Cloud felt as though the breath had been knocked from him.
"What happens to me in the future?"
Cloud's mind instantly flooded with memories of Shinra soldiers, rumbling skies, barking guns, and blood. How was he suppose to explain it to Zack? He couldn't even handle the memories that he couldn't fully suppress, let alone actually try and explain what happened in words.
Aerith... What have you done? Cloud yelled inside his mind, but the only response was the white noise of his own thoughts.
"Cloud?" The tentative and worried voice finally broke through the haze and Cloud focused on Zack. He hadn't even realised that Zack had his hands around his waist and was helping to keep him steady in the water, and he could only wonder how long the raven-haired man had been trying to get his attention.
"You really spoke to Aerith?" Cloud asked, trying to find something safer to talk about while he reeled his mind back from the cliffs that were the jagged and roughly healed fractures of his sanity. He had thought that maybe he was past this; he had been having less flash-backs and nightmares from his past over the last few weeks, but now that Zack was asking questions, he was scared of telling him that he had died to allow him to live.
"I think so... I mean, I haven't met her before and that was the name she gave me." Zack replied, trying to keep his voice light after seeing the reaction that his previous question had provoked. It was with a hollow feeling in his stomach that he realised that Cloud's reaction had been confirmation enough, but there was a part of him that needed to know what had happened so that he could prevent it from ever happening.
"You have." Cloud said.
"Uh, I have?" Zack asked, confused.
"Met her." Cloud clarified, "Just not yet...She... You... It's complicated, and I think it would be better to be on dry land before we continue this conversation." Zack nodded.
"Yeah, that's probably a good idea, we probably should have done that a while ago." Cloud moved out of his grip then, turning and beginning to swim towards the distant shore of the Northern Continent. Zack quickly followed him, not wanting to let much distance get between them. As they swam, Zack's mind continued to circle back to what seemed like a very real possibility that he was actually dead in the future, and judging from Cloud's reaction he guessed that it wasn't a good death either. He supposed that everyone had to die eventually, but it was still a shock to have it all confirmed in such a mind bending way. It all gave him a big headache if he was honest with himself. Taking a deep breath, Zack pushed all the thoughts about the future out of his mind, there would be time to worry about that later once they were safely out of the water and away from the chance of any more tentacles.
A couple of hours later found the two men crawling their way out of the surf and onto the beach of the Northern Continent, both utterly exhausted and freezing cold. It was well after dark and even the sand had lost any and all warmth that the day may have given it.
"N-never... Again..." Zack muttered, flopping down to lay on the sand his feet just barely out of reach from the grasping waves. There was a grunt from Cloud that may have been an agreement, but Zack was too tired to even turn his head to be sure.
Cloud was crouched on his feet, his breathing heavy as he tried to find the energy to get up and begin gathering some materials to build a fire, but the salty water that continued to drip from his hair into his eyes made lifting his head a rather hard task.
He had never tried to swim so far, and he very much agreed with Zack that he never wanted to do it again.
After a few moments of silence, Cloud looked over at Zack to find the raven-haired man fast asleep despite the shivers that had overtaken both of them. Cloud smiled softly at the sight, knowing that only Zack could look so peaceful and so damn cold at the same time.
With a sigh, the blond forced himself to his feet, trying to ignore how much his legs were shaking beneath him. Moving on solid ground soon proved to be a big challenge after so long in the water, and he found himself stumbling every other step as he made his way to the tree line and began hunting for drift wood and sticks so that he could get a fire going. They both needed some warmth if they were going to get through the night, after all, even the mako in their veins didn't completely eliminate the possibility of hypothermia or sickness when exposed to extreme cold and the temperatures on the Northern Continent tended to be harsh at night.
Time passed in a haze as Cloud slowly gathered a small pile of wood, and by the time he had collected enough he felt as though his limbs were made of either led or jelly because they felt so heavy while at the same time they felt soft and shaky. The fact that his clothes were soaked and heavy didn't help the situation either, they were just lucky that they had both been wearing their packs so they hadn't lost many of their items.
Zack was still out cold when Cloud finally let himself collapse next to the wood, remaining sitting up only thanks to a driving want for some warmth as he arranged the wood and rummaged in his pack for his pouch of materia.
It took a bit longer than he would have liked for him to muster up enough energy to actually use the materia to get a flame going, but once it was burning he was able to breath a sigh of relief. It would take a little while before the fire would really get going and give out enough heat to actually be helpful, but it was definitely a start.
Cloud looked down at where Zack was still laying, the water now beginning to lap at the bottom of his shoes as the tide began to come in. It amazed Cloud how he could still be asleep, but then he also remembered that Zack was still young and had yet to face even half of the trials he had gone through the first time.
"What happens to me in the future?"
The words drifted through his mind again, and Cloud sighed deeply, shaking his head to keep his thoughts focused. The shock of the question had worn off a bit now and it was a bit easier to think about facing that fact that he may need to tell Zack everything, even though that in it self had dangers to consider as well. He still couldn't comprehend why Aerith would contact Zack in the first place, let alone bring up the topic of his fate in the future. A future that he was determined to change anyway.
Zack groaned something unintelligible in his sleep and curled up on his side, his shivering obvious even from where Cloud sat. With a shake of his head Cloud went to stand up, only to find that his legs would no longer support the lift, but he knew that he needed to get Zack near the fire so he instead settled for crawling his way over to the raven-haired man.
"Zack." He called once he was there. There was no way that he would be physically able to move him, so he would need to wake up and move himself. Zack mumbled something about silly Chocobos and tried to curl tighter into a ball, something that was quite impressive with his sword still strapped to his back. "Zack!"
"Jus' one 'ore... Minute..." Zack mumbled, actually hold up his finger as though he thought that he wouldn't be understood. Cloud couldn't help the small chuckle that escaped him, and it did wonders to lighten his mood to know that even in this situation Zack could still make him smile; even if it was unintentional and at his expense.
In a spur of the moment decision, Cloud leant down and gently placed his lips on the side of Zack's face that he could reach in his curled position.
"Zack, come on." he mumbled into Zack's ear. This earned him a bit more of a reaction as Zack's face sleepily turned up towards him, and Cloud smiled as he moved to kiss Zack properly on his lips this time, continuing to do so until Zack slowly began to respond, and then he moved back so that Zack was left looking a little bit like a guppy trying to follow him. When it became obvious that the object of his desire was no longer where he wanted him, Zack finally cracked his eyes open to glare weakly at the blond.
"Tease." He accused, his voice still slurred and heavy from sleep.
"I know, but there is a warm fire waiting just a bit further up the beach, and we need to get out of these wet clothes." Cloud said with an amused smirk.
Zack found himself just staring up at the blond man above him. The moon was close to full and giving out enough light that, coupled with the stars, was more than enough to outline Cloud's figure and light up the edges of his currently flattened blond hair. The most captivating part was his eyes though; they were glowing quite strongly in the dim light and the effect was mesmerizing, and Zack couldn't help but want to have more than a kiss as he looked up at the beauty that was his lover... No lover wasn't the right word; he was his partner, in every sense of the word.
"What is it?" Cloud asked after a while of being stared at.
"You're beautiful." Zack said, raising a hand to run it down the side of his face, loving the way that Cloud closed his eyes and leant into the touch.
The two stayed like that for a moment longer until Zack felt the cool stroke of water on his leg and recalled that Cloud had mentioned not just a warm fire but something about the removal of clothes. He sat up so quickly that he made Cloud jump back to avoid a collision.
"Sorry." Zack chuckled, "But warmth sounds good right now."
Zack stood up gingerly; he would be sore as hell tomorrow, especially since he hadn't stretched before his unplanned nap, but the sleep had helped in restoring a small amount of his energy. He looked down at Cloud, almost surprised that the blond hadn't gotten up yet, but with the moon now shinning down on his face he could see just how tired Cloud was and realised that standing up might be beyond Cloud in that moment. It was also easy to forget, but it had also only been a few days since he had woken up in the medical wing of Shinra after the whole Hojo incident.
"C'mere." Zack said, reaching down and grabbing Cloud's hand and helping to pull him up and support him as they made their way towards the now steady and warm fire. Cloud gave him a grateful look as they finally came to a stop.
"We will warm up quicker if we take off our outer layer of clothes and stick close to each other and the fire." Cloud said, moving away from Zack to take First Sword off his back, only to sway heavily as soon as he wasn't being supported. Zack instantly reached out to steady him.
"Damn..." Cloud muttered, bringing his hand up to run it down his face as he tried to fight off the exhaustion.
"I've got you." Zack said, carefully unclasping the harness strap that crossed Cloud's chest and pulling the large sword away and placing it on the sand where it could be easily grabbed if needed.
"Thanks." Cloud said, his cheeks feeling warm in embarrassment that he couldn't even do a simple task.
Zack didn't respond, and instead began to assist the tired blond with getting his wet clothes off and laying them in the sand near the fire to dry out a bit. He felt bad that he had ended up sleeping while Cloud had to collect all the wood, arrange it and light the fire by himself while he was obviously just as, if not more, tired than he was.
Once Cloud was left shivering in only his under-shorts, Zack helped him sit as close to the fire as he could safely be before repeating the process for himself. They were both shivering violently in the cold ocean breeze by the time Zack sat down beside Cloud, quickly placing a few more bits of wood on the fire before moving to wrap his arms around the smaller man.
It took a long while before the warmth of the fire and their own body heat actually began to chase the cold away, and there was no hope of either of them being comfortable tonight, but they had made it through yet another harrowing and dangerous day so they could have been in the most comfortable bed in all of Gaia and it wouldn't have made a difference.
It was only when Cloud's breathing evened out with his head resting on Zack's shoulder that the raven-haired man carefully maneuvered them so that Cloud was resting snuggled into his side next to the fire where he would be the warmest.
Soon after, even Zack couldn't keep his eyes open and he drifted off to sleep as well.
To say that both men had an uncomfortable night would be an understatement. They were both too exhausted to stay awake and keep watch for trouble, but after being attacked the day before they were also on edge and therefore startled awake at the smallest of sounds. The cool sea-breeze picked up in the dark hours before dawn leaving both men shivering and prompting both of them to scramble for some more drift wood to keep the fire stoked before settling back in for a few more hours of broken rest.
By the time the sun finally rose enough to fully illuminate their surroundings both Zack and Cloud were already awake and sitting as close to the fire as they could. They had grabbed their clothes a couple of hours recently and were laying them close to the fire and turning them often to try and dry them as much as possible.
"For once in my life, I wish I had some coffee..." Zack mumbled, blearily watching the fire flicker. He felt as though someone had drained the energy out of him, something that was so rare for him that he usually had to be really sick.
"Sadly, you do get used to crazy days and little sleep." Cloud said, letting a small amount of amusement fill his voice. He was feeling fine despite the small amount of rest. When they were fighting against the Darkness, particularly when they had been pushing to get to Midgar, they had all been surviving on a measly couple of hours sleep every couple of days, and despite the fact that it had been a little while since then, his mind remembered what it was like.
"I don't think I want to..." Zack pouted, looking over at Cloud with a sad puppy expression.
"It will be better once the sun is fully up, that alone will help you wake up." Cloud said, chuckling at the weak glare he got in return.
Cloud reached over and checked his clothing and, deeming them dry enough, began to pull them on. Looking back on the night before he thought it was a miracle that they hadn't been attacked again while they were so vulnerable, but he was hardly going to argue about it either.
"We need to get moving soon." Cloud said once he was dressed.
"Can't we sleep just a little bit more now that the sun is nearly up?" Zack asked, slowly sitting up and looking at his clothes as though they were the source of his problems.
"No," Cloud replied promptly, "This far north it won't warm up much more that it is now, and we are really exposed here. I am surprised that there hasn't been a follow up attack yet to be honest."
Zack grumbled something unintelligible and began to pull his own clothes on, something that was quite amusing to watch as he was obviously tired and rather uncoordinated. Cloud pulled his pack over and began to see what was still in decent condition after a few hours of being in the water. Surprisingly, most of the items were still fine, the bread that they had been given in Kalm was ruined, but the few packet rations that they had brought with them from Shinra were fine. The materia was of course fine, and the few items of clothing and odd and ends would eventually dry.
Once Zack was dressed, munching on an energy bar, and ready to go they made sure that the fire was completely out before making their way into the surrounding bush.
"If we head for higher ground I will hopefully be able to get us going in the right direction." Cloud said as he walked.
"Have you spent much time in this area before?" Zack asked curiously. He was feeling a bit more like himself after something to eat.
"Yeah, it took us a while to find out how to get through the Sleeping Forest so we spent a good while in Bone Village and the surrounding area the first time."
"So how do you get through the sleepy Forest then?" Zack asked.
"We need to dig up an item called the Luna Harp." Cloud answered, "It should be in the same place it was when we first found it."
"A Harp? Really?" Zack asked with a raised eyebrow. Cloud chuckled and nodded.
"Yeah, I will show you what happens if you don't have it when we get there."
"Okaaay." Zack said, making it clear that he wasn't quite on board with the idea that a musical instrument was what they needed to get through a forest, no matter how tired it was.
"You'll see." Cloud said, his own mind remembering the craziness of trying to get though the Sleeping Forest without the harp the first time. Even now after everything he had seen and been through over the years he still couldn't explain how you could walk for miles and still be only meters from the beginning of the forest.
Zack and Cloud pressed on in comfortable silence for the next hour or so, steadily making their way uphill. They were making good progress and Cloud was starting to think that they should make it to Bone Village within two days as he was beginning to get a rough idea of where they were.
"Hey... Cloud?" When Zack's voice broke the silence it was quiet and uncertain, and Cloud knew without a doubt that he wouldn't like the conversation that was coming.
"Yeah?" He tried to keep his voice light, hoping that he could somehow waylay the question that was coming.
"I know..." Zack took a deep breath and steeled himself before continuing, "I know that it's not something that you want to talk about, but after talking to that girl- Aerith, I need to know; What happens to me in the future?"
Cloud sighed and stopped walking, turning to face Zack. He looked into those glowing mako eyes that he loved so much for a long moment, letting memories run though his mind like a slide show. All the times that he had looking into those kind eyes as an Infantryman, the times he had seen the pain lacing through them on the rare occasion that he saw Zack up close when they were in Hojo's care, and then finally when he had looking into those eyes as his best friend died on the very cusp of freedom.
It tore Cloud's heart apart to think about telling Zack how he had failed him then, how much he had suffered, and that he hadn't been able to live out his dream of being a great Hero because he had chosen to save his sorry ass instead.
"You might want to sit down." Cloud said, doing the same thing for himself. He took a long moment to prepare himself. He knew that he had to get the hard part done with first.
"Zack... In the future I left behind... You are dead."
Even though Zack had already been expecting the words, they still struck a cord to hear them aloud and he felt a strong shiver run down his spine and the blood drain from his face.
"I... How? Was it the Darkness?" Zack asked, his mind racing.
"No, it wasn't the Darkness." Cloud replied sadly, "It was... I... How about I just start at the beginning." Cloud ran a hand through the back of his spiky hair.
"I think I may have mentioned it before, but I never passed the SOLDIER exams the first time..." Cloud began.
And then he told him everything...