Nibelheim-- the real Nibelheim, not the warped mirror of it he usually saw. Even the air smelled right, cool and thin as it washed over his skin. But that was impossible, because he remembered fire and ash and blood.
He heard the brief sound of a curse before his head was turned away, taking the vision with it, and he gratefully let himself forget.
"Hey," Zack's voice came to him softly. "You smell that? Free air, that's what that is. No more lab basements for us." Cloud felt the touch of a hand on his chin, tilting his face up until he could see the sky. "Check out those stars. I'd almost forgotten what they looked like."
He saw, briefly, pinpoints of light streaking across a dark background-- and then a wink of grey, and it wasn't night anymore. He saw green, and blue-- open sky and forest leaves-- before the arm around him shifted its grip and his head nodded forward.
"They might have people out looking for us by now. Someone has to have noticed we're gone. But don't worry, no way in hell am I letting them take us back. And before you get all self-sacrificing on me, no, I won't leave you behind, so don't even think about suggesting it. We'll make it, together." The arm around him shifted, maneuvering them awkwardly through a tangle of branches.
"Everything's going to be all right," Zack's voice said, and the tone of it was such that Cloud almost believed it.
Night and day flashed by, meaningless sequences of shadow and light, forest and open sky, shifting as the world faded in and out. Zack was a solid reality under his arm, at his side, his voice familiar and painfully missed. Cloud drank in the sound of it, trying to focus on it, and he thought it might have helped-- the grey times seemed to come less often when Zack was speaking, even though that glass wall between them stayed as thick as ever.
"Midgar," he heard Zack say once, as they moved through thick grasses. "That's where we're going. And I know what you're thinking, but no, I haven't lost my mind. No more than usual, anyway." A grin, felt instead of seen, warm against the side of his head. "Think about it, it'll be the last place anyone'll look for us. And I know people there who can hide us for a while, until-- until you get better. We can figure out everything else after that."
At night, once, unseeing in the darkness, Zack settled him onto something that smelled of straw and dust, while animals called in the background. "I know it's not that hotel I kept promising you, but I guess it'll do for now." After a moment, he felt Zack's touch, hands warm on his skin, and lips on his own-- coaxing, teasing, bringing back a hundred vivid memories from the past. Cloud strained to respond, pushing at that barrier around him, screaming against it when it didn't budge. Leaving him lying in complete stillness and silence while his lover leaned over him and touched him gently.
Mere moments later, there were hot points of wetness on his face as Zack pulled away from him. "I'm sorry," he heard Zack whisper. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have done that, but I had to try. I won't do it again, I promise, not until-- please, Cloud--" Lips on his cheek, on his forehead, and more pinprick splatters of tears. "C'mon, kid, please wake up. Please--" The warm body slid down to rest against his shoulder, shaking faintly, and Cloud fought again to respond to the pleas pressed into his neck. Fought until the greyness came back and swallowed him whole, while frustrated tears that he couldn't cry felt like a branding iron behind his eyes.
The next time he knew anything, Zack's voice was cheerful in his ear, and the darkness was gone as if it had never existed.
He could feel changes in the air as they went-- he seemed more sensitive to them, when he missed the chunks of time in between. The cool sharpness of snow had quickly faded, giving way to the acrid stink of sand and heat. Then a salty dampness, bringing up memories of glittering waves and nausea. Then everything was green and dry again, for a short time, before the sense of green died away and left something flat and stale in its place.
It was then that Zack stopped, with a new tension in his arm where it wrapped around Cloud's waist, and an odd note in his voice when he spoke. "I guess they were expecting us after all."
Zack shifted, and the sense of motion changed; metal flashed as Zack drew his sword, and then Cloud was falling through the horribly familiar sounds of conflict, which seemed to go on forever as he could only lie there and listen. The next stretch of time was a muddle of jostling movement and flashing shapes, before he was set down carefully one last time, sprawled on his side with the metallic tang of dust in his nose.
Though some twist of chance, his head was turned just the right way to see the three dark shapes slipping through the shadows to one side, their noises lost in the background roar. They resolved into masked soldiers with long rifles in their hands-- horribly nostalgic, for one shocking moment-- and as he watched, they settled into position.
Some half-remembered instinct let him read their movements, calculate their aim, and the realization went through him in a jolt. Panic was a shrill ringing in his ears as he threw himself against the barriers holding him in, fighting against himself to move. The glass held, and he mentally gritted his teeth and tried again, and again, and again-- because damn it all, it was his body no matter what had been done to it, and it would obey him. Zack needed him, and therefore he would move. He would move.
The soldiers raised their guns.
Something snapped, hard enough to wash Cloud's vision momentarily red, but his body lurched up off the ground, moving in fits and starts as muscles flared on and off. He used momentum where finesse failed, ramming himself bodily into the three blurring forms before him, throwing them into each other. He heard bones break under the weight of his swings, and two out of the three went down and didn't move again. Cloud ended up sprawled across one body, moving in unsteady jerks as he tried to control his limbs. Sometimes when he tried, he couldn't make himself move at all; other times he seemed to overcompensate, moving too quickly and too far, and there didn't seem to be a way of telling which it would be at any given time.
The third soldier struggled out from under his comrade's corpse, came in too close and got in the way of one of Cloud's wild swings. Cloud watched in a kind of detached horror at the red dripping from his glove to the ground, and the grey started to creep over him again. But then there was a sound, and a sudden pain in his arm-- hot and sharp and enough to shock him out of it. He looked down to find the gouge of a bullet graze on his shoulder, looked up again to see more shapes coming through the trees.
It was instinct to call out a warning to Zack, though he wasn't sure his hoarse croak could be heard over the continued crashing around him. He wasn't even sure where his friend was, anymore, in the chaos. He managed to drag over one of the soldier's rifles-- put his hand right through the first one, crushing the stock and bending the metal, and his fingers shook as he reached for a second, gritting his teeth in an attempt for control. But once he had it in his hand, old training came back and guided his movements. He got himself propped up halfway, using his boot and the dead soldier in front of him to hold the barrel of the rifle in place, and fired as often as he could make his finger pull the trigger.
A shape rushed at him from the side-- he shifted as best he could, aimed and fired only to have the rifle click on empty. But then Zack was just there, rushing in with a wild yell and cutting through the man in one effortless swing.
Cloud must have blinked out again, because suddenly everything around him was silent. He was still lying where he fell, alone in the night, and for a moment he almost panicked-- but then relief welled sharp and acidic in his throat when his searching eyes made one of the shadows resolve into Zack, standing with his back to Cloud, shoulders moving rhythmically as he breathed.
Cloud tried to get up and go to him, tried to do something, but the panic and the adrenaline were fading and his energy was falling away with them, and the grey was there waiting for a chance to creep over him again. It was all he could just to sit and watch and breathe as Zack slowly, slowly turned to face him. Took a few steps forward, sword dragging heedlessly behind him. Sank to his knees, reaching out with unsteady fingers to touch Cloud's face. "Cloud?" he whispered.
With an effort, Cloud managed to twitch up his mouth in a grin, and force out a hoarse whisper. "Hey."
Zack let out a great gasp of breath and wrapped his arms around Cloud's shoulders, squeezing like he'd never let go. Cloud kept trying until he got his own arm to move up around Zack as well, squeezing back as best he could.
"Gods, you're awake." Zack pulled back, looking intently into Cloud's face, eyes bright and wide and hands moving restlessly through his hair. "You all right?"
Cloud opened his mouth, and on the first few tries nothing came out. "Things're-- weird," he eventually managed. "Nothing's really-- working right, yet."
Zack looked thoughtful, but just as quickly shook his head. "Doesn't matter. You're better-- you'll get better." Another explosive gust of air left him as his shoulders sagged, and he grinned incandescently. "Everything's going to be all right," he said, and this time it sounded like he believed it.
Cloud found himself nodding. "Sorry I didn't make it back sooner."
Zack snorted. "Only you could possibly be apologizing-- no, y'know, I don't think you could have picked a better time to wake up." He cast a quick look around, taking in the sprawled bodies, then visibly drew some mental calculations and swallowed hard. "Fuck. That was close."
Cloud just looked up at him and kept his smile. "Got your back, right?"
The grin came back. "Always." Zack leaned in and gently pressed his mouth over Cloud's, fierce and sweet. Just for a moment, everything else faded away-- they were just two boys again, sneaking out of barracks, with no worries beyond the vague threat of a broken curfew.
The sound of a helicopter, still distant but closing fast, prodded them apart. Zack helped Cloud upright, got him propped over his arm again, and it was easier now that he could move his feet, sometimes, to help. "Midgar's still our best bet. There's nowhere else to hide around here."
"If they're waiting," Cloud couldn't help but point out, "it'll be hard getting in."
The grin Zack turned on him was the same as Cloud remembered: bright and confident, like he'd never known doubt. "C'mon, between the two of us there's no way we won't make it."
And Cloud couldn't help but smile, even if his face still wasn't sure it wanted to. He closed his eyes briefly, resting against the strength of his friend's shoulder, then opened them again. The reflected light of the mako reactors was green against the clouds, making him shiver, but there was warmth at his side, and a voice still murmuring against his ear, and a hand at his back when he stumbled.
Getting into Midgar wouldn't be the end of it, he knew-- if someone thought they were important enough, the search would go on regardless. But somehow, he wasn't terribly worried.
Together, they would make it through.
Chapter 2: Proof of Life
And this is the optional sequel to the optional epilogue to "Got Your Back". ;)
Cloud paced the room, not bothering to watch his step anymore-- he had long since become familiar with when to turn, where to step to avoid the few bits of furniture or the loose boards. That single room, tucked in the highest corner of some dingy inn somewhere in the slums-- he hadn't been paying much attention when they'd arrived-- had been all he'd seen for weeks, after all.
And while he'd been resting and recovering, it had been a welcome haven. He freely admitted that. But over the last few days he'd finally started to really feel recovered from everything that had happened, finally started to feel normal again-- actually sleeping instead of hanging in that weird in-between state, which made more difference than he'd thought it would. Eating real food, breathing the air, seeing things without the haze of mako in the way-- he moved his hand, clenched his fingers into a fist and rolled his shoulder, and grinned in joy at the simple ability to move.
His outstretched arm touched the wall, and his smile faded as he looked around the room once more. Now if only I could convince Zack to let me out of here--
Giving up his pacing, Cloud sighed and flopped down across the foot of the bed. He knew exactly where his friend's overprotectiveness was coming from and couldn't even blame him for it, not really. Not when for the first week in Midgar Cloud had shown the disturbing tendency to black out or go completely paralyzed at odd intervals. But those days seemed safely behind them; he felt fine, he felt more than fine. Better than he ever had before, and ready to go out and live again.
Or maybe stay in-- not that Zack seems to like that plan, either. Sourly, Cloud tilted his head back and gave the bed an upside-down glare. It was a creaky old thing, probably rejected years ago from the inn's better rooms downstairs. The mattress was torn along the edges and most of the spokes of the headboard were broken. And not by us, more's the pity.
The door squeaked as it opened. Cloud sat up in time to see Zack walk in, and despite everything he smiled a welcome-- though the smile wilted a bit when he saw the grin on Zack's face, and instinct made him roll to his feet to meet his friend's approach. That grin never boded well for someone, anyway, and Cloud had long since learned to be suspicious of it.
"Guess what?" Zack said cheerfully, draping himself over Cloud's shoulder.
"What?" Cloud asked warily.
"We," Zack said, with ponderous, dramatic emphasis, "are dead."
Cloud blinked. "We-- what?"
That grin actually grew, and Zack stepped away to spread his arms wide. "Dead. Worm food. Taking a one-way trip to the Promised Land. I overheard the news myself just before I headed back here. Terribly exciting, really: two dangerous fugitives gunned down in the hills surrounding Midgar."
Cloud gaped. "What? But-- how?"
"I figure someone made it up to cover their asses. I mean, it's been over a month. We vanished right under their noses." And for a moment, Zack looked far too gleeful over that fact. "With the way things work in ShinRa, someone had to come up with results or someone was going to have to pay." Zack shrugged. "Or hell, maybe the powers on high just took pity on us. Who knows. Who cares? Don't you know what this means, Cloud?"
Cloud thought for a moment, considering the implications-- and blinked, sitting back heavily on the edge of the bed. "Shiva's tits," he muttered.
If they were dead, no one would be looking for them. They were free. Finally and totally. No more hiding--
But then his sense of reality came back. "It could be a trap."
Zack rolled his eyes, moving around in front of him and dropping into a crouch. "You're far too suspicious."
"No, I'm serious," Cloud said, frowning at his friend. "Why would someone be talking about us? It's not the sort of news that would normally be broadcast; the story's not nearly big enough. So why would it be there unless it's to lure us into the open, make us break our cover?"
"Heh." Zack wouldn't meet his eyes suddenly, looking sheepish. "It, ah, wasn't exactly on the local news. I was kind of sneaking around the SOLDIER barracks and overheard a couple of the Omega guys talking about it."
Now Cloud was scowling. "Zack--"
"I know, I know, it was dangerous and I said I wouldn't, but-- c'mon, isn't this worth it?" He gave Cloud a little grin and a hopeful look through his lashes, and Cloud felt his irritation melt away, as it always did. He sighed, shaking his head, and saw Zack relax as he sensed his victory.
"So!" Zack clapped hands onto his knees and stood. "How are you feeling today?"
"Fine," Cloud answered warily-- there was that grin again-- but took the opportunity as it was offered. "Great, actually. I haven't had an episode in a week. So when are you going to let me out of here?"
Zack laughed. "I knew you'd go stircrazy sooner or later. Well, this is as good a time as any-- we need to celebrate, right? Or maybe it should be 'mourn'?" He made a show of looking thoughtful. "There's a long-standing tradition of getting drunk at funerals. I think that's something we should uphold." He winked. "Where do you want to go first?"
Cloud opened his mouth-- and shut it again. His fingers flexed, briefly, in the fabric of the bedcover. "You know?" he said slowly. "I don't think I'm ready to leave quite yet."
Predictably, Zack's grin vanished into a concerned look, and he moved to crouch in front of Cloud once more. "What's wrong? You said--"
Striking with all of his new speed and agility, Cloud wound his arms around Zack's neck and pulled, toppling his friend to his knees and bringing his face in so that it was only inches away from Cloud's. "I wouldn't say anything's wrong. Unless you plan on brushing me off or running away. Again."
Cloud could feel the moment when Zack realized what he was about-- he tensed all over, just for an instant, before deliberately relaxing again. And Cloud knew, he knew that his friend was thinking about the events from before the-- from before, the memories brought back in full force by how helpless Cloud had been during their escape, and how sick he'd been since. The habit of being cautious, of being so careful not to hurt was firmly engrained by now.
But it was time, Cloud thought, that Zack remembered he wasn't helpless, that he never had been. Time to remember how things had been before it all went to hell. So Cloud just looked at Zack, meeting his eyes and returning all the doubt there with determination, and warmth, and want.
Zack tilted his head, blinking slowly, and then smiled-- not that grin, but something that made a slow curl of heat start to burn in Cloud's gut. "Mm, you know?" he said quietly. "I think this could count as celebrating, too."
Zack leaned in, slowly enough that impatience made Cloud tug him the last short distance until their mouths met. And that was still familiar, at least, remembered from years past and refreshed over the past few weeks. Cloud closed his eyes and relaxed, focusing all his attention on the warmth of Zack's lips, the way one of Zack's hands tucked against the small of his back.
Zack's other hand pushed gently on Cloud's shoulder, and Cloud was more than willing to go, leaning back and letting Zack stretch over him. But the pressure of his grip was still far too careful, too gentle, in the way that reminded Cloud more of frustration and calculation than he wanted to think about just then. He didn't want to have to think at all, and so he took hold of his friend's shoulders and pulled, making Zack fall down right on top of him, kneeling on the bed, perfectly positioned for Cloud to arch up into him.
Zack watched the motion with a glint of mischief growing in his eyes. He leaned down again and Cloud found himself distracted by the slick press of a tongue against his own-- he only half noticed as Zack shifted them both around until they were fully back on the bed, barely registered the tug as he was separated from his shirt. He definitely noticed, though, when his hands were lifted and closed firmly around the remaining bars of the headboard, and he broke the kiss to shoot Zack a questioning look.
Zack, for his part, just winked and gave Cloud's hands a final squeeze-- and then slid down Cloud's body in one smooth motion, tugged open his pants with a few deft flicks of the wrist and took his growing erection into his mouth.
Cloud's head thudded back against the pillow as he groaned weakly, eyelids sliding shut despite himself. His hips moved helplessly in his friend's grip, little thrusts that were far too desperate but damnit, it had been a very long time since he'd had anything but the memory of this to go on, and no memory could possibly ever compare--
The loud creak and snap of stressed metal made it through to Cloud's fogged brain. He opened his eyes and blinked up at his own hands, which held the twisted and broken pieces of the headboard, now curved from the pressure of his fingers. He stared at them for a moment, thinking bemusely that he finally knew how Zack felt all those years before, and then it all kind of became irrelevant again as Zack slid down over him and moaned--
Without thinking of consequences, Cloud tossed the bars aside and slid his fingers through Zack's thick hair, spread them over the curve of Zack's skull and pulled desperately until Zack took the hint and came up to kiss him again. Cloud dug his fingers into those broad shoulders, ran them down sweat-damp skin until they came up short against the waistband of Zack's pants. It didn't take much to unfasten them, snake his hand inside and do his best to return the favour.
Zack shivered, his entire body shaking as Cloud wrapped his hand around Zack's cock, pulled and stroked until the older boy made a helpless sound in the back of his throat and grabbed at Cloud's hand, stilling it. "You," Zack managed, sounding like he was having some trouble catching his breath, "are still a tease."
Cloud just grinned, and leaned up until he could flick his tongue against the side of Zack's neck, using his free hand to rub against one of his friend's nipples.
Growling faintly, Zack grabbed at that hand, too, and Cloud laughed until Zack muffled him with another kiss.
Their few remaining articles of clothing quickly disappeared over the edge of the bed. Zack settled against him, so warm and solid and good that Cloud couldn't help but wrap his legs around his friend's hips in an attempt to force them closer. He didn't notice Zack making any preparations but when the expected touch came between his legs it was slick and ready, and it wasn't long before Zack was pushing forward, hot and hard and burning into Cloud with a beatiful agony of sensation that he could only do his best to keep breathing through. Zack drew back almost immediately, thrust forward in a short, careful motion-- back again, and forward with a groan that sounded wrenched from the very core of him.
Cloud felt the exact moment when Zack forgot himself, when he let go completely of that damnably ingrained control and finally let himself believe that Cloud wouldn't break-- or just forgot to care anymore, and oh gods, oh gods it was the way he'd always hoped it would be, with nothing to think about, nothing to do but feel as he was rocked hard against the bed. From there everything was a blur of scraping teeth and hungry lips, hands clenching without care for the bruises they'd leave. Cloud knew his mouth was open, that there was a cry in his chest building pressure enough to burst, but his throat was too tight to let it through. And then-- and then--
Even after his vision cleared, Cloud stayed staring blankly at the ceiling. "Wow."
Zack's laugh was a puff of breath against his neck. "Yeah." With a little groan of effort, he pushed himself up until he could run his lips across Cloud's cheeks. "Worth the wait?"
Cloud hummed an absent reply, closing his eyes at the sensation of Zack's kisses-- then felt that grinstretch across his own face for once. "Well, I don't know," he said lazily, "I definitely think I lost a few days, there, but I wouldn't say I'm quite in next week--"
The body beside him froze, then turned into a flurry of motion which left Cloud securely pinned to the bed beneath a very determined looking Zack. "Oh really."
Cloud did his best to look innocently up at his friend, though he couldn't stop himself from arching into the hold. Zack stared down at him-- and snorted, his eyes alight. "Well, we'll just have to work on that, won't we?" he asked, though he didn't bother waiting for an answer.