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Cloud should really look at signs before entering through buildings. He blamed his carelessness on exhaustion—after all, they had just stumbled into a fight with Rude and Reno earlier. Any interaction with those two, Reno especially, was tiresome enough.

He laughed humorlessly to himself. Imagine what it must be like to see a disarrayed team barge through your front door, composed of a guy with a big, menacing sword strapped to his back; a looming man with a loud tattoo and even louder gun where his arm should’ve been; and a relatively normal-looking girl in comparison, with green eyes brighter than they should be with all that they’ve seen. 

All things considered, Cloud expected any kind of disaster. Trouble always followed him wherever he went, anyway.

What seemed to be an adult couple stood in the kitchen area, surprise filling their weary faces. Cloud was about ready to hustle the group out of there before they were thrown out. Then the man spoke.

“You a traveler?” His country accent held not hostility, but curiosity. He was graying, with a clear weight in his body movement telltale of the years of stress that must have nestled deep in his bones. Cloud knew that feeling.

Before he could mumble an apology for barging in, thinking their house was an inn, a flash of realization crosses the man’s face, and he continues in haste, “Hey, wait, that glare in your eye—you in SOLDIER?”

Cloud hesitated. He felt Aerith’s gaze on his back, watching carefully.

He didn’t respond, because in those few seconds of bated breath, the woman in the kitchen spoke in flustered earnest, “Oh, you’re right! Don’t you know anything about our son?”

She was pretty and fair in her adulthood, with deep brown hair tied back with a green bandana. She had the kind look in her where, even if Cloud never knew her, she seemed to be the type of person everyone would be familiar with.  His heart ached with that feeling of closeness—he forbade himself from wanting to reach out and be enveloped with the comforting arms of a mother, of somebody. There was no time, after all.

“His name is Zack,” the father added, hoping to see something dawn in Cloud’s famed mako-blue eyes. But they didn’t; they remained as steady as ever, not sharpened by any hint of recognition or surprise.

The silence was stifling, and Cloud slowly shook his head. Somehow, he felt like something was holding him back. The way he shook his head was faltered, as if a second’s thought had held him still for a moment before he responded with a no.

“It’s been close to ten years since he’s left for the city,” the woman tried again, “saying that he didn’t want to live in the country…” The hope faded from her voice, but Cloud can tell she was still holding on to it. 

It was all they had, really, especially in the desolate ruin of Gongaga.

The man jumped in to save her. “He’s left saying he’s going to join SOLDIER. You ever hear of a Zack in SOLDIER?”

Upon their insistence, Cloud obliged and tried to search through his head again. While he automatically couldn’t place a face to the name, he still tried to mull it over—Zack, Zack—and knew deep in his heart that he didn’t know the man.

But that name sounds familiar… why?

It was a fruitless attempt to chase after that thin string of thought; Cloud had played this game before. So he was ready to shake his head again and turn towards the door that Barret was currently blocking, when Aerith’s faint voice disrupted his thought process.

It was a mere word—but it was much more, really, the way she repeated the name “Zack” like she had found something she never thought she’d find or want to find in the first place. Cloud tensed up as the couple focus their eager gaze on the girl.

“Young lady, do you know him?” Zack’s father asked.

The mother tightened her grip on the edge of the kitchen table. “I remember he wrote to us six or seven years ago saying that he had a girlfriend. Could that have been you?”

Cloud jerked back to watch Aerith closely—however, her normally expressive face betrayed nothing. Her voice was the only thing that revealed a hint about her current state, as she listlessly murmured, “That can’t be,” before turning away. Barret, sensing her unease, hurriedly backed out the door, and together they left the house with him hovering right behind the girl with fierce concern.

That left Cloud alone with Zack’s parents, who seemed to deflate at her absence. The mother lowered herself into a chair at the kitchen table, so crestfallen that Cloud had to look away.

“Sorry. We’ll be going,” Cloud muttered, a strange pang in his chest that thrummed far too long within the confines of his ribs, like the haunting toll of a bell.

“There’s a place to stay further up the path if you’re looking to rest,” the man replied. His once-alive voice sounded hollow. His wife remained silent, staring at the kitchen table without really seeing anything.

“Sorry,” Cloud said again, suddenly feeling weighted by a surge of melancholy. Crashing at the inn sounded like a good idea with every passing second; Cloud didn’t want to think anymore.

He exited the house, closing the wooden door behind him. He glanced up at Barret leaning against the side of the building, glaring toward the direction of the ruined mako reactor in the distance. He held an air of angry concentration that amused Cloud.

Before he could comment anything about the perpetual frown on Barret’s face, the other man said gruffly, “Don’t forget about her before we leave. Can’t leave anyone behind, ‘specially here in this place.”

“I’m not forgetting anybody,” Cloud shot back, though the immediate reply seemed to lose some of its fire as he looked over at Aerith standing next a couple feet away, her back facing them and head tilted towards the empty, cloudless sky. The bright pink and red of her dress and jacket looked washed out against Gongaga’s dullness, as if the muted brown of the earth below was seeping color from her in an attempt to nurse itself back to what it once was, long before the mako reactor.

“Aerith?” he called when he approached her.

She didn’t look up, instead speaking to the ground. “What a shock… I didn’t think Zack was from this town.”

“You know him?” Cloud felt like he too should know him. A desperate throb nagged at the back of his mind, but the headache ebbed away at Aerith’s summer voice, easing him back into the present.

“I didn’t tell you?” she smiled, though it was more wistful than happy. “He was my first love. Zack. SOLDIER First Class. Same as Cloud.”

Former, Cloud thought automatically. He said with certainty, “Strange, there aren’t that many who make First Class, but I’ve never heard of him.”

He tried again to think about anything that could ease both his and Aerith’s mind, but the name brought about a murky face. Maybe bright mako eyes and the uniform standard of First Class SOLDIERs, but that was all he could formulate. He was disappointed in his failure to find reassurance for them.

For any of them, really, especially when their goal felt like planets away with each passing day. Cloud was supposed to be the leader, he was supposed to urge them forward. Some days, though, he was just exhausted. The weight of the duty to make things right felt like too much at times like this.

Aerith seemed to sense his despondency, for she spoke again, this time in a more lighthearted tone, “That’s alright. It’s all in the past now, I was just worried because I heard he’s been missing.”

“Missing?” Maybe that could help clue in who Zack was in Cloud’s mind, which could then distract him from the possibility of failure. There might have been talk about a missing person back in his Shinra days, and Cloud just hadn’t realized at the time that it was somebody so important.

“I think it was five years ago. He went out on a job, and never came back. He loved women, a real lady’s man.” The fondness in her voice was strong, but she refused to let it overwhelm her and break her voice. “He probably found someone else.”

Loved women, huh? And he found someone else? A part of Cloud felt amused at that, and somewhat hesitant, though he couldn’t figure out why. He also couldn’t figure out why the sword strapped on his back suddenly seemed to grow heavier, his shoulders tensing in a way where he didn’t know if he was in a fight or about to collapse from how strung out he was. It felt like he was carrying a dead body on him, pulling him down.

Aerith noticed this change of demeanor—she noticed everything. Her somber expression grew sharp with concern, green eyes narrowing. “What’s wrong?”

“Poor guy,” was all Cloud said, turning away. He didn’t want to look at her when he himself was a mess of thoughts. He wouldn’t be able to help her like this, not now.

She seemed to have gotten the wrong message, as a smile crossed her tired face as she teased, “Are you jealous, hm? Hmm? Are you, Cloud?”

Really, Aerith? was what his exasperated look said, complete with a raised brow. She laughed and the sky turned a little more blue; her voice grew lively as she continued reassuringly, “I don’t really mind that I haven’t heard from him. But I feel for his parents.”

“Yeah… do you wonder about your mom, how she’s doing? Elmyra, I mean.”

Aerith’s smile softened into fondness when Cloud pointedly looked away in an effort to make his concern subtle and not too overbearing. “Everyday. I know she’s safe, though. If she weren’t, I’d feel it.”

“Okay. Good.”

“Good,” she agreed. “Well—nothing good comes out of making Barret wait. Let’s go check out that old mako reactor! Maybe we’ll find something.”

“Yeah, like trouble.”

“It’s all because of that attitude, Cloud.”

Smiling derisively, he followed the girl as she hurried to where Barret was still standing outside Zack’s old house. Nearing the small building, he was once again reminded of their loss.

He tried to imagine again what Zack could possibly look like. He wondered what the man would look standing next to his relieved parents or a doting Aerith, or the soft earth and the muted sky of Gongaga. But all that came to mind was the cool blue of mako eyes. Maybe a shadow of a smile in the haze of a blurry face, though it belonged to nobody and Cloud couldn’t distinguish it as an expression of true happiness in his muddled brain. He didn’t know what it looked like. 

His mind quieted down, tired of searching. On instinct, his feet continued to carry him out of the broken village, through the worn jungle of Gongaga, and towards the remains of the mako reactor.

Though this Zack person’s got to be a good guy, Cloud suddenly thought, if Aerith loved him. She loved strongly, he knew firsthand.

 


 

Cloud knocked on the door this time. Even the way he knocked bore some extra weight; before, it was just knocking, a simple gesture, but now his world-weary body felt exhausted at the thought of even lifting up an arm. He’d been lifting his arms, lifting his sword, for what felt like centuries. It felt especially so after chasing Sephiroth for what he hoped was the last time into the Northern Crater. It had only been weeks since, but he could still feel the cold sometimes. It woke him up when he had thought he could finally toy with the idea of sleeping soundly at night.

With enhanced senses, Cloud could hear the distant squeak of wooden chair legs scraping against the floor. There were muffled voices, which stopped as footsteps began nearing the door. He leaned away from his light eavesdropping.

Mrs. Fair gaped at him as soon as she opened the door. Cloud met her gaze, noting how she looked the same as the last time they had met. Worn almond eyes, a tired slump to her posture; a look of shock colored her otherwise empty expression. It was empty not because she was emotionless, but because she had used all of it up in her grief, leaving her a shadow that only longed.

“Who is it?” Mr. Fair called out from somewhere in the small house.

She never seemed to hear him and spoke softly, almost to herself. “It’s you.”

Cloud nodded, feeling a little awkward as he stood there. He wanted to shift his weight, just to do something, but the firm resolve in his gut held him down. He shouldn’t be acting idle; he needed to do this.

“What… what can I do for you?” Mrs. Fair’s voice wavered slightly. “The meteor being gone now, was that you?”

“Your son,” was what Cloud replied with. Probably not the best introduction.

“I—”

He lowered his eyes, unsure if he was closing them. If they were open, he didn’t see anything. All he saw was a weary but ever-bright smile, and a small criss-cross scar on a sharp jaw tilted towards the sky. For a fleeting second, he watched rivers of blood being washed away by a relentless rain. 

“I’m sorry about him,” Cloud said, shaking the visions away.

Mrs. Fair blinked. Her free hand not resting on the door fluttered to her throat, as if to close off an upcoming sob that wanted to escape. She seemed to wobble in her position, overwhelmed by a surge of surprise and renewed sadness that Cloud recognized in her tired, tired eyes.

She remained silent but stricken as she stared at Cloud, and then her husband ambled over. He stopped short beside her at the sight of him.

“You again,” he said. “What do you want?”

“Zack,” the mother rasped.

Zack?” Mr. Fair stiffened. “Have you found anything else ‘bout his missing? Have you found him?”

Hearing the name repeated like a plea and the desperation in Mr. Fair’s voice sent a shudder through Cloud’s body. He ignored it, not only for the sake of the people standing in front of him but also his own. He didn’t want to dwell on the still-painful onslaught of thoughts until he properly sat down; he was starting to feel a little unsteady from all the guilt, the pain.

“Can I come in?” Cloud asked, sounding more tired than he intended.

Mrs. Fair blinked away any remaining shadow from her eyes, straightening up and stepping aside. “Of course, dear.” 

Meanwhile, her husband had already returned back deep in the house, hurriedly picking up leftover dishes from their interrupted breakfast to make room at the kitchen table.

Cloud chose to dismiss how his chest seemed to clench at Mrs. Fair calling him ‘dear’. It felt too personal, too familiar and kind. Too much. He thought about his own mother—hazy in his head from all the distance the years had put between them—and the way the soft lines on her face pulled taut whenever she smiled at him.

 


 

With a courteous glass of iced tea cradled in his hands, Cloud told them everything. Or as much as he could, anyway. 

He told them about their first official introduction at Modeoheim, the events that preceded it, and the Nibelheim incident. He told them how Zack had saved him from Shinra. How Zack’s last moments were spent passing on a legacy, words sent off with Cloud’s promise that he would never forget him.

And then he did exactly that: he forgot everything, forgot the man who saved him. He even pretended to be Zack for a while, or at least what he thought a First Class SOLDIER should be. But he didn’t mention any of that; the facts still haunted and plagued him with guilt, and he didn’t want to burden anymore people with his past than necessary. It was his deed alone, and only he would atone for them.

Nonetheless, Cloud wanted to say more. He felt the need to fill in the absence of Zack in his parents’ lives with memories. But he was still picking up his own pieces, having it been only half a month since Meteorfall. His wounds may have healed since then, but his exhaustion was slower to fade. 

Sometimes, Cloud felt like it would never go away. It was a part of him now—all the blood, sweat, and tears—that had burrowed deep into his bones. Coursing languidly through his veins, like the green tendrils of the Lifestream that had wavered before his eyes.

Now, though, he allowed himself a small dose of relief as he sipped his tea and relished in the icy chill that spread from the glass to his fingertips. He rested the cup on his lap.

“That’s most of what I know,” Cloud concluded, looking up from his drink. “He… died a hero, like he always wanted.” 

His breath hitched then, just the faintest tremor of his voice that betrayed his remorse. “He was the world. To everyone. I remember, we—we were supposed to hang out and grab a bite after Junon. It meant a lot to me when he asked. We never got to, though, because…”

He stopped before he escalated into his own thoughts, as Mrs. Fair released a long, shaky sigh. Her own hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists in her lap, head bowed as if in prayer. Seated beside her, Mr. Fair held her shoulders, the lines in his own face deepening under the weight of loss.

Cloud let them mourn. He mourned as well, but stopped himself from being overwhelmed. Not now, not when he was still so open and raw from recent events. It’d be better if he were alone, with no one to see his face fall.

“Was he happy?” Mr. Fair finally asked after a few minutes of silence. His gruff voice pulled him away from a tide of spiraling thoughts.

“As happy as one could be working for Shinra,” Cloud said after a beat’s pause. “A lot happened to him, but yes. He cared for people. He was in First Class like he wanted. He was always ready for anything.” 

If only the same thing could be said for me.

Mrs. Fair spoke, her voice hoarse. “You were his friend, right?”

“Yes.” My closest friend there, Cloud thought, subconsciously lowering his head; a gesture that came too naturally to him. He tried to pin down the familiar curl of guilt that weighed in his chest. So close he died to save me.

I was so close. So damn close...

He shut his eyes, unable to meet the couple’s own wavering gazes.

“I’m glad he had you, then. I’m sorry for everything… Gaia, as long as he was happy—” Mrs. Fair’s voice cracked.

“He died with a smile,” Cloud murmured in reassurance. His words sounded stronger than how he really felt. “And he’s with the Planet now. Protecting us still. That’s what I think.”

Along with those words, Aerith’s gentle smile that he’d never forget bloomed in a dark corner of his mind, and he clung to that image as much as he clung to the memory of Zack’s matching grin—fond and joyful and always full of promise.

 


 

The room was small, with not much to it: a bed was shoved to one corner and a wooden desk in the other. There was a dresser at the foot of the bed that Cloud didn’t want to look through, in fear that it’d be empty because nobody here was alive to use it. A singular window provided enough late afternoon sunlight to enter through, warm gold dripping on every dusty surface it touched.

A rush of emotions threatened to sink Cloud to his knees, to the wooden floor of Zack’s childhood bedroom. He remained standing, however, despite the way his body trembled with restrained grief to the point where he had to sit on the edge of the bed in order to breathe. Zack would’ve let him, even forced him to lay down, if he had been here to worry after his friend’s well-being.

The bed was made, the white sheets unwrinkled from years of abandonment. That is, until Cloud sat down. He felt a tiny flash of guilt for ruining the quaint picture of the bedroom, which had clearly been regularly cleaned and cared for even when its owner had long been gone. A sign of hope, however fruitless.

Zack. Memories blinked in the wake of his sadness, like born stars:

An arm pressed against his, sturdy and solid due to all the training with the Buster sword. Cloud would always be blinded by the glint of sun on steel whenever he glanced at the weapon. In a way, it was like Zack—strong, reliable. A familiar presence.

Then, the endless rumble of trucks and airships. Hunching over his roiling stomach, body folding inward to keep the nausea at bay. You okay there, buddy? You don’t look so hot. Every time Cloud looked up to meet that voice, he always found temporary ease in concerned warm blue-green eyes, accompanied with a pat on the shoulder. Even a squeeze, if he was lucky.

Then, white. The white of the pale sky and snow, mingling with the bleak gray peaks of distant mountains. A voice, white and pure in its youth. Me and Cloud here are both backwater experts!

It was always that: Zack and Cloud. Zack came first in that duo, because he was always one step ahead of Cloud, constantly looking back to make sure the other was alright. He was where Cloud’s world started and ended; it started with Zack first noticing him with a friendly smile and ended with Cloud crying out in the rain, the blood of the fallen and Zack’s name on his lips.

But finally, finally—in the midst of the haziness, he managed to stumble across a half-forgotten image, a rare snippet of happiness in his younger years.

“Lighten up, sunshine,” Zack had said, arm slung around Cloud’s shoulders. “You’ll get ‘em next time. You’re smart as hell, stronger than you think; it’s their loss to turn you down!”

Cloud had been miserable because he failed the SOLDIER exams yet again, but strangely happy when he heard that name of endearment come from Zack. It was a shy, bashful sort of happy, one that Cloud remembered experiencing every time Zack called him that. Sunshine, along with the traditional Spike. Seemingly friendly names, but when it was coupled with a smile softer than the first flurry of snowfall during Nibelheim winters, when the harsh snowstorms were yet to come, Cloud believed it all. A smile made only for him, he always hoped.

He had believed it even more when Zack pulled him into a comforting hug, mouth pressed against blonde spikes of hair to murmur how Cloud would move up the ranks in no time. He believed in Zack then, because who wouldn’t believe in Zack Fair? With him, Cloud existed in a world where mutual trust and admiration and contentment was possible. A world that Cloud still needed getting used to.

He borrowed the happiness from that particular memory and clung to it fiercely as he scanned the rest of the small room. He felt like he was in a sepia photograph, the edges worn not from carelessness or forgetting, but from the sheer love that came with experiencing the memories that occurred in this very room. It bruised, this kind of love and devotion and missing—it bruised like no other pain Cloud felt from fighting.

As much as he wanted to stay in the comfort of the bedroom, he didn’t let himself. While the Fairs assured him that any friend of Zack was welcome in their home, Cloud still felt hesitant. He didn’t want to impose, and he certainly didn’t want to lie awake in Zack’s bed, haunted by its late owner. 

He had only planned to look around for what would be his first and last time, because he saw no need to visit when Zack wasn’t here to give a personal tour. He also had to return to Cid’s plane that was parked on the outskirts of Gongaga’s jungles; the latter had offered to fly him here before dropping him off at Midgar on his way back to Rocket Town.

Since Cid was a force to be reckoned with when impatient, Cloud took one last glance around the room, soaking up the quiet that came with its disuse. He could imagine things going different, where they were all safe and Zack was finally introducing him to his parents. 

He could imagine Zack sprawled on the same bed Cloud was sitting on now, talking with wide hand gestures and a singing voice that dripped with the honeyed sweetness and safety of home. Alive in every breath he took, every merry glance he’d send Cloud’s way.

He could imagine Zack tucking him under his chin at night, both of them blissfully tired after a day of walking the beaches near Gongaga and having dinner with Zack’s parents, who both looked happier in this vision.

Come on, sunshine, don’t think like that! Things will get better. The saying’s overused, but you just gotta keep your head up.

While those words were spoken from a different time—where a younger Cloud was feeling particularly stressed after working a day with the infantrymen he never was really comfortable with—Cloud liked to think it was Zack speaking to him now. Sweetly, followed by a fleeting kiss on his forehead and a signature head ruffle.

Safe, if for the time being.

 


 

“How was it?”

For a second, Cloud thought it was Aerith. He was in her church, after all, crouching next to her familiar bed of flowers.

Looking up, however, he realized it was Tifa standing beside him, bending over slightly with hands on her knees to study the small sea of yellow and white flowers. Tifa met his sideways glance with a small smile.

“It was good,” he replied, staring back at the garden. “I don’t know if it was closure, though.”

“Well, they needed to know the truth, and you did that for them.”

“Yeah. At least there’s that,” Cloud agreed. “In the end, I’m glad I went.”

“I’m glad you went, too.”

Tifa then fell silent; she was probably thinking about the convoluted mess that connected Cloud to Zack and her not knowing about the truth for most of her life.

Cloud was fine with the quiet; he thought the conversation was over and was about to close himself off to think to himself. Then Tifa asked, “When did you come back?”

“Just an hour ago.” Gongaga was only half a day’s journey by hurried flight, and it had been night when Cid dropped him off at Midgar. “I came here right after.”

“The church is a good place to go, huh?”

Cloud nodded. “I guess it calms me down.”

“Yeah… I get what you mean.” Tifa knelt on the ground beside him, striking a similar position that reminded Cloud of the way Aerith always knelt to tend to her garden or pray. Instead of golden-brown curls and green eyes, though, it was a curtain of glossy dark hair that draped over Tifa’s shoulder as she leaned forward. Her eyes were rubies, but just as lively as Aerith’s had been.

“You visit here?” Cloud asked.

“As much as I can,” Tifa replied. “I don’t know. It feels like a friend’s waiting for me every time. I miss her.”

She then closed her eyes, feeling moon-kissed petals with gentle fingertips. Cloud fell silent, his own gaze drifting from the garden to where, a couple feet away, his sword was leaning against a pillar. He saw blue eyes in the reflection of the steel surface and felt a sort of pull inside him.

“Cloud?” Zack’s voice echoed.

Except it was not Zack who spoke his name, but Tifa; she frowned in concern and repeated Cloud’s name when he didn’t answer immediately.

He pulled his gaze away from the sword. “What?”

Tifa hesitated at first, worrying at her bottom lip as she mulled over her next words. Cloud knew, though, and he reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder. He gave a short but firm squeeze, the kind that Zack would give and Cloud had grown to expect over their years together. Now it was his turn to pass it along. 

“Tifa, I’m alright. Still a bit shaken up, but aren’t we all?” He smiled, a little weakly, but more genuine than he’d ever felt in a while. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m always going to worry, idiot,” Tifa said, but her expression evened out as she grinned back. It was as shaky as his, but there. “Who’s going to keep you in line, anyway? Just watch, you’re going to run off again and I’m going to have to drag you back.” She paused, her smile softening. “The others would, too, in a heartbeat. Even if you’re all the way in Wutai or Nibelheim, or something. You know what I mean.”

Cloud felt a rush of fondness for her, which settled in his chest heavily. He was unsure of how to handle it, the weight of it all—he practically had to pull his hand away from Tifa’s arm and look away, hiding a small smile that he knew she would tease him for. “Yeah, I do. Thanks for having my back, Tif.”

“Remember, it’s not just you, okay?” She looked at the sword resting against the pillar. The flowers swayed under the moonlight, their colors dancing across the metal, reflecting starbursts of yellow and white. “Zack and Aerith would’ve said the same. They did a lot for us.”

Cloud agreed. After a heartbeat of silence, he said, “Let’s make sure we return the favor, then.”

Tifa pointed her head back down at the flowers below. Throughout their life, Cloud knew that she wasn’t very religious, but the way her head was bent and eyes were shut, and how the church wrapped around them in its serene quiet, made Tifa look like she was praying. Thinking about Aerith, he imagined.

Indulging in a rare moment of peacefulness that the church always blessed him, Cloud inclined his head forward. He didn’t pray, though. He simply sifted through the mesh of memories that caught his mind on hold, dredging up snapshots of his life before Meteorfall, before the Nibelheim incident—back to the time when he was an awkward sixteen year old, at the bottom rung of the Shinra ladder.

While he struggled in those times, at least he had Zack. He couldn’t depend on Zack for everything, but still he felt that everything was tied to that loose, carefree smile that Zack always wore; a smile that lit his eyes whenever Cloud was around, a fact that he had realized back then and realized again now.

And for that, Cloud didn’t pray for new beginnings or a new life where things could’ve been different. He had long ago given up on that sort of wishing, and in a weird way, he was okay where he was now. Maybe not completely happy or content, but he would live. He made a promise, after all, and now that promise extended to where Cloud could become his own self again, promising himself to each day, each year, that he’d spend mending what he needed to mend.

So instead of wishing, he thanked Zack for offering him pieces of him that Cloud didn’t think he deserved, for fixing the light of dreams and a future on him, however dark and twisted that future turned out in the end.

Aerith’s flowers shifted under the night breeze, like a choir of petals reaching towards some sort of heaven above the church’s broken ceiling and cracked pillars.

“Cloud?”

Not Zack—Tifa, Cloud knew, but he smiled wanly at her anyway when she glanced at him. 

She was no Zack, but that much was obvious. He still loved her and how she came to fit into his life: a found family, with Marlene and Barret and the rest of their group, scattered across the world but still connected nonetheless. Zack was like that, too: somewhere in the Lifestream, lost to him but connected all the same, living in the same earth that Cloud walked on.

While he didn't believe in much, he believed in that. He had always trusted Zack, after all.

“You ready to head home?” Tifa murmured, pulling him out of his reverie. She was standing up and extending a hand. Cloud accepted it, pulling himself to his feet before looking across the church ruins around them.

“Home,” Cloud said, thinking of the sepia-soft ruins of Gongaga and a man who was born there. He thought of the coziness of Tifa’s bar, a young girl with a strikingly familiar pink ribbon and a braid running up to him in glee, and a Buster sword that rested against the wall of his bedroom like a proud memorial. “Yeah, let’s go.”

“Oh, come on!” Tifa’s red eyes glittered in the darkness. “You can do better!”

He gave her a look. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, not really.”

For somebody enhanced with mako, Cloud was still unprepared for the playful yet stinging punch that Tifa sent his way.

“Whatever,” Tifa said. “Let’s just mosey our way home then, huh?”

Cloud scowled, rubbing his throbbing shoulder. “That was practically a month ago. One time.”

“Oh, you simple country bumpkin.”

“You’re from the same town as me!” he protested.

Stifling a laugh, Tifa hopped ahead and waited for him at the church’s entrance while he grabbed his sword.

“We should take Marlene here,” she commented as they left the church grounds. “It’ll be good for her…”

Cloud closed his eyes, letting Tifa’s soft chattering guide his footsteps home as his mind wandered.

Welcome home, Zack would’ve said, if he had taken Cloud to visit Gongaga. 

Those same two fateful words were announced by Tifa as she unlocked the door to 7th Heaven. After accepting the hug Marlene had given him—or rather, his waist, as she was still little and bright-eyed and so very demanding of Cloud’s stories of his adventures—he went upstairs to drop off his belongings in his room.

The sword on his back was as heavy as usual when he ascended the stairs, but he thought the weapon felt more like a steady, solid presence behind him, hugging his backside and comforting him. A familiar feeling, like the way home felt.