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Legacy

Chapter Text

Everyone was born with one; the marking that led them to their Planet chosen soul mate. It came in different forms for different people, but the most common was a phrase or sentence in black lettering. They were the last words that your soul mate would ever say to you. They could appear anywhere on a person’s body and no one had been able to figure out if there was a significance or if the location was completely random.

When Cloud Strife was born, his appeared on the back of his neck.

The words inspired both pride and terror. It was a sign that the Planet had chosen someone who was meant to change your life and a reminder that one day you would lose them.

Cloud was seven when he learned the significance of the words on his neck from Tifa Lockheart. He had run home and begged his mother to tell him what they said and to help him find a way to see them. They stood together in front of the hall mirror, Cloud angling his mother’s hand mirror to try and see the words.

“You’ll be my living legacy,” His mother’s voice was a little sad as she read them, “My honor, my dreams, they’re yours now.”

Cloud’s fingers touched the words in awe, “What do you think that means?”

Claudia knelt down at her son’s side, taking the mirror from his hand, “I’ll tell you like my Ma once told me. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you think too hard about it. All those words mean is that the Planet has a plan for you. If you worry on it too long or too often, you’ll miss out on whatever that plan is and you won’t know it ‘til someone’s saying them to you. Whoever they are, they’ll find their way to you when they’re supposed to.”

He nodded solemnly, but Claudia knew that her words would not really sink in until Cloud was a little older. She just hoped it was not too late by then. She gave him back the mirror and ruffled his hair with a smile. He would be useless for the rest of the afternoon while he accustomed himself to the idea of a soulmate, “You can always talk to me if you need to, sweetheart.”

Cloud nodded again and lifted the mirror again to study the words more closely.

As the years passed, he did his best not to let the idea of his soulmate change the way he lived his life from day to day. He could not help but analyze every new person he talked to, wondering if they were the kind of person who would offer him their dreams with their last words. He knew how ridiculous it was, but he could not help it. He never found anyone in Nibelheim that seemed to fit the image in his mind.

The words made him want to be brave and strong, like the kind of person who could carry the burden of someone else’s dreams and honor. When Shinra started to look for Soldier candidates, Cloud eagerly read everything he could on the subject. Not a lot made it out to Nibelheim, but Cloud dutifully clipped every article and read every word on the pamphlet that had come in the mail until it started to rip along the abused folds.

When he was thirteen he saw Sephiroth for the first time. The article took up most of the front page of Nibelheim’s newspaper, hailing the General as a hero and a fighter for all that was righteous and good in the world. It seemed like a sign. He immediately told his mother that he planned to go to Midgar for the Soldier entrance exams as soon as he turned fourteen. She looked exasperated, but handed him an envelope with the required forms already filled out and a surprisingly large amount of gil.

“I started saving the day we got that pamphlet in the mail.” Claudia said, “I knew this day would come eventually.”

Cloud hugged her tight and promised to do everything he could to help her get ready for him to leave. Once he was a Soldier, he would be able to take care of her. They had almost six months before he would be eligible to enroll as a cadet. There would be a lot to do, but he would make sure that Claudia would be looked after in his absence.

And if his imagined soulmate seemed taller with long silver hair, well, Cloud thought there was no harm in it.

Six months later, Cloud was a bundle of nerves as he lined up with the other cadets in his class. He would be trained and tested over the course of the year, culminating in an exam that would determine if he was suitable to join Soldier. It was not the only way to become a Soldier, but it would be the easiest considering his age.

He had hoped to see a glimpse of his hero in person. It was not completely unbelievable to think that Sephiroth would come down to greet a group of people who one day aspired to be members of Soldier. When a tall, dark haired man walked in wearing a Soldier First uniform instead, Cloud tried not to be disappointed. His face looked severe and too serious as he peered down at the paperwork in his hands.

“I am Commander Angeal Hewley and I’m a Soldier First Class. On behalf of the leadership of Soldier, I would like to welcome you to the program.” Angeal’s face loosened up into a smile that completely transformed him. Cloud felt himself relax a little as the Soldier began to talk again, “You’ll spend the next year training and learning everything you need to know to be a Soldier. That doesn’t just mean how to swing a sword or equip a materia.”

He crossed to a young man in the first row, “Why do you want to be a Soldier?”

Everyone held their breath waiting to see what he would say. Cloud could see the cadet’s fingers twitch, but he kept his shoulders and back steady, “It’s a good living, sir. Got a girl back home waiting for me. I want to be able to provide for her.”

Angeal nodded, moving deeper into the ranks stopping in front of another cadet, “Protecting your family is important and a good reason. You?”

“My father was a military man. He died in Wutai.” The cadet’s gaze dropped to the floor, “I’d like to follow in his footsteps.”

“Upholding family honor.” Angeal clapped the cadet on the shoulder, “There’s a man after my own heart.”

Cloud inhaled sharply at the way Angeal said the word honor. It caught the attention of the First Class. Angeal made his way over to stand near Cloud, “You?”

“It’s… been my dream for as long as I could remember.” Cloud replied without thinking as the first’s glowing eyes studied him, “I- well, I want to be worthy, to be strong.”

Angeal smiled again, nodding in approval as he turned back to the group as a whole, “Dreams and honor… both are necessary if you intend to make it into Soldier. Our assignments are difficult, physically and emotionally draining sometimes. We make the hard choices. Without honor, we are no better than the enemy we face. Without dreams, we lose sight of what’s important.”

Cloud could feel his pulse hammering in his throat. The blood rushing in his ears made it difficult to make out Angeal’s words. He really looked at Angeal. If the man was his soulmate, he was lucky. Angeal was tall and broad shouldered, his body covered in muscle. His face was striking, with a strong, square jaw and blue eyes made bright by mako. There was just a hint of stubble along his jawline. He was an incredibly handsome man.

Cloud forced himself to remain still as the First let out a chuckle, “I like to keep an eye on the cadets, so you’ll hear me say that a lot over the next year. I hope you take it to heart. For now, take the night to get to know one another. Settle in. Tomorrow the work begins. You’re dismissed.”

Everyone snapped to attention for a moment before breaking up into smaller groups. Cloud slipped around the crowd and headed straight for Angeal. He had no idea when he would have the chance to speak to the man again and he could not waste this one.

“Commander Hewley, sir?”

Angeal had been about to head back the way he had entered. He paused and turned back to face Cloud, smiling again, “What can I do for you, cadet?”

Terror gripped Cloud’s chest, making it hard for him to draw a breath. He grit his teeth and forced the words past the tightness in his throat, “This is going to sound ridiculous, sir, but I can’t- I have to-“

As words failed him, Cloud closed his eyes and shook his head. This was a mistake. He tried to back up, but Angeal’s hand caught his shoulder, “Why don’t you come with me? You can tell me what’s wrong.”

It was not exactly a suggestion and they both knew it. Angeal drew him through the door and into an empty hallway, “My office is this way. We’ll have a little privacy there.”

Cloud let Angeal draw him into the empty room, grateful when he crossed over to lean against the front of his desk so Cloud would have some space. Cloud gripped the back of one of the chairs, trying to ignore the blush he knew went clear up to the tips of his ears, “This was a mistake. I’m alright, sir.”

“You are about as far from alright as I’ve ever seen a first night cadet.” Angeal said bluntly, but not unkindly, “I can’t let you leave until you convince me otherwise. Why not just say whatever was on your mind. It was obviously important enough to make you stop me.”

“It really is, sir.” Cloud said, and after an embarrassed pause he continued, “I just don’t really know how to say it.”

Angeal let out a little sigh, “What’s your name?”

That made Cloud look up in surprise, “Cloud Strife, sir.”

“Listen, Cloud, I like to think I’m pretty easy to talk to. People have always told me so, anyway.” Angeal gave him an encouraging smile, “I won’t tease, or judge. I won’t even bring it up again unless it’s something that needs to be addressed. You can talk to me.”

“Alright. Just… let me get through it, please, sir. If I stop, I don’t think I’ll be able to start again.” Cloud peeked up at him through his bangs, relieved when Angeal nodded his agreement, “I was seven when I learned about the soulmate marks. I had to ask my Ma to tell me what mine said, because I can’t see it. It’s on the back of my neck, you see. I’ve thought about it a lot since that day, imagined what kind of situation I’d be in where somebody would say the words to me. I… think I’m going to outlive my soulmate and that they’re going to die doing something heroic.

“That’s part of the reason I’m here. I want to get strong, because that day’s going to come. I can’t stop it or change it.” Cloud could not make himself look back at Angeal, “But when it comes, I want to be there right beside them. I want to be worthy of their last words. I- uh… I’d like to show you, if that’s okay. I think you’ll see why I stopped you.”

Cloud forced himself to meet Angeal’s gaze again. The man’s expression was such a mix of emotions that Cloud could not get a read on him. Slowly, he nodded and Cloud closed the gap between them. He turned and tugged at his collar so Angeal could see the mark.

“Well… hell.” Angeal said, voice weak with disbelief.

Cloud’s heart sped up. He sounded surprised, but not displeased. When Cloud turned back around, he stepped back again, this time giving Angeal space to adjust. The man gave a nervous little chuckle, “I’m never going to look at that speech the same way again.”

Cloud laughed too, not really sure what to say next. He had imagined this scenario hundreds of different times, but never quite like this. Angeal uncrossed his arms and ran his hands over his face, “Well, Cloud, I’d say you’re on the right track, if there is one in this sort of thing, but it doesn’t lead to me.”

It was like having a bucket of cold water dumped over his head. He stared at Angeal in shock, “What?”

“I’m going to show you mine… to help you understand.” Angeal stood, turning away from him and lifting his uniform shirt to show off his back, “It’s on my left shoulder. Take a look.”

Cloud did as he asked, standing on his toes just to be able to read them.

Angeal, we’ve known each other our whole lives. Just this once, trust me. You shouldn’t do this.

All of Cloud’s breath rushed out of him, “Oh.”

Angeal let his shirt slide back down and tucked it back into place, “Yeah. There’s only one person who has known me my whole life. We’re pretty sure we’re where we need to be. Although, I might introduce you one day, just in hopes that your philosophy on these marks would rub off on him. He isn’t terribly fond of the lot we’ve been dealt.”

“It does sound… harsh.” Cloud said, trying to force his misery down.

“I like to think that maybe I’ll go doing something brave… or at least necessary. Probably protecting him, because that’s my way.” Angeal’s smile was soft as he thought of his soulmate. Cloud was disappointed all over again. He would give anything to have someone smile like that at him, “Genesis is a thinker. I’m a doer and I follow my gut. So far, it hasn’t steered me wrong, but everyone’s unlucky at least once in their life.”

Cloud could only nod, shame and frustration forcing his gaze to the floor and away from the First standing in front of him. He was surprised when Angeal caught his chin and tipped it up to catch his gaze, “If I wasn’t so sure that it was him, you and I might be having a very different conversation right now. It’s still unsettling enough to make me wonder a little. I would have done the same thing in your shoes.”

“It’s just… a big letdown, sir.” Cloud admitted with a wry smile, “I mean, it seemed like the obvious answer.”

“I can’t even imagine…” Angeal shook his head and let go of Cloud’s chin so he could ruffle his hair, “If nothing else, know that you’ve given me hope. Obviously somebody must have been listening or will listen, at least. Plus, I’m flattered. I mean, you assumed I was meant for you and didn’t go screaming in the other direction.”

Cloud felt a guilty flush on his cheeks, but forced himself to admit, “Didn’t have any reason to go screaming.”

When he peeked up again, Angeal was grinning and blushing faintly, “Now you’re just trying to embarrass an old man.”

They both chuckled, diffusing the tension between them. Angeal nodded toward the door, “You ought to get back out there and make friends with the other cadets. You’ll need to forge some bonds to survive the year. I’ll keep an eye out… if I run into anyone who really seems to listen to me, I’ll introduce you.”

“Ma always said that, the Planet has a plan for us all and that my soulmate will find their way to me when the time was right.” Cloud shrugged, “I’m starting to think she was right. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to make myself the kind of person I want to be for them. Not that I’ll say no to meeting anybody you think might fit, sir.”

“I kind of feel personally invested now.” Angeal admitted, “I mean, I know that it might have nothing to do with me, but it’s just too coincidental. I hope you find them and that I can help.”

“Thank you, sir.” Cloud said, heading toward the door to go meet up with his fellow cadets, “On both accounts.”

True to his word, Cloud spent the year that followed less worried about his soulmate and more worried about himself. He worked hard to improve despite his age and small stature. The officers who trained them were impressed with him on the whole. His stubbornness was legend among his peers as was his short temper on his bad days. Everyone knew he was not too afraid to stand up for himself or others when he thought he was right and would absolutely throw the first punch if it came down to it. If he was not the fastest or the best, it was obvious that he one day might be. He did not make many friends, but peopled liked him well enough. After Nibelheim, that was almost more than he could believe.

Occasionally, he passed Angeal in the halls. Sometimes he was alone and sometimes he was not, but each and every time he spared a smile and raised his eyebrows in silent question. Had Cloud found the mysterious person? Each time, Cloud grinned and shook his head to deny it. As time went on, he began to suspect that Angeal was more disgruntled by his lack of a soulmate than he was.

No one expected him to fail the mako tolerance test. It was not that Cloud could not handle the treatment, but something in his genetic makeup reacted in a way that would make the process dangerous to his mind. He had been in a coma for three days after the first small dose and it took another day after that to regain his wits. He would not be able to do anything with his strength and speed if he could not remember how to tie his shoes.

Cloud was disappointed, but took it in stride. Angeal himself had come down to give him the news and offer him options. Cloud knew no one else who had failed out of Soldier had received the same kindness.

“Join up with the Infantry. You’ve got the skill to go up in the ranks pretty quickly.” Angeal held the required paperwork up with a thoughtful frown. He flipped through them and showed Cloud a separate page with his personal letterhead on top, “I’ve recommended you for one of the squads that usually takes our better ex-cadets. Despite our rivalries, Soldier and the Army often team up on the big missions. We always pull our teams from those squads. Plus there are occasional missions that we use for Soldier training. They’re too easy for Thirds, so we take the un-enhanced and treat them like Soldiers. Sign up for them.”

“Thank you, sir. I think I’d like all of that.” Cloud said, taking the paperwork from Angeal, “I’m certainly not going to give up after all the work I’ve put in.”

Angeal clapped him on the shoulder and led him toward the door, “That’s what I wanted to hear. Give it a couple years and if you still want to be a Soldier, come see me and we’ll test you again. You’re still growing and sometimes mako reacts differently as the body ages. I could tell you some stories about Genesis… but that’s probably better saved for another time. Either way, you might not have tolerance problems after your body matures a little more.”

“I didn’t know that.” Cloud said.

“It’s not something we advertise.” He gave Cloud a pointed look before a mischievous smile replaced it, “On a more personal note… any luck?”

That made Cloud laugh, “Not unless you’ve got someone hidden behind your curtains for me… sir.”

“Insolent.” Angeal said without heat, giving him a shove out the door, “Get those filled out and over to the secretaries on the fortieth floor and don’t be a stranger.”

Cloud gave him a warm smile and a wave as he headed back to pack his things. He tried not to think of it as losing out on his dream, but changing it. The transition was not difficult and he settled into his new life with relative ease. He did well in the squad that Angeal had recommended him to. He signed up for the Soldier training missions when they came up and enjoyed working with the Soldiers that ran them for the most part. It seemed like no time at all before he was being pulled for actual Soldier missions.

He had not had time to check in with Angeal and never saw him in the halls once he moved off the Soldier floors. The news that he was missing in action came shortly before Cloud’s first real assignment with a Soldier. He was disappointed to not be able to share his good news with the man who had helped make it all possible.

His first mission took him by helicopter to the snowy mountains of Modeoheim. The mission parameters given to him by his CO were simple, back up the Soldier and Turk operatives, follow their orders and try not to die in the snow.

As the helicopter went down, Cloud wondered if anyone had briefed the Turk operative on the mission parameters.

No one was injured, but the snow definitely slowed down the Turk and other infantryman. When he crested the hill at the Soldier’s side, quite a bit ahead of the others, the man looked him up and down admiringly, “At least someone’s keeping up.”

Zack Fair was ridiculously easy to talk to. He reminded Cloud of Angeal in a lot of ways, tall with dark hair and broad shoulders. His smile was easier than the commander’s with a touch of self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. Zack wasn’t smug exactly, it just never seemed to occur to him that he could fail. He acted as if they were out on a friendly stroll, not headed for a dangerous mission to confront a major threat to Shinra.

It was nice though. Their banter about their respective backwater hometowns put him at ease. Zack did not seem to mind chatting with a Trooper the way some Soldier’s did. He wanted to ask about Angeal, to see if Zack had known him or knew what had happened to him. He tried to shift the conversation to Soldier, to make the question seem less strange, but Zack misunderstood him, thinking he was just nervous about making it in. He could not exactly explain that the missing Commander had promised to help him. They were too close to the target for a conversation that serious anyway, so Cloud set it aside to ask later.

Not that he would ever need to. It was Angeal, Genesis and Hollander that they had followed to Modeoheim. It was a relief to be sent after Hollander. Cloud did not want to have to fight Angeal or his soulmate.

In the end, he was not given a choice. Angeal stepped out of the shadows to keep him from pursuing Hollander deeper into the bath house.

“Commander Hewley, don’t…” Cloud begged, leveling his rifle at Angeal’s chest.

“You sound like Genesis.” Angeal said, “He said to trust him, that I shouldn’t do this.”

Cloud let the gun barrel drop. He remembered the words on Angeal’s back almost as well as he remembered his own, “Sir…”

“That’s how I know it’s time.” Angeal looked down at the sword in his hands, “I was wrong about a great many things. There’s nothing heroic in this. I’m a monster and I’m going to be put down like one before it gets worse. You should be glad that I was not the one you were looking for that night.”

Cloud tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. He did not have the words to say to make this better, so he only shook his head.

“Did you… ever find them?” Angeal asked.

“No, sir.” Cloud choked out, “Not yet.”

Angeal nodded, trying to smile and failing, “I hope they’re worth the wait.”

He cocked his head to the side, hearing something Cloud could not, “We’ve got company.”

“We’re supposed to apprehend anyone we find.” Cloud said bleakly, “It’s probably Zack or Tseng coming to back me up with Hollander.”

Angeal’s expression hardened, “I’m not going with you.”

Cloud snorted, “I’m not going to be able to take you anywhere you don’t want to go.”

“I won’t kill you, either.” Angeal shifted his hold on his sword, “I’m not sure I could if I wanted to.”

“Some monster.” Cloud said, his voice cracking under the strain of his emotions, ruining the poor attempt at a joke.

“Well, I am going to knock you out.” Angeal’s joke was just as flat as Cloud’s had been, “So there’s that. I… wish you better luck than I had.”

Cloud nodded, “Sir.”

Cloud could hear the click of Tseng’s expensive shoes as he moved quickly through the bath house toward them. Angeal was on Cloud before he could even pull his rifle back up. Three well placed strikes with the pommel of his sword and Cloud was sprawled on the ground. He heard Tseng come around the corner as darkness clawed at his vision. Tseng hit the floor moments later not far from him with a pained groan.

His mind spun, unconsciousness threatening to drag him down. He was not sure how long he lay there before he felt Zack’s cool gloved hands on his chin. Zack kept calling his name, pulling him away from the brink of oblivion. He met Zack’s worried eyes and smiled with relief. The whole damn mission would be over soon.

“Cloud! Talk to me!”

Cloud nodded against his hand, “We’re all right…”

He could hear Tseng send Zack down the hallway with a warning that Angeal was waiting for him. In the silence he could make out the sound of Tseng fumbling in his pockets and then the pop of a cork being pulled from a potion bottle. It was only moments before Tseng was standing before him, another potion in his hand.

“Angeal was Zack’s mentor.” Tseng said quietly as Cloud swallowed the sweet liquid, “I am not sure if you knew that or not. Regardless of what has happened today, I would be careful what you say.”

Cloud had not known that. He scowled at Tseng and pocketed the empty potion bottle, “I’m not tactless. Besides, Commander Hewley was kind to me when I was a Soldier cadet. He helped me get into the right squad in the Army and said he’d recommend me for Soldier again in a few years if I was still interested. I’m no happier than Zack is to see him like this.”

If Tseng was surprised, he did not show it. He only nodded and took up position on the other side of the door from Cloud. They did not have to wait long. Hollander rushed out of the hall, babbling like an idiot. Cloud grabbed him, more successful at restraining him than he had been the first time. Tseng stepped forward and efficiently bound his hands and feet. When he would not stop whining, the Turk gagged him as well.

The Zack Fair who walked through the door was very different than the one who had rushed in only minutes before. His eyes were dry, although his face showed signs of previous tears. A cut on his chin bled sluggishly, but was already closing. Angeal’s sword now rested in the magnetic sheath on his back and his own broadsword was carried in his hand.

He saw Hollander in Tseng’s grip and gave the man a nod, “We should move out. The Lifestream was already reclaiming him when I left. There’s nothing left to bring back.”

Zack’s gaze shifted to Cloud, “You did good work today.”

“Thank you, sir.” Cloud replied quietly.

He wanted to say more, to tell Zack that he understood in some small way what he was going through. His own strange friendship with the man was nothing compared to being trained by him. Not to mention being forced to kill him…

No. He really did not have anything to say about the matter.

Instead he fell into formation behind the other two men and kept his thoughts to himself. He spent the time on the transport remembering the kindness of Angeal Hewley and hoping that he had found peace in the Lifestream.

Chapter Text

For a time things did not get better, but they did not get any worse either. Cloud kept busy with his missions as a Trooper. He earned a reputation for being steady and good to have in a fight with the Soldiers that he worked with, even if he was oddly shy afterwards. He went on his normal patrols when he was not tapped for anything special and signed up for Soldier training missions when they came up.

It was while on one of those missions that he saw Zack Fair again. The First walked along the line of Troopers, inspecting them before they moved out. Despite the helmet that covered his hair and the sword at his back instead of a rifle, Zack knew it was him. The warmth of recognition in his bright eyes made Cloud’s heart give a little jolt. Despite several layers of fabric between Zack’s hand and his arm, Cloud felt the heat of his touch. He was glad that the helmet would hide the blush that suddenly appeared on his face.

“So you want to be in Soldier?” Zack murmured, his smile showing that he must have remembered their conversation from Modeoheim, “Hang in there.”

Even as Cloud wondered what had flustered him so badly, he could not help but notice how good the First looked with his new longer hairstyle.

Zack moved and spoke with the ease of someone who was used to leading. You wanted to believe in the things he said and follow where he went because he spoke with such conviction. Cloud could see he was not the only one who felt that way as the men around him stood a little taller and raised their chins a little higher.

“One piece of advice…no, an order.” Zack’s voice was soft and a little raw, “Embrace your dreams. And, whatever happens, protect your Soldier honor. Got it?”

Cloud’s breath caught in his throat, like it had when Angeal had said something similar years before. This time, however, he did not immediately rush off to share his thoughts with Zack. He was older, wiser and more wary of getting his heart broken. He would wait and watch a while longer before he brought up the possibility. There was time.

“We’re all coming back here alive, you hear me?” Zack said, eyes coming to rest on Cloud.

The unspoken “this time” hung in the air between them for a moment, nearly destroying Cloud’s resolve. He gave Zack a little nod in response. For now, that was enough.

Things grew hectic after that. He never seemed to have the time to seek Zack out between missions. He did his best to learn what he could of the First on his own, but the longer he went without seeing Zack, the easier it was to push the idea of a soulmate to the side again. There were more important things to consider. He was probably wrong again, anyway.

He supposed it should not have come as a surprise to run into Zack during an emergency in Junon while he was trying not to puke his guts out on the sidewalk. A small part of him hoped that Zack would quickly continue on when he realized Cloud was not injured. The rest of him was delighted when Zack not only recognized him, but seemed genuinely glad to see him.

“Of course I remember!” Zack gave him a playful nudge, like they were not standing in the middle of a battlefield, “I’m happy to be working with you again.”

That was one of the things he liked best about Zack. Despite the fact that he was a Trooper who had failed out of the Soldier program, Zack treated him like an equal. Like hauling civilians out of the line of fire was just as important as being in the thick of the fight. He was even a little put out when Cloud suggested that his rescue work was less important somehow.

At the sound of gunfire, Zack seemed to realize that he should be on the move again. He scratched the back of his neck, a nervous gesture Cloud had seen once or twice, “Anyway, once we’re all done, let’s go grab a bite to eat… my treat.”

“Really? That would be great!” His eagerness made his stomach lurch unsteadily. He let himself lean back against the wall again, “Once I’m feeling better, I’d love to go. But right now… Just thinking about food is making me…”

Zack gave him a sympathetic look as he swallowed down reflexively. He had never hated his motion sickness more, “I’m sorry, Zack.”

The squeeze on his shoulder was comforting as Zack brushed off his apology. Once he was out of sight, Cloud let his head thump none too gently against the wall. Regardless of whether or not Zack was his soulmate, the crush he had on the cheerful First was undeniable now.

Despite it all, Cloud did not let himself imagine Zack returning his affections. The urge to go tell him about his soulmate mark would be too strong and he just was not ready for what that could bring. He definitely did not expect Zack to follow up on his offer for dinner. It was just a nice fantasy he allowed himself to imagine while he stood guard on the fifty-ninth floor three days after they returned from Junon.

He was so lost in thought that he did not realize they had company until one of his squad mates gave him a sharp elbow in the side. Cloud had just enough time to wince and pull himself to attention before Zack was in front of him.

“There you are!” Zack said, knocking Cloud out of his stiff stance with a well-placed clap on the shoulder. He waved his hand distractedly to the other two troopers, “At ease, Jakobs, Tambol. I’m here to be completely unprofessional for a second. I’ve been trying to find Cloud everywhere for a couple of days and this is the only way I figured I’d actually catch him.”

Cloud swallowed hard and tried to ignore the looks he got from the other guys on guard duty with him, “Me?”

“Yeah.” Zack crossed his arms in front of his chest, “Look, remember the other day in Junon when I said I wanted to catch up afterwards? I meant it. I have some stuff I wanted to talk to you about… Modeoheim and you know…”

The way he tilted his head would seem casual to anyone else. Cloud knew he was indicating his sword handle. He wanted to talk about Angeal and did not want anyone else to know.

“Anyway, I’ll spring for whatever you want for dinner since we’re kind of talking shop after you’re off duty.” Zack gave him a faintly pleading look, “What do you say?”

Like there was a question. Cloud nodded, “Yeah. Tonight?”

“Yep.” Zack grinned unrepentantly, “I might have looked up your schedule to make sure you were free. I’ll meet you in the lobby at six-thirty?”

“Sounds good.” Cloud let himself smile a little, “I’ll see you then.”

Zack tossed a two fingered wave over his shoulder, “Think about what you want, Spikey! I’m footing the bill, so pick something good! No mess crap or cheap Wutain for us tonight.”

“I swear to Shiva, Strife… you have all the luck in the world man.” Tambol muttered, shaking his head, “I’m just not sure if it’s good luck or bad luck.”

“Well, if I don’t come back to the bunk tonight, you’ll have your answer.” Cloud replied, doing his best to ignore his nerves and the teasing of his squad mates.

Jakobs laughed, “No, we’ll just be trying to decide if you’re dead or enjoying a night in Fair’s comfy bed.”

Cloud swore at both of them under his breath as they both laughed harder. Duty seemed to take forever and end too quickly all at the same time. Before he knew it, he was dressed in his civvies with Zack Fair’s arm slung across his shoulder as they headed out of the building.

When Cloud admitted he was not familiar with any of the restaurants on the plate, Zack took him to a Gongagan place that he swore was as authentic as it could get without coming off his mother’s stove. The food was excellent and the booth was drawn back to give them a little privacy.

“I don’t mean to dump this on you, and feel free to tell me that it’s too much if you need to, but I need somebody to talk to… and it’s not that I don’t trust Tseng, but I don’t trust Tseng, you know?” Zack slumped back in his seat with his head resting back against the wall above the booth, “You just seemed pretty cool after everything in Modeoheim. I mean, I can’t think of another Trooper I’ve worked will who could be so calm after seeing a C.O. go off the deep end like that. You sure you’re not a Turk in disguise?”

Cloud snorted before he realized there was a bit of seriousness in that question, “I’d make a terrible Turk. I… uh… Commander Hewley was the one who greeted us at my Cadet orientation. He seemed like a good guy and he kind of kept an eye on me. It’s hard to think badly of him, no matter what happened in the end.”

It was barely the surface of the story, but Cloud did not want to say too much at once. It was enough for Zack though, “He really was. After… everything, Shinra’s just swept it under the rug. I’ve tried to talk to a couple of people, but everyone’s afraid of how they’ll look if they sympathize with the enemy. Sephiroth’s still so mad that he doesn’t want to talk about them at all. It’s just been… I dunno, lonely, I guess.”

Cloud had a hard time imagining the friendly First as being lonely, but it was easy enough to see the pain in his face as he remembered Angeal. He put a hand on Zack’s forearm, “Tell me about him?”

Zack shot him one sharp look, studying him to see if he was sincere. He must have liked what he saw because he spent the next two hours telling Cloud stories about his former mentor. Cloud put his own questions aside and just listened. The stories were a mix of good and bad with a few that were outright ridiculous. More than once, Cloud regretted the fact that Angeal was not meant for him. He also found himself wanting to tell Zack about his own encounter with Angeal and see where it led.

The restaurant closed before he had the opportunity. Zack looked ten pounds lighter than he had when they arrived. Cloud was loathe to take that from him. Instead he said, “Zack? Do you want to do this again sometime? We could just hang out wherever, but I really liked hearing your stories. I’m sure you have more.”

“Hundreds probably, plus I barely let you get a word in edgewise. If you knew Angeal from being a cadet, I bet your stories are just as good.” Zack grinned and ruffled Cloud’s hair, “There’s no question about us doing this again. I haven’t had this much fun in months… not to mention, I can’t find anybody who will put up with Gongagan for me. Let me see what happens in the next couple of days, as far as missions go, and then we’ll make plans. If I end up getting sent out again, I’ll see if I can tap you for the mission… I mean if you’re alright with being out of HQ again so soon.”

“You mean give up my important work guarding an empty floor to go on a mission with you? Who would protect the poor elevators?” The joke slipped out before he even had time to think about it. His voice was so bland that he almost sounded serious.

Zack roared with laughter as if it were the best thing he had ever heard, “You sound like Sephiroth! Oh man…”

“I sound like Sephiroth?” Cloud asked in disbelief.

“He’s got that same, dry wit.” Zack said, slinging his arm carelessly around Cloud’s shoulders again, “He makes jokes all the time but no one notices because he’s so stone faced.”

The walk back to the Shinra Building was pleasant. Zack let him go when they reached the elevators, promising to come find him again soon. He was not surprised to be tapped for another mission a few days later and even less surprised when he was told to report to Zack Fair on the forty-ninth floor.

He was surprised when Zack admitted that he did not choose the mission roster. He had been hand-picked by Sephiroth himself. Zack gave him a teasing grin and pointed out the logic behind the decision. He had already proven resourceful and good on Soldier led missions, not to mention he was from Nibelheim. Zack swore that kind of expertise always came in handy, even on routine missions.

Of course, the mission was anything but routine in the end. It seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. The mayor forced Tifa on the Soldiers to be his guide, unaware that Cloud had that handled. Sephiroth had given him a sharp look when he did not immediately speak up and announce that he could guide them. Thankfully, Zack quietly said something that kept Sephiroth from telling everyone who he was.

It was irritating have to watch over her, but having her give out all his worst secrets would be much, much worse. Tifa had been the one to first tell him about soulmates and her soulmate mark. She had thought it was terribly romantic that he was going to join Soldier to try and find his. There was no way she would keep that to herself and he did not want to discuss that with Zack while they walked to the reactor with an audience.

When she took them to the same bridge that had nearly killed them as kids, he immediately wished he could go back and change his mind. Her poor choice cost Michaelson his life. Cloud had hardly known the other trooper, but no one deserved to die at the bottom of a ravine that way.

Cloud never really found out what happened inside the reactor while he was protecting Tifa, but Genesis’s sudden arrival gave him a pretty good idea. He threw himself in front of Tifa to protect her from a fireball. It was stupid and desperate, but it worked. He did not remember anything until he came to in their room at the inn.

Zack’s hand was on his chest, gently holding him down before he could do more damage, “Easy. Tifa’s safe. Don’t worry.”

“If only I were Soldier…” Cloud sat up running his hands over his face in frustration. He curled his hands around his trooper scarf and pulled it off, disgusted. When he looked over at Zack, the First was staring down at his own fists, rage and loathing in his eyes, “Zack?”

“Soldier is like a den of monsters. Don’t go inside.”

The words sent dread dripping down Cloud’s spine, “What happened?”

“I don’t know, man… I thought I knew, but…” He only shook his head and flopped back on the bed with a groan, “By the way, do you know Tifa?”

Cloud scowled and pulled his armor off, just to give his hands something to do, “Sort of.”

He could feel Zack’s amused gaze on him, “Talked to her?”

“No.” Cloud’s refusal was flat, hoping that Zack would take the hint.

“I’m sensing some issues here… shouldn’t you do something?” It was clear that Zack was trying to tease him, but his anxiety made the jokes seem a little off. He rolled up to his feet and started to prowl the room. He picked up his sword and studied it, “I’m one to talk… I’m with Soldier so…fighting’s all I do. Sorting things out is someone else’s job. What’s going on? Who’s the enemy? It makes no difference to me!”

Zack was about two sentences from cutting the table in half. Emotions were running high after what seemed to be a failed mission, but swinging a sword indoors never ended well. He went in for a distraction, “Hey, Zack? You know, I’ve never seen you use that…”

It was even true. He seemed to use it more as a prop for his speeches than a weapon. He even carried a standard issue broad sword on most missions.

Zack was quiet a long moment, studying his reflection in the high polish of the blade’s surface, “It’s a symbol of my dreams and honor. No… it’s more… That’s right. I had almost forgotten.”

Zack looked away from the blade and smiled, “Thank you, Cloud.”

The words were out of Cloud’s mouth before he could stop them, “What happened with Angeal and Genesis?”

“Angeal and Genesis, huh?” Zack teased, coming back toward the bed, “Awfully familiar of you.”

Cloud felt the blush on his cheeks, but did not apologize or back down. He knew Angeal would not have minded and he could not imagine Angeal’s soulmate to be that stuck on propriety. He had deserted Shinra after all.

Zack’s eyes narrowed as he studied Cloud more closely, “Wait a minutes… don’t tell me you’re that guy?”

“What guy?” Cloud shot back, not willing to give anything away when Zack’s voice was choked with laughter.

“It was you! You’re the guy who, on his first night as a cadet, propositioned Angeal Hewley.” Zack laughed so hard his eyes teared up, “The stones on you, Cloud!”

Cloud growled and rolled over, giving Zack his back. Zack immediately let out a whine, “Aw come on, man, don’t be that way! I thought Genesis was screwing with me the first time it came up.”

Cloud did not turn back again, but said, “It wasn’t like that. I had a perfectly legitimate reason.”

“That’s what Angeal said, too. He was so mad at Genesis for saying anything in the first place.” Zack let out a little snort as he tried to get himself under control, “Genesis and Sephiroth agreed and Genesis is- was downright prickly about Angeal. They never did tell me why, only that it happened.”

There was silence for a moment before Zack pounced on Cloud’s bed. Cloud let out a little yelp as Zack leaned over him, “So what do you say? Will you tell me the rest of the story? You were all of, what fourteen years old? What would make you try to put the moves on Angeal?”

“He looked good in a First Class uniform.” Cloud muttered blandly, “His butt looked damn fine in those pants.”

“Why do you think I do so many squats?” Zack grinned, undeterred by the stubborn set of Cloud’s shoulders, “We talked about you right before my First Class trial mission, you know. He said that he was going to introduce us when we got back from Wutai, as long as I promised to be on my best behavior. Of course, he didn’t use your name or I would have come to find you. He seemed to think you’d want to meet me. Said that he was fairly certain he’d managed to beat something into my thick skull… and I’d heard his speeches for so long that there was a very good chance that I could recite them by heart.”

Cloud shivered as Zack’s fingers gently trailed over the back of his neck, “Now I wonder why that would be of interest to you.”

Bouncing up so fast that he nearly slammed his head into Zack’s, Cloud slapped a hand over the back of his neck. For the first time in his life he had forgotten the stupid mark. There was no way that Zack had missed it, not with the way he had touched Cloud’s neck. Just that little brush of his fingers had felt like fire racing over his skin.

“Cloud?”

Cloud forced his eyes up to meet Zack’s. He had not been deterred by Cloud’s reaction to his touch. If anything, his eyes were watching him more eagerly. The warmth of Zack’s gaze sent the same heat rippling through his veins that his fingers had.

“You know, I’ve been waiting for this day for as long as I can remember.” Zack’s smile grew wider as he reached out and gently pulled Cloud’s hand away from his neck. He did not release Cloud’s fingers, but instead brought them to rest against his chest, over his heart, “Mom says I wouldn’t let her tell me what mine said. I swore that I would read it all by myself. She found me bawling in my room the day we learned the alphabet because the words on my chest didn’t look like any of the letters I’d learned. Of course, I was too young to understand that words would be backwards in the mirror.”

A chuckle forced itself out of Cloud’s throat. He almost could not believe what Zack was suggesting.

“I finally let her write it down for me. I wanted to carry it with me so I could try and sound it out during school and the teachers always frowned on my getting shirtless in the middle of class.” Zack covered Cloud’s hand with both of his own, “It didn’t take me long to learn how to read it, but it took me years to really understand it.”

Shirtless. Zack had brought his hand to touch the soulmate mark on his chest. Cloud let his fingers close over the fabric of Zack’s shirt, “Can I?”

Zack nodded, letting go of Cloud’s hand. Cloud carefully tugged Zack’s uniform top over his head. On the left side of his chest were four words. He looked up at Zack in surprise, “I’m your-“

Zack covered Cloud’s mouth with his hand, “Fuck, Cloud, don’t say it! We just figured it out. I mean, I think we’ve got it figured out. I guess you might feel differently, but either way, don’t tempt fate.”

Cloud’s laughter was muffled behind Zack’s palm. He reached out toward Zack’s chest hesitantly, before finally letting his fingertips brush over the words. Zack’s eyes drifted shut and he smiled again. His hand moved away from Cloud’s mouth and wrapped around the back of his neck, pulling them closer until their foreheads rested together, “I remember being so happy, once I really got it. I mean, how lucky am I? My living legacy. That means when I do go out, it’ll be protecting someone who loves me enough to be the proof that I existed. I’ll get to be with you long enough to forge that kind of bond.”

“You really think it’s me?” Cloud asked.

“There’s no doubt in my mind.” Zack smiled and Cloud felt himself melt, “You?”

Cloud reached his free hand up to cup Zack’s cheek, “I was pretty sure it was you when you led that monster hunting mission after Modeoheim. Tseng told me that you were Angeal’s student while we were waiting for you. Then, when you met up with us that day and used Angeal’s line about dreams and honor…”

“But why didn’t you say something?” Zack demanded, “That was months ago!”

Cloud eased back a little bit so he could see Zack’s face more clearly, “Well, my very first night as a cadet, there was this commanding officer who had a really moving speech about dreams and honor. I stopped him and told him that I thought he was meant to be mine-“

“Alright! Alright. I get it. I guess I’d be a little leery, too.” Zack chuckled and let his thumb rub over the words on the back of Cloud’s neck, “I don’t know why that never occurred to me on the night Genesis brought it up. I guess I assumed that everyone would know that they had been paired their whole lives…”

“I had no idea. I didn’t even know who he was.” Cloud laughed at the memory, “He was so nice about it. He even said he’d try to help me find you.”

Zack’s eyes widened, “That’s why he was going to introduce us! I mean, I didn’t take that stuff as seriously back then, but once I saw some of the things I did… it all really took on new meaning. I think I believe it more now than Angeal ever did.”

“He told me he was invested. That it was all too much of a coincidence.” Cloud grinned, remembering how bewildered Angeal had looked that night, “We both figured that if it wasn’t him, it had to be someone he would meet.”

“Cloud, we’re so fucking lucky.”

“We really are.” Cloud rubbed his thumb over Zack’s cheekbone, “You’d really entrust your dream and your honor to me?”

With a groan, Zack dragged him forward into a searing kiss. Zack’s thumb never stopped its torturously soft caress on the back of his neck, making Cloud shiver again. Tentatively, Cloud let his hand move up into the wild spikes of Zack’s hair.

Zack pulled back, dotting brief, teasing kisses up Cloud’s jaw, “Not for a very, very long time. You need to be sure of what you’re getting into, after all. I dream big… and the honor thing, that’ll take years for you to really understand.”

“Lots of them.” Cloud agreed with a gasp as Zack bit down gently on the sensitive skin where his neck met his shoulder, “Zack!”

“Fuck, I could get used to that sound.” Zack chuckled nipping his way up the column of Cloud’s throat.

Goosebumps broke out all over the skin of Cloud’s arms. He used his grip on Zack’s hair to bring him back in for another kiss. When Zack eased him away a dozen kisses later, they were both panting. Zack could not stop smiling and Cloud was sure he looked just as ridiculously happy.

“Things are so fucked right now.” Zack murmured, trailing his fingers up and down Cloud’s arm, “I mean with the reactor, and Genesis showing up… not to mention Sephiroth going missing…”

Cloud nodded, understanding what Zack was trying to say, “And we lost Michaelson when the bridge collapsed… It does seem a little wrong to be this happy, but at the same time… life is so hard. I think you need to find the bright spots and hang on to them while you can. If you were to go back to your bed over there and we decided not to say anything more about this until after we get back to Midgar, Sephiroth wouldn’t magically show back up. Michaelson wouldn’t suddenly be alive.”

“You’re right. Tomorrow, we’ll get up and do our jobs. I’ll try to go find Sephiroth. We can try and see if Genesis is still around. Although, if you think I’m going back to my own bed after this, you’re crazier than he is. I’m not leaving your side tonight.” Zack shoved him teasingly, “When we get back to HQ, we’re both putting in for some leave to get to know each other a little better.”

Cloud could feel himself blushing at Zack’s heated stare, even if he agreed with him whole-heartedly, “I’d like that. Can we… before we leave, I’d like you to meet my mom. Who knows when we’ll get back to Nibelheim? She’s going to be so excited for us.”

Zack nodded, “I’d love to meet Momma Strife. Maybe we could go see my folks soon, too. Mom was hoping I’d turn up with a nice girlfriend so she could have some grandbabies to spoil, but she’ll like you.”

“I hope so.” Cloud murmured shyly

“I know so.” Zack grinned and pressed a quick kiss to Cloud’s forehead, “You make me happy. That’s all that’ll matter to my folks. Now, it’s time for us to crash. Tomorrow’s gonna be a bigger mess than today was.”

They changed for bed quickly and true to his word, Zack climbed into bed, curling up behind his new soulmate after a promise to be a perfect gentleman. Cloud had grumbled that he was not a blushing virgin, but that they needed a good night’s sleep to deal with the fallout from the reactor. Zack’s laughter was a nice sound to fall asleep to.

The next morning, Zack went off to try and draw Sephiroth out of the Shinra Mansion. He came back practically vibrating with anger. He called Sephiroth names until he was breathless and ripped a pillow in half before he got himself under control. He apologized for acting like an idiot, but Cloud could hardly blame him. Sephiroth always seemed unflappable. It was hard to see him go to pieces.

Zack put in a call to HQ for transport, dismayed to realize that he was highest ranking Soldier operative left after Sephiroth. He had difficulty getting Heidigger to work with him, but had finally been assured that someone would try to get a helicopter to fly in from Junon or Rocket Town to get them out.

In the days that followed, Zack and Cloud patrolled the area. They searched for signs of Genesis and cleared the area around Nibelheim of as many of the monsters as they could. Zack went to the Shinra Mansion twice daily with food and water for Sephiroth. He came back out with the tray each time, looking more worried than before. Zack admitted that it was like losing Angeal all over again and he did not know how to stop it.

Cloud did his best to cheer Zack up. After that first night, they spent each evening having dinner with Cloud’s mother. Zack had spent an hour in a blind panic, trying to tame his long dark hair into something more respectable looking and polishing his boots until they gleamed under the dull light in the inn. Cloud drew the line at the way he started to try and buff the marks out of his leather shoulder armor.

“I knew I needed my dress uniform!” Zack had wailed as Cloud dragged him down the hallway towards the entrance of the inn, “I had it packed and talked myself out of it because I felt silly bringing it along. I’m such an idiot.”

Cloud had burst out laughing, unable to help it. Zack scowled, “Just remember this when you go to meet my folks! I’m going to give you such a hard time.”

“I’m going to be smart enough to bring my dress uniform.” Cloud teased back, twining their fingers together, “I’ve already accepted that my hair will never be respectable looking. I’ll be cool and collected.”

“Not if I hide your pants, you won’t.” Zack muttered, but he could not bite back his smile.

His worrying was for nothing. Claudia had been thrilled to see Cloud and even happier to meet Zack. She hugged him tight and told him she was pleased to see that Cloud had someone who was obviously kind hearted and good looking to boot. Zack’s bright blush was well worth her teasing.

Each day that passed without transport made them both more worried. Sephiroth never left the manor and reviewed document after document like a man possessed. The lights in the basement never went off… and on the seventh day Nibelheim burned.

Chapter Text

They never had a chance. It was Sephiroth. Some of the worst atrocities had already been committed before Cloud and Zack had ever gotten to him. Killing him could not have stopped Nibelheim from burning or most of the townspeople from dying. That did not stop Zack from trying his damnedest to put Sephiroth down.

In the end, it was not Zack but Cloud who stopped the silver haired warrior. Filled with rage and fear as he watched Tifa and Zack bleed on the reactor floor, he had found the strength to lift Zack’s blade, Angeal’s blade, and run Sephiroth through. It had not been enough, but no one could survive being thrown into a pit of raw mako.

The wounds on his chest and back from the Masamune were ones he intended to bear with pride for the last few moments he was alive.
He was sure that he had died, despite the soulmate marks and last words. He was a little relieved when the darkness finally consumed him in the reactor. He was blissfully free of pain and fear for the first time since he had awoken to the flames and screaming of the townspeople.

When he came to, he could hear a steady beeping, Zack growling obscenities and a nasally voice responding, “Really, Specimen Z, your threats do not interest me. Nor am I intimidated. I used to bring Sephiroth to heel, what could you possibly do to me?”

“Give me time, Hojo.” Zack said, words dripping with loathing, “I’ll be glad to give you a demonstration. I’m an imaginative guy. The longer I’m here, the more inventive I’m going to get.”

Hojo. His name was whispered in the Trooper halls. Everyone knew he was the key to Soldier treatments, but it was also suggested that he was insane or at least completely immoral. If they were in his lab and Zack sounded that angry…

Involuntarily his hand twitched and Cloud realized that he was secured to the surface. An experimental jerk of his foot showed they, too, were held down. The beeping sped up, drawing Hojo’s attention. Cloud could feel him circling whatever he was laying on.

“Welcome back, Specimen C.” Hojo said, reaching out to seize his eyelids and peel them open. A bright light blinded him momentarily before he was left with a spotty view of the scientist’s leering face, “Have you managed to retain your wits?”

“Don’t say anything, Cloud.” Zack called from across the room.

Hojo scowled at someone over his shoulder, “Shut him up.”

Cloud could hear the sound of something hitting flesh and Zack’s grunt of pain. He craned his neck to try and see his soulmate, “Zack!”

Wherever Zack was, Cloud could not see him. He turned his face back to Hojo when the scientist made a noise of surprise in his throat. Cold, boney fingers caught his chin and turned it back away again, “I see. That is interesting. The two of you are bonded. I did have some theories I wanted to test out on a bonded pair… I’ve just never managed to get my hands on two at the same time.”

Cloud could hear Zack making muffled sounds of rage. Cloud searched desperately for a sign of him, ignoring Hojo’s touch and eyes on him. He was torn between joy that Zack was alright and terror that they were both here. He would have given anything for Zack to be anywhere else.

“You know, people say I’m heartless. It’s not true.” Hojo patted Cloud’s cheek and headed for a nearby bench, “I simply believe that we must push past sentimentality for the betterment of humanity. Love, family, honor they are not more important than reaching the next stage of evolution.”

Cloud could see Hojo raise a needle to a bottle full of glowing green liquid. He prepared the syringe as he spoke, “There is something special about you Specimen C. You bested Sephiroth when he was at the peak of his bond with Jenova. As he is gone, you will attempt to replace him.”

He could hear Zack begin to struggle as Hojo returned to him. His smile was eerie, “The flaw is in your mako tolerance. I pulled your file. I have never seen someone have such a severe reaction. That in itself makes you a curiosity. I do love curiosities… but the mind is a delicate thing. Mako can fragment even the most self-assured, so I have a proposal for you, Specimen C… and I suggest you cling to it to keep yourself together. So long as you retain your grip on your mind, I will allow Specimen Z to comfort you when we are not in sessions. You will be unrestrained, free to draw solace as you will.”

The needle was buried in his skin without warning. Mako burned along his veins, racing for his heart. Hojo withdrew the needle and smiled again, “It’s a good incentive to keep it together, hm, Specimen C?”

He wanted to say something scathing, wanted to curse at Hojo or threaten him the way Zack had. Instead, he bit down hard on his lip to keep from screaming in pain. He could hear Zack pulling at his restraints, shouting behind whatever they were using to gag him.

Despite the pain and the sweet pull of unconsciousness that would take it away, Cloud used those sounds to ground himself. If he passed out, he did not know when he would wake up. Already he could feel his mind getting muddy. He focused on Hojo’s promise. He needed to be near Zack, to touch him and assure himself that his soulmate was okay. They would escape the madman, just as long as they were together. It was their only chance.

It went on for hours at least, probably longer. Time had no meaning in the middle of the blinding pain. His limbs trembled uncontrollably and he lost the fight at some point, crying out in agony. As the session continued, his body convulsed and ugly sobs tore themselves out of his throat. He did not want Zack to see him like this, but there was nothing he could do. He could hear Zack voice, muffled as is was, the entire time.

Finally, Hojo had whatever he needed. He drugged Zack to make it easier for the assistants to move him and left Cloud to be carried after his unconscious soulmate by another man in a lab coat. He quickly lost track of where they were being taken, but they were dumped unceremoniously into a room together and left in the dark.
It was unnerving to be able to see in the blackness. He dragged a hand in front of his face, only a little surprised to see a faint glow from his eyes against the skin of his fingers. He heard Zack start to stir and reached out desperately to find him. His hand closed over Zack’s calf and he let out a choked cry of relief.

“Zack?”

That roused Zack quicker than anything else. He lurched upwards and crawled toward Cloud, “Cloud, sweetheart, I’m here.”
Gently, he gathered Cloud into his arms, resting Cloud’s weak body in his lap. Every inch of Cloud’s skin hurt, but he stubbornly refused to make a sound. He wanted the small measure of safety that came from being held.

“You feeling sick at all, yet?” Zack asked, peering into Cloud’s face, “Your body is going to try to reject the mako… that’s usually where it starts. You tell me if you start feeling nauseous, okay?”

“I hurt too much to be nauseous.” Cloud murmured, tucking his head under Zack’s chin. They were both quiet a long moment before Cloud spoke again, “We are so screwed.”

“Yeah, probably.” Zack’s voice was uncharacteristically grim. His fingers began to gently stroke over Cloud’s hair.

Cloud let out a weak chuckle, “Well… we’ve got to get out at some point. I don’t see you entrusting your dreams and honor to me in a place like this.”

Zack’s laughter was broken and might have been more of a sob than a laugh. He drew Cloud more tightly against him, “You wouldn’t be much of a living legacy if you were stuck here. I guess you’re right. We’ll just have to bide our time until we can get out of here. I’ll start looking for a weak point that we can use to escape.”

“I’d guess we can’t break out of this room?” Cloud asked, unable to see more than a few feet away from where they were sitting. He knew Zack’s eyesight was keener.

“I won’t know until I start testing the walls. I want to give it a little while… take care of you and wait for all of them to settle in a little. Won’t do to bust the door down while they’re on high alert.”

Cloud nodded, weariness tugging at his eyelids. He wanted to fight it, but knew he would not last, “Zack… I’m tired.”
He felt Zack nod against the top of his head, “I know. Get some rest. I’ll take care of you.”

The days quickly began to blur together. He spent his waking hours in the lab being tested and prodded by Hojo or one of his cronies. Cloud had no idea what they did to Zack during that time. After the first day, Hojo did not usually work on them together. They would occasionally end up in the mako tanks beside one another, hands pressed against the glass with only inches separating them.

At night, they were both left in the darkened cell together. Most days, Cloud was too weak to do more than huddle against Zack shivering. His soulmate always held him close, whispering sweet things into his hair and stroking his hands over Cloud’s skin. On his better days, Cloud dragged Zack down for long lingering kisses to reassure himself of Zack’s continued health and well-being. Many nights Cloud was barely able to stay awake long enough to hear Zack’s voice.

Zack assured him that he was searching for a way to break them out of the lab. He swore it could be done, he just needed more time. Cloud knew he must look like a mess, Zack’s expression was more and more pinched with worry as the days passed.

It had been months, maybe longer when Zack first pointed out a gap in his memory. They had taken to planning the things they would do once they escaped Hojo and Shinra. Zack had been all over the world on missions and had fond memories of many of the cities. They were going to start with a trip to meet Zack’s parents in Gongaga and then once everything had blown over they would see the world.

Despite travelling little throughout his life, Cloud had a number of things that he wanted to see and do. When he suggested Cosmo Canyon as a natural place to stop after leaving Gongaga, Zack laughed, “We’ll definitely go there second, I promise.”

Cloud frowned up at Zack, “Why’d you say it like that?”

“It’s the third time you’ve said you want to go there.” Zack ran his fingers through Cloud’s hair in an attempt to take the edge off his teasing, “There something there in particular that interests you?”

He went tense in Zack’s arms. He could not help it. Of course, as he was practically in Zack’s lap, his soulmate felt his muscles clench, “Cloud?”
“I don’t remember telling you that.” Cloud did not want to lie, not now, “We’ve talked about it before?”

Zack took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Cloud felt Zack nod, “Yeah. Just a couple of times. Mako can mess with your memories in the best of situations. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, considering everything that’s going on. Just don’t panic, okay?”

Cloud knew his chuckle had a hysterical edge to it, but he could not stop it, “Right. Nothing to worry about.”

“Just means that we need to change strategy.” Zack said, stubbornly, “New game… you’re going to tell me everything you can think of about yourself. Pick a topic and start talking until you pass out. It’ll help you keep things straight in your head until we can get out of here. If nothing else, I can help you remember things you’ve forgotten later on.”

“I don’t…” Cloud struggled to think of something to say, mind coming up blank, “What should I talk about?”

Zack hummed in his throat as he thought, “Old memories first. Those are usually the first to get lost with mako treatments. How’d you find out about your mark? I told you, but I think we got distracted before you could tell me.”

Cloud nodded eagerly, “Right. That’s a good place to start.”

Cloud told him the whole story. He talked about Tifa and the mark on her hand and described growing up in Nibelheim, both the good and the bad. In the time that followed, Zack would prompt him with a question or idea and Cloud would tell him everything he could think of on the subject.

When Cloud felt like he had told Zack everything there was to know about himself, they began again. As Hojo changed treatments and upped the mako doses, the conversations grew harder. Zack would have to prompt him with facts more and more often. It was frustrating for Cloud, not to mention terrifying. He was rapidly forgetting everything that made him who he was.

He feared sleeping more than anything. The minutes after waking were the times Cloud was the least lucid. Some mornings he forgot where they were, forcing Zack to remind him. He hated seeing the tortured expression on Zack’s face as he explained what was coming.

On nights that Cloud was too tired to talk about himself, Zack told him about the plans he was making for their escape. He had memorized nearly every staff member’s patterns and habits. Zack said was just waiting for everything to fall into place.

Each time Zack said something like that, Cloud felt despair clawing at him. Considering how quickly he was losing memories, the fact that he could remember Zack having said it before meant that it must have become Zack’s constant mantra.

It made him want to tell Zack his suspicions about his soulmate mark. Zack had been such a good friend to him through everything. Cloud spent his nights propped up by Zack as he recovered from his mako treatments. It seemed almost cruel to bring it up now, with how hopeless everything seemed. Still, if they were going to die, he wanted Zack to hear it from him.

Each night he tried to work up the courage. Cloud tried to think of a way to bring it up, but it seemed wrong to interrupt Zack. His steady rambling seemed to be helping him plan their escape. That was more important than anything. Cloud listened to the details of the shift rotation of the guards that watched the lab and the routines of the assistants that worked on Zack. He did his best to provide input where he could, but Cloud knew he was not really helping.

At least Zack seemed to think they were close to getting free.

The plan was the only thing they talked about most nights. That’s why Zack’s switch in topics seemed so abrupt. Cloud had let Zack shift him so they could see one another and waited as Zack studied him. After a few long moments, Zack said, “Tell me about yourself.”

It seemed like a strange, abrupt thing for him to say. Cloud let his head rest back on Zack’s shoulder with a chuckle, “You already know me, Zack. We’ve been friends a while.”

“I know, but I want to know everything about you.” Zack’s fingers were unsteady as they carded through Cloud’s hair. It still felt nice, soothing even, “It’s not like we don’t have time while we’re here. Start from the beginning, tell me… tell me about your mom.”

“Ma’s great. She’s such a wonderful woman. She’s always been strong and hardworking… stubborn. That’s where I get it from. She doesn’t let anybody push her around.” Cloud grinned at the thought of her, “She always smells like fresh bread and mountain air. When I told her I was going to join Soldier, she handed me an envelope with the paperwork and a ticket and some money to get me to Midgar. Said she knew that I’d eventually come to her about it. I can’t wait for you to meet her. You’re really going to like her.”

Zack’s hand stopped in its relaxing motion. It felt like he was holding his breath. Finally, he let it out again, “Cloud, I met your mom… remember?”

Cloud scowled into the darkness. Now that Zack was talking about it, he remembered, “Right. We had dinner a bunch. I don’t know how I forgot that… sorry.”

“It’s alright. Things have been stressful since Hojo took us.” Zack’s voice was hesitant. He let out a little sigh, “Tell me something else. Tell me about why you were hiding from Tifa.”

“Tifa...” Cloud frowned, trying to remember why he would hide from her.

Zack chuckled, “It’s the only time you didn’t let Sephiroth glare you into submission. Nothing could get you to take your helmet off around her. Why?”

“Oh. Yeah… I didn’t want her to tell you…” Cloud felt himself blushing. He really needed to move away from Zack before he said something. He wanted to be sure that he had the right person this time. He could not stand it if Zack rejected him the way Angeal did.

“Uh uh… no secrets from soulmates.” Zack teased, “Come on. Tell me what?”

Cloud blinked. Zack knew about them. Cloud felt his face heat up again as he remembered Zack’s warm kisses and eager hands from the nights in the Nibelheim Inn. He had forgotten again.

He did not want to worry Zack more than he had to. Since they had already figured everything out, Cloud told him the truth, “Tifa was the one to tell me about the marks. I told her I was joining Soldier to find my soulmate, and so I’d be worthy of them. I didn’t want you to find out that way.”

Zack shifted Cloud so he could steal a kiss. Zack’s lips were familiar, even if he had forgotten other things. Cloud sighed nipping at Zack’s lower lip playfully. He could feel Zack’s smile, “You’re adorable. You don’t need to be a Soldier to be worthy of me.”

“I know.” Cloud pressed another kiss to the corner of Zack’s mouth before wiggling back down to lay his head against Zack’s chest, “Still, it’s important to me. I want us to be equals, you know? Do you think that when we get back from this mission, Commander Hewley might recommend me? He said he would if I was still interested. I really want to try the mako tolerance test again. Maybe I’m better now.”

Zack was quiet a moment, his grip tightening around Cloud. Finally, he murmured, “I bet he would. We’ll just have to ask him when we get back. You should get some sleep, Cloud. Tomorrow’s going to be another long day.”

“Yeah, Junon’s not easy to navigate under the best of situations.” Cloud said, tucking himself tightly against Zack’s side, “But we’re going to get dinner afterwards, right?”

“Absolutely.” Zack agreed. His voice had a rough edge to it. He was letting Sephiroth work him too hard again.

Cloud wanted to make him laugh, “Well, you’re footing the bill. No mess crap or cheap Wutain for us!”

Cloud loved Zack’s laugh. It was a nice sound to fall asleep to. It had not seemed like that funny of a joke to him, but Zack’s chest was still heaving as sleep claimed him. Zack had the strangest sense of humor sometimes.

When he awoke again, he was floating in a mako tube. Cloud knew that was wrong. He bit down on his initial panic to keep from flailing around and injuring himself. Instead, he forced himself relax and go still again. When he felt like he was in control again, he glanced over at the tube beside him.

Zack floated there, his arms wrapped around himself as if he were cold. His eyes were closed and his head was bowed. Cloud reached out and put his hand against the glass. Usually Zack’s was in the spot opposite it.

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Cloud felt clearheaded. This was the moment that they had been waiting for. There was only one assistant in the room and he was not paying any attention to either of them.

Carefully, Cloud tapped his fingernail against the glass. Zack did not acknowledge him, so Cloud tried again. This time, Zack flinched as if struck. He turned his head to glance at Cloud, eyes going wide when he found Cloud watching him.

Cloud could not help himself, he smiled at the joy in his soulmate’s face. He pressed his hand to the glass, pleased when Zack moved his to immediately mirror it.
After a moment, Cloud began to dig into the glass with his fingernail. He did not want to waste the opportunity they had. It took time and his finger ached when he was done, but he had managed to write out a message to Zack.

Let’s get out of here.

Zack was scratching back before Cloud had finished his last letter. He kept glancing away from his own work study Cloud. The taste of hope was dangerous, but they both had it in their mouths now. They would either get free or die trying.

Feeding Time. That’s our chance!

Cloud nodded his agreement and then settled back to rest while he waited. For the first time in months, he did not fear sleeping. The assistant would wake them when it was time for their meal. Cloud closed his eyes to rest and reserve his strength for the fight that was coming. It was past time to put his new, mako enhanced muscles to use.

He could imagine it easily enough. Cloud could not remember seeing Hojo in a while, but he would not mind taking out his frustrations on some of Hojo’s assistants. He would finally be able to stand at Zack’s side, an equal.

His mind drifted through memories and dreams. Despite what had come after, the days leading up to the burning of Nibelheim were some of the happiest of his life. Zack was everything he had hoped for in a soulmate and more. Even after their capture, Zack proved to be loving and kind.

Within hours, they would be free. They would finally have the chance to do the things they had talked about. They would likely have to hide out a while, waiting for Shinra to get bored of searching for them. Cloud decided he would suggest Costa del Sol. People were constantly in and out of the area, so it was unlikely that anyone would stay long enough to remember them. Between the two of them, they could build a small place far enough outside of town to live quietly until the coast was clear.

The sound of breaking glass snapped him out of his thoughts. He tried to open his eyes, to steady himself for when Zack opened the tube. His body refused to respond. As the mako drained, he sagged helplessly against his restraints.

Zack’s hands were unsteady as they released him from the straps that held him upright. He slumped against his soulmate’s body. Cloud could feel Zack’s breath against his damp skin as he whispered Cloud’s name. Cloud willed himself to move or speak, to give Zack some sign that he was alright. He could not so much a force a finger to twitch.

Cloud felt himself being eased to the ground gently. He could hear Zac k moving around the lab, undoubtedly gathering what supplies he could. Zack was quick and Cloud was relieved when Zack crouched in front of him and murmured, “All right, let’s go.”

He knew Zack would not have left him, but truthfully Cloud would not have blamed him if he had.

Cloud’s mind drifted as Zack carried him. Unable to recapture that earlier focus, thoughts slipped away before he could pin them down. When he managed to crack his eyes open, the disjointed images made no sense to him. They were inside then outside then inside again. He was leaning against the wall and then seated on the packed earth beside the water tower before being on a bed. Sometimes he saw Zack’s smiling face, others he saw the forbidding sight of an army helmet.

In time, he managed to get his eyes to remain open for longer. He forced his feet to take small, stumbling steps as long as Zack helped support his weight. The improvements were tiny, too small to note. Cloud figured out quickly that if he pushed too hard, he would lose track of time, awakening somewhere unrecognizable.

Throughout it all, Zack talked. As they walked, Zack started telling the details of his life. He had declared it only fair, seeing as how Cloud had told him everything about himself a dozen times over. Zack’s voice was his anchor, his way to return to himself when he got lost in his own head.

Cloud loved every story. Zack had been rambunctious and headstrong as a kid, getting into and out of scrape after scrape on charm and good luck alone. He had decided early on that he wanted to be a hero and had thought that Soldier would be the best way to achieve that dream.

His parents had forbidden it. Like in Nibelheim, Gongagan’s did not fully trust Shinra. They could not stop the reactor, but his parents swore they would not give up their only son to die half way across the world. Zack had snuck off in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. He said that he knew he owed them more than the one half-assed letter he had written them after he made First Class, but he had no idea where to start.

It came as no surprise to Cloud when the trees changed and the air grew more humid. He had hoped to make a better first impression on Zack’s parents, but he was just relieved that his soulmate would finally have some support while Cloud recovered.

Cloud could feel himself getting stronger each day. He was careful not to push himself too hard, but slowly feeling was returning to his hands and feet. His thoughts cleared and he retained more and more of the things Zack said. There were worrying gaps, but he knew that Zack would help him fill them soon.

He let Zack’s voice soothe him into sleep again, listening as he described his early days with Shinra and the trouble he got up to both before and after Angeal had taken him on as a mentor. Even in sleep, Cloud heard and treasured every word.

Cloud had hopes that he could at least show some kind of consciousness when he met Zack’s parents. He doubted that Zack would make good on his threat to steal his pants now, but drooling on himself would be far more embarrassing.

When he awoke next, it was to the sound of gunfire and the feel of something heavy tackling him against the hard ground. Zack’s hand cradled the back of his neck, keeping his head from hitting anything. Cloud forced his eyes open, glad to see Zack despite the obvious worry on his face, “Come on, Cloud. Ride’s over.”

Cloud tried not to worry as Zack scooped him into his arms. The motorcycle was gone, replaced by the bed of a worn pickup truck. Zack jumped down, steadying Cloud against his side as they hurried toward a rocky outcropping.

Zack was careful as he leaned Cloud back against the rocks. His gloved fingers ruffled Cloud’s hair in a teasing caress as he studied Cloud’s face. Cloud recognized the smell of the air, even if the rocks seemed unfamiliar. They were near Midgar.

It had to be a mistake. Midgar was a death trap for them both. Cloud panicked, desperately wondering what had happened while he slept. He had expected to wake in Zack’s parent’s house to his soulmate’s rested, loving gaze. Even if Cloud were healthy, breaking into Midgar would be a dangerous plan. He could hardly believe Zack would bring them here.

He had lost too much time. Cloud’s instincts screamed at him to keep Zack from making a mistake, even though he had no idea what was going on. Zack needed to wait a little longer, to stay with him. Cloud tried to remember how to move, how to speak, anything that would keep Zack from walking away.

After a long moment, Zack stood again. He turned and strode into the sunlight, leaving Cloud alone in the rock’s meager shade. Without thinking, Cloud reached out to stop him. He marveled at his hand, shocked to see it moving at all. The sunlight glinted off Zack’s blade, blinding Cloud. When his vision cleared, Zack was gone.

Chapter Text

In an odd way, he was flattered. Shinra had sent out most of the Army just to make sure that Zack went down and stayed down. It had taken nearly the whole army, too, just to bring him to his knees. Shinra may have wanted his life, and they were going to get it, but he had made them pay dearly for it.

After the last barrage of bullets, Zack could not find the strength to open his eyes. His body struggled to keep him alive, but there was only so much that mako could do for him. In a matter of minutes, his body would give out. He only wished that the Trooper had finished the job. Of course, any normal person would have been dead, so Zack supposed he could forgive the mistake.

They had been so close. In Midgar, they could have disappeared easily into the slums. There were people who had no love for Shinra and would have hidden them. Aeris would have been able to help Cloud, maybe even wake him back up from his mako stupor.

He had failed… fallen short at the finish. He would be dead. Shinra would find others like him and Cloud and the few residents of Nibelheim who had not died to repeat the nightmare all over again. Aeris would never know what had happened to him, would never get the chance to meet Cloud. And Cloud…

“What do you want to do with him?”

Cloud was going to die right next to him.

Zack flexed his fingers around the handle of the Buster Sword, willing his body to tap into a hidden reserve of strength and fight. When Cloud had awoken briefly in the mako tubes, Zack had promised himself that he would get them both out and then he would keep Cloud safe. Even when he slipped back into the coma, Zack still felt hopeful. Cloud was still in there and that was all Zack needed to know.

He forced his eyes open again, staring at the dark clouds that had rolled in during the long fight. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and Zack found himself a bit grateful. It would keep the helicopters from flying. If Hojo wanted his body while it was fresh, he would have to walk out here to collect it. It was a small victory, but it was the last one he would get.

He could see the edge of the Army Commander’s red coat slip past the edge of his vision as he moved closer to where he had hidden Cloud. The Commander hummed and Zack could hear Cloud groan low in his throat, “…Forget it. Just leave him.”

As the booted footsteps retreated, Zack could not decide which was worse… Cloud being executed in his hearing or knowing that Cloud would die a slow, painful death alone after he was finally gone. He gave up thinking about it and decided that both options sucked.

When the first drops of rain finally began to fall, Zack blinked out of reflex. The rain was warm, almost refreshing after fighting in the heat of the wastes. He could feel some of the tacky blood on his face being rinsed away.

There was a small, hopelessly romantic part of Zack the refused to accept this was the end. It was the same part of himself that had refused to let his mother read his soulmate mark to him. His last words had been predetermined by the planet when he was born. He had never met someone who had escaped their fate. He was not going to die alone in the wastes.

He could feel the skin on his chest trying to knit itself back together, to stem the bleeding and push out the bullets that had lodged in his chest. He had been shot before, knew what healing those wounds felt like. This was something different entirely. His body was failing and he was so tired.

A sound forced him back to awareness. Something was squishing through the mud, making little grunting noises. It was moving closer to him. Zack struggled to focus his eyes or move his head, anything to see what was coming for him.

He had not expected Cloud’s face to appear above him. Cloud’s eyebrows were furrowed, his own eyes a little unfocused, but he was moving on his own. Zack could see his arms shaking as they struggled to keep him propped up, “Z-Zack?”

Blessed relief coursed through him. He may not have been able to save himself, but he had saved Cloud. Shinra thought they were both dead. No one would be looking for Cloud. Once a mako poisoned person regained consciousness, they had survived the worst of it. There was a small possibility of relapse, but only if he came into direct contact with mako again. Cloud would live.

It was the best comfort he could have received in the end.

Zack tried to draw in a breath. If this was the end, he wanted to do it properly. The pain in his chest made him grunt, but he forced his lungs to work a little longer. He smiled up at Cloud’s mud-spattered face, “For the… both of us.”

Cloud’s head cocked to the side. He repeated the words slowly, trying to make sense of them in his mako-addled mind, “Both of us?”

“That’s right.” Zack encouraged. He had so much he wanted to say, but he could not breathe deeply enough to get the words out, “You’re… gonnna-“

“You’re gonna.” Cloud nodded slowly and Zack was sure he saw a flash of recognition in Cloud’s gaze.

He lurched upwards, reaching a hand up to close around the back of Cloud’s neck. He could not feel the raised lettering of Cloud’s soulmate mark through his heavy leather gloves, but he knew it was there and wanted to touch it one last time. He drew Cloud’s forehead to rest against the shredded remains of his own mark, caring little for the pain it caused. With a grunt of discomfort he said, “Live.”

Cloud rested heavily against his chest. Zack’s sudden yank had thrown his shaky sense of balance off. Zack reveled in the warmth of him against a body that was growing colder and colder. It was time, “You’ll be… my living legacy.”

Zack’s hand slid away, gathering his last reserves of strength for to pass on his most prized possession to the man he loved… a small piece of himself that could protect Cloud always.

Cloud’s lifted his face from Zack’s chest, the motion smoother and more controlled that any other had been. There was blood in his hair and on his cheek, but Zack would not have traded that last bit of contact for anything.

Tightening his fingers around the hilt of his sword, Zack lifted it and pressed it into Cloud’s hands, “My honor, my dreams, they’re yours now.”

The words seemed so inadequate. His whole life, he had dreamed of becoming a hero. He had left home too early, disobeying the wishes of his parents to do so, just to chase that dream. It had meant everything to him until Cloud had come into his life.

Zack had no idea exactly when becoming a hero began to pale in comparison to the dream of safety and survival for his soulmate. Lazard had once told him that unobtainable dream were the best kind, but Zack now knew he disagreed. Knowing that Cloud would live was the sweetest dream he had ever had.

Cloud’s fingers closed around the blade’s handle uncertainly, so Zack pushed it into his chest. He wanted to make it plain to Cloud. The sword belonged to him now. He needed to take it and use it to protect himself. It was the only safety left that Zack could offer him.

When he had imagined his soulmate speaking the words he had always worn over his heart, he thought that it would be an affirmation. He expected an impassioned promise to carry on after he was gone. Cloud’s words were a soft repetition of Zack’s own, bewildered, but spoken with the first bit of real understanding that Cloud had shown in almost a year.

The thought should not have been as comforting as it was. He was leaving Cloud to suffer the worst grief imaginable with a mind that was barely recovered from unspeakable trauma… but it was beginning to recover. That was enough for him. Zack closed his eyes and with a smile, breathed his last.


 

Cloud watched with dawning horror as Zack stopped breathing. His mother had warned him once that if he worried about his soulmate mark too hard that he would miss finding that person until it was too late. He wished that she had told him how much it would hurt to outlive his soulmate instead. Maybe she did not know how. Cloud could hardly think of the words to describe the sorrow.

Memories flashed through his mind. Everything he had forgotten, everything that had happened while he was trapped in his own mind, every story that Zack had told him while they were on the run, it hit him at once with blinding intensity. He stared sightlessly at the sky and cried out in grief and agony. He screamed until his voice was raw with it. Zack was gone and he was alone.

He clenched the sword against his chest and cried for Angeal who died thinking he was a monster. He cried for Zack, who had died to give Cloud a chance to live. It felt like he and Zack had just found on another and already Cloud had no idea how he was supposed to go on without him. Still, he had to go on. He owed that much to Zack.

Cloud turned his gaze back to the face of his soulmate. Zack looked so peaceful lying there as the sun broke through the clouds at last. Cloud knew he owed everything to Zack, but that the body lying in front of him was no longer his soulmate. Zack’s spirit was gone, returned to wherever the spirits of the dead went once a life was over. He had spoken his last words to his soulmate, but he hoped that one last feeling would find its way to him, wherever he had gone.

He cupped Zack’s cheek briefly, “Thank you.”

At last, he rose to his feet, clenching his eyes shut a moment to stave off the tears that threatened to fall. The walk to Midgar would be long and he felt shaky on his feet, but he knew he needed to go. Zack had entrusted his dreams and honor to him. It was time to lead a life that would live up to those expectations. He squared his shoulders and drew in an unsteady breath, “Goodnight, Zack.”