The only person he saw when he reached the tiny farm was, to his disappointment, a woman with long, dark hair. Part of him tried to insist that she looked familiar but most of him was too busy being disappointed that she wasn't who he was looking for. At that point, it was all that seemed to really matter.
She turned to look at him as he came through the break in the fence, with curiousity and a healthy amount of caution showing clearly on her face. He couldn't blame her-- he couldn't have looked like much, with his dusty shapeless clothes, dusty everything. Probably smelling of too many days out in the wilds without benefit of a bath. If he'd been in her place, he'd have been cautious, too.
When he stopped just a few strides from the porch, though, the puzzlement on her face changed to something almost like recognition, with no small measure of astonishment mixed in-- as if she didn't quite believe her own eyes. He coughed, cleared his throat awkwardly. "I'm looking for someone named Cloud Strife," he said, wincing a bit at the scratchiness of his voice. "Is he here?"
It was hard to keep from holding his breath as he waited for an answer. He'd been wandering from house to house and town to town asking that question for so long, without any luck, but the people at the last place he'd stopped had said to come here, had seemed to actually know Cloud-- even after so long, he couldn't help but hope.
The woman looked like she wanted to say something but couldn't find the right words, and in the end she just nodded her head and turned away. She led him around the building to the back. As he rounded the corner the sounds of voices and squawks became audible, and there in the middle of a tiny wooden pen was a group of children gathered around two tall, golden chocobos. Some of the children were holding grooming cloths or sprigs of greens, others simply watched or held up their hands for the birds to inspect.
And in their midst, leaning over and carefully explained something to the smallest of them, was a man that for a moment he didn't recognize.
The hair looked right-- he fixed on that fact desperately, wanting so badly for it to be real. It was a familiar mass of unruly gold, bright under the sun, and his fingers twitched as he remembered how it felt. But the rest-- the shoulders were broader than he remembered, or maybe they were just held straighter. There was the easy, casual strength of a SOLDIER in the way he stood, and an understated confidence in his movements that was definitely new. So many little things that were different from how he remembered.
He found, in that moment, that he almost couldn't bring himself to believe.
But then he and the woman came close enough to be noticed, and that blond head lifted. Two bright, blue eyes fixed on them-- fixed on him-- blinked once, and widened.
He stared into those eyes, and knew that this man was, despite all the changes-- Cloud.
Cloud, who stared with his mouth gaping open, words stopped mid-sound, not seeming to remember what he had been doing just seconds before. He took an almost helpless step forward, and another and again until he was only a pace away and still staring, breathing like he'd been punched.
His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he managed a nearly inaudible whisper.
Zack gave him a grin that only felt a little forced, and lifted a hand to wave. "Hey."
* * *
Time seemed to blur-- there was the one clear moment in which he stood in front of Cloud, neither of them saying anything, and then everything whirled away into a bustle of motion as children ran, and wings flapped and an engine coughed to life. He had half-remembered impressions of streets and buildings, dust and concrete and the inside of a truck-- but most of his attention was on the motorcycle coasting alongside them, occasionally dropping back or pulling ahead but never going far.
And then they were in a bar, amidst a sea of upturned stools, curled around mugs of something warm while night fell outside. The truck had been put away, the children had been tucked in bed or sent away, and it was finally quiet. Only the woman-- Tifa, he finally remembered, though come a long way from Nibelheim-- only she was still there with them, puttering in the background, far enough away to not overhear but still close enough to watch. It was almost endearing, the way she was so protective of Cloud. A kind of relief, even, to know that he'd had someone looking out for him.
Zack's eyes slid up, away from the curl of steam rising between his hands and across the table to where the man in question sat nursing his own drink. He hadn't spoken, really, since they'd arrived, had just sat down and stared into his mug with his face pale and still slack from shock. It became increasingly obvious to Zack as the minutes went by that if anyone was going to break the silence, it would have to be him.
He cleared his throat, and saw Cloud's eyes snap up towards him at the sound. "Guess I owe you a story, huh?" he began, trying on another grin. "Afraid it's not going to be much of one. I don't really remember much-- not more than three or four months back, anyway." He twisted the mug in his hands, thought about drinking from it, but decided in the end to just keep going. "Was weird, really, I just kinda-- woke up in the morning one day, and everything from then on is clear. I was camping out, and it looked like I'd been doing it for a little while, at least. The gear I had was obviously stolen, from the number of different name tags in all of it, though I don't know where I picked it up."
A glance up at Cloud's face showed that he was paying attention, but gave precious little other clue as to what might be going on behind those glowing eyes. Zack cleared his throat again, feeling awkward-- his voice felt scratchy, dry, and the sound coming out of him wasn't quite what he expected to hear.
"Anyway," he continued after a moment, "Turns out I was in the complete middle of nowhere, though I didn't find that out until a bit later. Back around Gongaga, if you can believe it-- took me a full day to find a town. And once I'd got my bearings, I packed myself up and started looking for you."
Cloud's voice was quiet, but there was no way that Zack wouldn't have heard it. "Because for all I knew I'd left you lying in the dirt somewhere, when I was supposed to be taking care of you," he answered in the same quiet tone. "The last thing I remember from before is escaping from that damned lab." He barked a short, humourless laugh. "Didn't learn until later that I was three damned years too late to bring you to Midgar."
Cloud visibly flinched-- across the room, Tifa tensed, looking their way with narrowed eyes. But Cloud glanced at her, just barely shaking his head, then took a deep breath and turned back to Zack.
And after a moment of painful hesitation, he haltingly began to relate a story. In clipped words he sketched out a journey through the wilderness, ending on a cliff above the city-- and as he spoke, a chill started to creep over Zack, as if something in him remembered even if the conscious parts of him didn't.
At the end of it, Cloud met his eyes in a bright, hard stare, looking distressed. "You died," he forced out. "I saw you die." And his face tightened with old pain, until Zack reached out a hand on instinct.
He stopped the gesture in midair, though, as Cloud just drew a deep breath and pulled his control back around him. When he met Zack's eyes again, his face was calm.
And Zack felt the missing years stretch between them suddenly, wide and empty and unknowable.
"You were dead," Cloud repeated with some conviction, and there was an odd kind of suspicion behind his eyes.
Zack could only shrug, not knowing what else to do, and offer a lopsided smile. "Maybe I was faking?"
"Not unless you could fake your way into having no pulse," Cloud answered cooly, and Zack winced. "So you'll understand how I'm having some trouble accepting this," Cloud continued. "I mean, less than a year ago I fought Sephiroth again. And I'd seen him dead twice already before that. I don't think I can be surprised, anymore, at what science can and will do." Cloud's face was growing hard, and closed, and wary. "Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I can't help but wonder if this is something the same. I can't help but--" He broke off, shaking his head and frowning. "How do I know you're really Zack, and not-- some shell made to look like him?"
Cloud stopped, watching him, obviously waiting for an answer-- and Zack could only stare back, wondering just what the hell had been happening while he had been out of it. He struggled for something to say, because there was a look in Cloud's eyes that made him need to say something. Convince me, the look said. Give me something to believe in, give me a reason to believe in you, because I want to but don't know if I dare--
And suddenly, the answer was there.
Without giving himself time to think about it, Zack stood and started pulling at the buttons of his shirt, sliding the whole mess off over his head the moment it was loose enough. And then he stood, facing Cloud, waiting.
Silence reigned for long moments, broken only by one startled draw of air from Tifa, nearly forgotten on the other side of the room. Zack eventually raised a hand to touch one of the puckered circles of scar tissue that covered his chest, not bothering to look down to see the rest.
"I didn't know what they were from," he said quietly. "Could never remember. But if what you say is true-- then I think I can guess."
Cloud stood slowly, taking a few steps closer with eyes fixed on the scars, studying them with a bright-eyed intensity. And, slowly, he nodded once. Zack, after another silent, awkward moment pulled his shirt back on.
And then Cloud looked up at him, and all of the tight, old pain was replaced with something achingly like hope-- and he reached out and wrapped his arms around Zack's neck, pulling him into a crushing hug. Zack returned the embrace after only a split second's hesitation. closing his eyes, feeling the warmth of the other's body seeping through his clothes, inhaling that still-familiar scent.
And he finally, finally found he could relax, knowing that he'd made it where he was going after all.
* * *
Being around Cloud, he found, was a bewildering mix of familiar and foreign. Sometimes he would look at the other man and be able to see the young recruit he had known. Could walk up to him and sling an arm around his neck and grin, and not think twice about it. But the rest of the time-- most of the time, if he were to be honest-- there was this new Cloud standing where the old one had once been. And Zack found himself feeling awkward around this new Cloud, not sure how to act or what to say and increasingly frustrated because it felt like he should. At times like those, he felt the years of separation sharply.
As the days passed, he began to piece together what had happened since that ill-fated escape from Nibelheim, picking up bits of stories and listening very carefully to what was not said. And in the light of those discoveries, he recognized the reasons for the changes he saw. Not that it made them any easier to get used to, knowing, but it did make some difference.
So they were left at something of a stalemate, Zack still not knowing sometimes who it was he was talking to, and Cloud-- well, Cloud perhaps suffering from the same problem.
Because Zack was discovering, as the parts of him that had been focused on his search for what felt like forever began to unwind, that he had his own problems. Getting regular sleep left more time for dreams, and his dreams all too often turned into nightmares-- images washed in mako green, the prods and pains that he knew too well from his imprisonment, some of the memories far too fresh to have been from three whole years before. He didn't really need Cloud to suggest that his body had been taken back to the lab, after he'd-- after he'd died, or at least came close enough to matter. That something had been done to bring him back, that after everything they'd gone through to get away, he'd ended up right back where he started. Zack was finding the idea more and more believable as time went on, no matter how little he wanted to accept the possibility.
Still, that didn't explain how he'd ended up wandering the countryside, unless he'd somehow managed to escape a second time. No matter how he tried he couldn't remember; couldn't come up with anything except for vague glimpes and half-remembered feelings from his dreams, and those always left him cold and shaking and wide awake in the darkness, with nothing to do but sit up and wait until morning.
Cloud usually found him on those occasions-- not entirely surprising, since he was sleeping on the man's couch, and he was fairly sure he wasn't silent when he woke. But Cloud never said anything, simply sat near him, offering a silent support that went a long way towards banishing the bits of memory back where they belonged.
It was odd-- it had always been him looking after Cloud. Now it seemed like half of the time Cloud was looking after him.
Slowly, though, so slowly-- Zack, got his voice used to talking again, found his smile and used it to good effect whenever he could. He walked the streets of the city and became accustomed to the sound and presence of other human beings again. He flirted shamelessly with Tifa, only spurred on when she rolled her eyes and shook her head. He teased Cloud, and was delightfully surprised when Cloud tentatively started to tease back.
On one gloriously sunny afternoon, he went outside to find Cloud crouched down beside the gleaming bulk of a motorcycle. Not his own machine-- that was safely tucked in its garage, around the side of the house-- but another one, sleekly black and looking entirely too tempting. Zack whistled softly as he approached, and Cloud glanced up at him with a tiny, pleased grin.
"Stupid question." He walked around the machine once, taking in the details, then looked over at Cloud with a query written clearly on his face.
"I've been working on it for a while," Cloud explained. "Bought it from salvage a few months back. Seemed like a good time to finish it up."
Zack blinked. "Wait. You mean--" His eyes widened as Cloud's smile grew. "No, I can't--"
"Shut up," Cloud said mildly. Standing, he brushed his hands off on his pants and turned away. "Meet me out front in five minutes."
Zack stared after him, mouth hanging open, then looked back to the bike. A wide smile spread slowly across his face.
Five minutes later they were racing across the dusty earth, through the patches of bare rock left over from the ShinRa days and across the places where carpets of grass had started to take hold again. They wove back and forth across each other's paths, skidding around in wild circles, jumping obstacles where they could, spinning and sliding and wordessly daring each other to wilder and stupider things.
Zack felt the wind in his face, sharp with the sun and the dust they were kicking up-- felt the thrum of the engine under him and the subtle plays of muscle necessary to keep it under control-- and wondered when he'd last felt so alive.
He never did see what it was that sent him spinning that last time, what it was that wrenched the front wheel and made him lose control. The moment passed too quickly to tell, and was lost in a spray of dirt and stones. Zack was tossed from his bike, sent tumbling through the air to land breathless and stunned on the ground with the sounds of the dying engine ringing in his ears.
He'd nearly got his breath back when Cloud reached him, running full-tilt while calling his name, face gone pale with panic. He fell to his knees at Zack's shoulder, reaching out a hand.
Zack managed to take in a full breath-- and laughed.
Lying there in the dust, he laughed like he hadn't in what felt like forever, laughed like all the tension in him was leaking out into the dirt, laughed like he never wanted to stop. He ended up with his eyes watering helplessly and his stomach aching, while Cloud stared at him like he'd just turned into a chocobo.
Cloud scowled and turned the outreached hand into a swat, cuffing Zack on the arm hard before thumping down to sit next to him. "You bastard-- I thought you were hurt."
Rolling his head until he could look up into those blue, blue eyes, Zack only grinned, still struggling to get his breath back. "Aw," he managed, "It's sweet of you to worry."
Cloud, he was pleased to note, still blushed just wonderfully.
* * *
Later that same evening, the last of the day's few clouds cleared and left only star-specked blackness behind. Zack found himself sitting behind Cloud's little house, far enough from the city that all he could hear was the faint muttering of the chocobos in their barn, and all he could see was the the sky ahead.
The door creaked open and then shut again, heralding Cloud's return. The blond handed him a steaming mug, then settled down beside Zack with his legs dangling off the edge of the porch, cradling his own drink in both hands.
They sat like that in comfortable silence for some time, sipping their drinks, and Zack found himself smiling as he remembered something. "You know what this reminds me of," he said with a pointed, sidelong glance. "The roof."
The comment startled a quick laugh out of Cloud. "I'd forgotten about that."
It was something he'd shown Cloud shortly after the other man had failed his SOLDIER entrance tests-- a forgotten door with its lock rusted off, leading up to the roof of the barracks building. He'd intended it as just a place to get away-- away from the looks and the teasing and the unwanted pity-- but even after it outlived that purpose they'd still ended up there sometimes. It was high enough up that they could see the sky, even with the lights of the city all around them and the bulk of the tower looming above, and somehow it had felt very peaceful.
And there they were again, years and miles away but somehow back in that same place, watching the sky. Zack turned to Cloud with a grin, and found the other man smiling back.
The talk turned to other reminisces, of pranks pulled and mutual friends and old jokes. There were topics that were uncomfortable for both of them, but by some silent agreement those never came up. And when the words ran out they simply sat and stared outwards, sipping their drinks and enjoying the silence.
"I never thanked you, did I," Cloud said eventually, quietly. Zack glanced at him curiously, and he glanced back with a small smile. "For-- getting us out of there."
"Ah," Zack said in recognition. He'd wondered when they would broach this subject-- the lab, those five years that were like an unspoken secret shared between them. He wasn't sure it was something he wanted to speak about, though he knew well enough that it had to come up eventually. "Wouldn't have done anything else," he eventually replied with a shrug. "Though-- I could wish it had ended better."
"Not your fault," Cloud was quick to say, and Zack felt some unknown tension fade away from him. He sighed faintly, thinking, then fixed on one thought in particular.
"I'm glad you got to meet Aeris, you know," he said, smiling a bit wistfully. "I knew you two would get along."
Cloud smiled too, glancing over at him. "You were taking us to her, weren't you?" he asked. "To Midgar, because of her."
Zack nodded. "I had the whole thing planned out," he confessed, smile shifting to a sideways grin. "We were going to sneak into Midgar, using our vast powers of stealth to get through the monsters and guards and whatnot. We'd have hidden away with Aeris, holed up there until you got better-- then we'd all have got out of that hellhole and gone somewhere sunny. Travelled around for a while and had stupid adventures, then settled down somewhere--" He paused, eyes passing across the dim shapes of the farm around them. "Well, maybe somewhere kind of like here."
He stopped again, still looking, then turned to Cloud with his smile gone quiet. "You've got a pretty good life going here, Cloud," he found himself saying. "I'm happy for you."
For a long time Cloud just looked at him with an odd mix of emotions passing across his face-- surprise, and a touch of confusion, but with this warm, pleased look running through the middle of it all. He didn't say anything, though, and in the end he leaned over and rested his head on Zack's shoulder in a move that was so achingly familiar that for a moment Zack couldn't breathe.
He slowly slipped his arm around Cloud's waist, and they finished the rest of their drinks in silence, eyes turned upwards once more.
And when the mugs were long empty, and the air had cooled, they stood and wandered back into the house. And somehow there really didn't seem any other option than to pin Cloud up against the counter after he rinsed their mugs, to press his forehead into the back of Cloud's neck and nuzzle at the short strands of hair there. There didn't seem anything awkward at all about leaning in close, or about Cloud twisting to slide his arms around Zack's shoulders and kiss him back.
And a bit later, Zack was comforted to discover that this new Cloud still sounded like the old one when he gasped-- that if lips were dragged down the line of his throat, he still shivered just the same. And perhaps the fingers digging into his shoulders had the strength of mako behind them, and maybe the wicked, playful grin was unexpected, as they rolled over and over on the bed, but it was new and old and wonderful all at once.
And coming to rest atop Cloud's body, face pressed against his neck, feeling breath sigh quietly against his hair-- damned if it didn't feel an awful lot like coming home.