Much as I'd like to, it wouldn't be fair to put this off anymore. I've been living with this story so long, for months before anyone else knew it existed, that I feel kinda empty at the thought of it really being over. I have Decorum (new one coming soon, by the way) and more multi-chapters ahead, and even other fandoms I'm start to explore in writing. But this story, just like FFVII, will always hold a special place in my heart. A lot of that is thanks to all of you, those who have been with me from Chapter 1 and those who have just recently joined the Madness. I never, never expected reviews of such quantity or quality, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for every one of them.
This story is about circles, not only of abuse but of love, and here we reach the point where the circle closes. I hope this finale is a pleasing closure to all of you. And Zacky, because I've put you through so much, I give you the last word.
Zack: "My head hurts, and I don't like you."
Not as poetic as I had hoped, but it'll have to do. Let's get this over with...
THE MADNESS OF ANGELS
Chapter 45 - You Are The Proof
Blue. The harsh, rocky landscape of the desert had faded, and Zack's senses were overwhelmed and jumbling. The sudden and complete lack of pain was jarring enough, but not as much as the peace that accompanied it. Confused, body weightless and mind racing, Zack remembered ducking for cover, abandoning the truck, shielding someone and hiding him. Then acceptance as he raced into battle, exhiliration and pain and ghost voices getting louder. Laying in a pool of his own blood as rain began to fall and soak the blond spikes that he pet with the last of his strength. Passing the Buster Sword on with pride, looking into Cloud's awakened eyes and so damn happy to see them one last time.
"You are the proof...that I existed. Live for me, Spiky, for both of us. I love you..."
The echo of a scream from far away startled Zack out of his attempt to piece these fragments together. It was an expression of absolute anguish, of heart-shattering loss, and that was something Zack could easily empathize with. Could he help this person? Was it Cloud, was Cloud all right? The blue all around was the color of many skies - Cloud's summer, Zack's own winter, the dark-water blue that belonged to adolescent guilt...
The noise faded, and with it the swirling sky all around. In its place rose up towers of brown and green, the faint sound of water trickling over a stream path nearby, and beneath Zack's feet, rich soil that smelled almost like home. Gongaga? He felt no danger, but the woods weren't safe here. There were voices somewhere, maybe coming up behind him. As he had once in a nightmare, Zack ran the overgrown paths of his childhood and found them all changed, all leading to Gaia only knew what, but he ran and ran, with no heaviness in his lungs or anywhere else. Light as a ghost, he stumbled into a clearing that overflowed with flowers, and this was where he had wanted to be. Zack knew that, because he knew the arms that caught and lifted and embraced him to a heartbeat that was stronger than ever.
"Angeal?" Feet just off the thick grass, Zack pressed himself into the large, familiar body and laughed and sobbed and clung all at once. "You're alive?"
"As much as you are, Puppy," Angeal said, touching Zack all over and leaving kisses behind as his lips got reacquainted with this skin. "I'm here, it's all right. I'll never leave you again."
"Angeal, I think I had a bad dream again," Zack sighed as fingers combed through his hair and shared warmth passed between their strangely light bodies. "I lost, you died, everyone died, and I - "
"Became a hero, Pup. Just like you always wanted. I'm so proud of you."
"It wasn't a dream...was it?"
"It's all a dream, Zack," Angeal said gently, setting his soulmate down and cupping his face. "But the bad part is all over. We'll never be apart now."
Zack smiled with happiness and gratitude and a sob that he choked out, and Angeal's fingers drying his tears only prompted more to fall. "I'm...dead...and this is the Lifestream."
"Yes. It can look any way we want it to, and I've created many places for us while I waited for you. This is one of my favorites. See the flowers, Zack?"
"Yeah, they're - " The spiky-haired teenager's (he didn't think to wonder why he had become younger) mouth fell open, and he grasped Angeal's biceps with as much panic as this heaven allowed. "Cloud! I left him, he's all alone, I have to - "
"Ssh, ssh." Zack had promised himself he would never complain about Angeal's coddling again, and he kept his word, not fighting the firm arms that rocked slowly. "Cloud will be all right, I promise. He's strong. You helped make him strong. He has a story of his own to live, and a destiny. We can't keep him from that."
"He'll...he'll really be okay?"
"Yes." Angeal caressed a smooth cheek with his palm and smiled, coaxing Zack to smile back. "We'll watch over him together, Pup, and you'll see. And one day we'll show Cloud our garden here, like you wanted to."
"I wanted to introduce you to him. I hoped you would like him."
"I do like him," Angeal laughed softly, his brown eyes content and twinkling. "I was there, remember, in Lazard, helping you tend to Cloud. Anyone that precious to you is a part of our family. And anyone that Seph allowed himself to care for."
The sadness in Angeal's voice seemed to answer Zack's next question, but he asked anyway. "Is Sephiroth here?"
"No, Pup," Angeal said quietly.
"Jenova still has him? She won't give him up, will she?"
"Not without a fight."
Zack blinked at him in wonder, and hope. "Do you think...is that maybe one of the things Cloud is meant to do?"
"I think so. One champion of Gaia saving another...what better way for Her to show Her love for us?"
"Is that what this feeling all around us is?" Zack murmured. "Love? It's amazing."
"It's what I always felt for you." Angeal took Zack's hands and brought them to his lips. "From the first sight of you I had, and every day after."
The brown eyes showering affection down on him were different, Zack mused. It was more even than the absence or defeat of Jenova, it was the lightness, the relief. The happiness undiluted by remorse. Zack touched Angeal's cheek and tried to blink back further tears; he'd never imagined his Angeal could be so at ease with himself. So unburdened.
"Puppy, you're beaming," Angeal whispered. "I've rarely seen you glow like this."
"I'm just...so relieved. You aren't all guilty and conflicted anymore."
"You forgave me. Many times, but..." Angeal drew Zack back into his arms and tucked the boy's head beneath his chin. "Maybe I needed to be here, to see it from this perspective, to believe you really meant it. You truly forgave me, and only loved me. At last, I could accept that."
"Took you long enough," Zack grumbled playfully into the fabric of the elder's sweater. "You're so stubborn, and dense, and patronizing, and overly cautious, and..."
"And I love you. Promise you won't go away again?"
"I promise." A rougher hand curled around Zack's and gently tugged. "C'mon, Puppy."
"Cloud has to take his first steps alone. But for now..." The look in Angeal's eyes changed, as did the impulse behind his closeness and touching. A thrill of similar feeling went through Zack, and anticipation, because the pleasure of it was already stronger than it had ever been before.
"Do people do...that in the Lifestream?"
"If it didn't exist here before, I would have invented it for your arrival," Angeal laughed softly. His hands pushed Zack's shirt up, nudged his pants down, caressed the sensitive skin that bore no trace of damage.
Zack's breathing sped up, and he clung to broad shoulders and rubbed himself against the hardness below Angeal's waist. Palms descended down his back, pressed the round, firm cheeks and lifted him. Blissful, yearning, all fears forgotten, Zack sighed as he was carried and set down on the softest bed he'd ever laid on, and Angeal's warmth and safety was stripping him and covering him like a blanket. There was no need for preparation here, but no time either, so they could have an eternity on the edge being teased and stimulated, then an eternity of painless entering and thrusting and arms that held and cradled.
It seemed to go on forever, heaven within heaven, every moment as good as the long climax that followed. Rest wasn't necessary either, but having been newly arrived, Zack felt exhausted by the sex, even if only because being so was habit. Perhaps also out of habit, Angeal stroked his hair and whispered that he should try to sleep.
"I wish Cloud and Seph were here," Zack murmured as his eyes slowly blinked shut.
"They'll come, when it's time. I have hope for all the ones we love, Pup. Everyone."
"Everyone," Angeal softly repeated.
"He said...he's sorry," Zack said drowsily, his eyes shut and breathing going soft and regular. "Did...you hear him?"
"I heard him, Puppy." Angeal lay next to Zack and pressed the boy's spiky head to his heartbeat. "I hope he heard me answer."
The atmosphere of Edge was utterly unlike Midgar's had been. It was far from a utopia, crime thrived in the darkest corners as it did in every city...but the new city had an openness to it, no sense of something sinister lurking around the borders and pulsing at its center like a wicked heart. That had been Cloud Strife's first impression of Midgar when he'd arrived as a wide-eyed country boy - a vague malevolence sleeping nearby and preparing to wake.
Or maybe it had all been in his homesick head and his nervous guts. Memory was little help, as usual. Everything between fourteen and twenty-one was blurry. Probing that period brought up faces and sounds and events that couldn't always be trusted. Or dealt with, Cloud thought as he polished Fenrir in the vacant area behind Seventh Heaven and watched the sun begin to set. As he hid.
Cloud Strife knew all about hiding. As a child, he had become an expert at avoiding bigger kids and adults he didn't like. Sometimes these skills came in handy against his friends, especially Tifa, who couldn't be scared off by his silence and his monosyllabic answers. Tifa couldn't know that she was the hardest of all of them to face, because she had seen into Cloud's mind when it was at its most fractured, had helped put it back together and in doing so seen a lifetime of weakness. Because Cloud could not look at her without thinking of Nibelheim, and promises, and these things led to Zack, as if he weren't always stuffed down somewhere in Cloud's thoughts anyway.
"You are the proof...that I existed. Live for me, Spiky, for both of us. I love you."
I'm trying, Zack, Cloud would think in response, breathing slowly to keep the pressure in his chest from crushing him. But other thoughts followed, automatically - how could he have forgotten Zack, why had the Buster meant so much to him, who was the auburn-haired man who sometimes appeared in Cloud's nightmares of mako and gloved fingers? And Aerith would let him feel her flower-scented presence for a moment, until the worst of the hurt had passed. But Zack never...he was where Aerith was, Cloud saw him after the Geostigma ordeal, but he never came. He never spoke. So Cloud was left wondering if the presence of Zack he felt was only wishful thinking, or a remnant of Zack's personality left over in him.
Cloud's past was a timeline written half illegibly, and yet, memory was always upon him, like the weight of a sleeve on his arm. Some areas of its landscape were ominously dark, like old maps that warned of monsters and sea serpents. Others were marked by their brightness, or by a remembered smile, and they reminded Cloud of all the happy moments he had lost along the way. Some figures of the past had whole continents of archived and unreachable information on them, like Zack's, where the only darkness was the survivor's guilt that Zack would kick his butt for if given the chance.
Just as painful, the warm memories of Zack's bear hugs and cheery smiles too often led to images of Sephiroth, the fallen hero who had been Cloud's nightmare before he became the planet's. Childhood idol or not, Sephiroth was his adversary, his shadow self, his enemy. There shouldn't be any confusion in that, but - yet another thing Cloud tried to hide from - then why did conflicting emotions rise up in him when he thought of the one-winged angel smiling cruelly down at him? Why did Cloud feel inexplicably certain that he had once known the touch of Sephiroth's fingers cupping his face? Why, when Kadaj had morphed into Sephiroth and been just barely defeated, had he murmured at the last "I will never be a memory", not so much a threat as it had been an oddly comforting promise?
Sephiroth was always with him, not like Zack was, but keeping linked to his soul with an invisible chain and every so often tugging it from somewhere, and invading Cloud's dream to taunt and toy with him.
"You will never be free of me, Puppet...we must kill them all, Puppet, like the Cetra girl...you have no identity but through me, Cloud, nothing I have not given you. You are my puppet and I will never let you go."
The torment of these nightmares was nothing to the confusion, anger and embarrassment Cloud felt about the dreams that were not bad ones. What was wrong with him? How could he dream so vividly of Sephiroth's silver eyes free from their Jenova-green and looking at him with affection? What did it say about Cloud that the dream of sleeping in Sephiroth's protective embrace was so real, he could almost believe it had happened? And the...fantasies...of being touched by Sephiroth, taken by Sephiroth...were beyond wrong. Cloud was not a star-struck child anymore, even if he had once felt more for the great general than he ever let on to his friends.
He couldn't talk to any of them about this. Barret would smack him lightly and ask what the hell was going on in his idiot spiky head. Yuffie would laugh first and joke that anyone with eyes would be attracted to Sephiroth, then feign concern that maybe Cloud wasn't in any condition to hold his materia by himself. Nanaki wold quote wisdom passed down from Bugenhagen about the complicated symbolic language of dreams. Cid would pat Cloud's hair and offer him a drink, treating him as half a comrade and half a kid as he always had.
Cait Sith would say something light that wouldn't quite mask gentle Reeve's concern. Vincent was hard to predict, as he had never really voiced his feelings about his dear Lucrecia's only child, but his scarlet eyes would watch intently with curiosity and compassion, and Cloud, in his paranoia, would see judgment in them instead. Tifa would sit with him, urge him to speak every thought that was troubling him, and Cloud would never doubt her sincerity or her love, only his own ability to bear these things. He was supposed to be protecting her! He had promised...and promised Zack to live for them both, and yet he could hardly remember Zack's life, the legacy he was supposed to be carrying on.
Cloud dropped the cleaning rag on the ground and leaned against Fenrir, willing his mind to go quiet so he could listen to the sounds of the planet. Sometimes he still heard the murmuring voices of the Lifestream, including an unintelligible one that he liked nonetheless because it reminded him of his mother. But now there were only everyday noises of the planet's surface - Marlene and Denzel playing nearby, music from the shop across the street, Tifa talking quietly to someone inside. The back door opened, and the dark suit and red hair made it instantly obvious who was entering the yard behind the bar.
It was strange enough to see Reno at all. It had been many months and a battle against DeepGround since Cloud had spotted any of the Turks. Cloud didn't think of them as friends, but they were comrades, and he was about to call out a greeting when Reno stopped about ten paces away and looked up, and a cold wave of shock ran through Cloud's body.
Reno's green eyes, normally so mischievous, were red and wet, as though they had been recently and hastily dried. That made no sense; arrogant, cocky Reno didn't cry, and he didn't stare at anyone with such a haunted expression. His usual slouch was different too, and rather than tapping his electrorod lazily against his shoulder or boot, the Turk was holding a thick folder under one arm and cradling it with his other hand. Cloud had never seen him handle anything so gently.
"Reno? What's wrong? Is it Rude? Rufus?"
"The remnants of merry old ShinRa are just fine, Strife," was the answer, and thank Gaia, at least the smooth drawl of a voice was the same as it had always been. "Been a while, yo. How's it going?"
"Fine. What's going on?"
Reno sighed wearily. That was unlike him too, and Cloud had never seen him look so hesitant. He gestured to the back steps, and the two of them sat down and spent a few minutes watching the colors of the early evening sky. Reno had placed the black folder, tied shut with black string, on his lap, and was absently running his hands over its sides in an almost soothing manner.
"Do you ever think about why you always win, Strife?" he asked abruptly. "You ever think it's fate?"
"Fate. Luck. Occasionally facing incompetent Turks who'd rather run away than lose."
To his surprise, Reno laughed. "You've always been tougher than you look, yo. Just 'cause I had to lose doesn't mean I wanted to die."
"Had to lose? What are you talking about?"
Reno looked down at the folder. "Did you know I was friends with Zack?"
Cloud's fists automatically clenched. How dare you, he thought furiously, you're ShinRa, ShinRa killed Zack, don't you fucking dare say his name! It took a few moments for him to absorb what Reno had said, and by then, Reno had begun to speak again.
"You're not gonna freak out on me, are you? 'Cause Tifa threatened me with violence..."
"No. Did Rufus send you, or Tseng?"
"What I've come to talk to you about, Rufus doesn't know yet. He'll forgive me, he always does."
"Tseng, then? He asked you to come here and confuse me?"
"Ha," Reno laughed softly. "There isn't much I wouldn't do for Tseng, true. He didn't want me coming here, yo. We can't have the great hero all traumatized the next time His Royal Pissiness shows up with clones or an alien or some fuckin' new thing, and all that. I believe you can handle this, and even if you can't, you deserve to know."
"Reno, what are you talking about? Know what? And what did you mean before, about having to lose?"
"I'm a Turk. I had my orders to get in your way as much as possible, but I knew we would need you, more than once. Like I knew the plate would fall in Midgar, and Sephiroth will come back again, and in a few days Vincent will finally show his face and tell you that, as it turns out, sins can be forgiven. And that you can hear the voice of the planet, and sometimes you wish it would stop talking. It's not gonna."
Cloud was so confused that he wasn't sure what to question next. He didn't know how to feel either, and grabbed the first bit of anger that surfaced from his mind.
"What about Aerith?"
As hoped for, this triggered frustration and defensiveness from Reno, almost as good as anger. "I hated fighting you, okay? And I was never gonna hurt Aerith. I had to follow orders and so did Tseng, but he wouldn't have either. That she ever got into Hojo's hands was something we never, never...and I'm so sorry that you and Zack..."
Reno had gotten choked up again and was fighting the feeling. Cloud didn't notice this time, because he was waging his own battle against the barely comprehensible flashes that a mention of Hojo and the lab brought up. Being frozen, nightmares of needles and green and hands everywhere, Sephiroth staring coldly through the fire and someone was taking him from Zack's arms, no no no -
"Strife? I'm sorry, yo, I didn't mean to - "
"It's fine. I don't remember."
"Then I'm probably not doin' you a big favor," Reno said heavily.
"Reno, could you just get to the point and tell me why you're here?"
"Yeah. In the aftermath of the whole DeepGround thing, a bunch of files showed up, stuff no one in the company knew about. One of the documents was this," the Turk explained, tapping the folder. Copies have been made, but this is the original." He opened up the sleek binding and removed an old, slightly weathered notebook. "Rufus'll kick my butt, or do something else not fun with it, when he finds out what I'm doing."
"What is it?"
"It's Zack's story. In his own words, written while he was on the run with you."
Cloud's head turned in slow motion to look with wide, staring eyes at Reno, and his body shifted to follow very slowly, like he was moving underwater. Reno held the notebook out at once, and Cloud took it and hugged it to his chest, hardly believing but wanting to, wanting this to be a connection to Zack.
"Strife, I'm gonna leave that with you, no matter the consequences. Zack says in his story that he just wants someone, anyone, to remember, but I think he was really hoping that you would understand. I'll leave you alone, but first, listen. Okay?"
"I'm listening," Cloud whispered, barely audibly.
"You don't remember a lot of shit, and maybe that's better. Maybe it doesn't need to be dug up. But reading this will make you remember stuff, and tell you things you don't know, and...Zack was maybe the best person I ever knew, Cloud. I would never forgive myself if this changed your feelings for him."
Cloud gave Reno a chilling look, one of power and fury and oh that's what manages to keep beating Sephiroth. "There is nothing anyone or anything can tell me," he hissed, "that can take away from Zack or take him away from me. My head may be a fucking mess and I may have to think for a minute to remember my age, but I know what Zack was. He was a hero, he was my best friend, he gave me my life as a fighter and then gave his own to protect me. I love him. That's the one thing I'm never uncertain about."
The muscles in Reno's jaw worked silently, like he was fighting to keep his mouth closed, and dew-like droplets of water glistened on his eyelashes. "He loved you too," the Turk said at last, unsteadily. "I saw him with you a couple of times, and...well...you'll see. I hope you remember that part of it. Not many people feel that kind of love, I think. Not many are capable of it. Zack was...a singular phenomenon."
"Yes. He was."
"Take care of yourself, Strife. The planet chose you to be its protector, and unless you figure some way out of that, we'll be needing you again. Fuck, am I glad I'm not you, yo."
Snickering, back to his usual cynical self, Reno clapped Cloud briefly on the shoulder. He stood up and was about to head back through the bar when Cloud grabbed the hem of his jacket.
"Thank you, Reno."
"Don't thank me, just don't go fuckin' crazy on us," Reno tossed back, and disappeared.
Cloud sat motionless for a length of time he couldn't measure. The sun went down, the sky's blue became dark. Marlene and Denzel were called and grudgingly came inside, and regulars slowly crowded Seventh Heaven and made their noises of conversation and the clanking of glasses. At some point, without speaking to or acknowledging anyone, Cloud went to his room and shut the door. Tifa noticed he was holding a notebook she'd never seen before, against his chest like a shield.
Many hours later, as the first rays of dawn began to peek over the horizon, Tifa awoke very suddenly. Soft sounds of frantic movement were reaching her ears from the bedroom furthest down the hall, muffled through the sturdy walls but audible. Cloud was leaving his room in a hurry, heading downstairs and outside, to the back shed where he kept Fenrir. Tifa's heart pounded beneath her T-shirt, the way it did after her occasional nightmares of Nibelheim burning. Cloud was able to move without a sound, that's one reason he was so hard to keep track of. What she had heard was his breathing, loud and panicked.
The dark-haired young woman brought her knees to her chest and let her face half disappear into the crocheted blanket. The urge to follow Cloud was there, to insist that he let her help, but also the little voice that cautioned her not to push. The last thing Tifa wanted was to risk driving Cloud further away, and to then have to await the next crisis to bring him back. She knew by now that Cloud could not share her feelings, she'd missed that chance long ago. But she would not jeopardize a friendship that it had taken loss and anguish and nearly the end of the planet to forge.
Please be okay, Tifa thought to the planet, wondering as she often did if Aerith passed on these prayers to Cloud. You've lost so much, Cloud. Please don't ever make me lose you.
Cloud had been able to see well in the dark as long as he could remember - which wasn't saying much - and riding at night was no different than during the day for him. Easier, even, because there was less traffic and fewer distractions, though this time the young hero might not have noticed a marching band if it crossed the street in front of him. It was only Cloud's enhanced senses and SOLDIER reflexes that kept him steady and on the right path (to where, he had no idea). Outside, there was nothing that could compare with the internal chaos.
Memory. Vivid color and sounds that exploded into being, smells so sharp that they choked his lungs to breathe them and recollections of touch that were as real as the metal and padding his gloved hands gripped. Eyes wide and luminescent, lips parted and gasping each inhale and exhale, Cloud struggled to focus and relax away the pressure on his chest. It was what he imagined drowning must be like, only instead of water, he was submerged in sensory flashes. Sephiroth's arms and warmth all around, the faces of fellow SOLDIER cadets and friends, a cold metal table where bad hands put him and wouldn't go away, Hojo Sephiroth Tifa Mom Genesis Tully Simon Omou Zack Zack Zack. Zack's memoir had thrown a switch in his head and it was all coming back, so fast, too fast.
Cloud somehow made it to the bluff, powered Fenrir down and stumbled off the bike to land on his knees in the moon-cold dirt and dust. It was too much to process, every moment and movement prompting more. Even crawling with his aching head hanging brought up the memory of a rainy day here, Cloud struggling to Zack's side and promising, promising to remember and to...
"Live for me, Spiky, for both of us."
"Z-Zack," Cloud choked out, releasing some of the crushing pressure at last as he broke into sobs. Every bit of the adoration and awe and gratitude he had ever felt for Zack swelled his heart, and it was pained to recall the guilt expressed in the memoir, the apologies offered, the permission to hate. Clinging to the proud, silver-bright Buster Sword like a child to his mother's leg, Cloud pressed his head to the cold metal and took in enough oxygen to call out. "Zack. I could never hate you, I love you, I forgive you. There's nothing to forgive, I only ever loved you. Please...talk to me. Why won't you talk to me?"
"Because I couldn't accept your forgiveness until you remembered." The voice was so soft and safe, the hand that stroked his hair such a familiar touch, that it was a moment before Cloud realized what was happening. "Thank you, baby. For everything."
Cloud turned unsteadily, only waiting long enough to confirm that it was Zack kneeling beside him - exactly as he looked when they'd met - before reaching out at the same time arms reached for him. Cloud was no longer the child he'd once been, but Zack's enveloping hug was the refuge he remembered, keeping out everything bad and scary. Here Cloud could let down his constant, mask-like guard, and he cried unashamedly against Zack's chest, choosing his own time to look up into Zack's wet, beaming eyes that made him weep all over again.
"Z-Zack, I'm so - "
"Don't you say sorry, Spiky. You did what I asked. You lived for us both and now look at you, a hero." Zack's one hand cradled the back of the blond head, and the other arm helped support the shaking body. "I've been watching you, like I wanted to, and I've been with you through it all. I'm so, so proud of you."
"Zack...I didn't mean to forget - "
"I know, baby."
"You mean so much to me - "
"I know," Zack said with a reassuring smile. There was light all around him, the white kind Aerith brought with her, but he felt and looked solid, just different. Indestructable, even more so than the hero Cloud had learned from and admired. "That's one of the benefits of being in the Lifestream, how clear everything becomes. You see what people really feel, and accept the love you never thought you deserved."
Cloud pulled Zack close again, and was soothed by the softness of Zack's cheek gently rubbing against his own. "Is it my time?"
"No, Gaia no! You've got a lot more living to do, baby."
"I miss you," the blond said desperately as Zack sat back and took his hands.
"I'm always here, all you need to do is call for me. But you have a destiny here that isn't over yet."
Cloud's eyes stung, and his throat felt choked with the name they were both thinking of. "H-How can I fight him now that I r-remember? I can't, not again..."
"Baby, what you've fought isn't Seph, it's the thing that has ahold of him. We think, we hope, that the battle will end with him free of her at last. Love for you almost saved Seph once," Zack said quietly. "I still believe it can."
"Then...he really..." Cloud trailed off, shivering to think of what he hadn't remembered all those times he struggled under Sephiroth's sword.
"Yeah, just like you really...well, we can talk about that once it's had time to sink in a little. Right now, someone wants to meet you."
Right on cue, large hands materialized into sight, protectively resting on Zack's shoulders. Cloud lifted his head and saw a handsome face with solid features smiling gently down at him. Zack got to his feet and tugged Cloud up as well. Zack had always been a few inches taller, but this man practically towered over him.
"You're Angeal," Cloud said in amazement, where once he would have saluted and stammered. "I remember you. I mean, it wasn't you, but it was..."
Angeal's large hand cradled Cloud's and shook it, and the man continued to smile as he wrapped his other arm around Zack. "I understand. I've been waiting a long time to meet you in my own person. You look much better, little one."
Even if Angeal hadn't been big enough to legitimately call him that, Cloud wouldn't have minded. He felt he knew Angeal from reading Zack's story, and if the SOLDIER tended to coddle Zack, how else would he behave toward his Puppy's pet? Anyway, Zack's beaming grin and happy laughter distracted them both.
"This is the best! My two favorite people, with me at the same time!"
"Remember, Pup, we can't stay much longer."
"Can't stay?" Cloud blurted in panic. "Why? But - "
"We just can't be here for very long at a time," Zack reassured him. "From now on, I'll visit you all the time. And Angeal, 'cause he still doesn't trust me on my own, even in the Lifestream."
"It's nothing to do with trust, and not with worry anymore either," Angeal said softly, keeping an arm around Zack's waist to hold him close. "I just don't see why I should be away from you, even for a moment."
"He's lying, Spiky. I can't even visit Aerith and her mom without him telling me to stay out of trouble."
Cloud laughed weakly, but couldn't disguise his desperation and other overwhelming feelings as he edged nearer to his old friend. Zack happily grabbed him into another bear hug, the warm kind he remembered that hoisted him off the ground and made him feel safe from the voices and doubts that had gnawed at his mind longer even than his renewed memory could tell. Angeal clasped the blond's shoulder as he reluctantly drew back, a tender touch but also the gesture of a comrade.
"If I can get Sephiroth back, I will," Cloud promised solemnly, feeling the truth of these words deep in his bones. "I'll save him and protect him for both of you. For all of us."
Zack's translucent blue eyes blurred with wetness. The muscles of Angeal's jaw quivered, trying to remain set, and he blinked a few too many times to hide his emotion. His voice, when he spoke again, was heavy with it.
"Sephiroth chose well. As did the planet."
"So did you."
Angeal settled his chin on Zack's hair and sighed another content smile. "I've come to believe that Fate offers us all the right choices. We only require the courage to make them."
"I'm glad I did," Zack murmured, glancing up at his teacher with adoration before returning his gaze, tearful but happy, to Cloud. "No more feeling bad, Spiky. I'll be around now to kick your butt if I catch you beating yourself up."
"Okay, Zack," Cloud answered obediently, knowing full well he would be getting a lot of lectures and smiling at the thought.
"Tell Reno the former prez is totally scandalized by what he and Rufus get up to, he'll get a kick out of that. Now gimme a hug good-night and go get some sleep, 'kay?"
Cloud stepped slowly into this embrace, not wanting to say goodbye even for a few hours but drawing strength from the love Zack had always poured into him. Zack and Angeal were fading, but slowly, with promises that they would never be away for long. Somewhere beyond them, in the incorporeal heaven of white and undying flowers, Aerith's happiness shone like a beacon. Forgiving himself for her death was a task for the future. Right now, Cloud felt at peace with the past, all of it, even the horrible parts of it that he would require years to work through.
It was just Zack's way, it always had been. A mere hug could stop the sky from crashing down, a blue-eyed smile could make you forgive the planet that made it anything. How many lives had Zack brightened and affected during his short life? Surely more than he himself had ever noticed or recorded. Even people who'd never known his name, known nothing but a boy or a SOLDIER whose lifeforce and energy outshone everyone around him, they would remember him, the way you never forget the clearest skies of your youth, and the kindnesses that come unexpectedly. Zack's last request in his life story had been unnecessary. Cloud would remember, if no one else. He would keep not only that promise, but all of them.
The barren plains outside of Midgar were devoid of life, so there were no people or monsters to see two spectral figures fade away as they hugged a shorter one. Cloud himself closed his eyes, taking solace in the certainty that Zack was as near to him as ever, even more so. We don't go away after our bodies die, he recalled. Just out.
Cloud's pale arms grasped empty space in the silver moonlight for a moment. Then, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, they tightened and wrapped around his own body. There was value in anything that Zack had cared for, Sephiroth loved, Aerith forgiven. Cloud stood perfectly still a little while and hugged himself, as a dozen tiny weights were removed from his heavy heart.
Tifa tiptoed cautiously into the spartan bedroom, moving almost as quietly as Cloud could but wary that he could return at any moment. Her intention was not to spy or invade his space. She was only following her intuition, which said something had affected Cloud profoundly, whether for good or bad, she didn't know. The most likely candidate was the old notebook that lay open on the desk to one of its last pages.
Even as Tifa edged closer, she scolded herself. This was unethical, a violation of privacy...even if Cloud had been through her room years earlier. But this notebook had been given to Cloud by someone, probably Reno, so it wasn't a diary or some other sacrosanct personal item. What could it be but information that was important in some way, and Cloud was notoriously difficult to get information out of.
I just want to help him, Tifa thought sincerely, and she didn't know that Cloud knew that and would forgive her practically anything for that reason. She fully intended to pull herself away and force herself back into bed, but instead continued on over the rag rug that muffled her footsteps. Some power, some life of its own seemed to haunt the notebook and beckon her closer. A familiar presence breathed from within it like the ghost of a sigh.
Tentatively, Tifa's face moved into the glow of lamp-light over the desk. The page before her was the last to contain writing, and was only about a quarter of the way full. The handwriting was male, a little faded but clearly legible, not exactly messy but indicating the energy and passion of its author. As Tifa read these last words, she thought she could hear a faint voice, that of a young man she looked back on with great fondness.
Cloud, remember me if you can, if it doesn't hurt you more than you can bear. At least don't forget that I'm proud of you, and I love you. Loving alone does not make us good or worthy, I was once told, and I won't live to see if I've made you stronger or merely hurt you. Please know that I'll always love you, even if you someday hate me.
And you, whoever is reading this notebook, now that I've lain my life out for you on these pages, don't forget it. Even if you would have been my enemy in life, be kind to me in death, and remember.
My name was Zack Fair.
2:01 a.m., 28 September 2008