Zack was always an interested kid. He was interested in everything and anything, and he found everything amazing. He had explored the Mako Reactor at Gongaga more times than he could count, and Zack could count lots, at the age of seven. He could count all the way to a hundred, with two zeroes, and that was a lot. The numbers past a hundred just got really mixed up afterwards though.
When he decided to explore the outskirts of Gongaga, he had announced it proudly to his parents in the morning, before dashing out of the house. Well, if they couldn’t catch him, then they couldn’t stop him.
Armed with a stick that had seen him through many a fight with small monsters like those tiny frogs called Touch Me, Zack embarked on his perilous journey on the outskirts of Gongaga. Zack did actually touch them once, but then he got turned into a frog, and it was through that fairly traumatising experience (he got turned into a frog, he accidentally swallowed a fly!) that he realised those Touch Me frogs were not meant to be touched.
He was chasing after a stray butterfly when he slipped on a rock, tumbled forward, and landed right in front of a Heavy Tank near the Mako Reactor. A full hundred kilograms of metal and machinery and what not, compared to Zack’s measly thirty kilograms.
Zack, all of seven, screamed his guts out.
As his eyes closed before the massive monster, Zack hastily made a will for all his items. My stick goes to Papa, the ten gil under my bed goes to Mama, my toys go to four year old Lance next door, and my dinner goes to both Papa and Mama.
He didn’t pray, because in a world filled with science and Mako and reactors, there were no gods or goddesses to hear prayers. Summons, yes, but without a summon materia, who would help? Zack had heard of Ancients and Lifestreams but those were just rumors, and Zack, at the supposed brink of death, didn’t have enough faith or time to throw his luck in with mere rumors.
Three swishes of wind in front of him, the creaking and cracking of a metal monster breaking apart, and a beat of air right in front of his face. Zack pushed an eye open, hesitantly, and when all he saw was white, he thought for a moment that he had reached Heaven’s Gates.
His mother did always tell him that angels belonged in Heaven, and Heaven alone.
The wings were a beautiful white, the color of snow-capped mountains at Icicle Inn all year round, and soft like the prettiest and best silk in all of the Planet. Zack breathed in once, twice, and threw himself at the wings.
They were so fluffy!
But strangely, strangely, just three wings on one side, on the left, and as Zack threw himself at the wings to bury his face in them, two strong arms caught him around the middle and pulled him away from the wings.
“What’s the big idea,” Zack demanded, eyes still fixated on the wings, arms reached out to try and get a feel. “I’m trying to touch the pretty wings!”
The wings twitched, and Zack yelled in glee when they came close enough for him to touch.
“You know, stranger danger is a legitimate concern,” a voice came from above him, and the arms around his waist tightened. “Even in a small, backwater town like Gongaga.”
“D’nt care,” Zack’s voice was muffled by the expanse of wings in his face. “I know everyone here! And the people who come in are really nice, they offered me candy once! Mama said I could take it. And it tasted like apple!”
“That’s nice,” the voice continued, and the arms pulled Zack back a little, only for the seven year old to protest and dig his fingers further into the wings. “Ah, go gentle, that hurts a bit.”
Zack took his face out of the wings, staring up at the teenager holding him, and tilted his head. His brows furrowed, before he brightened up again, attention switching from the wings to the teen’s hair. “You have hair like me!” He ran his fingers through his own black hair that could never go down, no matter how many times his mother attacked it with a comb (that hurt), and the teen’s yellow hair really looked like his. “You look like a chocobo! And you even have your own wings!”
He paused, gasping at a sudden revelation. “You’re a chocobo!” Zack shouted out. “I knew it! I’m brilliant,” he said smugly.
The teen blinked at him, before shrugging, like Zack’s mother did when the little boy got it into his head to do something strange and fairly stupid. Maybe Zack’s mother knew the teenager. That would make sense. Zack’s mother knew everyone. She was amazing!
“I’m Cloud,” the chocobo introduced, bringing Zack up to eye level. “What’s your name? Is it Zack?”
“It’s Zack,” the boy announced happily, before freezing and breathing in sharply. “You already know my name! How?! Were you the sneaky chocobo who tried to eat my hair two days ago?! I knew it!”
“No Zack, I’m not the sneaky chocobo.”
Zack scrunched up his face at this. “I should take you to see Mama. Mama always knows what to do, Mister! She’ll know if you’re the sneaky chocobo!”
He scrambled up to sit on Cloud’s shoulders, sparing a brief five minutes oohing and aahing over the massive sword on Cloud’s back (he poked it a few times, trying to see if it would fall off, seeing as it was attached to Cloud’s clothes by this one slip of a space, but in the end it was Zack who flailed about and nearly dropped off Cloud’s shoulders, so Zack eventually left the sword alone and just concentrated on staying on Cloud’s shoulders), and exclaimed a loud “Onward, noble chocobo!”
Cloud just sighed, flapped his wings once in tired resignation, before taking to the skies.
It took Zack a moment or two to find his equilibrium, because when he had told Cloud to “advance forward!”, he hadn’t meant for Cloud to fly. He had thought Cloud would just trot along nicely like a proper chocobo, maybe run a bit, but not fly. Chocobos couldn’t fly. They were like chickens, just… yellow. And much bigger. And people didn’t eat them. At least, Zack didn’t think people ate Chocobos.
He screamed a bit, before they turned into whoops and hoorays and yells of joy, but the entire thing ended far too soon, and they landed at the entrance of Gongaga in what seemed like a heartbeat.
Cloud’s wings dematerialised (i.e. they disappeared, and Zack was not happy about that fact, but he couldn’t really argue when the wings belonged to the teen in the first place) and the two of them set off for Zack’s house.
“Mama!” Zack crowed in triumph when he flung the door open. “I found an angel today!”
“That’s nice dear,” his mother said absently. “What else did you find?”
“Nothing much,” he admitted as he washed his hands and sat at the table. His mother tottered about in the kitchen, preparing dinner, and Cloud just stood around like one of those life sized decorations in the house. He looked a bit like a coat stand, in Zack’s opinion. “But the angel was good enough! He had huge wings, three really pretty ones, but they were all on his left! And he killed one of those big evil Heavy Tank things for me, too!”
A plate crashed to the floor, and Cloud winced when Zack’s mother came running out, freezing at the sight of Cloud.
Cloud slowly stepped away, and with a whispered “I’ll be outside” to Zack, he slipped out of the house, silent as the wind.
“Mama,” Zack looked at her in what he hoped was a reprimanding way. “You scared off the angel!”
“How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers, Zack?” She bustled over to him, checking him over and picking a few white feathers out of his hair. His mother stared at the white feathers for a tad too long, unblinking and breath hitching, before she glanced at the closed door and resumed her checking of Zack’s wellbeing. “And he might not even be an angel anyways.”
“He is!” Zack insisted. “He let me fly with him too!” The seven year old paused for a while, thinking slowly. “Can we keep him?”
“What? No! That’s a human being, Zack honey, we can’t keep humans here!”
“But I’ll take real good care of him!” Zack whined. “I’ll feed him and make sure he gets enough water and sleeps okay at night! I wanted a dog and you wouldn’t let me keep one, so why can’t I keep him? It’s not like he has a place to go, anyways! I asked him just now, and he said he was a bit lost himself! We can keep him, can’t we?”
“He’s… lost?” She repeated, eyes flickering over to the closed door again. “What’s a young boy like him doing out here in Gongaga alone? And lost, at that rate. Oh, but Zack, we can’t just decide to keep him. What if he doesn’t like it?”
Zack scrunched up his face and put on his determined look, before charging out of the house. His mother hurried after him, only to hear a few bits and pieces of a conversation between the boy and the teenager.
“You’ll stay with us, right?” Zack demanded in the way all kids do when they wanted something. “Stay with me.”
Cloud looked the boy, before his gaze dragged up to meet Zack’s mother’s own gaze. He averted his eyes, looking back at the boy that only came up to his knee. He knelt down, becoming eye level with the boy. “I’d love to, if I could, but I don’t think your parents would approve much,” he told Zack in a slow voice. “You have to understand where they’re coming from. I might be dangerous, you know?”
“But you have wings, you’re an angel, you can’t possibly be dangerous!”
“Listen to your parents, Zack. If I can, maybe one day, I’ll come see you again, okay?”
Cloud got back up, and with a nod to Zack’s mother, turned to leave.
“Are you truly lost?” Zack’s mother suddenly called out, hurrying over. “Do you need a place to stay for the time being? How old are you, anyways? What’s a young boy like you doing, being lost in a backwater area like Gongaga? We’re pretty far from the main city, Midgar, and we’re practically separated from the rest of the world.”
“I came from a backwater town too, I think,” Cloud told her, smiling slightly. “I can’t remember everything all too clearly. Some things just float around in my brain, close enough to touch and the words linger on my tongue, but I don’t know what else.”
“Yeah Mama,” Zack cut in, forcing his way in between the two. “Cloudy needs help! We can keep him!”
Cloud shot an amused look at the boy, before glancing back at his mother. “I would really appreciate it, ma’am, if you’d give me a place to stay and get my bearings for a while.”
“I suppose… it wouldn’t be too much of a trouble, but I might still need to discuss it with my husband…” She replied hesitantly, but Zack knew she was breaking. He grinned, and tugged on Cloud’s pants. “What’s your name? I know Zack calls you Cloudy, but, um…”
“It’s Cloud,” the blond told her. “Just Cloud. I remember important people and some important things, but everything else is a blur. Just Cloud will do.”
Just Cloud spent over two weeks living with Zack, until Zack’s parents finally gave in and welcomed the blond to a place with their family. Cloud was the best big brother anyone could ever have, and he did everything.
He helped with the housework, with the cooking, with the family’s accounting, with taking care of Zack, and that last one bumped the blond up the parents’ good list pretty fast. Zack agreed, anyone that could deal with him was amazing. Because he was amazing, and if Cloud could keep up with him, then Cloud had to be amazing too. It was logic!
And if Cloud secretly took Zack out on flying trips during the weekend, it was their own little secret, and Zack just beamed at his parents when they came home, hair tousled and cheeks hurting from smiling all day.
Cloud’s sword was something amazing as well, with its huge size and the fact that it could split into six.
“I named it First Tsurugi,” Cloud told Zack one night, hidden away in their room, as Cloud cleaned his swords under the candle light. “The individual swords don’t have names, but all together, it’s called First Tsurugi. A beauty, isn’t it?”
“We should name the swords too!” Zack said, bouncing up and down on his bed. “This can be Zack is Awesome, that one can be Zack Forever, this one over here can be Zack Rocks, the one near your leg can be Zack the Amazing, and uh, I can’t think of anymore names.”
Cloud just shook his head, smiling. “Whatever floats your boat. You don’t have to always name your swords, though. This is just a habit of mine. I had a motorbike once, I think. A real beauty, that one. Named it Fenrir. The best thing I ever rode. If I can find it, somehow, maybe I’ll take you on a ride.”
“It can’t be as good as flying though,” Zack told Cloud very matter of factly as the former attempted to lift one of the swords. He just managed to drag it across the floor, and lift it maybe two millimetres off the ground, but Zack counted it a win on his part. The sword was heavy, just on its own, and all six of them put together? Zack thought that the sword could probably crush him. “Nothing is as good as flying.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Cloud sighed. “Fenrir was perfect to ride. You could drive it with just your feet, without your hands, y’know? And it responded to everything. The smoothest bike I ever rode.”
Well. When Cloud put it that way, Zack wanted to meet Fenrir the motorbike as well.
Zack was thirteen, and he had finally realised that the glowing of Cloud’s eyes in the middle of the night was due to mako. And that the uniform Cloud always wore - his mother had tried to throw it away once, because it was a bit worn out, but Cloud froze up, rescuing it from the trash every time his mother tried to throw it away, and one day, Zack had found the uniform folded nicely with all the holes and stray strings sewn up. Cloud had smiled, a slow sad smile that had Zack aching, and picked it up to wear. Zack later learnt that to a man who had lost everything, anything that he could call remotely his, he would fight to keep it like one of those hoarder monsters - the uniform was a SOLDIER First Class uniform, and Zack didn’t understand how Cloud could have gotten it.
He had asked Cloud once, on a summer night, with fireflies darting in and out of the tall grass and the moon hanging low in the sky.
“It’s complicated,” Cloud had said, and it was one of the times that Cloud had been vague, and Zack knew to back off. In all the six years that Cloud had been his makeshift older brother, he had been nothing but straightforward. And yet, when he became soft and quiet and vague, Zack knew that it had something to do with Cloud’s past, and if his older brother didn’t want to talk about it, Zack wasn’t going to force him to do it.
Zack had proclaimed to his family during dinner that he would be going to Midgar to join SOLDIER, the same way he had proclaimed to them he would be going out exploring six year ago, and when Cloud’s eyes glazed over for a bit, he faltered.
“Go ahead,” his older brother had encouraged when Zack talked to him that night. “If you want to be in SOLDIER, go try it. I think you’d be able to make First Class, if you tried.”
“Will you come with me?”
“... Sure Zack,” Cloud replied, the words rolling off his tongue like they’d been there since forever and ever, and Zack felt like he’d heard Cloud say them before, but not to him in this time, not in the past, not in the present, but somehow, somewhere, in the strange loop that was Time.
“Okay,” Zack said, and he erased the half-afraid look off his face, beaming at Cloud.
“I might have a few things I need to make sure of first though,” Cloud added, looking thoughtful. “And do you want me to stay for the whole six months of pre-exam lessons and SOLDIER exams, or just go to Midgar for the exams only?”
“Eh, six months?! I didn’t know it’d be that long!”
“You should read up more, y’know? Ever since you showed an interest in joining SOLDIER, I researched everything on it. I think I probably know everything that the test is going to throw at you by now.”
“If I say six months, would it be bad?”
“Nah,” Cloud smiled, ruffling Zack’s hair. “I’d be there for as long as you need. Got to make sure Mom and Dad get taken care of, I’d ask Lance next door to drop in every week or so to check in on them. Maybe put in some downpayment at the inn to make sure Mom and Dad get food when they’re too tired to cook or anything.”
Zack blinked. “I didn’t think of that.”
“You think of very little, once you have your mind fixated on something,” Cloud’s lips quirked up. “But no matter. It’s what big brothers are for, after all. Leave it to me to worry about this kind of stuff. Go chase your dreams, and what not. Be a SOLDIER and send back lots of money, yeah?”
Zack was tired of all the lessons. They didn’t need to stay in the dorm, if they had some place else to stay, as long as the cadets reported on time for lessons, and Zack was tired of everything. Because Cloud was by far a better teacher in every subject that Shinra taught, and Zack didn’t like it when the teacher just droned on and on.
Zack was a very action kind of teenager. He thrived on movement, and he was a kinesthetic learner. Put him in a class with a teacher that did nothing but talk and expecting him to learn was a very bad idea. Cloud had given Zack a perfect, very hands-on crash course in all the possible subjects that Zack might learn in the SOLDIER cadet course, and that was mainly the only reason why Zack was still surviving in Shinra without actually paying attention in class. He knew the basic material like the back of his hand - he would never forget that one time Cloud was giving him a crash course on materia and had instructed Zack to just attempt using a Fire materia. Not too much power, Cloud had told him. When you use it for a few times, you will know when to stop. The instructors would probably tell you the exact amount and order you to tailor it to theirs, but really, the numbers and figures and experiences they share are all them, but your magic is all you, and you and them are worlds apart. Materia is a very hands-on subject, and if they don’t teach it that way, their loss. Zack had set a whole field of dry grass on fire, and after that, he had known exactly how much to put in. If he had studied in class, the way they were teaching, Zack might probably have set his classmates on fire. One of his classmates - Johnson, the idiot - actually did another classmate on fire.
The teachers for the SOLDIER cadet course weren’t proper teachers, he decided. They could “teach”, sure, they could spit out information that they memorised in their heads, but they couldn’t educate, not like Cloud could.
On the bright side, after an entire day of lessons and PT and aching muscles, he could return to the small house Cloud had bought for them, below plate where the sun didn’t shine, near the slums and the shops. Zack didn’t know how, but Cloud seemed to be brilliant at everything, and that included massages.
Cloud would help Zack stretch after the entire ordeal, massage and work out all the kinks in Zack’s back, and then Zack would perch himself on Cloud’s shoulders as the latter did pushups on the ground.
“I still need to keep fit,” Cloud smiled when Zack complained about how Cloud was far stronger than him, and that he didn’t need to exercise anymore. “When I get back to Gongaga, I’ll be going monster hunting again, to sell monster parts, and if I somehow become unfit, how am I going to support Mom and Dad? And it’s not like I’m doing anything outrageous, they’re just pushups.”
“With me on your shoulders!”
“Exactly, nothing outrageous,” Cloud maintained. “I’ve been doing this since we were kids. Or at least, since you were a kid.”
“Cloudy!” Zack wailed.
If Cloud mixed in a bit of Potion in the water that he offered to Zack later on, on the night of a particularly bad day in which Zack was left trembling and gasping for air, Zack didn’t say a thing, just gulped the entire thing down. Then again, maybe it was just one of Cloud’s strange concoctions that always made Zack feel better.
“My teacher wants to know where I learnt how to use my sword,” Zack told Cloud as he reached over for a spare magazine. “I wasn’t really sure how to answer. I told him that my brother taught me, and then he asked me where my brother learnt it from.”
“Tell him I learnt it from the stars at night,” Cloud said with a laugh. “From the heavens up above, from Shiva and Ramuh and Ifrit and Bahamut. I learnt it from the whispers in the wind and the crackling of fire. I learnt it from the raindrops pelting down the window.”
“You suck,” Zack replied, hitting Cloud half-heartedly. “You think he’d believe that?”
But Zack told his instructor that, nevertheless, and when his instructor raised his eyebrow and shot Zack a disbelieving look, Zack just shrugged, and responded with a “what can you do” look of his own.
It was no secret, however, that Zack was at the top of his class. He was brilliant in materia manipulation, his sword techniques were admirable, his hand-to-hand had room for improvement, but he was already what seems like years ahead of his peers. Tactics weren’t half bad either, but what constantly puzzled his instructors was that a kid from a backwater town like Zack knew so much about all this.
Zack told all of them that his brother taught him everything he knew, but they just shook their heads and called Zack a prodigy. Because if Zack’s brother knew so much, why didn’t he try to join SOLDIER? Or at any rate, why wasn’t he in SOLDIER?
Zack couldn’t answer. When he approached Cloud with the same question, his brother got a far away look in his eye, and shrugged, lips quirking up at Zack.
“It’s complicated,” he would answer, like always, and Zack would leave it at that, like always.
When Zack caught the eye of a certain Angeal Hewley, SOLDIER First Class, one of the three, he came home shrieking and laughing and celebrating, falling into his brother’s arms with a “Commander Hewley said he was thinking about taking me on as a protege, Cloud! A protege!”
“You’re still a cadet,” Cloud reminded him. “Angeal can’t do much when you’re just a cadet. But he can do a lot more than what your current instructors can, so pay attention, and listen well. He will have good advice for you.”
“You’re a spoilsport,” Zack mumbled into his brother’s chest. “Going on about the serious things.”
“But good job, nonetheless,” Cloud said, eyes shining with mirth and unsaid words. “I’m proud of you. You did good, catching the eye of a First Class.”
Zack beamed the whole night long, and even if Cloud wouldn’t admit it, his older brother did the same.
“Angeal wants to know who you are,” he said, on a weekend, one of the cadets’ few off days. “He says he wants to meet you! Can you? Do you mind?”
Cloud blinked a few times, before gracing Zack with one of his rare smiles. “I guess not. Your exams are in two weeks anyways, I’ll be leaving soon. It’d be nice to have a memory like that, before I leave for Gongaga again.”
Zack smiled and nodded and laughed, but deep down he was panicking because he’d forgotten that Cloud needed to go back to Gongaga. Gongaga didn’t even register as home anymore, his house which he grew up in for thirteen years was still home, but this, this little space of room with cluttered things and a tiny window near the slums in Sector Four below the plate, this, was what Zack dubbed home in his mind.
And home wasn’t home without his older brother, Cloud.
He didn’t want his older brother to leave.
“You’re Cloud, Zack’s older brother?” Angeal asked, and Cloud nodded, accepting Angeal’s outstretched hand. “Pleasure to meet you, I’m Commander Angeal Hewley, Zack’s mentor.”
“Same here,” Cloud said with a lopsided smile. He blinked a bit, and Zack cast a furtive look at his brother. Cloud had worn contacts on this special occasion - the mako eyes were too dangerous to show off around Angeal. The contacts lessened the glow, but there was still a small sheen dusting over his eyes. “Has Zack been giving you much trouble?” He asked, tucking his hands into his pockets. Cloud wasn’t stupid, when meeting an actual First Class, he wasn’t going to wear his own SOLDIER First Class uniform. He wore the straps and the harness and his sword, yeah, but not the actual black uniform.
“I have not!” Zack protested. “Angeal, tell him I haven’t been giving you much trouble!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Angeal mused, sharing a grin with Cloud. “Your younger brother has been a bit of a handful…”
“I’m joking,” Angeal said, rolling his eyes. His gaze roved over Cloud, touched a bit on the faint glow of his eyes - drugs? - and landed on the handle of the sword on Cloud’s back. If Cloud didn’t say anything about his eyes, it wasn’t Angeal’s place to ask. Maybe he’d ask Zack later. “Nice sword. Now I know why Zack wasn’t all that impressed when he saw my Buster Sword. He’d already seen something bigger and more magnificent. May I?”
“Sure,” Cloud said, reaching behind and gripping the handle of his sword. He pulled it overhead, passing it to Angeal.
“It’s heavy,” Angeal observed, testing the sword out. He offered the sword back to Cloud, reaching up to grab the handle of his own Buster Sword. “Care for a spar?”
“Angeal, why would you spar with my brother?!” Zack cut in. “He’s not enhanced, like you are!”
“I’ll go easy on him,” Angeal reassured the teen. “No offence,” he added as his eyes slid over to Cloud.
Cloud offered a grin. “None taken. But if you don’t mind, can we go out to the plains just beyond Midgar to spar? I don’t really like using my sword in cramped conditions. And training simulations - like what Zack has been telling me - just doesn’t do it for me.”
“Sure,” Angeal agreed. “I’ll get a car.”
Two hours later, in the grass plains a good fifty kilometres away from Midgar, Angeal was pinned to the ground, Buster Sword ten metres away, Cloud sitting on his back with First Tsurugi primed at the unprotected part of Angeal’s neck. Angeal could feel the cold hard metal against his skin, something he hadn’t felt in a long time, except when facing Sephiroth or maybe Genesis.
Zack was open-eyed and open-mouthed, staring unashamed at them, looking very much like a shocked puppy.
“Cloud,” he said, almost hysterical, rushing over to pull Cloud off Angeal the moment First Class said “yield”. “Oh my god Cloud, are you okay? I think I saw Angeal hit you just now, you can still walk, right? No broken bones or anything? Cloudy you can’t die on me here!”
“I think,” Angeal coughed, “you forgot who the victor is, Zack.”
“Yeah, but whatever injury Cloud inflicts on you, you can heal in a couple of seconds, cause you’re a First Class with enhancements and everything! Cloudy isn’t! He’s gotta heal everything slowly like us weak humans! Cloudy!” Zack panicked.
Cloud straightened, smiling as he ruffled Zack’s hair. “I’ll be fine Zack, no broken bones, just maybe a pulled muscle in- ah, that hurts, in my calf. A few stretches and I’ll be fine. My fault, for not stretching before the spar.”
“Cloud,” Zack pressed. “You sure it’s just a pulled muscle? Not a cracked femur or something? Is the bone in your calf even a femur? I don’t even remember! Are you really okay?!”
“Idiot,” Cloud said, flicking Zack’s forehead. “Come on, it’s getting dark soon. Let’s mosey.” With a lingering look at Angeal to ensure that the older had no severe injuries whatsoever, Cloud shrugged and took off for the car, with Zack tottering behind him, eyes occasionally flickering to Angeal to reassure himself that his mentor was perfectly fine as well.
Angeal didn’t know what kind of man could say the words “Let’s mosey” and sound like a Commander - or, if Angeal actually thought about it, like Sephiroth, the Silver General - in battle. Angeal himself felt hard pressed to follow the guy, eyes trained on the small of his back and following like a soldier would follow a General.
He followed Cloud, eventually. Cloud was already seated in the driver’s seat of the only mode of transport.
Zack was pretty sure that he started crying in the middle of the night, the night when he received his SOLDIER results which declared that he was one of the three cadets out of the fifty cadets who had made it into SOLDIER. Because now that he’d gotten in, his older brother was leaving. Leaving.
He wanted Cloud to stay.
Stay in Midgar with the polluted air and the dirty slums and the children who ran around trying to steal money so that they could eat even a tiny bit of bread. Stay in Midgar with the barren land and the machinery cluttering up the place. Stay in Midgar with people dying on a daily basis under the plate, in the slums, because of how they were ignored.
Zack knew that it was a tall order, but he wanted.
And by the way Cloud shot looks at him while waiting at the train station, eyes shimmering and faint and misty, so did Cloud.
“I’ll ask Mom if I can visit,” Cloud said as he shrugged his bag higher on his shoulder. “I’ll probably visit once or twice a year, and stay for maybe a month or so, if Mom gives the go ahead.”
“... Yeah,” Zack nodded, fists tightening by his side. “Yeah, I’ll see you then. I’ll call often, send back letters and stuff. I’ll try to do it once a month, minimum.”
“You’ll be busy, being SOLDIER. Once a month is good enough. Come back to visit us at least once a year, yeah? Mom and Dad will miss you. They’re a bit too old to travel now, and a sudden shift to Midgar’s polluted air might kill their lungs. They’re too used to Gongaga’s slightly purer, fresher air.”
“Oh. I didn’t think of that.”
“You need to start using your head a bit more, now that you’re SOLDIER,” Cloud smiled. “I’m not always going to be here to think for you.”
“... I know,” Zack replied, blinking away the shimmer in his eyes.
Cloud turned to watch the train pull into the station, before he turned his face up to the sky. “Surprising,” he murmured, soft and quiet. “Can’t believe it can still rain in Midgar.”
“Yeah,” Zack agreed, face turning up to the sky as well. The sky was dark, clouds roiling about and the thunder flashing menacingly, but nothing fell from the skies.
A trail of water slipped down Cloud’s cheek, eyes hidden by his fringe, and he smiled, one more time, before he stepped into the train.
Zack scrubbed at his eyes. “Why does this feel like a farewell between lovers?” He joked.
“Mmhm.” The train doors started closing.
Zack did write often, his letter starting off long, about three pages, before he got tired of writing and they got shorter. But he always made sure that he sent back at least a one page ‘report’ for Cloud to look over, to reassure his older brother that SOLDIER was treating him fairly well.
His calls were rare and in between, but whenever he took time off to call back, he could call back for hours.
Zack hadn’t realised how much he missed Cloud’s presence in his life, until he wasn’t by his side anymore. He didn’t know how he had survived without Cloud those seven years, before he had met Cloud. It was… a novel realization.
Going on missions took his mind off things, Angeal took his mind off things - the man was a fantastic mentor, and if Zack made it to Second Class in a few more months, he wouldn’t be surprised. Please, oh very pleased, and excited, but not so surprised. Kunsel was a good friend, and he helped think for Zack sometimes, kept the raven haired teen updated on everything and anything happening in the company. The Second Class wore a helmet at all times though, and Zack once commented that it probably stank, after all those hours of Kunsel wearing it around the clock, and the man had merely smiled at him, before knocking him over the head and threatening to withhold information.
Zack would swear on his life that Kunsel was a secret Turk, or maybe a cross hybrid between SOLDIER and Turk. He was pretty certain that Cloud would agree.
The best part about being SOLDIER, or more, being Angeal’s protege, was that he got to meet Sephiroth. Sephiroth. In the flesh. Zack could scream like a girl, but he refrained, bouncing around on his heels in excitement instead when he had met the man. Knee length silver hair, glowing mako eyes, muscles rippling under the expanse of skin, the famed sword - Masamune - by his side.
Zack didn’t join the Silver Elite for nothing, he was a Sephiroth fan, just slightly more mild than some of the girls in the fanclub. They were scary.
It was surprising, when he thought to himself that Cloud would enjoy fighting Sephiroth.
Genesis was an ass, but he was still an ass that could fight well, and his dramatics weren’t all that irritating, just a bit over the top. Still, LOVELESS got immensely boring after a while, and while discussing it with Cloud had been super fun - they had poked fun at all the characters, pointed out plot holes, laughed at theatrics, read out lines to each other - Genesis was just… overbearing. He refused to listen to any other rendition of LOVELESS, and when Zack had tried to point out a few plot holes, the man had just glared at the raven haired teen until Zack had cowered.
He briefly wondered if Genesis would think the same about LOVELESS if he had met Cloud. Probably. Genesis was a stubborn ass.
When Genesis defected (defected, Zack still couldn’t get his head wrapped around that notion because it was Genesis they were talking about), Zack had panicked just a tad, and had written a two page long letter to Cloud. It mostly consisted of panicked Cloud Cloud oh my god Genesis is gone what do I do oh my god I can’t even use punctuation correctly anymore My mind is exploding Cloud what on earth is going on why Genesis.
Cloud didn’t reply. He turned up at the ShinRa building a few days later, sword in hand and motorbike all revved up, ribbon tied firmly around his bicep with a request to pull Zack out of SOLDIER for a while.
He even filled in all the paperwork, and adhered to all the clauses in the terms and conditions. Zack knew this, because Lazard had tried to reason with Cloud that with the recent defection, ShinRa required all the SOLDIERS they could get, and the Director had even tried to pull out a few clauses in the terms and conditions part of the contract, only to be shot down immediately by Cloud.
Lazard seemed vaguely impressed at the end of every thing, and not very reluctantly - he sighed, but Zack could see the smile on his face, he could see it - approved Zack’s leave.
Cloud made strange requests sometimes, and this knowledge was further hammered home when he requested Zack to sneak Sephiroth out as well. Zack knew that they were going to search for Genesis, but why call Sephiroth? Why not call Angeal? Why not call them both?
“The angel has already flown,” Cloud told him sagely, and Zack didn’t understand a thing.
He went to search for Sephiroth anyways, and then the trio left, with Cloud on a motorbike, and Sephiroth and Zack in a truck-slash-lorry-slash-car thing.
He received a message from Kunsel a few hours later, which told of Angeal’s defection as well.
If he collapsed a bit, in Cloud’s arms as they made camp for the night, throwing a tantrum like he hadn’t since he was ten, Cloud didn’t say a thing.
Cloud didn’t need to say anything. Zack already understood.
But the betrayed look on Sephiroth’s face, the one that flashed across his features and made them twist into something destroyed, Zack couldn’t forget it. Because before Angeal, before Kunsel, he had had Cloud. He was pretty sure that Angeal and Genesis had been the first things - people - that Sephiroth had ‘owned’ (as friends), perhaps the only people, and now that they were gone…
Zack would feel betrayed too. He’d probably cry a lot too.
When they found Genesis, his hair was darker than his usual auburn, almost to the point of grey. His cloak seemed to be a more muted red than usual, and his eyes were feral. Wild. Zack didn’t know if he recognised this man.
And then the idiot started quoting LOVELESS while sitting on the windowsill, turning to face them dramatically as the wind fluttered through his hair, and Zack realised that Genesis didn’t really change that much. Or so he hoped.
When Genesis spread his wing - one sole wing, black as ash and exactly like Cloud’s - Zack belatedly realised that Cloud was missing. His chocobo head older brother was missing.
Zack panicked a bit, shouted at Genesis, shouted at Sephiroth, watched Sephiroth have a dramatic verbal showdown against Genesis, and at the end of it all, watched as Cloud appeared from nowhere to slam the butt of his sword into the back of Genesis’ head.
Zack winced, low and hard, because that sword was heavy, and having it hit you at the the back of your head was like being hit by a steel baseball bat. Or something heavier. Probably something heavier.
Cloud threw the unconscious Genesis over to Sephiroth, and told the General to tie him up good and throw him in the lorry. Sephiroth looked fairly bewildered and terribly out of his league, but acquiesced, turning on his heel to stalk out of the room.
“Go find Angeal,” Cloud said without looking at Zack. “I have some things to take care of around here first.”
Zack watched him stare at the pods, the pods with the mutated monsters and copies inside, and nodded.
He didn’t know what to do in a situation like this - contrary to whatever belief the masses had about SOLIDER, they were not taught to be prepared for everything, they were certainly not taught to deal with situations like this - and so he left to search the roof area.
It was probably to be expected, that Angeal was just as dramatic as Genesis, and delivered a very touching line with a dramatic display of white wings (there were two of them).
“Angels dream of one thing… To be human.”
Zack blanched a bit, because he had lived with Cloud - who had three wings - for over six years, and they had probably maxed out all wing puns in the world. Including angels. And fairies. Cloud had said that line one too many times, and Zack’s mouth moved on its own, a tired sigh escaping.
“No they don’t, they’re already human, just with wings and better.”
Angeal was probably about to launch into another lengthy explanation, but his expression stuttered when he saw Zack’s blank face.
When Angeal crumpled to the ground less than two seconds later, courtesy of Cloud, Zack let his blank mask fall. “It’s not fair,” he mumbled, sitting on the ground with his legs crossed. “They have wings and they don’t appreciate it. And just because they have wings, they want to defect from ShinRa? Why?!”
“Their genes are unstable,” Cloud provided, hefting Angeal across his shoulders in a fireman’s lift. “They’ll die if they don’t get proper treatment. They aren’t like me. I’m stable, for now.”
Cloud didn’t repeat himself, just stalked off towards the lorry.
“Die?” Zack repeated, utterly horrified.
“They won’t.” Cloud told him, pausing before the door. “They would have, but they won’t. I won’t let your mentor die. You spent far too long getting his attention to take you on as a protege. It’d be a waste of your time if he died.”
“That’s not why I don’t want him to die!” Zack called out.
“I know,” his brother turned, a shadow of a smile on his face. “But it’s one of the reasons I don’t want him to die.”
Oh. Zack didn’t know what to say to that. He went to collect Angeal’s Buster Sword that had fallen on ground - heavy - and dragged it along as he trailed behind Cloud.
Genesis was a hard person to deal with. He had raged and shouted and fought against his bindings until Sephiroth got angry and sat on the man.
He was angrier when Cloud stabbed something into his bicep - he yowled, Zack never knew that the amazing Genesis was afraid of needles - but he was knocked out again, possibly by the solution liquid thing that Cloud had jabbed him with.
“You seem to have a habit of continuously knocking out people,” Sephiroth commented idly, his brow furrowed slightly as he leaned against the table. Genesis was unconscious on the floor, while Angeal had been given the comfort and luxury of the sofa.
“Not all people,” Cloud replied, checking a second needle. “Just your two friends. They’re menances to society.”
Sephiroth bristled. “You’re a menance to society yourself,” Cloud added, tilting his head and giving him a considering look. “But you’re a part of society nonetheless. And human. So I suppose you guys can stay.”
Zack thought that Sephiroth was a bit too emotional at hearing a statement like that - Cloud had told him that millions of times, but he had mistaken it for insult after insult when he had been young and stupid. Sephiroth’s eyes had glazed over, and he looked very shocked. As much as a man with his eyebrows raised a few millimeters could look very shocked. But for Sephiroth, it was a lot.
“And why do you know how to treat Genesis and Angeal?” Sephiroth continued, changing the topic.
“Because he has the wings too?” Zack put forth, brows furrowed in confusion and inching closer to Cloud. “Don’t most people have it?”
“No we don’t Zack. Most people don’t.” Cloud gave him a idle smile as he stabbed Angeal with the needle.
“But you told me that once I reached 20 I’d have my wings!” Zack protested.
“I was planning on making metallic wings for you, so you would have had your wings by age 20, but not my kind of wings.”
Cloud smiled, soft and slow, reaching out to pull Zack into a one armed hug. “I really missed seeing you everyday.”
“Don’t change the subject,” he mumbled into Cloud’s shoulder.
“Terribly sorry to break up this tragically touching reunion scene, but Zack mentioned that Cloud had… wings?”
Zack nodded, and nudged Cloud. His brother shot him a look, before rolling his eyes and materializing his wings. Large and solid and white as snow and real. Sephiroth’s eyes widened, breath hitching.
Zack didn’t know how Cloud always had the answers for everything, but he did, and that was all that was important.
It was the older brother’s role to know everything, after all.