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It Rains Ashes On Golgotha

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Two chimes ring out from his pocket in under a minute.

The first one’s from Reno, who’s sent him a wall of text in several shades of restrained panic, heated and bright and nearly audible. Yo, blondie, don’t freak out but you might wanna know that there may have been a screw-up over here – so I found this Materia, right, and—

That’s all Cloud catches in a low-lidded gaze before he flicks over to the next message, which is tagged with Reeve’s name: Cloud, please call me immediately when you get this, there’s been an incident that I think you need to know about.

Shinra and the remnants of its people are maybe about as far behind him now as his wet-eyed, innocent youth – a fractured slice of his past, and whatever this may be about, he doesn’t particularly want anything to do with it. But he doesn’t erase the messages; light, brusque fingers simply flip the phone shut and Cloud impassively slips it into his pocket again, before revving up his bike and making his way off, curls of dust rising from the trail of his wheels.

He knows something’s up, though, when he’s back in the heart of Edge and Tifa’s already out the door to greet him before he can even stop Fenrir’s momentum, throat pink-flushed and a tremor to her fingernails, parted lips spilling a fever-hot chant of ‘Cloud, Cloud, you better come in, hurry. I don’t know how to tell you, I can’t believe—’

—And he swings open the grime-smudged door to a familiar mess of black spikes and a fire-warm, blue-green gaze; a memory once lost, once replaced, once returned. Always present.

Blood pumps loud and quick, thundering at the peak of his throat, in the line of his wrists. This can’t be real, but he can’t pull his eyes away.

Zack, his mouth curves around the syllable, but it’s lodged beneath his tongue and doesn’t come out.

‘Cloud. You’re …’ breathes Zack, voice unsteady, and wide pupils fix on Cloud, dark and deep and keen. ‘… Wow, it’s you. You really are alive.’

He thinks he’s left the feeling in days gone by: that tense push and pull of heart tissue, the raw aching of worn bones, the rigid clenching of sore teeth. And then, it’s all back suddenly in a rising tide, whole and unbidden, pressing his lungs, squeezing his knees. Like it’s never been gone.

Illusory music licks at his jaw; he hears funerary hymns being sung in reverse, folding around his ears in ghosts and whispers – the requiems of those who were never dead.

 


 

This is not his Zack.

He looks the same, sounds the same, walks with the same easy-footed gait, tosses over the same lopsided half-smile. He’s Zack in all respects, is definitely Zack, but is not his Zack. The one who fell years ago so that Cloud might live, who had sank into the dust and never rose back up, who had painted the earth with thick pools of dark red beneath the rain.

‘You were the one who died,’ says Zack, and a snipped little noise of not-really-laughter scrapes rough over the roof of his mouth. ‘Came around from that mako sickness and catatonia at the last moment, you know? Found me and stumbled into the fray, then kept on fighting even after you took a hail of bullets to the back.’ Knuckles graze across his chest, like there’s a shadow of faraway dull hurt there, pulsing and intermittent. ‘I never wanted to leave you, and I wouldn’t listen when you begged me to. Got so caught up in telling you no that I ended up taking shots to my shoulder and leg – that knocked me right off the edge of the precipice; I fell a pretty long way down. Managed to hang on to the cliffside and survive, but when I came back for you, they were all gone, and you were already …’

Wiry fingers still firm and graceful, the way they’d always been, curling around the dew-flecked beer bottle.

‘… Where I’m from, nobody knows your name. Nobody remembers who you were. But you fought with everything you had, and died a hero,’ he grinds out around swallowed emotion, uneven breath heaving his ribcage.

As far as Cloud understands, everything else seems to have been more or less the same. Genesis Rhapsodos; Nibelheim; Sephiroth; Meteorfall; Geostigma; Deepground. The Planet reshaped and restructured everything to follow the path that destiny had already carved, weaving a mirrored story from the S-cells sleeping in Zack’s body and the earnest courage and strength knitted into Zack’s veins, and the world had kept turning without Cloud there to help save it. Funnily enough, not a single fragment of bitterness twists his stomach to know that; he’s seen more of the universe’s shadows than he’s wanted to, and been through too much, and aged too fast. The knowledge can’t cut him anyway, not when Zack’s sitting in front of him, blood-warm and breathing and alive.

‘How did you even get here,’ Cloud manages tightly, too many unsaid questions hanging from a dried mouth.

‘I don’t really know, to be honest. Reno – my Reno, or yours, or maybe both, I’m not sure – he was out on some mission and randomly found this funny Materia no one’s ever seen before,’ answers Zack, wet teeth sinking into his bottom lip. ‘He’d set it into this old bracer that he was trying on for kicks and I blacked out while I was leaning over and staring at it, so I think he must’ve triggered the thing without meaning to, somehow. When I came to, he was there with Reeve … though not the same Reno as the one I was talking to just before that, I figure. Both of them looked like they’d seen a ghost; said I’d been dead for years. I thought I’d hit my head or something when they both told me they were gonna contact you right away. Frankly, this is kinda surreal, I – seriously never thought I’d see you again.’

Well, not exactly him, Cloud thinks. He isn’t this Zack’s Cloud, in the same way that this Zack isn’t his Zack. But Zack’s always been this way, sincere and positive and bright like the sun, and he talks like Cloud is simply Cloud, like that’s all that matters right now, either way.

‘Yeah,’ Cloud answers in a soft voice. ‘I never thought I’d see you again, either.’

Zack gazes across Tifa’s table at him, eyes burning like summer, and Cloud thinks he might understand just a little.

 


 

And then, that small pocket of a house is filled with the laughter of children. Hearty, deep-bellied, sparkling laughter that’s never swallowed the air between these walls as far as Cloud’s aware; there’d only been soft murmurs and quiet breaths and pulsing blood-beats, edges dulled by the endless busy days running the bar and by the silent dark scar that Geostigma’s left behind in all their hearts.

Denzel and Marlene take to Zack like he’s their very own big brother, and the little rooms are suddenly rich and plump with the loud, glistening peal of Zack’s laughter, too.

Cloud wonders where this world’s Zack would be now if he’d never fallen; if he’d be blissfully married – maybe to Aerith, if she, too, had never fallen – with young, boisterous children of his own.

One afternoon in Tifa’s house and Zack’s already stretched across the living area, supple and easy, flanked on either side by flushed little faces glimmering brighter than the sun, with his own face even brighter still. Lazy card games strewn carelessly over the floor between them, steady fingers ruffling messily through the kids’ tufts of hair – like it had always ruffled through Cloud’s, in days belonging to another time. Laughed protests of Zack, Zack chiming from the backs of Denzel and Marlene’s throats, and Zack warmly offering that familiar pearl-toothed grin that Cloud’s always kept tucked away in his memory and in the marrow of his bones.

Only one afternoon and Zack’s already helped Tifa repair her kitchen sink and wheel in her new refrigerator; whatever deep-set unease her gut may still carry about him and ex-SOLDIERs in general is unexpectedly smoothing out, slowly and visibly, lighting gold in the wet film of her eyes, pink in the hollows of her cheeks.

‘He’s already growing on you, huh,’ Cloud remarks offhandedly, and is surprised at the involuntary hint of pleasure that smolders from her skin in answer.

Just one afternoon and it feels like a broken clock’s started ticking again, like the house itself is drawing and emitting its first breath: the walls and roof contracting, expanding, in, out.

 


 

Sturdy chest flush against his back, and Zack’s arms are firm around his waist, a presence that’s solid and truly real; ‘Sweet ride,’ Zack says, obviously impressed, breath trickling hot over Cloud’s earlobe. ‘Beast between your legs, I can tell. Maybe I should get a bike too.’

There’s a flicker of something in the edges of Cloud’s chest cavity, something like sunlight, maybe. ‘I’m a little surprised that you haven’t already. This sort of thing is very much your style.’

‘I don’t have the money, but yeah, it is, isn’t it,’ Zack agrees, his voice ringing with the crisp melody of a smile; his hold tightens, and the afternoon air brushes sharp and glass-cold against Cloud’s cheekbones when they move off at last, cleaved tight to each other upon Fenrir’s back.

He still has slices of memories from that time that they were on the run. They’d slept coarse skin against skin, with tired breaths slipping out in ropes over the edges of teeth, and only scraps of body heat as warmth in the nighttime chill. Zack’s shoulder hard beneath his cheek and Zack’s arms soft around him, strong fingers braiding into his hair. Tender murmurs caressing the fringes of Cloud’s mind, even while it slips in and out of his body in fractured pieces.

There’s always quiet peace whenever Zack folds his body around Cloud, as if all the sound in the world’s been cushioned with cotton wool, as if the world’s slowed its turning.

Just like now, the two of them together between the cool shards of wind.

 


 

‘You’re sleeping here. Next to her flowers,’ says Zack, wrinkling his nose and tilting his mouth; it’s more of a statement than a question. ‘Huh. Somehow, I thought you’d be shacking up with your girl. You guys seem to be a family now what with the kids and everything.’

‘… Tifa’s …’ She means a great deal to him, always will. ‘… It’s not – like that, though,’ answers Cloud in a quiet voice, and suddenly it’s like he’s sixteen again, filled all the way up to the tips of his ears with multicolored dreams, but diffident and a little withdrawn. A twinkling-eyed novice trooper in the shape of a soft boy, shyly standing next to SOLDIER first class Zack Fair, one of the brightest suns he’s ever known. ‘Actually, Shelke was with us for a while, too; she moved out the same time I did, got her life together, got her own place. But yeah, with Denzel, and Marlene – we are a family, I guess. I don’t have to sleep under the same roof as them all for that to be true. Recently I’ve just felt like I needed some of my own space, so I go and sleep in a few different places, depending on what suits my mood. Figuring out my sense of independence, trying to see how parts of my life fit together and all that. It’s what I want.’

This place is no longer a closed hideaway for him, a withdrawal from the world and from the perceived heaviness of his sins; nowadays more an indulgent sanctuary, rich with private thought and memory and the music of restful silence.

‘You’ve done really well for yourself,’ Zack replies, wetting dry lips with a drag of his tongue, a smile in the corners of his eyes. ‘A family and your own business, as well as being the local hero. Wow! Bet everyone’s really proud of you. ‘Cause I sure am.’

Nibelheim and the days that came before it still bleed and smudge in Cloud’s mind sometimes, but some things will always ring crisp, clear; sunlit reminiscence painted with simple primary colors. He remembers the way fire often swelled in the dark beneath his ribs, burning with self-silenced admiration – for the great General Sephiroth, first, and then for Zack, too. He’s grown used to the dull, unmoving quiet of his heart tissue these days. Or perhaps, he thinks, everything beneath the uppermost layer may still harbor a faraway sting, faint and buried and dim.

‘We lost her to him as well,’ Zack murmurs. ‘That hasn’t changed even over different worlds, I guess. I still come back and look at her flowers sometimes, you know? I always miss her. And you, too.’

Soft light filters in through the stained glass windows, as thin as a breath of silk, draping warm sunset gold over their faces. And Cloud suddenly finds his ankles trembling, gives in to the pull of gravity and finds himself sinking to his knees, down, down.

‘What are you doing,’ asks Zack, vague curiosity rumbling under his breath.

Something like an unwitting prayer for solace and mercy, maybe – who knows. That wouldn’t be strange in a church.

 


 

They sleep with their legs folded up and their backs just barely touching, starlit bursts of yellow and white petals keeping guard not far from their side. And for the first time in a long time, there’s no whisper of cold lingering in the deep of Cloud’s bones; his spine’s warm where Zack’s lightly pressed against him – a shared blood-heat that drips through the tangle of his limbs, that settles in his belly, that carries blurred dreams of those nights all those years ago when they’d lain together in dust and darkness and hiding.

Cloud gradually rouses with muscles tender and eyes bleary, and finds that the two of them have turned their bodies to face each other sometime before he’d woken; Zack’s already awake and vaguely watching him with half-hazy interest, soft lips parted and eyes heavy-lidded, a pale yellow strip of dawn light grazing one cheek.

‘… Hey, does it bother you?’ Zack suddenly murmurs, voice still slightly rough with the after-traces of sleep and more than that, something that almost pulses beneath his speech like a dim ache. ‘Knowing that in another world, I took your place?’

It’s somehow beautiful and absurd, the fact that Zack’s even asking, and that alone is enough to tug Cloud fully awake in seconds. ‘What are you talking about,’ he rasps out, tongue dry and chest tight. He rolls in closer on the curve of his hip, and firmly presses: ‘You were willing to give up your life to save me. Not only the other you, but you, too. Doesn’t this just make us even? More than that – for a time, I thought I was you. I basically took your entire life, your identity.’

Zack sniffs at that, a tiny clipped puff of breath that carries no bite with it, only an unhidden hint of easy acceptance. Less than a day here and he’s forgiven everything already, no indecisions, no misgivings; typical Zack. Cloud slides his eyes closed for a fleeting moment, wills himself to drag in a full, slow breath.

‘… Zack,’ he says, quiet and rigid. ‘Zack. I’ve always … wanted to say I’m sorry.’

‘Me too. But it’s not your fault. It’s not our fault,’ replies Zack immediately, with no shred of hesitation. ‘And it doesn’t even matter what ranks we ever were. You’re my living legacy here, just as I’m yours there. Right?’

Cloud doesn’t answer, and Zack doesn’t push. They don’t need words, anyway. They get it; it echoes in their silence, all the way to the broken roof of the church.

They spend the rest of the early morning loosely sprawled side-by-side amidst pieces of rubble and sunlight, entwined in the fragrance of aging wood and flowers and earth.

 


 

Cloud, I know you’ve probably run into him already, but it’s still a matter we should discuss. Answer my messages, please.

‘Everything alright?’

Rough fingertips graze Cloud’s elbow, a warm pressure against the callused skin; suddenly, his heart’s tapping a drumbeat against his breastbone, firm and quiet and deep.

‘… It’s nothing that can’t wait,’ he answers, mouth quirking at the corners, a prequel to a half-smile. He slips the PHS device back into his pocket and murmurs, ‘It’s all good.’

‘Okay.’ Zack’s grin is crooked and vaguely sweet and steady, bright hard teeth and wide eyes glittering; he jerks a lazy thumb over his shoulder, rubber soles rasping in a sidestep across the concrete. ‘C’mon, buddy. I admit I look pretty cute in your threads, but if I don’t go get some of my own to wear here, I’m gonna end up stretching them all out.’

Bodies move like an ocean in the marketplace, back and forth, back and forth, heaving with breath and chatter and heat. Zack’s rambling spiritedly – something about how the markets in his Edge are less chaotic in the mornings – and seeming not at all perturbed by the position he’s in; dropped into a mirror world with no clear way home, yet he’s grinning with stars in the corners of his eyes and music curling on his tongue. A presence like warm milk and honey, charisma lit with the brilliance of sunrays. Brave in every sense of the word, in the untroubled pliancy of his gait, in the easygoing glow of his skin.

Girls nearby flick subtle glimpses at him, in all his tall and gentle and painfully handsome, and the short, sparkling glances that he sends back has them stirring together in giggly birdsong, cheekbones flushed with slow-blooming roses. Zack Fair, as natural a flirt as he’s always been, only for the fact that he’s really genuinely kind and lovely.

At that thought, Cloud can’t help but purse his lips.

‘When you’re done charming the ladies,’ he says evenly, gesturing his thumb at a clothing merchant down at the corner of the pathway.

Zack slants his head and looks at him, pupils smiling vividly to match his mouth, and Cloud’s breath maybe pauses a little, just a touch tight in his lungs.

‘On it.’ A smooth, leisurely reply coupled with a playful two-fingered salute. ‘You wanna get us some food in the meantime?’

A taut nod, and Cloud calmly tears away from him, vaguely hopeful that his own face hasn’t betrayed anything potentially embarrassing. His PHS vibrates against his thigh as he makes his way over to a nearby food stall; possibly Reeve again, if not Reno. Lips press together in a thin line, teeth sink unbidden into his tongue. He ignores it.

A small handful of gil shed and he’s got two boxes of some fragrant Wutainese bird dish heating his palms, steam from the slits of the side-opening dampening the unfolded crooks of his thumbs. An extravagant luxury, bar the previous day’s buttered bread, in comparison to the very last meals that he and Zack had shared together: the meager smattering of dry roots and crumpled berries and whatever small morsel Zack had ever been able to find and hunt, that he’d always freely given to Cloud first with warm, gentle fingers and a heart-cutting smile and not a single utterance of complaint. No, maybe that had been a luxury, too. In many ways, much more so than what Cloud’s carrying now.

For all his lingering tiredness of the Planet’s hurts, he knows that he’s fortunate to be alive, to be well, to have friends. He’s fortunate to have ever had Zack slide into his life, loud and summery and terribly fleeting. Now, Zack’s here – somehow, he’s really here; he’d slipped away from the fragile tethers of the world, and yet he’s now astonishingly within Cloud’s reach, probably still merrily sifting through mounds of clothing and trying to see if there’s something nice. So simple and mundane and everyday, a concept more alien to Cloud’s universe than its frightening gnarled beasts, and strangest of all, he’s not dreaming it.

Though it’s easy to picture the contrary when Zack’s not around; he reaches the garment vendor, and Zack’s not in sight.

‘… Zack?’ he murmurs, a hint of cold settling in his gut.

No – false alarm. Faint movement stirs at a side-curtain that Cloud hadn’t noticed before: an obvious fitting space. Zack must be behind it, he realizes.

Streams of people pass him by, smooth and collected and undulating, ambling in every direction. Men, women, children. Eyelids slide to a close; for just a single second, he’d thought that some strange hand of fate or destiny had left him in their current. Alone – no sign of Zack, his eye-catching poise, his striking grin.

Even in its absurdity, he can’t help but momentarily wonder if he may be losing his grip. For even entertaining the possibility that maybe he’s been dreaming, that all of this has just been a wild hallucination brought on by the deep-set exhaustion all the recent years have carved into his veins, teasing him with an unkindly vivid picture of what could have been. That none of it had been real: Zack’s bright laughter in Tifa’s living room; the weight of Zack’s arms around him as they were perched upon Fenrir; being lulled to sleep by Zack’s body heat against his back; their languid morning together in the tangled remnants of the church. Any splinter of truth to that notion, and it’ll be no different from losing Zack a second time.

The heavy lump clotting in his mouth at that thought may just have more faint tendrils of dread in it than he’d ever had even in the face of Sephiroth.

It pushes a bit too strongly at his breastbone, a reverie that’s more vivid than he’s comfortable with, and then the most relieving and welcome interruption calls him awake: ‘Whoa, you’re done fast. So, how do I look?’

Cloud’s eyes skim back open – and just like that, Zack fills his frame of vision all over again. The way he always has since they’ve known each other, a fixed presence in Cloud’s eyes and heartbeats, steady, sunny, unwavering. The side-curtain to the fitting area’s now open, and Zack’s standing firm behind it; plain and tangible. The shirt that he’s poured himself into is horrible, a stretched cap-sleeved thing that’s a little too tight in the shoulders and a little too loose in the waist.

‘Like an abomination,’ answers Cloud in a level voice, quiet breaths evening out, and his belly slowly untwists, his toes unclench.

Zack flings him a brief dirty look, amusingly pinched and narrow-eyed and rather unsuited to the usual temperate softness of his features, and immediately starts pulling off the offending garment with no measure of modesty. ‘I guess I’ll just get the two sleeveless numbers, then, pops. And the pants,’ he tells the merchant coolly, and that’s that.

It’s a whole five minutes later when he’s finally stumbling out of there with a tissue-wrapped parcel clamped loosely in the bend of his underarm, satisfaction tinted rosy at the tips of his ears. The ensuing reunion on the stone pathway is prompt, and Cloud leisurely hands over one of the food boxes; Zack takes it graciously, pliant mouth twisting, placid eyes fixed squarely on Cloud’s. And he murmurs, ‘… Hey. You okay?’

‘Yeah,’ answers Cloud in slight surprise, maybe a little more quickly than he likes. It’s quite touching, though, that Zack’s been paying him attention; then again, despite having been branded in the past as a puppy with no concentration span to speak of – Cloud remembers Zack’s short-lived complaints about Angeal Hewley in this regard – he’s always been a bleeding heart for the people around him, caring and truly attentive. ‘I’m fine. It’s only … before, I didn’t see you, at first. I suppose I was just …’

He rocks once on his ankles, unsure how to finish. But it turns out he doesn’t need to – keen eyes consider him at length, and somehow, that alone is enough; because only a moment later, Zack’s fingers are nonchalantly curling sideways to fold around Cloud’s knuckles, and then the two of them are pressed heated palm against palm, callused skin against skin.

‘This way, I definitely won’t disappear, yeah?’ Zack says plainly, and the words flicker with as many tender beads of light as the sky-lit glimmer of his irises. ‘Now, let’s go find someplace to sit and eat. I’m starving.’

He graces Cloud’s hand with a mild, furtive squeeze, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it is. Cloud pulls in a breath; the corners of his eyes crease just a touch, and he gives a squeeze, too.

Yeah, he’s okay. They both will be.

Zack’s hand is warm in his, and Cloud makes sure to keep hold of it for as long as he’s able.

 


 

Once upon a time, he’d have given anything for Zack, a SOLDIER first class, to look at him like this; years ago, when the entirety of his life had been single-mindedly swallowed by desperate efforts to build up the stone bricks of his own worth, to prove himself suited to walk in the colossal footprints left behind by Shinra’s finest. Back then, he’d been a muddled, gawky-limbed boy carrying dreams far too big to fit into his loose-fitting army fatigues, who could just barely hope to catch the gleaming eye of any of the well-lauded heroes he’d hungered to be standing amidst.

The casual spar that he and Zack end up engaging in in the deserted clearing just outside the church grounds is a clash between two well-matched fighters, and Cloud hasn’t gotten used to thinking of Zack and himself in that regard.

Only their quick lungfuls of breath and the wintry music of silver steel bloom in the velvet-light silence, and just from that, fragments of the young boy he’d been as a Shinra trooper are returning only in ways that matter – in the racing of his pulse to be glimpsed as an equal, in the hidden constellations of his eyes, in the restless burn of his innards and his fingertips. Thinking straight is almost tricky, what with the warm gaze that Zack steals as he parries the thrust of Cloud’s blade, all tender approval and iron-hearted admiration and more than just a little fond.

Cloud can’t help but withdraw, lips curled in blossoming curiosity. ‘… What?’

‘Nothing,’ Zack grins, and it lights gold in every inch of his skin, underlines the healthy flush smearing his jaw. ‘I suppose it’s just hard to get tired of looking at you after thinking I’d never be able to again.’

It’s so breathlessly sincere, so unashamedly blunt and so Zack that subtle heat drips unwittingly over Cloud’s throat and cheekbones, and Zack immediately overflows with soft, chiming laughter, a bright tinkling of bells.

‘I don’t remember you being so tall. Or filled out. Or naturally carrying yourself with a back this straight.’ Zack steps in, and long fingers coil over the rigid edge of Cloud’s shoulder, hot and delicate and coarse. ‘A few years of fighting the good fight made you into this, huh. You’re really something, Cloud Strife.’

The full name is made up of one part teasing to two parts appreciation; a recipe that Cloud’s more than okay with, a graceful reminder of how closely knitted their lives had been. In the Shinra days it had really only been Zack who’d turned to him, who’d seen him, who’d found no crippling faults in him, who’d tucked Cloud under his wing with no misgivings and no mind to the separation of rank. The kind of hero who’d made a difference to Cloud’s life with only an outstretched hand – perhaps the kind of hero that matters the most.

‘… Back then, just to achieve something, to make something of myself, to be recognized for it … it was pretty much everything, you know?’ says Cloud, and he pushes a thin, muted sliver of air through clamped teeth. ‘It’s funny, but if you’d had this much praise for me years ago, I’d probably have passed out.’

Zack chuckles at that, easy and cotton-light. ‘Shame it wasn’t more obvious to you – I definitely had a whopping amount of respect for you. Still do. You had all the makings of a great SOLDIER, all that perseverance and courage and knowing the right thing to do, yeah? Hey, I know damn well that that applies to both incarnations of you, for sure. I’m glad it looks like you believe it right now, too. You didn’t really seem like you believed it all that much back then.’

An honest, simple sentiment, but also more than that by miles; it flutters in Cloud’s lungs, shakes his heart awake. Zack had been intimately flanked on all sides and shared friendships with such extraordinary suns: second class Kunsel, first class Angeal Hewley, the great General Sephiroth himself. And yet, always, his time and attention to Cloud had still been freely offered, all the way to the terrible end. Kind and selfless and real, one of Cloud’s first and only friends. Perhaps a best friend.

The thumb on his upper arm traces circles on his skin, steady, firm, familiar. He doesn’t even realize that his eyes have slid closed until they’re flitting open again; he meets the sight of Zack peering openly at him, face alight with mild surprise and interest.

‘Sorry. I—’ He reaches up carefully, fingertips leaving a small, single touch to Zack’s knuckles in indication. ‘I was just remembering when you used to do this. Well, you know, the other you.’

‘Haven’t we talked it all out already? Figured out that pretty much the only major difference between our timelines was who survived, who didn’t? I’m confident enough to say that the other me is me. He and I, two bodies, same guy.’ The mellow grasp on Cloud’s shoulder slowly untightens, slides away; threads of cool air swirl through the empty space left behind, and Cloud misses that settling heat already. Zack resets his broadsword in its place on his back, and suddenly bumps his hip sideways against Cloud’s, knocking their bones together. ‘Remember when I used to do that?’

Cloud does; it’d been one of Zack’s funny quirks, a playfully lazy way for him to acquire someone’s attention, much more his color and style than a regular tap on the shoulder. ‘Yeah. You did.’

‘And this?’

A friendly nudge of a fist against the fold of Cloud’s elbow; another signature of Zack’s affection, a gesture Cloud remembers being on the receiving end of countless times. A memory of encouragement, reassurance, warmth. ‘Mmm. I remember.’

‘How about this?’

The incoming bout of hair-ruffling is rife with warning signals that Cloud’s learned to pinpoint with steel-sharp eyes, and he quickly ducks his head away from hovering fingers, lips twitching at the edges. ‘Come on, Zack.’

He gets it. The point being made is glass-clear, and in one fashion or another, he’s starting to understand how Zack’s right. Despite living on and carrying more adventures to his name, this is certainly Zack, in his personality, his oddities, his memories, his feelings, his past; in the ways that count most, Zack is Zack, much the same – not a fake, not an empty copy, not a mere shadow of the Zack he’d known. His Zack, once lost, and now found again: a solemn parable of amazing grace. Maybe, Cloud thinks, all of that applies to himself, too.

Zack casts him a knowing grin, slanted and toothy and unhelpfully charming, and Cloud’s not thoroughly sure why his own soft pulse is quickening, but it is.

 


 

‘Reno’s left you four messages in this last week.’ Slack lips purse; willowy fingers rest on a sinuous hip. ‘He came by twice with Rude, too.’

Two minutes in the bar and his PHS is already ringing, ringing, ringing, an echo of fingernails scratching across a chalkboard. It sits weighty in his palm, a solid black flash of Tseng beckoning to him on the outer screen; he takes a slow sip from the cup of water that Tifa’s passed to him, eyeballing the device sideways beyond the ivory porcelain rim.

‘… Are you going to get that?’ she asks pointedly, studying him through a sweep of dark lashes, voice smooth and level with patience.

The ringing is unbroken and a little much, like too-bright light, like itching teeth. And it doesn’t stop. A flat wisp of air puffed through his nose, and Cloud reluctantly gives in at last; he plants the cup down on the nearby countertop with dull composure and idly flips the phone open, shoulders squaring.

Eyes fixed on Tifa, he says curtly into the speaker: ‘I’m giving you two minutes.’

‘That’s all I need.’ For all of Tseng’s characteristic qualities of straight-spined discipline and unchanging faces, the faint relief sings plain enough in his quiet exhale of breath, in the steadying pitch of his tenor. ‘My men have been trying to get in touch with you all week. I suppose you’ve been spending less time in Edge than we’d counted on.’

The news that they haven’t been keeping tight tabs on him as of late is reassuring, and in no way is Cloud set to freely serve the specifics on a silver platter. ‘Suppose so.’

‘We need Zack to come in,’ Tseng spills out, clear-cut and open, and his voice slides back to the stone-cool mode of sensible business and rustling papers and walls of concrete. ‘That Materia that brought him here – we’ve handed it over to the necessary experts for study; hopefully that can shed some light on what’s happened and how this is even a possibility. It would help tremendously if he’s actually with us, to ensure that they glean the most accurate data.’

Cloud’s knuckles tighten around the edges of the PHS at that, and from the other side of the bar counter, Tifa throws him a thin-lipped glance, delicate jaw stiff and flickering eyes apprehensive.

‘… We were ruthlessly hunted for nearly a year. Zack only just held on while carrying my weight, and he was killed,’ he says calmly, tongue tensed firm, fingers taut. ‘You had something resembling friendship with him once. You know what he’s suffered. And now you ask for him to be within arm’s reach for data. Surely you remember that he and I spent four years being data.’

‘I know,’ answers Tseng, and his words soften in all the corners, touched with a grain of something like contrition. ‘But if we can acquire the essential intelligence from this, we may be able to send him home.’

The realization hooks Cloud suddenly, like winding threads unraveling, like the ground pulling away from his feet. One week of warm smiles and shared meals and tender mornings and nights spent together in freedom: that’s all it’s taken for him to somehow already blot it over in his mind – the mathematical reality, the fact that Zack isn’t from here – and subtly replace it with his own self-designed conviction that Zack is home. Right now, with him, with Tifa, with the kids. Cloud had been young when he’d lost the best friend he’d possibly had. He’s only just gotten him back.

He’s given everything, giving and giving until his chest is carved hollow and his blood runs thin, protecting the world and its people once and again. In return, even now, any chance he has to be selfish for just one time leaks through the gaps between his fingers like running water, and he’s left dry, bare.

‘… He ran off, you know. After he came around. He was told that you were alive, and then you became his first priority,’ Tseng murmurs, and there’s no underlying reprimand stitched into his tone, as though the very idea actually permits him some measure of comfort. ‘I only got to see him as he was barreling out the door. Didn’t even get to speak to him; Reno had to fill me in on all of it. No means of contact or anything, since his PHS doesn’t work here. We can only hope to find him again through you.’

Teeth press together, closing around the heavy sentiments in his mouth, and Cloud doesn’t answer.

‘I believe that’s my two minutes,’ says Tseng, modest and collected. Straight to the point. ‘I appreciate you giving me your time. Please talk it over with him when you can. I can promise that this is to help him, too.’

Cloud wishes that Tifa wouldn’t look at him like that.

The late afternoon sunrays soaking through the shadows of the bar are still burnished gold in the window frames. A gentle heat; a fading light.

His chin lowers, and his eyes slip away.

 


 

He wonders what this church had been like in the days of its glory, if they’d performed ceremonies after dusk and held candlelit vigils, if the voices of choirs had curled through the pews like sacramental incense, if a hundred bowed heads birthed louder prayers. Cloud’s never been particularly religious, always too far sunken in the Planet’s darkest stains to hear sermons that don’t often apply to soldiers carrying the weight of the world within their hands; but sometimes, here, he can see what holy may possibly mean – in the reverent silence, in the fragile beauty of the broken stones, in the veil of moonlight cloaking the flowers and fallen rubble. A small taste of peace and quiet calm between the silver-lit walls, and he’ll accept any remnant of serenity that this universe has left.

Nothing about Zack Fair is discreet, especially not when nearly every inch of him is covered by two delighted children, but that bears its own brand of tranquility: the kind of noise that Cloud will always have room and patience for in all his days and nights.

‘… Zack,’ he says suddenly. ‘Have you put any thought into how you might go home?’

He’s slid into the habit of taking more careful steps and acting with less impulse since he’d pieced his memories back together in the wake of Meteorfall, but this particular seed’s been growing irrepressibly since Tseng had planted it in him – now a double-edged blade of subdued curiosity and tension. The look that Tifa glides his way is several shades of astonished; she stills on the picnic blanket beside him, bitten sandwich hanging midway to parted lips.

It’s also evidently quite appalling to Marlene, who’s peering at him with mouth slack and pupils wide, little voice airy as she blurts out, ‘You want to shoo Zack away?’

‘No, Marlene, it’s okay. Cloud would never do that,’ says Zack quickly, and the suns that shimmer in the moisture of those blue-green irises flare with full belief in his own words, for which Cloud’s immeasurably grateful. Zack turns to him, then, and presses on: ‘It hasn’t been an urgent priority, to be honest. Everything’s been okay back there. Peace in the world, for now; loads of other people to help keep things in check if anything happens. I guess I’ve been a little relaxed, since it’s a lot of fun here with you guys. I hope I haven’t been a burden.’

‘Not at all,’ Tifa cuts in, leisurely and soft. ‘You’ve been very helpful in the bar, too. You keep it up, and I’ll keep feeding you.’

Zack grins at her, tilted and bright, unfairly lovely. The rhythm of Cloud’s breaths tip over, uneven; it’s more or less as familiar as his own skin now, that heat flourishing in the fringes of his mind wherever Zack’s concerned. Maybe it’s been there for a long, long time. ‘Huh, I hate to say it, but I suppose I get why everyone calls me a puppy. It’s hard to keep an attention span when everything here is pretty much exactly the same as it is there, you know? It feels like I’m already home.’

Their gazes converge and touch, and something about the unsaid choice that’s been made stings in all the right places; without even knowing it, Zack’s just given them a heartfelt gift – time. They now have time. They’ll go on, starting from here: a little picture-perfect, all of them together, picnicking by lantern and starlight in the evening dark. A whisper of home.

‘That means you’ll stick around here for a while, won’t you? Cloud’s gonna stay with you – right, Cloud?’ says Denzel, and it’s an unexpected mark of subtly mature confidence, a great contrast to his aching insecurities back when they’d knelt in suffering beneath the black shroud of Geostigma. Somehow, Denzel understands, and the simple wisdom smolders calm and slow beyond the tender boyhood of his eyes. ‘Cloud’s been going out to claim some of his own space sometimes, but I bet he occasionally gets lonely. Good thing he’ll have you.’

‘Good thing I have him, too,’ Zack responds within the space of a heartbeat, earnest and cheery, every luminous shade of a glimmering summer’s day. ‘Man, sorry to clip the chat, but I’m still hungry. Might head out and bring back a couple of burgers or something. Mind if I borrow the bike for a bit?’

Cloud’s lips curve just barely; Zack’s awful bottomless stomach is amusingly typical, soothingly familiar. ‘If you break it, you’ll have to do deliveries for me for the rest of your days.’

‘I wouldn’t actually mind a boss like you. Thanks, buddy. You’re totally heaven-sent.’ With that, Zack leans forward over the picnic basket, and unexpectedly kisses him: a big, moist, sloppy kiss on Cloud’s cheek that burns with the flavor of gratitude and appreciation and casual merriment, that’s spiced with the fragrance of that night’s sliced meat sandwiches and inexpensive shampoo and simply Zack. And just a hair’s breadth of a moment later, he’s up and gone.

It leaves Cloud’s blood thumping in his throat, leaves the ridges of his ears blossoming warm, leaves his cheek tingling in all the layers beneath the surface. Tifa’s staring at him with eyeballs the size of dinner saucers, much too knowing for his comfort; his features are schooled already, steel-cool and unsmiling, but the moonlight’s suddenly brighter to his eyes, the evening air more alive against his skin. A luxurious reminder that, sometimes, he still has blessings he can count.

He’s not religious, no, and the human complexities of spirituality are beyond his understanding. But he’s dimly aware of some of the ideas that shape the bulk of it: sacrifice, resurrection, homecoming; second chances. Zack giving his flesh and blood to the earth to keep Cloud safe, rising from another world smeared in phoenix ashes, dulling Cloud’s demons, forgiving everything, all of it. Zack being here, and being happy to be here. There’s Cloud’s reality, more sacred to his beating heart personally than any god or goddess that walks the skies. A miracle.

Hardened muscles and tense limbs slacken with something resembling subtle relief, loose with poignant consolation and indulgent harmony, perhaps more than they’ve ever been.

 


 

He slowly flickers awake, like a slip of candlelight. Delicate heat pressed into his chest; level breaths carding through the wisps of his hair; supple and sturdy pressure underneath his cheek. Must be the pull of a faded dream, he thinks at first, of months in hiding spent just like this – collecting little crumbs of comfort in the unremitting contact of skin, with quiet exhalations ghosting over the shells of his ears. Finding Zack beneath his unsteady fingers, feeling Zack through the cracked glass layers of his mind.

The grey smoke of sleep thins away, then, clearing his head inch by inch, and those images of fleeing and taking cover wane and retreat to their bygone days, with only Zack and his unshakable presence and pliant touch staying in place; Cloud realizes that he’s somehow rolled into Zack during his sleep, head laid easy upon Zack’s upper arm, the snug curve of Zack’s palm wrapped over the contour of his hip – exactly as it’d been back then, when they were on the run. Tight-fitting, shielded, safe.

It’s more respectful humility rather than embarrassment that stiffens his chin as Zack suddenly shifts and stirs, heavy sigh catching on his lips and wilted limbs heaving, body warmth creeping in the slim gash of space between them. Cloud mumbles, a little mournfully: ‘Sorry.’

‘… Huh? Oh … no, it’s okay,’ answers Zack hazily, voice thick and languid and drowsy, drooping mouth flower-soft. ‘Mmm, nothing we haven’t done before. It’s actually nice.’

His arm tightens around Cloud, and any thin sheet of cool distance left between them chips away like brittle ice. Only they’re left, Zack and Cloud; almost like they’ve just been birthed again here and now – in the heart of the nighttime, in the belly of Aerith’s church, laid open to each other, stripped to the bone. Cloud finds that doesn’t particularly mind the feeling.

‘Hey … Cloud?’ Zack murmurs, moving to tip over sideways, cheek pressing idly into Cloud’s hair. ‘You mentioned before that you sleep in several joints, and pick what fits your mood. But you’ve just been settling here in the church with me since I landed. What about the other places?’

‘I can show you, if you like. But I have no special attachment to them or anything – they’re only shelter,’ Cloud replies sincerely, face tilting back a little to look up at him. His voice drops low all on its own when he adds: ‘I’d prefer to just stay here with you.’

Even in the dark, Zack’s silent pleasure is clear: a brief pale flash of teeth, the mounting swell of a broad chest, a muted sparkle of unguarded eyes. Zack’s always been a guy of carefree measures, in thought and in nature and in his way of living. Easy to like, easy to understand. A part of him that Cloud’s always been quite fond of, a thought that shakes Cloud’s innards like they’re plucked strings, bold and melodic and unruly.

‘Zack,’ he starts demurely, and he folds his throat around any lingering reservations, fingers curling into a fist at Zack’s side. ‘You should know that I got a call the other day. Tseng thinks you can help with the research into the Materia that brought you here, so he wants you to come in. They’ve started looking for a way to get you home.’

A fleeting pause stretches between them at first, breathless and dense.

‘… Yeah, okay. I’ll go in,’ Zack finally murmurs, sloping his head; freckles of starlight spill over into his pupils, an illumination for the pastoral blue-green circling them. A reminder of the simple countryside, of the first cheery banter about their backwater homes, of how Zack seemingly sees some semblance of home in Cloud and this place now, too. ‘But if sending me back is their number one urgency, then there’s no hurry. We’ll take things in whatever pace they’ll come.’

For once, the smile that edges into Cloud’s face is welcome to stay, and he lets it. Zack studies him in silence, patient and pleasant and warm; in an unthinking moment of boldness, Cloud slowly slides an arm over Zack’s waist, pushing in closer, before turning his eyes to the cold silver moonlight seeping through the fragmented church roof.

‘Mmm, it’s funny.’ Zack follows his line of sight, gaze flitting upwards, lips squeezing and puckering in half-absent thought. ‘Is it just me or has the sky been a little colorless recently? Even when it’s dark, it’s more of … an off-black. Like an ash grey.’

‘… Yeah,’ answers Cloud, tucking himself into the curve of Zack’s neck. ‘I’ve noticed that too.’

 


 

It’s still smoke-tinted the next day, and the next, and the next, as though the colors have bled away from the sky, as though the heavens themselves were sculpted from ash. It hangs over them in the daytime, a leaden veil dulling the sun’s yellow. They watch it in the nighttime while waiting for sleep, curled tight against each other and letting the hours tick away; a new routine serenely plucked from an old one.

Neither Tifa nor Zack are swept into the cheerless greyscale of the weather, however; the weekend rolls in with the bar set up for a surprise social lunch that Tifa’s graciously put in order, dining table bedecked from end to end in succulent meats, crisp salads, dewy fruits.

‘You can’t just hang out with this guy all the time,’ says Tifa, cheeky smile dimpling as she tilts her head towards Cloud in indication, delicate hand slipping meaningfully into Zack’s. ‘You’re gonna meet our other friends.’

‘What did I do to deserve an angel like you.’ Zack rocks their arms forward and visibly squeezes her fingers, all tender-eyed gratitude and a sloppy boyish grin. ‘By other friends you mean Yuffie, Cid, and the rest?’

Cloud’s heard everything about the other world’s AVALANCHE within the first few days of Zack’s coming, but judging by Tifa’s sudden look of loose-jawed wonder, she hasn’t expected that response.

‘Met them after I got myself off that clifftop – one by one. Took you a bit of time to trust me again, since the incident at your hometown wasn’t too far back at that point, but you did eventually. I really wasn’t kidding about walking the same path over there that Cloud did here. Call it some cosmic destiny to have someone fill those shoes, I guess.’ His brows soften and his mouth slants, then, uncharacteristically wistful, and Cloud can almost hear the whisper of sore heartbeats beneath, folded into that kind and accepting gaze. ‘Well, Yuffie probably recognizes me, since we met a lot earlier. I suppose the others will technically be meeting me for the first time, though.’

But the gold light’s back in Zack’s skin before any of them can pass a single breath, his eyes creasing at the corners in content understanding, and Cloud feels it warm in his own chest and the tips of his fingers, as if Zack’s hand is in his, too.

Tifa’s scrutiny rests a little too long on Cloud as he slowly returns Zack’s smile, but he doesn’t really mind.

He has to wonder if Tifa’s made it a point to quell any leftover unrest in Barret and the others by giving prefaced reminders to them all that Zack’s SOLDIER days are behind him, that Zack had been the one who’d eagerly befriended Cloud, freely protected him, readily saved him. Cloud’s tight-knuckled caution slips away the minute Zack merrily greets the guests as they walk in through the door and plant themselves at the dining table, however; it ends up taking only a small number of ravaged starting dishes for the modest room and time-beaten walls to be ringing with everyone’s rowdy clamor, and Cloud knows that Zack’s won them all on his own – armed with nothing but his usual upbeat bearing, his typical genuine cheer.

‘… I wouldn’t believe for a second that you did it the same way in your world and dressed up as a girl,’ Yuffie shrills noisily, two palms and all splayed fingers curving around Zack’s firm bicep to make a point. ‘No way in hell could you pass for one.’

‘I said that I was in Cloud’s place over there, starting from when I survived at the clifftop. Didn’t say that everything afterwards happened exactly the same way. That’d be impossible, Cloud and I are different people.’ Lips curl back and stretch, baring handsomely white teeth and a tongue drenched in evidently scandalous untold stories. ‘I had to turn myself into a sexy delivery guy.’

‘‘Scuse me?’ Cid cuts in, incredulous and blunt.

‘No, for real,’ laughs Zack, boisterous enough to raise the roof, yet somehow always charming; bright as morning, sweet as birdsong. ‘Our disguise hunt turned up basically nothing that'd fit me except for this scanty mailman number that was lying around – real tight in places, looked like the type a stripper would wear, you know? It had to do, though. Managed to get past with Aerith sitting in this huge sealed box to avoid attracting too much attention. Wheeled her right into the heart of the place while singing loud excuses of a special delivery and I must’ve fit right in, ‘cause no one batted an eyelash. Call it a miracle, I suppose.’

‘Glad to know at least two versions of me were spared from seeing that,’ Barret mumbles flatly, face impassive. Pointed, but not unkind; the same shape of prickly that he’s forever been to everybody else.

The mental picture of Zack squeezed into such an absurd outfit, cheap fabric stretched thin and bursting at the seams, is a little too humorous – and a little too good. Cloud can’t help but dip his chin and dimly chuckle into a closed fist; all eyes skim over to him then, sporting similar slack-lipped expressions of thunderstruck awe. Witnesses to a historical event that, admittedly, only happens once in a blue moon.

‘… Well now, if that isn’t music to my ears,’ says Zack approvingly, low-lidded gaze tremendously warm and heavy with something close to doting. ‘What’s so funny, though?’

‘Nothing,’ answers Cloud, rough and dry with the after-traces of faint, unused-to laughter. ‘Just wish I’d been there to see it. You in your silly mailman outfit. I’m sure you must’ve been quite the hunk, Mr. Delivery Man.’

That catches Zack noticeably off-guard, dark pupils dilating and a hardness to the plane of his throat, as if Cloud’s actually affected him. Cloud can only wonder, at length. ‘And I wish I’d been here to see you turn all femme fatale. We’d have been ridiculous and great together. Taken the Honeybee by storm.’

Breath coiling thick and heady in Cloud’s lungs, and he knows that Zack’s effortlessly affected him, either way. He cocks his head, peers at Zack through his lashes. Whatever’s poised between his lips – easily forgotten. Sentiments furtively replaced by a smile, and returned by Zack in kind; that’s good enough for him.

None of it seems particularly far removed from the norm, at least not until Tifa follows him out the back door an hour later while he’s seeking out fresh air, and she blurts out plainly: ‘You love him, huh.’

All the things that Cloud can expect her to say, and that doesn’t come even remotely close to anything he can possibly picture. Yet it strikes him right away – whom it is she’s referring to, what she’s talking about, what she’s seen.

‘… I admired him back in the day,’ he answers, slow and careful, hooked in place. ‘Still do. And he was one of the first friends I ever had. He’ll always be important to me.’

‘No, it’s much more than that,’ says Tifa, mounting exasperation tensing her sharp cheek-lines. ‘You’re happier now than I’ve ever seen you. He makes you laugh – you never laugh. And I don’t think I’ve seen you smile like the way you do when he’s around. You actually seem a lot more relaxed around him. You haven’t seen yourself, the way you look at him, it’s—’ she pauses then, as if caught breathless. ‘You want him, don’t you?’

And then, it trickles down the length of his back: a cool relief like he’s just let something go, an opened gate loosening his taut strings. Because Tifa’s theory does carry truth. It’s exactly what it is, and he knows it – maybe he’s always known it. The pulses beneath his ribs and that lingering clench in his chest, always so hot and strong and terrifying. All the more so, hearing it all clearly spelled out to him in actual words, feeling its contours flick against his lips, nearly palpable, wholly real.

‘… Yeah,’ says Cloud, and the response comes out sure and steady, surprisingly firm footing on a precarious tightrope. ‘It’s probably always been that way for a part of me.’

Tifa’s face softens at all the edges, thin eyebrows sloping, rigid angles going gentle in release.

‘Then you go after it, Cloud Strife. While you still can. We don’t know how long it’ll be until he heads home,’ she replies, level-eyed and constant. In an entirely different existence, he can picture it possibly being her that he may want; but his childhood attraction to her has molded into a much deeper familial love over the years, and as things are, Cloud’s never been more grateful to have her in his life, to have simply this. ‘If anyone deserves happiness, it’s you, okay? I don’t say this enough, but I really love you, you silly goose.’

He knows that. At the end of all things, he’s never alone, never will be. ‘Right back at you,’ he murmurs, true and warm, every syllable meant.

The sun’s already sinking low when the guests offer their goodbyes at four o’clock, the pale white outline of the moon sitting in wait in a faraway portion of the sky, a strange echo of Tifa’s mention of fleeting time. Vincent’s particularly gracious in his departure – first sparing Cloud a passing glance, and then turning on his heel to fix firm eyes on Zack, stating evenly: ‘Take care, Zack. And watch his back.’

Zack glimpses Cloud sideways in momentary surprise, before looking squarely upon Vincent again, jaw keenly set and backbone pulled straight. ‘Always.’

Cloud doesn’t know why the days are getting shorter, but it’s been a day well-spent.

 


 

There’s something altogether otherworldly about the sun shifting its own clock, rising too late, setting too early. Dawn at eight, dusk now at three. Daylight increasingly cut short on top of the skies greying; the dark gunmetal nights stretch longer and longer in ghostly silence. An unearthly suggestion of the work of divine hands, or the mysteries and the will of the Planet, or maybe a little of both – Cloud doesn’t particularly care to ask. Not when fairer things sit in his horizon, in his plans for the day, than a wayward sun.

Zack’s silhouette is made of sharp angles and soft familiarity, a shape of precision in the smudged light of the overdue daybreak, firm and arresting like Fenrir’s always been made for him. Smooth as running water, lips bending into an eye-catching smirk as he pulls in outside the bar, making Cloud’s throat clench, making Cloud’s toes curl.

‘Hey, you.’

‘Hey. How was it?’ Cloud manages, a little uneven at the edges.

‘It was okay,’ shrugs Zack, leaning back on the bike without dismounting, all sinuous limbs and graceful lines. ‘They got hair, skin, blood samples to test for whatever. Tseng wanted me to stay longer just in case, but I reckon they already have enough to work with for now, so I said no. Not gonna cut into my day with you more than I have to.’

Cloud eyes him meaningfully, the back of his mouth sweet and warm. ‘You’re so good to me, Zack,’ he says, breath stirring in his chest. ‘Come on. I won’t let it go to waste.’

‘I know you won’t,’ Zack grins, all teeth and trouble, an endearing portrait of mischief. Cloud swings his leg over, climbing on in front of him; and then, they’re out of there.

They first swing by a miniscule house on the outskirts of Edge. Sheer stone bricks in pale grey, paltry furnishings, really only enough room for one, maybe two. It’s gone unvisited for a month, tables and chairs touched by a butterfly-thin film of ashen dust. Zack looks nearly too big to fit between the walls, but he’s smiling in perfect comfort, footsteps light and courteous in his tour of the meager space.

‘… So you own this place.’

‘I own two, actually,’ says Cloud, eyes flickering low, idly scraping a boot against coarse carpeting. ‘Got another one up in the mountains, since I wanted the peace and the space, and I had the gil for it. I’m assuming you hadn’t tried selling your Materia, seeing as you said you couldn’t afford your own bike? One mastered All was enough for me to pay for everything. With plenty left to spare, too.’

‘Yeah, guess I never thought that far. I’ve tossed my Materia into a box – think I’ve kept nearly all of them. Might come in handy again one day, or something,’ Zack laughs, leisurely and mellow. ‘For real, though, this is nice. The church is nice too, but you should actually move in here, not just use it for sleeping once in a while.’

You’re at the church, Cloud thinks; and despite there being no bed to lie in, it’s been more than home to him since his nights had begun being spent held by Zack while they slept, a consoling luxury that a proper roof and pieces of furniture can’t possibly equal. He doesn’t want to move in here and not ask Zack to come, and he can’t ask Zack to move in knowing that this world may not end up being his home for long. A thought that he doesn’t want to shoulder now – or any other time, really.

‘I’ll think it over,’ is all he says.

They make their way to the mountain lodgings next, and it’s much the same, apart from being washed in the crisp, biting air of the rocky hills; perhaps even smaller in size, a detail that makes Zack chuckle, luminescent and soft. ‘I’m beginning to think that you have a certain taste when it comes to houses.’

‘You said you wanted to see the places where I sleep, and now you’ve seen them all. You can’t walk into my house and make fun of me,’ Cloud monotones, but the words carry no thorns – only the hanging threat of a half-smile.

Zack steps in, then, raising a hand, swiping a gentle thumb over Cloud’s cheekbone; close enough that Cloud’s dimly rinsed in the sweeping trickle of his breath, in the rolling heat from his skin. ‘This face really suits you.’

‘What face?’

‘You look happier,’ Zack replies, lashes low. ‘More smiley lately, for sure.’

Cloud pauses at that, feet caught in place. Teeth clamping down in his mouth, then going slack in release: a single pulsing beat. ‘Tifa says that you caused it,’ he finally murmurs, reaching up to graze fingertips against the back of Zack’s palm; and there’s more foolish courage in the words than he’s ever felt with his knuckles wrapped around a sword, more doors left open to the deepest of his bones than he’s ever readily allowed.

His hand slowly falls away; so does Zack’s.

‘… And do you think Tifa’s right?’

‘I do,’ answers Cloud, this time with no gap of hesitancy. Belly clenched firm and knees steady, eyes meeting eyes in iron-hard truth.

Because Zack isn’t the one and only wellspring of his happiness, but Zack is the one who’s kindled something. A broader understanding, maybe, of all the things that he cares about enough to make room for in his heart – the warmth of family, the comfort of friends, the solace of home. Everything that Tifa’s a part of, that Denzel and Marlene are a part of, that Barret and the others are a part of, that Zack’s most certainly a part of.

Though it’s different with Zack than it is with the others, Cloud knows. A seamless fit like fingers sitting in the spaces between fingers, like the press of skin against skin, like puzzle pieces sliding into place. Clear enough that Tifa’s already seen it in him – there’s wanting where Zack’s concerned; a deep-set spark to add to their history of shared moments, of given smiles, of friendship and staunch love and patience shown even in the darkest hours, of sacrifice. And the impossible reunion between them that’s somehow been made possible.

The look that Zack rests on him is full with weight and fever, and for the first time, Cloud realizes that his feelings on the matter may not be as one-sided as he’s assumed.

‘Come on,’ Zack says, biting his lower lip at one side, biting something back. But he runs his fingers across Cloud’s wrist, a promise of more to come; and Cloud’s sure, through trust alone, that it will. ‘Before it gets dark.’

Monochrome flowers dust across the long ride back to the church. Black and white petals sinking from bent grey stalks, and sparsely peppered across dry earth, when Cloud remembers that they hadn’t been colorless before. Something’s changing – the world’s changing, somehow. And he and Zack are shifting; he knows it, from his own heartbeats pulsing all the way up into his skin, from the quiver of anticipation in the palms of his hands, from the burn of fantasy and impatience. Drunk on the thought that when they get back to Sector Five, his universe will tilt a different way. He’s almost sure of it.

He wonders if his continuous bursts of irrationality are a reflection of how this makes him feel, this thing that’s hovering dense and heavy between them now, because once they’ve pulled up outside the church and climbed off the bike, he can’t help but say: ‘… Do you think she’ll be mad at me for this? See it as a disrespect, even from the Lifestream?’

It rings absurd from the moment it leaves his mouth, but asking at all muffles his tensions somewhat; and in the end, he’s aware that laying out all cards on the table really is the only path they’ll walk. A question as clear as morning, and Zack evidently understands right away, gaze suddenly falling tender, skin flushing with life.

‘Now you’re just being self-conscious when you don’t need to be. I know you know the answer to that already,’ he replies, level and steady. ‘Aerith’s one of the most free-spirited people I’d ever met. The patience of a saint and a heart as big as the moon, right? She’d be the last person who’d want either of us to hang back, and you know it. Leave history as history, Cloud.’

He moves close, fingers lifted to trace over Cloud’s collarbone, to wrap against the crook of Cloud’s neck, and that aching pressure in Cloud’s chest isn’t just breathlessness anymore, but everything. Relief; deliverance; salvation; solace. Gladness.

‘She was your first actual love.’

‘And she’s not my last.’ Zack’s exceptionally firm about that, and it’s stunning, how such a truth can be so hard-set that it’s almost visible to the naked eye, nearly tangible. ‘She’ll always mean a whole lot to me, but what things were in the past is just that – the past. You don’t need to feel like she’s hard to measure up to when it comes to me … she’s her, you’re you, y’know? Honestly, there’s not a single bit of you I wouldn’t take, and not a single thing about you I don’t like or accept, yeah? You should keep doing you. And I know you: when you want something, you’ll go after it.’

The last bit’s said with the knowing, pointed raise of a single eyebrow, and Cloud lets out a quiet laugh. He gets the hint.

‘Since when did you, of all people, get so eloquent with words,’ he smiles, the tightness in his ribs shaking loose at last. ‘But you’re right about that.’ And he leans in to Zack, and kisses him.

There’s only this, then, and nothing else. A sliver of Zack’s breath slipping past Cloud’s parted lips; Zack’s thumb trailing across the line of his jaw; Zack’s heated hum trilling soft against his mouth; Zack kissing him back – all of it swallowing Cloud’s senses, sinking him deep. Zack’s pulse beating faint rhythms against Cloud’s fingers, messy and consuming, sound and alive. Cloud licking warmly into Zack, and Cloud fitting just right within all of Zack’s clefts and corners, like they’ve always been made that way.

Cloud dips his body in Zack as if he’s a gold ray of dawn, and forgets all about black and white flowers.

 


 

He remembers the days when peace had come to him in the shape of solitude, when closing the doors to his heart had felt as natural to him as the broadsword in his palm, when the circumstances of his world had been configured such that every word was a battle, every action was a war. It often still takes getting used to, now, having things tilted the right way and tranquility taking the form of noise and people, of company and family, of his two best friends at his left and right. A song softly hummed from Aerith’s garden like a warm hand at his back; a firm presence at the tip of the church like an anchor in his bones.

‘… Just throwing this out there.’ Zack’s voice echoes in the vast stretch between walls of fractured stone, soaks into the flourish of space beneath the splintered roof. ‘But is all of this maybe because of me?’

Cloud juts his head up from behind layers of long tubing and sleek metal; within arm’s length of him, Tifa pauses and looks up, too, palms still buried in an overflow of bright green flower stalks. The inner end of the sanctum is washed in some measure of darkness where the sunlight can’t quite reach, but he easily sees Zack perched atop a tangle of rubble, crouched low with his Buster Sword rising tall at his side – all noble courage and dreams and honor carved into a strong bed of steel.

Beyond that is the other Buster Sword, the one that had been fashioned here, the one originally passed beneath a dying breath into Cloud’s tremulous hands, a mark of the close of one hero’s journey and the dawn of another champion’s long and stormy passage. Zack’s studying the mirrored weapons in unusual stillness, elbows set upon his knees, fingers steepled at his chin.

‘What do you mean?’ asks Tifa, head tipping sideways in soft concern.

Zack turns to her, then, and gracelessly flaps a single hand at the broken ceiling. ‘All that.’

And suddenly, it’s ominously clear-cut. Not only the greying skies, the shortening days, or the smoke-black clouds now sliding by, crawling beyond the open gashes in the planks of wood. Thunder rolls distantly, as if called to being by the conversation they’re exchanging – though thunder’s been rumbling intermittently in the last day or two, with no single raindrop or crack of lightning ever following. Cloud gets what Zack’s saying; it grazes his bones with slivers of cold.

He presses it down, shakes the wisp of dread away from the back of his neck, and calmly moves back to tuning up his motorcycle.

‘If there’s any truth in that, then I’m sure Tseng will find something,’ he says, and even to his own ears, there are as many notes of a quiet, smothered plea as in the offer of consolation. ‘He says he has experts on the job, right. We should just trust in that for now.’

‘I guess. Just can’t help squirming in my seat when I’m out riding and see these flowers going all black and white when I know they’re not supposed to be. And that they weren’t that way before I got here. They weren’t even that way when I first got here.’

So Zack’s noticed them, too. Cloud’s vaguely heard of such extranormal blights being written in ancient texts and bibles, in the various scriptural teachings and olden mythologies of the world, but he’s never seen anything so reminiscent of its designs until these recent circumstances. He can’t fault Zack’s unease at all, not when even his own body’s tensing from foreboding.

Tifa chews thoughtfully on her lip, dark eyes kept cool and level. ‘Well, whatever happens, you’ll have us. We’ve got your back.’ Gaze firm, chin raised with solid truth; only the bleeding flush of color at the underside of her jaw leaks any hint of insecurity with the situation. ‘I agree with Cloud. Let those guys worry about that stuff. In the end, I’m sure that something will work out.’

‘… Mmm, alright,’ answers Zack carefully, leaping off the rigid knot of stone in one liquid movement. With that, he makes his way over to them; Cloud leans back on his knees and away from Fenrir in subtle greeting, screwdriver nestled loosely in the cradle of his knuckles. Zack shakes his head, casual amusement coiling at the edges of his face. ‘You have a spot of grease on your cheek.’

He bends over to swipe it away with a brush of coarse fingertips, and angles in, leaving a lazy and affectionate peck at the corner of Cloud’s mouth.

‘Everything will be okay,’ says Cloud, catching his wrist, looking him straight in the eye.

Zack gives a single nod, the etched lines of his face slackening in acceptance. ‘Yeah.’

By their side, Tifa too-obviously dips her head to ease down a growing smile, clipping at a drooping blade of grass between a spray of white and yellow petals.

 


 

This is about Zack Fair. I’m about to call you. I suggest you pick up.

Cloud’s by the river when the message comes, and it’s from a number he hasn’t seen before. The day’s deliveries done and the soft-lit sun staining the horizon dark golden orange, and his PHS sings out to him from the wrinkled folds of his pocket; only when Fenrir’s brought to a halt and propped still does he suddenly notice it – faded garnet threads, stretched long and thin in the moving water, tinting the flowing stream. A painted masterpiece of blood-red.

Social interaction’s never quite been one of his specialties or concerns, and the temptation to disregard any unimportant call is always too great, but nothing that revolves around Zack can be unimportant, he knows. Lips skew in displeasure when the call comes at last; he takes it.

‘Who is this?’ he asks, curt and cutting.

An all-too-familiar voice, smooth and sharp like white wine. ‘Hello, Cloud. You’re certainly on edge.’

Cloud has to pause himself to let it sink in, to allow logic to collect like beads between his teeth, to drag in a long and thin-pressed breath. After all, Rufus Shinra is his own solar system, too big to know how to fit in with the common people; he isn’t one to seek Cloud personally unless there’s some shape of urgent necessity shadowing his motivations. Rationality’s never been easy to fight.

‘… What do you want?’

‘To work out an arrangement,’ answers Rufus, an admirable study in sophisticated calm. ‘I’m told that your friend’s been given a PHS to use on account of his own phone not working here, but he isn’t picking up. Besides that, my Turks have mentioned in passing that trying to get in touch with you is like pulling teeth. Since it seems like you’re not partial to talking with them usually, I decided to contact you personally regarding this particular matter.’

The gurgling liquid of the brook at Cloud’s feet is a watercolored picture of tranquility; in a bid to keep his tolerance in one piece, he pools his focus on its bubbling music, on its crisp and wild fragrance. ‘Zack’s due to start a shift at my other friend’s bar in a couple of hours. He’s probably too busy preparing things and helping her out the back to take any calls,’ he says, matching patience for equal patience. ‘I’m not partial to talking with you, either. And I was asking what you want with Zack.’

‘Only for him to come in for tests more often.’ Rufus doesn’t even miss a beat, an adult confidence that’s more than suitable for his quick-minded brand of fat cat. ‘The technicians under my employ have informed me that the examinations are perfectly safe, and I can assure you that they’ll only be conducted with his full consent. This is unfortunately a pressing issue – I’m sure you’ve noticed what’s been happening around us? The sky turning grey, the nights getting longer and days getting shorter, the sporadic thunder and clouds going black, the grass and flowers losing their color? It sounds like you’re next to a body of water; you should take a good look at it. It’s rather subtle, but all the rivers have been bleeding since yesterday morning. People are anxious, and they’re starting to talk.’

Cloud glances sideways at the red-dyed river, alarm clutching the walls of his chest. ‘You’ve confirmed that Zack’s arrival here is connected?’

‘Not yet. But we believe it is, so we’re working to find out if that’s the case,’ says Rufus, a subtle wariness keeping his tone even. ‘So, then. That’s three or four times a week, or maybe more, should anything come up. If you could pass on the message to him.’

It’s almost easier to throw the Shinra name into categories of black and white – as monochrome as the dress suit that Rufus always wears like a personal uniform: Shinra, an evil with no shades of grey, no in-betweens. A concept that isn’t so simple, however, when Rufus is this sensible, when everything he’s saying rings heavy with what must’ve been a great deal of thought and understanding. Just like it’d been when he’d come to Cloud for help that day, when the populace had fallen to its knees at Geostigma’s feet.

‘… Why are you doing this?’

Rufus lets out a breath, light and quiet, almost full of meaning. ‘Even now, there’s still much that Shinra owes the world, after everything.’ His voice drops low in reflection, down to nearly a murmur, but Cloud can hear the nuance of every word loud and clear. ‘I can only pay back the debt in small portions.’

A resonant echo of their years-old conversation at Healin Lodge; any memory of Rufus Shinra showing even a single grain of humility is bound to be too distinct to forget. Cloud remembers the ruminations over Sephiroth’s spirit, and the possibility of the impossible – there’d been mention about the workings of the Lifestream that day, as well.

And then, he suddenly realizes that he can make the most of this call, too.

‘Before you go, I believe there’s something that you can also do for me. You seem to know a bit about the Lifestream and the Planet, given who you are, and given what your company used to do.’ Because Rufus laying things out for him once is something that Cloud can put behind him; twice, however, is no accident. ‘Do you know anything about whether it’s possible for someone to exist in the world and the Lifestream at the same time?’

That gets him drifting silence, at first.

‘Cloud,’ Rufus then says, the single syllable round and slow. ‘I may have run Shinra in the days of its power, but I’m by no means a qualified expert on these things.’

‘I know that. But you’re the closest thing to one that I have access to, at this stage,’ Cloud pushes, hot and insistent. ‘At the very least, you have a better understanding of it than I do. Indulge me.’

A wet click of a tongue, a slow-issued sigh. Sounding more of careful acceptance rather than impatience; that’s somewhat reassuring, at least.

‘Are you asking because you saw your friend? Did you see him after his death?’

In only one response, Rufus has somehow wormed straight into the core of it, figurative eyes needle-sharp; Cloud hasn’t expected that. ‘During the Geostigma crisis. He came to me – when Sephiroth … and afterwards, too. It felt real. Not like my imagination.’

‘… You know, it’s commonly said that when souls enter the Lifestream, they become part of it. They dissipate into it, their minds fragment, they’re no longer waking. Unless you’re the Ancient, I suppose; her kind works in mysterious ways,’ Rufus starts sedately, a tenor both distantly generous and lined with ice-cool glass, all at once. ‘Not saying that your friend’s gone, but my belief is that he’s no longer conscious. He’s a part of the Planet now, and always. I’m guessing that when he came to you, you needed him at that time – whether you realized it or not, perhaps you sought comfort and anchorage; a part of you called out to him, and the Lifestream delivered. And now that you’re safe and well, he’s returned to sleep.’

Cloud can understand that much. So the very last time that Cloud had seen Zack’s apparition walking away with Aerith’s, he really had been saying goodbye, without thoroughly leaving. To return to slumber and unconsciousness, to melt away and disperse into the world again. To return to peace. Cloud’s eyes slip closed and he swallows thickly, heart squeezing tight and tender, nearly an unintentional prayer for anyone looking.

That’s good.

‘I’ve heard myths of spirits staying intact when they have unfinished business – stories of vengeful ghosts and all that – but there’s no solid proof to back any of that up, and I’m sure you’ll tell me that it wouldn’t be the case for your friend anyway. I’ve also heard vague theories about the long-deceased coming to collect the newly deceased, but if there’s any truth to that, then I think that that would be the only other time they’ll temporarily return to shape, since the Lifestream’s given them a momentary purpose,’ Rufus goes on, weight built into each word. ‘Again, I’m no expert on this, but based on what I understand, the dead should be completely disconnect and separate from the plane of the living, since that realm is no longer theirs. I’m aware that it’s not a direct answer to your question, but it’s all I can manage. Does that give you better insight?’

Surprisingly, it actually does. ‘That’s fine.’

‘Good,’ Rufus says, suitable satisfaction coloring his voice. ‘I hope that the next time I speak to you, it’ll be in better circumstances. Maybe we’ll have found something by then.’

He hangs up the line, and the call ends; all that’s left is the rich half-light of an early sunset, the burbling noise of a sparkling river.

It’s never been in Cloud’s nature to be particularly affectionate, or clingy. But the short-lived sunlight hasn’t stopped the entire day from stretching too long for him, and the moment he’s returned to the bar, all he’s in the mood for is to hold Zack against him; Zack gives a warm chuckle as Cloud makes his way behind the bar counter, emitting a pleased hum when Cloud’s arms come to fold around his waist.

‘I’ll make you a drink? You look like you could use one.’

‘That’d be about right,’ Cloud murmurs flatly, pressing a cheek into Zack’s shoulder. He doesn’t really mean it, though. Zack is enough.

 


 

Zack’s return from Rufus’ labs two days later is also graced with the close of daylight, fading rays seeping through the cracked roof to press faint kisses to the stained glass windows, spilling over onto the walls of stone in smears of pink, yellow, red. The latter portions of Cloud’s years had been spent walking a broken world set in a funerary darkness, so he’s never really had much care to see the glamor in the everyday; but maybe he understands why people love dusks and dawns, their hushed splendor, their rich spectrum of colors. They keep his limbs loose and his mind untangled, a tranquil sliver of time that he can give himself to do anything – to simply lean against one of the worn pews in the corner of the church, to watch Zack’s classic flurry of squats, to just be there with him in meaningful quiet.

‘They were measuring my – vibrations? Frequencies? Something,’ Zack puffs thinly as he falls and rises, down, up, three, four. ‘I felt better with Cissnei there overseeing the whole thing, but I don’t pretend to get what anyone’s doing. I just hope something comes out of it.’ Five, six, seven.

‘You’re back, at least,’ says Cloud, mouth creasing warmly at the edges. ‘I swear, Zack. You’ve had a long day and you’re still doing squats?’

‘Hey, don’t you poke fun at me. I literally just started.’ Zack stops fluidly, gliding to a standstill, amusement marked by a pearly glint of teeth. He thoughtfully sidesteps over to Cloud, though, and says, ‘But you’re right. Seven hours of being jabbed and prodded is enough work for one day, I think. Anything you wanna do tonight?’

Firm fingers slide over Cloud’s hips, and even after all this time, Zack’s attention still leaves him as breathless as it always had; Zack only ever has to look at him for his blood to spark, for his belly to twist, for his lungs to clench.

Cloud edges in, an unspoken pursuit, his own fingers curling into Zack’s waist with interest, too. And he’s given no additional opportunity to take it anywhere else; because in the next moment, his ears catch the rough scraping of two sets of confident strides outside the church – and a burst of leisurely but obnoxious laughter, chafing his seams nearly at once.

‘Seriously? I just got here. No way, I’m done today,’ Zack says in protest, jaw hard-set. ‘They’re not getting me tonight. Come on, Cloud.’

Zack spares no time, old SOLDIER reflexes sharp as steel. He reaches up and pushes at Cloud’s shoulders with the heels of his palms, guiding him back and down to the meager gap between the pews; and then, he lowers himself on the bow of his knees, too, clambering in straight after.

His body slips carefully over Cloud’s, smooth and secure, a single finger poised to his lips in an obvious gesture for silence – and Cloud can’t help but wonder, somewhat absurdly, when exactly it’d been, the last time he’d broken out of his own crusty shell enough to actually play any kind of game.

Because all things considered, this crosses the threshold of ridiculous already. But the quiet charge and teeming energy of Zack leaning on top, lingering above him, inches from being flush against him, is one that Cloud really doesn’t mind at all; and judging by the telltale dusky look sweeping over Zack’s lashes, he’s not exactly hating this, either. They’ve always clicked together just right, though, the two of them and their qualities, their bearing and their bodies – a brazen thought that Cloud can barely put the brakes on at all, even with Turks at their heels.

‘Yo, blondie, we wanna borrow your buddy for a few more hours, he—’ Reno’s voice drawls out from the entrance to the church, far too jaunty for Cloud’s liking. ‘—Huh? Where … I swear I heard ‘em. You heard ‘em, right?’

‘You probably scared them away,’ suggests a gentler voice, mild and wise and a subtle echo of straight-backed grace, somewhat touched with disappointment. Elena. ‘Of course they’re going to start running if they hear you stampeding over.’

‘You wound me,’ answers Reno silkily, toothy smirk obvious in the slow drag of his tone. ‘I know how to be discreet, thank you very much. I just didn’t think that they’d be playin’ cat and mouse anymore.’

An even clicking of thick block heels, a lazier scuffing of rubber-soled creepers. They’re coming deeper into the body of the church, and Zack’s evidently aware of that fact, too, the long, sturdy line of his body tensing; heat blooms at the base of Cloud’s stomach, and he distantly has to question how much of his own tension actually has to do with the Turks, when Zack’s this close to him. Close enough to wrap his fingers around and pull into himself, into the gaps between his bones, into the hollows of his veins.

‘… Hey,’ Reno starts, now ringing sedate and cool; half-joking, maybe. ‘Wanna check between the pews?’

‘Like they’re playing hide-and-go-seek? But they’re not children. I think we’re wasting our time. They must’ve left out the back.’ A sighed retaliation with no real sting, speaking volumes of an ordinary day at work with Reno, more than anything. ‘Boss will love that.’

‘Nah, he’s not gonna be mad. Zack’s back in tomorrow morning, anyway. Hard to deny a guy a break when he has to run and disappear to get one,’ says Reno in carefree spirits, yawning loud and stupid. ‘No big deal, just gotta explain it when we get back. C’mon, let’s head.’

Dull footfalls tap against creaking planks of wood, a mirrored tempo to the pulsing beats drumming against the cage of Cloud’s ribs, wild and clear-cut, crisp and honest. Though the dwindling rhythm now making its way outside the church is far less pronounced, the light treads fading into airy silence; Zack flicks a pleased gaze down at Cloud, grinning.

‘Looks like they overestimated you,’ Cloud says, throat going dry and breath hitching from their mere proximity and fit and bare contact, his splayed fingers idly trailing up the plane of Zack’s chest. ‘Only you would play hide-and-go-seek with Turks. And you object when people call you Puppy.’

‘Come on. Admit it – not knowing if we were gonna get caught like this, it was kind of exciting,’ Zack responds knowingly, dipping his head down to Cloud without reserve, lips pressing once to the full of his mouth. His scent warm and heady and masculine, rising from his skin, such that Cloud’s nearly drunk with it. The same charming smile with slightly different eyes; handsomely low-lidded, almost a suggestion. And Cloud’s already openly taking the bait, because there’s no denying that everything about Zack is really painfully attractive, and this is switching on buttons in him that he’s not even sure he’s ever been aware of.

It had been a thrill, in the ways that had less to do with hide-and-go-seek and more to do with Zack alone.

‘Everything always is, with you,’ answers Cloud, and he wraps his hand against the back of Zack’s neck and pulls him down, rising to meet him for another kiss.

It’s wet, hot, a perfect fit. Not just Zack’s tongue swiping over Cloud’s teeth, or Cloud’s mouth slipping honey-slow and languid, catching on Zack’s. Everything, down to Zack pushing his thumbs into the valleys of Cloud’s waist, down to Cloud’s fingers twisting into the coarse ribbing of Zack’s sleeveless shirt. And Cloud remembers – between his knees splaying open and the bones of Zack’s hips pressing against the insides of his thighs – when his trooper days were spent looking at Zack’s bold contours and having a strange craving to memorize them with his palms, when his own soft tissue and slender build had only added to his shameful list of personal failures, when Zack had seen beyond their contrasts and fashioned a habit of casually touching and holding him anyway, when he’d felt himself as little more than an awkward knot of elbows and knees beneath Zack’s hands, within Zack’s arms.

He’s grown to what he is now starting from Zack’s belief in him, supple flesh and firm muscle and rough skin, the years sculpting him into Zack’s equal and turning both their pains into sturdy pillars, turning their suffering into matching strength. Zack presses in closer, keen and tight, as if to reaffirm that; Cloud opens up, too, a spread of wings, letting him through, letting him in.

‘Wait. This—’ A damp breath, a heated whisper against Zack’s mouth. He’s paying for propping himself up too barely, the space between his shoulder blades straining, and he promptly gets off his elbow, lowering himself back supine to stay comfortable. ‘Zack, come here.’

Zack’s eyes flicker dark at the simple call, pupils dilating to full attention; it’ll never stop aching in Cloud’s gut, every crystal-clear proof and sight of Zack wanting him. Zack follows him down, comes in and licks Cloud’s bottom lip, and Cloud’s suddenly aware that the shift in position’s hitched his own shirt up slightly, while bringing Zack high enough that there are only two delicate layers of cloth separating his cock from Cloud’s bared hip. The slow swell of it clear and palpable, and Cloud’s body instantly responds in kind too, blood pounding in his wrists and in his throat with the realization that this is happening.

‘Hey. Are we doing this?’ Cloud murmurs in interruption, a mulled aftertaste of Zack at the fringes of his tongue, his own cock too awake too quickly – a shameless hard throb grazing lightly against Zack’s thigh; and he has to fight not to just rock firm against him, because he’s now treading on a tightrope as it is and it’ll all be over too embarrassingly fast. Pulling his own reins taut, he jokes: ‘We’re in a church, isn’t this sacrilege or something.’

Zack draws back a little and bites at the corner of his own lip, an unconscious gesture that’s more inviting than he maybe realizes, and then moves to push the pew to their right a bit further away with a solid, hardy shoulder to create some more room.

‘Well, unless you wanna get on your bike right now and wait until we get to that house of yours before we continue,’ he answers, sinking his weight on Cloud again, and then the pressure’s back, winding tight. He rolls his hips against Cloud’s, warm and steady, and the motion hooks Cloud in such that he’s freely swept in its momentum, his own hips moving counter to Zack’s in earnest. ‘And we can’t – do it proper, we don’t have anything on us. That’ll have to be next time. For now, we can still do this, yeah?’

This is already better than anything Cloud’s felt in his life, and he’s not about to say no for anything. He braces his knees against the pews on either side of them, rigid bone pressed against hard wood; his breathing quickly slips uneven at the slide and caress of Zack’s mouth on his neck, lips and tongue tracing heat over his skin.

Next time sounds just as good, a portrait of their touching bodies being as much of a house of worship as the holy temple they’re now in. There’s not much of an altar left in this place, just slabs of cracked stone propped in the light like sacred tablets; but Cloud can’t help basking in the vision of Zack folding him over, Zack slowly fucking him against it, Zack’s hands all over him like sin, like fire, like prayer. Next time. Teeth clamp firm, the thought leaving him smoking with impatience, and he works his hand between them, fingertips deftly undoing Zack’s fly, tugging his cock free.

There’s a clipped wisp of breath sucked in against Cloud’s throat, then, an honest burn coaxed from the new skin-to-skin contact, maybe. A promising thread of quiet, broken sighs when he palms Zack experimentally, when he thumbs an exploratory path up the shaft, when he skims two roughened fingertips across the slit. Zack tilts his head up in answer, and leaves a quivering, unsteady, feather-light bite against the angle of Cloud’s jaw; he gives an eager push into Cloud’s hand, as well, clearly more than appreciative.

Shit, Cloud. That’s—’ he hisses, lashes full and dark and low, and then he’s working to unfasten Cloud’s fly, too. A blessing that can’t come soon enough, because the fabric between them’s growing to be more of a hindrance with every passing moment. And Zack works fast – he’s sliding back before Cloud knows it, fingers hooking into Cloud’s waistband and pulling his fatigues and underwear down, all the way down. Out of the way. ‘Yeah, this has gotta go.’

‘Mmm. Good.’ Cloud can’t agree more, even with the jarring cold of the timber floor pooling at the base of his spine, the cool air swirling wintry at everything left naked from the waist down, and the fervent loss of Zack’s smoldering body heat when it’d been swallowing him so wholly.

The chill doesn’t last long, at least. Not with Zack easing back in, pressing soft lips to the jutting bone of Cloud’s hip. Not with the warm palm framing and stroking the curve of Cloud’s thigh; the hot breath ghosting up the line of his stomach like butterfly wings; the wet tongue briefly dipping into his navel along the way.

It’s barely any touch at all, and it’s already so much, brimming under his skin, nearly bursting to full. Cloud greets Zack with a hint of smarting in his chest and far too many things unsaid, fingers snaking into Zack’s hair, tapering his focus on the way the wisps of it run against his skin.

Who knows, Cloud thinks vaguely, if this sits on a plane equal to rebirths, baptisms, washing away the dark. Zack rises up from Cloud’s touch with licks of flame in his eyes, and Cloud feels long fingers curl over his hips; and then, Zack’s dragging him down the planks of timber, down the thin sliver of distance left between them, until they’re fully meeting in that coiling gravity between their thighs. Firm and together and slick with pre-come, and Zack moves to position himself, lining them up; Cloud shifts down, too, angling himself a little to allow Zack better access, biting his tongue at the sensation of that welcome hardness flush against his own.

‘… Still with me, right?’

So attentive and kind and warm, even now; Zack being Zack, as always. Stupidly beautiful to a degree that leaves Cloud halfway to insane. ‘Of course. Zack, please,’ he urges, a whisper clear as day between shallow pants.

They join and match the way Cloud’s always known they will, like flesh on bone, like the harmony beneath a tune, seamless. Zack wraps callused fingers around both of them at once, taking them into a circled fist – and starts to rock; it isn’t slow but it’s somewhat restrained, measured instead of rough, like he wants to savor this for as long as he can, like Cloud’s worth the time, like Cloud’s worth it. A sight that hurts so good, thorns pricking Cloud’s heart in all the right places. He reaches over and tugs on Zack’s shirt, pulls him down on top and takes his weight, folds his arms around him and digs blunt fingernails into his back like they’ll never be separated again, a fragile fantasy with no cost and all comfort.

Wiry thighs cradle sturdy hips and Cloud drives up into Zack, too, pushing for more pressure on his cock and breathing jumbled pleas against the crook of Zack’s throat, licking fever into the plane of neck beneath his lips, tasting the salt of Zack’s skin. And suddenly—

—Flowers.

Out of nowhere, there’s also flowers. A flavor of fragrant petals in his mouth, a sensation sweet as spun sugar between his teeth, a feeling in his bones taking the shape of a familiar voice. A whisper of It’s okay, it’ll be okay; take good care of each other, will you?

It nearly catches him off-guard – a striking hallucination, he’s sure of it. But he’s always held trust in Aerith, either way, and he will now, too. He really can’t think about it at this point, too far gone in this haze and in this mounting friction and in Zack, though he has to momentarily wonder if she’s watching them right now, a spectator to the rutting of beasts; the thought of this being watched by anyone in any way at all is maybe a little more indulgently hot and sensual to him than he’s willing to admit, though in the end, he does still want this to belong to him and Zack alone.

The taste of flowers is gone as swiftly as it’d come, like a clean goodbye, and everything that’s left behind scorches something fierce.

The pulsing tension between his hips sends his blood racing, and Cloud picks up his tempo and starts to thrust to the rhythm of those beats, dirty and every bit untamed, urgent and every bit human. Zack catches his pace in parallel, burning a guttural sigh and a ‘Come on, come on, Cloud,’ into Cloud’s jaw, flitting tongue and teeth over Cloud’s earlobe – and it all gets so slick and white-hot so fast, leaving them both to ruin, undone.

Cloud smells the smoky perfume of ash, curling thin and bleeding through the scent of sweat and come, of ardor and Zack, threading faint into his lungs like a shadow.

 


 

Pleasure’s simple, quick to find in Zack’s easy presence; tucked into the little things, like honeyed melodies from a music box. A stir of murmurs and shuffling movement, serene ballads from a background radio set on low. The clinking of stainless steel against porcelain, drifting fragrances of baked sugar and rich coffee beans and earthy spices. The relish of a succulent crêpe and steaming black tea in the right company, bold on the tongue.

They hadn’t done anything like this since Zack got here, always settling for the convenience of cheap takeout and Tifa’s hearty home-cooking; Cloud’s never really been the type to put much worth on things like dates, finding distaste in the somewhat petty sound of it and seeing no real appeal in letting an entire day tick by with his seams unraveled widely enough to let someone else in. But everything Zack touches turns to gold, and simply having him has made it all immensely nice.

‘… No, you put that away. I’ve got this,’ Zack flaps a hand in lazy dismissal, seizing the free newspaper from the end of their café booth – front page blaring a loud block headline of Bad weather or a deadly omen: are these the endtimes? – and resting it out of the way at their table’s inner corner. He procures his wallet with casual nonchalance, and tosses a generous number of gil next to their clean-polished dishes. ‘Today’s the day I make good on a promise.’

Cloud fixes a curious stare on him, slipping his own wallet back into his pocket.

‘What promise?’

‘One I made years ago, back in Junon. Don’t know if I ever made the same offer to you here, but I wanted to grab a bite to eat with you once everything was over. My treat.’ Tender eyes smooth out solemnly at the edges for a moment, touched by an unspoken knowledge of the fact that they’d both fallen before the fulfilment of that promise. And a voiceless reassurance that they aren’t empty replacements for their other selves, too; that this is a new start in many ways – but Cloud knows it full well already, grasps the weight of Zack’s feelings, recognizes the lines and structures of his very own within the deepest of his blood. ‘We got caught up in everything else and never got to do that sorta thing, huh?’

The memory creeps back: a leisurely conversation exchanged through a haze of motion sickness, a pocket of mixed emotions, a stuffy trooper uniform. A soft recollection of his sixteen-year-old heart furtively quickening at being invited out with such warmth by Zack Fair, and he can’t help but smile. ‘You did actually ask me. I remember. Guess I’ll have to make good on my invitation to you after that too, then.’

Zack gazes at him thoughtfully as they rise from their seats, loose lips pursed in an outline of suspicion. ‘Wait … you don’t mean back in your hometown? When you said I should taste your mother’s cooking? You invited me to do that here too?’

‘That’s the one. And yeah, I did,’ answers Cloud, and they pull away from the booth, striding evenly over to the exit. ‘Good thing I vaguely remember a recipe or two from her. So even though she’s not around anymore, the offer’s still on the table.’

It’s not just Zack’s attention – to this day, Zack’s sloping grin still sends Cloud’s pulse fluttering, too; more so when he slips an arm sideways around Cloud’s shoulders, sweeping him in until they’re pressed closely together. ‘Can’t wait. Are you as good with cooking as you are with nearly everything else?’

‘… Come on. Now you’re just humoring me,’ Cloud says appreciatively, light and grateful and less-than-secretly fond. He braces his fingertips against the glass door, and pushes it open – and when they step out together, it’s to a wash of pale sunshine over their faces, to swirls of crisp air across their skin.

Though it’s not all a perfect portrait, Cloud realizes at once, and Zack’s apparently in agreement, the bridge of his nose creasing as they make their way back to Fenrir. ‘Do you smell that?’

‘Yeah,’ Cloud answers dimly, more than keenly aware of what Zack’s referring to. A coiling tendril reminiscent of the cold after a burn, a murky scent of something close to smoke, to ashes. He idly moves to mount the bike, and carries on, ‘That same day that Reno and Elena were looking for us at the church after you got back. I could smell it then, too.’

He doesn’t need to clarify that it was just as they were finishing up their private tumble between the pews, snaking through their tangled limbs, grazing sweat-dampened skin like an unkind reminder of their borrowed time; judging by the slow swell of dawning comprehension on Zack’s face, he’s remembering now, too. A faint aroma of ruin, of expiry, of loss, a subtle black phantom riding on their inhales of breath and creeping into their chests. A whisper of downfall and sacrifice, coursing across from their own history like a mirror image. It’s a dark day of collapse that they’ll always pay honor to – today in particular.

Their ride across the badlands is mostly quiet, tinted only with the level rumble of Fenrir’s engine beneath them and the low roll of erratic thunder. Daylight’s clipped to no more than an hour long nowadays, and all other unearthly portents still hover around their bodies like disquieted ghosts, a spray of familiar greyscale skies and monochrome flowers and sanguinary waters. And it’s not long before they come by a sparse tangle of leafless trees; even from some measure of distance, they don’t look right. Worn, aged, dry. Crumbling shells of demise and decay.

Up close, they’re gnarled knots with eroding flakes of bark and grey powder collecting at their bases; no material proof of being blackened or burned – only dustings of grey ash, like they’re falling to pieces. Cloud eyes them with burgeoning dread, slowing down his bike upon approach.

‘Wow,’ Zack murmurs, a note of dulled grief stretching his voice taut. ‘I did this, didn’t I. I’m still doing this.’

It may or may not be true, but Cloud will sooner test his own fate with Sephiroth many times over again before he’ll ever allow Zack to believe that any single piece of this is his fault. His fingers reach over, and he traces down the line of the arm that’s curled around his waist; a butterfly-light path, all the way to Zack’s faltering hand. A mercy that he knows Zack needs now, in the absence of a solution.

‘They’ll figure something out, Zack,’ he offers demurely, giving a single light caress to Zack’s palm, steady and soft. ‘Try not to beat yourself up over it, yeah? Hang in there for me.’

Clumps of words that aren’t altogether much, but Zack’s arms tighten around him in unsaid gratitude, to Cloud’s muted relief. A mark of trust and faith; for now, at least, they have this.

Flowers still blossom in a flourish of sunny yellow when they reach the gravesite – a silhouette of a miracle in the missing presence of black and white. Cloud may never look upon this place with a still heart anyway, he thinks, gut already swaying just from the sight of it. Rigid wrists clench; a snagged breath sews his throat shut. His memory of it had been lost, once upon a time, but now it’s as clear as water: Zack lying here, poised on the thin cusp of death, folded in the perfume of steel blades and burned gunpowder, of petrichor and liquid copper.

He wants to say it, craves it from his own mouth, tongue itching – that he’ll do anything to not lose Zack in any way again. But he knows that that day’s still coming, and Zack will have to leave for his own world, to cleanly break himself away, to fade and vanish from Cloud’s sight a second time. At this point, he’s not even sure which of Zack’s departures can sting worse; but he swallows it all down, slides the thought aside. After all, this stopover’s centered on Zack’s selflessness and sacrifice, not his own wants.

‘… Hey, Cloud,’ says Zack quietly, standing firm and fast by Cloud’s side, at the rim of the golden bloom. ‘Gotta say thanks for always being there for me, you know? Even if I didn’t make it in the end. Even now.’

‘That’s my line,’ Cloud responds in a low voice. ‘And it wasn’t the end. You’re here now; so am I. That’s something.’

Hands reach out in the bare breath of space between them, and fingers twine together, calluses catching.

The price of freedom is steep, a price they’ve paid over two worlds, and Cloud makes a silent vow to fight to hold onto that freedom until the end of all things.

 


 

When the old AVALANCHE crew are around, the other patrons know to stay clear of the back corner of the bar; a snug nook where the seven of them sit together in comfort some nights – eight, on the rare evenings when Cait Sith’s able to join them on account of his handler having time to spare – despite the recent months lacking in urgent situations to warrant full meetings. A family formed during a long-past crisis, and they should all rightfully go their separate ways nowadays, but Tifa’s more sentimental than that by miles. Once a family, always a family, she’ll say, for which Cloud's always been quite grateful, even in his silence.

She'll invite them all back for a drink sometimes, and it'll be just like the better part of those bygone days: company and solace beneath low, flickering light, when everything else in the world had been dipped in the dark.

‘At some point in time,’ Cloud states flatly as he strides over, ‘we need to have words about you letting children hang around in the bar.’

Tifa throws him a dull look, suitably offended. ‘Don’t you go acting like a saint now,’ she says, dry and pointed, but with no real fight behind the words. ‘I didn’t see you protesting when we left Marlene to mind the first bar years ago while we ran off and did some good. Not that I’d be keen to leave her alone again.’

‘We’re basically grown up now,’ Denzel announces in disapproving protest, the space between his brows scrunching tight. ‘I hope you guys haven’t forgotten that I’m nearly a teenager. We’re not chugging the drinks down, and all the customers are leaving us alone anyway.’

Yeah, Cloud,’ Marlene quickly agrees, springing on her ankles at Barret’s side, droplets of the bar’s faint light flourishing in her pupils. ‘And you’re with Zack so often now doing whatever grown-up stuff. Can’t we join in?’

The meaningful stare that Tifa quickly bears down on Cloud is sharp, spiked with awareness; and there’s probably something he’s laying bare in the way that he’s eyeing her back, because all of a sudden, everyone else is expressing some strange interest, too – sitting in wait for his answer, drinking glasses and salted nuts keeping their mouths busy, keeping their scrutinies silent.

It’s alright. He fixes his attention back on Marlene; there’s nothing to hide, in any case.

‘… Not for the things you’re talking about. Zack and I, our relationship’s different from the one we have with you,’ he says in modest restraint, every word slow enough for her to fully catch and hook. He does want to plan more things to do together with the kids the next chance he gets; he’ll have to get onto that soon, he thinks. ‘We’ve got the kind that we can’t really share with anybody else. That’s the reason for all our grown-up stuff and why I’m spending a lot of time with him, alone. You understand, right?’

A bar bustling full from wall to wall, and it feels more unsettlingly quiet in that very moment than on any day that it’s been completely empty. The children left voiceless; Vincent’s irises flaring red; Yuffie’s mouth circling out wide; Barret and Cid staring in unguarded comprehension. Tifa swinging her head sideways, looking surprisingly impressed.

It’s Nanaki who finally cuts the silence, singular eye gazing sharp and wise. ‘You’re together?’

‘Actually, we are,’ answers Cloud, turning to glance down at him, and it’s no less than a marvel, how much easier this is than he’s ever possibly imagined. He’s never grown so grateful for every valuable minute that he’s been gifted to have Zack here with him, no matter how little time they’ll have left; there’s no awkward embarrassment in that. ‘Look – you’ve all been through hell and back with me. I trust that none of you will make things weird or—’

‘Cloud. Cloud.’

Once a soldier, always a soldier, and his fighting reflexes haven’t rusted away. Something about the urgency with which his name’s called stirs Cloud alert, snaps his spine straight, locks his fingers taut. He pivots on his heels to the sight of Zack rounding the corner of the bar counter from his station behind it, eyes half-dazed and lips parted, cheeks blood-flushed and chest heaving breathless.

‘What is it?’ asks Cloud, instantly on edge.

‘I just got a phone call from Tseng. He said—’

Zack has to pause then, openly hesitant, and Cloud’s belly sinks heavy; he doesn’t think he wants to hear what’s coming, but the look on Zack’s face is more than telltale, and suddenly he just knows. ‘What did he say?’

‘—There’s been a breakthrough. They’re sending me home.’

 


 

It's colder here than Cloud remembers. Cold on his skin, cold at his lips, cold in his gut. Cold for reasons that have little to do with the frost and ice outdoors; there's not one fiber of his body that has any desire to be in this place - this box of smooth surfaces, of straight lines, of sharp corners.

‘Thank you for coming on such short notice,’ says Tseng.

Zack twists slowly on his feet, drinking in the sight of all the sheets of clinical glass and stretches of white walling, lips pursing in evident confusion. ‘It’s fine. Isn’t this … the old base for the Genesis army, though? I’ve been here before. Not sure if this is a variations between worlds thing, but this looks different from what I remember?’

‘No, it was mostly abandoned and run-down, years ago,’ Cloud murmurs in agreement, quiet and level, maybe a little wistful. He knows this place too, after all; his first shared assignment with Zack, back in the day, and how they’d met for the very first time. A friendship wrought from a simple trek through the snow – the very place where the first words of their story were written.

‘… I refurbished it,’ Rufus throws in, chin poised straight and eyes low-lidded; Zack and Cloud turn to him in muted surprise, attentions duly caught. ‘A cutting-edge laboratory really is necessary for the kind of work we do, but as you may well know, Shinra doesn’t have very many friends these days. I figured that Modeoheim would be ideal, for all its snow as well as the remote location. It ensures that our research goes undisturbed.’

Cloud thoughtfully eyeballs Zack, then. ‘All the times that you’ve been called, where did you go? You always took my bike, it can’t have been here?’

‘No, only weeks prior to Zack’s arrival we’d finished setting up a new office just outside Edge’s perimeter. It was actually where Zack had originally emerged, too. Reno had brought the Materia back there on that first day.’ Tseng flatly crosses his arms, and runs fingertips over the fabric of a crisp sleeve. ‘It’s very meager, but it suits our purposes enough. We have a small clinic set up; it was sufficiently equipped to extract the blood, skin and hair samples we requested from Zack, and to conduct the most basic tests. We sent a greater portion of those samples here, however.’

Four years of the ice-cold touch of indifferent hands – of meticulous fingers peeling his identity and name away like they’re strips of his own skin, leaving behind only a battered test subject of experimental science – and laboratories of any type are suitably pushed out of Cloud’s comfort zone for what he knows will be the rest of his days. It’s a more trivial unease, however, in consideration of seeing Zack’s jaw tighten, and knowing that Zack had also lost his mentor at this very base; Cloud reaches out, curls his hand carefully around Zack’s shoulder, gifts him a cotton-light squeeze. Zack’s gaze flits over as Cloud lets go, and he offers Cloud an unsteady smile.

‘All the major research is done in this facility. Not just on the samples, but also on the Materia that brought you here,’ continues Tseng evenly, no beating around the bush. ‘Everyone’s been working around the clock to find answers. Scientists, technicians, hired experts in meta-universe studies. And Reeve, for matters pertaining to technology and engineering.’

‘… Meta-what now?’

A dimly amused wisp of breath from Reeve; lips curving into a vague hint of a half-smile. ‘Parallel universes, Zack,’ he answers, patient and good-natured. ‘Summons are proof that separate worlds exist, but you are the first living proof that mirror worlds exist. We discovered that you were, in fact, brought here in precisely the same manner a Summon works – by ripping open the fabric of space. The Reno over there accidentally banished you; the Reno over here accidentally summoned you … and using Materia’s not a skill that he’s completely excelled at, or you wouldn’t have blacked out as you were brought here. But yeah, turns out your world and ours actually occupy the same space, they’re just present in different frequencies, which is how I believe they can simultaneously exist but different events can occasionally occur. If that’s confusing, think of it like radio waves, I suppose? The tests done on you showed that your waves – so to speak – matched the frequencies of your home world, but not this one.’

‘Wait,’ says Cloud slowly, all other sentiments wilting in his mouth. ‘You’re saying that you’ve been over there?’

‘I have. Personally. Under the heavy supervision of pretty much every single researcher working here, of course.’ Reeve leans his shoulder against a panel of glass, one ankle crossing carelessly over the other. ‘We first managed to discern that the door – the portal – can be opened for about seventeen seconds at a time. That’s as long as we can sustain it; it’s enough time for anybody to pass through safely. So I sent in an old Cait Sith model, marked and labelled. And when that came back perfectly intact after closing and reopening the portal, I went through myself. I even saw the other me. That was quite an adventure.’

Zack laughs shamelessly, equal parts loud and surprised and merry. ‘Really? How’d it go?’

‘It was kind of unsettling, at first? We figured that our time would run parallel to the other world, and that the breach might form somewhere around their manifestation of this area, judging by the conditions of your arrival. Going from that, we conducted the first Cait Sith test at two o’clock in the morning, to minimize the possible attention and all. The portal actually opened right where the other world’s Materia is – also in Modeoheim, in their version of this facility. Everything was uncannily identical.’ Reeve coils his mouth, clearly a little overwhelmed at the recollection. ‘Anyway, over here, the Materia’s been kept under lock and key in a large vault that I designed myself, and I found that it’s the same deal over there; a very good thing, because I knew how to open it from the inside. Got out, saw myself working at a desk, and that spooked me a bit, so I came back. I don’t think the other me saw me, thank goodness.’

‘Both worlds could benefit from having two Reeves join forces, if you ask me,’ Zack mentions generously, smooth as silk, a single thin brow cocked in knowing.

That quirks a finely trimmed mustache, appreciation pulling at the corners of just-parted lips. ‘That’s very kind, Zack, but I think it may be better to play it safe, for now. I know my own sleeping and working habits, at least, so I simply waited until four o’clock. Sure enough, my other self was gone by then, and that base was more or less empty. I wandered around, went outside, took readings and measurements, returned home.’

‘I’m told that Reeve’s been through a few more times since then to test the stability of the breach, and my Turks have been through at least once, too. Everything is under perfect control, and we’re ready and able to return you to your home world in one piece,’ says Rufus meaningfully, steady stare fixing on Zack, voice dipping low. ‘And I’m afraid that I must insist that it be as soon as possible.’

Cloud’s expected that, and yet it still kindles a dull ache, swelling from the marrow of his bones and in the deep of his chest. ‘The thing with the sky and the weather, right?’ he says, a little bittersweet. ‘The rivers turning red and everything?’

‘Wait, so I did that too?’ Regret flashes plain enough in the contracting dark of Zack’s pupils, eyes faltering into thin slits. ‘You know that mission to Nibelheim, years ago? One of the local boys told me that the town’s water was occasionally running red and I found that it was a red Materia in the water tower that was causing it. When I saw it happening around here, I actually didn’t make the connection to the other stuff. Experienced it before, so I automatically thought it was the same deal.’

‘It wasn’t, because the guys here tested the water. It was an exact match to your blood sample, right down to the genetic strands,’ murmurs Reeve, slow and grave. ‘The rivers are bleeding your blood. The smell of ash that’s been hanging in the air in the last two weeks – they ran tests for that too, and found that there are, indeed, thin fragments of ash present. And they contain particles that match the samples of your skin.’

An illustration of holy plagues, heaven-sent calamities, smoky cremations, an end to all things. Zack’s left staring in stilled silence; Cloud’s hovering considerations die unspoken.

‘… This is only a theory, and one that may sound wildly illogical, but all in all, we think that the Planet’s somehow confused.’ Rufus gazes at them with perfect calm, coolly sweeping a speck of dust off his pale suit. ‘You were one of its fallen champions; it recognizes you as dead, and yet, you’re walking around alive and well. It’s trying to compensate by reconstructing what it knows as death – blood, ash, darkness, whatever else. If our theory’s correct, then everything should slowly go back to normal once you’ve returned home. We can’t have you stick around for much longer, because we don’t know how much more severe things will get.’

Said like a true big-shot leader; Cloud wonders when it’d been in the last number of years, exactly, that Rufus had donned such a mantle, and filled such shoes. Remorse does beget righteousness, maybe. Even with the faint hurt pulsing in his veins, Cloud can’t really exact selfishness and refuse what’s being asked – the Geostigma incident had passed in much the same way.

The time’s come.

Tseng quietly steps forward, then, and says: ‘Zack, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing stacks of notes for you to take back. We don’t think our other selves have been coming through to sneak around here like we’ve been doing over there, but either way – surely they can't have reached the same conclusions that we have, since they have neither you nor Cloud there at present to bolster their research. They may not even realize that we exist, since it seems that nearly everything’s identical, and all they really have to go from is just your disappearance. So these documents outline the entirety of what we’ve done and discovered here, for Reeve and the scientists over there to read through; there’s also a memo to myself explaining everything, if you wouldn’t mind delivering it. I’ll know my own handwriting when I see it, and will hopefully understand that it’s all truth.’

That only just barely sinks in. Cloud rocks back on his heel, halfway to distraction, every inch of himself stretched thin and nearly straining at the seams; long fingers coil into a fist, tightening with subdued hope.

‘Hey. Can Zack and I – see each other?’ he interrupts openly, altogether unconcerned with having his heart pinned nakedly onto his sleeve. ‘You know. After he’s gone back?’

In the end, he knows. That he’s become the Cloud Strife of today by losing Zack the first time; that maybe those are the stepping stones he’s meant to follow; that the Cloud Strife of tomorrow may, once again, have to walk on with just pastel-colored reminiscences of Zack – a fleeting age that’s breathlessly warm and poignantly happy, but only a memory.

The needle-sharp stares pricking his skin from every direction make it all throb a thousand times worse.

‘… The Materia will be strictly held under Turk custody. It goes without saying how dangerous it'd be to let its existence slip to public knowledge, so it’s important for us all to keep things under wraps, and to keep visits firmly controlled and monitored in both directions,’ answers Rufus, fine lashes lowering in a subtle hint of caution. ‘Sure. Zack is welcome to return here – and, Cloud, you’re also free to cross over there – as long as it’s for no more than ten days at a time, keeping in consideration that the Planet’s symptoms began at approximately two weeks; and also as long as you both allow a recovery period of three weeks after the conclusion of each visit. During those three weeks, it’s essential that the two of you remain in your worlds of origin. We believe that this is the safest compromise to ensure that neither realm comes to potential harm, and I’ll have Tseng include these details in the notes that Zack will be taking with him. Would that be acceptable?’

‘—You kidding? Hell yeah,’ Zack beams colorfully, suddenly glimmering and buoyant.

Unbelievable. A deep, full breath swallows the rhythmic pounding in Cloud’s chest – and sore hands unclench at last, knuckles loosening in tender awe; all things considered, he’s just been given more than he can possibly ask for.

‘That’ll be fine,’ he simply says. It's better than fine.

‘Excellent.’ Reeve flickers to life, a casual thumb jerking sideways in indication. ‘Come on, Zack, I’ll teach you how to open the vault from the inside, since you’re going to need that particular bit of knowledge. Afterwards, we’ll fly you and Cloud back to Edge. Shall we, then?’

 


 

‘No, you stop that. Get outta here. No canoodlin’ in the bar.’

Cloud throws Cid a round-eyed look, face pinched at the seams in a mark of scandal, somewhat appalled. ‘How is this canoodling. We’re not even doing anything, we’re literally just standing here talking. Trying to figure out what else Zack has to do before he heads off.’

‘People don’t generally talk pressed right up against each other while makin’ eyes,’ Cid argues stubbornly around a saucy mouthful of steak, stubby fork brandished between rough fingers and waved around with boisterous fire; on either side of him, Vincent and Nanaki both carefully lean out of the way, wisdom flickering in their swap of heavy-lidded glances. ‘It’s gettin’ really obvious that you’re on that list you’re makin’, so c’mon, out. This is a sap-free, cheese-free zone. Take the mushy stuff out the front door.’

Zack gives an upbeat laugh at that, easy and good-natured, seemingly convinced. ‘Alright, don’t worry, we’ll spare you. Come on, Cloud,’ he says with kind patience, pulling away such that Cloud’s no longer closely sandwiched between him and the bar counter; he tangles his fingers into Cloud’s, tugging at him coolly. ‘We can soak up the sun while it’s around.’

‘Your stew is the bomb,’ Yuffie shouts noisily after Cloud, silverware clinking with equal spirit against a loaded porcelain dish. He turns from his hips and offers her a mild gaze and appreciative silence as he follows Zack away; and then, they’re smoothly setting foot outside, stepping into the cool folds of crisp afternoon air, and sweeping the front door firmly shut behind them.

‘… She’s right, you know.’ Zack studies Cloud sideways, soft and content. ‘Your mother would be proud that she lives on in you.’

‘In my stew. Her stew,’ says Cloud with quiet amusement, light and leisurely, warm pleasure filling the gaps between his ribs. ‘I’m glad that you finally got to eat it – that I managed to see that invitation through. My mother would’ve been so happy. I think she would’ve loved you, if she’d been given more time.’

‘It’s an honor just to hear that. I would’ve wanted to get to know her properly, too,’ Zack answers solemnly, clear respect sitting at his lips.

The street outside the bar trickles close to empty, residents closing themselves within their houses in answer to the last vestiges of grey light before sundown, the same way they’ve been doing ever since the nights had started stretching far too long. The bar will be open for business in a matter of hours, and the drinking crowd will typically creep out of hiding and stir to life then; but for now, this space is all theirs for the taking, a private peace beneath the open sky, together, alone.

‘… So Reeve actually stopped by the bar while you were still packing up at the church,’ Cloud starts, nonchalant, slowly untwining his fingers from Zack’s. ‘He said that he really only has small bits of spare time so it might take a while, but he was keen to figure out how to make communication work between your world and this one. The frequencies not matching up or whatever was the reason why your original PHS device wasn’t functioning here in the first place. Who knows – if he eventually pulls it off, we might actually get to stay in touch during those three-week blocks that we have to be apart.’

Man, long distance is tough business, huh. Though I guess ending up with somebody from a parallel world isn’t exactly the typical kind of long distance, is it?’ Zack answers with good spirit, lax lips thoughtfully pursed. ‘But seriously, am I glad that at least we’ve got ten days of every month together. Not a big fan of the idea of having to set foot in that lab so often just to use the Materia, though, but it’s still worth it to get to see you.’

Classic Zack; always carrying a heart large enough that it fills every part of him from corner to corner, and molding feelings that are so complex into such easy words.

‘You cheeseball.’ Cloud swings an elbow sideways into Zack’s ribs, appreciation flowering into heat at the base of his throat. ‘Cid might’ve been right to send us outside.’

Zack breaks into a half-grin, toothy and sweet and stupid, amusement reaching all the way to his eyes. ‘You love it, just admit it. But yeah, gotta say, I believe in Reeve – I’m sure he can definitely pull it off. I wanna be able to text you when I can’t see you! And talk to you at night when we’re going to bed. ‘Cause hey, I think that’d be pretty awesome.’

‘It would be. I suppose we just have to be patient, in that case,’ says Cloud, sedate but sunny.

Smudges of deep grey fall into his vision, then, all too suddenly; dusky flakes drifting down, settling in their eyelashes, gliding against their skin, air-light and thin like freckles of dark snow. For a moment, they both tilt their heads up in awe, taking the sky in full sight. It’s not wet, Cloud finds – just cool: a slow rain of ashes.

‘… Hey, Zack?’ he murmurs, each word careful, turning back to Zack and catching his attention all over again. ‘Did you ever hope that I would just ask you to … you know – stay here? I mean like, forever?’

‘Every day.’ An answer with no scrap of hesitation, and Zack steps in close, eyelids falling low. ‘And I was relieved when you didn’t. Because I would’ve been tempted to say yes.’

He gives two shakes of his head to loosen the flecks of ash out of his hair; an endearing puppy to the end, charming and terrible in one go.

Cloud slides his hands over Zack’s shoulders, framing the valleys of his neck with long fingers, chest aching – pleasantly, for once. ‘We’ll see each other again real soon.’ Not just a promise. A firm reality.

‘Yeah,’ Zack answers calmly, a sliver of doting pulling at the corners of his eyes; he leans over to kiss Cloud, soft and warm, and Cloud draws in and meets him halfway.

Years ago, he’d left himself to drown in the disease of negativity, regret biting at his blood and skin, self-hatred burgeoning like rot in the wake of his memories returning; a stark opposite to the stalwart loyalty and tender warmth and steadfast attachment that he’s always borne for Zack from the very start. Forgiveness for himself had held the same too-bright glare as adjusting his eyes to brilliant light when they’d been steeped in the dark for so long – a hazy path tiptoed and floundered through, at first – but he’s here.

Maybe he’s allowed to feel contentment and euphoria, too. And he does.

Cloud knows it all now, as familiar the back of his own hand – that perfect rapture. Spiced by their quiet chatter and stifled laughter as they stumble back into the church not long later, fingers loosely interlaced, the wet slide of Zack’s mouth fitting against his. By the unconcerned mess they make as they sweep what’s left of their things from the altar onto the sanctum floor; by the decadent urgency of Zack turning Cloud to face it and pinning him against its rim, hands reaching around to unfasten Cloud’s fly, nimble and hot. By the indulgence of Zack’s coarse fingers pushing into the bones of Cloud's hips, of Zack bending him over the holy table, of the deep, slow fuck with both their pants crumpled around their knees, exactly the way Cloud’s imagined it, exactly the way he’s desperately craved it. By the slick warmth of Zack’s tongue and teeth at the nape of his neck; the low murmurs of comfort, damp against Cloud’s skin; the taut pressure building at Cloud’s back the more he parts his thighs; the heated sigh of Zack’s name skating from his own lips. Breathless, burning, solacing, as exquisitely blessed as any prayer.

It embraces them all the way throughout: the half-light from the fading sun trickling over their bodies from the cracks in the beaten roof, from the gaps in the fractured windows. Two living hearts beating inside a dead church, a rhythm accompanied by the sway of little flowers, by the scorch of guttural moans, by the taste of joy in their mouths. Resurrection.

Happiness may not be the same paradise that used to be preached within these walls, but it’s the one that Cloud’s more than glad to know.

 


 

His little house at the fringes of Edge won’t be so dust-smeared soon. Light footfalls saturate the musty stretches of space already, the air now stirring with movement, with breath, with life.

Pale morning sunshine tumbles in when Cloud sweeps heavy paisley curtains open, faint gold rays washing the living room in a touch of summer-yellow, draping and fitting over the rims of his coffee table like translucent chiffon. The tabletop’s buried full from corner to corner – a small packed duffel bag, two overflowing old boxes, a freshly used teacup, a crisp newspaper wearing a bold front page headline of End of global scare: worldwide leaders address the Planet’s recent full recovery.

Tifa ambles into the room coolly, resting the box cradled in her fingers down onto the sand-rough carpet.

‘I think that’s everything,’ she says brightly, wet light flickering like stars in her eyes. ‘Look at you, settling in.’

Cloud tosses her a demure, grateful look, and turns his head, idly surveying the room. ‘Thanks, Tifa. I didn’t have much stuff to begin with, so you didn’t have to go to the trouble, really.’

‘Come on, Cloud. I wanted to,’ she dismisses him pointedly, taking a single step sideways towards the kitchen and tugging a thumb over into that direction. ‘I can help you unpack everything too, if you want, but food comes first. I’m gonna make a sandwich, you want one?’

‘Ah – no, thank you. For both.’ He lifts the duffel bag from his coffee table, casual and easygoing, setting the wide strap upon the rigid line of his shoulder. ‘I’m actually gonna head out now, if that’s alright with you. Just going on a short trip, will be gone ten days; I’d rather leave all the unpacking for when I get back. You make yourself at home, though – stay as long as you want, just lock the door behind you when you leave.’

‘Oh?’ she says with peaking interest, mouth slipping halfway to the shape of a grin, trailing him and his meager luggage with her eyes as he leisurely makes his way to the connecting entrance hall. ‘Skipping off to another world to visit your man, are you?’

He smiles softly at her, keen and knowing, and swings open the front door to step out beneath a blue sky, into sunlight.