Aheheh. Hi! Long time no see, right? First, an apology - writer's block has hit me hard and it's been a while since I've written much of anything. I know I have a lot of unfinished stories, and I haven't forgotten then. (Yup, including Snowblind. I know, two years, right?)
Brand new fandom for me. Well ...as far as writing goes, anyway. I've always been partial to Zack and Cloud. And I know my writing's a lot clunkier than usual, but honestly, I'm totally out of practice. Many thanks to Pretty Arbitrary for beta-ing this for me and vastly improving great chunks! As for the rest, I'll warm up as I go. Hope you enjoy. :D
Sephiroth was laughing at him. No great surprise there – Zack could count the number of times the guy had laughed on one hand, and every time it had been at his expense. No, not quite, because he'd laughed in the village too, a snide sort of chuckle that had made Zack blink, and that hadn't been at him. Had it?
What about your parents?
There was a small, wild part of Zack that wondered if maybe this was his fault. The silver hair was not so immaculate now, the face not so serene, mouth stretched wide to laugh at him with those mad green eyes burning in the darkness, and all he could think was that maybe if he hadn't brought it up, Seph wouldn't have been thinking of his mother when he went into the reactor and saw the name above the door. Stupid thing to think about when Nibelheim was burning to the ground.
Cloud. I'm so sorry—
And he didn't have time to think about that either, because Sephiroth was killing him again. Steel snapped past his guard and carved a line of fire across his chest deep enough that he could taste blood in the back of his throat. His feet were already sliding on the metal grating beneath him well before the force of Masamune's strike sent him crashing down the stairs like a ragdoll. And he should have expected that – Zack was good, but Sephiroth was a force of nature – but he tried hard this time to curl and protect himself, because this time maybe if he could—
--Blood in his eyes. Footsteps – he saw the boots, faded brown and regulation infantry. Blurring in his vision as they hesitated by his head, and then gone, up the stairs. A slim wrist extended to take hold of the Buster Sword. Zack swallowed and tried to find his voice. Was sure he'd at least managed to croak the kid's name.
The spiky blond head didn't turn back to look at him once.
Reverent fingers on the glass.
My mother's name is Jenova.
The blood in his mouth choked his words away and he had no strength at all to move. Zack's fingers curled on the stairs as his teeth clenched at the inevitable sound of the glass tube cracking, and on another day maybe he would have cheered for Cloud being able to even lift the damn sword. But now, now he had to tell Cloud the most important thing—
--Blue eyes met his, frightened but determined, and maybe broken in a way – and then Cloud was gone again, running down the stairs out of sight. Zack swallowed. Heard the rest of the glass break and wondered crazily whether they taught the most basic of combat survival skills to the infantrymen because you didn't just wound an enemy and then run away, but then Cloud had to be so many kinds of torn up right now and a sword buried that deep in the side of anyone should have killed them, so maybe that wasn't Cloud's fault. And then he saw the curtain of silver hair again as Sephiroth drew himself upright and severed the head of Jenova (not your Gaia-damned mother, you idiot) in one stroke, whirling around to stand in the broken doorway with blood soaking down his side.
He wouldn't spare Zack a second glance, and Zack knew why – he was down and he'd lost, and even if Zack were still a threat maybe there was enough of Seph left in there to hold back from killing one of his only friends. But Cloud—
Zack finally found his voice.
Someone was yelling his name. There was a soft hiss of pain by his ear, and the sound was enough to make him panic, eyes snapping open. Someone was hurt. The room was suddenly all blinding edges and dark silhouettes. He sucked in a breath and tried to struggle upright past a tangle of blankets, and was met almost immediately with a hand on his shoulder gently pushing him back down. Someone was tugging at one of his hands. Or maybe that was the other way around; he could feel the warmth of someone's wrist caught between his fingers, and he wondered hazily if that meant he'd managed to drag Cloud somewhere safe.
Dizziness washed over him and turned the room on its side.
Zack groaned, raising his free hand to fist it against his eyes and block the light out. He felt one final tug at his other hand and then the warmth was gone, fingers yanking out of his as if they'd been burned. He heard slightly embarrassed laughter and footsteps hurrying away, a sound that seemed more than a little out of place given where he was.
But then, where am I? This isn't—
"All right, Zack?"
The voice was softer now, and with a start he recognised it. The hand on his shoulder hovered there a moment before pulling away.
"I wouldn't advise doing that again."
Zack risked opening his eyes again and winced. The room was too damn bright, but at least he could make a little sense of it now. He'd been in Shinra Medical enough times to recognise it. He was currently curled in a hospital bed like an invalid, which he supposed he probably was, and there was a curtain drawn around the bed for privacy.
Tseng was standing at the side of the bed.
The room was still tilting a bit at the edges, but at least the Turk was staying in focus. Apart from the dizziness, he didn't actually feel so bad; more worn out than anything else. A little stiff. Zack frowned. Injuries aside, he had no idea how he'd managed to get here in the first place. Nibelheim was a long way from—
Nibelheim. Shit. He swallowed. "Tseng…"
"You've been out for a couple of days," Tseng said quietly. "Your Restore materia took care of the worst of it, but you'll need to recover from the concussion on your own."
Well, that explained the dizziness. Zack pushed his hair away from his face, grimacing at the feel of dried blood thickening the black strands and sticking to his fingers. His injuries might have been healed, but no one had been nice enough to clean him up. Tseng watched him with a neutral expression, and he gave a tired grin. "I don't buy that face. You were worried about me, weren't you?"
"You're an asset to the company," Tseng said without the ghost of a smile. "I've been assigned to supervise your recovery, among other things. That's all."
"Lies," Zack said comfortably. "You were yelling my name a few minutes ago. See, that is so unlike you. Were you worried?"
"I knew it."
Now Tseng did smile, the corner of his mouth turning up. "You were trying to crush the nurse's hand, Zack. I thought it wise to wake you, given the circumstances."
Zack blinked, remembered the pained sound and the tug on his hand, and the grin slid off his face as he looked around. They were alone, now. It didn't make him feel any better. SOLDIER strength could snap all the bones in a person's wrist without much effort. "That's - oh hell, I'm sorry. Is she okay?"
"She's fine," Tseng assured him wryly. "Though she may think twice about checking your temperature while you're asleep. You've been ... restless."
That's one word for it. Zack winced and rested his head back against the pillow, trying to ignore the phantom taste of blood rising at the back of his throat. Fragments came back to him now. Fire. Green, inhuman eyes. Laughter and breaking glass. Cloud, finally putting an end to everything where Zack had utterly failed. He was doing that a lot, lately.
"Dealt with," Tseng replied. Then he hesitated. "Zack, Sephiroth is dead."
"I know. Cloud killed him." He closed his eyes. There was grief there, too. He put it aside for now, remembering something else. Cloud, white face and dead eyes above frightening bloody holes in his chest, who had managed to hold himself up for a few seconds before tumbling bonelessly down the stairs. Zack's mouth twisted at the thought. "Tseng, is he okay?"
The silence that followed was enough to send him cold.
"Cadet Strife," he said after a moment, hearing the pleading note enter his voice and not caring in the slightest. He glanced up. "He's a little blond guy, would have been in the reactor – not ten feet away from me, Tseng—"
Tseng's voice was very soft. "I'm sorry, Zack. He didn't … you're the only survivor."
His hands fisted into the blanket. Spike. His best friend, a terminally shy cadet who looked out of place in his own hometown and hid from his childhood crush. He'd thought it was kind of cute. A likable kid with fluffy hair that was too tempting to mess with, if only because it was so much fun to get a reaction out of him. The thought was almost enough to make him laugh now and, oh Gaia, that couldn't be right—
It was suddenly hard to breathe. The room blurred more, and he put a hand out to latch on to the bed rail for support. Zack laughed anyway, then, an uneven sound that made Tseng take a step forward in concern, and that was enough for him to reach wildly for the Turk, fingers catching at a sleeve, voice weak. "Are you sure?"
Tseng stared at him, then down at Zack's hand. He shook his head wearily. "I'm sorry," he said again. "It was too late by the time we got there for anyone involved."
"Except me," Zack said hollowly. "Did you even try?"
It was unfair; he knew it, couldn't take it back. The Turk's eyes narrowed. "He was dead before we arrived, Zack. I'm sure you saw what Sephiroth did to him."
Zack let go of Tseng's sleeve. Breathed. Hunched on the bed and kept himself utterly still, trying to blink the sudden hotness away from his eyes. He barely registered when Tseng started speaking again; was too busy thinking that Cloud had idolised Sephiroth, and Seph had been indulgent of that because Cloud was friends with Zack, and Sephiroth had been his friend too, and this was so many kinds of fucked up he didn't know whether to laugh again, or cry, or punch Tseng in the face for being so callous about it.
"…Are you listening?"
Tseng gave him a doubtful look. "Now that you're awake, Shinra is going to want a full report on what happened in Nibelheim. I'm supposed to inform them the moment you're able to give one."
Zack said nothing.
"Zack, listen to me."
The soft, urgent whisper got his attention. He glanced up again to find Tseng closer than ever, eyes trained on the gap in the curtain. "Your injuries from the reactor are documented," the Turk said in a low voice. "I would expect that with a head wound, your memory of events might be somewhat disjointed. Shinra will accept that, should you be unable to remember certain things clearly."
Zack stared at him. What did that have to do with anything? He frowned. "Tseng—"
"Remember Banora, Zack."
Tseng drew the curtain back, letting the brighter lights of the ward wash over them. Zack winced away from it, squinting at Tseng as he turned back, his next words deliberately bland. "You're obviously still recovering. I'll inform the president that you will report to him first thing in the morning. And I'm sorry." Softer still. "About both of them. Try and focus on what you have left."
Easy for you to say. But he bit the words back, watching expressionlessly as the Turk left without another word. Concussion or no, he'd had no trouble picking the warning behind Tseng's words.
More than one, if he wasn't mistaken.
Abruptly, he swung his feet down to the floor, hands gripping the bed rail as he waited for the room to stop spinning. Maybe he was moving too fast. Zack didn't care.
He wanted out.
She recognised his voice straight away, of course. Aerith paused at the steps of the church and wondered, for a second, just who he could be talking to. And then she smiled. The church was no longer empty when she left it, and of course he would strike up a conversation in her absence. She pushed open the door as quietly as she could, her smile growing wider as she picked out the familiar dark spikes of Zackary Fair, sitting cross-legged at the edge of the flowers with his hands ruffling the soft fur of her self-appointed guardian like the poor thing was a wild chocobo, a grin on his face.
The sweetness of realising that he'd returned from whatever mission had taken him from Midgar was enough that she didn't realise there was anything wrong, at first.
"…should really call you something," he was saying easily. "Can't just keep calling you an Angeal copy. Especially if you're sticking around, right? Though if you're gonna protect my girlfriend, you should totally be following her home at night instead of staying in here." Zack turned, his grin turning wolfish as he caught her gaze. "Hell, I would."
"Welcome home," she teased, lowing her basket onto a bench as she approached. "And my mother would have a fit if he turned up on my doorstep. She has enough trouble with certain other strays."
"Hey!" he protested softly.
Aerith giggled. "When did you get back?"
Zack turned his attention back to the copy. "Yesterday? Maybe this morning. Came in by helicopter, I think."
"Well, it'd make sense. I had to cross the sea – can't really do that in two days without flying being involved."
She cocked her head, staring at him suspiciously. "Zack--"
And then she stopped. She was close enough now – practically looming over him – that she could see the traces of blood matted in his hair. Aerith bit her lip, sinking down on her knees beside him as she reached out with careful hands to smooth his spikes away from his face, looking for the injury.
"Sorry," he said softly, and gave her a strained smile, holding still while she examined him. "But I'm actually okay. Well, mostly. I didn't want to worry you. I should've taken a shower before I came down here, but I was in enough trouble sneaking out as it—"
"You snuck out?" Aerith blinked, then frowned at him, hands stilling in his hair. "Zack, were you in hospital?"
"Technically," he muttered. "And sorry, by the way. I might have had to charm some nurses on the way out."
She laughed, a sound caught somewhere between worry and outright exasperation. "Cheater." He was telling the truth, though; the blood was old and her careful fingers found no injuries. Aerith settled back on her heels to look him in the face, taking note of the faint glassiness of his eyes. She sighed. "You probably should have stayed there. You don't look very well."
"I'll be okay."
"But you're not okay now, right? I could have waited until you slept it off, Zack."
"Not sure I'd get the chance tomorrow."
Zack was still smiling, and she finally realised it didn't reach his eyes. Aerith frowned a little and started to pull back, only to have him reach forward to catch her fingers in his own. "Don't," he said, his voice far too casual. "It's not you."
His hand was cold, wrapped around hers with a brittle strength that suggested he was trying not to grip more tightly. Aerith lay her other hand over his and felt the tremor of tension running through him; glanced up and met the pale gaze of the clone before it turned away, taking flight to the church rafters. She understood it well enough.
When she reached forward to slide her arms carefully around his neck, Zack made a soft sound and pulled her up to his chest, holding her close. His face buried itself in her shoulder, and she swallowed, feeling him tremble.
"I'm here," she whispered.
Zack laughed softly. "I know, babe. Just …give me a minute, okay?"
She didn't answer, nestling comfortably on the floor of the church; letting Zack clutch her to him like one of her mother's dolls, her own fingers tracing soothing circles along his spine, prepared to stay as long as he needed her to. It didn't take long before he finally broke, his frame relaxing against her even as his grip tightened, and she felt the first tears fall.
"Gaia, Aerith," he said, voice muffled against her neck. "I should've told him to run."
A hard surface pressed against his shoulder blades; the insistent chill of it connected him back to reality in fragments. The brilliant white of the world clawed at him even through eyes squeezed shut in self defence. His thoughts were scattering too fast for him to take in more than cold and bright, but mountain-bred instincts put those two sensations together and told him he was in trouble; that he had fallen asleep in the snow, or maybe he'd just fallen, and the mountain would kill him if he didn't get up now.
Then he tried to move, and that was a mistake—
"He's conscious!" The voice was female, and surprised, and competing with the high-pitched, breathless sound of a scream somewhere else on the mountain. Tifa, he thought, and then not Tifa. Then her name was gone, lost to the void. Something was very wrong – the chill beneath him paled before the gaping, frozen agony that spiked through his chest and sucked his senses away. When he tried to inhale, the pain tugged at his lungs and he choked, giving way to ragged coughing
Shadows moved across the brightness, and he heard an annoyed male voice in reply. "Unprofessional, Dr Grey. He's hardly of any use to me if he bites through his tongue."
Cool fingers gripped his jaw, working his mouth open. He flinched. The man's hands smelled strongly of blood and mako, powerful smells associated with—
Sephiroth. Memory. Fire and his mother, and those eyes and Tifa hurt and Zack crumpled on the stairs and blood everywhere. Dead. They were all dead and now he knew why he hurt so badly, what the agony through his chest was that transfixed him and … and there was a man he didn't know with his fingers in his mouth. He pulled away but the grip on his jaw jerked him back into place and held his head still.
"Very good. However, best not to take chances."
"Professor, wouldn't it be better to use materia? The boy could die."
A soft chuckle. "Not this one."
Fingers patted at his cheek before withdrawing. He ducked his head away from the sensation, paying for it with sudden nausea that threatened to drown out the voices. His heart thudded in his ears, and he felt the first stirrings of fear. Doctors weren't meant to laugh like that—
"—best with a natural recovery. It will provide the foundation for—"
The fingers returned, and fear twisted into terror when they pried open his teeth to wedge something hard between them. His eyes flew open, sound catching at the back of his throat. There was nothing but blinding light and warping silhouettes that spun against his senses. He was breathing too fast, shallow and jagged, fighting to hold onto reason. After all, the woman had said the boy could die, hadn't she? Didn't that mean they were saving his life?
He didn't panic until he felt the cold point of metal press against bare skin on the side of his abdomen. Then sharp pinpricks tugged lightly at his flesh, and the world upended as he was torn in half.
Concrit would be adored. Specifically because I'm still feeling out the characters and the fandom. :)