“You know,” Zack says, as he tries to keep the bot steady in his cross-hairs, “I think you’ll like Aerith a lot.”
Zack pauses for a moment, even though Cloud isn’t going to respond. The kid’s practically comatose; the most Zack can hope to get out of him is a fortunately timed grunt.
“No, really.” He insists, because Cloud would, of course, be skeptical. “She’s great. Sweet, but with an edge. She’s the most darling thing you’ve ever seen and then out of nowhere she’s got you wrapped right around her adorable, little finger and you find yourself doing the craziest shit, just because she asked.” He laughs, and then curses when it screws up his aim. “Like squatting contests in the gym; or going up against two dozen peacekeepers in a sealed bunker as a ‘training exercise’. All because she wants a flower wagon.”
He’d like to say that lining up this head-shot is harder than trying to keep this conversation going, but there’s difficult and then there is difficult. Cloud falls distinctly under the latter. There are simpler things he can concentrate on: laying on the ground, one eye shut tight, trying like hell to regulate his breathing when he can’t stop running his mouth for the life of him; worrying about being caught but still not willing to rush; or making sure he keeps talking to Cloud like there’s nothing wrong at all. The plain is cool, the open air pleasant, and the dirt helps to dry the mako from his clothes. As long as he keeps refusing to see the bigger picture, it’s not a bad way to spend his night.
“Seriously. It’s a gift or something.” It hurts less if he keeps talking. “I don’t suppose you’d mind waking up long enough to take this shot for me?”
He imagines Cloud rolls his eyes.
“Nah? That’s alright. I’ll figure it out.”
If Cloud is actually understanding any of this, he’s never going to hear the end of it. Zack feels like the epitome of blathering fool. He can’t help it. If he stops long enough to actually acknowledge what’s happening, he’ll sink, and he has to hold it together for Cloud’s sake. He turns his attention back to the rifle. Zack never was good at this sort of thing. Focusing on his shot helps take him far enough away from the shit-storm they’re in that he can almost pretend he isn’t freaking out. He has no idea how he’s supposed to deal with any of this. It’s a feeling he’s become increasingly familiar with ever since Angeal went AWOL—but this… this is a whole new level of lost.
“It’s a miracle we haven’t been spotted yet. How the hell am I supposed to hit these motherfuckers when they won’t stop moving?” He’s almost sure the clunky thing in his sight is some variation of the Bull Heads that caused him so much trouble back at Soldier; it’s definitely one of Scarlet’s.
The Cloud in his head that’s actually having this conversation with him snarks that maybe if he shut up long enough to line up the scope, he’d have less trouble with it. Zack doesn’t even know where he’s getting half this shit from, Cloud has never once talked back to him, but he figures that things change. Cloud has changed. Watching him stumble and fall down the stairs in the reactor after accomplishing what Zack couldn’t has permanently altered his opinion of the little guy in a fundamental way. Cloud’s got fire in him. It’s too bad Zack never got the chance to see it until his entire world was being ripped apart before his eyes. There’s no getting away from what went down back in Nibelheim.
“Fine.” Zack grumbles. “Have it your way.”
He squeezes the trigger. The shot goes wide, but the second round gets the job done. One less of Scarlet’s toys to worry about.
“Ha! Not too bad if I do say so myself.” He rolls his shoulder. “The kickback is a bitch, though. Damn, but that was intense.”
Zack’s pretty sure that’s Cloud’s way of saying, ‘Duh, you idiot. What did you expect?’
He hops the fence and strides over to the smoking heap of metal, pries the casing off and sets to work stripping the parts. He may be shit with guns, but he’s pretty sure he’s good enough with mechanics to turn that rifle into something he can use. Once he’s sure he has what he needs, he makes his way back to Cloud.
“You know, I still have trouble believing it, but you’re kind of a badass underneath all those layers.” He laughs. It’s completely fake, but it’s better than nothing. “Never saw that one coming. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew you had what it takes, but I still got caught off guard. Thought it was something you’d grow into. Once we’re back in Midgar, I’m going to teach you some real moves.”
Cloud’s back to staring out over the fields towards the moon with blank, unseeing eyes. Zack takes it as a self-depreciating response to his offer.
“You’ve got it in you, kid. Well, not kid, I guess. Calling you that probably never helped much, huh?” His nimble fingers twist the thin strips of metal into a better support for the rifle. Hopefully it makes keeping it steady less impossible. He starts working on the scope next.
“Bet you wouldn’t have to go through all this just for a few head-shots. Hell, if you were the one pulling the trigger, we’d be out of here by now. They really shouldn’t have let me pick a specialty so early on. I mean, what sort of teenage boy wasn’t going to pick the biggest, heaviest weapon out of the bunch? It’s not like there was a whole lot of thought involved. Not then, and not later.” What he really means is ‘not until Angeal.’
Zack has to be imagining the way Cloud looks like he’s listening, but denial is better for keeping him focused than the truth, for now. He fumbles the clip when he tries to snap it into place. That’s just embarrassing. “We’re going to pretend that didn’t happen.”
He slings the rifle’s strap over his head and leans down to pull Cloud’s arm over his shoulder. The kid is light, not enough muscle left after whatever Hojo did to him, but Zack knows the one thing he isn’t imagining is that there’s already been some improvement. When they left the mansion Cloud was little more than a rag doll. He responded to nothing, gave no sign that he had any clue what the hell was happening. Cloud’s in there somewhere, though, Zack knows it—and he’s fighting his way back with every step they take toward freedom. Even if the shuffle of his feet is sluggish and tired, his legs are moving. He’s trying, and no matter what it takes, Zack’s going to make sure the effort isn’t wasted.
“Tell you what. We’ll trade. I’ll teach you everything I learned from Angeal, and you teach me how to reload this stupid thing without looking like a moron.”
It doesn’t take long to find a rhythm. Cloud’s vacant eyes stay fixed on the moon, and Zack pretends he doesn’t notice the ring of electric green circling his pupils. Zack gets a bit better with the rifle and keeps running his mouth like his life depends on it, even though it’d be smarter to keep quiet. He feels terrible for wishing he had someone to talk to who actually reciprocated. The bots get stripped for components, and they trudge a few more yards down the road before starting all over again. By the time they run into heavier artillery, Zack mostly has the hang of it. The last of the machines patrolling the winding path away from Nibelheim fall easy. Some of the weight he’s been keeping at bay with levity settles once he realizes he has one less thing to distract himself with.
“We’ll make it through this. I’m going to take care of you. We’ll get out of here, and we’ll go back to Midgar. Come up with something to do for money, and just… live our lives. I wish I’d shown you Aerith’s church when I had the chance; I thought about taking you, after Modeoheim. You’d have loved it. It’s all calm and tranquil and smells like flowers…” Zack has to stop walking for a moment to catch his breath. It’s hard to imagine the church as anything but a safe haven, but the Turks have been watching it since before he ever fell through the roof, and he knows going there is the best way for them to get caught. Trying to see Aerith is probably the stupidest thing they could possibly do.
It’s just not right. Every time he stops rambling long enough to start processing the extent of their situation he pinpoints something else precious to him that Shinra has taken away. No one ever thought to warn him that the den of monsters went far beyond Soldier.
He imagines that wing on Angeal’s back, wishes he could grab hold of Cloud and fly them as far away as they could get. They’d start at Midgar, pick up Aerith, and then go somewhere quiet—the mountains south of Wutai, maybe—somewhere Shinra wouldn’t think to look and couldn’t reach even if they did. He’d build a cabin nestled in the middle of a forest where Cloud could recover and Aerith could have the biggest garden she ever dreamed of. They could live out their days without wondering who might be nipping at their heels. He’d make every single one of Aerith’s tiny wishes come true. They’d never be able to erase what happened in Nibelheim but maybe, given enough time, they could learn to live around it.
It’s a delicious dream, and Zack knows it’s the last one he’s going to have for a long time coming. It’s nothing more than a fantasy. Zack doesn’t have wings.
Cloud shuffles one foot in front of the other and grunts.
Zack has to stop moping. He has more than his own feelings to worry about. “No big deal, though. It’s a nice place, but there’s still plenty left for us to see. We’ll figure it out.”
And they will. Zack is determined to pull Cloud through this nightmare, no matter the cost. It’s what friends do, and it’s what Angeal would have done for him.
The grass fades to sand. Zack leads them toward the beach. He sets Cloud down for a break—he’ll appreciate the view—and settles himself so their shoulders are touching. Instead of staring west, toward Nibelheim, he watches gentle waves lap at the shore. The water sprawls as far as he can see.
“It’s going to be okay,” Zack says, as if repeating the words over and over will make them come true. For one whole minute he manages to believe it.