A/N – Evidently I wasn't as finished with this idea as I thought. Based mainly on a sixty-second sequence in Crisis Core.

I miss that town;
I miss their faces;
You can't erase,
You can't replace it.

I miss it now,
I can't believe it.
So hard to stay,
Too hard to leave it.

If I could relive those days

I know the one thing that would never change.

-- From Photograph by Nickelback

Cloud knew Yuffie was there before he heard her choke on her cornflakes. She liked to think she was a premier ninja, at one with the shadows and undetectable unless she willed it. Some days he didn't have the heart to tell her his enhanced hearing caught her rapid heartbeat when she was thirty feet away behind two walls.

"…The hell?" She leaned over his shoulder with no regard for personal space. "Is that you?"

He grunted.

"For once could you not speak to me in those little dot things? Y'know, what're they called – ellipses? 'Cause they're great and all when you're in battle and looking moody and all come-here-so-I-can-rip-your-lungs-out, really great for getting the point across that you're a badass if they missed the black leather. But c'mon, Cloud; time and place."

Cloud's grip on the photo tightened imperceptibly. He cared a great deal for Yuffie, as he did for all his friends, even if he had trouble articulating it even to himself. Nonetheless, her scattershot manner of speaking sometimes made it hard for him to keep up with where her mind went. Yuffie often seemed on a subtly different wavelength than everyone else. Even Marlene and Denzel made more sense. Hell, Nanaki was easier to understand when Yuffie really got into what she was talking about.

"Yes, that's me," he replied.

"There now. Was that so difficult?" Yuffie didn't give him time to answer. "Actually your cuter younger self – 'cause I'm guessing you're a lot younger in this thing if your grunt uniform is anything to go by – isn't what grabbed my attention. Who's that?" She jabbed a finger at Zack.

Cloud pulled the photo away from her greasy fingertip. He hadn't meant to get it out in the bar, but it was early and nobody was around. The novelty still resonated enough that his hand slipped into his pocket of its own accord, extracting and carefully smoothing the snapshot on the bar-top. He heard Yuffie emerge from the kitchen but thought nothing of it. Unless there was opportunity for her own amusement, Yuffie so rarely concerned herself with what others did that he hadn't considered she might show an interest.

There was something strange in her eyes as she looked at the photograph.

"That's Zack," he said simply. He didn't need to explain more than that. Everyone knew the legend.

"Him? You mean that guy is the infamous Zack?"


"No shit! Y'mean … whoa. I mean really whoa. And he's not much older here. Small world doesn't really cover it."

"Excuse me?"

"I knew him."

Cloud's head snapped up. "What?"

Yuffie spiralled her hand at the wrist. Her other hand cupped a bowl brimming with cereal and milk, which slopped over the side leaving deposits on Tifa's meticulously mopped floor. Yuffie slid the bowl and her spoon onto the bar-top, forcing him to move the photo, but he didn't try to put it away. Instead he held it clenched between the thumb and forefinger of his glove, his whole arm eerily still.

"Well, not knew him knew him – not as well as you or Aerith, but I met him. Once. He was in Wutai during the war. I was just a kid then, all snot-nosed and annoying and no tits at all. Good job I grew out of that, huh?"

Cloud made no comment. He wasn't sure he even wanted to try.

"I was so pathetic. Just started my training and thought I was the bee's knees, so when this big tough Shinra SOLDIER broke in I confronted him. Him," she repeated, pointing at Zack's image. "He'd just walloped his way through, like, a bazillion guards and trained warriors without even breaking a sweat, and there was me trying to block his path with my 'killer moves'. Anybody else probably would've killed me and got on with the job, or at least knocked me out or something. Middle of a freaking war, y'know? But you know what he did? He pretended I'd beaten him, and then he let me run off."

Cloud nodded. It sounded … an incredibly Zack-like thing to do, actually. Showing mercy. Playing make-believe in the middle of a hot war zone. Acting according to a genuine sense of justice instead of just paying lip service to it.

"I didn't know who the guy was. No reason to make the connection. I mean, when you were all floopy and junk, I never realised …" Yuffie stuck out her tongue. "Kinda dumb, huh? After the war ended and I grew up a little, I still remembered him. Other SOLDIERs came and went, but he never came back. Leastways, not when I was around to see him. I think he was my first crush, actually. I thought about him a lot, especially when I figured out how, duh, I so did not kick his ass the way I thought I had. I used to imagine all these little fantasies where he'd come back to Wutai and I'd beat him in single combat, then he had to marry me and my dad gave this huge kick-ass ceremony to honour me as the greatest ever ninja. It was really cool. I had my own theme tune and everything. My dad would've killed me if he'd known." She sat down heavily on a stool, gangly legs tucked under her and knees pointing in opposite directions. "I always wondered what happened to him; my mysterious SOLDIER. Guess now I know." For a moment her voice turned sad, and Cloud saw a flash of unusual emotion in her dark eyes. Then it was gone again and she was shovelling cornflakes into her mouth like he'd threatened to take them away from her. "Mff, y'should eat sumthin', Cloud. S'coffee an' stuff all ready. Tifa made a pot."

Cloud just stared at her.

"What?" Yuffie swallowed her mouthful and frowned, checking around and behind her and pointedly sniffing under each armpit. "What?"

She didn't understand the significance of what she'd just told him. She didn't understand how important it was that Zack, a different Zack than the one who'd pulled Cloud's face against his fatally bleeding wounds, existed in her head. Quite possibly it had gone right out of her mind the moment she let it out of her mouth. Yuffie was an expert at letting things slide off her back, concentrating on what made her feel good instead of angsting over the bad stuff in life. She was wild and free and devil-may-care, even when she was being an egotistical brat. Maybe he should take lessons.

"Cloud, either you tell me what or I put frogs in your bed."

Maybe not.

Cloud opened his mouth to speak, paused, and then shook his head. "Thank you."


"Never mind." He made to replace the photo in his pocket, but Yuffie stuck out her hand.

"Could I take a closer look?"

Cloud hesitated, eyeing the splatters of cereal already on the bar and her milk-stained mouth.


Warily, he handed it over.

Yuffie held it at arm's length, examining it for something Cloud couldn't begin to comprehend, since he was neither a girl nor a teenager. Nor Yuffie, which included and exempted her from both in her own unique way. There was a peculiar, hungry sort of intensity to the way she took in Zack's smile and easy posture. "Where'd you get this? I've never seen you with it before."

"I found it this morning, amongst some rocks in the desert outside Midgar." Drawn there by an inexplicable urge that guided his hands and turned up a bundle wrapped in oilskin.

Zack must've suspected there'd be an ugly fight when they reached the border – especially when people started shooting at them. He'd stowed the few possessions accumulated during their year on the run, obviously intending to go back for them like he'd intended to go back for Cloud. Zack was big on keeping precious things safe while he walked into the line of fire.

The rest of the bundle was now hidden under a floorboard in Aerith's church, but Cloud had kept the picture close. Unlike most of the bundle it had been his, not Zack's, and he clung to that remnant of years that were mostly dim recollections of dubious reliability. His time before the labs was just as hazy as the time after, with lesions and hollows where the contents of his mind had been scraped out by Hojo and his experiments. It was bizarre, living your past vicariously. Almost as hard as living two lives at once – or one life for two people.

"No kidding?" Yuffie said. "So it was like he left it as a gift for you, huh?"

"I … suppose you could look at it like that."

"How else would you look at it?" She sounded like she considered him a few cards short of a full deck. Cloud could almost hear the 'stupid man' tagged on the end. "It's like, he saw you were getting all mopey over him, doing your dewy-eyed look all over the freaking place, so he gave you something cheerful as a last memory of him instead of, y'know, watching him die. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, isn't the best way to remember a great friendship. Of course, neither is stealing a person's identity and wearing it like your own, but I guess you two have your own rules and whatever. Even so, big fat hello on the 'woe is me for I am Cloud' front. The Zack I met was nice, and everything I've heard about him says he was a fun guy. No way would he want you to sulk like … well, like a teenage girl whose boyfriend just dumped her. No wisecracks, please. Spoons make surprisingly good weapons."

Cloud struggled to keep up with her. Yuffie's stream-of-consciousness ramblings could often be dismissed as self-indulgent prattle, but occasionally they contained nuggets of truth a more polite mind wouldn't have even considered.

"Either way," she went on, "it's something to remember him by that isn't a stinky uniform he lent you that you didn't wash for however-long, or a big fuck-off sword for cutting people up and scaring passers-by. By the way, when are you gonna let me have a go with that thing? I could think up some really cool tricks with a sword that big. Cloud? Cloud, you freak me out when you smile. Cloud, stop it."

The tiny quirk of his lips eased. Cloud plucked the photograph from Yuffie's hand and headed wordlessly for the kitchen.

Yuffie watched him go before rolling her eyes and returning to her cornflakes. "Ew, soggy," she murmured, munching and thinking and kicking her legs against her seat.

I found the photo of the friend that I was looking for.
It's hard to say,
It's time to say it:

-- From Photograph by Nickelback