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The first of his tiny wishes he made on a starless night, the dirt frozen and uneven where he laid with his head pillowed on his bare arms.

“I wish this had never happened to you.”

Next to him, Cloud made no noise to acknowledge his words, bright half-lidded eyes trained on his lap and his gaze far away, lost somewhere beyond the Nibel plains where they were. The only sign of life he gave was the slow rise and fall of his chest, and Zack knew that it would have to be enough for now.

“You’re right,” he spoke to himself, carrying the conversation on despite the expected lack of response. Sitting up with a swing of his arms, he crossed his legs and leaned his face into his hand. “I shouldn’t be wasting wishes on things that can’t be changed. I’m sure Aerith thinks that wishes are infinite, but I’m not so convinced!”

A soft but cold breeze rustled through the dead grass, carrying upon it a few stray snowflakes. Snowfall was uncommon on the plains, even near the end of December, but Zack didn’t want to take any chances by staying out too long. By tomorrow, they would have to find a place to stay, for a while, at least, until he figured things out.

“Still…” Zack trailed off pensively, gaze trained on the blank expression on his friend’s face. By the second morning they’d spent on the run, the last visible wisps of mako had dissipated from Cloud’s body, although he still exuded a very strong aura that nearly made Zack feel dizzy, too. “I wish I could do something to help you. You never deserved something like this.”

In the distance, a bird, or perhaps a monster, called out into the night. The rocky outcropping behind which Zack had parked his borrowed motorcycle did a fine job of hiding them from nocturnal predators that would soon emerge on their hunt, and he really wasn’t worried about being found. Not by monsters at least.

Shinra was another story altogether, but for now, he could only trust that Cissnei’s involvement would keep them out of Shinra’s radar until he regained his footing.

“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Zack assured him, perhaps a little quieter than before. “You’re gonna make it, too, y’hear?” Almost instinctively, his hand found itself in Cloud’s golden locks, thumbing the strands idly for a second before ruffling his hair with such energy that the blonde’s head bobbled. When he stopped, despite the rough treatment, Cloud’s blank expression had not changed, not an ounce of life reflected in the pervasive teal glow of his eyes. Zack kept his hand on him for just a little longer, not knowing what he had been expecting either, before finally removing it with a heavy sigh.

Flopping down on the cold, dusty ground, he turned his back to Cloud’s motionless body propped against the motorcycle and wiggled to make himself comfortable.

“Get some rest, Cloud,” he murmured, closing his eyes and hoping the morning came quick.

…-…-…-…

Like a convenient coincidence, Zack stumbled upon a village not a moment too soon as the final residuals of mako left his body, kickstarting his physical processes back into action. When his stomach grumbled that morning, signaling that he was well overdue for something to eat, he doubled his efforts to find an inhabited settlement where they could rest safely, without risking being intercepted by the army. By sundown, thankfully, he spotted smoke beyond a nearby hill, and drove towards it until he could see the small collection of brick houses that looked quite a bit like Nibelheim. He stopped the motorcycle underneath a tree just outside the gates to the village, and dismounted quickly.

“I won’t be long,” he promised to the catatonic boy riding in the passenger side-car. “I’m just gonna go scout ahead, see if we can stay here awhile.”

He stared at Cloud for a few seconds, hoping to see even a single sign of acknowledgment, but of course found nothing. Sighing, he threw a short wave up at him, and then spun around to walk towards the village.

The streets were deserted, unsurprising for sundown in December. The mako woven in Zack’s DNA made it easier for his body to withstand extreme temperatures, so he couldn’t tell how cold the air truly had gotten, but the smoking chimneys on several houses gave him a good idea. Drowning in mako or not, Zack didn’t want to leave Cloud out in the open for too long, so he hurried along, finally electing to stop at an establishment that seemed like a bar of some sort.

Pushing open the wooden door proved him right, for the sounds of raucous laughter and chatter assaulted his sensitive ears near-immediately. The smell of sweat, smoke and alcohol pervaded the place, but it wasn’t as unpleasant as Zack figured it would be. He was just relieved to be amongst people again.

As he stepped in, heading towards the bar, he became acutely aware of people halting their conversations to look towards him. He tried not to pay them any heed and instead turned to face the bartender, who was watching his approach curiously.

“Good evening,” the man greeted as Zack finally touched down at the bar, now highly aware that conversations had dulled to whispers around him. “What finds you around these parts? I can’t say we’ve had a traveler in a long time.”

“More of a wanderer than a traveler, really,” Zack hummed lightly. “I was looking to stop for a few days, and happened to stumble across this charming little village just as the sun began to set.”

“Good timing. You must be cold and famished. Why don’t you take a seat at the bar and tell us about your adventures, then, wanderer?” the bartender suggested warmly, turning to fetch a clean glass, likely to offer Zack a drink.

“Nothing I’d love more, Pops!” Which was an exaggeration at best, a lie at worst, but Zack didn’t want to drive himself out of this temporary haven. “Just one thing first. You know a place where I can stay for a bit?”

“No inns in this sleepy little town, but there’s an attic to this place I don’t use, if you’re not too picky about bedding,” the bartender replied. “Wanna settle down while I make you a meal?”

“Happy to oblige!” Zack cheered, relieved. “The attic’s fine. One more thing, though.”

He waved the man over, and watched as he leaned in, curiosity blooming in his eyes.

“I’m not traveling alone,” he said clandestinely. “Got a friend waiting out there for me who will have to stay with me. He’s not well, and I’m taking care of him.”

“By all means,” the bartender nodded, whispering although Zack was sure that the news would go around the bar as soon as he stepped out. “Don’t let the poor man freeze out there, go get him! I’ll unlock the attic, so when you bring him back, just take the winding staircase on the side of the building to the door at the top.”

“Much appreciated!” Zack repeated, drawing away from the bar. “I’ll be back before you know it!”

More whispers followed him as he exited the bar, escaping the eyes that roved across his uniform, the Buster Sword, and his face. Zack knew that the townspeople would guess that he wasn’t an ordinary traveler, but hopefully, the isolated nature of this tiny village would keep it off of Shinra’s radar, at least for a few days. He couldn’t settle for too long for now, not until he devised a better plan. Ultimately, he needed to find his way back to Midgar, but he was an entire continent away, so he had his work cut out for him.

He found Cloud just as he’d left him, slumped over in his seat, snowflakes melting in his hair. With the sun having set, his eyes glowed even brighter than usual in the dark, not tracking his movements as he hoisted Cloud over his shoulder with ease, holding onto his hips.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, not the most comfortable carry, but think of the nice warm sheets you’ll sleep in tonight as consolation,” Zack chuckled to himself, already heading off. “Getting lots of sleep is gonna be important, you hear? The mako’s got your body in a stasis- sort of-, but you still need to sleep so your mind’s all rested for when you finally come back from wherever you’ve gone.”

Not minding the lack of response from the body limply swinging over his shoulder, Zack made his way back towards the bar. As he approached it, he could see curious eyes glancing from the window, probably trying to figure out what was wrong with his infamous companion, but Zack hurried towards the winding metal staircase, climbing to the last door as he’d been instructed. It was unlocked, so he ducked as not to bump Cloud on the way in and stepped into the attic.

It was dusty and dark, with only a single small window to let the penumbra in, but two bedrolls had already been set up in a hastily-cleared corner. The older woman sweeping the same corner turned her eyes up to them as they entered, and her face broke out into a soft, sad smile.

“There you are, stranger,” she greeted, motioning for the bedrolls next to her. “Come, make you and your friend at home. I’ll only finish tidying up for you and leave you to it.”

“You didn’t have to, ma’am,” Zack assured her, stepping over a broken stool discarded on the floor to approach her. She stepped aside for Zack to comfortably set Cloud down on the bedroll, cradling his head so that it didn’t land too roughly against the wooden floor. His half-lidded, blank gaze stared right through Zack, who only hesitated for a second before sweeping some stray hairs off his face.

“Poor dear…” the woman said, glancing at Cloud for a few moments before busying herself with her broom again. “He really isn’t looking so good. There’s a glow to him that reminds me of Sharlene’s son- a good boy who went hunting on Mt. Nibel years and years ago, and tripped into a mako spring or something.”

“Yeah.” Zack elected not to elaborate. “He get like this, too? Frozen up?”

“Such a sweet boy…” the woman sighed again, half-heartedly sweeping some stray pieces of wood and dust bunnies against a stack of crates. “He never woke up. Sometimes got lucid enough to move around, but not a single word outta him ever again. Doctors called it mako poisoning.”

“He never woke up?” Zack repeated, a strange emotion welling up in his throat and making it hard for him to breathe. “Just from that one pool?”

“Just from that one pool,” the woman nodded sadly. “Sad, how only a few minutes can do that to someone. He lived for another two years before he died of the flu. Don’t tell no one, but I think Sharlene was relieved that it happened. Must be horrible, watching someone you love lose themselves and walk around like an empty husk for the rest of their days.”

“Yeah,” Zack agreed, glancing back down to Cloud’s impassive expression. The ball in his throat tightened. “Horrible.”

“Anyway. I won’t chat you up for much longer,” she dismissed the topic, sensing that it had become too heavy for her guest. “Make yourself comfortable, and then come down. My oaf of a husband probably told everyone that we have a guest, so I’m afraid you’ll have to entertain us with your stories, but I’ll be sure to serve you our biggest bowl of stew in return.”

“I’d like that a lot, even if you don’t have to. I appreciate you and your family housing us for a while,” Zack assured her, strangely glad to see her go, heading for a small door that led into the rest of the building.

“Not at all. That’s Nibel hospitality for you, stranger,” the woman chuckled, ducking to exit. “And for your friend, I can make some Luchile nut tea. Sharlene’s son didn’t need to eat or drink until about three weeks after the accident, but she would always leave a mug of Luchile nut tea at his bedside- said the smell of it helped flush out the mako in his veins.”

“Right. I’ll be right down.” Nodding his head politely at her, he waited for her to leave, and when the thud of the heavy wooden door resounded behind him, he turned back to Cloud.

“A cup of tea and lots of time, huh?” he murmured, falling back to sit with his knees drawn to his chest. He was unable to look away from Cloud’s comatose body, trying not to feel too gloomy as he repeatedly glanced between the eerie glow of his eyes in the dark and the slackness of his expression. “Doesn’t that sound easy enough, Cloud?”

Huffing a laugh after a beat of silence, Zack buried his face in his knees, wanting to feel small just for a second, bowing underneath the pressure he felt for just one self-indulgent second.

“If it were that easy…” he muttered to himself, grip tightening around his own biceps as he held himself together. “Oh, Cloud… I wish it was that easy to save you.”

Cloud didn’t answer him, not with reassurances, nor with encouragement. But when Zack eventually glanced back up at him, newly risen moonlight fell through the window and reflected in his eyes like diamonds, making it seem like Cloud was looking straight at him, and listening.

“I wish that was enough to save me, too,” he added as an afterthought, and watched the ethereal light dance on Cloud’s pale skin for some time longer.

…-…-…-…

Zack tried not to let the hopelessness of the entire situation affect him. If nothing else, then Cloud was counting on him to keep going, defenseless and completely at Shinra’s mercy should Zack ever falter. The knowledge that he had someone to protect kept him going, driving his journey across the western continent.

He originally set out towards Costa Del Sol, figuring he could try to stow away on one of the smaller boats that would cross to the eastern continent. With it still being the late winter by the time he arrived there after all his pit stops and detours, however, he was repeatedly shot down by all the civilian boat owners, who claimed that the waters were still too rough to attempt such a voyage. Zack was then faced with spending another month and a half in Costa Del Sol, outwaiting the winter, or to head south to ports that were open at this time of year. The thought of staying in one place for so long made Zack much too anxious, so he elected to hit the road again, quietly apologizing to Cloud for dragging him through the useless venture.

Not that Cloud seemed to care where he was being taken. Zack tried not to let it get to him, and on his best days, he managed. On his worst, he couldn’t even look Cloud in the eye.

Today was one of those days, a chilly February morning where Zack felt sick waking up to the sight of Cloud’s blank stare. He rose from his spot on the floor to glance at his friend in the bed, catching him staring at the ceiling as usual. He could never tell if Cloud ever slept or not, never catching him with his eyes closed. He blinked once in a while, but the motion felt just as reflexive and meaningless as his stumbling steps when Zack supported him to walk. Nothing ever indicated that anyone was home inside his body.

Zack didn’t hate Cloud, not in a million years, but something about seeing him so lifeless made him hate the portrait he painted. He’d known Cloud before all this. And the person before him… he couldn’t reconcile this boy with the young man he’d once known and believed in.

“I wish I didn’t have to look at you sometimes.” His whispered confession came out like a sin, Zack feeling his throat lock up as he turned his eyes away from Cloud’s limp body on the bed. “Sorry, Cloudy. Didn’t mean it.” Still, despite the apology, he couldn’t bring himself to face the blonde, and that realization hit him like a punch in the gut. He let out a strangled laugh, self-deprecating and bitter, and rubbed his hands over his face. “Or maybe I did mean it. I don’t know. It’s… it’s hard. Seeing you like this, I mean. Am I weak for not wanting to accept that this is you now?”

No response came from Cloud, and although Zack knew to expect it, it still broke something inside of him.

“I wish you could give me something- anything- to hold onto. Just one sign that you’re there and that you’re fighting,” he begged quietly, watching the dust in the light as it swayed and settled on Cloud’s eyelashes. His eyes were still glowing as brightly as the day they’d broken out of those cryostasis tanks, and though they were beautiful, they also hurt to look at.

Zack gave a short, sad chuckle, and then got up.

“Sorry,” he simply ended up saying, wrapping up his moment of weakness, tucking away his heartbreak for it to bother him only on the next bad day. Standing up over Cloud, he began his daily routine of getting the young man out of bed by tugging him to his unsteady feet. “Really, Cloud. I’m sorry. I know you’re trying, because I know you. You’re a fighter, and this is just one more hurdle to overcome for you. I may not see it, but I know you’re trying, and it’s a little greedy of me to ask for more than that of you.”

In a better world, Cloud would have refuted that, because kind, caring Cloud Strife would never let his friend put himself down like that. But in this world, Cloud Strife no longer existed in his own body, and so, nobody stopped Zack from feeling miserable for the rest of the day.

…-…-…-…

Dodging the Shinra army became a recurrent pastime as Zack drove them southward slowly but surely, taking detours and back roads and hiding out in small towns when either their supplies ran out, or Zack’s energy did. Enhanced or not, he was only human, and it was hard to forget that sometimes when on the run.

By February, Zack was confident that he’d gotten good at avoiding the army, which is exactly when the Turks caught his trail once more.

In retrospect, perhaps it was not the most strategically sound move to make his way to Gongaga while Shinra was still trying to track him down.

Cissnei let him know as much, which is how Zack knew he'd fucked up.

“Be careful,” she warned him in her usual flat tone of voice just as he attempted to make a quiet getaway. “Security is very tight right now.”

Zack stopped his retreat momentarily, for her tone made it sound like she hadn’t finished talking. He was confident that Cissnei would let him walk away from this encounter, just like their first, so he didn’t feel threatened by giving her his back.

“Apparently,” she continued, knowing that she had his attention, “another target is in the area.”

That new information piqued Zack’s interest, and he spun around to face her, surprised.

“Who?”

Cissnei’s silence was only a few seconds long before she answered him.

“Angeal.”

The sound of his mentor’s and friend’s name stirred something in Zack’s chest, a mix of fear and hope, because for all he loved about Angeal, he could not see the return of a dead man as being a good thing. Not with Shinra involved somehow.

“I see,” he simply settled on responding, pursing his lips tight.

“I see?” Cissnei parroted, now taking her turn to be thrown off. “He died by your hand. You’re not surprised?”

“I think…” Zack mused out loud, digesting this information slowly, “he may have helped us escape Shinra manor.”

“Interesting…” Cissnei mumbled, and Zack knew she was archiving it all so that she could report this entire conversation to Tseng eventually.

Eventually turned out to be ten minutes later.

Five of which he spent making sure his parents were okay, and refuting his mother’s apparent worries about him finding a wife after all this was over.

Zack didn’t foresee any of this coming to an end any time soon, so there really wasn’t a place for those worries in his mind for now.

Plus, as he jogged his way up the nearby cliff where he thought he’d seen a one-winged Angeal land after flying off, he thought that it wouldn’t be quite that simple. It wouldn’t be as simple as to close off the chapter of his life as a Shinra deserter and settle down. Aerith first came to mind, but Zack immediately felt wrong thinking of her like that. He loved her, he had loved her… but so much had happened since the last time he’d seen her. He didn’t even know how long he’d been gone, and neither of them were the same people as when they’d fallen in love, probably.

He was scared of how he would feel for her, and how she would feel for him, but one thing was certain; their days together were long gone.

Besides, he now had Cloud to watch over. More than anyone else, Cloud was the one who understood Zack best, and somehow, that didn’t seem like a bad thing. Zack didn’t know if he was strong enough to spend the rest of his life with Cloud with the way things were, but in thinking of Cloud he felt something different, something good, and decided not to overthink it.

(He was usually very good at not overthinking things, and this was just one more thing to take at face value).

“Well, it definitely won’t be the same as with Aerith,” he mused to himself as he waded through the shallow stream that coursed off the side of the mountain. A memory of Cloud’s better days, of the blond’s shy but radiant smile, anchored itself in the forefront of his mind, and he was unable to contain a smile of his own. “Still. If I have to introduce someone to my mom someday, I wish for it to be you.”

With Gongaga at his back, and his tender memories cradled close to his chest, Zack spared one last thought as the cliffside came into view, and with it, Angeal.

“And I wish for that day to come soon.”

…-…-…-…

But as Hollander declared his intention of going after Cloud next, Zack reminded himself that with a single misstep, that day may as well never come.

“Legend shall speak of sacrifice at world’s end,” Genesis had said.

“I wish for that to never come to pass,” Zack had thought, sprinting back to where he’d left Cloud with apprehension nestling itself uncomfortably at the forefront of his mind.

…-…-…-…

With Hollander defeated and Cloud safe, Zack turned his sights to his next goal; getting to Genesis.

“Sorry, Cloud.”

If the mako poisoning was good for one thing, it was for taking away Cloud’s infamous ability to get motion sickness in any remotely moving vehicle. As the comatose young man slumped against the side rails of the small trading boat they were on, his skin looked just as pale as ever, and his eyes just as bright. Not a single twitch of his muscles indicated that he was uncomfortable with the rocking of the boat beneath them, and Zack figured he may as well take that as a blessing.

“I know I said we’d be going to Midgar, but we’re gonna have to make a quick detour first,” Zack continued, crouching next to Cloud to ruffle his hair. “Well, it might not be so quick. Might be a few months before we can get to Midgar, honestly. I wish we could get there faster so we can work on getting you better, but I need to do this. I need to go find Genesis and put an end to all this once and for all.”

Cloud did nothing to indicate his awareness of the situation, but Zack liked to think that he was cheering him on nonetheless.

“At least you’re not looking seasick,” he teased, plopping down next to Cloud and enjoying the salty breeze that blew across the dark waves. Night had fallen just as they’d left the southern coast of the Gongaga area. It had taken Zack an entire month of work to find and pay for a ship that would carry them to their next stop, and by the end of March, the temperature in the south had become temperate enough to be nice. “We’ll be on boats for the next few months, so you not lookin’ as green as in that helicopter to Modeoheim really is a blessing.”

In reality, Zack noted solemnly, there was something green about Cloud. It wasn’t visible, but the aura of mako he carried around him felt green somehow.

“It’s a mixed blessing, though, if I’m being honest,” Zack continued on, leaning his cheek into his hand so he could continue to look into Cloud’s vacant gaze. “I wish seasickness was our only worry right now. Being seasick is easy, and it goes away. This, though…”

A familiar outrage welled up inside of him as he remembered that Cloud’s current state was forced upon him through inhumane actions carried out by inhumane individuals. Zack didn’t like to waste energy on hating anyone, but seeing his friend so broken made him feel something that came quite close.

He sighed, and then fell back, sprawling himself across the planks. It was late enough and the sea was calm enough for most of the sailors to have retreated to the cabin for the night. That left Zack to stew in his own thoughts for a while, in silence but for the sound of waves lapping at the hull.

“Let’s say, you do get better,” he began again after a while, voicing his worries to the stars above. “Slowly, let’s say you come back to how you were before. What will that be like?”

A bird answered him in the distance somewhere. No coasts were visible anymore, and wouldn’t be for another two weeks. Zack felt alone out here, safe from Shinra’s ever-watchful gaze, but also at the mercy of his own demons.

“Will you talk first? Will you move first? Will it come back slowly, or all at once?” he asked himself, pillowing his head on his crossed arms so he could more comfortably gaze at the sky. As if the heavens held his answers and were simply waiting to rain them upon him. “Will you be able to fight? Will you want to? I wouldn’t blame you if you decide to take a break from all this and settle down. Hey, maybe we can find you a nice girl when we get to Midgar, and you can take it from there.”

That didn’t sit quite right with him, so he interrupted himself with a deep breath. Perhaps it was the uncertainty revolving around Cloud’s condition, but Zack could not imagine letting him leave his sight once they arrived in Midgar. He couldn’t trust anyone to care for Cloud the way he did. How would a stranger even know what Cloud needed the most, when he needed it the most?

He couldn’t do that to him. Until the day Cloud pushed him away, Zack could only imagine himself at his side.

“Or, you could stick with me,” he continued, letting a soft smile etch itself on his face. “I’m trying to think of things we could do when we get there. These past few months, I’ve been doing odd jobs left and right, and it seems to be working alright for us. How about we become mercenaries, or something? How’s that sound?”

This time, he didn’t leave time for Cloud to ‘answer’ him before letting out a dramatic sigh, and sitting back up abruptly.

“I wish you’d show a little more enthusiasm for our future together,” he teased lightly, fondly gazing over his friend’s motionless body. He couldn’t help but yank his chain a little, even though he was powerless to fight back. “I’m workin’ hard to figure out where to go from here, you know.”

Doubtless that Cloud would’ve been on board with his plans if he were conscious enough to acknowledge them. Oh well. Zack figured he may as well keep working things out, so that the day Cloud woke up, he’d have everything figured out for him already. When that day came, it would mark the beginning of smooth sailing.

Until then, Zack took it upon himself to brave the rough waters alone.

“Alright, let’s go get some sleep,” he finally said, helping Cloud stand. The catatonic boy bore his weight awkwardly, and fell into his typical stumbling shuffle that he did reflexively when Zack dragged him around with an arm around his waist. “Tomorrow is a new day, and all that. Mostly, though, I’m just looking forward to breakfast. You’re lucky you don’t need to worry about starving right now.”

And perhaps it was the shadow cast by the moon above, or perhaps it was a trick of the cabin light, but Zack swore as he fondly grinned down at Cloud that Cloud smiled right back.

…-…-…-…

It was in the wilderness of the eastern continent that Zack had his first brush with death, sometime in the beginning of summer.

He didn’t know where he and Cloud were, truly, because he’d driven off the paved roads once he’d gotten to the junction that led north to Junon, the latter being a place under very tight Shinra surveillance. The quicker he could go south, the better, although he also found it unnerving to travel the eastern continent out in the open, hence his decision to take the back roads.

It didn’t seem like such a great idea, though, once he got lost in the thick forest south of Junon’s mountain range.

It seemed like an even worse idea when night fell, and Zack became unable to see three feet in front of him despite his augmented vision.

Conceding defeat, Zack stopped them in a spot where the dirt trail widened, intending to set up camp. And then, that became the worst idea when, in the process of setting up, something bit Zack’s exposed arm.

The bite was too painful to be from a mosquito or fly, but Zack shooed the culprit away too quickly to identify it. He couldn’t see much in the darkness, but he definitely felt the bite creating a large wheal on his forearm, and figured he’d had an allergic reaction to the insect bite. Feeling passably well, he propped himself against a tree and pillowed Cloud’s head on his lap before promptly falling asleep.

Waking up was a chore in the morning, limbs dragging through molasses as he sat up and placed Cloud back into the sidecar. The early morning sun would have been soft on any other day, but a headache split Zack’s head open as soon as he glanced into the light, making him dizzy and nauseous with the pain.

Still, with no time to stand idle, Zack got on the bike and started it up again.

The dirt path through the forest wasn’t very wide, so Zack already drove slowly, doubly so when his vision began to spot. He blinked, trying to see clearer, but the spots persisted, appearing each time he blinked. He figured he was just hungry, and pushed on.

If someone saw how pale he’d gotten, they surely would’ve blown the whistle.

Alas, the only person who could’ve looked out for him was slumped over in the sidecar, lifeless but for the slow rise and fall of his chest.

Having had to make several stops during the day, one longer than the other when Zack began to accumulate a surprising amount of fatigue, they called it an early night on the side of a stream that Zack swore he’d seen on his way into the forest. He tried not to think too much about going in circles on the dirt paths twisting through the dense trees, and instead focused on propping Cloud against a tree bordering the stream. Considering that Cloud’s body was still in a mako-induced stasis, meaning that none of its homeostatic functions worked just yet, he didn’t frequently need to be washed up. Still, Zack could see a few streaks of dirt on his face and in his hair, likely from their camping from last night, so he figured that their proximity to water was as good of a time as it would get to clean him up a little.

“It might be a little cold… but promise it’ll feel good,” he said, crouching next to Cloud with a (probably) clean rag, which he dipped in the clear water before them. It was only when he cupped Cloud’s chin gently to turn his head that he realized that his hands were trembling. “Huh… Must be… more tired than I thought.”

Even though Cloud’s face was expressionless, Zack felt, somehow, that he was being called out on something. Avoiding eye contact, he wiped some of the dirt crusted near Cloud’s ear, scrubbing whatever had gotten caught in his hairline.  

Something flickered inside of him at that moment, his heart stuttering alongside it. And just as his breath caught, his hands went numb, dropping the rag into Cloud’s lap.

The next second, Zack had fallen forward into the dirt, unable to process that he was losing consciousness before he actually did.

When he woke again, it was completely dark. His limbs felt stiff and uncooperative as he tried to sit up, unable to muster enough strength and instead flopping back down on his side again. Even the small exertion took everything out of him, leaving him to catch his breath. His head hurt so badly that it was a wonder it hadn’t exploded yet.

“Cloud,” he rasped, weakly putting his hand out blindly in the dark, and thankfully finding Cloud’s thigh on his first try. “Cloud-”

He interrupted himself when a wave of nausea hit him, making him dizzy even though he was lying down motionless.

“Somethin’s… not right,” he huffed out, trying to chuckle to lighten the mood, but unable to muster the energy. “Sorry… s’obvious.”

He fell silent, only comforted by the heat of Cloud’s leg underneath his hand. It was burning to the touch. Or was it his hand that was burning? He couldn’t tell.

“It’ll be better… in the morning,” Zack simply mumbled when it became obvious that he couldn’t do anything about his condition. “SOLDIER genes will… get me fixed in no time.”

Then, morning came. His SOLDIER genes did not manage to fix him up.

Zack only recalled swimming in a sea of semi-consciousness for a few moments before he drowned again.

It was a back-and-forth on the spectrum of awareness for a while. The next time that Zack woke, he registered that he had fallen onto his back and was now lying with his gaze blearily turned to the treetops. The cold stream water lapped at his heels. His throat was parched and in dire need of some, but as his brain began to make plans to get to it, he passed out again.

Then, he woke when it was dark, unable to tell how much time had passed, and what had happened. His head spun too violently for him to tolerate awareness, much less have coherent thought. He only registered that something heavy and cold was laying lopsided on his forehead, and took comfort in the relief it gave him until he went under again.

He woke in the morning, completely drained, completely at a loss of what to do. There was a heavy weight on top of him, and Zack pushed himself to look up, just to identify it.

The shock of seeing Cloud sprawled face-down against his abdomen was enough to jolt him into full awareness for the first time since he first collapsed.

“Cl… oud…” he called out weakly, trying to lift his hand to touch him, but unable to do much else than twitch his fingers. “Cloud… wha…” His tongue felt too heavy in his mouth and he found himself unable to complete the half-baked thought.

The blond wasn’t moving, as usual, but somehow seemed to be covering Zack’s body with his. The most logical part of his brain guessed that he may have slid down from his sitting position and fallen over Zack, but his position seemed a little off for someone who had simply slipped.

It didn’t go further than that. It was then that Zack felt the tendrils of unconsciousness reaching for him again, and in a panic, tried to fight them off. His desperate effort was driven by an ominous instinct, a terrible gut feeling that if he passed out now, he wouldn’t wake again.

And if he didn’t wake, then who would take care of Cloud?

It was with that vulnerable, terrified thought that he blacked out once more.

…-…-…-…

He woke slightly when his body was jostled, feeling hands all over him and unknown voices around him.

“Grab the… on the ground…”

“Cloud,” he rasped, his heart hammering wildly as he realized that they’d been caught. Weakly, he tried to fight off the hands holding onto him, but he could not muster the energy he needed to move his limbs. His throat locked up as desperation rose within him. “Cloud, no, no, no-”

“Hey, hey kid,” a voice said over him, deep and strong and somehow familiar. “It’s okay, relax, it’s okay.”

“Angeal,” Zack called out breathlessly. “Angeal, help, please- Cloud-”

“Totally out of it,” another voice sighed. “Let’s take him in.”

“Please,” Zack tried again, not even sure what he was asking for anymore. He felt his body being manhandled, Buster Sword unhooked from its harness before he was picked up. Zack tried to flail a little more, just enough to say that he put up a fight, but his body didn’t listen to him. “Please, no-”

“Just relax,” the person carrying him hushed him. “You’ll be okay. Take deep breaths and save your strength. You’ll be just fine.”

Zack couldn’t find the words he needed to express that he wasn’t worried about himself so much. He had the self-awareness to figure out that he was really sick, but that eventually, his body would flush out the sickness. The only defenseless one here was Cloud.

Cloud, Cloud, Cloud-

Perhaps it was because of that worry that Zack did not lose consciousness again, even as he was maneuvered onto the back of a truck and covered with a thin blanket. He only managed to relax once Cloud’s limp body was slid into the space next to him, also covered with a blanket by anonymous hands. Zack was close enough to touch him, and with painstaking effort, managed to turn his head to look at him.

To his surprise, Cloud’s head had lolled to the side, making it seem like he was looking straight at him as well.

“We’ll… be okay,” Zack simply decided to say, feeling the adrenaline leaving his veins the more he watched Cloud blink. Underneath them, the truck rumbled to life, and the tires squeaked as they began to pull over dirt. “Cloud… Whatever happens next…” His throat locked up, dry and irritated, but with his consciousness escaping him again, he pushed on. “I wish… that you… stay safe…”

He wanted to say more, but that was enough for his weakened body. He blinked, and didn’t open his eyes again.

…-…-…-…

Zack didn’t wake up all at once. For a while, he stayed suspended in a state of semi-awareness, able to recognize that his body was being manipulated and that there were voices around him, but never able to understand what they said or what they were doing to him. In his more lucid periods, he was able to make noises and move a little, but never enough to achieve anything. He could barely get his thoughts in order through it all, rationality seemingly buried under layers of both anxiety and relief.

Eventually, though, the weight behind his eyelids lifted, and one day, Zack emerged from the darkness to feel lighter than ever. Grasping the opportunity with both hands, he snapped his eyes open, becoming fully aware of his surroundings all at once.

A log ceiling over his head, warm lights, open curtains to let the breeze in. Daylight outside, with distant sounds of chatter. Beneath him, a firm bed, covers tucked to his shoulders, soft and warm.

Before even his mind caught up with the analysis of this new data, his SOLDIER instincts kicked in, and Zack threw the covers off of him, vaulting off the bed.

Or at least, he would have, if his arms didn’t turn to jelly halfway through the vault, causing his foot to catch in the bottom of the heavy blanket, sending him sprawling on the hardwood floor. His forehead smacked the ground with a loud thud, Zack groaning when jolts of pain went up his nose, across his entire face.

“Oh my goodness, are you alright?”

As Zack began to get up, a pair of smaller hands fell on his shoulders, the owner of the unknown voice rushing to help him up. Zack momentarily considered throwing the person off, but when his surroundings finally registered in his brain, he realized that it was highly unlikely that this person was Shinra, and that he’d be best to let them help.

“Oof, that was a little embarrassing,” Zack muttered as he sat up, helped by the newcomer. When the ache dissipated, he opened his eyes to glance before him.

The bright smile of the young man crouched in front of him greeted his awakening.

“That’s alright,” the young man assured him, chuckling. “It must’ve been confusing to wake up in a place like this, huh?”

“Better this than anything else.” Specifically, anything would be better than being back in the Shinra laboratories. If Zack woke up to another glass tank, he might just lose it. Plus, there was no way he’d let Cloud be taken back to a place like that ever again.

“Cloud!” he suddenly exclaimed as the last memory of his companion’s blank stare came back to the forefront of his mind. “I need to find Cloud!”

“Hold on,” the man in front of him stopped him as he tried to bolt. “Is that the other one with you? He’s alright.”

“He’s alright?” Zack parroted, relief coursing through him. “Really? Can I see him?”

That drew a laugh out of his caretaker, one of genuine amusement.

“Seriously, you come back from the dead and the first thing you do is worry about someone else,” he muttered more to himself than to Zack, shaking his head. “You SOLDIER types are impossible.”

“You knew?” Zack pursed his lips, feeling his gut clench.

“It wasn’t hard to deduce by the looks of your uniforms and your eyes,” the other man shrugged. “No SOLDIERs ever come by in this small corner of the world, but there’s plenty of ‘em up in Junon. I know one when I see one.”

“We were just passing by. We won’t stay long,” Zack promised immediately, making another move to get up. This time, he got help from the other man, although as soon as he stood on his shaky feet, he was pushed back onto the bed by a gentle shove. “Oof, hey!”

“Rest,” the young man beckoned him with a gentle smile. “There is nothing to worry about. I understood from the moment I found you that you two were no ordinary Shinra operatives, so I await to hear your story before taking any action. Until then, you and your companion are safe here.” Sweeping his arm out gently towards the room, he beamed at Zack. “This is the town of Sienna, and my name is Valas.”

“Valas…” Zack began, but then a wave of dizziness reminded him that he perhaps wasn’t at 100% just yet. “I’m… I’m Zack. And my friend is Cloud. We’re… ex-SOLDIERs, if you will.”

“I see.” Valas seemed unperturbed by Zack’s admission, pulling a chair to sit next to Zack as the latter pulled his legs up on the bed. “Well, if it’s any consolation to you, no one knows that you are here but my parents and the town doctor who treated you for the past two weeks.”

“Two weeks!?” Zack spluttered out, eyes widening. “Is that how long I was out?”

“In and out,” Valas shrugged. “I’m just impressed you didn’t die. That was a pretty bad Maleluka infection you caught in the forest. Anyone else would’ve died within days of being infected.”

“That’s what I had? An infection?” Zack frowned. “I don’t usually get infections, though, especially not as bad as this one. My body’s enhanced by mako, so I can fight infections off a lot easier than most people.”

“Maleluka bites are especially infectious,” Valas explained. “The bugs don’t come out much, usually content with hunting critters underground. I imagine that the abundant mako you carry in you lured it in, hoping for bigger prey. It was pretty touch-and-go with you for a while, but at least your companion seemed to fight it off just fine.”

“Cloud got it, too?” Zack asked, alarmed. “He didn’t look sick.”

“Well…” Valas seemed a little uncomfortable elaborating, but bit his lip, continuing anyway. “He… Cloud, he’s got the mako sickness, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah.” No matter how many times he said it, it never got easier. The sight of Cloud’s lifeless body would probably haunt Zack’s memory forever. “Mako poisoning. Severe case.”

“The doctor theorized that the sheer amount of mako in his blood obliterated the pathogen as it attempted to infect his body,” Valas continued, nodding. “He’s got the same bite mark as you near his left elbow, but not a single sign of infection since we found you two.”

“I guess there’s one good thing to come out of this situation…” Zack sighed, running a hand through his hair. It wasn’t as dirty as he expected it to be after two weeks of bedrest, which meant that he’d been well-taken care of during his recovery. “Well… Alright. Thank you. I owe you my gratitude, on behalf of both Cloud and I, for finding us and taking care of us, even if we were just strangers.”

“It’s no trouble. I think… I think this was fate, as hard as it is to believe. Something called me into the forest that day, so I guess you could say that someone out there is watching out for you,” Valas chuckled. “Maybe our meeting was a gift from the goddess?”

Zack could only chuckle at that.

“Maybe,” he said vaguely, and left it at that. “Now, if it’s no trouble... Would you mind taking me to Cloud? I need to see him.”

“You’re not well quite yet,” Valas warned him lightly, although he seemed to have no intention of stopping him. “You should rest first.”

“I just wanna ask him something, please,” Zack insisted, knowing he’d won when Valas sighed and came to help him stand.

“Alright. Hang onto me so you don’t fall.”

Taking slow, tentative steps, Zack followed his new friend’s lead to leave the room, and head into the one next door. Upon opening the door, Zack’s eyes immediately went to the bed.

Cloud was there, lying motionless in a single bed similar to his own. The quilt had been tucked near his shoulders, not a single crease on its surface. His SOLDIER clothes had been washed and folded on the dresser, making Zack realize that he, too, was no longer wearing his uniform, instead wearing a pyjama-like garment that was much looser than his usual attire. As he approached Cloud’s body, Valas grabbed a chair from the desk, and helped him sit down.

“I’ll be back in your room to clean up if you need me,” he whispered, as if afraid of disturbing the silence, retreating to the door to leave the two alone. Zack only nodded his acquiescence before he left, the door gently clicking shut behind him.

A warm summer breeze blew through the open window, carrying upon it the scent of flowers. When the curtains settled, beams of sunshine fell upon Cloud’s pale face once again, illuminating his boyish features. Like this, Cloud seemed a little older than when they first arrived in Nibelheim, although it may just have been the stress of being an unwilling experiment that gave him such deep features. It cast him in a new light to Zack’s eyes; no longer innocent, but beautiful.

Cloud’s eyes were closed for the first time since they escaped Shinra manor, and Zack couldn’t help but feel elated about that, too.

“Sleeping?” he teased in a low voice, fondly gazing at Cloud’s features. “Good. You need your rest. I heard you did a lot better at fighting this Mala-whatever off than I did. Always knew you’d grow up to surpass me. I’m gonna have to get stronger so I don’t fall behind, huh?”

There was no answer from Cloud, not even a twitch of his fingers. Still admiring his smooth features, Zack put his hand on the covers, trailing his fingers up until he could feel the outline of Cloud’s underneath the quilt. There, he rested his hand, finding comfort in being able to touch Cloud again.

“I need to ask you a question,” he continued after a small pause, his voice still low. “It’s important. It’s about the forest.” Another breeze flew in, ruffling Cloud’s golden hair softly. His bangs caressed his cheeks just barely, and Zack took a deep breath to enjoy the fresh air. “Cloud. Out there, in the forest. Did you help me?”

Outside, birds chirped a conversation at one another. Somewhere in the house, the stairs creaked as someone ascended them. Before Zack, Cloud remained asleep, lifeless.

“Please,” Zack tried again. “I need to know. Am I remembering wrong? Or was it actually you who helped me when I was out of it?”

Quiet. Zack drummed his fingers lightly over Cloud’s covered hand, looking for a twitch of his muscles, a sound past his lips, anything to indicate that he hadn’t hallucinated the cold compress on his forehead and the grounding weight across his body.

“I wish you could tell me how hopeful I need to be,” Zack murmured, at a loss of what to say. “I wish… you could tell me what I should believe in.”

If his hopes were misplaced, Zack wouldn’t know it. He watched the slight movement underneath Cloud’s eyelids and decided that that would be his answer. If Cloud dreamt, then that would be enough for him, too, for now.

Those who dream are only a single step above reality.

…-…-…-…

It took another few weeks for Zack to get back on his feet entirely, and then do enough work around the town to feel like he’d paid back his rescuers’ kindness. With supplies replenished and gaze on the horizon, he placed Cloud in the sidecar of their ride, and drove south once more.

Through nights spent huddled together around the fire, and days spent driving in silence, heavy summer sun beating down on their backs, Zack and Cloud carried on. Through hunger and fatigue, elation and relief, hopelessness and faith alike, Zack carried on. On hills and in valleys, through land and sea, in rain and in sunshine, he carried on, and kept Cloud as close as he could through it all.

It was on a hot, rainy July night spent on the smaller islands north of the Mideel area that Cloud gave his first sign of life, which Zack clung onto tightly as a sign not to give up.

They’d both settled under a rocky outcropping to escape the tropical rain, huddled close despite the sticky heat in the air, and Zack was telling stories of his childhood to the young man leaned limply against him. In one of the breaks Zack took to create unnecessary suspense, Cloud whined.

It was a short, low whine, something guttural and strained, but it was the first noise to come out of Cloud since December. It was impossible for Zack to miss, accustomed as he was to only hear himself talk.

“Cloud?” he called out, turning his head to glance at the boy slumped over against his shoulder. Pushing him back upright, he tried to make eye contact with him, only to note that his eyes were still as distant as ever. Still, he saw the exact moment that Cloud’s cracked lips parted, and another sound ripped itself from his throat.

“Ah-”

“Hey,” Zack murmured, feeling a ball make its way into his throat at the sound of Cloud’s raspy voice. It was deeper than he remembered it being. How long had they been in those labs, anyway? “Hey, Cloud. It’s me. Zack. You with me?”

There was a longer pause this time before Cloud let out another low whine, one that Zack clung onto desperately.

“That’s right. Okay, good. Can you… can you say something? Can you try?” His tongue felt dry, heart beating fast as he watched Cloud intently.

A minute passed without him making any other noise, and with each passing second of silence, Zack’s heart fell a little. By two minutes of silence, Zack conceded defeat, and sighed, although in the place of disappointment, he now felt so much relief.

“Hey,” he grinned, ruffling Cloud’s hair affectionately before pulling him into a tight embrace. Resting his chin on top of Cloud’s head, he buried his face in his unruly blond strands and took a deep, steadying breath, catching alongside it the subtle, ever-bitter scent of mako. “Hey, you did so good. I’m proud of you. Don’t give up, okay?” He tightened his grip on his friend, clinging onto this small piece of hope with all that he had. “I wish that the day never comes where you give up. You can do this. We can do this, together.”

Cloud made no other noises that night, but what he’d gotten had been more than enough for Zack. Cradling Cloud’s body tightly against his, he slept- shielded from the rain, out of Shinra’s eyes, safe.

By the time the two of them finally stepped foot in the ruins of Banora in the beginning of September, Cloud had shown himself to be a little more vocal. His lucidity flickered, on and off without a specific pattern to follow, and Zack simply took heart in his best days, where he’d be able to make sounds, and move his most distal extremities. It was never truly purposeful, but Zack always enjoyed humming a tune to the rhythmic bobbing of Cloud’s foot when they camped so that he could pretend that Cloud was tapping to the sound of his voice.

“Keep at it,” he’d say on Cloud’s good days, when a full recovery seemed like a plausible outcome in the future.

And on his worst days, where Cloud would be limp, expression vacant, absolutely unresponsive to any and all happenings around him, Zack would try not to lose heart, would try not to consider it regression, would try not to envision this being Cloud’s life from now on; a seesaw between being comatose, and being unable to interact with the world around him.

“I wish for tomorrow to be a better day,” he’d say on Cloud’s bad days, trying to forget the very real threat of Cloud wasting away in a hospital bed, or worse, in Shinra’s labs, for the rest of his life.

 And through all those days, they made it to Banora, where it seemed like a chapter was finally about to close for better or for worse.

Zack pulled the motorcycle up on the outskirts of the Banora ruins, leaving Cloud slumped in the sidecar. Today had been one of his better days, when he’d been able to vocalize when Zack gave him cues. Whether it was intentional or a coincidence, it really raised Zack’s spirits, so that when he arrived in the broken remains of Angeal’s hometown, he felt nothing but confident about his impending confrontation with Genesis.

“It’s so different now,” he mused out loud, mostly to himself as he roved his gaze upon the collapsed terrain, lit up brightly by the glow of the Lifestream that flooded the area. It seemed like getting here had taken him a lifetime, but now that he stood upon the same ground where everything had started, he felt like the last six months had gone by in the blink of an eye.

The unequal flapping sound of wings near him alerted him to the arrival of a newcomer, although Zack knew to expect it. He didn’t need to turn around to greet Lazard, who had landed clumsily between him and Cloud.

Cloud.

“Can you watch over Cloud for me?” Zack simply asked of him, skipping the pleasantries. His gaze stayed riveted on the beautiful, devastated town before him, wondering where Genesis would be waiting for their final stand-off.

“Certainly,” Lazard replied in Angeal’s voice, sounding a little more unsteady than usual. The degradation was no doubt wearing him down, with his body at the end of its rope. Zack felt bad hoping that he would still be able to fight at least until he returned for Cloud.

A flash caught his eye on the side, and he turned his head just enough to see a pillar of bright blue mako towering in the distance.

“Hmm? What’s that?” he wondered out loud, although there was not much wondering to be done. Such a high concentration of the Lifestream in one area could only mean that that was where he was meant to go.

Deciding to do as much without further ado, Zack turned around.

First, he nodded to Lazard, whose haggard features softened at the sight of him. They said nothing to one another as Zack approached the sidecar again, looking down at Cloud, who had shifted his body to the other side to be closer to Zack.

“Okay. This is it,” he said, keeping his voice low. No doubt Lazard could hear him, but he liked to pretend that this was a conversation for Cloud’s ears only. “I’m going to find Genesis, so wait for me here, okay, Cloud?”

Cloud let out one of his little whines, which was somehow all that Zack needed.

He leaned down and grasped the back of Cloud’s head tightly, bringing their foreheads together with a gentle tap. His warmth met Cloud’s cold skin, a shocking contrast that only strengthened Zack’s resolve to prevail.

“I’ll be back for you,” he murmured fiercely, hand tightening almost painfully in Cloud’s hair. “I can’t promise it because I don’t know what’s waiting for me out there… but I can wish it. I can wish it with every part of me.” He could feel the soft puffs of Cloud’s slow breaths against his lips, and closed his eyes to put everything he had into his next words. “I wish that when all this is over, we’ll find one another again. I won’t leave you behind, not ever, not even if I die. So wait for me… okay?”

He took a deep breath, and exhaled just in time to hear Cloud’s parroted response.

“… Okay?”

The inflection of his small voice made it clear that he was only mimicking Zack’s words, but it felt like so much more to the latter. Satisfied, Zack chuckled lightly, and tapped his forehead against Cloud’s again one last time before drawing back, letting the boy’s limp body fall back against the seat cushion.

Then, without turning back, he faced the pillar of light in the distance, gaze locked upon it amidst the carnage of the previous town of Banora.

And he stepped forward, resolute and determined to finish things once and for all, because now, he had one more duty to fulfill; that of returning to someone precious to him.

…-…-…-…

For all the time it took to get to Banora, leaving Banora for Midgar took as much as the blink of an eye.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that it had been over four year- four years- that they’d been missing, four years spent trapped in Shinra’s laboratories to be experimented on like guinea pigs, four years of their lives lost and never to be regained.

Perhaps it was the finality of Aerith’s 89th letter, wishing Zack a farewell without ever writing the word ‘goodbye’, making him realize that he’d already lost all the things he thought he still had.

Perhaps it was the completion of Genesis’ dream, the sight of all of Angeal’s remaining pieces dissipating to rejoin the Lifestream, bringing this chapter of their story to a definite close.

“You’re going to make it, too. You got that?” He’d said with his teeth gritted as he’d thrown Cloud over his shoulder, turning to leave, although with all the uncertainty of the information he’d just found out, he couldn’t even believe himself. It all felt like wishful thinking.

Four years. It had been four years. Zack had already lost nearly everything, and could still lose whatever he had left.

“I wish for you to make it, too,” was what he meant to say, a little desperate and a little exhausted, but he couldn’t bring himself to vocalize it because he could see the end of the line on the horizon already.

…-…-…-…

Since they’d left Banora, Zack knew that Shinra would follow. Just having been attacked in Banora proved that they’d caught his trail once again, so he had no more time to waste hiding and making detours. The only solution he had left was to make a beeline for Midgar, to be safest in the shadow of the giant itself.

In a week, he and Cloud had made it back to the eastern continent. Zack intended on hitchhiking his way to Midgar, seeing as they’d ditched Cissnei’s motorcycle in Mideel to open up more options for travel back to the mainland, so his first order of business was to find a town, the closest accessible one by walking. Having to carry Cloud slowed their advance considerably, but Zack kept pushing, only stopping when he absolutely needed to stop.

It was on the way to the first town that Zack faced the first Shinra ambush, walking right into it as he sought to stop for the night. Cloud’s stumbling steps were dragging now, and though Zack doubted he could feel fatigue in his static state of being, he still took it as a sign to stop. Conveniently, not too far away, the wreckage of an old factory of some sort still stood, looking promising as a place to hide for the night.

Shinra must have seen it coming, for when Zack was engaged deeply enough amongst the wreckage, he suddenly found himself surrounded by guns. Although he should have seen it coming, it didn’t particularly stress him out, either. In fact, he welcomed the exercise, eager to let loose on an organization who fully and entirely deserved his wrath this time around.

“Geez,” he said as infantrymen surrounded him from behind as well. Cloud hung limply off his neck, today having been one of his less lucid days, and his feet dragged when Zack shuffled back slowly, trying to spot some cover. His brain started working to find a way to keep Cloud safe while he took care of the problem. “Making a big fuss over just the two of us. Well then… what should we do now?”

The question was rhetorical, buying him time more than anything else. His eyes darted around, calm and collected, but also assessing the situation and spotting his enemies, whether perched high in the steel beams or taking cover in the fallen rubble.

He brought his assessment to a satisfying close a few seconds later by etching a smile, just as his back came to a large steel beam sticking upright from the ground. That’s where he slid Cloud off of him, sitting him against the beam with his legs spread.

A few soldiers around him audibly released the safety of their weapons as Zack pulled out the Buster Sword, but Zack paid them no heed. Instead, he harshly stabbed the sword into the ground in front of Cloud, effectively wedging the comatose boy between the sword and the beam.

It was as safe as things could get.

And from there, he pounced.

The infantrymen ended up doing most of his job for him when they made the rookie mistake of firing at a target they’d encircled, so it didn’t even feel like a challenge. He simply dodged bullets until the commander had gotten enough of friendly fire, and when the order was given to engage in close combat, Zack made short work of the remaining fools that rushed him.

It was the arrival of motorbike-mounted officers that sparked an idea in Zack’s mind, and with a smirk, he turned tail and ran further into the wreckage.

“I’ll be right back, Cloud,” he said under his breath for good measure, leaving his friend behind and focusing on getting the officers to race after him.

Despite sprinting at full speed, the officers caught up to him eventually, overtaking him to cut him off in another large open area much further away from their previous spot. There were only two, and Zack glanced back to make sure that no others were headed their way.

However, the whirring of helicopter blades at that moment drew his eyes to the sky, and he pursed his lips when he noted the Shinra logo on the helicopter that descended to train its floodlight on him.

“The Turks, huh…?” he muttered to himself, sighing. It really seemed like Shinra was going all-out trying to recapture them. It made Zack wonder; how much of a hand did Tseng have to play in all this?

It really felt like he was by himself against the world. Him and Cloud, against everything and everyone they’d ever known.

There was no other choice.

Disregarding the Turks’ broadcasted warning, he ran to engage the bike-mounted officers.

He wouldn’t admit it, but the fact that the agents on board the helicopter never fired at him and simply watched him take down the officers was a welcome reprieve. The helicopter hovered in its place, not a single other warning coming from its occupants when Zack got on one of the bikes, and revved it before darting off to where he’d left Cloud.

When he got back, he noticed that several infantrymen were trying to pull the Buster Sword out of the ground, trying to free Cloud so that they could take him into their custody. Their efforts were for naught, of course- Zack knew that the sword itself was heavy enough for non-enhanced officers, let alone the strength with which he’d jammed it into the ground.

No one short of Sephiroth would have been able to get at Cloud at this moment.

The men were all too focused on the sword, and not nearly focused enough on their surroundings to notice Zack until he was close enough to knock them out. It was easy work, almost pathetic, and Zack wondered if the quality of Shinra’s training had lowered in these past four years.

Four years.

They had to get back to Midgar.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting, Cloud,” he apologized lightly, latching the sword back into its magnet on his harness before crouching to pick his unresponsive friend off the ground. As expected, there wasn’t a single scratch on him, all stray bullets having ricocheted off the Buster Sword.

He pulled him back up and adjusted him to hang off his side, leading him with shuffling steps towards his newly-acquired motorbike while the unit commander, now completely alone, continued to shout empty threats at him. Zack wouldn’t even bother with someone who was all talk and no action. He had more pressing matters to take care of, like finding him and Cloud another safe place to rest for the night, and most importantly, getting off the Turks’ radar. Just because they spared him earlier, it didn’t mean they intended to keep their hands clean.

As such was the nature of the Shinra Turks.

He awkwardly wound Cloud’s limp arms around his waist as he sat in the front, and held onto him with one hand as he revved up the bike once more, this time to leave behind the wreckage entirely.

Silence followed them until they rejoined the main roads again, following the signs that pointed towards Midgar. Cloud was a heavy weight draped against Zack’s back, and the whole situation seemed a little funny all of a sudden.

“Hey, don’t be so angry. There is no way I would ever leave my friend behind,” he joked softly, wondering if Cloud would ever believe that he’d been abandoned, after everything they’d gone through together. Hell, Zack didn’t even know if he’d remember this all.

Could Cloud even hear him when he spoke?

The unknowns of his situation made it so much harder to swallow. Zack couldn’t wait for him to wake up and answer all his questions.

Because he had to wake up. There was no other choice. Cloud had to wake up and return to Zack.

He’d wished so hard for it.

Feeling the familiar sadness encroaching upon him once again, Zack saved that train of thought for later and focused on the road ahead of him. With the Turks back on his trail in the helicopter following him, he could only save his energy to drive, keeping quiet until he lost them by entering the underground tunnels that led to Midgar.

…-…-…-…

Zack drove them through the tunnel for a couple more hours, only electing to stop when it was pitch dark outside. Driving off the highway and into the wilderness, he avoided the forest in the distance- the same one as where he’d had his first brush with death- and drove further east until the mountainside came into view. There, at the foot of a particularly unassuming cliff, he parked the motorcycle and nearly fell off of it in sheer exhaustion.

“Come on,” he groaned, stretching with one arm out, the other supporting Cloud’s slumping torso. Once he was done stretching, he scooped Cloud up into his arms, carrying him the short way to a soft-looking patch of grass before gently laying him down. Cloud’s eyes were open, vacant as always, which was not quite what Zack needed to see at that moment.

The adrenaline rush that had carried him throughout the day seemed to die down with each second that passed. Plopping down next to Cloud, Zack continued to stretch, groaning when the exhaustion pulled at his limbs. Their rushed return to Midgar left them very little time to rest, usually, and that day had been no different. He was absolutely drained, more so than usual after that unexpected contact with Shinra.

He hadn’t felt persecuted like this since they’d left the Western continent. It wasn’t a feeling he’d missed, that of a runaway, getting re-accustomed to the ever-present paranoia that followed those who knew they were being hunted. Zack thought that he’d be used to it by now, but the anxiety thrumming inside of his exhausted body proved otherwise.

“Think we’ll be able to sleep tonight?” he asked his companion rhetorically, mostly just wanting to fill the silence somehow. “I hope so. I’m beat, and tomorrow’s the day we make it into Midgar, so we won’t have any energy to waste.”

Placing the Buster Sword on the ground next to him, within arm’s reach just in case, he lied down next to Cloud. An uncomfortable feeling settled in his stomach as he laid flat, pillowing his head on his arms, and Zack interpreted it as hunger- last thing he’d eaten was that surprisingly delicious chili from the rest stop they’d visited around midday. He didn’t want to consider that it could be something else, like a bad gut feeling or some sort of stress. He didn’t want to think of it at all. He just wanted to lie next to Cloud, watch the stars, and pretend everything would be okay come morning.

“It’s never that easy, huh?” he muttered to himself, eyes turned to the star-speckled sky stretching above. “I wish the world could just leave the two of us alone for a change. The way we’re being treated, you’d think we committed a crime, or something.”

Something lurched in Zack’s chest when he spoke those words, something ugly and ominous that he’d been trying to keep under wraps since they left Shinra manor. It felt heavy and suffocating, and truthfully, Zack was scared to unpack it.

But then, the silence became oppressive, and one glance at Cloud’s motionless body had it all spilling it.

“We’re not criminals, Cloud.” The statement was made with such fierceness that it could have been mistaken for conviction. However, Zack knew it wasn’t. Deep down, it was all insecurity. And it ate him alive. “We’re not. We didn’t do anything wrong. We only ever did what we were told, we only ever chased our dreams, so why…?”

He took a deep breath, feeling the frustration kindling in his stomach.

“Genesis, Angeal… they didn’t have bad intentions, but they were still hunted like traitors.” He left out the part where he was the one who hunted them, because that would open up a different can of worms entirely. “Is that what’s happening to us? Are we gonna have to fight for our freedom for the rest of our lives, too?”

That’s all he wanted. He wouldn’t even ask for anything lofty, no dreams of revenge, no dreams of saving the world. He just wanted not to be afraid. He just wanted Cloud to have a life to live- one he could live without fear, a real life, something beyond a daily struggle for survival.

It didn’t feel like he was asking for much, and yet.

Turning on his side, he supported his head on one bent arm so that he could look at Cloud. The moon reflected in his bright but placid eyes, not a hint of life within them. It was a sight that Zack had gotten used to over the course of nearly nine months, but a sight that broke his heart regardless.

“Why does it always have to be me…?” he asked weakly, allowing himself to be vulnerable with nothing but the stars as his witness. “I was the one who killed Angeal… and then it was on me to stop Genesis… and now, you.” The admission made a knot swell in his throat, so suddenly that he choked. Only then, he realized that the noise that had escaped him had been a sob. “You… I got you into this mess by involving you at the Reactor… You wouldn’t be like this if I hadn’t… If only I’d told you to run away…”

Knowing Cloud, however, he wouldn’t have. Seeing both Tifa and Zack hurt by Sephiroth like that, he would never have backed down. That was just the type of person Cloud was. Courageous, virtuous, and now-

Now, worse than dead.

“I’m sorry,” was all that Zack could say in the face of truth. “I’m sorry. This is my fault, not yours. I’m not angry at you. It’s just…” he let out a huff that turned into a self-deprecating chuckle. “It’s just frustrating. Why did it have to be me?”

It was a difficult feeling to express, one that Zack visibly struggled with for a while. He didn’t hate Cloud at all- in fact, the blond was probably the only friend Zack had left in this world, the only person he could trust unconditionally, the one he held dearest in his heart. And perhaps that was why it was so hard to see him like this, to expend so much energy taking care of him and protecting him, without ever having the certainty that he’d be back to the person he used to be. The one whose memory Zack fell for and vowed to protect.

“I’m sorry,” is what he ended up saying again, because he had no words to accurately express the rest of what plagued him. “I’m sorry, Cloud. I’ve let you down.”

His hands itched to do something, anything, so he clenched his fists tightly. It didn’t seem to be enough, though. The young man in front of him seemed worlds and worlds away from him, and he may as well have been. Gone so far, Zack didn’t know if he could pull him back.

He’d do anything, though.

“I’d do anything,” he murmured to himself, and then, without giving it too much thought, reached out to pull Cloud against him.

The young man let himself be manipulated, rolling to the side until his face was buried in Zack’s chest. Zack hooked his chin over his head, enjoying the light tickle of his hair against his nose, relishing in the heavy weight of the body he held tightly in his arms. Cloud’s skin was cold, but he breathed, he was solid and real and alive, and that was an immense comfort for Zack, whose throat locked up with the realization that he wouldn’t have come so far without Cloud at his side.

It was Cloud’s wellbeing that had been his driving force throughout their journey. It was his concern for him that pushed him to fight, to try so hard. It had all been possible thanks to Cloud, and Zack felt powerless to express his gratitude. He couldn’t do anything for Cloud- he couldn’t even save him.

It was a moment in time in which he felt so alone, so isolated and abandoned that it broke his resolve.

Even before he knew it, a tear had rolled off his cheek, into Cloud’s hair.

“Sorry,” he said, his voice strangled by sorrow, even as his arms tightened near-painfully around Cloud. “It’s just… Everything so far… it’s all too much. It feels like I haven’t stopped to breathe, not since Modeoheim, not since everything began to fall apart… And now there’s just so much piled up that I don’t even know where to begin.”

He couldn’t even talk about it to anyone. Nobody would understand- nobody still alive, at the very least. Everyone who'd suffered like he had had already gone- either perished or turned their backs on him already. And, the last person left who could understand exactly where Zack’s pain lied was comatose, possibly beyond saving.

It really broke his heart in a single strike, more tears escaping his eyes.

“Please, Cloud,” he said, a sob cutting him off as his most suppressed emotions began to rise out of his chest. “You’re the only one I have left, the only one who gets it. Wherever you are, please, I hope you’re listening. I can’t do this on my own, I can’t.” He sniffled as more tears welled up, and he curled his body just a little tighter against Cloud, tangling their legs together, trying to keep him as close as possible, afraid of him drifting away where he stood. “Please, when you wake up, I need for you not to forget all that’s happened. I wish that you’d remember everything we did, everything I said, everything we went through, no matter how painful. If you remember, then I won’t have to be alone, and I… I just… don’t want to feel left behind by everyone that I love.” Angeal. Aerith. “Not again.”

Cloud predictably enough did not answer him, but just this once, Zack didn’t need him to. This one time, just holding him tight was enough to comfort him as he cried, letting all of his traumas, all of his fears and worries roll off of him. His grief for Angeal, the hurt of Sephiroth’s betrayal, the four years of torture at Hojo’s hands, the terror of their escape, the stress of persecution, the burden of realizing Genesis’ dream, Aerith’s farewell, his powerlessness to care for his only friend, the anxiety of having the Turks on their trail, the apprehension of returning to Midgar… Everything came up all at once, so much so that Zack’s sobs slowly escalated into full-on crying, raw and painful and nonetheless cathartic.

As he shook himself apart, finally after five years of suffering for things out of his control, Zack gradually began to feel like a semblance of human. And when, slowly, unexpectedly, Cloud raised one of his arms to drape it loosely over Zack’s waist, seemingly returning his embrace, he could only find it in him to cling a little tighter.

Holding themselves together, they spent the night under the watchful gaze of the heavens, just the two of them and raw, exposed, vulnerable.

And when morning found them, still entwined tightly like a lifeline to one another, it brought with it a brand new, foreign feeling; peace.

…-…-…-…

If he’d looked back, he would’ve seen Cloud reaching out for him, eyes wide and scared, trying his best not to let Zack go forth on his own, towards his untimely demise. He wouldn’t know that, though, because Zack was not one to turn back once he’d found his resolve.

And this was it, this was his resolve; that to stand between Cloud and the world, to fight for a life he could lead freely and happily. To reclaim the time that had been stolen from them, to regain control of their own lives from the hands of those who claimed to own them. 

This was his final stand.

He didn’t look back as he walked forth to meet his destiny, but if he had, he would’ve seen Cloud begging him to stay.

“Boy, oh boy. The price of freedom is steep.”

…-…-…-…

Dust settled on the battlefield only once it all ended, and the last man fell. And yet, despite the tranquility, something felt off with Zack's victory. So much so that when he was left standing after the last of the Shinra infantrymen fell, it took a moment for him to process it.

Panting, in pain, but so, so blissfully alive, he leaned his weight on the Buster Sword for a second to take it all in.

“Wait…” he gasped out, forcing the words out of his battered body with sheer power of will. “Was that… all of ‘em…?”

The disbelief didn’t ebb as he looked around the site of the massacre, dead bodies and crashed helicopters littering the wasteland. Something inside of him screamed that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, that something had gone wrong, that this outcome would change so many things down the line, but none of those feelings held a candle to the sheer relief and elation that welled up in Zack’s heart. The battlefield was finally quiet. He’d had done that. He’d won.

“Hey Cloud,” he called out, painstakingly making his way back to the outcropping where he’d left his friend. One foot in front of the other, each step punctuated by the sound of metal dragging on rock, he dragged himself forward, never looking back. “You see that?”

One more step, and the relief of the moment was interrupted when something suddenly exploded behind Zack, the shockwaves sending him flying forward into the ground.

A cry of surprise and pain tore itself out of his throat as he impacted the rocky ground, his entire body exhausted and aching. Fear struck his heart- if a second wave of reinforcements came for him now, he knew he had no chance at beating them. It was so frustrating, coming so far, only for the ground to be swept out from beneath his feet again.

Gritting his teeth, Zack pushed himself up on shaky arms, glancing up at the source of the explosion. It was nothing that he could’ve expected, however.

Instead of fire raining down from the sky, it looked more like a shower of crystals had fallen upon Midgar in the distance. The sky darkened momentarily, clouds swirling ominously around the Shinra tower, and then, it all broke, shattering with an audible tingling sound that dissipated in the air.

The crystalline petals lifted from Midgar, spreading across the sky before fluttering down, floating around Zack like flower petals dancing in the breeze. He didn’t have any idea what they were, but the sight of them made him feel warm and safe. Something about them made him feel stronger, more determined to finish his journey, as if they’d given him an opportunity he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Heeding that instinct, he pushed himself up again and stowed away his sword, lifting his eyes to the gorgeous blue sky above and watching the crystals fall upon him like a gentle snow.

He basked in the sunshine for another minute before turning back to find Cloud again. Though they’d won this standoff, there was no telling when Shinra would send more men to apprehend them. They had to make it to Midgar as quickly as possible.

Limping towards Cloud, he fell to his knees next to him as he arrived, eyebrows raising high when he noticed that Cloud tracked his movements. His bright eyes didn’t seem so blank anymore, somehow.

“Alive…” he rasped out as Zack hit the ground next to him, and Zack felt his heart stutter at the sound of his voice.

“Yeah, I’m alive.” Scratches, wounds and bullet holes riddled his body, making him look worse for wear, but he was alive, and that’s all that mattered. “What, didn’t think I would be?” he teased, just to take the edge off of the adrenaline crash that he felt creeping up on him. His hand automatically came up to Cloud’s head to ruffle his hair again, but before he could make it, Cloud’s grip closed upon his wrist.

Zack’s smile fell as he watched Cloud’s wide eyes scrutinize his expression. The poor boy looked terrified, or shell-shocked, like he was looking at a ghost instead of Zack.

“You’re… alive,” he repeated sluggishly, dragging Zack’s outstretched arm down to hold it with both hands in his lap. “Zack.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am,” Zack assured him in a quieter voice, a small, sad smile stretching on his face when he saw the exact moment that Cloud’s eyes filled up with tears. “Sorry for scaring you, Cloudy. I’m still here.”

The tears dripped off Cloud’s cheeks silently, not so different from the crystalline petals that had rained down on Zack. He didn’t make any noise, as if his body couldn’t process that he was crying, and the disjointed emotional response made something twist in Zack’s chest.

Not saying a single word, he scooted forward and enveloped Cloud in a tight embrace. Cloud didn’t return it, but he did settle his chin over Zack’s shoulder, leaning his head against the side of his face.

They stayed that way for a while, long after Cloud was done crying, long after the sun peaked in the sky. It was only then that Zack felt strong enough to move again, untangling their bodies gently when he noted that Cloud had his eyes closed, either sleeping or back into a state of unresponsiveness. Midgar still awaited them in the distance, closer than ever.

“Okay, let’s head out,” he decided, getting into a crouch and helping Cloud stand by placing one of his limp arms around his neck. They both stumbled a bit as they stood, but Zack definitely felt a little better rested than before. His body had already begun to weave itself back together, and although he desperately needed a little help from high-level cure materia, or at the very least a doctor, he felt confident in being able to get them to Midgar. This pain couldn't stop him, not now. 

Slowly, as their pace had always been, they began to walk towards the towering city in the distance. The wasteland seemed to stretch out indefinitely before them, but Zack knew it to be a trick of the eye. By nightfall, they’d be in Midgar, and that thought spurred him forward.

They encountered no further resistance from Shinra on their way back, a blessing in disguise as Zack could feel exhaustion tugging at his very bones with each step he took. He could probably take a monster or two if it came to it, but nothing more, especially out here in the open where there were few places to keep Cloud safe while he fought.

With about an hour left to the trek, dusk fell upon them, bringing with it a gentle rain. The drops rolled over them like a caress, warm and soothing as they washed away the blood and grime covering their exhausted bodies. The mud beneath their feet squelched under their unhalted advance, each dragging step feeling like a step closer to freedom at last. The wasteland felt devoid of all life other than the two of them, chasing the great shadow of Midgar stretching out in front of them as they emerged from the fog rising from the dusty ground.

“Almost there, Cloud,” he promised, chest tight, and adjusted his grip on Cloud with a grunt as the young man’s dead weight began to slip off him, wet with the same rain that promised them a new beginning. “We’re almost there,” he said once more, and lifted his eyes to the city that awaited patiently to welcome them home.

…-…-…-…

When they entered Midgar, Zack took a moment to reorient himself, trying to find landmarks in the wreckage around them to figure out where to go next. They’d come in through some sort of scrapyard, but he didn’t even know via which sector they'd entered. Everything looked all the same to him, broken metal piled up everywhere and tall fences to keep it all contained.

Eventually, their wandering led them to some sort of crossroad, at which point night had already fallen upon the undercity. A few quick looks at some directional signs enlightened Zack as to where they were, and he pointedly avoided the curious stares of the slums citizens who watched as he dragged Cloud over to a bench nearby.

“Let’s take a minute here,” he sighed out, plopping down next to Cloud to stretch his legs. “Man, I’m beat. Still don’t know where to go for tonight, either. I would’ve liked to go find Aerith as soon as possible, but we’re in the zone between sectors six and seven. There’s no way we’re making it to Sector Five tonight.”

Cloud didn’t respond, eyes glazed over and shining brightly in the darkness. He likely had exhausted himself earlier on in the day, which justified his lack of responsiveness during the last leg of their journey. Zack wasn’t too worried. He had, after all, managed to have a conversation of sorts with him today.

Who would’ve known that it would’ve taken a death scare to get it out of him.

“I guess we’ll just have to find a place to settle for the night, and try again tomorrow,” he decided, and took another minute on the bench before standing up. “Okay, let’s go. I can’t wait to lie down, and I promise I won’t even be picky about where we go,” he quipped, throwing Cloud’s arm around his neck again to hoist him up by the waist. Cloud silently fell into step with him once again as Zack led them on.

After a short debate with himself over their destination, Zack elected to take them to Wall Market. Not only was it closest to them, but he had a feeling that the rowdy crowd at this time of night wouldn’t even blink at the sight of them. It would have to do until Zack got back up on his feet.

It took them another hour to cross the Sector Six wreckage and make it into the bounds of Wall Market, with only a few annoying monster encounters here and there to keep Zack on his toes. By the time the music and voices of the gaudy town came within earshot, Zack was truly and entirely burnt out.

As he’d predicted, however, nobody seemed alarmed at the sight of two beat up young men limping through the streets packed with bodies out for a good time.

“Lost that scuffle, didn’t ya, kid?” someone called out to Zack as he passed them by, still hearing their laughter long after he’d left them behind.

“If you’ve had a bit too much to drink, why not come in and rest for the night?” a barker in front of Wall Market’s many motels offered as he watched Zack drag Cloud around like a predator having spotted prey.

“No thanks.” As tempting as it sounded to sleep on a bed, Zack knew that the ridiculous rates on these types of rooms would be a headache he didn’t want to deal with tomorrow. “We’ll be fine.”

“If you change your mind, though, you know where to find us!” The man continued on, even as Zack walked away.

The crowd, the lights, the smells and sounds all became a bit too overwhelming eventually, so much so that Zack’s head began to pound. By the time he broke away from the busiest areas of the town, he wanted to crawl under a rock and sleep for four more years.

“Gosh, it really doesn’t get noisier than Wall Market, huh?” He winced at the sound of shattering glass somewhere behind him, not looking back as voices began to rise. “What’s a man gotta do to get some peace and quiet around these parts?”

Zack didn’t expect a response from Cloud, still pushing forward in this new direction. At the top of the staircase at the end of the street, Don Corneo’s palace loomed above all else, and Zack knew, from his rookie days of adventuring through the town, that few would dare cause a commotion near it for fear of reprisal from the Don himself.

The more he walked towards it, the quieter it got, and the more at ease he felt. Taking a sharp right just before crossing the first gate up to the palace, he adventured into an empty-looking alley that led into a path filled with more rubble and broken machinery. Wall Market had become but a faded cacophony in the background, and so that’s where Zack decided to call it a day.

“One last night of sleeping under the stars, Cloud,” he chuckled, letting his friend slide down to the ground and immediately sliding down with him. He placed his weapon at his side before lying down, letting out a groan of ecstasy as he finally laid flat, and glancing upward. Past the smog constantly hanging in the undercity air, he could see the lights from the underside of the nearby plates. “Or, well, I guess we can’t really see any stars in Midgar, but you get what I mean.”

Turning to glance at Cloud, he laughed when he noticed that the young man’s eyes were closed, fast asleep already. His face was relaxed, even if his hair was still plastered against his forehead with residual humidity. His clothes clung to his skinny body, worn and torn but surprisingly enough, still holding strong after nine months of use. If Zack really focused, he could catch onto the tendrils of mako wafting off of him, though they were nowhere near in potency as the last few months.

He was getting better. Slowly, but surely. And at this point, the chances were slim of him not making a full recovery.

“I’m proud of you, Cloud,” Zack murmured, turning on his side to get a good look at his friend’s serene expression. “You made it. We made it together through some sheer stroke of luck, or maybe some kind of divine intervention. Who knows,” he chuckled that last bit out, and almost instinctively, seamlessly, reached out to pull Cloud into his arms again.

It didn’t feel right to fall asleep without holding onto him, and it wouldn’t feel right to wake up without him in his arms. Zack wondered just when that shift in their relationship happened, but it didn’t feel like a question he could answer. Maybe there was something all along that had slowly woven that bond through them in subtle ways, ever since that snowy mountain on which they’d met. And this was the culmination of it; an attachment, a devotion that Zack didn’t even bother explaining.

It was different from what he’d felt for Aerith, but welcome nonetheless. It felt like something had fallen into place, a piece of him that had been rattling around for a while without finding where it belonged, not until he’d taken Cloud in his arms and felt his heartbeat against his skin.

“Well, whatever it was that kept us together through it all, I’m glad for it,” he murmured, leaning his head against Cloud’s and making himself comfortable. “I wish that whoever is out there watching over us keeps at it, because they’ve done a real good job of it so far.”

Be it the goddess, or destiny, or even someone who’d fought against destiny, Zack could tell that their adventure had come to a close like this because they’d been helped. Since he didn’t know who to thank, he just stayed quiet, enjoying the lullaby of Cloud’s breathing until he, too, fell asleep.

The best thanks would be to make the most of the life they’d been gifted.

…-…-…-…

Zack wasn’t able to leave for Sector Five for another two weeks, mostly because of one important and unexpected development; the sudden return of Cloud’s bodily functions. The first morning they’d spent in the now-quiet streets of Wall Market, Cloud had complained about being hungry, which opened up a brand new door of things they needed to deal with. The change in his body proved that the mako really was wearing off and thinning in his veins, but that also meant that he would become a lot more high-maintenance now that his body was no longer in stasis.

Thankfully, Cloud was able to adapt quickly, despite still having transient periods of catatonia or unresponsiveness. Most of the time, he floated around Zack, not doing much and not really speaking, but able to keep up with him while he ran errands for the inhabitants of Wall Market to secure them their next meal. Whenever anyone asked, Zack said that he and Cloud were just traveling mercenaries.

“Your companion follows you like a chocobo chick after its mother,” one of the old ladies down in the main square had once said, amusedly watching Cloud trail behind Zack as he ran from place to place to make deliveries for the pharmacist.

“Hear that, Cloud?” Zack had teased him endlessly after that, ruffling his hair and pinching his nose. “You look like a chocobo chick, apparently.”

“Stop.” Cloud gruffly swatted his bothersome hands away from his face, leaving Zack to walk off, laughing.

It wasn’t the easiest routine, and Cloud oftentimes got exhausted from trying to keep up with Zack while also balancing his precarious state of consciousness, but he didn’t allow himself to be left behind, no matter what.

And in the moments in which he lost himself to the mako haze once again, eyes blank and body limp, Zack stayed with him until he woke with a soft apology on his lips. Zack never minded it. He’d spent nine months worrying about the worst of Cloud’s condition, so the occasional relapse never really bothered him. He knew that it was all part of the process of recovery.

Two weeks after they arrived in Midgar, though, he suffered a true relapse, and it threw Zack completely off because he wasn’t expecting his condition to worsen at any point in time.

Just like any poisoning case, the recovery was supposedly linear. So, when Zack woke up one morning to find Cloud lost in his own head again, he tried not to worry.

He only began to worry when, by nighttime, Cloud still hadn’t regained awareness. That was highly unusual of him, his relapses only lasting half-days at best, especially now that his body had picked up functioning again. Usually, he’d pull himself out of his catatonia to fulfill one of his needs, but this time, Cloud made no move to wake.

Zack tried to sit him up and feed him something easy to swallow like pudding, but Cloud didn’t have the reflex to swallow it, choking when Zack tilted his head to help. He immediately gave up, not wanting to fill his friend’s lungs with pudding, but the worry stagnated in the back of his mind.

If Cloud’s body continued to perform its basic functions, but Cloud didn’t regain enough awareness to fulfill his basic needs, then he’d waste away. Zack would have to get him hospitalized and taken care of, and that was certainly not an option right now, not with their still-hot status as fugitives.

He simply cleaned him up for the night and tucked him into the bed they shared in the tiny single-room studio they’d rented above the jungle of Wall Market’s businesses, staying up to keep vigil overnight. Just in case.

Cloud gave no sign of life come morning either, and that’s when Zack began to worry, truly. His eyes looked a little more sunken than usual, and his skin a little drier, all signs clearly pointing towards dehydration, which was likely what would kill him if Zack didn’t manage to get something into him soon.

By noon, after his fifth unsuccessful attempt to give Cloud sips of water that ended up straight in his lungs, Zack decided that he didn’t have time to stand idle anymore.

“Okay, Cloud,” he decided, throwing the Buster Sword over his back before pulling Cloud up from the bed. An entire day of immobility had made his joints stiff, and Zack belatedly regretted not helping him do some passive exercises, at least to avoid the audible cracking of his knees when he was pulled to his feet. “Let’s go. We’ve wasted enough time waiting for ideal circumstances, so we’re just gonna go ahead and do it today.”

Taking a deep breath, he pulled Cloud into the stumbling shuffle he’d gotten used to over their nine months of travel, and they headed out the door on a mission.

“It’s finally time for you to meet Aerith.”

…-…-…-…

With no time to spare, Zack led them towards Sector Five, carrying Cloud in his arms as soon as they exited Wall Market in order to conserve his energy. He didn’t know where exactly to find Aerith, but he figured that her church would be a safe bet, and set out for it all whilst appeasing the concerns of the citizens who noticed how Cloud was completely limp and unresponsive in his arms.

They made it to the church in the early afternoon, having traveled much faster with Zack carrying Cloud than if they’d walked. The dilapidated structure stood tall amongst the wreckage around it, its dirty white stone starkly contrasting with the twisted metal littering the area around it. Zack felt like a pilgrim of some sort, having walked all the way to step foot into the sanctuary before him, asking for salvation. He pushed the creaking wooden door open with his back as he entered, stepping into an atmosphere that somehow seemed completely different. Serene.

The white columns rose to tower above him, half-rotten wooden pews lined up and plunged in the penumbra cast by the remaining parts of the wooden roof above. Dust floated in the air, blown in by the same breeze that made the unlit chandeliers swing lightly from the ceiling, creaking near-inaudibly with each back-and-forth of the chain. There was a hole in the roof that Zack knew very well- intimately so, even. From it, gentle, diffuse light shone down upon the flower patch that grew in a hole through the floorboards, caressing the yellow petals almost lovingly.

The church was completely empty, and Zack’s slow footsteps filled the air with a proof of life as he slowly walked down the aisle, trying not to let sadness wind itself around his heart. This church had been a big part of his past life. He found comfort within its walls that he couldn’t find anywhere else, and seeing it exist just the way it had been five years ago made him nostalgic, sorrowful. There were memories tied to this place that he could never forget, memories of a better time that he could never return to.

Perhaps that was what made those memories especially bittersweet; the knowledge that they would hereafter remain nothing but fragments of his past.

“Here we are,” he simply breathed, loathe to disturb the serenity of the holy grounds. He stopped at the foot of the flower patch and looked down at them, admiring how the petals quivered in the whistling breeze that wafted through the holes in the stone walls.

Wordlessly, he knelt, offering Cloud’s body to the light that streamed in from above. He gently set him down in the patch, careful not to crush the yellow flowers, and softly laid his head down on the grass before withdrawing his hands.

Like this, with his hair fanned out around him and his pale skin tinted yellow by the light, Cloud could’ve been dead. The imperceptible movements of his chest and his half-lidded, vacant eyes were the only sign of life he still gave, not that it was much to go off of. At the sight of him, Zack released a long sigh that had been building in his chest during their entire journey here. It didn’t make him feel any better once it was out, anxiety still sitting heavily on his chest. After having brought Cloud here, he was completely powerless in regard to all else.

Everything would be in Aerith’s hands from here on out. Until then, he could only wait.

“I’m here,” he assured Cloud in a murmur, hoping that wherever he had gone, he could still hear, and could still find comfort in Zack’s presence at his side.

Kneeling, he waited, flowers brushing his knees when a particularly strong breeze ran through them, ruffling the strands of Cloud’s hair and releasing specks of pollen to shimmer in the light cascading from above. In the silence of the church, Zack wondered if anyone ever came here to pray. If he himself knew any prayers, surely he would have said one now.

He didn’t know how long he waited, eyes upon Cloud’s face and nowhere else, watching his sluggish blinks with an uneasy apprehension. The silence in the church was only interrupted eventually when the front door creaked, announcing that someone had entered.

Footsteps halted at the entrance of the church. At that moment, Zack took a deep breath, and got up.

He turned, and oh- Aerith had changed in the time he’d been gone.

“I see,” she simply said, her voice soft but vulnerable as it rang out in the silence. Her hair was braided in a ponytail, the pink ribbon that Zack remembered from their better days still in her hair. She had grown up wonderfully to fill the shoes of a young woman, just as he’d imagined she would in his past dreams.

But at the sight of her, he did not feel the same tugging in his stomach that he’d felt the first time. He felt warm and soothed, but there was no longer anything intense in his heart that responded to the long-lost sight of her.

He was just happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

“I figured that when something called me towards the church, something important would be happening,” Aerith continued, taking a few steps forward, as if unsure if she should be approaching Zack. “I never imagined that it would be you. Zack.”

“Aerith,” he quickly mirrored, and stepped forward urgently.

She, too, walked faster, until the two of them were nearly jogging to meet in the middle. Time seemed to slow as they arrived face to face, and then sped back up, making Zack realize that he didn’t know how to act around her anymore.

Aerith seemed to be facing the same dilemma, awkwardly swinging her weight from side to side as if hesitating on what to do next. Neither of them had ever been awkward personalities, more the spontaneous type to follow their hearts and regret things later, so this was a strange reunion that Zack could never have foreseen.

“I’m glad to see you,” Aerith finally settled on saying, opting for something safe. A shy, but genuine smile bloomed upon her face like a flower opening up to sunlight, and it warmed Zack’s heart. “I didn’t think you’d get my letters after all this time.”

“Just the last one,” Zack admitted. “I got it about a month ago… And it brought me back here as quickly as possible.”

“Did it?” Aerith asked, eyes widening slightly, searching Zack’s face for the lie.

There was no lie to be found. The fire on Zack’s heels had truly been lit by the knowledge that even Aerith had given up on him, that four years had passed without his knowledge and that he was losing one more thing he thought he’d always have.

“It did,” Zack nodded, but then, before Aerith could go off on that train of thought, he decided to be truthful with her. He couldn’t bear to break her heart. He didn’t feel the same love for her anymore, but she was still dear to him, and Zack would hate to strain his relationship with her.

Not that Aerith would allow it to strain, knowing how stubborn she could get.

“Aerith,” he finally said, his voice dropping lower as he brought the heart of the matter to the table. “I came back because I need your help.”

“My help?” Aerith parroted, curious and a bit concerned. “What with?”

“Him,” Zack answered, and stepped aside to let her see Cloud’s body, where he’d left him to rest in his bed of flowers.

He watched silently as Aerith’s eyes went to the figure in her flower patch, glancing at him from afar before her lips parted lightly in shock. Wordlessly, she stepped forward, not even hesitating to brush past Zack and head towards Cloud. Zack let out a soft sigh, glad that it had all gone well, before following her.

She knelt in the same spot that Zack had been when she arrived at Cloud’s side, putting a hand out to hover it over Cloud’s chest, as if afraid of touching him. Zack knew she’d figured out the problem just by a single glance at his eyes, and his faith in her tripled when she pursed her lips in thought.

“This is Cloud,” he introduced softly, standing behind her and glancing back down to Cloud’s comatose body. “He’s the reason I came back. And he’s… to me, he’s…”

“Zack,” Aerith stopped him when he clearly found it difficult to finish the sentence, turning her head to look up at him. There was concern etched on his face, but she dispelled his worries with another smile, just as warm and understanding as the first one. “I understand.”

“Really?” Zack couldn’t help but ask, relief coursing through him at the knowledge that Aerith still had his back. He didn’t know why he’d doubted her, in retrospect. That girl really was something else.

“Of course, silly,” she teased, having a quick laugh at his expense before getting back. “Now, if you’re done acting strange, let’s take Cloud somewhere where I can take a better look at him. Poor guy… It hasn’t been easy for either of you, huh?”

“Right.” Mouth dry, Zack crouched to pull Cloud back into a carry, feeling an indescribable relief at having his solid weight in his arms again. “Aerith,” he called, turning around once Cloud was secure against his chest, only to find her already walking down the aisle, towards the door, leaving the two of them to bask in the light filtering from above. “Thank you,” he said, and meant it. His gratitude for her had no bounds, but he had no other words to use.

Thankfully, Aerith seemed to understand the intent, playfully waving him over as she walked out into the light.

“No problem. Now come on! My house is this way.”

“Coming,” Zack called back, and walked towards her without turning back. In his arms, Cloud felt like a fading presence, but one that Zack would cling onto desperately, until world’s end, until the sky itself fell and pried them apart. “I’m coming, Cloud.”

…-…-…-…

Whatever Aerith had done, she swore it would work, and Zack had no reason to doubt her. For that reason, when the moon rose high in the sky, and she and Zack found nothing else to catch up on around cold cups of tea, he excused himself to Cloud’s room to keep an eye on him. If he woke up, Zack wanted to be the first one to know.

He made himself comfortable on the ground next to Cloud’s bed, leaning against the foot of it to count the hours away. He didn’t know when Cloud would wake up, but Aerith had promised that it would be soon.

Soothed by that assurance, Zack eventually drifted into a light sleep, letting himself truly relax for the first time since he could remember.

When he woke, it was to the gentle call of his name.

“…Zack?”

Zack’s eyes snapped open, drawn from his usual light sleep to turn around. It was still nighttime, the moonlight falling through the windowpane and casting shadows upon Cloud’s anxious expression as he sat up, looking around for his friend.

“Hey,” Zack greeted him, ignoring how tight his throat had gotten at the sight of him. “You okay?”

“Where are we?” Cloud asked a little urgently, wincing when he moved too quickly. “Everything… hurts.”

“We’re in Aerith’s house. You’ve been out for two days,” Zack offered as an explanation. “Probably a bad relapse. Aerith did something and snapped you out of it.” Getting off the floor, Zack went to the bedside table and picked up the glass of water that Aerith had left there for Cloud’s awakening. “Here, drink this. Two days of complete immobility haven’t done your body any favours.”

“Urgh,” Cloud simply agreed, accepting the glass and chugging it down without pausing to breathe. Zack watched him fondly, and returned the glass to the table once Cloud was done.

“You feeling better?” Zack asked then, sitting on the edge of the bed to be at eye-level with Cloud. “You honestly had me worried for a while there.”

“Really?” Cloud cocked his head, as if not understanding. “You… did this… for a long time.”

“This wasn’t like when we were on the run. Your body kept going while you were locked in, so you would’ve wasted away within days like this,” Zack explained, and although Cloud clearly didn’t understand it all, he still accepted the explanation with a shrug.

“Okay,” he said flatly, seemingly still struggling to express himself past the last dregs of overdosed mako still holding him down. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Zack snorted, ruffling his hair, and laughing harder when Cloud slowly reached up to push his hand off. “I’m glad you’re better.”

“Yeah,” Cloud nodded, looking like he wanted to say more, but being unable to express his thoughts. It would come with time, Zack supposed. “Zack. Sleep?”

“Still tired, huh?” Zack chuckled fondly, getting off the bed. “Alright then. Holler if you need anything.”

“No,” Cloud stopped him firmly, looking away and surprisingly enough, turning red in the face. Curious, Zack waited for him to find his words, although this time, it seemed like he knew what he wanted to say and was debating whether to say it or not. It was a fresh, surprising look on him. “Zack. Sleep,” he insisted again, hands curling around the bed covers.

Zack watched him fidget for a little longer, and though he didn’t quite understand what Cloud wanted, he had a feeling it wasn’t anything too complicated.

“Alright, then,” he decided, approaching the bed again and waving Cloud away. “Scoot over.”

Cloud did just that, moving slowly until he was against the wall, although he still hadn’t looked Zack in the eyes. As the latter slid under the covers, he found this whole situation a bit cute.

He couldn’t lie and say that when Cloud slid into his habitual place in his arms, though, he didn’t feel the same contented happiness he always felt when holding onto Cloud. There was just something about having him close that reassured Zack more than anything. Tucking Cloud’s forehead in the crook of his neck, he tangled their legs and set his head down on the pillow.

All was well again. Not perfect, but well. Despite the ups and downs they were sure to face come tomorrow, and the day after that, Zack had faith that the two of them would continue to rise to the challenges set out for them.

It already felt like they’d cheated destiny once, so there really wasn’t much else to be afraid of for the future.

“Night, Cloud,” Zack whispered against his hair like a secret. “I wish that things only look up for us from here on out.”

“Do that a lot,” Cloud grunted from underneath him, drawing back just enough to lock gazes with him.

“Oh, yeah?” Zack prompted, lying back a little to make the conversation more comfortable. “What do you mean?”

“Wish,” Cloud elaborated. “You have a lot.”

“I do, don’t I?” Zack laughed. “You remember all of them?”

“Too many,” Cloud rolled his eyes, a cute motion that drew another chuckle out of Zack. “Don’t remember… everything. But… I heard you. When you talked. Always… I always listened. I don’t… remember a lot. But, enough.”

“So…” The smile fell from Zack’s face as he considered the truth of what Cloud was telling him. “All this time. You were in there? You knew what was going on?”

“Not all,” Cloud shook his head slowly. “Sometimes… it was just white. Or green. Comes and goes.”

Zack figured that Cloud would have an easier time explaining the complex and horrific experience of being trapped in his own catatonic body once he regained full control of his thoughts again, so he didn’t try to understand everything. All he needed to know was that Cloud had been with him all along, not just like a ghost, but as a friend. He’s listened when Zack needed him to. And he’d fought when Zack needed him to, all in his own way. 

He’d never been alone, all this time. Cloud had been there, and he’d remembered.

“Well, I’m glad,” he sighed out, feeling so much fondness blooming in his heart that it nearly took his breath away. “Glad that some of my many tiny little wishes ended up coming true.”

“Yeah?” Cloud hummed softly, curiously. “How many?”

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe, like… twenty-three?” He shared the private joke with himself, one that Cloud clearly didn’t understand, if the sight of his confused expression was any clue.

“Twenty-three?” he repeated, furrowing his brows as if trying to recall all of them. Zack was sure he’d made more than that, for wishes were all he had left in his most desperate moments on the run, but he didn’t want to try and explain all that to Cloud while he still wasn’t all there.

“Tell ya what, I’ll make it easy for you,” Zack offered, still finding the entire situation quite funny. “I’ll put all of my wishes into one, so it’s easy to remember.”

“Just one?” Cloud asked, eyes wide and full of wonder.

Zack couldn’t name the feeling that made his heart beat at that moment, but he knew that he wanted to keep it there forever.

“Just one,” he nodded, and drew Cloud back against him to end the conversation and instead focus on his slow, soothing heartbeat. “I want to be happy together with you.”

Silence settled on both of them like a warm blanket in the wake of Zack’s declaration, comfortable and safe. Zack shuffled a little more to find his best spot with Cloud in his arms, not minding the moonlight that caressed his face through the window, letting him run his gaze over Cloud’s tired but innocent features.

As if sensing that there was one last thing left unsaid, Cloud relaxed in Zack’s arms and leaned into him, breathing deep.

“That’s a good one,” he agreed simply, and that was how it was settled. Under the blankets, bathed it moonlight, the two of them began a new journey forward, together.

“Yeah,” Zack hummed softly, and, leaning his head over Cloud’s, he closed his eyes.