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A Space to Grow

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It was the perfect day for some introspection under the sun.  Or clouds, as would be the case before long.  A winter storm was on its way to the remains of Midgar, but for now the sky felt tense and cold.  Like me, thought a blond man, perched on a cliff in the wasteland.

He had not been to this rocky outcrop in a while, but today was special.  It was only fair that he returned to honor a friend’s sacrifice.  Seeing the approaching storm, he decided it would be best to head back soon.  His patchwork family respected his need for space, but worried if he grew too distant.  For good reason.  I didn’t do a good job of taking care of myself back then.

A few years ago, he was like this all the time, running away from his family to brood.  Thankfully, the healing powers of time, closure, and firm friends had more or less allowed him to readjust.  He still had nightmares and regrets—he always would—but he wasn’t worse off than anyone else who’d been through as much.  In fact, all things considered, the blond thought he was doing rather well.

He had found, contrary to what most people believe, that the pain of losing loved ones never leaves completely.  It makes itself known in another person’s laughter, in the way flowers grow, and it ebbs and flows like the tide.  Grief served as a memorial to what he had lost, and as a reminder to cherish everything he still had.  I’ve done my best to make up for all of my mistakes, to do his legacy justice, but…he was the one who wanted to be a hero.  I just wanted the world to keep living.

A sudden ringing drew the man out of his thoughts.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket.  Reeve.

“Hello?”

“Cloud.” Reeve said.  “I know you’re not very fond of phone calls, I so I’ll keep this short.  Tifa told me you were making some deliveries by chocobo around Wutai earlier this week.  Did you happen to ride near the cave east of the coast?  The one where we found the mime materia?”

Cloud had taken Terra to Wutai last week for some time-sensitive deliveries, but just to the mainland.  “Not really anyone by there to make deliveries to, so no.  Did something happen?” he asked.

“…Yes, but it’s not important if you’re busy right now.”  Reeve’s words were nonchalant, but his tone was strained.  He would have called Tifa if it really wasn’t important.

“No, I want to hear it,” Cloud replied.  “I, uh, appreciate the conversation right now.”

The man on the phone paused for a moment, presumably to gather his thoughts.  Although Reeve was something of a world leader now, he still had the occasional trouble communicating effectively.  Cloud could relate.  “Well, I’ve been working on a personal project lately.  A more advanced model of Cait Sith.  I sent him out towards that unoccupied part of Wutai to test his recon programs, and…actually found something.  That cave now has a functional computer system, set up like some sort of laboratory.  If I’m not mistaken, there also appeared to be some sort of holographic device, as well as some other machinery I didn’t recognize.”

“Machinery you didn’t recognize?” Cloud was impressed.  Reeve was an engineer by trade and, considering he designed Midgar itself, anything mechanical should have been right up his alley.  “Do you have any idea who could have built it, or at least be running it?”

“That’s the problem,” Reeve said.  “Cait was getting a pretty good look around, and had started looking in the computer’s database, but there was a sudden…termination of his operating system.  The last thing I got from the cameras before losing the connection was a shot of someone Cait had not detected wearing black, and then static.”

 “That’s…interesting, to say the least.  That someone must have been pretty fast to sneak up on Cait.  Faster than a normal person, anyway.  Do you think…this has anything to do with Deepground?”

“I doubt it.”  Reeve sounded fairly certain, although Cloud had never been very good at reading people.  “Vincent wrapped up that matter pretty nicely.  What’s most concerning about this situation is the location of the cave.  Rare materia doesn’t just randomly appear in caves; it forms over a long period of time from the natural mako present.  The Lifestream doesn’t come close to the surface there like in the Northern Crater or Mideel, but there’s still a strong connection that isn’t fully understood.”

Cloud wasn’t sure he liked where this was going.  “So you’re suggesting—“

“That whoever destroyed Cait Sith is experimenting with mako? Yeah,” Reeve confirmed.  “It’s obviously not the only reason someone could be running a secret lab there, but it’s the first that comes to mind.  And our attacker definitely wasn’t a part of Deepground, or Cait would have recognized them.  The only other group of people we know of with that much mako enhancement is—”

“—SOLDIER,” he finished.

After a long silence, the blond took a deep breath.  “And they’re all gone.”  Myself not included.

“I know this sounds pretty bad,” Reeve continued, “but I’m not suggesting it’s your lab or anything, Cloud.  We all trust you over here at the WRO, and frankly, we know you wouldn’t be reckless enough to start experimenting with mako after everything you’ve been through.”

“So what do you think is happening, then?” Cloud asked, as the wind started to pick up, bringing the scent of an approaching storm with it.

“Honestly? I don’t know.”  There was a note of frustration in the other man’s voice that was not lost on the blond.  “Everyone who was involved with SOLDIER is dead, officially at least.  Old man ShinRa was not above declaring a missing officer dead if they defected or ‘disappeared’ as was the case back in Nibelheim, but all of them were accounted for as of a few months ago.  This person was definitely stealthier than most of them were, but they still needed to possess superhuman speed to surprise Cait, as well as a level of skill that only comes with experience.  It’s like they just…came out of nowhere.”

Cloud breath hitched for a moment, remembering something he’d once said to Tifa.  I couldn’t finish ‘em.  This is gonna get complicated.  That had been the understatement of the century.  The whole planet had been in grave danger, and they’d gone through hell and back to save it.  “Do you want me to go check it out?”

“…No.  Whoever is behind this…we don’t know what their motives are or what they’re trying to accomplish.  We don’t even know if the attacker is the person responsible, or just a victim.  You showing up could escalate things prematurely.  I’ll fill in Yuffie, see what I can do to investigate the cave again, and let you know as soon as I get more information.”  Another pause.  “And Cloud?”

“Hmm?”

“I know you’ll want to jump to conclusions about this, but I’ll say it again—this isn’t anything like we’ve dealt with before.  There’s no reason for us to believe that old enemies are making an appearance, if you catch my meaning.”

“…Thanks,” Cloud said gratefully.  As childish as it was, the verbal reassurance that their mystery attacker was probably not Sephiroth or Jenova was comforting.  “I’m gonna go head back to the bar to help out Tifa for the night.  You take care, Reeve.”

“Talk to you later, Cloud.”

And that was it. Some of the tension he’d been feeling before had went away, strange as it was.  It was a weird feeling, and one he knew many of his friends wouldn’t understand, but he never felt quite right anymore unless he was fighting, or working on solving a problem like this one.  That’s why he’d started his delivery service—having to fight monsters on a regular basis helped him maintain his sanity.  Too long on the battlefield, or too many things lost.  Best to get back before I start thinking about that too much again.

Cloud made his way over to Fenrir and drove back to Seventh Heaven with the storm close behind.

 

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Within a bar in Edge, a dark-haired, pensive woman was polishing mugs.

The now-stormy afternoon had been a largely normal one for Tifa Lockhart.  She had slept in later than the kids, with it being Saturday and the bar being open later than usual the night before.  She had done her normal workout (sparring with Cloud was her usual way of relieving stress), and then had gone outside to garden.  The flowers, although not thriving, were still alive, and that made Marlene happy enough that Tifa would keep trying.

They were yellow, and of the same variety that Aerith used to grow in the Sector 5 church, which was a large part of the reason why Marlene was so keen on taking care of them.  The young girl missed Aerith just as much as the rest of them, and the pain of her loss had only dulled so much after three years.  Tifa would do whatever she could to ensure the kids could grow up happy—or as happy as possible, given the world-changing events that had already happened in their lives.

I need to stop worrying so much, Tifa thought.  They’re good kids, and they’re growing up strong.  She couldn’t help but worry, though, as she polished the glassware before the bar opened for the evening.  It was tedious work, and would get boring to the action-oriented woman very quickly if she didn’t find something to think about.

Like Cloud, for instance.  The brunette had noticed him becoming more withdrawn again lately, and while it was still normal for him to go off to brood every so often, she suspected it was getting close to the anniversary of Zack’s death.  He’d never told Tifa the exact date, and she had a feeling he didn’t know anyway.  But she wanted to be there for him if he needed it.

Zack….there was a long period of time in which he was the most important person in Cloud’s life.  Just from the few days Tifa saw them together in Nibelheim, she could see that Zack balanced Cloud out in a way she and the rest of AVALANCHE never could.  And after dying for him...her best friend had only really opened up about it once, but Tifa knew he felt like he owed the dead man everything, and that he felt somehow responsible for what happened.  She could understand the feeling—after all, she and the others felt pretty much the same way about Aerith.

It had taken her more than two years after Meteor for her to get Cloud to open up to the rest of their friends about Zack.  “It’ll be therapeutic,” Tifa had said as everyone gathered at the bar to celebrate the end of the Deepground business some months ago.  She would know, being the one who had to piece Cloud’s broken mind back together in Mideel.  “I know it’s hard, but talking about it will help.  You need to get this off your chest so you can start to heal, Cloud.  We all care about you so much.”

And after some coaxing and quite a bit of alcohol, he did open up.  He told them first about how more of his memories from his ShinRa days came back as time went on—that he would see or hear or smell something and be instantly reminded of something Zack had done that he’d thought he’d forgotten forever.  Slowly, and with much silence in between words, Cloud told them about how the raven-haired man did everything he could to encourage him and make him feel included, even as the men in Cloud’s squad ignored him or talked down to him.  He told them how Zack could always cheer him up, and how his own presence always seemed to be enough to make the other man happy.

That, is, until Nibelheim.  Cloud, for the first time, gave all of AVALANCHE the full and truthful account of what had happened in the reactor.  He understandably glossed over the labs, but gave as detailed of an account of their escape from the labs as he could manage, stopping right at the ambush on the cliff.

Barret had been the most supportive of them all that evening.  What Cloud managed to get out about Zack’s death before losing the battle with tears reminded the older man a lot of his history with Dyne, and he did his best to assure the blond that he couldn’t have done anything more to save him.

Cloud had looked down at his hands, and admitted that he felt like a proper traitor for what had happened afterwards.  His sentences became a lot more fragmented, whether from the alcohol or the sorrow, as he talked about the period of time between Zack’s death and the summoning of Meteor.

“’I won’t forget,’ I told him.  And…then I went and did just that,” Cloud had finished, in a tone so full of self-loathing that it broke Tifa’s heart.

Everyone had told him that Zack would be proud, if he was here.  That Cloud was the best living legacy anyone could have asked for.

Once their friends had said goodbye, Cloud had just sat with Tifa for a while, crying softly into her shoulder.  She had just held him close until he fell asleep, used to being his rock.  In the morning, he’d thanked her, and admitted that while talking about Zack had been painful, and even though he would probably never be able to fully move on, the fact that it wasn’t all bottled up inside any more lifted a heavy weight off his chest.

And so Cloud had slowly started to get better, and started to let his broken heart heal.

A warm, calloused hand on her shoulder and the scent of rain brought Tifa back to the present.  She turned around to find Cloud standing there with an amused look in his big blue eyes.

“You were spacing out, Teef.  I thought that was my job,” he said with a small smile.

Glad to see that he’s not feeling too down.  “Well, it’s hard not to space out with all of these mugs to polish and no one to polish them with,” she said teasingly, tossing a clean rag at him.  “What kept you?”

“A phone call from Reeve, actually,” he replied, getting to work on the glasses.  “Something happened that he thought I should know about.”

He recounted the conversation to Tifa, who tried her best to act nonchalant.  It concerned her more than she would like to admit, but it was important for her to stay optimistic about the situation so that Cloud could do the same.

“Honestly,” she said, trying to keep it from sounding forced, “if I were running a secret mako lab and a crown-wearing cat with a megaphone showed up, I’d probably destroy it too.”

The blond laughed briefly at that, a beautiful sound Tifa had been hearing more and more often lately.  “When you put it that way, I guess it’s probably not much to worry about, at least not yet.  Reeve will figure out what’s going on over there, and if the mystery attacker is a threat, he’ll call in a favor from Rufus and get the Turks involved.”

Tifa was glad that he was staying positive about the situation, but she couldn’t help but remind herself of all the ways similar situations had gone wrong before.  It sounded an awful lot as though someone involved in SOLDIER other than Cloud had managed to survive, and that had never brought anything but trouble.

 

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“That’s not fair!” Denzel whine-shouted from the end of the table.  “You can’t give it such high numbers!”

“And why not?” Marlene shot back.  “Your cards all have high numbers too.”

A week had passed since Reeve’s phone call, with no updates.  They had all had gone back to their usual routines, and the kids were, as far as Cloud could tell, working on something for class.

“What are you two arguing about now?” he asked, pulling up a chair between them to join the conversation.

“Marlene thinks it’s fair for her cards to have higher numbers than mine,” Denzel said, in the manner every tattle-tale child uses when talking to an adult.

“That doesn’t mean much without some sort of explanation.  What are the cards for?”

“There’s a contest going on at school,” Marlene said cheerfully.  “Whoever can make the coolest game by the end of the month—“

“—Is gonna win a prize,” Denzel finished.  “The top three teams are all getting big bags of candy!”

“Big bags of candy are truly a noble cause,” Cloud said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.  “Do you want to call in reinforcements?”

“Come on now, we’ll be spoiling them!” called Tifa from behind the bar, where she was taking inventory of the liquor before her monthly order.

“Tiiffaaa,” Marlene whined.  “The teachers never said anything about having to finish the games by ourselves!  Pleeease help us!”

“We’re calling it ‘Triple Triad’ for now,” Denzel continued, all business now that the adults were involved.  “The basic idea is that each player has a deck of cards with a number on each side.  The two players take turns placing cards down on a three by three grid—“

“—That’s why we’re calling it ‘Triple Triad’— ” Marlene chimed in.

“—with the goal of turning over all the opponent’s cards,” Denzel finished.

Tifa stopped her inventory for the moment and walked over to join the conversation.  “So the cards get turned over based on the numbers on their sides?” she asked, resting her elbow on Cloud’s shoulder.  “Like, the higher number beats the lower number or something like that.”

“Exactly,” Marlene confirmed.  “We just can’t agree on what numbers each card should have on them, so the game can be, uh…”

“…balanced?”  Cloud finished.

“Yeah, balanced,” she agreed.

“Well,” Tifa said, “it wouldn’t be a fun game if some of the cards had really high numbers on all sides, right?  So try giving each card a strong side and a weak side, so that the players have to be careful about which cards they’re putting down, when.”

The kids looked very enlightened at that idea.  It’s a good idea, too.

“Then it would be more like a strategy game than a luck game!” Denzel said.  “Tifa, that’s a really great idea.  We’ll totally blow the judges away with that one!”

“One other thing,” Cloud said, having an idea of his own.  “Right now the cards are all just plain.  The judges, and the other kids, too, will think the game is way cooler if you add some sort of artistic element to it.”

“What, like drawing wolves all over them?” Denzel asked with a shit-eating grin.

Tifa gave a sharp, clear laugh at that, and Cloud brought his hands to his heart in a gesture of mock offense.  “Odin, no,” he replied.  “I mean, you could have one card have a wolf on it or something.  But if each card has a different set of numbers on it, you could draw a different picture on each one.”  He picked up a card with medium-high numbers on it.  “Take this lovely card, for example.  It could be the Marlene card.”

The young girl grinned cheekily at Denzel.  “I like this idea,” she said.  “We could have a Marlene card, and a Denzel card—“

“—and a Tifa card, and a Barret card—”

Just then, Tifa’s phone started to ring.  “You guys have fun finishing your game, alright?” she said, before walking upstairs to answer the call.

Cloud watched the kids start drawing pictures on their cards for a minute or so before Tifa called down to him.  “It’s Reeve again.”

He followed her back upstairs to their office, where she put the phone on speaker.  “What’s up, Reeve?” she asked.

“The situation with the lab has escalated somewhat,” Reeve said.  “It’s still not a major concern for you guys as far as I can tell, but I thought you’d want to be in the loop.”

“We appreciate it,” Cloud said.  “So what’s changed?”  Hopefully it’s not too bad.

“I don’t really want to discuss it over the phone, if that’s alright with you.  Yuffie and I are stopping by Edge later tonight, and we can talk over dinner.”

“That works.  I’ll close the bar for the night,” Tifa decided.  “We’ll see you later.”

“Until tonight, then.” Reeve said, hanging up.

“What could have changed that made him uncomfortable with discussing it over the phone?” she wondered aloud.

“Rufus still has control over the PHS networks.  Whatever’s changed, it’s probably something Reeve doesn’t want him to know about just yet,” Cloud said.  “We’ll find out later though, right?”

 

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Several hours later found the two of them seated at one of the bar’s many tables with Reeve and Yuffie.  They had eaten dinner without much conversation (Tifa’s cooking was truly something to be admired) and were now nursing drinks.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Cloud started.  “What happened that’s so unusual that it has to be kept out of Rufus’s line of sight?”

“…There’s two parts to this,” Reeve anwered.  “And I’m not sure which part is more concerning.  First of all, I managed to get another Cait into the lab and investigate without running into the same trouble as last time.”

“What’d you find?” Tifa asked, after taking a few sips of her beer.

“Well, it would seem that the computer system has actually been there for quite a while,” Reeve said with a sigh.  “That holographic system I mentioned?  It’s actually there to turn the whole console invisible, by projecting the walls to be much closer to the center of the cave.  So the lab was probably there even while we were looking for that rare materia years ago, but we didn’t notice it because we didn’t have much reason to go probing the walls.”

“So someone’s been running a secret lab for a few years now,” Cloud said.  “But you must have found something more interesting in there, if it warranted not letting Rufus know about it.”

“Yes,” Reeve confirmed.  “There was, as we probably should have expected, a mako tank in the cave.  But it’s an unusual tank in that it’s operated from the inside.”

What kind of person voluntarily sticks themselves in a mako tank?  “That’s…different.  So our mystery attacker is enhanced, but they’ve been experimenting on themselves, or something to that effect,” Cloud said“Anything else?”

“I had Cait check through the computer’s files—most of them were encrypted, which I’d expected.  Surprisingly, they were so heavily encrypted that I couldn’t understand them.  It was almost as if they were written to run on something that’s not a traditional computer, or at least not one with any configuration I’m familiar with.”

Reeve stroked his goatee for a moment before continuing.  “There were only a few files on the computer I could actually read, and they were very fascinating, to say the least.  The most frequently used program was one that just…read messages to the user.  They weren’t even standard messages.  Like “go to sleep now,” and “forget about it,” and the sorts of things that people usually just think to themselves.  It seemed to be a completely benign program, too.  It didn’t have any effect on Cait, or on me looking through the camera.”

“That’s not all though, is it?” Tifa asked hesitantly, noting the slightly apprehensive look on Reeve’s face.

“Unfortunately, it’s not.  The other program I could get my hands on was nothing more than a list, but it was a list of some very high-profile individuals, both living and dead.  Yuffie’s mother was on the list, as well as Vincent, Rufus Shinra, Aerith, Ifalna Faremis, Genesis Rhapsodos…and, well…you, Cloud.”

The blond had been on too many people’s lists to be properly shocked by one more.  “Genesis…he had something to do with the Crisis, right?”

The other man looked a bit surprised at Cloud’s question.  “You…don’t remember him?  He was one of Shinra’s top generals in your infantry days, alongside Angeal Hewley and Sephiroth.  He defected towards the end of the Wutai war and caused us a lot of trouble for a few years.  He fell at Modeoheim.”

At the mention of Modeoheim, Cloud started to feel a bit dizzy, as forgotten memories resurfaced.  “…I remember now.  That’s where I met Zack,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even with the emotions that always came with old memories.  “We were the only two in the group who didn’t have trouble navigating the mountain terrain…I felt pretty smug about being able to keep up with a SOLDIER.  He—” Cloud abruptly stopped, before he said something embarrassing or got too far off topic.

“…Do you need a minute?” Yuffie asked knowingly.  She’d seen him have these sorts of episodes more than once.  They all had.

“…No, I think I’m fine,” he answered sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.  Stay in the present, Cloud.  Sort through this later.   “Zack fought Genesis in the reactor there and…he fell.  I’ve seen that happen often enough to know how it ended.  So, we’ve got a list.  What I don’t understand is the common factor between all these people.”

“It can’t be a list of Shinra’s genetic experiments, or else some…other names would be on there too,” Tifa theorized.  “You don’t think it could just be a short list of people with near-death experiences?”

“Some of them had full-death experiences,” Cloud replied bitterly, “but hell, I suppose Vincent, Rufus and I have all cheated death before.”

“…I admit that I have no idea what the common element is, either,” Reeve said, “but Yuffie’s side of the story might account for some of the confusion.”

“Let’s hear it, then,” Tifa said, entwining her fingers with Cloud’s under the table and squeezing his hand reassuringly.

 

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Earlier in the week, while Reeve was using Cait Sith to break into the mysterious lab again, Yuffie was chasing an incredibly agile thief from one of Leviathan’s shrines.

She’d been standing outside a good distance away, training a group of kids in some shuriken techniques—no throws yet, just basic strikes to work on form.  Good practice for when you take over from me, her father had said with a hearty chuckle.  The weather had been sunny and fair, especially for this time of year—perfect for outdoor practicing.  Yuffie was throwing her heart into the teaching, telling the kids (her students!) exciting tales of her materia-hunting days while they practiced line drills.  She was just getting to the time she stole all of AVALANCHE’s materia when she heard the door to the shrine close.

No one was supposed to be in there at this time of day, so the petite woman held a finger to her lips, gestured for the children to keep practicing without her, and tiptoed over to the door, pressing her eye against the keyhole.

She saw a rather tall man in an all-black ensemble that reminded her a bit of what the SOLDIERs who invaded Wutai used to wear.  Something about his posture reminded her of them, too.  His dark hair was wild and long enough in the back that she could probably braid it.  Stop thinking about braids and pay attention to what he’s doing, Yuffie scolded herself.  Sneaky men in her shrine were serious business, and deserved no less than her full attention.

The mystery man was inspecting all of the urns around the shrine, the ones that contained the ashes of passed Kisaragis.  It was all the passionate young woman could do to not barge in and yell at the man to knock it off.  He honed in on a forest-green urn with a white rose painted on its side.  Those are my mother’s ashes, you bastard! The man picked up the urn and turned around for a moment, but didn’t move.

Now Yuffie could get a better look at him.  He had two blades, perhaps katanas, kept in a swordbelt at his side.  He was wearing a black mask that covered the lower half of his face, and his hair looked a lot tamer from the front, although there was a single strand that dangled in front of his right eye.

Speaking of which, he definitely had mako eyes.  They had the same bright yet haunted look Cloud’s still got sometimes, and something about them seemed even more familiar to Yuffie than the strange uniform or the man’s posture did, although she couldn’t place it.  But how could there be anyone left with mako enhancement?  Between Deepground and everything else, all of them were either dead or otherwise accounted for.  Who is he?

Just as Yuffie was realizing the full gravity of the situation, the man started moving towards the door.  I am NOT letting him get away with her ashes!  In a rash and split-second decision, she opened the door, slipped in, and shut it before he could get there.

Yuffie was unarmed, having been teaching the shuriken class empty-handed, so she would have to rely on her evasion skills to get her out of this situation.  She took up a fighting stance and prepared to defend herself.

The strange man could apparently rival her for spontaneity, however, because he suddenly cut sideways and broke clean through the wall of the shrine.  If I hadn’t thought he was enhanced before, I sure would now.

Yuffie leapt after him.  Her students and some of the nearby pedestrians turned to watch the chase, but none of them moved. They’d seen their princess involved in this sort of thing too many times to think anything of it, even if she was usually the one being pursued.  The man (an ex-SOLDIER?) was cutting through the streets, running towards the path that led to Da-Chao’s statue.  Why he thought going up was a good means of escape Yuffie didn’t know, but she sprinted after him, determined to get that urn back.

The man could probably run at a superhuman speed, but the fragility of the urn slowed him down, and Yuffie was pretty fast herself.  She tailed him all the way to the top of the statue, where the lecher Don Corneo had held her and the Turk Elena hostage all those years ago.

“Nowhere to run, SOLDIER boy,” the ninja said threateningly, putting her hands on her hips.  He might have those blades, but he needs to be careful since he obviously wants to keep that urn.  And I can still fight empty-handed.

At the mention of “SOLDIER,” several different emotions became evident in the man’s eyes.  Anger, sorrow, determination…but ultimately, his expression became one of confusion and unrecognition.  He began shaking where he stood, which both surprised the young woman a great deal and reminded her of the way Cloud had acted while he was unknowingly fighting mako poisoning.

Yuffie had no idea how to handle the situation.  Tifa and Aerith had been the ones to bring Cloud back to reality when this happened, but she didn’t even think she knew this man.  Was he having a flashback of some sort?  Was he dissociating?  Was she overthinking this, and he was just chickening out of his thieving operation?

But before Yuffie could come to any meaningful conclusion, the mystery man pulled himself together, threw the urn at her, and full-on dived down the side of the mountain.  She caught her mother’s ashes easily and watched him descend, impressed at how he managed it without getting visibly injured.  After some thought, she decided it would probably be best to call Reeve first.

Chapter Text

Regardless of what he said about being fine earlier, Yuffie could tell Cloud was still a bit shaken from whatever he’d just remembered, so she figured it would be best to tell them just the action-based parts of what had happened.  He wasn’t ever actually in SOLDIER, so he probably wouldn’t know the guy, but…his physical description might set something off again.

 “So I called Reeve, and he told me that it would be pretty stupid to not conclude that my mystery-man is the same person as your mystery-man,” Yuffie concluded after relating the gist of her story.  “...I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting a really bad vibe about his little operation.”

Tifa snorted, and the younger woman’s brown eyes narrowed into a glare.  “What is funny about this?!” she asked.

The barmaid waved off Yuffie’s stink-eye and cleared her throat.  “It’s just…let’s call him something other ‘mystery-man.’  I’m gonna have a hard time taking a new threat seriously if his nickname sounds like something out of one of Denzel’s comic books.”

“We could call him the winter SOLDIER,” Cloud offered, in the simple manner one would debate dinner options.

Everyone at the table shot him an amused and exasperated look.

“What?  It’s winter in Wutai right now, and the guy probably had something to do with SOLDIER,” Cloud explained.  In a smaller voice, he added, “It makes sense.”

Tifa poked him in the ribs, making him jump.  “It still sounds like the name of a comic book character…” she said teasingly, “but it does makes sense, and it sounds a lot cooler than ‘mystery-man.’”

Yuffie raised her hands in a gesture of defeat, and Reeve chuckled.  “The Winter SOLDIER it is, then,” he said.  “But back to business.  Our man of interest attempted to steal the ashes of a Wutai royal.  I don’t understand…what’s he trying to do?  What’s the purpose of the list?”

“It’s a list of targets,” Cloud said unceremoniously.  “Yuffie’s mom was the first on this list, right?  So he’s gonna go down the list, and attempt to do…something with each target.”

Yuffie momentarily admired how positively unfazed Cloud and Tifa seemed, before remembering that they probably should be, after all they’d been through together.  It’s not like they’d gotten a notice in the mail before their hometown was burned down, or for anything that had happened since then.  This probably seemed like nothing to them.

“So the Winter SOLDIER will go after Vincent next, then, assuming the order means anything,” Cloud said.  “Has anyone seen him recently?"

No one had.

“Let’s take a quick break and call Barret, Cid, and Nanaki,” Yuffie suggested, refusing to give up on contacting their missing friend just yet.  “Maybe one of them has seen him.”

It only took a few minutes to find that none of them had, either.  The four of them sat in near silence for a few minutes after putting down the phone, the only sounds being Reeve’s fingers tapping on the table and Tifa cracking her knuckles.

“Hold on a minute,” Tifa said, with a thoughtful look on her face.  “Vincent asked me about buying a cell phone about a year ago.  Yuffie, did he ever actually get one?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Well…crap.”

“I’m not too worried about Vincent,” Cloud said, leaning back in the booth.  “He can handle himself, not to mention that he’s kind of…immortal.  And Yuffie, the Winter SOLDIER threw that urn back at you when you tried to fight, right?”

“Yeah…” she confirmed.  “So…?”

“…so he’s probably aiming to collect his targets, not eliminate them,” Cloud finished, shrugging the same way he used to back in their ShinRa-fighting days.  “He would have fought you by the statue if he didn’t care about that urn staying intact.  Hell, if he wanted it destroyed, he could have just dropped it down the side of the cliff.”

Sometimes I forget how smart he really is, Yuffie thought.  It’s a crime he lost so many years to Shinra.

“Let me get this straight,” Tifa said, folding her hands on the table.  “So the Winter SOLDIER is going to attempt to…capture, I guess, everyone on this list?  Vincent will be next, and then Rufus.  Who was after that?”

Reeve took a look at the list again and furrowed his brows before answering.  “Aerith, then Ifalna, then Genesis,” he answered.  “The obvious problem is…none of them have bodily remains, at least not in any known location.”

Cloud rubbed the back of his neck, in the same way that always prickled at the back of Yuffie’s memory.  “Well…if I were him…I would probably skip those targets,” he said.  “Assuming he knows anything about how the three of them died, he’d know that there’s nothing left of them.  So he’ll probably come for me after Rufus.”

He still looked unfazed, but she noticed Tifa squeeze his hand from under the table.

“What should we do?” the older woman asked.  “I don’t want you to have to fight him, Cloud.  There’s gotta be a less confrontational way to go about this.”

Yuffie sat up a little straighter.  “If we have to fight him, we’ll do it together,” she said firmly.  “We’re here for you, Cloud.”

The blond gave them a small smile.  “Thanks, guys,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll need to fight him.  Remember what I said last week, Teef?”

“Yeah,” she said, pausing for a moment.  “Reeve, I think you should fill in Rufus…since he’s probably the next target.  See if the Turks can take him down, since they definitely owe us.”

Reeve nodded.  “I was about to suggest that myself,” he said.  “I’ll call him tomorrow morning and get the Turks in the loop, and we’ll see where this leads.”

 

--------------------------------- 

 

In the dead of night, Cloud lay awake in bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to keep himself from thinking about the Winter SOLDIER.  He stretched his legs out, but they poked out from under the sheets and his feet met cool air.  The bed really was too small for him, but their room wasn’t big enough for more than two twins.

Why don’t you two just share a bed?  Their friends (mostly Cid) had asked them this on occasion, which always made Cloud stutter and turn an embarrassing shade of pink.  Eventually, Tifa had needed to explain that they weren’t as involved as the rest of AVALANCHE seemed to think they were.  They’d told the kids a slightly abridged version of the story, too, even though they seemed to understand without being told.

It wasn’t that Cloud didn’t love Tifa.  She was one of the most important people in the world to him, and he loved her with all his heart.  He was grateful for the life they’d built together, even if it wasn’t what he’d imagined as a kid.  Things just hadn’t worked out the way they thought they would.

Words aren’t the only way to tell someone how you feel, Tifa had said that night under the Highwind.  Cloud remembered how awkward and flustered they had been, especially with how complicated things had gotten.  She’d fumbled through a confession of her feelings, and he…well, words had never been his strong suit.  They hadn’t had sex or anything—in fact, all they did was kiss for a bit and fall asleep next to each other.  Waking up with Tifa’s beautiful head on his shoulder had been a dream come true, and Cloud had realized with a pang of both regret and, strangely enough, relief that he didn’t want anything more.

He’d told her as much after waking her.  To his surprise, she felt the same way about him.  They didn’t click physically in the way that they thought couples were supposed to, and while Cloud hadn’t had enough of his old memories back at the time to know if this was a unique scenario or not, Tifa did.  She told him she was glad he didn’t want to go farther, because she was asexual.

Cloud had never heard the term before, so she explained that it just meant she didn’t feel sexual attraction towards other people.  Cloud had processed this for a moment, lips pursed in concentration, and then asked her if maybe he was, too.  Tifa had given him a knowing (and somewhat mysterious) grin and told him that he’d have to decide that for himself, and that with everything his mind had been through, maybe his body just wasn’t ready for something like that yet.

Time had passed, and the romantic tension between them subsided as well.  They decided sleeping in separate beds would be better (with Tifa’s late schedule and Cloud’s habit of tossing and turning), but they still presented themselves as a couple.  And while he would still say he was in love with Tifa, it was a purely platonic love.  And she felt the same way.

As far as his sexuality went, Cloud had stopped trying to define it a while ago.  The first year or so after Meteor, he’d wake up in the morning expecting some magical return of his sex drive, and it just…hadn’t happened.  He’d found that he could get himself off if he tried, but he never felt the need, so he didn’t really do it anymore.  And romantic attraction hadn’t made a reappearance either.

But it was all fine and good, because he had a family and friends who loved him and cared about him, and that’s all he really needed.

The old memories that had resurfaced earlier that evening threw a bit of a wrench into that understanding of himself, though.  Modeoheim…Cloud wondered how he hadn’t remembered it until now.

He remembered being assigned to work with a SOLDIER, and upon meeting him, thinking immediately: Wow, he’s good-looking.  And he’d spent the rest of the mission trying to act natural and generally failing.  Cloud felt a blush creep across his cheeks in the dark as he remembered lying on the ground after Angeal came through.  Zack had offered to help him up, and he had refused in an effort to show off his super slick infantryman skills.  Cloud had started to get up—and then fell right back on his butt again.  Is it normal to feel secondhand embarrassment at a memory?

If his other memories of Zack were anything to go by, whatever sort of initial attraction Cloud experienced had faded over time, like with Tifa.  Most of his other happy memories of Zack didn’t have the same feeling of…whatever that was attached to them.  But maybe those weren’t even complete memories.  Hell, his brain was a weird place.  Tifa could testify, she’d been in it (which she reminded him of whenever he got too distant).

Maybe I just can’t recognize romantic attraction when I’m feeling it…Aerith would be able to help.  She’d always been better at that sort of thing than even Tifa.  Gradually, his thoughts started going in circles, and he fell asleep, dreaming of friends.

 

---------------------------------

 

Over the next few days, Tifa noticed that Cloud seemed even more contemplative than usual, which was saying something.  He’d been late home from a delivery on Tuesday, two days after their meeting with Reeve and Yuffie, and when she’d inquired, he said he’d run out of fuel a few miles back and had to walk Fenrir the rest of the way.  That had never happened before.

During their usual sparring match Wednesday morning, Tifa managed to literally kick Cloud’s butt while he wasn’t paying attention.  He rubbed at the spot and gave her a hurt look.

He’s really out of it.  “I want to know what’s got you all in a funk.  Don’t give me that look, you’ve clearly got something on your mind.  Is it the winter SOLDIER?  Cause I got a call from Reno last night while you were out, saying that they were on round-the-clock duty and that Rufus should be fine.  There’s nothing to worry about.”

Cloud looked briefly surprised, and then rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish expression.  “It’s…actually not that at all.”

“Hmm?” Tifa raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“Well…I…it’s about Zack.”

What?  That was not what she’d been expecting him to say, based on his behavior.  He doesn’t seem to be feeling sad or guilty, just…confused.  “This is about what you remembered from Modeoheim, isn’t it...do you wanna talk about it?”

Cloud looked conflicted for a moment, but then said “…Okay.”

He’s getting a lot better about these sorts of things.  Tifa’s face lit up as she took off her sparring gloves.  “Well…you know my usual routine.  If you want to talk about it, you’re gonna help me tend to the flowers.”

He just nodded and followed her to the garden.

The work took less time than usual, with Cloud helping.  Despite being a warrior by occupation, he was surprisingly good with plants.  And with kids.  And with machines.  Really, she didn’t know why her best friend was usually so down on himself.  A few minutes later, Tifa had brewed some tea (that Cid had sent them for her last birthday) and brought two barstools outside.

“So what’s up?” she started.

Cloud sat there holding his tea for a solid minute, trying to put the words together.  “…Modeoheim was where I met Zack for the first time, and I didn’t even remember it until last weekend.  And there was something…different about it from the other memories I have of him.”

Tifa noticed the (embarrassed?) look on his face and waited for him to keep going.

The blond continued after a moment, his voice a few notes higher than usual.  “I definitely remember trying to impress him…and feeling embarrassed about it.  And…something else, too.  But…none of my other memories of him are like this.  I’m so confused, Tifa,” he said, giving her a look that reminded her way too much of a lost puppy.

She couldn’t help but grin, feeling like she knew exactly what sort of thing Cloud was remembering.

The blond wiped the pleading look off his face and scoffed at her.  “What, does my confusion make you happy?”

Tifa laughed briefly, nut with enough enthusiasm that a little of her tea sloshed out of the cup and onto the dirt.  “No…it’s just, I think I know what you’re trying to get at,” she said with a sly grin.  “You liked him.”

Cloud’s jaw actually dropped, which told her she’d hit the nail right on its spiky head.  “I did not!” he exclaimed.  “…Okay, maybe I did,” he added.  “I don’t know.  That’s why I’m trying to talk to you about it.”

“Alright, then tell me about it, goofball,” Tifa said, schooling her face into a more serious, or at least less amused expression.

“Um…well…I remember pretty clearly thinking ‘damn, he’s hot’ or something like that as soon as I saw him,” Cloud said quickly, blush deepening.  “And I totally spent most of the mission trying to make him think I was cool.  It was…ridiculously validating to hear him say ‘good job’ when I restrained Hollander…”

He sounded just like a teenager again.  Tifa loved it.

“…and then I got really motion-sick on the way to Junon, and—oh Gaia,” he stopped, his eyes widening like saucers.  “I think Zack asked me out after that.”

Her expression broke out into a grin again of its own accord.  “He did?”

“Yeah…he asked me to go grab a bite to eat with him, and I said yes right away like an idiot,” Cloud said, hiding his face in his hands.  “It was probably so obvious, wasn’t it?”

“That you totally had a crush on him?”  I knew it!

Cloud looked up, his eyes full of mortification.  He groaned and set his tea down on the ground before he could spill any more of it.  “…I did, didn’t I?  Oh Gaia—“

Tifa put her hand on his shoulder before he could start rambling again.  “Cloud, let me tell you something,” she said, moving her chair so she was closer to him.  “It’s okay.  It’s completely, 100% okay that you had a crush on your best friend.  It’s normal.  It happens to a lot of people.  It happened to me.  And if it makes you challenge your perceptions of yourself, that’s okay too,” she said.  “And…I should say I haven’t been completely honest with you about something.”

The mortification in Cloud’s eyes changed to surprise and curiosity.  “…what?” he asked.  “I thought…”

“It’s nothing major,” the brunette clarified.  “It hasn’t really come up in conversation for years, and I didn’t want to bring it up before because it was right after you started getting your old memories back.”

Cloud looked back up from his hands, ready to listen.  Tifa continued.

“Aerith told me some stuff about Zack after we met his parents in Gongaga,” she started.  “She made him sound like the type of person who wasn’t very good at subtlety…I think you would have had to be incredibly forward about your feelings in order for him to catch on.”  She snickered and poked his arm.  “And verbal,” she added, causing his blush to deepen further.  “Cloud, he was probably completely oblivious to whatever attraction you had to him, so you can go ahead and stop feeling so embarrassed about it.”

Dilly-dally, shilly-shally.  Get to the point, Tifa.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  “You know…I knew Zack too.  Briefly.  I saw you two together on the Nibelheim mission, remember?  Cloud…you and him had a connection that was special.  Whether it was romantic or not, I don’t know, and it doesn’t even really matter, to be honest.  You cared about each other a lot—you had to, in order to get through what you did.  What I’m trying to say is—”

Cloud startled her by pulling her right out of her chair and into a tight hug.  Tifa reciprocated, wrapping her arms around his waist and rubbing small circles on his back.

A minute or so later, Cloud spoke into her hair.  “I…think I understand now, Tifa.  Whatever feelings I had for Zack turned from a crush…into something more like what I feel for you now, and—” she felt his arms shiver around her “—it broke me when he died, because…I loved him.  I knew that before…but it feels different now, if that makes sense.  I love you so much, Tifa.”

Tifa could feel moisture on her scalp, and knew Cloud must be crying.  She would too, if she’d just remembered something of that much importance.  Tifa pulled away a little bit and wiped the tears off his face before she started tearing up as well.

“I love you too,” she said softly, lifting her brown eyes to meet his blue ones.  “And you’re going to be alright, Cloud.”

“…I think I need to change the way I’ve been thinking about some things,” he said, looking back towards the bar.  “I’ve been going around for the past three years making myself feel guilty for my failures, but…that doesn’t fix anything, does it?  There’s so much here and now…you’ve been there for me through everything, Tifa.   And I want to be there for you too.  More than I have been.”

Cloud took a few shaky breaths before continuing.  “And Denzel, and Marlene, and all of our friends.  I’ve been relying on you all to keep me sane for years…and I’ve never even really tried to return the favor, except to beat things up.  I want to change that, Tifa,” he said resolutely.

I can’t believe how oblivious he is sometimes.  She stepped back from the hug and ruffled his hair, making him jump back in surprise.  “…why’d you do that?” Cloud asked.

Tifa just shook her head, beaming.  “Cloud, you’ve already been doing all those things.  You’ve been trying so hard to be a good friend to everyone these past months, and you’ve been doing a great job of it.  You’re just the only one who’s too thick-skulled to see it.”

Cloud’s face went a little pink again.  “…Really?”

“Yes, really!” Tifa confirmed.  “You’ve been like that your whole life, Cloud.  We all think you’re a wonderful person, even if you get a little broody sometimes.  All you need to do is see that for yourself.”

They hugged again, and Cloud left to make his deliveries before too much of the day went by.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Reno had been having one hell of a week.

Rufus had called the four of them in for a mandatory meeting on Monday morning.  He’d even called Reno specifically, threatening to dock his pay if he decided to skip.  Whatever it is, it better be fuckin’ important, he’d thought.

And important it was.  Rufus had scheduled a call to Reeve Tuesti himself, and it wasn’t about money.  It was about a hit list.

It wasn’t technically a hit list, as the WRO leader clarified several times for whatever reason, but any list of targets might as well have been a hit list in the redhead’s mind.  Blame the Turk training.  Either way, Rufus was a target of some apparently-random mako-enhanced dude.  Who Reeve didn’t seem to know anything about.

Well, Reno took issue with that statement.  He knew from experience and intuition that the chances of this fucker actually being random were very small, and that the last time some lone wolf ex-SOLDIER went around wrecking things, it had resulted in the biggest shitstorm Gaia had ever seen.  So help me, if this has anything to do with gaiadamn Jenova, I am out, yo.

Reeve hadn’t given them a physical description of the guy beyond “tall” and “wears dark colors,” which was true of pretty much every SOLDIER ever, so it was a decidedly unhelpful piece of information.

Anyhow, Rufus had decided to do his usual dance with danger and not leave Healin.  For whatever reason.  So Tseng had put the four of them on extra shifts, with three of them guarding their boss at all times.  It resulted in some gaiadamn grumpy Turks, since now none of them had gotten a break from work to do anything besides nap in four days.

And worse, while Reno was cast away from his usually carefree existence into a world of boring, incessant guard duty, certain other people seemed to be having a grand old time.

Strife, for instance.  The fucker dropped by Thursday morning for his usual deliveries, looking positively chipper.  Cloud Strife was never chipper, at least not in the several years Reno had known him.  “What’s making you so happy, yo?” Reno asked.  “Get lucky?”

Cloud gave him a predictable glare, but there wasn’t any fight behind it.  He’d never appreciated having dirty jokes (or any sexual references, actually) made around him, especially at his expense.  Which was why Reno made them so often.  It was a thing now.

But to his surprise, Cloud actually dropped the glare after a second and laughed.  An actual laugh.  From the moodiest man in no-longer-Midgar.

 His eyebrows shot up to what felt like right under his goggles.  “Seriously though, why’re you in such a cheery mood?”

“…I’m just feeling better than usual,” Cloud said plainly.

If I didn’t know better, I’d be convinced he’s gotten laid, Reno thought.  “It’s cause Gaia took your grumpy-ass aura and gave it to me, yo,” he replied.  “I haven’t had a break since Monday morning.”

“Guard duty, huh?”

Reno groaned.  “I’m bored and exhausted, yo,” he said.  “Tseng is being real strict about this guard rotation.”

“If it makes you feel any less cranky,” the blond said, “Tifa’s offering free drinks to you four once this mess is cleared up.  We…really appreciate your help.”

“It’s just our jobs, yo.  No need to get so sentimental.  But I’ll take up the offer for drinks once our little Winter SOLDIER shows up,” Reno said with a wink.  “See you whenever.”

“Bye, Reno.”

The rest of Thursday and Friday went by without anything eventful occurring.  Reno worked, slept.  Worked.  Took a nap standing up.  Was chewed out by Elena (Tseng was off-duty at the time).  Worked some more.

Friday night came around.  The redhead Turk had on a pair of Rude’s sunglasses to help his caffeine headache—he’d had more cups of coffee that day than was probably advisable.  He was guarding the lower level of the lodge with Elena, while Tseng was keeping watch over Rufus upstairs.

“You look ridiculous with both the goggles and the sunglasses,” Elena observed, with that classic combination of annoyingness and professionalism that irked the redhead to no end.

Reno scoffed.  “I can’t take off the goggles!  They’re a part of my aesthetic.”

“Then take off the sunglasses!”

“But I have a headache, yo!”

They went on teasing each other for another few seconds, until Elena promptly put her hand over his mouth mid-sentence.  “Stop,” she whispered, “I think he’s here.”

Reno took off the sunglasses and looked out the window.  Sure enough, some sketchy dude was making his way towards the lodge, avoiding the moonlight by sticking to tree cover.  He definitely had a SOLDIER’s build, and was wearing some sort of black combat uniform.  He had a hood up to cover his hair, and a mask and goggles obscured his face.

“Well he’s doing a damn good job of keeping himself anonymous, yo,” Reno said.  “I take back what I said about Reeve’s description.  I can’t come up with anything better.”

Elena swore under her breath.  “I think he heard you,” she whispered.  “He just took out some…katanas?  What kind of weapons are those?”

Their target had taken two blades out of his belt and was looking, it seemed, directly at them.  “Take out your gun, Elena,” Reno growled, getting his EMR ready.  “He might be looking for a fight.”

The man in question approached the wall and tilted his head to one side, as if thinking how to approach.  Without warning, he took one of the blades…and drove it square into the side of the building.

“Not really what I was expectin’ him to do, yo,” Reno whispered.  “Oh, fuck…Elena, go upstairs and warn Tseng.  He’s gonna scale the wall with those things.”

The blonde woman nodded and darted upstairs while Reno opened the front door and stepped out into the crisp night air.  The man was halfway up the building when the upstairs window opened and Tseng started shooting.

As Reeve had predicted, the man in black chose not to fight.  He drew his knees to his chest, gripped his swords, and did a backflip off of the wall, landing in a deep stance.  Shows off as much as any one of those old SOLDIERs, Reno thought.

He made a dash for the front door, which Reno was rather conveniently still standing in front of.  Ha…it’s stuff like this that makes the job worthwhile, yo.

The Turk cocked his EMR over his shoulder.  “I’m afraid you won’t be leaving with Rufus today, or any other day yo,” he said with a healthy amount of dramatic flair.  “You’re in Turks’ jurisdiction, slick.”

At the word “slick,” the mysterious ex-SOLDIER dropped his blades and started…shaking?  The hell?  Whatever he was doing, it didn’t matter, because Elena had joined him at the door.

The blonde Turk held up her gun and pointed it right at Rufus’s would-be kidnapper, taking advantage of the moment of weakness.  Just as her finger honed in on the trigger, however, their target shot out an arm, grabbed her wrist, and disarmed her, all in in the blink of an eye.

Reno aimed his EMR right at the probably-ex-SOLDIER’s neck and struck gold.  He let out a pained yell and dropped Elena, who immediately retaliated with an elbow to the mask.

The redhead was back to fighting too, though he couldn’t help but be distracted by the man’s voice.  I’ve heard that voice before, he thought, as he aimed blow after blow.  Some hit, but the man was doing a good job of protecting his neck, and the armor he was wearing on the rest of his body seemed to be shockproof.

Eventually, Reno stopped trying to electrocute the man and started going for one of his blades.  The EMR might be ineffective for this fight, but he could work a katana well enough to gain the upper hand.

Elena had backed off a bit and was aiming gunshot after gunshot at the winter SOLDIER.  She landed a lot of solid hits, but Reno knew anyone as enhanced as this guy couldn’t be taken down by bullets unless there were a hell of a lot more of them—any damage she caused would just get healed by the mako.  That reminded him—the former First Class, Fair, who was on the run with Strife all those years ago—it had taken an entire platoon of men with guns to take him down.  And this was after he’d already been weakened from being on the run.  Better grab that katana quick, yo.

The man attacking him now was probably much stronger than Fair had been, and fought more fiercely than anyone the Turk had ever been up against, besides Strife.  Reno had managed to avoid taking too much damage so far, but he was starting to lose energy, and Tseng hadn’t shown up to help yet.

In a brief moment of victory, Reno wrenched the man’s left blade out of his hand.  This is too heavy to be a katana.  It’s more like a…oh no.

At the loss of one of his weapons, their attacker cocked his head to the side for a moment, and Reno would bet all the liquor in Edge that he was going through the same thought process.  Elena landed a shot to the attacker’s back, and he suddenly leapt back into the action.

Putting both hands on the hilt of the blade as if it was more like a broadsword than a katana, the winter SOLDIER spun away from Reno and struck Elena in the temple with the flat of the blade before the other Turk had any time to react.  She crumpled to the ground, whether dead or concussed Reno didn’t know and didn’t have time to find out.

“TSENG!” he shouted as their attacker turned back around to face him.  Reno wouldn’t be able to hold off the man for very long like this.  He knew how to fight with a katana…but these blades definitely weren’t katanas, and the ex-SOLDIER’s brute strength and superhuman speed would overcome his own agility very soon.

He had to appreciate Tseng’s timing, as ironic as it was, because it was just as the Wutaian was within sight that their attacker struck the flat of his blade to Reno’s skull, and everything went black.

 

---------------------------------

 

Sunday morning, Tifa was making brunch with Marlene.  Barret was coming to visit today, and his daughter wanted to help with the cooking.

“Can you get a stick of butter from the fridge?” Tifa asked, breaking eggs over a bowl.  They weren’t going to make anything fancy.  Just a lot of pancakes, and all the spare toppings they could find before Barret arrived in—she glanced at the clock on the opposite wall—twenty minutes.

Marlene set the butter on the counter just as Cloud meandered downstairs, yawning.  He was wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, in sharp contrast to his usual outfit.

“Cloud, you look…well, not fancy,” Marlene said with a giggle.  “But nice.”

Both adults giggled as well (although Cloud’s was more of an undignified snort), and he pulled up a chair to the bar.  “Anything I can do to help?” he asked.

“Wake up Denzel, if you don’t mind,” Tifa offered.  “Barret’s due to arrive in less than a half hour, and I want him at least as dressed as you are,” she added with a smirk.

“I’ll make sure he’s wearing the nicest sweatpants he has,” Cloud said teasingly before retreating upstairs.

The brunette was in the middle of flipping pancakes a few minutes later when her phone rang from across the room.  “Marle, can you get that?  It’s probably your father.”

The girl happily skipped over to the table that was set for their brunch and picked up the phone.  She didn’t say hello when picking up, though, and her cheerful expression vanished so quickly that Tifa knew whatever it was, it wasn’t good.

After a moment, Marlene walked back over and handed the phone to Tifa, expression blank.  “Here she is.”

“Tifa, something very alarming has happened,” said a grave voice.  Tseng’s voice.  They never got calls from Tseng.  “I need to get you and Cloud on the phone as soon as possible.”

“I’ll get him,” Tifa said, trying not to sound too worried with one of the kids right there.  “Marlene, I’m gonna need you to finish the pancakes, but don’t touch the stove with your bare hands, alright?”

She bumped into the boys on the stairs, and the look on her face must have given something away because Cloud grabbed her free hand, told Denzel to go help Marlene, and led her upstairs.

Once safely in their joint office, Tifa put the phone on speaker.  “We’re here, Tseng,” she said.  Cloud’s eyes widened, his initial reaction mirroring hers.

“The man you dubbed as the winter SOLDIER showed up at Healin Friday night,” the Turk started, never one for small talk or pleasantries.  “And he’s much more dangerous than Reeve had told us he would be.  He managed to incapacitate Elena, Reno, and myself in a matter of a few minutes and escaped with Rufus.”

Tifa winced involuntarily.  This was bad.  If he was really that powerful, and it came to a battle with Cloud, it wasn’t a sure win.  One look at her best friend told her he was thinking somewhere along the same lines.

“What kept you from calling us sooner?” Tifa asked.

“By ‘incapacitate,’ I meant we were unconscious for more than 24 hours until Rude could revive us, and even then we weren’t clear-headed enough to call until just now.”

“…Damn,” Cloud said.  An understatement.  “Can you give us details?”

Tseng put Reno on the line, who relayed the story as best as he could—their winter SOLDIER was definitely formerly of Shinra, and was very competent with two blades that he described as a hybrid between a katana and a broadsword.  He wasn’t aiming to kill any of the Turks, or they’d all probably be dead, but he did put them out long enough that they had zero clue where he went.  To top it off, thanks to the mask, goggles, and hood, their idea of his physical appearance was even less detailed than they had expected.

“…Damn,” Tifa said once Tseng was back on, echoing the blond’s earlier statement.  “I take it you want us to handle it from here.”

“If you would be so kind,” he confirmed, with a tone more bitter than they were used to hearing from the professional Wutaian.  “If Reeve told us correctly, the winter SOLDIER is going to go after you all next anyway.  So I would suggest—”

“—beating him to the punch,” Cloud finished.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” Tseng said coldly before hanging up.  Tifa would ordinarily be a bit miffed at the Turk’s harshness, but she’d be equally unhappy in his situation.

She looked to Cloud, gauging his reaction.  He met her gaze and clasped their hands together.

“Teef, I’m fine,” he said reassuringly.  “We’ll call up Cid when Barret gets here, pick up everyone else, and go look for Vincent and Rufus.”

“What makes you so confident that this is going to end well?”  Tifa felt she was rightfully concerned, if their target was as powerful as Reno and Tseng had made him seem.  I don’t want you getting hurt again.

“We’ve been in so much more dangerous situations than this,” he answered patiently.  “This guy isn’t aiming to kill—he’s aiming to capture.  And,” he added with a smirk, “the eight of us are better warriors than the Turks anyway.  Especially since we’re familiar with a SOLDIER’s combat style.”

She couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth of that.  “I’ll call Cid now and get arrangements for a Highwind trip going,” she said pragmatically.  “You go downstairs and fill Barret in once he gets here.”

Getting to work, Tifa couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia along with the expected anxiety.  Yes, AVALANCHE was going off to find (and possibly fight) some unknown man who had unknown motives and more power than they’d dealt with in a while—but they were doing it together.

Chapter Text

That night, in the Highwind’s spacious cockpit, seven friends were gathered for a rescue mission.  Cloud looked around, trying to decide how to start—taking charge like this still didn’t come naturally, despite how often he’d done it.

Barret was standing in his usual spot, where he could see the sky.  After they’d eaten all of the pancakes the girls had made, he had driven the kids to Elmyra’s house in Kalm while they waited for Cid to arrive with the airship.  Barret always looked imposing, but he cut a sterner figure than usual, looking at Cloud expectantly.

Cid was at the controls, his copy of LOVELESS sitting on one side of the console.  He’d decided to go see it with Shera after the mess with Meteor had ended, and…was asleep for most of it again.  The grizzled pilot really wasn’t one to pay attention to theater.  But she had bought him a copy of the script sometime afterwards, and though he never read it, he kept it in the cockpit out of respect for his assistant-turned-partner.

Yuffie was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the cockpit, with her head between her knees.  Her motion sickness was just as bad as Cloud’s had been as a teenager, and she normally wouldn’t even be in the cockpit, but she had been very vocal about wanting to hear the plan.  Despite her materia-stealing antics during Meteor, the ninja had grown to be an incredibly dedicated and reliable ally.

Reeve hadn’t joined them, his position with the WRO being too consistently demanding for him to leave their headquarters.  But Cait Sith was there in his stead, megaphone and all.  Cloud remembered fondly how confused he, Tifa, and Barret had been their first time in ShinRa HQ, finding one of those megaphones in a locker room.  For the whimsical design, the cat made an effective robot.

Nanaki was standing near Vincent’s usual spot, looking as serious as Cloud had ever seen him.  He had never fully come clean about his grandfather’s death years ago, but he’d grown up soon afterwards and taken on his role as protector of Cosmo Canyon with grace and dignity.  Nanaki had grown closer to their missing friend than any of them had really expected, and seemed subdued without the ex-Turk present.

Tifa was standing on Cloud’s left side, in the same spot as when they were fighting Meteor.  After the conversation with Tseng, she’d been the one to call everyone else and fill them in on the situation, while Cloud tried to strategize.  Thankfully, the problem wasn’t a giant apocalyptic space rock this time around.

“Yo Spiky, are we gonna get this show on the road or what?” Barret asked, startling Cloud from his thoughts.

“Sorry,” he answered, “…I was just reminiscing.”

“Urk—Cloud, I think we all were,” Yuffie said, looking up momentarily, “but can you—hurk—give us the plan before I get sick?”

“Yeah, I don’t want any fuckin’ vomit on this nice flooring,” Cid added.  “Tell us what’s up so we can get on with it.”

“Well,” he started, feeling very self-conscious of the way he was standing, “I think going to investigate the lab again should be our first move.  That’s the only location we know the winter SOLDIER goes consistently, and even if he’s not holding Vincent and Rufus there, we might find some clues.”

 “I agree that it’s a good place to begin, Cloud,” Nanaki said in his usual philosophical way, “but what will we do afterwards, assuming we can locate them?  This man has you as a target, too.”

“We’ll camp out somewhere and wait for him to find us,” the blond answered with a shrug.  “I don’t know what else we could do.  Hopefully, when he shows up, we can…it would be nice if we could resolve this without fighting him, but it seems like that won’t be an option.”

“Why wait?” Cait Sith asked.  “We lose the element of surprise that way.”

“We have no idea how to track him,” Tifa answered, “but he seems pretty capable of finding us.  So we’ll just have to be ready when he gets there.”

“That simple, huh?” Barret said with a chuckle.  “Well, I’m not complainin’.  I never liked overly-complicated plans.”

Everyone else nodded in assent.  It’s not like I’ve ever been able to come up with a more solid plan, Cloud thought.  Check out someplace obvious.  Find clues.  Fight.  Repeat.  That’s how it’s always been.

“I can land the airship on the Wutai mainland,” Cid told them after a moment, “but we’ll have to take the chocobos to the cave.  We’ll be there in a few hours.  Y’all should get some shuteye.”

Without much further conversation, the six other AVALANCHE members went to find places to sleep or otherwise rest up.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Cloud’s nap started out restless.  His motion sickness only went away while he actively thought about other things, and sleep wasn’t very conducive to good focus.  His stomach tied itself into knots and waves of nausea swept over Cloud’s whole body as he fell into an uneasy sleep.

He saw Aerith in his mind’s eye, casting Planet Protector on the party as they battled Touch Me frogs outside Gongaga.  He saw her face upon seeing the ruined town, full of compassion for its suffering people.  He saw her own expression turn to one of suffering when an elderly couple inquired about their son.  He saw Tifa’s expression become something similar, saw her denial at knowing anything about the missing SOLDIER.  He saw himself, oblivious to his own role in it—wearing the dead man’s clothes, carrying his sword.

Cloud saw Aerith in the sleeping forest, telling him to take care of himself, and that she would come back when it was all over.  He saw her praying for Holy in the forgotten city, saw Sephiroth drop from the skies and drive his sword through her back.  He saw the life leave her kind green eyes and felt some of the light leave his own heart.

He saw himself losing his humanity, apologizing to Tifa for never living up to being ‘Cloud.’  He saw himself hand the apocalypse to Sephiroth without hesitation, saw himself curl up on the ceiling in a haze of panic, saw himself fall into the planet’s lifeblood as the cave collapsed around them.

Then he saw…white feathers.  They fell from the top of a shapeless space, caressing his face and falling at his feet.  He looked at them with reverence and wonderment, knowing they were important somehow.  The feathers disappeared, and the shapeless space gave way to a reactor he had seen far too many times.

He saw a fallen hero do battle with his best friend, saw him cast Zack aside like a broken rag doll.  He saw a blond trooper, empowered with love and rage, pick up a sword that was too big for him and cut into the general’s side.  He saw the shocked look on Sephiroth’s face, annoyed that someone as insignificant as Cloud could do damage to him.  He saw the trooper walk out, looking at his injured friends helplessly.  He could hurt, but he could not heal.

He watched as Sephiroth thrust the Masamune through his chest, lifting the blond off the ground in a demonstration of power.  He watched himself defy the expectations of everyone and everything, and use the leverage he still had to drive the sword further into his chest and throw the silver-haired madman into the Lifestream itself.  He watched three teenagers bleed out on the reactor floor.

The reactor disappeared, and Cloud saw himself struggle to find clarity in a sea of mako.  He saw himself sitting on a wooden chair under an apple tree.  He saw himself slung helplessly over Zack’s shoulder, as his friend walked away from a man in a worn-looking red coat.  He saw a yellow truck, and read promises on Zack’s lips.

He watched himself raise an arm in protest, as Zack left to pay the price for their freedom.

Cloud watched as the former SOLDIER fought off what looked like an entire army, all so he would have a chance to keep living.  He watched as six bullets went straight through his friend’s back, watched as he fell to the ground in a pool of blood.  Watched as the remaining soldiers left them both on the cliff to die.

He watched the rain fall, watched himself crawl over to where Zack lay.  He saw the dying man lift one arm up to grip the back of Cloud’s head, and pull him down to where his heart lay open and bleeding.  He watched as Zack simultaneously comforted him and placed what felt like the weight of the whole world on Cloud’s shoulders.  He watched himself scream in anguish, promise to remember, and leave his friend behind forever.

The white feathers returned, a new addition to an old memory.  Cloud watched himself drag his friend’s legacy across the wasteland as the white feathers reached down to lift Zack off of the ground.  But when the feathers retreated, his body still lay there.  A sudden wave of dread and nausea washed over Cloud, sending both the feathers and the visions away in an instant.

He opened his eyes and sat straight up, banging his head on the underside of the conference table.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Just nightmares.

After rubbing the spot where he hurt his head, Cloud crawled out and looked at the clock.  He’d been asleep for all of two hours.  So much for resting up, he thought as he walked back towards the cockpit.

He found Cid lazily working the controls, looking out at the starry sky.  “What’re you doing up so soon, kid?” Cid asked, with his usual touch of irritation.

“Nightmares,” Cloud said succinctly.  “I can take over, if you want to get some sleep.”

Cid just grunted.  “I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep,” he admitted.  “Too much shit on my mind.”  The pilot lit a cigar and took a long drag from it before speaking again.  “Can I ask you a question, kid?”

Cloud nodded and leaned onto the railing.

“You built that motorbike of yours, right?” Cid asked in a decidedly non-questioning manner.  “If you’ve got such a knack for machines, how come you’re not doing that for a living instead of deliverin’ people’s clean laundry?”

“It’s…hard to explain,” he admitted, looking out at the ocean below them.  “I usually have this…tension inside.  It’s like I can’t loosen up unless I’m on the run, or fighting something, or solving problems.”  Cloud turned to Cid, who nodded in sympathy.  “Making deliveries…is not very satisfying.  But riding Fenrir through the open air and the exhilaration of fighting monsters helps to clear my head.  I think it has to do with living through too much war, or something like that.”

“I think that makes sense, kid,” the pilot responded thoughtfully after a moment.  “I don’t really feel like myself unless I’m either flyin’ something or working on it.  But I still think you’d make a real solid mechanic, if that’s ever something you want to do.”

“…Thanks, Cid,” Cloud responded, a bit flustered at the unexpected compliment.  “I’ll, uh, think about it.”

They stood in companionable silence for the next few hours, until the coast of Wutai became visible on the horizon, and the rest of their friends began trickling back in.

 

---------------------------------

 

The trek over the mountains did not take very long, as the mountain chocobos were well-trained in traveling quickly, even under cover of nightfall.  The sun was just starting to rise as the group approached the cave.

Cait Sith had gone in first, in case the winter SOLDIER was waiting in ambush.  Once the robotic cat came back out and gave them a cheerful thumbs-up, Yuffie went in, with Cloud close behind her.

“Thank Gaia, you two are all right,” the she said once they were inside.

Vincent and Rufus had both been tied down on one side of the cave, away from the computers.  Cloud and Yuffie got to work undoing their restraints, while Rufus provided his usual commentary and the rest of AVALANCHE filed in behind them.

“Whoever that man is, he is at least as strong as you, Cloud,” Rufus said appraisingly.  “I was very impressed by his fighting abilities, especially for someone who should probably be dead.”

“What do you mean, ‘should probably be dead?’” Yuffie asked indignantly.  The former executive’s habit of withholding information had caused the group major problems on multiple occasions.  “Did you recognize him?  Do you know who he is?”

Vincent broke his silence, standing up and stretching his arms.  “Our attacker not once removed his mask or goggles.  He did put down his hood once, though.  Dark hair.  Long in the back, untamed.”

“That matches my impression of him from a few weeks ago,” Yuffie confirmed.   “Wild black hair, mako eyes, and the posture of a SOLDIER.”

She’s known what he looks like the whole time?  “Wait,” Cloud said, “why didn’t you give us that detail when we talked about this a few weeks ago?”

Yuffie gave him a sheepish look as their other friends helped Rufus outside.  “Well, you’d looked a bit shaken from whatever it was you’d remembered,” she admitted.  “I thought giving you the detailed version might make it worse.”

“I’m a little stronger than that now, Yuffie,” he replied.  “…but thanks.”  Gaia, she’s really grown up.

Yuffie sighed, looking down at her shoes.  “There’s something else, too.  He seemed…familiar somehow.  As if I’d met him before, a long time ago.  It’s really bothering me that I can’t place the connection.”

The blond put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder and squeezed reassuringly.  “You were a kid when ShinRa was invading Wutai.  SOLDIERs were in high demand back then…believe me, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to get in if they weren’t.  He could have been someone you’ve seen before…but after we find him, we’ll know for sure, okay?”

I want to know who he is too, Yuffie.  And why he’s doing…whatever he’s doing.

Cait Sith motioned for him to come closer to the computers.  “I’m going to download these files, to see if we can analyze them later,” the cat said.  “Hopefully we can set up an emulator of this console, and figure out how to decrypt all of this data.  I’ll be ready to leave in a few minutes.”

Cloud nodded and moved outside with the rest of the group.  “So, Vincent,” he said, “why’d you let yourself get captured?”

Vincent’s stoic expression did not change.  “I thought that if I went along, perhaps I would get some valuable information.”  Classic Vincent.

“And?” Barret asked, waving his prosthetic arm back towards the cave’s entrance.  “You see anything good?”

“The man in black snuck up on me while I was travelling some days ago, and struck me in a way that would have concussed anyone else.  I chose to feign unconsciousness, to see what would happen.  When we arrived here, he tied me down the way you found me, and approached the computer.  I couldn’t see what was on the screen, but I heard a recorded version of…Hojo’s voice.  ‘You do not know her,’ he said.  ‘You do not know anyone.  You are merely a tool, a means to an end.’”

If Hojo was involved…we’re gonna have a bad time trying to reason with this guy, if any of his original self is still there.  Hopefully I won’t have to kill him…

“You’re telling me that sick Jenova-loving bastard is somehow responsible for this?!” Cid interrupted.

“This must have been an old project of his,” Cloud speculated.  “Something he set up so that it would keep going even after he died.  He held his…experiments in higher regard than everything else in life.”

“That does sound like Hojo,” Rufus agreed.  “Always trying to cause chaos, with or without reason.”

“That’s not the most interesting part,” Vincent continued, pointedly ignoring Rufus’s choice of words.  “The man grabbed his head as if something was attacking him from the inside, and started to shake until the computer told him rather angrily to go to sleep.  Then he opened the strange mako tank, climbed inside, and locked the door.  This process repeated itself after he returned with Rufus.  He’s been gone since then.”

“Did he ever actually say anything?” Tifa asked.  “Or was he silently following orders?”

“The computer seemed to have more control over him than he did over himself,” Vincent answered.  “In any case, I would say the program was communicating directly with something in the man’s brain.”

Hojo’s projects…only one way to find out.  “I’m gonna check it out,” Cloud decided, against all better judgment.  “If that’s really the case, it’ll probably affect me, too.  Maybe I can help figure out what exactly is going on here.”

His idea was met immediately with a chorus of no’s, Tifa’s the firmest.  “Cloud…are you sure you want to do that?  What if it’s Jenova?”

“…It’s just a computer,” he said nonchalantly, although his nervous hands and rising heartbeat betrayed him.  “I’ll be fine, and as long as you guys are guarding the entrance and the tank I shouldn’t be able to do anything stupid.”

After an uneasy silence, the group seemed to realize they wouldn’t be able to sway him on this.  Cloud reentered the cave and approached the computer console, not sure what to expect.

He knew something was seriously wrong as soon as he turned it on.

His head felt like it was in a blender, and he reflexively brought his hands to his ears as if to block out the sound.  What the hell…?  This definitely wasn’t Jenova’s influence, or anything else he’d experienced before—it felt much deeper, and very wrong in a way he couldn’t place.  Cloud couldn’t move, couldn’t think.  Images started flashing in his mind—images of himself, during the most shameful and lost part of his life.

Struggling for control, Cloud commanded the voices to change, to do something else.  That wasn’t who he was anymore.  The images morphed together, creating an identity without a name, without a face, without any clear purpose but to obey…obey who, exactly?  He didn’t want to be a puppet, never again.  …Who was he?  Why was he here?

After what seemed like an eternity, he started to win out over the shell of his former self.  I’m not a puppet, he shouted into the void.  I choose my own path!  My purpose…is to live my life out in peace.  And it’s my life, it doesn’t belong to anyone but me.  I’m a warrior, a friend, a human being…my name is Cloud Strife, damn it!

At the recollection of his own name, the pain and the confusion all went away in an instant.  Cloud opened his eyes and saw, to his great relief, the morning sunlight streaming in from the roof of the cave—he had returned to reality, seemingly with no lasting damage.  He lifted his hand in a shaky thumbs-up, indicating he was alright.

Tifa immediately walked over, grabbed his hand, and pulled him up into a tight hug.  “…I’m glad you’re okay,” she said, rubbing circles into his back in the way she knew would ground him.  “But I think you screwed up the computer.”

Sure enough, it only took once glance to see that the console was displaying a long string of error messages.  “…How did that happen?” he asked.  “Did I attack it somehow?”

“If you did, it was with your mind,” Nanaki answered from the other side of the cave.

“From where I was standin’,” Barret added with some hesitation, “it looked an awful lot like the fits you used to have back when you were workin’ for me.  You grabbed your head and fell down.  Then the computer busted and you woke up.”

“Did it feel like Jenova at all?” Tifa asked softly.

Cloud shook his head, broke free of her embrace, and went back to the console.  The screen was displaying a few messages repeatedly, and the blond took a few moments to catch all of them.  “Source code overwritten.  Starting backup operating system,” he said, more to himself than to the group.  What is going on here?  What’s the source code, if I could change it with my mind?

“What the fuck does that even mean?” Cid asked around his cigar.  “You can’t reprogram something without actually interactin’ with the computer…”

“…We should go.”  Cloud said after a moment, feeling more violated than he had in a long while.  He really didn’t want to think about the implications of Hojo’s final experiment until they were safely out of here.  “I have a theory, and I’ll explain it on the way back to Edge, but we should leave before the winter SOLDIER comes back and finds we trashed the place.”

A consensus was made to talk about it later, and AVALANCHE returned to the mainland with Rufus in tow.

 

---------------------------------

 

It was mid-afternoon by the time the Highwind landed on the wastelands outside Midgar.  They had no trouble choosing the location—the barren fields had no natural life that could be destroyed in a battle, and the winter SOLDIER would probably come looking near here anyway.  There also weren’t any skyscrapers out here to bound off of, meaning if it came to a fight, it would largely be ground-based.

Cloud’s theory was incomplete and troubling, to say the least, so he was reluctant to share it while Rufus was still with them.  He’d held off on the explanation until after Reno’s favorite helicopter had flown away in a storm of sunset-colored dust.  If the winter SOLDIER showed up anytime soon, the battle would be under cover of darkness.

After having several hours to reflect on the morning’s events, Cloud had arrived at something like a conclusion.  The invasion to his mind was all-encompassing in a way that he had never experienced before.  Jenova’s and Sephiroth’s influence usually aimed straight for the fear and motor areas of his mind, causing him to act in ways he didn’t want, but leaving him unable to resist due to being, well, absolutely terrified.

In contrast, the episode in the cave was a direct attack on Cloud’s perceptions of himself, and felt like a much more acute version of a mako-poisoning coma.  Except…it wasn’t the same.  Both of his battles with mako poisoning had involved his identity being overshadowed by someone else’s.  Zack’s the first time, Sephiroth’s (perhaps, he still wasn’t sure) the second.  And while he had felt distinctly off both times, it wasn’t as fundamentally wrong as what he’d felt from the computer.

No, it had been worse.  His own past identity—the one who nearly killed Aerith and who handed Sephiroth the keys to destruction—had tried to take over.  And in refusing to submit to…himself, Cloud had managed to override the operating system.

He explained this theory as best as he could, and thankfully, he hadn’t needed to say anything more for his friends to understand what he was trying to get at.

“You think Hojo had programmed the computer to communicate with your cells?” Cait Sith summarized.  “But why would he do that, if he was intending on acting through the winter SOLDIER?”

“I think it’s pretty damn likely that he injected some of my cells into the guy,” Cloud answered with a grim expression.  “After all, I proved to be a much better puppet than any of the others, didn’t I?  And Hojo was always going on about how I was ‘such an interesting experiment,’ or something like that.  I think…whoever this winter SOLDIER was before, his mind was more resistant and more resilient than Hojo liked.”

“How would that even work, though?” Tifa asked, giving Cloud a searching look.  “Injecting some other person with your genetic material makes sense—he was trying to turn people into Sephiroth clones the same way.  But…that doesn’t explain what the computer was trying to do.”

Vincent was the first person to come up with an answer.  “I imagine that, since this man must have had a very strong perception of himself before falling into Hojo’s hands, there would have needed to be constant reinforcement of his non-identity.  Based on what I saw…it must have been forcing the puppet mindset onto him whenever he felt like he might remember something of his past life.”

“You’re probably right,” Cloud agreed.  “All things considered…I don’t want to have to kill anyone else, but if his actions at Healin are any indication, we might not have a choice.”

“And we don’ have any time to discuss it, either,” Barret said gravely, pointing his gun arm towards the setting sun.  “Here he comes.”

The winter SOLDIER, clad in the same mask and hood the Turks had described him wearing, seemed to understand that he would not have the element of surprise here.  He practically sauntered onto the battlefield, standing directly across from Cloud, as if daring him to make the first move.

Cloud couldn’t help but smirk, ready for a good fight.  “All right, everyone,” he said.  “Let’s mosey.”

Cid howled with laughter at that, despite the seriousness of their situation, and the blond definitely heard his other friends snicker.  They all took up their fighting stances, ready to face the threat at hand.

The man in black made a dramatic picture, setting sun to his back, as he took out his blades and moved towards Cloud.

Deciding not to pull his punches, the blond split First Tsurugi into two blades as he lunged at the other man.  Surprisingly, the hooded warrior had no trouble whatsoever dodging to the side, and Cloud’s sword met air.

The battle started in high gear.  The eight friends had not battled anyone so strong or fast together since Sephiroth in the Northern Crater three years ago.  Cloud unleashed strike after strike, never once touching the man.  Tifa’s punches and kicks met thin air.  Yuffie’s shuriken nearly cut into Vincent at one point, whose gunshots bounced off the ex-SOLDIER’s armor like pebbles.  Cid’s aerial attacks ate dust, and Nanaki was faring no better.  Cait’s megaphone was virtually useless in the fray.  Their attacker was everywhere and nowhere all at once, slipping through their fingers like ink.

Potions were tossed around the battlefield.  The sunset was exceptionally beautiful tonight, but no one was watching.  The battle was like a violent dance, exceptionally similar to their past battles in that their attacker was more interested in wearing them down than in ending it quickly.

Night fell, and at some point it had started to rain.

Most of AVALANCHE was losing momentum, only staying on their feet thanks to the adrenaline in their systems.  In contrast, the winter SOLDIER never seemed to tire, and eventually started to gain the upper hand.

Cait Sith was the first one down.  The hooded swordsman had somehow managed to block Cloud’s overhead strike with one blade, while slicing clean through Cait’s body with the other.  It’s still seven-to-one.

It became clear after a few more minutes that the winter SOLDIER was aiming to knock down all of Cloud’s allies first before going for his target, the same way he did at Healin a week ago.  Cloud possessed superhuman speed, but their attacker was faster still, and hell-bent on avoiding him directly.  Yuffie was knocked unconscious mid-throw by what seemed to be his favorite concussion-inducing strike.  Nanaki rather unfortunately found himself head-butting the flat of that same blade a few moments later.  Five of us left standing.

In an acrobatic move that left Cloud more impressed than anything else, the hooded warrior rolled away from Cid just as the pilot was bearing down from above, got to his feet in a fraction of a second, and delivered a powerful backfist to the head.  Cloud was becoming more worried by the second, but he couldn’t give up.  He wouldn’t let himself be captured, not when he had absolutely no idea what was at stake.

The fighters who were still standing moved into support roles.  Vincent, with his gunning skills not very effective in this fight (and probably not willing to summon Chaos for fear of killing their attacker), moved their unconscious friends back towards the airship.  Barret launched explosive after explosive in the winter SOLDIER’s direction, but he could only do so much with Cloud also in the line of fire.  Tifa alternated between tossing potions to Cloud and aiming kicks at the man in black.

The storm continued to grow, the ground becoming treacherously slippery.  Tifa and Cloud had the man surrounded on two sides, but he leapt high into the air, landing several feet away and right on top of Barret.  Two-on-one.

Tifa had run out of potions, but she and Cloud redoubled their attacks, using every combo they had ever come up with during their usual sparring matches.  Punches, kicks, and sword swings filled the air with the sounds of battle.  They had both taken damage—Cloud to his left arm and Tifa to her right ankle, but they had been able to keep fighting in much worse shape than this.

The fight seemed to rage on for hours, and Cloud could tell that their winter SOLDIER was starting to tire.  His attacks became just a little slower, his jumps just a little lower.  Tifa surprised their attacker by ducking under the swing of his sword and grabbing his legs, going for a suplex.  Unfortunately, the man in black got an elbow to her temple midair, and he landed gracefully while she fell with a sickening thud.

It was ex-SOLDIER against ex-SOLDIER now.

Cloud didn’t usually think during battles.  They were usually too fast for it, especially against enemies as challenging as this one.  A particularly strong gust of wind caused them both to hunch over for a moment, however, and it gave Cloud a second to strategize.  He’d been fighting with two blades this whole time.  Time to change it up.

When the strongest gusts had subsided, Cloud fused the two halves of First Tsurugi, taking up the stance he had used while wielding the Buster Sword.

To his complete surprise, the other man did the same, his two blades fusing together into one broadsword that rivaled Cloud’s in size and weight.

They stood there for a split second, sizing each other up.  The winter SOLDIER’s hood had finally fallen down while the wind was strongest, revealing black hair that, like his, somehow managed to stick out in all directions even with them both being soaked to the bone.  Cloud schooled his expression into one of grim determination, refusing to give the other man any indication that he was ready to throw in the towel, and charged.

The blond put all of his considerable strength into the battle, refusing to give in.  He met the other swordsman strike for strike, the clash of swords creating a dissonant rhythm with the rain and thunder.  It was nearly too dark to see now, but Cloud’s mako eyes adjusted well to the dark, and he knew the same would be true of the other man.

Cloud put the full force of his determination behind every attack, and he slowly but surely gained the upper hand.  The battle moved surprisingly far from the Highwind, approaching a rocky cliff that Cloud knew well.  The winter SOLDIER seemed to be bleeding from several cuts on his arms and torso, and the blond put him on the defensive, driving him towards the cliff with overpowered overhead strikes and wide sweeps of his sword.

Just as the black-haired swordsman reached the edge of the cliff, another strong gust of wind rendered them both immobile.  Cloud couldn’t make anything out clearly through the rain and the darkness, but he saw the outline of the man’s mask and goggles blow away, over the cliff’s edge.  The wind subsided, and several bolts of lightning hit the ground at once, illuminating the other man’s face.

Time froze, and Cloud’s heart suddenly weighed more than all of the souls in the Lifestream.  He would never be able to finish this battle, even if the whole world depended on it.

There was an x-shaped scar on his jaw, one Cloud knew he had gotten from being forced to fight an old mentor on the day they met.  He had lips that were usually smiling in amusement or pouting in contemplation, but were now twisted into a grimace.  Despite everything, he still had that one strand of hair that defiantly bent over to hang in front of his face.  And his eyes…they would haunt him forever.  They had been so full of kindness and courage, and he had watched the light leave them on the worst day of his life.

First Tsurugi fell to the ground.  “...Zack?”

He gave the blond a look of complete incomprehension.  “I’m not—I’m—who’s Zack?”

Cloud was frozen in shock and anguish, unable to do anything but watch helplessly as the other man started to shake, before going unnaturally still.

Chapter Text

Tifa was on her feet again as soon as the healing magic of a Phoenix Down worked its way through her veins.  She saw Vincent working on reviving the others, and gave him a short nod before heading back out into the storm.  Cloud needed help, and he needed it soon if she’d been out for very long.

She followed the sounds of battle towards the cliff where Cloud used to keep the Buster Sword, and a sudden squall nearly knocked her flat.  There was a sudden flash of lightning, and Tifa could just barely make out the silhouettes of the two men about a hundred yards away.  Redoubling her efforts, she kept going.  The absolute insanity of the storm kept her visibility low, and Cloud reached her before she got to the cliff.

He was carrying the other man, bridal-style, and the look on his face was so anguished that Tifa was all too reminded of a different loss, in another place a thousand miles away.  Her eyes traveled down, and—

“Oh Gaia,” she breathed.  “Cloud…is he…?”

“I think so,” he answered, obviously making a valiant effort not to break down.  “We need to get him out of the storm.”

They redistributed Zack’s weight over both of their shoulders, and struggled back towards the airship.

Tifa didn’t ask as they backtracked, but…she wasn’t a fool.  Considering everything they already knew, it was a sure bet that Zack had an unheard-of amount of mako poisoning.  She just hoped they’d be able to make it through this time, too.

When the Highwind came into sight, she saw that the others had gathered around the door, obviously waiting for their return.  They must have heard the fighting stop.

Yuffie gasped and put her hands to her mouth when she saw who was with them, and Barret helped them set Zack down near one of the walls, while the confusion on the others’ faces grew—the expression on Cloud’s was probably more telling than anything they could have said.

“…Cloud, did you know him?” Nanaki asked after a moment.                    

“Yeah…” the blond said, closing his eyes and averting his face.  “Guys…this is Zack.”

The shock on the others’ faces would have been humorous if the situation wasn’t so gaiadamn heartbreaking.

After a tense silence that spoke volumes about the others’ disbelief, Cait Sith spoke up and voiced was everyone was probably thinking.  “…How can you be sure?” the cat asked.  “That it’s really him?  That he’s not…a copy of some sort?”

Tifa saw anger flash in Cloud’s eyes and immediately resolved to call Reeve later and tell him to program some more tactfulness into that robot.  The blond wordlessly moved to Zack’s side and undid the zippers and buckles on the other man’s shirt to reveal a set of scars that could only belong to him.  “There’s your proof,” he growled.  “I give you my word that they’re all in the right places.”

Cait Sith seemed to understand he’d gone over the line, and didn’t say anything more, giving Tifa a chance to take some semblance of control over the situation before Cloud could get more upset.  “Cid, get us back to the bar.  We’ll talk there.”

The short flight passed without any more conversation.  The group comforted Cloud in the small ways they could—Barret’s hand on his shoulder, Tifa’s arm around his waist.  Rubbing small circles.

Once the ship landed again, the friends shuffled into the bar as if they’d never seen the place before.  Cloud immediately carried Zack upstairs, and Tifa was left to set things in order.

“Yuffie, can you go upstairs and help him set up a cot in the office?  I know he can do it on his own, just…make sure he comes back down,” she said, watching the younger woman go upstairs.  “Barret, can you grab a blanket from the laundry room for when he gets back?  Cid, get some tea going.  Vincent, pull out some chairs.”  We need to work together if there’s any chance of getting through this.

Yuffie led Cloud back downstairs a few minutes later, and Tifa got him situated with the warm blanket and a cup of tea while everyone else sat down, the awkwardness thick enough to cut with a knife.

“So…” Barret said slowly, taking great care with his choice of words, “What exactly happened out there, Spiky?”

Cloud looked at his tea like he didn’t remember how to drink it, and then looked up with glassy eyes.  “Well…we…”

“He doesn’t have to talk about it if he doesn’t want to,” Yuffie interrupted.

“Yes he does.  None of us have a damn clue what’s going on,” Cid shot back.  “I don’t understand—”

Did everyone’s bedside manners jump out the window?  “Stop it,” Tifa said forcefully.  “There’s no point in us fighting.  Let Cloud talk.”

He took a few shaky breaths and a sip of the tea before continuing.  “We were fighting, and…the lightning struck, all at once, and his mask came off.  I…I couldn’t…I could never hurt him…”

Cid opened his mouth to interrupt again, but Tifa shot him a glare so full of venom that he held up his hands in a gesture of surrender before looking away.

“I…what was I supposed to do?  I put down my sword, I said his name, and…he didn’t recognize it.”

There it is, then.  Mako poisoning.  Everyone exchanged meaningful looks.  They knew what they were dealing with now.

“What will you do, Cloud?” Nanaki asked.

The blond looked more clear-headed now than he had at any point since leaving the wastelands.  “I’m going to stay by his side until he wakes up.  I’d be a traitor to do anything else after everything he’s done for me.”

Gaia save us now.  It was a painful road to take, but Tifa couldn’t begrudge him for it.  She’d made the same decision years ago, after all.  And she would do it again—take care of him and Zack both while they fought to get him back.

“Why you apologizin’?” Barret asked, the same way he did back in Mideel so long ago.  “We’ll…hell, we’ll do what we did last time.  We’ll head out, do whatever we can to help, and then come back and check on y’all.”

“I’m staying too,” Yuffie said after a moment.  “I want to help…here.”

Tifa was surprised by the younger woman’s decision, but appreciated it all the same.  Gaia knew she could use some help going through this again, and Yuffie’s presence was usually uplifting (if obnoxious) in a way that her own probably wouldn’t be if this went on for very long.

Vincent gave a thoughtful sigh.  “I know this is...taking precedence over other matters, but I’m still concerned as to why this has happened in the first place.  I’ll help Reeve in decrypting the lab files, and in finding out whatever we can…maybe we’ll find something to help Zack.”

Cloud and Tifa both gave approving nods, although the chances of that helping heal mako poisoning were pretty much zero.  Yeah, we probably shouldn’t forget about that list, she thought.  It was meant to do something, even if Zack won’t follow through on it now.

“And I’ll look through my grandfather’s journals again,” Nanaki added.  “He had many theories about these sorts of situations, and although they were all purely hypothetical…there might be something we can try.”

“What about you and me, Barret?” Cid asked over his own cup of tea.

“You had that project you were workin’ on, yeah?” the older man responded.  “Maybe we can get that up and runnin’ before too long.”

“What project?” Tifa asked, glad for a natural change in topic.

“Oh, it’s nothin’ yet,” Cid answered.  “Jus’ a little experiment I was doin’ with some of Reeve’s ideas.”

“Well,” Yuffie said, yawning, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m bushed.  It’s really late…”

Cid gave her a pat on the back and stood up.  “Back in the airship if you wanna get out of here,” he said, motioning for everyone else to leave.  “You hang in there, guys.  Take care of Zack.”

 

---------------------------------

 

Yuffie waited until Tifa had finally turned in for the night (after scolding Reeve on the phone for about ten minutes) before calling home.

“Hey, pumpkin!” Godo answered.  “How are you doing over there?  Isn’t it late?”

“Dad, I’m an adult, you don’t have to call me pumpkin,” she said with exasperation.  “So…here’s the thing…you remember that SOLDIER I used to send emails to?”

“Of course!  How could I forget?  You practically spammed him with challenges to hunt treasure!”  She cringed a bit at the memory of her primitive materia-stealing techniques as her dad chuckled.  “What about him?”

“Well, he’s kind of…reappeared.  We were chasing down that guy who tried to take Mom’s ashes, and it ended up being him.  And it turns out Cloud knew him, too.”

“Really?  Hmm…I take it you’re not coming back to visit anytime soon?”

Yuffie gave a guilty sigh before answering.  “I’m sorry, Dad…he’s got mako poisoning.  I just…I feel like I need to stay.  Cloud’s really down about it, and Tifa’s done enough to keep him sane already.”

“Don’t feel bad about it, pumpkin.  They need you right now more than Wutai or the WRO does…you told them, right?”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” she answered.  “Or it better be, because I’m not leaving for a while.”

“Alright…I can hear you yawning all the way from here.  Goodnight, Yuffie.  Love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

Morning came around faster than she would have liked, and she woke up in Marlene’s bed to the sound of Tifa and Cloud arguing about something.

“He’s my friend, Tifa, I can give him a bath,” she heard him say through the wall.

“What, and your friends can’t be my friends, too?  He’s gonna be everyone’s friend as soon as he wakes up, goofball.  And you’re just going to blush the whole time.”

Wait, what? …Cloud swings that way?  He swings any way?

“Okay, okay.  We’ll do it together.”

After she heard their footsteps retreat into the bathroom, Yuffie climbed out of bed and stretched, going downstairs to make some food.  What time is it…noon?  Gaia, I need to work on waking up at normal times.

She’d just fixed up an egg sandwich when both of her friends walked downstairs.  “Oh, morning Yuffie,” Cloud said, the slight blush on his cheeks not going unnoticed.  Nope, she would make sure to remember that for future technically-not-blackmailing purposes.  “Uh, when’d you wake up?”

“Just a few minutes ago,” she answered.  “What’s the plan today?”

“Well,” Tifa said, as Yuffie took an enthusiastic bite out of her sandwich, “we just got Zack cleaned up, and set up a second cot in the office…I’ll wash all the sheets while you guys go pick up the kids, and then we can decide where everyone’s sleeping.”

Yuffie gave a cheerful thumbs-up in response, since her mouth was full of egg.

A few minutes later, she and Cloud walked outside.  The weather was warm and sunny, and the wind felt good in her hair.

“How are we gonna fit all four of us on that bike of yours?” she asked, eyeing Fenrir with suspicion.

“We’re not taking the bike,” he said in response.  “There’s an old truck that we use sometimes.”

Sure enough, down the street was an old blue truck with “Midgar’s Motor Gals” painted on the side.  Yuffie climbed in the passenger seat while Cloud lit the ignition.

For someone who was so graceful on a motorcycle, Cloud was a surprisingly shitty driver.  She spent most of the ride to Kalm trying to keep her sandwich from making a reappearance.  “Can—you—maybe—swerve—less?” she asked as they veered off the road for about the hundredth time.

“Sorry, Yuffie,” he said, eyes narrowed in concentration.  “I don’t know if you’d believe this…but I never actually learned how to drive.”

“Gee—I never—would have guessed!” Her sarcasm would have been evident to a chipmunk.  “I’m driving back—okay?”

They pulled into Kalm in what seemed like no time at all (probably due to Cloud’s reckless driving), and Yuffie walked up to Elmyra’s door, giving a few knocks.

A moment later, the kind woman opened the door, gesturing for them to come inside.

“I wasn’t expecting you all back so soon,” she said.  “Did it go well?”

Oh, shit.  Yuffie had totally forgotten…Elmyra had known Zack, too.  She gave Cloud a questioning look.  What do we say?

He must’ve figured Mrs. Gainsborough had gotten enough surprises in her life to deal with one more, because he barely hesitated before telling the truth.  “We found Vincent and Rufus without any trouble,” he said.  “The other guy showed up…and it turns out he’s Zack.”

Sure enough, Elmyra took the news like it was nothing.  Her jaw clenched, but her eyes softened.  “So he’s alive after all?”

“It seems like it, yeah,” Cloud answered, looking despondent.  “But he’s got mako poisoning…he didn’t even know who he was.”

Elmyra pulled Cloud in for a brief hug before responding.  “Well, I hope you can get him back,” she said decisively.  “Gaia knows you all deserve some good cheer in your life, and that boy was nothing if not cheerful.”

“Who?” a different voice asked, peeping out from behind the stairs.  Marlene saw Cloud and ran to hug him around the waist.  So many hugs.  Good, he needs them.

“I’ll show you and Denzel once we get back, okay?” he said.  “He’s a friend of mine.”

“You have friends we haven’t met?” the boy in question asked sarcastically, making an appearance.

“That’s not very nice of you,” Yuffie said, putting her hands on her hips.  Denzel just shrugged.  It’s like he’s absorbing all of the snarky parts of Cloud’s personality.

Elmyra waved them all out, and the kids seemed exceptionally relieved to find out that Yuffie was driving them back, which she thought was hilarious.  They peppered Cloud with stories of what they’d done during their two days in Kalm, and Yuffie smiled to herself.  It was really sweet to see him have a family like this.

They walked back into the bar to find Zack conked out on one of the barstools, and Tifa standing nearby with a pair of scissors in hand and a puzzled expression on her face.

“What’re you doing, Teef?”

Their arrival startled her out of her thoughts.  “Oh, um, I was going to…give him a haircut,” she admitted.  “He really needs it…”

Cloud gave them all an I’ve-got-this smirk and took the scissors from Tifa, getting to work on Zack’s tangled mane of hair.

“Who is he, Cloud?” Marlene asked, staring intently at Zack’s peaceful face.

“Did I ever tell you guys about my best friend from while I was in the army?” the blond gave as an answer, trimming the black spikes down to their usual length.

“You mean this is Zack?” Denzel looked incredulous.  “You told us he’d…”

“I know, Denz,” Tifa interrupted.  “We found him last night.  You know how Cloud was sick a few years ago and couldn’t remember a lot of things, and was asleep for a while?”

The kids nodded, having heard that story before.

“Well, now Zack’s sick too, and we’re gonna take care of him until he gets better.”

Cloud gave a frustrated grunt.  “Can somebody hold his head up?  I don’t want to cut his hair too short…”

Yuffie moved in to help, and Tifa swept up the growing pile of black hair while the kids put their things away before returning to watch.

Marlene giggled once Cloud finally put down the scissors.  “His hair is as spiky as yours now!”

He snorted, but the look in his eyes was wistful.  “It was even worse when we first met…”

He told them all little stories about their new charge while he finished up Zack’s haircut, and the next several days passed in a haze of domesticity that Yuffie hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Cloud had opted into sleeping on the second cot in the office, to keep an eye on Zack in case anything happened.  They all respected that, and Yuffie ended up taking his bed for the time being.

Tifa liked to cope by talking things out, and so they passed many of the nights with pillow talk.  The older woman told Yuffie the things she was too kind to tell Cloud.  How he didn’t know yet just how hard it was to be on the other side, to watch someone you love be in so much pain and be powerless to help.  How he seemed hopeful now, but as the time wore on, there would be less and less to distract him from the glaring fact that Zack might never get better.

Yuffie wasn’t blind.  She knew Cloud, and knew that he was like a sort of emotional sponge, absorbing the moods of the people around him.  She knew that Tifa wouldn’t be able to keep up her cheerful façade for very long—that’s why she had decided to stay in the first place, damn it.  And she knew it wouldn’t be fair to place the burden of anyone’s grief on the kids’ shoulders.  So Yuffie took it upon herself to distract them all with the sheer force of her personality, and try to keep their hopes up as best as she could.

She ended up handling most of Cloud’s deliveries—he might as well have been advertising that he was staying at the bar for the foreseeable future, and she refused to let Tifa talk her out of it.  They needed the income, with a few extra people in their home, and she took their old truck to all of Cloud’s usual places (since nothing on Gaia could convince her to drive his monster of a motorcycle).  His usual clients were understandably concerned, and Yuffie gave the best explanations she could for his absence without divulging too much information, since she didn’t know how friendly he was with them.

That is, until her first scheduled delivery to Healin.  Reno seemed almost disappointed to see her at the door instead of Cloud, and immediately asked her how he was holding up, expression more concerned than Yuffie had ever seen it.

“All things considered, he’s not doing too bad,” she answered.  Yet.

“Reeve called us a couple days after you got back, yo,” he said.  “Gaia…if I’d known it was him, I woulda…I dunno.  Done some things differently, maybe.”

“You knew him too, huh?”

“Are you kidding, yo?  Everybody knew him.  Zack Fair, ray of fuckin’ sunshine, runnin’ around Shinra like everyone’s favorite puppy…hell, he was friends with Sephiroth, yo.  And some spunky Wutai girl who I heard stole some good materia from him.”

Yuffie couldn’t suppress a smirk.  “You don’t know already? That was me,” she said.

Reno doubled over in laughter at the coincidence for a moment, before the anxious expression returned to his face.  “Well..uh…if Tifa or you or him needs anything, or just want some more company, don’t hesitate to give us a call, yo,” he said awkwardly.

“I’m sure they’d appreciate it, but…I’ll call you when it’s a good time, okay? See you later, Reno.”

And so the days passed by.  Yuffie helped the kids finish their game project for school—they’d eventually decided to draw all of their friends on the cards, and finished by making a bonus one for Zack, with his numbers being a mirror image of Cloud’s.  When Tifa had seen it, she very quickly went outside to water the flowers, but not before Yuffie saw tears.  She kept Strife Delivery Service going during the day, and helped Tifa run the bar at night, since they couldn’t afford to close up—not when it was looking more and more like this was a long-term situation.

It turned out that sorting out all of the household arrangements on their first day wasn’t such a good idea, because without anything to do, Cloud was very quickly falling back into depression.  She could see the hope draining from him, day by day, and Tifa’s hope along with it.

After a week and a half, Yuffie found an opportunity to actually tell both of them how she knew Zack, and while Tifa responded with a certain amount of amusement and understanding, Cloud’s reaction was just…blank, mostly.  Like his reaction to almost everything lately.  He spent most of his time in the office, not even looking at Zack most of the time, just lost in thought.  Her stories couldn’t even distract him anymore.

Yuffie’s emotional endurance was up there with the best of them, but her energy wasn’t infinite.  She was getting tired.  And through all of it, Zack remained unresponsive, as if he was thousands of miles away.

 

---------------------------------

 

Tifa was slowly losing her mind.

It had been two weeks since they found Zack, and those two weeks were easily some of the hardest of Cloud’s life and hers.

She was very glad Yuffie had stayed to help them, because she wasn’t sure if they would have been able to hold it together without her.  The younger woman had picked up the slack for both of them, making deliveries and helping to run the bar while Tifa was lost in worry and while Cloud holed up in the office.  Yuffie’s legendary cheer only went so far, however, and nothing she could do would fix the absolute injustice of what had happened to them.

Tifa prided herself on her ability to stay calm and collected, regardless of what was happening around her.  It was a necessary skill for someone who owned a bar, and even more so for someone who was close to Cloud, as trouble followed him like a shadow.  Tifa did what needed to be done, put her own feelings aside, and kept it together.  Because someone had to.

But Gaia, she was livid now.

It was like a cruel joke from the gods, punishing them for trying to be happy.  Nothing Sephiroth had done had unraveled Cloud like this.  He’d been through so much—watching his friends die, forgetting so much of his life, and then having to save the world through it all—and seeing one of those friends return, only to be suffering through the same awful things he had—it was unbearable, to say the least.

She was losing him again, losing him to grief and pain and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do to stop it.  And it had only been two weeks.  Tifa had needed to take care of Cloud for longer than that, and it was only by a stroke of luck that she ever got him back.  Zack might very well be in a coma for the rest of their lives, and…it was too much, they wouldn’t be able to carry on like this indefinitely.  Something had to give.

They got a few updates from Vincent and Nanaki, mostly to say that they hadn’t found anything new.  She wasn’t surprised. Mako poisoning wasn’t a disease that could be cured, at least not in a normal way.

And so Tifa went through the motions of their day-to-day lives, bottling up her anger.  It wouldn’t do anyone any good if she fell apart now.  She needed to keep it together, because someone had to.

She’d closed up the bar for the night on the sixteenth day, and was retreating upstairs to fall into a merciless sleep. She stopped in her tracks when she heard Cloud sniffling through the door of the office.

“Gaia, Zack…I miss you so much…I can’t keep going on without you.  What…what if you never recover for the rest of your life?”

It was hearing Cloud repeat her own words, hearing him admit how much pain he was in, that caused her to finally snap.

Tifa practically flew back downstairs and was out the door in no time at all.  She got on Fenrir, revved the engine, and drove off.

She’d never taken the motorcycle by herself before, and if the exhilarating feeling was anything like Cloud experienced, she understood why he used to run away so often.  Maintaining control over the bike took most of her concentration, especially with how dark the roads were.  She drove straight into the remains of Sector 5, to the only place that felt safe enough for her to let it all out.

Tifa opened the doors to the church with force, and instead of seeing the forgotten pews and healing water, she suddenly found herself in…a forest.  The sleeping forest, to be precise, which made no sense, because she was definitely not on the northern continent.  What…?

“Hey, Tifa,” said a familiar voice from somewhere behind her, and she felt most of the tension leave her.

Turning around, she saw the sweet face of one of her best friends.  “Aerith?  What…how…?”

“I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks now,” she said, with a noticeable amount of sadness in her voice.  “I can feel your pain, Tifa.  And Cloud’s, and Zack’s.”

“But…how are you here?” Tifa asked, perplexed.

“I used to be able to talk to Cloud like this,” Aerith answered.  “I could reach into his mind if he was feeling particularly upset…like you are right now.”

“Okay…please tell me you’re here to say that you know exactly what’s going on and how to fix it,” Tifa said, although she knew deep down that it would be more complicated than that.

“I might be able to help, but I’m not all-knowing,” Aerith said patiently.  “I’ve…known about this for a while now, but time flows differently in the Lifestream, and I can’t see everything.”

Both women sat down on the forest floor, and Aerith started redoing her braid.

“When I died, Zack was waiting for me,” she started.  “His spirit was full of love, and he had already started blending with all of the other souls.  I spent some time with him, waiting for him to assimilate with the others, but…the Lifestream is different for me, Tifa.  I’m not really a part of it yet the way most people are.  If I focus, and conditions are right in the living world, I can do things like this.  Others can’t.”

Tifa pursed her lips in thought.  “But…Cloud told me that Zack appeared to him once, after the healing rain.  Did you have something to do with that?”

“…This is where it gets weird.  I stayed near him, but I tried to focus on Cloud, to see what was happening.  I could just barely make out his presence in Mideel, and I saw…Hojo show up.”

Tifa was taken aback.  “When?  What did he do?”

 “It must have been before you found him…Hojo went into the hospital, and came out with a vial.  Probably a sample of some sort.”

Aerith paused for a moment to retie her ponytail before continuing.  “It wasn’t long after that when I felt Zack’s presence solidify in a way that was different from all the others.  One moment he was just another soul in the Lifestream, and the next…he could do some of the things I could.  Like see Cloud through the haze of souls and time, and appear to him if he felt a strong enough calling.”

“What do you mean, calling?”

“It’s like…a call for help.  The first time I appeared to Cloud, his soul was crying out for forgiveness.  I’m with you now because your soul was begging for clarity, and…the Lifestream is a living thing, Tifa.  The Planet knew I could help you, and so here I am.”

“So…that must have been when Hojo injected him with Cloud’s cells, then,” Tifa concluded.  “He must have gone in and taken Zack’s body after he died, and…done something to preserve it, somehow.  That…seems like something he would do.”

Aerith gave a sad nod in agreement.  “Whatever he did, it didn’t change that Zack’s soul was in the Lifestream with me.  It just made him…stronger, somehow.  He stayed with me for a while after that.  We watched you save the Planet, and then we watched you all start to heal.  Then the Geostigma happened.”

“Could you…feel Sephiroth, in the Lifestream?” Tifa asked, wincing when she saw her friend’s eyes darken.

“Yes…his soul is more lucid than most, but he can’t appear to people like I can,” she said.  “He hasn’t moved on yet, I’m afraid.  He’s not…mad here, like he was out there, but his soul hasn’t accepted that it’s fully human, and so he hasn’t joined the others yet.  There’s nothing I can do for him.”

“So…you said Zack was with you.  What happened to him?”

“I don’t know exactly when, but…I think it would have been several months ago for you.  We both felt Cloud’s spirit call to us, and then release a lot of tension.  Zack felt a strong pull, and then he was…gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yes…gone.  One moment there, and then the next, I couldn’t find a trace of him.”

That must have been the night Cloud opened up about him to the rest of us.

“You’re probably right,” was Aerith’s response.

“You can hear my thoughts?”

The Cetra giggled.  “Of course!  This is all in your head, Tifa.”

“So…do you think…Cloud set up a Reunion of his own, or something like that?  He must have been really missing Zack that night…maybe he somehow called Zack back into his own body.”

“That makes as much sense as anything I’ve come up with, but…we might never know,” Aerith said, shaking her head.  “What I do know is that I want you all to be happy, and that’s not going to happen with Zack being lost in his own head.”

“Okay, what do I do?” Tifa would jump straight into the Lifestream a second time if it could fix things.

“It can’t be you,” the other woman said, clasping their hands together and meeting her gaze.  “Cloud managed to find himself because you were there to help, and you were one of his closest friends.  But…you didn’t know Zack all that well.  And I can’t help him in that way when I’m already here.”

“It has to be Cloud, doesn’t it?”  She didn’t need to say anything for Aerith to understand her worries…he didn’t exactly have the best track record of holding himself together when exposed to mako.

“It does, but I said I could still help, right?  Cloud needs to be the one to put Zack’s mind back together…but I can make sure they both make it back out of the Lifestream.”

“Where do they need to go?”

“Hmm…” the other woman looked over Tifa’s shoulder at something in the distance and thought for a moment.  “…take them to the Forgotten City.  The Lifestream isn’t so concentrated there, and…yes, that’s the best place to go.  I’ll contact Cloud once they get close, okay?”

Tifa took a deep breath.  “Are you sure this will work?”

“Honestly…no.  Cloud should be fine, I’ll make sure of it…but I have no idea what will happen to Zack.  If he wakes up, he might not remember much…or he might remember everything.  This is kind of a unique situation.”

Tifa pulled the other woman in for a short hug, even though she knew her form wasn’t physically there.  “I’ll do everything I can, Aerith…it can’t be easy for you either, seeing them so lost.  We’ll get through this, okay?”

And with that, the forest suddenly disappeared along with Aerith, and Tifa was left standing alone in the church, everything still and quiet.  I hope Cloud’s ready to try something drastic, cause it sure looks like that’s our only option.

The doors burst open loudly, revealing a very out-of-breath Yuffie.  “Tifa…I heard you leave…what…happened?”

“Call Cloud,” Tifa said, with newfound determination.  “I’ve got a plan.”

Chapter Text

Cloud stood outside the bar with a bag full of supplies, watching the moon fade in and out of sight as clouds rolled across the night sky.

He felt extraordinarily guilty when he got the call from Tifa—he’d forgotten his own sadness could affect her so much, and he probably should’ve told her a long time ago about his strange connection with Aerith.  Just another thing to add to his list of screw-ups.  One way or another, I’m going to fix this today.

Cloud would have been happy leaving immediately—the sooner they got this show on the road, the better—but both women had told him on the phone that there would be hell to pay if he wasn’t still at Seventh Heaven when they got back.  And so he filled a duffel bag with a few extra sets of clothes, with the optimistic assumption that Zack would be taking a pair, and got Terra saddled up and ready to travel.  He could wait another ten minutes for Tifa and Yuffie to get back, but he wasn’t about to wait for an airship.  Not when his friend’s life was on the line, not when he had such a large debt to repay.

I’ve waited eight years for this…I’m not going to wait any longer now that there’s a chance of finally getting him back.

That’s what it came down to, really.  Cloud had just barely managed to hold it together when Zack collapsed, but after he’d shown them the scars, and after the initial shock wore off…he couldn’t say he was surprised at the state of him.  Gaia, everything they’d concluded about what must have happened to the other man—all of the pieces fell into place.  No one held on to their sense of self as strongly as Zack did.  Forcing Cloud’s own indecisive identity (and his Sephiroth-like resistance to death) onto him was probably the only way Hojo could get him to succumb to the mako.

If he was being honest with himself, Aerith’s plan had occurred to him already—that sort of dangerous measure was the only reason he was still alive.  But he knew Tifa wouldn’t have let him go, with the chances of either of them coming back again so slim.  Gaia bless her, Aerith could be very persuasive sometimes, and knowing she would at least make sure he made it back was enough for Tifa to be on board with the idea.  Cloud was going to do whatever it took to save his friend.

The last few weeks had been undeniably hard, on everyone.  Cloud had tried to remain hopeful at first, for the others’ sake as much as his own.  Tifa had distracted him from Zack’s illness by giving him a lot of the housework, and Yuffie’s own antics had kept everyone occupied for a while—but this sort of waiting-and-watching was just not something he could keep up, and he had been more on the edge of despair with each passing day.  He had a newfound appreciation for everything Tifa had done for him—she’d managed to keep this up for a lot longer than he could, without anyone else’s support, and she hadn’t had any idea what to do to help him get better.  Tifa had never told him how it felt, to be so powerless in the face of someone else’s suffering but stay with them all the same.  If her pain had been anything like his was now…he could save the world a thousand times and still not make it up to her.

Cloud went to where Zack was laying on the ground, and got him into a sort of sitting position near the base of Terra’s neck.  It’d be hard, riding double and having to be in control from the back, but it was the only position he could think of without risking having Zack fall into the ocean.  He put the pieces of First Tsurugi in their harnesses just in case they ran into trouble, and strapped it and the duffel to his back.  A few more minutes passed before he heard the telltale roar of Fenrir’s engine.

“Tifa’s a much better driver than you, Cloud,” Yuffie said lightly, hopping off.  “I don’t feel sick at all.”

The blond shrugged.  “That’s your opinion.  I bet Zack will think I’m an awesome driver,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.  He needed to believe this would work, even if it wasn’t a sure bet.

Tifa smiled, but even Cloud could tell it was a front.  Gaia knew how much it would hurt her, hurt them all, if he failed this time.  Her smile gave way to an expression of concern.  “Yeah, he probably will.  Are you sure you want to go alone?”

He nodded.  “I don’t know how long this will take, and you need to keep the bar running and watch the kids.  And…like Aerith said, there’s not much either of you could do once we’re actually in the Lifestream.  I just gotta hold it together for Zack long enough to fix this.”

“Hey,” Tifa said, pulling him in for a much-needed hug (another thing he’d come to appreciate more in the past few weeks).  “I believe in you.  You can do this.”

Yuffie butted in, making it a sort-of-awkward group hug.  “You better let us know as soon as you get there,” she said, looking up at him.  “And as soon as you get out, and if you want to get picked up—”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, ruffling her hair as she scowled.  “I’ll call.”

They broke the hug, and Cloud got on Terra’s back behind his friend and headed out towards the sea.

With little else to think about, Cloud started to feel like he was marching off to battle.  He embraced it—those sorts of nerves were familiar territory.  The last time he’d traveled to the city with such a feeling of purpose, it was to save Aerith.  Well, that had gone to shit, but she had forgiven him, and he knew it wasn’t his fault.  Zack’s fate had been inextricably tied to his ever since Nibelheim, and now he was going to the city again to save him.  And Goddess be damned, he was going to succeed this time.  He had to.

Cloud let the feeling of determination settle over him as they reached the ocean shore, and moonlight reflected off of the water in a way that made it look like glass.  They traveled due north as quickly as possible, and as the air cooled with the latitude, the sky started to brighten.

For someone who’d spent so much time breeding chocobos, Cloud could never really comprehend how the golds managed to run over the water so gracefully.  Cid had thought it was funny, that he’d named an ocean chocobo after the earth, but Cloud had justified it pretty well.  Terra could walk the whole earth, not just parts of it.  And the Knights of the Round materia they’d nicked from that obscure island had been more than worth the effort.

Terra seemed to be sensing his appreciative thoughts, because she gave him a happy kweh as the Northern Continent came up on the horizon.  Cloud used his free hand to ruffle his friend’s hair, as the rising sun shone washed everything in shades of red and gold.  “We’re almost there, Zack.”

He felt a sense of longing grow inside him as they passed Bone Village and rode through the forest.  This is where he’d met Aerith, more than once, when he’d been in need.

He could see the City of the Ancients in the distance as they closed in.  Back during Meteorfall, the cries of the planet itself could be heard in this canyon, eerie and mournful.  The monsters in this area had retreated, and humanity had accepted that mako power was too dangerous to keep using.  A deep feeling of peace washed over him, and he knew it wasn’t just the spiritual energy of this place.

Entering the city, Cloud dismounted Terra and rearranged his gear.  He kept First Tsurugi closest to his back, layered the duffel over that, and finally Zack, his legs hooked through his arms like a very large hiking bag.  Cloud hadn’t brought a guide rope for the chocobo—she wouldn’t wander off too far, and she needed to be able to find greens to eat while they were away.

“Warkwark?” the bird cooed, as Cloud moved to leave.

“Yeah, wark,” he replied, stroking the feathers around the base of the chocobo’s neck as best as he could around Zack’s leg.  “See you soon, Terra.”

He couldn’t get his phone to his ear without dropping Zack, so he settled for sending Tifa a text as he made his way farther into the ruins.  Made it here.  I’m still okay.  Zack’s really heavy though.

Aerith had yet to make an appearance, so he made his way to the pool where he’d let her body come to rest…a part of him felt like it was probably the right place to go.

Sure enough, a blurry vision of her was waiting for him when he reached the clearing in the trees.  She gave him her signature sweet smile.  “You made it,” she said, although he had the distinct feeling her words were only audible in his own mind.  “Are you ready?”

“Ready for what, exactly?” he asked, setting all of his things down on the ground before picking Zack back up.  The place was deserted, no one would take them.

“Well…if you come to the center of the pool here…”

He followed her out, to close to the exact spot that he’d let her body come to rest.  He couldn’t help but feel like things had gone full circle, now that he would sort of be doing the opposite.

“The Lifestream is very weak here,” Aerith said.  “It’s much safer for you this way, but it also means you can’t get in on your own…I’m going to put you both to sleep, okay?”

“What...what do I do once we’re in?” The nerves had finally shown up in full force—Cloud could feel his heart rate increase and his palms get sweaty.

“Trust me,” she answered, in a way that eased some of the tension.  “You’ll know what to do.”  And with that, she gave Zack’s comatose form a light kiss on the cheek, then turned to do the same for Cloud.  Slowly and then all at once, the physical world faded away.

 

---------------------------------

 

The frustrated owner of Seventh Heaven put her hands to her temples.  “You called Reno? Why?

Yuffie shook her head and sighed.  “Because you need a distraction,” she said.  “He can be pretty distracting.  And he says you still owe him and the others drinks.”

“Damn straight, yo,” said a voice at the door.  The redhead in question sauntered through the door with a smirk, followed closely by Elena, Rude, and Tseng.

“Uh…hi,” Tifa said, reining in her negative feelings.  “Not to be rude…but who told you I owed you drinks?”

“The big chocobo himself, yo,” Reno responded.  “And Yuffers here said that you guys would appreciate some extra company right now.”

“Where’s Rufus?”

Tseng waved off her question.  “He’ll be fine.  He said he’d appreciate some alone time, which I took to mean he wanted to sic Reno on both of you for the day.”

Tifa resisted the urge to rub her temples.  It wasn’t that she still held a grudge against the Turks for what went down during Meteorfall—on the contrary, they were usually on somewhat friendly terms now.  It was just that…Reno was annoying.  She knew Cloud appreciated his particular brand of snarky humor, but that didn’t mean she had to.   “Alright,” she said in resignation, “What’ll it be?”

The next few hours were…surprisingly pleasant.  Reno made a lot of jokes at Yuffie’s expense, mostly surrounding their joint encounter with Don Corneo, and she retaliated by unleashing her full arsenal of creative insults on him.  Rude hilariously sided with Yuffie, and Tifa added in her own stories.  She hadn’t forgotten the time the two Turks were gossiping like children outside Gongaga, and she wasn’t going to let Reno forget it either.

Thankfully, they kept the conversation clean and didn’t get more than a little buzzed, because all four Turks were still at the bar when the kids came home from school.

“Tifa, guess what?” Denzel said, dragging in what looked like a very large bag.

“Did your game win the contest?” Yuffie asked excitedly.

“Yeah!  The judges really liked the art on the cards!”

Reno gave the bag a pointed look.  “What’s in the bag, yo?”

Denzel gave him a suspicious glare, but Marlene answered without hesitation.  “Lots and lots of candy!”

The Turk’s eyes widened at the mention of candy.  “No way…”

Denzel’s face lit up with a sly grin.  “If you want any of the candy, you’re gonna have to beat me at cards.”

“You’re on, yo.”

Tifa couldn’t help but feel immensely proud as Denzel wiped the floor with Reno for every round of Triple Triad they played.  The Turk insisted that he was only letting the boy win, but his greatest blunder each hand was that he couldn’t resist using the Reno card every chance he had—and that card didn’t have particularly good numbers.

Marlene and Rude had taken some of the deck and were playing a game of their own, and Yuffie had to leave before it got too late to cover the most urgent deliveries, leaving Tifa at one of the corner tables with Elena and Tseng.

The brunette had always appreciated Elena—she did her job and she did it well, but she didn’t let it take over her life and she didn’t let the criticism of others bring her down.  Tifa really liked that sort of attitude.  Above all, the blonde was usually kind and understanding to them in a way that most of the other people affiliated with former Shinra just weren’t.

“In all honesty, Tifa,” she said after the three of them had a few drinks, “how have you been holding up?”

“It’s been…hard, I’ll admit,” she responded.  “I mean, I’ve been through this once already with Cloud.  But he’s never been on this side of it.”

“What is he doing up north right now?” Tseng asked.

Tifa had hoped this wouldn’t come up.  Turks were Turks, and she could never be sure that Rufus wouldn’t find some way to use this information against them…but if he wanted to know, he’d get the information somehow.  Might as well tell the truth.  “He’s gonna see if he can get inside Zack’s mind, like I did…through the Lifestream.”

Elena gave a small gasp, and her eyes widened in concern.  “Isn’t that especially dangerous, though?  For him?”

“Yes, but…we’ve got a friend helping us.  He’ll get back out again.  Zack, I’m not so sure,” she said, taking another sip of her drink.  “It’s all up to Cloud now.”

Tseng nodded thoughtfully, seeming to understand what she meant.  “Hopefully…he can succeed where we failed.”

Wait…what?  “Come again?”

After drinking a rather large sip from his cocktail, Tseng related to her the Turks’ own stake in the ambush on the cliff.  It was hard to tell with him, but Tifa could sense that he felt…guilty.  She tried to be understanding, but she didn’t know him well enough to know how to react.  Thankfully, Elena changed the subject quickly.

Eventually, the bar opened for regular business, although the Turks still hung around.  Tifa made burgers and chips for everyone, and most of her regular patrons were fairly entertained by Reno’s antics.  I could hire him to just sit around, maybe get some more business.  If I could put up with him on a regular basis, that is.

Just as the sun was setting, Yuffie returned.  “Any news, Tifa?” she asked.

“Not yet,” the barmaid responded, mixing margaritas for a couple sitting at the end of the bar.  “It’s been all day…I’m getting really worried.”

“If you’re that anxious, yo, just send him a text,” Reno said over his whiskey.  “It’ll make ya feel better if nothin’ else.”

Tifa nodded and pulled out her phone, trying to think of what to say, eventually just setting on please call.  It’s not like Cloud would need to know what she meant.  I sure hope he’s alright…

 

 ---------------------------------

 

Cloud opened his eyes, but everything around him was black.

He was drifting through a sort of thick nothingness…was this the Lifestream?  Or…where was he?  It was all very confusing.

Suddenly, a thought bombarded him from all sides, one that he identified as distinctly foreign.  Who…are you?  And…who am I?

“Zack, is that you?  Where are you?”

No…I can’t be.  That’s not right.  You…you know what this is, don’t you?  You attacked me!

“No, I would never do that!  Gaia…I didn’t know it was you!  You didn’t know it was you!  I could never hurt you…”

Okay, I guess…but still…who am I?

Cloud had no idea what he was doing.  He could hardly remember what happened when Tifa saved him—he remembered feeling very confused, and having to question a lot of things—hold on, that gave him an idea.  “…Who do you think you are?”

Ha, I guess I haven’t really thought about it too much.  Um…I was in SOLDIER, right?  No…no I wasn’t.  I tried to get in, but I failed, and then a lot of bad things happened…I let a lot of people down…

“That wasn’t you, you never let anyone down! That was me.”

Are you sure?  That seems pretty…me to me.  Wait…who are you again?

“…I’m your best friend, remember?”

I don’t have a best friend anymore….I’m not worth it, I’m just a weapon.  I couldn’t save any of them, I failed…

Cloud took a deep breath.  Or, a deep something.  He supposed he wasn’t really in any physical place with physical air to breathe.  “I want to help you, but I can’t see anything.”

I’ll see what I can do.

The black nothingness swirled all around Cloud, and he felt like he was being flushed down a drain.  A metaphysical drain.

He suddenly found himself in what he guessed was Zack’s subconscious.  It was overwhelmingly green, which he’d expected, and...wait a minute.  “Zack?!  Where are you?”

The image of his friend appeared somewhere above him, holding his head and screaming silently.  A single door appeared in front of him, and something that looked like the floor of the old Sector 5 reactor materialized under him.

Walking through the door, Cloud found himself in Wutai.  Or a vision of it, anyway.  He saw a younger Zack and Angeal standing outside what he recognized as Fort Tamblin, and another Zack suddenly appeared next to him.

Cloud hesitantly reached out to touch his arm, unsure of how to act around the mental manifestation of someone's soul.  “Do you know who that is?” he asked.

“Yeah…the younger one is…me, right?  He looks like me, anyway.  My name was...”

In the memory, Angeal said, “Use brings about wear, tear, and rust.  And that’s a real waste.”  He’d be pretty mad if he could see the Buster Sword now…

The Zack next to him furrowed his brow in concentration.  “I remember…he used to call me ‘puppy.’  But that’s definitely not my name, right?  Please tell me that’s not my name.”

Cloud laughed a little, and was then relieved when the sight of past-Zack leaping over the brush caused current-Zack to have a sort of epiphany.

“So…okay, I believe you.  My name is Zack, I remember now.  But…” he turned to Cloud, “…where is this, then?  When is this?  Who are you, anyway?”

Both men simultaneously scratched the backs of their heads, and then looked at each other awkwardly.  Cloud cleared his throat.  “Well…this is Fort Tamblin, so this must have been towards the end of the Wutai war, about…wow, about a decade ago.”

Zack gave him a searching look, taking note of how he conveniently ignored the last part of the question.  Past-Zack made his way through the front gates, and they followed him.  A little girl Cloud recognized ran out to confront him.

“Wait…I’ve seen her before,” Zack said next to him.  “And…not like that.  More recently.”

Cloud nodded.  “That’s good—I know that definitely happened, so that means you’re remembering something.  Who is she, though?”

“She’s…very confident, is what it looks like,” the older man said, watching his younger self’s encounter with nine-year-old Yuffie.  “Why did I pretend to lose?”

“Because you’re a cool guy like that, Zack.  But seriously, do you remember her name?”

“I think it was…Yuffie, right?” he answered, and Cloud nodded excitedly.  “Wait, you know her too?”

 “Yeah, I know her pretty well,” he said truthfully.  Should I be telling him this?  Is it gonna mess things up?  “She’s grown up a lot since then, but…she’s still got that confident attitude.”

“Didn’t she try to steal my stuff at one point?”

“Probably,” Cloud replied, snickering.  “I wouldn’t know for sure, but we can ask her soon, alright?”  Gaia, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Zack made a move to follow his younger self inside the fort, and Cloud trailed close behind.  They watched him fight the monsters inside, and then watched past-Zack get thrown against the wall.  “Wow, that was stupid of me,” he said.

“You got smarter…eventually.”

Angeal followed in, and current-Zack’s face lit up in recognition when he saw the older man fight with the Buster Sword.

“You’re a little more important than my sword,” Angeal said.  “But just a little.”  And then the memory faded, he was back in the Sector 5 reactor.  Cloud was pleased to note that dream-Zack had followed him out.  That’s gotta mean something.

“That—that was my sword!” he said excitedly, putting his arms up as if he wasn’t sure what to do with them.  “But wait…why would I be in charge of something like that if I never made SOLDIER?”

“Because you did make SOLDIER,” Cloud answered patiently.  “I think you were even second in command at one point.”

“Wow…I was pretty far off, then,” Zack said, looking sheepish.  “Then who was I thinking of?”

What do I say?  “I…think you need to find that answer for yourself.”  Zack pouted at him, but Cloud didn’t budge.  “I’m serious, these are your memories we’re sorting through.”

Several doors suddenly appeared around them, and Zack debated for a moment before picking one.  The blond let him go in first, and they suddenly found themselves just outside Gongaga.

Past-Zack conveniently identified the place as his hometown, and it didn’t seem to surprise current-Zack at all.  “Yeah, I remember my parents being from there,” he said.  “I…haven’t seen them in a while, I think.”

A woman Cloud didn’t recognize showed up and started talking to a very tense-looking Zack.  “Couldn’t you guess your hometown would be...the first place we’d look?”

“And…yeah, her name was Cissnei.  She was…a Turk, right?” Zack said, looking to Cloud for confirmation.

“I actually don’t know who she is,” he replied, “but she looks like a Turk.”

“That was you in the sidecar, yeah?” Zack asked him, and Cloud nodded.  “Why were you asleep?  And why were Turks looking for us?”

“I wasn’t asleep,” he said darkly, unsure how much more to say.

Past-Zack turned away from Cissnei.  “I think he may have helped us…escape Shinra manor.”  Then the memory faded, and they were back in the old reactor once more.

“Why’d we have to escape from somewhere?” Zack asked him, and he took note of the way Cloud’s face hardened.  “Did…did something bad happen there?”

“You need—”

“—to find out the answer for myself.  Yeah, yeah.  Let’s pick a different door.”

Zack found himself drawn to one that gave Cloud an overwhelming sense of dread.  “Hey, let’s try this one out,” he said, frowning when he saw the blond’s reaction.  “Come on.  It’s just a memory, right?”

Calm down, Strife.  It'll be fine.  The sight beyond the door disproved that thought immediately, because it definitely wasn’t a part of Zack's memories.

There was the deep hole where the Temple of the Ancients once stood, and Cloud saw himself holding a materia he never wanted to lay eyes on again.

“Whoa, I’m not even in this one,” Zack said beside him.  “But…that silver-haired dude, his name is Sephiroth.  I think we used to work together.  Who’s that girl, though?”  Cloud didn’t answer, suddenly realizing something about the full scope of Zack’s amnesia.  If Hojo gave him cells of mine from while I was out…some of my memories while under Sephiroth’s influence will be in here, and we’ll probably have to see all of them…  “Hey, are you okay?” the other man asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“I won’t let you do it!  The future is not just yours!” Aerith shouted from below, and Sephiroth just laughed, a sound that still haunted some of Cloud’s nightmares.

“Ha, ha, ha…I wonder?”

Despite how much it hurt to watch, the scene was still just a memory.  Cloud only felt the ghost of Jenova’s control as his past self convulsed in pain.  The image faded in and out as past-Cloud lost consciousness, and Zack’s eyes widened in worry and shock.  “This…this one’s your memory, isn’t it?”

I need to be strong, or we’re not going to make it back out of here.  Cloud didn’t look at him, but Zack seemed to understand.  “Sephiroth…he was using you as…a puppet,” he said with some certainty.  “I think someone was using me as a puppet, too…but why is your memory in my head?”

Past-Aerith knelt down on the ground.  “Cloud…be strong, okay?  It’s not your fault.”

“Damn right, it’s not his fault!” Zack exclaimed.  Even when he’s so lost, he’s still trying to protect me.  “…Whatever it was.”

The memory faded, and both men found themselves back on the Sector 5 reactor floor another time.  “So, do you wanna tell me why some of these memories aren’t mine?” Zack asked him, crossing his arms.

“I…think you need to remember who I am first, before I can answer that,” Cloud said.  “Let’s try another—”

He was interrupted as the floor gave way, and they found themselves falling into a very different reactor.

“What about MY sadness?!  My family…friends?  The sadness of having my hometown taken away from me!?  It’s the same as your sadness!”

“What…” Zack seemed confused at the memory before them.  Hell, Cloud was, too.  “Why…what did he do?”

“This…this is all wrong, Zack,” Cloud said.  “This isn’t what happened.  It’s fake.”

Sephiroth glared, holding Jenova’s mutilated head.  “I have orders to take the Planet back from you stupid people for the Cetra.  What should I be sad about?”

“Hold the phone,” Zack said, and the memory literally stopped.  He’s regaining control…?  “I definitely remember Sephiroth saying something like that to me.  Why am I not there, then?”

“Because…honestly, I’m not sure why this memory is here,” Cloud answered, scratching the back of his head.  “This is what I thought happened for a while…but I know the truth now.  You should have the real memory in there somewhere, too.  So try…try to remember…”

Zack screwed his eyes shut and balled his hands into fists.  All at once, the scene changed again—the same reactor, but with Zack in Cloud’s place.  “Yes, yes!” the blond exclaimed.  “You did it, this is the right one!”

The older man indulged himself in his first victory squat of the day, much to Cloud’s delight.  He’s acting more and more like himself again.  That has to be good.

They watched as Zack lost his battle with Sephiroth.  After a few minutes, a helmeted trooper carried the Buster Sword and stabbed the silver-haired man through the back.  “I had so much respect for you…I admired you…”

“That trooper had a lot of nerve, taking my sword and then trying to take it out on the General,” Zack mused beside him.  Seeing his younger self get nearly killed hadn’t fazed him all that much, but Cloud knew he didn’t prioritize his own safety very high.  They wouldn’t be here right now if he did.

“Well, he was pretty pissed off,” Cloud answered, being careful not to give too much away and putting old feelings aside.

Zack gasped when the trooper took off his helmet.  “Oh, that was you, Spike!” he said in wonderment.  Cloud’s face lit up at the familiar nickname, and Zack looked confused for a moment.  “Wait, your name isn’t actually Spike, is it?” he asked incredulously.

“No…but you did used to call me Spike a lot,” Cloud answered.  “You’re remembering more and more.”

Past-Cloud went back into the room with the pods and ran over to Tifa’s bleeding body.  “Hey…that girl, she was our tour guide, right?” Zack asked, and Cloud nodded.  “Her name was Tifa…she kept asking me if there were any blond guys in SOLDIER.”

Cloud blushed (she never told me about that) and Zack grinned and ruffled his hair, a familiar gesture.  “What, is she your girlfriend or something?”

“In a sense, yeah,” he answered, finding no reason to lie about this one.  “But…it’s more complicated than that.  I’ll tell you later, okay?”

They kept watching the memory, but before Sephiroth reentered, the floor gave way again, and they found themselves in a very familiar church.

“Hey, it’s that other girl again,” Zack said, eyes going wistful.  “Man, is she beautiful.”

Cloud could swear he heard another giggle from somewhere behind them.  Is she watching us, even now?

“An angel?” past-Zack said, looking up from the floor.

“No!  I’m Aerith.”

“Okay Spike, please tell me I ended up dating her,” Zack said next to him.  “I’d be really mad at myself now if I didn’t.”

Cloud shushed him.  “Just watch.”

“No, no…hey, how about one date?” younger Zack said, holding up one finger and causing current Zack to double over with laughter.

“Man, I wasn’t subtle at all, was I?” he said, looking very amused.  “Did I do that to anyone else?”

“Uh, me, actually,” Cloud said with a tinge of embarrassment.  “I think.”

Zack wasn’t paying attention, though—too wrapped up in memories of his old girlfriend.  Rather than disappearing like the other places they'd seen, the church stayed as the two men watched what seemed like every time Zack visited Aerith in the church.  Thanks for making at least this part easy, Aer.

When they finally found themselves back in the room with the doors, Zack seemed calmer than Cloud had yet seen him.  The next door he picked had another strange aura around it, and Zack couldn’t seem to sense it—Cloud braced himself for the worst.

Sure enough, a series of happy memories had to be followed up by a cruel one.  Cloud saw his younger self on a platform very close to where their physical bodies must be now, sword in hand.

“Oh…this is another one of your memories, isn’t it?” Zack asked, not really looking for confirmation.  “And you’ve got my sword again…hey, what’s Aerith doing…whoa, what are you doing?!”

“Stop!” past-Tifa yelled from somewhere beyond sight.

“Ugh…what are you making me do?” past-Cloud said, backing away.

Cloud turned away at what happened next—he’d seen it too many times—but Zack watched it all, if his cries of grief were anything to go by.  He couldn’t ignore his younger self’s pained words, though.

“…Shut up.  The cycle of nature and your stupid plan don’t mean a thing.  Aerith is gone.  Aerith with no longer talk, no longer laugh, cry…or get angry…”

“Spike, please tell me this one isn’t real,” Zack pleaded, shaking the blond’s shoulders.  Cloud couldn’t bring himself to say it, and the other man couldn’t look away as the rest of that memory played out, all the way through him laying Aerith’s body to rest.  “So you loved her too…”  Yeah, I did.

Mercifully, the scene faded again before Cloud could say something stupid, and they found themselves back in the no-space again.  The number of doors was definitely decreasing, much to Cloud’s relief—but Zack still had a lot missing.

“Which door doesn’t give you a bad feeling, Spike?”

He picked the one closest to them, getting to the point where he just wanted to get this over with, and was incredibly relieved to see the mountain terrain of Modeoheim in front of them.

Past-Zack and a trooper were somewhat ahead of two others.  “A mako reactor outside Midgar usually means…”

“Nothing else out there,” the two said together, and their laughter filled the air.

Zack smiled next to him.  “There’s something really nice about this memory…” he said.  “That’s…you under the helmet, isn’t it?”

“Good news, Tseng!  Me and…”

The trooper took off his helmet to reveal familiar blond spikes. “Cloud.”

“Me and Cloud here are both backwater experts.  Oh yeah!”

The Zack standing next to him was even more excited than the Zack in the memory.  “You’re Cloud!  Your name is Cloud!  Man, I’m sorry, I’m just so happy I remember it now!”

He didn’t resist when Zack pulled him in for a hug—he’d almost forgotten how affectionate the other man could be.  “It’s alright,” he said.  “This was the day we met.”

“Well, I think I’m starting to remember more now,” Zack said cheerfully.  “I…we got close pretty fast, and I think you were my best friend, yeah?”

“I mean, you were definitely my best friend.”

Zack was only halfheartedly paying attention to the memory before them—a lot of things seemed to be rushing back to him all at once—but he got very serious again when his younger self found Genesis.  “Oh no,” he said.  “I…something bad happens here.”

His happy expression faded more and more as he watched his confrontation with the ex-SOLDIER, and then became one of pure distress when they watched Angeal turn into a monster.  Zack brought a shaky hand to the scar on his face as his younger self earned it.

Both Zacks started to cry at the same time, and Cloud reflexively reached out to take his hand.  Zack held onto it like a lifeline as Angeal uttered his last words.  “Protect your honor, always…”

Past-Zack held up the Buster Sword like a prayer, and the grip on Cloud’s hand tightened.  “…he just gave me the Buster Sword…and you had it when Aerith was killed.  Did I…?”

Oh no.  Modeoheim was swept away in an instant, and their escape from the labs played out as if in fast-forward.  Zack watched them run from troops and Turks alike, watched himself take care of Cloud, and watched himself fight Genesis one last time.  “Cloud…they did so much to us…you had mako poisoning…I…I didn’t know what to do…” 

Finally, the rocky outcrop where it all ended appeared before them.  Past-Zack ruffled past-Cloud’s hair, and the younger man raised a hand in protest as he went out to meet their attackers.  This is going to be harder for him to watch than it is for me.  Cloud squeezed his hand in reassurance.  There wasn’t anything he could do to make this easier.

Zack winced as he watched himself decimate so many soldiers, watched himself get shot to pieces.  “I…I did it all for you, Cloud…” he said, eyes wide with grief.  “I missed you so much…I thought taking you to Aerith was our only option, even though I knew it would probably be suicide…”

The sun disappeared, and the rain began to fall as past-Cloud dragged himself over to the edge of the cliff.  “Z-Zack…”

“For the…both of us…”

“Both…of us?”

“That’s right.  You’re gonna…”

“You’re gonna…”

Live,” past-Zack said, dragging past-Cloud’s face to where his heart lay open and bleeding.  “You’ll be the proof that I existed.  My honor…my dreams…they’re yours now.”

The Zack beside him broke down, letting go of Cloud’s hand in favor of pulling him into his arms and crying into his hair.  “Gaia, Cloud…I’m so sorry,” he said, shaking.  “I died, and I left you all alone…”

“It’s not your fault, and you’re not dead,” Cloud said determinedly, hugging back and rubbing those small circles, in hope that it would be comforting for Zack too.

“Thank you,” his past self said.  “I won’t forget.”  Here come the tears…so much for being strong.

“Zack…I…I fucked up too, okay,” he confessed.  “I forgot you, and I forgot everything else too, and I almost destroyed the world before I could remember again…”

The other man didn’t have anything to say to that, so they just continued the embrace as white feathers rained down around them.  Time seemed to stretch and speed up at the same time, and a layer of green washed over everything.  Eventually, a ShinRa helicopter landed, and Hojo got out and instructed a few lackeys to take Zack’s body.

The helicopter flew all the way to Wutai, and Hojo unceremoniously threw Zack’s body into the strange mako tank and started to type commands into the computer console.

The amount of green in their vision increased, and Zack broke the hug.  “Cloud…how am I here right now?  I died.  I…I remember being in the Lifestream, remember starting to become a part of it.”

Cloud couldn’t tell what was going on, but Zack seemed to understand some fundamental aspect of what was happening as the colors of the Lifestream swirled around them.  “So Aerith came back to me after all, huh,” he said softly.  “And then…ah.  You got sick again, but you were survived…so Hojo put some of your cells in me…to see if it would bring me back…”

A hole in the green suddenly appeared before them, and Cloud saw himself and his friends in the bar, and he finally understood what happened.  “Zack…once I remembered you, I didn’t tell anyone but Tifa about it for a long time.  I think when I did, it…called your spirit back into your body, somehow.”

“Yeah, it did…because I didn’t want to exist for another moment without you.”  Gaia, if he wanted to make me cry again, he could’ve just said so.

The bar disappeared and so did the Lifestream, and they found themselves standing in the no-space again, with all the doors gone.

“Spike…I got sick too, didn’t I?” Zack said, looking away.  “How…how long was I out?”

“You’ve been comatose for a few weeks,” Cloud answered, struggling to keep his voice even.  “But…before that, you’d been gone for…three years.”

Zack took a few heaving breaths.  “That long, huh?  Well…what do we do now?  We’re in the Lifestream, aren’t we?”

“Yeah…Aerith said she’d get us out.”  Hey Aer, now would be a good time to take us home.

He felt her presence wash over him again, and Zack’s mind disappeared along with everything else.

Cloud opened his eyes to find himself on the pedestal where Aerith had died, clothes almost dry.  He must have been asleep for a while.  He sat up and stretched his arms, looking around for Zack.  Oh no…did he not make it?  After everything that just happened!?

Cloud frantically scanned the area for his friend, seeing no trace of him.  “Aerith, where’d he go?  Zack!  Zack, where are you?!”  But her spirit was gone, probably spent from getting him out, and Cloud ran around the clearing in a haze of panic.

He ran up that horrible staircase, and burst through the door to the clearing to see Zack standing up from where he’d washed ashore.  The other man turned around, and, thank Gaia, recognition flashed in his eyes.  “Cloud?”

It was only for the speed of Zack’s mako reflexes that they both weren’t knocked back into the pool again with the force of Cloud’s embrace.

“It’s you, it’s really you…” he said, burying his face into Zack’s neck, not caring if the tears flowed.  He deserved a few good cries after what they’d been through to get here.

He heard Zack’s voice, hoarse with emotions.  “Yeah, it’s really me.”

Cloud held onto Zack like he was the only solid thing in the whole world, and tried not to babble nonsense as his best friend rubbed small circles into his back.  He was never, ever losing him again, not for the rest of their lives.

Chapter Text

It felt like he had woken up from a very strange nightmare.

Zack opened his eyes slowly, as if he hadn’t done so in quite some time.  He was at the edge of an unfamiliar pool, and his mind felt fresh and clear for what he guessed was the first time in a long while.  How did I get here, and why…I was supposed to be a goner, right?

He recalled there being a lot of mako—if he’d fallen prey to addiction, that would explain why he was having trouble remembering what happened.  Zack rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sat up, taking stock of himself and his surroundings.  The clothes on his body were his style, but they were a bit too small to be his.  He hadn’t lost a significant amount of muscle mass, which seemed distinctly off—it’s not like he could have been doing much while poisoned, right?  At least not from what he knew of the disease, which admittedly was just carrying Cloud halfway across the planet.  And one look at his still-calloused hands told him he hadn’t been as inactive as his friend had been.

Zack took a deep breath and refused to panic.  He’d been trained to handle worse situations, he could safely get out of this.  Sure, he was alone, and he had no idea where or even when he was.  But he knew who he was, and some part of his mind told him it had been quite a while since that was true.

He legs felt like jelly, so he scooted around to face away from the water and saw…a duffel bag.  Is it mine…?  Reaching out for it, Zack opened to look inside.  There were a couple sets of clothes, mostly sweats, and a look at the tags confirmed that they couldn’t belong to him.  Well, I’m already poking around in someone else’s stuff…might as well keep going.

Under the clothes was a bottle of shampoo.  Zack opened the cap and sniffed—it smelled a bit like rain, and a bit like clean laundry.  Not a scent Zack would use, but one he liked nonetheless.  A toothbrush and toothpaste.  There was a small amount of gil, too small for him to be able to get a ride out of here.  He’d have to wait until he felt strong enough to walk.  The only other thing in the duffel bag was a shoulder pauldron with some leather straps that reminded Zack of his old SOLDIER uniform—except there was a wolf insignia on it that itched at some part of his mind.  I should know what this is…it’s just not coming back yet.

He looked over the duffel bag and saw something that looked like a sword harness.  Taking care not to cut himself with his bare hands, he pulled it closer to him.  If his eyes weren’t lying to him, there were no less than six blades in the harness, and it looked as though they were all meant to link together somehow.  Man, I have got to get me one of these.  A transforming sword!  It looks familiar, though, like the wolf…

Zack heard the unmistakable shout of another human voice somewhere, and the sound of running…below him?  Around him?  It was hard to tell, with the way sound moved in this clearing.  I need to find a way to stand up, this could be trouble.

After a few seconds of debate, Zack accepted that he just didn’t have the time to figure out how the cool sword worked.  If this other person was an enemy, he’d have to fight them empty-handed.  Or talk his way out of trouble.  He held out his arms for balance and stood up slowly as the sounds of footfalls increased.  His legs felt surprisingly solid under him—he had expected some difficulty, at least.

The footsteps stopped abruptly.  Here we go.  Zack turned around, and was confused but very, very happy to see the familiar face of his best friend.  “Cloud?”

There was barely had time to react as Cloud practically launched himself at Zack, and the younger man’s momentum almost caused his legs to give way.  “It’s you, it’s really you…”

Zack was intensely, thoroughly alarmed at Cloud’s words, and at how upset he obviously was, but he tried to keep the confusion out of his voice.  “Yeah, it’s really me.”  Why wouldn’t it be me?  If I was sick, wouldn’t I just be comatose…?  But my body is in too good shape for that to be true…

He searched his mind for any information on what had happened as Cloud shook and murmured into his neck.  Presumably, if he’d just woken up from a mako coma, this was the first time Cloud had seen him awake in a while….a very long while, he thought sadly as the rest of his memories started to come back.  I was as good as dead…no wonder he’s so emotional right now.  But it’s gotta be more than that, if he was worried about me not being me…Gaia, I’m confused.

Zack bottled up his own conflicting emotions for now, focusing on trying to comfort Cloud.  He could sort through the memories later.  He started to rub small circles into the other man’s back, the way he knew would calm him down.  It seemed to work, and Cloud stilled in his arms after a few minutes, his breathing evening out.

“Spike, I don’t remember everything yet…how did we get here?  Wasn’t I sick?”

Puzzled when he didn’t get an answer, he readjusted so he could see Cloud’s face and smiled despite himself.  No wonder he got so relaxed, he fell asleep…cute.  But I can’t imagine how worn-out he must feel if he just let himself go like that…

Zack was interrupted from his thoughts when he heard a buzzing nearby.  A PHS, he identified as looked around, trying to find the source of it.  His face heat up a bit when he realized Cloud kept it in his back pocket, and fished it out, taking care not to grope.  He’s probably embarrassed enough already.

The single notification was from a Tifa Lockhart, who Zack remembered as the tour guide on that fateful mission to Nibelheim.  She’d really tickled him with her questions about blond SOLDIERs, and he grinned when he realized she must have been talking about Cloud.  “Please call,” he read aloud.  He looked at the phone, and then at his sleeping friend, and then back at the phone, and figured he would probably be a reasonable substitute.  He dialed her number.

After a few rings, a feminine voice he recognized easily greeted him.  “Where are you?” Tifa asked, clearly worried.  “Cloud?”

“Uh, Zack Fair speaking.”

The volume of cheers that came through the speaker almost caused Zack to drop the phone (and Cloud).  It sounds like at least a couple dozen people…what’s going on?

He could hear Tifa try to shush the others listening in, but it was still at least a full minute before it was quiet enough for her to talk again.  “How’s Cloud doing?” she asked.  “Is he okay?”

“I…guess?  I’m still pretty disoriented from…whatever happened, but I woke up in a forest, and he kind of ran at me, and just sort of cried into my shoulder…until he fell asleep.  Which is why it’s me calling.  A confused me.  I’m very confused.”

“Well, he deserves a good sleep,” Tifa said resolutely.  “You really had us all worried, Zack.”

“Um…what did he do, exactly?  I gather that I had mako poisoning…but was it more than that, wasn’t it?”

Their conversation had woken up Cloud, who rubbed his eyes sleepily and gestured for the phone.  “Would you look at that, he’s awake now,” Zack said, handing him the phone and watching as Cloud paced around the clearing.

Zack took this opportunity to keep fighting the post-mako disorientation, because rushing his mind to catch up was definitely an excellent idea.  Let’s see…he got shot on the cliff, he remembered that clearly.  Too clearly.  There were white feathers…and then everything felt like a dream for a while.  But not like what he had just woken up from…it was happier, somehow.  Aerith was in it, and so was Angeal.  After that…blank.  Real convenient that the only thing I can’t remember is how I somehow didn’t die.

“What?  We’ve been gone all day?” Cloud said, looking out towards the opposite end from where Zack had seen him enter.  “Well…I don’t think it would be a great idea for me to try to head back tonight…I’m really tired, Tifa, and I don’t know if Terra would like it if Zack took the reins…” Who’s Terra?

His internal question was answered with a peck at his ear, and he turned around and saw, of all the things in the universe, a gold chocobo.  I didn’t even know they were real.  “You must be Terra, then?” he asked, stroking the feathers around her neck.  “You’re very pretty, for a bird.”

“Kweh,” she replied, presumably happy.

“Reno, don’t fly here drunk,” Cloud said sternly, looking out at the water.  The Turk?  “No, I’m serious.  I’m not coming with if you show up tonight…okay, fine, I’ll see you in the morning.”

Cloud closed the PHS with an exasperated sigh and turned to Zack, expression…more somber than he was used to seeing.  He’d have to fix that.  “How do you feel about spending the night in Icicle?”

“Oh, we’re on the Northern Continent?” Zack asked, looking at the strange trees surrounding the clearing.  “That’s…cool,” he added with a wink.

The other man snorted, biting his lip to keep from grinning.  Zack was pleased to note that he gave up after a moment (Cloud’s smiles were always a wonderful sight).  He put the PHS into the duffel, then tossed it at Zack.  “That was a horrible pun.”

“Come on.  You’re smiling.”

“I know and I hate it,” the blond said sarcastically, climbing on Terra’s back and holding a hand out for him.  “Get on.”

Zack put the duffel on his back and climbed on, settling his hands on Cloud’s hips for balance.  “I’m ready when you are, Spike.”

As Terra moseyed out of the clearing, it suddenly dawned on Zack where exactly they were.  He’d watched Aerith die here…recently.  Except I wasn’t really there…it was in my head…?

“Zack, are you okay?” Cloud asked in a slightly pained voice.  “Your grip is really tight.”

He let go immediately, and almost fell off Terra as she rounded a corner.  “Put your hands back before you embarrass yourself,” Cloud said after laughing a bit.  “Just…what was it?”

“I…think I’m remembering…you were in my head earlier?”

“…Yeah, I was.  You were really sick…and it was the only way to bring you back,” Cloud said, with a sort of empathy that made Zack’s heart feel heavy.  “The stuff you still don’t remember will probably come back pretty soon.”

“You’re talking like you’ve done this before.”

“I have.  Just know…I’m here for you, okay?"

They spent the rest of the ride to Icicle in silence.  Cloud seemed to understand that Zack needed time to think, and he had never been much of a conversationalist anyway.  He was right, though—as they traveled through the mountains, bits and pieces of their trip in the Lifestream made themselves known.  Between the mess of feelings that brought up and the biting cold (did Cloud own any jackets?  Or any long-sleeved shirts for that matter?), Zack ended up moving his arms to wrap them around Cloud’s waist, and rest his head on the other man’s back.  He didn’t seem to mind.  Man, am I cold…and tired…

They pulled up on the little ski town a few hours after sundown, and both of them yawned as they dismounted.  “Are you hungry?” Cloud asked.  “Once we rent out a room, I can go get food while you shower…”

Zack perked up at the word food.  “I’ll take you up on that offer, Spike,” he said.  “It’s been a while since I’ve had a good meal, right?”

And so a few minutes later, Zack found himself in the shower of their room at the inn, dealing (or not dealing, more like) with the array of emotions he was feeling.  He squirted some of Cloud’s shampoo into his hand, the scent comforting, and set to work washing the black spikes.  Shouldn’t my hair be longer than this by now?  He resolved to ask Cloud about it later.

Zack felt…really sad.  He supposed he had every right to be sad about some things—like having to watch so many of his friends die again, and the fact that he was really only alive because of a shitty science project and Cloud’s own grief.  He felt incredibly alone, which was stupid, since his best friend was literally just across town at the moment.

And Cloud…he’d changed, a lot, since the last time the two of them were together like this.  Zack wasn’t completely sure yet what had happened to him, but he had the air of someone who’d been to hell and back.  Multiple times.  And he knew Cloud could have been spared the pain if Zack had just been just a little smarter, or just a little stronger.  Zack was supposed to be the strong one, he was supposed to be able to carry Cloud’s burdens.  But instead his friend had needed to do everything on his own, and the guilt was almost too much for Zack to bear.

A knock at the bathroom door brought him back to reality.  Had he dozed off?  “Zack, you still in there?”

“Uh…yes?”

“Ha, I guess you probably wanted to take a long shower after everything.  I have dinner whenever you come out.”

Zack flailed for the tap and almost slipped at the mention of dinner.  No point in reminiscing over past failures when there was food to be eaten.  He quickly wrapped a towel around his hips and opened the door to see what Cloud had brought up.  Burgers, fries, wings…excellent.

Cloud tossed a pair of grey sweatpants and a t-shirt at him and then politely turned around while Zack changed.  The shirt was just the right size for him, although he imagined it was probably one of Cloud’s larger ones.  The pants were too short—no surprise there—but thankfully they weren’t too tight around the hips.  That would be awkward.

“How do I look, Spike?” he asked, striking a pose.

Cloud turned around and snorted.  “Like you’re wearing someone else’s hand-me-downs.  Mine, specifically.”

“More like hand-me-ups.  What am I, six inches taller than you?”  He promptly invaded the blond’s personal space, holding his shoulders in place to line them up chest-to-chest.  “I can’t tell with all your spiky hair in the way.”

“It’s not like yours is any less spiky,” Cloud said, taking a step back without meeting his gaze.

Speaking of my hair…shouldn’t it be longer than this?” Zack asked, ruffling it as if to prove a point.  “You know, after all that time…”

Cloud flushed a little and looked to the side.  “I, uh, cut it a few weeks ago.  To the length you used to wear it.”

“Thanks Spike, but…why?”

“Mostly because it was wilder than a rat’s nest, but didn’t you cut my hair, too?  While we were on the run?”

“That’s right, I did…thanks for taking care of me.”  An understatement if there ever was one…I’ll probably never be able to thank him enough.

Cloud took his own turn in the shower while Zack started eating.  Greasy tavern food was absolutely wonderful after a long day of whatever the hell you could call spending time in Zack’s own mind, but he was careful to take it slow.  He didn’t want to make himself sick.

He was midway through his second burger when Cloud came back out of the bathroom, in a similar state to Zack’s own just a half hour ago.  He hadn’t noticed until just now, but…Cloud had really filled out in the past few years.  His shoulders were considerably broader, his arms perfectly sculpted…Zack was a bit jealous, had his ever looked that good?  The scars from Masamune were still there, not that they detracted at all from how aesthetically pleasing Cloud’s torso was.  And he could tell from the curve of the towel that his ass must be—hold it right there Fair this is not a train of thought you are gonna go down right now stop thinking about his ass damn it.

“Uh, you gonna watch me change or something?”

Zack could feel his face heating up and knew he must look incredibly stupid.  “Sorry, I’m sorry, I—turning around now.”  Oh my gods I’m already fucking this up and I’ve literally been awake for a few hours what am I doing—

“Glad you left some for me,” the blond said sarcastically once he’d put the other set of clothes on, looking at the survivors of Zack’s appetite.  “There’s like…three wings here.  And half a burger.”

Zack was unbelievably grateful for the change in subject.  “We can always get more food, right?”

“Not without any gil, we can’t.”

Of course I fucking ate all the food.  “Ah, I forgot, I’m so sorry!”

Cloud just laughed.  “It’s okay.  Reno’s flying us back tomorrow morning, I’ll be fine.  It’s really late anyway.”

“So…I’m not sure if I’m supposed to remember this or not, but how exactly do you know Reno?”

His friend just shrugged.  “Ran into him a number of times while chasing Sephiroth.  Worked with him a number of times after that.  He acts like an asshole, but he’s alright once you get to know him.”

Fair enough.  “Well…I’m tired and fuller than a stuffed hen, so I think I’m gonna hit the hay.  Night, Cloud.”  He promptly climbed into the bed on the far side of the room and closed his eyes.  I can’t possibly embarrass myself while I’m sleeping.

“Night.”

 

---------------------------------

 

It wasn’t surprising at all that Zack’s sleep was full of nightmares.  He found himself back in the labs, which wasn’t new.  The Shinra manor had haunted most of his nights since he left it all those years ago.  It was when he left the mako tank and was clearly not in dream-Nibelheim that he knew something was different.

His dream-self was mentally tethered to a computer, and Hojo’s voice commanded him to do things he didn’t want to do at all.  Zack wandered around Wutai, in search of a man in a red cape who he didn’t know.  He saw himself beating the crap out of Reno and Tseng, saw himself kidnap a guy he vaguely recognized as Rufus Shinra.  What for, the computer never told him.  Wasn’t worth the effort, he was just a weapon.  Zack saw himself walk the wastes around Midgar, watched himself fight Tifa and Yuffie and several other people he didn’t know.  He swung at Cloud again and again, not holding anything back—

Zack shot up in the bed, in a state of panic.  I…I tried to kill Cloud?!  Why would I do that!?  He’s my best friend!

Every shitty self-loathing feeling Zack had been bottling up since waking up at the pool came pouring out all at once.  He was such a failure, such a fuckup…why the universe thought he deserved a second chance was beyond him.  He felt hollow tears stream down his face, choked down sobs, and his eyes couldn’t find anything to focus on.  He was worthless, a product of someone else’s whims, not good for anything but making life harder for everyone else.  And the fact that he couldn’t even keep these feelings inside any more just made it worse—another screw-up to add to his list.  His hands started to tingle, and Zack felt like he couldn’t breathe.  A distant part of his mind vaguely registered that this was called an anxiety attack, but he didn’t have a damn clue how to make it stop.

Zack’s back and shoulders tensed up, and he felt like he was made of wood.  His vision started to fade in and out with the tingling, and eventually one of those wracked sobs escaped his throat, and Gaia, he’d fucked up again because it probably woke up Cloud.  He’s gonna leave, he’s gonna laugh at me, he’s gonna tell me I’m being stupid and irrational…

Of course, Cloud didn’t do any of those things, instead throwing off his covers before walking over to Zack’s bed and sitting down beside him, lifting a hand to run his fingers through Zack’s hair.  It was ridiculously comforting and Zack didn’t deserve it, didn’t deserve any of it.

Thankfully, Cloud didn’t pressure him to say anything, because Zack wasn’t sure he would be able to form actual words in this state.  The tingling slowly subsided, replaced by an empty, numb feeling that he hated, and over several long minutes, his choked sobs evened out somewhat.  He leaned sideways into Cloud’s shoulder, taking shaky breaths.

“Do you want to talk about it?”  A simple question, but one Zack wasn’t sure he was able to properly answer.

“I…I just…I feel like…such a screwup,” he said, pausing between words as they made his breathing go erratic again.  “I lost everyone…and it’s all…my fault…”  And I can’t even speak properly.

Cloud turned their shoulders so they were making eye contact, and Zack could see the beginnings of tears forming in his own eyes.  “It’s not your fault, Zack,” he said with a conviction that made him feel somehow even less worthy of comfort.  Cloud believed in him and he didn’t deserve it, not after everything he’d ruined.  “You did everything you could…more than anyone could have expected, okay?  Don’t ever believe that you don’t deserve to be happy, okay?”

Zack hadn’t thought his own words made much sense, with him currently being a blubbering idiot, but Cloud’s seemed to soothe whatever part of him was upset.  Then his stupid brain realized that it was probably because Cloud had gone through the same cycle of self-loathing, and he pathetically started to cry again.

Cloud didn’t protest when Zack reached out to pull him closer, but the lack of resistance only made him feel worse.  He was supposed to be strong, damn it.  And here he was, crying about everything under the sun.  “I’m…alone…I’m so alone now…”

“Whoa, stop that right now,” Cloud said over Zack’s shoulder.  “You still have me, okay?  You’ll always have me.  Goddess be damned, I’m never leaving you behind again, so just…we’ll be alright.”

Zack knew, knew it was cruel and unfair to say the next thing on his mind, but he said it anyway.  “But…you already have a family…all those people I hurt…you don’t need me.”

He felt Cloud’s breath hitch somewhere near his ear, and the selfish part of himself that decided to say it felt a sickening triumph.  “Zack…you gotta understand, you’re a part of my family now,” Cloud said slowly.  “I…a part of me died on the cliff that day, Zack.  I’ve always needed you…”

Zack took one last shaky breath before deciding it was time to give up and finish taking care of this himself.  “I…I think I’m fine now,” he lied.  “You can go back to sleep.”

“Then you need to move a bit so I can fit under there with you.”

“What…?”

“Tifa always says that nothing scares off the night terrors like having someone there with you, and believe me, it works.  I’m staying.”

Zack recognized that arguing would be useless, and that selfish part of him didn’t want to protest anyway, wanted Cloud to stay close and comfort him.  It was a tight fit in the small bed, but they rearranged themselves under the blankets so that he was on his side behind Cloud, who had his head burrowed into the crook of Zack’s shoulder.  Zack hesitantly put his free arm around Cloud’s chest and drew him in closer.  It probably wasn’t a great idea to fall asleep spooning his best friend, especially not with the other stuff he’d been thinking earlier, but he was upset enough that he just didn’t care.

Cloud didn’t seem to care either, as his breathing evened out in sleep within minutes, and Zack followed not too far behind.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Slowly drifting back into consciousness, Cloud felt…unusually comfortable.  His sweatshirt had bunched up around his shoulders in a way that felt like an extra blanket, and his pillow was pleasantly warm, and everything smelled cozy.  He felt Tifa’s solid presence at his back and her hand splayed across his stomach and hummed in appreciation (he really did like cuddles), but the pitch of the answering hum brought him back to reality.

Yeah, that definitely wasn’t Tifa’s hand—it was much larger and more calloused than hers, and the torso he was curled up against didn’t belong to her either.  Cloud couldn’t tell if Zack was awake or not, and he didn’t ask, because his heart rate was stupidly increasing at the close contact and he didn’t want to embarrass himself because Zack’s hand was really close to his heart and it would be pretty awful for him to ruin whatever it was they had now by acting like he had a crush again.

Zack hummed again behind him and used that hand to pull him in even closer and nuzzle into the back of his neck like he was an overly large teddy bear.  Not that he really minded being anyone’s teddy bear, but it was a bit much right now.  Calm down, Strife…this was your idea in the first place, be mature about it.  At least he feels better.

Resigned to his current fate as Zack’s cuddle buddy, Cloud willed his heart rate to slow down, and relaxed…and slowly drifted back into sleep again.

Until he was woken up by the sound of snickering.

Cloud abruptly opened his eyes and saw Reno’s unwelcome smirk on the other side of the room.  “What the hell?” he asked, voice husky from sleep.  It didn’t come out nearly as angry as he’d meant it to.  “Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?”

“I did knock, yo.  For about ten minutes.”

Cloud didn’t make any move to get up and increased the intensity of his glare.  “Still…you don’t just break into other people’s hotel rooms.”

“And why not, yo?  I would’ve missed out on the extremely important knowledge that you’re a huge gaidamn snuggler.”

Sighing, Cloud moved to get out of the bed, but Zack put his other hand on the blond’s chest as well (pushing the sweatshirt up even farther) and pulled him back on top of him with strong arms.  Reno’s snickering turned into breathless laughter as Cloud groaned in embarrassment.  The Turk was never gonna let him live this down.

“Zack, wake up,” he said, and got a muffled moan in response.  “Reno, a little help here?”

“No way,” the Turk answered between laughs.  “This is too funny, yo.”

Cloud pinched the skin on Zack’s forearm, and the other man, thankfully, responded.  “What’d you do that for?” he asked sleepily.  It was evident when his mind woke up because his hands were off Cloud’s chest faster than Reno could say, “Have a crush, Fair?”

Zack gave Reno a mock-hurt look as Cloud successfully stood up and began gathering their things together.  “You always poked fun at me back when I was in SOLDIER, too,” he said, running his hands through his hair to try and tame it down some.  After a moment, he added, “And so what if I do?”

Fortunately, Cloud was facing away from both of them when Zack said that, as he could feel his heart rate picking up again.  It’s a joke, it’s fine, he’s joking.  See?  Reno’s laughing.

“Cloudy here doesn’t like having jokes like that made at his expense, yo,” Reno said sarcastically.

Zack tilted his head to the side as he put his shoes on.  “Since when?”

“Since Red here started making it seem like I was some sort of freak,” Cloud said, face turned away to mask the blush on his cheeks.  He pushed Reno to the side so he could get to the bathroom.  “I need to pee.”

He could hear the two men clashing through the bathroom door.  Zack was upset that anyone was out to hurt his friend’s feelings, and Reno made sure to point out that Cloud had toughened up quite a bit since the last time Zack had been around.  It’s true, but does he have to say it so bluntly?  Zack feels guilty enough already…

Both men abruptly stopped talking and gave Cloud apologetic looks when he came out of the bathroom, and the three of them got in Reno’s helicopter a few minutes later.

The conversation between his friends eased somewhat as they flew back over the ocean.  Content to talk about things other than Cloud, Reno filled Zack in on what had become of the other Turks since his disappearance, and hesitantly told him that if he was ever in need of employment, Rufus would probably hire him.  Zack told him he appreciated it.

I hope he doesn’t go for that, Cloud thought.  Not that I just want to keep him for myself, but…who am I kidding.  I want to keep him for myself.

“How are you feeling, Spike?” Zack asked, putting a hand on his back for support.  “Motion sickness and everything?”

Cloud smiled, having forgotten that Zack wouldn’t know.  “It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be,” he said.  “One of the side effects of thinking I was you for a while.  You never had problems with it, after all.”

Zack nodded appraisingly.  “Glad something good came out of that mess.”

Reno seemed to think that now was a good time to interject with another joke at his expense.  “Another wonderful side effect was that he totally hit on your girlfriend, yo.  Got all heroic and everything.”

“So what?” Zack said, not taking the bait.  “I think me being dead to the world for five years qualified Aerith as single.  And Cloud is such a good catch, props to her.”

Cloud still needed to concentrate in order to keep the motion sickness at bay, and so he tuned out the conversation a bit as they neared Edge.  He wasn’t terribly surprised to see the Highwind outside the town—Tifa had probably called everyone in to finally meet Zack, after all this time.  Sure enough, all of his friends were waiting outside Seventh Heaven when Reno landed the helicopter.

Marlene was the first to break free of the group, running straight for Cloud.  He picked her up easily, and she gave Zack a searching look.  “So you’re okay now?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, I am,” he answered, grinning.

Cloud easily saw Yuffie sneaking around them (a skill born of practice), and he laughed when Zack yelped as the weight of the PHS was taken from his pocket.  “Who—you!” he said, pointing at her with a delighted expression.  “You’ve gotten a lot better at stealing from me!”

“Of course I have,” Yuffie answered, tossing the phone back and putting her hands on her hips.  “I’ve been practicing on Cloud, and I’m absolutely brilliant now.”

Marlene jumped down from his arms to get her dad, and Tifa took her place, resting her head on his shoulder and putting her arms around him.  “I’m really glad you’re both okay,” she said.  “I was worried about you.”

“I know,” he said with a sigh, quietly enough that only the two of them could hear.  “And you had every right to be worried.  But we’re okay now—better than okay.  I don’t think I’ve been this happy in a long time, Tifa.  And I wouldn’t have been able to get him back without you.”

They slowly moved the party inside the bar, and Cloud was pleased to find out that Zack fit into their group seamlessly.  The reunion went on straight through the afternoon, and it was almost like Zack had always been there with them.  He supposed, in a sense, he had—Cloud had definitely acted like him long enough for his personality to make an impression.

Zack reacted wonderfully when the kids brought out Triple Triad, praising Denzel’s knack for strategy and Marlene’s rendition of his “beautiful” face.  He was star-struck when he found out that the former head of Shinra’s space department was there, and that he had actually been in space while Zack was gone.  He was similarly in awe when he found out the man who designed Midgar was also one of Cloud’s friends, and spent at least an hour discussing Reeve’s various plans for the future.  He awkwardly apologized to Vincent for kidnapping him, who accepted it just as awkwardly.  He just generally made it clear that he belonged.

Just last night, Zack had been incredibly worked up about being alone in the world.  Cloud hoped his friend could see it for himself now—there was definitely a space for him in this weird, unconventional family, and Cloud would make sure he found a home in it.  After all this time, they were truly going to be alright.

Chapter Text

Tifa was in the interesting position of being both one of the most sentimental and one of the most practically-minded people in her social circle.  Watching Cloud and Zack reunite after so long apart, especially after the pain and heartache it had taken to get him back… she found herself sort of basking in the glow of their happiness all afternoon.  It had been a very long time since she’d seen Cloud smile that much in one day, even now after everyone else had gone home.  They both seemed so happy to have each other again, almost as though neither of them had ever felt the pain of loss in the first place, and Tifa didn’t want to let anything get in the way of that.  Zack belonged here, with them.

But that didn’t change that the bar just did not have enough places to sleep.

Okay, this wasn’t technically true, as the cot in the office could testify.  But they originally got the spare bed for when Barret came to visit, which he would still be doing fairly regularly.  And it was meant to be more of a temporary measure—Tifa wanted the bar to be a place Zack could call home, and the office was no bedroom.  Not to mention that she and Cloud needed to use it to manage their businesses.

Marlene and Denzel each had a room to themselves, and Tifa was not going to compromise that by asking Denzel to share.  That left the room she shared with Cloud, which was just not big enough to fit a third bed and a third person’s clothes, once they could get Zack some of his own.  And she had a hunch the two men would want to share a bed at some point anyway, for comfort if nothing else, and a twin just wouldn’t do.  They needed to come up with something.

“Hey, Gaia to Tifa,” Zack said, waving his hand in front of her face.  “You were zoning out and missed my super awkward story about trooper Cloud.”

Tifa gave a short laugh.  “I can guarantee I have more embarrassing stories about him than you do.”  I bet he doesn’t know about Wall Market…that’ll make for a good story one day.

“Oh, really?  Because there was this one time—”

Cloud held out his arms to separate the two.  “Okay, let’s not get carried away here,” he said, smiling despite the subject.  “It’s not my fault neither of you two ever seem to humiliate yourselves.”

“Whoa Spike, you’re flattering me,” Zack said with a chuckle.  “You’re forgetting the important fact that I have about as much common sense as a bucket of snails.  I’ve made a fool of myself loads of times.”

“You have a little more common sense than a bucket of snails,” Cloud laughed.  “But only a little.”

Tifa poked Cloud’s arm.  “And you’re forgetting how embarrassed I was the morning after we slept under the Highwind,” she said.  “I ran into a corner when the others said they’d seen us…”

“…which was silly, since we hadn’t even been doing anything,” Cloud finished.  “Okay, I get the point.”

Zack cleared his throat, looking a little awkward.  “Uh, speaking of sleeping…where am I gonna be doing that now?”

“Here,” Cloud and Tifa said simultaneously.  Glad we’re all on the same page.

“Okay, it’s super cute that you guys say stuff at the same time like that…” Zack said, his smile growing into a shit-eating grin, “…but this table isn’t a bed.”

Cloud swatted his arm, and the older man rubbed the spot with a mock-hurt look on his face.

“That’s more or less what I was thinking about while I was zoning out,” Tifa said.  “Where you’re going to sleep, not the table,” she corrected when Zack opened his mouth, presumably to crack another joke.

He furrowed his brow in concentration.  “Okay…where was I sleeping before?”

“In the office,” Cloud answered, “but…”

“That’s kind of in the way of things, isn’t it?” the older man finished.  “I get it…I mean, I could always find an apartment somewhere once I have the money.”

“No,” the other two said at the same time, rather forcefully.  Cloud gave her a meaningful look and she let him finish.  “I…I want you to stay here, with m—with us.”

Tifa diffused the tension by playfully punching Zack’s shoulder.  “You’re a part of the Strife clan now,” she said teasingly.  “So you’re living here with the rest of us.”

“A clan, huh?” Zack mused.  “What’s the family crest?”

Denzel poked his head out from behind the wall.  “A wolf!  Haven’t you seen it?”

Cheeky.  “Oi!” Tifa said, pointing upstairs.  “I thought you were supposed to be in bed.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts, it’s almost midnight!”

“See you in the morning, Denzel,” Cloud added, less scolding, as the boy retreated upstairs.

Zack looked extremely amused.  “Yeah, I noticed the wolves already.  So does that mean I get a ring like you guys and Barret and the kids have?”

Cloud smirked.   “You gotta go through initiation first,” he said mischievously.  “Make me believe you’re worthy of the legendary Strife crest.”

The other man’s face lit up in a smirk so similar to Cloud’s that it threw Tifa off for a moment.  “…I feel like holding you through the night counts me as worthy,” Zack said, waggling his eyebrows.

Tifa couldn’t stop herself from grinning, and raised a hand to cover it up.  That…that happened a lot sooner than I thought it would.

Cloud scoffed, but he still turned a little pink.  “In case you forgot, that was entirely for your benefit,” he said.  “But fine, you’re worthy.”

Zack stood up to do a few squats, one of the few mannerisms he had that hadn’t passed on to Cloud.  “Oh yeah!  You hear that, Tifa?  He thinks I’m worthy.”

“Holding you through the night, huh?” she said absentmindedly.  “Maybe we should find somewhere to put a bigger bed.”

Tifa wasn’t surprised to see Cloud’s blush deepen, but she was surprised to see Zack’s face turn absolutely crimson.  She knew that Zack was an affectionate and expressive person, but…she’d been under the impression that it was mostly platonic in Cloud’s case.  At least for now.  Well, that teaches me about making assumptions.

The two men turned away from each other and looked at the ceiling, and Tifa accepted that the sudden awkwardness was entirely her fault.  “Guys, I was kidding,” she said.  “Though I don’t doubt you would want something larger than a twin, Zack.”

He didn’t look back at her, but he did answer.  “Yeah, my legs are pretty long.  But that brings us back to the original problem…where would we put it?”

Tifa didn’t make any attempt to continue the thread of conversation, giving both of her friends time to get over their embarrassment.  Do they not realize it’s mutual?  Because whatever they’re feeling, it’s definitely mutual.

After a moment, Cloud cleared his throat.  “There’s always the savings.”

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about that.  Right after they’d first built the place, they set aside some of the money they made back during Meteorfall from selling mastered materia to build an addition to the bar.  So Barret would have an actual room to stay in if he wanted to move in permanently.  And…it sort of went unsaid, but they would have needed to add to the building anyway, if she and Cloud ever had kids of their own somewhere down the line.  Since the whole platonic family thing was working out so well, and since they had the rest of their lives to live out, and…well, anything was possible.  But it was still an uncomfortable topic of conversation for both of them.

“Savings?  What for?” Zack asked, seeming genuinely confused.

“We thought about building a loft for a while,” Cloud answered, the discomfort in his voice thick enough to cut with a knife.  “You know…in case…uh…well…”

“…our family ever got bigger,” Tifa finished, resisting the urge to bring a hand to her temple.  Gaia, this is awkward…that idea sounds so much weirder when it comes up in actual conversation.

Comprehension and confusion somehow managed to coexist in Zack’s expression, and he thankfully said what Tifa was not thinking.  “Oh, in case Barret moved in?”

Cloud let out the breath he’d been holding.  “Yes!  That is completely, one hundred percent why we had the money saved up.”  Way to act natural.

“…Okay…?”

“…Anyway, we could call Barret and have him drop off the supplies, pick up the kids for a few days while we build another floor,” Tifa offered, in an attempt to change the subject.  “That is, if you boys are up for it.”

“Yeah, of course!” Zack said enthusiastically.  “Anything to be more than a dead weight around here.”

“You’ve only been back for a day,” Tifa said, grateful despite her exasperation.  He was already trying too hard to be useful, when they were just happy he was around again.  “Although I wouldn’t mind an extra hand in the bar.”

“Done.  Whatever you need, seriously.”

They discussed the plans for a few more minutes—if the three of them all worked hard, they could have the outside part built pretty quickly.  Take down the roof, build another floor and a set of stairs, put in the windows…Denzel and Marlene both liked painting, so they could do that when they came back.  And they could start right away, since there wasn’t any rain forecast for the near future.  Their normal routine had already been on hold for a few weeks…might as well add a few more days now to get things sorted.

Tifa finished telling Barret the plans, and then closed her PHS.  Zack yawned, stood up from the chair, and cracked his back.  “Well, I’m gonna get some sleep,” he said, walking upstairs.  “Night, Tifa.  Night, Cloud.”

“Good night.”

Cloud didn’t make any move to get up, and Tifa took it to mean he wanted to talk about something.  She raised her eyebrows at him and he sighed, relaxing.

“I thought I’d be over those old feelings now that he’s back,” the blond admitted, looking down.  “Easy to assume that when he’s not…you know, there.”

“There as in holding you through the night?”

Cloud sighed again.  “He had an anxiety attack last night, Tifa,” he said, meeting her gaze.  “He was all worked up about feeling like a failure…and like he didn’t deserve happiness…and feeling alone…”

Sounds familiar.  “So you kept him company?”

He nodded.  “The whole time we were gone, in the Lifestream and afterwards, I had no idea what I was supposed to do.  I just…tried to do what you would do.”

“I haven’t exactly set the perfect example…but I’m flattered,” Tifa said, taking his hand in hers.  “You know what, though?  Most people don’t have a clue how to handle people who are suffering like that…but you’ve been there, Cloud.  I bet you gave him exactly what he needed.”

Cloud ran the pads of his thumbs over her knuckles.  “Yeah, he slept like a baby with me there,” he said, sounding more resigned than anything else.  “It didn’t do anything to help me figure out how I feel about him now, though.”

Tifa decided to do what she did best in these sorts of situations—give her honest opinion.  “I think you and Zack are going to be a little confused for a while,” she said after a moment, and Cloud’s thumbs stopped moving.  “You’re all that’s left of his old life, you know?  And you’ve changed a lot since then.  You’re not that shy trooper anymore.”

“Yeah…Reno said something about that this morning, about him not needing to look out for me anymore,” he said, with a touch of sadness.

“And he doesn’t, at least not in the same way he did while you were on the run.  The three of us are gonna look after each other now, yeah?  It’ll just take some time to work out what all that means.”

Cloud rubbed the back of his neck.  “And…Gaia, Tifa, I’m really bad at this.  I think he’s acting like he’s…attracted to me, but it’s not really much different from how he’s been in the past, you know?  Not to mention it could all just be in my head…”

She let out a bit of a giggle despite herself—neither of them were very subtle.  “Okay…whatever it is, it’s not just in your head,” she said sincerely.  “He blushed more than you did when I mentioned getting a bigger bed.”

“Really?” He seemed doubtful.

“Really really.”

“Then…what should I do?”

 “For now, you wait,” she told him resolutely.  “Zack’s probably at least as confused as you are right now, not to mention that we haven’t really told him the status of our relationship.  Which we should do soon, by the way, before he gets too many ideas.  Just…once we all get settled in, your feelings for each other will become clearer.  They might go back to being just platonic, like with us.  Or they might get stronger.  You’ll figure it out.  And whatever happens…”

“…things will work out, one way or another.”

Tifa gave him a quick hug and smiled.  “Now you’re picking up on things.  Let’s get some sleep, we’ve got some heavy lifting to do tomorrow.”

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Zack stared at the office ceiling.  He thought he was adjusting rather well to being in real life again, despite how generally stupid he was being.

He managed to act totally normal around everyone when they got back to the bar—the others seemed to like him well enough, and he liked them too.  Cloud had good taste in friends.

And after everyone had left, Zack almost made it the rest of the night without embarrassing himself.  He’d made a joke about the comfort cuddling with Cloud the previous night—because jokes were, in his opinion, the best way to make light of something awkward.  They drew attention away from his own feelings and made whatever it was seem innocuous.  And it worked, briefly.  Cloud wasn’t embarrassed, and his response helped to alleviate the weirdness he was feeling.  But then Tifa had to go and insinuate that they should share a bed sometime in the future.  Why would she mention that, anyway?  Isn’t she his girlfriend?  Shouldn’t it be really, really weird for her to suggest he sleep with me instead?

Zack had thought for a moment that maybe they weren’t in a relationship like that, but he definitely got the vibe that they had been planning on having kids someday.  He just…he could hit himself for not figuring it out without Tifa having to practically spell it out for him.  We were saving for a loft for babies, Zack.  Because babies are a thing people tend to have when they live together and have a matching pair of rings.  But you kind of reappeared out of nowhere, so we’ll go ahead and build it now so you have somewhere to park your silly homeless butt at night.

And that knowledge made him feel absolutely idiotic for how he’d acted around Cloud the day before.  He should’ve known his friend would have found someone by now, with him being as great as he was, and he was genuinely happy that it was someone as wonderful and caring as Tifa.  They were really lucky to have each other.

So Zack needed to get his stupid feelings under control, and soon.  He tried very, very hard to think about something other than the feel of Cloud in his arms the night before.  He failed.  Just…his shampoo had smelled so good, and he was solid and there and his skin had no right to be as soft was it was, especially when Zack was prone to have wandering hands while he slept.  It had been way too nice for his own good.  Gaia, he hadn’t been that warm and cozy since before Nibelheim, which put it at eight whole years since the last time he’d gotten physical comfort from someone.  And Aerith had never actually spent a whole night with him—just short naps on the church pews.

Zack felt himself flush and groaned when he realized it could have been so much worse.  Anxiety attacks took a lot out of a person, including certain…physical urges, and there was an alarmingly large chance that he would have woken up with a hard-on under different circumstances.  It was only a stroke of luck, really, that Cloud wasn’t acutely aware of this stupid problem he was having.

So…yeah.  He really needed to stop thinking about this right now.  It was just because he’d been alone for so long, right?  It would fade with time, right?  Because he really didn’t want to throw a wrench into their friendship by having his heart betray him like hey Spike, I know you have a girlfriend and a family but I seriously cannot stop thinking about you in ways that probably make you super uncomfortable.

Eventually, and with no small amount of effort, Zack got his mind to move on to other topics, and he was blessed with a dreamless sleep.

He woke up to see sunlight streaming through the window, and came to something of a resolution.  If he had another episode like in the inn, he would have to deal with it alone.  It might be cruel to close himself off to his friend…but it was the only way he could think of to stem the tide of whatever the hell was happening with his feelings.

Making his way downstairs to find something to eat, he found Tifa frying bacon in an old work shirt and sweatpants.  “Can I help?” he asked, and she shook her head and motioned for him to sit down.

“Cloud’s still asleep,” she said, looking into the skillet with a strangely determined look on her face.  “So…since he’s not here to get all embarrassed…I think we should clear something up.”

Oh.  “Okay, I know I was being kind of weird last night, but I swear I’m not going to…like…make a move on him or anything, because wow that would be really creepy and disrespectful of me—”

“It’s okay, Zack.  I mean, it’s okay with me if it’s okay with him.”

He could practically feel his neural pathways burning out.  Since when was that sort of thing okay?  “…What?”

Tifa emptied the skillet’s contents onto a plate and set it between them on the counter.  “Cloud and I aren’t in a sexual relationship,” she said matter-of-factly.  “Or even a romantic one.  Yeah, we do sort of present ourselves as a married couple, and I love him more than anything, but it’s purely platonic.”

Zack’s brain was having a really hard time processing this.  A hard enough time that he couldn’t prevent himself from asking a really dumb question.  “…Why?”

She gave him a wry smile and poured two cups of orange juice, sliding one to him.  “The rest of our friends asked the same thing once they caught on,” she said.  “It’s…hard to explain, because you’d think we’d be madly in love after everything we’ve been through together, you know?”

He nodded numbly.  That made sense.  A small part of his mind registered that it made a little too much sense, but the larger part threw away that information almost immediately, not wanting to deal with it.

Tifa took a bite out of a strip of bacon before continuing.  “Well, to put it bluntly, I’m ace.  And his attraction to me faded pretty quickly once we could resolve the romantic tension.  So we just sort of…have this platonic family thing going on.  It’s pretty cool.”

Zack knew what it was to be asexual—it was hard to live in Midgar for very long without becoming educated on those sorts of things.  And he wasn’t surprised that Cloud chose to stick with her, either, because he had always been pretty great like that—loving people regardless of what he would or wouldn’t get out of the relationship.  And the platonic family thing sounded really nice.

He finished half his juice in one gulp and set the glass down with a thud.  “If you two aren’t sleeping together…then what was that stuff last night about having kids?”

She just shrugged.  “Nothing serious.  It’s more of an ‘if’ than a ‘when,’ you know?  Gaia, I’m only 23, and we already sort of have kids, even if they’re not ours.  It’s like, we have the whole rest of our lives ahead of us, and…anything’s possible.”

“So, romantic tension…you mentioned something about a night under the Highwind?”

Tifa smiled, looking a bit wistful.  “Yeah…we both kind of admitted how much we liked each other, and spent the night cuddled up together.  It was nice.”

Tell me about it.  “So…it’s not just me, then?  Cloud’s actually super cuddly?”

“I’m what?” came a low, sleepy voice from the stairs.

“Really cute!” Tifa said, winking at Zack.  Good gods…it’s like she reads minds.

Cloud pouted as he pulled out a chair at the bar.  “I’m not…cute,” he said with a yawn.

Tifa swept the bangs out of his eyes and handed him a glass of orange juice.  “Yes you are.  Zack thinks so, too.”

He took the orange juice in both hands and turned his chair to glare at Zack.  Or, sort of glare.  It was a sleepy sort of irritation, and it was…damn it.  “I can’t believe it,” Cloud said, horrified.  “It’s written all over your face.  You think I’m cute.”

“…I’m sorry?”

“Whatever.  It’s not like my reputation is falling apart before my eyes or anything.  First Reno calls me snuggly, now you and Tifa call me cute…but you know what?  At least I’ve never been compared to a puppy.”  Ouch, my pride.

Tifa finished her glass and set it back down on the counter, grinning.  “I hate to break it to you, but puppies are both cute and cuddly.  Cloud Strife: confirmed for puppy.”

“Yeah, join the club,” Zack said, reaching out to ruffle Cloud’s hair.  “We can both be cute and cuddly.  Why are you so grumpy, anyway?”

“Didn’t sleep well,” he answered dryly, taking a piece of bacon.  “And I can’t find the sunscreen.  I’m gonna get really burned if—”

He was interrupted when a bottle hit his shoulder, and they both turned around to see Barret standing in the doorway.  “Don’ worry, I thought of your pale spiky butt,” the older man said with a smile.  “I brought it with the other stuff.  The kids up yet?”

Marlene’s timing was impeccable.  She appeared in the stairway within seconds, and ran towards the door with a shout of “Daddy!”

Barret grunted as he lifted her onto his shoulder.  “You’re really gettin’ too big for this,” he said with a chuckle.

“Why are you here, Daddy?”

“We’re adding another floor to the building,” Tifa answered.  “Best if you and Denz are out of the way while we build it.”

“Oooh!  For Zack?”

The commotion had woken up Denzel, who yawned and mussed his hair as came downstairs.  “Adding what to where?”

“Building a loft,” Cloud said.  “It’s gonna take a few days, so you and Marlene are going with Barret until then.”

The three soon-to-be travelers retreated upstairs for a few minutes to gather bags for the trip, and Tifa confiscated the remaining bacon before Zack could finish all of it, to Cloud’s amusement.  When they came back down, backpacks in tow, Denzel asked, “Do we get to help paint when the rest is done?”

Tifa handed half the confiscated bacon to him, and the other half to Marlene.  “Of course, Denz,” she said.  “I know you two love the painting part.  We just need to do the rest as fast as possible while the weather’s nice.”

Zack grinned.  “While the weather’s…fair?”

This was met with mild laughter from everyone but Cloud, who had heard far too many of Zack’s terrible weather puns.  Including this one, at least a hundred times.  “Has he always been this fond of dad jokes?” Tifa asked as they headed outside to start working.

Cloud nodded, groaning.  “Just wait until it’s overcast.”

 

---------------------------------

 

It truly seemed like it would only take them a few days to build the loft.  Zack wasn’t sure he expected anything different—two genetically engineered super-soldiers and a woman who was naturally not far from it should definitely be able to manage it quickly.

Tifa, mother hen that she was, handed Zack the bottle of sunscreen when Cloud was done, and told him to put some on.  He remarked that while he was Fair-skinned, he wasn’t fair-skinned, which prompted Cloud to practically attack him with a glob of it.  Zack hadn’t gone down without a fight, and so when his arms were covered in both dirt and sunscreen, he pouted and said he would have been fine—he didn’t have their delicate Nibel skin.  This resulted in Tifa pinning him down and applying a second glob onto his face for extra protection.

They took down the roof first, panel by panel, and managed to have that done before lunch.  Celebration involved a picnic with sandwiches and lemonade, which was wonderful in more ways than one, because Zack had a thing for lemonade and it had been a long time since he’d gotten to have an actual picnic with friends.

The sun got intense enough in the afternoon that Tifa brought out the garden hose to cool them off, and Zack thought he did a pretty good job of not staring at how Cloud’s shirt clung to him.  Seriously, he only looked for a few seconds (at a time).

By dusk, they had finished putting in the new floorboards, as well as the stairs.  It was safe enough to walk on, and the three of them sat on the edge and stargazed for a few hours before hitting the hay.  Zack learned that Cloud was running a delivery service of sorts now, which struck him as a bit odd.  Of all the things he expected his friend to be doing now, it just…wasn’t one of them.  He even said as much—Cloud seemed to be pretty at home building things, and yes, he had certainly noticed the badass motorcycle out front and he may or may not have decided he wanted one of his own.

Cloud had laughed at his babbling, but he seemed to at least consider Zack’s point.  Tifa went to sleep a while before they did, and Cloud took the opportunity to show off his super awesome transforming sword.  First Tsurugi was a freaking work of art, and Zack was impressed but not surprised that his friend had designed it himself.  Cloud told him he’d had something similar on him before the mako poisoning set in, and Zack was a bit doubtful.  Two katanas that fused into a single broadsword?  That seemed pretty wild, but Cloud brought it out and it seemed familiar enough.

“I’m gonna be totally honest here Spike, I have no idea how I got this thing,” he said, toying with the transforming mechanism.  “It’d be cool to spar you with it, though.”

“Sometime, yeah,” Cloud agreed.  “But seriously, don’t worry about not knowing.  There’s still stuff I don’t remember clearly, and some of it’s probably gone forever.  It probably wouldn’t be too pleasant of a memory anyway,” he added darkly.

Zack agreed with that statement wholeheartedly.  If his luck hadn’t run out, the nightmares from the labs would hold off for a while, at least until he could get his sudden (okay, maybe it wasn’t as sudden as he was telling himself) attraction to Cloud under control.  It wasn’t like he was off-limits, not after the conversation with Tifa that morning…but he still wasn’t interested in wrecking their friendship.  And there was no better way to ruin a good friendship than by telling the other person you’ve caught the feels, as Kunsel used to say.

Okay, that train of thought wasn’t going anywhere helpful.  “I just…thanks,” Zack finally said, leaning back and looking up at the stars.

“For what?”

“Gaia, Cloud…for everything.  I literally wouldn’t be here without you, you know?  You saved my life.”

His friend snorted, but he could tell he was touched.  “I could say the same.  I would’ve died a thousand times over if you weren’t always trying to protect me.”

“I think we can call the debt even now, right?  But…I’m still always going to feel like I owe you,” Zack admitted.

Cloud leaned back on his hands, and Zack watched the way the moonlight reflected off his face.  It made him look…angelic, somehow.  “How about we make a promise, then?” his friend suggested.  “Nothing crazy…just to keep looking out for each other.  I hope neither one of us is ever going to need saving again, but I’ll always be there for you, okay?  I’m with you till the end of the line.”

“A train metaphor?”

“It’s one of Barret’s things.  Back during Meteorfall, he used to tell me, ‘There ain’t no gettin’ off of this train,’ whenever I felt like giving up.  It means…we’ll keep going, until the end.”

“…of the line,” Zack finished slowly.  “Okay, I promise.  We’re sticking together.”

Cloud shifted until they were making eye contact.  “And I don’t just mean swooping in to defend each other when shit hits the fan,” he said.  “I mean it like…I want to help you when you’re feeling down, okay?”

He put a valiant effort into sounding convincing.  “Who said I was feeling down?”

“Zack, I’ve known you longer than anyone else.  I can tell when you’re struggling with something,” Cloud said, raising his eyebrows.  “Not to mention that you’re not the only person here who’s suffered through mako poisoning, remember?  I’ve been there.  Let me help.”

“…You mean the nightmares, don’t you?”  I hope that’s what he’s picked up on, and not…the other stuff.

Cloud snorted again.  “I mean that and all the rest of it, too.  I know it sounds like a great idea to force yourself to go through it alone…but trust me, it doesn’t make anyone happy.  I spent two years doing that, and it’s not worth it.”

Zack sighed, his resolve evaporating.  He never could say no to those eyes.  “Alright, I’ll ask for help when I need it.  Just…my mind can be a bit weird sometimes, okay?  Especially now.”

“Again, whatever it is, I’ve probably been there,” Cloud insisted.  “You’re not gonna scare me off.”

Gaia, I really hope not.  “That’s that, then,” he said, standing up and reaching an arm out for Cloud.  “Let’s get some rest.”

The rest of the loft’s construction passed without such heavy conversation.  The following morning, they put in the wall columns, windows, and the ceiling support.  Lunch was an outing of sorts—they needed to buy some furniture, so the three of them cleaned up a bit and went out to one of the sort-of-Wutaian places in downtown Edge.  The food was good, and picking out a wonderfully soft queen-sized mattress was even better.  Also, they got Zack some pants that were actually the right length, which he appreciated.

There were still a few hours of daylight left when they got back, so they went ahead and put in the sheetrock and the electric wires.  Tifa called Barret to let him know they could come back the following afternoon, and the three of them crashed in their respective beds or cots, exhausted from the day’s work.

Tifa woke him up far too soon, telling him they needed to get the roof back on quickly, since there was a storm coming.  Zack made a lot of cloud-themed puns.  Cloud glared at him.

The morning went by with Zack tossing up insulation and shingles to the other two, and it went pretty quickly.  There was an unfortunate moment in which Cloud slipped and fell off the roof, but he’d rather conveniently landed right on top of Zack, and the force of the impact knocked the wind out of him.  Tifa almost joined them on the ground, she was laughing so hard.

They finished in the nick of time—it started to rain not a half hour after they re-positioned the last roof panel, and they’d even managed to be thorough enough that leaks hopefully wouldn’t be an issue.

Lunch on day three of the loft’s construction was leftover Gongagan-style burritos, which Zack had cooked up the previous afternoon.  Burritos were always crowd-pleasers.  Barret and the kids showed up halfway through lunch, and they all had some of the leftovers, too.  There was nothing but praise for Zack’s cooking, even when Cloud pointed out that there wasn’t much cooking involved with making burritos.  Zack responded with another pun.

Marlene was beyond eager to paint the walls upstairs, and Denzel was only slightly more contained.  Zack had stared to catch on that it was just in his personality to be more subdued, like Cloud.  And also similarly snarky.

They’d chosen a neutral color for the loft, to match the rest of the bar, and it only took a couple hours to finish the paint job with all the brushes in use.  Everything seemed to be in working order—no leaks, electricity working, and they’d put in the windows to open upwards, so that the room could air out even while it was raining.

Cloud and Zack carefully carried the new bed upstairs once the paint had dried (mostly—he was getting kind of impatient to try out his new mattress) and got it all set up next to one of the windows.  Tifa and Barret followed with a dresser for Zack’s growing collection of clothes, since they hadn’t built in a closet, and the kids came up last with some pillows and blankets.

Despite their general weariness, Tifa decided to open the bar that night, and Zack set about earning his keep.  Her most regular patrons socialized with him, and after some glances with Tifa, he decided to be on the more honest side.  Zack got some congratulations on getting better and some compliments on his handsome face, both of which he accepted with grace and dignity.  And nobody complained about his clumsy bartending (hopefully, he’d get better with practice).

One of Cloud’s regular clients came in for a drink, and asked if Zack was also going to be working with his delivery service now.  He said he’d do it if it meant he could get his own motorcycle, and both of them laughed.

Yeah, all things considered, being in the real world again was going pretty well.

Chapter Text

Over the next week, everyone settled into a new routine of sorts.

Denzel and Marlene went back to school again, and they both got used to Zack very quickly—he was better with kids than he gave himself credit for.  Tifa got back to running the bar at normal hours, usually with Zack’s help and often with Cloud’s, just so the three of them could spend time together.  Their customers really took to Zack—he was a natural at being sociable, although his overwhelming friendliness made him a less intimidating of a bouncer than Tifa or himself.

And Zack was bad enough at bartending that she really only used him as a waiter.  Just for now, until we can teach him to mix drinks at least as well as you, she’d said after the second night.  That wouldn’t take long—Cloud didn’t have a good hand for anything more complicated than just the basics.

Cloud was finally back to making deliveries, and after almost a month of being absent, most of his clients wanted some sort of explanation—apparently Yuffie had been giving them bits and pieces of the story without actually telling them much.  He might have struggled to tell it if he was alone, but Zack insisted on tagging along.  The two of them together could get the basics of the story out, and almost everyone they talked to gave Cloud a strangely knowing look before letting them go.  He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

On their first visit back to Healin, it had been Tseng who answered the door.  He and Zack had a brief but tense exchange, as though the two men had something of a beef in the past.  Cloud wasn’t sure what about, although if he had to guess it was probably Aerith.  The somber Turk made as though to apologize for something, and then thought better (or perhaps worse) of it, wishing them a good day.

Cloud had actually been on the fence whether or not to take Zack with him—his clients’ regular deliveries were all at wide enough intervals that having them split the job didn’t make much sense, and there wasn’t really any benefit in having a second person along.  He had taken it for granted in recent months, but being out on the road was pretty much his only alone time.  Before the healing rain, back when he was struggling with so much more than just Geostigma, he felt like he didn’t deserve others’ company.  Even without that guilt, Cloud had always been more on the introverted side, and being out under the sky was a way to recharge from living with three other people, even if they were three wonderful people.

Things were different with Zack.  It was like his best friend was somehow exempt from the normal rule—Zack could stay at his side (or behind him was probably more accurate, since they rode double) for hours at a time, and he would never get tired of his presence.  It was a nice feeling, and one he wasn’t used to anymore.

Zack didn’t talk a whole lot while they were on the road, which probably contributed somewhat.  He mostly just hung onto Cloud’s waist for balance and took in the sights of the world post-Meteor.  Except for one time…Cloud had caught him sniffing his hair.  Zack had stuttered for a moment (since when did he do that), and just told him his shampoo smelled nice.  Cloud had offered to let him use it, it wasn’t like they couldn’t share shampoo, and Zack clarified that the scent just smelled nice on him.  Whatever that meant.

As far as monsters went, there were less and less of them on the prowl around the wastelands.  Regardless, Cloud only brought the first three blades of First Tsurugi so that Zack’s fusion sword could also fit, just as a precaution.  The few times that they did run into trouble, the two friends fought side by side.  It felt more satisfying than it probably should have, finally being able to team up with Zack as an equal.

It had actually been one of Denzel’s friends’ parents, a man originally from Sector 4, who suggested they run the deliveries together.  Apparently, he’d asked Zack whether or not he was planning on helping Cloud out on his first night working the bar, and Zack had said something about being willing to do if he could get his own motorcycle.

As soon as Tifa told him about it, Cloud decided he wanted to build one for him.  He knew Zack might protest, say that he was doing way too much for him without getting anything in return, but Cloud was determined.  Hell, just his friend’s being around again was better than anything he could have asked for.  The tension Cloud still felt after all these years—the feeling that drove him to continue running and fighting—it eased somewhat, with the solid presence of his best friend.  Enough so that Cloud was thinking of taking Cid up on an offer he made in his airship weeks ago.

And so he found himself in the office after lunch, staring at the screen of his PHS and getting his mind to straighten up enough to dial Cid’s number.

It was laughable, really, how difficult phone calls were for him.  None of his other friends had any trouble with it.  Cloud could battle Sephiroth a thousand times, but conversation was still a challenge.  Especially when he couldn’t see the other person’s face.  Maybe if phone calls had some sort of video aspect to them, it would be less awkward.

Just do it.  He punched in Rocket Town’s area code.

“Is this actually you, Spiky?” came the pilot’s gruff voice.  “Have you decided to bless my ears with your voice?”

“…Yes?”

Cid grunted.  “Well, what’s up?”

“Um…do you remember…the talk we had?  A few weeks ago?”  Cloud cringed at how disjointed the words came out.

“What, on the ship?  Yeah, what about it?”

“…I think I want to take you up on your offer.”

He heard something break on the other line, followed by a string of choice expletives.  “Shit, Cloud, you made me spill my tea,” he said.  “You’ve really changed your mind?”

“Yeah, I—”

“I mean, when I think about it, it’s not fuckin’ surprising,” Cid interrupted.  “That spiky-haired friend of yours is probably makin’ a big difference for you, right?  Makin’ you feel happier and shit?”

“Yeah, I—”

“Speaking of which, we gotta come up with a nickname for him that isn’t Spiky two point oh, or somethin’ to that effect,” he interrupted again.   “Any ideas?”

Cloud gave a quiet laugh.  Conversation with Cid was usually interesting, especially if the man was in a good mood like he seemed to be today.  “His usual nickname is puppy.”

Cid hooted with laughter.  “Damn, I’ve known the kid for a week and can already tell that’s accurate.  Well, I’m glad you called.”

He schooled his face into a listening expression, and it took him a second to remember that it wasn’t enough and he was supposed to actually say something.  Cid thankfully kept going without waiting for his response.

“You see kid, me and Barret and Reeve have been workin’ on a special project.  We were wonderin’ if maybe you’d help us out.  And don’t give me that ‘not interested’ shit, because we’ve actually been counting on you agreein’ to it.”

I guess that settles matters.  “Not giving me much choice, huh?”

“It was meant to be, Spiky.  Shera will pick you and the puppy up tonight, and then brew us some goddamn delicious tea while we talk about shit.  See you tomorrow.”  Cid hung up without giving him a chance to say goodbye.

Cloud stood still and looked out the window for a minute.  The weather’s pretty nice.  Cid hadn’t told him a thing about what he was seemingly obligated to do, and they hadn’t even discussed building another bike, which was the main reason why he called in the first place.  It’s not like there’s a rush for it or anything…I should go get Zack.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

A few hours later, the two of them stood waiting outside the bar, watching for the Highwind to appear on the horizon.

“Why does the stuff have to be so heavy?” Zack complained next to him, arms full of baggage.

“Because you insisted on bringing an army of blankets for a day’s trip,” Cloud answered flatly.  “We literally don’t need any of this.”

The other man gave him an exasperated look.  “But you said that it would be an overnight flight!”

“Yeah, but I usually just sleep on the floor somewhere.  Or not at all.  It’s not worth…building a fort, or whatever it is you want to do.”

Zack looked more affronted than he really had any right to, for a conversation about bedding.  “Yes it is,” he said, as if that was the answer to all of life’s questions.  “Look, I’m not gonna camp out on the hard floor somewhere when I can be more comfortable.  I’ve done enough of that to last a lifetime.”

Cloud smiled.  “You’ve gotten soft,” he said.  “What did you even do while we were on the run?”

“Used you as a pillow, mostly.”

“Are you serious?”

“Dead serious.”

Cloud shot him a pointed look.  “Your puns are getting worse.”

Zack looked confused for a moment, and then apologetic.  “Shit, that wasn’t supposed to be a pun!” he exclaimed, groaning and looking away.

“Don’t feel bad,” he assured his friend.  “Although—look, there’s the airship.”

Sure enough, the Highwind appeared on the horizon, and Shera opened the doors to greet them once it had landed.

“Hello, Cloud.  Puppy,” she said with a smile.

Zack turned back towards him and scoffed.  “Since when does everyone know about that?”

“Consider it payback for calling me cute,” Cloud answered.

“Alright, alright.  Let’s go before Cid calls and tells us to get on with it,” Shera said, motioning for them to come inside.

Once they were in the main body of the airship, Zack started looking around for a place to put all the blankets.  “Um, Shera, where’s the best place to camp out?”

She looked rather at a loss for words, unsure of what exactly Zack was holding so much of.

“He wants to build a blanket fort,” Cloud clarified.  “Not sure why he thinks it’s such a good idea on a moving airship...”

“Because it’s more comfortable than the floor, that’s why!”

Shera giggled.  “I’m sure you’ll find somewhere to set it up—I’ll have the pilot fly as smooth as possible, okay?”

Zack pouted when neither of them told him where to go.  “Fine, I guess I’ll just find a spot myself.”

“There’s a table in that room over there—I sleep under it sometimes,” Cloud said, pointing in the direction of the operations room.  “I guess it’s fort-worthy.”

He got a thumbs-up for that, and was left alone with Shera.  The scientist adjusted her glasses and put her hands in her pockets.  “Is he adjusting well?  To being back and everything else?”

Cloud sighed.  “It’s hard to tell,” he said honestly.  “He seems to be getting along better than I was, but…he could just be better at hiding it.  He’s helping out at the bar and riding along with me on deliveries, and it’s going fine.”

Shera nodded.  “It’s always hard,” she said.  “I’m sure things will work out, though.  Cid said you called him about his project?  I kind of expected it to be the other way around.”

He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Well, I called because Zack mentioned wanting a motorcycle like mine,” he admitted.  “I don’t really have the resources to build another one, so I thought I’d…I don’t know, call him.  You guys always seem to have spare vehicle parts lying around.”

“Right you are,” Shera said.  “Cid and Reeve are going to want their main project to take priority, though.”

“And…what exactly is this ‘main project?’”

“It wouldn’t be fair to explain without everyone else here,” Shera gave as an answer.  “It was my idea originally, but…the two of them and Barret took it to another level, and I don’t completely understand the politics behind it.”

The corners of Cloud’s lips turned down involuntarily.  “There’s politics involved?”

“Sorry…poor choice of words.  It’s more economics, I think.  Either way, it’s complicated enough that we should discuss it as a group.”

They stood in silence for a moment, and Cloud yawned.  It was getting kind of late.  “I think I’m gonna go see what Zack is doing,” he said, unsure how else to end the conversation.

Shera cleaned her lenses on her sweater sleeve, and waved him goodnight.  “I’ll be in the cockpit if you need me, okay?  We’ll be there by morning.”

A cheer from behind the conference room door caught Cloud’s attention, and he entered the room to see that his friend had actually succeeded in doing…something.  “You proud of me, Spike?” Zack asked, holding his arms out towards the table like it was in a showcase.  “I made blanket-drapes!”  Sure enough, the sides of the table were covered, making it something like a canopy.

“But what’s it look like inside?” Cloud asked, kneeling down and pulling back the blanket closest to him.  Zack had made what looked like two separate nests of blankets, one under each end of the table.  Strangely enough, Cloud found himself a little disappointed.  Blanket forts were excellent places to cuddle, even on moving airships.  But he wasn’t about to straight-up ask Zack to snuggle with him—that had to be crossing a line of some sort.

“Nice,” he ended up saying, after what was probably an unnaturally long pause.  “What’d you bring to sleep in?”

Zack rummaged through their bags.  “Uh…nothing?” he said, sounding a bit panicked.  “I could’ve sworn…”

“You brought over a dozen blankets.  And no sleep clothes,” Cloud deadpanned.

“Wait!  Uh…never mind.  I brought stuff,” he said, tossing a t-shirt and striped pajama pants at Cloud.  “We’re good.”

Once they’d changed, Cloud claimed the group of blankets farthest from the door and settled in.  He hated to admit it, even to himself, but Zack had been onto something with this fort idea.  It was much more comfortable and homey under here with all the blankets.  Maybe he’d even sleep well instead of the couple hours of weird dreams he usually got.

He heard Zack getting under the other set of blankets.  “So what do you think this big project is?” the other man asked through a yawn.

Cloud sighed.  “She wouldn’t tell me,” he answered.  “Though she slipped it had something to do with politics, maybe?  Or economics.  Something bigger than what I usually like getting involved in.”

“Politics?”

“Yeah, you’d think maybe having two of the people most involved with all the shit that’s happened to the world wouldn’t be the best choices for a political project,” Cloud elaborated, sounding tetchier than he’d intended.  “I mean, nobody in Edge hates me or anything, but I stay out of the way.  I make deliveries, not statements.  You know?”

His friend didn’t say anything for a while.  “Yeah,” Zack finally agreed, tone strange.  “Seems weird.”

The conversation slowly drifted off, and so did they.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Zack was on the cliff again, but it was the first time around.

It was a common nightmare of his, even in the years he spent in the second lab.  He hid Cloud behind a rock formation, and ran forward to meet his destiny.  He had to defend them, do everything he could to protect Cloud.

Except that wasn’t what he was doing.  He was using Angeal’s honor to cut down infantryman after infantryman, slaughtering dozens of Shinra’s foot soldiers just to protect another one who happened to be his friend.  In the blaze of battle, he murdered countless people.  Men and women with families, with friends, all of whom would grieve because of his actions that day.  The only person who would grieve him was Cloud.

The cliff vanished, and he found himself in Costa del Sol, fighting Genesis copies while Cissnei looked on.  But again, they weren’t just Genesis copies.  They were actual soldiers, individuals who’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were just trying to defend themselves from a government that saw them as little more than failed science experiments.  It was like what happened to him years later was an atonement for those sins, for ending so many lives without a second thought.

And then there was Wutai—

Abruptly, Zack sat up and hit his head on the underside of the table.  He rubbed the spot, breathing heavily.  Just nightmares, though even more disturbing than usual.

Another thud came from the other side of the room, and he guessed Cloud was doing the same thing.  “Everything okay, Zack?”

“Yeah, just…nightmares.”  About killing people and losing you.  No big deal.

It was a moment before Cloud responded.  “Shit…do you want me to come over there?”

Yes, please.

“Okay, hold on a second.”

Wait, had he said all that out loud?  Gaia…he was having a rough time of it.

Cloud brought all his blankets with him, and rearranged everything so that they were basically surrounded by cloth.  He held out one arm for Zack to use as a pillow, and put the other one around his back.  “Was it the cliff?” he asked softly.

“…Yeah,” he confirmed, returning the embrace to hold him close.  “I…killed a lot of people that day.”

He got a noncommittal grunt in response.  Zack found that rather inadequate.

“I’m a murderer.  I killed so many people who deserved so much better, and I didn’t even feel bad about it.  You remember all of the Genesis copies?  They were us, Cloud.  Just with his cells instead of Sephiroth’s.  And I killed so many of them, when all they wanted was to survive.”

“Hey, stop that,” Cloud said, stroking his hair.  It was comforting, and Zack let him keep going, feeling his heart rate decrease.  “It was war.  Everything was war, until pretty recently.  No good in dwelling on it.”

“But…don’t freak out at me, but I’m kind of feeling like I don’t deserve to live after everything I did,” he said into his friend’s shoulder, feeling oddly calm despite the subject.

“Apparently, it’s normal to feel this way,” Cloud said after a moment, still running his hand through Zack’s hair.  “Reeve finally convinced me to talk to some people last year.  What you’re feeling…the flashbacks, the guilt…it’s pretty common for people like us.  The doctors called it…post-traumatic something or other.”

Zack shivered, not sure from what.  The name sounded familiar—he vaguely remembered some of the older men who fought at Wutai getting discharged for something like it.  “How do you deal with it?” he asked.

He heard misplaced laughter somewhere near his scalp.  “I’m not exactly a role model for this sort of thing,” Cloud answered bitterly.  “It took me more than two years to even ask for help, and I was kind of a jackass to everyone before that.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Cloud sighed.  “You just…focus on other things as best you can.  Try to get on with your life.  It doesn’t help anyone to make yourself feel like shit for killing people during a war—that’s just how it goes, and if you’d refused to do your job, Shinra would’ve gotten rid of you sooner and the planet might not have survived.  What’s done is done.”

He could almost feel the younger man’s steady heartbeat, and the fact that Cloud had needed to learn to deal with this in the first place made his heart hurt.  “How do you avoid thinking about it?”

“It’s taken a lot of practice, but…I try to cherish all the good things I still have,” Cloud said.  “I think about Tifa, and how we’ve managed to keep it together after all this time.  I think about Denzel and Marlene, and how those kids are gonna get to be teenagers in a more peaceful world than we had.  I think about Barret and Cid and the others, and how they wouldn’t even be in my life if things had turned out differently.  I think about you, and how fucking lucky I am to have you back.”

There wasn’t really anything adequate to say to that, so Zack just murmured something incoherent into Cloud’s shoulder and hoped he understood what he was feeling.  The warmth of his friend and the blankets made him drowsy quickly, and he drifted off again into a more peaceful sleep.

 

 ---------------------------------

 

He breathed in Cloud’s scent as he slowly came back into consciousness, feeling a strange mix of guilt, satisfaction, and…nervousness.  Damn it, falling asleep holding each other was really nice in so many ways, but it wasn’t doing anything to help stifle Zack’s growing crush on his friend.

The airship had stopped moving—the landing must have woken him up.  Zack felt his face heat up more when he noticed his hands had drifted under Cloud’s shirt again and were now resting on the younger man’s smoothly muscled back.  Zack stretched out his legs and started to get up, but Cloud used the grip he had on the back of his shoulders to reel him back in.  “Mmmph,” he said into Zack’s hair.  “Don’t go.”

Zack ignored the butterflies in his chest (gaia damn it) and stayed, his face buried in his friend’s neck, and fought the rather sudden urge to kiss him there.  I’m in so much trouble…

After another minute or so, the conference room door opened with a quiet click, and the amount of light in their sleeping area suddenly increased.  “Good morn—oh, I’m so sorry!” Shera exclaimed.

Zack felt Cloud’s vocal cords vibrate as he spoke.  “It’s fine, Shera.  It’s not what you think,” he said sleepily.

“No, of course not...we’ve arrived, though.  I’m going to go home and start the tea…please hurry, Cid might run up if you take too long.”  Zack heard her footsteps moving away, although the door stayed open as far as he could tell.

“That’s because he’s a touchy asshole,” Cloud muttered after she’d left, holding Zack too tightly for him to get up.  “He doesn’t appreciate this sort of thing.  Which is funny, cause he…”

Zack tried to move again, but Cloud still wouldn’t let go.  “You’re still half asleep, huh...you gotta let me up, Spike.”

And he did, reluctantly.  Zack untangled himself from the blankets and started to fold them back up despite Cloud’s weak protests.  “Get up, sleepyhead,” Zack said, nudging the other man’s shoulder when he needed to get the blankets he was lying on.  Maybe we can pick back up later or something.

Cloud smiled drowsily.  “Mmm, you mean it?”

Crap, he’d said that out loud.  “Uh…I’m down.  If you’re down.  I guess.”

His friend gave him a lazy thumbs-up as he finally crawled out from under the covers.  “Yeah, I’m down,” he said.  “I haven’t slept that well in ages.”

“I can tell,” Zack said with a laugh, grateful that Cloud had taken it as a platonic gesture.  “You’re still all blissed out.”

They got ready for the day pretty quickly after that—Zack finished packing up the blankets, tossed Cloud’s day clothes back at him, and they changed with their backs to each other.  Zack brushed his teeth quickly and gave his hair a cursory swipe of his hand.  It wouldn’t get less messy if the world turned upside down.

They got an unannounced visit from Cid just as Cloud was wrapping up.  Guess Shera was right about him being impatient.  “You two chocobos ready yet?” he asked, obviously irritated.  “Reeve’s here, and you look like you just woke up, Spiky.”

“I did.”  They followed Cid outside.

Rocket Town was a pretty neat-looking place, despite the conspicuous lack of rockets.  He could see all the usual shops scattered around a main square of sorts, although a few of them looked to be closed.  The place where Shinra No. 26 used to be was obvious amongst the rest of the town—an empty launch pad surrounded by dust.  Some of the townspeople greeted Cid as “Captain” as they made their way over to a rather humble-looking house with some plane parts in the back.

“Hey, honey,” Shera said as they entered.  She kissed Cid on the cheek and he groaned. 

“D’you have to do that in front of the boys?”

“Serves you right,” Cloud said with a smirk.  Zack wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but was starting to see the touchy asshole bit of his friend’s assessment.

“Whatever,” the pilot grunted.  “Now sit down in those chairs and drink your goddamn tea!”

Cloud laughed, and Zack assumed it was some sort of inside joke.  Reeve came in through the back door, pocketing his phone.  He sat down at the table, folding his hands together in a gesture that reminded Zack a bit of Lazard.

“So what’s this project that we needed to come all the way here to hear about?” Cloud asked, eager to start.

“We’ll get to that,” Reeve said, “but I want to discuss some other matters first, if it’s alright with Zack.”

He perked up a bit, not used to being addressed directly in these sorts of meetings.  “Uh…sure?” he said awkwardly.

“I won’t beat around the bush, then.  Do you remember much of what you were doing while you were in the Wutai lab?”

That certainly gets to the point.  Cloud shifted in his seat so that their knees were touching, and it was oddly grounding.  “Like…do I remember what I was doing, or why I was doing it?”

“More of the latter.”

Zack rubbed the back of his neck.  “No, not really,” he admitted, taking a deep breath.  “The computer point-blank refused to tell me anything about why I was trying to kidnap random people.  Or where my sword came from.  It would just tell me to go to sleep every time I asked.”

Reeve thankfully didn’t press the matter.  “That’s fine,” he said.  “I just wanted to make sure.  I’d honestly be surprised if you did remember, based on what we already know.”

“Which is?”

He saw Cid give Cloud a frustrated look in the corner of his eye, as if he was supposed to have told him something about this already.  It’s not like I even wanted to know, until now.

“Cloud helped us figure out how you could still be alive, before we knew who you were,” Reeve gave as an answer.  “Hojo injected his cells into you at some point—we just don’t know why.”

So that was why some of Cloud’s memories had been in his head.  Zack furrowed his brow in concentration, trying to come up with a reason why Hojo would try to revive him that way.  “You don’t have any idea why?  Who all was on the list?”

“I didn’t bring it, but let’s see…Yuffie’s mother, Vincent, Rufus…” Reeve started.

“Aerith and Ifalna,” Cloud added.

“Genesis Rhapsodos,” Shera said.

Genesis?!” Zack exclaimed.  “You mean the guy in red leather who I was sent after a bunch of times?  What?!”  There was silence for a moment, as everyone else at the table didn’t seem to understand what Zack was trying to say.  “Where is he now?!” he added, hoping it got the point across.

“Uh, our theory was that you were instructed to skip the people on the list who were…you know, dead,” Cid answered.

“Since when was he dead?”

Reeve set down his cup.  “You didn’t finish him off back during the crisis?”

Zack put a hand to his forehead.  Of course nobody would’ve known what happened, it’s not like I stuck around to tell the tale.  “No…he was alive the last time I saw him.  Don’t know what happened to him, though, and the part of my memory between taking Vincent and showing up in Edge is pretty much blank.  Maybe he is dead, for all I know, but I never killed him.”

“If he is alive, he’s found a good hiding place, or else his appearance has changed quite a bit,” Reeve said.  “There have been more people reporting seeing Sephiroth than Genesis, so he’s all but disappeared.”

Cloud rested his chin on his hand.  “Shouldn’t we, I don’t know…go look for him or something?”

“No,” Zack answered with certainty.  “I got the vibe the last time I saw him that he just wanted to survive.  You know, the same as us.  So if he’s made it until now…I think he’s content to just lay low.  We should let him.”

“If he’s alive,” Reeve added, sounding skeptical.

“If he’s alive,” Zack confirmed.  “Was he the last one?  There had to have been more on the list.”

“Just me,” Cloud said, reaching over to rub his shoulder.  “And you found me, all right.”

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Zack concluded.  “The order, I mean.  It doesn’t make any sense.  I don’t get it.”

“None of us get it either, kid,” Cid said, stirring his tea with a cigarette.  Gross…How does he even drink that?

“That’s why we’re talking about it now,” Reeve said.  “Cait Sith managed to copy all of the computer’s data before Cloud overwrote it, but I can’t read any of it.”

“Wait…Cloud changed something in the computer?  How’d he manage that?”

Cloud’s eyes darkened for a moment.  “I turned it on to see if it was communicating with my cells or not,” he answered plainly.  “It was.  It tried to…I don’t know, erase my identity and replace it with how I was while Jenova was controlling me.  I didn’t let it, and…”

When he didn’t continue, Reeve picked up the slack.  “He managed to overwrite the operating system’s source code,” the older man continued.  “It installed a backup OS, and I had Cait Sith go in a few weeks ago to copy that, too.  No one else had been in the lab during that time, as far as we could tell.”

Zack thought about this for a moment.  “So…you can’t decode any of Hojo’s project files because they get read through Cloud’s cells.  Or my cells.  Something like that?”

“Something like that,” Reeve confirmed.  “Vincent and I can start figuring out what the hell Hojo was up to if we can read those files, so a sample of your cells would probably be useful.”

“You don’t need us to like…come in and try it?” Zack asked, as Shera got up from her chair and opened one of the kitchen drawers.

Cloud stiffened next to him, and Reeve gave an apologetic look.  “It might go faster that way, but it’s risky.  And we all think you two have had enough of that for a lifetime.”

Zack nodded gratefully.  He’d be willing to go in if that’s what was necessary, but…never seeing another lab again would also make him very happy.

Shera returned with a pair of scissors, which Cloud took and held up to his hair.  “Is this good?” he asked.

Reeve nodded, and Cloud unceremoniously cut an inch or so off a strand of his hair, and then handed Zack the scissors to do the same.  They put the hair in two separate bags and handed them to Reeve.  “I’ll call you or Tifa when we find anything out,” he said, pocketing them.  “Now about that project.”

Cid grinned and took something out of his pocket, sliding it across the table.  It looked a little like materia, but it was flat and rectangular, and it seemed to absorb the light in the room in a way materia just didn’t.  Zack didn’t know what to make of it.

Cloud picked it up and turned it over in his hands a few times, frowning.  “I thought we were done messing around with mako,” he said hesitantly, obviously coming to a similar conclusion as Zack.  “What is this, exactly?”

“Well, Cid and I were talking about rockets a few months ago,” Shera answered.  “And about how to keep the engines from overheating.”

“We toyed around with some ideas…”

“…and eventually I guessed that you could rig up a fire materia to absorb the excess heat from the engines,” Shera continued.  “We made a prototype and tested it out in the Highwind’s engine room, and it worked!  The temperature went down significantly.  But…”

Cid snatched the panel-plate thing back from Cloud.  “When I went in to pick it up, the fucking magic ball shocked me.  It somehow turned that heat into electricity.”

Zack nodded appraisingly.  “Alternative energy, huh?  Why’d you melt it down flat, then?”

“Because airship engine rooms aren’t a good way to repower the world,” Reeve answered.  “Shera called me after they tested it, and I figured that this could help make up the power deficit we’ve had since Meteorfall, and in a more sustainable manner.  So we broke the materia down to increase its surface area, and set it outside to see if it would absorb sunlight.”

“Like a solar plate of some sort?” Cloud asked.  “It’d have to be a mastered materia for that to even have a chance of working.”  This makes sense to him?  Cause it doesn’t make sense to me.

“You’d think so,” Cid said, “but we found it works on a basic level with any materia.  What changes is the amount of power produced.  The mastered fire materia by itself was enough to power all the lights in town, but when we tried it with an unused one, it only worked in the house.”

“And a mastered ice materia only produced half that,” Shera added.  “We have a theory that the different magic materia work best absorbing different things—like melting down thunder materia to make a lightning rod of some sort.”

“That sounds pretty neat,” Cloud said, “but what does it have to do with us?”

“We want to do a test run in Edge,” Reeve answered.  “We have enough of these plates ready to theoretically power the whole city, and the work needed to maintain them will generate a fair amount of jobs.  Improve the economy, help get work back to those who lost it after Shinra fell.”

“Is this really sustainable?” Zack asked, still a bit skeptical.  “There’s not exactly an infinite amount of existing materia.”

“It’s a bit complicated,” Reeve admitted.  “We think that the plates can continue to harvest solar power indefinitely, but we obviously don’t know that for certain yet.  But there is a way to reproduce materia without taking mako from the planet.”

“Mastering it,” he and Cloud said at the same time.  “So you want us to just…use a lot of materia?  Is that it?”

“Sort of, but there’s more,” Reeve answered.  “We want to make sure this system actually works before we start trying to implement elsewhere, and even then, we’re going to start with areas that have similar climates.  We’re thinking of implementing it in Corel next—Gaia knows their economy could use a boost.  But Cid has another project that requires your help.”

“Alright, hold on to your butts,” Cid said, grabbing a notebook from the counter.  “It’s no rocket, but take a look at this.”

It was a drawing of…an airship.  “I don’t get it,” Zack said, before he grasped the unique aspects of its design.  “Oh…this is powered by those solar plates?”

“Yeah, and a hell of a lot of ‘em,” Cid answered.  “We’ll need to use only mastered materia for it, which will give you boys a goddamn workout.  And since you wanted to play mechanic and all that, you can help build it too.”

“That’ll definitely be good for Edge,” Cloud said.  “So am I like…the foreman?  Or something?”

“Sort of, yeah.  It’s not a full-time gig—you’ll still have time to run deliveries and shit.  You up for the challenge, Strife?” Cid asked.

“Hell yeah,” Cloud said enthusiastically.  “Feels good to be a part of something productive again.”

“Great.  I’ll fly y’all back to Edge, then.  We’ll start bringing up the stuff in a few days, calling in some people with more technical expertise.”

They stayed a bit longer, to talk over the more scientific details of the solar plates—most of that went right over Zack’s head.  And after lunch, Cid led the two of them out and they headed back home.

Chapter Text

The Highwind didn’t reach Edge again until around midnight, after the bar closed—Tifa refused to stay open late on school nights.  She had left them a note on the bar, telling them she wanted all the details of their trip come morning and that there was some leftover pizza in the fridge.

“Tifa’s got some nice handwriting,” Zack observed as they took out plates and napkins.

“Mmm,” Cloud replied, midway through taking his first bite of the pizza.  It was on the cheesy side, topped with pepperoni and bell peppers.  She knows what all my favorites are.

“You’re not gonna heat that up?  Or even sit down?” Zack asked, giving him an amused look.

Cloud finished the bite he was chewing, and Zack’s gaze flickered down to his throat for a split second as he swallowed.  “We’ve been on the airship all afternoon and I’m hungry,” he said.  “I don’t want to wait for it to heat up.  And it tastes the same cold.”

Zack grinned and ruffled his hair, causing the younger man to scowl.  “You do that, then,” he said, putting his own plate in the microwave.  “I like my pizza warm, thank you very much.”

“Alright, but I’m not gonna slow down my pizza intake for you,” Cloud said between bites.  Zack responded by snatching the slice he was eating right out of his hands.  “Hey, that’s not fair!”

“Two can play at this game,” he said, holding the pizza up and out of Cloud’s reach.  “And I think—”

“Don’t you dare make another pun,” Cloud warned, biting his lip to cover his smile.  Zack’s position left his chest wide open, and he took the opportunity to push the older man back towards the fridge.  “I want my pizza back, you thief.”

Zack used his free arm to try to push Cloud away, but the younger man was too fast for him.  He got one hand around Zack’s wrist and the other around his forearm and smirked, pulling it down to throw him off balance.

Cloud had just got his fingers around the slightly-abused slice of pizza when the amount of light in the room increased.  He craned his neck around to see Denzel, clad in baggy pajamas and looking both very tired and very annoyed.

“What are you guys even doing?  It’s the middle of the night…”

Zack let go of the pizza and Cloud stepped away from him in an instant.  What’s the responsible adult thing to say here?  “We were…eating.”

“It looked more like you were fighting,” Denzel said, looking petulant.  “Tifa’s gonna be real unhappy if the noise wakes her up, too.”  He’s right about that much.

“Sorry, Denz,” Zack said with a smile.  “We just got back from Rocket Town and got a little carried away.”

“Well…can I have a slice?”

“Sure,” Cloud said, getting out a third plate and putting a relatively unscathed slice onto it.  “But you know…Tifa’s also gonna be real unhappy if she finds out you’re eating in the middle of the night.”

Denzel raised his eyebrows.  “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.”

“Deal.”

They ate in silence after that, Denzel taking as long to eat his slice as it took the other two men to finish off the rest of the pizza.  He went back to his room with a yawn and a goodnight, using the leverage of having caught them play-fighting to get out of helping with the dishes.  Clever.

Zack avoided meeting his eyes as he took the plates over to the sink.  “Uh…” he said, and then stopped.  He shook his head and kept going.  “Did you…did you mean what you said?  This morning?”

Cloud took a little longer than usual in figuring out what to say.  It’s only gonna be awkward if I make it awkward.  “Did you mean what you said this morning?” he ended up responding, cringing internally.

“Um…well, I didn’t mean to say it, but I did mean it.  So, you know.  If you want,” Zack got out.  “We could sleep.  Together.  Shit, not like—”

“I get it,” Cloud said with a laugh.  “There’s not really a good way to phrase that.  But…yeah.  Same here.”  Nice save, Strife.

“So…we’re on?  This is a thing now?” Zack asked, obviously looking for confirmation.  “You sure Tifa is okay with this?”

Yes,” he confirmed, flicking some of the dishwater at his friend’s face.  “I’m pretty sure she’s been waiting for us to get on with it since that first night.  Now go take a shower, you smell like smoke and pizza.”

“So do you!” Zack said, moving upstairs despite the protest.

Cloud took a deep breath as he scrubbed the pizza stone clean.  Tifa had said to give their feelings time, and not to rush things.  It had been little more than a week since that conversation, but if Zack really wanted to make the nighttime cuddles a regular thing, then he wasn’t about to protest for the sake of taking things slow…whatever things those were.  Aside from that, it just made sense.  He certainly slept a lot better with the other man close by, and it seemed to be the same on his end.  There was a practical reason for it.  Nightmares sucked and having less of them would be awesome.

He thought of Zack waiting upstairs, and the wonderfully soft mattress they’d gotten for the loft, and felt butterflies in his stomach.  It was a strange mix of nervousness and contentment, and one that Cloud had decided to appreciate for all it was worth.  He’d told Zack the previous night that the best way to cope was to cherish the good things in life—and feeling any sort of romantic attraction definitely counted, especially in his case.  So he was going to cherish the hell out of it.

The pizza stone looked to be relatively free of grease, so Cloud turned off the tap.  He walked upstairs, being careful to avoid the creaky spots so he didn’t wake the kids again.  The bathroom was empty.  I must have been washing dishes longer than I thought.

Cloud undressed quickly and got in the shower, shivering when the water came out freezing.  He must have used all the hot water washing dishes…oh well.  He squirted out a bit of shampoo and worked it into his hair, smelling the suds on his hands.  I don’t know why Zack likes this stuff so much.  It’s just that generic clean scent.

When he found himself satisfactorily clean, he turned off the water and wrapped a towel around his hips, making his way back towards his own room for some sleep clothes.

The door needed oiling—it creaked a bit when he opened it, and the sound woke Tifa.  “Mmm…hey Cloudy.”  Still half-asleep.  “Where, ah…where’re you going?”

“Upstairs.”

She giggled softly.  “In just a towel?  Ha…you’re trying to impress him, silly.”

“I’m not going up in just a towel,” he said, grabbing a soft t-shirt and long pants from the dresser between their beds.  “See?  I’m changing.”

Tifa didn’t seem to be listening, and she gave him a sleepy smile.  “If you want his attention, you should…hmmm…wear one of my nighties.  Your legs would look good.”

“Yeah, keep dreaming,” he said softly, sweeping her bangs aside to press a kiss to her forehead.  She sighed contentedly, and her breathing evened out as she drifted back into sleep.  Aerith gets me in a dress one time, and I never live it down.

Cloud made his way up to the loft once he’d changed and gotten some of the water out of his hair.  The lights were still on, and he opened the door to find Zack nearly passed out on the floor.  “You didn’t have to wait for me,” he said with a laugh.

Zack didn’t dignify that with a response, instead holding his arm out for Cloud to help him up.  He obliged, and the older man practically fell into him.  “I’m…real sleepy.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” Cloud said, pulling back the covers and depositing Zack somewhere near the middle of the bed.

“Spiiike,” Zack whined when he didn’t immediately climb in after him.  “C’mere.”

Cloud shook his head and grinned.  That’s really cute.  “Hold your chocobos, I’m just turning off the lights.”

“I can’t.  You’re my chocobo, and you’re all the way over there.”

“Ha, ha.  Very funny,” Cloud said, walking back towards the bed.  He misjudged Zack’s location a bit in the dark, and ended up elbowing his friend in the side as he got under the blankets.

“Ow,” Zack said weakly, reaching an arm over to pull Cloud close.  “That hurt.  I’m gonna have to…hug you harder for that.”

“You’re a huge dork, you know that?”

Zack gave a contented sigh and nuzzled into Cloud’s hair.  “But I’m your dork, which makes you a dork too, because…yeah.”

That’s definitely how it works.  “Sweet dreams, Zack.”

 

---------------------------------

 

“So you’ll have somethin’ ready for ‘em, right?  They can be kind of a handful but they ain’t picky,” Cid said over the phone.

“Sure, I guess, but I still don’t know who is coming or why they’re coming,” Tifa answered.  “Seriously, only you would call at the crack of dawn and tell me I have a lunch date without explaining anything about it.”

“You mean Cloud and his shadow didn’t tell you about it already?”

Tifa resisted the urge to sigh, holding the phone in the crook of her neck while she tied her hair back.  “No, it was pretty late when they got back, and they’re still asleep.”

Cid grunted.  “Well, go wake the spiky-haired losers up, then.  I got other people to call, too.  Later, Tifa.”

She opened her mouth to complain, but the one-time astronaut had hung up on her.  Tifa took a deep breath.  There wasn’t any reason for her good mood to be soured over this, she would just wake them up and ask how yesterday went.

Making her way up to the loft, she tried to remember if Cloud had woken her the previous night or not.  He had definitely slept upstairs, and she recalled something about a nightie, but…no, that last part probably didn’t happen.

She gave the door a couple of knocks.  “Anyone awake in there?”

There wasn’t any answer, so Tifa opened the door and stepped inside.  Zack was lying mostly on his stomach, with Cloud draped over him wearing what she knew to be his favorite cuddling shirt (though he’d never admit to having such a thing).  She couldn’t help but smile at the sight of them—they were just too sweet together.

“You boys need an alarm clock in here.”

Cloud lazily opened his eyes and detached himself from Zack, sitting up.  “Come on, Teef.  You’re literally the third person to walk in on us.”

She gave him a very pointed shrug and he tried to glare at her, but there wasn’t anything behind it.  Zack groaned and lifted his upper body to flip over, and ended up propping himself up against Cloud.  “I’m…still sleepy,” he said.

“Well, you two need to get up.  Cid called.”

“Already?” the two of them said in unison.

Tifa reached into the chest of drawers and tossed a set of clothes at Zack, who didn’t bother trying to catch them as they hit him square in the chest.  “Apparently, some of your new coworkers are coming over for lunch in two hours,” she said.  “And I don’t have a clue what’s going on.”

Cloud pulled off the covers and stood up, stretching.  Tifa noticed the way Zack’s gaze lingered on him for a moment longer than necessary before moving back to her.  “Didn’t Cid tell you?” he asked.

“Nope, I quote: ‘go wake the spiky-haired losers.  I got other people to call,’” Tifa answered, doing her best Cid impression.

Zack laughed at that as he got out of bed, opening the blinds to let the sunlight in.  “That’s pretty good,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said with a hint of pride.  “I’m going to bake some fish, which they better like, and I want you guys to tell me what all happened yesterday before they get here.  Meet me downstairs, okay?”

She got two thumbs-ups for that, and made her way to the kitchen.  She’d just put the fish in the oven when Cloud came down, dressed in his usual outfit.  “What can I do?” he asked.

“There’s some stuff for potato salad in the fridge, you can go ahead and mix that.”  He nodded and took it out while she put a bowl on the counter.  “So…” she said with a grin, “wearing your favorite cuddling shirt to bed, huh?”

“I do not have a favorite cuddling shirt,” Cloud denied, adding a little more mayo to the mixture than was probably necessary.  “And it’s better than wearing one of your nighties.”

Wait… “Who said anything about that?”

“You did,” Cloud answered, pointedly smearing a bit of the potato salad on her cheek.  “And then you said my legs would look good.”

“Your legs would look good in what now?” Zack asked, emerging from the stairwell.

“Uh, nothing,” Cloud stammered out as Tifa laughed.

“Well, that’s probably true,” Zack said as he waltzed over, causing Cloud to blush.  How are they not together yet?  Seriously…

Tifa looked over at the clock and let out a breath.  “Okay, we’ve got ninety minutes,” she said.  “What happened yesterday?”

They started off by telling her what Reeve was doing with Hojo’s files, which was pretty much what she’d expected.  She was grateful that he’d found a way to try to decrypt them that didn’t involve either of them interacting with the computer again—that had been enough of a nightmare the first time around.  And she wasn’t surprised that Zack didn’t have any better idea of what was going on than they did.

The project, though...that did surprise her.  Alternative energy, if it worked, could change the world all over again.  The bar had its own generator, one of the few pre-mako electrical units still in existence, but it was inefficient and ate up a great deal of their income.  The other families in Edge with access to electricity were in the same boat.  If they could produce electricity from the sun…or lightning, or whatever else the WRO might figure out…that would solve a lot of problems.

Not to mention the jobs that would be produced.  Tifa owned a bar.  She got a pretty even sampling of every type of person Edge had to offer—the well-to-do, those who were just scraping by, and those who were hard on their luck.  The last group was by far the largest, and since so many of those people had worked in power before Meteorfall, this could change a lot of lives for the better.  Zack hadn’t been around long enough to fully appreciate this, but Cloud had, and his thoughts were much the same as hers.

Tifa wasn’t surprised that Cid had a related passion project either, although she was surprised that he was entrusting it to Cloud.  Cid was very…particular about his airships.  Although she suspected the coworkers he had sent over for lunch might have something to do with that.

Zack’s stomach growled loudly as they finished prepping lunch—enough fish and potato salad for several people, although Tifa warned them that they couldn’t eat all of the food lest they make a poor impression on whoever was coming.

It was just as Zack was begging for Tifa to let him eat something that there was a knock on the front door.  Cloud got out some glasses for drinks as Tifa walked over to open it, and saw a rather motley crew of two men and two women.

Her hand was immediately taken in a firm handshake by the first, a tall man in a denim jacket, blond hair tied back in a low ponytail.  “I must say,” he said with a level of flirtation that made her cringe, “the name of your fine establishment is very accurate.  I’m in heaven looking upon your beautiful features.”

Tifa’s instinctual reaction was to pull her hand away and snap back, but one of the women in the group beat her to it.  “Cut it out, Edgar,” she said, pushing him to the side.  She was wearing a yellow jacket and a red baseball cap, hair in a rather messy bob.  “I’m Cindy,” she said, taking Tifa’s hand in a somewhat less aggressive handshake.  “And you must be Tifa, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, stepping aside to let them in.  “The dark-haired one over there is Zack, and the other—”

“Cloud Strife,” the first man, Edgar, finished, walking up to him and grinning.  “You’re…shorter than I thought you would be.”

Cloud frowned, unimpressed.  “Point being?”

“Edgar, stop being an ass,” the second man said.  He had grey hair that fell to his shoulders, and a face that looked youthful despite the numerous scars on it.  “He’s technically your boss now.”

Edgar threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender.  “I was just being friendly,” he insisted.  “Everyone appreciates that.”

“Yeah, but they have to get used to your brand of friendliness first,” the final newcomer said, a woman with an impish-looking face and sporting a peasant top not unlike what Tifa’s mother used to wear back when she was little.

Zack caught their attention by rather clumsily dropping a stack of plates onto one of the tables.  “Ah, sorry!” he apologized, checking to make sure none of them had cracked.

“Let’s sit down, then,” Tifa said, eager to get this going on the right foot.  “Cloud, if you could—”

“Yep,” he said, taking the food out of the oven.  “This fish looks really good, Tifa.”

“I hope you all like that and potato salad,” she addressed the four newcomers.  “Cid said you weren’t picky.”

They all confirmed that yes, potato salad sounded just fine, and the seven of them were soon seated around one of the bar’s larger tables.

“So, we should probably introduce ourselves again,” Tifa said, looking around.  “I don’t know what Cid’s told you about us…”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” the impish-looking woman admitted.  “We know a little about you and Cloud, just from what happened in the city last year, but other than that…we’ll just have to get to know each other, I guess.”

Edgar clapped his hands together to draw their attention.  “Let’s go around the table, then.  I’ll start,” he said.  “My name’s Edgar Figaro.  Used to live out in Sector 3.  I was in experimental mechanical engineering under the plate for a while, but I’ve mostly just been doing construction with my brother since Meteorfall.  I’m the guy who’s in charge of implementing the new solar panels.”

“And he’s also a flirtatious asshole,” Cindy added.  “Sorry in advance, Tifa.  He really doesn’t know when to quit.”

“Hey now,” Edgar protested.  “I could always just flirt with you instead.”

She poked him in the arm with the handle of her fork.  “You know full well I’m not interested in men,” she said pointedly.  “Anyhow, I’m Cindy Aurum.  Born in Sector 4, lost my parents sometime early on, then Edgar and his brother Sabin took me in as an apprentice.  I haven’t had any of the formal schooling he has, but I’ve got years of practical experience working on vehicles.  I gotta say, that bike out there is damn impressive,” she finished, looking at Cloud.  “He’s yours, right?”

Cloud couldn’t suppress a smirk, Fenrir being his pride and joy.  “You bet,” he said.  “Built him myself after Meteorfall.”

The second woman leaned forward.  “So you’ve got an imaginative eye for machines, then?”

“Probably not as much as any of you, but I guess I can, uh, imagine stuff.”

She gave him a warm smile, apparently pleased with that answer.  “I’m Darill Gabbiani,” she said.  “I worked in the space department with Cid High-and-mighty-wind for a couple years before the program closed down.  I moved under the plate after that and met my husband, who fell madly in love with me after about five minutes.”

“It was more like ten minutes,” the second man said with a rather dopey smile.  “Setzer Gabbiani.  I never worked for Shinra, always wanting to be more…independent of a designer than they would have let me.  But the WRO started calling out for anyone with ideas, and I have plenty of those.”

Zack cleared his throat.  “Sorry if this is a rude question, but…”

“The scars?” Setzer said, clearly having had this conversation before.  “Don’t worry, it’s fine to ask.  I made a gamble with some Turks when I was a kid, lost the bet, and then tried to make out with their stuff.  Didn’t end well.”

Cloud nodded appraisingly.  “That takes some guts,” he said.

“Well, the way I see it, life is like a big gamble.  You win sometimes and you lose sometimes, but you miss out on all the best parts if you don’t take any chances.”  Very well put.

“All right, that’s us,” Cindy said.  “What about you guys?  Tell us a bit about yourselves.”

Tifa looked down the table at Cloud and Zack, who seemed content to let her go first.  “I’m Tifa Lockhart,” she started.  “I grew up in Nibelheim, and lived there up until it burned down.  Then I moved to Midgar, started the first Seventh Heaven and work for AVALANCHE.  Then I got caught up in everything surrounding Meteorfall, and…I’ve been here since then.”

Cloud cleared his throat, and Tifa instinctively took his hand under the table for support, noticing that Zack did the same on his other side.  “Yeah, you know me already,” he started.  “Cloud Strife, also grew up in Nibelheim, then left to join ShinRa at fourteen.  That…ended badly, and when I ended up back in Midgar, Tifa found me and got me some work with AVALANCHE.  Then Sephiroth reappeared, and…well, a lot of shit happened.  Now I do odd jobs here and there, run deliveries, and this now, I guess.”

Edgar, who Tifa wasn’t sure she approved of, looked incredulous.  “That’s making a lot of understatements,” he said, sounding more awestruck than anything else.  “You were a hero!”

Here we go.  She squeezed Cloud’s hand and shot one of her signature glares at Edgar to get him to drop it, but he wasn’t looking.

“Let’s get this straight right now,” Cloud said, deceptively calm.  “I’m no hero, and I never was.  I’m just a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up being responsible for a lot of stuff I never asked to be responsible for.  Got it?”

There was a tense silence for a few moments, and it was when Zack took a deep breath at the end of the table that Edgar finally seemed to understand this wasn’t a good topic, and he nodded at Cloud before going back to his food.

They ate for a few minutes without further conversation, nobody willing to prompt Zack before he was ready.

“Alright,” he finally said, after taking a long sip of his water.  “I’m Zack Fair.”

Cindey dropped her fork.  “Zack Fair?”

“Uh…yeah?”

Her face lit up in a grin that seemed rather out of place, and she clasped her hands together.  “Gaia, what a coincidence,” she said.  “I was in your fan club!”

Tifa was glad that this woman seemed to have such a knack for fixing awkward situations, because Zack actually laughed.  “Wait, since when did I have a fanclub?”

“Since…I don’t know, sometime after you made First,” she said.  “There were a lot of us—we even kept it up for a while after you disappeared, until…it must have been about three years ago now that we disbanded.”

Setzer raised an eyebrow.  “Okay Cindy, but the rest of us weren’t in his fan club and don’t know anything.  Tell us about yourself, Zack.”

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked around the table before continuing.  “Well, I grew up in Gongaga and left to join Shinra as soon as I was old enough.  Made SOLDIER within a couple years, and met Cloud shortly before making First Class.  I was in Nibelheim when it burned down, and then I sort of…disappeared.”

“We were held in the labs together for four years,” Cloud clarified, looking down.  “On the run for another year after that; I had mako poisoning and Zack did everything he could to keep me safe.  Lost him just outside Midgar, then found him again in the same spot last month.”

“Damn,” Darill concluded after a moment, “that’s rough.”

Zack chuckled.  “Rough doesn’t cover the half of it,” he said.  “I’m just glad to be back.”

Darill smiled at him.  “I bet, yeah.  So you all live here?”

“Yep,” Tifa answered, glad to be on more everyday matters.  “Cloud and I built the place together after Meteorfall, and took in a couple kids…including Zack, now.”

“I’m not a kid!” he protested.  “I’m older than both of you.”

Cloud grinned.  “But if that’s in dog years, then—”

“I get it, I get it!” Zack interrupted, raising his hands in surrender.

Cindy was looking between the three of them with a big smile on her face.  “You three are really lucky to have each other,” she said, resting her chin on her hands.

“Believe me, we know,” Cloud answered, returning the smile.  “So, was this just a social outing, or…?”

“Mostly, yeah,” Setzer admitted.  “The WRO doesn’t quite have everything together yet, but Darill and I have drawn up some designs for the new airship…if you want to see them.”

“Didn’t Cid already draw up blueprints, though?” Zack asked.

 “His design is literally just the Highwind with a few modifications,” Darill said.  “It could be so much more than that, truly a vehicle of the future.”

Edgar took a notebook out of his jacket pocket.  “They won’t be able to see the designs at all if somebody doesn’t actually bring them,” he said.  “The Gabbianis here are a bit lacking in the common sense department sometimes.”

“So are you,” Cindy shot back.

“And so am I,” Zack added.  “Cloud can testify.”

“It’s true.”

Edgar nodded and opened up the notebook to a blueprint of a rather impressive-looking airship.  “This is—”

“Can I maybe explain my own plans, Figaro?” Setzer asked, snatching the notebook out of his grasp.  “This beauty here is my heart and soul, the Blackjack.  She’s got a spacious interior…less industrial than Cid’s standard…would even make a comfortable living space…”

Zack gasped, putting his finger to a specific room.  “Is that…a casino?”

Darill snorted.  “Yes,” she said, with some disdain.  “A flying casino, can you imagine?  Very unique, I’ll admit, but there’s no class to it.”

“What’s not classy about a casino?”

“Everything, Setzer.”

Tifa laughed.  “It sounds like a fun idea,” she said, “but doesn’t the WRO need to actually approve of it, since they’re funding the whole thing?”

“Well…yes,” Setzer admitted.  “It’s still my dream, though.”

“Anyway…my design is far superior to his.  Take a look,” Darill said, turning the notebook to a different page.  “The Falcon here will be faster than even the Highwind when she’s completed.  More utilitarian, but still sleeker than Cid’s usual.  This room here could be repurposed to either host events or store bulky cargo…”

“Hold on,” Tifa said.  “That room there, opposite of the cockpit.  Is the floor..?”

“Transparent? Yes,” Darill answered, expression smug.  “My own personal touch…the material isn’t too hard to come by, and is strong enough to withstand pretty much everything short of Meteor itself.  You’d feel like you were flying in that room…”

“Holy shit,” Cloud said, eyes wide.  “That.  I want that.”

Zack ruffled his hair.  “You sure it won’t, like, upset your motion sickness…?”

Cloud swatted his hand away.  “Are you kidding?  That might be the best thing for it.  And it’s so cool that I don’t really care if it does, anyway.”

Setzer chuckled.  “I’m not surprised,” he said.  “That’s my favorite part of her design, too.”

“So when do we start working on…the Falcon, then?” Zack asked.

“Well, we can’t do anything until we know the solar plates work,” Edgar answered.  “No point in building a sexy new airship if there’s no way to power it, right?  So we’ll probably get the okay to start construction as soon as the WRO deems the plates ready to be implemented somewhere else.”

“Until then, Cid mentioned something about me helping build a bike,” Cidney added.  “Which I’m not sure I’m even needed for, seeing Fenrir.  Who’s it for?”

“Me,” Zack answered.  “I’m kind of sick of taking all the rear suspension riding double.”

Cindy laughed.  “Well, we’ll get started on that once the workshop’s built, then.”

The seven of them kept up small talk for a while longer, and their guests said their goodbyes about an hour before Marlene and Denzel were due back from school.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

The first shipment of old materia came in the next morning.

Tifa had made good on her promise to get them an alarm, but Zack woke up before it went off.  He had fallen asleep on his back that night, and Cloud had sprawled out sideways, using his chest as a pillow.  His right arm had, rather predictably at this point, made its way under Cloud’s shirt to rest on the younger man’s abs, soft skin over firm muscle.

He ran his other hand through Cloud’s hair, eliciting a sleepy nuzzle and a murmur of approval.  They laid like that for a few minutes, before the alarm’s harsh beeping demanded they get up.

Once downstairs, they found a large crate with a rather crudely-worded label on it, apparently sent by Cid himself.

“So we’re supposed to master all of this?” Zack asked, almost daunted by the sheer amount of materia.

“I guess, yeah,” Cloud answered.  “Fire and ice don’t take that long, though.  At least we’re not mastering, like…Knights of the Round.”

“Wait, that’s real?” I thought that materia was just a legend…

“Of course it’s real!  It was hard to find, though.  We needed to take Terra out to some random island up northeast, to a cave in the middle of the forest,” Cloud said.

“Damn, Spike,” Zack said, impressed.  “How’d you even know to look there?”

He shrugged.  “Wasn’t much else to do by then.  Couldn’t stop Meteor, couldn’t get to Sephiroth…might as well look for some legendary materia, you know?”

Marlene emerged from her room with a yawn.  “Wow…that’s a lot of materia,” she said.

“We got a lot of work ahead of us, Marle,” Cloud said.  “Cid wants us to master all of this.”

“Holy…”

“It’s actually basic elemental materia, but whatever floats your boat,” Zack said with a smile.  Marlene giggled.

Cloud reached down to look at Cid’s note more closely.  “There’s a spot not far outside the town where they’re gonna build a workshop,” he said.  “But he wants us to get going on this right away.”

Denzel arrived downstairs while the three of them were eating breakfast, and Cloud and Zack saw the kids off to school.  Tifa was still asleep, and Cloud said he wanted to let her rest.

Cloud filled a few bottles with water and pocketed them along with one of each materia, and the two of them got on Fenrir and headed out for…somewhere.  Cloud didn’t tell him where they were going.

Zack held on to his friend’s waist like usual and resisted the urge to bury his nose in his hair.  It had been embarrassing enough the first time he got caught.  He honestly didn’t know why the scent was so intoxicating...it wasn’t anything fancy or distinctive, just something that reminded him of comfort and clean clothes.  He smells like home, that’s why.

They soon reached the end of the city.  “This is probably as good a place as any,” Cloud said, turning off the engine.

“What are we gonna do?”

“You up for a spar?”

Zack’s eyes lit up at the prospect.  “But…neither of us brought our swords.”

Cloud tossed the fire materia at him, as well as an old bracer.  “They don’t have materia slots anyway,” he said.  “We’ll just use magic—get in some good practice and get to mastering these.  Two birds with one stone.”

Zack had just put the bracer on before Cloud finished charging up a basic ice spell, and he barely dodged it before retaliating.

They circled each other for a while, spells colliding in the space between and spraying warm water all around.  Zack’s face was lit up in a satisfied smirk that he knew matched Cloud’s, and he eventually got the excellent idea to take the fight to closer quarters.

He jumped up rather than to the side to avoid the next onslaught of ice, and aimed his trajectory straight at the blond’s shoulders.  Cloud dodged, and Zack rolled to come up but found himself pinned.  I forgot how much faster he’s gotten.

From there on out, it was more of a wrestling match than anything else.  There wasn’t sufficient space for Zack to charge a fire spell without risking burning their hair or clothes, and he made sure to move enough that Cloud wouldn’t be able to get an ice spell in.  That is, until the other man successfully had him pinned to the ground, knees on both sides of his hips and one arm holding his chest down.  Ice started to form around his other hand, and Cloud’s face lit up in an expression of predatory triumph that was…very distracting.  He started charging his counter spell a split second too late, and the wave of definitely-higher-than-level-one ice that washed over him hurt a lot.

Cloud instantly looked startled and apologetic, and he got off, reaching out an arm to help Zack up.  “Shit, I didn’t realize that was actually gonna hit you,” he said.  “Are you okay?”

Zack answered that with a groan, and Cloud bit his lip and looked sheepish.  “We didn’t even bring a cure…here, uh, take your shirt off.  Maybe I can—”

“No, no, don’t do that,” Zack said, a little too quickly.  Cloud looked a bit hurt at the dismissal.  Better than him finding out about this crush.

He moved a stiff arm to hover over his chest and started a low-level fire, slowly moving it over the frozen area.  “See,” he said, trying not to sound too strained, “this works too.”

“Doesn’t get rid of the pain, though…”

“Hey, I’ve dealt with a lot worse than this,” Zack said, forcing a smile.

When he finished, he let the magic dissipate and looked down.  The part of his shirt that was previously frozen was now soaked and the rest was a bit singed, but otherwise he wasn’t much worse for wear.  “Maybe we should avoid turning these into wrestling matches in the future,” he said, and Cloud agreed, much to his relief.

They decided to head back to the bar for lunch.  Zack cooked up some burritos, and they actually managed to master those two materia by the time the sun set, although it had taken all their energy just to make it back afterwards.

Zack showered first, and tumbled into bed without bothering to wait for Cloud this time.  He hummed in appreciation when Cloud sidled up behind him, grateful to be the little spoon.  If I wake up with…a problem, he’ll be less likely to notice.  “Mmm…Spike?”

“Yeah?”

“We should probably take the materia usage down a notch…I’m bushed.”

Cloud laughed behind him.  “Probably a good idea.”

The next several days passed in a haze of work.  Tifa suggested they set aside a fixed amount of time each day to work on the materia to keep from wearing themselves down, and offered to fill in when one of them was out making deliveries.  Cloud finally let Zack ride Fenrir by himself, although he insisted on supervising to make sure he could “handle the bike properly.”  Tifa finally decided a few days later that Zack’s bartending abilities were up to scratch, and he started actually making drinks for customers, although he was still fairly clumsy about it.

They had eight materia ready to go by the time the WRO came in—with a hell of a lot of solar plates.  The former SOLDIERs weren’t needed for construction, but showed up anyway to watch once the deliveries were done (and ended up getting roped into carrying all the heavy things—the eternal curse of having superhuman strength).  Edgar clashed even more with Cid than he expected, the two of them bickering back and forth about what went where.  Eventually Cid gave up, tossing his cigarette to the ground and stomping over to where the workshop was being built.

The solar plates were all laid out by the end of the first day, several rows of the light-absorbing material covering a few acres outside Edge.  The next day, the assembly crew, largely made up of people Cloud pointed out as occasional visitors to the bar, dug into the parched earth to connect the wiring to the city’s only power hub.  That took only a few days to do with so many people on the job, and then Edgar selected the best fifty or so of them to serve as the regular maintenance crew.

The workshop, which was really more of a glorified hangar, took a bit longer to set up.  The people not selected for the maintenance crew moved over to that project, and Cloud and Zack helped out by looking for usable parts in the ruins of sectors 2 and 3.  The foundations of the hangar were done in a week, and the exterior all built within another, with the longest wall left as a door for when the ship was done.

Cid had elected to leave the interior completely empty, and section it off with moving dividers for the time being.  Cidney had come in after that with parts for a new bike and a sunny attitude that put Zack’s to shame.

Setzer and Darill had come in last, to rope of a section or the hangar for the design of the ship.  Cid refused to see either of their plans yet, saying something about doing everything in his power to keep them from building a transparent flying nightclub.  Honestly, it was hard to tell what he meant with how much cussing had been in that sentence.

And through all of it, Zack did his best to be of use, and also to reign in his continually growing feelings for Cloud.  It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to express attraction, it was more that he was just scared.  The only real romantic relationship he’d been in before was with Aerith, and there hadn’t been much at stake when he asked her out the first time.  Pretty much everything good in his life right now would be on the line if he confessed his feelings to Cloud, and…he was fairly certain they weren’t reciprocated.  His friend was acting about the same as he had before everything happened, back when they were just friends in the army.  There wasn’t any real chance he felt the same way.

Unless Cloud had for whatever reason always liked him as more than a friend, but that couldn’t be true—Zack remembered how Cloud had acted whenever he talked about Tifa as a teenager, and the two scenarios just didn’t line up.  Unless Zack was truly that oblivious.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Fair!  Pour me something hard.”

“Coming right up,” Zack said, grabbing a mug and reaching over for a bottle of liquor stronger than he would willingly drink.  “This hard enough?” he asked, and the customer, a man with a rather impressive beard who Tifa had pointed out as Sam, nodded.

“Whoa there …slow your roll a bit,” Sam said when he started filling up the glass.  “I wanna get drunk, but not wasted.  I have work in the morning, you know.”

“I got this one,” Tifa said, walking over.  “Zack, take care of those women at the other end, they just got here.”

He put down the bottle and went with a smile, resting his hands on the bar.  “What can I get for you ladies?”

They both started giggling, and didn’t stop for several seconds.  Zack’s smile became slightly more forced.  “You could get my number,” one of them said, looking at him hopefully.  “I’d really appreciate it…maybe tip a little extra…”

She was pretty enough, with wavy blonde hair and a nice face, but…Gaia, I never thought I’d be uncomfortable getting hit on.  “Uh…well…”

Laughter came from down the bar.  Sam was cracking up about something, and Tifa was rubbing her temple.  “You won’t get lucky with him, sweetheart,” he said to the blonde.  “He’s sweet on Strife.”

“Wha—who told you that?!” Zack exclaimed, knowing the look on his face gave him away.

“You did, just now,” Sam said, with a very smug grin for someone who was planning to get drunk on a weeknight.  “Knew that would work, huh, Lockhart?”

“I didn’t tell you anything except to not do that,” Tifa said, topping off his drink before walking away.  “Sorry about that,” she whispered as she passed him.

“You like Cloud?” the blonde woman asked, disappointed.

Zack sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.  “Don’t go spreading that around, okay?  He doesn’t know, and I don’t really think I want him too…”

“Hey, pull up a chair,” the second woman said.  “But get us some wine first—something light, though.  I’m Kit, and this is Julia, by the way.”

He gave the two a thumbs-up and poured two glasses of a nice red that looked like something his parents used to drink.  “Hey, this is pretty good,” Julia said after taking a sip.  “Especially for wine-about-it Wednesday.”

“…What’s that?” he asked.  I don’t even know what’s cool anymore.

“It’s just sort of…you drink wine on Wednesday and talk about stuff that’s bothering you,” Kit answered with a shrug.  “You whine about it.  We have a group of friends that take turns hosting, but they cancelled this week.”

“Oh, cool,” Zack said, unsure what to do now.  Do they want me to stick around?  Is it normal for customers to chat up the bartenders…?

“So…Cloud,” Julia said, folding her hands on the bar.  “You’re kind of into him.”

Of course they want to talk about that.  He nodded hesitantly.

“I mean, I can see why,” Kit said, setting her glass down.  “Those arms…he’s got nice lips, too.  Just imagine kissing him and running your hands through that hair…”

Zack could feel his face heating upHe was imagining it, all right.  “Um…”

“If you like him so much, why haven’t you told him?” Julia asked, sounding more invested than she probably should have for someone who’d just been turned down.  “What are you so scared of?”

“Who knows, he might feel the same way,” Kit said encouragingly.  “Zack, you’re his friend, right?  You should go for it. Take one for the team.”  I regret every decision I’ve ever made that has brought me to this point.

He was immensely relieved when Tifa rejoined him behind the bar.  “If I’m hearing the sort of talk I think I’m hearing, I better not be,” she warned, and the two women looked sheepish.  “That’s right.  Zack, go take a break.”

He took a deep breath as he moved upstairs.  It’s a good thing he wasn’t downstairs during any of that…Gaia bless phone calls.

“Really, all the way out there?  Mmhmm…no, I can handle it…okay, then.  Bye.”  Cloud closed his phone and noticed Zack standing there.  “Oh, hey.”

“Got a delivery to make?” he asked, determinedly focusing his gaze above Cloud’s lips.  Thanks for pointing out how great they are, Kit.  Not.  You stink for that.

“Yeah, the people at Fort Condor called in a personal favor,” Cloud said, putting the phone in his pocket.  “They need some back-and-forth with the chocobo farm, of all places.  It’s gonna take a few days.”

Zack frowned.  “Isn’t the Zolom still around there?”  That’s awfully dangerous for one person.

“You’re not seriously worried about me, are you?” Cloud asked, seeing right through him.  “I can take care of myself.  And you remember Terra’s a gold, right?  I’m not going anywhere near it.”

“Good,” Zack said, not bothering to stifle his protective feelings.  He’d know even if I didn’t say it.  “When are you heading out?”

“Well, ah…right now, I guess,” he said.  “As soon as I can get out of here.”

This will be the first time we’ve been apart since…since I got back.  “What about the stuff with the WRO?”

“You guys can handle it without me,” Cloud said without hesitation.  “We’ve made such good progress on the materia…you can probably just take a break from mastering it and work on your bike, yeah?  And it’s not like Edgar is lacking for help with the panels.”

“But if I’m modeling the bike after Fenrir…”

“Cindy’s an excellent mechanic,” he said.  “She knows what she’s doing and so do you.  It’ll be fine.”  But I don’t want you to leave.

Marlene walked by and saw the two of them in the office.  “Cloud, you’re not leaving, are you?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips.

“Just for a few days, okay?” he said apologetically, crouching down to meet her gaze.  “I’ll be back by Sunday.”

“Pinky promise?”

“Alright.  Pinky promise.”

She set her lips into a pout and looked to the side.  “You have to kiss me goodbye before you leave,” she said as Denzel poked his head into the room.

Cloud laughed a little, and then gave her a quick peck on the cheek.  “You good now?  I’ll see you soon, Marle.”

“No, you gotta kiss Zack goodbye too.”  Um…UM…

Zack pouted and turned his head in an imitation of what Marlene had done, and Cloud stood up with a smirk, planting a very loud raspberry on his jaw.  That works, too.

“Spike, that’s gross…” he said, as Marlene fell into a fit of giggles.

“Can I go now?” Cloud asked when she had calmed down, and a happy nod sent him on his way.  Denzel settled for a fist bump as he left.

“That was funny,” Marlene said after a moment.  “He’s a lot funnier with you around, Zack.”

“That’s because,” he said very seriously, sitting down on the floor across from her, “I’m the funniest person on the planet, and it rubs off on everyone else.”

Denzel laughed from his spot in the doorway.  “When moogles fly.”

“What, you don’t believe me?  You know, there actually used to be a game at the Gold Saucer—”

Tifa popped her head in, looking rather put out.  “Cloud just left.  I need you back on the floor, Zack.  It’s getting busy.”

He nodded and stood up.  “Talk to you later, Marle.  Denz,” he said with a smile, and followed Tifa back downstairs.

Kit and Julia both seemed pretty buzzed at this point, and they collapsed into another fit of giggles as soon as they saw Zack.  They waved him over with their empty glasses.  Oh boy.

“Anything else I can get for you two?” he asked, toning down his earlier friendliness by several notches.

Julia looked like she wanted to say something, but then burst into giggles again.  Kit just put her head down on the table and sighed.

“No, you’re good?  Alright then…”

“W…wait,” Julia said through her laughter as he started to move towards a different group.  “Did you…did you kiss him goodbye?”

“No,” Zack answered with a glare.  “And I wouldn’t even have thought about it if it weren’t for you two.”  That’s a lie…but I still would’ve thought about it less.

Kit lifted her head.  “But you were supposed to take one for the team,” she said, far too loudly.  “Tell us what those lips feel like…”

“You know what, how about some water?  I’ll get you ladies some water,” he said, moving away before the entire bar figured out whose lips they were discussing.

Sam waved him over, and Zack went with a frown.  “Look what you started, man,” he said.  “They won’t leave me alone about it…”

The man just shrugged.  “Not my fault you’ve got a crush,” he said, still coherent, which was pretty impressive considering how much he’d already drunk.  “Get me some rum and put it on my tab, I’m going home.”

Sam left, with Julia and Kit not too far behind, and no one else in the bar seemed at all interested in Zack’s love life.  Thank Gaia.  I don’t wanna have that conversation with anyone else ever again.

Between that and Cloud not being around to help, it was a tiring evening, and Tifa didn’t even bother with washing the glassware when they closed up.  “Gaia, I’m exhausted,” she said.  “I’ll take care of that in the morning…can you wash the tables, though?”

Zack nodded, and he wet a rag as she made her way upstairs.  He got everything reasonably clean, and then did the dishes as well.  The least I can do for being a pain tonight.

He went through the motions of getting ready for bed, and it wasn’t until he actually turned out the lights that he realized he’d be sleeping alone for the first time in quite a while.  I’ll be fine.

 

---------------------------------

 

He wasn’t fine.

Zack was on the cliff again, back on that fateful day three years ago.  “Come and get it!”

Except the soldiers all melded together into one terrifying man before he reached the battleground, who laughed as his silver hair blew in a nonexistent breeze.

“You’ll never have him,” Sephiroth said, Masamune held out to keep Zack at bay.  “He’s got too many scars to love you.  Most of them from me.”

“You’re a giant fucking prick, Seph,” Zack said without hesitation, holding up his sword.  It turned to dust in his hands.  “And I have scars, too, in case you didn’t know because you’re dead.”

“Oh, but those scars aren’t from me.  They’re from them,” he said, waving an arm as the soldiers all reappeared, guns aimed straight at him.  “For being such a disappointment.  And to think Hojo once believed you could replace me…pathetic, really.”

This is a dream.  It’s just a dream.  It’s only a dream.  He’s not here, that’s not really him, just my own insecurities using him as a voice.  Zack pinched his arm.  It didn’t work, so he just stood there and waited for enough soldiers to pull the trigger.  Getting killed in dreams always causes you to wake up, right?

He heard the sound of gunshots and waited for the inevitable, but then he suddenly found himself several feet in the air, suspended by Masamune.

“See?  A disappointment,” Sephiroth purred.  “You couldn’t save him this time, either.  And all the odds were in your favor…”

Zack looked down, and saw Cloud somehow standing where he had been a second ago, chest full of bullets.  “Put me down!” he shouted, struggling to break free.

“I’m afraid I’m not the one in control here,” Sephiroth said, lifting him even higher.  “We’re all just figments of your imagination…”  Then why can’t I wake up?

He couldn’t feel Masamune piercing his chest, which was the only thing still grounding him in the knowledge that this was nothing more than a dream.  He commanded the scene to change, the same way he had when he was working through the mako poisoning, and with a rush of vertigo he succeeded.

Back on the cliff again, except it was now him leaning over Cloud’s broken body.  “Hey, Spike…” he said, ignoring how dizzy he felt.  “You’re gonna be fine, I…I promise.”

“Like hell I am,” his friend said, coughing blood.  “You got a cure on you or not?”

Zack cast the spell, but it didn’t work.  He cast it again.  It still didn’t work.  His breath became disjointed as the panic set in.  “Cloud, I…I don’t think I can…”

“What are you good for, then?” Cloud spat, only the voice he heard didn’t belong to him, but to Sephiroth.  “How can you possibly expect him to love you back when you can’t even cast a simple cure?  And you were once a famous soldier…look how far you’ve fallen.”

Then Cloud’s eyes fluttered closed, and Zack screamed again, except this time it was a real scream and he was tangled up in the sheets of his bed and holy fucking shit that was too real I need to get out of here right now.

Zack staggered downstairs, not really in any state to make sure he wasn’t being too loud, and finally stopped when he made it outside.  The emptiness of the streets testified to how early it must be.  He started to cry, from the pain and the loneliness and whatever else had just surfaced in his broken mind.

He tried to take deep breaths, tried to think about good things instead of the bad memories like Cloud had told him, but it was too difficult and dream-Sephiroth’s voice continued to speak to him, unbidden.  Your failures ruined his life too many times for him to love you, Zack.  This is your penance.

Deep down, Zack knew that it was really just his own stupid fears, but Gaia be damned if it didn’t feel real.  He looked up at the moon and tried to calm down.  This is the same moon that was there before everything happened.  The moon’s never judged me and it never will.  What the hell am I looking at the moon for?  It doesn’t matter.  It’s nothing more than a giant space rock.

That got him thinking of Meteor and the apocalypse he’d slept through, and another sob worked its way out of his throat.  He didn’t even register when the door opened.

“Zack, you—oh!” Tifa said, eyes widening.  She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist, rubbing small circles into his back.  “It’s alright,” she said.  “You’re gonna be alright.  I’ve got you.”

She continued to say soothing things like that until Zack felt like he could breathe normally again, and then she stepped back.  “I didn’t realize you had it this bad,” she said apologetically.  “Is it…is it like this every night?”

He looked away, trying to keep his breathing even.  “No…they haven’t been this bad since before Cloud…”

Tifa nodded, understanding what he meant.  “I can keep you company while he’s gone,” she said.  “I know it’s not the same, but…”

Zack bit his lip to keep from crying again and pulled her back into another hug.  “Please,” he said down into her hair.  “I don’t wanna see that cliff ever again…or hear his voice ever again…”

Tifa pulled away and took his hands in hers.  “I know,” she said.  “He haunts my nightmares, too.  Let’s get out of the cold, okay?”

She led him upstairs, but turned into her room instead of going up to the loft.  “We’ll both fit, probably,” she said, climbing into her bed and scooting as far over to the side as she could.

Zack shrugged and got in with her, unsure of what to do with his arms...she was a bit smaller than either Cloud or Aerith.  She decided for him, using one as a pillow, and putting the other one around her waist.  “That’s good,” she said, snuggling up to him.

“You and Cloud cuddle the same way,” he said under his breath, as if it was the easiest revelation in the world to make.

She hummed in agreement.  “Who do you think he learned it from, goofball?”

Good point.  “Tifa…if you get nightmares too, how do you manage it alone?”

She traced patterns on the arm that was around her waist.  “Are you sure you wanna talk about this right now?”

“Yeah…I think I’ll be okay.”

“Zack… we’ve all been through a lot, but you and Cloud have had it worse,” she said softly.  “When I get nightmares, it’s usually either Aerith dying or the plate dropping…on the worst nights, it’s watching Cloud fall apart.  I knew something was wrong with him the whole time we were running…there were so many things that didn’t fit right…but I was too scared to try to help until it was too late.  My biggest failure was in not saying anything.”

“Doesn’t the guilt…how do you deal with it?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Tifa said, taking a deep breath.  “I’m doing everything I can to make up for it now.  I try to love him enough to fix what happened…I know it doesn’t change anything, but the best I can do is make sure the rest of his life is as happy as possible.”

“Love him enough…”

She fell asleep not long after that, and Zack let his wandering thoughts take him away as well.

 

---------------------------------

 

Three days later, he was in the workshop making the body of his new bike.

“Have you picked a name for it yet?” Cindy asked, working on the gearbox.  “That piece would be a good place to engrave a name.”

“I’m thinking Ragnarok,” he said, and the look she gave him spoke volumes.  “What, is it really that lame?”

“You’re naming a bike after the apocalypse,” she deadpanned, in a way that reminded him a lot of Cloud.  He’s due back tomorrow.

“I mean…”

She snorted.  “Is it because you’re such a reckless driver that it’s gonna end the world when you get going?”

Zack laughed.  “Cloud said I’m pretty good, actually.”

“That’s because he’s also a reckless driver.  His standards are wrong.”

“He’s an awesome driver.”

“Whatever,” Cindy said, finishing up with the gearbox.  “Yuffie told me he can’t drive an actual car to save his life, but sure, he’s definitely safe to have behind the wheel.”

They kept up the light conversation for a few more minutes, Cindy working on the wiring and Zack polishing some of the cover pieces.  Then the sound of footsteps and loud talking caused both of them to look towards the gap in the wall dividers.  “That’ll be the Figaros,” Cindy said.

“I can’t believe you got that much gil out of Setzer with a double-headed coin!”

“Well, someone had to try it.  And he loved how low of a play it was.”

Edgar walked into their work area, denim jacket dusty from being out in the wastes, followed by his twin.  The other man had much shorter hair, though, and was more heavily muscled.  He reminds me of a bear, somehow.

“Sabin wanted to see what was up,” Edgar said.  “Solar energy isn’t as interesting to him as motorcycles.”

“Hey, I offered to see what you were doing, too,” Sabin said.  “I think that makes me an excellent brother, all things considered.”

“And allowing you to interrupt my work makes me an excellent friend,” Cindy said, wiping her brow with the sleeve of her jacket.  “Are you boys here for any particular reason, or just to bother me?  We were actually making progress here.”

Edgar shrugged.  “It’s late in the afternoon already,” he said.  “Just wanted to say hi before heading out.”

“What are you naming the bike?” Sabin asked, crouching down near where Zack was.

“Ragnarok.”  He’s gonna make fun of the name, too, with my luck this week.

He was wrong.  “That’s an awesome name!” Sabin said, clapping him on the back and nearly causing him to fall flat on his face.  “Personally, I would’ve named a motorcycle after family, but I’m sentimental like that.  You got any family, Zack?”

Wow, I haven’t thought about them in a long time.  “…I don’t even know anymore,” he said honestly.  “I had a falling out with my parents when I was thirteen, just before I left for Shinra.  Haven’t seen them since, obviously…half my life I’ve been gone.”

“I didn’t necessarily mean blood family,” Sabin said, in a manner that was both emphatic and compassionate.  He’s so unlike his brother.  “Cindy here is like a little sister to me, even though we’re not technically related.  Do you know if your parents are still around, though?”

Zack shrugged.  “I have no idea,” he said.  “It’s funny…even if they’re still in Gongaga, I don’t know if I could go back.  Years ago, when I was still a First…Cloud sent me an email asking to go home with him, because he was too scared to go alone—he hadn’t become he person he’d set out to be.  At the time, I thought that was a little pathetic, but now…I don’t think I could go home without him, either.”

Sabin rubbed his shoulder and gave an understanding smile.  “So Cloud’s your family now, then.  But it would be kind of weird to name your motorcycle after him,” he added with a wink.

The other three laughed at that, Zack especially grateful to Sabin for lifting the mood.  “Yeah, he’d never let me hear the end of it if I did,” he said.  “Although there would be a lot of opportunities for lame jokes…”

Cindy looked pensive for a moment.  “You like him, don’t you?” she asked.

“He’s my best friend.”

“No, I mean…you like him, don’t you?”

Zack looked down and sighed.  “Is it really that obvious?”

“What’s obvious?” came Darill’s voice from over the wall divider.  She walked in, trailed by her husband.  Great.  Everyone’s gonna hear about this crush now.

Cindy didn’t say anything, though, and neither did Edgar or Sabin.  “What, did we interrupt something?” Darill asked.

“Just a discussion of my love life, no big deal,” Zack said, moving away from the others a bit.

“Does he know?” Cindy asked, walking over to stand by him.

“I haven’t said anything,” he admitted.

“You gotta tell him, man,” Sabin said, settling on his other side.  I’m getting tag-teamed into confessing.  “It’s gonna weigh you down if you don’t.”

“Tell who?” Setzer asked.

“Cloud,” the rest of them said simultaneously, and Zack groaned.

Cindy patted him on the back.  “Sabin’s right, you know,” she said.  “What if he feels the same way?”

“And what if he doesn’t?” Zack asked, holding his hands out in front of him.  “I don’t wanna completely ruin our friendship over this…this thing.”

“Look, I don’t know either of you that well,” Setzer said, “but I seriously doubt he’ll just up and leave you if this thing is unrequited.”

“Worst case scenario, he says ‘thanks but no thanks,’ things are awkward for a while, and then go back to normal,” Edgar said, shrugging.  “I’ve been turned down enough to know.”

“But it’s more than that,” Zack insisted.  “Cloud is everything to me and I’m so scared to mess this up, I…”

“Love is always like that,” Darill said sympathetically.  “But you never know how the other person is going to react until you try, and the what-ifs are going to eat you from the inside if you don’t say something.”

“They’re already doing that,” he grumbled in response.

“Is this just a crush, or something more?” Cindy asked.

Zack rubbed the back of his neck, being careful not to elbow her.  “I…I don’t know,” he said.  “I’ve loved him in a platonic sense since…forever, basically.  And then I started thinking he was attractive not long after I woke up.”  It’s more than that, though.  It’s beyond just being attracted to him…  Then the right phrasing appeared in his mind’s eye, and it felt like a high-level confuse spell had just been lifted.  “Holy shit, I’m in love with him.”

The others stayed silent for a moment, respecting his rather sudden realization.  Then Setzer cleared his throat.  “So, what are you going to do about it?”

Try to love him enough to fix what happened.  Zack took a deep breath.  “I…don’t know,” he said.  “It’s funny…I was known in ShinRa as the guy who could charm anyone into a date and here I am, scared to tell my best friend I love him.”

“It’s always hard,” Darill said.  “And, dare I say it, you’re more emotionally invested in Cloud already than most of the rest put together.  Whatever you do, you’re going to feel like an idiot.  That’s just how it goes.  Hell, Setzer here—”

“Do you have to tell him about that?” her husband asked, turning around.

Yes, because it’ll make Zack feel better,” she said with a chuckle.  “Setzer was a lot like you at first.  He sort of wormed his way into my social circle, and we started seeing musicals together in downtown Midgar.  There was one specifically…Mamma Mia, it was called, a comedy about family friends falling in love just before a wedding.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of that one,” Zack said.  “Never saw it, though…I couldn’t go near the theater without thinking of Loveless.”

“Anyway, towards the end of the musical, there’s a song called ‘Take a Chance on Me,’” Darill continued, smiling wistfully.  “Cheesiest thing ever, but the whole musical was like that.  Setzer dragged me onstage and interrupted the performance, singing his heart out, the silly man.”

Setzer hid his face in his hands.  “Most embarrassing night of my life.”

“That’s not even all of it,” Darill said.  “He actually cleared the whole thing with the cast beforehand…he was close friends with the lead actress, Maria, and she took pity on him because he’d been pining over me for so long.’”

“So what was the point of retelling that story?” Setzer groaned.

“Two reasons.  One: there’s no way you can be more over-the-top than him,” Darill said matter-of-factly.  “Two: sure, it was corny, but I’ll remember that night for the rest of my life.  He went out on a limb in front of the whole audience just to tell me how he felt…it did the trick, all right.”

Cindy had her hands clasped together, and Edgar nodded approvingly.  “I didn’t know you had that in you, Setzer,” he said.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t have it in me again after that,” he said.  “But Darill’s been with me ever since.  So I’ll ask you again, Zack.  What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know, man.  You kind of set the bar really high,” Zack said with a laugh.  “And Cloud’s not the kind of person who would appreciate being wooed in such a…public setting.”

“Then find somewhere private, somewhere that’s important to both of you,” Edgar suggested.  “Tell him there.”

“And don’t beat around the bush,” Cindy said.  “He likes to get to the point, I can see that much.  Don’t be too blunt…but also don’t avoid saying what you mean.”

“And don’t suplex him as a show of affection,” Sabin added.  “I tried that once…didn’t work.”

Everyone laughed at that, and they all left to go home, wishing Zack good luck.

 

---------------------------------

 

In hindsight, Zack should really have expected this, but it still took him by surprise when Reno knew exactly what was going on as he dropped off a box at Healin the next morning.

The redhead opened the door with a grin.  “Thanks for the delivery, yo,” he said, dragging the box in.  “Nothin’ like booze to take the edge off a Sunday shift.”

“Isn’t it a bit unprofessional to drink on the job?” Zack asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Since when have I ever been professional, yo?” Reno countered, not so much as blinking.  “And it ain’t any less professional than sharin’ your bed with a coworker.”

Zack’s face twisted into a grimace he knew probably looked ridiculous, but he couldn’t help it.  “Who told you about that?” he hissed.

“You did.  Just now, yo,” Reno said with a shit-eating grin.  “So, Strife…you’ve fallen hard for him, huh?  But not fast...no, definitely not fast.  I’ve seen this comin’ for a while now, yo.”

Zack didn’t dignify that with a response, just tried to school his grimace into a more legitimate glare.

“You don’t need to admit it.  It’s written all over your face, yo,” Reno said, opening a bottle and taking an experimental swig.  “Have ya told him?”

“No,” he answered shortly.

“Am I hearin’ this right?  Zack fucking Fair, the biggest flirt Shinra ever had under his employ, can’t even tell Cloud Strife he wants to make out with him.  Pathetic, yo.”

“Look, if you’re just gonna make fun of me, I’ll leave,” Zack said, turning around.

“Hey, wait up!” Reno said, and Zack reluctantly stopped.  “I’m just amazed you haven’t said anything yet is all, yo.  What’s the holdup?”

“The holdup,” Zack said, “is that I don’t want to ruin our friendship.  Why is that so hard for everyone to understand?”

“Because we all know Cloud, yo,” Reno said.  “Look.  Worst-case scenario is that he stammers out a ‘not interested’ and acts distant for a few days.  But if he’s already willin’ to spend the night with you on a regular basis, I don’t think that’s gonna happen, yo.   The kid spent most of the past few years tryin’ to be as much of a loner as possible.  Tell ‘im already.”

Zack sighed.  “I guess you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right!  Turks always are, yo.  Now fess up in the next week or I’ll tell the chocobo myself,” Reno said, pushing him away.  “Until next time, slick.”

 

--------------------------------- 

 

Cloud heard the muffled sound of his phone ringing over the sound of the engine, and turned off the ignition.  He didn’t bother to get off Fenrir, just held his balance as he picked up.  “Hello?”

“Reeve again.  Vincent and I cracked some of the files today…are you at home?”

“No, I’m heading back from a job right now,” he said.  “I’ve been running chocobo equipment from the farm to Fort Condor since Wednesday night.  Apparently they’re starting a farm of their own, since the condor’s not around anymore…”

“Really?  Are they planning to sell services in Junon or something?” Reeve asked.

Cloud shrugged, and then remembered that wasn’t a gesture that meant anything during a phone call.  “They don’t know,” he said after a moment.  “Spent most of my nights on their roof where the egg used to be…they told me some stories about how they’ve been getting on since Meteorfall, but nothing about why they want to start a farm.  I guess they just like birds.”

“I’ll have to send someone to check in on them,” Reeve said.  “Maybe we can cooperate with something.”

“You sure about that?  The WRO is pretty close to Shinra in their eyes, and they sure as hell didn’t want to cooperate then,” Cloud pointed out.  “You’ll have to be very…benign.  Adamant about their continued independence.”

“I can do that,” Reeve said.  “You know me, Cloud…I just want to see the world start thriving again.”

“So what did you find out about those files?” Cloud asked.  “Anything helpful?”

“Well…” he started, “you’d best call back when you get back to Edge.  It’s complicated.”

That’s no reason to just not tell me.  “Or you could tell me now, and I could tell Tifa and Zack when I get home.”

“Or you could wait.”

“Why?  What’s the point in waiting?” Cloud asked, trying not to be audibly frustrated.

Reeve sighed.  “Look, I…I don’t think you should be alone when we go over it.”

Cloud narrowed his eyes at nothing.  “It’s bad news then, huh?”

“Not bad so much as just unhelpful,” Reeve answered.  “But it might be…triggering.”

Triggering.  That certainly narrows it down.  Except no, that really doesn’t narrow it down because how could it possibly be triggering and also not bad news?  I can count things Reeve would be concerned about triggering me on one hand, and all of them would qualify as very bad news.

“Cloud?  Are you still there?”

He blinked a few times and let the world come back into focus.  “Yeah, sorry,” he said.  “Haven’t slept well for the past few days.  I guess I’ll call when I get back.  Later, Reeve.”

Cloud hung up and lit the ignition, setting a fast pace for home.  Haven’t slept well is an understatement…I haven’t slept at all since Thursday morning.  He’d come to rely on Zack’s presence too much in the past few weeks, and his sudden absence had made itself known.  The first night, he’d slept in the old cave connecting the Zolom’s territory to the plains outside Condor, since there were virtually no monsters left inside.  That was the worst idea he’d had in a while.

There may not have been monsters, but the ghosts in his mind were a good enough approximation.  All the usual nightmares resurfaced: Sephiroth, Zack dying, Aerith dying, Tifa dying, Sephiroth, his mom dying, Marlene dying, Denzel dying, the Geostigma, Sephiroth…Meteor.  Despite how fucked up his mind truly was, he had never actually dreamed of Meteor destroying the planet until Wednesday night.  It was unpleasant.  So he’d stayed up at Condor each night after that, drinking copious amounts of their coffee and listening to their stories.

Cloud came up on Edge, and the usual people waved at him.  He waved back.

Pulling up to the bar, he saw Zack and Tifa both tending to the flowers.  I should’ve realized he knows some stuff about plants…he dated Aerith, after all.  And Angeal liked plants too as far as I heard.

Tifa looked up and smiled, running over to give him a quick hug as he got off the bike.  “We missed you,” she said after pulling away.

Zack pulled him into a slightly longer hug after that, and Cloud saw over his shoulder that Tifa was giving him a look he knew well.  Her you-should-have-been-paying-closer-attention-to-something look.  He tried to communicate with his eyes that he couldn’t possibly have done that while out on a job, but she just shook her head.

“Whoa Spike, you look like you haven’t slept in days,” Zack said when he let go.

“I haven’t,” he admitted, feeling dead on his feet.  “Not since Thursday morning…nothing unusual.”

Zack’s expression changed, and Cloud couldn’t get a good read on it, which was…unusual for the two of them.  What are you thinking right now?

“Did anything interesting happen?” Tifa asked him, holding the door open for them to go inside.  “Zolom attacks?  Any chocobos dance for you?”

“Ha, no.  But Reeve called about Hojo’s files about an hour ago,” Cloud said.  “They found out some stuff.  Wouldn’t tell me what, though…he said to wait until I got back.”

“Well, duh,” Zack said.  “It wouldn’t be cool for him to tell just you and leave me and Teef out of the loop.”

They went up to the office, and Zack sat down on the floor.  He’s probably just as apprehensive about this as I am…even more so, because he’s not exhausted.  Cloud followed his lead, and Tifa joined them, crossing her legs.

Cloud took out his phone and looked at them.  “You guys ready?” he asked.

“Just do it,” Zack said.  “It’s only a phone call.”  Only a potentially-triggering phone call.

He dialed Reeve’s number and put it on speaker, but it was Vincent’s voice that came through.  “Hello?” he asked.

“Hey, Vince,” Tifa said.  “Reeve called earlier.  He said you found out some stuff.”

“We did,” Vincent confirmed, the sound of his footsteps evident over the line.  Is he still wearing those ridiculous shoes?  “It’s…hard to explain.  We’ve decrypted some of the files related to the hit list, but the actual wording is hardly easier to understand.”

“Well, he probably didn’t intend for anyone else to ever read them,” Tifa said.  “What parts specifically did you translate?”

“Each item on his list had two pieces of information attached.  That’s all we’ve got so far.”

“What kind of information?” Zack asked apprehensively.

Vincent answered with a sigh.  “The unhelpful kind,” he grumbled.  “Yuffie’s mother’s entries were the only ones that made any sense: ‘test’ and ‘not applicable.’”

“What, a test run to see if I could follow orders or something?” Zack asked.

Cloud nodded.  That’s awfully…proactive of Hojo.  He usually just did whatever the hell he wanted without much planning.  Or documentation of any sort.

“Seems so,” Vincent said.  “It makes sense why that was first on the list, if it was a test run.  The rest…we don’t know what to make of them.”

“You gonna tell us what was in them?” Cloud asked after a moment.  “Maybe we’ll have some more insight.”

The sound of Vincent’s footsteps stopped.  “Slim chance of that.  The entries under my name were listed as ‘oiwejtnvpqoi,’” he enunciated slowly, “and then ‘ally.’”

“Oiwejetnivpkoy?” Cloud tried with a grimace, and Zack laughed at him before getting a whack to the shoulder.  I’m trying to be helpful here.

“I have no idea why Hojo listed me as keysmash and an ally,” Vincent said, sounding both serious and very annoyed.  “I have never considered myself…allied with him in any sense.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t bother putting actual words in my file.”

“I’m not surprised.  It’s not like he ever bothered to keep accurate records on me, either,” Cloud said.  “Or you.  Or Zack.  Or even his own son.”  Things would have turned out a lot differently if he had…why couldn’t the bastard just admit that Sephiroth’s mother was human?  The whole shitshow could have been prevented…

Vincent remained silent for a long moment, probably going through the same thought process.  He was the one who’d told them about Lucrecia, after all.  “Are you still there?” Tifa asked patiently.

“…Yes, sorry.  Just zoning out.”

“So who was after you, Rufus?” Cloud asked, ready to move on.  “What was in his file?”

“First entry was ‘will,’ second was ‘blood.’”

“At least those are actual words,” Zack said, clearly trying to sound cheerful.

Cloud snorted.  “They don’t make any more sense than random keysmash, though.”

Tifa groaned.  “Okay, then.  Who was after that, Aerith?”

“First entry for both her and her mother was ‘ancient,’” Vincent said.  “Easy enough to figure out what that means.  Aerith’s second entry was ‘close,’ and Ifalna’s was ‘proxy.’”

“So…whatever he planned to use them for, he would’ve rather used Aerith,” Cloud said.  “But Ifalna would have been a good substitution.”  Knowing his obsession with the Cetra, it probably doesn’t even matter.  He would have tried to involve them no matter what it was for.

“Maybe, but that still doesn’t help us figure out what he was doing,” Zack groaned.  “If that’s even what the second entry was referring to.”

“Genesis’s file wasn’t much different,” Vincent said.  “First entry was ‘envy.’  Second entry was ‘standby.’”  Because the Red Commander just loved being put on standby.  Or whatever the hell Hojo meant by that.

“Yeah, that makes about as much sense as all the others,” Tifa concluded.  There’s one more, though.

Cloud’s expression became stony.  “So what about me?”

“Both entries were…obvious,” Vincent said hesitantly.

“What was obvious about them?  What were they specifically?” Zack asked.

“Ah…sorry.  I meant that the first entry was listed as obvious, and so was the second,” Vincent clarified.

Cloud actually laughed.  “Well, that’s just fantastic,” he said.  “I’m obvious.  Thanks, Hojo.  Didn’t expect anything less.”  Tifa reached over to put an arm on his wrist in concern, and Zack might have done the same if Cloud hadn’t shrugged her off.  “I’m fine, guys,” he said.  Really—it’s only my internal monologue coming out.  “Just…what the hell, Vincent?  What gives him the fucking right to ruin our lives again and again?”

“Nothing,” Vincent said.  His tone was cold, but Cloud knew he understood.  “That’s why we killed him.”

Chapter Text

Even with Zack’s arms around him, Cloud couldn’t fall asleep.  Between his superhuman stamina and the amount of caffeine he’d consumed in the past several days, he was more wired than the computer Hojo had built to set this whole thing in motion.  All he wanted to do was get up and work the anxiety out of his system, but he could hear the words Zack usually left unsaid: let me help you, let me keep you safe.  So he was going to make the most of his wakefulness by thinking through everything he knew about the situation, instead of sorting through what to do about his feelings for Zack.  And I need to do something about that soon.

The first set of entries…Vincent’s was nonsense, Rufus’s “will,” Aerith’s “ancient,” Genesis’s “envy,” and mine “obvious.”  Then the second set: Vincent’s “ally,” Rufus’s “blood,” Aerith’s “close,” Ifalna’s “proxy,” Genesis’s “standby,” and mine “obvious” again.  Well, it’s not fucking obvious to anyone else, Hojo.

That being said, Cloud had spent enough time reading Hojo’s idea of scientific documentation to have some theories as to what this could mean.  It was a sure bet that the wording was chosen to throw off any unwanted readers—that would be consistent with pretty much everything the deceased scientist had ever done.  So we can’t trust our gut feelings, once we find out more.  That’s never worked out well.  It was also very possible that Hojo had hidden just enough to give the unwanted reader a strong inclination to do…something.  That’s why Nibelheim had burned, after all, and the same sort of thing had set Cloud over the edge…again, I can’t trust my gut feelings here.  That would probably be playing right into Hojo’s hands.

So what could it mean, then?  Just seeing two sets of entries from one small part of whatever project this was was like putting a shoelace under a microscope and expecting to see the whole shoe.  Gaia, I need sleep if I’m thinking of analogies like that.

Zack shifted in his sleep, and one of his hands drifted to the hem of Cloud’s shirt.  He moved it up for him, and Zack let out a contented sigh when his fingers touched skin.  I wonder if he even knows he does it…I wonder if he’d do it awake.  If he’d kiss me while he’s at it…no.  Don’t think about that right now...damn it.

It took him a few minutes to force the heat from his cheeks and for his heart rate to go back down, and with no small amount of trouble, Cloud steered his thoughts back towards the project files.

I guess…I guess each set of entries probably corresponds to some other thing.  That’s usually how lists work, right?

The trouble came in finding something that each set’s entries had in common.  Cloud racked his mind for some sort of answer…what do nonsense, “will”, “ancient,” “envy,” and “obvious” all have in common?  It was probably safe to discard the keysmash, assuming Hojo just didn’t want to put down the actual relevant information.  He always hated writing down relevant information.  And he had no idea what was so obvious about him.  I’ve obviously got mako enhancement, but so does Genesis, and that’s not what’s listed for him.  I’ve obviously got Jenova cells in me…maybe that’s it.  Jenova, the Ancients, and Sephiroth were all he ever seemed to care about…but the computer wasn’t communicating with Jenova cells, it was communicating with my cells.

The other entries…a strong will and Cetra heritage were both powerful traits to have, regardless of what Hojo had been planning to use them for.  Maybe Vincent’s had something to do with his abilities.  And Hojo knew before he died that there was power in me, too.  But envy…how the hell is being envious powerful?  Genesis was a formidable warrior, so why was envy listed for him?

Cloud got the strong feeling that the answer was just beyond his reach, on the tip of his tongue...I’m not going to figure that one out tonight.  Giving up on the first set, Cloud forced his mind to move on to the second.  Okay then…what do “ally,” “blood,” “close,” “proxy,” “standby,” and “obvious” all have in common?

His mind drew up a blank, and Zack murmured something incomprehensible into his hair.  Oh, I guess “ally” is a type of relationship.  “Blood” and “close” could fit into that as well.  So, maybe the second list as a whole refers to another person?  Someone who was allied with Vincent and related to Rufus?  Or maybe blood means they were rivals of some sort.  And they were close to Aerith…Reno, maybe?  He and Vincent are both Turks…he’s never told me about a family or even a last name.  And he knew Aerith, even if they weren’t close in any sense of the word.  But that’s grasping at straws…why the hell would Hojo be interested in Reno?  And that doesn’t explain “standby” or “obvious.”  Gaia, this is so vague.

Then a thought struck him that made his stomach churn.  If there was one thing Cloud could reasonably assume, it was that Hojo had intended to use him in a different (and probably more twisted) way than the others.  And the computer was trying to communicate with my cells.  So…my entries were listed as obvious because it was obvious to Hojo—they just referred to the fact that he intended to use me like he was using Zack.  Or maybe differently.  So Genesis…

Unfortunately, Zack chose that exact moment to wake up with a strangled yell, readjusting his grip on Cloud once he remembered he was there.  “I’m sorry…did I wake you up?” he whispered, taking deep breaths.

“I’ve been up,” Cloud grumbled, moving so he was putting less weight on Zack’s arm.

“Spike, you need to sleep,” Zack said, voice full of concern.  “You’re gonna get sick if you stay up much longer.”

“I can’t help it if I can’t fall asleep…I’ve just been thinking about that list,” Cloud admitted.  “Trying to figure it out.  I need to know what it means.”

“I know,” Zack said.  “Me too.  But we hardly know anything yet…you’re just gonna work yourself up overthinking it right now.”

“But what if it turns out to be something important?” Cloud asked.  “I don’t want to be standing at the end of the world again, beating myself up because I could have prevented it from happening.”  Like last time…

“Hey, stop that.  Everyone on that list is either dead or out of his reach.  He can’t get to you anymore, Cloud.  You’re safe now…and I am never going to let anything hurt you again,” Zack promised.  I’m out of his reach, and so is Vincent, but what about Rufus?  Or Genesis, if he’s still alive?

He didn’t voice those thoughts, though.  No need to burden Zack with the same questions he had, especially when his friend knew even less than he did.  “Thanks,” he said, the word horribly inadequate for everything Zack had done for him.  I love you so much…I hope you realize that.

Zack put one hand behind Cloud’s head and moved it towards his shoulder, and used his other hand to rub small circles into his back.  “I’m gonna wait for you to fall asleep,” he said.  “You need it.”

I don’t even remember when he figured out the circles help.  I’m pretty sure he was the first one, though.  He breathed in Zack’s scent, warm and welcoming, and let sleep finally overtake him.

 

---------------------------------

 

Despite only actually sleeping for a few hours, Cloud felt pretty well-rested when he woke up.  Tifa wasn’t there when they went downstairs—she had left a note saying that there was an “event” at school, and that she’d volunteered for the morning.  She didn’t tell me anything about that.  Zack didn’t know what it was, either.  I’ll ask her later, I guess.

The kids hadn’t left yet, though, and Marlene gave him an unusually searching look as she ate her breakfast.  Then she whispered something to Denzel that had her looking disappointed and him relieved.  I’ll ask about this now, though.

“What are you talking about?” Cloud asked.

“Nothing,” they said at the same time, not meeting his eyes.

Yeah, right.  “Does Tifa know what this nothing is?”

“Yes, actually,” Marlene said with a smile, and Cloud found himself a little taken aback.  Okay, I don’t know what to say to that.

Zack snorted, probably more at his speechlessness than anything else.  “Then why can’t he know?”

“Because…it’s nothing,” Marlene said simply.  She picked that one up from Aerith, I bet.

They sent the kids off to school before heading out to the workshop, and found pretty much everyone, even Edgar’s brother, gathered around Zack’s bike-in-progress.

Cindy and Sabin both stood up to greet them, and he noticed that Darill raised her eyebrows at Zack, giving him a look strikingly similar to the one Marlene had back at home.  Zack answered with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.  What is going on?

Edgar stood up and stretched his arms.  “Anything interesting happen while you were out, Cloud?” he asked nonchalantly.

“No…?” he answered.  “Just a delivery run.”  They don’t need to know about Hojo.

“Well, Zack named the bike while you were gone,” Cindy said, changing the subject.  “Guess what?”

“The pupmobile,” Cloud said without hesitation, and Zack gave him a mock-offended look.  “What?  I’m serious.”

Zack grinned.  “Fine.  Then I’m renaming Fenrir ‘the chocobike—’”

No, you’re not—”

“You can’t stop me,” Zack laughed, hiding behind the bike. 

Cloud reached over the seat to get at his hair before the ridiculousness of how they were acting hit him like a brick, and he straightened up, embarrassed.  “So…uh…what’d you actually name the bike?”

Zack didn’t even try to answer through his laughter, and he definitely heard snickering from the group behind him.  I guess that was pretty silly of me.

“Ragnarok,” Sabin answered for him.  “Cool name, right?”

Cloud nodded appraisingly, still recovering from his slip-up.  “Actually, yeah.  Nice.”

The conversation tailed off, and Cloud didn’t claim to be good at this sort of thing, but he could swear everyone besides Zack was giving him weird looks, and there were too many of them for it to be about their usual puppy-chocobo jokes.

Their coworkers (and Sabin) cleared out after a few minutes, and the two of them were left alone in the workshop.  Cloud picked up on the engine where Cindy left off—yes, this was Zack’s motorcycle, but he didn’t know enough about engines for Cloud to trust him to get it right.  The last thing I want is for it to blow up in his face because we did something wrong.

And Zack was uncharacteristically quiet.  So much so that it felt awkward even to Cloud, who was used to quiet.  “So…what’d you do while I was gone?” he asked awkwardly after a few minutes.

“Uh…normal stuff?  Worked.  Hung out with Tifa.  We sparred a few times.”

“Sounds like you didn’t miss me too much, then,” Cloud said, hitting himself internally.  Shit, that came off as really indifferent.

Zack pouted a bit at that.  “I always miss you when you’re gone,” he said softly.

“You’re just being…really quiet, is all,” Cloud said.

Zack gave him a very affected shrug.  “Not much to say, I guess.”

He blinked slowly.  “You always have a lot to say.”

“Um…not right now, I guess?” Zack said, grimacing.  He’s not hung up on the project files too, is he?  That’s probably it, though…and it’s my fault too, if that’s the case.  Great…

“Hey, put that down,” Cloud said, motioning for him to come closer.  “Let me show you how to get the headlights set up…” It was one of the easier tasks left on the bike, and teaching helped to alleviate the awkwardness a bit.  You know something’s up when I’m the one who has to do that.

The afternoon passed in a busy blur, and Cloud left Zack alone for a few minutes to go check on the solar panels before they went home.  Edgar was out there, wearing his usual denim and looking uncharacteristically pensive.

“What’s up?” Edgar asked once he noticed him there.

Cloud shrugged.  “Just wrapping up for the day.  Ragnarok’s almost done.  Another week, give or take.”

“Good stuff,” Edgar said, nodding.  “How are you and Zack doing?  Tifa all good?”

“Fine, I guess,” Cloud answered.  News from the labs not included.  “Tifa actually volunteered at the school today…I don’t know for what, though.”

“Hmm,” was all the other man said in response.

Zack walked out to join them, yawning.  He tossed Fenrir’s keys to Cloud and looked between him and Edgar.  “You didn’t—”

“Of course not,” Edgar said with a wink.

Cloud looked between the two other men, expecting some sort of explanation.  He didn’t get one.  What a day I’m having.  “You didn’t what?”

“…Say anything meaningful,” Edgar answered, fiddling with the buttons on his jacket.

“Guess that’s true,” Cloud said.  Even if it’s the most bold-faced cover-up I’ve ever heard.  “See you tomorrow, then?”

“Yep,” Edgar said as they walked away.  “Good luck!”

“You mean goodbye, right?” Zack shouted back.

Edgar answered with a laugh as they got on Fenrir.  “What was up with everyone today?” Cloud asked, putting on his goggles.

“It’s a Monday?” Zack answered, settling in behind him.

The drive back to the bar was short, and Tifa was just opening the bar when they pulled up.  “Hey, guys,” she said.

“Hi,” Cloud answered, going in for a quick hug before they went inside.  “You were volunteering at something this morning?”

Tifa grimaced.  “Well, ah, it wasn’t exactly volunteering.  They were having parent-teacher conferences before class.”

“You didn’t tell me?” Cloud asked, trying not to sound hurt, even though he knew it was pointless.  Tifa could read his moods better than pretty much anyone else.

“I promise it wasn’t to exclude you or anything,” Tifa said apologetically.  “You’re as much of a parent as I am.  Just…last night happened, and you were asleep, and you looked like you needed the rest…I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“You did really need the sleep,” Zack chimed in.  “Up half the night…”

“You stayed awake?” Tifa asked, worried.  “Cloud—”

“I know, I know, it’s not good for me and I need to take better care of myself,” he said, having had this same conversation many times before.  Not recently, though.  “I just couldn’t fall asleep for a while, okay?”

“I bet you’re tired now,” Tifa said, taking his hand.  “You wanna turn in early?”

“I think Zack’s sleepier than I am,” Cloud said, while Zack yawned almost to prove the point.  “Look at him.”

“I’m fine,” he said, stifling another yawn and rubbing his eyes.  “Seriously, I can work.”

“Sleepy bartenders are bad bartenders,” Tifa said, putting her hands on her hips.

Zack opened his mouth to protest, but Cloud cut him off.  “And you’ve been acting weird all day besides,” he said.  “Go take a nap.”

He could practically see the gears turning in his friend’s head.  “Fine, I give up.  I’ll take a nap,” Zack said, moving upstairs.

“Do you know what’s up with him?” Tifa asked, giving him a look similar to the one she’d given him when he got back last night.  Am I supposed to?

“No,” Cloud said.  “He won’t tell me…”

She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, a familiar gesture that calmed his anxieties a bit.  “Maybe he’s just not ready to tell you yet,” she said, and Cloud got the distinct feeling she knew exactly what was going on.

The first few hours of the night went by without much incident.  A couple of women came in for a bottle of wine and asked for Zack.  Cloud told them he was asleep, and they seemed rather disappointed.

“Any special reason for the wine?” he asked, sliding them a bottle of Tifa’s second-favorite.

“Band rehearsal,” one of them said shortly, while the other groaned.  “It’s a long story,” she added.

“Well, good luck with that,” Cloud said as they left.  We could probably use a live band…I should ask Tifa about it at some point.

After that, things were a breeze.  It was a Monday night, after all, and he found himself mostly being used as a waiter.  More than a few people asked for Zack, and Tifa eventually made a small sign for the window alerting people that he wasn’t available.  I didn’t know he’s gotten so popular.  Classic Zack, though.

Everything was fine until a man Cloud vaguely recognized as one of Marlene’s friends’ relatives came into the bar, gesturing for him to walk over.  “Hey, was your motorcycle parked over there?” he asked, pointing down the street.

“Yeah?”  What about it?

“It’s gone,” the other man said.  “I didn’t see who took it, but I bet you could follow the tracks and figure out where they went…I’m sure you of all people can get it back, right?”

“Thanks…shit, I better do that now.  Tifa!” he shouted back inside.  “I’m gonna wake up Zack—someone took Fenrir.”

“What?!” she said back.  “How’d they get the keys?”

…I don’t know.  “I’m gonna ask Zack where he put them,” Cloud said, moving upstairs.  Who in Edge even has the nerve to take my bike?  One of the Turks, maybe?

He checked the office—no Zack.  Bathroom empty.  The kids hadn’t seen him.  Cloud was both relieved and frustrated to find that the loft was empty as well.  So Zack took Fenrir and went somewhere without telling any of us.  Great…I should’ve asked him what was up earlier while I had the chance.

He walked back downstairs and gave Tifa a pleading look.  “Zack’s gone, too,” he said.  “Can I go?  I need to know what’s been bothering him…”

“I ran a bar just fine without you before,” she said pragmatically.  “Go.  And Cloud?”

“Yeah?”

“I think it’s time,” Tifa said quietly, squeezing his hand.  “To tell him.”

Cloud nodded, thanked her profusely, and left through the front entrance.  Now where did he go?

 

---------------------------------

 

Zack felt like an idiot.  A stumbling, oversized, stupidly anxious idiot.  I need to get back before they notice I’m gone.  But I don’t want to leave until I know what I’m gonna say…

He’d taken everyone’s words to heart, and he was going to tell Cloud how he felt…eventually.  But he didn’t want to screw it up, and everyone’s advice put together was so complicated…he needed time to think it over.

So when Cloud mentioned him seeming tired, he went with it for a chance to get out.  Edgar’s advice was what came to him as he left.  Find somewhere private, somewhere that’s important to both of you.  Tell him there.  Well, there was really only one candidate that still existed and wasn’t the stuff of nightmares.  Zack had impulsively taken Fenrir to the old church, hoping to figure this out so he could bring Cloud tomorrow.  And also hoping to get one more person’s advice…

“Aerith, where are you?” he groaned to the ceiling.  The twilight streamed through the broken rafters, and it almost recreated the atmosphere of the church while it was still in the slums and not in the ruins.  Almost, but not quite…this place is so different without her in it, and without the plate over it.  “I need help!”

No answer.  I don’t know what I expected…it’s not like this is a world-threatening issue.  He distinctly recalled that Aerith could appear to Cloud when he really needed it, and it was stupid of him to try, but he was kind of hoping he could do it too…even if his emotional distress was only of the pining variety.

“You’re gonna laugh at me, Aer…it’s Cloud,” he said to nobody.  “I…I love him so much it scares me, and I don’t know how to say it without looking like an idiot.”

Zack could almost hear her bright laughter behind him, like so many other days they’d spent together in this sanctuary.  She’d say I was being ridiculous, and that he either feels the same way or he doesn’t.  She’d tell me to buck up and just find out already.  But I’m so nervous…

He remembered something from one of the SOLDIER training classes, the only one that hadn’t had anything to do with combat or materia.  I thought it was so weird to have a public speaking class, but it sure came in handy once I made First.  The instructors said it was key to practice your words, but I’ve never done that.  Even the time I talked to Cloud’s squad about dreams and honor…that was all in the moment.  And most of it was stolen from Angeal anyway…

“I’m gonna bounce some ideas off you, Aer,” he said, looking at his reflection in the pool and pretending it was her face instead of his.  “Would it be a good idea to talk about the past?  No, that’s probably too heavy…but you don’t just start a conversation with ‘hey, I want to be with you forever, romantically and stuff.’  That’s too much, right?”

That’s basically it, though.  Aerith, you were my first love…but he’s gonna be my last.  Everything came so easy with me and you.  I fell through your roof and asked you out, you said yes, and that was that.  I can’t exactly do that with Cloud…he’s already my best friend.

In a certain sense of the word, the easiest thing would probably be to just kiss him and see what would happen—that took nothing more than a certain sense of recklessness that Zack had in abundance, but he couldn’t imagine that plan ending well.  That’s making a lot of assumptions about what he’s comfortable with…and he’s been through so much that I imagine he’d be really pissed off if I just went and did that…

“I could always just go with what Kunsel used to say,” he said with a chuckle.  “’Cloud, I’ve caught the feels.’  But no, that doesn’t do it justice.  Aerith, I’m seriously struggling here.  I need your advice…”

Zack closed his eyes and tried to summon her spirit with every ounce of his being.  I know it’s not the end of the world or anything but I really want to talk to you I gotta figure out what to say to Cloud—

A warm hand on his shoulder brought him back to reality, and a small part of him hoped it was Aerith.  He turned around to see blonde spikes instead of her thick braid, and he cursed himself for wasting so much time fooling around.  I’m gonna have to do this now…Gaia, I don’t know how to say it.  How do people do this?

Cloud let go and took a step back.  “I…you wanted to be alone, didn’t you?  I’m sorry, I just thought…”

“That’s not it at all!” Zack said, holding his arms out as if to show how open he was.  That’s a lie…I’ve been holding my thoughts in my heart for a while now.  He sighed.  “I need to tell you something.  I just can’t seem to find the words…I came here to try and figure it out.”

“This is a good place for that sort of thing,” Cloud agreed, unmoving.  “And, uh…I need to tell you something too, I guess.”

Zack opened his mouth to talk and nothing came out.  He tried again and the same thing happened.  Gods, what is wrong with me?  Say it!

“Is this about the files?” Cloud asked.  “Because…you were right, you know.  Not much point in overthinking it while we hardly know anything…sorry if I got you doing that, too.”

“No, you did nothing wrong,” Zack said, rubbing the back of his neck.  “It’s not the files…”

“Then what’s going on?” Cloud asked, sounding concerned but frustrated.  “You spend half the day weirdly quiet, everyone has been giving me weird looks, you take Fenrir and leave without telling anyone.  I thought…I don’t know what I thought.”

“It’s…it’s about you,” Zack said, looking down.  I don’t want to see what’s in his eyes and chicken out.

“It’s…about me,” Cloud confirmed, taking a step closer.  Zack watched the dust swirl around his boots and felt the nerves coming on strong.  “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

“Remember that night on the roof?” Zack asked, still avoiding his gaze.  “I said I might scare you off…I meant that.”

“Yeah, and I meant it when I said there was no way in hell that could ever happen,” Cloud said.  “Tell me.  Whatever it is, I can handle it.  Let me help.”

Zack looked up, and of course the first thing his stupid mind noticed was the way the sun’s dying rays illuminated Cloud’s lips, and before he could register the loss of control he found himself frozen a breath away from his friend’s face.  Well, that gives the whole game away.

His breath hitched in his throat and he backed away as soon as he could get his body to move, ignoring how empty his lips felt.  “I…I shouldn’t do that,” he said, looking down again.  “I’m sorry…I’ll go...”

He turned his head straight into Cloud’s hand, and he cupped the side of his jaw.  When did he move his hand up…?  “Don’t you dare,” Cloud said, running his thumb over the scar.  “Is…is this what you’ve been acting so weird about?  Me?  And…this?”

Zack bit the inside of his lip and nodded, closing his eyes in a pointless attempt to hide.  “Gods, I’ve been denying it for a while now,” he said, trying to keep his voice even.  “I…I love you, Cloud.  More than anything.  And it scares me, because I don’t want to be alone, but I feel like I’m gonna be now because—”

“You’re an idiot,” Cloud finished, and the tone of his voice was so different from the words, concerned and caring and something like pleased, that Zack couldn’t help but open his eyes.  And reading Cloud’s expressions was an exercise in patience, but Zack could see the happiness there, and he felt hope rise in his chest again.  “You’re not alone.  Not anymore, and never again.”

“Wait, so…?”

Cloud brought up his other hand and gave one of his beautiful smiles, the kind that Zack would move mountains to see more of.  “I’ve never been good at words,” he said, so soft it was almost a whisper.  “But Zack, I…”

He took a deep breath, obviously having trouble saying it, and Zack felt like stone as he stood there waiting for a decisionThen Cloud’s gaze moved down towards his mouth, and his hands started to bring Zack’s face down, and it was all he could do just to close his eyes before their lips finally met.

Zack had done a lot of kissing in his life, but he hadn’t known until that moment how it was possible for someone to make him feel it all the way down to his toes, or make him feel quite this dizzy, or lay claim to his soul as quickly as Cloud had in one simple touch.

Cloud’s lips were firm and insistent, and Zack melted into the touch as he worked his own against them, kissing as if it was the last thing he would ever have the honor to do.  He threaded both of his hands into Cloud’s hair, enjoying the feeling of those soft spikes against his calloused skin and realizing with a sigh that this was even better than he’d imagined it would be.

Zack tried to pour all of the love Cloud had given him right back into the kiss, and he knew he could never love enough to fix what had happened to both of them, but he could try.  Oh, he could try.  I could spend every second of the rest of my life kissing you and it wouldn’t be enough.

Then Cloud slid his hands from Zack’s cheeks down to his shoulders, and he didn’t even try to stifle a moan.  He felt dangerously close to falling over, and he moved his own hands out of Cloud’s hair to rest them on his sides, holding himself up.

That earned him a breathless laugh, and he took the opportunity to prod at Cloud’s lips with his tongue.  He let him in, and then he was pretty sure he’d died again and rejoined the Lifestream because he’d never in life tasted something so good and right.  Cloud tasted like the bar, like the minty toothpaste they shared, like home and Zack would fight the whole world again to keep this forever.

His heart was beating loud and fast, and Zack honestly didn’t know whether Cloud was an amazing kisser or if he was just too in love to care, but he did know that nothing on Gaia was going to be able to separate them after this.  I’m all yours, Spike.

Zack could have stood there kissing his best friend until the end of time, but air was something he seemed to be running short on, and well, he needed to stay alive if he wanted to be able to keep doing this.  So with no small amount of regret, he pulled away and rested his forehead against Cloud’s, trying to remember how to breathe normally.

It was a few moments before he dared open his eyes, and he was treated to the sight of Cloud looking very flushed and disheveled, eyes still closed.  I must look the same way, but…Gaia, I did that.  It makes me want to kiss him all over again.

Then Cloud’s eyes fluttered open, and Zack felt like he’d been hit by, well, the sight of Cloud’s eyes after having the crap kissed out of him.  He looked tired and dazed but very, very happy.  It was a pretty amazing sight, if he did say so himself.  He couldn’t resist leaning in for more, and Cloud smiled against his lips as they kissed again, slower and more deliberate than before.  Yeah, I could definitely do this forever.

And it was the most cliché thing in the world, but the sanctuary looked a little brighter when they broke apart again.

“I love you too,” Cloud said after a moment, voice husky from kissing.

Zack let out an uncharacteristic giggle and knew he’d be teased about it later, but he honestly didn’t care.  “You do, huh?” he asked.  “Are you positive?  I think you should kiss me again just to make sure...”

He could feel their breaths mingling when a familiar laughter caught their attention.  He opened his eyes and turned to the pool, his face breaking out into a grin.

“It’s about time!” Aerith said, putting her hands on her hips.  “I’ve been waiting for you boys to get on with it for weeks now.”

“Weeks, really?” Zack said with a laugh, beyond happy that she was here.  “But you!  You could’ve shown up sooner, I was asking for help!”

“You obviously didn’t need it,” Aerith said, pride and wistfulness evident in her voice.  “Gaia, it’s like you were made for each other.”

“Wait, how much of that did you see?” Cloud asked, wrapping a protective arm around Zack’s waist.  It doesn’t matter.

She laughed.  “Enough to know you could’ve gotten this show on the road a lot sooner if you’d wanted to.”

“Well, we’ll just have to make up for it now,” Cloud said in a cool tone that sent a shiver down Zack’s spine.  I am…completely down for that.  Anything he wants.  But…

“Aerith…” Zack said softly, “I—”

“Don’t start,” she said, her image wavering a bit.  “I died, remember?  I’m grateful I got to spend as much time with you as I did…you too, Cloud.  You both mean so much to me…but now you have each other, okay?  And don’t ever take that for granted.”

Zack nodded, biting his lip. 

“I won’t, I promise,” Cloud said.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Aerith said, pointing towards the door.  “Go!  Love each other!  And, Gaia so help me, be happy.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they said at the same time, Cloud squeezing with the arm he had around Zack’s waist.

She saluted them with a smirk before her image faded away, and the only light that was left was from the moon streaming through the rafters.  “Wow, we’ve been here a while…” Zack said.

“Let’s go home,” Cloud said, sliding his arm across Zack’s back and down to take his hand.

“Wait, how’d you get here?” Zack asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Walked.”

“You walked all the way from the bar to come talk to me?”

Cloud shushed him with a brief kiss.  “You’re not seriously complaining, are you?” he asked.

“Uh…course not,” Zack breathed.  The opposite, actually.  “Hey, can I drive back?”

“Hell no,” Cloud said, taking the drivers’ seat.  “You stole my bike.”

“And you stole my heart,” Zack replied without hesitation, giving Cloud his signature puppy-dog eyes.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“But you love me for it.”

Cloud sighed.  “Yeah, I do,” he admitted.  “Now get on.”

 

--------------------------------- 

 

The streetlights formed a golden haze around the main plaza, and Cloud could see the regular crowds milling about.  Probably best to drive around the back.

He didn’t even try to stifle his laugh as Zack squeezed his chest from behind, nuzzling into his hair.  “Puppy,” he said, slowing down as they approached.

“Hey, I heard that,” Zack said, kissing a spot on the back of his head.  “I just…mmm.”

“You just mmm?  That’s…aaaah,” Cloud breathed, as Zack left another kiss just under his ear.  That feels good.  “You’re making it…really hard to focus.”

“Am I now?” Zack said as he cut a sharp turn into one of the back alleys.

“Just wait until we get back,” Cloud said, and Zack readjusted so his position was less of a blatant embrace.

“You got it, Spike,” he said, ruffling his hair for good measure.  “I am waiting.”

It was unfortunate that Cloud hadn’t been keeping track of the time, because the bar had closed by the time they pulled up the back.  He fumbled with the keys and opened the door, motioning for Zack to go in first.  As soon as he was inside Zack spun him around and captured his lips in another kiss.

Cloud closed his eyes for a moment and sighed into Zack’s mouth, letting his mind stop, before realizing something important.  He poked Zack somewhere near his armpit and he yelped, backing off.  “What?”

“Kids.”

“Oh yeah.” Zack didn’t move, so Cloud took his hand and led him upstairs.  The curtains in the loft were still open, letting the moonlight in.  Zack didn’t give him time to draw them closed before locking the door and claiming his mouth again.

Cloud was pretty sure Zack’s lips were the most beautiful thing he ever touched, and their earnestness made Cloud feel almost weightless.  I feel so safe when I’m with you, even now…especially now.

He threaded his hands into Zack’s black spikes, feeling disoriented and overheated but more content than maybe he ever had in his life.  Zack stepped forward so their chests were pressed together but kept his grip around Cloud’s shoulders, taking advantage of the new angle to tower over him.

He wanted to say something desperately, but as soon as he parted his lips to speak Zack started to nibble on the bottom one, and Cloud grunted in frustration.

Zack let go once he’d registered the noise.  “You okay?” he asked, eyes full of love, and an underlying heat that made Cloud’s head swim.

“I’m too short,” he said, scowling.

Zack laughed briefly and then bit his lip to stifle the smile.  “I’m sorry,” he said, failing spectacularly to hide his amusement.  “I can fix that, though.”

“Oh?”

“Hold on,” Zack said, reaching down to hook his arms around Cloud’s legs.  He hoisted him up so that his hips were level with Zack’s bellybutton, and Cloud gave a small nod in approval.

“Not used to seeing your face from this angle,” he said, cupping Zack’s face with his hands.  “You’re freaking gorgeous, you know that?”

“Of course,” Zack said with a smirk.  “Hey, uh…can I…?”

Cloud leaned down and lightly brushed his lips against Zack’s, relishing the way the action made his friend shiver but also very aware that Zack was probably going to get way more out of this than he would.  “Can you what?”

Zack unhooked his arms from Cloud’s legs, forcing him to wrap them around his torso in order to stay up.  “Hands. Butt.”

Cloud thought about the idea for half a second, and then leaned down to rest their foreheads together.  “Yeah, go ahead.”

His hands came to rest on either side of Cloud’s ass just as their lips met again, and Zack let out an unmistakable moan of pleasure.  This feels…nice, for sure.  But not…not like that.

This position was a lot better, and Cloud left a series of long, languid kisses on Zack’s lips before setting about exploring his mouth.  Zack responded with equal passion, and Cloud let out an experimental moan.  Zack tightened his grip on his ass and moaned in return, and he could tell from the slight feeling of dizziness that his friend (I think he’s my boyfriend now) was moving around the room. 

Cloud laughed when his back hit the wall, and he held Zack’s face in his hands as they kissed, until Zack withdrew his mouth and pulled Cloud down a bit, trying to get at his neck.  “Why the hell do you have so many high-collared shirts?” he asked, irritably trying to nudge around Cloud’s collar.  Well, at least I didn’t have the pauldron on to come get you.

“Because,” he breathed, “they look…really good on me.”

Zack rested his forehead against Cloud’s cheek.  “You’re right about that much,” he said, pausing his ministrations.  “Can I unzip it?”

Cloud responded by undoing the zipper himself and sweeping that side of the shirt right off his shoulder.  Zack stared longingly at his shoulder for a bit and then set his mouth under his ear, kissing the same spot that had felt so good on the ride back.  He worked his lips and tongue against the edge of his jawline and slowly started to make his way downwards, as Cloud held on tight.

Then he reached a spot that made Cloud shudder, and Zack pressed him further into the wall as he started to nip at it, obviously intent on leaving a mark.  He was suddenly very aware of Zack’s arousal pushing against his ass even through his pants, and he cursed himself for starting to panic.  How far does he want to go?  Is he gonna want to have sex tonight because wow I’m actually turned on but I don’t think that’s something I can do right now and—

“Spike,” Zack said calmly, and Cloud realized that he was shaking.  “Are you okay?”

“I…aahhh,” he breathed, knowing full well his discomfort was showing.

“Okay, you’re freaking out,” Zack said, backing away from the wall and setting Cloud down on the edge of the bed.  He sat down next to him and put a comforting arm around his waist.  “Can you talk yet?”

Cloud evened out his breathing the way he’d learned over the years and closed his eyes, leaning into Zack’s shoulder.  “I…I’m sorry,” he said.  “I don’t know if I…if I can…”

“If you can…”

“Do…stuff,” he finished.

“What, like sex?” Zack asked after a moment.  “Cloud, I—”

“I know it’s not normal to be like this,” he said bitterly, “and Gaia, I’ve spent so long trying to figure out why, but—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Zack said.  “I love you, okay?  And I’m yours, whatever way you’ll have me.”

“…Seriously?”

Yes,” he said, leaning down to kiss the top of his head.  “I don’t care if it takes a year or ten for you to feel comfortable doing more, or even if that never happens.  Just knowing you love me back…it’ll always be enough.”

I’m enough.  “So…what now?”

Zack laughed.  “Well…that’s kind of gone now,” he said, gesturing towards his pants.  “So…I don’t know, I’m tired.  Cuddle?”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Cloud said.  He shrugged off the half of his shirt that was still on and tossed it to the other end of the room.  His pants soon followed, leaving him in just his boxers.

“Wait, you sure you want to sleep like that?” Zack said.  “Not that I mind, but…”

“You’re just gonna get your hands under my shirt anyway,” Cloud said with a smirk.  “You’ve been doing that every night…you sigh whenever I move it for you.”

“I sigh?” Zack asked, blushing.  “For real?”

“It’s cute,” Cloud said with a smile.  “Now are you gonna cuddle me or what?”

“Someone’s impatient,” Zack said, tossing his own shirt to the side.  “Well, if you’re gonna sleep in boxers, so am I.”

Cloud drew back the covers for him, and they settled in the same way they always did, only now there was a bit of kissing, and a bit of hands moving over backs and across chests, and a great deal more closeness.  “Night, Zack.”

“Night, Cloud.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t long after dawn when Tifa knocked on the bathroom door, brows drawn together in a dark line.  “Who’s in there?” I’m the only one who showers in the morning…

A muffled answer that she recognized as Cloud’s voice came through, and Tifa’s curiosity was piqued.  That’s weird…  “What’s up?  I thought you usually showered at night?”

She couldn’t make out his answer over the sound of running water, so she cracked open the door.  “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“I was out late,” Cloud said, in a tone that begged her not to ask any more questions.

That’s nice, but last I heard, you were out late looking for Zack so you could confess your super romantic feelings.  And I haven’t seen him yet this morning.  Considering how little about the situation she actually knew, Tifa felt justified in asking more questions.  “Did you find Zack?”

“He wasn’t exactly hard to find,” Cloud said.  “He just ran off to the church…I should’ve known.”

The church?  I can see him finding it a comfort place, but…  “Why’d he go there?”

There was a long pause, but Tifa knew her best chance of learning more was in waiting.  “Um…well…” Cloud cleared his throat with a chuckle, and some of her uneasiness subsided.  That was a happy chuckle.  We’re in the clear.  “It turns out we were all on the same page.”

He might have been beating around the bush, but Tifa knew what he meant.  I still want to hear him say it.  Say that he did it, that it worked out like we all knew it would.  “So he feels the same way?”

Tifa might have been imagining things, but she thought she heard a breathy sigh over the shower, and she could almost see the grin that must be on Cloud’s face.  Lips curved up in a beautiful smile, eyes bright in a rare show of joy.  “Yeah, he does,” he said after a moment.  “I’m…I’m really happy, Tifa.”

“As you should be!” she said, meaning every word of it.  I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet who deserves to be happy as much as you do, and I’ll do whatever it takes to protect this, without question.  “Okay, I’m gonna high-five you through the shower curtain!”

“What?  Why?” Cloud asked, slightly panicky.

“To congratulate you, duh!” Tifa said, brushing her bangs back with her other arm.  “I’m gonna go for this spot right here,” she said, poking a spot near the top of the shower curtain.  “One, two…”

“Tifa, can you wait—”

“Three!”  She moved her palm to that spot and whooped with joy when Cloud met her halfway, but stopped when she heard a particular sound again.  “You’re not laughing at me, are you, Cloud Strife?”

“…I might be.”

You dork.  You huge, chocobo-headed dork.  She ended up laughing with him, the silliness of the whole conversation getting to her.  “Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said, closing the door on her way out.

Tifa made her way to the kitchen, picking up the pace when she smelled something burning.  Oh no, if one of the kids set something on fire, I’m gonna have to…I don’t know, get the materia.  It’s not like we don’t have it coming out of our ears already or anything.

The groan of disappointment that she heard was definitely not one of the kids, and it was Zack who looked sheepishly at her when she entered the room.  “What did you do?” she asked, hands on her hips.

“I don’t know?  I tried making waffles and it just…didn’t work,” Zack said, stepping back from the counter.

Tifa huffed when she looked at the damage.  Bits of burned batter were stuck to the inside, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world, except it was wasted food and it would take her a while to clean.  “You forgot to use cooking spray on it, Zack.  Batter is sticky.”

“Really?  You’re supposed to use the spray?  I didn’t know…” Zack said, looking down.  “I wanted to surprise Cloud when he came downstairs, and now there won’t be anything…”

“Well, now you know,” Tifa said, unplugging the waffle maker and setting it aside.  “Congratulations, by the way,” she added, pulling Zack into a quick hug.

“You know…?” he asked, obviously perplexed.

Tifa let go and shook her head, giving an amused laugh.  “I’ve known how Cloud felt since the beginning, and Zack, you’re just not very subtle,” she said.  “But yes, he just told me that you got together last night.”

Zack’s expression remained blank.  “Was it really that obvious?  There were definitely people who figured it out, but…I never said anything to you, specifically.”

“Words aren’t the only way to tell people how you feel,” Tifa said, putting her hands on their hips.  How many times am I going to have to say it?  “It’s the nonverbal cues, and more importantly, the things that you do that show what’s in your heart.”

Zack didn’t have a response for that, clearly thinking over the idea.  And you’ve done so much, made it clear as day that you love him more than anything.  More than yourself, that’s for sure.

After a minute, she reached up and poked his cheek to bring him back to reality.  “Point taken?  I trust I won’t be underestimated again?”

“Definitely not,” Zack said, still a bit in awe of her.  “So…what should I do about the burned waffles?”

“Let me take care of it,” Tifa said, her phone ringing.  “You make something else for breakfast – preferably something that isn’t burning.  I’m gonna go answer this.”

She made her way to the office, looking at the caller ID.  Cid?  I wonder why he’s calling.  “Hello?  It’s Tifa.”

The voice on the other line was muffled and kept cutting out.  “…motherfucking…need…smoke…”

“Cid, are you there?  What is it?” she asked loudly, hoping it would cut through the static.

There was a forceful “don’t hang up,” followed by several minutes of frustrating back-and-forth, mediated by static.  If Tifa wasn’t wrong, Cid was on the way from Rocket Town to Edge.  And he had an initial load of parts for a new airship.  And he was incredibly irritated, because due to the type and amount of materials on the ship, he couldn’t smoke.  Gaia help the boys when he does get here.

In her rush to get back to the main part of the bar, she bumped right into Cloud.  “Whoa, what happened?” he asked, hands on her shoulders to steady her.

“Cid’s coming,” she answered, rubbing her temple.  “He doesn’t have very good service right now, and he needs a smoke, so the phone call was…interesting.”

“Did he say when he was gonna get here?” Cloud asked.  “Zack’s motorcycle is almost done, and well…it’d be cool if we could finish that before entertaining him.”

Entertaining him, ha.  There’s probably not a better word for it.  “No, I didn’t catch that part,” she said.  There was a loud rap from the window, and they both looked over to see a certain Turk, pointing at a small package and grinning.  Ugh, not him again.

Reno motioned for her to open the window, and Tifa shook her head.  “Knock at the door like a normal person!” she said, and Reno seemed to understand, because he shrugged and moved away from the window.

Cloud left, probably to let him in, and Tifa tried to shrug off the growing frustration in her chest.  This started out as a nice morning, an easy morning.  First the waffle maker, then Cid randomly showing up, now Reno with his…whatever the hell that is.

She entered the main part of the bar to find Reno at the door, looking far too pleased with himself, and Cloud holding the package, eyeing it suspiciously with Zack behind him.  “Go on, open that somewhere private, yo,” he said.

“How do I know this isn’t something explosive?” Cloud asked flatly.  “I don’t exactly trust your gift-giving abilities.”

“I promise, there’s nothin’ dangerous in there, yo!” Reno said, pushing up his goggles.  “I swear, it’s s’posed to be the opposite of that.”

“…Okay…” Cloud said, pocketing it without taking his calculated gaze off the redhead.

“Let’s go open it,” Zack said, heading towards the back, just as the kids came in.

“Uh, it looks like Zack left some toast out for you two,” Tifa said, gesturing towards the bar.  “Denzel, be a dear and pour the orange juice, okay?”

He nodded, opening the fridge, and Tifa turned back to Reno, getting back to business.  “What’s in the box?”

“No offense, sweetheart, but it ain’t really your business,” Reno said, smirking.

“My bar, my business,” Tifa responded flatly.  “I have every right to know what crap you’re bringing in here.”

Reno did his usual, attempting a glaring contest that ultimately ended with him giving up, slumping his shoulders.  “Okay, okay, I’ll tell, yo,” he said.  “So things worked out between them?”

“…Yes?”  Why does he know about that?  Did one of them actually…talk to Reno about it?  Why would anyone ask him for advice?  Whatever, that’s not my business.

“Well…let’s just say there’s some stuff they might need, yo,” Reno said, raising his eyebrows.  “I guarantee you Cloudy wouldn’t know where to get the stuff, and Fair slept straight through the apocalypse, so all of the old places are gone.  I figured I could save ‘em a bit of trouble, is all.”  What?

“I don’t understand,” Tifa said.  “What places?  What stuff?”

“Look, contrary to popular belief, I’m not a complete piece of shit,” Reno said, lowering his voice.  “I ain’t gonna say it out loud with the kids here, yo.”

It only took Tifa a second to register his meaning, and she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.  “Did they ask?

“Uh, no, but—”

“Then, frankly, it’s pretty rude to just…give people that sort of thing,” Tifa said, making a valiant effort to keep her voice down despite her irritation.  “That’s just not good congratulatory gift material!” she added with a huff.

“Congratulatory gift material?  What are you, a professor?  But Rude actually appreciates when I do it, yo,” Reno said, and that was the last straw.

“Look, I know you meant well, and I get that there might be something going on here I’m not aware of, but I just can’t deal with you right now, Reno,” Tifa said, her voice rising in pitch.

“It’s cool, I get that a lot.  Later, yo,” Reno said, closing the door and heading off to…a helicopter.  Did he seriously fly that just from Healin?  I can’t believe him.

Tifa turned around just as Zack reentered the bar, dragging Cloud by the hand, both of them looking rather…undisturbed.  Knowing Cloud’s history with that sort of thing, she couldn’t help but be a little surprised.  Well, I’m glad it didn’t bother Cloud too much.  They’ll work it out.

Marlene was a sharp girl, and her gaze followed their hands all the way to the counter, and it was with a start that Tifa realized she’d forgotten to mention something fairly important.

“You’re holding hands now.  Are you…dating?” Marlene asked, in the cheerfully blunt way most children asked those sorts of questions.

Both Cloud and Zack looked to her, as if she was supposed to answer.  I probably should have told them why the kids are so invested, though…they probably don’t have a clue what’s going on.  “Well?  Are you?”

“…Yes,” Zack answered hesitantly.

Marlene’s reaction was instantaneous – she got down from her chair to jump in victory (something about the way she did it reminded her of Yuffie), and more or less laughed in Denzel’s face.  “It’s an even-numbered day, Denz!  I won!”

Denzel groaned and procured a small bag of coins from his pocket, placing it in her gleeful hands.  “Fine, you win,” he admitted.

Cloud was struggling to form words.  “You…you…bet…?”

While he was floundering, Zack started to laugh, a full-bodied sound that served to ease the sudden tension.  “You guys are something else,” he said.  “Seriously?  Betting on when me and Cloud would get ourselves sorted?”

“It was Tifa’s idea!” Marlene protested, pocketing her winnings.

“Hey, don’t throw me under the bus like that!” Tifa said, picking up the girl and setting her back in her chair.  “Eat your breakfast, you gotta leave for school soon.”

“Then whose idea was it?” Zack asked, clearly interested.

“Technically speaking, it was Shera who brought it up first,” Tifa said.  I’ll let grumpy ol’ Cid take the flak on this one.  “Word has it she walked in on a cuddle session back in Rocket Town and, well…rumors only grow.”

Zack pulled Cloud into a light hug to stop his grumbling – the speed at which he quieted down was pretty incredible.  “Let them grow,” he said, comically petting Cloud’s chocobo hair.  “That’ll be less people to explain this to.”

Cloud pushed Zack away with a laugh, muttering about how it wouldn’t be any easier sifting through rumors than just telling people they were together, and Tifa found herself smiling.

“Oh, Daddy called while you were gone last night,” Marlene said after a moment, eyeing her eggs with distaste.  “He asked if I could go visit him.”

“It’s your lucky day, Marle,” Tifa said.  “Cid’s in town today, maybe he can fly you out.”  Not alone, of course.  But I can’t leave with a bar to run.

“I haven’t seen Barret in a while…I’m going, too,” Cloud said, and Zack voiced his interest as well.

“Can I go, too?” Denzel asked, eyes hopeful.

“Ah, no,” Tifa said, frowning.  “You have that big test today, remember?”

“But—”

“No but’s.  Next time, Denz.”

 

---------------------------------

 

“So, day one of our new relationship and there’s already been drama,” Zack said, painting the finishing touches onto Ragnarok.

“I can’t say I’m surprised by any of it,” Cloud admitted, using his short nails to push his cuticles back, gloves on a box in the far corner.

“You seemed pretty weirded out by the betting.”

“Initial shock,” Cloud explained.  “It’s funny, back…before all this, well not all this, but a lot of it…the girls and Barret had a running counter going on who I was gonna end up dating.”

The girls…oh, so this was before Aerith… “A counter?”

Cloud took a second to laugh to himself before continuing.  “Like…if something bad happened, they’d keep track of who I talked to first, what I said, whether or not I acted like I was more interested in one or the others.”

Zack wrinkled his nose.  “That’s…kind of weird.”  I can see Aerith having fun with that sort of thing, though.

He shrugged.  “They all had to have fun somehow, right?  And I imagine it would’ve helped distract from…well, how it was with me and stuff.  Anyway, we ended up at the Gold Saucer twice, and the second time, they flipped a coin to see who would try to get me to go out and have fun for once.”

I could’ve managed it in a heartbeat.  Obviously, no one’s quite as well-versed in the art of getting Cloud Strife to step out on a limb as I am.  “Who was it?”

“In the end, it was Barret who dragged me out of the hotel room,” Cloud said, somewhat wistfully.  “It wasn’t even that fun, to be honest.  Just sat in a gondola for a while, then chased Cait Sith halfway across the park…that was the night we found out he was a spy.”

“Ruined the fun, huh?”

Cloud laughed again, the self-deprecating kind that Zack didn’t really like to hear.  “Even without that, it wouldn’t have gone well,” he said.  “I took Aerith and Tifa on the gondola after we got our plans sorted – Aerith had a hunch what was going on with me and talked about you for a lot of it, and Tifa just…yeah, she needed more time.  I think everyone knew…knew that something bad was going to happen.”

“It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but…maybe, I guess, since Sephiroth was involved,” Zack said, ignoring how his own words wouldn’t have been true ten years ago.  He was a good guy, once.

“Well, none of that matters anymore.  Just memories…anyway, I’m just trying to say this isn’t the first time people have been weirdly invested in my love life,” Cloud said, tone becoming content again.  “At least things worked out this time, right?”

“You bet, Spike,” Zack said, giving him a warm smile.  It’s more than anyone could have hoped for, and Gaia, it worked out.

“Ha.  As for Reno – he’s just…himself,” Cloud added, looking at the dividers separating them from the rest of the hangar.  “I would’ve been surprised if he didn’t do something like that.  I’m kind of grateful for it, though…I definitely wouldn’t know where to get those things now, and you’ve been…you know, gone.”

Zack just nodded.  Yeah, I knew where condoms and lube and all that got sold in Midgar.  But Midgar doesn’t exist anymore.  And…  “I’m gonna be honest, Spike…I’m surprised it didn’t bother you at all.”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know anymore.  Some things still bother me, but others…not so much.  I think it’s more in my head now than anywhere else, if you know what I mean.”

The next few minutes passed without conversation, both men having other things on their minds.  With one last round of spray paint, Zack stood up and surveyed Ragnarok with pride.  “He’s done.”  Finally, after weeks of work…  “You know, I’m kind of gonna miss taking the backseat on Fenrir.”

Cloud shook his head.  “You’ll forget all about it as soon as you give him a whirl…he might be an even better bike than mine, though I hate to admit it.”

“Seriously?”

Cloud nodded.  “If nothing else, having multiple mechanics helped speed things up a little.  It was just me working on Fenrir, and it took a while to work out all the kinks.  Especially once the Geostigma started.”

Zack looked at his boyfriend.  Wow, it’s gonna take a while to get used to calling him that.  “I can’t thank you enough, Spike.”

“Don’t mention it,” Cloud said, but the tone in his voice let Zack know the thanks was much appreciated.  That gives me an idea…

Letting his smile degenerate into something less innocent, Zack made his way over to the box Cloud was sitting on.  “No seriously, I can’t thank you enough,” he said again.  “With words…”

Cloud, the chocobo-headed bastard, laughed at him.  “You wanna make out now?  Couldn’t Cid get here any minute?”

“That’s what makes it more exciting,” Zack said, settling himself on Cloud’s lap and watching carefully for any sign of protest.  “Come on, do you really care if he shows up?”  The fact that you’re not moving kind of answers that question.

“No,” Cloud admitted, looking up with those gorgeous eyes and a smirk to match.  “I really don’t.”

Zack threaded his hands into Cloud’s hair as they kissed, the heat from last night having cooled off into something warm and comfortable and just downright pleasant.  Zack was careful not to push Cloud too far, even as their mouths slid together and Cloud’s hands made their way under the hem of Zack’s t-shirt.  I want to make you happier than anything ever has before…

Cloud was keeping their mouths too busy for conversation, but Zack could almost hear his mocking words as he traced the hard lines of his abs.  This is payback, for all the times you’ve done this in your sleep.  How does it feel?

“Good,” Zack breathed, and Cloud smiled, his lips forming a beautiful curve against Zack’s.

Cloud started to trace shapes into Zack’s sides, little circles and branches and I love you’s, and Gaia, if there was anything more Cloud could do to make Zack feel like the luckiest man in the world, he might die of happiness.

The abrupt sound of the hangar door opening kept him from finding out, though.  Cloud stopped immediately upon hearing it, while Zack flailed like the ungraceful lug he was, sending them both tumbling behind the box Cloud was sitting on.

“Whoever that was, they definitely heard that,” Zack groaned, looking down at Cloud, or more accurately, his blond spikes – the angle they’d fallen at wasn’t exactly conducive to conversation.  Well, he doesn’t look too disheveled, so…I probably look okay, too.

“Maybe if we don’t move, they won’t find us,” Cloud offered, eyes glowing with mischief.

“We should get up,” Zack said pointedly, scooting back so they were lined up better.

“No, we’re fine,” Cloud said distractedly, before pulling him down for more kisses and oh, that was good.  So good.

There was a faint sound of approaching footsteps, and it wasn’t like Zack necessarily minded getting caught – he would just rather avoid whatever awkward situation they’d find themselves in.  And having to explain whatever rumors spread to people, even if he’d said differently earlier.

But when he tried to pull away, a disapproving hum and a firm hand on his back drew him right back in again.  “Cloud…”

“This would be a lot more fun if you got into it,” Cloud mused.

“Someone’s coming,” Zack said, and as he tried to stand up, his foot slipped on something and he fell right back on top of Cloud again.

There was an irritated grumble that sounded a lot like that was my nose, you shit, and then the footsteps stopped.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” someone who was probably Cid shouted, lobbing a cigarette at them.  “Go do that somewhere else!”

Zack stood and avoided Cid’s gaze, trying to straighten out his shirt, while Cloud sat up and met his eyes straight-on.  “We fell.”

“Yeah, sure, y’all fell.  Great alibi,” Cid said sarcastically.  “An’ I’m old man Shinra, back from the grave.”

“What, are you surprised?” Cloud asked.

“You’ve done a lot of things to surprise me, kid, but this ain’t one of ‘em,” Cid quipped.  “But I didn’t come here for girl talk.  Gabbiani’s area.  Two minutes.  Keep lover-boy under control.”

Cid left, and Zack blinked for a long moment.  “Did that conversation just happen?”

Cloud shrugged.  “He doesn’t have any room to make fun of me for how I show affection.”  I still don’t know the whole story behind that…well, I have plenty of time to figure it out.

They made their way across the hangar into Setzer’s cube, and the air filled with a loud pop and what seemed like endless glitter.

“Who the fuck?!  I don’t want fuckin’ glitter in the blueprints,” Cid grumbled, brushing the small amounts off that had made it as far as the table.  “Ha!  An’ you boys are covered in the stuff.”

Zack looked at the mirror set in the wall and laughed, the force of it sending a cascade of sparkles off his shoulders.  His hair was so full of glitter, he couldn’t even see the black anymore…and it was the same case with Cloud.  “Wait, who did that?”

“Me!” Darill said, popping out from behind a cabinet.  “Wait, you did get your relationship stuff sorted, right?  That was kind of pointless if you didn’t…”

“I’ve gone blind if they didn’t work it out,” Cid complained.  “Makin’ out on the workshop floor like a couple of...I don’t even have a good enough insult for it.”

“You didn’t even see anything,” Cloud protested, trying (and failing) to shake the glitter out of his hair.  “Darill, what is this, extra-sticky…super-strength…mako-enhanced glitter or something?”

“No, it’s just regular glitter,” she said.  “Although…no, I don’t think that design ever went through.  Anyway, it’ll come out after a shower or three.  Now get over here, we have an airship to plan!”

Cid was, as Tifa had promised, grumpier than Zack had ever seen him.  He swore back and forth across the blueprints, trying to veto every part of Darill’s plan that wasn’t his way of doing things.  She met him word for word, obviously well-trained in the art of arguing with the pilot.

“I am not giving the go-ahead on a fuckin’ transparent party room,” Cid claimed, taking his goggles off to brush his hair back.  “It’s insane!  It’s unnecessary!  It’s a waste of WRO funding!”

“Says the man with a pinup girl on the side of his flagship,” Darill countered.  “I could have brought Setzer’s blueprints – would you rather have a flying casino?  Or a traveling amusement park?  I hear Dio’s looking into that.”

The argument went on for so long that Zack wondered why they’d even asked for him and Cloud.  We could have spent our time so much better.  So, so much better.

“Do you even realize how goddamn dangerous that is?” Cid asked, pointing at a part of the blueprints Zack didn’t understand.  “Who in seven hells is gonna build that?”

Darill nodded towards Cloud, who raised his hand halfheartedly and gave a short nod.  “Hi.”

“Look, just because the kid survived this, that, and the other thing…”

The sound of their bickering faded into a low hum of irritation, and Zack tuned it out.  He looked around the room.  I don’t think I’ve actually been in this part of the hangar before…the Gabbianis sure know how to keep a well-organized workshop.

There was a bookcase full of notebooks and sketchpads on the left wall, dated back almost twenty years.  Another planning table was folded up next to it, similar to the one Cid and Darill were working on now.  The back wall was home to a mirror and a few large bins, and the right wall…it was covered in pictures.

Several of them were sketches of fantastic-looking airships, but the rest were all of people.  Cid was in one of them.  Shera was in another, looking happy and hopeful with Darill at a graduation ceremony.  Zack found himself drawn to one in particular – a small plane with Setzer standing in front of it, face void of scars, with two older adults on either side.  They were all smiling.

Those must be his parents…I wonder if they made it through Meteorfall.  If they still keep in touch.  If he ever made an effort to fix things if they fought.  If they’re proud of their son…

Cloud’s voice brought him back.  “Hey, are you okay?” he asked, lacing his fingers through Zack’s in concern.

“Yeah, um…Cid, is there any chance you’d fly me to Gongaga when you head out?” Zack asked, hopeful.  “And then Corel?”

Cid raised his eyebrows and shrugged.  “You can walk to Corel from Gongaga, you don’t need me.  And I’m not takin’ you anywhere with glitter all over the place, but if you clean up, then sure, I guess.  And for fuck’s sake, no funny business on my airship.”

“Your parents?” Cloud asked, squeezing his hand.

Zack nodded.  After all these years…it’s time to set things right.

 

---------------------------------

 

As the jungle faded to a familiar dirt path, Cloud could literally feel Zack’s anxiety growing, waves of nervousness and uncertainty that kept getting worse as they got closer to the village he was born in.  His legs felt tired, even though the airship hadn’t even dropped them off far outside the jungle.  Eight years ago, I wouldn’t have believed he couldn’t do this alone.  Now…I’m proud he’s finally decided to do this, but I can’t even imagine how anxious he feels.  Thirteen years…

But if he was being totally honest, he was pretty anxious too.  Cloud of all people knew how hard it was to go home, to face the people you left as a man who had failed on so many of his promises…Zack had been gone half his life now, and…shit, did I even tell him about the explosion?  Or that I met his parents once while I was half out of my mind?

The apparent answer was no, as Zack let out a shocked gasp when the dirt-and-stone huts of Gongaga came into view.  “Cloud…what happened here?”

He cringed at his own forgetfulness, a familiar feeling by now.  “There was an explosion…six years ago?  Seven?  It was while we were in the labs…”

“An explosion?” Marlene asked from ahead, looking out at the ruins of the reactor.  “So many of the reactors ended that way…”

Zack walked over to the gravestones and looked at the names, scratching at a spot on his shoulder.  “I knew these people…I grew up with them…”

Cloud knew Zack was holding back his reaction for Marlene’s sake, but it probably wasn’t necessary…she’d seen more destruction in her seven years than most people saw in a lifetime.  He let Zack have the moment, watching the villagers go about their business.  “You ready to go see your parents?”

Zack didn’t respond, his eyes darting around what remained of the village.  “So much of it is gone…the house I grew up in isn’t even here anymore.”

“Yeah, well, I know which one they live in.”  The longer we wait, the more nervous you’re gonna get.

Zack ignored his hesitation and took a sharp breath in, letting it out slowly before unleashing a stream of doubts.  “I’m not ready, I can’t do this, it’s been thirteen years, they won’t even recognize me—”

“Hey,” Cloud said, turning Zack’s face towards him.  “I met your parents a while back, okay?  All they wanted was to know was what happened to you…it’s gonna be rough, but they’ll be happy to see you.  I promise.”  Even if it’s a shock.  I know my mom…she was surprised when I showed up in our house all of a sudden, but she doted on me the whole day.

“Wait…you met my parents?  When?”  Yeah, I probably should have said something about that.

“While I was sick.  This is gonna be awkward for both of us,” Cloud said, rubbing the back of his neck the way they both tended to do.

“It’ll be okay!” Marlene said, putting her hands on her hips in an excellent imitation of Tifa.  “Or I’ll…tell everyone off for not getting along.”

Zack laughed grimly, his quietness betraying how nervous he felt.  Marlene went back to exploring the village once it became clear the two men weren’t going anywhere, and Zack looked at the ground.  “It’s different for you, Cloud…even if you feel like you were responsible, which you weren’t, there’s still a lot that’s my fault.  Like barely writing to them for the five years I was in Shinra.  And then waiting weeks to bother coming back after finding you again…”

“It wasn’t your top priority,” Cloud said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.  And thank Gaia for that—as selfish as it is, I’m…really happy with the way things turned out.

“No, it wasn’t,” Zack agreed.  “Well…I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  Where is it?”

Cloud guided him over to the southernmost hut in the village and tried not to let his own guilt keep him from being as supportive as possible.

Zack just stood there, frozen.  “I’m feeling really chicken all of a sudden.  Super chicken.  More chicken than those sandwiches Tifa made a few nights ago.”

“Look at me,” Cloud said, using one of Tifa’s favorite techniques.  Zack did, and Cloud waited until he’d grounded himself.  “I believe in you, okay?  You can do this.”

“I can do this,” Zack repeated.

“And…see that tree over there?” Cloud asked, pointing towards the jungle.

“Yes?”

“It be-leaves in you too.”  I can’t believe I’m making horrible puns for your sake.

Zack bit his lip and grinned, the fear in his eyes diminishing.  “Did you just…?”

“Don’t think about it too much.  Now knock already.”

His boyfriend did a couple squats for final preparation and knocked on his parents’ door, two firm raps.  The walls of the hut couldn’t block a lot of sound, especially not to mako-enhanced ears, and their footsteps moved towards the door…and Zack darted past him to hide in the trees to his left.

Cloud turned his head and glared.  Are you seriously going to ding-dong-ditch your own parents? he mouthed.

He didn’t see the response, because the door opened and the voice of Zack’s mother greeted him with a fair amount of confusion.  “Hello…?”

Cloud met her eyes and tried to smile naturally.  It came out as more of a grimace.  “I don’t really know how to say this…”

“Hold on, are you that boy who was dragged here all sick three years ago?  And then before, with that girl in pink?”

“Sounds about right,” Cloud said.  “Anyway, I, uh—”

“Are you feeling any better?”

The genuine care in her voice got Cloud off track a bit, as he reassured her that yes, he was fine and healthy now.  Get it out, Strife.  “What I came here to say was—”

“You’re Zack’s mom, right?” Marlene asked, suddenly at Cloud’s side.

The woman nodded, wary.  “Have you heard from him?”

“Heard from him?  We found him!”  Marlene said, running over to drag Zack out from behind the trees.

Mrs. Fair’s eyes widened in shock, and Cloud could see her knuckles turn white where they were gripping the door frame.  There was a long moment in which mother and son sized each other up, taking in everything that had changed over the past thirteen years.  And…he hadn’t known either of them for quite that long, but Cloud knew it was a lot.  Like seeing a ghost…like when I found him against all odds.

Zack starting showing all his usual warning signs – jaw quivering, looking down- and then he flew into his mother’s arms, crying in a way he didn’t usually let people see.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Mrs. Fair said, crying plenty of tears on her own.  “It’s all gonna be okay now…”

“Mom…you’re…you’ve changed,” Zack said.

“You’re one to talk,” she said back with a teary smile.  “You’re so tall.”

“Well, ShinRa made everyone grow up fast.”  Ain’t that the truth.

“Honey, what’s all the commotion abou—Zack?” a man Cloud recognized as Zack’s father said, opening the door and freezing in his tracks.

“It’s me, Dad,” Zack said, not moving from beside his mother.  Everything about his body language screamed apologetic.

Cloud suddenly felt like an outsider in this reunion.  Well…I am.  It doesn’t matter that I’ll never have a chance to see my mom again – Zack does, and he’s with them now.  I should give them some privacy…they have a lot of catching up to do without a deadweight like me around.

A pebble hit his shoulder just as he turned around to go.  “Y0ung man, I’d like you to stay,” Mr. Fair said, voice even but expression full of emotion.  “You and my son have a lot of explaining to do.”

“Fair enough,” Cloud said, and all three Fairs snickered at the unintentional pun.  What did I date into?

“What should I do?” Marlene asked, rocking back and forth on her feet.

“One of our friends lives in the house over there – she’ll look after your daughter while we talk,” Mr. Fair said.

Cloud held out his hands in the usual panic.  “She’s not my daughter,” he tried to explain.  “She’s our friend’s daughter…well, our friend’s friend’s daughter…”

“We’re on our way to visit my daddy in Corel,” Marlene said, looking around for the house in question.  “I’ll be waiting over there!”

Zack’s parents had expanded their house a bit since the last time Cloud was there – the original room had been turned into a combination kitchenette and dining area, and a door led to what Cloud assumed was a bedroom.  “Where do we even start?” Mrs. Fair asked, brushing her hair back the same way Zack tended to do.

“It’s a very long story, Mrs. Fair, and honestly, you probably won’t believe most of it,” Cloud said, taking off his gloves“But…I’ll try.”

“First things first…Cloud, was it?  You brought our son back to us, don’t have to call us those stuffy names,” Mr. Fair said.  “Garret and Isa will do just fine.”

And so they painted the story in bursts and splashes, going through the basics and then coloring in the lines.  Zack told their first escape from the labs on his own, giving his parents details Cloud didn’t even know…they deserve it, after not being able to see him for so long.

Cloud talked about Meteorfall – he privately found it kind of funny, that the more he had to rehash the story, the easier it became to detach himself from the worst parts, to push the emotions away and say what needed to be said.  Is this how normal people deal with grief?

His boyfriend didn’t say much during that time—there wasn’t much to, he wasn’t there for it.  And they’d agreed beforehand to tone down the affectionateness, as it was probably a good idea not to drop two bombshells in one visit.

“That’s just…oh, it’s so horrible,” Isa said, frowning.  “I’m so glad you made it through safe, Zack…”

Garret didn’t immediately say anything, just took a few deep breaths.  “So…that’s the last eight years,” he said.  “What about the other five?  While you were a free man?”

Zack sighed and hung his shoulders.  “I only have shitty excuses for those,” he admitted.  “Shinra didn’t really do the whole physical mail-delivery thing—and I never bothered to look for another way.”

“Were there even other ways?” Isa asked.

Cloud nodded, deciding to be truthful rather than nice.  “Yeah.  If you just needed to talk to someone else within Shinra, email worked pretty well.  Sending a physical letter was more of a struggle, cause you had to find someone under the plate to do it the old way, under the radar.”

“Spike here is such a badass, he broke the rules to talk to his mom,” Zack said, patting him on the back.  That really doesn’t make me sound badass...

“Well, why didn’t you do that?” Garret asked.  “If you two were friends all that time, surely there was a way.”

“I never knew what to say,” Zack said.  “When I left, you made it sound like you never wanted to hear from me again…there’s not really a good way to respond to that in writing.  And the one time I was here in person, I couldn’t see you.”

“It’s all in the past now,” Isa said, throwing away her tissue.  “I’m done crying—our son is home after all this time, Garret, can’t you give him a break?”

“I don’t deserve one,” Zack said.  “But…Dad, can you forgive me?”

There was a brief moment of silence as both men threw away their reservations.  “Of course, Zack,” his dad said, and the tension in the room vanished.  “With everything that happened…hell, the world almost ended, I don’t care if you struggled to write letters ten years ago.  Or even that you left – you’re back now, and that’s all that matters.”

“…Thanks, Dad.”

Isa then began looking for some food to eat, and the four of them (plus Marlene, who Cloud had brought over) sat around their somewhat-new dinner table.  Even Cloud could feel the joy and relief in the air, and he knew things were going to be alright between them.  Even if it takes a little more time for everyone to get used to things.

“Now, don’t take offense at the question,” Garret said after several minutes of much lighter, “but are you two a couple?”

“A couple of chocobo-heads!” Zack said, laughing.  “But…yeah.  How’d you know?”

“Parents always know,” Isa said, joining in the laughter.  “No, it’s just…you talk like you’re the most important thing in each other’s lives.  And when you look at Cloud, it’s like you’re looking at the sun.”

“You’re gonna embarrass Cloud!” Marlene warned, but Cloud decided to take control of the situation with a wink in Zack’s direction, whose mock-fainting served to further lighten the mood.

“It’s true that parents always know, though,” Garret said.  “When your kids grow up…even if it’s far away from you…they follow in your footsteps, and you can see the path they’re taking.”

“You have to know where you come from,” Isa added.  “You can’t get to your destination if you don’t start somewhere…everyone needs to know where they stand in this world to have any sense of direction, of purpose.”

Zack scoffed despite the serious change in topic.  “Mom, that’s way too deep for kitchen table talk.”  I might never have had a father, but I’ll always know where I came from.  Even when I had nothing, I knew that much…there were others who couldn’t say the same.

His phone started vibrating in his pocket, and Cloud looked at the caller ID under the table, frowning.  This is such a bad time, but…  “I should pick this up,” he said.

“Who is it?” Zack asked.

“It’s one of the lab techs at the WRO,” Cloud said, moving outside.  “Hello?”

“Cloud, you’re in Gongaga right now, correct?”  Vincent.

“Vin, did you take someone’s phone to call again?”

“How else am I supposed to reach you?  Anyway, there’s been a new directive—the solar plates are working well after the trial period, and there’s been a consensus that they should be installed in Corel next.  And I heard you’re in Gongaga right now, so…it would be a big help if you assisted with the setup.”

“We’ll be there.  See you,” Cloud said, hanging up.  Well, if any town is in need of an economic miracle, it’s that one.  And this one, too.  One thing at a time.

Chapter Text

Ohhh…why can’t I be the kind of person who hates traveling?  Yuffie leaned as far forward as she could in the crowded cockpit, resting her head between her knees.  “Elena…could you go ...less…bumpy?”

“I’m sorry, there’s just a lot of turbulence today,” Elena said.  “If you could’ve waited until tomorrow, the weather might have been better.”

“But…they’re…doing Corel…today,” Yuffie said, daring to look up long enough to see the sun rising dead ahead.  I feel like Wutai should get more funding for all the things I put myself through…be there by sunrise, Vincent said.  You’ll have fun, he said.  Well, getting up in the middle of the night is not my idea of fun!  It’s funny, too, coming from him.  At least I didn’t take a thirty-year nap – I just wanted a full night’s sleep.

Elena didn’t answer, instead tuning in to her earpiece, expression stern.  “Rufus can wait on that,” she said.  “No, I’m not going to…Reno did what?  For the love of Gaia…”

The helicopter rocked again, and Yuffie was glad she hadn’t had anything to eat for breakfast, or she was sure it would have been gone by now.  I wish there was a materia that could cure motion sickness…or maybe I could pull a Cloud and just fake it til I make it.  I still don’t get how he can just ignore it…screw the mako, that’s his real superpower.

“As much as I’d like to go out tonight, I don’t think Reno’s in any fit state to be left alone with Rufus…I’m serious, Tseng.  I caught him with a package three days ago that was…”

Yuffie tried to follow the disjointed advice Cloud gave her, focusing her mind on anything but the physical sensations around her.  What’s Reeve having me do in Corel, anyway?  I mean…how much use can I be hauling solar plates around the desert?  Not much, I think…and I only like materia when it’s in usable battle form, thank you very much.

“…Wait, that was for them?  Look, I don’t care if he’s been a Turk longer than me or Rude, that’s just twisted.  And…wait, he knows about that?  You didn’t…I never even said…look, I know it’ll come up eventually, but how does he even find out this kind of stuff?  It’s only been…”

“Elena, we’re tilting!” Yuffie said, feeling her bag slide right across her shoulders and hoping it would stay in place.

“I’m sorry,” Elena said, turning off her mouthpiece.  “I was just…”

“Venting about Reno,” Yuffie finished.  “Look, I know he can be a pain in the ass, but he saved our lives that one time, remember?”  Not to mention he only had to because you were being a little overzealous…

The Turk frowned, guiding the helicopter in a much smoother turn towards the mountains surrounding Corel.  “It wasn’t just Reno,” she said.  “All he did was kill Corneo.  Cloud did most of the work.”

Eh, whatever.  He’s part of the reason I’m not a squashed tomato or that part of that guy’s…harem thing, so he’s cool with me.  “Hey, Elena…do you know what I’m supposed to be doing today, anyway?”

“Hmm…I heard they’re actually getting Cloud in to help with the actual setup, so I’m not sure.  Maybe…public opinion polling or something.  I don’t know.”

“…Public opinion polling?  What, like running around and asking everyone what they think of the WRO?” Yuffie asked, gulping as another wave of nausea hit her.

“Pretty much,” Elena said.

“Isn’t gathering information like that…like…Turk stuff?”

Elena sighed.  “We’re not technically a part of the WRO,” she said, “and most of the people in North Corel know a Turk when they see one, anyway.  You’re…transparent.  So I’m guessing Reeve wants this done the straightforward way, even if you’re only going to get biased answers.”

“I’m…transparent,” Yuffie repeated, sitting up and almost crying in relief when she saw the abandoned Gold Saucer not far ahead, lit from behind by the rising sun.  Soon…soon, I’ll be back on that sweet, sweet ground.

The conversation died away, and Yuffie kept her eyes on the town in an attempt to not get sick.  It seemed to help, at least more than staring at the sky like she used to do on the Highwind.

Elena landed a little more roughly than usual, and as Yuffie unstrapped herself, she was shocked to see her leaning over her side, hurling onto the ground.  “Uh…did you get airsick?” she asked, reaching over to rub the Turk’s shoulder.  That usually helps when I threw up, anyway.

“I’m not airsick…I’m fine,” Elena said, grabbing a paper towel from between the seats and wiping her mouth with it.

Yuffie drew her eyebrows together and looked between Elena and the obviously pre-planned stash of paper towels, frowning.  “…Are you sure you’re okay?  If you get sick a lot flying, then maybe—”

“I’m fine,” Elena repeated, tone making it very clear this wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have.

“I’m serious, I have some medication that might—”

“Thanks, but it won’t help,” Elena said, starting the helicopter back up.  “I have work to do.  See you!”

“See you?” Yuffie said, perplexed, as she watched Elena fly away.  It’s not…like…special medication or anything, it’s just that stuff Cloud said he used to use, back in the day.  Makes flying manageable, at least.

Yuffie barely took two steps in the direction of town before small arms encircled her waist, and she looked down to see Marlene, half her braid falling out and motorcycle goggles sliding down her face.  “Hi, Yuffie!”

“Hi, Marlene…I didn’t know you were coming?” Yuffie said, jumping again when her bag was lifted from her shoulders.

“How about I relieve you of your materia, treasure hunter?” Zack asked, swinging the bag over his left shoulder.  Joke’s on him – I don’t have any materia…right now.

Yuffie scowled anyway.  Oh, it is oooon.  “How about I steal that smirk right off your face!” she said, reaching to grab her bag back.

“Um, no, that’s Cloud’s job now,” Zack said, holding it up and out of her reach.

…What?  Yuffie was just put off enough to pause, the confused look on her face making Zack laugh, and he laughed even harder when someone else picked her up by the waist and moved her out of the way.

“Cloud, put me down!” she said, huffing when he did.  “And give my stuff back!”

“Oh, you want me to…hmm, give your stuff back,” Cloud said, snatching the bag from Zack.  “I think maybe you should…steel it back.  Ha, ha.  Get it?  Steel?”

Yuffie felt her eye twitching and she froze, scowl still on her face.  I can’t believe it.  I can’t believe it.

“Spike, I think you broke her,” Zack said, waving his hand in front of her face.  “I’m impressed.”

Cloud draped her bag back over her shoulder with care, smirk still on his insufferably pretty face.  “I’m satisfied,” he said.  “Been waiting three whole years to say that, though.”  I can’t believe it!

“Gods, can’t you just let it go?” Yuffie got out, unmoving.  “It’s in the past!  I did it for Wutai!”

“Daddy says you did it to watch Cloud get all riled up,” Marlene said, sliding Cloud’s goggles back up her nose.  “And ‘cause you have a ‘materia problem.’”

“I do not have a problem,” Yuffie said, narrowing her eyes at Cloud.  “And so what if you got riled up?  It was funny.  We needed funny.”

“I gotta agree with her there, Spike.  Watching you get riled up can be pretty funny,” Zack said, earning him an elbow in the ribs that very quickly devolved into…a tickle fight.  Between two grown men.  Right there, outside North Corel.

Yuffie’s eyebrows were raised enough that she probably looked ridiculous, and she glanced at Marlene, the question written clear across her face.  “Am I…am I missing something?”

“Daddy!” Marlene said, which seemed like a fairly strange answer until Barret barreled past her, picking up his daughter in greeting.

“How’re you doin’, Marlene?” he asked, adjusting her goggles with his good hand.  “I should see ‘bout gettin’ you a pair that actually fit, these are too big.”

“That’s cause…they’re mine…” Cloud said, finally managing to shove Zack far enough away that he could get a whole sentence out without laughing.

“An’ what the hell are you doin’, anyway?” Barret asked.  “Two grown-ass men actin’ like children…”

“Yeah, I wanna know what’s going on, too,” Yuffie said, trying to match the expectant look on Barret’s face.

There was a brief moment in which the five of them all stared at each other, waiting for someone to speak, and then Zack pulled a PHS from somewhere and took a picture, snorting.  “I’m sorry, just…the three of you had, like…the exact same look on your face,” he said.  “It’s pretty hilarious.”

Cloud took his PHS back with a grumble and slid it into his back pocket, muttering something that sounded like it had the word ass in it.  “Vincent said we could be useful with the plates today,” he said, very pointedly leaving their actual questions unanswered.  “It’s been a while, Barret.”

“Yeah…it has,” Barret said, hoisting Marlene onto his shoulder and setting off for the main part of town.  “Well, we ain’t got time to chit chat now.  The boys’ll be here with the stuff any minute, and then we got a lotta work to do.”

“Did Reeve ever say what exactly I’m supposed to be doing?” Yuffie asked, struggling to fall into step with the rest of them.  They’re all too freaking tall.  Okay, Cloud’s not very tall, but still.  They could slow down a little bit!

“Yeah, you’re watchin’ Marlene,” Barret said, laughing at the scandalized look on her face.  “Don’t be like that, I’m just foolin’.  You’re just gonna…go around and talk to people about their lives or somethin’, I guess.  And watch Marlene, cause I don’t want her goin’ anywhere near the heavy stuff.”

Public opinion polling…guess Elena was right.  “I’m seven years old, Daddy, I don’t need Yuffie to watch me,” Marlene said, extremely matter-of-factly.

“You kids grow up too damn fast,” Barret said.  “Yuffie, you were just a little squirt when you joined up, and now…”

“She still is a squirt,” Cloud said, laughing at her distinct lack of amusement.

“She’s always been a squirt,” Zack added, resting his elbow on her shoulder in a gesture Yuffie had come to loathe in recent years.  “You’re a lot taller than you used to be, though…”

“Yeah, that tends to happen when you grow up,” Yuffie said, shrugging his arm off.  What is this, pick-on-Yuffie day?

Barret stopped walking and set Marlene down.  “Nineteen ain’t grown,” he said.  “So seven definitely ain’t,” he added, looking at his daughter.  “By the way…Yuffie, d’you think you could fix her braid?”

“I can’t braid,” Yuffie answered, shaking her head.  “I’ve only ever had short hair.”

“I could do a ponytail,” Cloud said, blinking when everyone turned to look at him.  “What, didn’t you guys know I used to have long hair…?”

“Uh, no,” Barret said, squinting as though he were trying to conjure up a mental image of Cloud with a ponytail.  “You musta looked just like your mama…”

“I did,” Cloud admitted, scratching the back of his head.  “Anyway…I can fix that for you if you come over here, Marle.”

“Then can you do me, Spike?” Zack asked.

“Do you have a hairband?”

“…No.”

“Then no.”

It shouldn’t have surprised Yuffie how nice the ponytail looked when he was done with it, but she still found herself impressed.  “That’s it, then,” Barret said, standing up and looking back outside of town.  An unfamiliar airship made its landing in the grasslands between town and the desert, spreading a cloud of dust over the horizon.  “I’ll treat y’all to dinner when we’re done, alright?”

“Sounds good,” Yuffie said, checking her bag for her recorder.  Gods, I hate taking notes…probably easier if the townspeople don’t think they’re on record, anyway.  Gaia knows how much bad blood is between them and Shinra…

…And no matter how the WRO brands itself, Rufus is still the one funding it.  “What are we gonna do today, Yuffie?” Marlene asked, once the men had left.

“Talk to people.  Ask some stuff,” she said, sitting down next to the younger girl.  “I gotta find something in my bag, though.”

Her PHS, her (regrettably empty) materia bracer, her pink ribbon, her motion sickness medication…it was all there.  But no stinking recorder.  “What’s that?” Marlene asked, pointing at the jar of pills.

“It’s for when I have to take a boat or a plane, so I don’t get sick,” Yuffie said.  “They make it so I don’t throw up every time, which is nice.”  They work better than tranquilizers, that’s for sure.

“But you still feel gross?”

“Yeah.”

Marlene read the label and shook the container, in that curious way Yuffie knew most girls did things.  Most girls she knew growing up, anyway.  “It’s pretty cool that you still go all over the place, though.  Even if you feel sick on the way there,” Marlene said, handing her the jar back.

…Yeah, it is.  “You should tell everyone to stop picking on me, then,” Yuffie said, continuing to rummage for the recorder.  Where did I leave that thing?  “It’s very…”

“Excuse me, miss, do you know what they’re doin’ out there?” a woman asked, her shadow obscuring the inside of her bag.  “I haven’t really been keepin’ up with…all this politics stuff, but I see the WRO logo.”

Woo!  Time to do my job.  Yuffie stood up and brushed the dust off her shorts.  “Actually, yes!” she said.  “They’re…um…you see, with the worldwide power shortage…”

Doing her job turned out to be significantly harder than Yuffie thought – it wasn’t that she didn’t know what she was talking about, it was that the people of North Corel were so…nitpicky.  Knowledgeable.  Understandably skeptical of the WRO’s intent.  Quick to interrupt if she used any filler words.  Yuffie got multiple people asking for chemical proof that the solar plates wouldn’t explode or catch fire, and almost as many asking for raw data from the plates in Edge.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have that information on me right now,” she said to the last one, a dark-skinned woman in a baseball cap and denim jacket.  “Without that, though—”

“I can’t have an informed opinion without it,” she said.  “Can you get Barret over here?  I’d trust his opinion – no offense, sweetheart.”

Yuffie tried her best not to take offense, but she was sick and tired of being brushed aside for her age or experience.  “Barret’s overseeing the installation right now, but how about later?”

“Alright…tell him…hmm, let’s just gather by the Ropeway,” she said, adjusting her cap.  “I’ll spread the word.”

That wasn’t what she intended – Barret probably wouldn’t thank her for just throwing him into a situation like that.  But then again, his whole life before Meteorfall had been that sort of thing, so maybe it would work out.  “Thanks – I’ll try to spread the word, too.”

“I know you probably don’t appreciate the thousand questions routine – this place just has a loooong history of bad deals,” the woman said.  “Keep on truckin’, though.”

“Thanks?  I will,” Yuffie said, clicking the recorder in her pocket.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the difficult questions Yuffie got.

Most of the town’s residents, when approached, would more or less ask her why the WRO couldn’t just fuck off and let Corel go back to coal mining.  A reasonable question, to be sure, and one that Yuffie could actually answer well if people would give her more than two seconds.  Which, of course, most of them wouldn’t.

“Look, we had a good life going before all that mako shit, before that Shinra slut shot Barret’s arm off ,” one particularly difficult man said.  “And after all that mako shit, we had part-timing at the Gold Saucer to make up the difference – why don’t y’all get the amusement park powered back up, huh?  Wouldn’t that ‘stabilize the economy’ or whatever better than those sun-disks or whatever’s out there?”

Yuffie took a deep breath, and much to her chagrin, Marlene decided to step in.  “And what would power the amusement park?”

“The coal, of course,” the man said.  “Sounds like a perfectly fine plan to me.”

“My daddy says coal doesn’t last forever, either,” Marlene said, and Yuffie resisted the urge to facepalm.  Without anything to back that up…

“Yeah, and who’s your dad?  You look like Dyne’s kid to me, an’ he always made a point to be against what everyone else wanted,” the man said, squinting.  “You’ve got Eleanor’s look about you…”

“She’s Barret’s,” Yuffie said, glaring at the man in an attempt to communicate the situation.  I don’t even know how much Marlene knows about her biological parents…probably not much.  She was way too young before Meteorfall, and I doubt Cloud or Tifa wanted to talk about it…it’s not really their conversation to have, anyway.

The man nodded in understanding, expression still surly.  “Looks like they’re wrappin’ up over there,” he said, pointing towards the solar plates.  “A right fuckin’ mess, that is.  Well, I hope Barret’s more help than you were, kid.”

“He will be,” Marlene promised.

Yuffie opened her mouth to add her own comment and quickly thought better of it, taking Marlene by the hand and walking towards the designated meeting place.  I don’t see how that could have been any worse with a Turk asking the questions.  At least they could’ve argued back.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

A cloud of dust hit Cloud square in the face, and he spit enough of it out to breathe, blinking until he could see clearly again.  “Zack, put your shirt back on.”

“It’s full of sand!” Zack complained, making a valiant if pointless attempt to shake it out.  “It’s itchy.”

“And it’s gonna stay full of sand until we can find you a shower,” Cloud said, crossing his arms.  “It wouldn’t be so bad if you hadn’t—”

“Hey, someone had to move that cable, and you weren’t volunteering.”

Cloud snorted.  “No, actually, no one needed to move it.  It probably would’ve been better staying out of the ditch, but there wasn’t any way to move it back after you fell in.”

Zack’s face twisted into a grimace, acknowledging the truth of Cloud’s words.  “Okay…so…it’s my own damn fault I’m covered in dust.  Can’t you help me get it out?”

All Cloud could imagine was the shirt in a sink somewhere and him with a damp cloth, wiping all the dust off Zack’s chest and…yeah, best leave that thought in his head for now.  “Later,” he promised.  “But for now, you gotta suck it up.  Barret’s almost ready to go.”

They both looked over towards the Ropeway, past the mounds of junk that still comprised the bulk of Corel, to see Barret writing a list down on a clipboard.  They’ve really come a long way…I’ll never forget that first time we came here, and some of those same guys were beating Barret up, and now it’s like...they all respect each other again.  Trust, even, since they want him to clarify…eh, maybe not.  I probably wouldn’t trust Yuffie’s opinion either...she’s bamboozled me enough times already.

Another cloud of dust drifted towards his face, signaling that Zack had finally put his shirt back on.  “Nanaki doesn’t have to wear shirts to these things,” he grumbled, an open invitation to get teased.

“Nanaki’s a…fire lion,” Cloud said.  “You’re not, last I checked.”

“But unlike Nanaki, I look really hot without a shirt.”

Fire lion, Zack.”  …It’s true, though.

Zack grinned, which somehow emphasized how the shirt clung to him.  “Come on, I can see it on your face, you know it’s true.”

He kept grinning at Cloud until his poker face broke, his own smirk making an appearance.  “Okay, fine – if we weren’t in the middle of town, I’d be making out with you so hard right now.”

“Oh? Oh?” Zack teased, taking a step closer.  “There’s a tent right over there we could hide behind…”

Barret’s voice came booming over a megaphone, and Cloud turned away from Zack to watch, resisting the urge to laugh when Zack took his hand.  Clingy much?  I can’t say I don’t like it, though.

“Alright, I hear my WRO girl wasn’t makin’ things totally clear today,” Barret started.  “Anybody got issues that aren’t a part of that?”

“Yeah, are those sun soaker things safe?” someone shouted from the back.  Sun soakers…ha, I almost like that name better.

“Yes,” Barret said.  “They’re made of mastered materia – a stable form of old mako, basically.  An’ it doesn’t get worn out or anythin’ like coal or mako does, so they’ll last.  Next?”

The sun was still high in the sky, and the reflection of the dirt only made it more intense.  Cloud huddled into the shade as much as he could, while Zack stood in the sun like…well, a sun soaker.

He’d missed the next question, and Barret was already halfway through his answer.  “Look, I dunno about y’all, but clerkin’ the spooky hotel desk in the Gold Saucer sounds like a stupid job to me.  It don’t matter if Dio ever gets that place workin’ again – most people couldn’t afford it now, anyway, and it’s more important to get a power system back in place now that Shinra’s done.”

“…You really think this is a good idea, Barret?” someone asked.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.  “An’ there’s no need to be gettin’ anxious, cause I worked with the scientists who developed these things the whole time they were on it.  Those goofs over there, with the spiky hair – they got all the stuff for the plates ready to go, and there’s nothin’ they’re better for than masterin’ materia.”

“Thanks, Barret,” Cloud said, drawing the attention of everyone there.  “Good to know that even when the world was about to end, the best thing I was good for was getting good magic.”

Barret smirked, this kind of banter familiar and missed (at least in Cloud’s case…no one else really liked to get confrontational with him).  “You did all sorts of whacked-up shit, Spikey,” he said.  “And Zack wasn’t even there for most of it, so, yeah, I think I’m right.”

Cloud nodded, letting him get on with the questions.  A few people shouted about coal at the same time, and Barret didn’t even hesitate before answering.

“Yeah, the coal was good,” he said, “but what we didn’t know was that it ain’t free – the mines woulda reached an end sometime, maybe sometime soon, an’ then we’d be stuck in the same spot we are now.  Coal doesn’t destroy spiritual energy like the mako does, but it still pollutes the atmosphere, and it ain’t infinite.”

There was a brief silence, and Cloud almost thought that was it.  Either Yuffie was exaggerating, or…  A different man threw rocks at the ticket station until he had the floor.  “Why does the WRO seem to think they can just come here and make up for all the shit Shinra put us through?”  There it is.

Barret’s expression was stern, and he raised his gun arm.  “You mighta noticed that Shinra put everyone through some rought shit, me included,” he said.  “They took everythin’ from me.  But it ain’t about Shinra anymore – or our old homes, or my wife, or Dyne, or any of that.”

He’s on the ball today, Cloud thought, watching as the people of Corel leaned in, one by one, waiting to hear what Barret had to say.

“It’s about our kids,” he continued.  “There ain’t a lot of ‘em here anymore – but there will be one day, and we gotta make the world a better place for ‘em so they aren’t still dealin’ with our bullshit way down the line.  Those guys over there, Spike one and Spike two, and Yuffie – they all came of age in Shinra fuckery, an’ I think they know as well as anyone else that it ain’t a future we want for our kids.”

“Damn straight,” Zack agreed, squeezing Cloud’s hand.

“We gotta find a peaceful way to share resources!” Yuffie added.  I keep forgetting how much she’s grown up in the past three years…

Barret nodded.  “Look at Marlene over there – wave hi to everyone, Marle,” he said, watching as people scanned the area, looking for his daughter.  She stood up from where she had been sitting next to Yuffie, taking all of it with surprising calm.  “Some o’ y’all may’ve noticed she looks like Eleanor’s kid, and you’d be right.  Her biological parents are dead cause of Shinra, an’ she had to be on the run durin’ all of Meteor cause the damn bastards were after her.”

There were mutters of I didn’t know he was taking care of Dyne’s kid and I can’t imagine him as a dad and that might’ve been his own daughter standin’ there if things had worked out differently, and Cloud waited to see how Barret would respond.  I don’t know if he’s ever talked so openly about this, not since Dyne died.

“Marlene’s gonna grow up in a world without Shinra’s crap,” Barret continued.  “They’re gone – but the world ain’t ready to support all these kids, and all their dreams, so we gotta make it happen.  Enough of these solar plates around the world, and we’ll have as much power as we did before Meteor without hurtin’ the Planet.  Enough power, an’ we can get the schools back up, everyone workin’ again.  Enough time, an’ the wastelands around Edge might even be able to grow life again.  These plates – they’re for the future.”

There wasn’t any applause, though Cloud thought there should be.  I guess that’s just not how Corel rolls.  Marlene ran over to hug her dad, and Yuffie turned her gaze over to them, looking at their entwined fingers and then back up, expression perplexed.  And Zack said it would be easier if there were rumors…I don’t think so.

 

---------------------------------

 

The bar had been open unusually late that night – one of her regulars had a birthday, and Tifa wasn’t about to turn down an extra dozen customers and several hours more business, even if it meant she wasn’t going to get more than a few hours of sleep.  They could always use the money, especially with most of Cloud’s WRO income going right back into the community.

Tifa was happy that he and Zack wanted to help people the best they could, but, frankly speaking, the bar didn’t make quite enough profit to comfortably support five people.  It just didn’t.  And making ends meet was something Tifa was used to, just another part of life, but after everything they’d been through…she would’ve liked to think they’d be better off.

She washed the tables, taking stock of every wobbly leg, every cracked table, every chair with the finish worn off.  The whole place is too small, too – but I can’t expand anywhere other than where we live, and that’s not an option.  It was almost easier under the plate…at least then, you knew there wasn’t any option other than just scraping by, and the bar was mostly just a cover-up for AVALANCHE, anyway.

The phone rang, and Tifa sighed, pain flashing behind her eyes.  It’s too late for this…

She picked up the phone anyway, closing her eyes when it was Cloud’s voice on the end of the line.  “Hey, Teef.  I was gonna just leave a message – why are you still up?”

“Long night,” she answered, brushing her bangs back.  “Iggy had a birthday, and…you know how that is.”

“Bet the money was good, though,” Cloud said, deliberately not addressing the root of that particular issue.  “Iggy’s got some rich friends.”

“Sure.  I just wish we didn’t need the cash,” Tifa said, looking at a spot on the wall where someone had a bit of an accident with red wine two years ago.  That stain wouldn’t come out, no matter what she did.  “How was Corel?”

“They weren’t as…excited about it as the people in Edge, I guess, but what else could you expect?” Cloud said.  “Reeve put Yuffie on P.R. for gods know what reason—”

“Good Gaia, I bet that was a sight to see,” Tifa said, letting a thin smile spread across her lips.

Cloud snorted.  “She actually wasn’t too…Yuffie about it,” he said.  “You’d be proud of her.  The people there just don’t trust outsiders anymore, and for good reason.”

“So what’d you do?”

“What did I do?  I just hauled giant slabs of modified materia around,” Cloud said.  “After we were done, though, Barret stepped up and answered everyone’s questions – gave a little speech about the Planet, like he used to do.”

And they listened?  Wow…I bet Barret’s pretty content with all this, then.  It’s a lot of work to replace an entire system of mako reactors…but that’s been his goal this whole time.  “What’s up now, then?” she asked.

Cloud made a noise on the other end, the half-groan Tifa knew to mean people I like are picking on me, so I can’t do anything about it.  “Um…I kind of made fun of Yuffie a little too much this morning, and now everyone’s getting back at me for it,” he said.  I could tell.

“Gaia knows there’s so much people can tease you about, you big nerd,” Tifa said with a grin.  “Did Barret mention you riding that motorcycle down the stairs of the Shinra building?  Cause I was looking at Ragnarok today and thought of that.”

“Yes, and he also mentioned that time I said ‘crispy critters’ in Wutai,” Cloud said under his breath.  “I still don’t get what was so funny about that…”

You’re a hopeless case, and that’s why we all love you.  “And Marlene?  How’s she doing?”

“I think she wants to stay in Corel for a while,” Cloud said.  “It’s been a while since she and Barret have had their Wallace time together, so…could you call her teachers and tell them she’ll be out a couple weeks?”

A couple weeks is kind of a long time to miss school, but…damn, she’d probably already have left Edge if Corel even had a school.  “Tomorrow,” Tifa said.  “It’s almost dawn over here.  Oh – by the way, I got a call for the delivery service.  Somebody we know wants prints delivered to Upper Junon.”

“…Who do we know in Junon?”

Tifa snickered, moving the phone to her other ear.  “Remember Priscilla?”

Cloud froze up, and Tifa could almost see the awkward look on his face.  “Since when did she move to the upper level?  Um…Zack can take that delivery.”

“I can do what now?” she heard Zack respond, quiet but still audible.

“This girl we know in Junon ordered a delivery,” Tifa said, making sure to enunciate.  “Cloud, put me on speaker.”

The distinct sound of Yuffie’s laughter came over the line.  “That’s the girl who needed CPR, right?  Man, that was awkward.”

“Wait, who are we talking about?”  Ha…maybe Zack really should take the delivery.  I’d love to hear what he thinks of her side of the story.

Tifa cleared her throat.  “We went to Junon a few years ago, and there was a little girl who needed mouth-to-mouth.  We…kind of forced Cloud to do it.”

“Yeah, ‘you’re the only one who can do it,’ my ass,” Cloud grumbled.  “She wants…prints?  Of what?  How old is she now, anyway?”

“Hmm…I imagine the prints have dolphins,” Tifa said, “and I think she’s eleven?  Not old enough to marry the heck out of you, anyway.”

There was a gasp from someone who was probably Zack, followed by Barret’s booming laughter.  “Yeah, you’ve got competition, Zack.”

“I’ll just have to go give her a piece of my mind,” Zack said, obviously trying very hard not to laugh.  “Hand her the prints and say, ‘Priscilla, I respect your dedication, but Cloud is my boyfriend, not yours.  Thank you and good day.’”

Cloud groaned, and Tifa could practically see the look on his face.  “Can we just…forget about that?”

“Not until I get the image of you ridin’ that dolphin up the tower, we can’t,” Barret said, laughing.

Nobody said anything for a while, and Tifa was about ready to hang up by the time Zack spoke again.  “You should’ve seen Yuffie’s face when she found out Cloud and I got together,” he said.  “She looked ridiculous.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Tifa said, giving up on the cleaning to head upstairs.  I’m so tired…I’m gonna pass out over the line, and then they’re all gonna worry.  “But how’d you react, Barret?”

“I—“

“Wait, let’s say it together!” Yuffie said.  “One, two…”

“That sure as hell explains a lot!”

Oh my gods, I can’t believe Cloud is holding up over there.  “Okay, let’s change the subject,” Tifa said, to what she hoped was Cloud’s relief.  “Barret, I hear you gave a speech today?”

“Nah, it wasn’t anything like that,” Barret said, sounding an awful lot like he was shrugging it off.  “I jus’ answered questions – said some stuff about improvin’ the world for our kids.  The usual.”

“It was pretty great, though,” Yuffie said.  “The empty Gold Saucer as a dramatic backdrop, the chocoboys in the corner to be the peanut gallery…”

“Like the old Barret’s back in action, then?” Tifa asked.

“No, the old Barret’s still in the past, fighting the Shinra.  This is the new Barret, the one who’s gonna make sure the Planet doesn’t lose its second chance,” he said, but Tifa couldn’t help but feel it was, in fact, the old Barret.  He’s found that old strength again, the strength that got us out of the North Crater.

Tifa yawned as the conversation drifted off, and she said her goodbyes.  Everyone’s turning over new leaves lately.  Yuffie’s growing up, Barret’s moving on, Cloud and Zack are together.  Things are changing, but…they’re good changes.

Chapter Text

Cloud ran his hands through Zack’s hair, smoothing the spikes back.  “Hey, if you’re gonna make the delivery, you should head out.  The sun’s coming up soon.”

Zack mumbled a denial, burying his face further into Cloud’s shirt.  “Bed…too…warm…” he said.  “Too…comfy…”

Cloud sighed, and Zack felt the impatient rise and fall of his chest.  “I’ll go, then.  But you gotta let me up,” he said, with the barest echo of a laugh.

It might have been barely past dawn, but Zack was still awake enough to be a little shit.  “I could do that…but…right now, it’s like I’m sleeping on a—”

“Don’t say it.”

“Cl—”

No.”

“It’s too late, you’re already annoyed.”  Zack snickered into Cloud’s shirt, pressing as close to his boyfriend as he reasonably could.  “Oh no, I’ve ruined my chances with you, beloved Cloud…!  Whatever will I do?”

“Life’s not fair,” Cloud sighed, huffing a bit when Zack propped himself up.

“I can make if more fair,” Zack said as seductively as he could manage, voice cracking as Cloud frowned.  Okay…that was pretty bad.

He found himself pulled into a closed-mouth kiss anyway, and Cloud hummed against his lips.  “You’re a dork.”

Zack kissed him back, relishing the calmness between them.  Every morning for the rest of our lives could be like this…and I’d be happy.  “Why don’t we both go to Junon instead of just sitting here debating it?”

“It’s not a big enough delivery for that,” Cloud said matter-of-factly.  “…There’s a lot to do here, too.”

Like that’s stopped us before.  Hmm…ohhh.  “Ha!  I got it!  You just want to avoid seeing that girl again,” Zack said, drumming his fingers along Cloud’s side.  “What, are you worried she’ll decide it’s CPR time again?  Have you play fetch with Mr. Dolphin?”

“Mr. Dolphin is powerful and deserves your respect,” Cloud said, grumbling something else indiscernible before clearing his throat.  “…Look, have you ever had an actual kid hit on you?  It’s just…less weird if you go.”

I don’t know, have I?  Probably at some point…goes with the SOLDIER territory.  Everyone idolizes you…but yeah, it would be less weird if I went.  “Okay,” Zack said.  “I guess…I’ll get in and out as fast as I can.  Day trip.”

He pulled away from Cloud’s arms with regret and shuffled over to the dresser, looking for something inconspicuous.  Jeans…jeans…flannel?  Oh, that’s soft…

Cloud didn’t bother trying to go back to sleep, rubbing his eyes as Zack put the clothes on.  “Mmm…come ‘ere,” he said as Zack stretched, pulling flannel-covered arms behind his back.

“Wha – oh,” Zack said, closing his eyes as Cloud peppered his chest with kisses, more warm than anything else through the fabric.  He’s…he’s really getting all the scars, isn’t he?  I…  “Cloud…”

Those were for you, the scars said, their presence a testament to the lengths Zack would go for the man in front of him.  Cloud knew it, too, had known it as long as he could remember, and Zack was honestly relieved when he moved up to kiss his jaw, lifting some of the emotional weight.

“I’m sorry, I just…love you,” Cloud said, settling on Zack’s lips one more time, leaving him satisfied.

“Love you too,” Zack said, wrapping his arms around Cloud.  “…Seriously, though, which one of us is going to Junon?”

Cloud poked him in the side, making him squirm.  “You are.  I’ve got a date with an airship today.”

“Damn, I better step up my romance game.  I have so much competition…an eleven-year-old girl…an airship…any others you wanna tell me about, Spike?” Zack asked, biting his lip in amusement.

“I don’t know how much more you can step up your game before I melt into a puddle,” Cloud said, leaning further into him.

“Doesn’t it rain when a cloud melts?  Cause if you melted, I’d be—”

“I…don’t think that’s how it works,” Cloud interrupted.  “Clouds are already made of water, you know…it rains when there’s too much water.”

“Oh.  I was gonna make a joke about—”

“I know,” Cloud said flatly.

Ehehe.  You know me too well.  “Well…hold on, I can still save the morning.  You’re so smart about things…you’re…sharp…like a—”

Cloud interrupted him again, but this time it was with a kiss, which Zack definitely didn’t mind.  “Your puns…are gonna drive me crazy.”

We’re really something, aren’t we?  “I’ll see you tonight,” Zack said, pulling away from the hug.  “Later, Spike.”

He left the loft in the wake of his best pun yet, grinning when he heard Cloud’s telltale groan.  Ha ha…tonight…later.  I love him.

 

--------------------------------- 

 

It was already midday by the time Zack drove into the lower part of town, and his stomach growled.  Breakfast is never enough…I need to get something to eat.  And soon.  But…you know what, I better find Priscilla first.

He parked Ragnarok by the nearest fence and waved down an elderly man.  “Excuse me, do you know a Priscilla?”

“I take it you’re here for the delivery?” the man said.  Sharp.  “You don’t look like Strife.”

“That’s cause I’m not,” Zack said, dusting off the prints.  “But I work with him.  And I’ve got these prints for Priscilla, wherever she is.”

“I see,” the man said, narrowing his eyes.  What’s so suspicious-looking about me?  It’s dark down here, it can’t be…ugh, it probably is.  “You’ve got the same eyes…easiest thing would be just to leave the prints in that house right there,” he added, pointing behind Zack.

“I was told she moved above the plate?”

“Eh, it’s complicated,” the man said.  “The little apartment she was gonna move to is being leased out to a family employee, I think.”

So…I’m supposed to take these to her specifically.  I can’t just…leave them at this random house.  “…A family employee?”

The man shrugged.  “I dunno the specifics of it,” he said.  “But her relatives hired someone to do…hmm…I’m not sure what, but the contract was for a few months.  Jennifer was the name, I think.”

He thinks, he thinks.  “Well, I don’t think I can leave the prints here,” Zack said, “so I’ll go up top and look for…Jennifer?  Or Priscilla, preferably.”

“Cilla will be…actually, you know what?  Check by the beach,” the man said, nodding.  “Dunno why I didn’t think of that before, but she’s usually down there.”

Sure, you don’t know.  You didn’t trust me is what it was.  “…Thanks,” Zack said, walking away.  I know I can’t expect people to trust an ex-SOLDIER these days, but…

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt a little bit.  The beach was more or less the same as he remembered it, except there were…dolphins.  Zack couldn’t recall there being any dolphins his last time in Junon.  There were a couple in the bay, all paying attention to a girl in a blue romper who was whistling commands.  Impressive.

“Delivery for Priscilla?” Zack called, unsure what to expect.  This job was already weird enough.

Well, whatever he was expecting, Priscilla wasn’t it.  She fell to the ground in a melodramatic arc, and Zack blinked.  “Hero of the dawn, help me!  My friend, my…desire!  Is…the bringer of life…?  Save me, Cloud!  Before I become…the, uh, dew!  That feeds the earth!  And stuff!”

Sweet Shiva…hold on.  “Is that supposed to be Loveless?” Zack asked, looking around for…something.  Or a really mangled version of it…?  Is this a joke?

The girl, who Zack was positive at this point was Priscilla, sat straight up.  “You’re not Cloud,” she said, voice much colder than before.

Yeesh.  Cloud said she would be weird about things, but this is…excessive.  Well, best not lead her on.  “Nope…I’m…his boyfriend.  Yep.  Boyfriend,” Zack said, waiting for what he thought would be a very comical reaction.

“…Since when does he have a boyfriend?” Priscilla said, standing and turning to face him.  “I called dibs.  Three years ago!  He can’t just go and – be with someone else!”

Zack was reminded of Yuffie a bit, in how overzealous this girl was.  He was also a bit frightened.  “Oh, really?  Well, I called dibs while you were still in diapers.”  He was still recuperating from the helicopter flight…did Cloud even realize I was trying to ask him out?  It was kind of pathetic…I didn’t even call it a date, even though Aerith had said it was okay.  I didn’t want to scare him off…well, it doesn’t matter now.

“…Who are you, anyway?” Priscilla asked, crossing her arms.

“Zack Fair, pleased to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand for her to shake.  She took it, eyeing him up and down.  She’s got even more nerve than Yuffie, though, in a certain sense.

“I guess Cloud did pretty well for himself, then,” Priscilla said, putting her hands on her hips.  “This stinks, though…I only ordered those prints so I could reel him in.  Like a fish.”

Guess he called this one, then...definitely less awkward that I’m here.  “That’s rough, kid,” Zack said, rubbing his boot into the sand.  “So where do you want me to take the prints?”

Priscilla scratched the side of her face.  “Um…I don’t know,” she said.  “I’m just so…so…let down, you know?  The most excitement I’ve gotten here since Meteorfall is when Jennifer showed up, and I thought for sure I was gonna have Cloud in my grasp by the end of today...life is…”

Zack tuned the rest out, thinking about the work he was missing.  I was supposed to be in and out.  Day trip.  I just want to drop the stuff off and go…but this girl sure is chatty.  “Jennifer’s your…?”

Fortunately, Priscilla didn’t seem to notice he hadn’t been paying attention.  “He kind of does a lot of things,” she said.  …He?  Did I hear that right…?  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.  “…Actually, you know what?  Jen’s been pretty lazy these past few days.  Just give him the prints and have him put them up somewhere.”

Zack got the distinct feeling he was missing something important, but he couldn’t place it.  “Where is this…Jen, then?”

“My family’s apartment on the upper level is in the old materia shop,” Priscilla said.  “But Jen usually hangs out in the bar.  He’s got red hair that’s all long in the back.”  A family employee who hangs around the bar instead of working…?  “And…he can be pretty grumpy sometimes, but that’s about it.”

“Ah, no, it’s not,” Zack said, tucking the prints under his arm.  “Where’s the gil?”  Pay up, dolphin girl.

“The…oh, I’ve got a little in my pocket,” Priscilla said, pulling out a few coins.  “But…um…how much was the delivery again?”

This is what happens when you make business deals with children.  “About four times that,” Zack said, pocketing the money.  “Where’s your family?”

“They’re, uh, out of town right now,” Priscilla said.   “But…um…I’m really sorry.  I don’t have any more money right now.  Unless…wait!  Hold on!”

Zack didn’t bother to respond, watching in a state of disbelief as Priscilla somehow got one of the dolphins to burrow into the sand under the tower.  A cloud of sand rose up and blocked the view of the dolphin underwater, and Zack was taken completely by surprise when it leaped out of the water, splashing him.

“Augh…I didn’t sign up for a seat in the splash zone,” Zack said, watching the dolphin deposit some more coins in Priscilla’s hand.  “I gotta admit, though…that’s a nifty place to hide some cash.”  And now this trip won’t have been a waste…

“I know, right?” Priscilla said, drying the coins on her romper before handing them to him.  “Anyway…nice meeting you, I guess.  And…if things ever go south with Cloud, send him my way, okay?”

Zack opened his mouth and closed it a few times, unsure how to respond.  An eleven-year-old girl is trying to get with my boyfriend.  “I don’t think things are gonna go south,” he said, pocketing the money.  It would be really…no, I’m not even gonna think about it.  “But if they do, I’ll put a good word in.”  Believes in herself.  Clever.  Confident.  A real catch for someone who’s actually her age.  All the boys in town better watch out…

Priscilla waved goodbye, and Zack pushed back his irritability as he made his way towards the elevator.  I could’ve been out of here by now…Jennifer.  Jen.  I’m looking for a dude named Jennifer.  With long red hair.  Or a mullet.  I guess Priscilla didn’t specify.

The bar might have been a good direction for Zack, except it had been almost a decade since he’d set foot on the upper level.  Things moved around, and finding the right building could take an age and a half.

Light jazz was playing from a speaker somewhere as Zack stepped off the platform, the sea breeze blowing his hair around.  It’s getting long again…I guess I could keep growing it out.

He wandered around town, looking for any sign of an old materia shop.  There were signs on some of the buildings the last time he was here…granted, most of them were just Shinra advertisements.  But still.

As Zack took in the scenery, it struck him just how much the town had changed.  Before, it was more of a military satellite than anything else, but now…obviously there weren’t any infantry uniforms to be seen, but there was something else, too.  The people were a little more open, a little less pompous.  Someone had planted a few trees near the pavement.  The flowers in windowsills were actually growing.

“Hey, you!” someone shouted.

Zack turned around and pointed at himself.  This woman needs something?  “Yeah?”

“Don’t look so nervous, I’m just asking,” she said, hiking her bag up her shoulder.  Asking what?  “You look lost.”

“I am, a little bit,” Zack said, looking around.  “You know where I can find…hmm, the old materia shop?  Or the bar?  I have a delivery to make.”

“Deliverymen are s’posed to know their way around, aren’t they?” the woman said, narrowing her eyes.

Is everyone gonna give me grief today…?  “…It’s been a while,” Zack admitted, frowning.  “This place looked a bit different a decade ago.”

The woman sized him up for another moment before her expression evened out.  “They’re both a block that way,” she said, pointing in the direction Zack came from.  “Just watch out for that red-haired man who hangs around there…he gets jumpy sometimes.”

I swear, I know there’s something about this I’m not getting.  “Jumpy how?” Zack asked.

“Look, I can’t read minds,” the woman said with a shrug.  “But it’s happened half a dozen times now that a guy will walk into the bar and Mr. Red Leather will just split.  Poof.  Gone.  But not without a trace, cause he tends to leave a big mess behind when he runs down this way.  It’s such a hassle to clean up every time…”

Zack’s eyes widened, though he still wasn’t sure why.  Jumpy…red leather…I can’t place it.  Who would I know working for some family in Junon who fits that description?  “No…”

“No what?  It’s not that big a deal, son,” the woman said, walking away.  “Just another man left a little out of whack from all the war we’ve seen.”

All the war we’ve seen…  “Thank you!” Zack shouted back, utterly perplexed.  Come on, brain!  What is it?  He was put in mind of how gullible he’d been as a SOLDIER, how easily fooled, and he frowned.  I have to be smarter than that now…

He walked back a block, peering into the doors until he found what he thought must be the right building.  A clerk of some sort looked up upon his entrance, and Zack raised his eyebrows.  “Is there—”

“The bar’s downstairs,” the clerk interrupted, yawning.  “Happy hour ended already, so…you won’t be getting any discounts.”

“It’s not even noon yet,” Zack said.

“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” the clerk said, putting his head back down.  “I’m trying to nap.  Good day.”

Zack looked down the stairs, taking in the dim blue lighting with wary eyes.  I’m taking dolphin paintings into a basement bar…my life is weird.  “Good…day…?” he responded, taking the steps two at a time.

The smell of tavern food and burned bacon wafted up the stairs, and Zack paused, catching bits of a conversation from down below.  A man’s laughter filled the stairwell, gruff and choppy.  “You’re a strange one, Jen.  Enough money to get booze any time of the day…and damn, this is the expensive shit.”

“It’s for this evening,” the second man, presumably Jen, said.  “I don’t day-drink.”

There’s…something about him.  I’ll just stand here…it’s not eavesdropping if they’re talking this loudly, right?  “…So you can afford Banora fucking white, but you can’t get yourself a nicer jacket?” the first man said.  “That one looks like it shoulda been tossed years ago.”

The second man let out an impatient sigh.  “I don’t owe you an explanation.”

“Anyone’ll talk with enough alcohol,” the first man said, a sleazy note creeping into his voice that stopped Zack in his tracks.  He’s not gonna…it’s the middle of the day!  That’s just…  “Come on, you’ve been in this town long enough.  I know what kind of man you are.”

“Trust me…you know nothing about me,” Jen said tersely.

“I’ll make it worth your while—”

“—Not interested.”

That…there’s something about him.  I almost recognize…  “Don’t be so tense, it’s not like that,” the first man said over the sound of a chair sliding across the floor.  “Just…who are you, anyway?”

I kind of wanna know that, too…  “I’m nobody,” Jen said.  “No one at all.”

The first man huffed.  “I know that’s bullshit.  I can see it in your eyes…it’ll never be possible to hide completely, you know that, right?  Two seconds is all it takes for anybody to look at you and think—”

“Did it ever occur to you,” Jen interrupted, “that maybe, just maybe, I’d rather not discuss this in a public venue?  Or anywhere, really.  Ever.”

“Hmph.  What was it you said last week…‘all that awaits you is a—’”

“—Job that’s putting a roof over my head.  You’re grating at my nerves…I’m leaving.”

“Good riddance, Jennifer.”

Zack turned back towards the ground floor and closed his eyes, gripping the railing on either side.  That’s not how the line ends…it’s ‘all that awaits you…is a somber morrow.  No matter where the winds may blow…’

“Excuse me,” a voice said behind him, the impatient tone of it suddenly more familiar than Zack was prepared to hear.  Even if the morrow is barren of promises…  “I’m sure your little rest in the stairway is extremely important, but I need to get through here. I’m—”

“Genesis,” Zack finished.  “You’re Genesis.”

The very air seemed to freeze around them, and the only response Zack got was a blow to the head that came out of nowhere and left him reeling, stars filling up his vision as Genesis stepped over him.  “Consider that payback for last time!” he said, already sounding out of reach.

“W…wait!” Zack said, straightening up and forcing his thoughts to even out.  I can’t…I need to know what’s happened to him!  And I have to get rid of these dolphins!

He made it back up the stairs in a matter of seconds and ran past the snoozing clerk (how did that not wake him up?), pausing to look around once he got outside.  It was hard to focus…the mako made concussions little more than a momentary inconvenience, but they didn’t heal instantaneously.  Agh, he hit hard…

“I knew this would happen,” a rough voice said, and Zack looked to his left to see the woman from earlier, expression neutral.  “You and him – you’ve both got Shinra eyes,” she clarified.  “He’s heading for the lift, so I’d hurry if you plan on catching up to him.”

“Thanks,” Zack said, springing off the street with the prints securely under his arm.

Genesis had always been fast, but Zack knew this game too well.  Flashes of red darted in and out of alleyways, heading towards the lift – what’s with him and confrontation over long falls, I swear to the goddess—

“What, no swords this time?” Genesis shouted, suddenly behind him instead of in front.  Zack ducked to escape, which turned out to be a bad decision – Genesis used some sort of magic to bind his hands together, and the prints fell to the street as Zack fell to his knees, hissing at the impact.  “I certainly won’t complain.  It makes my life easier.”  Good thing those prints were in covers…

“What the hell?!” Zack said, struggling.  “Let me up!”

“I wasn’t aware you could still communicate,” Genesis said, stepping into view.  Zack sized him up carefully.  He’d grown his hair out, and the collar of his jacket gave away that it was the same one he’d always worn – but it had been heavily damaged, and the fabric below his waist removed.  It almost looked…normal.  Or as normal as anyone could reasonably expect, with Genesis’s…everything.

“And I didn’t know your degeneration stopped,” Zack said, frowning.  “Looks like we were both wrong.”

“What are you doing here?” Genesis asked, short and to-the-point.  Zack was a bit put off by the directness – sure, it had been a long time, but…I don’t know enough about this to make any assumptions.

Zack stood up, slowly enough to keep Genesis from bolting or pushing him over again.  “You see those prints on the ground?  Yeah, I was supposed to deliver those.  To you, it would seem.”

“I was under the impression that you…well,” Genesis said, picking the prints off the ground.  “Last time we crossed paths, you were—”

“In all black, with two swords, trying to kill you?”

“…Exactly,” Genesis said, rolling one of his shoulders.  “So what happened to you?”

“I got better,” Zack said.  “Your turn.  Last time I remember seeing you, you were still degenerating.”

Genesis smirked.  “I got better.”

They both stood there for a moment, Genesis thinking and Zack…stuck.  Alright then.  “So…”

“…So…”

“Would you want to…I don’t know…talk?” Zack asked, grimacing.  I don’t remember the last time we saw each other and it wasn’t a fight to the death.

“…Might as well,” Genesis said, snapping his fingers.  Zack shook his arms loose, glaring.  It really wasn’t necessary to do that…  “Talk where?”

“I don’t know…any good coffee shops around here?  Or better yet, sandwich shops – I’m really hungry.”

Twenty minutes later found Zack seated in a very small chair across from the most infuriating man he’d ever known, a small latte in his shabbily-gloved hands.  This is…extremely awkward.  Genesis seemed to feel the same way, looking very pointedly at a spot on the sidewalk outside.

Zack cleared his throat.  “So…um…you’ve grown your hair out.  It’s…nice?”  By his wandering souls or whatever, I can’t do this.

“…Thank you for the compliment.  I guess,” Genesis said.  “…Zack, there’s no need to pretend this is normal.”  A few moments passed.  “I’m serious.”

Zack sighed.  “That’s a relief, cause…it’s not like I’m still hung up on that time you ate my hair or anything, but this is probably the most awkward day of my life.”  And I saw my parents for the first time in a decade recently.

Genesis laughed briefly before regaining his usual composure, leaning back in his chair.  “Ten years of conflict, and that’s what made an impact?  Zack Fair…you’re something, I’ll give you that.”  Another few moments passed, and Zack took a bite of his sandwich.  It wasn’t bad.  “So…since you’ve regained your senses and your freedom, what have you been doing?  Surely...you were always very active, back then.  Unwilling to settle down.  From what I heard.”

…Angeal would have told him most of that.  I miss him…probably something we have in common.  “Hmm…I’m not homeless anymore, which is nice.  I have a loft and a job.  A nice boyfriend.  Normal stuff,” Zack answered, cleaning up a drop of spilled coffee from the table.

“Boyfriend?  I was under the impression you were straight…”

“Bi, actually,” Zack corrected.  And I always thought you were gay.  But I guess on my side, it’s not obvious…it’s not like I dated any guys during my SOLDIER days.  Even if there was one I wanted to.

Genesis nodded.  And then didn’t say anything.  I’m…not used to having to do the talking with him.  The silence drew on for another long moment, until Zack realized he’d actually have to keep the conversation going.

“What…what about you?” Zack asked.

“I’m surviving, which is more than I expected,” Genesis said, blinking.  “I have little memory of the past few years…I’m sure you can relate.”

“It’s a very relatable problem,” Zack said, chuckling when Genesis cracked a smile.  “Seriously, though…I think everyone who was in SOLDIER and is still alive has that problem, to some degree.”

“Zack, we’re both sitting right here,” Genesis said.  Oh…yeah, I guess Cloud doesn’t technically count.  “And…by my own standards, I’m old now.  I passed thirty during that time, which…”

Thirty’s not that scary…‘old’ is a mindset, not a number.  And even if it was a number…I’ll be thirty in another few years.  But I won’t be old.  “You never thought you’d be around that long.”

“Exactly.”  Genesis looked down and to the side, bangs obscuring part of his face.  “So, people say the curtain’s closed, and Shinra’s finally done toying with forces they can’t control.  Do you really believe that?”

Zack opened his mouth to answer but paused, troubled.  We still don’t know why Hojo kept me alive…but…he’s dead and gone, and nothing in that lab is functional anymore.  “I think so,” he answered.  “Or at least, they better be done.  I’d really hate to have to jump into the Lifestream just to knock it into their heads to leave us alone.”

Genesis drew his eyebrows together for a moment, but the curious expression gave way to another smirk before Zack had the chance to ask.  “I can almost see it.  Old man Shinra rising up out of the depths of the Planet, business suit soaked in mako, ordering what’s left of the company to start rebuilding Shinra Tower and taxing sunshine.”

Cheese and rice, that’s terrifying.  …Why didn’t I order that instead of this sandwich?  “Hmm…so how’d you end up working for that girl’s family?”

Genesis frowned.  “Truthfully?  Her uncle’s blind.”

“Come on, you’re not that bad-looking.”

“On the contrary, I’m extremely good-looking,” Genesis said with a barely-controlled burst of laughter.  “No, I meant the eyes.  You can count the people still alive with mako eyes on one hand – people get suspicious.  It makes it hard to find work.”

To be fair…calling you a loose cannon was an understatement back then.  And it’s not like you’re unrecognizable.  “So they were the only ones willing to give you money,” Zack concluded.  “What do you even do for them?  Housekeep?  Read Priscilla your Loveless annotations?”

“I…actually…don’t have the book anymore,” Genesis admitted.  “I remember…the last time we fought, when you used the twin swords – I had it then.  But not now.”

I can’t believe he managed to lose that thing.  Though…what was it Cloud said was likely?  That after everything…  “Are you having trouble sleeping?”

“Come again?”

Zack leaned forward.  “Are you sleeping well?  Do you get nightmares?”  I don’t even want to think about what his nightmares would be like…for enough people, he was the nightmare.

Genesis laughed.  “To be honest, I have no idea,” he said.  “If I think it over…I haven’t slept well in a decade.  But during the early years, I knew the reason.  Now…the night is long, but…”

“But you’re never rested.”

“…There’s not a better way to phrase it.”

I’m…not an expert on these things.  At all.  And he doesn’t seem entirely himself, but…it’s been years.  No one would be the same after all that.  “There…might be some help for that,” Zack started.

“It’s not that important,” Genesis said.  “Truly, a minor nuisance compared to the past…I’m fine.”

“You could go to the WRO, they could help you work through—”

“I’m definitely not doing that,” Genesis said.  “Do you have any idea what would happen if I showed up there?”

“Well, I—”

“The records don’t show I died a hero, Zack.  The only reason I’m not known as the worst villain in Shinra’s history is because Sephiroth outdid me,” Genesis said under his breath, glancing around the shop.  “Asking for help would be akin to turning myself in, and I believe you of all people should understand why I can’t do that.”

Zack exhaled and closed his eyes, considering the situation.  Me of all people…if I were him, how would I feel?  I know I’d never go within ten miles of Hojo if that was an option…  “I understand,” Zack said, ignoring the conflicting pull in his chest.  “What will you do, then?”

Genesis shrugged.  “I’m going to be blunt.  My old contacts are all dead, or would capture me on sight.  My hometown and everyone in it is gone.  Even if they weren’t, I’m ten years older now than I was the last time things were fine.”

That’s…very blunt.  He almost sounds like…no.  “That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get back on your feet,” Zack said.  “Look, most of those things are true for me too—”

“I appreciate your concern, but it won’t change my mind,” Genesis said coldly.  “I’m not stepping foot into another lab.  Ever again.  For any reason.”

“Okay, okay,” Zack said, holding his hands up.  “I get it.  No WRO.  Seriously, though...”  Am I really about to say this?  “If there’s anything you need, I’ll do my best to help.”  Well, I said it…

“I need to get back to work,” Genesis said, standing up with the prints in one arm.  “My contract ends soon, and I need to wrap up early to look for other work.  And Zack…”

“…Yeah?”

Genesis paused for a moment, back turned towards him.  “About that favor – if you learned to keep a secret somewhere between the past and now, don’t tell anyone you saw me here.”  I…what?!  “I can see your reservations… I’m not planning anything.  I would just rather live a…bird-free life, if you catch my meaning.”

Does he even know how few Turks there are left?  “They’ll find you eventually,” Zack said anyway.  “If Rufus wants to find you, they will.  It’s their job.”

“So long as my continued existence remains a secret, he won’t want to find me,” Genesis said lowly.  “He won’t cut his guard in half to go after an old soldier…trust me.”

…I don’t want to trust you.  I didn’t know you that well to begin with, and now…  “I—”

“You said it yourself, Zack…Shinra’s done.  Sephiroth’s done – he finished the job I started, and now that it’s over…I’d to move on.  From everything.”

Zack felt vaguely nauseous.  Is it…is it right for me to keep this a secret?  If we’re really safe now…and telling Reeve or Cloud won’t help anything…I might as well do right by Genesis once.  “…Good luck,” he said.

“To you as well,” Genesis said, leaving the shop with all of the grace he had years ago, but none of the flair.

The clock on the wall showed it was already mid-afternoon, and Zack stood up, fumbling for his motorcycle keys.

 

---------------------------------

 

An unexpected visitor came to the bar a few hours after lunch.

“Reeve?” Tifa said, putting down her book and standing up.  “I didn’t know you were in town.”  You usually call…or at least send an email.

“I didn’t know I would be in town, either,” Reeve said, setting his briefcase down at one of the wall tables.  “Cid is…hmm…he’s not in a position to discuss the airship’s debut at the moment.”

“The airship’s debut?”

Reeve nodded.  “We can’t just build an airship with new technology and not market it.”

Why not?  The media industry is kind of dead…though, I guess the WRO’s more or less in control of what’s left.  “Hold on…are you saying Cid doesn’t want to talk about himself?”

Reeve smiled thinly.  “He does, but…there’s a bit of a construction emergency at the moment.”

Tifa frowned.  “A construction emergency…?”

“It’s nothing they won’t figure out on their own in a couple hours,” Reeve said.  “But the hangar doesn’t make for a good office…”

I can imagine.  “I’ll leave you to your work, then,” Tifa said, drumming her fingers on the table.  “Can I get you anything?  Water?  Coffee?”

“Coffee would be nice, thank you,” Reeve said, pulling a laptop out of his briefcase.

The coffee machine took a few attempts to turn on, and Tifa closed her eyes as she got a fresh pot going.  If I had the money to fix this place up…there are a lot of things I’d like to do.  We could have a better kitchen…serve more food in addition to drinks.  Make this place a little more family-friendly.

The coffee came out dark and aromatic, and Tifa let the scent of it wake her up.  She set the mug on Reeve’s table and walked back to her own, opening the book she’d been reading.

I really wish there were studies on this sort of thing that weren’t paid for by Shinra, Tifa thought, looking through the pages, most of which pushed aside agriculture in favor of – shockingly – mako usage.  Gardening…the soil around here is too degraded to support most plants, but Aerith managed it, somehow.  And pinning all of that on her Cetra heritage is silly…if we learned anything from all this, it’s that magic and science are one and the same.

Tifa could see it in her mind’s eye – the area around Midgar’s remains, full of trees and vines and growing things.  Healed.  One day, this place will look like that.  Even if it takes a long time…

The only sounds for a long while were the swipe of pages turning and the clicks of Reeve’s keyboard.  Tifa found herself less and less focused on the book, gaze drifting towards the window.  Is this how Reeve works every day?  Meeting with people…sitting in a quiet room, tapping away…I don’t think I could ever be in a job like that.  And even if I’d wanted to work in an office… Life didn’t discriminate, but people did, and those two facts were what shaped lives, hers included.

I’m being pessimistic…cheer up, Tifa.  I’m happy with what I have, even if I had to fight tooth-and-nail for it.  Her reflection was interrupted by a sharp ringing, and Reeve sighed.  “Hmm…Tifa, is there somewhere private I can take this call?”

“Just up the stairs and to the left,” she said, pointing towards the back.  “Denzel’s not back yet, so you shouldn’t get any interruptions.”

Reeve rushed past the door, and it was only a few seconds later that a different voice filled the room, coming from the laptop…which was still open.

“Hello, Reeve…you’re not there.”

Tifa perked up, furrowing her brows.  That’s Vincent…

“I really hate using these computers…is this ‘video chat’ something I’m going to have to keep doing?  It seems…pointless.  How is this better than just meeting in person…”

I…this is a private conversation.  I should…leave…or at least close the laptop…

But then Reeve will know I heard something.  Tifa was strangely reminded of the night she broke into Shinra Headquarters with Barret and Cloud, eavesdropping on the executives’ meeting…that’s silly.  This isn’t then…it’s just Vincent and Reeve, discussing things that probably have nothing to do with me.

“I’m just calling to let you know that I sent you my report.  I have…concerns about some of the conclusions the lab techs drew.  Assuming anything is a trivial issue is…irresponsible, in my experience.”

Tifa looked at the ceiling.  It’s too late…if he watches that, he’ll know I heard it.  Might as well…um…

Vincent paused for a moment.  “I understand your thoughts on this, Reeve, and I respect you have authority here.  But it would be best if you told Tifa and Cloud what was found.”

…What?!

“Regardless of what you think is best for them, I doubt they’d appreciate your withholding information.  …I don’t appreciate it, and it borders on dishonesty.  That being said…I’m making a personal investigation into some of this.  There are things I must know…don’t expect to reach me for a week at least.  Goodbye.”

Tifa’s palms were sweating, and she felt a particular nausea she had hoped to never feel again.  Dishonesty…withholding information…  The bar was silent, but there wasn’t any way Tifa could predict when Reeve would come back downstairs.  There was a very real chance of getting caught…and yet…

If Vincent thinks I deserve to know…whatever is in these messages, then…I trust him.  And…this might be my only chance to find out the truth, without Reeve filtering out what he doesn’t want me to hear.  She tiptoed over to Reeve’s seat and sat down, moving the cursor to his email and bracing herself.