We made it! And what a journey it has been. This story originated in 2020 as something to manage my anxiety and pass time during lockdown, but it has grown into something far greater than that as the years have gone on. I can't begin to tell you how appreciated your kudos, comments, bookmarks, and support have been all this time- not just for this story, but also for me personally.

But enough of the sappiness! Enjoy the chapter.

If Aerith was asked later whether she remembered walking out of the laboratory, getting on the helicopter Nobody had procured for them, and watching the city pass by underneath in a smudge of color and noise, then she would tell them no. She would say that she didn't remember much of anything; too much had happened in too short of time, and all of it had blurred together.

But if she said that, she would be lying. She distinctly remembered how that first breath of fresh air outside of the lab had been so sweet that it had hurt. She would never be able to forget how Kunsel's voice had cracked in relief when he finally received a phone call from Nobody, who had then directed them to the rooftop. She would always recall how dread had yawned open within her when they reached the rooftop only to notice Reno leaning against the helicopter they were promised; but that dread had given way to sudden confusion and relief when Reno had said that Nobody had sent him and that, in his words, "I'm just here to establish an alibi." Aerith had thought that Tifa would push him off the building at that, but when Reno asked if Zack was all right, Aerith quite nearly pushed him off herself.

Just thinking about his question had white-hot rage pounding within her. How dare he ask about Zack's condition when the Turks had been the ones who put Zack in that situation to begin with. How dare he feign concern when everything was his own team's fault, and yet that anger had faded when Reno placed a letter in her hands. It was on Tseng's initiative, Reno had told her, and that was when Aerith realized that the letter was from Elmyra. Her mom.

While Kunsel piloted the helicopter, Aerith read the letter and did her best not to cry. It had taken several attempts to read the entire thing, to wade through the bittersweet worry and love written within every word, and she often found herself reading the same sentences twice:

Know that you are always welcome here. That if you come back, there will be a place for you.

If anyone noticed her tears, they were far too polite to say so. But who could have noticed? Kunsel was far too busy flying the aircraft; his voice was a low rumble as both Nobody and Wedge directed him out of the city through his headset. Cloud leaned listlessly against Tifa with his eyes open but glazed and unseeing; Zack had been draped across Barret and Aerith laps, and he was so still in his sleep that Aerith had to resist the urge to check if he was still breathing. Meanwhile Red, curled up on the floor, almost looked like he was asleep himself if his tail hadn't twitched with every bump.

"We'll be fine," Aerith had told him earlier as she ruffled his head, and Red had snorted to demonstrate just how little he believed that statement.

A short ten minutes later, they landed on an unfinished strip of highway. The road broke off just as it reached the edge of Midgar, and the untamed desert around the city was a brown, lifeless smudge far beneath them.

Kunsel stepped out of the helicopter. "Any further outside the city, and I'd be automatically contacted by Shinra personnel asking what mission I'm on," he explained apologetically once the helicopter's blades stopped whirring. "Nobody was able to get me clearance to fly within Midgar, but outside…"

"Don't worry about it," Aerith replied, and she managed a smile that she really didn't feel. "Thanks for getting us this far. Really, I… It would have been hard, if we had to figure it out on our own."

Kunsel rubbed the back of his head, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. It took Aerith a moment to realize that he wasn't wearing his helmet, but maybe that shouldn't be a surprise; maybe he too wanted to feel the wind against his face. "I'm sure you would have figured it out," he managed after a pause.

"Are you sure you don't want to come with us?" Tifa asked, stepping up to them. Cloud leaned heavily against her, and she had an arm wrapped around his waist to steady his stumbling gait. He must still be out of it, though he did seem to be somewhat following the conversation. "After everything you did for us, to go back to Shinra Headquarters now…"

Her voice trailed off, and the rest of her statement remained unsaid.

"I appreciate the offer," Kunsel replied after a pause, "but I'm sure. I'd be more helpful to you inside Midgar than I would be with you. You still have Zack's PHS?"

"I do," Aerith replied. It was a reassuring weight in her jacket's breast pocket, and Kunsel nodded approvingly.

"Good. Can I borrow it for a second? To put in my number," he clarified at Aerith's hesitation, and he did just that when Aerith handed it over. "Here," he finished, handing it back to her. "If you ever need anything, please don't hesitate to reach out."

"We won't," Aerith promised as she slipped the phone back into her pocket. "Thank you, Kunsel, for everything. Really."

"Of course," Kunsel easily replied before his gaze slid towards Zack, who was still draped over Barret's back. Zack had stirred a bit in the helicopter ride over, but other than that he had remained firmly asleep. Kunsel's expression twisted into something terribly sad. "When he wakes up, could you… Could you tell him I'm sorry? For not finding him sooner?"

So much guilt was buried in his tone that Aerith felt something like grief well up within her. "I will," she promised, before she managed a thin smile. "But he'll just tell you that you have nothing to apologize for."

"Regardless. But thank you— I appreciate it." He managed a wane smile of his own. "Maybe I can tell him myself, when I see you all again."

"Definitely," Aerith promised, and she hoped that this was a promise that could be kept. "In better times."

"In better times," Kunsel echoed. It looked like he would say something more, until Barret suddenly cut into the conversation.

"But let's meet somewhere fucking far from Midgar," Barret announced as he looked over his shoulder towards the city, grimacing. "I hate this damn place. And, Kunsel…"

Barret voice took on a softness that Aerith wasn't used to seeing from him, and she couldn't help her curiosity as she glanced at Kunsel. But, to her surprise, Kunsel only inclined his head. "Nobody informed me of your situation. Don't worry; I'll make sure Marlene stays safe, though you'll have to explain why you had to leave. I'm not doing that for you."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Barret scuffed the ground with his heel. "Thanks, SOLDIER-boy. You're not so bad."

"Do not call me SOLDIER-boy."

"Fine. Kunsel, then," he amended, which had both Kunsel and Aerith blinking in surprise. "Thanks for looking after my daughter."

At that, Kunsel's cheeks darkened in clear embarrassment. No wonder he always wore his helmet, if he wore every emotion so obviously. "You saying my name sounds wrong too."

Barret only laughed. "Fuck you," he cheerfully replied.

"Can we go, now?" Cloud suddenly asked, his voice faint.

"Fuck yeah, Spikey," Barret replied with a harsh exhale. "I'm ready to leave."

"Me too," Tifa admitted.

That seemed to be Kunsel's cue, because he suddenly took a step forward. "My advice, which I strongly suggest you take, would be to head north to Kalm the moment you get onto the ground."

Tifa frowned. "Why Kalm?"

"Because Shinra won't expect you to stay in the Midgar region," Kunsel explained. "They'd expect you to go over the southern mountains to Junon, and then from there jump over to Corel or the Gold Saucer region."

Aerith bit her lip; that was exactly what she had been hoping to do, actually. The further away from Midgar, the safer Zack and Cloud would be and, by extension, the happier she would be. "How long should we stay in Kalm, then?" she asked, all too aware that Kalm was relatively isolated in the north. If something happened, their only option would be to head back south, past Midgar. "Until this whole thing blows over, or…?"

She let her voice trail off. Kunsel made a face. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "A couple of months, maximum." Barret balked at that. "I'll keep you updated with any intel I get, but I'd suggest you keep your heads down and stock up on cash in the meantime. There's some gil in the backpack—" Kunsel tilted his chin towards the Turk-issued backpack lying beside Red— "but according to Nobody, who got it from Tseng, there's only enough for a week at an inn."

"That's not much," Aerith murmured as her gaze flicked to the backpack in question. It was a decent size, and it included a small, collapsible tent as well as a few blankets, a single pot, and a fire starter. Some non-perishable foodstuffs were also included, but she knew that the food would only last a day or two considering the size of their group. Maybe they could make it stretch longer if they rationed or started hunting and foraging.

Tifa seemed to have the same thought, but unlike Aerith, she looked far more comfortable with the idea. "It'll work out," she said with conviction. "I know how to hunt."

Barret glanced at her in surprise. "You do?"

"I used to live in the countryside, remember?" Tifa shrugged a single shoulder, the side that Cloud wasn't leaning on. "Everybody knew how to at least set a trap."

"That's good to hear," Kunsel said, sounding relieved. "You all will be all right, then?"

Barret huffed as if the question offended him. "Of course we will," he stated matter-of-factly, with far more confidence than Aerith felt. Tifa nodded at once, and Cloud's head jerked down in what could generously be called agreement, but Red didn't seem to have an opinion either way; for the time being, he seemed content to simply close his eyes and feel the sunlight on his face.

Aerith slowly exhaled— I guess we're doing this then— and she managed a smile as she turned back to Kunsel. "All right. To Kalm it is, then. That'll take us… what, two days of walking?"

"At least," Kunsel replied, "but I'd brace myself for at least three or four."

Tifa grimaced. "Noted."

"Take care of yourselves," Kunsel added, and he took a step backwards towards the helicopter in a clear farewell. "Safe travels."

Barret snorted like there was a joke somewhere in there, and with that, the team headed to the edge of the road. There was a utility ladder already set up at its edge, and Barret made short work of unlocking it so that it stretched all the way to the cracked desert below. It was difficult to actually climb their way to the bottom; Barret had to tie Zack to himself, and Tifa went before Cloud so that she could catch him in case if he slipped— a warm sentiment, but Aerith held her breath when they worked their way down. She had no doubt that Tifa was a strong woman, but Cloud was both taller and heavier than she was. Not much heavier, he still was rather thin, but enough that he could knock them both to the bottom.

He didn't.

"They made it," Aerith exhaled the moment Cloud's boots hit the ground. "Thank the gods." She watched for just a few seconds more, just to really take in the fact that they hadn't slipped towards their deaths, before she steeled herself and turned to Red. It was their turn, after all. "Ready?"

Red made an affirming, if very unhappy, sound, and then the two of them went down together. It was horribly awkward and Aerith's heart may have stopped half a dozen times when the ladder creaked in the wind, but she forced herself to continue on. She had never appreciated solid ground more than she did when she finally reached the bottom.

Moments later, she heard the distinct sound of a helicopter taking off. She instinctively looked up but didn't see it; undoubtedly, Kunsel had turned around to go back to Shinra Headquarters. She didn't envy him.

"Everyone all right?" Tifa asked.

"Yes," Red replied, though his voice was slightly higher than it normally does. "I believe that I do not enjoy ladders."

Both Barret and Tifa chuckled at that, which in turn made Aerith feel a bit lighter. It was strange, being on this side of Midgar's walls. She knew that the slums were on the other side of the tall steel barrier just behind them; that on the other side, people were bustling through their day like nothing was wrong, like just a short day ago a metal plate hadn't nearly collapsed on them and reduced their entire district to ruins. But that was just it, wasn't it? For them, there was nothing wrong. The plate hadn't fallen. No one had been crushed beneath the upper city. Everyone they cared about was still alive.

Everyone she cared about was still alive.

"Guys…" Aerith turned towards the rest of the team, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. Despite everything they had gone through— losing Cloud, Hojo's bounty, Corneo, Zack's Turk contract, losing Zack, and then losing Cloud again… "We did it."

"Fuck yeah we did," Barret agreed.

Tifa cracked a smile, though it looked somewhat pained. "It was close," she said with a fond look towards Cloud, "but we did it. Good job, everyone."

"Good job," Cloud echoed.

Red shot Aerith a look, one that was unreadable, before he turned back to the party. "We should start walking. If Kunsel is to be believed, it will take us many days to reach this Kalm. We may want to find somewhere to spend the night."

"Somewhere far a-fucking-way from here," Barret added.

"Yes," Red mildly replied, "I am in agreement with that."

"Then let's go," Tifa said, and with that, they began to walk through the wasteland with nothing but the Turk-issued backpack and the clothes on their backs. It wasn't ideal— far from it, in fact— but for the moment, Aerith felt okay. If they could make it through everything that was Midgar, then they could make it through this, too.

"A road!" Barret suddenly exclaimed. "Hell yes!"

Tifa also looked up in excitement. "Is it a worn road? Do you think we can hitchhike?"

"Hell yeah we can hitchhike," Barret said while gesturing, and sure enough, Aerith could see obvious dust plumes of a car in the distance.

The car, as it turned out, was actually a truck. The driver took some convincing, but he was no match against Tifa; not only did she manage to convince the driver to take them part of the way north, as his destination was more towards the west, but she also convinced him to lend them some bottles of water and snacks.

Now they were all crammed in the bed of the truck. While Zack and Cloud slept, Barret and Tifa discussed their next steps as Red hung his head out the side of the truck with his eyes closed and ears pressed back. They talked about needing jobs so that they could earn some gil, the supplies they needed to buy, taking shifts at night to guard the camp…

Aerith sighed and turned towards the south, where dust spewed out from behind the tires and the Midgar belched clouds of mako vapor into the blue-gray sky. Now that they were some distance away, it was obvious how degraded the land had become due to Midgar's mako drilling. The ground immediately around the city was far darker, drier, and deader than it was further out.

When I return, she began, but the thought cut off halfway because, if she really thought about it, would she ever return to Midgar? Even if the others hadn't realized it yet, she knew on a deep, instinctive level that they may never come back to the city of mako. Their journey would take them somewhere far further than that.

The thought curdled something within her. She wasn't afraid of the future, yet a part of her quailed anyway, and she couldn't help but brush a hand over her pocket. Her fingers outlined the hard lines of Zack's PHS, and she slowly exhaled before checking the other pocket.

The moment her fingers brushed against its silky black feather, an acidic feeling curled within her. Sephiroth, she knew with a faint shudder. There was no doubt in her mind that it was Sephiroth who had taken Jenova's head after she had kicked it away from Cloud. She had no idea how he managed such a thing— she had felt the Planet tremble in relief when he had died years prior— and yet she was utterly convinced that he had. Somehow, someway, Sephiroth had returned. He hadn't fully returned. Not yet. But he would, in time, and Aerith knew that the only person who could stop him was her.

It was a lonely thought.

Gone were the days of helping her mother in the garden. Gone were the days of harvesting flowers, visiting the orphanage, and helping the children weave flower crowns. She would no longer venture to the upper districts to sell her wares. Ms. Folia would no longer tell her about her new dance routines. Her church would stay abandoned; its pews would rot, its pulpit would remain empty, and its stained glass windows would crumble into colored dust between the floorboards. Pieces her would crumble with them, as would the childhood she hadn't realized she had outgrown.

Then the truck turned a corner and blocked the city from view. Aerith was suddenly left staring at the canyon wall, her throat too tight and ribs too small to hold her lungs.

But then Tifa called her name. She wanted her opinion on budgeting as Barret and her disagreed on some points, and Aerith found herself dragged into the conversation. The pressure within her chest eased as she talked. Her eyes stopped stinging. She again found her smile.

Goodbye, halcyon days, she thought, and was relieved the words didn't sting as they should.

She did not look in Midgar's direction again.

The sun did not gracefully descend onto the wasteland but instead collapsed on top of it, a silent crash of red and orange that both lengthened the shadows and brightened the burnt-red sand. As the sky darkened, the wildlands grew quiet; no birds sang to the twilight, and no insects hummed beneath the scattered stars. Not even the truck's rumbling engine provided any relief from Cloud's raging thoughts, as the driver had dropped them off on the side of the road a few miles back with nothing but well-wishes and a memory.

But that was fine. Cloud was okay with that. Compared to huddling in the truck bed waiting for… well, he didn't quite know what, but something— walking was infinitely better. The party was less noticeable on foot. Safer. Large boulders dotted the road to provide some form of cover, and the truck's trailing dust cloud couldn't betray their position. If the infantry caught up to them…

Cloud shook his head, cutting off the thought before it could take root. They won't catch up to us. Kunsel had messaged them hours ago that the infantry hadn't even been dispatched, and the SOLIER went on to say that things would stay quiet until Shinra's new management stabilized. Quieter, anyway.

But as for afterwards…

Dread shivered down Cloud's spine. He had been trying not to think too deeply about what would happen after the quiet; it was enough that he was plagued with a vague sense of doom at the thought. Still, his mind tumbled down that road regardless and provided a vivid snapshot of events he knew would happen: they would be hunted down, made out to be an example of anything Shinra wanted, and then they would be disposed of either in the lab or in the ground. The only way to avoid that end would be to go on the run. Stay on the run, this time. He just hadn't realized running would be so… calm.

Cloud's gaze skittered across the cliffs as he searched for anything: a telltale glint of a rifle scope, a dust plume from helicopter blades, or footprints made by standard-issued boots. But it was deceptively peaceful. There was simply nothing to find. Adrenaline was singing through his veins, yet the only footprints he saw were their own, only the wind was kicking up dust, and the only things glinting were wolves' eyes as a pack hunted beneath the stars. He almost wished that someone would start shooting at them, just so that he knew where the enemy was— so he knew who to fight.

Had Zack felt the same way, the first time?

The thought had Cloud cringing in the face of his own uselessness— he had been worthless deadweight back then, unable to even walk or feed himself— and his breath misted the chill air as he roughly exhaled. When he shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, he could almost pretend that their trembling was from the cold. Which, why were they doing that, anyway? Nothing was happening. All he was doing was walking.

Could he not even handle this much?

"Cloud?" A sudden voice had Cloud jerking his head up, startled, only to find Tifa watching him with a worried wrinkle between her brows. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he said quickly.

Too quickly, actually. Tifa's wrinkle furrowed further. "Are you sure?" she asked, and she ignored his stammered"Yeah" to add, "You looked like you were… well, like you were thinking hard about something."

"Me?" Cloud's brain misfired— the urge to reassure her got tangled with his desire to deny it completely— and he only had time to stammer out a quick, "I don't think," which he immediately regretted. He took several mental steps backwards. "Um, what I mean… er, I mean, I do think, I've definitely thought thoughts before, it's just that…"

As he was flailing, Tifa surprised him with a sudden laugh. Cloud closed his mouth with an audible click. "Oh, Cloud," she managed after she recovered, and she spoke with such fondness that he momentarily forgot his embarrassment. She wiped her eyes. "Thank you. I needed that."

"Anytime," Cloud immediately replied. Tifa smiled in response, and suddenly he was twelve years old again, with lofty promises resting on his shoulders and nothing in his hands. "Anytime," he said again, more desperately now. Finding the right words had never been easy, but now language itself seemed to be failing him. Emotions pushed against his teeth. Still, he tried. He could at least do that much. "Tifa, I…What I mean is, back at the—"

"Ey!" Barret glanced over his shoulder at them, the side that Zack's head wasn't resting on. Nothing seemed to wake him, which Barret seemed intent to take full advantage of. "Lovebirds! Not while we're walking!"

"Barret," Tifa hissed just as Aerith cried, "No, it was just getting good!"

There was a ditch following the road, and Cloud had the sudden urge to crawl into it. They were listening? he thought, mortified. But, more importantly— "Lovebirds?" he croaked. "No, we're not—"

"We're friends," Tifa said quickly.

"Childhood friends," Cloud tacked on as he pointedly ignored the sudden ache in his chest. "From childhood."

Barret shot them a side eye. "Right."

"It's true!"

"That's not what I'm—"

"Barret," Aerith pointedly interjected, and although teasing sparkle in her eye, shegave the man in question a look. Cloud wasn't entirely sure what that look meant, but he did know that it made him want to take a few steps back even though it hadn't even been directed his way.

Barret made a face before he harshly exhaled. "Fine! Fine, I'll pretend I don't notice."

"Notice what?" Tifa squeaked.

Cloud had never feared a question more. "Ignore him," he finally told Tifa, with far more confidence than he felt. "Barret doesn't know anything."

Tifa snapped her head towards him. "He doesn't know what?" she asked, her voice impossibly pitched higher than before.

Cloud blinked and stole another glance at the ditch, which was looking more and more appealing. "Erm…"

"I believe that Cloud," Red mercifully interjected, "was implying that Barret does not know about the intricate matters of the heart."

Barret made an indignant sound. "Hey! I do too know about the intricate matters of the heart!"

Red's forehead scrunched upward in obvious befuddlement. "Is that so?"

"Hell yeah! I know all about the heart, and love, and all that shit. Romance is, uh, delicate! Fragile. You gotta…" Barret's eyes suddenly widened, as if he was realizing something for the first time, and he turned to Cloud with a much wider grin than before. "Cloudy, what you gotta do is woo the woman!"

"Romance?" Tifa squeaked just as Cloud choked out, "Woo?"

Barret tipped his head back and laughed, full-bodied and more carefree than a fugitive had any right to be. "Did you hear that, Aerith? They were in sync!"

"Barret!" Aerith cried, her amusement warring with her concern. "Stop laughing! You're going to wake up Zack!"

There was little chance of that; Zack had only woken up once in a blind panic in the truck, only to immediately fall back asleep once he realized there wasn't a threat and only after drinking half a potion. He had fallen so deeply asleep that Aerith was afraid he was in some sort of coma, but Red had reassured everyone that Zack was truly just asleep— that a body can shut down after long periods of high physical and emotional stress. No one had the heart to ask Red how exactly he knew that, but they had taken him at his word. Zack had been sleeping since.

Barret made an oh shit face and glanced over his shoulder, but Zack— still draped across his back— continued to breathe evenly and deeply.

Red's tail flicked in amusement. "Perhaps we should find somewhere to rest for the night," he interjected with a pointed look at the setting sun. "We won't have sunlight for much longer."

Tifa, grateful for the change in subject, also turned to squint towards the sunset. "That's true. We don't want to set up camp in the dark."

"Why don't we set up camp here, then?" Aerith asked.

Barret arched an eyebrow at her. "Here, as in, the middle of the road?"

"Why not? It's convenient, isn't it?"

"What it is, is stupid," Barret stated with a huff, and Aerith scowled at him. "Look, if we're gonna camp in the wilderness like bears, we gotta do it right and proper. That means ambience."

"What Barret means," Tifa interjected before Barret could further offend anyone's sensibilities, "is that the road isn't protected from the elements."

"Or cars," Red pointed out.

"Or cars," Tifa added. Aerith nodded as if this made sense and she was beginning to see the logic. "We need to find somewhere good to set up the camp. That means somewhere relatively hidden, protected from the elements, with flat ground to pitch the tent, and ideally near water."

Red squinted towards the nearby cliffs. "Perhaps one of the slot canyons would be suitable? The canyon walls will provide both cover and protection from wind, but will also be close enough to the road that we can react quickly if we notice any sort of activity. Our other option," he added when Aerith looked less than convinced, "is to camp out in the open, but while that is more convenient, it will leave us vulnerable to being spotted by those who may be… less than friendly."

"Assholes, you mean," Barret stated.

Red deferentially nodded. "Of a kind."

The party had no objections when their options were laid out like that, and they quickly moved off of the road and made their way to one of the nearby thin canyons. The sun had fallen low by the time they reached it, and in the end they had to pitch the tent mainly by moonlight and the flaming tip of Red's tail; or rather, Barret set up the tent with Red's support, while Aerith watched over Zack, and Cloud went with Tifa to find firewood.

Firewood was difficult to find in the surrounding wasteland, but thankfully dry twigs and brittle underbrush wasn't. By the time they returned, their arms weighed down with what felt like all of the shrubbery within a half mile radius, the tent had been pitched and a small fire— which benefitted greatly from the additional tinder— was sputtering beside the canyon wall. Zack was asleep inside the tent, and Barret and Aerith were working on starting dinner.

"Don't worry about it! It'll be ready soon," Aerith said when Tifa offered to help cook. "Just… don't get your hopes up too high, though."

"It's oatmeal," Barret stated, disgusted.

Aerith shot him a sympathetic look. "And some protein bars," she added as she turned back to Cloud and Tifa. "We should hopefully reach Kalm tomorrow, given how much progress we made today, so hopefully we'll be able to restock then."

"Yeah, with all of the money we have," Barret grumbled.

Aerith good-naturedly whacked him on the arm. "None of that," she chided. "We have enough, thanks to Kunsel and Nobody. You'll feel better when you eat something."

"Dinner is oatmeal," Barret repeated, his tone sounding as if nothing could possibly be worse, but he did keep his complaining to a minimum as he continued to stir the pot. Aerith shot Cloud and Tifa another wane smile and invited them to sit by the fire. "But more importantly, we gotta figure out a plan for tomorrow." Barret gestured towards the group with his stirring stick. "We gotta make preparations."

Red rested his chin on his crossed paws. "I am in agreement with that."

"What sort of plan did you have?" Tifa asked.

"Er… Well, it may be more like Aerith's plan—" Cloud discreetly breathed a sigh of relief, as he recalled how well Barret's last plan went— "but I added some steps."

"Hopefully not too many steps," Cloud commented before his brain could catch up.

Barret's jaw dropped as Aerith snorted before covering it with a cough. "Hey!"

"Sorry." Cloud wasn't that sorry, but as they'd likely be sticking together for a while yet— "What was the plan?"

Barret scowled at him, but relented. "As I was sayin', before I was so rudely interrupted, the plan is to leave at first light for Kalm. That's Aerith's idea, not mine, in case y'all were wonderin'."

"We weren't," Tifa commented.

Barret swiveled his scowl towards her, and she flashed him a bright grin. "Anyway," he continued, "Tifa and Aerith'll enter the town first, since Shinra probably has less of a bone to pick with them and they don't stand out as much as, say, the guy with the gun arm, the dog with the fire tail—"

"I am a wolf, not a dog," Red pointed out to deaf ears.

"—and the two ex-laboratory sample guys. No offense," Barret added, directing this to Cloud.

Cloud shrugged; as far as what he's been called the past twenty-four hours, 'ex-laboratory sample guy' was the least offensive. At least he was an ex-laboratory sample, and not a current one. "None taken."

"Good." Barret turned back to the pot. "Anyway, once Tifa and Aerith go in and make sure that the rest of us don't have bounties or whatever, which hopefully we don't, we'll either enter Kalm through the front gate or we figure out a way to sneak in. Then— if all that goes well, which is a pretty damn big if— we gotta find some jobs and earn some gil, so we can buy supplies." He grimaced. "Some proper food would be damn nice."

"Oatmeal isn't that bad," Aerith said, but she winced when Barret pointedly raised his stirring stick so the bland mash dripped off the end. "Okay, maybe it's not the best," she relented, "but at least it's something."

"It's something, all right," Barret grumbled, but he quickly clamped it mouth shut when Aerith arched an eyebrow.

Cloud turned the plan over in his mind. Despite the many 'ifs' involved, the plan seemed decent enough; yet no matter how many scenarios Barret and Tifa bounced off of each other, a vague sense of unease settled within him like a stone. A chill lingered in the night air despite the fire, and he looked over his shoulder towards the road; it was dark still, but if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine helicopter blades cutting against the dark.

"Cloud?" Aerith suddenly said.

Cloud turned back around, a nameless guilt creeping up within him. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention. What?"

Aerith looked amused. "I was asking if you wanted tea," she explained. "We don't have too much spare water, but we have enough for at least a cup. You want any? It's black tea. I think," she added, frowning as the realization occurred to her. "I don't know, actually."

"Tea sounds great," Cloud replied honestly. "No matter what kind."

"Coming right up," Aerith said before she turned to Barret with a pointed stare. "At least someone's not picky."

"Ey, I ain't picky!" Barret immediately replied. "What I have is standards."

Tifa laughed. "What! You're absolutely picky. Like… Like, remember when I made stir fry out of the kitchen leftovers? You picked all of the carrots out of it. Every single one!"

"Carrots are for rabbits," Barret replied primly. "Do I look like a rabbit to you?"

Aerith handed Cloud his cup of tea, laughing all the while. "Barret, really? Carrots?"

Barret sniffed. "Carrots are for rabbits," he repeated.

Cloud knew he should keep his mouth shut, but… "Carrots are kinda gross," he quietly admitted.

"I also do not enjoy eating carrots," Red stated matter-of-factly.

Barret lit up. "Hell yeah! See?" he continued, gesturing to the two women with his stirring stick. "You're outnumbered, and therefore we win. Carrots are disgusting."

"Have you ever had carrots glazed with balsamic vinegar, honey, and rosemary?" Aerith shot back, and at the blank stares from the opposing team, she leaned back with a smug air. "Well then, there you have it. You can't say you don't like carrots if you've never had them cooked properly."

"I admit," Red began after a pause, "that I did not know that carrots could be cooked."

"Anything can be cooked if you do it wrong enough," Barret stated.

Red tilted his head in thought before nodding, amused. "I suppose you're right."

"I'm always right!"

Cloud chuckled despite himself, and he was content to simply stay quiet and listen to the rest of the party bicker over different foods. His earlier paranoia still quavered in his bones, and he couldn't help but twitch when the fire cracked, but now— with Barret talking animatedly about the disgusting nature of pumpkins while Aerith refuted him with different recipes, and Red lying beside the campfire doing his best imitation of a purr— something unwound within him.

Cloud took a sip of his tea and smiled. The night's chill seemed further away, somehow; or at least, it felt far enough away that he could almost believe that whatever came afterwards wouldn't be so bad. That it could be navigated, day-by-day, one campfire at a time.

When Zack had been a child, he would pretend to fall asleep in the living room. It was an evening routine, a practiced play; his mother would kiss his temple while his father would carry him to his bedroom, and they would pretend to not notice his smile when they tucked him into bed with a soft goodnight. Later, Zack would stay awake to listen to their conversation in the next room. Sometimes they'd play music— quietly, as to not wake him up— and he would watch their shadows dance across his bedroom wall.

He could no longer remember what music they played, but he could still remember the laughter; or at least, he could still recall its echo, the aftershocks of happiness from one room over. Now it was accompanied by an intense feeling of homesickness and loss because, for the second time in his life, he had woken up somewhere completely new and unfamiliar.

…And yet, inexplicably, he could still hear the laughter.

Zack could hear it through the fabric wall of a tent— a tent, he belatedly realized, not the harsh concrete of a basement, nor the whitewash wall of a lab. He held his breath and listened, pointedly ignoring the wanting aching white-hot in his gut, and he waited for the peaceful moment to inevitably shatter. This was a dream, he knew. None of this was real. He knew that, he told himself that, and yet he wordlessly begged for five more minutes anyway; to lie here and listen, for just a little while longer, even if every ticking second felt like inhaling glass: it hurt, and he was bleeding, but he still needed to breathe.

He wished

But he couldn't stop breathing.

"I thought I heard something," said a familiar voice. It interrupted his thoughts, and Zack lifted his head to see Aerith— Aerith— brushing aside the tent flap before walking in. Zack stared. Soot was smudged across her cheeks and there were faint bruises beneath her eyes. Her hair was mussed, the scent of campfire smoke and dust clung to her clothes, and there was a scuff on her knuckles that hadn't been there before. Yet she had the same brightness that he saw in his dreams. Her hands looked as soft as he remembered. She settled down beside him, smiling.

Zack could feel glass crackle in his lungs. "Aerith," he managed on the broken exhale, tasting copper. "Aerith, Aerith, what are you…"

"We're making dinner," Aerith said when Zack's voice trailed off, and when Zack offered no response, she seamlessly filled the quiet between them. "Did you know that Cloud and Tifa know how to make snares? They used to make them as kids since apparently they lived pretty remote, and they actually managed to catch a few birds. Thank Gaia they did, because Barret pitched a fit when he found out we really only have oatmeal. We made some oatmeal anyway, though. I can bring you some— or not," she amended when Zack reached out and grabbed her wrist, his palm clammy with panic. "I'll stay here instead. How does that sound?"

Zack slowly exhaled, his panic ebbing into weak-kneed relief. He wanted to say something like, Stay, because if you are are a dream then I'll wake up when you leave. He wanted to say, Please tell me that this is not a dream. He nearly said, Tell me I made it to Midgar, that you're real, because I can't do it alone anymore.

Instead he said, quiet and hopeful, "Five more minutes?"

Her answer was immediate. "Of course," she whispered, and his eyelashes fluttered as his hand dropped. "Five minutes, five hours… I'll be here as long as you want."

"Forever, then," he slurred.

Aerith's smile warmed. "Forever."

Forever, Zack's mind helplessly echoed. What a small word forever was, when it was used both to describe the infinity strung between the stars and the past several years of his life. Forever, forever, he thought and he inhaled, tasting smoke and burning sagebrush; on his exhale, his breath misted in the chill air. Firelight flickered outside the tent and sent shadows dancing against the fabric walls.

He thought he could hear the laughter.

A dream, his mind whispered as he reached out his hand again, it's all a dream. He snagged the hem of Aerith's dress. "Stay," he murmured. "Don't go."

Aerith chuckled, a faint sound, and she placed a hand over his. "I'm not going anywhere," she told him. "Never again, remember?"

He did remember, was the thing. He recalled the barely audible 'never again' breathed into the air between them, a quiet swearing on something no larger than themselves. But he was feeling particularly small right now. Brittle, even. Fragile, in a way he couldn't recall.

"Real?" he asked. Begged, even.

Aerith's grip tightened. "Real," she promised, and he exhaled his relief— a full, clear breath— and let himself drift off into sleep with a small smile on his lips.

He could still hear the laughter.

It was somewhere past midnight, and it was Cloud's turn to keep watch. It had been a quiet vigil so far. As the fire burnt itself to ember and ash, stars spun lazily across the sky and entire whorls of constellations dusted color behind wispy clouds. An owl occasionally hooted in the lulls of Barret's snoring, and as the wind quietly tumbled across the dusty landscape, Cloud simply rested his chin in his hands and watched the world slumber by.

Earlier today, the perpetual calmness had unsettled him. He was a fugitive after all, wanted by Shinra and Hojo, and nothing about that promised a peaceful life. And yet, here he was: at peace. For the moment, anyway.

A rustle behind him had him lifting his head, but when he turned he saw Tifa slip out of the tent. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, and she blearily rubbed sleep out of her eyes.

Something within Cloud went soft at the sight. "Can't sleep?" he asked as he scooted over.

Tifa settled in beside him. "Not really." Sitting so closely together, he could see her breath mist in the cold and her lips quirk up when she glanced at him. "And since I couldn't sleep, I thought I'd keep you company instead. How is everything?"

"Good." Cloud shifted his gaze back to the fire's smoldering embers, though they were quickly cooling in the cold night. "Quiet."

"When is your shift up?"

Now Cloud tilted his head back to squint at the moon, little more than a sliver of white above them. "Not too much longer, I think. Fifteen minutes? Thirty?"

Tifa shifted on the stone that made up their seat. "That's not so bad."

"No," Cloud agreed. "It's not so bad."

They lapsed into companionable silence with that. Tifa seemed content to prop her chin in her hands and gaze at the smoldering remains of the campfire, while Cloud turned his eyes skyward; he had seen a shooting star early in his watch, and he was waiting to see if another one would streak across the night.

"Hey… Cloud?"


"I was wondering… Are you okay?"

The worry in her tone had Cloud dropping his head to look fully at her. It was an echo of her earlier question; like before, there was a worried crease between her brows and something heartfelt in her expression.

But unlike before, Cloud finally knew how to answer. "Yeah," he replied honestly. "I'm okay now."

Tifa relaxed a fraction. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," he promised, and Tifa faintly smiled in response. "How are you doing? With everything, I mean."

Tifa lowered her gaze. "I'm… not sure, honestly. It's just—" She gestured vaguely around her, and Cloud wasn't sure if she was indicating the camp or just the world at large. He hummed his agreement regardless. "Today has been a lot. And I mean, I always knew I'd leave Midgar one day, but I just thought that I'd have more time, you know?" She shook her head with a humorless chuckle. "Silly of me though, huh? You'd think I'd know better by now."

"I don't think that's silly," Cloud replied, and when Tifa looked at him wide-eyed, he continued, "Just… It's normal, isn't it? To think you'd stay a while in the place you call home."

Tifa watched him with obvious surprise, but after a moment, her expression softened. "I guess so."

"Do you miss it?" Cloud asked before he clarified, "Midgar, I mean. You were there for a while."

"Ah." Tifa tucked her knees against her chest. "No, I don't miss Midgar. The people, sure— they were good to me— but the city never really felt like home, to be honest. I don't think I ever got used to how busy or loud it always was. And besides," she added with a wry look his way, "I think I needed a change, anyway."

"Was this the kind of change you had in mind?"

Tifa laughed, which had Cloud's face heating despite the lack of fire. "Not exactly, no. But so far—" she turned to smile at him, with her hair tumbling over her knees and her cheeks reddened from the cold — "it really hasn't been all too bad."

Cloud hummed his agreement. Despite everything imploding around them, the stars were bright and the company was good, and that was more than he had in a long time.

"And… Cloud?" Cloud couldn't help but notice that Tifa's worried tone had returned. "Do you think we'll be all right?"

Cloud considered it for a moment. "I think so," he eventually replied. "We'll just take it one day at a time."

"One day at a time," Tifa agreed, and then she surprised him by leaning her head on his shoulder. Suddenly, Cloud wasn't worried about what came next at all or the ominous afterwards; all that mattered now was this moment and the slight space between them, and a sudden act of either madness or bravery had him wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

"We'll figure it out together," he replied as he looked stoically forward, and he tried not to jolt when he felt Tifa shift against him, aligning their bodies so that they sat together a little more comfortably.

"Together," she murmured.

It was a promise. Cloud couldn't help but recall the last promise they had made beneath these same stars, this same sky. He would never be able to fulfill that vow— he would never become a SOLDIER, not really— but he was suddenly feeling optimistic about this one. He no longer felt afraid for the future, because he knew that no matter what came next, he was sure that they could handle it.


The End

And that's that 🌸

Thank you for reaching the end; we've come a long way since the beginning, and I hope the final chapter was as good as you were hoping for (but if it wasn't, please don't tell me, I don't want to know 😂). Thank you always to silver_doe287, for not only tirelessly editing all of these chapters but also for your amazing support, friendship, and fandom recommendations along the way. Also big thank you to all of the YouTube FF7/FF7R walk-throughs and whoever runs the FF7 wikipedia page, because without those resources, I would have been so lost.

You can find me on on twitter at Rand0mSmil3z. Until twitter implodes, I'll continue posting all of my story and chapter updates there first (including Halcyon Day's sequel, whenever I get to that!).

Once again, thanks for everything- it has been a completely joy writing for you all 💙 Reach out anytime.

Until next time,