Zack is eating lunch in the cafeteria when Tseng orders him to Science Headquarters. The First gives his half-eaten sandwich a forlorn look before dumping it in the trash bin and riding the elevator up.
On his way there, he runs into Kunsel. "You heading to an assignment?" The Second asks.
Zack grins. "How'd you know?"
Kunsel smirks. "You would be stuffing your face in the cafeteria if you weren't." He exits the elevator before Zack can retort, doors closing while the First squawks indignantly.
The elevator chimes and Zack calms, eyes roving about as he steps out onto the floor. He's never visited Science HQ before, the tour all new Shinra employees are given skipped over it and Zack has never questioned why. Kunsel jokes it's where Shinra hides its monsters, the experiments gone wrong they don't want anyone to see.
He isn't bothered by such rumors of course, he's more concerned with finding out where exactly he's supposed to go, which is why he's grateful when Tseng rounds the corner and beckons him. "This way."
The Turk wastes no time on pleasantries as he leads Zack around piles of haphazardly stacked crates, through a vacant hallway, and inserts his keycard into the door. Zack raises a brow as his enhanced hearing picks up on at least six different security systems unlocking. Whatever is behind this door must be very important.
Or very dangerous.
Zack wishes his mentor were still around to reassure him he's ready for such an important task when the door opens and he's ushered into a corridor lined with cells.
Tseng gestures to the second cell on the right. "Keep her safe and don't let her escape. A Turk will relieve you in one hour."
The SOLDIER blinks as the man rushes out. Tseng's never been the sunniest guy around, but the Turk was more curt than usual. Really, if Zack is being honest, Tseng looked uncomfortable, like he'd rather be anywhere but on this floor.
Zack turns to the cell containing the prisoner. Maybe it has to do with her, maybe Kunsel is right and she's a freak of nature, freaky enough to scare off a Turk.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Zack peers through the cell's small, barred window.
Pink swishes to and fro on the ground. It takes him a second to realize the pink is a dress and slim, vanilla arms are sticking out of it. A pink bow compliments the outfit atop a waterfall of wavy, cinnamon hair twirled into a long braid. The window is too small for him to be sure, but the girl seems to be kneeling and adjusting something on the floor. He narrows his eyes until the dirt crumbs on the girl's fingertips come into focus, and he confirms she's playing in a garden when her hand strokes a yellow petal.
Is that a real flower?
He realizes he spoke aloud when the girl starts, swivels around as she stands and her emerald eyes, shining like stained glass caught in the sunlight, lock on his sky blue.
His eyes are as big and round as hers, shock keeping their lips sealed and tongues tied.
Slowly, after half a minute of silence, her brow lowers until she simply looks curious. "You're new."
Her voice is a wind chime, serene yet fleeting. It's also youthful, no way she's a day older than his seventeen years.
"I'm Zack," he sloppily introduces, as if she asked.
Her lips twist like she's amused and he rubs the back of his hair, embarrassed when she mutters. "So pretty."
Zack smirks, leaping at the opportunity to salvage his reputation. "The face?"
For the first time, a tiny smile adorns the girl as she shakes her head. "No, the eyes!" She peers so deeply into his irises it's a wonder she doesn't fall into them.
He laughs to encourage her fawning, finally in his element. "Color of the sky, right?"
Her face falls. "I wouldn't know." She turns to the ceiling above. "I've never seen the sky."
He falters, sad trill in her voice catching him off guard. "Oh." He's got nothing elegant to say, and the silence quickly builds between them.
Zack is ready to kick himself when she says, "It's real." His eyes rise from the floor to see her rosy, delicate lips curve into a grin.
It takes several seconds to understand she is answering his question and by then yellow petals are squeezing through the bars, tickling his nose. "Here, for you!"
Zack accepts it without a thought, wishing he didn't wear gloves when his fingers brush against hers as she pulls back. "Thanks," is on the tip of his tongue when a honey aroma wafts from the lily and stuns him. It really is a living flower, in Midgar, something Zack thought impossible without importation.
"It's not possible," she replies because the filter between Zack's thoughts and mouth took a vacation today. "I'm the only one who can grow them."
His head tilts. "Why's that?"
"Hmm," she taps her chin with a secretive smile. "That's a good question."
Zack grins at the challenge. "Lemme guess, you won't tell me your name either."
She giggles, hands clasping behind her. "No need, you already know my name, Zack."
He's so starstruck by the melody, which is his name on her tongue, that he doesn't register the oddity she uttered until later that night when he's in bed. He can't sleep, forehead crinkling as he mulls over the mysterious girl, the flower girl, and struggles to recall her name. Have they met before? They must have if she thinks he knows her name. There is something familiar about her, so it's possible.
However, his pondering proves fruitless as he falls asleep without a clue to who she is.
In his dreams, he sees her standing in a white world amid a vibrant garden. Her eyes glimmer with unshed tears as she leans in close. "You'll find me, won't you?"
He wakes up muttering. "I always do."
Zack doesn't see the flower girl for weeks.
In that time he realizes they have met before. It's the bow that gives her away, her worn, pink bow. The lily too gives him a sense of familiarity, but it dies within days, so it's the bow he goes back to.
He's so eager to solve the mystery of her that he jumps for joy when Tseng shows up at his doorstep in the dead of night, telling him he's got an assignment. Tseng raises a brow at his good cheer, but says nothing as he escorts him to Science Headquarters.
"Due to a severe injury, the Turk manning this station won't be on active duty for months. You will be filling in until he recovers. Report here every Tuesday and Thursday at 9PM unless you're on assignment outside of Midgar."
Zack never saluted so quickly and he's pretty sure Tseng is waiting to be out of earshot to laugh at him, but he shrugs it off. Nothing else matters except the flower girl once his face nears the barred window.
As expected, the girl is playing in her garden. Since her back is to him he starts when she chirps. "Nice to see you again, Zack." She turns and smiles warmly, standing up.
Zack doesn't ask how she recognized him without looking, he just categorizes it as another thing that makes her special.
He smirks and leans into the bars. "Nice to see you too, angel."
She giggles behind her hand. "Silly." Her hands link behind her back and she sways. "That's not my name."
Zack's grin turns wolfish. "Up for a round of twenty questions?"
Flower girl flashes her teeth. "You won't win."
"Have we met before?"
"Yes, you were here a few weeks ago."
" ... "
" ... "
"...can we not count that one?"
"Hmm, alright, but only because you're cute."
"You think I'm cute?"
" ... "
"...I just wasted another question, didn't I?"
"Are you about my age?"
"Yes and no."
"Heeey, it's one or the other!"
"If I elaborate can it count?"
"I'm 169 years old. "
"Mentally anyway. Physically I'm sixteen."
"Relax, before your pretty face gets stuck like that."
"Oooh, so you think I'm pretty too?"
" ... "
" ... "
" ... "
"...I did it again, didn't I?"
By the end of the game, Zack is no closer to figuring out her name and he doesn't mind one bit. Her smile is radiant and she's so alive, her bubbly giggles echoing throughout the hall and warming Zack from head to toe. She's happy so he's happy, but then a Turk comes to relieve him and she must see his frown for she says, "Here, I'll give you a hint."
Her eyes are serious, though her grin is coy. "The first time we met, you gave me this." She points at her pink bow and Zack's heart gallops because he was right, the bow is important!
He strikes a heroic pose, hands on his sides. "I'll remember your name soon. Just you wait!"
She smiles. "I'll be here."
"It's driving me crazy! I thought for sure the list would help, but I swear I wrote down every girl I've ever said more than two words to, but I don't remember giving any of them a bow! Roses, chocolates, perfume, yes! Bow, no." Zack's face flops into his hands and he tries not to scream.
Across the round table, Kunsel sets his fork in his salad bowl and asks, "Did you consider she might be lying?"
Zack's head shoots up. "What?"
Kunsel shrugs. "Well, she is a prisoner, right? Criminals aren't exactly known for being truthful," he says it mildly like an adult telling a child their stick figure drawing is a masterpiece.
Zack scowls and crosses his arms. "She's not a liar."
"How would you know?" Kunsel resumes stuffing lettuce in his mouth. "You said it yourself, you don't even know her name."
Zack doesn't have a comeback for the truth Kunsel just threw down, so like the mature SOLDIER he is, he storms out the cafeteria like an angry toddler.
Fortunately tonight is his shift and although he arrives ten minutes early, Reno is all too happy to skip out ahead of time. Then there's just Zack and his flower girl.
As he goes up to the window, he notices it's barred. Sure, he's always seen the bars, but this is the first time it registers that this is a cell and he's flirting with a criminal.
Zack hesitates to peek in because what if the bars aren't the only thing he views differently? What if his image of the flower girl is wrong? What if he's been staring through rose-colored glasses and she really is a monster, but he just wasn't willing to see it?
He forces himself forward before he can chicken out.
And nearly has a heart attack because the cell is empty.
Then has a second heart attack as Flower girl springs up right in front of the door. "Boo!"
He grasps his chest, heaving in air while she laughs. "Are you trying to kill me?!"
Flower girl quiets, face smoothing out into dead seriousness. "Well, I am in here for murder."
Zack promptly has a third heart attack much to the girl's amusement. "Meanie!" he cries, pouting.
Her apology is completely insincere, but he's too busy focusing on what little distance lies between them to care. She's never stood so close to the door before and maybe that should concern him, except all he sees are those plush, pink lips a couple inches from his own and all he has to do is lean in for a kiss-
"Remember my name yet?"
Zack shakes off the daydream, but is still dazed as he replies. "No, not yet."
Flower girl hums, spins and pads over to her garden. "It will come to you eventually."
She kneels to play with her flowers, and maybe it's because he no longer has to see her face that he can ask, "Why did Shinra lock you up?"
She doesn't stop playing in her garden as she says, "I don't know. I've been here for sixteen years."
Zack gapes. "No way...you've been here since you were born."
"Just about." She turns the soil with a little shovel, dirt crunching under the metal.
Zack mentally questions why they gave a prisoner a shovel, a potential weapon, when a better question strikes him. "If you've been here all your life, how could we have ever met?"
She pauses and Zack dreads her next words will be a lie, just like Kunsel said she'll turn out to be a dirty liar with a pretty face.
Her soft smile and glittering eyes settle his heart as she says, "We met in another life."
Zack concludes Flower girl is a thief.
For stealing his beating heart right out of his chest.
It's a struggle not to think of her every waking moment. He can't even bother pretending to focus on anything besides the flower girl running through the garden in his brain, and the distraction lands him in trouble three times this week.
First he gets nicked by a Tonberry's knife attack, which he doesn't quite dodge. Flower girl fusses over the cut and gets so upset she launches a herbal plant at his eye, ordering him to mash it into paste and treat the wound then and there.
The second time he's midway through a training session for SOLDIER cadets when a young blond manages to swipe his feet out from under him. It turns out okay when he realizes it's Cloud standing over him, training sword slack in his hand and mouth hanging open, and Zack is glad to see the other cadets fawning over his younger friend's skills. The boy is going to make a great SOLDIER one day.
The third time is now as General Sephiroth clears his throat and Zack has no idea what's been said. He barely even remembers walking into the man's office and taking a seat at the desk.
Seph knows it too, lifting a single brow while saying, "Congratulations on beating your record."
Sephiroth's tone is bland as he continues. "Normally you do not start daydreaming until I have spoken for at least three minutes, today you ceased hearing me thirty seconds in."
"You've timed me?!"
"Sorry, sir." Zack sighs, running a hand through his front hair. "I just can't stop thinking about her."
The general's eyes narrow. "If your assignment to guard her is becoming a distraction I could have you removed-"
Zack jumps up, hands clapping together as he begs. "No, nononono, please don't!"
Sephiroth is taken aback by his fervency, but quickly squares his shoulders. "Do you truly think it wise to date a prisoner?"
Zack flops back in his chair, head leaning against his fist. "Well, not wise, but it's what I want and what she wants, isn't that enough?"
It must be because Sephiroth merely rubs his temple to stave off the incoming headache before dismissing Zack.
Later that night Zack runs to Science HQ, thudding up the staircase since his enhancements make him faster than the elevator. Upon arrival, he just barely stops himself from mowing Tseng over, boots leaving skid marks on the floor as he finds the Turk in front of the cells.
"She isn't here."
Abject horror washes over Zack, making noodles out of his arms and jelly of his brain.
Zack sighs in relief and Tseng performs the Turk equivalent of an eyeroll as he guides Zack up the steps.
On the new floor, the SOLDIER's eyes latch onto the brightest object in the room, which is the large, circular containment unit on the far right.
Inside lies pink, and already his hands are pressing on the glass as his flower girl stirs from her dozing on the ground.
"Zack?" Her voice is slightly muffled as she rises and walks over to him, placing her hands over his on the other side of the glass.
Tseng might say something as he leaves, but Zack doesn't hear a thing. He's never seen her like this, never seen his flower girl whole until this moment. Suddenly all the glimpses he's gathered of her piece themselves together. Her emerald eyes, luscious lips, cinnamon braid, and pink bow matching her dress. Her outfit is longer than he thought, running down to her ankles with brown boots peeking out beneath it. His eyes trail up from there and sail over curves he's never noticed until now.
A hot flush crawls up his neck because she is gorgeous, an otherworldly beauty.
"Are you sure you're not an angel?" he slurs.
Her rosy blush is worth every second of embarrassment.
Kunsel apologizes weeks later, but Zack waves him off. Still, Kunsel goes on from his place on the couch while Zack performs squats. "I wouldn't have said anything if I knew you were in love."
"It's fine." Zack huffs as he bobs up and down. "It brought us closer together anyway."
"Really, how so?"
Zack tells him what he's learned about her since then, finishing with, "Still don't know her name though." He stops squatting. "I hopes she's not angry, it's been months." He frowns.
Kunsel is oddly silent before saying, "So Tseng said you'd only be guarding her for a few months, right?"
"Well, it's been five, so isn't that injured Turk overdue?"
Zack shrugs. "I'm not complaining."
Kunsel huffs and leans back, arms crossing under his helmet. "I'm just saying, enjoy it while it lasts."
Zack frowns at that. The frown sticks with him up till he leaves for guard duty. His time with Flower girl has never felt limited, but Kunsel is right, the injured Turk is bound to return eventually, and when he does Zack won't have any excuse to see her anymore. Maybe Tseng will let him visit, but he doubts the man will let Zack in as often as he likes. Also Tseng isn't always in Midgar, and without him, there will be no one willing to let Zack visit his girlfriend.
"Angel?" Zack leans into the barred window, desperate to see her, but it's dark inside the cell. Through squinting he makes out his flower girl's shape prone on the cot, chest rising and falling under the sheets.
He watches for a bit, fond little smile on his face. She seemed tired lately and it is late, it's always late when Zack comes. Only now does it occur that Flower girl might have been forcing herself awake just to see him all these months and he's as sad as he's moved by the notion she cares so much.
"Sleep tight, angel."
Maybe it's his imagination, but her lips curl up at the sound of his voice.
"How did we meet in the other life?"
Flower girl dips her fingers into the dark soil as she uproots a daisy. "You fell out the sky, gave me quite the scare."
Zack chuckles, arms crossing. "Oh, so I was the angel in that life?"
"No, I don't think you're pretty enough to be an angel in any life."
"You were a SOLDIER in the other life too."
Zack's eyes widen as she carries on. "You kinda scared me. Back then I thought all SOLDIERs were scary because SOLDIERs fight and they love it." His face crumbles when she adds. "But you were different, you're always different." She turns back and looks serious as she admits. "You don't fight because you love it, you fight to protect people." She smiles broadly. "Don't ever change, Zack."
They're in the rec room when Kunsel begins. "You know how your girlfriend is an Ancient?"
Zack nods at Kunsel, eyes on the tabletop football as he turns the handle to kick the ball to Kunsel's side. "Yeah, she told me all about it. That and the whole bringing Shinra to the Promised Land gig."
"What if she fails?"
"Huh?" Zack misses the ball coming towards his goal as he looks up and Kunsel scores.
"I mean," Kunsel straightens, "Shinra has been waiting seventeen years, even longer if you count the time they worked with her mom, and they've got nothing to show for it."
"I know!" Zack cheers. "That's why I told her Shinra has gotta let her leave soon. What's the point in keeping her locked up if she can't give them what they want?"
Kunsel stares at him for a long moment. "Are you aware of what happened to her mom?"
Zack frowns. "She died."
Kunsel pauses, then says, "You know it was Shinra that killed her." Zack's blood runs ice cold. "The experiments were meant to help her locate the Promised Land, but they ended up destroying her from the inside." Softly Kunsel adds. "I'm not trying to scare you, but shouldn't you be a little concerned the same thing might happen to your girl?"
Zack can honestly say he isn't worried.
Not until his flower girl walks up to the barred window and collapses. Zack tears the door off its hinges and throws it back, falling to his knees as alarms blare and cradling her unconscious body.
Tseng runs in days later, but in reality arrives within minutes, and Zack struggles to let the paramedics take his flower girl away on a gurney.
He remains motionless after they leave and doesn't realize anyone is still around until Tseng asks, "Are you okay?"
He doesn't bother lying, just shakes his head while white noise buzzes in his ears. Tseng doesn't leave his side until he's seen Zack home and the SOLDIER should thank him, but his angel's crumpled body keeps popping up in his head. Her glassy eyes, irises a dull jade, skin pale as snow, and heartbeat an erratic thrum shuddering beneath his fingers. It's the first time they truly touched and Zack can't properly appreciate her powder soft skin when all he can think is how fragile like glass she felt in his arms.
This is the first time Zack understands it's not how much time together they have left he should worry about, it's what little time she has.
Something tells him she doesn't have long.
"I really scared you, didn't I?" She sounds so guilty and tiny through the glass, but Zack can't face her. He just hunches over his crossed legs, back to the container, head bowed and eyes moist.
He hears the tap and squeak of her hand pressing into the glass behind him and imagines her warm arms curving around his neck, drawing him into a tight embrace. It's like a mother's hug, a nonverbal promise that nothing will touch him as long as he stays in her arms.
Zack starts crying and the imaginary hold squeezes him tighter.
"I love you."
She says, he says, doesn't matter.
It's true either way.
Zack goes to Sephiroth because he's his superior and his friend, which means Seph has corporate power and likes Zack enough to perhaps use it for him.
"Could you convince President Shinra to let my girlfriend go?"
If Sephiroth is shocked it doesn't show as he stares levelly across the desk. "There's no need."
Zack thinks there very much is a need since Shinra is killing his girlfriend, but Sephiroth assures. "She is being released in three days." Zack gasps and Seph's lips quirk up. "I spoke with the executive board and it was unanimously decided she is no longer of use to the Company, thus she will be released once we've procured her an apartment and proper compensation for her service to Shinra."
Zack glomps the general and doesn't get a Masamune through the throat only because he dodges in time.
Zack runs to Science Headquarters despite it not being his shift for another hour, only to find her cell is open and barren. In front of it stands Professor Hojo, smile smeared across his face while a prickly sensation runs down Zack's spine.
"Looking for the specimen, yes?" Hojo adjusts his glasses, teeth gleaming under the overhead lights as he slinks towards the staircase. "Fascinating, so fascinating to see my experiment surpass expectations."
"Experiment?" Zack frowns, following Hojo.
"You being a crucial element to the project," Hojo goes on. "I must explain this to you now so the experiment can reach full fruition."
Zack doesn't respond. He doesn't want an explanation, he wants his flower girl, yet Hojo takes his time going up the stairs while he mutters more to himself than to Zack. "I recently discovered an error in my plan to conceive a new generation of Cetra, for I mistakenly treated the specimen's biology like that of the average mammal's. However, unlike a human female, the specimen was not born with unfertilized eggs. Since implanting fertilized eggs into the specimen did not produce the desired results, I reviewed my old research notes until I noticed a pattern I originally deemed irreverent." Hojo's head shakes, greasy hair swaying as he walks up to the circular containment unit.
Zack stares fixedly at the girl trapped inside the glass, still as a statue while Hojo's grin sharpens. "Cetra are in fact natural breeders, they reproduce the same way they make flowers grow. By willing life into existence!" He cackles like the madman he is. "So remarkable, these Cetra. All they need is the will and the want for life to flourish, then flourish it does."
Hojo sneers. "However, unlike humans, Cetra require an emotional as well as a physical connection in order to conceive. Now that you have forged that emotional bond, the specimen has developed an unfertilized egg. All that's left to complete the procreation process is for you two to physically join. Then Shinra will have a new, more reliable breed of Cetra to lead them into the Promised Land."
Zack enters the container's open doorway and tonelessly asks, "Why was I chosen for the experiment?"
"You were recommended by the Turks." Hojo dismisses.
Zack lets that sink in. "I see."
"In fact, a Turk will be observing your session to make sure things do not get out of hand." Hojo stalks off, flippantly tacking on. "If the specimen is uncooperative, try not to damage her too badly."
Zack waits mutely for him to disappear around the bend before fully entering the containment unit. The door slides close behind him as he approaches the angel crouched against the glass, face buried between her knees, which she hugs to her chest. His angel wears nothing save a white nightie that's too short to hide the red bruises on her wrists. No doubt she put up a fight against the removal of her bow.
Zack takes a knee and gently reaches out to caress her bare hair. "Angel?"
She jerks up and her red eyes are huge.
He tries to smile. "It's going to be okay." He leans in, but her eyes don't get any smaller as their faces near each other. "Trust me, Aerith."
She gasps while he tugs her into an embrace and hides his face in her neck. She smells like springtime and sugar plums, and he inhales her divine scent until the surveillance camera in the corner of the container stops blinking red, Tseng shutting it down.
Zack pulls back and grins like a champ. "I always do." His eyes narrow and he stands, ripping out his sword. "Let's get you out of here."
The glass shatters and hand-in-hand they run.
Sephiroth finds them hiding in the staircase after Aerith redresses in pink, bow crowning her head once more while sirens go off throughout the building. The general asks for an explanation, one Zack happily gives.
"In summary," Sephiroth's eyes close in thought, "We are currently living in an alternate reality or timeline Aerith created when she transported herself back in time and took over her seven-year-old self's body, and if I do not allow you to escape neither you, she, or I will survive beyond our mid-twenties."
Aerith nods, hand over her heart and face stern. "This isn't the first time I've tried to save you, Zack, and the others. The last seven times I couldn't even prevent the Nibelheim Incident."
Sephiroth's eyes widen then shrink. "Either you managed to hack into the Shinra database from your cell or you are telling the truth." Upon seeing Zack's confusion, he elaborates. "I received a priority mission sending me to Nibelheim today." Sephiroth pauses, pondering their situation. "It's earlier than I planned, but I intended to abandon Shinra soon regardless."
Zack's eyebrows leap to his hairline as Sephiroth pulls out Masamune on a group of infantrymen rushing down the staircase. The group takes one look at the general and his blade before fleeing the way they came.
That's pretty much how it goes the next couple of times Shinra tries to stop them.
Tseng is leaning against the wall of the deserted lobby, arms crossed, as Zack's group strides towards the front doors. Kunsel is waiting for them on the freeway in a stolen truck with a shell-shocked Cloud as his passenger. Zack doesn't remember much about his life in the other timelines, but Aerith insisted Cloud should leave with them so Zack called Kunsel and the Second promised to take care of it. "Taking care of it" apparently meaning kidnap the poor cadet, steal a truck, and drive said truck through a window, landing on the freeway below.
Sephiroth and Aerith go on ahead, and Zack doubts anyone will dare to give them trouble while he lingers in the lobby. The Turk doesn't look up as the First approaches, saying, "This was your plan all along, wasn't it?"
Tseng turns to stare at the dark world outside beyond the glass doors. "No, I merely set things in motion. You did all the heavy-lifting." Zack grins, recalling how uncomfortable Tseng looked the day he assigned Zack guard duty. Tseng hadn't been scared, he been disturbed by Hojo's plan to dispose of Aerith once she produced offspring in the hopes that the newly-born Cetra could show the Company the way to the Promised Land.
"I didn't know what you would do." Tseng finally meets his gaze, dark eyes locking on sky blue. "You're simply the only SOLDIER I trusted not to hurt her."
Zack's face softens. "Not in this lifetime, not in any life."
Tseng huffs at his earnestness, but Zack smiles as he exits through the glass door and leaves Shinra behind. Aerith is standing outside staring up at the night sky when Zack joins her. Starlight shimmers in her emerald eyes as his arm curls around her waist.
"Must be nice to see the sky for the first time, in this life anyway."
"Yes." Aerith smiles up at him. "But I'd give it all away if it would save you this time."
Zack knows she means it, the girl did spend ten years under lock and key for his sake after all.
He pecks her forehead. "I'm not planning on dying anytime soon, but even if you do end up having to restart the timeline," he leans down and vows. "I'll always find my angel."
They kiss, run into the streets, and leave the glass tower behind.