Title: Sunrise
Beta: anubisfenrir at lj
Pairing: Zack/Aeris and a tiny bit of Zack/Aeris/Cloud/Tifa if you squint hard.
Rating: PG/PG-13 - worksafe
Note: For elanor pam's hetchallenge at lj, Block 2.
Summary:
After Advent Children Zack and Aeris awake in the Forgotten Capital.

---

Zack waves at Cloud one last time before embracing his lady's ghost with his own ghost-hand and walking away. He feels himself fade; his focus and his form are slipping as the Lifestream calls him back. He tries to tighten his hold around Aeris one last time but it's of no use and the next moment there is nothing.

His consciousness is flickering like a candle in the wind and Zack is unsure of why is he still fighting. After all, he is dead. There is no pain, neither are there whispers from an unknown Mother he had never wanted. Yet, he still tries to feel, think, and live -- and the most disturbing feeling is having no lips to smile with.

However, the Lifestream is much stronger than a mere man - Zack succumbs to the long sleep of death. He dreams of cleansing water and delighted laughter; he dreams of a strong sense of accomplishment and, later, a soft spoken apology from a silver haired man he almost remembers. Zack tries to keep the other man there for a few minutes to ask why and to make him smile at least a little but the dream changes too fast.

Wet fingertips touch his eyelids, and he flutters them open with a deep confusion. He doesn't know where he is but the light is too bright and he shuts his eyes to protect them. The next time he opens them, it is dark.

Out of habit he breathes and starts to cough at the next moment. His lungs ache painfully and he can feel some odd-tasting water at the back of his throat. Twisting and turning until he is facing the ground Zack heaves and gets most of the water out of his lungs.

Still heaving Zack forces his muscles to move and he kneels up. The ground is solid and cold under him; so different from the ethereal afterlife he has known for the last few years. Violet eyes widening, Zack whips his head around, looking, seeking for another one. His gaze adjusts to the darkness and he spots a bundle which could be a female form with a bit of good will. Aeris!

Crawling closer, because he is still too weak to stand and actually walk, Zack reaches the other body and laughs aloud as it is indeed her. Exhausted, he collapses next to Aeris. Zack lays his right hand on her face before sleep claims him once more.

---

When she wakes up there is a fire cracking a few feet away. She can hear the soft murmur of the Planet and that's shocking in itself. The previously loud and clear words are just whispers and feelings, just like before. She sits up, shrugging off the heavy fabric of an old comforter. There is movement and a moment later a familiar figure is next to her.

"Zack!" She cries out and then she is crying. Hot tears run down on her face and she hides her head in his chest, hugging him close. Strong arms are around her back. Minutes pass before she calms down enough to lift her head.
A calloused thumb brushes away the remaining teardrops from the corners of her red eyes and Aeris smiles.

Then there are lips on her own, and the world spins around with her. They are soft, hot, and solid; so different from before, when they were barely-there ghosts whose consciousness met only because of the Planet's mercy. Happiness is real as well, a warm spot deep inside her heart and she clings to Zack.

Later, she asks the Planet about what happened. Both of their memories are fogged; her last clear memory is when Kadaj died and she teased Cloud. Zack remembers waving goodbye a bit later. These are not much but they are both certain that they were dead - and according to their previous memories - this is not the Promised Land.

She describes the Planet's answer as deep satisfaction, happiness, reward, and a wink as there are no words for what is actually heard and felt. Zack smiles and caresses her face once more before putting another piece of wood on the fire. "Tell It that we're glad," he says before dropping his head for another kiss. Aeris does so before losing herself to her rediscovered senses.

Her fingertips trace thankfully old, healed wounds; at least a dozen small ones at Zack's chest, the ragged slash of the Masamune of which she has a matching one as well, three white lines on his left arm where - as Zack says - an enraged chocobo clawed him. She laughs at the story and kisses him before showing him the place where the boiling water spilled onto her.

When they are clothed once more into their old clothes she looks at him expectantly. "What?" he asks before smiling brightly.

Aeris smiles back. "I want to meet Cloud, Tifa, and the others. They missed us- and I missed them."

Her wish is met with an understanding nod, "When the sun rises." She relaxes and curls around Zack, protecting him in exchange for his protection.

---

Just outside the Forgotten Capital Zack kills a stupid monster with his bare hands and sells its thick fur at the next village. Zack buys a sword, and Aeris spends the rest of their small amount of gil on warm clothing. It snows all day and night from the thick grey clouds as they curl under a simple, borrowed tent.

Bone Village doesn't have any kind of transport - the researchers arrived through Icicle Inn and they offer them the same advice. Zack smiles and thanks them, before reaching for Aeris' hand as she is packing. There are gifts from the researchers, maybe as a thank you for the tales Zack told the previous night as they sat around the big fire.

Zack circles the sword above his shoulders twice, settling its weight on his back. Aeris refuses to give him the pack and he doesn't argue much; her green eyes are alit with determination. Instead, he kisses her once more just because he can.

They cover a relatively good deal of distance before the sun sets and the temperature drops even lower. Zack needs his every skill to create a fire from the snowy wood without a Fire materia but he manages; and then Aeris is next to him, snuggling even closer.

"Thank you," he says. Silence answers before Zack can feel as she nods against his shoulder. It makes him smile and he hugs her closer. They are together and that's the only thing that counts.

Days pass as they cross the mountain once more. There is something wrong with Aeris and Zack isn't sure what. He tries the direct route but Aeris just shakes her head and says she is tired.

When they stop the next day - at the other side of the mountain - Zack reaches down for a bit of snow.

"Aeris!" he calls out and that is all the warning he is willing to give before the snowball flies. She laughs and dodges before furiously replying to the missile with one of her own. They are both drenched to the bone when they stop but their faces and eyes are alit with joy.

"This was fun," Aeris says and Zack can't help but smile at her.

"Yes, it was. I wouldn't exchange it for a world," he says. "Well, maybe for some hot tea..."

"Zack!" Her voice is full of indignation but her eyes shine with mirth. His laugh earns him a last snowball.

---

When they reach the Icicle Inn Aeris is cold, tired, and sneezing. Zack had to half carry her in the last two days and there are worry lines on his face. She tries to kiss and caress them away but they just get deeper as her fever doesn't break.

The village is small but it's big enough to have an inn, telephones and a doctor who is willing to help her for free. Her vision is blurry and she can't understand the doctor's and Zack's shushed tones before the medicine forces her to sleep.

She can't breathe when she wakes up and her panic must be clear because Zack is holding her hand, asking what is the matter. Aeris tries to reply, but all that comes out of her throat are coughs. It sounds like barking and only hurts her lungs more. Her fingers curl around Zack's and give them a squeeze before Aeris drops back to the pillows.

Feverish dreams claim her once more but there is a warm presence at the edge of them; protecting her and guiding her out of the nightmares.

"Y're gonna be alright," Zack says to her every time she wakes up, and Aeris believes him.

The doctor visits as well, giving her pills and placing cold packs on her forehead. The fever breaks and she gets better but is still too weak to travel once more. She asks about the money - they can't expect to be treated, housed and fed without any money and Zack brushes her long hair out of her eyes with a smile. "Don't worry," he says.

"Why?" Aeris asks and leans into the touch. Speaking still hurts her tender throat but simple words are easy enough to manage. She won't let anything hold her back.

"I asked for help," Zack replies. It's a main difference between them - Zack is ready to admit if he can't deal with something while Aeris struggles alone as long as she can manage. "I phoned a few numbers I knew. Most of them don't even exist anymore but one did reply."

The curiosity is easy to read on Aeris' face and Zack settles on the bed. He knows he can get away with a bit of teasing, and he chooses to not yet reveal the name of their benefactor. "He believed I'm a ghost at first; said I was dead. I managed to convince him I wasn't - so I briefed him 'bout our situation. Your name," a smile plays on his lips," made him agree without any conditions of repayment."

"Who, Zack?" Aeris demands and tugs at his hand.

Zack grins - her strength is slowly returning. Yet, it's not nice to play with her and he caves; brushing a small kiss against her lips before telling, "You won't believe it: Reno. He promised to tell Cloud and Tifa." Zack can see the surprise and he steals another kiss before hugging Aeris close. She squeals but goes willingly. Zack smiles. "They're gonna be here soon."

---

The next sunrise comes and she wakes up as Zack tries to move away from her embrace. "What's-?" she asks, voice slurred.

"Nothin'," Zack whispers back and presses a kiss against her forehead. "Gonna be back in a few."

She nods and lets her eyes close for a few more much needed minutes. However, she isn't sleeping - without Zack there it doesn't feel safe. Fifteen minutes later Aeris accepts the truth and sits up in the bed. She doesn't feel weak. Her clothes are close, next to the bed on a chair.

She reaches for them, bringing them back to the bed and struggles to get into them without leaving the warm sheets. Once presentable, she swings her legs to the ground and wriggles her sock-covered toes. "Where are my boots?" she asks aloud from the empty room. There is no answer and Aeris sighs as she slips to her feet.

Fortunately, there are thick carpets on the floor and she takes a step forward. Her boots are still missing. A quick glance says they aren't in the bedroom. Another step is in order, then another one. A few more and she reaches the door. The success encourages her to open the door and Aeris presses down the handle with a determined expression.

The door opens to a typical corridor. There are stairs to the ground floor and a few more doors to other rooms, and to the bathroom where she was already. Her boots are waiting on the side, cleaned and unlaced and Aeris reaches for them.

A few minutes later she makes her way downstairs. Voices reach her and although the words aren't clear the tones are full of happiness. She smiles as she recognizes Zack's easy laugh then freezes mid-step as two other voices join in. It can't be, she thinks and she races down to check for herself.

Aeris stumbles on the last few steps as she reaches the inn's bar where three people are. One of them is Zack; Aeris would know his tall form and black hair anywhere. The other man has similar hair even if its colour is blond. His body is short but muscled and the heavy sword on his back sits easily. The third person is a woman whose long hair is in a loose braid and her figure leaves nothing to complain about.

"Cloud?" Aeris asks in a mere whisper but it's enough to still and silence everything. For a few moments she fears that she went to sleep despite her efforts and this is just a dream. "Tifa?"

"Aeris!" Tifa exclaims before sprinting forward to embrace her tightly. They don't part even when Cloud steps in and gets his hands around both of them, hugging them close. Aeris lifts her head and glances at Zack who doesn't wait for another invitation but goes to their other side and joins in the mass-hug.

"It's good to be here," Aeris says as she can feel tears of joy at the edges of her eyes once more and relieved laughter is the only reply before the embrace becomes tighter. The sun shines through the inn's window and bathes them in its rays.

-End-