I dreamed of fire again. It felt as though that was all I ever dreamed of anymore. Fire and pain and destruction and the feeling of utter hopelessness. Except this time something was different: I didn't feel hopeless just because I couldn't save anyone. The hopelessness went further back than that. It went back before going to Nibelheim, before being a SOLDIER first class, or even second, or... third. The hopelessness went back to feeling stuck, to being told I couldn't live my dream, to being asked to accept the likelihood of death on the field of battle, to being replaceable... disposable. The feeling went back to... back to being rejected from SOLDIER. I never made it in. I was never a SOLDIER. Why couldn't I be in SOLDIER?
There was a voice then, and slowly an image began to form. It was an image of a man, so far beyond my reach and yet trying so hard to be close. He was telling me that I was a SOLDIER, that I was everything a SOLDIER was meant to be. He was trusting me, believing in me, and reaching out to me... but then there was a gunshot, and it all ended.
Then I woke, drenched in sweat and gasping to get air in my lungs. Feeling the pull of bedsheets over me, I let my eyes focus and calmed as I found myself in a small bedroom, with a mild breeze blowing the smell of flowers through spotted drapes. I sat up promptly, clutching the sheets of the bed in my hand, still trying to shake off the fright that I couldn't quite explain. I turned my eyes, slowly scanning the room. I didn't really know what I was looking for until I found it, but there he was. Asleep on the sofa across from my bed, there he was: the boy with spiky black hair, the man who believed in me.
Zack. I mouthed the name as I thought it, and as my head was rushing. I remembered him. I remembered him so well, but it was so hard to look at him. Despite the darkness of the room, looking at Zack Fair felt like looking at the sun, so grand and so bright, and something you could never hope to reach. He felt impossible, and it made me feel impossible. I was there when he died, and yet there he was. I was a SOLDIER first class, and yet I wasn't. It was him. It was Zack Fair. It was the man who was like the sun: bright and strong and impossible, living the life and the dream that I knew now I wasn't capable of.
For the longest time, I was ready to give up SOLDIER and to give up Shinra and anything else in my life just so that being close to him didn't feel wrong. I knew he never wanted me to stand-sharp and salute him, or to call him sir or boss or to wait on him for my next orders. I knew that, but nobody else did. The ranks of SOLDIER first class and infantryman created layers and layers of boundaries between us, and even when we were alone I could never, but for a few mesmerizing seconds, shake the feeling that we shouldn't be close, that we shouldn't hold hands, and that we should never ever have kissed.
For the longest time, I was ready to give up my dreams just to finally feel comfortable holding him close, and yet here I was now. I knew that Shinra had betrayed us, that all boundaries were gone and all chains were severed, but I just couldn't. In the past, I would have moved to the sofa and let him wake up to find me, but now I could barely look at him. My heart started racing and my breath began to pick up. I held a hand to my mouth to try and silence it. I couldn't wake him. I couldn't talk to him. I had to leave.
I didn't stop to think about what I was doing until I'd left the room, left the house and planted my back firmly against the door. My eyes shut, I took a deep breath and let in the air. It was so fresh and cool that I could barely believe my eyes when they opened to find that I was still in the slums. That didn't matter though, in fact it was safer for me down there, and I would be able to find my way to Sector Seven and back to Tifa. I took another deep breath and started to walk, fighting the troubled thoughts in my head.
Finding Tifa was what I needed: a person who knew me as I was. I was so happy that Zack was alive, but happy for him and not for me. There was still something inside me that wanted to go back and embrace him, but so much was changed. Thinking of his face made me feel like I was suffering from a bad poison. Thinking of the times we spent together made me think of everything I wasn't. For a while, I 'd gotten to the point where I had accepted my place as an infantryman, and basically accepted that my hopes and dreams had failed me. It was hard enough to have Zack talk to me as his equal when I had that kind of failure on my shoulders, but it became nice and he even managed to pull me back into the hope that one day I might still live my dream. But now I had lived my dream, and that dream became a nightmare, and that reality was taken away from me. It didn't feel as though I was hoping to grow stronger and rise to my potential, but instead I was falling from it. I could neither live up to my dreams, nor could I maintain what I thought I was.
No, I couldn't talk to Zack, because he didn't know me anymore. So much had changed, and I felt like nothing but anger and failure. I was the flames in my dreams, bringing nothing but ruin. And if that was all I was then I would bring that ruin down on Shinra, because they were the one thing that hadn't changed. They were the ones who ruined my life, who ruined Tifa's life, and ruined Zack's life. They were the ones who left all of the people under the plate to starvation and pain, and they were sucking out the very blood of the planet just for a profit. They were going to suffer for what they did. They...
"You're a fast walker," I heard a voice behind me say. I stopped short and drew in air, slowly turning to face Zack. "But not so good at sneaking."
"Uh..." was all I could manage to get out of my mouth at first. He was still hard to look at, but at the same time as he stood tall in front of me and spoke, it felt like he pulled at something inside me that I had buried: something that remembered hope and his hand brushing against my wrist.
"I'm used to carrying you around," he continued with a soft laugh, "but just because you can walk again doesn't mean you gotta run off."
I continued to stay silent, taking in the mako swirl in his eyes as it stood against the darkness of the night, the worry in them contradicting the smile at the edges of his mouth. I swallowed, trying to keep focused and battling between wanting to look at him and wanting to avert my eyes. He took one step closer, leaving a little more than arms reach between us.
"You know, I'd really like to hear you say something," he said, looking as though he wanted to come even closer, but for some reason he was holding back. "I don't know if you heard me before now, but it's been such I long time since I've heard you talk."
"Zack," I finally said, wanting to hear his name. "I have to go alone... I... I'm different now... I have..."
I was interrupted as he quickly stepped forward and took me in his arms, pulling me close to his chest. I felt my breath start to increase again, and put my hands to his chest as if to push away, but something inside me gave in.
"You're alive," Zack said firmly, next to my ear. It caught me off guard. He spoke to me still with the voice of a SOLDIER, full of heroism and leadership, but not the tone I expected. Not the tone suggested by his fingertips pressing into the back of my shirt. "You're alive, and there's no way I'm letting you go alone."
I stood there for a long moment, letting my arms slowly fall off of his chest and hang at my sides. My eyes shifted, scanning the ground and the fabric of his uniform against me. My mind was rushing, but my heartbeat slowed. I didn't know what to think. I didn't even know if I wanted to return Zack's embrace. It felt like I'd missed so much of my life, and so many things didn't make sense that it made me question what other parts had been a lie.
"How did it happen?" I asked, starting almost in a whisper. When Zack didn't respond, I took a step back away from him, out of his grasp, and stared him in the eyes. "How did you survive?"
"Does it matter?" he said, wilting a bit from my cold response.
"Did it even happen?" I asked, raising my voice a bit. "Because until tonight, I thought I was a SOLDIER! Every friendship I thought I'd made, all the reputation amongst the ranks, the battles I fought... how do I know if any of that was real!?"
"Who the hell are you!?" I yelled, but I knew who he was. He was who I had been living. He was the one I was missing so much without even remembering his face. He was the hole I felt in the back of my mind that I filled with fake memories, but now that he was here, that hole was so much bigger. I felt my heart rate increase again and I began to pant. The memories were piecing themselves together at an alarming speed, erasing new thoughts and replacing them with my old ones. I could hear a ringing in my head again, and I needed something to focus my mind, so I drew my blade.
"Please," I said, offering no more explanation. Zack was startled and took a step back, but after a moment he reluctantly drew a new sword from his back and grasped it in front of him.
I ran at Zack and swung the Buster Sword over my head and hard into his blade. The metal clanged and clanged again as I threw another attack. I struck again, higher, causing Zack to arch back and raise the sword to block me. All of a sudden, he pressed forward, parrying my attack and leaving him the opportunity to make one of his own. The Buster Sword was wide and I managed to block myself from his attack easily, but the sheer force of the blow pushed me back along the ground, leaving a trail from my shoes in the dirt. The sound of the impact caused a ringing in my ear, but it was exactly what I needed to stop the ringing in my mind.
I threw myself at him again, and the two of us exchanged blow after blow, battle sounds echoing through the dark streets. I was so focused on the battle that I hadn't noticed it change, but Zack's expression was a broad smile and determined eyes, sweat beginning to bead on his brow. Even noticing this, I hadn't realized that I'd broken a sweat myself. I struck again and again, and blocked the returning attacks. With every clash, my mind became more clear. Even so, I drew a materia from my pocket without a thought, and as the final memories fitted themselves back into place, I released a bolt of lighting at Zack. He dove out of the way, raising a hand for me to stop, but at that point the materia had already fallen to the ground along with the Buster Sword.
The last flood of memories were painful as they returned: Zack teaching me to cast ice, the fear of confronting Tifa, and the fires of Nibelheim. I clutched my hands into fists and screamed at the plate above me. Zack came to my side, but the next thing I really remembered as my mind settled, was being slumped down on the ground, back against a metal wall. Zack was sitting next to me, and we were both panting and sweating from the fight. I turned my eyes to him, and he had his head leaned back, staring upward, still wearing a smile between his breathes. Apparently, he wasn't bothered by anything I'd just done. Either that, or somehow he understood why I did it.
"Thank you," I said, exhaling and feeling the first sense of true calm I'd felt in a long time.
"I don't know... where you learned... to fight like that," he said, still catching his breath, "but I like it."
"Hmmm." I sighed a comfortable sigh, letting my eyes drift across the ground and the marks left by my shoes. "This might sound strange, but I think I know who I am now."
Zack turned his head to look at me. He was silent for a moment. "And who I am?"
"Yeah," I said, leaning my head back a bit. "You're alive."
"We both are," he added, turning his eyes back to the plate as well. "I guess that makes us pretty special."
I didn't say anything else, and neither did he. We sat there, in the dust, and the quiet, and I let my hand find his. It wasn't everything I wanted, all I knew I longed for, but it was exactly what I needed, and as the faint rays of sun began to seep through the cracks in the outer wall, I finally felt as though my life wasn't over. All I needed now was to find the right beginning.