I am an EPIC FAILURE. I can't believe I kept you guys waiting for almost SIX MONTHS for a freakin' interlude. I'm really, really, really, really sorry. Reality, as always, tends to completely and utterly ruin my life. :/

A Zack and Cloud background piece won the poll, so hopefully this will live up to everyone's expectations. If not, well, my bad?

Feedback of any kind is always appreciated.

When Zack first met Cloud it was hardly spectacular. The kid was pale as a ghost and just as shy, shuffling his feet incessantly and keeping his eyes glued to the ground as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. He barely spoke and when he did it was in weak whispers that faded as soon as they left his lips. Loud, boisterous Zack couldn't fathom how someone could talk so quietly and so easily fold in on himself until he became invisible.

Within the first five minutes, Cloud tripped over his words ten times, apologized for breathing Zack's air, and generally looked seconds from passing out.

Within the first five minutes, Zack decided Cloud was one of the most interesting people he'd ever met.

Angeal told him that looking after Cloud was training—a chance for him to practice his skills at being a teacher. Zack jumped at the chance, wanting to prove himself just as much as we fascinated by the talented, terrified kid abruptly thrust into his care. In fact, he was so wrapped up in helping Cloud tackle his vast array of personal issues that he didn't notice Angeal drifting away until it was too late.

As he knelt next to Angeal's body in Modeoheim, Cloud a silent shadow at his back, he realized that had been exactly what Angeal wanted: to slip away and die in peace, without breaking his heart.

Well, Angeal failed.

The thought echoed like a bell toll through his heart as he screamed up into the rain, letting loose some of the agony tearing him to pieces. He should have been able to stop this. How could he ever become a hero if he couldn't even protect the people that he loved?

A gloved hand landed on his shoulder, abruptly cutting off his yelling and startling him back down to Earth. Jerking, he locked on Cloud's solemn eyes. It was the first time the blond had ever initiated physical contact. He didn't say anything, didn't have to. His sorrowful gaze said it all.

Spinning around fully, Zack caught him in a desperate hug, burying his face in the blond's shoulder as he wept out some of his grief. Cloud's hands were feather light against his back, but still enough to anchor him, to remind him that he wasn't alone.

Maybe, maybe, Angeal hadn't failed after all.

"I'm not sure about this," Cloud muttered, clutching his rifle tightly as he glanced around at the bare walls of the simulation room.

"It'll be fine," Zack reassured him, beeping in commands on his PHS. Cloud had more talent than he gave himself credit for, and it was time he realized that.

"But isn't this a SOLDIER training program?" Cloud's voice was still barely more than a whisper, but it grew stronger every day. The kid was going to make it, Zack was sure of that.

"Exactly," he replied, grinning widely at his trainee and friend. Cloud's eye widened with something close to panic as Zack fitted the training visor over his eyes.

"Wait!" He gasped as the simulated world began to build around him, separating him from Zack.

"Just make it to the other side of the city!" Zack called before he retreated to the secured control room.

It was only a level program, designed for cadets. Cloud should be fine, Zack assured himself as he took a seat, set the timer, and waited for Cloud to finish the mission.

Half an hour in, Reno strolled into the room, looking bored, as usual.

"Hey," Zack barked. "A training session is going on. You can't just interrupt."

"Relax, Fair," Reno said with a dismissive wave of his hand, plopping down into the seat next to Zack. "Angeal's death really made you boring."

Zack gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remember that Reno was this blunt with everyone, and really didn't mean any insult. Zack stilled wanted to bash his head against the control panel. Angeal was still a bleeding wound on his soul and he wasn't sure when it would finally heal, or if it ever would.

"What are you doing here, Reno?" Zack bit out. "This floor belongs to SOLDIER."

"Is that the kid who apologizes for breathing people's air?" Reno asked, ignoring him as he leaned forward in his seat, peering into the simulation room.

"Yeah." Zack forced some of his irritation away. "I'm running him through a basic SOLDIER training mission."

"Oh, so you know about the Sephiroth glitch?" Reno kicked his feet up on the control board, narrowly missing a few switches and put his arms behind his head.

Zack frowned. "The what?"

"The Sephiroth glitch. If you've trained here, you've probably run into it."

Zack flashed back to one of his many training missions with Angeal—the one that ended in a desperate duel with the silver-haired general and Angeal jumping in to save his butt, before lecturing him on dreams and never letting them go.

"I fought Sephiroth but I thought that was just something Angeal programmed in," he said hesitantly, a sense of dread stirring the butterflies in his stomach.

"Nope, that's a glitch," Reno replied cheerfully. "Reeve programmed Sephiroth into a Turk training mission a few years back, to shake things up a bit. Except he kinda got stuck and now he pops up at random times to scare the crap out of people. And fight them. And usually kill them." The redhead chuckled grimly. "Me and Elena KO'd really badly the first time we ran into him."

The butterflies were wildly flapping their wings. "So, he only appears in upper level programs?"

"Nope." Reno still sounded way too cheerful. "He creamed a bunch of cadets last month. You should tell Blondie down there to watch out."

Zack cursed, scrambling to pull his PHS out of his pocket and end the simulation before he scarred Cloud for life. Just as he flipped it open, the crack of the training gun echoed one final time and a voice chimed: "Simulation complete."

Zack looked up in shock, watching as the rifle fell from Cloud's shaking fingers and the blond cadet sunk to his hands and knees in the middle of the room. Reno and Zack exchanged a stunned glance.

"Did he just…" Reno trailed off in wonder and Zack all but flew from the room and over to Cloud's side.

"Cloud?" He ventured hesitantly, hovering next to the younger man but afraid of touching him.

For a long moment, only Cloud's labored breathing punctured the silence. Then, the blond whispered, shaky and so soft that Zack almost didn't hear. "Sephiroth..."

Shock trilled along Zack's spine. "You … you ran into Sephiroth?"

"I … I shot him." Cloud's shoulders trembled with the shock that leaked from his voice. "In the head."

"Holy crap," Reno spoke from the doorway of the simulation room, staring at the pair on the floor with wide, admiring eyes. "You're a freakin' genius, Blondie."

Zack instinctively wrapped around an arm around Cloud's shoulders—wary of the thoughtful note to Reno's tone. "You can't have him," he barked out, glaring at the Turk over Cloud's shoulder.

Reno raised his hands innocently. "Easy, Fair. I was just praising the kid. No need to get all territorial."

"Did I pass?" Cloud murmured, putting a halt to their half-hearted argument.

Zack looked down at him, still trying swallow down his awe. "Yeah, kid. With flying colors."

Cloud gave him a wobbly, but brilliant smile that warmed Zack's heart. But beneath the glow was a sense of dread he still couldn't shake—the notion that this was a sign of things to come.

Which was stupid and superstitious, so he pushed it aside.

Cloud suffered from nightmares. Bad ones.

After the fifth night in a row that the kid woke up screaming on their mission to Junon, Zack crawled over to his side and enveloped him in a comforting hug. Cloud stiffened in his arms, but didn't pull away and that had to be progress.

Zack didn't know what tormented Cloud so badly, and he didn't have the courage to ask. Cloud held everything close to him and wrapped it up in iron with locks and keys to boot. There was never any easy way to get him to open up, so Zack stopped trying.

But he could be there for Cloud, always. No matter what pains the future might hold.


"Yeah, dreams. Everyone has them, Spiky."

"I wish you would stop calling me that."

"Why? It suits you. And stop ignoring my question."

"I don't know…"

"How can you not know what your dreams are?"

Cloud frowned, sitting up in his sleeping roll and staring at Zack with quiet intensity. Everything about Cloud was intense, from his troubles to his determination to succeed.

"What's so important about it? They're just dreams."

Zack sat up, too, reaching out to smack Cloud on the back of the head. Cloud gaped at him, blinking in surprise as Zack leveled him with his best "instructor's glare." Angeal had had it down to an art form, but he could never manage to be stern enough. He still felt too young, too naïve, too inexperienced, to look at Cloud like that.

But he still tried. After all, this was a serious matter.

"Dreams are important, Spiky. Really important. They give us something to live for."

Cloud still looked skeptical. "And they just break us when they don't come true."

Zack didn't know whether to be thrilled that the cadet was actually arguing with him, or frustrated at his pessimistic view on life. "You have the power to make your dreams come true."

Cloud's eyes were haunted. "Not all dreams."

Curiosity welled up in him again. There was so much to Cloud that he couldn't see—layers and layers buried beneath the quiet steel front the cadet presented to the world. He wanted to ask, wanted to offer up an ear for the blond to pour out all those layers to, but he was young and uncertain.

And he'd always been a coward when it came to Cloud. So he bit his tongue and silently vowed to get the blond to believe in things like hope and dreams and a brighter future.

Cloud's back pressed up close against his and the blast of the rifle roared through his sensitive ears like a freight train. He blocked it out as best he could, spinning them so that he could slash at one of the monsters that looked like it had been raised from the pits of Hell.

"Why are there so many of them?" Cloud yelled above the din of screeching and rifle shots.

Zack shook his head, ducking a swiping claw and burying his sword in the creature's chest. "Because Genesis is a freakin' psycho!" He yelled back.

Cloud spun around, shooting one of the creatures that was swooping in toward Zack. The SOLIDER jumped out of the way as the body plummeted down to the Junon road a few feet from their position. He pivoted on the ball of his foot to behead yet another monster that was attempting to dig its claws into Cloud's helmet. Cloud carelessly kicked the severed head out of his way, keeping his eyes locked on the infested sky.

"Speaking of Genesis, have you seen him?" the trooper asked as he reloaded his rifle and clipped the wing of another monster, sending it spiraling into the ocean far below them.

"No," Zack spat, dodging a pair of grasping claws. "We've lost Hollander, too."

"Great," Cloud grumbled, dropping to one knee and braining a low flying monster with the butt of his weapon, hissing as the thing dragged its claws across the front of his helmet, scouring the metal.

Zack paused for a second to marvel at the progress the trooper had made in just six short months, both as a warrior and as a man. The once shell of a boy now possessed a fire in his eyes that didn't allow him to back down from anything. He moved through his enemies with a calm that would have been beyond his grasp at the beginning and he stood up straight, looking others right in the eye instead of fixing his gaze on his feet.

Zack was proud of him. Insanely so.

"We'll get them," he told Cloud with confidence.

Cloud wrenched the damaged helmet from his head, casting it aside and gracing Zack with a dubious look. "The odds aren't exactly in our favor right now, you know."

Zack shrugged, feeling a grin starting to pull at the corners of his mouth. "Then we'll make new odds."

They were a team, friends, ZackandCloud, and in this moment—as Cloud smirked softly, eyes ablaze—that was all that mattered.

"Easy!" Zack yelped, jumping to help Cloud steady the sword in his grip. The blond paused to wipe a sheen of sweat from his forehead and grimaced.

"How do you fight with this thing?" He asked breathlessly, struggling beneath the weight of the Buster Sword.

Zack laughed. "Well, having mako in your blood really helps."

Cloud didn't join in. "Mako…" he murmured, turning the sword carefully in his hand—a thoughtful expression on his face. "I've heard it's poison."

Zack hesitated. He'd been determined to keep bolstering the kid's dreams of becoming a SOLDIER, while simultaneously shielding him from some of the horrors the program hid beneath its promising exterior. Those horrors had long ago shattered his own dreams—the ideal of SOLDIER as a band of heroes that had the power to save the Planet.

Except … Cloud wasn't Zack, and Cloud didn't seem to have those dreams. He faced down SOLDIER with an air of grim determination. As though he already knew what was waiting for him, had accepted that fact, and was pushing on regardless.

"It can be," Zack said at last, aware of Cloud's questioning eyes on him. "It's been known to have … side effects."

"Madness," Cloud whispered, staring at his reflection in the shiny surface of the sword. For a second, Zack saw Angeal—full of sorrow and misguided belief that he was a monster without hope of redemption. It echoed like an earthquake across his soul.

"Not … Not always, Spiky…" he trailed off, out of arguments as Cloud looked up, a knowing look in his eyes.

Not for the first time, Zack wondered exactly what he was leading Cloud into.

A hand tangled in the back of his sweater, wrenching him back from the railing he had been about jump over to follow Genesis into the bowels of Junon. "Stop!"

"Let go, Spiky! I can't let him get away!" Zack cried, trying to dislodge Cloud's grip.

"He's already gone!" Cloud argued back, sinking his heels into the deck in an attempt to counter some of Zack's mako strength. "All you're going to do is fall to your death."

Zack hissed in frustration. "I'll be fine! You're not in SOLDIER. You don't know exactly what we're capable of!" And, to back up his words, he shoved at the trooper holding him place, hard. Cloud hit the deck roughly with a startled cry.

Zack froze, foot poised on the railing, feeling horror begin to creep cold fingers down his spine.

What did I just…?

Cloud propped himself up on one elbow, staring at Zack with a mixture of anger and fear.

Cloud, I'm …

"Go, then," Cloud murmured, lowering his gaze to the deck. The simple gesture, a glimpse of the stammering boy Zack had met almost a year ago, hit him like a punch in the gut.

"Cloud, I have to save him," he pleaded. "I can't lose him like…"

Like Angeal. But Cloud already knew that.

"I understand." Cloud didn't look up.

Zack pushed down the sickness bubbling in his stomach at how awful he was treating a friend, along with the screaming of his conscience, and hoisted himself up on the railing, searching for a safe spot to land after he made his jump.

Behind him, he heard Cloud hiss in pain as he struggled to rise from the deck. It was too much.

He let go of the railing and was at Cloud's side in seconds, offering a hand to help him up. Cloud flinched at his touch and rose to his feet on his own—still stubbornly refusing to meet Zack's eyes.

"I'm sorry, Spiky," Zack said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "Heroes shouldn't leave their friends behind, either. Especially when the friend is right."

"I forgive you," Cloud replied, but his voice was still stiff and cold around the edges.

Crap. Zack had definitely screwed up. Badly.

"It won't happen again." The words left in a rush, full of his desperate need to fix things between them.

Cloud finally lifted his eyes, searching Zack's face for something. "Just be careful, Zack. Please."

Another shiver ran down Zack's spine. A sense of foreboding that lingered in the air around them with Cloud's words.

"Are these real flowers?" Cloud traced the petals reverently, picking up one of the yellow and white flowers from the vase on Zack's table and twirling it slowly between his fingers.

"Yep!" Zack chimed from the kitchen, smiling fondly at the flowers as he thought of the girl who had thrust them into his arms yesterday.

So your apartment won't be so lonely.

Man, Aerith was something else.

"I thought they didn't grow in Midgar."

"Just one place." Zack entered the living room with a glass of water for his flowers, tipping the contents gently into the vase as Cloud set the flower back.

"Are these from her?" the blond asked. "The girl you've been seeing?"

"Aerith. Yeah."

"Aerith. She sounds nice."

Zack laughed with giddy contentment, slinging an arm around Cloud's shoulders. "She's amazing! So pretty and nice and just … amazing. She grows these flowers all by herself and I bought her a ribbon for her hair and someday I'm going to take her to see the sky and…" he trailed off with a furious blush, suddenly realizing that he probably sounded like a lovesick sap.

Judging from the small smile on Cloud's face, he most definitely did.

"It sounds like you're in love." He'd never heard the trooper's voice so teasing before.

With a playful scoff, he pushed Cloud back a step and rolled his eyes. "Please. It's too soon for that." But he could feel the blush heating on his cheeks and Cloud laughed softly, amusement lighting up his eyes.

"Right," he teased further.

Zack set aside his surprise at Cloud's behavior. "I'll take you to meet her."

Cloud glanced at him, seemingly taken aback. "Really?"

Zack slapped him on the back and ruffled his hair, laughing at his grimace. "Of course! The best friend has to meet the girlfriend, it's … a tradition or something." He laughed again, but stopped when he realized Cloud was regarding him with stunned eyes.

"I'm … your best friend?"

Zack almost laughed again, but held it in, realizing what a big deal this must be for Cloud. He still didn't know much about Cloud's childhood—the blond refused to talk about it—but he was certain it had been an achingly lonely one.

"Yeah. You are," he said simply.

Cloud's smile was blinding.

Zack fluttered the piece of paper in Cloud's face, brushing it against his nose until his eyes fluttered open. He jerked in shock at the thing obscuring his vision, nearly falling off his bunk in the sick bay. Zack stepped back with a laugh, grinning when Cloud scowled at him.

"Guess what this is?" he flapped the paper again, trying to contain his excitement.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Cloud grumbled, wiping sleep from the corners of his eyes.

"Around one in the morning. I had to sneak passed the freaky Dragon Lady nurse. Guess!"

Cloud shrugged, repositioning himself on the bed so that his broken arm was more comfortable. Zack felt a small pang of guilt for not asking about how he felt first. That had been a pretty nasty break. But, he was too excited to think about much else than the news he was bringing—news that would most likely cheer Cloud up anyway.

"You're no fun," the SOLDIER pouted when Cloud didn't offer anything else.

"I'm on painkillers in the sick bay for my broken arm," Cloud argued back.

"Eh, details." Zack waved his hand and plopped down on the edge of the bed, holding up the paper. "Since you're being a spoilsport, I'll just tell you. This piece of paper, my friend, is a formal acceptance letter to the SOLDIER program.

Cloud's eyes widened and for a moment a war waged in them, between elation and trepidation. Elation won and a slow, marveling smile spread across his face. "I … I got in?"

Zack ruffled his hair affectionately. "Of course you did. You had me as a teacher."

Cloud batted his hand away, still wide-eyed and stunned. "I can't believe I got in."

Zack softened and laid a reassuring hand on Cloud's good shoulder. He could tease the blond more later. "You deserve it, Spiky."

Cloud shook his head and as Zack watched, he pulled himself together, shoving his emotions down behind a calculating wall. "When does the program start?

He really would have made a great Turk. Zack shivered at the thought, hurriedly pushing it away.

"In three months. Right after your arm is healed and we go on a mission."

"A mission?" Cloud arched an eyebrow. "What kind of mission?"

Zack lifted one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Don't know. I'll update you as soon as I have more details. For now, rest up and focus on not falling off any rooftops." He nudged Cloud with a teasing smile.

Cloud sunk down onto the pillows, shame coloring his cheeks. "Wasn't my fault," he muttered.

"Whatever you say, Spiky. Whatever you say."

Cloud hit him with a pillow.

"Nibelheim? That's where we're going? Nibelheim?"

Zack watched Cloud pace around his living room with a puzzled frown. He didn't see why Cloud was so worked up. From what little of the briefing he'd read, Nibelheim seemed like a sleepy little mountain town where the most interesting thing to do was watch the grass grow. Nothing to worry about at all.

When he relayed these thoughts to Cloud, he got a glare that could've frozen Hades over in return.

"What's wrong? You have something against sleepy mountain towns? I admit they're a little boring, but…"

"I grew up there."

Zack stuttered to a halt, gaping at Cloud. "Y-you … you did?" He hadn't known that, he realized with a pang of hurt. Two years of friendship and Cloud still didn't trust him enough to share the place of his birth.

As if he'd read his thoughts, Cloud's face shaded with guilt. "Sorry I never told you. It's just…" he took a shaky breath, staring at the floor. "…it doesn't have good memories for me."

"None at all?" Zack asked in surprise, remembering his own sleepy little town. Gongaga had stifled him, but he still missed his mother's cooking and his father's warm smile.

Cloud's gaze was haunted in the way it always was after his nightmares. A few pieces fell into place with horrifying clarity, and something like heartache radiated through his chest.

Oh, Cloud.

"None," Cloud said shortly.

Zack sighed and swiftly tugged Cloud into a hug. "I'm sorry, Spiky," he murmured into Cloud's hair.

"My mom was crazy." Muffled by the fabric of his sweater, Zack nearly missed the confession.

"What?" He gasped, stepping back to look at Cloud in alarm.

Cloud glanced away, jaw tensing with anxiety. "She was the town lunatic. Everybody … everybody was afraid of her, hated her. Thought she was possessed by … by the devil or something. And they thought I was the same, tainted by her, so…" He choked on another rattling breath and his fingers curled into tight fists at his sides.

At a loss for words, Zack pulled him into another hug, seeing more of the picture, and feeling his heartache grow.

"I don't want to go back there, Zack," Cloud whispered brokenly. "I never want to go back there again."

Zack sighed again, releasing Cloud and giving him a sad smile. "I'm sorry, Spiky, but we have to. It's from the big wigs and Sephiroth is even accompanying us. We can't refuse. Besides, you do well on this mission and you're in the SOLIDER program." He punched Cloud's shoulder gently, trying for reassuring.

The haunted look still filled Cloud's gaze. "There's nothing good in that town, Zack."

Zack felt a cold spike of apprehension, but still cobbled together another smile. "We'll be fine, Spiky. I promise."

Famous last words, eh, Zack?

COMING UP NEXT-more snooping and thievery.