Cloud’s memory is faulty. Despite his dip in the Lifestream and the subsequent scrambling to put his mind back together, he still occasionally stumbles upon buried memories, their sharp corners pricking at his skin. They pulse like the materia hoarded away in his storage locker, glowing and giving off sentient heat. And yet, he can’t be certain that they’re all his. Sometimes, he’ll even catch himself speaking words that wouldn’t normally belong to him.
Me? I do a little bit of everything. Let’s mosey! SOLDIER First Class…
He knows whose words these are, who he’s evoking.
When Cloud came back to himself—as himself—the memory of a black-haired boy followed him, but it wasn’t until he returned to a basement underneath an abandoned mansion in the mountains that he understood. It took every last bit of strength left in him to remain standing, to not let the visions strike him down. He only allowed one hint of weakness: a grab for a table’s edge, bracing himself as the blinding memory of Zack’s smile—Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class, at your service!—overwhelmed him.
The others barely glanced at him, too busy inspecting the messages scratched in the glass of the empty tubes. Tifa seemed unwilling to face the reality of Cloud’s confinement, if she had indeed made the connection. Only Vincent noticed his strained silence, gaze curious, but even he turned smoothly away without a word.
Cloud’s memory is faulty, so he doesn’t remember his time in the test tube, let alone any hopeful messages written in glass. Cloud’s memory is cruel, so he remembers blood and rain and a scream breaking a sudden silence. But, Cloud’s memory is also kind, so he remembers smiling eyes and laughter and lying next to a warm body, an arm thrown over his waist.
The last stands out the most. It all comes back to the same sensation of being close together and safe, of melting slowly into a soft sleep—or else gradually waking from it. Sometimes, Cloud can trick himself into sinking into the phantom feeling even when he is all alone on his blanket on the hard church floor.
Cloud reasons that these must be true, must be his memories, if only because of their inclusion of his black-haired boy. Zack had been fully grown when he died, but he’d lost so much time to the Mako. So had Cloud. They might as well have still been boys, at the end. But, if these memories are real, then Cloud is in no danger of slipping away again, of forgetting himself. If these are real, then it stands that they have the power to ground him.
And, if Cloud is only hurting himself by lingering in them, then...well, at least he is able to sleep again, if sparingly.
There are few memories that Cloud wishes to forget—not after being lost so long in the dark—but his and Zack’s first encounter almost makes the list, given how body still heats in embarrassment at even the thought of it. There is a cold comfort in knowing that Zack never found out that they hadn’t first met on the snowy trails outside Modeoheim, but, humiliation aside, Cloud clutches onto the memory with desperate fingers. Even if it doesn’t help him sleep, it’s at least something.
Cloud had been so young then, only an adult in name—because how else could Shinra justify making children into foot soldiers?—and wracked with shame for failing the SOLDIER exams. Not even the prospect of comfort encouraged him to write home of it, to admit that he was still lurking in the ranks of the infantry.
Instead, he lowered his head and poured all of his energy into training and fulfilling his duties until, some mornings, even eating took more effort than it was worth. In the din of anxiety and exhaustion and sleeplessness, Zack eventually caught him—quite literally.
The memory is stark, for all that Cloud’s recollection of his early Shinra days is foggy at best. He had been assigned to stand watch at the entrance to the barracks compound that night, but even the excitement of being entrusted to guard the SOLDIERs while they slept could not cut through the desire to close his eyes and rest where he stood. One moment, he was thanking Shiva for the terrible design of his helmet—what it lacked in visibility, it made up for in secrecy—and the next, he was waking to his knees buckling underneath him, the ground fast approaching.
Only half aware, Cloud reached out his arms on autopilot, hoping to break the fall, when something caught him around the torso and pulled him back upright so quickly that it practically knocked the wind out of him. At least, that was the reasonable explanation for why Cloud couldn’t quite inhale to the full capacity of his lungs, not at all because, when he turned his head, he was only inches away from Zack’s ever-smiling face.
Everyone had known about Zack by then, of course. Even if Cloud hadn’t known him personally, he hadn’t missed the gossip, the talk of how no one since the early days had moved up as quickly as Zack Fair, SOLDIER Second Class, had. When Cloud was a lonely boy in the infantry regiment, Zack was already something of a celebrity. It’s another point of pain that Cloud was never given the chance to prove himself to be on equal footing with him.
When he’s feeling particularly masochistic, Cloud focuses on this memory, on how Zack’s arm had curled around the front of his chest and held him around the waist. For all their time together, it is the most vivid moment—not counting the ones drenched in pain—Cloud has of being held, and Zack never even knew.
“Whoops! Careful there,” Zack whispered with a grin, arm tightening for a second before he stepped away, trailing a hand as Cloud regained his footing sheepishly.
And Cloud, mind hazy and body burning from mortification, could say nothing but, “It’s, it’s past curfew!” Not even his helmet could have hidden his immediate flush—curfew or not, no lowly trooper had the right to tell off a higher-ranking officer.
Caught, Zack winced, rubbing at his neck awkwardly. “Yep,” he admitted, popping the P with a flourish, “you got me. Kinda hoped you might be too distracted to remember that little detail.”
Hours upon hours of protocol training finally broke through the mist of Cloud’s thoughts, and he straightened into a salute, trying to keep the stutter from his words. “Sorry, sir!”
Zack’s eyes widened, brows launching up his forehead, before he broke into a fit of laughter, holding his middle. “Oh, man, don’t be like that. It’s past 2—I’m lucky if you don’t tell Angeal about this.” He froze, expression shuttering. “Please don’t tell Angeal.”
“Er,” was all Cloud managed before Zack stepped in close, palms pressed together in entreaty.
“Come on, I did save your life! I could have just snuck past you and let you break your neck, but I didn’t! We soldiers have to stick together, right?”
For a moment, Cloud’s lungs stopped working, body reacting more to the “soldiers” pushing past Zack’s lips than to the boy’s face only a foot away. It was a heady thought, the dream of standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Zack Fair. To a boy still young and barely self-aware, it spoke only of power, of finally being strong enough to protect the things that mattered most. It said nothing of belonging or companionship, of being close to someone without them flinching away, an apology on their lips.
“R-right.” Cloud cast his gaze downward, suddenly unable to look Zack in the eyes even if the boy could not see Cloud’s past the helmet’s visor. “I won’t say anything. You know,” he added, daring to let some humor bleed into his tone, “since you did save my life.”
“Yes!” Zack shouted in a whisper, pumping a fist into the air. “I’ll take that as thanks.” With a friendly pat to Cloud’s shoulder, he grinned and then strode away, accelerating into a jog when he was past the gates.
As Cloud awkwardly watched the black-haired boy head to the SOLDIER barracks, he realized with a pang of disappointment mixed with relief that Zack had never asked his name. As first impressions went, it hadn’t been his finest moment, but there was still time to get it right—for there was no doubt whether Cloud would see him again. Amidst the shame of failing the exams, Cloud once again felt ambition stirring in his chest, urging him to try, try again.
No longer seduced by the call of sleep, the boy turned away from the compound, straightened his stance, and looked out into the night.
On the floor in a derelict church, a man curls into himself, trying to preserve the warmth lingering in his core.
It took a long time—too long, he thinks bitterly—but Cloud understands himself better these days. Years have passed since he was a boy lying on his bunk in the dark barracks, feeling nothing as he tried to picture the pin-up one of his squadmates had smuggled into their dorm. Feeling shame as the woman’s hair grew spikier and muscles thicker until she was no longer a woman at all.
Guilt and shame are longtime companions of Cloud’s, but what seems worthy of these as a boy, no longer seems important with added perspective. When you are indirectly responsible for a beloved friend’s death or the near end of the world, things like whom you want to bed don’t seem to matter anymore.
Still, back then, it did matter, and Modeoheim only confirmed his suspicions. How desperate he’d been just for a second of Zack’s attention, a mere glance. Cloud isn’t one for laughter, but Zack could pull a smile out of a rock, and Cloud is only human. The music coming out of his own mouth had shocked him, nearly strangling him with how much he suddenly wanted. After that, his imaginings grew in detail—attained a pair of glowing Mako eyes and a crisscross scar—and his guilt grew in tandem.
At Junon, as his stomach rolled, his heart ached, elated at the prospect of joining Zack for a meal, but terrified of tainting the friendly gesture with its palpitations. Perhaps it is better, Cloud thinks, that life pulled them every which way, that they never followed through on that plan, but Cloud regrets and regrets and regrets. With Zack, all he has are regrets.
If Cloud were there again, huddled underneath the blankets of the Nibelheim inn, staring at Zack’s silhouette bathed in moonlight, he wouldn’t have remained frozen. He would have crawled out of his cocoon and nudged Zack awake, talked to him, even asked him to share the bed, anything—just as long as it wasn’t nothing.
Instead, Cloud lay on his side in the bed by the window and fought with himself. Asked himself why seeing Tifa again only wrought confusion. Before he’d left for Midgar, they had promised to be strong for each other, to support each other. It had felt right. Sincere. Romantic, even. Innocent. Tifa had rejected him once, but that night under the stars had felt like a balm to a still seeping wound. And perhaps that is what it had been: an old hurt stitched over and banished to the past. Closure, of a kind.
That he couldn’t let Tifa know he had returned to Nibelheim was nothing to do with his feelings—or lack thereof. No, it was only related to his shame in not making SOLDIER. He hadn’t been careful enough though. Zack had quickly caught on to his avoidance, noticed the tension Cloud carried whenever she was mentioned or in their vicinity. No doubt he assumed that they had once dated, or else that Cloud had wanted to, which at least wasn’t far from the truth. He wondered how that affected his already nonexistent chances with him, but then immediately flushed, embarrassed that his mind had already made that leap.
Stripped down to one layer of fabric, armor flung away, Zack looked so much softer. More approachable, too, without those glowing eyes boring holes into Cloud’s. In the quiet darkness punctuated by moonlight, Zack was just a black-haired boy barely older than Cloud. Still unfairly beautiful, but within reach—literally only a few feet away.
Miles away into the future, Cloud is several cups deep in whiskey when he finally reveals the remains of his broken heart to Tifa. When he is finished, when all of Zack is laid bare on the bar counter before them, Tifa gently takes his hands and speaks of Aerith. Clouds listens, his heart throbbing in empathy. He loves Aerith, in his own way, but so much of that love began with a deception he hadn’t even been aware of. Even her own love for him grew from his resemblance to Zack, although it did gradually steep into something different, something sincere.
Still, Zack and Aerith both gave and received love as easily as breathing, so of course they were meant for each other. Somewhere, the wires had crossed, and instead of falling for each other, Cloud and Tifa fell sideways, both pining quietly for another. Cloud understands, now, why he gravitated toward her when they were children. That, subconsciously, he was able to recognize one of his own.
When Tifa falls silent, Cloud picks up his glass and carefully clinks it against Tifa’s, sighing when her mouth quirks into a grimace. Together, they knock back the remains of their drinks. Without a word, Tifa reaches over the bar and unearths another bottle. Cloud is so, so grateful to have her.
There is one moment Cloud keeps to himself. Something about it feels too personal, too intimate, to share.
In the middle of the night, Zack’s near silent breathing changed, becoming erratic and harsh. Cloud tensed, watching warily as the sounds escalated, as Zack began to fidget under the blanket. When the boy in the bed before him inhaled sharply, Cloud knew to close his eyes and steady out his breathing, unwilling to catch Zack in such a vulnerable state.
First, Cloud heard a shaky exhale. Then, the sound of a blanket falling away from a body and the softness of skin touching a wooden floor. And then, for a long time, nothing. Cloud hid his previous thoughts away, focusing only on feigning sleep.
What felt like minutes passed.
Then, a rush of fabric as the weight of another blanket landed on top of him. Cloud listened as, with a sigh, Zack climbed back into his own bed, seemingly uncaring of the cold. He waited until Zack’s breaths evened out again before opening his eyes.
Zack lay curled up on his side, facing him, sleeping peacefully. Cloud’s heart bled.
The extra blanket pulled at his exhaustion, bringing to mind the memory of Zack’s arm around him. With that image in mind, Cloud closed his eyes and let loose a nearly imperceptible smile. As dream logic flowed into his thoughts, he wondered whether he should invite Zack home, introduce him to his mother. Split some of her delicious stew, the three of them together.
They never did have that meal, Cloud realizes.
The other instance Cloud recalls of sleeping next to Zack isn’t an instance at all, but a reel of stuttering images woven together into a crumbling book.
Despite Zack’s presence in these memories, Cloud has no way of knowing if they are real. The likelihood of them having been Mako-induced hallucinations is painfully high. Still, if he concentrates, he can summon the feeling of a line of warmth pressed against his torso as the smell of wet earth and Zack’s sweat fills his sinuses, so that must count for something.
All Cloud knows for certain is that Zack escaped the Shinra Mansion and, for some harebrained reason, decided to drag along his catatonic labmate. Fractured by the Mako, Cloud lost track of time long before the escape, but they must have been on the run for weeks, if not months. And, in all that time, Zack never left him behind.
We soldiers have to stick together, right?
I’m just joking. I’d never abandon you.
We’re friends, right?
Cloud remembers—hopes that he remembers—being held close, head cradled carefully, a harsh wind blowing against his forehead where Zack’s shoulder didn’t quite block it from the elements. The image stands out amongst all the pages in his book, if only because of a footnote added by a familiar, Mako-touched hand.
He imagines a mouth against his forehead pressing into the skin before moving in a mantra of, “Wake up, wake up, please wake up, Cloud, sunshine, I can’t…”
Imagines, for the last must be a hallucination. Friends don’t call each other sunshine, sealing the word between feather-soft kisses, so it stands to reason that it was a dream. Still, Cloud likes the way his name sounds coming from Zack’s lips, even when it’s a product of his subconscious. And, at its core, the thought that someone beyond his mother did not hesitate to take him into their arms brings him comfort.
Regardless of the contents of the book, the epilogue always remains the same: a dusty truck bed, smiling Mako eyes, a gunshot...and then everything that followed.
Zack died smiling. Whatever was left of Cloud's heart died screaming.
When Cloud had no more breath left, a repeated promise—I am your living legacy—was the only thing that convinced him to inhale through the onslaught of memories. Already lightheaded, the sudden rush of oxygen had Cloud pitching forward to the ground, where he decided to stay. The mud was warm where blood had seeped into it. The right side of his face, dripping red, was warm. The rest of him, even where he gripped familiar metal, was cold, so he crawled toward the blood, dropping the sword. Falling in rivulets, the rain was washing the red away, cooling what little heat the body had left.
Suddenly feeling very small, Cloud tucked himself into the body’s side, nestled his head into its neck, and pulled its arm around his waist. When the arm fell away, flopping back into shallow water, Cloud bit his lip, the pain centering him for a sharp, ephemeral moment. With great care, he grabbed the arm by the hand and pulled it back around, holding it despite the strained angle.
If he closed his eyes and blocked out the sickly sweet smell, Cloud could pretend that Zack was just sleeping, that his chest was moving in time to air from within—not because the wind was playing with the frayed edges of the bullet holes in his uniform. Any moment now, he would huff out a laugh, stirring the blond hairs caught in his mouth. Grin, ask why Cloud was crowding in so close. Adjust his grip on Cloud’s waist and tug him in even closer, just because that was the kind of person he was. Affectionate without a moment's hesitation.
But, Cloud’s cheek was pressed to Zack’s neck. He would have felt a pulse, had there been one.
He did not sleep. The memory is shelved away with all the others like it only so that he does not forget it—will not forget it for how often Cloud visits them. Years in the future, it does not bring him peace, but there are nights when even his kindest recollections do not.
Lost, Cloud began to drift into darker waters. He entertained the thought of never getting up again, of letting whatever animals prowled the wastelands come and find them. It would have been easy, but Zack died smiling. Cloud had to live because Zack died smiling.
Cloud had nothing left but a sword and a promise, so he felt no guilt in pulling away from Zack’s neck to plant a chaste kiss on his cheek. What more could the Planet do to him? As he sat back on his knees, he raised his face to the heavens, searching for birds. A sky burial was the best they could hope for—Cloud could barely lift the sword, let alone a shovel he did not possess.
Above him, the rain began to weaken. Below, the sword lay in a puddle where Cloud had let it fall. Zack’s honor, his dreams—they were his now. Gripping it tentatively, he dragged it toward his lap, straining at the weight, at the unexpected burden. For a moment, Cloud almost broke, almost launched himself at Zack, demanding to know what he was meant to do. Protect his honor as SOLDIER? Cloud had never made it past the exams, was a wanted fugitive, even if Shinra had left him for dead.
Who was Cloud without Zack? What use had he of Zack’s dreams when all he had wanted, in the end, was Zack?
The rain dropped away completely, and beams of light broke through the clouds, the fair weather chastising him. Eyes falling shut at the glare, Cloud let its warmth thaw his thoughts, let himself think nothing at all.
Embrace your dreams. If you want to be a hero, you need to have dreams.
Inhaling sharply, Cloud turned to watch the man’s face, half convinced he had spoken out loud. When he was met with stillness, Cloud’s heart broke anew.
“Thank you,” Cloud whispered. “I won’t forget.”
High up on the roof of a church, the stars barely visible through the smog, a man laughs to himself, the sound like rusted metal crumbling to pieces. He never sleeps on nights like this, not when the memory of a face frozen in time rises up into his consciousness, its cold body beneath his definitive.
Outside of Midgar, the same man, years younger, stood from his knees. An age-long weight seemed to fall off him in sloughs, leaving him preternaturally lighter, as though he carried nothing at all.
“Good night…” And then, for a moment, the man’s mind went blank. He turned away. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Zack.”
The man had nothing left but a sword.
Atop a cliff overlooking Edge and the remains of Midgar, Cloud sits with his legs crossed, hands clasped between them in supplication. The Buster Sword, lodged into the earth, stands before him. Even covered in the rust of disuse, it remains as proud as ever. Cloud would clean it, but he fears that his touch would be the catalyst to its destruction. That it would sense an imposter and fall apart in his hands out of spite.
His left arm throbs dully, the Geostigma in his limb marching onward and invading his cells, leaving his skin charred and spirit weak. He is running out of options. Esuna had little to no effect. Not even a mastered Cure materia had stopped the poison from spreading into his systems. If he were the only one affected, Cloud would make peace with this, but he is not. So many children afflicted by the sickness roam the streets, many of them orphans. The sear on Denzel’s forehead will only grow if Cloud does nothing, hiding in the wastelands.
So, Cloud prays—not for himself, but for the children living in Tifa’s care.
In the church, when he is desperate, he prays to Aerith for deliverance. The Planet would not listen to him after all he has done, but she will at least hear him out, even if he has no way of knowing whether his silent pleas reach her.
On the cliff, when he is weak, he prays to Zack for strength. At his weakest, he forgoes the equivocation and prays for Zack, starved of him. The photos tucked away in a stolen file of records are enough to live on, but they do not sate him.
After Meteorfall, after Sephiroth was banished to the Lifestream, the world struggled to right itself. Amidst plans and arguments and reparations, there had been no time for even a centering breath. Weeks had passed by the time Cloud cut himself away from the constant debates, unwilling to wait a moment longer.
It took days to orient himself, to superimpose the little he remembered over the outskirts of a crumbling Midgar. If not for the remains of Shinra helmets and a lone rifle, he never would have confirmed whether he had truly found the place.
Standing on the cliff’s edge, Cloud could not bear the thought of losing it—him—again, so, in one fell swoop, he arced the Buster Sword and slid it into the earth. Feeling heavier despite the loss, Cloud stepped away from the grave marker and closed his eyes. And collapsed.
He barely felt it when his bones rattled against stone and dirt, too horrified at the animal sounds crawling their way out of his throat. His fingers clawed into precious earth, trying to reach. All the tears he had held back throughout his journey escaped him, soaking into the ground as the rain had that one fateful day. Above, a rare break in the sky revealed the sun. Its warmth almost felt like a touch of a hand, low on his back, rubbing in smooth circles. The sobs came faster then, Cloud losing air with how quickly his body reacted to the grief. He forced himself to still, to breathe deeply and steadily until the panic subsided enough for him to uncurl where he lay.
He was so tired.
When he came to, Cloud could not open his eyes, the weight unbearable. Not even months of sleeping in the wilderness, of snapping awake in seconds, could push through the fog. Dazed, he focused on the sharpness of slate against his left cheek. Then, by his ear, came a sound of soft, panting breaths, followed by the wet cold of something pressing against his other cheek. A scrape of claws against stone, echoing and then diminishing into the distance.
Fighting through the bleariness, Cloud forced his eyes open to a spectral blur padding away from him. A cry escaped him as he strained to lift his arm, outstretching it in a desperate attempt to reach the spirit, to call it back. The wolf stopped in its tracks, but when it began to turn, it dissipated into light. And then, it was gone.
He never saw the wolf again, but Cloud likes to imagine that it watches over him. He has a thought tucked away deep in his subconscious, but he’s afraid to bring it to the surface, lest it prove false. Untwining his clasped hands, he reaches for the emblem on his shoulder, the metal warm from his body heat. He had done it on a whim—all the accessorizing—but he feels safer this way, covered in wolves.
Still, it won’t save him from the end.
One consolation, Cloud thinks, is that, when the Geostigma is done breaking him down from the inside out, there will be someone to look forward to. He is loath to leave the life, the family, he has cobbled together, but the sickness is giving him little choice. It’s an unfamiliar thought—that he is deserving of some measure of happiness—but it leaves a sweet taste on his tongue.
Cloud feels like he has lived several lifetimes, but Denzel is so young. And so, Cloud prays.
Cloud wakes to light and the feeling of being watched. Floating in nothingness, he doesn’t dare to open his eyes, half afraid.
At first, there is a throbbing sensation of pain at his core. Then, there is a melody of strands of holy light knitting him back together, of wiping his blood away. Everything is scoured clean of earthly cares. With the wound closing, the pain recedes until all that’s left is peace and the whiteness working its way past his eyelids.
Cloud thinks he has been here before. Once, when he drove toward the Forgotten City, pulled away into this space unchained from time. He remembers the sudden scent of blooming flowers, of admitting his desire for forgiveness. And then, the second time, when fate flew toward him on a single wing. When, for a moment, he thought that the gods had taken pity on him, glossing over the pain of death and sending him straight to limbo.
Then, as the realization of who stood behind him hit him at last—Tell me what you cherish most—Cloud’s heart was torn in two. His voice cracked over Zack’s name, barely able to focus on the words, too preoccupied with using his remaining strength to stay facing forward. This was not a place for reunions—he knew the rules, knew that, if he looked back, he would lose Zack forever.
That, or Zack’s smile would be reason enough for Cloud to forsake his life and never return. But then, perhaps Zack knew him too well. A repeated promise was all the push Cloud needed—in his place, Zack had only fallen after the crisis was over. He would never have surrendered to the alluring call of eternal rest before his purpose was fulfilled. As his living legacy, Cloud had little to no choice in the matter.
Duty or friendship. Duty and friendship. Eventually, they amounted to the same thing.
Lost in the smoke of memory, Cloud almost doesn’t register the soft touch of a hand smoothing away the fringe from his forehead. Only two people in his life have been so familiar with him, but even with that in mind, he assumes it can only be one.
“Mother?” he asks. Even now, he can scarcely bring her features to mind.
“Again?” says a kind voice that does not belong to his mother. “Why is everyone calling me their mother lately?” Through the haze, Cloud recognizes it as Aerith’s. He parts his lips, ready to call her name, when another voice answers.
“I guess they must be fond of you.”
This voice is all light and joy and love, and it grabs hold of Cloud’s heart—whose torn halves hang together by a thread—and yanks.
“This one’s a little too big to adopt,” Aerith quips. Her words start a panic that clamors to rise up Cloud’s throat.
“Tough luck, friend. Sounds like you don’t have a place here.”
For all that he is sending him away, Zack sounds happy. The thought that it takes Zack no effort to let him go twists a knife low in Cloud’s gut. Zack has Aerith, so he doesn’t need Cloud—but Cloud has been selfless for so long, has sacrificed too much. He wants. When he feels a tug in his midsection, the white space starting to pull him away, he reaches out an arm, encountering emptiness.
“N-no,” he manages, voice echoing. The world stills in wait. “Zack, please.”
There is silence. What might be hours in the real world pass as moments. Or, what might be moments there are hours here. Cloud has not felt the sting of rejection of this calibre since he was a child, but he hasn’t been a child for a long time. His tears remain hidden behind his eyelids, only perceptible in the way his breathing thickens.
His outstretched hand, cold from blood loss, curls inward as five points of contact press into the skin on its back. The touch is featherlight. Vaguely, Cloud wonders when he lost his gloves.
The name—said in Zack’s entreating tone—makes him break. Cloud’s held-back tears spill over, slide past his cheeks, and land uncomfortably into his ears. “Please,” Cloud repeats, resorting to begging. Shame holds so little power over him now. “Please, let me stay here, just for a little while.”
Zack’s little sigh is almost enough incentive for Cloud to open his eyes, but he rallies, reminds himself of the wolf spirit scattering into sparks of light when it looked back. Zack’s fingers smooth down toward his forearm and travel around, trailing across the skin. A full-body shudder hits Cloud at the touch of fingers on the inside of his wrist. His hand floats above Zack’s, mirroring it. It would take no effort to grip Zack’s wrist and refuse to let go. Even just for a moment.
Cloud does nothing. Habits are hard to break—and it is not in his power to dictate Zack’s desires. Cloud has only ever taken what he’s been given, never asked for more, save for a stolen kiss at a grave.
“Cloud, your family is waiting for you,” Zack tries, voice earnest. “You need to go back.”
He knows. Cloud is stalling. Something deep in his battered heart knows that their time is running out, that there won’t be any more trips to the peace of the afterlife, not until the end. He’s not ready to say goodbye just yet.
Mouth already open in plea, Cloud pauses at Aerith’s tone, brows furrowing. Above him, the world feels quieter than ever. If not for the press of skin on his wrist, he would think himself abandoned. Minutes pass, marked only by the occasional stroke of Zack’s thumb against the jut of his ulna. Not privy to whatever conversation is going over his head, Cloud melts at the absentminded attention, at the way Zack can make him feel all of sixteen again.
“Zack,” Aerith finally says, playfully stern, “take his hand.”
Zack’s loose hold on Cloud’s wrist tightens, and Cloud, on pure reflex, copies him.
“Aerith?” Zack asks, sounding lost. Cloud is reminded of a black-haired boy crashing out of a nightmare, catching his breath in the darkness of an unfamiliar room. Before he can follow the memory, he feels the tug of the white space again, but this time, it does not wait for him to make up his mind. He’s soaring through the light, rising to the surface after being submerged.
When the dreamscape around him breaks apart in soft sighs, he’s struck by the cold of water, the scent of flowers, and a steady pressure around his wrist. Beyond that, there is a din of exclamations and yelps, followed by a chorus of splashes. Cloud cannot make sense of it. In a moment, the pressure at his wrist disappears, but it halves, reappearing at the backs of his shoulders. He is buoyed, upper torso practically lifting out of the water. Head lolling back uncomfortably, he has no choice but to open his eyes, ready to gauge this new threat. Above him stands a black-haired boy, smiling down at him. When Cloud’s eyes focus, the boy turns into a man, and his smile, if possible, is even bigger.
Eyes shining with Mako, Zack laughs as he repeats Cloud’s name and pulls him upright, water lapping at their torsos.
Cloud thinks he must be dead after all, but there is Tifa at the edge of the pool, illuminated in light falling through the broken church windows. She looks as dumbfounded as he feels. The rest of his family tenses, ready for his order to attack—only Yuffie, oddly, appears to have felt a spark of recognition.
In the water, a group of children surrounds them, wary but helpless against Zack’s sincere joy. Cloud recognizes them as victims of the Geostigma, acknowledges their skin free of char. He looks down. At some point, he grabbed onto Zack’s side, digging his fingers into the fabric of his navy top. It’s solid under his hand. He can’t persuade himself to let go.
“Everyone,” he says, feeling eyes on the back of his neck, “this is Zack.”
“You see?” Aerith says after Cloud has poured sanctified water over Denzel’s forehead, after the rest of the afflicted have jumped into the pool. “Everything’s all right.”
Breath hitched, Cloud watches as she walks toward the church doors, outlined in blinding light. He waits for the inevitable, for Zack to pull away from his grasp and follow her, but he remains at his side, head tilted at a familiar angle as he follows Aerith’s footsteps with his eyes. When she is but a silhouette, his gaze slides away to focus on Cloud.
“I know,” Cloud whispers, so that only they can hear. “I’m not alone. Not anymore.”
Zack’s grin restarts his heart.
Zack slots back into life almost seamlessly.
Cloud spends the first few days doggedly following—or else watching—his every step, scarcely able to believe he is here to stay, half expecting him to disappear in a spell of smoke. Cloud sleeps in gaps, constantly waking from nightmares of old memories, new ones, imagined ones, but Zack is never too far. There is little room in 7th Heaven for him, but he has taken to stretching out in one of the booths near the bar. Cloud promises to find a bed for him, if not better lodging, but Zack takes it all in stride. After years of floating in the Lifestream, he says, he could stand to feel the discomfort of living again.
On his part, Cloud is...conflicted. For all that he is overjoyed to have his black-haired boy returned to him, therein lies the problem: Zack never was his. Cloud doesn’t even have it in him to ask for a hug. He feels young—guilty—again, like he has to build his walls back up again, brick by brick. It puts him on edge, leaves him raw and exposed to the glances of his family. Even the children notice, both Marlene and Denzel approaching him separately to check on him. He can hardly explain his skittishness to them, not with how easily they have taken to Zack’s larger-than-life presence. What’s worse, whenever Cloud encounters her, Tifa fixes him with a look.
It persuades him to seek solitary refuge wherein he can sort through his emotions. Eight days pass before Cloud is confident enough to cut the tether connecting him to Zack, no longer certain that he will disappear when his attention is elsewhere. When everyone has bunked down for the night, he leaves to make the trip to Sector 5 on foot, not wanting to wake everyone with the roar of Fenrir’s engine.
Although the stars cannot pierce the ever-present clouds, the moon is out in full, just peeking out beyond them and lighting his way. The ruins of Midgar are more oppressive after sundown, but the church remains standing, a lone beacon in the midst of destruction. Inside, the altar is cast in shadow, but the water—surrounded by the bed of flowers—sparkles in the light spilling through broken glass.
Unwilling to disturb the quiet underscored only by an occasional gust of wind, Cloud carefully perches on a pew, watching the ripples disrupt the tranquility of the pool. It was not so long ago that he had sought asylum here, but this is the first time since then that he is—nearly—at peace. Taking a deep breath, Cloud gathers himself. Considers telling Zack the truth. And flinches.
He tries again. Zack is the decent sort—he would not hold it against Cloud if he confessed his feelings. Eventually, they would move on, even if Cloud might not. However...that does not eradicate a painful fact: Cloud pulled Zack out of the Lifestream, away from Aerith. For all that he puts on a cheerful face, Zack must be feeling the sting of regret. Wouldn’t that only worsen if Cloud comes clean? Wouldn’t it taint their friendship?
Perhaps he already knows. Save for a couple of instances of hair ruffling, Zack has kept his distance since his return—possibly out of kindness, not wanting to give Cloud false hope. Wincing, Cloud drops his head into his hands and groans quietly, trying to stave off a headache. This is embarrassing. Cloud is an adult, yet here he is, pining away like a teenager. He supposes it was inevitable: Shinra stole four years of his life with their experiments. No doubt he skipped over a vital step or two in his development. To call him an adult might technically be inaccurate.
Cloud flinches, knocked out of his reverie by the sound of knuckles rapping against wood. He spins around where he sits, pretending that he wasn’t just undergoing an emotional crisis. At the opening of the church stands a sheepish-looking Zack, who waves awkwardly when he’s seen.
“Hey,” Cloud calls, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey.” Zack takes a few steps down the aisle before stopping. “Sorry. I heard you leave, and then I couldn’t fall asleep wondering where you went. Thought something might be wrong. I figured this would be as good a place as any to check.” He shrugs, wry smile tugging at his lips.
Gods, Cloud is so grateful for the dim lighting hiding his flush. His heart is tucking sparkling thoughts into his head, but he locks the offensive organ away, wraps it in chains. “I didn’t mean to make you worry. I just...wanted some fresh air.”
Zack waves his hands before him, laughing. “It’s all good. Just old habits, you know? I can go, if you want,” he adds, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.
Despite having left for the express purpose of solitude, Cloud doesn’t think he could ever willfully send Zack away. It is not an inability to say no, but rather a lack of desire. In a moment of clarity, Cloud realizes that the last time he’d seen Zack in the flesh, he had been either too overwhelmed—or fractured—to acknowledge why he turns toward Zack like a flower yearning for sunlight. Why is he still so afraid now that he has a second chance?
Regrets and regrets and regrets...
Cloud scoffs, summoning calm. “Sending you away would be like kicking a puppy. Stay.”
Unfazed by the jab, Zack grins, finishes his trek down the aisle, and crouches down by the water, only a few feet away from Cloud’s pew. He doesn’t say anything, just dips a finger into the pool and watches the ripples form.
“What did you mean,” Cloud asks suddenly, remembering, “by ‘old habits’?”
“I don’t remember you ever following me around. Dragging me along, sure.” He says the last with a bite of humor. It’s easier to joke about those months of being hunted in the wilderness now that they’re together again.
Zack falls back, leaning on his palms as he inspects the buttresses above. “I guess...I just meant that I got used to you being close by.” He turns back to glance at Cloud, brows rising. “It wasn’t ever safe to leave you alone for too long. Not with how persistent Shinra was in tracking us. We had a few close calls. You know...before the end.”
Cloud does know. He revisits the end in his nightmares—sometimes, when he’s awake, even intentionally. Now, at least, the memory of Zack’s last stand is coated with a film of salve. Swallowing, Cloud looks down into his lap, interlocking his fingers. “I never thanked you for protecting me. Or, I did, but…”
“It was after I’d already died,” Zack confirms quietly. “It’s okay. Knowing they hadn’t got you was enough.” The ripples he had instigated have smoothed out, fanning out into waves before him. Moonlit, his features have fallen into something softer, less sharp. Cloud isn’t sure why, but he feels like he’s been here before. “Besides,” Zack adds, crossing his arms behind his head and falling backward, “I heard you. Talked to you too, although you probably didn’t hear me.”
Fingers digging into the thin skin above his tendons, Cloud curls inward, focusing. The effort is almost painful, but he extracts what he’s looking for. “Embrace your dreams,” he quotes, suddenly shy. “If you want to be a hero, you need to have dreams.”
Zack’s mouth opens as he peers up at Cloud, who has to dart his gaze away at the sight. “Well, damn. Guess it worked!” His eyes take on an impish gleam, and he crawls back onto his knees as he leans closer, puncturing Cloud’s carefully constructed wall. “Hey, did you ever say hi to Aerith for me?”
“Quit it,” Cloud bites out, beside himself.
Apparently enjoying himself, Zack bursts into a fit of giggles, falling back down.
“Yeah, laugh it up. Not like you had to watch your friend die and then forgot it even happened.” The moment it’s out, Cloud bites his lip, cursing himself at the way Zack instantly sobers, laugh cut short.
“I know. I’m so sorry, Cloud.” His eyes are shining. Cloud looks away. “I never meant to abandon you. That wasn’t how I wanted it to end.”
For a long time, the words stick in his throat. On the floor, Zack fidgets where he’s sat upright, watching Cloud carefully.
“There’s nothing to forgive. Don’t blame yourself.” Cloud sighs. “I have enough of that for the both of us,” he finishes with a smirk. The last thing he needs is Zack falling into his own spiral of guilt. At least someone in this friendship needs to keep a level head.
“Why? What do you blame yourself for?” Zack asks, completely sincere. Cloud thinks he must be feigning ignorance. He can’t be serious.
“Well, for starters… If not for me, you wouldn’t be here right now.” It’s only after the hurt passes through Zack’s expression that Cloud realizes how it sounded. “Not that I don’t want you here,” he rectifies quickly, cursing himself. “Only, you and Aerith…”
Cloud could go on, but thankfully, Zack’s face alights in understanding. Cloud isn’t the jealous sort—has learned not to be—but expounding on the details of Zack and Aerith’s relationship is equivalent to casting Firaga on himself. Still, despite his own turmoil, he sympathizes. Is it really worth returning to a body comprised of flesh and blood when the person you’d want to share it with isn’t beside you?
“Ohhh,” Zack exclaims, nodding slowly. “That isn’t— Aerith and I...we haven’t been that for a long time now. I mean, time in the Lifestream is strange, but relatively speaking.”
“What?” Cloud’s world tilts on its axis. Hidden in his lap, his fingers break through skin. Zack and Aerith were fated to be. Zack hadn’t been hauling Cloud along to Midgar on a whim. Aerith had sent Zack letters the entire time he’d been missing. What changed?
“Yeah,” Zack admits with a laugh. “Don’t get me wrong: I’ll always love her, but when we met again on the other side… She’ll always be my friend,” he adds with softening eyes, “but things were just different. For both of us.”
Sometime during the revelation, Cloud had leaned forward, angling closer, trying to make sure he heard correctly. He sits back against the pew with a huff, not sure what to think anymore.
“My point is,” Zack continues, smiling, “is that you shouldn’t blame yourself for that. Anyway, Aerith was the one to send me back. Maybe she finally got sick of me.” He winks, grin as vast as the ocean.
That is...true? This past week, Cloud has been so preoccupied with the mere fact of Zack’s return that he hasn’t even questioned the intricacies of it. In retrospect, it is obvious, but he had assumed that it was his doing, that he had physically pulled Zack out of the Lifestream, albeit unintentionally. Had Zack held his hand too? He can’t be certain. Cloud had only escaped death’s embrace minutes, maybe seconds, before. The memory of the pain is already gone, so everything else has gone slanted and foggy.
Curious despite himself, Cloud raises his head, watching Zack watch him. “Why did she send you back, then?”
“Oh, you know—” Looking away, Zack waves a hand, encompassing the moonlit pool, the altar, the flowers… It only just now occurs to Cloud that, for anyone else, this would be a romantic setting, rubble notwithstanding. He has so long associated this place with death that it leaves him staggered. “I never really got to live out my life. So much of it went to Shinra and SOLDIER… There wasn’t much room for anything else.”
“Hm. I guess we’re not that different, in that respect.”
Cloud’s smile is dim at best, but Zack’s blinds. He doesn’t understand, not really, why Zack ever decided to take him under his wing, but Cloud is never as happy as he is with Zack. Even Tifa, this past week, has professed shock at the occasional starstruck expression lingering in his eyes. He wordlessly whispers his gratitude to Aerith, wondering if she knows what Zack means to him.
They lapse into a comfortable silence. Midgar has few inhabitants these days, save for a number of scavengers, so the quiet nights are especially reminiscent of the wilds. If Cloud were to close his eyes and sink to the floor, they could be years in the past, lying side by side, Zack reaching out without a care to gather Cloud into his warmth.
A yawn breaks into his trail of thought, and Cloud watches as Zack languidly rises from the floorboards, stretching out his back. “All right, I think I can finally sleep,” he admits, breathing deeply through a second yawn. “Do you want to head back, sunshine? I won’t make you if you want to stay.”
Hands braced against the pew in readiness to stand, Cloud freezes. Replays the words.
“No, I—” Cloud shakes his head, frowning into the darkness at the altar. Something is… “Is that the first time you’ve called me that?”
“What, ‘sunshine’?” Zack cocks his side to the side, one brow rising.
Shakily, Cloud nods. It must just be a misplaced memory. Even if the name isn’t a new development, it doesn’t mean that…that one night was— Could it?
“Nope, I picked that up when we were on the run. I, uh, talked a lot at you. Trying to lighten the mood, entertain ourselves.” Crossing his arms, Zack arches his head upward, eyes fluttering back and forth between the columns holding up the ceiling. “There were others too. ‘Chocoboy’ was one—” Cloud feels a heat spread from his cheeks to his throat. “—but ‘sunshine’ is the one that stuck.”
Zack is a series of motions held together in one body. When he stills, it is impossible not to notice. Cloud’s vision sharpens, his subconscious telling him to pay close attention. When Zack’s eyes, glowing in the dimness of their sanctuary, flick toward him, Cloud blinks, the spell broken.
“I can stop, if you want.”
“No,” Cloud answers, confusion and hope warring within him. “I don’t mind.” He leans back, letting the edge of the pew’s back dig into his muscles, and tries to ground himself. Tries to compare notes. “Sunshine” is the only word that stands out in the memory, bookended by an embrace and a press of lips. His memory is kind, but his memory is also faulty, cruel…
He raises his head to find Zack hovering above him, concern tugging at the creases at his eyes. Whatever happens, Cloud realizes, Zack will always accept him as he is. There is a sense of freedom in that, a comfort.
In the haven of the space between them, Cloud parts his lips, blinks once, slowly, and takes a deep breath. “Sit with me?”
Without a word, Zack nods, his unease readily flowing into a small smile. He steps over loose rubble and plops down on the empty space to Cloud’s left. It is with a sharp inhale that Cloud registers the body pressing easily into his side. He has...missed this. Their shoulders are almost of a height now, although he suspects that he’ll never catch up to Zack now. A younger Cloud would have cared, but a younger Cloud cared about a lot of unimportant, irrelevant things.
Zack cocks his head toward him, the strand of hair hanging in front of his face almost grazing Cloud’s cheek. “You look smaller without your armor,” he comments, nodding at Cloud’s nondescript sweater. “More like how I remember you, from before.”
Cloud plucks at the fabric, brows furrowing. It hadn’t seemed significant when he left the house, but Zack pointing it out makes him realize that he hasn’t appeared in public without his armaments in...a long time. The final words, however, leave him wrong-footed. “Is that bad?”
“Neither,” Zack sing-songs, nudging his shoulder with his own. “It just is.”
Cloud huffs. It’s easy to fall into this sort of rapport, this teasing dance. “Even like this, I could still take you. Tifa’s taught me a few tricks, and you’ve been lazing about in the Lifestream.”
“Ohh, you expect me to take that sitting down? I know a challenge when I hear one.” Zack makes as though to leap off the seat, but Cloud grabs his forearm and pulls him down before tucking his hand back into his lap.
“Maybe later,” Cloud says quietly, thankful for the effortless way Zack shifts back into their closeness, seemingly content to, contrary to his words, take the insult sitting down. Gods, Cloud has missed him. “It might come off as strange, but I have a question. About our time evading Shinra.”
“Ask away. And, if we’re gonna compare, I think you’ll find you did the most lazing about back then.”
Cloud sputters into a laugh. Perhaps they shouldn’t be joking about this, but it feels like taking back something that was stolen from them. “Well, I had a good teacher.” Before Zack can retaliate, Cloud continues, forcing himself to breathe through his anxiety, “My memory… I never fully recovered from the Mako poisoning, so my memory isn’t always reliable.”
It might be a trick of the shadows, but Cloud swears that Zack’s eyes darken for a moment, Mako glow notwithstanding.
“I think I remember sleeping next to you for warmth. I’m almost certain that happened.” At Zack’s encouraging nod, Cloud inwardly sighs. That’s one truth. “I don’t remember much from then, but I have… Did you ever—?” Cloud stutters to a stop, not sure how to phrase it without putting Zack on the spot. There’s nothing for it. “Did you ever call me ‘sunshine’ and ask me to wake up? Repeatedly?”
The shoulder lodged against his tenses, but Zack lets out a soft hum, as though he’s casually trawling the facets of his memory. The two pieces of information are at odds with each other—Cloud doesn’t think he should bring attention to them.
“Yeah, that happened,” Zack says softly, seemingly unaware of the fact that, beside him, Cloud has stopped breathing. “We’d almost been caught, so I lost it for a second there. It took days to ditch them, and by the time we did, I was exhausted. Desperate.” Jerkily, Zack turns his face slightly toward him, watching him out of the corner of his eye. “Is that all you remember?”
Gaze locked on the sparkling water, Cloud sees two diverging paths rise before him. He inhales, closes his eyes, and says, “No.” He exhales, feels the solid wood against his back, the cold of the night air, the flinch of the body leaning against his.
“O-oh,” is all Zack manages before falling silent. Cloud waits, wondering if he should be the one to say something. Baffled, he finds that he has the courage, but he also notices the repressed movements buzzing throughout Zack’s limbs. He’s building up to something, so Cloud lets him be.
“I wasn’t thinking straight,” Zack finally admits, head lolling back. He squints, pained. “I’m sorry. I...did something I shouldn’t have.”
Cloud’s heart breaks free of its chains. Staring fixedly ahead, he asks, “Could you do it again?”
Cloud is lying on a bed in the Nibelheim inn, watching a black-haired boy. Cloud is reaching out to Zack’s retreating back, wondering if he’ll ever see him again. Cloud is burying his hands into gray earth, overflowing with regret.
Cloud is sitting on a pew in a darkened church, waiting.
Shaking hands take hold of the sides of Cloud’s jaw, gently turning his head leftward. He watches Zack lean in, closes his eyes at the press of a mouth against his forehead. Scarcely in control of his body, Clouds shudders, nerves alight from the spot of heat. His hands fly up of their own accord and loosely encircle Zack’s wrists.
Above him, the mouth pauses, catching on skin. A moment later, it slips downward, presses into Cloud’s left brow, travels to the edge of an eyelid, his cheek. Cloud’s breath hitches as a hand slides down to his neck, as Zack delves in to trace patterns on his uncovered jaw. When he reaches the corner of Cloud’s mouth, he stops, tears himself away, although he doesn’t retreat far. His harsh breaths billow against Cloud’s chin.
Cloud has been waiting for years, but, he wonders, maybe Zack has too.
Regrets falling away, Cloud leans forward and tentatively presses his lips to Zack’s, lifting a hand to caress the base of his skull. It elicits a whimper from Zack that buries itself deep into Cloud’s subconscious. It’s nothing but a pressure of skin against skin, but it feels like a homecoming.
Overwhelmed, Cloud lowers his head, slitting his eyes open when Zack’s cheek rests against his temple. Fingers tightening into Zack’s mane of hair, Cloud lets his mouth fall open, hardly knowing what to say. What ends up crawling out, tainting the air with its insecurity, is a shaky, “R-really?”
Zack ducks, making sure that Cloud’s attention is caught before he nods decisively. “Yeah. Since Nibelheim.” His gaze slips away, focuses on a clavicle Cloud’s sweater does not fully veil. “Maybe even before that. You?”
Exposed, Cloud laughs desperately. “Forever? Maybe even before that?”
Blinking wildly, Zack tightens his hold on Cloud, ostensibly unconscious of the action. Cloud can’t look away. There is something inherently alluring in witnessing him so flustered—it’s an uncommon occurrence. Perhaps, overall, it is rarer to catch Cloud in such a state, but his shyness must be familiar to Zack, if not standard. After all, even if Cloud had buried his deepest feelings, he had never managed to hide his hero worship. It seems strange, now, to think of himself as Zack’s equal—the sensation is not unpleasant.
“Gods, Cloud,” Zack finally says, voice strangled. “If only I’d realized, maybe I wouldn’t have, would have tried harder not to…”
Cloud doesn’t want him to finish the thought, doesn’t want to revisit yet another source of self-blame, so he frames Zack’s face with his hands, glaring daggers. “Stop. We’re both here now, and that’s what matters. It’s no little thing.”
At some point in the midst of their exchange, Zack’s hands traveled down to Cloud’s waist to rest on his lower back. When they begin to slide lower, it takes everything in Cloud to wriggle away, to sink back into his seat. They could take this further, but after waiting so long, it feels like nothing to wait a little longer, to let the shock of requital settle. He’s skittish again, but he doesn’t think it’s a problem—not this time around.
Hiding his face in his hands, Zack sighs deeply and slouches forward. “No offense, sunshine, but I feel like I just ran twenty emotional miles.”
Cloud scoffs, closing his eyes in agreement. “Then, you should sleep.”
“Would that require standing?” asks a voice by his ear.
“Mm, if you want to be comfortable,” he answers, ready to drift away.
“I can think of something better.”
Before Cloud can parse Zack’s lilting tone, a heavy weight falls onto his lap, knocking a breath out of him in surprise. He opens his eyes to a bleary-eyed Zack grinning up at him, head cradled in Cloud’s thighs while the rest of his body lies along the bench. It’s...not an unwelcome sight. He assumes that Zack means it as a joke, but, now that Cloud isn’t restrained by fear, he wants to grant his heart free rein. Steadily, he reaches out with his left hand and curves it along the line of Zack’s cheek. Eyelashes flutter as Cloud strokes a careful thumb along smooth skin.
“What about you?” Zack slurs, eyes slipping fully closed. Cloud smiles to himself. Zack had always been able to fall asleep just about anywhere—yet another trait of a perfect soldier. Now that the pall of danger has lifted, it is just an endearing truth.
“I’m not tired,” Cloud lies. “Don’t worry: I’ll kick you off when I’m ready to leave.” At Zack’s pleased hum, he lifts his other hand and wraps it along the crown Zack’s head, keeping him close. There’s nothing stopping him from leaning down to press a kiss to Zack’s forehead, so he does.
Cloud’s memory is a patchwork of half remembered dreams and vivid nightmares, but sown into its gaps is a black-haired boy with smiling eyes. He appears in the tatters of the past, in the promise of a future. Together, they have need only to stride forward.
In a moonlit church amidst the ruins of a decaying city, two men curl into each other, finally warm again.