Aerith's pen paused there. Dear Zack…what? She had stopped using "I miss you" as a lead-in to the full letter months ago. If Zack was really reading them, surely he would know that by now. If not, then there was little point to writing anything at all.
Eventually Aerith settled on a wish hidden in a question.
'Are you well?'
She hoped so, truly she did. At the same time, she realized how unlikely it was that she would get a reply: all of her various 'How-Are-You's and 'Are-You-Safe/Happy/Okay's had gone unanswered, after all. Why should this phrasing, bland as it was, manage where all others had failed? Aerith gripped her pen a little tighter and kept writing.
'Where are you?' This question had first appeared sometime around letter number twelve and never really went away since – once again, despite the discouraging, heart-tearing lack of response. Aerith never really knew what to think about this question. On the one hand, a great and loving part of her liked to imagine that Zack was safe and happy, somewhere warm and open to the sky he once promised to show her. But if that were the case, why hadn't he ever come to see her? Written her a letter, at least? Did he…not care?
Once, she had tried to find out where he was and how he was doing. While selling flowers above the plate, she happened upon a pay-phone in decent repair. Acting on a whim, she looked up the phone number for Shinra's Military Public Relations desk and spent some of her gil to put a call through. It was a risk she had been warned against, contacting any part of Shinra in any way, but she had to try.
She introduced herself as an 'old friend' of 'Lieutenant Zack Fair' to the answering desk attendant and asked if she could possibly know whether he was on a mission at the time. The attendant had been amiable enough, and very apologetic when the computer system pulled up Zack's information as being classified and locked to any but the highest levels in the company.
"I can't even tell if he's on assignment or not right now. It's actually like that pretty often with our SOLDIER First Classes," the attendant had said at the time. "Sorry I couldn't be of more help."
"It's no problem," Aerith replied, "thank you anyhow."
Then she hung up and never tried again, not even when she wondered if things might have changed, if there might be some information which could have opened in the intervening months.
She didn't want to be a nuisance.
'It's been four years.'
Just in case he somehow didn't know, or hadn't realized. Just in case he didn't understand the significance that amount of time really had.
Just to explain, even a little bit, why she was doing this…
'This will be the 89th letter I have written…'
She kept count. Tick marks on a spare sheet of paper once she realized that a year had passed and twenty-five letters had gone without answer. It was hard for her to believe she had written so much, hard for her to believe it had been four years since she started.
The next phrase was one she had decided well before this letter, but it was still harder to write than it should have been.
'…but this will be the last one I send out.'
Her mother, Elmyra, had a point after all: Aerith was young. Lost loves were common at her age, either to declining interest on one person's part or to sheer distance, and the very fact that her first love was a SOLDIER only made it even more likely to happen. Four years and eighty-nine letters was perhaps a little too much time and effort to spend on a person who had, in truth, always been a bit of a flirt. There had been good memories, but really, how devoted to each other could they have been in that little time together? How deeply could they, a couple of teenagers, really have loved one another?
Perhaps it really was time to move on…
'I hope that you will receive this last letter.'
That was it. That should have been it. But Aerith still hesitated over the paper. It was too sour a note on which to end her last correspondence to Zack. Despite everything, despite promising herself to move on, she still felt something for the young man…a last bit of affection which hadn't faded with time.
Aerith set pen back to paper and wrote further.
'Zack – the flowers are selling very well. They make everyone smile. It's all thanks to you.'
One last reminder of their time together and one last thank-you, not for giving her a business idea or a way to make the people of Midgar happy, but for making her happy. Aerith hoped that Zack would understand.
Her pen hovered over the page. There was so much she wanted to say still, so many thoughts and ideas and feelings pooling up inside of her and begging to be let out, but no words for them. Besides, she had surely already expressed them all in her previous eighty-eight letters. This was her last. It was meant to be short.
Goodbyes hurt more when they were long.
Before she could think twice, Aerith signed her name and folded the letter – the note – in half. Then she stood up, smoothed out her new dress (pink, for a reason she chose not to think about at the moment) and tightened the well-worn ribbon in her hair (another item she tried not to think of too hard). The letter was slipped into one of the pockets on the chest of her short jacket, and Aerith left her home at a brisk walk, basket in hand.
She needed to visit her flowers.
The church was empty, as usual, aside from the bright white and yellow blooms and the silver-plated Guardian curled up in the corner. The creature lifted his head and tapped its whip-like tail against the wooden floor in greeting; Aerith turned aside to stroke its metal head and white-feathered wings briefly.
"Do you think you could do something for me, boy?" she murmured softly. The Guardian sat up and tipped its head at her inquiringly. Aerith pulled the letter from her pocket, showed it to the Guardian, and tucked it carefully behind the chest plate which bore a likeness of a man's face – the face of Zack's mentor, Angeal. If anyone could find him, surely a flying, nearly-indestructible clone of his teacher could.
"Take this to Zack. Please?"
Guardian stood fully, shook, and walked fluidly past Aerith to the center of the church. Throwing one last look back at her, it crouched, spread its wings, and launched itself up and out through the broken roof.
In mere moments, it was gone.
"Thank you," Aerith said to the empty church. She sat in silence for a time, then stood up and moved to tend her flowerbed.
Her farewell had been said. It was too late to regret.
The sun was just beginning to set over the Nibel mountains when Zack returned from his three-day 'preparations' trip. Cloud met him just outside the cave they had called home for the past few months, far more alert and healthy-looking than he had been even one month ago.
"Any trouble?" the chocobo asked, eyeing the bulging pack the Ex-SOLDIER had strapped across his chest, presumably to leave his massive sword free and easy to draw. It was a practical arrangement, but at the same time a bizarrely humorous one, and for a moment Cloud counted himself lucky to possess a beak incapable of expressing amused grins. It was hard enough biting back a chuckle without having to worry overmuch about his facial expression at the same time.
He was saved further struggling by Zack dropping the pack onto the rocky ground. The man then stretched, causing his spine to crack and pop in a way that made Cloud's feathers stand on end but brought a groan of relief from Zack himself.
"That's better," Zack said, rotating his arms at his sides before dropping into a quick series of squats. "No, no trouble at all. In fact, this could be easier than I expected."
Cloud turned the pack over and worried the clasps open with skillful talons.
"Seems Shinra's quitting on us," Zack announced cheerfully, crouching down to help Cloud drag out, unwrap, and inspect the objects he had just bartered from various nearby villages, and settlements on his quick trip down the mountainside. "Nobody's seen a Turk or even a soldier in a couple weeks now. We might not even need these disguises."
"Might as well use them," Cloud said, looking questioningly at a large tin of black dye as he did so. "Just in case…what is this for?"
Zack just grinned at him as he shook out a violet-checkered flannel shirt and a rough, dark blue pair of trousers from their tight rolls.
"Disguise," he said, holding the shirt up beneath his chin. "So whaddaya think? I came across a little group of peddlers on my way around, and they gave me an idea. I'll be a travelling peddler hoping to set up a permanent shop in Midgar, if anyone asks…and they might. It could even explain my sword a bit, since you don't see that kind of thing being carried around by just anyone. Won't fool any Turks, but we're hoping to avoid those anyhow, so…"
"Do what you like," Cloud shrugged, setting the dye aside. He saw no point in using it on the clothing, personally, but as long as Zack thought it a good idea he wouldn't argue the point. "I suppose this means I'd better keep quiet again, though."
"Might be for the best," Zack agreed, removing what seemed to be a dark green, rolled-up blanket from the pack. "Here, check this out."
Upon shaking the thing open, Cloud thought it had to be the oddest-looking blanket he had ever seen. It was entirely the wrong shape and had long ribbons attached at the curved front end as well as a couple of spots along the sides. Odd though it was, it also looked strangely familiar, as though he had seen something like it in the past, somewhere in the background of a memory. It had never been something important, but it was still there, and the notion that he knew what it was but simply couldn't remember was maddening…
Then Zack picked it up and threw it over Cloud's back, and the shape suddenly made sense.
"You found a chocobo blanket?"
Bill's farm – that was where he had seen the things. He had always been given the larger, rectangular human-style blankets to nest in, though, particularly since he had the good sense and ability to tuck himself in under them if he ever felt cold. As such the specially-designed blankets for sleeping chocobos had never held any use to or significance for Cloud.
Now, wearing one for the first time, he wasn't quite sure what to think of it. It was surprisingly comfortable, but at the same time it felt slightly strange. Eventually he simply decided to give it a chance; his materia collar had felt the same way when he was first given it, after all, and now he wore that almost constantly, hardly ever realizing it was there.
Zack tweaked the blanket, fixing it with a critical eye.
"Seems to fit okay..."
"Not that I don't…appreciate it," Cloud ventured, "but you mind telling me why?"
Zack dragged the blanket off and started folding it back into its small, tight roll. Somehow, he also managed to slip a shrug into the motions.
"The guy insisted, and I couldn't really refuse without coming off as a neglectful jerk or something. Besides, it could be useful when we hit colder areas, or even if we run short of gil later on or something…"
"Wait, 'insisted?'" Cloud brought his head up from where he was organizing their various belongings, mostly odds and ends they (Zack, rather) had somehow accrued during their brief stay. There wasn't much; a couple of tattered old blankets, ends of thread, a couple of needles and a battered pair of scissors, various rocks and pebbles the young man had picked up because he liked the look of them… "You told someone about me? I thought we were supposed to be going secretly."
"We are! I didn't want anyone to suspect anything, so I just laid some groundwork. We can't fly all the time, and if one or two backwater villagers really believe I'm a trapper who caught a wild chocobo, it won't cause any sort of fuss if we have to walk through, right?"
"You're…actually putting a lot of thought into this," Cloud said, still a little surprised at Zack's sudden rush of words…and at the foresight they revealed.
"What? Do you think I wouldn't?"
"Considering the first time we met," the chocobo returned dryly, returning to sorting their belongings into 'necessary' and 'abandon' piles, "you took one look at me reading and then immediately ran screaming for your teacher…"
"I wasn't 'screaming,'" Zack groused, "and I was, what, sixteen at the time? Give me a little credit; I'm a First-class SOLDIER! Or was. Don't throw that away, it's lucky!"
Cloud gave Zack his best long-suffering look before he sighed and pushed the sharp, green-laced crystal shard into the 'necessary' pile.
"That's the only treasure we're taking along, and only because it was useful," Cloud conceded. It was true; at one point, near the beginning of their recuperation in the mountains, Zack had wandered out for water and carelessly left his sword behind. A sudden burst of foul weather had driven him into a nearby cave, one filled with crystals that glowed with traces of mako…and with a nest of mutated monsters.
As it turned out, a very sharp shard of crystal in the hands of a wielder both skilled and desperate enough made for a surprisingly effective knife.
"And it's pretty," Zack added cheerfully, seeming to ignore Cloud entirely as he knelt and shifted through the small tangle of 'discard' items on the ground. "Hey, you're leaving your key?"
Zack lifted a rusted old key into the air, eyeing it appraisingly. It might once have been silver; bright glints sometimes shone through the rust when the object was turned about under sunlight. It was also very old-fashioned, with a looping, heavily decorative top and large, chunky teeth. Cloud had stumbled upon it one day almost at random, picking it out of a crack near the old nest-site out of sheer curiosity. The action of levering the thing out with a stick brought with it an intense sensation of familiarity and déjà-vu, and Cloud had carried it back to their camp almost without meaning to. Zack had no idea what it could be for, but being a man with the philosophy that anything potentially useful or profitable should be held onto he wouldn't let Cloud put it back.
"It probably belonged to somebody in…the area. It's been lost a while. Whatever it belonged to is probably…long gone, by now," Cloud replied, mercilessly shoving Zack's fledgling rock collection to the discard area. "We will have no use for it."
"Hmm. Maybe…and maybe not." Zack regarded the key for a while longer, then pocketed it smoothly. "Doesn't take up too much space anyhow. I'll just carry it for you then."
"Whatever you want."
"Right," Zack said, standing up and brushing off his frayed and patched SOLDIER-issue pants. "I'll leave you to that, then. If we're leaving tomorrow, then I've got a lot of hunting to do today."
"'Course," Zack replied, clapping his massive broadsword securely onto his magnetic back holster. "No real trapper-peddler would ever take a trip without a few goods along, would he?"
Cloud's glance moved rapidly between Zack's retreating back and the half-unpacked pile on the ground, quickly adding the weight and bulk of furs, skins, teeth and other valuable monster parts to the food, blankets, and survival goods they had already gathered. He also quickly added in this 'proper appearance' factor which would let them move relatively undetected, and he came to a vaguely annoying conclusion.
"Zack!" he yelled after his human friend, "you'd better not think I'm carrying all of this!"
"Don't worry, Blackie," Zack replied without turning around, "I'll carry my share!"
"Blackie?" Cloud muttered, his brilliant blue eyes narrowing into his version of a confused expression. His eyes fell, almost of their own accord, to the cans of black dye Zack had brought along, and then tracked up to the very bright, very noticeable golden feathers on his own chest.
Early the next morning, a black-haired traveler and his equally black-feathered, rather obviously irritable chocobo passed through a couple of tiny mountain towns too small to be found on any map of Gaia. The young man was cheerful and at least passingly well-known to the locals, having traded with them on and off for the last few months. The chocobo was new, but nobody could be bothered to question it; the man was obviously a skillful trapper, and chocobos had been sighted in the region before. There was nothing strange about the pair. They were not unknowns. They were not suspicious in any way, nor dangerous, nor on the run from anything.
Not one single person drew a correlation between the friendly trapper-cum-peddler Zack Fair and his new bird, Blackie, and the unnamed, barely-described, highly dangerous escapees of Shinra's search. Not one had any reason to, after all.
And so Zack and Cloud passed unnoticed and untracked into the wilderness, slipping through the loosened net of their pursuers and leaving hardly more than the trace of a trail behind.
The terrain was near-desolate, open and relatively flat. As far as the eye could see, nothing moved save a trio of dark birds circling high in the overcast sky, and the figures of a man and a chocobo walking across the plain itself.
At first glance, one might assume them to be simple travelers. The man – evidently young and strong – wore plain, serviceable blue jeans, a violet-checkered shirt and a set of brown suspenders. Both he and his chocobo carried small, well-worn packs and a couple rolls of various material on their backs and walked with simple, casual purpose. The fact that the chocobo was black – a relatively rare color – and the spiky hair and giant sword of the man would surely garner a lingering gaze or two should they pass anyone, but little more than that.
Not that it mattered much – neither had seen hide or hair of another human being since they left the last road two days ago.
It was, perhaps, a good thing, for if another human being had been present, the sight of the chocobo opening his beak and speaking clear Continental would surely have put that person into shock.
"Are you sure we're going the right way?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah…pretty sure," Zack replied distantly. Cloud looked at the surrounding terrain with some doubt.
They had already been walking for days, first following the foot of the mountains and then crossing into open plains. Occasionally they happened upon dirt or gravel roads, which they followed for a time before cutting back into the wilderness, where nothing could guide them except the sun and stars.
Cloud wasn't entirely certain, but he did think that he had followed the line of the sun's path on his journey from Bill's Farm to Nibelheim. Instead of following that line in the opposite direction, Zack was leading them almost perpendicular to the path in question.
He seemed confident enough, though, and Cloud's memory was still frankly a little fuzzy on details. The chocobo had eventually resigned himself to letting Zack – the more accomplished traveler of the two – choose their course.
This particular evening, however, Cloud found himself feeling more and more uneasy as they walked on. It had been quiet – perhaps a little too quiet. There hadn't been a monster attack since morning, and while the respite was welcome at first, he soon had to wonder just why nothing seemed to inhabit the area…or, rather, why nothing seemed to be willing to show itself.
Cloud raised his beak and sniffed at the air. There was a definite tang of mako, something which was now mingled deeply within Zack's scent as well as his own. It was stronger than usual, though, and underneath it there was a peculiar taint, sickly-sweet and foul, like stagnant water and rotting flesh. And something else, fresh, crisp, but what it was Cloud could not guess.
"Zack?" he said at last, when the smells had grown strong enough that it was clear they were approaching whatever gave them off. "I think there's something—"
"There you are."
Something fell from the sky faster than Zack could draw his sword, and the scent came with it. Purely on instinct, Cloud jumped back to give himself room to see what was happening properly. He had barely caught sight of black feathers and grey clothes before a pale-haired man stood between himself and Zack, the latter of whom was being restrained by two more strange, grey men. The rotting, mako-laced smell flowed out of all three of them, nearly choking Cloud for one instant. They looked faded, half-dead, and strangest of all, each one of them sported a single deformed, black-feathered wing on his left side.
"Get off me! OW! Hair—stop—pulling!"
Cloud quickly realized that they were ignoring him. So much the better. He edged carefully sideways, moving around the tallest man to get a better view of Zack.
"When the war of the beasts brings about the world's end…the goddess descends from the sky…"
Zack was kneeling on the ground, his arms stretched and pinned back. One of the grey men had a firm grip on his spiky hair and was pulling with what seemed to be a single-minded determination.
Cloud eyed the dusty-pale back of the man closest to him – the one reciting poetry as he gestured grandly with one hand – and charged up a bolt spell. This one seemed to be the leader, was most obviously armed with a sword at his waist, and was closest to Cloud himself and therefore most likely to retaliate quickly should Cloud instead hit one of the others. Also, if he could make enough of a commotion, Zack might be able to break free and help.
It had worked once before, when they'd stumbled across a nest of monsters in the foothills after all…
"Wings of light and dark spread afar. She guides us to bliss, her gift everlasting."
Several things happened at the same instant. The stranger finished his impromptu recitation and bowed his head as though to an invisible audience. Zack's head suddenly jerked forward as several long strands of hair ripped free in his captor's hand. Cloud's bolt spell manifested in a sudden white-hot flash of power, screaming toward the stranger's unprotected back faster than blinking…
The spell broke upon the black wing, once half-spread but now tightly furled around the stranger's body. Cloud's beak dropped open and a strangled sound of surprise escaped. No one, surely, could be that fast…
The wing drew aside to reveal the stranger, now turned so that he could see both Zack and Cloud at the same time. He looked only mildly surprised, slender eyebrows raised but expression tranquil. The brightness of his eyes pierced Cloud's own; they were too bright for that dull, pale, sickly face and lank hair. They were the eyes of a younger man than this one first appeared to be, the eyes of a SOLDIER like Zack.
"Yes," he mused smoothly, "I did hear that there were two, and one a beast…Professor Hojo's talent has increased, if he has given animals an affinity for materia."
"Ah! My hair! That's my hair!"
The strange man cast a sideways glance toward Zack. The young man had ceased struggling in favor of staring in horrified bemusement at the black locks in one of the lesser soldier's hands.
"You were a test subject in Hojo's new experiment. A modified version of Jenova's power runs through you."
Cloud had been debating another, stronger bolt spell, but the stranger's words gave him pause. It sounded as though this man knew something, and while Cloud did not wish to remember more of his captivity than he had to, he couldn't deny a niggling, nearly-morbid curiosity deep inside his mind. Just what had Hojo done to him? To Zack?
What of this 'Jenova?'
Zack's eyes darted to meet Cloud's. The chocobo merely watched, tense, as the strange man gestured to the subordinate who had torn out Zack's hair. In a bizarre move, the subordinate lifted the hair to his mouth…
"No way…he just ate my hair…"
The stranger smiled and spread his arms out. For the first time, Cloud noticed the strange purple fruit in his left hand and recognized the source of the fresher scent which permeated even this man's terrible, rotting stench.
"Your cells will be my gift of the Goddess. The degradation will cease."
The two subordinates suddenly released Zack. He stood to fully face the stranger, but made no move to draw his sword. Cloud kept his eyes on his friend, waiting for a signal of any kind. None was given.
"You are twisted."
"The monster has been harvested, and can be discarded, as can his beast."
"You're the monster. And these things of yours are more beasts than Cloud has ever been."
The stranger seemed to pay Zack's words no mind, raising the apple and speaking as though addressing it.
"Legend shall speak of sacrifice at world's end."
He turned and began to walk away, not even sparing Cloud a glance as he passed. Zack followed grimly, reaching back for his sword. Cloud let him, falling behind the man's back to keep an eye – and a charged bolt spell – trained on the strange subordinates, neither of which had moved a muscle since releasing Zack from their hold.
"The wind sails over the water's surface…quietly, but surely."
Effortlessly, the stranger spread his malformed wing and leapt into the air, followed shortly by one of his men. The last one moved as though to join them, but his legs buckled without warning. Gasping and clutching at his throat, he collapsed.
"Zack," Cloud said at last, eyeing the writhing man carefully, "what—"
"Cloud, get back!"
The chocobo obeyed without question, leaping backwards just as the man's body was engulfed in green and black sparks, like liquid mako turned to gas. A bare instant later a brilliant light exploded from his form, and the screaming man changed into a bizarre creature. Like a strange fusion of living creature and machine, wide, blue-webbed wings spread from its back, tipped in wicked metallic claws which more than doubled its overall reach. A curved sword appeared in its right hand and scales grew over what had once been exposed flesh. The monster writhed a moment longer, screaming in apparent agony, before it abruptly threw itself at the closest living creature it could see – Cloud.
Lightning flashed across metal. The monster reeled back, screaming as the powerful spell scorched its scaly right arm. Zack stood just before Cloud, buster sword upraised, having just blocked the curved blade in the monster's grip.
A flicker of movement caught Cloud's eye.
The ex-SOLDIER spun his massive blade in hand, swiveling it downward just in time to deflect the claws slashing at his side. Cloud moved to join him, but suddenly realized that something was restricting his movements just enough to annoy. He looked at his back and was reminded of all the packs and rolls he carried. Zack had already dropped his pack in the grass to do battle. Cloud ducked and began to worry at the clasps across his chest.
He unburdened himself just in time to dart in and knock a clawed wing away from Zack's unprotected left side.
"We need easier buckles," he shouted, ducking under another blow and aiming a vicious kick at the monster's head. "That took too long!"
"We'll think of it later," Zack replied. "Down!"
Cloud ducked. Fire exploded over his head, the heat of it ruffling his bizarrely-shaped crest as it passed. The monster screamed and staggered backwards yet again. Cloud fired another bolt spell. This time the monster dodged the attack, but it was off-balance when Zack suddenly slammed into its flank, cutting a gash into its side.
"Who was that?"
"What, this thing? Nobody."
Cloud drove himself into the air, drawing the monster's gaze and providing Zack with another opening.
"No, the other one!"
Zack ducked away from a retaliatory claw-swipe. The monster's back was wide open.
The monster screamed, beating its wings wildly, and Cloud retreated with dark blood staining his talons.
"The strange one doing all the talking!" Cloud elaborated when he rejoined Zack's side.
"Oh, Genesis?" Zack took his left hand from the buster sword. Green materia glowed in a bracer around his wrist. "He's an ex-SOLDIER."
Zack slashed his fist at the monster. Fire and smoke exploded in the air around it. Then, without warning, the flames seemed to split into three smaller fireballs, rushing toward Cloud and Zack.
They had just enough time to register surprise before the attack struck.
Cloud rolled through the grass, smothering smaller sparks and flames before they could catch properly, and stood up again. His chest ached and stung, and he didn't have to look to know that his feathers were scorched at the very least. Instead, he concentrated on the materia in his collar, and a bolt of lightning struck the monster before them, crackling over its strange form in white-hot arcs.
"I gotcha, buddy!"
A warm wave of healing magic swept over Cloud, seeping into his very core like sunlight and refreshing him from head to talons. The stinging in his chest was swept away, and he took a deep breath, relishing the fact that he could do so without pain. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed Zack drawing his buster sword from where he had stood it up in the ground to perform the magic.
Cloud leapt forward, dancing around the monster's back to attack it from behind again.
Zack followed, charging boldly from the front.
Caught suddenly between two threats, the monster hesitated for a vital second.
The sharp tip of Cloud's beak found the soft, vulnerable spot at the base of its neck just as Zack's oversized blade pierced it through. The monster's clawed wings, half-extended to reach Zack an instant too late, faltered and thudded to the ground. The thing's entire body shuddered and slumped; the only thing left holding it up was Zack himself, and he soon quit the job, tipping the mutated form sideways and withdrawing his blade.
"What was that all about, anyway?" Cloud asked, cleaning the front of his beak on the edge of his wing.
"That…oh, you mean what Genesis was saying?" Zack shrugged, flicked blood from his buster sword, and swung it back over his back to attach to the magnetic holster on his suspenders. "No idea. He quotes Loveless too much – it's a play, a sort of story – and so he never really makes sense."
"You seemed to understand some of it," Cloud countered, moving back to the messy piles of their gear.
"Bits and pieces," Zack allowed. "I knew Hojo'd done some weird stuff to us, but Jenova was a surprise…if it's true."
Zack was quiet for a long time.
"A monster," he finally said.
Zack helped Cloud reassemble his own packs, and the two prepared to move on in silence. Both did their willful best in ignoring the dissolving monster corpse not fifteen feet away, but it was still a relief when they turned away from it and moved on.
"Oh, by the way," Zack said suddenly, several minutes later when they had moved out of sight of the sparking body, "about Genesis…if we ever see him again, feel free to talk all you like. I figure he deserves a good shock or two after all this trouble he's caused…and those comments he made."
"Hm. I'll think about it."
"Please? I really wanna see his face…"
"…I'll think about it."
"In the meantime, we should also think about re-dying your entire front. Seems cure spells only bring back feathers in their original colors."
Cloud glanced down and had to admit…he did look rather spotty.
"Inconvenient?" Zack grinned wryly. "Yeah. I guess you're just not allowed to get injured from now on. I don't wanna keep buying dye every time we come across a town big enough to have it."
"I'll try, I'll try."
"Good. Oh, yeah, speaking of dye, I don't think I ever told you about the time some dumb second-class guys got their hands on a bottle of shampoo which belonged to Genesis. They didn't know it at the time, of course, thought it was going to a buddy of theirs, so what'd they do? They dumped an entire package of hair bleacher into it…"
It was strange, Cloud reflected abstractly. Strange how he could be laughing, even slightly, when just minutes in the past he had been in the midst of a life-or-death battle with a monster. When just months in the past he had escaped from hell on earth. When it had been years since he had last seen either of his oldest childhood homes in one piece, and he now knew them both to be gone forever.
Strange, but oddly natural.
Perhaps that was just part of having a friend in Zack Fair.
That was the word for the Shinra executive boardroom. Though actually sparsely decorated, everything within its walls spoke of money. The plush red carpet, gleaming hardwood table, gold-sheathed light fixtures, surprisingly comfortable chairs…
Most of the department heads would have loved to get their hands on the budget which surely went into finishing and furnishing this one room. It wouldn't be a massive amount, especially when compared to their usual allotments, but as the saying went, every little bit helps.
It was a statement which Hojo was keenly feeling the sting of, for the opposite was true as well: every little bit which is taken away can rather hurt.
Hojo's long fingers curled around the arm of his chair, clenching as he watched, in his mind, the science department's budget slowly get whittled down, funds diverted from his own interests and experiments into other areas – Scarlet's infernal machines, Heidigger's pompous military posturing, even Reeve's goody little urban-development projects.
If that idiot Palmer got the budget and permission to make another attempt at his once-failed space program, it would be more than Hojo could bear.
"On to our last order of business tonight – AVALANCHE," the president said from his seat at the head of the table. "I had thought that we crushed them years ago, but it appears that some survived, or that another group brought it back. They're starting to become an annoyance, spreading their propaganda about in the slums. I'm sure we agree that the last thing we want is a city-wide rebellion, hmm?"
"I shall divert all of my Turks to a full-scale search," Heidigger declared – loudly, as usual. "Not even the slums can hide them for long!"
"Forgive me for interrupting," Hojo sneered sarcastically, drumming his fingers restlessly on the tabletop, "but aren't most of your Turks currently engaged in highly important missions? For example…the retrieval of two very valuable specimens, and the investigation of the last Ancient?"
"Ha! Important? Your precious specimens didn't even make it out of the mountains – they're dead by now!" Heidigger retorted. "As for the Ancient, where's the proof? They've shadowed that girl for years and, according to the reports, there's nothing to say she's anything of the sort!"
"Now, now, let's not bicker," Scarlet interrupted smoothly. "After all, what is to be gained by it?"
Her smirk said that she knew just as well as everyone else in the room exactly what was to be gained.
Hojo clenched his teeth. Normally he could disregard most people if they weren't a specimen, and therefore had very little personal opinion on them, but these few were ones he had to pay attention to every now and again. He hated them all for it…but Scarlet especially.
It was laughable, to think that her clunky machines could replace the elegant genetic alterations of his SOLDIER projects.
Laughable…and yet, somehow, their moron of a president seemed to seriously believe it could happen.
Yes, Hojo hated her…
"As Heidigger said, the two specimens are gone. However, the Promised Land is still a possibility. As such, I want at least one Turk to remain on duty concerning the Ancient. The others may commence combing the slums for Avalanche."
So the president ordered, and so it would be. Hojo watched the last remnants of his Jenova project – his greatest, though still-incomplete, experiment to date – slip forever out of his grasp.
"Very well," he barked sourly, standing up, "if this meeting is adjourned, then I shall be in my laboratory."
Nobody stopped him from stalking out of the room, for the meeting had indeed ended. Though Hojo was in too foul a mood to be truly glad of anything, this did satisfy him at least.
After all, he was due to receive a special package from Nibelheim at any time.
His last specimens may have gotten away, and the other, more useless ones released, but as long as he had the base material, he could always start over.
Shinra be damned. Reunion was fascinating…and Hojo would prove it true.
The air was warm and a little muggy. Insects droned about among the thick, juicy-leafed vegetation that lined the path leading towards the village before and below them. Cloud and Zack regarded the little town from a distance, the former with a measure of confusion melting into suspicion, and the latter with a painful mixture of joy, relief, nerves, and guilt.
Silence muffled the air between them for several long, drawn-out moments.
"Zack. This isn't Midgar, is it."
"Uh, no…funny enough, no, it's not," the young man replied, laughing a touch nervously and scratching the back of his head.
"What is it, then?"
"Not much to speak of, mako reactor so nothing else's out here…you know, just another little country town. So, should we go then?"
Zack started down the path quickly, but was stopped by Cloud's voice. He didn't have to turn to know what sort of glare the chocobo was giving him…no bird should be able to look so scary at will.
"You're too nervous."
Zack plastered a grin across his face and turned around to protest, but Cloud didn't give him half a chance.
"This Gongaga is your home, isn't it?"
The disappointed glare in the mako blue eyes, surrounded as they were with black feathers…if Zack didn't know better, he'd swear it was Angeal in chocobo form looking at him for a moment.
"Zack," Cloud said, far too flatly for comfort, "explain."
Zack swallowed hard and wondered if, perhaps, this was such a good idea after all.
AN: You know, I really expected to get further than this in this chapter. I thought I could get them all the way to the outside of Midgar - the end of Crisis Core, as it were. Silly me. I should know better by now.
A reviewer last chapter warned me to keep an eye on Zack's characterization, that while it is true that he cares loads for his friends and often put himself in harm's way for comatose Cloud, he isn't the overprotective 'mother hen' that fanfiction often paints him as in these kinds of stories. Watching CC walkthroughs, I found, did strengthen that point. I tried to better my portrayal of him in this chapter - he's still going to take care of Cloud and naturally prefers his friend unharmed, but he won't be smothering.
Cloud's proved himself too much by now for that anyhow.
By the way, that tag-team battle, short though it was, was sort of fun to write.
Now, to answer the question which I'm sure is on most minds right now:
'No, Zack! Why? Why Gongaga? Couldn't you have left well enough alone! It's so inconvenient, going all the way down there instead of cutting straight to Midgar and avoiding all this trouble that's bound to catch up!'
I have my reasons. Zack, for one thing, really obviously cared/worried for his parents in CC, enough that he headed straight for Gongaga once he recognized the area despite the danger he knew for a fact would be there.
On a personal level, I always hated that Zack came so close to his parents there but never got to see them or speak to them. For all we know, they've not seen each other since Zack went into Shinra...which may well have been at Cloud's age, fourteen or so. And then...never again. I wanted to give Zack that chance right here right now, I really did. So much that it hurt.
This AN has gone on long enough. I thank you all for watching this story, favoriting it, and especially for taking the time to review.
Until next time!