Title: Maze of Words
Summary: "And Zack came back the very next day…" And Sephiroth just tagged along. Yaoi.
Warning & Disclaimer: WAFF. All characters belong to Squaresoft.
Notes: Because happy endings shouldn't be so rare.
Falling in a summer daydream
I remember what I knew
Nothing that I can't hold on to
Or return to
~october project, where you are
"Hey. Wake up," someone said.
Light and motion flooded his awareness, searing into his eyes when he tried to open them. Squinting didn't make anything better and all that he could make out was a scorching blaze of white with hazy gold dots around the edges. He blinked rapidly several times and it did nothing but make the dots swirl in a frenzy and the whiteness churn about in a way that made him mildly dizzy.
"Ow," he managed, and flung one arm over his eyes. His whole face felt tight and prickly, and he tentatively identified the heat that beat down on him as sunshine and the steady roar in the background as water.
He heard the sound of footsteps moving away from him. His mouth felt rank with sleep and he wanted something to drink. No one replied to him and he heard nothing except wind and water, so he dismissed the voice as the remnant of a dream. Hell. Where was he, anyway?
When he rolled onto his stomach, he realized that his shirt, armor, boots, and socks were gone, and somehow his pants had met with a mysterious accident that left most of them missing up to his knees. At some point in time, an indeterminate number of bandersnatch had mated and shed and probably died in the back of his skull.
Al right. List his obstacles. Easier to get it all done in one go. He was defenseless in a place he couldn't identify, with no recollection of how he got there, hearing things, and from the feel and flush on his whole body, sunburned.
Maybe one thing at a time would be easier after all.
Bracing for the light this time, he opened his eyes again and saw, instead of a vast white-gold expanse, a vast tan-gold expanse. He picked up a handful of sand bemusedly and let it trickle out of his fist again, shaking his hand when a few grains stuck between his fingers. There was a small pile of seashells sitting next to him. He picked one up, put it down, and stretched. The joints of his shoulders popped and he winced when he felt the sting of sunburn on them as well. Next to him in a small tumbled heap was a white t-shirt. He put it on automatically, feeling warm cloth that was thin from constant wash and wear.
He wiggled his fingers, and then his toes, counted both sets, and then shook himself all over. Clothes and such aside, nothing was missing or cut off, no new scars, and the pain in his head was dissolving as the breeze lifted the damp hair from his temples. All right.
Up ahead of him, he could see the soft beige swells of sand dunes and the velvety shadows of the hollows between as they stretched into a tawny distance. Sand as far as he could see from his seated position, and behind him, the ocean. Ocean, sky, sand, endless vaults of blue-green-gold-white, and almost ridiculously idyllic.
The thoughts came slowly because the vastness of his surroundings seemed to swallow up motion and make it insignificant, the sunlight feeling as slow and gold as spilled honey. He sorted through all he knew on sand and water and sunshine. He thought about enemy skills gathered from the shores of Junon, thought about how sand was bad for a battle, didn't give very sure footing in a one on one fight, even if it could cushion the fall a bit. Beaches in Mideel yielded both the best materia and worst monsters because of the proximity of the Lifestream. Wutai's shores were mostly made of pebbles.
He tried to think about what he should do, what the textbooks would say. What Zack would have said. The training scenarios for troopers had never seemed to cover this in great detail. Be on your guard, he guessed, try to identify distinguishing characteristics of the foreign territory. Boil your drinking water. The High Star points north. Don't wipe your ass with itching weed.
He looked around again. Sand and salt water and bright daylight, not a star or a plant thing except abandoned strands of kelp to be found. No problem, then.
Be armed. That one made sense, at least. He looked beside him for his sword and couldn't find it.
A long ago instruction from a textbook surfaced in his memory, on not letting the materia slots of a sword get touched by sand in particular because it could scratch the settings and require a completely new set of aurum coatings. This did not seem likely to be a problem either.
All right. Nothing that couldn't be handled. He lifted his face to the sky and closed his eyes, trying to think. It really wasn't all that hot, the wind was blowing briskly enough to lift his hair and make him a little breathless. The time was later than he had expected, more like the tail end of the afternoon rather than high noon as he'd first thought with the sun.
Breathe in, breathe out, but there was no surge of alarm or waking up to the feel of danger. His mind didn't seem to care and his body was content with sitting splay-legged and playing absently with the sand and shells. Survival tactics and suspicion didn't come; the names of the shells knocked together gently inside his head and mixed themselves, cowrie and conch, scallop and whelk, limpet and mussel.
After a while he thought, maybe, that he should be a little more concerned about this but unease refused to linger in his mind, nothing but optimism. He felt stupidly, inexplicably happy to be sitting in the sunshine with the breeze in his hair and sleep in his mouth and his sunburn.
He couldn't remember the last time he had sat still this way. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt like he was soaked so completely in senseless, transparent happiness, like the sunshine soaked into his body. It was like going back to the brief snatch of very young childhood where perfect safety and comfort still existed, like coming home after a long journey.
Something about this place besides the weather and view was right, in a way that was bone-deep and solid.
He closed his eyes and opened them again, quickly, just in case. Pinched his leg, wasn't surprised when nothing happened. He had had dreams that involved pain before and he was never sure what pinching yourself to find out if you were dreaming was supposed to prove, anyway. He wasn't sure he wanted to be dreaming.
Lying back down on his stomach on the sand that was just short of being too hot-- wouldn't be too uncomfortable to walk on now-- he reached his arms out to both sides and stretched as much as he could, just because he could.
The breeze picked up; he heard the whisper of shifting sand. Above him, the light suddenly felt muted, as though a cloud had passed over the sun and a drop of water struck his back. And again. And again. Couldn't be rain, the sky had been so clear. He rolled over, squinted, and suffered a very mild bout of insanity.
"Hey," Zack said, smiling and dripping wet. "You should've come in the water."
Something somewhere outside Cloud deliberately hauled back and kicked him in the chest, directly beneath his breastbone, a huge jolt of a sensation, not pain, just blind impact. Something somewhere inside Cloud made an O of surprise, maybe in his throat or chest, but not his face; his face was stiff-caught in a rictus of what he thought might be shock.
"Wha--" he began blankly, and then, "Zack--" and then, "what---" again, but in between the words and the breath, Zack had shaken himself off in a spray of salt-water and sand, and then dropped flat beside him in a wet sprawl of limbs.
"You got burned," Zack said, reaching up to press one finger against his cheek. It felt cool and real. "I told you that you can't just go out without lotion on." The rest of Zack felt cool as well when it pressed against him. "I'll put aloe on your back tonight, if you want. I think we have some in the bathroom, somewhere under the sink." Cool and a little damp all over as though he really had just finished swimming. "Have you been listening to a word I said?"
"No," he managed to get out. Zack's hands. Zack's hands were touching him. Zack was lying next to him in a pair of trunks that had seen better days. He couldn't look away.
"Sleepyhead." He shrugged one bronzed shoulder as if to indicate himself. "You'll tan eventually." A hand strayed to the waistband of his shorts and tugged him down completely on top of Zack. "You don't look so bad, anyway."
He couldn't be dreaming. This was too cruel to be dreaming, if it was. There was almost too much to take in and try to accept: The flash of a familiar grin promising trouble and a hand on the nape of his neck, arm around his waist, cool damp skin all against his front and the sun on his back.
"Good enough to eat."
This place was strange but it was easy to remember and tremble at the familiarity, cinnamon-sweetness with a tang of salt, the curve of his lower lip and wet dart of his tongue, and the way Zack hummed a little deep in his throat when he kissed back. It seemed the easiest thing to do, the right thing, the only thing he wanted to do.
And after all, this was luxury he'd never thought to have again, this was kissing and touching while still in clothes, letting the shirt be pushed aside and then up until it was shoved up all the way under his arms. Zack's hair dragged like wet coarse silk through his fingers and there was still sand in his scalp. The touch of his lips became lighter, shallow little touches meant to tease and tickle the skin more than anything.
"Ow," Zack said, and rolled over him so he was on the bottom and Zack could sit up. "What the hell is this?" He reached under and pulled out one of the shells, the vaguely heart shaped one that opened like a pair of hands, now broken down the middle and in two identical pieces. "Oh. Find any good ones?"
Cloud tried to sit up completely, but didn't resist the hand that absently shoved against his chest, pushing him down. There was a red imprint on Zack's back the exact shape of one half of the shell's curved edge and he reached a finger out to trace the fading mark.
Zack's hair was still dripping, and most of the water was falling on him. When he braced himself on his elbows, the water ran down his chest and he followed one runnel with his eyes, slant to the left, barely avoiding his navel, almost to his hip now. There was something odd about his own abdomen that he was missing, something about the smooth, unmarked surface that was not quite right.
"You're such a little packrat," Zack said affectionately, rubbing his thumb over the smooth blue-black surface of the shell. "You see something shiny and your whole brain shuts down. Seph'll kill you if you get sand in the bed again, you know."
He tossed the shell down and his body followed the motion, over Cloud's for an instant and then against it again. The mark on Zack's back was almost gone and it reminded him of his own body, how he should have a scar around that area, two neat lines on his stomach and back, exit and entry from a sword.
"But it's --" he started to say, and after a little while, "I'm not--" but it was easier to kiss than to speak and easier to wonderingly run his hands over smooth skin and wet hair.
So good, too good to accept, that familiar curve of shoulder fitting just into his hand, swell of lower lip. You only get so lucky once. He was shivering despite the heat when a hand still cool from the ocean slipped past the waistband of his pants and squeezed in just the right way; and he thought he might die then and there, just break open and fill up with the sea and sky.
Zack's body rocked against him, easy and smooth as the sea; Zack's hands stroked him firmly and he let his own hands go where they wanted, pinch and tug, caress and rest. It was easy to use and be used and he stared up into the sky, tracing cloud-shapes and with that something inside him still making the O of surprise.
Something was on his ear, some part of Zack's mouth, teeth or tongue or lips or whatever, doing its best to fuck his ear. Zack's breath was hot against the side of his face and the words that tumbled into his ear were a trifle unsteady, although his grip didn't change. "Wanna finish here or home?"
His mind seized on the words, trying to comprehend. Here? Home? Home? Whatever Zack was doing had spread away from just his ear to his neck and he was having a hard time thinking.
"Home?" he managed to ask, hands scrabbling over Zack's back, searching for a grip, on Zack or reality, he didn't know. But reality. Reality. This was reality. This wasn't a dream.
Whatever it was or wasn't, anyway. He could settle for whatever it chose to be.
"You think so?" Zack sounded a little disappointed but made a noise of assent. "Okay. Gotta head back eventually, I guess."
Physical separation felt like a blow the second time. Couldn't lose this. He tried to pull a startled Zack back, frantically digging his fingers into whatever he could grasp. Which, as it turned out, was mostly hair, dragging Zack not unwillingly with him in an awkward spill on the sand.
"Jeez, it's not like I mind having hair or anything." Zack said, and gingerly patted his scalp. "You're bad for my health." His fingers threaded through Cloud's hair as well. "Not to mention my self control. I thought we were going home."
"Right," he replied distractedly. "What's today? Where is everybody?"
Zack's eyebrows went up. "Everybody?" The fingers in his hair were walking their way back down to the nape of his neck, and he shivered when Zack scratched the short hairs absently. "Dunno. Just us, I guess. Don't think anyone's going to come trespassing when you-know-who is walking around with his sword. I think he'd take that damn thing to bed with him if you---" This earned him a quick poke in the ribs. "---Didn't always sprawl out and take up all the room."
"I don't sprawl," he said automatically and the mask of surprise on his face felt like it was melting in the sun. He could feel himself aching to finish what they had started. The blue-balls, that was what they always called it when he was back in Shinra. "And you snore."
"I do no such thing," Zack replied, with that look he always used, a face of total stunned appallment. And then Zack's tanned arm came down heavy across his waist and the same fingers that had been lingering on his side started trying to get at his unprotected ribs in earnest.
He squirmed away and then dove back for his own attack and it felt good to laugh and wiggle and shed dignity like clothing, better than anything had for a long time. He wondered why he had needed to know where everyone was, he wondered who everyone was, and then he stopped wondering at all.
After a few minutes of cheerful rolling and busy hands, Zack stopped wrestling and looked into the sun, barely squinting. "Well, speak of the devil."
When he managed to sit up and look ahead in the direction Zack was gazing, Cloud could make out someone standing on the dunes and waving to them as the wind whipped his hair out in a bright blaze of silver, flicker-quick-snap, and his heart clenched inside him with the same motion.
He was dead. He really was dead, he had to be if he was seeing this. He'd missed his own death. Horribly careless of himself. He'd soon be dead. But--- no, it was Sephiroth. Sephiroth. Sephiroth with open hands and wearing something not completely black and he couldn't really tell in the distance, but he thought--- Cloud thought that Sephiroth might be smiling.
Zack raked hair out of his eyes and got to his feet, pulling Cloud with him, waving back to Sephiroth. "Come on, let's go get him. You know how stubborn he gets when he thinks he's missing out on swapping bodily fluids."
The words themselves went by unnoticed, all he could understand was that if Zack could speak of Sephiroth in such an easy tone, no regret or anger, than Sephiroth could be real too, or at least be the Sephiroth he had wondered about during so many sleepless nights. He started to run, despite the ache, and heard Zack behind him. The wind was picking up and flurries of sand whipped sharp against his legs.
He thought he could hear laughter on the wind and wasn't surprised. Running on sand was never easy and he thought that he and Zack probably looked a sight. Zack was laughing and cursing and throwing threats, exhortations, and the occasional shell that he still carried.
Almost there, and it was Sephiroth. And he was suddenly there, almost close enough to touch Sephiroth and he skidded to a halt, sand kicking up in dusty eddies over his bare feet. Close enough to touch. He had run faster than he thought he had.
Dreaming, maybe, instead of dead. He had had a lot of dreams before. Sometimes he still did. He remembered a conversation when he was sixteen, Zack telling him that people dreamed every night, they just didn't always remember it, so that meant he had had twenty-one years worth of dreams now. And then Zack had gotten all into it and scribbled on a piece of paper, his teeth worrying at his lower lip and finally said that meant roughly five thousand eight hundred and forty two nights of dreaming, factored into the fact there were several cycles of dreams a night, not just one…
It made him dizzy just thinking about it. He swayed on his feet, trying to force his mind open any wider than it already was.
Look, but don't touch. It'd been part of his life for so long before he met Zack, before he saw Sephiroth. Look, but don't touch. He'd never been close enough to touch before, not Sephiroth. Zack, yes, but not Sephiroth. Look, don't touch, look, don't touch, look, don't touch don't touch don't touch.
He thought he might've changed his mind about everything.
There was almost no warning except Sephiroth's eyes narrowing and then a hasty step forward. Zack's tackle hit him squarely in the legs and he plowed forward. He fell, and as the ground came up to meet him, he had a fleeting sense of alarm, the only thing that made him anxious so far, as though suddenly colliding against a memory or fear as old as the sea.
And then Sephiroth's hands were against his chest, Sephiroth was lunging forward for him and he let himself fall and be caught. He grabbed a handful of silver-white hair in his flail to stay upright and heard a short noise of pain, wondered if it was him or Sephiroth. The muscle of Sephiroth's shoulder was hard and warm; he smelled clean, as if just from a shower.
He must have died again, or maybe the first time, but he didn't remember doing so. He hoped he hadn't. He had never seen Sephiroth smiling like this before.
"I'm glad," Sephiroth said with a long-suffering tone, "you finally saw fit to come home."
Coming home. Sephiroth's hands felt right on his shoulders and he thought he might have dreamed about this embrace before. Mint, that was it; he smelled aftershave or cologne with a faint hint of mint to it and the warmth of the sun on Sephiroth's clothes, as if he'd stood for a long time to watch them
Arms tightened around him. Sephiroth managed to look put-upon and indulgent at the same time, his face the same but different. He couldn't name what made the difference at first and he couldn't, for the life of him, seem to be able to seize on why he thought Sephiroth's face should be different.
"Does the world have to fucking end in order for you two to remember me?" Zack said, yanking on his ankle. He nearly lost his balance again, until Sephiroth steadied him.
"Thanks," he said, and the word came automatic from his mouth as though he'd said it to Sephiroth before and just as easily. He looked at the two of them, then, and took one step back from both. They watched him back.
Zack looked the most energetic, despite being the one lying on the ground. Zack looked ready to lunge up and give Cloud the Welcome To The End Of The World And Everything You Know Is Wrong secret handshake and decoder ring. Zack looked like someone who very badly wanted to get laid.
Sephiroth looked like Sephiroth and he couldn't see it any other way.
Content. He thought he could finally name that look on Sephiroth's face. He thought it was like Sephiroth had absorbed whatever it was that this place gave off, the aura of perfect happiness that outlasted sunburns and unfinished sex on the beach.
He thought Sephiroth looked how he felt, Zack too, even though Zack was grinning and Sephiroth's smile was curled up on the left corner of his mouth and his own face was still probably looking confused. He thought it was good that they all matched.
Zack propped himself up on one elbow and his smile grew wider. "See, I told you we'd get home eventually. Right?"
So good, like the best kind of reward or a sought blessing, like heaven and it was finally, finally real, he had what he wanted for whatever reason. Didn't know why, didn't care why, and it didn't matter, he was where he belonged and he had everything.
Joy swelled up wild and free and finally overflowed. He laughed at the sky, spun around, and fell with no fear at all.
He woke up in a square of sunlight and held perfectly still for a moment, unable to identify the feeling that filled him up so completely, as vast and boundless as the sky he could see through the window. He couldn't remember exactly what had happened to make him feel this way, so that waking up today was so different. He couldn't remember much beyond the simple fact that waking up before this had not felt as good as this.
If he turned his head to the right, he saw Zack lying on his back with his mouth open just a little. The only marks on his body where the press of the sheets had dug tender red creases on the skin. To the left were the long clean lines of Sephiroth's back and shoulders, as well as most of the blankets.
Beyond Sephiroth was a wooden floor scattered with a tangle of clothes, shoes, and other human detritus. He could see sand on the floor, waiting to be swept up or into the cracks. There was a broom leaning in the corner, probably for just that purpose. The light was moving across the room and he saw everything as briefly shining, the sand as a drift of gold dust, Zack's skin as amber, the sun-bleached wood of the shutter as silver. Sephiroth's spill of hair held its own pale fire.
The bedside table had a comb and a photograph on it. When the light hit the table, the four light hairs tangled in the comb gleamed bright; the glass cover of the photograph reflected blank white but he thought he knew who was in the picture.
It was nice to be there. It was nice to be almost too warm, feeling the body-heat on both sides of him and the blankets above, to stare at the ceiling and feel as pleasantly blank.
It was better to think that he didn't have to worry too hard about dreams, especially. He closed his eyes and let himself drift a little. When he turned over, maybe a minute later, maybe an hour later, Sephiroth had also turned over, propped on one elbow, and was watching him through heavy-lidded, half-closed eyes.
"Hey," he asked, and his own voice sounded rough with sleep, a little bit of a drag on the vowels. "Hey. How come you're awake?"
"So I could look at you," Sephiroth replied. He reached over and ran his hand down the length of Cloud's spine.
"You should be sleeping still," he said, but he couldn't help smiling and arching a little into stroking fingers on his back. "Zack is."
"Zack was," Zack said from somewhere north of the sheets.
"So, why were you looking at me, then?" he asked, and he moved a little closer so that the finger-touches could become broad sweeping strokes of both palms.
"Because," Sephiroth said and his mouth on Cloud's was just as warm as the sunshine lying on the bedspread, "what else would I do if I woke up?"
"Wait," he said, bringing one hand up to slowly touch one perfect strand of silver hair, smiling because it was easy to be silly and ask silly questions in the timeless morning, "so why did you wake up in the first place?"
Sephiroth blinked long and slow at him and a smile came up to meet his own. "So I could look at you," he said.
"Circular logic sucks," Zack mumbled from his side of the bed, his head surfacing from the sheets like a swimmer from the deep. He yawned deeply and gave Sephiroth's hip an appreciative tap. "Go back to sleep. 'S not time to get up yet."
Sephiroth's mouth slid warm to his shoulder and he curled into the hollow between both their bodies, exactly fitting. Three was the real number, firm and stable, three legs to balance on and hold steady from.
It was some unknown time in the morning and Zack would try to push it to the limit and Sephiroth would have to be manually prevented from getting up to do something that he deemed constructive but he thought he would think of ways to wake Zack up and keep Sephiroth there. Anyway, that would be for later; it didn't matter here and it was one of the best things of all, really, waking up and realizing it was all right to go back to sleep without fear of dreams or change. All right. Safe.
He thought there were things he should know, things he should remember about and maybe even be afraid of, but they were only morning-thoughts and leftover fragments of dreams, impossible to take too hard. He thought he might have had a life before this but he didn't remember. It didn't matter. He was where he was supposed to be.
It was all right. He thought, from now on, he wouldn't have to wake up alone.
A long time ago, in an AIM conversation far, far away, I promised Dina some WAFF that involved Zack in some way for her birthday. I'm more than half a year late, but I like to think that maybe I finally came through, even if there's about eight pages of angst to slog through first.
Thanks for all the art and encouragement, Dina
I also could not have written this without the constant poking and ego-masturbation and comments of several people, most notably Catt, Twig, and Sofia. I owe y'all. Thank you.