As of 13 July 2010, a prologue was added. It was written even before the first chapter, but only ever posted on LJ.
Pairings: Eventual Sephiroth/Cloud/Zack
Canon: Wolf's Rain (anime) + Final Fantasy VII (original game only)
Summary: Wolves, humans, and the true nature of monsters. Finding the Promised Land means losing a part of yourself in the process.
Rating/Warnings: R – some violence, lab torture, drama, some language, some implicit sexuality.
Chapter Warnings: Some sex, but only implied because I'm too chicken-shit to actually write it.
Word Count: 10,178
Unbetaed. This is mostly a transitional bit, to be honest, so it moves rather fast.
Sephiroth wasn't feeling much of anything as he stood at the window in his office and watched the tiny figures below scurry around on the Plate. They looked like insects, he thought absently, or a child's wind-up toys going through the motions in a city of monotone; mechanical routines, monochromatic settings, and each person as insignificant as the next. Grey and lifeless.
Except for the faint hum of the lights, it was silent in his office. Papers were stacked neatly on one edge of the desk, completed early without any distractions to interrupt. The sofa pushed against the far wall had been unused in several months. Without the distractions, without the color, Sephiroth's office was as monotonous as the Plate he looked down upon.
There was a sharp knock on the door.
Still in his own little world, Sephiroth turned towards it, opening his mouth without thinking to say Za –
Hojo opened the door with his usual scowl of bad humor. "You're late for your appointment," he snapped. "If my assistants weren't tied up in other things…"
"I'm coming," Sephiroth interrupted shortly, not particularly caring to hear the scientist grousing about having to run an errand himself like some lowly lab-tech. Still muttering under his breath Hojo turned and started walking away, apparently confident that the general would follow without question, and Sephiroth took a moment to get himself back under control.
If Hojo had heard you nearly slip up like that…
Hojo led him up several floors to the laboratories. The two of them earned stares and gawking, but no one was brave, or stupid, enough to comment when the famous General Sephiroth and the infamous Professor Hojo were both around. The scientist made a sound of displeasure in his throat when they came to the labs and found President ShinRa with his Turks standing around the entrance.
"Hojo," the President said cheerily, smiling his oily smile, "I was under the impression that you'd be here ten minutes ago."
"I had to fetch Sephiroth," Hojo explained, adjusting the round spectacles on his hawkish nose. Sephiroth was a looming presence behind him.
"Oh, good, good!" The President clapped his hands together as though he'd just seen a pet do a neat trick. "I thought that this might be a good opportunity to discuss the company's future prospects, Professor."
Hojo looked like he didn't want to discuss anything unless it involved the President and a tube of mako, but knowing where the grant money came from, he swiped his keycard and allowed the visitors in with a minimum of muttering. As the President chattered to his favorite scientist, Sephiroth walked behind them, distinctly aware of the Turks' presence at his back.
A look from Hojo and Sephiroth seated himself on the edge of a steel table, ignoring the chill he could feel through the leather of his pants or the antiseptic stench stinging his nose. This routine was so familiar it was practically muscle memory; he was already pulling back the sleeve of his long coat before the scientist turned back to him.
"Have you had any more success?" the President was asking as Hojo filled a syringe with mako from a specially designed, carefully pressurized container. The Turks Reno, Rude, and Tseng watched carefully, the first looking slightly sickened.
"A sense as delicate as a wolf's predilection for the Promised Land is hardly something that can be commanded," Hojo informed him tersely. "I've been working on a procedure that should enhance Sephiroth's ability, but having a natural specimen would have sped up this process."
His sneer at the Turks was thinly veiled. Reno smirked openly, but Tseng and Rude didn't react in the slightest.
"Sephiroth is the perfect imitation of a wolf in every other respect," Hojo reminded ShinRa, who just smiled smoothly again.
"Of course he is, Professor, but what use is that to us if he can't find the Promised Land?"
"Might've helped if the flower maiden hadn't escaped, yo," Reno threw in brightly, casually examining his ragged nails, and Hojo's expression darkened. Tseng gave the redhead a look that went entirely ignored.
Sephiroth stared distantly at the far wall while the power-plays went on around him and Hojo slowly injected the mako into his arm. The substance was thick, dense, making his veins feel like they were trying to channel mud, and the spasmodic twitching of his arm muscles was made worse by the prickling sensation growing on his skin. Fixing his eyes on a single point on the wall gave him the control to keep his expression entirely blank, even with Hojo's stare scrutinizing him with a peculiar intensity.
I could run, he mused. I could slaughter them before any of the Turks could raise their weapons.
He could. But he didn't.
"Wutai was the last place on this Planet to resist me," the President was saying. "The only thing left to do is find the Promised Land. Whatever it takes."
This drew Sephiroth's attention, because though the man was speaking in the same condescending petulance as ever there was a new undertone of slyness. Even Hojo seemed cautious of it, for he growled lowly, "Sephiroth is my project – "
"Think about who's footing your bill and covering up your little side projects, Professor, and then reconsider," ShinRa replied, chortling. "I want results on your next departmental report, Hojo, or I'm pulling the plug on your lab."
Hojo's expression had never been so full of hate.
It was a good thing that when Cloud talked about surviving in the mountains, Zack had been listening. When the adrenaline started wearing off and the sounds of screams and crackling flames no longer echoed through the valley, even Cloud's slight weight was beginning to feel like a burden in the SOLDIER's arms. He kept his eyes open for a safe place to stop. Unfortunately, with exhaustion blurring his wits all he could see in the dim moonlight was the shifting of shadow in an already dark landscape.
When he stumbled onto a roughly circular ring of trees, Zack gently laid Cloud at the base of a wide trunk and began digging into the snow. It was icy from alternately melting and freezing over again, and it didn't take long before the pads of his paws turned cold and raw; but he persevered, doggedly scraping away until a shallow, concave hole was made. Then he carefully maneuvered Cloud into the makeshift den, which was just deep enough for two wolves to be out of both sight and wind, and finally curled himself as tightly as he could around the smaller wolf without aggravating the other's wounds.
Then the exhaustion finally caught up with him. The sudden fear, the anger (the betrayal; Zack himself didn't feel any obligation for the villagers, but Cloud had been born and raised alongside those people's children, damn them), the fire, the running…he had gone through worse in Wutai but at least he could expect those kinds of things there. Places like Nibelheim, what few were left in a dying world, weren't supposed to leave someone with a knife in his back.
Or bullets in a mother's body.
Cloud's breathing was shallow but steady, pale fur slightly singed in places and smelling of smoke, but his bandages didn't appear to have fresh blood on them. Zack pulled him closer and buried his own muzzle into Cloud's scruff, breathing in deeply the scent of youngness and tangled mountain wilderness to cover the memory of fire. The crispness of the high altitude's air meant that the SOLDIER had been followed by the stench of smoke and charred flesh deep into the mountains, at least until the wind had shifted. So many people – Zangan had probably managed to get out, but Brunhild –
With a long sigh and a bit of shifting against a dark-furred chest, Cloud slipped quietly from unconsciousness into true sleep. It was a reassuring reminder that although Zack couldn't have saved everyone, at least he had managed to protect what was most important to him.
He joined Cloud in exhausted oblivion, the two wolves curled together in a shallow hole scraped into the ground hundreds of miles from anywhere.
Cloud woke up and immediately wished he hadn't. Body parts he hadn't known existed felt like they were on fire, his limbs heavy and limp like noodles. It took a few moments for his nose to start working again. Strangely enough, said nose was telling him that he was in a damp, cold place that smelled like ice and wolf, certainly not the musty but earthy familiarity of his mum's cottage.
Sound was the second sense to wake up, and it took another minute to realize what he wasn't hearing. There were no muffled voices gossiping, no distant footsteps hurrying about on daily errands, none of the familiar bustle of early morning which had always managed to reach even the farthest-flung house in the village.
Had he been sleepwalking? Not that he'd ever done so before, but his mum sometimes did and didn't somnambulism run in families or something? Speaking of which…
"Mum?" he ventured timidly. Then, "Zack?"
When no one answered his raspy calls, Cloud tried opening his eyes. He'd learned over the years to do it slowly, letting his pupils adjust to the sudden light, but he saw from the red-golden light cast on the tallest treetops that it was near evening anyway.
"Zack?" he called out again, coughing and then wincing when his bruised ribs were jostled. Gauze was wrapped around his limbs and torso in white strips, slightly pink with blood in some places, and he carefully he turned over onto his stomach to gradually lever himself up to his haunches. He peered out of what looked like the mouth of a small den dug into the snow, confirming that, yes, those really were treetops, and apparently he'd taken to sleeping in holes in the ground.
Zack had to be involved in this somehow.
If sitting up had been difficult, however, then moving about was out of the question. Cloud finally gave up when he put his snout into the snow several times by tripping unsteadily over his own paws and resolved to wait. Whatever scheme Zack had devised to humiliate him, he would at least have to come back to make it happen.
Cloud was just beginning to doze off again when he heard snow crunching under boots and Zack came into view. His black hedgehog hair was a mess, clothes rumpled, and a stack of branches was being carried in the crook of a strong arm. But there was no jaunty smile, no lighthearted whining about forced labor, just a frown that made Cloud uneasy.
"Spike, you're awake!" Zack cried when he looked up, serious expression suddenly disappearing under the weight of a broad smile. The abrupt change made Cloud suspicious, but he didn't comment on it.
"Where are we?" he asked, coughing when his ribs ached, and then coughing some more.
"Um." Zack let the firewood fall to the ground and put an arm behind his head in a classic gesture of embarrassment. "I was kinda hoping you'd know."
"What are we doing out here?" Cloud tried again.
But when Zack's smile flickered back to that uncharacteristic somberness, Cloud's unease deepened.
"What's the last thing you remember, Cloud?"
"Please, Cloud." Zack let the firewood fall and then dropped to his knees in front of Cloud so that they were eye-level. Cloud shifted, eyeing him from under his long bangs.
"Um, Mum made us dinner, and then we went to sleep," a slight blush on his cheeks passed on unremarked, "and I woke up. It was hot. I remembered you liked those mushrooms we had for dinner, so I thought maybe I'd go grab some." Thin brows furrowing, Cloud frowned down at the snow in thought. "It was cold out. Grey. I think I heard someone yelling, and then…Mr. Lockhart…"
He tensed, suddenly feeling the blows all over again. How could he have forgotten, even for a few minutes? It was one thing for the other kids to throw rocks or garbage, but an adult had never – well, not beyond words…
Zack patiently waited for him to find his bearings, for which Cloud was absurdly grateful. Now that he'd been made fully aware of them, the bruises on his limbs and torso started aching worse than ever, and the younger boy couldn't quite bring himself to lift his eyes. "Mr. Lockhart said something about Tifa before…before he started hitting me. I think I must've passed out."
The hand on his back startled him. Cloud was still getting used to Zack's tendency for physical contact, but this time it felt as though the SOLDIER was unconsciously reassuring himself of the other's existence.
"He pretty much beat the shit out of you," Zack murmured, making Cloud flush again with renewed humiliation, but the other's voice wasn't mocking at all. If anything, he sounded angry on Cloud's behalf, and that was a new thing. "Your mom and I heard the crowd and stopped him, though."
Now Cloud wasn't sure if he should be even more embarrassed at having to be rescued, or guiltily pleased that he'd had someone willing to do so. But there was something in the way Zack wasn't quite looking at him that made his stomach tighten.
"Zack?" he asked. "Zack, what happened? Are you all right? Where's Mum?"
When the SOLDIER bit his lip indecisively, Cloud was feeling a full-fledged panic attack coming on. "Zack…"
"She's dead, Cloud," the older wolf said softly.
The world came to a halt.
"After we got you away from Lockhart, she went back to his house. She killed him, but the villagers, they got to her."
After a long silence, Cloud calmly stood up, wobbling but managing to stay upright.
He brushed past Zack, who was still kneeling, and disappeared into the trees with a stiff spine and a frighteningly blank expression. His stumbling stride broke into a jog and then a desperate, limping run; his paws were nearly silent in the snow and he ran until his ribs made him wheeze for breath, stumbling around the bases of tall trees with pain and exertion. The sun was setting, casting long fingers of shadow through the twilight, and the cold had sucked all sensation from his lips, nose, and paws. The odd sensation that time had simply stopped still lingered, emphasized by the stark tones of shadow that the forest was fading into.
He ran until he tripped and fell to his knees, shocks of cold sending spikes through his palms. For a long moment, head spinning, he watched the way his breath puffed out in clouds of mist like tendrils of smoke.
A startled bird took flight as Cloud's fist smashed into a tree once, then twice, and finally three times before he slumped against the trunk, bloodied knuckles still pressed to the bark. He couldn't even see the contours of the forest anymore through blurred vision, and already torn-up muscle was protesting his lashing out by turning the gauze a deeper red.
It wasn't fair. Fucking hell but it wasn't fair, wasn't right. Maybe his mum hadn't been quite right in the head but she'd never hurt anyone before. Mostly she just stayed in the cottage and spent her days cooking and dreaming and cleaning, she rarely even went out to the market since Cloud got big enough to do it himself, and it wasn't fair. Cloud had never really talked to anyone else, the Planet knew Zack was the only person who had ever stuck around after the stone-throwing.
What was he supposed to do now? It was always him and his mum, a tiny two-wolf pack, but now he didn't even have that.
Shifting slightly, Cloud's shoulder hit the trunk, and he let gravity do the rest until he sat at the foot of the tree with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. He'd never felt so alone.
Zack sighed and slumped forward. If there was a way to break that kind of news to someone tactfully, then he sure as hell didn't know it. The worst part was that Cloud hadn't let him get to the rest of it before taking off. There was a reason he'd always hated doing those next-of-kin notifications for fallen soldiers, but this wasn't the same as a casualty of war. Not really.
The SOLDIER went to work snapping the branches into more manageable pieces and throwing aside the wettest ones. He used the weakest spell in the fire materia equipped to his sword to light the pile of splintered wood, and he wished again that he'd thought to carry a Heal. Being both SOLDIER and a wolf there wasn't much that could take him down, but Cloud was only sixteen, not too many years out of puppy-hood. If Zack himself was only eighteen, well, he usually felt a decade older.
Your failure this time was rather epic, Fair.
Sitting with his arms resting on his knees, Zack stared quietly into the fire. The sun was setting and Cloud hadn't returned, but he didn't go looking for the kid. He trusted Cloud not to do anything stupid with things like high cliffs or pointy objects.
At least, until he finished sharing the bad news, about the whole fire and mass death thing. Sephiroth had been right, he thought wryly, to claim that Zack was a walking disaster. Perhaps the general had been referring to the way materia and weaponry tended to disappear around him, but Sephiroth had a habit of being correct even without intending to be.
When Cloud stumbled back, it was already dark. The fire Zack made cast flickering light through the trees, guiding the blond, and he collapsed into a shivering bundle of wounded boy on the far side of the flames. Zack stared at him for a moment before getting up and moving around the fire to sit close at the other's side, gently pulling Cloud's arm across his lap to check the bloodied bandages. He wished he'd had time to grab fresh linens. Not even a wolf was immune to infection.
"I suppose we can't ever go back," Cloud finally murmured, staring into the flames. His eyes were shadowed with grief and bloodloss and the pain of his injuries.
Zack bit his lip. Nothing for it but to just say it. "Cloud, there isn't a village to go back to."
Frowning in confusion, he asked, "What are you talking about?"
So Zack explained that while Cloud had been unconscious, the villagers had tried to smoke them out of the cottage. Missus Strife's actions had made them paranoid and angry, and Zack hadn't had any choice other than to leave with only Cloud in his arms and the clothes on their backs. But the fire got out of control, spreading to the rest of the village, and without Zangan's help even Zack might have gotten caught in the inferno. Cloud was silent as he spoke, almost unnaturally so, and when Zack finished there was a long, uncomfortable silence.
"I'm glad," he suddenly declared in a fierce voice. "I'm glad they're dead."
"Don't say that, Cloud," Zack told him quietly, and Cloud gave him a vicious glare.
"Why not? Why shouldn't I be happy that those murderers got what they deserve?"
"Because it's too easy." Zack glanced towards the fire. "I saw it in Wutai, you know. It was so easy to be happy that the other guys were dead, but some of the men in my platoon…it made them into something worse. They started enjoying the killing because they forgot that the enemy was human too."
But we're not human, was the protest that Zack knew was running through Cloud's head, and they never let us forget that.
"Cloud – "
"I want to go back," the younger wolf interrupted, making Zack blink.
"Where, Nibelheim? What the hell for?"
Cloud looked away with a scowl. "I want to see for myself what happened. Besides, what're we gonna do? We don't have any food or change of clothes, we're in the middle of nowhere!"
"Hey, hey, calm down, kiddo," Zack broke in, putting an arm around Cloud's shoulders. When the boy tried to shrug him off, he held on stubbornly. "First off, the full moon's just about a week away, and I once survived a month without eating thanks to that shiny round thing. Now, Rocket Town isn't too far away, we'll go there."
"Fine," Cloud replied, but before Zack could breathe a sigh of relief, he continued, "I can't stop you. But I'm going back to the village."
Realizing he wasn't going to be able to change Cloud's mind, he reluctantly agreed on the condition that they wait until Cloud's body healed a little.
That night, Cloud refused to lie beside Zack. He isolated himself a little ways from the dying fire and curled himself into a tight ball, but didn't sleep, instead staring out into the darkened trees and losing himself in his own tangled thoughts. When morning came and the shadows were even darker under his blue eyes, Zack didn't say anything.
It took two days of doing very little before Cloud finally demanded that they move. Personally Zack didn't think the other wolf was ready, physically or otherwise, but once more that stubbornness didn't give him much choice. They set out at a slow pace backtracking the way Zack had taken them. Even though the SOLDIER's footprints had long since disappeared, his scent hadn't yet faded completely from the trees and undergrowth.
It was mid-morning on the third day after the fire by the time the wolves returned to Nibelheim. Except for startling a few birds they hadn't seen another living being since dawn, and now, looking at the village was like stumbling over a sad, desiccated corpse. Cottages were roofless and hollowed out, stones blackened, and the water tower had half-collapsed upon itself. Crows scavenged among the deathly silent ruins, every so often croaking at one another irritably. Zack and Cloud stood on one of the trails overlooking the village in silence, humbled by the devastation.
"Oh, gods," Cloud whispered. He took a few steps forward before breaking into a run, ignoring the pain in his ribs as he sprinted into the remains of the village.
"Cloud, stop!" Zack cried, shaking off his stupor and chasing after him. He caught up to the blond, but before he could grab him Cloud abruptly halted, nearly making Zack trip right over him. "Cloud, what the hell – "
But Cloud was ignoring him. Eyes wide, he turned in a slow circle, unable to block out the sound of still-crackling embers underlying the quiet or the foul stench of burned flesh. It was amazing, in a sense, to consider how quickly, how easily, the only place he'd ever known was reduced to less than firewood.
Zack watched as Cloud wandered along the main road in a daze, the crunching of his feet over charred remains startlingly loud in the otherwise dead silence. There was…nothing. Nothing but drifting ash and filthy snow and the beetle-black eyes of the crows.
The SOLDIER followed at a respectful distance, unwilling to leave Cloud alone but not wanting to intrude on his grief. It was impossible to hope that Cloud didn't see the remains of people underneath the debris or the charred bones of farm animals unable to escape their pens or ropes. Then he paused, and especially hoped that Cloud didn't notice the circular burns on some of the bodies that were more suited to electromag weapons than fire. What really happened here?
No, Cloud just stood in the center of the town and asked, "Why?"
Zack wished to the gods that he knew what to say.
Eventually Cloud walked back to him, bangs covering his face as he stared at the ground and clenched a fist into the front of Zack's shirt. Zack put his arms around those bony shoulders and almost managed not to hug him too tightly.
"Now what," said Cloud, breath coming warm through the weave of the fabric.
"We go find the Promised Land."
As they were leaving, Cloud managed to pull himself away from Zack. Not completely, he let one of Zack's arms stay around his shoulders, but with the tears drying on his face he stood up straight and looked forward.
Sephiroth floated in a sea of green and tried not to think. If he did, then he'd get angry, and if he got angry then he would kill either himself or someone else.
Through the glass of the mako tank he could see Hojo and several lab-techs illuminated by the green glow and the lights of their computer arrays. Thick cables ran from the consoles to the tank, some of the thinnest ones all the way through the glass itself and into his skin. Live currents of electricity arcing through his body. Mako stinging his eyes and long nose. Paws hobbled so that his claws couldn't scratch at the glass. Whispers in his pointed ears of freedom, more powerful than the wires and the hobbles, pulling on every cell like lateral gravity. The full moon and endless forests and freedom.
But it was too much, too much for too long and he tried to howl out his misery, releasing only bubbles instead that rose very slowly through the thick mako, kicking with legs so weighted that he couldn't do more than twitch. A voice whispered and he couldn't find her. There was something in his head that wasn't right and he couldn't find her.
Hojo's lips were moving and the techs were scurrying around, but Sephiroth couldn't see them through wide-open eyes, just green and so much wrong. When the mako starting draining out through the floor of the tank Sephiroth was slowly lowered until he lay on the bottom in a loose ball of matted fur, too senseless to sit up. Hojo was shouting but he couldn't understand what he was saying. Humans sounded so strange, sometimes. Apes. Apes with opposable thumbs and far too much intelligence for their nature.
The longing was like an invisible string tied around his heart and leading off to some distant, unknowable point.
The moon was waxing towards fullness as Zack and Cloud ran through the snowfields, claws scoring deeply into the ice to propel them forward and the muscles in their haunches standing out strongly. Their fur shone under the moonlight, one black and one tawny, and the mountains soon gave way to long plains under their paws.
They stopped first in Rocket Town. Cloud kept his eyes down and trailed after Zack, who smiled and charmed the innkeeper. Just because we can sleep outside well enough, he whispered to the blond, doesn't mean we have to. Sleep that night was fitful, and eventually Zack slipped into Cloud's bed and wrapped himself around the smaller body trembling from nightmares. Despite himself, Cloud pressed against the chest at his back and curled up tighter.
The next morning Zack went out and exchanged his SOLDIER clothes for less conspicuous denim pants and some plain t-shirts. He also bought a simple bangle and a few materia from the supply shops. As he fitted it onto Cloud's wrist, he said, "Now don't you go haring off and killing all the monsters, you've gotta leave some for me."
"What materia are those?" the blond asked. Zack didn't think that, the few times Cloud had spoken, it had been any louder than 'quietly.'
"A Heal, a Graviga," he'd almost gotten a Fire before common sense kicked in, "and a Barrier. We good with those?"
"I've never used materia before."
So Zack took him out to the grassy plains surrounding Rocket Torn and taught him how to listen to the materia, to mentally reach out and draw up a spell. It could be exhausting, especially for beginners and depending on the power of the materia itself, but Zack had always had a private suspicion that wolves had an easier time of it than humans. True enough, Cloud was able to go on long after the human troopers in ShinRa would've collapsed, but then he too sprawled in the grass, bangs sticking to the sweat on his forehead and unable to help smiling with the giddiness that came from too many Cure spells at once. Zack was feeling a little giddy himself and his arms like jelly from hammering on Cloud's Barriers with the Buster sword. Large concave pockmarks littered the grass around them, filling the air with the scent of sun-warmed grass and earth.
Zack flopped down beside him and watched him examine the mithril plating that created an electromagnetic link between the materia and the bangle itself. "So why d'you want to be a SOLDIER?" he asked idly, then winced. Way to bring up potentially dangerous topics.
Except Cloud didn't seem to mind, just kept staring at the bangle and turning it around and around his wrist. "I wanted to prove that I wasn't just a monster," he murmured. "I wanted…I know it's stupid, but I wanted to be like General Sephiroth. I wanted to come home a hero."
He dropped his arms back to the ground and turned his head away. "I know it's stupid, okay? Just ignore me."
Zack turned onto his side and propped his head on a hand with a small smile. "Nah, that's not stupid at all, Spike. I think it's kind of awesome, actually."
"…Are you making fun of me?"
"Have I ever made fun of you? I mean, actually made fun of you?"
"Okay then. I knew Sephiroth, y'know." Cloud immediately turned his head back, blinking up at him in surprise. "He was…" A lot like you. "Well, he could be really intimidating, all that black leather and being tall enough to hit his head on doorways, but when you got him on his own – man, he's got the strangest sense of humor, for one, so dry it could crack rocks. This one time I went into his office, he handed me this red rubber ball and said that if I didn't let him finish his paperwork he was going to throw it down the hallway, and if I didn't want the rest of ShinRa to see me chasing it then I'd better be quiet."
Cloud laughed. When he did, his eyes went bright and his smile a little crooked, almost wry. Zack decided he wanted to see Cloud laugh all the time.
"But he had a lot of trouble with other things," the SOLDIER went on more seriously. "He grew up in ShinRa, and while he could tell you ten different strategies for winning a war he had never had a hug until I showed up."
Something dark passed through Cloud's expression. He reached up to press a hand on Zack's chest, just over his heart, and said, "You always seem to know when someone needs you."
A lump formed in Zack's throat.
From Rocket Town they went southeast towards North Corel, where they helped the miners fix their broken-down train. With each day that passed Cloud got stronger, his bruises and wounds healing more quickly as the moon went through its phases, until he could run with only the barest limp.
A week later they left and went to the Gold Saucer, where it was discovered that Zack made an amazingly melodramatic Prince Charming and that Cloud, even when sulking like a thunderstorm, made a startlingly pretty Damsel in Distress.
"I hate you. I hate you so much."
Zack was laughing too hard in the actors' dressing room to reply. When Cloud, half-wearing a fluffy pink dress, socked him in the shoulder, he fell on the floor and just kept laughing.
It was also found that Cloud had a special talent with chocobos. Zack thought it might have something to do with the kid's small size and spiky yellow hair, but he liked living far too much to actually say so. Instead he contented himself with watching Cloud win race and after chocobo race, coming out each time flushed and grinning and ready to take on the next challenger. And he didn't do it for the prize money, either, instead giving it each time to Zack.
"Cloud, this is yours, you won it and you should keep it," he protested, but the blond just shook his head and pushed the money back towards him.
"I have what I want, Zack. You take it."
And really, when someone says something like that, how does one say no? So he kept the gil and used it for the things that they shared: the hotel room, miscellaneous supplies, dinners that he would take Cloud to on the edge of the Saucer, away from the center of noise and light.
At night they shared the same bed, tangled like puppies, one inevitably kicking the other in his sleep and starting a brief sleepy tussle before dropping back off. It was never spoken about – Cloud would turn red and scowl and pointedly start talking about the weather – and though he'd still wake up some mornings with dark shadows under his eyes from dreams, they were never as bad if Zack was there. Zack wasn't normally one to just let things lie there, but whenever he caught a glimpse of the new scars as Cloud dressed, he'd shut his mouth and say something about grabbing some breakfast.
Of course, just when things seem to be going right, they start to go wrong.
The owner of the Gold Saucer wasn't exactly a subtle man. Zack could see Cloud from the corner of his eye looking everywhere but at Dio, and Zack wished he could do the same, only morbid fascination kept drawing his eyes forward.
"Heard some rather interesting rumors about you, boy," he said to the SOLDIER. "Don't suppose you know anything about them?"
"Can't say I've heard them myself," said Zack casually, "but hey, if they want me to do another Prince Charming, I'm sure I could oblige."
Dio laughed and Zack told himself look up, look up, look up! "Don't be silly, boy, we couldn't have the big bad wolf play the hero's role!"
Several hands seized his arms. Zack's first instinct was to snarl and slam his elbow backwards into the first cop's face, but he couldn't when he saw that they had Cloud, too, who was spitting with fury but unable to break free. Too many, they aren't taking any chances with us, he realized grimly, seeing the rifles that were being trained on them by yet more guards. They were dragged into an elevator that took them down the Saucer, farther down than any of the guests were allowed, and the moment the doors opened they were shoved unceremoniously into bright sunshine and gritty sand.
"I'm sure ShinRa will pay a lot for your return, boy," yelled Dio, and then Zack and Cloud were left in Corel Prison.
"…Well, this isn't how I thought the day would end."
Cloud spat out a mouthful of sand. "Doesn't matter. It was bound to happen eventually. We shouldn't have stayed here so long."
Zack wanted to say, But you were starting to smile again, and couldn't. Cloud's gaze had become closed off, his body language wary, and there wasn't much he could say right now that wouldn't just run off such defensiveness like rainwater on glass.
So Zack stood up tall and smirked like a cocky son of a bitch, pulling on the trappings of top dog in front of the hardened men sizing up him and Cloud. They'd taken the Buster from him but he was a SOLDIER, and a wolf, and many other things besides that were working in his favor. Cloud shouldn't be here, need to protect him.
"I've heard of you," said one of the prisoners, a man with a scar crossing one eye and deep frown lines around his mouth. "People start whispering about wolves, it's kinda hard to miss. Was only a matter of time before you got sent down here."
"Sent to kill us all, I bet," snarled another. "Ain't good for nothin' but killin'. Shoulda known Dio would pull some shit like this."
Intently aware of Cloud standing just behind him, Zack raised his hands and said, "We aren't here to kill anyone. We were just jockeying in some of the races, taking in some of the sights."
"Wolves kill anything they can get their claws into, you couldn't race chocobos if you wanted to without eating them!"
"Look," Zack tried, forcing himself to be patient, "you don't want anything to do with us, we don't want anything to do with you. The two of us will stay over here, and no one has to get into any fights over this. I imagine ShinRa will be here soon anyway, so we won't even be here long."
The prisoners either whispered among themselves or stared back hatefully – fearfully – but no one stepped forward. Zack nodded and put an arm around Cloud, leading him in a wide perimeter around the men towards a shaded overhang made of plywood and canvas, cattycorner to the quicksand fence surrounding the prison. It offered about as much privacy as one could get in this place.
"Zack," Cloud whispered, "is ShinRa really going to come?"
"Bah, of course not," he started, but as he tried to push Cloud into the shadow of the overhang, Cloud clamped a hand on the plywood wall and gave him a sharp glare.
"Tell me the truth."
"…I don't know. I imagine Dio knows I'm also a SOLDIER, which means yes, he'll probably contact ShinRa if only to see if there's a price on my head."
Cloud's lips pursed, but he dipped his head in understanding and sat back on the sand against the flimsy wall, glancing out cautiously towards the prisoners that still stared at them. Too restless to sit, Zack leaned carefully against the plywood and looked off to the distance, not wanting to instigate anything by meeting someone's gaze but still keeping an eye on them.
After a while, Cloud asked, "What're we going to do?"
"I'll think of something," Zack replied with as much confidence as he could put into his voice. But there were miles of quicksand around the place that not even a wolf could cross on his own, and the only way out was through the elevator from which they'd been thrown. And depending on when Dio managed to get the word to Midgar, ShinRa troops could be here in less than twenty-four hours.
They might even send Sephiroth to hunt down a wayward, lupine SOLDIER.
I can't let him be forced to choose like that.
When the sun began to set, Zack finally sat down beside Cloud, who had his arms wrapped around his knees and his head tucked between them, making himself into a ball.
I can't let them touch Cloud.
He nearly had a heart attack when Cloud suddenly jerked upright and said, "Zack, I think I know what to do."
"What – Cloud, come back here!"
Cloud had taken off for the elevator, uncaring of the startled cries and reaching for weapons of the prisoners, and skidded to a stop in front of the terrified elevator guard.
"You need to let me up," he was saying as Zack came up beside him.
"I – I can't do that," the poor man stammered. "You don't understand, there are rules, and if I start breaking them then this whole place will become chaos – "
"In the chocobo jockey room I heard that some of the jockeys were prisoners here," the blond said breathlessly. "If they won their races, then they could go free. That's one of your rules, isn't it?"
"I guess, but – "
"And it doesn't say anything about wolves in those rules, so if you really want to keep things straight down here, you should let me go up."
"But – "
"If you want to keep things straight," Cloud said more slowly, "then you'd let a wolf follow that rule, otherwise he doesn't have to follow any of the other ones, now does he?"
The man blanched. "Okay, okay, fine, but only one of you can go up!"
Zack was still rather bewildered when Cloud whirled and flung his arms around his neck, standing up on his toes to whisper, "I'll do it, I can win, I'll get us out," before letting go and getting into the elevator. The SOLDIER didn't even have time to say something – be careful, I know you can do it, oh my gods are you insane – before the doors were closing.
A girl named Ester had come to meet him at the top. Cloud listened silently as she went through the rules before breaking in with, "I want the SOLDIER to get his sword back, too."
She paused. "I'm not sure I can do that. Usually the terms are only for your freedom."
He met her eyes, willing her to listen. Maybe it was because she saw more hardened criminals than a teenage kid every day, but she didn't seem so afraid of him, and after a long moment she smiled slightly and said, "I'll see what I can do."
When she left, Cloud found the chocobo he'd been racing the last few times and gratefully buried his hands into the downy feathers that lay beneath the stiffer outer ones. Dellingr, he'd secretly named him, and for a moment he rested his forehead against the bird's strong neck and breathed in the musty smell of feathers and greens. If chocobos were ever afraid of wolves, it was because wolves were a predator like any other not because they were different or strange or anything other than another animal. This one just blinked at him slowly with enormous blue eyes and started nibbling on his hair.
The call for the jockeys to line up at the beginning of the track came before Ester returned. Cloud swung himself up onto Dellingr's saddle and guided him towards the starting line, feeling his senses sharpen in response to the build of adrenaline, and if the other riders shifted nervously at his approach now that rumors of what he was had spread, he ignored them with the skill born from years of practice.
You're not racing to run away anymore, he told himself, but for Zack. It's always for Zack.
The gun went off.
There was something powerful about riding a chocobo. They could outrun any animal, any predator, and beneath the saddle and between his thighs Cloud could feel the earthy strength of the bird, the ease with which he moved at such a dangerous speed. It was instinct to know how to lean into a turn, how to let Dellingr have the reins so he could run without being held back. Cloud could smell the odd plastic turf of the track, the other chocobos, the sweat of the jockeys, the sugar and spice of the spectators' snacks and sodas; he could hear their cries over the roar of the wind in his ears, could taste all the little complexities of the racetrack's air. He felt like he could run and run and never find the end.
When he finished in first place, it was almost anticlimactic.
When Ester came to greet him in the cool-down area where he was walking Dellingr, she told him, "Both the SOLDIER and his sword are at the entrance. And, Cloud? Congratulations."
Then she hugged him. It was such a surprise that Cloud froze and didn't think to move until she'd already let him go.
He got swallowed up in another hug, this time by the much more familiar form of Zack, who was ranting, "I swear to the Planet that if you pull another stunt like this – "
Cloud was trying not to choke in the tightness of Zack's grip when several voices suddenly yelled, "Stop them!"
"Shit," Zack hissed, "Cloud, go out the back somewhere and meet me by the river southwest from here, they can't follow us that far – "
"No, Zack," Cloud snapped, wriggling his way free and grabbing a hold of Dellingr's reins, "he's strong enough, he can carry us both – "
"Surround the perimeter, make sure no one leaves or enters without the captain's express orders!"
"Cloud – !"
The blond was already swinging back up into the saddle and scooting as far forward as was comfortable for the chocobo. "Zack, shut the fuck up and get up here!"
Cursing to himself as the first ShinRa troops started spilling into the stables, Zack managed to scuttle up behind Cloud, wary of his long sword hitting the bird by accident. He'd barely managed to get an arm around Cloud's waist when Cloud tugged on the reins and barked, "Hup!"
Dellingr sprang forward with a loud wark, his enormous steel-like talons scattering the troopers like terrified mice, and took off like an arrow from a bow. Most of the Gold Saucer was made of wide open spaces to accommodate the crowds, and Zack couldn't help whooping aloud with the excitement of escaping ShinRa on a freaking chocobo from an entertainment park.
Cloud, on the other hand, was intent, automatically following the little physical cues from Dellingr to dodge people that couldn't jump out of the way fast enough or to duck a low-hanging neon sign. Shots were fired; one went through Zack's bicep, making him snarl with the sudden bloom of pain, but they didn't stop, and soon they were out of the Saucer and making across the quicksand before the troops could rally themselves together once more.
"Ow," said Zack quite emphatically. Cloud ignored him and poured more river water over the fresh bullet wound – the bullet had exited, thankfully – washing out the last of the black powder staining the red of blood.
They sat on the edge of the wide river that cut across the lower part of the continent while Dellingr grazed on the long grasses overhanging the bank. Except for Zack's sword and the dusty clothing on their backs, everything had been left in their hotel room back at the Saucer, but at least they were alone and not in custody under a sky slowly lightening with the dawn.
Cloud, thankfully, had been wearing the bangle that Zack had given him, which was small and simple enough to pass as a slightly gaudy bracelet if one didn't look too closely, and cast a few small Cures. He padded the remaining tear in the muscle with strips torn from his undershirt, about the cleanest article of clothing they had between them, and tied it in place with a longer strip. Zack flexed his arm experimentally and immediately winced.
"Idiot," Cloud muttered, who then squawked when Zack smacked him upside the head with his good arm. He squawked again when he was suddenly dragged into Zack's lap and held there with yet another embrace.
"You ever scare me like that again," the SOLDIER growled, "and I swear to the Planet that I will hunt you down and scruffle your hair until you beg for mercy."
"Do you understand me?"
"…What was I supposed to do?"
Cloud went very quiet. The moment Zack's hold loosened, he squirmed away backwards and watched the SOLDIER carefully from the corner of his eye.
"Don't look at me like that, Spike," he sighed wearily. "I just. You scared me. Tomorrow I'll be singing your praises at how awesome you were, but right now all I can think about it is you going up that elevator without me and not having any idea if you were all right or even alive until that Ester chick came to get me. And then ShinRa was there and I'm going to be shocked if I live to be thirty and haven't had a heart attack because holy shit."
Cloud kissed him.
"…Huh," he managed when Cloud pulled away, blushing furiously and looking anywhere but at Zack.
"I'm sorry," Cloud said so quietly it was almost impossible to hear him, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean – "
Unable to help rolling his eyes a bit, Zack put a hand on the back of Cloud's neck to haul him close and kiss him, firmly but gently, no tongue, just soft pressure and as much emotion as he could put into it.
"…Oh," said Cloud, blinking as though he'd left a dark room and entered a patch of sunlight, and Zack laughed, laughed and laughed until the fear finally left him and he could appreciate what Cloud had done, how brave he'd been to go up the elevator alone and get them out, how brave it was for him to have kissed first without warning or reassurance. The blond didn't take the laughter personally, and even grinned in the way that made his expression bright and his smile crooked.
"Now what?" he asked.
Zack said, "We'll go to Cosmo Canyon," and Cloud followed him like one follows the North Star.
Seventeen-year-old Cloud stood on the bluff overlooking the desert and scanned the rough road that wound its way towards Cosmo Canyon. The wind that rushed along the ground, between the mesas, and up the cliff-sides tugged at the black and blue feathers wound into his hair with thread and bright beads, tickling the edges of his ears.
"You're very impatient," Nanaki told him.
Cloud gave him a sour look.
Nanaki's tail wove back and forth in lazy contentment, brushing the sandy dirt, as he laughed in his deep, rumbling voice. "He's only been gone for a fortnight."
"I know." But after a year it was strange to sleep alone at night, to not feel another's warmth and heartbeat at his side. "I just need to make sure he's paying atten – "
Smirking fiercely, Cloud took off down the side of the mesa with sure footing, claws leaving deep scores in the rocks behind him. Nanaki was right behind him, letting out a howl, and Cloud couldn't help joining in with his own until the canyon echoed with their roars. They pounded up the wide road towards the returning trade caravan, and just before they passed the first cart Cloud was drawing his Zweihänder and bringing it down in a wide arc.
The sound of steel against steel rang out, startling some of the traders, but Zack was grinning as he forced Cloud back and leapt to the side of the road with the Buster in hand. "Honey, I'm home!" he cried, then yelped as the Zweihänder nearly took off his scalp. "Oi, is that any way to greet – "
The swords clanged again. Now that the traders could see Cloud properly, they just shook their heads and followed Nanaki up towards the village; neither of the wolves noticed, too absorbed in making sure the other didn't get too close with a weapon in hand.
"You been practicing with a girl again, Spike?" Zack called out as Cloud ducked under a wide swing.
"That girl could kick a SOLDIER's ass, Fair!" came the reply as the Zweihänder's hilt trapped the Buster's. When Zack caught Cloud's eye, they both lessened the pressure on their weapons so he could lean over them and give Cloud a solid, thorough kiss.
"You've been drinking that cactus juice again."
"Just to annoy you."
"I don't doubt that in the least, Spike. Blech."
The room they shared had a ceiling of tough green canvas, walls of tanned animal hide stretched over wooden posts, and just enough room for a bed, some chests, and their respective weapons. That night they lay in the bed facing one another, the light of the Cosmo Candle flickering faintly through the animal hide.
"It's getting worse," Cloud whispered as the sweat cooled on their bodies. Zack, propped up on one hand, paused in playing with the beads in Cloud's hair to look down at him. He didn't need to ask what Cloud was talking about.
"Worse when you're not here. Nanaki said he found me trying to walk away from the village, but I don't remember it."
Zack let go of the beads so he could slide his hand through Cloud's hair and cradle the curve of his skull, thumb sweeping over the arch of a cheekbone. "What direction?"
"The same. Straight east."
Towards Midgar. Zack thought, Planet, don't do this to me. Don't let Cloud end up like his mum. Sleepwalking, going distant, forgetting herself because the longing in her heart was more powerful than her sense of self. Don't let me come back to find him on the edge of a cliff.
"She sounds so sad, Zack," Cloud went on softly. "The moon, I mean. I don't…she's all alone. There aren't any wolves with her and she misses them, but she doesn't know why."
If the SOLDIER stopped to think about it, then yes, he knew what Cloud was talking about. Even when distracted by all the commotion of trading with the coastal towns he'd heard the same voice in his dreams, getting clearer each night; the voice of a woman lost and confused and singing of loneliness and the Promised Land. Only it seemed to hit Cloud harder, except Zack didn't know if it was because his mother had been that way or because of the amount of passive mako present in a reactor town.
He ran his free hand down Cloud's bare side to fit it possessively over a bony hip and pressed his face to the curve of Cloud's neck. The blond automatically wrapped his arms around Zack, curling as closely together as physical bodies allowed.
"You can't go away, Cloud," Zack murmured into his skin, "not without me, got it? You're stuck with me until you get sick of me, and then you're even more stuck."
There wasn't much to say to that, so Cloud just tightened his hold.
Cloud would often disappear for hours up in the planetarium, in which Zack had little interest, with Nanaki. Nanaki would tell him about the stars, and the planets, and about their own Planet as well, and Cloud listened closely, silently trying to understand why wolves were born with a broken heart.
Father Sun has blessed us, Nanaki sometimes said, and Mother Planet has provided.
Cloud sometimes shared stories from the Nibel mountains. The humans had a wolf-god named Fenrir, who was the son of the Trickster. All the other gods and goddesses feared him so much that they had their greatest warrior tie him down, and the humans believe that at the end of the world Fenrir will get loose and destroy them.
Nanaki would ask, What do you believe?
Cloud would reply, I believe that eventually, one way or another, we'll all know for sure.
In the village was a girl named Raine who was deadly with a rapier. When Zack was away protecting the Canyon's trade caravans from monster attacks, Cloud would train with her, always startled by the differences in sparring someone with such a quick and light blade versus the enormous Buster.
"You're lucky," she once told him with a bittersweet tone as Cloud danced backwards away from her rapier.
"Why do you say that?"
"When you have someone you love so much, don't ever, ever let him go."
Cloud looked in her sad eyes and promised seriously, "I won't."
The day everything changed again, it started out like any other.
At dawn, Cloud went to check on the village chocobos and give Dellingr a good grooming, earning happy warks and gnaws on the spikes of his hair. Then he helped the younger people of the village with the chores, like drawing fresh water from the wells and bringing in fuel for the Candle, before the heat of the day became too strong. At midday he was in the Shildra Inn kitchen, helping to make the buffet lunch that was always spread for the whole of the community. Zack came in covered in grime and gore from the monsters that always prowled the edges of the canyon, and Cloud chased him off to change into fresh clothes before Zack could grab him into a wrestling hold and share the filth.
After lunch, Cloud went out with Zack into the canyon and got drilled on his sword kata; his Zweihänder was a broadsword that was smaller and lighter than the Buster, but relatively similar enough that the Buster's kata could be adapted to suit him. Zack, naturally, pushed him until Cloud was ready to faint in the heat, and then promptly ambushed him with a generous helping of gropes that left them both breathless.
"You always do this," Cloud groused as he looked around for the sword harness that Zack had stripped off of him.
Zack lounged in the shade of a tall cactus like a housecat and unashamedly leered at Cloud. "Hey, man, you're the one that goes around wearing nothing but pants and those hair things Nanaki gave you."
"It's hot. And I wear shoes, too."
"Those moccasins don't count."
"Why would they?"
"…Because they go on your feet to protect them and, therefore, fulfill the definition of 'shoes'?"
"Bah," Zack declared.
"You can't just go around denying the definitions of things if you don't like them."
Cloud found the harness and slipped it over his shoulders again before giving Zack a wry look. "How do you always manage to drag me into these debates?"
"Because I'm really sexy. Ha! Can't deny that one, can you?"
Well, no, but that wasn't the point. Cloud stood over him and plopped down on his chest, making Zack oomph and beg for mercy. He poked the SOLDIER on the nose and opened his mouth to say something when his eyes suddenly went very large.
It hit them both with the force of a train – a woman's voice, but screaming with fury as though the moon had erupted into flames, demanding the Promised Land, spitting with the force of her frustration and solitude. Cloud barely managed to avoid knocking his head against Zack's chin as he toppled forward with a small whine in his throat, nearly senseless, and Zack grabbed hold of him as though trying to find a life preserver in a storm. "Nonono," Cloud was whispering, "not you, you're wrong, unnatural, not right – "
The voice abruptly shut off like a hand had been slapped over an open mouth. Zack was left panting, staring up at the top of the cactus in a daze and managing a weak, "Holy shit." It took a minute for him to realize that Cloud wasn't stirring.
When Zack stumbled into the village with an unconscious Cloud in his arms, they were hustled into the nearest pueblo and into the bed by the owner herself.
"Zack? What happened? Did he get heat stroke?"
"No, it's…I don't know, it was something else. It was wrong, like the Planet…Cloud said it wasn't natural…" He pushed his nose farther into Cloud's scruff, needing the warm contact and the scent of living flesh to push away the image of a pale, unconscious body. Gods, what just happened?
He was dimly aware of someone calling for Elder Hargo. He pressed himself against Cloud and sang quietly, like Missus Strife used to, about a place where the moon was always full and a soul could run and run forever without ever reaching the end of freedom. The scars that had left lighter patches of fur in Cloud's coat, delivered by a chain and a man's fear for his daughter, were suddenly so much more obvious in Zack's eyes, only this time the wounds were on the inside and Zack couldn't follow him there.
The wolves were curled up nose-to-nose when Elder Hargo came in, followed by Nanaki. The two shared a glance, and while the Elder ushered out the other people Nanaki padded over to the bed, respectfully staying a few paws' length away.
"Zack? What happened?"
Triangular ears twitched. "There was a voice," he said lowly. "She spoke of the Promised Land, but there – she was so angry and hateful, it was like getting smacked with a sledgehammer."
"Do you know who or what she is?"
"No, there's something…Cloud said unnatural, and I can't think of any other word to describe it." Zack paused, then said even more quietly, "It came from the east. When Cloud wakes up, we have to go to Midgar." Even though the thought of it made him both sick and terrified.