Title: Plumes Fill The Clockwork
Author: Harmony (Silver Harmony)
Characters/Pairing: Zack x Cloud
Rating: M
Word Count: Approximately 31,430.
Disclaimer: Not mine, otherwise this pairing would be canon.
Feedback: Very much appreciated, as I need it to improve. Thank you!
Notes: My second clack fix-it fic! Just a few notes – 1) This fic makes reference to a few events from canon, e.g. Zack and Cloud's first meeting on the Modeoheim mission, the incidents at the Forgotten Capital and Mideel, etc. So hopefully those of you who haven't played the games for a long time can remember those particular arcs at least vaguely, lol. 2) The second scene of this fic touches on Tifa's accident at Mt. Nibel during her childhood, but I don't think the game ever explicitly mentioned Cloud's age at that time. I made a guess. 3) As with my previous fic, I mention the sale of Materia as a way of affording certain things (in this case it was a house). For those of you who haven't played the game for a long time, a mastered All actually goes for 1.4 million gil. That said, I hope you enjoy!
Summary: Cloud has no idea who this guy is – someone who's always mysteriously appeared out of nowhere during the shakiest periods of his whole life, never seems to grow any older, and is as bright as the sun. A nameless, ageless, happy-go-lucky stranger watching his back. (Or: post-canon fix-it in which Zack is pulled back to life, proceeds to jump through time, and unexpectedly makes a huge impact when he ends up being present at certain moments in Cloud's past).

He's five years old when he first meets the man, who emerges from behind the looming towers of rock like a streak of dawn light.

A new face, different and confusing, carrying none of the distaste and aversion dripping from nearly everyone's sidelong glances in these parts. Just straight white teeth framed by a lopsided grin; wild dusky hair; mellow blue-green eyes smiling and crinkling in the corners. A dark-cut scar, made less startling by carved cheekbones that are as crisp and bright as the Nibelheim cold – and a cotton-white scarf knitted from feathery yarn, tumbling languidly down a broad back. A strange sunlit picture of angel's wings.

The man isn't anyone he's ever set eyes upon in this little country town, but scraps of Cloud's instinct are unexpectedly telling him that he's kind. Honest. Friendly, a concept as alien to Cloud as the world beyond the village outskirts, beyond even the walls of his home.

'Hey there, buddy.' A warm voice, too, summery and soft and patient. 'Cloud, right?'

Cloud dips his head once in a tight nod, milk teeth clamping down on a tender bottom lip. He's tired and sore, a thin bag of bones worn down by endless days of unkind stares and steel-hard murmurs from the other villagers – just a runt and not much more than an awkward tangle of knobbed elbows, scraped knees, a leaking nose. A no-one; nothing exceptional enough to hook in anybody's sincere attention and time, aside from his own mother's.

The stranger doesn't seem to be just anybody, though, sinking his bulk onto the rough stretch of earth to sit at Cloud's side.

'I just finished work. Deliveries, you know? Friend of mine runs the business. He's a bossy one.' Beads of sunshine flicker in his pupils, as though he's just said something terribly clever, and sturdy fingers reach into a loose pocket to recover a paper-wrapped bun. 'Thought I'd drop by and have lunch with you and get some other stuff done first before I go back and see him. You gotta love sweet bread, right? Want some?'

Cloud's given no choice, really; a sizeable torn lump is messily tossed into his grubby palms before he can even allow it.

But he does grace it with a curious nibble – it's rich, milky, buttery at first taste. What he imagines bread to be like that's sold in the marketplaces in the big cities. There are no sweet bread delicacies in Nibelheim; the loaves and buns here are baked fleece-soft and fire-warm, but simple and plain.

'… Why me?'

His voice scratches out small and coarse, and the man's earnest features come awake in a hint of surprise. Eyes ocean-bright, lips loosely parting; there's almost a thread of solemnity fastening it all together. A measure of beautiful, a measure of heartbreaking.

'Because you look like you could use a friend,' he says slowly, and Cloud finds himself carefully rolling that word between his lips, mapping the contours of the lone syllable, tracing its shape with the tips of his tongue and teeth. 'Because I like you, and because you don't deserve to feel like you're all on your own.'

His little chest clenches until it's hard to breathe, until his lungs hurt. Words as homely and human as an outstretched hand, and Cloud realizes, then, that this man must be a hero. The ones who walk the realms of fireplace stories, of bedtime tales for children, of unruly tavern songs like the ones he occasionally hears blaring from the corner of the village in the nighttime. Not particularly the kind of hero who shoulders quests and slays gnarled beasts, though this man is likely that too, considering his built muscles and sculpted frame; but the kind who sits and listens and laughs and loves, who saves people just by understanding, by splaying his arms open, by being there.

Even at five, Cloud kind of gets it.

'… I don't like the boys around here anyway,' he murmurs dryly at last, a small teaspoon of bitterness tucked into his tone; but his belly's stirring with an unusual boldness in the face of this guy's easy charisma and charm, and he's far too sullen about the actual matter to care anyway. 'They don't need or want me, and I don't need or want them, either.'

'Well, if that's what you've decided, that's okay,' the man answers good-naturedly, sloping his head sideways in the fashion of a curious pup, a pleasant quirk at the corners of his mouth. 'In any case, you've got me.'

He sits together with Cloud in serene company for a full two hours, and even though he offers a reluctant goodbye and doesn't stay after that, Cloud considers believing him.

The next time he sees the man in the white scarf, he's nine, with stubby hands cradling a cracked heart.

Nibelheim's a lot colder at night, all biting mountain air and lengths of ghostly silence and pale silver moonshine draped over the skirting walls of rock – and this particular night's even colder still. A chill that has little to do with the evening wind or weather, that comes creeping from the tunnels of his own veins, that's left his bones numb, his skin aching.

He's bundled himself into the dirt a good stretch of distance away and laid hollow eyes on Tifa's front door for hours, and barely catches the dim crunch of rubber soles against gravel until it's right at his side.

'… Is that your girlfriend's house?'

Cloud doesn't recognize him at first, head tipping back to look up at him in surprise. And then it drifts back to him in a haze – a bleary, pastel-colored memory of that same white scarf shimmering at the man's back like a flutter of angel's wings; of that same tender blue-green gaze beneath the flick of long, dark lashes; of the silk-smooth taste of sweet bread in his mouth, delicate and creamy and full.

It's been years. But it's a small town, and he remembers.

'She's … not. Not my girlfriend.' A surprisingly steady voice, for how embarrassingly obvious the added unfortunately is knitted into it. 'She probably doesn't even want to be friends with me anymore.'

'C'mon, Cloud. Who could ever give up on you?' the man says meaningfully, briefly tracing dry lips with a sweep of his tongue, a familiar head-tilt of interest shaking his hair loose. He lowers himself on the bow of his knees; an absurd wide-legged squat, but it fits him, his shape and style and bearing, in some way. 'You wanna talk about it?'

Somewhat unexpectedly, Cloud does. Because he's bloomed no friendships in this town other than with the girl who's locked herself away, because his heart already weighs so much with so many hardships for a boy his age, because – for whatever reason – this man that he doesn't even know seemingly considers an awkward kid like him worth listening to. Worth his time.

The man still rings genuine in some strange, simple way, in a sunlit demeanor clear to the naked eye. True and sincere in the rhythmic pattern of his breaths; the supple edges around his voice; the openness etched into the laugh-lines of his mouth; the lively flush and glow of his skin.

Cloud pulls in a long, slow breath through his teeth.

'Tifa … she lost her mom. She was really upset over it, and went on a walk into the mountains,' he says finally, twisting clumsy fingers into the hem of his grime-mottled shirt. 'I followed her, and – there was an accident, I saw her slip. She didn't wake up for a week. I went in to check on her today while her dad was out of the house, and she said … she said it was good to see that I was doing okay, but that she didn't want to see me right then. She asked me to leave her alone.'

The man fixes a considerate look on him, a pale wet gleam of eyes against the evening dark.

'… Cloud. Tifa not wanting to see you then doesn't mean that she doesn't want to see you forever. You said it yourself, she was glad you were alright,' he answers generously, cautious patience built into every word. 'She just lost her mom. Anyone going through that would wanna have some time alone – and she deserves to have that. It doesn't mean that she's done being friends with you. Trust me.'

It's an argument that makes logical sense, although the man holds no knowledge of the part of the story that Cloud had been far too shy to tell. The part where Tifa had passed him a very kind, mournful smile as she'd stroked his palm once with care, and then purposefully slipped her hand away from beneath his fingers; the part where she'd looked at him with a very particular brand of friendly apology coloring her dark eyes; the part where he'd realized that she was gracefully, wordlessly turning him down – she'd known. Somehow, she'd known what he felt, even though he'd never actually gathered the courage to tell her.

The thing is, he's already accepted it at this point. His mother's always told him that he's unusually mature beyond his years; he knows that in time, he'll loosen his knuckles and let go, and eventually he'll be okay. But he's aware that it'll hurt for a long while, too – it's started to prickle in him already, a whisper of scar tissue forming over his heart.

'You okay, buddy?'

'No,' Cloud tosses out with blunt nonchalance, maybe a little more forthright and brusque than he's used to being. 'But I guess I'll get over it. You're right about her needing time, I suppose. I probably need some time too.'

This guy believes that Cloud and Tifa will still be friends, believes it like he knows it, like he knows exactly what's to come; and at this point – at the heart of it all – Cloud wants nothing more.

'Atta boy. It's obvious that you're a lot more than what you think you are, so try not to be so hard on yourself all the time, yeah?' The man's lips curve approvingly, one broad hand reaching over to settle firm, grounded claps to the ridge of Cloud's back. 'Now, you should probably get back home to your mom. It's really late, she's gotta be worried sick about you.'

A single nod of demure agreement, and Cloud sensibly springs to his feet, his steps somewhat lighter than he's expected as he evenly ambles away. He pivots on the cusp of his heels at the last moment, though, and offers a tentative half-wave as he reaches his front door; the man lifts his hand to return the goodbye, sunny and carefree – and somehow, it's enough for the lingering cold in Cloud's skin to ease a little in sharpness, for curling tendrils of a pleasant heat to graze against the walls of his chest. Cloud thinks that maybe he can still see that warm, toothy smile glimmering in the dark.

Tomorrow's another day, and he'll be here to meet it.

He's fifteen and heaving a measly lump of a travel bag out his front door when the wisps of fluttery white yarn hook the corner of his eye again, and this time, the soft-eyed, cheery face that sits steady over it immediately breaks the surface in his memory.

'How … you don't age,' he blurts out in lieu of an actual greeting, eyeballing each square inch of the man up and down. He'd looked his late twenties when they'd crossed paths for the first time ten years ago, Cloud recalls; he still looks his late twenties now. Not a crease in sight on the level plane of skin, bar the faint amusement crinkling the edges of his eyes and lips.

The same dark fatigues and sleeveless number, the same love-worn shoes, that same feathery scarf – maybe part of the reason why he's so easily remembered now, once the puzzle pieces had slid and fit together in Cloud's mind – and Cloud can't help but wonder, with some small degree of confusion, if anything else occupies this man's wardrobe.

'Good morning to you too.' A gaze like sleek spun sugar and a little crooked grin, and for the first time, Cloud's ribcage quickly kindles warm at the sight of it. He's grown comfortable enough with this stranger's presence over the years to know how to appreciate the entire bundle, maybe; to kind of like the way that this man holds himself, with the spirit in his backbone and the bright skies in his irises and the summer in his smile. It's nearly beyond reason, the fact that someone like this seems to reserve a place for someone like Cloud in his eyes with no misgivings. As though Cloud's worth paying attention to, worth looking at.

And Cloud's too curious to not look back.

'Sorry,' he murmurs, lips pursing somewhat regretfully for the earlier outburst. 'Good morning.'

'Morning's the understatement of the year, though, considering there's still about a half-hour before dawn.' The man idly flaps a hand in easy dismissal, as if to forgive everything at once. Keen eyes flick down to the bag dangling from the bend of Cloud's knuckles, locking in with vague interest. 'You're going somewhere?'

'I'm … yeah,' says Cloud, a sapling of self-doubt budding in the undercurrent of his voice now, and he quickly sweeps the door shut behind him, cautious not to wake his mother. 'I'm leaving for Midgar. I'm going to try for SOLDIER.'

The man whistles appreciatively at that; subtle heat blooms at the line of Cloud's throat, at the tips of his ears. 'Your mom's not seeing you off?'

'She works so hard, day in, day out, it's just … she really needs the rest. I made sure to say my goodbyes last night, as best as I could. I don't want to wake her up,' he admits, uneasiness crawling at the back of his neck, steel-cool and thorny. 'And to be honest, if she were seeing me off right now, I might feel less eager to leave. I don't know, it was kind of easier to put on a brave face in front of everyone before it hit me that this is actually happening, I guess. I'm just really hoping I'm not out of my depth here.'

He isn't sure exactly what it is about this stranger that turns him so open and frank, but the words have already slipped through his teeth, and even the shadows of the early morning can't veil and shield him now, can't hide him away from the reality of those thoughts. There's no judgment creeping in the man's dark pupils, though; his answering gaze falls gentle, thin eyebrows slanting, lips parting petal-soft.

'It's okay to be nervous. But honestly? You're totally gonna blow everyone out of the water in the end,' he says firmly, jaw hard-set in certain belief, and he curls long fingers over the taut angle of Cloud's shoulder, the grip sturdy and unflinching and warm. 'I can tell it's not only a brave face, 'cause just having the drive to do this means you're brave for real. I know you're gonna do good things, and be the kind of hero everyone needs. You're a good person. You'll make the world better.'

'Whoa. You have so much faith in me,' Cloud replies with a pinch of amusement, hot and dizzy at hearing such a long thread of sincere compliments stem from one breath; but the man's conscious efforts bear fruit, the winding cold at Cloud's nape gradually unraveling, the tightness in his chest slowly crumbling down. 'I sure hope I meet those expectations. I made Tifa a promise. It'd be nice to be a hero for her, too.'

The faint surprise crossing the man's face is glass-clear, eyes round and full and striking, pliant mouth slackening at the seams.

'Ah, it's not what you think,' says Cloud all too quickly, a good guess for the thought behind that look suddenly lurking in his gut. The clumsy social stiffness in him is too firmly rooted, an itch of pinpricks beneath his skin. 'I mean, I used to, you know, but—' she's his friend, someone who's formed a portion of his heart since their childhood days; he's always cared for her with every string and stitch holding him together, and always will. '—I don't feel that for her anymore. I outgrew that a long while back. But she's … well, we're friends, and she still means a lot anyway. I've got to make it through, no matter what.'

A bold admission that's just left his innards uncovered for the wolves, but it rings blood-deep and true; he has no recollection of ever being this talkative and loose-jawed with anybody in his life, of ever nakedly bringing anything this personal to light. He'd been so crippled with self-consciousness over the Tifa matter only six years back, and opening his own doors to let out any actual hint or mention of it still marks a somewhat foreign taste in his mouth.

The hand at his shoulder mildly squeezes once before it unclenches and slides away, and the man offers him a quivering smile that's strangely solemn and heavy, made of something more than just surface skin. 'You'll rise above them all, Cloud. I know you'll do her proud when all's said and done. Good luck.'

Cloud nods in mellow gratitude, and draws and emits a full breath, in, out. He then sets himself in motion, resting the wide strap of his bag upon his shoulder and making a start to move off – but awareness suddenly dawns on him in full color and clarity, and he pauses mid-step, turning on his toes.

'I don't know why I never thought to ask before now,' he says in a level tone, curiosity blossoming at his breastbone. 'But who are you?'

He's given only a good-humored salute in answer, and the man evenly strides away, his shape painted against the quiet canvas of the town until he's swallowed by the early morning darkness.

'No appetite?'

Cloud swings into a pause, drooping palms just barely propping up a cold, half-eaten burger towards lines of parting teeth, and he can't help locking his gaze onto the familiar figure that falls into the seat opposite him: his curious personal shadow, his strange guardian angel. Except that he forms less of an angel's profile without the usual winglike drape of his scarf down his back; the scarf's swathed around the lower portion of his face now, laying only his eyes bare - a ludicrous portrait of a would-be ninja.

'You look silly,' says Cloud flatly, the edges of his mouth curling.

'Well, I can't be noticed around here.' Full lashes slide down low, a hint of subtle displeasure to match the tune of the smothered voice. 'The thing is, I don't really belong here, and—'

Cloud's not sure what that means, and he cuts in, 'In Midgar?'

The man gives a shake of his head, lax fingers moving to peel the scarf from his mouth. 'Not exactly what I mean … it's hard to explain, but it'll royally mess things up bad if someone recognizes me, and there's a lot of people in this city who might recognize me. I promise I'm not a criminal or anything like that, though.' It's nearly absurd, that dash of interest that ripples at the base of Cloud's throat when he sees the ruffling white stripe drop away – a muted childlike thrill for a gift unwrapped. But the full volume of that pearl-lit smile is now sitting in his view again; it's rather charming, and Cloud's even pulse suddenly isn't so dim or steady anymore, thrumming at the walls of his chest, in the squares of his wrists. 'But I guess since we're tucked away in a corner booth, I'll be alright. So, what's got you holed up here all by yourself with the long face?'

It all comes back to him, then; a thick sigh tumbles over Cloud's bottom lip, as heavy as his shame. He folds the burger back into its grease-slicked paper and sets it down onto the table, the crown of his head sinking before he can help it. 'I didn't pass. Didn't even make it past the second round.'

The man's brow stays still, an unmoving slab, though a little tension seems to leak into its corners.

'… I mean, I know I can try again next year, but it's just – you know, when being looked down on is all you've ever known and you worked so hard and had high hopes for yourself, it's sort of—' Cloud's breath swells, pushing out too sore against his lungs. 'It really sucks.'

'Hey.' The answer comes soft and kind, no different from a wisp of cotton stroking Cloud's jaw. 'You did your best. It's not a failure if you gave it your everything. It doesn't mean you're weak, or anything like that. I know you probably don't wanna hear it, but for real, this sort of thing just happens. It's life.'

His hand edges over to Cloud's on the table at first; but then the sturdy fingers coil back into a fist, as if drawing away in respect. It's a warm sight, though Cloud doesn't think he'll have really minded the glide of that roughened palm over his own.

'You say that, but you must be so disappointed, huh,' he murmurs, cracked fingernails absently plucking at a flimsy thread on the hem of his sleeve. 'Those things you said to me all those months ago, when I was leaving my hometown to come here – when you said you believed I'd be a hero—'

'That hasn't changed.' The man's voice turns earthy and firm, as though it's housing every anchor of faith he can find. 'And I don't believe it, I know it. Give yourself a chance, okay? And give yourself time.'

'We don't even really know each other,' Cloud points out coolly, half-stubborn mouth molded around a frown. 'How could you know?'

'Actually, I do know you. I'm afraid I can't explain how or why right now, it's just …' The man shifts in his seat; a silhouette of hesitancy crawls across his eyes and Cloud can only think that it's an unusual look on him, a novel piece of vulnerability on a face that's normally marked with a leisurely smile. '… I want to help. Even if it's only boosting your confidence or letting you vent to me once in a while, or something. But I don't want to make you uncomfortable, so if it's not welcome, tell me and I'll back off. I promise.'

He could've been a twisted monster in disguise, a dangerous hunter of innocent children. But Cloud remembers how his own five-year-old heart had clung to what it'd clearly seen at the time – a slice of kindness; a freely opened door; a pair of honest, attentive eyes. In all the years that have rolled by since, he still hasn't been proven wrong on that.

'… It's not unwelcome,' he says eventually, careful and slow, and teeth sink thoughtfully into his tongue for a fleeting moment. 'You're nice. And I want to know more about you. I just wish I knew why you're spending your time on me.'

'I don't need a reason, do I? I want to, and I choose to.' And just like that, the man's suddenly wearing a shining sunflower grin again; he looks far happier at Cloud's reply than Cloud's been expecting. 'That's enough for me, so here I am.'

The answer fits him seamlessly. In hindsight, the man's always emitted this type of vibe – these complex sentiments tucked underneath straightforward words. Mild, simple solace and keen-eyed guidance readily given each time, with nothing ever asked for in payment. The thought's enough to ignite a slip of affection in Cloud's chest, flame-warm and strange.

He releases a little half-cough, wiry legs unfolding to push him up from his seat. 'Hey … I'm gonna order a milkshake to add to this. Can I buy you one?'

The man stares in surprise at first, long enough for the blood pounding in Cloud's ears to build into a loud beat. And then, melodic laughter suddenly breaks like dawn from his mouth, belly-deep and rich and sparkling. 'How can I say no to that?' he asks with good cheer, baring rows of snow-bright teeth. 'Wouldn't you rather be off drinking that milkshake with a pretty girl, though, at your age – rather than with me?'

'I'm in the mood. Let me treat you,' Cloud throws him a frown, blunt and insistent. 'And as nice as that sounds, no-one's got their eye on me in that way anyway, so there's no pretty girl in the picture. I don't have a lot to offer, and I'm not particularly easy to like. Being with somebody doesn't really sound like something that'll be in my future, I think.'

'Oh, I wouldn't say that so soon,' the man says without pause; the outline of the words are somehow too brick-cool and casual, weighed down with more than meets the eye.

Cloud crumples his brow in a blend of confusion and skepticism, duly unimpressed. 'What, do you know my future? The way you say things, you always talk like you've seen it or experienced it or something,' he says in a dull tone, with a lick to the corner of his lips. And then, to push a firm point, he carries on in a good-humored deadpan: 'Really now, who do I end up with?'

The man's eyes skim away to the roof and he offers only a bland shrug, cheekbones quirking from his vague smile.

As far as Cloud's concerned, the muted non-answer is a victory; he casts over a purposeful look of well, there you go, burning with high-chinned triumph in clearly having made his case, and tears away from their booth towards the cashier counter to settle his order.

He's curved his two hands around a milkshake apiece when he makes his way back, opting to bypass the traditional plastic tray in favor of the crisp, cold beads of condensation against his toil-crusted skin – dewdrops creeping down the walls of the thick paper cups and onto the flowering calluses of his thumbs: a cool, damp reminiscence of everyday Nibelheim weather. The man's twirling a fork around his knuckles when Cloud lands in his seat again, a cheery play that sinks right into a sore spot of odd longing beneath Cloud's ribs; the action somehow feels just like him, Cloud thinks, even though he can't know for sure. In the end, trying to unbox this man's mysteries has been no different from having scraps of pale feathers slip through the spaces between his own fingers.

'You still haven't told me who you are,' he says in solemn patience, heavy and quiet. He pushes one of the milkshake cups forward, and presses on, 'Could you at least tell me your name?'

It feels more like a missing link in the chain rather than just simple curiosity now, born from an acceptance of the way this man's managed to slink under the wire and into Cloud's skin; four times in his sixteen years does Cloud remember falling into dim pockets of particularly great distress, including today, and four times has this man surfaced from nowhere and been there. Cloud wonders if it's too much to ask for – to want more than just a thin, distant thread to connect a teenage boy to his second shadow.

But the man murmurs, 'I can't,' and the trickling breath of his voice is colored from edge to edge with notes of regret. 'You'll know it soon, I promise. Won't be that much longer, actually. But not today. I'm sorry.'

Cloud dips his eyes low and nods. He's known that a reluctant rejection may come; it still stings a little, either way. But teeth clamp together in his mouth, and he hardens his jaw and takes what he gets. There must be a good reason, he's sure.

'Man, clearly I just went ahead and dived into the deep end without fully thinking every detail through first.' The man lets out a small, sheepish huff of laughter and rakes strong fingers through his rain of dark spikes. 'You're in for a whole lot of confusion to come. Gotta say sorry in advance for that.'

'It's no problem,' says Cloud genuinely, with no speck of bitterness. 'I'll find out whenever I find out.'

And the man sips his milkshake gratefully, listens and chuckles and blurts out bits of glittering commentary when Cloud turns their talk to a different path by spilling the dirt on life in the barracks and the antics of his squadmates; maybe, Cloud muses, this is okay.

A shimmer of light on a day that had started in gloom, and Cloud faintly wonders if one day he'll be a light to this man, too.

The whole lot of confusion part hadn't been a lie. Eleven years has been a long bridge to cross, a far-flung stretch from the first time their paths had overlapped to the moment that Cloud, at last, uncovers a name to go with the face: Zack Fair.

Although not a single vein of Cloud's mind can construct a rational picture of how it's possible.

Because the valiantly tall, firm-backed SOLDIER First Class secured into the helicopter seat opposite him at this precise moment must be him, without any ghost of doubt – the man who's flickered in and out of the shadows of Cloud's life from one year to another, like a rare shred of candlelight in the dark. The same sea-wide irises, the same honey-warm grin, the very same bubbling voice that weaves an upbeat into every given syllable. But at the same time, this guy looks a number of years younger; maybe by somewhere up to a decade, with the last vestiges of a rounder, suppler sculpt to his jawline and cheekbones, the wholly different boyish chop to his hair, the nonexistence of that sunken cross-scar slicing into his cheek.

Cloud isn't used to setting eyes on that same face without the ruffling white scarf arranged underneath it, closely twisted around that neck, idly thrown over that back. He isn't used to so easily picking up the combat-ready, mission-focused lurches of those long limbs, or to seeing that body encased in the honor-streaked battle armor of a SOLDIER uniform.

And most of all, he isn't used to the absence of recognition from that strong, steady gaze. Zack Fair hadn't seemed to harbor any familiarity with him when they'd traded friendly clear-cut greetings at the mission's hasty start, and hadn't seemed to identify Cloud by voice in spite of the stuffy trooper helmet. Truly a first meeting, maybe – and also not.

In any case, Cloud thinks that maybe it's for the best. After all, he's not fully eager to dwell on what it means if he's been spilling his shameful insecurities about trying for SOLDIER to a SOLDIER all this time.

They're already at the skirts of their mission destination, the pale snowscapes of Modeoheim laying a path under their flight and hewn towers of rock rising like white-flecked giants at their helicopter's flank, when Cloud resolves to ask at long last: 'Excuse me, sir? I don't mean to bother you, but can I ask you a question?'

All of them are caught by the break in vocal silence, such that the second infantryman and the sleek-haired, straight-shouldered Turk sharing this operation with them turn to look at him too, but only Zack Fair's presence is awakening the heat at Cloud's collarbones – a real SOLDIER First Class in the flesh, on top of being a familiar face. Blue-green eyes move to Cloud at once, full and bright and cosmic; and then there it is, the kind smile that Cloud's learned by heart through all these years, the same one that stirs a small grain of softness in his chest. 'Hey, Zack's fine. And it's no bother at all. Go ahead, shoot.'

'Zack.' Cloud gives the name a try, and he likes how plain and simple it tastes, likes the snug way it fits into the curves of his mouth. 'I hope I'm not overstepping, it's just – I know someone who looks a lot like you. You don't happen to have an older brother, do you? Or any cousins?'

'No, not at all,' answers Zack with a touch of surprise, mild puzzlement tilting his lips until they're leaning crooked. 'No relation, I guess?'

'I guess,' Cloud says in careful agreement, biting on his cheek.

It's almost like seeing double, and almost like a trick of his mind, except he's starkly aware that that isn't the case. The man in the scarf had passed him a solid warning of the confusion to come, as though he'd known. And his tiptoeing reluctance to be spotted by others in the burger joint back then essentially forms some shape of common sense, if there's a younger-looking version of himself that'd been prowling the belly of the very same city.

Cloud's head reels and stumbles from the muddled blur of all of it; it's not just the helicopter ride turning him queasy anymore.

Zack tips forward from the waist and fixes a level stare on Cloud, a look both firm and tender around the edges, one part curiosity and one part concern. '… You doing okay?'

And all of Cloud's nerves can't help unexpectedly burning with a strange hunch, gut tightening around the inkling that it's possible for SOLDIER First Class Zack and the man in the scarf to somehow be one and the same. They form almost impeccable mirror images as it is; the same compassionate interest setting that face alight from corner to corner, the same generous patience softening every word, the same everything. Cloud can only give an answering nod and swallow at length, narrowing his focus on taming the heaving churn of his stomach. 'I think so. I'm just not good with traveling. Sorry.'

'It's alright,' says Zack in a gracious voice, brows pulling up high in mounting realization. 'If you need to throw up, just say so, yeah? Hang on – let me see if there's a sick bag or something—'

Cloud very nearly does throw up when flames suddenly burst like flowers around him and the helicopter goes hurtling to the ground, and he has to thank all his lucky stars that his motion sickness doesn't win out for whatever reason, because one of the last things he can possibly want is to be sick all over Zack Fair.

They make the best of their unfortunate situation – it'd been an automated anti-aircraft shot fired from the Modeoheim reactor, an insight that the Turk shares with Cloud and his squadmate in stoic displeasure – with Zack shepherding their little rumpled crew up the snow-kissed slope and with the helicopter left to burn behind their retreating steps; a forsaken sprawl of blazing yellow against white, of quickly forgotten twisted metal. And Zack turns sideways to Cloud while the others trail behind, and he starts to talk.

The two of them are a study in opposites, one dark and one gold, one gaping and one shielded, one wordy and one subdued. Cloud hasn't grown up with so many conversations, what with only one friend to count on his hand back home, but he doesn't really mind this at all. Because there's a pleasant calm in being asked where he's from with earnest fascination, in learning that Zack hails all the way from Gongaga, in having Zack insist that Nibelheim's just as much a backwater name for a backwater locale as his own hometown.

Cloud thinks to test the waters in response to that, and in a split-second bold choice, he says: 'Like you've been there.'

'I haven't,' answers Zack with a straight-cut tone of knowing, 'but there's a reactor there, right?'

It fits Cloud's suspicions, then; that Zack – this Zack, if the man in the scarf is indeed also Zack – hasn't ever set foot in Nibelheim. Not yet, at least, as duty's bound to deliver him to any given inch of the surface of the Planet.

Though the sums and calculations and rationalities don't matter that much in the wider frame of the picture, all things considered. Small talk on a broken helicopter trip and less than a minute's casual chat about their motherlands has been enough to unmask Zack as warm and talkative and terribly likeable beneath that uniform; he slots just right into the yawning distance between strangers as though Cloud's not a new acquaintance at all, but an old friend. A first introduction to a stranger who's not really a stranger, and to Cloud, that thought's more than just a little remarkable.

He knows that it's sensible logic either way, maybe, to keep his mouth sealed about the man in the scarf for now.

'Good news, Tseng! Me and …?'

So he takes hold of the hard rims of his helmet and pushes the full chunk of metal up from his head, and doesn't give anything away.

'… Cloud,' he supplies to help Zack out – a first introduction tinted with a sincere smile.

Zack goes on with announcing that he and Cloud are backwater experts like it's the brightest childhood dream that anyone can aspire to, and Cloud's breath slips out of rhythm just to hear it.

By the time they return from the mission in Modeoheim, there's a very familiar cross-scar newly etched into the hollow of Zack's cheek – a decisive set of slashes from his now-deceased mentor.

He changes the cut of his hair a small handful of days after their arrival back in Midgar, too; and suddenly, he's a near-perfect duplicate of the man that Cloud's been crossing paths with all these years, but a little younger-looking, and without the scarf. None of it really makes sense, from what crumbs of logic Cloud can piece together. He only knows that that odd inkling's still creeping over his backbone: the one that's leaving him to question if the two people he's now met are possibly one single person in some way.

His last glimpse of the man in the scarf had been by the door of that little burger joint in Midgar, both their bellies full of milkshake and residues of soft laughter as they'd swapped lingering goodbyes. Now, there's Zack – Zack plus a military schedule that's since put him with Cloud into shared mission after mission together; and it's a measure of comfort as far as Cloud's concerned, a knowledge that Zack's keeping a stable presence with him through the assignments. Particularly since their upcoming one's to Nibelheim, and Cloud isn't entirely keen on baring his face back home at this moment.

Their last rest stop before reaching the entrance to Nibelheim on foot is at a tight constellation of trees, and it's as low-key an affair as their journey's been so far, with Cloud's fellow infantryman quietly perched on a nearby lump of rock and General Sephiroth vanishing from their sight on a private walk away, leaving Zack and Cloud propped upright against two roughened hardwood trunks side-by-side. Zack sags his limbs against coarse bark, stealing a half-smile into Cloud's direction; he seems almost frayed at the hems, smears of shadow and tiredness circling his eyes like rings of smoke.

'… That style suits you,' says Cloud with offhand leisure, eyes tracing up to Zack's hairline, but then he momentarily chews down on his lip and has to wonder if it's a fitting sentiment to offer at this time.

Zack's features melt into burnished light, though, lips folding back into a far more vibrant grin. 'Yeah? I'm happy you like it. I did wonder what you'd think. Going on a couple of missions with me and I already looked different right after the first one.'

All things considered, being a centerpiece of Zack's thoughts and having Zack care what he may think – even if it concerns nothing more than a new hairstyle – is and isn't a surprise all at once. Cloud's managed to easily understand Zack's more playful and less snobbish brand of SOLDIER's ego, managed to sense the solid beat of a kind bleeding heart that's wrapped within layers and layers of a colorful personality. Zack's never looked or spoken down at him or anyone, never seemed to regard him or anyone as lesser in the wisp of time that they've known each other; not even with friends like General Sephiroth brightening his flank. Not even with the power and position that he cradles in the cup of his own palms.

Cloud pulls in a breath, and a delicate kind of yearning rings like a sharp, tiny bell in his chest; he thinks that maybe he's the one who should be there for Zack, for once.

'Hey … Zack. I've been meaning to tell you, I'm really glad you've been there with me – some of the missions can get a little overwhelming, I think. In terms of everything, really. Obviously I don't just mean my travel sickness,' Cloud murmurs tentatively; after Modeoheim it'd been Junon, wherein he'd found himself fairly unwell from the trip, and Zack had spared him generous solace through words of comfort and his sunny bearing alone. 'And I can tell it's not just me, either. Are you alright?'

For a moment, the line across Zack's shoulders tighten, and Cloud knows at once that he'll have to tread careful steps from here.

'It's just that I haven't seen you that much,' Cloud carries on, fingernails distantly scraping across the rough fabric of his fatigues. 'And I've been kind of worried about you. You know, since Commander Hewley.'

'… I'm okay.' Zack's answer comes quick, then, swollen breath and unsteady smile held up by sheer will. After a few beats of silence pass, though, the tension framing his face does loosen a little. 'I am, really, I promise. I won't lie and say that it hasn't been tough as hell, or that I don't miss him, but I'm starting to come to terms with it. My bit of downtime in Costa Del Sol did me good, and now I have work to keep me busy. And grounded, you know? Life keeps on going. That's the way it's gotta be.'

Cloud had been struck down at the time, and wasn't able to bear witness to it, but Zack had told him how the base at Modeoheim rained snowy feathers from Angeal Hewley before he'd died; it paints beautiful pictures in Cloud's train of thought, reminding him of the pale frost that'd kissed their skin not even an hour before it all went down, of what he thinks an angel's answer to a sorrowful prayer would look like if they were real, of a particular white scarf that Cloud's grown familiar with throughout the years. The unexpected match does make sense in a tender way, and Cloud doesn't doubt at all how treasured and close Zack's relationship with his late mentor had been.

For years and years, Cloud's only had his mother and Tifa to share hardships with – yet at this moment, there's Zack, as sound and constant as a living breath. And he's never felt so glad for what they are, here and now. Something like friends.

Zack's smile at him has the shape of soft gratitude; it feels like a closure of the topic. Cloud imagines reaching out to take his hand, imagines pressing his own gratitude into the calluses of Zack's palm, imagines the warmth of two thumbs sitting skin to skin. But he doesn't move.

'… You know,' he starts instead, lashes hanging low. 'I was a bit surprised to be picked to go on this mission with you and the General. I don't know if he might be expecting anything in particular from me? I wouldn't want to mess up and have him lose his patience.'

'Hey. Sephiroth's everybody's hero, but he's just human, yeah?' says Zack, the light tenor of his voice smoothing over in understanding. 'As long as you do what you're supposed to, he'll be good with it. He's sorta hard to read sometimes but he's not gonna go off the rails with you or anything; he's better than that. Can't imagine a guy that calm blowing up, anyway.'

The answer's so brimming with faith, and so Zack, somehow. And Cloud's already accepted it at once; not even because Sephiroth's been a star hero of his boyhood – but because it's coming from Zack. Zack who evidently opens all his doors without reserve and sows his trust in people, sees unspoiled good in people, believes in people. A vouch for Sephiroth's humanity that offers a snapshot of Zack's humanity, and Cloud can see it, clear as morning.

'… Yeah, I guess you're right,' Cloud says, the tautness between his shoulder blades easing, rigid muscles winding down. 'Honestly, I'm not really sure how I feel about going back home at this point in time, either. But at least it won't be so bad, knowing you're there.'

Zack's face masks none of his vivid pleasure at that admission, freckles of daylight littering the sheen of his eyes. 'Boy, glad to know I make a difference.'

'If only you knew how much. For real, thanks, Zack. For having my back. And I've also got yours, as best as I can.'

A fist nudges against Cloud's elbow, and the toothy grin that comes with it is sugar-warm and bright. 'You'll have my best effort too. I swear on that.'

And Zack lives up to that promise even when Sephiroth doesn't live up to Zack's faith in him; even more than four years on; even right up to the moment Zack dies.

It's hard to think, what with poison drowning every vein in his body, and his consciousness in as many split parts as fractured glass – but Cloud still carries small shards of memory, even if it's all steeped in murky smoke. He remembers the mission crumbling apart, blazing fire, and spending too long submerged in biting cold green. Zack hauling him away from their capture at Nibelheim, and caring for him for the better part of a year with not one word of protest. Zack shielding him from the sharp outdoor weather, and folding large, secure arms around him as they lay in sleep. Zack hunting and foraging and feeding him, Zack talking to him with gentle doting every single day for months and months; talking to him about everything under the sun without stirring any coherent response in return. Talking about his childhood in Gongaga, about the lovely Aerith, about his good buddy Kunsel, about Angeal Hewley, about his dreams for the future and Cloud's place in it.

A future clipped short to save Cloud's life, a bold and fearless gift. In the miniscule window of time that his mind still bears some semblance of crystal clarity, Cloud's throat manages to scratch out a goodbye and he's never felt more grateful for having had Zack, for making up even a small fragment of Zack's heart, and for Zack making up a fragment of his, too.

I won't forget, he vows in a murmur.

He remembers enough to keep the splintered pieces of himself from breaking, for now. In spite of everything, he's still alert and aware for a decent portion of the time that he's dragging the blood-smudged Buster Sword alone across the dry skin of the badlands.

And then he forgets it all.

He's a cracked, dry shell, with every loss hollowing him out, stripping his blood, draining the marrow of his bones. Jessie, Biggs, Wedge – now Aerith. Cradling her body against him shakes a familiar soreness awake, one that he can't fully place, maybe a reminiscence of a wholly different death that he's mourned fairly recently. But he remembers no earlier loss other than that of his mother's, and that'd been a number of years back; the first thorn in a string of tragedies, a doomed history written during that botched Nibelheim mission that he'd crawled out of on his own.

Aerith's face is still as she sinks into the water, a painting of serenity on a blank, vacant canvas, and Cloud thinks that there's not really much time for grieving.

But he stays there in the lake for just a short while longer, with dark liquid swirling against the jut of his hips and the cutting cold climbing up the ridges of his spine, even after Vincent and Tifa have left the clearing. It's all empty, silent. So little light trickling through the trees, so little sound to give them life.

And then he glimpses the silhouette between the gnarled lines of the trunks and branches.

He instantly starts, backbone jerking straight – a product of the ingrained SOLDIER reflexes carved into his every nerve. It's not any profile he recognizes, and at this point, he isn't sure if his eyes are seeing right; for now, trusting himself isn't really an option on the table, not when there's been traces of someone else buried underneath his skin since Tifa had found him and this journey had started. But he knows that there shouldn't be anyone else here, right now.

'Who are you?' he demands severely, hard tone and strict gaze leaving nothing unguarded.

The figure pushes out from the wash of shadows just a little more – a block of crisp, angular, masculine contours. But Cloud can still barely see much of him in the deep gunmetal murk between the boughs; his face isn't discernible at all, either, an indistinct blur veiled in too much of the dark. Something vividly bright and pale's folded over his throat, though. A scarf, maybe.

'Thank you,' the man murmurs in a strained, breathless voice, low and uneven and not distinctly anyone that Cloud can identify by name. 'Thank you for doing that for her.'

He sounds like he knows her. Like he cares for her the way Cloud does, too, if the crux of his concerns is her getting the reverent sendoff she deserves. And somehow, the tireless ache in all of Cloud's limbs manages to dull just a little at the thought, the tightness in his elbows and knees unraveling, and now he doesn't feel so hollow and alone in the funerary dusk of the clearing.

The man slips back into the shadows as if he's always belonged there, and Cloud doesn't make to follow him. Even though he's gone and left behind a miniscule piece of solace, he may just be the design of a wild imagination, for all Cloud knows.

After all, Cloud's mind hasn't exactly felt whole, these days.

And it doesn't seem to move down a better road, not when he finds himself moored to a cold seat not so many suns and moons later – perched upon a wheelchair, maybe, in a doctor's clinic of some kind. He's not aware of much other than the firm steel and leather cooling his thighs and back, the sterile fragrance of chemicals and potions, and the occasional flurry of movement and blending haze of voices, with a feminine one in particular.

Cloud. Stay with me, the voice says often, sleek and light and familiar, as though she's someone he's known all his life. You're in Mideel. You've got Mako poisoning. I'm going to look after you. I'm here … right here, okay? Can you hear me?

Mako poisoning. He hears that phrase from the other voices around him too, over and over. He can't make sense of what it means, but he knows the shape of those words, has heard them before, somewhere.

He has no bearings left, no solid-fisted grip on anything certain. No unbroken memory of how he's ended up here. Nothing but a hollow gaze that's barely managed to register what's draped beyond the often-open door: pastel skies, lush green, creaking planks of wood … a simple town. Although he's not always sure what he's seeing, since it's like peering through cracked glass all over again – again, he somehow knows, even though his head's smudged over with fog.

So he never knows if the shadow's real, that silhouette that he catches sight of some nights when the whole town's hushed with sleep. Always propped straight against the rickety doorframe, with pale moonlight catching on twin strips of white spilling over a sturdy back – a fluttering illusion of slender wings.

The entire thing sure feels real, though, particularly on the one uncommon evening that the figure actually enters the clinic for once, making a careful approach with inching footsteps. Coming right up to him and giving him a once-over; leaning over to sweep limp strands of gold hair from his cheek with a coarsened thumb; curling a warm, steady hand over his shivering palm.

Then a whisper of: 'I'm so sorry this happened to you,' in a tight, grieving voice. But the only reaction given in response to that statement is a stare of bleary eyes too dazzled by the bright feathery white beneath that clear-cut chin, glimmering in the dark. The non-answer seems to hinder nothing, however. 'You're strong. One of the strongest people I've ever known. I'll always have your back, remember? So you've gotta hang in there for me, yeah?'

His mind flickers half-awake with clipped, stuttering pictures. Tender flavors of sweet bread and milkshakes. A luggage bag swinging from his knuckles and sure fingers squeezing his shoulder. Glistening laughter and silly banter flowering to life in a trek through the snow. A jumble of reassuring words, too many to count, spoken by a kind voice. Droplets of rain and a red-painted hand passing him a sword handle.

'Mmm … I … I …'

He wants to say, It's you; a seed that's sprouted from nowhere, because his mind can't really piece together who you actually is. His mouth can't even sculpt the words.

'… Gonna be honest with you, sometimes I think it's a shame that I died back then,' the strange visitor tells him, and he feels a stroke of gentle fingers run over the angled rise of his shoulder. ''Cause I could've been here for you properly, you know? I—'

And then there's the loud surging flow of a restroom flush, and the shadowed figure's fled out the door right away like a phantom, plumy white streaks trailing like ribbons at its spine.

If, one day in the future, Tifa were ever to refer back to their time in Mideel and to this moment in particular, Cloud will be grateful to remember the comfort of glimpsing the smear of familiar long black hair as she shuffles out of the clinic bathroom, of her graceful hands adjusting the heavy-set woolen blanket over his lap, of the pocket-sized note of affection in her voice as she hums: 'There we go. Can't have you getting all cold tonight, can we?'

He'll be grateful that she'll never mention intently fixing her dark eyes upon his face, or her tremulous hands framing the bends of his cheekbones, or the delicate cushions of her thumbs swiping away the tiny, barely-there hints of moisture beading in the lashes of each eye.

In the end, it's irony that curls a steel-fingered grip around his shoulder and hauls him out of the sickly green poison in his blood; it's an earthquake ripping the town apart that pieces him back together; it's a tumble into the Lifestream and getting spat back out by it that saves him from drowning in it.

He remembers, then. Remembers himself, remembers war. Remembers Zack. Remembers everything. It means that when his eyes slide open against the coiling pain to the sight of Zack bowed over him, he's perfectly well-aware of what he's seeing.

To some extent, anyway, because a slash of white feathers is glittering in the daylight at Zack's throat. This is the man in the scarf. This is also Zack. The hurt in Cloud's skin is biting and his mind's little more than a rolling haze – it can barely fold around the concept of exactly how those two puzzle fragments fit together; he simply knows that they just do.

'… Zack …?'

'Don't move. Your body's taken a hell of a beating – you've been through some pretty rough stuff,' Zack murmurs in instruction, and Cloud can't argue with that; the lumps of dirt beneath his back are hard and uncomfortable, and all his bones feel like they've been ferociously knocked against each other. 'Don't worry about Tifa, she's right next to you. She's out cold, but she's okay. Both of you made it. Can't say the same for Mideel, though.'

Cloud's head slumps sideways, lolling in dizziness and confusion; all he can see is a wreckage of long leaves and timber walls littered over the expanse of earth. A toxic flood of liquid green, vivid against the dull grey and brown of scattered debris. It must've been quite some quake; the town's wholly destroyed.

He turns his head back and extends a limp hand to tug at the length of Zack's scarf, nestling the white feathery yarn between his fingers. 'Is this … are you a dream …?'

Zack scrapes out a soft laugh, the sound breathy and heavy-hearted and hoarse. It's music to Cloud's ears, a tribute to simpler days far gone. 'No, buddy, I'm really here. Though I'm happy to be whatever you want. I'm even happier that you remember me now.'

Cloud doesn't have much strength left; the flickering flame of a candle fading. But he uses everything he's got in him to now move his hand away from the scarf, grazing the back of his knuckles across Zack's wrist. It's a fight to stay awake. '… You died. You're … leaving again …?'

'I don't want to, believe me. But I have to. Because Tifa's gonna wake up any time now, and all of your other friends will be here soon, too, and it's important that they don't see me,' answers Zack, all low, tender lashes and half-lidded eyes, his tone a straight-cut timbre of regret; but he shifts his palm to wrap warm fingers around Cloud's, and it feels familiar, a perfect fit, like coming home. 'I'm never really gone, though. You know that, right? C'mon now, go back to sleep. Everyone will take care of you when you wake up again.'

Cloud believes it. Believes in Zack, believes in the others. He knows that everyone's got his back, knows that they'll surely come to collect him soon. It's somewhat strange, how so many people have taken root in his life now; his childhood had held the cold loneliness of a condemned brat, having only two other people to fill a heart too spacious, and having lost count of all the overstretched days. Zack may not be a part of his current ragtag crew, but he's stitched into Cloud's flesh and blood, too – never really gone – and with so many people to call his people, it may just be possible that there's no threat he can't take down.

Sephiroth will just have to wait for him, though, because sleep sounds incredibly good right now.

Okay, Cloud wants to say, but his throat's grit-dry and both heavy eyes are already closing, and all he can do is to make sure that he's still got a good hold on Zack's gentle fingers as he slides into the dark.

Cloud. Cloud, wake up.

The world's turned and turned, charted year after year, and some things don't get forgotten.

He shouldn't be dreaming of the Geostigma chapter of his long-past days, not when it's been more than two years since. Dreaming of blood clogging his throat and that blade jutting through his ribs and fierce pain slicing his skin all over. Of cold, silk-smooth laughter caressing his ears and that wild, angry hurt in his bones. He shouldn't be dreaming of that vivid white over his eyes and that velvet warmth against his back and Zack's feather-soft voice, reminding him that he's his living legacy – the proof that he'd once existed.

He also dreams of the gravesite in the rich half-light of dawn, draped in yellow flowers. And a dim shape supine within the spray of petals, a body curling, writhing.

The images are still stark and sharp behind his eyes when a temperate voice and a hand on his shoulder pulls him awake.

It's been the same dream every night for a week, for whatever reason. A reminder that he'd once fought and fought until he'd bled out near-empty; that he's given the world so much that he'd been drained almost hollow.

Sephiroth's gone, though. Thunderously erased from the world, from Cloud's life. A residual scar that's never just a memory, but also a peril that's never to return.

Cloud drags in a breath, eyes clinging to the pulsing darkness until his sight shifts to a paler smudge of black, adjusting to the shapes and shadows of his surroundings. He's sprawled out on the couch downstairs, and the murky fog of sleep melts away enough that he remembers – a particularly late delivery job; fatigue seeping into every muscle; folding into himself the moment he'd come home. A blanket's snarled and caught in all of his pointed angles, a wrinkled disarray hooked around jagged elbows and knees. Tifa, Shelke, Denzel, or Marlene must've swathed him in it while he'd slept, though he's not sure who.

And Zack's arched over him, gazing down with bold creases slashed into his brow like taut strings, rough lines marking focused concern. The feathery wisps of his white scarf waver against his heaving chest, a shocking brightness in the quiet nighttime.

'… Zack?' Cloud murmurs, the singular name encased in hardly more than a thin tendril of breath. 'How – I thought—'

That you'd died, he almost says; but then again, Zack's manifested himself in two different ways throughout Cloud's life. A heartbreaking gust of magic, a reality against the impossible. Everything at Mideel had been just as real as this, too. This Zack, the older-looking Zack, is seemingly very much alive.

Cloud slowly rises, hauling his body into a sitting position, and tries again. '—What are you doing here. How did you get in.'

He's only regretfully aware of how curt that may sound after the words have already fallen from his mouth, but Zack seems to take no offence whatsoever; it's very Zack, Cloud thinks vaguely. Zack with his signature patience and compassion and understanding, a flourish of warm light even in the bleakest hours. 'I can kinda … turn up anywhere with the Materia that I've got. Including inside people's houses, apparently. Sorry if I startled you – I didn't mean to break in. And I'm sorry for waking you up, too, but I think you were having a bad dream.'

'It's okay. I'm glad you're here,' Cloud says in careful reassurance, easy and deliberate, every word fully meant. 'I haven't seen you in a long time.'

And that holds true not only for one variant of Zack; but both. The younger-looking Zack, the one whom he'd first crossed paths with on a shared snowy mission in Modeoheim, the one that wore no scarf – Cloud had last laid eyes on him during the Geostigma crisis; a gentle otherworldly phantom, a long-deceased projection reaching out to him from the Lifestream, by all appearances. It's the very same encounter that's trickled into his dreams for the last week.

This Zack who's standing in front of him now, the Zack who'd first stepped over the threshold into Cloud's life in Nibelheim when he was five, the Zack who never ages and looks precisely as he had almost twenty years back, the Zack with the scarf – Cloud hasn't seen him since his own bleary haze of confusion in Mideel, half-awake and only just the tint and shade of human again, a broken soldier spliced back together. This Zack's only worked his presence through Cloud's most unsteady moments, when no one else had really been around. When he'd needed just a little more than his mother or Tifa. When it wasn't possible for the younger-looking Zack to have been there. When he'd needed him.

The thought's enough for a wiry ache to climb the walls of Cloud's chest. He'd surely had more time to make a close, familiar friend in the younger-looking Zack, but then there's also this Zack, the older-looking Zack, filling in all the gaps. Cloud still harbors that astronomical gut feeling that they're somehow the same person, though – the same Zack Fair who'll always be carved into him, into his past, into his future, into his being.

'… Do you wanna talk about it?' Zack cuts across Cloud's thoughts; a coincidental proof of that untiring presence, whether he knows it or not.

Cloud shakes his head at that, slips of gold hair drifting light and messy against his cheekbones. 'Thanks, but I'm alright. I'm not exactly sure what the dream was really about, anyway. It's fine. Honestly, I feel a bit better already just from having you around.'

No matter which variation of Zack is in question, he really has been there for Cloud in every possible way.

Zack's mouth curves to an answering smile, eyes fully fixed on Cloud like he's all that fills his outline of vision; and – simply like that, one minute to the next, a sequence as plain as one breath following another – Cloud thinks how easy it can surely be to fall in love with Zack, thinks he may just kind of love Zack right in this moment, thinks of the familiarity of that sensation in so many other moments that came before.

That unexpected reflection stuns him like a kick into common sense.

Although it's no sudden thing, really. It's purely a matter of it being clear now that it's in crystalline focus – the sum of emotions and feelings that have been there for far too long, swimming beneath his skin, largely unseen. Zack's here with him, as though he's a choice that Cloud's allowed to make after years of walking paths built from unfortunate choices made around him; and his lungs are clenching, his belly burning, his quiet breath stumbling.

It still holds him tight, this friendship that's cradled his heart in tender hands for years, this friendship that's built itself into more than just friendship for him now. A clear, sharp yearning that he's unwittingly kept pressed down, but still flares warm and intense and frightening. Maybe, he thinks, it's always been coming to this. To recognizing all the things he wants, to creating space for something resembling happiness in his life: something that he doesn't particularly understand yet, something that chance and opportunity and war's never really permitted him before.

And then the second portion of his dream comes back to memory. The twisting body at Zack's gravesite, a firm silhouette coiled in pain, tight and tense and gasping. He can only guess its true meaning and purpose, in a mad theory that leaves his pulse drumming up a storm – because it can't be possible for the dead to rise, since not even Phoenix Downs hold the magic to such miracles; but his entire life's been a long stretch of stamping down impossibilities – all things considered, the younger version of Zack had indeed died, and the older-looking Zack's standing here like some shape of a living prophecy. Like an unmistakable announcement of resurrection being very possible and very real.

Cloud doesn't know what to think anymore, but it's enough to spur him into urgent action; he promptly sweeps the blanket off his lap and heaves himself to his feet, taut muscles shuddering loose.

'Going to my grave?' says Zack, heavy-lidded eyes trailing Cloud close.

The words are cool and level, the even tone iron-sure, like it's a casual conversation about the weather. Cloud's blood nearly chills at the quality and rhythm of it.


Zack's gaze softens at the corners then, pearls of low light gleaming in the whites of his eyes. 'It's up to you. If you do go, you'll find me there, and I'll appreciate you having my back.' He rocks once on the angle of his heels – a whisper of something like hope and hesitancy. 'But if you decide not to go, I guess you're not really changing much. You'd be the first person I'd look for anyway, once I got back on my feet again.'

Changing much: out of nowhere, Cloud wonders if Zack's talking about the course of events. If he means history.

And then, he has a dim recollection of sitting in a burger joint in Midgar, of a nonsensical exchange bubbling to life alongside cold milkshakes, and his backbone sets like ice when he realizes.

Though it's not completely logical. Because that asinine conversation he and Zack had had about having experienced the future doesn't fit into common math, and this is a suggestion of the possible reality of time travel, of all things. Yet Cloud's own hands have taken hold of Materia that can summon horrific beasts and transform people into frogs, that can birth vicious fire and call upon god-old sorceries. The sort of magic that comes with time travel isn't actually too far off, even though he's never undergone it himself; after all, two different variations of Zack have made some kind of home in his life, and he's never been able to imagine why he's intuitively sensed them as one single person. Until now.

All of it is too much for him to mull over at this point, but it's pressing him to keep moving. The dream doesn't feel like just a dream anymore, and besides everything, he's only had so many opportunities to watch over Zack when, conversely, Zack's always watched over him.

'I'm going,' he says, stern-jawed and resolute.

It must be wild impulse and momentum that pilots what comes after. Because Cloud's epiphany about his feelings is as fresh as an open wound, vulnerable and gaping; but he slowly steps in, close enough for tendrils of Zack's breath to trickle against the slope of his chin, close enough to slide coarse fingers across Zack's palm, down the line of Zack's thumb.

'… Zack,' Cloud starts, firm and quiet, swallowing over that throb, clamping down that pulsating beat against his ribs. 'I wanted – I need you to know, I—'

For a moment, he has a terrifying memory of being nine, of Tifa's flower-sweet apologetic smile, of her hand pulling away from his, of how terribly a broken heart had hurt; and that had only been a simple childhood attraction – this is far from simple, and he's far from being a child anymore. But the muscles of Zack's face release in thorough understanding, his round-eyed gaze sinking into gentleness, a subtle glow of waking at his skin.

'—Wait,' Zack says suddenly. Even though his eyes are low and tender, they're surprisingly flaring with something like thrill, and Cloud can't mistake that ghost of a hitch in Zack's breath for anything. Zack reaches over to coil the fingers of his free hand around Cloud's elbow, then, tight and hot and lingering. 'I don't mean to stop you. Cloud, this is – thank you. Believe me, I'm really happy that you wanted to tell me. But I need you to wait until you find me at the clifftop first, and … I don't know how much sense this is going to make, but you should tell that me.'

Every bit of it makes sense, actually, and Cloud almost wants to laugh as he never laughs, short and sharp and biting. But he doesn't – instead, he nods thickly in agreement. He still can't really wrap his head around it; it's an insane theory, despite all the evidence. 'Okay. I will.'

With that, both their hands start to withdraw and fall away, slightly lingering and aware, and they each take half a step back; a good thing, Cloud thinks, with a long and weighty exhale of breath. Any longer, and he might've had difficulty letting go.

It's easier to build more distance between them once they've parted. They both make their way out the front door, taking a step into the dark veil of twilight; the chill's always most piercing when the last sliver of the night's running its course, and Cloud knows then that sunrise isn't far away. He makes quick work of climbing upon Fenrir while Zack watches with undisguised interest, plain affection creasing the corners of his eyes.

'What about you,' says Cloud, peering back from beneath his lashes, and his chest feels warm even in the rough-hewn cold. 'What are you gonna do?'

Zack's lips curl askew in thought, his soft gaze an open sky.

'… Go home, I suppose. I mean for real. It's probably time.' A little chuckle, tinkling sedately like wind chimes, and just as sweet. 'Guess this is goodbye, at least for now. See you soon, Cloud.'

The tune of finality in it isn't for forever, Cloud knows, and he nods again, gratitude hard-set in his belly. And then, with a mild half-wave and one last good, long look at Zack – taking all of him in, striking white scarf and charming slanted grin and all – he revs up his bike, and moves off at last.

To his surprise, someone's already there when he reaches the gravesite: the Turk with the copper hair, whom he's seen a few times but doesn't particularly know well. She's all sealed away in a full-bodied protective suit and helmet, autumn-red bangs pressed flat against her brow and a chunky black device held fast in both hands. Dawn light's now surfacing over the horizon, bleeding faint purples and pinks over the span of sky and painting watercolors across their bodies, and she looks up at Cloud with equal surprise during his approach; he hadn't thought anyone would be here, in the heart of the badlands, at this time.

'Cloud Strife,' is all she says, placid but wide-eyed.

Cloud smoothly dismounts his bike, leveling her with a metal-cool stare. 'What are you doing here,' he answers brusquely, skimming over her greeting.

'Taking some readings for the big boss. There's been weird little spikes of Mako radiation levels coming from here, even though you can't see anything.' The Turk purses her mouth in thoughtful rumination, at first. Then, in clear response to Cloud's crumpled brow, she adds in a calm voice: 'Hey. He's trying his best to do right, you know – to pay back the Planet what he owes it. Why else would he have gone straight to you, back when the Geostigma fiasco came up? Sure, he's proud and pretty self-confident, but he isn't his father. It's why he still has people keeping track of these things, too.'

'I'm not here to discuss Rufus Shinra,' says Cloud flatly, patience already on the cusp of thinning. 'What have you found?'

'There were readings collected from here that haven't made sense over the last week. Levels peaking and dwindling, as I'd already said. Big boss wanted a Turk to confirm, and I was sent out,' the Turk replies, absentmindedly pushing out a hip and settling her hand on it, fingers wrapping over the graceful curve. 'Seems like those readings were accurate; there is something going on here. Not that it'll affect you too much personally, since you've had past exposure and it's not like you're swimming in liquid Mako or anything. But what about you, what are you doing out here?'

Cloud's teeth have barely parted to give a response when there's a loud thump of something landing on the dirt between them, and a quick, brisk wash of displaced air, and the Turk's let out a clipped shriek of unbridled shock.

Because one second their feet are standing at the rims of an empty grave, and the next, Zack's there, wearing the same SOLDIER First Class uniform as the day he'd died, like he's been reborn from air and earth and nothing else. Lying within the sprinkling of yellow flowers, coiling his body from the pain of the impact, gasping shallow breaths. Something's gripped bone-taut in his fingers – a vibrant green sphere, almost Mako-vivid, maybe a Materia; Cloud doesn't know. He's barely even registered what's just happened, limbs frozen to a halt, eyes circled out large and transfixed.

The Turk makes a quicker recovery despite her initial outburst; she plummets to her knees at Zack's side, folding herself over him at once, thickly gloved hand grasping feverishly at his shoulder.

'Zack,' she murmurs, her voice rigid and raw and quivering. 'You're … how is this possible?'

'… Cissnei?' Zack rasps out breathlessly as his gaze flicks up to her, eyes squinted into slits and watering at the edges. 'What happened, where—'

This time, it's no dream. Cloud gives in, allows that weakening tension in his legs to pull him down, too, all the way down. He sinks to one knee on Zack's other side, fingers reaching out, fumbling with disbelief against the column of Zack's wrist.

Zack's skin is warm, stirring, alive. His head rolls sideways, limp and solid and heavy, and he pins a focused stare on Cloud with no small amount of astonishment.

'… Cloud.' His whisper's coarse, his jawline slack.

Their history isn't cloaked in mist, nowadays. Cloud remembers Zack's death, each detail crisp as daylight, all the clearer after having let it slip from his memories for far too long. Rainfall and heady petrichor, deep red smearing the earth and a sword handed over beneath a dying wish, beneath a final breath. Cloud had told him good night before he'd left him and gone.

'Yeah, it's me. I'm here,' he answers tightly.

Good morning, he almost says. Zack.

The stifling awkwardness hanging from all their shoulders starts with Tifa's silent, bitten-down displeasure at the overwhelming odor of Shinra in her home, for which Cloud can hardly blame her: Tseng, Cissnei, and a physician – one of Rufus' personal medical scientists – at one side of the guest bed whereupon Zack's seated up and tucked in, with Tifa and Cloud standing firm on the other side. The physician's bent forward, fussing over his new patient with an unexpected dose of courtesy and attention, but it does nothing to sway Cloud's stance on wanting him and the Turks out and away; he feels every bit of that tautness around Tifa's eyes on his own face, and that stern set of her chin, and that tension of her bottom lip.

'… I honestly don't know what to say. He seems physically fine, and in good health. But I wouldn't take any risks, because obviously I've never had a case like this. It's not every day that someone comes back from the dead.' The physician's noticeably overwhelmed, all wide eyes and a too-open mouth, his blunt and frank gaze trained on Tseng as he straightens fully upright. 'I'd suggest that he avoid any strenuous activity for a few weeks, and perhaps try bed rest for the next day or two. After that, we can see how he's holding up.'

'Bed rest,' Zack repeats in a breathy undertone, notes of complaint spilling over the margins of his voice at the idea.

It's left ignored by everyone, however. 'Thank you. If you'd like to meet Elena outside, she can escort you back to base,' says Tseng with a straightforward air of purpose, his usual picture of professionalism from corner to corner, impeccable and glass-cool. 'Please have a medical report written up and delivered to the boss by tonight. He'd like to see it, even if there isn't much to report.'

The physician gives an acquiescent nod, clamping a metal clipboard of untidily scrawled notes beneath his arm; with that, he scoops up his equipment bag by the handles, and takes his leave at once.

Quiet falls over the room until the opening and closing of the front door thuds distantly, and at that point, Cloud doesn't even hesitate to let loose. 'And what exactly would Rufus want with an account of Zack's condition?'

'There's no cause for concern. We're only hoping to examine him as a matter of taking safety measures, because we have no understanding of how this is possible.' Maybe it's Cloud's imagination, but despite the too-professional rigidity in the statement, Tseng's eyes and voice do soften a touch at the roots; Cloud's reminded, then, of their mission to Modeoheim, and having borne witness to Zack's easy camaraderie with Tseng at that time – the two of them had clearly harbored some kind of vague friendship, or something close to one. 'To ensure that there's no lasting effect on the Planet, for one. And to take precautions against the wrong people coming back, if it were to occur.'

It's an astounding miracle of coincidence that the iridescent chime of Cissnei's PHS device suddenly slices through the room from where it's nested in her fingers - because she flicks it open to exactly the kind of message that Cloud wants to hear. The timing can't have been more stellar.

'It's Rude,' Cissnei sighs in certain relief, head tipping at a subtle angle towards Tseng. 'He's at the clifftop now. He says the radiation levels are gone. Like they were never even there.'

'No lasting effect on the Planet, then,' Tifa throws in flatly, all satisfaction and no nonsense. 'Zack was coming back, and traces of the Lifestream started building up close to the surface. Now he's here, and it goes away. Sort of makes sense, don't you think?'

'And Sephiroth is not coming back. Not again. I've made sure of it, and I'll keep making sure of it.' Cloud's tired, tired enough for it to seep into his bones and bleed from his voice, tired of having his life chipped at and parts taken away piece by piece, tired of all the world's problems being unceremoniously dumped at his doorstep. 'Zack, how keen are you on being kept under a microscope again?'

Zack shifts in the bed, jaw stiff and shoulders clenched in unmistakable discomfort at the very idea. 'Well, when you put it that way, not very.'

'There you go. If Zack's health deteriorates in any way, and if he agrees to it, then I may possibly take him to see you or Rufus' medical scientists – but as it stands right now, you don't have his full consent. You are not studying him, and this is not a negotiation,' Cloud announces cleanly, stone-hard and calm. 'We spent four years being objects of study, an episode that ended in Zack being gunned down and left to die. He's not your lab experiment. For whatever reason, he's got his life back. He deserves to live it however he chooses.'

Zack's gaze on him is drenched with awe and gratitude, an indisputable message of identical thought, and Cloud wonders if he'll ever get used to this uncommon weightlessness. This permission to be selfish by doing what he and his loved ones want, rather than what's expected of him, for once.

'… I'll run this by the boss.' Tseng edges a hand into his pocket, and extracts his PHS; the movement's somewhat controlled, a halfway point between readiness and caution.

'You do that,' answers Cloud dimly, plain and curt. 'Tifa. A word, please.'

The gathering in the room scatters, then, leaving Zack on his own; Tseng and Cissnei are striding into new positions outside the open bedroom door when Cloud passes them with indifference, Tifa trailing at his heels in agreeable quietude. It's only when the two of them are nestled well into the bathroom up at the crown of the hallway and are sure they're thoroughly alone that Cloud sets his focus on Tifa, appreciative and soft.

'Thank you,' he states, forthright and simple and sincere. 'I know how you feel about SOLDIERs, and Shinra in general, after everything. I know what this must be like for you. It's—'

'—Stop right there,' Tifa cuts in, confidence in her quickly raised palm. 'Cloud, I haven't forgotten what you told me he did. That he kept an eye on you for four years, and nursed you for nearly another one. Plus the fact that he died to save you. I may not have been particularly friendly with him the last time we met, but I'm not going to turn him away from our home now. He's more than welcome here. I mean it.'

It's unsurpassably generous, far more than Tifa's obligated to give; a breed of kindness that's very much her, through and through. Cloud raises both eyebrows in answer, keeping his silence.

'I know that I was really angry at him back at our hometown, and I know I said things to him that I maybe shouldn't have. At that time, I'd just lost my dad. I had no idea how to cope, and needed someone to blame – Zack was conveniently right there.' Pale teeth dig briefly into the corner of her bottom lip, stark against the pink like an exposed vulnerability. 'I've been thinking about it, and honestly, the last few years have kind of taught me the difference between him and Sephiroth. I know which one of them burned down the town, and which one tried to help the people in it. Besides, Zack's not a SOLDIER working under Shinra anymore, and I know what he means to you.'

The last part strips Cloud open without delay, a solid reality peeling back the layers of his skin. His head dips low, a slow fall; his eyelids press closed for a moment too long.

Tifa's wordless for some length of time, but then sucks in a crisp breath. 'Wow. Okay. Correction: I knew he meant a lot to you, but I didn't realize it ran quite that deep. Were you two—?'

'No.' The answer tumbles out quickly, as short and precise as the small sting of a needle, and he moves his gaze to meet hers again. 'We met in the middle of a war, and then he died. There was never any chance – for anything.'

The look that Tifa casts his way doesn't hold any aching condolences. In fact, it's pointed and brilliantly aware, and Cloud understands: this is proof that he's alive, that he still feels, that he's human. His chest heaves with a building ripple of appreciation, then, and he's never been so absurdly grateful of the fact that she hadn't looked upon him in the same way he'd looked at her when he was nine, that his boyhood attraction for her had also gracefully faded into the dust of passing time, that it'd been exchanged for the kind of love that forms an extraordinarily vast portion of the fabric of his life – the kind of love that she does return with all her heart; the unconditional bond of a real family.

'Well,' Tifa says, voice brightening like daybreak and a little smile painting the corners of her mouth, 'he's back alive now, right? He hasn't even been under this roof for three hours and you're already looking better than you have in a while. I can actually see more color in your skin.' And Cloud has to wonder, at that point, if it'd been so obvious that he'd accepted a basic existence of walking from day to day without voicing a buried want for more. That Tifa and Barret and all the others have poured more happiness into his life than he's ever previously known, but that the loss of Zack had cut a hole in a completely separate part of him – that Zack occupies a separate part of him. 'Come on, I know how much you love the rest of us, but I get it now, that he's a bit different. I'm glad. Because hey, it's about time you got the chance to be as happy as you want to be.'

'… Honestly, Tifa,' he murmurs bluntly, cool and indignant, but every muscle in him rests relievingly loose. He's surprised at how free and uncomplicated this is, wielding delicate truths so openly in discussion as if it's always been second nature to him. 'He just came back from the dead. I haven't even talked to him about any of this yet, and here you are already singing cheesy love songs on our behalf.'

'What can I say, I'm a romantic at heart.' An unfurling white-toothed grin, sweet and crinkled and terrible. 'When he's all better, you better go get him, tiger.'

He's armed with enough protest to give her more than just a pained groan and a squint of eyes, but a rising volume of approaching footfalls reins him in; and sure enough, Tseng and Cissnei are at the open doorway to the bathroom in next to no time, curious anticipation written into their faces.

'The boss agrees to your terms. He says he respects that Zack's a good friend of yours, and he'll be willing to let the matter go,' says Tseng sensibly, straight-faced but ripe with meaning, and it takes Cloud by surprise – he'd expected Rufus to make an uncompromising push, to put up more of a fight. Then again, perhaps credit's due where it's deserved, as much as Cloud doesn't want to admit it; this is the same mold of simple humility that'd propelled Rufus to turn to Cloud for help back during the Geostigma crisis, after all. 'However, he requests that you and Zack be willing to reconsider having research undertaken, in the event that any relevant threat to the Planet or its populace arises. And on a personal level … I'd like to ask that you please keep a close eye on him, and inform me immediately if his condition changes. I'm not asking as a Shinra Turk – but as someone who was also something of a friend, where Zack's concerned.'

Concrete proof that a streak of hope's embedded in the heartbeat of the world, even after everything, and that's enough for Cloud. In the end, he does know that the two Turks standing here are the ones who'd been closest to Zack, who'd made some kind of difference for him, who'd readily fit themselves into the brittle thread of Zack's lifetime to help weave strength into it.

Cloud puts in a straightforward nod of agreement, and leaves it at that.

'I'd love to be kept in the loop too, if you wouldn't mind,' says Cissnei with good cheer, kindling a grin like warm cinnamon spice. 'Tell Zack to get in touch with me, please? We've got years to catch up on. But we'll give you guys some space and leave you to it for now. We can show ourselves out.'

They take their departure with no degree of fuss, and all that's left behind them is calm.

After some time, Tifa turns to look over at Cloud; there's no mistaking that she's very much at ease, ink-dark pupils glimmering with drops of light.

'I think I'll go start on lunch,' she chirps merrily, and a lithe hand slips briefly into Cloud's, transferring a mild squeeze over. 'Don't worry about it being your turn today – leave dinner to me, too. You can cook tomorrow. You've earned yourself a break with all this, I think. Go talk to him, I'm sure he's waiting for you in there.'

He and Zack are offered limitless allowances for shared moments now, Cloud realizes with silent awe – even the concept of it had been outrageously unthinkable as little as half a day before. He gives Tifa a mellow squeeze in return, more than just a little thankful, and proceeds to amble back to the bedroom, readiness squaring his shoulders.

Zack's smiling upon his re-entry, the lush yellow of the late morning sun slicing through near-pearlescent window glass and staining them both with a honeyed glow. Cloud lowers himself, sinking carefully onto the bed, thigh pressing into Zack's bent knee with content as they sit face-to-face; it's barely even a mild touch, and yet the body heat that coils between them is already a stable comfort, live and in motion like the ticking seconds of a clock, like the unbroken string of time that's been slowed between them until now.

Time's a strange thing. Cloud has no real understanding of its idiosyncrasies, its fluctuations, its simultaneous worldly and otherworldly state of being; but he knows Zack, and it comes to his attention rather suddenly that Zack looks his age right now. This is undoubtedly the younger version of Zack – a perfectly characteristic blueprint of whirlwind energy and brimming tension, a restless leg swaying to life under the blanket, high-strung muscles threatening to launch him from the bed and into spirited animation – it's a subtly different air in comparison to the older version of Zack, the Zack with the scarf, who hadn't seemed to contain that much agitation in him, as though he'd grown used to living a life away from the edges of war and battle.

But the physical features of this Zack look just like those of the older version of Zack now, a striking man whose face is presented in the correct age of his late twenties, appearing exactly as he would nowadays if he'd kept on living and never died. An additional gift from the Lifestream, Cloud supposes idly, to have Zack continue his life normally, to have everything as it would've been.

'You can ask me,' says Zack with casual interest, rolling over the silence. 'Whatever it is you're thinking. I swear I feel fine. I'm up for it.'

'… Yeah, okay. If you're sure,' Cloud replies at length, sincere in his appreciation; too many questions have left him groping in the dark, trying to grasp their current circumstances. 'What's the last thing you remember?'

'Well, I do remember dying. I remember Angeal coming to collect me, and then I fell asleep for a long time. When I'd first passed over there, I'd noticed that the Lifestream's more or less cut off from everything here, so it's not like I could ever check out what you were doing even if I were awake. But I remember you fighting against Sephiroth, and you called me, and I actually heard it,' Zack answers in pensive recollection, a thoughtful tilt to his mouth. 'Not – calling out to me with words or anything. But from here. You thought of me, and I woke up, and I was able to come to you.'

Callused knuckles rake over a broad chest in specific indication, and Cloud almost hears the thrum of steadfast heartbeats there, true and certain. Alive.

'You and I talked. Afterwards, we said goodbye at the church,' Zack drives on, and it burns a stinging heat into Cloud's lungs, this undeniable confirmation that the two encounters they'd had during the Geostigma calamity had been no hallucination – they'd felt so real because they had been. 'I did fall asleep again for a while, but then you dreamed of me, and I woke up again. I felt you missing me; I missed you too. A lot, to be honest. Then suddenly Aerith was telling me that she could give me another chance at everything … I was just thinking about how that actually didn't have a bad ring to it, and the next thing I knew, I was falling onto my own grave, and you and Cissnei were bent over me. It felt like falling off a building. Hurt like hell at first. I'm okay now, though.'

It checks out: one week of dreams about Zack at the gravesite, and one week of spiking radiation levels in parallel – a ringing siren for Zack's return, which absolutely makes perfect sense. Cloud knows he'll never wholly comprehend the fullest scope of Aerith's powers, or precisely how they work, or the cosmic miracles that the Ancients can perform. All he cares for is that she's shown herself to be generous and selfless and kind yet again, for the nth time, and that she must've carried this out for better reasons than he can possibly come up with.

'But you did have the inclination to come back, right. As in, she didn't send you here against your will,' Cloud murmurs collectedly, in continuation of that insight. 'Do you regret being sent back?'

'No regrets at all. I felt interested, for sure,' says Zack without pause, the answer unshakable and immediate, and Cloud's distantly impressed by the blinding speed at which the declaration's tossed out. 'I felt liberated when I died, 'cause I was tired, you know? Fighting every day kinda does that to you; no surprises there. Let's be real, this is a different time. I know that things have changed since I've been gone. And seriously, Aerith's as good as they come – I know she just wants me to have a shot at the future that got robbed from me, and I'm okay with trying again, if this is the world I'm coming back to. I mean, no wars, no more suffering. So yeah, it is my choice. I'm still making it now.'

The gravity of that decision is a rising tide, tremendous and somehow overwhelming, and Cloud finds himself slipping underwater, breathless. Wavering eyes flick away, all shreds of wayward emotion pressed in behind shut teeth; his gaze drifts aside, strays to nowhere in mind, and unexpectedly catches a circle of lustrous green at the bedside table. The Materia.

'That was in your hand when you came back,' Cloud recalls attentively, wonder tugging pursed lips open wider. 'What is it?'

'Ah – don't you worry about that,' answers Zack quickly, startling and efficient, and he reaches over to slip the sphere into the drawer underneath with no wisp of hesitation. 'I'm guessing it's a bonus I was sent back with, courtesy of Aerith. Obviously I haven't used it at all, but I know what it is by touch. A bit of Lifestream energy, not really something worth losing sleep over.'

A curious reply, but Zack doesn't elaborate; and Cloud doesn't push.

'Okay,' he nods acceptingly, and the matter's let go and set free, spilling away through the gaps between his fingers. 'Should we go to the night markets after dinner and try to find you some new clothes? If you're feeling up to a little break from your prescribed bed rest, that is. There's a vendor there that sells some decent sweet bread, too. I'd like to take you there.'

'That sounds awesome. And hey, bed rest was only suggested. I actually feel great, got enough energy to do a thousand squats right here.' Zack's eyes come alight with sudden fire, charged and delighted and genuine. '… Thanks, Cloud. For doing all this for me when you don't have to, I mean. You really are a light in the dark, buddy.'

Cloud's swept back to a moment in time; a memory of shared milkshakes in a downtown burger joint, of cozy laughter and festive conversation, of a single stray thought of being a light to Zack, one day. The slow pulse at his throat beats deeper, and blunt fingernails dig into his palm before he even registers it.

'Y'know, you feel different, now. Tough and tall and sure of yourself,' Zack stretches on, admiration glistening like crystal in his voice, and just like that, Cloud's back to being sixteen all over again – being that hopeful kid with wide, star-kissed eyes, whose belly and collarbones had blazed warm at every morsel of sincere praise, particularly when they'd sprung from the heart of a SOLDIER as brave and shining as Zack Fair. 'Makes me realize that I sure missed a lot while I was sleeping six feet under. You wanna fill me in on everything?'

The miniscule smile that Cloud can feel gradually unrolling at his own mouth tastes sweet.

'… I took your sword and left the clifftop. I wandered around for a while,' he starts with fully fledged ease, 'until I ran into Tifa at Sector Seven.'

It's easy to tell, where Zack's concerned. Because he's earnest and simple, made of an open heart and a free-flowing mouth and a face that unlocks emotions in straightforward primary colors: every glow of joy, every stretch of surprise, every crinkle of curiosity. A man of translucent layers, whose unsaid stories leak out through his surface skin, whose glimmering smiles can't always conceal the arduous efforts simmering underneath. So Cloud can see that Zack hasn't come back from the dead completely unscratched by his history.

Something that happens to even the best of warriors, he knows. That the subtle scars of a long-past war aren't really etched onto that deep-set cross on Zack's cheek, but buried in the marrow of Zack's bones, in the blood of Zack's veins. That the hidden wounds from those bygone days can maybe be smoothed over by death, but can stay gaping in life. And Zack is now very much alive, all over again.

'I'm good, I promise,' Zack says for the hundredth time, and grins for the hundredth time, and Cloud hopes for the hundredth time that it'll be true, that Zack can gradually adjust to walking the plane of the living again.

Determination's worth more than its weight in gold, at least, and Zack's clearly striving with every thread of willpower in his body – to keep his feet moving, to keep his world turning, to insist on staying busy; an echo of that fleeting conversation exchanged on the way to Nibelheim, an age ago – and Cloud thinks that that has to count for something.

'… What do you think you're doing,' says Tifa as she darts over, voice stern and steely. 'The doctor was very specific about you not doing anything strenuous for a few weeks.'

'Relax, this is barely strenuous at all. I feel perfectly fine. I've got this.' A lukewarm flap of his hand to wave her off, and Zack continues to stride in all devil-may-care, a wooden box poised and rattling on the firm ridge of each shoulder. 'This is a cinch. See? You need your booze to be brought in, I need something to do, it works out. I can help with all the heavy lifting.'

'Absolutely not,' Tifa argues with strict finality and with no room for disagreement left behind; she reaches up to collect each box as he makes to plant them onto the bar counter, and resolutely sets them down herself. 'Cloud, can you get the rest of the liquor in for me, please? Before Zack can get to them and hurt himself.'

Cloud's sharp enough to already be ahead, to be well out the front door by the time she's finished her statement, but with still ample time to snare a glimpse of Zack clapping a melodramatic palm over his heart like her words are an awful injury. Cloud's never grown tired of it – getting to see that handsomely sincere crooked smile that pushes up against Zack's cheekbones, that cheeky glow in the film of his eyes that could light up a city.

Even in humor and silliness, he manages to be terribly stunning.

'Zack should come play with us for our next game.' Marlene's spread idly across the floor, Denzel and Shelke's bodies sketching out a triangle with her where they're lazily seated, numerous scattered pieces of a board game sprawling in the cavity formed between them. 'We've nearly finished! I'm winning.'

Her invitation's rewarded with worthwhile gusto; Zack beams vividly at her, lively and upbeat. 'Atta girl. You show 'em! And hey, for sure! I'd love to join in.'

'You and the kids can't just play games nonstop for the next few weeks, though,' says Tifa in a tone of pointed principle, straightforward but not at all unfriendly. Her gaze skims over to Cloud momentarily as he hauls in the next pair of boxes with nonchalance, and then flits back to Zack anew, soft lips pursing as she gestures to one of the nearby barstools. 'Come on, sit. I have an idea of what we can do while you wait for Shelke and the kids to finish their round.'

With that, she's off and gone, sailing up the stairs to the main portion of their housing, and comfort settles like fallen petals in the remaining space. This bar is raucous in the nighttime, teeming with harsh laughter and rowdy chatter and low lamplights in the thrilling dark; but it's presently morning, and sunlight spills through the now-aging windows an iridescent gold, pouring across the equally time-worn walls with as much delicate harmony as the everyday sounds they contain and hold. Like Shelke and the children rambling amongst themselves, their little movements scraping. Like the pads of Zack's spirited fingers drumming with impulse atop the bar counter. Like the rubber soles of Cloud's combat boots shuffling against sleek tiles, back and forth, back and forth, while he carts in one box after another.

The nape of Cloud's neck is burning when he's done, the cause of which he quickly learns when he looks up to see Zack's eyes locked on him, flecks of silent fondness dusted across every angle of his face. It's contagious, and Cloud finds his own chest swelling with something like devotion, too. 'What?'

Zack's smile blooms wide at that, and while it's completely genuine without a doubt, it's also somewhat solemn; a tender mixture that's one part happy contentment and one part serious consideration. 'Nothing. Just feeling grateful for—' he examines everything around him with casual awe, then, indicating their surroundings with splayed fingers, '—all of this. For being given a second chance. For having a roof over my head and being able to taste good food again and … even being able to go outside and feel the sun on my face, you know? And for you, too. Being able to look at you again. It feels kinda surreal, being right here with you.'

It squeezes Cloud's lungs to a dim ache, slots a dangerous key well into his heart. This is the way Zack's always been, really, breezy and earnest and more radiant than nearly anything else Cloud's known. True, humble gratitude made only sweeter by life lessons and the many built-up layers of hardships from over the years, though Zack's always been the type to be openly appreciative of everything around him, nonetheless.

Gladness and relief echoes in the way Zack's just described their reunion – moving poetry expressed in the simplest words; no matter how typically characteristic it may be for Zack, Cloud still finds it incredible. That Zack spares him this kind of thought, that Zack finds this much elation just from being able to look at him again.

And he has to wonder if Zack's aware of how seriously reciprocated that feeling is, such that it's starting to unravel the very fibers holding Cloud's entirety together; he sets a palm flat on the bar countertop, then, leaning his weight into it to sustain what steadiness he has.

'There was a time when I got myself to accept that I'd never see you again,' Cloud murmurs, voice coming out as roughened as both their histories, raw and altogether jarring. 'I had no picture of you at all – just my memory of you, once I'd gotten it back. But for quite a while, I thought I was never going to be able to look at you again, either.' For some time, he'd carried the cold dread of a possible future without the ability to remember any fraction of Zack's face, down to the placid kindness of his eyes and the bright curve of his mouth; chilling trepidation had come with the thought of forgetting the timbre of Zack's voice, its richly lilting nuances, its uniquely vivid tones. 'I came to terms with it. But now you're here, and it's just … I'm glad. It's good that I won't be forgetting you again, in any way.'

Zack's never forgotten him, and never abandoned him. Not when they were taken and held captive; not when they were on the run; and not despite death. Even now, he's still managed to tear through the most impossible odds and come back. He's chosen to stay at Cloud's side as he always has.

The wayward urge that's prickling all the way down Cloud's spine is maybe bolder than he's ever expected from himself – that novel impulse to step closer and learn what touch can really be like between them, to map callused fingers over battle-coarse skin and read the story of each scar, to murmur appreciation and sentiment and nonsense into Zack's jawline. And it's a marvel to realize, the longer he stares carelessly and the longer Zack keenly stares back, that some degree of that craving may well be mutual.

Because Zack then lifts his hand and slowly slides it over Cloud's on the bar countertop, and it's warm and perfect and right, a smolder of belonging and gentle pieces fitting together and everything in between.

There's a visible tightness in the sturdy contour of Zack's chest, like a sliver of his breath's caught and suspended there, like Cloud's managed to bear down gravity and impact on him. It's honestly remarkable.

'I'm not going anywhere,' Zack gives a wet grin, heat and distinct adoration licking like a flame in his voice. 'And you know what? You've got a point about the photo. Huh, can't believe that in all those years we never took a photo together. We should ask Tifa to snap one of us later.'

Cloud can only answer with a budding smile, awakened and sincere. 'Sounds like a plan.'

It's then that Tifa glides back down the stairs, one light-footed step at a time, and Cloud can already quite easily make out the tangle of items gripped within her fingers: a dark iron-grey ball of yarn and an enormous pair of near-lethal plastic needles. Zack laughs next to him, the sound hearty and sparkling and merry.

'Knitting? That's something I've never tried before.'

'And you should. I taught myself for stress relief, and it's actually really therapeutic. It'll give your mind something to think about, and your hands something to do,' she says meaningfully, the words resonant with knowledge and insistence. And then, with a careful flick of her gaze down at Zack and Cloud's joined hands, she pulls a thumb sideways to point at Cloud in indication, and goes on: 'Come on, I challenge you to make yourself a sweater. When you're done, you can make this guy here a sweater as well, and give it to him as a present. I have some bright yellow yarn lying around somewhere too. Goodness knows he could use something with color in his wardrobe.'

'You're not making me a bright yellow sweater,' Cloud cuts in with an even voice, suitably unimpressed; he gives a single drag and stroke of his knuckles against Zack's palm, and with that, he and Zack part at last, their hands breaking contact and slipping away.

The faint crinkle of Zack's brow at the separation resembles mellow disappointment; Cloud very much shares that sentiment, and he's all the warmer for it. He only realizes that they've probably been gazing at each other for a little too long when the small reverie's fractured by some kind of amused noise from Tifa – a cleared throat that's blurred together with what rings like a half-laugh.

'You were bold enough to put yourself all the way out there by dressing up as a girl in a district full of sleazy guys. After that, I'm sure wearing a bright yellow sweater will be a piece of cake,' she says – and then fastens a look on him that's far too quick-witted and knowing. 'You wouldn't turn down anything that Zack's made just for you, right? If he does it, you know he's gonna put all of his heart into it.'

'Damn straight.' Zack's agreeable smirk is lopsided and insufferably charming, and he rounds his full attention on Tifa as she settles herself with content on the barstool at his other side. 'Besides, as if I could ever turn down a challenge. Care to teach me?'

In the end, it takes Zack the better part of two weeks; the chocobo-yellow sweater that stems from it is the ugliest thing that Cloud's ever laid eyes on in his life.

And, of course, Tifa's sharply aware and able to notice with little effort that Cloud wears it more or less every night to bed anyway. 'Goodness, look at you. You're so gone for him,' she says good-naturedly one evening, as they're on their way to their rooms to retire. 'When are you gonna tell him? I mean, you know … from what I've seen, I think he may possibly like you back.'

Curiously enough, Cloud now has reason to think there's a chance that that may be true, too.

Either way, the tiniest seedling of hope costs him nothing.

The move that comes three months later is a mutual choice that Zack instantly shoulders without hesitancy, and that Cloud decides upon just as quickly, too. Cloud knows full well that anyone who's ever been grazed by the fingertips of war will carry its shadow inside them forever – but that particular roads taken will at least lessen the burden; and the moment he sees the dark outline beneath Zack's eyes start to ease away with this new step in their life, he knows with certainty that it's a stride in the right direction.

Zack's evident restlessness about imposing in a crowded little house for too long is even more reason to move, right along with the necessity for Cloud to acquire more space to operate his growing delivery business from than his room above the bar. And so they get themselves a modest two-level building close by – complete in its sizeable loft on the upper floor for living in, and the decent office space below it at street level – using only a scrap of the absurd amount of gil that Cloud had cashed in and saved from a sold Mastered All a few years before.

'You can't just go ahead and pay for the entire place,' Zack had first argued, all stubborn persistence and virtuous honor. 'I'd be freeloading.'

'And you can't pay for half of it, because there's no way you'd have saved up enough from helping Tifa out at the bar. I have the gil, and literally nothing to spend it on,' Cloud had dryly pointed out in return, with scarcely any need for fire or fight. 'It's honestly no big deal to me. But if you're so worried, why don't you come work for me, too? You can pitch in your share whenever you've pulled in enough. Even if that's fifty years down the line.'

An offer that Zack accepts readily, of course, because that's the way he is: his former standing of SOLDIER First Class and prominent commanding officer freely forgotten, finding contentment and no shame in accepting Cloud as a boss despite what their ranks had once been. Not that anything else has changed – general admiration is an unshifting presence in Cloud, still breathtakingly alive, still fiercely thriving where Zack's concerned.

So no further debate lingers past the settlement of their deed, and they're swiftly packed and gone. It's not much of a true departure, what with the new place falling within reach of the bar, a modest two blocks away; but it's still enough for Marlene to blubber wetly as she bids them goodbye, for Denzel and Shelke to enfold them a little tighter in their arms before they go, for more than sufficient pride to swim in the sheen of Tifa's eyes as she lays long, heavy-lipped kisses on both their cheeks. A new door pried open, a new stepping stone fashioned, a new foundation built. And there's no more they need to ask for.

'… I mean, boy, he really choked up. This is Kunsel. Never seen him like that before, you know?' Zack hums in half-absent thought, a sharp square of a blade pinched between deft fingers and slicing through the tape seal to yet another box. 'He said that he knew there was no way I could've died – he just had a feeling. I didn't have the heart to tell him; he was so happy to see me. And he wants me to come out again to have some drinks with him tonight after we're done unpacking here for today.'

'Come on, you literally just had breakfast with him two hours ago,' Cloud answers plainly, a faint wisp of amusement like cotton sugar in his mouth. He digs a trio of cups out of the freshly opened carton and moves to tuck them into the new wood-carved cabinet an arm's length away, trailing on: 'But I guess I can understand.'

Zack proceeds to store a mound of tea towels into a nearby cupboard, and without looking Cloud's way, he dishes out his customary shameless grin. 'Missed me that much, did you.'

For a moment, Cloud reins himself into silence.

'… Yeah,' he eventually replies, that familiar, once-thorny longing sitting thick and bulky on his tongue. 'More than you know.'

He doesn't mean for the sentiment to rumble as deeply as it does, but there it is, from the yawning dark. Something in it bleeds through, catching Zack in place; he turns to eye Cloud fully, attention suitably caught.

'You know … it's strange to look back and think about where we'd be now if things had happened differently,' Cloud says then; teeth burrow idly into the inside of his cheek. 'I mean, I'm fully aware that there's no point to doing that—' Ultimately, he knows well enough. That they are who they are because they've been forged by the events that they'd been written into, that Zack's passing had formed the vehicle for constructing the Cloud Strife of the present day – even if that loss had begotten ruin and damage, to the extent that Cloud's entire being had only been able to respond to Zack's death by becoming him. '—But it's something I can't help but wonder, I guess? Considering I was the one left standing. With all the years we'd have had, we might've been best friends earlier on. We might've been keen to spend plenty of that time together. We might've—'

He curbs himself suddenly, knowing where that thread of thought would've headed, knowing the outrageous disrespect that lay in suggesting Zack's possible feelings on the matter; but Zack seems to harbor no offence whatsoever, pale irises rounding out, curious but astonishingly aware.

More than three months of sitting in patience, staying at a sensible pace, and all it's taken is half of an offhand conversation for Cloud to unclench his fingers from that safety blanket and toss everything into the wind. The ground's starting to shift and move beneath him – beneath them – already; it tremors clearly up Cloud's bones and veins.

The firm plane of Zack's throat hardens, but not from any visible measure of discomfort. 'The lost time is a shame,' he starts, voice dripping with that recurring heat, dense and heady. 'But where we take it from here is what matters, huh.'

Cloud drinks him in – two gazes unwavering and held in meeting, blue-green to blue-green. 'Yeah. That's right.'

Like planets aligning themselves differently around him; like the world's encased in newfound colors; like rupturing through a cocoon shell into first light. Something's just turned different, right at this very moment, one minute to the next. Air coming alive between their bodies, charged and humming – there's no swerving back from here. Cloud steels himself at that point, locking his shoulders taut, tugging his spine straight.

'… That said,' he states evenly, sound and brazen, 'Whenever you're freed up and not off hanging out with Kunsel, you still owe me a bite to eat, from when you offered way back in Junon. Hope you're still planning to make good on that. Because I'd really like to go out with you sometime.'

A set of easygoing words, but Cloud knows his own serious intent for what it is. And Zack seems as though he may be aware, too. His stare on Cloud doesn't dislodge an inch.

'… Cloud. Just making sure,' Zack says after a pause, every syllable curved and carefully pronounced. 'I'm not misunderstanding you, right.'

It's somewhat peculiar, how much more composed Cloud feels than he's been expecting – what with all that he's voiced being a sincere, unshielded truth. On the whole, this may possibly be the most natural thing in the world.

'No. You're not,' he answers, collected and calm. '… Really, there's more than that that I—' and he has to put the brakes on that admission for just a moment, to get his thoughts and words in reasonable order. In the end, he settles for: '—What I said, that's only the surface of what I've actually been wanting.'

The hush that follows straight away seems almost ocean-vast, swallowing all the open space between the walls, magnifying the rise and fall of every quiet breath: a symphony of nothing else but Zack and Cloud, the surrounding world peeled back until there's only them. After a while, however, Zack lets off a subdued chuckle, and a slight quiver rocks through it – an unruly jumble of amazement, pleasure, awe; it's a rather unexpected reaction, and Cloud can only eyeball him in surprise.

'It just took one little moment,' Zack explains, crinkles etching themselves into the tips of his smile. 'One brief thought about how I missed you, and that was enough for Aerith to send me back. Well, I guess even she knew what I'd end up hoping for.'

It's a breaking dawn, a first inhale of air, astounding.

A subtle admittance of returned want; Cloud's pulse gains speed in that instant. They've been building up to this for so long, really, in cherished attachment and devoted patience, in stages of shared heartbreak, in sacrifice and death, in euphoria and life. It's starting to fully sink in that now, here, this conversation really is taking place.

And in doing what she's done, Aerith's essentially given them her blessing, too. An extraordinary consequence of her typical golden heart, unforeseen yet unsurprising. An unparalleled gift.

'Zack – I know she'd only want happiness for everyone,' Cloud starts slowly; and he already knows the answer deep down, but he simply needs to hear it said aloud either way – to have this floodgate open to an honest beginning, to deem it concrete that they'll always be on the same page, to leave everything between them unfiltered, stripped bare. 'And I respect that a long time ago, you two … I just mean, is this okay? Seeing as you guys used to—'

'Used to, for sure. But things change with time, and they sure as hell change with death.' Zack comes forward at that, moving in until they're face-to-face, and he takes time to curl firm fingers around each of Cloud's shoulders; a steady and anchoring grip, a mark of staunch conviction. 'I know it's not exactly what you're asking, but if she were standing here right now, alive and well, she's still not the one I'd be looking at, okay? Doesn't mean she's not important to me anymore – she always will be. It just means I'd rather make a different choice now. It's how things are.'

Cloud gets that: that life just goes that way sometimes. That fate doesn't dip its fingers into decisions brought about, because there's hardly such a thing as fate – only the choices that people make. And here Zack is. Choosing him.

He's seen faint hints and possible signs earlier on, and even in spite of that, this isn't any less amazing.

'… You've pretty much made yourself a place in me since the day we met, you know?' Zack goes on to murmur, warm thumbs pressing emotion into Cloud's skin. And Cloud feels it lighting up every nerve, trickling into every cell. 'I'd be glad to take whatever you'd give me, with whatever faults and flaws you might have, any and every part of you. I mean it. What you want – I want it too.'

Cloud's throat goes dry hearing the declaration.

It takes place rarely enough outside of the AVALANCHE crew that it stands unusual to him, to be freely chosen for something because he's simply Cloud, and for no reason other than that. To be wanted not because of any path that expectation or obligation's weaved for him. To be treasured not because he's been titled the people's hero, the Planet's savior.

He can wholly recognize, then, why hearing love stories of all shapes and sizes over the years has always unwittingly drifted his thoughts right back to Zack.

'… It's going to take some getting used to. Realizing that I have this.' Long fingers twine into the front of Zack's shirt, coiled and unsteady, and he's aware of how stupid he may sound, but he doesn't care. There's breathless release in this, in letting the words spring from his own lips with no misgivings. 'That I have you.'

Zack's pupils gleam, large and infinite, and his grip on Cloud's shoulders tightens just that little bit more. 'You are most welcome to all of me.'

And he leans in and kisses Cloud like it's all he's ached for, wing-soft and half-wet and honey-sweet, and it leaves the pushing weight on Cloud's lungs as little more than feathers, the clench in his chest trembling loose, the taut hold in his heart tissue unwinding. He wraps his hand against Zack's jaw and kisses back, curls his thrill into Zack's tongue and pulls Zack's sigh into his mouth, tucks himself into the gaps Zack leaves and only finds himself much warmer.

It's happiness, he knows.

Behind them on the kitchen countertop, the framed photograph that Tifa had taken of the two of them together rests content, a dance of sunlight dyeing their smiles gold. A newborn memory. An immovable stone in time.

Tifa's affectionate delivery of 'Sorry to cut your date short,' when Zack and Cloud reach the shoreline is an earnest apology that's also tinged with too-obvious pleasure, like she wishes she hadn't interrupted them at all, and like she's taking unabashed enjoyment from the actual thing she's regretfully disrupting – their third dinner outing, Cloud still maintains, even though he knows it for a date; but he's never grown so accustomed to that word and the young, trivial normalcy in its sound, never previously heard its usage in the context of his own self. An unfamiliarity that'll fade with time, he's sure, though it's rather far away from any thought he has right now. Because all of the old AVALANCHE crew is there in wait upon his arrival, scattered in the moonlit dark across the tips of the precipice. Every last one of them. An unanticipated reunion after much too long.

'It's no problem,' says Cloud frankly, a midway point between casual acceptance and mild surprise. 'What's the occasion, though?'

'Nothing in particular. It's just been a long time since we've all gotten together like this. More than a year, I think?' Tifa answers, sweet and simple. She slides her hand into his, tugging at him to walk with her towards the others; Zack catches on with ease, making to follow beside them in leisurely strides. 'Family's family, right? It's good for us to do this once in a while. And, well … you can't blame them for being a bit curious about your man. They all know what he did. How he saved you.'

Zack's eyes come alight to hear that, glinting pale and bright in the nighttime. 'So I'm not intruding?'

'Hey, I did ask you to come as well. You're family too, now.' Tifa frees Cloud's fingers and reaches over briefly, squeezing Zack's elbow with kind patience. 'Come on. I'll introduce you.'

As it turns out, Yuffie needs no introduction; an outcome of coincidental acquaintance from Zack's SOLDIER days, and the two of them recognize each other with some gusto in no time flat, starting a decent road to getting on thick as thieves. The rest of them take their approach to Zack with equal amounts of watchful attention and courteous civility – that's the best that can be hoped for, Cloud supposes, what with their awareness of Zack's employment history. It's a minimum of respectable friendliness, which Cloud knows is good, such that soon enough they're all scattered over the rock ledges overlooking the lapping waves beneath, breathing in the cool night air, with Zack blended into their midst like he's always been one of them from the very start.

'… And she's been fine over there?' Barret rumbles low and deep, a study in constricted tension.

'C'mon, we all know Aerith's a real trooper. She's more than fine. You have my word,' answers Zack openly, fingers moving to trace a cross over his heart in an honest vow. 'I miss her too, now that I can't see her. But I saw that she was happy, right up to the moment she sent me back. It's peaceful for her there. I promise.'

Everyone noticeably lets go in that moment, like a stiff fist untightening, like the downbeat in a pulse.

'That's a relief,' Vincent comments, and no further statement comes to convey everyone's agreement, but they're all on the same page, and it's apparent enough that they all know it.

Nanaki then says evenly: 'And you're adjusting well?'

'More or less? I think I've sort of settled into a routine. It's awesome to get back into working mode, at least.' Zack grins wide, pearly teeth catching translucent strips of moonshine. 'Between doing deliveries and helping out at the bar, I still have a bit of time left over in the day to just chill with Cloud and to do whatever I'd like, too. Tifa taught me how to knit, so that's pretty good for winding down, when I need it. Or I'll fix things around the loft. The phone line goes on the fritz sometimes and the water doesn't always run smooth, but hey, Cloud and I both like the place. It's home.'

Every ounce of warmth in that affirmation echoes plain and clear, and Cloud can't help wishing the two of them were alone. But he doesn't stop himself from reaching out to trail a line down Zack's wristbone; from twining his fingers into Zack's; from stroking skin into skin, palm against palm, grounded and weighty. It's so little, and at the same time so much – a sensation that Zack seems to share, marked in the gravity of his smile when he turns sideways to glance at Cloud in response. Cloud feels his own mouth start to lift just barely at the corners, too.

'Spare us. You guys are so sappy and gross,' Cid says in flat distaste, but with no real bite. The look he trains on Cloud is unapologetically pointed when he continues on: 'Y'know, for a while, I actually thought you were shackin' up with Tifa. It's weird to see you smilin' for once. But also good.'

'Everyone's thought that at some point. About the two of us, I mean. We get along like a house on fire, it's only natural.' Tifa emits a satisfied hum, transparently cheerful. 'I can't be more glad with the way things turned out, though. They're cute together.'

Zack may as well have been a lighthouse for the way he beams, but all that can be said has been said, and the matter ends there.

They're all separated into smaller groups immersed in low chatter when an hour or two has passed by, the dew-speckled bottles of liquor that Tifa had brought along held unlidded in more than a few hands, and nothing but the whisper of soft evening wind and the surging roll of the sea to accompany their murmurings. Cloud nudges an elbow into Zack's side, and tells him coolly: 'There's no hurry, but we do have deliveries in the morning. Let me know whenever you're ready to leave.'

'Alright. Give me a few more minutes to finish this bottle,' Zack twinkles, tipping back another quick sip of his drink. 'Boy, it's so nice here. You ever think about what it'd be like to have wings? You could just fly off this ledge, glide over the water. Stare at the stars all night if you wanted to.'

It's almost curious how the first thought that that question kindles for Cloud isn't long silver hair, pitch black feathers, the agony of a sharp blade. Even when that vision does gradually unfold, it's misty and distant, muffled and painless; only a memory. The very first picture to actually cross his mind is the flutter of a white scarf – a pair of downy stripes streaming down a robust back. A resonance of wings, but not truly wings.

'Sounds great. I don't go and look at the stars much, myself,' Cloud replies in agreement, slow and thoughtful. The years of fighting his way through a war-torn world hadn't afforded him much time to build a proper appreciation of little things like taking in starlight, back then. But he's always understood the cosmic beauty in mixed murk and shine: in the simple miracle of having a dark veil draped across the sky, and the stitched-in beads of glittering silver peppered all over. 'I really only ever got to do something like this twice before, with Tifa.'

Zack's answering look is some level of inquisitive, but he says nothing to that.

Cloud suddenly feels it prudent to fill the pause with a clarification. '… I'm talking about when I first told her I was trying for SOLDIER, and a lot later on when I knew I was about to face Sephiroth. Obviously she's not the one I'm looking at anymore, in any case. Last time I did, I was basically still a kid.'

'Hey, she's one hell of a girl. Anyone who isn't blind would look at her twice, so I get it. Your past is your past, and it doesn't bother me – I was just finding it interesting,' Zack says in light-spirited defense, both palms quickly propped upright. 'Won't lie, though, I'm really happy to be the one you've got your eyes on now.'

An open and earnest sentiment, quite sensitive in the way Zack's expressed it. Cloud remembers how Zack had been when he'd first returned from the dead – that teeming tension he'd carried over from his SOLDIER years, a bred warrior unused to living a life without war, tight-wound and restless. That shadow licking at Zack's edges hasn't altogether faded, a lasting stain left by everything he'd suffered years back. But Zack's taken his new chance at life with forward steps of enthusiastic resolve so far, a true puppy in every sense of the word, despite such a terrible past; and each day that's gone by has been another taut-held muscle slowly learning how to unravel, another tiny droplet of light coming awake within his pores, a gradual inner glow.

Cloud wonders if it's been the same way for himself, too.

'Likewise.' He peers at Zack with content, eyelids sinking halfway down. 'In general … I'm just glad that everything's looking up, you know? It's a nice change.'

'… Hm?' asks Zack abruptly, full attention caught out of the blue. 'From what exactly?'

'Just … having it pretty rough for years on end, I guess?' Cloud offers a mild shrug of his shoulders in reply, uncovering less concern and burden throughout the recent days than his words would make out. 'In all honesty, being able to wake up in the morning and not wish things were different is kind of a breath of fresh air.'

Zack levels Cloud with a point-blank stare, his face shaping itself into a look of colossal realization, as though he's only just now seeing something.

Cloud has no clue whatsoever as to what that's about. But a sliver of self-awareness from what he's just said starts to creep up the back of his neck, and he doesn't really give Zack's odd expression further thought. 'Sorry, I swear I wasn't trying to make that sound as negative and morbid as it did. For real, I don't regret spending all those years fighting for what's right, and I know that everything I've been through has made me who I am. I just meant that peace is a real luxury, and things are pretty good nowadays.'

'—It's okay. I know that that's what you meant,' Zack throws in absentmindedly, flapping his hand to let go of the matter; his gaze on Cloud is still round-eyed and wide, locked in, unswerving for even a single moment. He goes on to gesture at the others, then, tugging his thumb into their direction. 'You had these guys in the later years, but it wouldn't have hurt to have another friend there for you, huh? Someone who could've been there from really early on, through everything.'

You were, Cloud wants to say, the thought dusted with raw and sensitive gratitude, a deep-set throb under his skin. But in spite of all speculations and presumptions, he still doesn't know enough about the mystical elements that have manifested itself in the existence of two versions of Zack, and doesn't know how much of that magic or the Planet's seams he'll possibly rip apart in bringing it to light.

So all things considered, he smothers it down. 'Well, if you put it that way, everyone could always use more friends in their life, right?'

Zack lets out a responding hum of faraway but weighty consideration, meaningfully lilted like Cloud's just sealed some kind of decision for him. Cloud chooses not to push for an account of what it's all about; they've always trusted each other with every fiber that makes them.

Evidently, Zack's still paying attention even through his haze of thought, because when Cloud gives him a faint smile, he smiles back.

Cloud slopes in to press dry lips to Zack's jaw, and their sleep later that night manages to stay unbroken.

'Three weeks will come and go before you know it,' Zack tells him, all hopeful encouragement and radiant confidence.

And Cloud knows that's true. He's spent far too long prowling the world as a lone wolf to ever turn clingy and dependent, and has never openly exhibited the same abundance of affection as others would deem standard for people – it's never particularly been in his nature. On top of everything, he knows full well that Zack's lost so many years to war and death; to part with Zack for a modest three weeks, to let him fly with freedom and no pressure to stay, to have his back for wherever he chooses to take his life, is only proper and fair.

'I know,' Cloud answers with sincere approval. 'I really hope you have a good time there.'

'I will. I mean, I haven't seen my parents in well over a decade, but I'm sure we'll do just fine catching up on all the lost time,' Zack muses, a shining bonfire of carefree faith. He stuffs a leisurely hand into his pocket and extracts an envelope that's slightly crumpled at the edges; the delicate paper rustles between his fingertips as he hands it over. 'You know you can call and message me every day. But if you still miss me anyway, open this, yeah?'

Cloud takes it with as much tender gratitude as can fill the hollows between his ribs, and Zack makes his departure for Gongaga not long after.

Walking through an empty house is unexpectedly strange. Rooms yawning too vast, pale shadows stretching too wide, miniscule noises echoing too loud. Walls spread too far apart with only stagnant air hanging in the middle, where it'd usually be drenched with Zack's bell-bright voice, Zack's sun-golden laughter. Zack Fair, larger than life, packing any empty gap to the brim with soul and life and energy.

A few visits to Tifa's now and then to cushion the solitude, but for the most part, Cloud goes by each day alone, eats alone, sleeps alone. Nothing he hasn't done before. It's fine.

It's fine, and he knows that the rigid-backed soldier in him is capable of going back to living this kind of life at any time. But the absence does leave his bones oddly sore and spent.

He'd known he'd miss Zack, and he does.

One-and-a-half weeks is more than enough time for that letter to remain unopened, in his opinion. Cloud's seen and felt the miniscule ridge jutting out from behind the layer of paper, but it's still a mild surprise nonetheless when a marginally bent white feather's the first thing to tumble into his palm as he tips the unsealed envelope – a plain answer to what had sat against the note that Zack had left, all this while.

Found this on the window sill. Thought it was sort of pretty, the memo reads; it's somehow rich with Zack's rhythm and tone and smile, such that Cloud can hear it – can hear him – clear as daylight. Kinda glad that our place gets birds coming to visit sometimes. This reminded me of Angeal when I saw it. He was basically cut out of my life way too soon, you know? There were a lot of times after he was gone that I wished he was still there with me.

Well, anyway, I know it's just a short trip, but I guess I'm trying to say that I'm always here with you, even when I'm not. Will think of you while I'm gone. I'll be home soon.

Cloud poises the feather between coarse fingers, turns it over, eyes each gentle bristle. He ends up remembering their talk on the precipice, a fantasy of seeing stars whilst in flight. Ends up picturing guardian angels, not there but always there. Ends up thinking of a familiar scarf, soft and lissome, ruffling in the wind.

The next week-and-a-half goes by with the tempo of a steady pulse, and it turns out all fine.

In hindsight, Cloud perhaps should've expected that after three weeks of reconstructing a long-forgotten bridge to two people who actually embody much of the weight in his life, Zack wouldn't break from them again in a hurry. Still, Zack's last message before arriving home comes unanticipated:

Hey, I'll be back in Edge by this evening. Parents wanted to come along with me, hope that's okay. See you tonight.

And along with Zack's parents comes the awkward memory of having failed to recall Zack's existence when he'd first met them, of having denied that he'd known him with full belief of that statement as truth; but in all respects, there's definitely good to be found in seeing them again. Zack closing the aging fissure between himself and his parents is by and large one of the last matters to wholly settle, beyond any doubt, before his and Cloud's tumultuous lives can rightly be considered rebuilt.

Besides which, Zack's parents are tremendously nice.

'It's no wonder Zack keeps going on about you,' they marvel over dinner, in addition to: 'You'll have to come visit our hometown sometime!' and 'You'll keep on taking good care of our Zack, won't you?' – complemented with a decent lump of small talk about work and home; it's a short-lived meal, owing to the lateness of the hour once the three had finally arrived, as well as the reasonable exhaustion of a lengthy journey. But that quick snippet of the evening's laden with enough simple ease for Cloud to know, for certain, that he hadn't had anything to worry about with Zack's parents staying.

'It's just for a few days. They wanted to meet you, and see how things were with us,' Zack vows in reassurance – a considerate promise – after he'd gotten his parents in order upstairs, in the guest room, to retire for the night. 'Sorry to have them impose.'

'There's nothing to be sorry for, Zack. They're your parents. And this is your home too,' Cloud points out with undisturbed calm, leaning back into the side of his work desk, arms temperately crossed. The little ground floor office settles to a bare, motionless silence during the nighttime; but he likes any still quietude that Zack shares with him, counting this secluded bubble of space, this remote and tranquil privacy. 'It's no imposition at all, I'm happy to have them here. They're very kind. I did expect that they wouldn't remember me, but I was still a little tense about meeting them again, all the same.'

Only a humble two-hour window so far to try for proper acquaintance, and they'd easily treated Cloud like their own. He hasn't relished in it for so many years: that unique sensation of a child's shelter and refuge, a comfort close to parental compassion and patience and understanding. He likes Zack's parents, and as far as he's concerned, they're more than welcome.

'Aww. Well, at least now we know that they like you,' Zack whisks out his usual trademark grin, sloppy and rife with cheek, and pushes a hip out sideways in casual comfort; he's really insufferably handsome, in every way, from every angle. Cloud feels every bend and crevice of him sinking right into his own bones just from looking – the hidden weight of plenty of days of separation. 'I think dinner went well. And, hey, before I left them to go get their sleep, they told me that they were glad I ended up meeting such a nice boy. You can totally count that as a compliment for you, and as them giving us their blessings – just so you know.'

Cloud's lips have barely started to curve at all, hardly shifting to even a fraction of a half-smile, but Zack reacts to it with no delay, eyebrows rising as if he's spotted a beacon. Somehow, that only serves to leave Cloud with an even deeper pool of muted yearning.

'It's good,' he says meaningfully, the sentiment plain but genuine. 'Seeing you like this.'

Zack gleams at him in an instant, quite awfully charming for how open and frank he is. 'Like what?'

'Being you. So determined to make the most of every minute,' Cloud answers with keen approval, and he's overcome with the billowing ache to touch. Three weeks is a long time to grow aware of an absent presence, to succumb to a vacant space, to crave a now well-overdue reunion. It's a long time to simply want. 'Putting your all into everything you do … and never getting tired of it.'

'Well, I do have more big things planned. So here's to hoping that everything will keep working out.' Vague mystery may be steeped into Zack's statement – a detail that Cloud notices somewhat distantly – but whatever it is can wait. Because Zack's grin tilts askew, and it fills Cloud's entire frame of sight without any mercy to spare.

He's been so starved for Zack like nothing else.

The core of his belly flickers like a spark; he gives in to restless impulse.

'I haven't seen you in three weeks.' And he's wanted him just about forever. He uncrosses his arms, reaches out to curl one finger into Zack's belt loop. Tugs on it – a naked plea. 'I missed you. Come here.'

From only that invitation, Zack closes into Cloud's space with the unhurried movement of a setting sun. Two compliant steps forward and he soaks into it, all weight and presence, until everything's swallowed by the intermingling surges of their breaths – the pause to breathe each other in sits dense, a thick lull in time where Cloud can only stand submerged in Zack's heady scent, and his own itch to eliminate their leftover distance. Parallel chests rise and fall in rhythm, holding the volume of every day that they've spent apart; not only from the last three weeks, but maybe all the years that came before, too.

Cloud's aware of every movement like it's flitting through the hairs at the back of his neck. Feels every thread of reverence in the way Zack raises a hand and touches him: a roughened thumb-pad trailing across Cloud's bottom lip, slow as melted sugar. It leaks heat that spreads down, all the way down. Cloud can't help sucking in a quivering shard of air around it.

Then the thumb falls away, and Zack's mouth finally, finally replaces it, like an affirmation that Zack's truly come home.

It's languid, perfect, but the messy kind. The sort of kiss that pushes in deep on the downbeat and shapes itself into subtle voiceless gasps on the upbeat; that's wet and half-lazy, with Zack licking into the seam of Cloud's lips, with the skid and snag of Cloud's mouth on Zack's, with the slippery glide of their tongues against each other's in unison. A clear contradiction of mixing leisurely indulgence with a potent open flame, and Cloud boldly coils his fingers over the slight hollow of Zack's waist, pulling him in until their hipbones knock in collision. The gesture's met with an eager answer of Zack nudging in further, the movement somewhat urgent, and then their hips are pressed firmly together, strong-set and flush.

'Hope you don't mind my parents being upstairs,' Zack murmurs into Cloud's mouth, and the implication of that statement streaks right down Cloud's backbone; he knows exactly where Zack's suggesting this'll lead, and the mere hint and thought of it is leaving him coiled like a spring, wound up and tremulous. His mind's eye swerves directly into the mental image of being sprawled over the desk behind him, of Zack curved on top of him, of fingers digging into his skin, of their bodies moving like fire. It's making it even harder to wait.

He's filled with a sense of accomplishment and content when one last kiss breaks to uncover Zack's lips as damp and glistening, and Cloud shifts and angles himself to slide his mouth against the taut tendons in the column of Zack's neck.

'As long as they're asleep, I really don't.' The last thing either of them need right now is the sore frustration of being interrupted; as far as Cloud's aware, he pretty much hasn't ever felt anything this good. It's driving him right into the sultry fever of brazen courage, and he skirts his lips along the bobbing contour of Zack's adam's apple, flicks little designs into Zack's throat with his tongue, sucks at Zack's pulse point with daring pressure and wonders if it'll leave a plum-stained hickey in the morning, lush as a jewel.

Evidently, he's nailing everything just fine. Because it wrings a shaky groan out of Zack that sings of telltale sensitivity; tense fingers twist into the splash of fabric over Cloud's spine and Zack rolls his hips against Cloud's in unbridled reflex, snugly enough that it pulls the outline of his cock along Cloud's inner thigh. A waking throb well on its way to iron-hard, straining unashamed against the rough black of Zack's fatigues – Cloud can flick his gaze down and see it easily in the dim, hazy lighting of the office, and he knows right then that he's a goner, knows that the gradual swell of his own cock is coming in fast, too. He responds with a roll of his own hips, a long exhale slipping out uneven when that motion lines them up together just right.

'Tell me you have something,' Cloud rasps out, halfway to beseeching. Zack eyes him momentarily, pupils blown and dark like swirls of smoke – Cloud has to marvel for a split second, because he's the one causing that look; even the concept of it is still unreal to him.

And then Zack sinks, lowering himself all the way down to his knees, and the obvious promise and white-hot imagery that it brings wipes nearly every last thought in Cloud's mind blank.

'I did get stuff. Wanted to have them ready within reach, 'cause you never know when we'll need it.' Zack sniffs meaningfully, one resolute hand pushing the hem of Cloud's sleeveless knit higher, hitching it up; the other working the button and zip of Cloud's fly open, a thumb and two deft fingers unhooking and undoing each one in order. 'It's all upstairs in our room though, in my drawer … didn't exactly come down here expecting we'd be doing this. It's pretty far away, if you ask me. Maybe if we feel like having a second go? Even if we can't do that at the moment, there are other things we can still do right now that are just as good.'

Zack's holding up to that assurance damn well as it is. The relief is like a rush of air filling Cloud's lungs when warm hands slide his pants and underwear down to his knees, lifting the tight, stifling pressure between his legs; evening chill dances across his naked pores, but it hardly settles in. Because Zack makes his way in without pause, lips and tongue burning into Cloud's skin with every damp kiss and butterfly-soft lick that he stamps and trails down the rigid line of Cloud's stomach, teeth nipping wetly into the hollow of Cloud's navel before skating further down still.

A deliberate slow exhale, small and thin and scorching, caresses Cloud at the slit of his cock – and then that mouth is on him, all around him, his entire world narrowing to only that heightened sensation. A sharp hiss escapes through his teeth. Half-moon fingernails dig into the meat of Zack's shoulders.

It takes all the flesh and bone keeping Cloud in one piece not to thrust into that slick, rich heat, because if he does, he knows just how fast it'll all be over. Hips clench and thighs tense hard against the rim of the desk behind him, and his grip on Zack's shoulders compresses more before he even registers it. He veers his attention to the ridges of muscle beneath his palms, focuses on the ripple of each rise and valley that shapes them. Lets out a wavering ribbon of breath at the new brush and shift of steadying fingers around the base of his shaft, and at the seamless undulation of that mouth working on him, heaving up and down.

There's a rather humbling awe in seeing Zack like this: a sound beauty even in the most obscene. Carrying himself without shame, an angel's bearing and strength, even when he's on his knees. Cloud picks up on the movement of Zack's other hand, then, and comes to realize that somewhere along the way, Zack's effortlessly undone his own fly and pulled himself out. He's stroking himself with immense gratification, shit, and Cloud wants nothing more than to watch it all up close, to bear witness to every inch of Zack, to go ahead and put his own hands on Zack, too; he gives way to his own smoldering impatience right then and there.

'Zack,' he whispers, imploring. Knuckles scrape along the shell of Zack's ear; fingers tangle into onyx wisps of hair. 'Zack. Come on.'

Zack manages to frame a little grin around him – unbelievable – and quirks an expectant eyebrow when he pulls his mouth away and off. Cloud takes a moment to bask in the flutter of the fingertips leaving his shaft; the final tiny, affectionate kiss pressed to the underside of the tip; the sweep of a coarse hand around the border of his thigh. A set of touches that skim as lightly as the barbs of feathers, and Cloud thinks he may easily picture the drifting flurries of white if he were to close his eyes.

Cloud tucks his thumb and fingers beneath Zack's cheekbone, then, and gently gives a single upward yank in calling, to haul Zack to his feet towards him; Zack yields generously to the summon, melting into the motion, his body a sinuous line as he follows Cloud's gesture and rises. One exchange of looks, and they're very much on the same page – Cloud opens up more, parting his thighs to let Zack through, and Zack wastes no time in making his way in, setting himself comfortably into position between them. They slot together just below the hips, thrillingly aligned; Zack's almost a furnace, every bit warm, with his cock mildly flushed and maybe the warmest part of him. Cloud can't help clamping his jaw fiercely at every small shift of that perfect hard length against his own, fitting so easy and close.

He can barely wait anymore, can scarcely think beyond the electricity he wants to feel in all his nerve endings right at this moment. So he wraps his hand around the two of them at once, welcoming the breathless relief in the sensation of being closed in together with Zack in his fist, and he starts to jerk them both off.

Something about being here together, indulging in this together, is an odd cosmic miracle: a genuine waking reality but still very much magical in more ways than one, and Cloud means to make the most of it. He wants to draw this out, wants to tug with control in slow and level measures, but there's too much teeming under his skin already, and he ends up stirring more fire into it than he's been intending to. His palm envelops and pulls them in long, uneven drags, and it's quickly leaving them both wild-eyed and panting, the mounting sparks of friction ablaze between Cloud's hips even when both he and Zack are slippery with pre-come and messy with euphoria. Paradise; a drink of water in a desert.

Zack pushes his thumbs into the gaps of Cloud's ribs to steady himself, but they're both slipping off the edge of restraint, and Cloud knows that they're well on the way to being thoroughly undone.

'Cloud,' says Zack sharply, hips canting up to fuck into the tunnel of Cloud's fist with some leftover degree of restriction; the momentum of it manages to ensnare Cloud regardless, carrying him in the way a roll of waves would, and he's earnestly rutting against Zack before long, too. A pressing want for more flickers in the dark of Zack's pupils. 'I need—'

'… Yeah,' Cloud answers, his voice all but cracked along the surface. 'Yeah. Me too.'

The feeling of temporary loss when he releases his grip on the two of them runs wintry, but he wants to clear the desk behind him, and they have to let up for just a second. He twists his upper body around, and makes quick work of sweeping everything off the tabletop with one fell stroke of his arm; customer delivery documents scatter over the floor in splashes of white, and the feather that Zack had left for him in his letter follows behind, the last to glide down. Cloud turns again to climb backwards onto the desk, emitting a sigh of approval when the pants and underwear pooled around his knees proceed to be pulled entirely off his legs. Zack's evidently gotten the hint with flying colors.

And Cloud doesn't think he'll ever be able to forget the sight of Zack coming to him, of Zack climbing straight onto the desk and on top of him, all nimble limbs and leonine prowl – Cloud wonders if their bodies are casting the shadows of two beasts on the wall, earthy and raw and unruly. They lower themselves in synchrony, Cloud bending his knees upward and leaning back until he's supine, and Zack following him all the way down; it's like taking a new breath when their hips meet again, Zack slumping his weight into Cloud, shutting their cocks in snug and sensitive between their bodies. There's hardly any doubt that Cloud will always relive the memory of this any time he'll work here again, and is suddenly thankful to be his own boss. He's sure that Zack must be immensely pleased right now that Cloud's his boss, too.

Sinewy thighs bracket Zack's firm hips and Cloud folds both his arms around Zack's steady build with a swell of quiet devotion, pressing him in close the way he's really always wanted; Zack braces a sturdy hand over the lip of the desk, his other hand shifting to cradle Cloud's thigh warmly against him. He doesn't wait any longer to grind down – an echo of it flares up the nerves of Cloud's spine like a tendril of lightning, and soon Cloud's also moving, grinding up against him in reply.

Everything from there is a steaming haze of just this, of nothing but the two of them and the slice of simple luxury etching itself into their veins. They rock with enough ardent craving for the wood beneath them to creak and for their bones to rattle, and Cloud can only gaze up at Zack and marvel at how unthinkably stunning he really is, right now and always: unguarded, spirited, giving. Completely out of the blue, Cloud distantly recalls Sephiroth, whose one-winged form had also fashioned an angel's silhouette, but who was a markedly different kind of person. A part of him wishes, maybe a little perversely, that Sephiroth could see them right now, to watch this and count the ways that they're burying all past destruction with every deep buck of their hips, with every crisp gasp through their teeth.

The very notion of it sears through Cloud's blood in a pounding beat, and he thrusts up against Zack with more zeal and pressure, rapture blooming in his belly when Zack hooks onto his rhythm in no time flat.

They're perched on a perilous tightrope by now, poised right on the brink of each other and hanging so close, and Cloud can almost feel every layer of Zack's presence coming alive beneath his own skin, from the sway of every tiny hair to the heat of every clenching muscle. Cloud blurts out, faint and breathy: 'You're incredible,' and he leans up to lick the flush at the slant of Zack's jaw, brings a hand in to hook a finger down on Zack's lower lip, trails that fingertip down the sculpted chin in a line of gleaming moisture. Zack dips his head to murmur unintelligibly into the crook of Cloud's neck, writing a message of fevered appreciation with his mouth, and it flows like a solemn prayer.

It's so much, that mingling of their body warmth and sweat, the exquisitely slick drag of their cocks together, their full, rising scents spilling over every inch of each other like a deluge. And just like that, that's all either of them can take.

The back of Cloud's closed eyelids hold a striking imprint when he comes, spine arched up and slack lips parted and his thin, voiceless pants escaping him in fragments; it's Zack's outline that he still sees, all strong angles and a smudge of illusory angel's wings behind him, ruthlessly splayed out. The brief vision soon fades away, and it doesn't take long for Zack to follow Cloud after that – Cloud slides his eyes open again just in time to see him come in turn, filthy and beautiful and untamed, a taut curve to his body and his broad palm gripping Cloud's thigh like it's a final lifeline. Zack's throat grates out a low and rough noise, his dusky eyes half-lidded as he and Cloud ride out the last wave.

Slow quietude blankets the office anew when they crumple bonelessly into each other, spent limbs cooling and wet come smearing in between them and the plane of Cloud's skin oversensitive from edge to edge. A drowsy calm sinks into their loosened muscles, and Cloud doesn't manage to push out much more than: 'I hope your parents didn't hear any of that,' to which Zack can only give a thin and sated chuckle.

Zack's parents do indeed seem to be oblivious – either that, or remarkably unconcerned and easygoing, the same way their son is about more or less everything – judging by the air of carefree cheer they take on the next morning at breakfast; it's a rather extraordinary outcome, considering the fact that Zack and Cloud had turned in to their own room upstairs later that night only to gradually plunge themselves into the second round that Zack had suggested earlier on. Either way, Cloud's more than content to not hear any awkward allusions to his own wayward abandon as he'd ridden Zack in the moonlit dark, to the deep and consuming fuck that had stretched the waking night on longer, to any of the wrecked sounds that they'd undeniably made throughout.

All in all, there's something strangely serene about having masked and obscured nothing of himself, and to still have Zack's parents adore him.

When they leave to return home to Gongaga at the end of the week, Cloud knows that his little ragtag family's grown by a small but noteworthy measure.

It's right on the cusp of eight o'clock in the morning when Cloud returns from a far-flung overnight delivery to movement and noise stirring in the loft above the office; he stills, caught in surprise. And, true to character, Zack's soon skimming down the stairs with a spring to his stride – fingers circled around a lump in the palm of each hand, his face lax all over with some curious expression of contented resolve. Cloud's lips quirk at the corners when their gazes meet and touch. It's paid back with a signature Zack Fair smile that reaches over and clambers all the way into Cloud's chest.

'Hey,' he greets moderately, moving at last to skirt his desk and seat himself down behind it; its surface is branded quite well with the memory of heat from the week before, and the thought of it soothes him. 'I didn't know you were home. I thought I assigned two deliveries for you to do this morning?'

'Yeah, did them both already. It's not like I had to go very far, so it was pretty easy to get it all done quick,' Zack replies in good spirits, eyes vaguely darting around the office space as if in search for something. 'I just went and got a bun from the markets to snack on and decided to come straight back to get some stuff. I'm going out again, though, if that's alright. Got a shift at the bar tonight too so I'll be home late, you don't have to wait up.'

'Oh, okay,' says Cloud in placid agreement, fingertips rifling through a crisp sheaf of client delivery forms. 'Where are you going?'

'Just have some things I gotta do,' Zack answers somewhat absentmindedly, a slip of teeth chewing down on his bottom lip for a moment. 'Have you seen a scarf around here, by any chance? Made a whole one yesterday to kill time while you've been out on business. I thought I left it down here.'

It's a rather unusual thing for Zack to specifically want to wear out – a break out of his and Cloud's habit to just lazily wear such items at home for novelty's sake, the same way they've both been doing with the sweaters Zack's made – taking into consideration the ever-present Shinra Mako still enduring in their cells after all these years, keeping their bodies at an everlasting comfortable warmth. But Cloud doesn't try to think too much of it. 'No, I haven't. What does it look like?'

'Kinda fluffy? Tifa ordered the yarn special for me, and—' Zack pauses without warning, whetted eye trained on an open box atop a chair in the corner of the room; he walks over to it and hums at once, duly pleased. '—Never mind. I found it.'

'If you don't want to misplace your stuff, you should keep them upstairs,' Cloud says dimly, mouth curling into a mild frown. 'Not lying around down here in the office.'

'Yes, boss.' A cheeky wink that's far more charming than is fair, and Zack haphazardly crams the lumps that he's been clutching into the deep of his pockets. Cloud distantly makes out, in that grain of a moment, the marked chilling green gleaming from a sphere that can only be a Materia; and a paper-wrapped roll of what's clearly sweet bread from the marketplace in downtown Edge – the same sweet bread that he'd introduced Zack to back when he'd first returned to life, that Zack's been reasonably hooked on ever since.

Zack dips his hand into the box to extract his scarf, and staggering recognition hits Cloud like a ton of bricks.

He still remembers everything. Remembers his own tender boyhood, and the kind stranger with the wild dark hair and the cross-scar on his cheek who'd offered him words of stable comfort, of sincere encouragement. Remembers the way that this very man, unrecognizable to Cloud at the time, had kept watchful, caring eyes on him at the Forgotten Capital and in Mideel – even when Cloud had known afterwards that he should've been long dead and gone. Remembers the callused heat of his palm against Cloud's own hand, and the soft exhilaration with which he'd urged Cloud before they'd last parted: tell that me.

Cloud's always known, somehow. Known of its certainty like a spark in his nerve endings, like the blood in his veins. Known that two variants of Zack Fair in his life aren't exactly separate puzzle pieces that fit – but have been one whole piece from the very start. One single man, a passenger of time, who walks across its surface with as much miracle and magic as treading on rippling water. The same man standing before Cloud at this moment, twisting the strip of feathery white around his throat, slinging the trailing ends over his back.

Zack slides him an easy, affectionate smirk before pivoting on his heel and making right for the open doorway of the office, and that jolts Cloud into movement and action in an instant.

'—Zack,' he says breathlessly, leaping to his feet and quickly rounding his desk, heartbeats thundering a storm against his ribs.

But Zack's already out the door; when Cloud makes it out after him, he only catches a blaze of green light flaring from the deserted nook by their building, and Zack's nowhere to be seen.

Sundown's only just grazing the horizon nine hours later when another striking burst of green light splashes through window glass from the isolated back alley outside; sharp creaking cuts through Tifa's empty bar as the rear door swings open. Zack strolls into the main bar area at that point, each stride long and light-footed with certain accomplishment and ease – and the brief flash of surprise that crosses his face when he glimpses Cloud already seated there is just slightly rewarding, considering the circumstance they're in. Cloud's bones sink further into the chair beneath him, but his shoulders and back hold firm; he doesn't balk when he sees Zack's startled look soften out into a smile.

'Hey, what are you doing here,' says Zack with casual cheer, walking with level-chinned nonchalance around the bar counter. A bright clinking of porcelain, a quick gush of running water from the bar faucet, and then Zack's lifting a drinking cup to his mouth, drawing in a momentary sip. The smile's still set into his mouth when he pulls the cup away. 'Have you been waiting a while? I can't really hang out for very long, though, I've got to open up the bar soon. I did tell you this morning that I had a shift tonight.'

'There's still plenty of time before your shift starts. Sorry to turn up unannounced, but we need to talk, and I really couldn't wait,' Cloud answers flatly, lips and jaw tensing into rigid lines. 'Come around the bar, please.'

A request that bears no nonsense, and Zack promptly does as he's asked. Gracious respect holds his posture; he plants the cup down, circles the bar counter until he's positioned at its forefront, settles his body into the snug gap between two barstools. A brief stillness flowers thickly in the air. He stays uncharacteristically quiet.

'… Where were you just now.' Cloud's query rumbles low and even, with no beating around the bush. Then he thinks better of his question, and corrects himself: 'No – when were you. Please tell me straight. I need to hear it.'

Zack's silence is nearly palpable, the bar's clock ticking a loud drumbeat over it, soaking each inch of space from wall to wall. But after some time, he releases a long and placid sigh – a frank admittance; solid fingers comb right back through his hair, shaking dark spikes loose.

'I was just waking you up from a bad dream. Seeing you to the door once you'd decided to go to my grave,' he says carefully, unraveling his scarf from around his throat and twisting himself to rest it down upon the countertop at his back. 'And before you left … I think you were about to tell me that you had feelings for me. That was just now for me, like two minutes ago. I know it was several months ago for you.'

That'd been the last time Cloud had seen scarf-Zack, who'd serenely announced that he was going home. So this answer doesn't particularly come as astonishing news to him. 'And before that?'

The hard outline of Zack's chin tenses for a moment: a subtle brace for impact. 'I started way back – been jumping forward every time. So, actually, I was in Mideel a few minutes before that. The town was blown to pieces and you and Tifa had both passed out. I wanted to be there for you when you woke up.'

For Cloud, Mideel had literally been years ago. It's one thing to formulate theories of Zack leaping through time; another thing entirely to receive confirmation of it. Teeth dig into teeth, compressing together in his mouth. He drags in a steadying breath, deep and slow and heavy.

'Do you realize what you've risked, doing what you did,' he murmurs with deliberate purpose; not at all cutting, but still pointed, strict, stern. 'I'm not just talking about messing up history, or the world.'

Though in the end, he knows that Zack did neither. Zack had risen like a stronghold in the sidelines, staunch and sure and simply there to have Cloud's back, weaving his presence into each circumstance without raising an intrusive hand to disturb the flow of events – and yet, the difference that that had made for Cloud had the power to move worlds. The dread that's talking is hardly shrouded; a funeral-dark vision of Zack lying dead all over again, somewhere, an unshielded victim of magic that was beyond him. And the very notion of having Zack torn from being, of losing Zack a second time, is unthinkable.

'I'm sorry for worrying you,' says Zack, his tone and timbre somewhat subdued, sincere in repentance. But then it all turns firm, like a muscle clenching taut, and he pushes on: 'I'm home safe now, though. I won't be doing it again, but I don't regret having been able to help you, even if it's only in the smallest way.'

It gleams at the core of Zack's face like a beacon of reawakening, and Cloud does see. Sees how the cruelest traumas in any given person are so permanently rooted that not even love can fully cure and banish them, but can still fuse the wounds' edges together and kiss the pain to fading. Sees the roseate smudge to Zack's cheekbones and the crystalline finish to Zack's eyes, right and definite, fit and well – as healthy as someone who's endured everything that Zack has can possibly be. Sees how the cracks and damages in Zack have been soundly patched up, a major mend and recovery, even though he'd done this for Cloud and not himself.

This choice to help had seemingly been made that night on the precipice by the sea, now that the moment's in Cloud's recollection. Cloud remembers unsealing his own door of past hardships; it'd been promptly followed by Zack's unmistakable look of epiphany and decision.

Cloud lets go of a sigh, resignation and acceptance sitting on the line of his shoulders.

'… I remember every single time I've met you, from the first time – from when I was five. I wondered who you were. The stranger with the scarf that hangs down his back like angel's wings,' he reveals sedately, sober and quiet.

Zack's answering grin is sugar and spice, unreservedly sweet but also terribly self-satisfied all in the one go. 'You like it? The scarf? I mean, I know we're enhanced and we don't really get cold or anything like that, but I sort of wanted to carry a piece of Angeal with me. To keep me in check,' he explains at length, a reminiscent tilt angling his head sideward. A clarification that adds up, considering the inspiration that had also lain beneath the feather that he'd left for Cloud before he'd departed for Gongaga. 'Thought of him while I was knitting it, you know? Looks like his feathers. He told me once that angels dream of being human. I never forgot that.'

A divide that's blurred when viewed under one light, and distinct when under another: Zack Fair, as human as a human can get, and a guardian angel in disguise. Even then, it's still entirely made of sense, and every bit Zack, through and through.

'… So how did you do it,' says Cloud, eyes tumbling down to the protuberant lump at Zack's hip. 'That Materia that came with you when you were brought back?'

'Yeah, about that,' Zack replies with some degree of guilt, sheepishly plucking the mass of green from his pocket. To Cloud's surprise, it seems to have taken on a form of death; dulled with a milky glaze, lifelessly clouded over. 'I don't think it was the same as regular Materia – could feel right from the beginning that it was different. I've never had one run out of battery on me, personally. I have no clue how these things work, but I can't feel the magic from it anymore. It's completely gone.'

It draws a perfect arch in the air as Zack casually tosses it across, and Cloud's fingers swoop in to catch it in one quick, precise movement; Zack's definitely right, he finds at once. In any ordinary case there's always a stir of something in him, threads of magic prickling in his palm and creeping up his bloodstream, such that he can usually identify what function a Materia has just by simple touch. The sphere in his hand yields nothing. A useless chunk of stone, and nothing more.

He holds doubtless belief in everything that Zack's saying, either way. After all, he's thoroughly aware of how Summons work – that extraordinary beings are called upon from other realms and allowed through by tearing a gash in the fabric of space; for there to also be the existence of certain magic that rips open the fabric of time isn't really so farfetched, all things considered.

'Alright. I suppose that makes sense.' Cloud turns the Materia over once in temperate inspection, then closes a lax fist around it; there's still no thrum down his wrist other than his own pulse. 'This thing appeared with you, didn't it? It didn't exactly form naturally, or even come about artificially. There's no knowing what'd happen.'

'Typical Aerith, huh? Giving me a present that makes its mark, but is something that I can't get carried away with,' says Zack, light laughter glittering like the notes of a music box. 'Then again, it's kind of hard to get carried away considering that every time I decided to jump, I was almost always jumping blind, except for when I came back here. I don't actually know specific dates and stuff in your history, so I didn't always know what time and place I was gonna end up in, even though I'm pretty sure I could choose. At least it always took me to you. I focused on you each time, you know? Just thought about wanting to help you. And I always ended up right where I needed and wanted to be.'

It grips Cloud's ribs and pries them open, stings in all the ways that feel whole. His knees swing when he pushes himself to his feet; three slow, measured strides over carries him right to where Zack's waiting, anticipation hovering densely between them both, fierce and weighty. Cloud reaches out and takes hold of Zack's hand, coarse skin against skin, heat blossoming on contact, and he presses the Materia right into the cushions of Zack's palm.

'… Why me,' he whispers dimly; it comes out sand-rough. 'Why would you do all this for me?'

'Because I know how crazy-hard you've always had it, and you could always use a friend. Well, you know, we're a hell of a lot more than friends, but you get what I mean. You're my best friend. My partner,' Zack answers with level ease, sliding the Materia back into the open slash of his pocket. 'And because I like you. Because you don't ever deserve to feel like you're all on your own. Because I wanted to. That's reason enough, right?'

The words ring glass-clear, familiar. Twenty years on and Cloud still remembers the way his own tiny chest had clenched back then, when he'd first heard Zack pronounce them. And it's still constricting even now, firm and thick and intense. His teeth scrape jaggedly together; the plane of his belly squeezes tight. His eyes burn warm, a touch damp at the corners, and his breath slips out half-broken.

'I don't know what to say.' His voice tips over, treacherously unsteady. 'Zack, I—'

I love you isn't enough. The phrase is too common and simple, and there's so much more lingering between them than three plain words, hanging as full and tender and heavy as his heart at this moment. This is Zack, who'd taken Cloud in friendship with no reservations or unease; who's always chosen to be there for Cloud by his own will. Who'd readily pieced all of Cloud's splintered fragments together and believed in him. Who'd saved him, who'd died for him, who'd returned to him. Who'd come to him out of nowhere like an angel, was bared to him with the appearance of an angel, had kept watch over him as an angel would, but is the most impeccable picture of humanity. And Cloud's far beyond eager to give him everything, to keep giving back, to just give more.

There's no language in all the world that can lay it out in sufficient expression, no statement or story or poetry that can pay it suitable justice. But the unsaid sentiment and emotion's there, stirring with life, raw and true.

Zack curls long fingers over the faint dip of Cloud's waist and Cloud takes that moment to lean in, pressing a single tremulous kiss to Zack's mouth that's returned with no less than keen fervor, leaving them both wildly short of breath; and when they pull away at last, they only move to nestle even closer, what with Zack snaking large, warm arms around Cloud's back – a safe embrace of wings.

'I know,' Zack murmurs serenely, the affirmation fire-hot and awake against the hollow of Cloud's cheek. 'I know. Me too.'

Cloud tucks his face into the crook of Zack's neck and folds secure arms around him, too, and finds want for nothing more in the world.

They take turns throwing their flowers: Cid being first, and Tifa after him, all of them, one by one. No question or query springs from seeing the Materia that enters the midst of the scattered yellow petals when it's Zack's turn, nor from hearing his whisper of 'Thank you,' that breaches stilled silence as the dimmed sphere slips past the water's surface – down and down until it fades from sight; Cloud's aware, in all respects, of how much they have to thank Aerith for. An unpayable debt that they all know she doesn't expect, or even want, to ever be repaid.

When his own spray of flowers litters the water, Cloud says, 'Thank you,' too.

Fallen branches crack beneath their feet when they file out of the clearing, the sound as steady as the light knocking of Zack's elbow against Cloud's as they take the helm of the march. And after some time, Yuffie speaks up: 'Do you guys wanna—' she flounders a bit, then, an unusual mark of flustered caution. '—I don't know, do something, after we get back? I'm not ready to go home yet.'

They're all cords woven together, an unbreakable rope; Cloud feels it, too. A family only by choice, but a real family nonetheless. He isn't ready to part ways from them all yet, either.

'Why don't we go have a few drinks at the bar once we're back in Edge,' he suggests evenly, twisting his body back for a moment, taking everyone in. 'Or, if you want, you can all come over, and Zack and I can fix us something to eat. Or both, if you're all in the mood.'

Brightened faces meet that idea; even Barret's, whose knotted brow goes slack. Even Vincent's, whose sharp eyes glint like fire in the half-light of the clearing. The old AVALANCHE crew is strewn all over these days, their time spent together prized and rare – all of them have left their fingerprints in Cloud's life, stamps and impressions that can't be erased, every single one of them here. And just like that, the decision's made.

Zack tugs on the length of his scarf, swathes one end of it around Cloud's neck; he sweeps in, too, draping a sturdy arm around Cloud's shoulders, and Cloud likes its solid weight around him, stable, grounded, real. He settles close into Zack's side, winds an arm around Zack's hips in turn, the bare curve at his own mouth just partway to a smile.

'Does this mean I get to be an angel too,' he murmurs in amusement, fingers rising to trace the edge of the scarf in indication.

Zack tilts his head to eye Cloud with interest, snug to the point where his chin's nearly tucked against his shoulder. 'I could say something really cheesy to that, but everyone's right behind us and I'll probably gross them all out, so I'll keep it to myself.'

Not much light bleeds into the Forgotten Capital, but there's enough mottling through the great canopy to cast glints of silver on their hair and skin; enough for Cloud to glance at Zack in return and see the hearty flush and glow to the angles of his cheeks, along with the contentment submerging any leftover shadow in his eyes. A confirmation that he does indeed look in good health these days, the ghosts of past battles locked away. And Cloud knows the properties of a scar – a faded reminder of a once-opened wound, a lingering residue of a bygone hurt, a constant mark that'll never truly vanish. But even if the scar tissue's there to stay, the injury itself belongs in history. And he himself has taken that same road to healing, he's sure.

'Hey, Cloud?' Zack asks at length, the words feather-soft. 'Do you think there's any possibility that angels are real? Actual ones – you know. Like the ones that people talk about in stories?'

A laden question, guileless and trusting and sincere. Cloud's not particularly religious to any extent, and it's likely that he holds too little knowledge about the world's innumerable faiths to offer a well-versed answer. But he sees what's in front of him, beside him, around him. He can tell what's within him. And at the end of the day, that's more or less everything he needs.

'… I don't know. Maybe; maybe not,' he replies, honest thought shouldering each syllable. 'But people say things about them like it makes them feel safe. Like there's something to hope for. Like life can be full of impossible miracles. Maybe that's all that actually matters.'

Zack beams like he's seeing an entire world, his smile cosmic and pearlescent, ribbons of light catching on his face just as it would an angel's. A wisp of fondness spreads soft in Cloud's belly, and he presses in even closer.

'I'm happy we ended up here,' he murmurs with warmth, every word wholly meant.

'Like you said – impossible miracles,' Zack answers pointedly, much too cheeky. 'And yeah. So am I.'

Cloud's fingers squeeze faintly at Zack's hip, an unwavering anchor. He's looking forward to going home, to noise and peace beneath their roof, to all that's left of their day, to all the days that come after. One after the next: stepping stones in time.

They walk out from the deserted capital to pale morning sun on their backs, to an endless horizon in sight.

Notes: The boys always deserve a happy ending! Hope you guys agree.

Random trivia: the scarf that Zack wears in this fic is made from eyelash yarn, a type of knitting yarn that has a lovely feathery texture to it. I have one just like it, it's very fluffy and comfortable!

Hopefully what I've written has been clear enough, but just in case anyone's wanting confirmation - Cloud's timeline in this fic is chronological. Whereas Zack's timeline and point of view is: all canon events (first time meeting Cloud at Modeoheim, Nibelheim incident, his own death, and appearing to Cloud during the Geostigma crisis); he comes back to life; he and Cloud get together; he knits the scarf; he jumps into the past - meets Cloud at 5, 9, 15 years old, at the Midgar burger joint, at Aerith's sendoff, in Mideel, and when Cloud has that nightmare; he jumps back to his present time and Cloud confronts him; Aerith's memorial. If you ever find yourself bored and wanting to kill time, you could try re-reading the fic in Zack's order of events! :)

To those of you who stayed until the end and read all of this - thank you so much. I'm honestly so grateful, especially since I'm still really new to writing fic for this fandom. As before, I'd really love to hear your thoughts, considering I worked so hard on this thing for a whole year! It would really mean a lot to me to get your feedback.

Find me on Tumblr at harmonization - please feel free to come chat with me about FF7 things! I always love making new friends. I make FF7 gifsets, too!

Thank you again! Are you guys keen for more clack btw? I may or may not have other fic ideas – let me know.