My first Clack fic! Whoot! The premise of this is actually incredibly simple and ordinary, so I'm not sure how it came out so long. :/ I kinda just made up the whole thing as I went along, so I apologize if it's sucky or jumps around too much. The style is kinda weird for a fanfic too, so yeah. Whoops.

Disclaimer: I don't own FFVII. If I did, Zack would have proposed to Cloud while he was comatose, so everyone would have more reason to cry their hearts out when he died and Cloud would have gone on to become even more emo than he already is.

For 4 months, 12 days, 9 hours, and some minutes and seconds, Zackary Fair existed in a world without Cloud Strife. For approximately 32 hours, (approximate because his mom didn't keep that accurate a record of time, which he could forgive her for, because she really couldn't have known the importance of the event) Zackary Fair lived in a world where Cloud Strife existed, but he'd never met him. Zack always figured that those 4 months, 13 days, 17 hours, and some minutes and seconds had been one of the loneliest and darkest periods of his life. Of course he didn't actually remember, but it made sense. Life before Cloud had to be miserable, at least to a degree.

Mrs. Fair and Ms. Strife had been friends since forever. (So they claimed. Zack knew this couldn't be true, but didn't bother calling them on it, because sometimes he told people he'd known Cloud since forever, pushing those dreadful 4 months to the back of his mind.) When Ms. Strife went into labor, Mrs. Fair went to the hospital with her and stayed the whole time. Cloud's father had been a very nice, charming, young man, who had talked a lot about commitment, marriage, settling down, and having a family. As soon as Ms. Strife had gotten pregnant, he'd left town and was never seen again. Just goes to show some nice young men aren't really all that nice.

So, as any good best-friend-since-forever would do, Mrs. Fair helped her through the pregnancy every step of the way. And while stupid lucky her got to be there when the most beautiful, amazing, gorgeous, every-positive-adjective-in-the-book creature was brought into existence, Zack was stuck home with his dad and old brother, Angeal. Neither of them had ever mentioned it, but Zack was pretty sure he spent his whole time with them crying, screaming, and hopefully pulling out someone's hair. Because really, that would have been the only logical thing to do in that situation.

When Ms. Strife came home, Mrs. Fair (obviously realizing she had robbed her youngest son of what could have potentially been one of the most precious moments of his life) had run home, grabbed her family, and brought them over to the Strife household to meet the newest residence. This voyage hadn't been a particularly long one. As far as Zack was concerned, he'd grown up on the best block in the entire town of Kalm. The Gainsborough's lived on the corner, to the left of the Fair's, who lived next to the Lockheart's, who lived next to the Strife's, who lived next to the woods that wrapped around the back of all their houses and extended further down the street, separating their little clump of houses from the rest on the block.

Thanks to this close proximity, Zack found himself being carted over to Cloud's house quite often. And when he wasn't over Cloud's, it was usually because Cloud had been carted over to his house. Zack wasn't sure what his oldest memory of Cloud was, and he wasn't sure when they became best friends. He didn't think it was too farfetched to believe it was the first time they laid eyes on each other. Either way, Zack knew he had been Cloud's very first friend and that made him feel. . . well, he wasn't really too sure. It made him feel something. Special maybe? Honored? Proud?

Sometimes it was difficult to place his emotions when Cloud was concerned, because Cloud made him feel all kinds of things he'd never felt before. He felt like there was a box in his mind labeled "CLOUD EMOTIONS" and every time Cloud talked, or laughed, or touched him, or even came into his vision, that box would explode, leaving him feeling light-headed, and giddy, and a million other things he couldn't even describe. Then there were those horrible moments, usually only a few hours long, when Cloud wasn't next to him and all those exploded pieces of that box would rebuild themselves until they were whole again and he felt kinda normal, but then Cloud would sneak up behind him and put his hands over his eyes, silently daring him to guess who, and of course he knew because no one had hands quite like Cloud's and BAM! The box would explode all over again, leaving behind a Zack that smiled too much, laughed too quickly, and was a hundred thousand times more touchy-feely than normal.

When he was five years old, Zack decided he wanted to marry Cloud. He made this decision after a discussion with his Dad, where he'd asked what marriage was and why people did it. His father had explained that marriage was when two people loved each other very very much and they wanted to be together forever. He said they lived together, just like him and mom, and more often than not they had kids, just like him and mom had Zack and Angeal. Zack liked the idea of being with the person he loved most for forever, so he asked his Dad how to marry someone. Good ol' Pops told him that first you had to ask that person to marry you, and that you usually gave them a ring when you did. He told Zack which one of mom's rings he'd given her when he asked, and when Zack asked how much it cost he laughed and, ruffling Zack's hair, told him it cost more than he could possibly imagine.

He proceeded to tell little Zackary about the ceremony, and that there was a party afterwards, and that he was waaaaaaaaay too young and he had to wait a long long long long long time before he could get married. At first Zack had been devastated, but after some deep reflection (back then deep reflection lasted about 2-3 minutes), he decided that it was okay, because that meant he had a long long long long long time to save up for Cloud's engagement ring.

And save he did. Starting that day, Zack started putting away half of any money he got his hands on. Even if it meant going to his mom, or the cashier at the convenience store to ask for change. A few months after the marriage conversation, his mom bought him a new pair of shoes and he kept the box, putting his money (all $10.50 of it) inside and cleverly hiding it under his bed. He kept that box for 12 years, after which he started keeping the money in the bank. When he was going through elementary school, he learned from the other kids that boys weren't supposed to marry other boys and girls weren't supposed to marry other girls. He'd agreed and so had Cloud, but he still put half of all his money away. At the time he told himself it was out of habit.

When he was 11, PHS's came out, and he'd wanted one badly. He complained about it a lot to his parents, no doubt to give them an idea of what he'd want should they suddenly decide to randomly buy their son a gift. Instead, his mom suggested he buy one himself with all that money he'd been saving under his bed. (She KNEW! What the hell!? That was a SECRET!) When Zack went upstairs, pulled out the box, opened the lid, saw well over enough to buy a PHS and still couldn't bring himself to touch it, he knew he hadn't just been saving out of habit.

At some point putting half of everything he earned grew impractical, seeing as his expenses seemed to grow with his age. But he still put money aside, (In his new super secret hiding spot, because seriously Ma? Angeal was totally right there when you said that, and everyone knows big brothers are thieves.) and he did so frequently. Sometimes, when he was older and he was hanging out with the gang (this included Aerith and Tifa, his neighbors, and of course Cloud) he would try to bum some money off of Tifa (he didn't really need it, he just liked making her mad) and she'd ask him why he was always so broke when he worked so much. He always told her porn, because that made her even angrier. Cloud always knew he wasn't serious when he said this, and he took some comfort in the fact that he knew that Cloud knew without asking, because by then he could read Cloud like a book and vice versa.

He was 12 when he asked Cloud to be his boyfriend. They were in 6th grade and it was the last week of the school year. It had been a hot day, and he remembered telling himself that it was the heat that was making him sweat so badly. He also told himself that the heat was the reason his mouth was so dry. Dehydration, clearly. At the time, he might have even believed all of that, but he knew exactly why he felt like he'd been punched in the gut by an angry Aerith (who, contrary to popular belief, was way stronger than an angry Tifa), and his heart felt like it was going to pop out of his chest and flop away down the sidewalk. He knew it was stupid to think that everyone could hear his pulse or that someone would notice that every now and then his hands or legs would start subtlety shaking, the same way he knew it was stupid to be relieved every time he spoke and found his voice was still capable of making sound.

He'd meant to ask Cloud in the morning. Every day, for as long as he could remember, he, Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith would meet out front of Aerith's house and walk to school together. 99.9999% of the time, Cloud and Zack got there first and had to wait for the girls. The older they got, the longer the wait seemed to be. Of course, that day just had to be the day that Tifa had decided to be quick and get her butt out the door in record timing, beating them both to the spot and ruining Zack's plans of a private conversation. So Zack had to go the whole school day, shaking, and nervous, and jittery, and jumping a foot in the air every time Cloud said his name (he'd never realized how often he said it, until that day) or bumped his shoulder (again, he knew they did it but he'd never really stopped to count. . .), or brushed his fingers against his (32 times). Apparently he was flushed too, because Cloud asked if he had a fever and put his hand on Zack's forehead while they were IN THE LOCKER ROOM!!! right before gym and they were CHANGING THEIR CLOTHES!!! and of course Cloud had to check while neither of them were WEARING A SHIRT!!! Zack almost went into cardiac arrest. At 12 years old. How sad.

At the end of the day, Zack told Tifa and Aerith to go home without them, because they had something to take care of. Cloud had looked at him (and of course he had to look up because even back then Cloud was a shortie), curious but trusting, and had backed him up, jokingly telling Tifa to stop complaining and promising her it wasn't anything she'd be interested in, even though he didn't really know that. The girls left, as did the rest of the students, and Zack led Cloud to a more secluded part of the courtyard. Then he spun around, so quickly that Cloud almost crashed into him, and asked. Just like that. No romantic lead in, or establishment of any kind of mood. No, the words just came pouring out like some kind of word vomit and before he could even comprehend that he'd said anything at all, he had an armful of Cloud who was smiling at him, and hugging him, and kissing every inch of his face, and saying, "Yes, yes yes!" in between it all. And somehow his mind un-goopafied itself and he was smiling too and picking Cloud up and spinning him around, and kissing him right back. It was one of the happiest days of his life. He was pretty sure it always would be.

Looking back, Zack always thought it was kind of amazing how mature they'd been. That first night of their official "boyfriendhood," they didn't lock themselves up in Zack's bedroom and make out until after sundown. Okay, so maybe they did lock the door, and maybe there was a little kissing involved, but for the most part. . . they talked. They talked about them now, and them in the future, their feelings and expectations concerning different things. Sure, they had popped in a movie and were alternating between feeding and throwing popcorn at each other while they cuddled under a blanket at the foot of Zack's bed during this whole serious conversation. But still, it was nonetheless pretty damn mature of them, Zack thought.

They had decided to keep it a secret. It had been a difficult decision, because they were both wanting to climb up to the roof and scream out that they were in love for the town, no the whole world!, to hear. They didn't really care what most people thought. They knew they'd probably lose a few friends over it, but that didn't matter much. As long as they were together, that was all they cared about. But they knew that middle school was cruel, and had a good feeling that high school was even crueler. They knew being gay would make them targets for hate, and they decided they really didn't need that stress in their relationship. It was aggravating at times, not being able to hold hands in the halls, or go out on dates that actually looked like dates and not just two guys hanging out. Sometimes they'd see other couples kissing in the hallways at school, or holding hands, and he'd notice how Cloud would watch them with a sort of distant look in his eyes and Zack would throw an arm over his shoulders to let him know he was there, because that was really all he could do.

More than the aggravation they felt at not being able to display their affection publicly, they felt guilty. First it was just about their families. They wanted to say something, but they were so scared because homosexuality was never talked about, there was never a reason to talk about it, so neither of them knew how anyone felt about it. They trusted their parents enough to know they wouldn't be hated, per say, but that didn't mean their reaction would be good. They ran through a thousand scenarios, most of which involved them being forbidden to see each other and someone possibly moving away. They knew they had to tell them one day, but they decided to wait. After that decision was made they both tried talking to their parents more, looking them in the eye, and really just savoring every ounce of affection they could get from them because, even though they knew they could possibly hate them, well. . . There really wasn't any harm in not taking your family for granted anyway, even if you did know they'd never abandon you, or disown you, or just stop loving you.

They started feeling guilty about Aerith and Tifa next. They felt even guiltier because it hadn't really crossed their minds to feel guilty in the first place. It was Aerith that really got to them, which wasn't too surprising considering Aerith could make a stranger feel guilty about killing an ant. That summer, her father had a stoke in the middle of the night. Only one person was allowed in the ambulance, which was Mrs. Gainsborough, so Mr. Fair drove her to the hospital because he had the biggest vehicle and Cloud and Tifa had insisted on riding in the same car as Aerith instead of with their own parents, and of course Zack was there too. They sat in the waiting room with her, because they weren't allowed in the emergency room. Aerith had sobbed. Not cried, but full blown hysterically sobbed. And he remembered how they had surrounded her, like some sort of big Aerith cocoon, and took turns holding her and stroking her hair and kissing the tears off her cheeks.

Aerith's father died that night. At some point they had let Aerith go to grieve with her mother, and they were all crying because they had all really liked Mr. Gainsborough. Tifa had thrown her arms around Cloud's neck and sobbed into his chest while Zack wrapped one arm around Cloud and stroked Tifa's back with the other. Everyone was exhausted when they finally left the hospital. Aerith had cried herself to sleep and Zack carried her out to the car. On the ride home Zack took Cloud's hand and Cloud gripped back like he was afraid the world was going to be ripped out from beneath them. Nobody else noticed.

After the funeral, Aerith had taken all of them aside and thanked them for being there. She told them how they were her best friends in the world and she didn't think she could get through this without them. She told them that she was so grateful to have met them and that she loved them and wanted to stay by their sides forever because oh goddess, she really really really loved them all. That was when the guilt set in. He'd been keeping a secret from two of the most important people in the world to him, and he hadn't even thought about it and when he caught Cloud's eye he realized that whatever sword was stabbing him in the chest had gotten him too.

Still, they didn't tell. They agreed that they couldn't tell their friends without telling their family, because that wouldn't be fair, and they agreed that then wasn't the time to be putting more stress and problems onto everyone. At least that was the excuse. Truthfully, they were more worried about the girls' reactions than their families', because Zack had a feeling that Tifa might have, sort of, maybe, kind of had a crush on Cloud. And Cloud had a feeling that Aerith might have, sort of, maybe, kind of had a crush on Zack. So when they said they were waiting for the right time, they both knew deep down that they were looking for a sign, preferably both of them getting boyfriends, that Aerith and Tifa weren't looking at them through rose tinted glasses.

It was really subconscious, the way it happened, but somewhere along the line they had decided the best way to hide their relationship from their classmates was to pretend that they were pretending to be gay. Men could be as gay as they damned well pleased as long as everyone knew they were just joking. Cloud had been the one to start it, surprisingly enough. The first time had been in gym, in the middle of the 8th grade. Some girl had come over to Zack and started talking and talking and talking and she was standing in that way girls sometimes do, where they put their arms back a little to make their chest stick out, suck in their gut just a bit, and stick out their butt. And she wouldn't. go. away.

And of course Cloud was standing right there, because he and Zack were inseparable before they started dating so there really wasn't any point in suddenly changing that fact just to hide that they were gay. So they both stood there waiting for Mr. Highwind to come out of his office and start class and listening to this girl yammer on and on because neither of them could bring themselves to be rude enough to just walk away or tell her to shut up and of course Tifa and Aerith didn't try to save them because girls were mean like that.

Of the two, Cloud had always been the more mannerly, so while both of them were trying to make eye contact with miss what's-her-face while she talked, Cloud went the extra mile to "hmm" and "hum" every now and then to give the impression that he was listening. Apparently though, those little hmms and hums were adding way too much to the conversation because Zack would glance at Cloud with every little sound he made and sometimes he'd even smile at him before looking back at miss what's-her-face and for her, that was absolutely unacceptable. So unacceptable that, much to Cloud's surprise, she walked closer and parked herself right in-between the boys, effectively pushing Cloud out of the group.

A few people in the bleachers started sniggering while Cloud stood there, mouth hanging open, and Zack was looking like the ground had just split in two and him and Cloud were on opposite sides of the ridge. He took a step to the right and so did miss what's-her-face, so he took a step to the left, but she foiled him again (and she talked the whole time she did it!), and Zack was about ready to knock her over but he really didn't want to because he didn't hit girls, but he was so distressed! And Zack's (perfectly reasonable) meltdown was made even worse when Cloud (who'd also been foiled by miss what's-her-face's clever side stepping) stormed away, fists clenched, and disappeared into the depths of the equipment room.

Part of the reason that what he did next was so funny was because it was so completely against Cloud's nature. Cloud was generally soft-spoken and polite and he'd never ever made fun of a person in his whole life. So when Cloud came out of the equipment room, one hand on his waist, swinging his hips, with two basketballs stuffed up his shirt (he'd tied his shirt to keep the basketballs from falling, giving the whole class a fabulous view of his beautiful midriff), and had sauntered over to Zack (miss what's-her-face was too shocked to side step) and circled him, letting his fingers trails over Zack's shoulders before flipping his bangs out of his eyes and saying, "Hey there stud," it wasn't really a surprise that the whole class fell into a stunned silence. Zack remembered biting his tongue, so hard he thought it would bleed, to try to keep the grin on his face at bay as he put a hand to his chin and made a show of looking Cloud up and down before letting out a whistle and yelling, "Well, hot damn! Come to papa, baby!"

The whole class had positively roared with laughter, and Mr. Highwind had come running out hollering about what the expletive expletive expletive was expletive expletive expletive going the expletive expletive expletive on? and miss what's-her-face had gone red and started yelling, not really words but just screechy girl noises, and she stomped her foot and pointed at Cloud, waving her arm around to draw more attention to the fact that she was pointing.

Everyone had fallen silent as they waited for Mr. Highwind's reaction. Unfortunately for him, however, his reaction had to wait because the knot in Cloud's shirt (which had been really taunt due to the large mass inside it) had decided to come undone and the silence was broken by the sound of two basketballs falling to the ground, bouncing a few times, then rolling away. If possible, the class started laughing harder than before. Mr. Highwind had grumbled something that probably wasn't middle school appropriate (Zack often wondered how he kept his job) before screaming at them all to start running laps.

Later, when they were alone, Zack asked Cloud what had possessed him to do something like that, because really, it just wasn't like him. Cloud had shrugged and told him that he hadn't been jealous, because he trusted him and that meant there was no need for jealousy. Zack said he hadn't been implying that he was and Cloud had frowned and said that he wasn't crazy possessive. Zack said he hadn't been implying that either. After that Cloud had glared (So Cloud called it. The rest of the world would have said pouted.) at him for few moments before saying: "I did it because there was a bitch flirting with my boyfriend and I thought basketboobs would be a safer alternative than beating her up. I'm not trying to get expelled you know." Zack had laughed, poked Cloud on the nose, told him he was cute, then casually remarked that he should try wearing his shirt tied up like that more often. Cloud had told him to stop being a pervert and smacked him in the back of the head, then kissed it better when Zack started whining.

After that incident, they realized they could get away with being a little more loving in public. They could hold hands in the hallways, so long as they either swung their hands back and forth (preferably hitting the people walking in front of or behind them) or skipped while they did so. They could cup each other's faces and gaze into each other's eyes, providing they spoke to each other like they were the leads of a one gil romance novel the whole time. They couldn't kiss, because they were pretty sure that was crossing the line as far as society was concerned, and they didn't hug. By the time they were halfway through their freshman year in highschool, the whole school had grown accustomed to them pretending to flirt and pretty much everyone thought they were hilarious. It was a small comfort, knowing that if they slipped up on their facade they could easily play it off as a joke and everyone would believe them.

They were 14 the first time they had sex. They were in love, and their hormones were raging, and when Cloud's mom left for the weekend to visit an old friend who'd just moved back to the Eastern continent from Wutai, they figured, why not? Cloud opted to stay home alone rather than go with her and she hadn't questioned his decision. Zack told his parents he was staying the night, even though they hadn't done that since they were kids, and his parents realized the childish allure of spending the night with your best friend without any supervision. They told him not to break or dirty anything, not to do drugs or drink, not to invite girls over, and not to look at porn. Then they sent him on his way without a second thought.

It was only after they got their clothes off that they realized they weren't 100% certain as to what to do. Their sex education in middle school had been practically nonexistent, and the high school course on it wouldn't start until they were juniors. Everything they had ever heard about sex had been of the female-male variety, and even then most of that information came from the dirty jokes their classmates told, or that they heard on TV. They were too embarrassed to go out and buy condoms or lubricant but they felt that was okay because neither of them could get pregnant and they thought lubricant was for girls. Cloud bottomed and neither of them knew that Zack could have prepared him with his fingers first and it was terribly painful, but they figured they were too far into it to just stop, so neither of them said anything even though they were both scared witless and they put all their energy into doing what they thought, not felt, was right.

It hadn't been very pleasurable for either of them. They realized there was blood on the sheets after they were done. It wasn't a lot, but it was still blood and nobody had ever ever ever mentioned blood. Zack almost hyperventilated when he saw it and Cloud had started crying. After Zack got his breathing under control he took the sheets off and cleaned the blood off with peroxide (something his mother had taught him as a kid when he used to come home with scrapes and cuts from playing in the woods) in the bathroom sink. When he was done, he threw them in the hamper and went back to Cloud's room. Cloud wasn't crying anymore, but they avoided eye contact as Zack climbed into bed next to him, throwing the comforter he'd picked up off the floor over them both, and they went to sleep with a sizable gap between their bodies. They didn't say anything the next morning and Zack left almost as soon as the sun was up.

Things got awkward between them fast. They barely spoke to each other the first week, and after that they didn't speak at all for almost four months. While Zack imagined the first four Cloudless months of his life must have been awful, at least he hadn't known what he was missing. These four months he knew exactly what he was missing and it was really a wonder he didn't go mad. Tifa had yelled at them a lot at first, telling them to suck it up and get over whatever stupid fight they'd gotten into. Eventually Cloud had snapped at her that Zack and he did not fight, ever. Tifa stopped yelling after that, but the sad looks she gave them were almost harder to bear. Aerith never yelled, or accused them of anything, but sometimes she'd catch Zack's eye (and maybe Cloud's too, he wasn't sure) and she'd give him this look and for the first time Zack started thinking that maybe Aerith knew, maybe she'd known all along, and maybe all this time she had just been waiting for them to man up and trust her enough to tell her their secret.

Their parents had worried, of course, but they didn't pry too much. They couldn't have possibly realized to what extent their sons were falling apart. Angeal had been a senior in highschool at the time and going to the same school, even though he was in a different grade, had let him see the rift between his little brother and his little brother's best friend a lot clearer. Angeal tried to talk to him about it, but Zack had snapped at him just like Cloud had to Tifa and ended up saying some hurtful things that he didn't mean at all.

Kalm was a fairly temperate town, and they rarely got bad weather. Rarely wasn't the same as never though, and every now and then a storm did hit. It was around 2:00 in the morning when Zack was awakened by a loud noise. He didn't know it was 2:00 though, because the clock by his bed had gone out and when he got up and tried to turn on the light nothing happened. He went to the window just in time to be blinded as the sky lit up with another bolt and he wasn't really sure why it crossed his mind, maybe he had been dreaming of his childhood before he got up, but suddenly all he could think about was that Cloud had been afraid of thunderstorms when he was little. And as he gazed out at Tifa's house, willing it to disappear so he could see Cloud's, he told himself that it was okay, because Cloud was afraid of thunder, not lightning, and really he wasn't afraid of either because he'd outgrown that yeeeeeaaaars ago. But then of course it just had to start thundering, and it was so loud that Zack swore the house shook, and suddenly he was pulling on his sneakers and a hoodie and he was climbing out the window and down the trellis, then sprinting across Tifa's backyard toward Cloud's house.

When he reached Cloud's window (Cloud's house was only one story, so there was nothing to climb) he started pounding on it with his fist until Cloud opened it and the first thing he noticed wasn't the complete look of surprise on his face, but the streaks running down his cheeks and the wide-awake look in his eyes and then he was scrambling through the window and kissing him and crushing him to his body, not caring that the window was still open and he was getting Cloud wet because Cloud had been scared and he hadn't been there and oh goddess, how was it possible to miss someone who only lived two houses over that much!?

Zack had always thought it was stupid and overly sentimental when people said there was a difference between having sex and making love. That night he realized he had been wrong, and that there was a huge difference. Cloud had barely managed to close the window before he had him on the bed, and he didn't really remember taking their clothes off but at some point they did, and Zack hadn't thought once about what he should do or if they were positioned right, and he forgot to be scared because all he could think about was getting as close to Cloud as nature would allow. During their 4 months apart, Zack had gone to the library and, using the computer in the furthest corner of the room, had done some secret research (he kept another window open displaying a search for geometry information on Moogle. com, just in case someone walked by) on safe gay sex, and when Cloud grabbed his hand and started sucking on his fingers without him asking him to, it crossed his mind that maybe Cloud had done the same thing. Later they would both thank their lucky stars that the storm was as loud as it was, because they had both forgotten about Cloud's mom (and who could blame them?) and neither of them had made much of an effort to be quiet.

When Zack left a few hours later it was still raining. Despite that Cloud still leaned out the window to give him one last kiss before he left, but when he pulled back Zack leaned in and kissed him again, then again, then again, then 20 more times before Cloud stepped out of reach, laughing softly and reminding him that he had to get home and he would get a cold if he kept standing out in the rain like that. Zack had smiled and told him he didn't care, because it was worth it, and the look Cloud had given him when he said that was filled with so much pure, raw love that it had taken all of Zack's willpower not to climb back in the window.

Aerith and Tifa had been shocked the next day when Zack slung his arm over Cloud's shoulders on the walk to school, just like he'd used to do before the "fight." Zack tried his best to keep from smiling like a buffoon every time he looked down at Cloud, and he was sure Cloud had tried his best to stop from giggling and burying his face in his shoulder every time he caught one of those smiles (which was pretty much every time), but it was one of those things they didn't really realize they were doing until they were already doing it, and they received a lot of odd looks from Aerith and Tifa throughout the rest of the day.

Everyone had asked them what they had been fighting about. Both of their parents, Angeal, Tifa, their friends at school, their not-friends at school, even a few of their teachers. At first they told a half truth, that they hadn't been fighting, but people didn't really buy that so eventually they decided to take the "we don't want to talk about it," route. They fell right back into their old ways easily enough, and soon people stopped asking, because all was right with the world and most of them hadn't really cared in the first place, they were just curious. The only person who really didn't ask them about it was Aerith.

As the years passed, the two of them found themselves crossing through Tifa's backyard in the middle of the night more and more often. By the time they were sophomores, they were meeting almost every single night. They always managed to get home before anyone else woke up, and eventually both of their moms started making remarks about them looking tired but they managed to blow it off, and they really didn't mind the lack of sleep they were getting, because eventually they got to the point where they couldn't sleep at all if the other wasn't there. The older they got the more they learned about sex, mainly from practice, and Zack thought it was amazing how many new things he was learning about Cloud. When he was a kid, he thought he knew everything about his best friend. He found out that wasn't true when they started dating and Cloud made the jump from best friend to boyfriend. It had been a little scary and a little exciting, getting to know Cloud on a completely different level, but eventually he reached the point where he thought he knew everything about his boyfriend. He found out that wasn't true when they started sleeping together.

He felt like he was obsessed with finding out which ways he had to touch Cloud to get him to make that particular sound, or this particular sound, and he was enthralled to find out just how sensitive Cloud's ears were and that when he touched his collarbone, or sometimes even just blew on it, Cloud's breath would catch and his hips would buck of their own accord. And he loved how Cloud would cuddle up next to him after making love, and even if he fell asleep with his head on Zack's chest, sometime during the night he would always always always scoot up a bit and bury his face into the crook of Zack's neck, and Zack thought the fact that Cloud was doing this subconsciously was one of the sweetest things in the world.

Zack first brought up the possibility of Aerith knowing about their relationship while they were picnicking in a small clearing in the woods behind their houses. A few months earlier they had bought a cheap basket and blanket at the Gil Store and hidden them in a bush near the edge of the woods, because they had been afraid their parents would think picnics were girly. As far as they knew, their sons were going out to the woods to throw mud at each other or try to peg some squirrels with acorns or other. . . manly stuff like that.

It was a nice Spring day, a Sunday, and Cloud had been weaving flowers through Zack's hair (The older he got the more his love for flowers seemed to grow. Zack blamed Aerith's influence.) and snort-laughing at how ridiculous he looked when Zack asked if he thought Aerith knew. Cloud had stopped laughing and considered the question, still playing with his hair as he did so, before nodding and answering that he was certain she didn't have a crush on Zack anymore, and he'd been getting the feeling that she knew too, and if they were both getting the same vibe then that probably meant it was true. Zack had frowned a little and asked him if he thought they should talk to her about it and then they'd discussed whether talking to Aerith and only Aerith was fair to their families and Tifa, because they didn't think any of them were ready to know but at the same time they didn't want to hurt them by having them find out later that they'd told Aerith and not them.

In the end, they decided to try to let her indirectly know that they knew that she knew. So one day that week when they were heading to a class that the three of them had but Tifa didn't, they pulled her aside after everyone else entered the room and asked her if they could talk to her real quick. She'd glanced at the room, clearly not liking the idea of being late, but nodded anyway. She didn't ever tell them to make it quick, which Zack thought was kind of touching. They told her that they just wanted her to know that they loved her, and they knew they were doing things that might hurt others later and that she might not approve of, but they were trying their best, and they wanted to thank her for sticking by them despite the wrongs they'd done her, and they loved her, and she was their best friend, and they loved her, and it meant soooo much to them that she was there, and they were sorry for anytime they hadn't told the truth, and they loved her. Aerith had smiled gently, putting a finger to each of their lips to stop their rambling (that was the first time Zack realized just how much he and Cloud finished each other's sentences), then kissed them each once on the cheek and told them they'd better get to class. They walked into the classroom feeling a hundred pounds lighter, and they were so relieved that they didn't even mind the snarky comments Mr. Hojo made about them being late.

While everyone claimed they were excited to graduate, Zack was certain that no one was as excited and he and Cloud were. To them, graduating wasn't just freedom from school. It was freedom on a much deeper level. They knew that after graduation, they wouldn't see more than half of their classmates again, so they could care less if they knew they were gay. They decided that after they graduated, they would tell their parents, then the girls. As the weeks boiled down, they grew more and more excited, because as scared as they were of their loved ones reactions, they were tired of all the secrets and sneaking around.

Zack remembered how bummed he'd been that he and Cloud couldn't stand next to each other when they graduated, because F and S weren't exactly neighbors in the alphabet, and after he threw his cap he went right to work scoring the crowd of gowns for his boyfriend. Cloud saw him first and ran across the field, yelling his name, and Zack turned around just in time to catch him as Cloud all but hurled himself at him. When Cloud wrapped his legs around Zack's waist and Zack put one hand on his back and one on his butt to support him, those around them had laughed, thinking they were pulling one last gay joke before they left school forever. They saw a flash and looking for the source, saw Aerith pointing her mom's camera at them and snapping away, while Tifa rolled her eyes and Mrs. Gainsborough and Mr. Lockheart (Tifa's mom had died in childbirth) stood behind them, smiling in one of those "kids these days are so strange" kind of ways.

Zack put Cloud down and they joined the girls in trying to find their own families. They found them quickly enough and had their pictures taken so many times they thought they'd go blind and were bombarded with hugs and kisses and tears, and overall it was really a great day. Afterwards they all went to Zack's house (since it was the largest) for a small party, and halfway through Zack and Cloud managed to sneak off to the backyard. The sun was setting behind the woods, and the air was cool and refreshing as they walked together hand in hand.

Zack would always remember how hard his heart was beating that moment. He remembered how he stopped walked, forcing Cloud to stop with him, and how he'd taken Cloud's other hand in his and how beautiful Cloud's smile was when he did that. He told Cloud that he knew it was corny, doing this on their graduation day, but he really couldn't think of a better time. Cloud had asked, "A better time for what?" but instead of answering him Zack reminded him that they'd been dating for six years. Cloud had smiled and replied that he knew, they had just celebrated their anniversary. Zack told him that maybe it was time they had a new anniversary. Cloud's eyebrows drew together in confusion, but before he could say anything Zack had already moved on, talking about how he was going to get a ring, but when he looked, all of them had seemed kind of girly, so he opted for an earring instead, because he knew Cloud liked them, and he hoped that was okay. Cloud started to say something like, "Zack, what are you talking about?" but the sentence was only halfway out when Zack dropped to one knee and Cloud's voice died as his eyes widened in realization.

Zack told him how much he loved him and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with him, and when he pulled a small black box out of his pocket (they were both still wearing the dress pants they'd been forced to wear under their gowns for the graduation ceremony), Cloud covered his mouth with both hands and started to cry. Zack opened the box to reveal the platinum (platinum because he thought Cloud looked best in silver jewelry, but the jeweler had promised him that platinum was better than silver, even though Zack thought they looked the same), diamond encrusted earring inside, and said the fated words, "Cloud, will you marry me?" and Cloud kept on crying as he nodded and said yes, yes of course he would, and Zack had stood and gingerly taken out Cloud's current earring and replaced it with the new one before taking Cloud's face in his hands and kissing him with as much love and passion as he was capable of.

They stayed in the backyard for a while, just kissing and holding each other, but eventually it started to get dark and they didn't want anyone to worry so they headed back inside. Nobody seemed to notice they were gone (except maybe Aerith, whose eyes seemed to dart to Cloud's ear like a magnet) and it wasn't too long afterwards that everyone cleared out. That night Cloud met Zack halfway on the way to his house, carrying a few blankets, and suggested that they go to their clearing in the woods instead so they wouldn't have to worry about being quiet. Zack had grinned and told him that was a fantastic idea. And it was.

They made love four times that night. They rested a bit in-between, and they talked during those moments. They decided to tell their families the next morning, and if they didn't freak out too badly, they'd go ahead and tell the girls in the afternoon. They agreed that they didn't want a fancy wedding, the courthouse would do, and they both wanted to get married before the summer was over, maybe the beginning of August. They were too exhausted to discuss much more than that, and they only slept a couple of hours before they put their clothes back on and trudged back to their respective homes, limbs heavy and hearts light.

They both ended up sleeping till after noon, ruining their initial plans, but they didn't let it faze them. Cloud told his mom that Zack and he had something important to say, and brought her over to the Fair house, where Zack's parents and Angeal were already sitting on the couch waiting. Ms. Strife sat down next to Mrs. Fair, and Zack and Cloud squeezed into the chair across from them all. There was a moment of awkward silence before Mr. Fair asked his son what all of this was about. They both fidgeted and Zack quietly told them that they'd been keeping a secret from them, for a very long time now.

Angeal raised an eyebrow while the parents exchanged glances. Ms. Strife cleared her throat and prompted, "What kind of secret, sweetie?" and Cloud immediately blurted out that they were gay. Nobody said anything for several seconds and Zack, unable to handle the silence any longer, blurted out that they had been dating each other for six years. Their parents kept on staring, Mrs. Fair's mouth would occasionally open and close without sound, and Angeal looked like he was actually thinking about what they were saying, instead of just staring mindlessly. Zack and Cloud gave each other a nervous glance before Cloud all but whispered that they were engaged to be married. All eyes immediately fell to his hand, then Zack's, (Zack remembered thinking it was kind of creepy, how in unison they were) until Cloud coughed and pushed his hair behind his ear (not that doing that ever did anything; Cloud's hair was like a force of nature), drawing all attention to the glistening metal there.

And suddenly Cloud and Zack couldn't seem to stop talking, putting their "finish-each-other's-sentences" skill to use and babbling about why they didn't tell them before, and that they didn't want them to think they hadn't trusted them, and they loved them all, and they hoped they could understand. They babbled on in this manner for several minutes (several minutes that felt like several hours) before Angeal held up a hand and they both clamped their mouths shut almost instantaneously. Then Angeal stood up and walked over to Zack before smiling and bending down to hug him and congratulate him, wishing him happiness. Zack didn't respond, couldn't respond. He just sat there gaping at his brother like he'd grown an extra head (or two). Cloud was in a similar state when Angeal crossed to him and shook his hand (it was a one-sided shake, because Cloud's arm suddenly seemed to have all the consistency of jello), welcoming him to the family and asking him to take good care of his little brother. Cloud breathed out a small, "Thanks. I will," while numbly nodding his head. He gave Zack a pat on the shoulder before going upstairs, giving his parents and Ms. Strife some privacy to talk to their children.

It had been an awkward conversation, and their parents didn't seem to know what they really thought about it all. They were angry that they hadn't told them sooner, but they assured them that they didn't mind the fact that they were gay and eventually they started to loosen up. Ms. Strife jokingly mentioned to Mr. and Mrs. Fair that their son sure did have fine tastes in men, and both moms gushed a little over Cloud's earring, while Mr. Fair wanted to know when they planned on getting married. By the end of the discussion both boys felt more relieved then they could ever remember feeling in their entire lives.

They were feeling great when they called Aerith and Tifa, asking them if they had some free time because they had some important news to tell them, and no Tifa, they couldn't just tell them over the phone. Aerith suggested they meet at her house, because she'd made cookies, and Zack and Cloud agreed that was fine then relayed the message to Tifa. A few minutes later they were over Aerith's house, asking the girls to sit down, then telling them what they'd just finished telling their parents (albeit, they did it in a much calmer manner this time around). Aerith had jumped up with a squeal and hugged them both, grabbing Cloud's head and twisting it every which way so she could see his earring from different angles. Tifa stayed on the couch. Perfectly still, perfectly silent.

Zack noticed her lack of response immediately, and Cloud and Aerith noticed after about half a minute of Aerith's fawning. Aerith put a hand on her shoulder and quietly asked if she was okay, and then Tifa started laughing. She told Aerith to stop being stupid (Aerith flinched at that. Zack was certain it was the first time Tifa had ever called her stupid.) and that Zack and Cloud were obviously joking. They were always flirting at school as a joke, and this was just an extension of that. The more they tried to convince her the more she denied it, until eventually she was on her feet, screaming and yelling until she was red in the face.

Mrs. Gainsborough ran into the room to see what the commotion was and Tifa stopped yelling. Aerith told her mom everything was fine, and she should go back into the other room. She did, hesitantly, and the four of them were left standing there awkwardly. Cloud had his gaze fixed to the floor, but he had to have felt Tifa's eyes on him, burning a hole into his skull. After what seemed like an eternity he finally looked up and locked eyes with her, and Tifa's lip started to tremble and her shoulders started to shake, and then she was sobbing and running out of the house as fast as her legs could take her. Aerith told them there was nothing they could have done differently, and they just had to give her time, she'd come around. That didn't stop them from feeling awful.

After that Tifa seemed to become a forbidden subject. Zack pretended that he didn't notice when they were walking past her house and she came out, noticed them, and promptly went back inside. He knew Cloud was pretending not to notice either, the same way he knew they were both pretending they didn't feel like their hearts were in a steel vice every time something like that happened. They got better at ignoring incidents like that, because they were so unbelievably happy. For the first time ever, Zack could walk around town with his arm around Cloud's waist, or holding his hand. He remembered one time they were walking in the park and he had looked down at Cloud and was overcome by how cute his fiancé was (this was a revelation he went through at least once a day), and he bent down and gave him a chaste kiss, and they'd received some of the nastiest looks Zack had ever seen on a human face, and he was delighted to find that he really didn't give a shit what they thought.

They got married in August in the courthouse, like they'd planned. Tifa didn't come. After the ceremony Cloud had rested his head of Zack's shoulder and told him that he had a confession to make. When Zack asked him what that was, Cloud told him that he didn't actually agree with one part of their vows. Zack had grinned and kissed the top of his head, remarking, "Me too. The death do you part thing, right?" Cloud had nodded and they promised that if the other were to die, even if it happened tomorrow or an hour from now, they would still be faithful for the rest of their lives, because one day they would be in the Lifestream together and they didn't need some stinky third person there with them, messing everything up.

They went to Costa Del Sol for their honeymoon, even though the trip to the Western continent was crazy expensive (their hotel was too, as a matter of fact). Their stay there was almost revolutionary. At least a third of everyone there seemed to be a couple, and everyone was so absorbed in their partners that no one gave them a second thought. And if they did get noticed, it was usually by girls who would coo or giggle at them as they chased each other down the beach, and one girl had even told them they were a cute couple. Her boyfriend (so Zack presumed) was with her and while he didn't voice his agreement, he still grinned at them and said, "See ya," as they left. As a couple, Zack and Cloud had never felt quite as socially accepted as they did in that moment. That was probably when they realized that some towns might be more accepting of homosexuality than others and they started considering building their lives outside of Kalm.

College came before home building though. A good portion of their senior year had been dedicated to finding the perfect university for the both of them (they decided on Junon University) and even before they were engaged they had taken a weekend to drive out and ensure they got a dorm together. When they came home from their honeymoon they only spent a couple of weeks in Kalm before they were packing their bags again and taking the train to Junon. Their first order of business was finding jobs. They applied to all the same businesses, but weren't lucky enough to get calls from any of the same places as the other did. Cloud ended up in a flower shop (The florist had been crazy impressed with Cloud's knowledge of flowers. Again, Zack blamed Aerith, who incidentally also found work as a florist in Midgar.) and Zack found himself working at a coffee shop. Even though Cloud liked flowers and Zack liked coffee, the jobs still kind of sucked, but it got them through college and that was what mattered.

Junon University seemed pretty split on the homosexuality issue. Overall it was pretty okay. They didn't exactly go around campus flaunting their relationship, but of course everyone they ever shared a class with eventually realized they were married. Most didn't care, some stopped talking to them when they found out, and others treated them like they were the coolest thing ever. They kept to themselves for the most part, though they did make a handful of close friends (their dorm neighbors Reno and Rude were two of the coolest people either of them had ever met) and they even met other gay people, which was a new experience for them.

One of the biggest bummers of going away to college (at least for them) was losing all their special, romantic date-sites. Their first summer home from college (they came to an agreement with their parents that they would alternate which house they stayed in each summer), they decided to go for a picnic in their old clearing in the woods. Cloud had suggested it, and Zack could remember the way his words started tapering off after "picnic" and he was sure the growing look of horror on Cloud's face was mirrored on his own as they both realized the same thing. They'd left their basket and blanket in the woods. All year long.

Their beloved one gil basket and one gil blanket were trashed, destroyed, murdered by mother nature. Zack almost cried when he saw the basket, still in the bush they'd so carelessly left it in, but now torn and crippled. Cloud had hesitantly opened the top, checking to see if their blanket was alive, and a mouse scurried out (And Cloud shrieked and clung to him. It was definitely not the other way around, because Zackary Fair was not afraid of mice. No siree. Absolutely not. No.). It was with heavy hearts that they brought the basket home to throw in the trash (And Zack didn't make Cloud carry it, Cloud insisted! And even if there was a chance that there was another rodent inside, it wasn't like Zack cared. Pssht.) Zack's parents had a cooler and they ended up using that instead (Cloud had pouted and complained that a cooler was very uncute, and Zack thought that was cute enough to make up for the cooler's lack). That summer they agreed that when they got their own place, their first order of business would be to get a new basket.

While they missed their old date spots while in Junon, it was fun looking for new ones and they particularly liked going to the harbor (they decided seaside living had a certain special allure while in Costa Del Sol). Their favorite spot, though it might have seemed strange to others, was an old abandoned warehouse. Whenever they had the time, they would break in and climb to the roof of the flimsy old building (it was only a few years after they'd graduated that Zack actually looked back and realized that all those times they might've been in potential danger) to watch the sunset together. Zack and Cloud were both county boys at heart, growing up in such a quiet town as Kalm, and when they were atop that warehouse, with nothing but each other and the sun, they could let themselves forget about the industry around them.

Whenever they had a semi-long break from school (Major holidays excluded. They went home for those.), they traveled. They wanted to visit as many places as they could to try to get a feel of the area, in the hopes of finding the perfect place to move to when they graduated. It took them almost three years to find the perfect place, but eventually they fell in love with the town of Mideel. They discussed their plans with their parents, who weren't too keen on the idea of their sons living on a different continent. Zack couldn't count the number of times his mother reminded him that Angeal was planning on staying in Kalm after he got his degree (Angeal was going to be a doctor, which meant he was going to be in school a loooooooong time) and she hadn't been exactly pleased when Zack's reply was, "That's great! That means we can visit both of you at the same time!"

For as long as Zack could remember, Cloud liked to write. When they were younger (and occasionally when they were older) he often did Zack's English homework for him (which was okay, because Zack did Cloud's math), so Zack hadn't been surprised when Cloud told him sometime during highschool that he wanted to go to college for journalism. Zack knew he didn't really want to be a journalist, he wanted to be a novelist, but Cloud explained that he didn't need a degree to be a novelist and journalism would be something good to fall back on. Zack had agreed and that was that. He didn't really expect Cloud to start writing his first novel when they were still in college, but he did (Are you crazy babe? You just wrote like, six essays!). He did expect it to get published and sell more copies in a week than Loveless did in all of its booky existence.

He was only half wrong. It was impossible to sell more copies of anything than Loveless, because it had been out for forever and it was a classic, even though nobody actually liked it (except Angeal's weird friend that Zack didn't like talking to anyway). His book did get published though (the name CLOUD FAIR stood out on the cover in shiny gold letters, and Zack loved looking at it because he could never really get over the fact that the greatest man in the world was married to him and had taken his last name), and it did sell fairly well. Well enough that they were able to put a down payment on a house (Zack's parents still had to help them out a little bit with the finances), which they did before they had even graduated.

Even after they'd gone away to college, Zack had never really thought that he'd taken his house for granted. But when they walked into their home (their home!) he couldn't help but feel like he'd never realized what amazing things houses really were. They didn't have much stuff, which Zack was a little grateful for because he wasn't too sure how moving vans felt about crossing continents. It did make the actual settling in part a little slow though. Thankfully, kitchen and laundry appliances came with the house, but the first two nights they had to sleep on the floor, because they didn't have a bed yet, and it took them about a month to decide on all the furniture for their living room. Before they bought anything for the house though, they went up to one of the town shops and bought a picnic basket, and a blanket.

It didn't take them too long to settle in, overall. Zack secured a job at the school (it was a middle and high school, all rolled into one) as a gym teacher (What could he say? Mr. Highwind had been an inspiration.) and Cloud was already laying the groundwork for the sequel to his first novel. Mideel was great, and they loved it more than they could say. They loved that the ocean was only a 15 minute walk from their house, and they loved having woods as a backyard, because it kind of reminded them of their childhood. They loved the shabby old boardwalk that went above the town's entrance, and the windmill that stood a little off from the center of town. They loved the people too.

Mideel's community was one of the nicest either of them had ever experienced. After they decided on a house, they immediately made an effort to get to know their neighbors. On their left lived a couple about their parents' ages. Their names were Lucretia and Vincent Valentine and, though they were a little quiet, they were nice enough. After they moved in, they learned that the Valentines' son had gone to the same college as Angeal and the two were actually really good friends. (Small world, right?) To their right lived a single man named Barrett Wallace with his adopted daughter, Marlene. Barrett was a little rough around the edges, but he was a good guy and they liked and respected him (Not to mention his daughter was just the cutest little thing ever!).

The rest of the town was nice too. At first they had been treated like a bit of a novelty (apparently they were the first gay couple to live in Mideel in quite some time, and everyone seemed to think they were cute). Cloud had been a little miffed when the town housewives tried to include him in their circle, mainly because the town husbands tried to include Zack in their's. He ranted for about a week that just because he was shorter, and a little less muscular, and he liked poetry and literature, did not mean he was the girl in their relationship. Eventually he calmed down and agreed to give the ladies lessons in cooking and flower arranging, because really, they were all hopeless.

Zack never thought an event could come along that would be more important than the ones they'd already been though. After all, was it even possible to top marrying Cloud? Apparently it was, because the biggest event of their lives happened when they were 26. It was during the summer and Zack and Cloud had actually been planning to leave in about two weeks to go visit their parents when it happened. As soon as they stepped outside they knew something was up. You could always tell when something exciting happened in a town like Mideel. It took them all of two minutes to find someone willing to share the story. A child had washed up on the shore in the middle of the night, presumably a survivor from a shipwreck, and was being treated at the town's medical center. At the time they had felt bad for the kid, but they didn't feel like it involved them personally so they didn't think too deeply about the whole situation.

News about the boy's condition was spread so thoroughly that the two of them couldn't help but hear everything. His name was Denzel, he was seven years old, he was from Midgar, he had been on a ship that had crashed during a storm, they were sure he was the only survivor and he didn't seem to have any relatives, he was very intelligent, but quiet, which was natural, given his situation. They received a lot of their information on the boy from the doctor himself, which was kind of odd, but the doctor liked them so they blew it off as the old man feeling gossipy. They started getting suspicious when Dr. Bugenhagen started lamenting how sad it was, and if only there was a nice couple out there that wanted a child, but perhaps were unable to, and how nice it would be if a couple like that would come along and adopt poor, sweet, adorable, well-mannered Denzel.

They said no. A thousand times they must have said no. But Dr. Bugenhagen had been persistent to the point that Zack swore he was hearing his little "Hohohos" in his sleep, and eventually he convinced them to visit Denzel before they made up their minds completely. So they did, and it was love at first sight. They called their parents and cancelled, telling them something urgent had come up, and started spending time with Denzel. Suddenly adoption seemed like the only logical explanation, but they wanted Denzel to get to know them first, because it was only fair that he got a say in the matter. They spend about a month and a half with him, and while they were sure Denzel didn't love them as deeply as they did him (the sting of losing his real parents was still fresh, after all), he did like them well enough and they started to draw up the adoption papers.

They had a little less than half the summer left, so they asked Denzel if he wanted to go meet the rest of his family. He had shrugged, which was a very usual answer for him during that time, so they decided to visit their parents first, then go see Aerith afterwards. So they called their parents to let them know they were coming, and that they had a big surprise for them. They took a plane to the Eastern continent (Denzel wasn't too keen on that, but he agreed that it would be better than taking a boat. They thought it was cute how brave he tried to be at first, but as soon as they took off he grabbed hold of Cloud's arm and didn't let go until they landed.) and then took a train from the airport to Kalm (Denzel didn't have a problem with trains).

Zack would never forget the look on their parents' faces when they introduced them to their new grandson. Mr. and Mrs. Fair already had three grandchildren from Angeal, but Denzel was Ms. Strife's first, and they suspected she hadn't really expected to have any at all. They could tell immediately that their son (Their son! Their precious, beautiful, gorgeous son!) was going to be spoiled rotten by his grandparents. True to his word, Angeal had moved back to Kalm with his family. Denzel seemed a little overwhelmed, suddenly finding himself with not only two new dads, but new grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins, but he got along well with everyone and in the few weeks they spend in Kalm they couldn't help but notice how Denzel started to talk a little more, and smile more often. He started to hug his parents more often and hold their hands without them initiating it, and they'd been delighted when he'd complained about leaving because that meant he really liked being with his family and Zack and Cloud both thought family was incredibly important.

Eventually they convinced him that they had to leave, because they wanted to take him to visit his Aunt Aerith before the summer was over. They called her prior to tell her the good news, and make plans to come visit. Before the word "adoption" was fully out of Zack's mouth, Aerith had squealed shrilly through the phone and started bombarding him with questions (Zack would swear for the rest of his life that he'd lost part of his hearing in his right ear that day.). After graduating from Midgar University, Aerith had decided to stay in the city (Zack and Cloud had been shocked, as they'd always expected Aerith to move somewhere picturesque, with flower fields and babbling brooks and the like) and she'd opened up her own flower shop, which she lived on the top story of.

They were a little uncertain how Denzel would react, returning to his home city, but he seemed happy enough with the familiar sights. Occasionally he would fall into a thoughtful silence, and they would leave him be, figuring he was thinking about his parents. More than he loved being back in Midgar, Denzel loved Aerith. He took to her immediately, which Zack and Cloud weren't too surprised at, since Aerith was a creature who was loved by all. Sometimes they thought that part of the reason Denzel seemed so fond of Aerith was because like him, she wasn't related to either of them by blood or marriage, and yet they still called her family. Either that or they were looking too deeply into it and the two had just naturally bonded. Either way Denzel would get crazy excited whenever they went to visit Aunt Aerith, and that was all that really mattered.

When they finally returned to Mideel (they had asked the Valentine's to check in on their house every now and then), they immediately went about enrolling Denzel in school. The first day of school little Marlene had come knocking on their door, politely asking if it was okay if Denzel walked to school with her. Cloud told her that of course it was (Zack had already left, because Denzel had insisted that he didn't need him to walk him to school, even though the middle/high school was right across the street from the elementary school), and lightly pushed Denzel out the door. After that day the two of them seemed to become best friends almost instantly, and Cloud and Zack couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic watching them, because they kind of reminded them of themselves when they were that age. (Especially when Marlene started kissing Denzel on the cheek to say goodbye. The first time it happened Zack could remember sharing a look with Cloud and asking, "When do you think we should talk to him?" and Cloud had responded, "Before he's 14," because while they did think of themselves as good role models, they didn't want Denzel following in their every footstep.)

The years seem to fly by, and Denzel was growing up so fast. It took him a little less than a year to start calling them "dad" (Sometimes he called Zack "pops," just like Zack called his dad, to differentiate between the two). When he was nine they took him to the Gold Saucer (Cloud got picked as a "lucky" member of the audience that got to be a Chocobo jockey for the day. Zack and Denzel teased him about it terribly.) and when he was ten they went to the Northern continent to stay at the famous Icicle Inn and try their hand at snow boarding. They visited their families in Kalm every summer, and they visited Aerith every year during Denzel's spring break. Most people probably thought they were a far cry from a perfect family, but they felt like they were, and as far as they were concerned, they were the happiest people in the world.

The Geostigma epidemic started when they were about 30. Denzel was 11, and they hadn't really worried too much because Mideel was such a secluded place. In fact they had been mostly worried for Aerith, because she lived in Midgar, where the outbreaks were the most frequent. Zack's heart still clenched when he thought about the first time Denzel had pulled down the collar of his shirt to show them a bruise on his collarbone that he didn't remember getting and that wouldn't go away. They took him to Dr. Bugenhagen immediately, but all he could tell them was that it was Geostigma, it was caused by a rare blood disorder and wasn't contagious, and as of that moment, there was no cure.

They were scared, but they clung to the hope that a city doctor would know more about it. After all, Denzel was the only person in Mideel with the disease. Why would Dr. Bugenhagen know anything about it? So they took him to Midgar. The doctors told them the same thing. Sorry about your luck, but there's nothing we can do. Spend as much time with your son as you can and pay your bill with the secretary. They refused to give up though, so their next course of action was to consult Angeal, since he was the best doctor either of them knew.

Angeal did everything he could to find a cure. He stayed up all hours of the night, for days at a time, doing all that he could. Zack couldn't bring himself to feel guilty about the stress he was putting his brother through, because his son was dying and that was all that mattered. They stayed in Kalm, moving in with Zack's parents since they had two empty rooms, so they could be close to Angeal. Months passed. Barrett brought Marlene to come visit on Denzel's 12th birthday and it broke everyone's hearts to watch the two of them. Marlene brought him a bouquet of flowers that he kept next to his bed. Even after they wilted and died he kept them, and made sure they had fresh water. When he couldn't get out of bed anymore, Cloud changed the water for him.

Some people might say that losing an adopted child wasn't as hard as losing a birth child, but Zack didn't see how that was possible. Of all his memories, the day Denzel died would always remain the clearest. Sometimes, when he woke up in the middle of the night, he thought he could still hear Cloud crying and feel Denzel's hand in his, so much smaller and so unbelievable cold. And sometimes he would wake up with tears dried on his cheeks, and he'd look down and see that Cloud had been crying too and he'd wonder if maybe they'd had the same dream.

They buried Denzel in Mideel. The bruises never reached his face, and the suit they had him in covered up all of them except the ones on his hands. Just looking at his face, Zack remembered thinking how easy it seemed, to believe he wasn't dead. That he would just open his eyes, smile, and admit the whole thing was a bad joke. Look Pops, it was just paint! All this time! Man did I fool you! Of course that didn't happen though. Denzel was dead, and there was no changing that fact, no matter how much he and Cloud cried and wished it weren't true.

Their friends and families came to the funeral, of course, and it meant a lot to them, but nothing meant more to them than when Tifa walked into the room. She'd come as soon as she heard (Aerith had called her), and she'd cried when she saw them, hugging them both and apologizing for everything she had done, for being a terrible friend, and for not being there when they needed her most. They forgave her instantly, telling her they had never really been mad, and it was their fault too because they shouldn't have lied. She paid her respects and as she looked down on Denzel, Zack could tell she was wishing she could have been part of his life. He wished so too. She turned to look at them, tears shining in her eyes, and told them their son was beautiful. They agreed.

They didn't get as much time to grieve as they should have. Denzel hadn't even been dead a full year when Zack noticed the small black mark on Cloud's shoulder blade. They skipped the other doctors and went straight to Angeal this time, because they knew he had already done so much research and Cloud obviously hadn't had Geostigma long. Zack had pulled his brother aside and demanded answers. How could Cloud just now be showing symptoms? If it was a blood disorder, why was he just getting sick now? He screamed at him until his voice was hoarse, even though he knew Angeal was doing his best, and he let his brother hold him as his knees gave out and his yells quieted into sobs.

Angeal promised to do his best, but they all knew there was nothing he could do, so Zack took Cloud back to Mideel, so he could at least be in the comfort of his own home. The others came to visit often, and it was kinda nice having Tifa around again. It was difficult (and expensive) for everyone to keep visiting though (Tifa lived in Nibelheim, which was quite a ways away), so for the most part it was just the two of them. Barrett and Marlene visited them every day, and Marlene always gave Cloud a flower when she came. Zack couldn't help himself from thinking how sad it was, for such a sweet young girl to be surrounded by so much sadness. Sometimes he thought about what would have happened had Denzel lived. Like if they would have gotten married, and Barrett and them would have been family. He tried not to though. He knew if he started living in a world of "what ifs" it would only be a matter of time before he went mad.

The disease spread slower with Cloud than it did with Denzel (Angeal had said it would, because Cloud's immune system was more developed), but it was still horrifying to watch as each day Cloud's shoulder, and then his arm, became more and more encased in black. Near the end he started suffering violent fevers, during which he would often talk nonsense. One night, when Cloud was doing fairly good, Zack had taken his half black hand and kissed the back. Cloud had tried to pull away, softly telling him that he didn't have to pretend his skin wasn't disgusting. Zack didn't let go, and placed a trail of gentle kisses up Cloud's arm and to his shoulder. When he pulled back and told Cloud he didn't know what he was talking about, Cloud had started crying and Zack held him through the night.

The fevers got worse and worse, and occasionally he would suffer from seizures as well. If Zack had anything at all to be grateful for, it was that Denzel had died before his Geostigma had gotten that bad. Watching Cloud go through it all was enough. One night, during a rare moment of lucidity, Cloud told Zack he was dying. He reached up to cup Zack's cheek and wipe the tears there away, before asking him if he would make love to him, one last time. Zack agreed. They went slow, since Cloud was so weak, but that was okay because they weren't really doing it for pleasure anyway. They just wanted to be close, as close as they could, and Zack put all his effort into memorizing every inch of Cloud's body. He wanted to imprint Cloud's touch on his skin, keep the taste of him on his tongue, and keep the sound of his voice in his ears forever.

Cloud died a few days later, at the age of 33. Zack buried him next to Denzel. His parents tried to get him to move back to Kalm, but he refused, even though his house did suddenly seem too large, and he didn't want much of anything to do with the other residents of Mideel. Cloud had been in the middle of writing a five-part series when he'd died, leaving the last novel unfinished. Cloud had already told him how it ended, and he had all of his notes. Even though Zack hated writing, he knew if anyone could imitate Cloud's style it would have to be him, because no one else knew how Cloud's mind worked the way he did. So he started writing Cloud's last book for him, as a way to pass the time. He told himself he wasn't just waiting to get Geostigma.

He had to rewrite it more times than he could count, but eventually his writing improved enough that the book could reasonably pass for Cloud's work. He had it published, and both of their names were put on the cover, and the editor wrote some little introduction piece explaining what had happened to the original author. He'd asked Zack to write it first, but he didn't want to. The book took five years to write, and Zack remembered how devastated he'd been when it was finally released to the public and the realization that five years had passed and he was still alive had hit him like a brick. He knew in that moment that he was lying to himself when he said he wasn't waiting for Geostigma.

Geostigma never entered Zack's life again though. Even if it did, it really didn't matter because a cure had been developed for it when he was 35, two years after Cloud's death. He did his best to live his life, even though he didn't want to, because he knew Cloud would want it that way. But he knew Cloud and Denzel were waiting in the Lifestream for him and that made it hard. It crossed his mind a few times that Denzel's real parents were also in the Lifestream, and sometimes he wondered if that would be a problem. He really didn't want to go to court for custody rights after he was dead, after all. Assuming there were courts in the Lifestream, of course.

Three days ago Zack had gone to Midgar to visit Aerith. She asked him to go out for eggs and chocolate chips (with the promise of cookies when he returned) and that was the last thing he really remembered. He knew he made it to the store, because there was a chocolate chip lying next to him on the asphalt. He was pretty sure he'd been hit by that big ol' ugly truck a few yards away, because it was stopped at a weird angle while the rest of the cars were fairly straight. It bugged him a little that he couldn't remember getting hit, but he was almost certain it hadn't been suicide, because he'd REALLY wanted those cookies.

As Zack laid there in a puddle of his own blood, he thought about what people said about your life flashing before your eyes when you died. He supposed they were telling the truth, but he kind of wondered how they knew about it. Obviously none of them had ever died and he sure wasn't feeling up to letting all the frantic people hovering about him know that he'd just relived his entire life in a moment (He assumed it was a moment. It was really difficult to tell how long he'd been lying in the road. He was in the city, after all.). He could faintly hear the sirens in the background, but he didn't pay them much mind. They were too late, and he knew it.

And that was okay. He was 39, he'd had a great life, and he was ready to die. There was nothing left for him in this world. Sure his folks would be sad, but they had Angeal. And Angeal would be sad, but he had his family. Aerith and Tifa both had their own families, not to mention each other. Life in Mideel would go on without him; Marlene had grown up to be a kind, beautiful young woman. She actually reminded him of Aerith at that age, in a lot of ways.

He shut his eyes when the rain started to fall, and it crossed his mind that it wasn't really fair. It was sunny out when Denzel and Cloud died, so how come he got the depressing death weather? But then he thought, maybe it wasn't rain at all. Maybe Cloud was out there somewhere crying, and these were his tears. The idea made him smile, and his smile stayed in place even as all life left his body.

"Don't cry babe. I'll see you soon."

Reviews are very much appreciated! :D Please tell me my grammatical errors! I reread it until I was sick of it, but I'm sure there's still something wrong that I missed. And for those who don't remember him, Bugenhagen is the floating old man in Cosmo Canyon. He's like, super duper cool, right? Hohoho. . .

And if anyone is going to AnimeNEXT this year, you should tell me!!! I'm going as Wallmarket Cloud and I'd love to meet other Clack fans!