Fandom/Pairing: Final Fantasy VII - Zack/Cloud
Rating: PG-R this section for glossed m/m smexins and Cid's foul mouth
A/N: So I was going to try and post the whole thing together, but the last section is still giving me grief, so you can have this part for now!
Summary: Fantasy AU. Zack and Cloud are blood brothers - two souls bonded by one fate. But what happens when one brother is lost and the other has to sacrifice everything he is to try and save him?
Flying, Cloud quickly learned, was not one of his preferred methods of travel.
“Unbelievable,” Cid sighed, as Cloud trailed pale-faced and unhappy into the cockpit. “Not even a day in the sky and you’re already sick. You sure you’re an air affinite?”
Cloud blinked at him, knowing there was a perfectly legitimate answer to that, if only his insides would stop churning long enough to let him think of it. “Erm…”
Cid shook his head in disgust. “Never mind. Go below and pass out for a while or something,” he ordered, turning his attention back to the helm. “You’re giving me a headache just looking at’cha.”
“Oh.” Cloud thought about that. “Sorry.”
“I don’t care, just get out of here already, fuck!”
Cloud listed unsteadily on his way out of the cockpit, one hand pressed heavily against the wall for balance. The aeroship rolled unpleasantly beneath him as he went, each lift and swell making his stomach do uncomfortable flip-flops inside him. It really shouldn’t have been that much worse than the rocking of a ship at sea or the jolting trundle of the Gyptan caravan he’d grown up in, but the ponderous sway creak of the aeroship seemed rather more… constant than Cloud was able to ignore.
He nearly ran into Vincent on his way down to his bunk, the deck pitching suddenly beneath him and sending him stumbling heavily. Vincent caught him by the shoulders before he could hit the floor, his grip firm and strong.
“Sorry,” Cloud muttered, weaving in place.
The look on Vincent’s face was somewhere between amused and sympathetic. “Rest on the upper deck for a while,” the man suggested. “The air might help.”
Cloud nodded, then halted abruptly as the motion made his head spin. Vincent held him upright until Cloud was more or less steady on his feet again, then released him and continued on his way. A few more seconds to get his bearings and Cloud struck out determinedly for the stairs to the deck, reeling like a sailor.
It was probably his imagination that he could hear Vincent chuckling in the hallway behind him.
The wind on his face was a welcome distraction as he stepped out onto the deck and Cloud breathed in deeply, relieved to find his nausea fading slightly. He stood there for several long moments, letting his element calm him before making his careful way towards the stern of the ship. They were sailing over the plains now, heading towards the heavy crag of the Cosmo Mountains. Cloud turned away from the sight of their destination and peered instead over the miles of unbroken plains and the steadily shrinking village they’d left behind that morning.
He propped his elbows against the rail running around the edge of the deck, leaning forward just a little as he waited for his heartbeat to slow. The steady boom of the sails overhead was strangely soothing – for mind and stomach both – and Cloud wondered absently what Zack would say when he found out that Cloud had actually ridden on an aeroship. Besides demanding a ride of his own, of course – there was no way Zack would miss out on a opportunity like this. Even though he’d probably spend most of the trip hovering at Cloud’s side, too worried about his motion sickness to enjoy himself the way he ought to.
The wind ruffled through his hair as Cloud slumped forward into the cradle of his arms, fighting back a wistful sigh. It was hard to stay calm, knowing where this ship was taking him, what he might find there. It was a good lead too, better than he’d had in months, and though Cloud steeled himself not to get his hopes up, he could feel the barely contained anticipation curling inside of him, purring around his nerves and buoying his heart until he was practically thrumming with the desire to just be there already and find out for sure.
Which was not good, because he’d spent the last two years and more tracking vague hints and dead-end trails across the world, exhausting himself with hope until every failure weighed around his neck like a chain, heavy and inescapable. Some days, he almost wished he didn’t have to keep deluding himself this way, putting his faith in a journey that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end.
Not that he intended to give up on Zack, not for anything, but it… hurt to keep pressing onwards by himself, knowing that every lead that fell flat made it that much less likely that there actually was anybody out there who would be able to fix his brother. And it wasn’t like he was much help either, not with a tattered soul that hardly knew who it was supposed to be and a mind with more holes in it than memories. Even if he found someone willing to try, how could he expect them to reverse a curse that Cloud couldn’t even describe to them?
The sun was low in the sky by the time Cid came out onto the deck and found Cloud half-slumped over the railing, staring moodily at the bronze-gilded world below and lost in thoughts of a pair of bright violet eyes and a merry laugh he hadn’t heard in far too long.
“Oi,” Cid called, gruff but not unkind. “You’re gonna fall off if you try to sleep there.” Cloud didn’t answer and Cid shook his head, hair shining orange in the light. “Come on. We’ve got some food goin below deck.”
Cloud’s stomach, which had been deceptively silent up until now, rebelled violently at the thought of food, but Cloud did his best to ignore it. Not eating was just foolish, no matter how poorly he felt – especially if he didn’t want to be about as weak and terrifying as a kitten when they finally touched down.
“Thank you,” he nodded, straightening from his slouch to wobble across the deck after Cid.
“Whatever.” Cloud caught the flick of an eye as Cid glanced over one shoulder. “So, you enjoy the view?”
“It’s beautiful,” Cloud admitted candidly, able to appreciate at least that much, and Cid humphed.
“Well, at least you’re not a total loss,” the aeronaut remarked, chewing thoughtfully on the end of his cigarette. “I was starting to wonder.” He started down the steps with a beckoning nod. “Come on.”
Cloud did so, filing his hopes and fears carefully away in the back of his mind, determined not to let himself get overwrought about this. As long as he kept moving forward he knew he’d find a way to fix Zack eventually. Probably.
And Zack would likely have had something suitably pithy to say about that, but Cloud didn’t even try. Surviving through dinner was going to be more than enough for him to manage as it was.
“Come on, Cloud!” Zack cajoled, rolling over onto his stomach in the grass and fixing Cloud with his best pleading look. “Just put down the brush already – any more grooming and that horse of yours is going to start reflecting in the light!”
“Shut up, Zack,” Cloud shot back, carefully avoiding making eye contact with the ‘please’ face. He stroked the brush gently down Nimbus’ flank, feeling the whuff of the dapple gray’s breath stirring his hair as she nosed the collar of his shirt. “Aren’t you a little too old to be jealous of a horse?”
“Not when it’s monopolizing on my brother.” Zack slumped further down into the grass, head cradled in one crooked elbow. “When are you going to realize that ‘let’s take a break’ isn’t secret code for ‘everyone relax except Cloud’?”
Cloud ignored him, brushing methodically, and Zack made a face at him.
“Don’t make me come over there and get you,” he warned, shifting up onto his forearms. “Or I’ll be forced to ravish you mercilessly.”
Cloud rolled his eyes. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“Depends on how creative I get.” Zack leaned forward with a leer. “I could violate you with that brush you’re taking such delight in.”
“Zack!” Cloud whirled, cheeks flaming, and Zack laughed, a warm, honeyed roll of sound.
“Or you could come over here and I’ll ravish you the old-fashioned way,” he suggested instead, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
Cloud grinned despite himself. “Facedown over the back of a horse?” he suggested, giving Nimbus a final pat and ambling over.
“It’s an option,” Zack agreed thoughtfully. His grin flashed. “Though I think I’ll leave it to you to convince Nimbus and Memor, though.”
Cloud glanced at their horses, now grazing together under the shade of a nearby tree. “Ah, no thanks Zack.” Cloud stretched out on the grass as Zack shifted to make room, sliding in close. “I wouldn’t really want to disturb them.”
Zack sighed. “Too bad,” he said, looping an arm around Cloud’s waist. “Guess that means I’m going to have to do this the old old-fashioned way.”
“Hey,” Cloud chided as Zack’s arm tightened, drawing him close enough to feel Zack hard and heavy against his hip. He blinked up at his brother through his bangs. “I thought you wanted to take a break.”
Zack nuzzled against his neck. “I am,” he said, the purr in his voice shivering all the way down Cloud’s spine. One hand wormed under Cloud’s shirt, fingers skimming lightly over firm muscles and making them twitch. “You didn’t honestly think I was talking about having a nap, did you?”
“You’re terrible,” Cloud declared, laughing. He made no move to get up. “What if someone comes by?”
“We’re probably going to make them pretty damn jealous,” Zack answered, hips rocking leisurely into Cloud’s.
Cloud pushed back shamelessly into Zack’s touch, eyes shuttering to a lazy half-mast. Zack pressed his advantage, his other hand sliding up one thigh and rubbing teasingly against the rising heat between Cloud’s legs.
“You,” Cloud panted, mouth twitching into a breathless grin. “Are such a troublemaker.” He shifted suddenly, rolling them over so he was straddling Zack’s waist, hands pressed firmly against a firm chest. “The situations you get us into,” he intoned with mock seriousness, hair hanging down around his face.
Zack grinned brightly at him. “Good thing I’ve got you to take care of me, huh?” He stretched up for a kiss, hands shifting and slipping down the back of Cloud’s trousers, curving round his ass.
“Something like that,” Cloud managed against Zack’s mouth, hips hitching. Zack’s hands inched lower, fingers teasing intimately, and Cloud groaned.
He could feel Zack’s lips stretch into a smile then Zack’s mouth was moving, mapping a slow path down Cloud’s neck that left Cloud shuddering, needy for more.
Zack shifted lower, mouthing over the bulge in Cloud’s trousers. “Let’s see what kind of trouble we can get in together, hmm?” he murmured, fond and hungry.
Cloud nodded breathlessly, of no mind to argue.
They curled together afterwards, Cloud’s head resting on Zack’s chest and Zack’s arms wrapped comfortably around Cloud’s waist.
“Mmm,” Zack murmured. His hands traced absent patterns on Cloud’s back. “I’ll take that over a nap any day.”
“Pervert,” Cloud accused, without heat. The afternoon sun was warm on his back and he hummed contentedly, in no hurry to return to Midgar. Which, of course, had been Zack’s plan all along.
Zack kissed his forehead. “Cloud.”
“Mmm?” he murmured absently, snuggling closer.
“Come on Cloud, don’t go to sleep on me now. You’ve got to get up.”
Making a disgruntled noise, Cloud shifted to blink at Zack. “Why?” he asked. “We’re not supposed to report in to Reeve until tomorrow.”
“I know.” Zack’s expression was regretful. “But much as I hate to say it, it looks like we’re out of time.” Bright eyes fixed seriously on Cloud’s face. “You have to go back.”
Cloud frowned, a strange, hollow feeling welling in the pit of his stomach. “Don’t you mean ‘we’?”
Zack shook his head, fond and wistful. “Not yet.” His expression went distant for a moment, then he sucked in a sharp breath. “Uh oh.”
“There’s trouble!” Zack told him sharply. “Wake up!”
Cloud was out of bed and on his feet before his brain had quite caught up to the fact that he was awake. He blinked, wary as he stared into the dark shadows of the room. The memory of Zack’s face, fond and worried, burned his eyes and he rubbed at them brusquely, trying to dispel the hauntingly real image.
He was on the verge of crawling back into bed and trying to see if he couldn’t convince his dream-Zack to visit him again, when the vague sense of something shivered through his veins. Cloud frowned and reached out towards that sensation, feeling the air gust and swell around him like the thrum of a faraway heartbeat.
Wings. Ghosting lightly on the night winds, far too large even for a griffon. Coming closer.
‘There’s trouble!’ Dream-Zack’s words flashed unbidden in his mind and Cloud grabbed instantly for his sword, shoving his feet into his boots and tearing out of his room towards the stairs.
The night wind whipped around him as he stumbled onto the open deck, its cold fingers plucking at his thin shirt and biting into his bare arms. Cloud skidded to a stop, ignoring the roil of the deck beneath him as he peered searchingly into the darkness. The sails creaked overhead, more heard than seen, and Cloud clenched his hand tight around the hilt of his sword, waiting.
A sudden burst of wind sent the ship to rocking and Cloud caught the vaguest glimpse of a leathery tail licking past the prow before the thing vanished again into the black.
“What is it?” a voice asked out of the darkness and Cloud managed not jump when Vincent appeared suddenly beside him, his blood-dark cloak thrashing in the wind.
“I don’t know,” Cloud admitted, not ceasing his restless watching. “Something big.”
“I…” Vincent stiffened and spun, pointing with one gauntleted finger into the darkness above the bow. “There,” he declared, feet spread wide. “Get ready.”
The air shuddered and Cloud barely managed a glimpse of something large and scaly surging up over the edge of the deck before a talon as long as his arm whistled through the air past his head. He ducked just in time, sliding across the heaving deck.
“On your left!” Vincent called, and Cloud met the clawed foot raking his way with the flat of his sword, gritting his teeth as his muscles sang in protest.
The beast screeched, massive wings beating furiously and claws pressing hard against Cloud’s sword. Cloud swore, feeling his heels skidding on the polished wood as strong talons forced him backwards, towards the edge of the deck.
There was a sharp sound behind him and the beast’s pained roar thundered through the air, the pressure against Cloud slackening abruptly. Cloud stumbled and fell, hitting the deck hard.
“Get up!” Vincent commanded, the crossbow in his hand twanging again as the dragon – holy Mneth it really was a dragon – wheeled sharply away, vanishing again over the side of the ship.
Cloud got hurriedly to his feet, sword at the ready. “Did you see where it went?”
“No.” Vincent shook his head, gauntleted hands supremely competent as they slotted in another bolt. “Keep alert. It could show up any-”
Movement from near the prow, too fast too follow and the dragon screeched in triumph as it prepared to sink its talons into Vincent’s unprotected back…
Only to be blocked by a pissed-off Cid wielding a wicked-looking battle spear.
“Can’t a guy get any sleep around here?” the aeronaut demanded, fearless in the face of those sharp talons. He twisted his wrists, the point of his spear digging deep into the dragon’s scaly hide. “Fuck off already!”
The dragon reared back, jaws snapping angrily. It flew upwards, hovering vulture-like amid the sails.
“Marela’s tits,” Cid swore, glaring up at the dragon. “Don’t tell me that overgrown buzzard’s going to hang up there all night.”
“Now that it’s been wounded, it will likely try to stay out range,” Vincent offered, still calm.
“Oh yeah?” Cid growled. “I’d like to see what it expects to accomplish from up-”
A sudden thunderous detonation shuddered through the ship, sending them all stumbling into the nearest railing. Sooty orange flames lit the sky as a section of the decking caught fire and Cid’s expression went from angry to murderous.
“Oh, no you fucking don’t!” he hollered, glaring murder. “No one shoots fireballs at my ship! Vin!” he shouted over one shoulder. “Gimme a hand here!”
Vincent hesitated, almost imperceptibly. “I’m not sure that’s wise.”
“You think I don’t know that? We’re running out of options!”
Another blast exploded across the prow and Cid flattened himself against the cabin wall. “Discretion won’t be any damn help to anyone if the ship goes down!” he exclaimed, over the roar of the blaze.
The barrage of fireballs halted briefly and Cloud dared a look up, freezing when he realized he was staring at the unbroken line of the white sails, the dragon’s dark bulk nowhere to be seen.
Cid’s eyes widened comically from a scarce few feet away. “Oh, fu –”
The next blast caught Cloud in the side, glancing off his shoulder and sending him tumbling across the deck like a rag doll. He slammed up against the port railing with a thud, all the air whooshing out of his lungs in a startled exhalation that left him gasping.
“Watch it!” Cid barked, cursing as he dodged another fireball. He whirled, horror skittering swiftly across his face. “Vincent!”
Light burst again across Cloud’s vision and he winced at the sight of Vincent rolling past him, his cloak flaring and burning all around him. Vincent’s fingers tore hurriedly through the knot at his throat and he ducked away from it, the red cloak fluttering over the side of the ship with a fiery flicker. Vincent paused, breathing heavily, and the dragon was right there as he turned, jaws gaping and flames welling up it in its throat.
Cloud moved without thinking, lunging forward with the flat of his sword raised in front of him. A blur of blue flashed in the corner of his eye, swearing heatedly, and then the fireball was on him and all he could focus on was holding his sword steady in his gloveless hands, heat slicing painfully along his bare arms.
“Cloud!” someone shouted as the barrage ended and Cloud slumped wearily forward, smoke rising from his clothes.
The dragon’s head drew back again and Cloud grimaced. Another blast like that would have him on his back, but it was the ship that’d suffer if he moved. Out of options indeed.
He dragged himself to his feet, reaching inside himself for magic he hadn’t used in all the time Zack had been gone. Lightning burst through the night sky at his call, flashing white-blue in the dark.
Cloud raised his sword, leveling it at the dragon. “Strike!” he bellowed, putting all his will into the command. Living electricity forked from the end of the blade, screaming through the air and striking the dragon with the force of a hundred thunderbolts.
The dragon howled, limbs convulsing jerkily. It listed unevenly to the side, wings beating desperately as it veer away from the deadly attack. Cloud didn’t give it the chance, gritting his teeth against a wave of dizziness and keeping the pressure steady. He reached deeper, drawing on even more power, sweat pouring down his face with the effort.
Pushed beyond endurance the dragon reared, ignoring the pain as it dove straight for Cloud with a furious, defiant screech.
Cloud met the beast half way, lightning still forking down the length of the blade as his sword cleaved deep into the dragon’s side. Blood splashed hot and thick from the gash, searing Cloud’s arms and face as he ripped the wound deeper, pushing the dragon step by inexorable step towards the rail. The dragon flailed, claws scrabbling weakly for purchase, and Cloud spared an absent hope that there weren’t any houses below them as he pushed the dragon off his sword with one booted foot, the thing’s heavy bulk sliding wetly off the blade and over the edge of the deck.
The dragon’s wings flapped once, twice, then the beast simply dropped, the gurgling whistle of its agonized scream chasing it down into the dark.
Cloud could hear himself panting harshly in the sudden silence.
Lowering his sword shakily, Cloud stumbled away from the railing, fighting the urge to pass out right there on the deck. Magic thrummed through his veins, quiet and steady, and Cloud wondered how he could ever have forgotten what that felt like.
“Well I’ll be a Wutai assassin,” Cid declared succinctly and Cloud turned wearily to find both him and Vincent watching him with matching expressions of wary intrigue. “And how exactly did you forget to tell us that you were a mage?”
“Sword mage,” Cloud corrected automatically. He shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I could lay claim to that title.”
Cid snorted. “Looks like you’re well enough suited to it to me.” His attention went to the empty sky where the dragon had been. “Don’t remember the last time I saw a sword mage with that much power.”
“I might have overdone it a bit,” Cloud allowed, expression faltering as the adrenaline began to wear off and the weight of what he’d just done sank in. There was a reason he didn’t use his magic, dammit, if only there’d been more time to think…
Vincent was watching him, with a quiet, measured kind of calm that made Cloud feel strangely nervous. “You didn’t want to do that,” the dark-haired man observed, not really a question.
And not something Cloud could really refute. “No.”
Cid’s eyes flicked his way, narrowing thoughtfully, but Vincent’s expression didn’t change. “Why did you do it then?” he asked, not at all the question Cloud had been expecting.
Cloud shrugged weakly. “Seemed like kind of an emergency.”
A moment of silence, then Vincent nodded. “It was a timely sort of assistance,” he said, as close to a thank you as Cloud expected one ever got from Vincent. His hair slid across his shoulder as he tilted his head. “Don’t you think, Cid?”
“Won’t hear me complaining about watching that oversized buzzard get fried,” Cid agreed. He scowled at the smoldering rings of burnt wood scoring the deck. “Fucking fire-breathing dragons setting fire to my fucking ship.”
Vincent squinted at the sky, the velvet darkness above them not yet light with the approach of dawn. “Perhaps it will look better in the morning.”
“Not fucking likely,” Cid groused. “But it’s too damn dark to do anything about it now. Wake me when it’s morning.”
He turned without waiting for either of them, muttering to himself as he stumped down the stairs into the crew quarters, and Vincent shrugged vaguely.
“There should be some gauze and ointment in your room,” he told Cloud, gesturing significantly at his burnt shoulder. “Let us know if you require any assistance.”
“I’ll be fine,” Cloud told him.
“Sleep well then,” Vincent said, ghosting through the dark after Cid.
Cloud hesitated only a moment before hefting his sword and heading down the stairs after them, the sharp wind painfully cold against his over-sensitized skin. He doubted he’d sleep, not tonight, but if he was going to brood at least he could do it in the silence of his bunk.
Not to mention that burn ointment sounded like a pretty good idea right about now.
The Oracle lived in a small cottage not far from the Shinra keep; a cozy, well-kept sort of place that was nearly as good as its owner at making everybody who walked in the door feel welcome. Rufus made no secret of the fact that he would have preferred her to stay in the keep where he could keep an eye on her, though he acquiesced almost gracefully to her insistence on being available to anyone who needed her help – not just the lords of Shinra. Not even Rufus could deny the importance of staying in Oracle’s good graces.
Which didn’t stop him from placing her house under constant, if furtive, observation, but there was really only so much freedom a woman who predicted the future could really expect to be granted – especially by the lord of a nation not generally known for being imprudent.
The Strife had always done his best to avoid Oracle whenever possible, unsettled by her words and her smiles for reasons he couldn’t quite place. Oracle had accepted his dislike with a wistful sort of acceptance that Strife found almost more disconcerting than her anger would have been. He’d been even more keen to stay away from her after that.
Realizing he’d been standing nervously on her porch for far longer than he could reasonably explain away, Cloud took a deep breath and pulled open the door. The scent of a hundred flowers washed over him with the motion, leaving him feeling strangely at ease.
“Hello?” he called, blinking in the light dancing off the fountain in the centre of the room. The silvery splash of the water was the only sound in the indoor garden so Cloud stepped cautiously inside, heavy boots ringing on the smooth flagstones. “Oracle?”
“Cloud!” a pretty voice cried, bright and delighted, and that was all the warning Cloud got before his arms were full of gaily dressed Oracle.
“You’re back!” she exclaimed, arms twined tight around his neck. Her hair smelled nice. “I knew you would be!”
“…Aeris?” Cloud asked hesitantly, the name slipping unbidden from his lips, and the joy in her smile was familiar enough to make his chest ache.
She laughed, a happy, musical sound. “You remember!” Oracle rested her forehead gently against his with a happy sigh. “It’s been so long since I’ve had anyone call me by name,” she murmured, fond and wistful. “You never did while you were Strife.”
Frozen, Cloud tried desperately to figure out how to respond to that. “Er…”
“Oh!” Oracle pulled back abruptly, mouth quirking into a contrite frown. “Sorry – this is probably a lot for you right now.” Her arms withdrew and Cloud released her hurriedly, wondering when his hands had settled at her waist. “My name is Aeris,” she introduced herself, formal and familiar all at once. “Though most know me as The Oracle. Come and sit,” she invited, gesturing towards the edge of the rippling fountain. “We have a lot to talk about, you and I.”
Cloud sat, laying his sword carefully against the fountain. Aeris settled on his other side, her leg pressing comfortably against his. Her feet were bare, Cloud noticed, dirt-stained and delicate beneath the hem of her dress. He wondered why that seemed so normal.
Aeris tilted her head towards him. “How much do you remember of being Cloud?” she asked, nothing but friendly curiosity in her eyes.
“I remember Zack,” Cloud told her simply.
“Well,” Aeris smiled, encouraging. “That sounds like a pretty good start to me. Anything else?”
“Not really.” He shrugged awkwardly, trying to recall. “Some assignments we went on. The caravan we used to live in when we were kids. Zack’s horse.”
“Don’t let it bother you too much,” Aeris told him, so kind and understanding that it made Cloud hurt to think he’d forgotten her too. “You spent a long time locked away from yourself – it’s no surprise that your memories will take some time to return.”
“…Thank you.” Cloud shifted awkwardly. “But um, why, I mean, how …”
“Do I know so much about you?” Aeris finished for him. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “You and Zack often came to visit me when you were in Midgar. We were good friends, you two and I.”
Cloud frowned. “I don’t remember.”
Aeris giggled. “Silly boy,” she declared, rolling her eyes. “Do you really think picnics in my garden are the most important thing for you to be thinking of right now? That’s Zack, in case you hadn’t noticed. And try not to worry so much about what you think you should remember,” she added, before Cloud could argue. “You’ll only get frustrated. Just give it time and let your memories come back as they will.”
“…if you say so,” Cloud agreed reluctantly and earned a bright smile for his efforts.
“You always were such a good boy,” Aeris approved, winking mischievously. “Much better at listening than Zack ever was.” Her expression went serious then, auburn hair tumbling prettily over one shoulder. “You’re leaving now?” she asked. “To find a way to undo the curse?”
Cloud nodded. “Rufus says I’m free to go and… I won’t live without Zack. Not anymore.”
“What are you still doing in Midgar then?”
Aeris sounded curious, not at all put out, but Cloud still found himself fighting the bizarre impulse to blush as he stammered out an answer.
“Ah, Rude said that I ought to come see you before I left.” He hunched his shoulders uncomfortably. “Said there were things I needed to know.”
Aeris nodded approvingly. “I’m glad he did.” She grinned cheekily. “Otherwise I would’ve had to go after you and drag you back again, and you really don’t have time for that right now.”
Cloud perked up tentatively. “Do… do you know how to fix Zack?”
“My magic doesn’t work like that,” Aeris told him regretfully. “Not quite.” Her eyes went distant then, the air around her shimmering gold. “It will be a long road,” she murmured, the words resonant but hollow. “You will have far to go to find the cure you seek.”
“Will I find one?” Cloud demanded of her, refusing to hear the tense edge to his own voice. “Can I save Zack?”
“If not you then no one can,” Aeris answered vaguely, still staring blankly. “Your own choices will affect the decisions of others – but only if you make the right ones will you bring about a future that has Zack in it as well.” She blinked, eyes sharpening on him as the vision faded. “The future isn’t steady enough for me to know where the end of your journey will be,” she explained, mute apology in her voice. “There are too many factors at stake.”
“I see.” Cloud slumped.
Her hand pressed comfortingly against his thigh. “Don’t worry so much. I know you’ll save him. But Cloud,” she withdrew her hand, her expression going grave, “There’s something else you have to know. About you and Zack.”
“What?” Cloud demanded, sharper than he intended.
There was a brief silence and Cloud could see that Aeris was choosing her words carefully. “What sort of deal did lord Shinra make you?” she asked finally. “In exchange for letting you look for a curse-breaker?”
“A blood oath,” Cloud answered flatly. “One that has sworn my loyalty to the Shinra house for as long as it has need of me.”
“That’s all?” Aeris prodded and Cloud bristled – wasn’t that enough? – before she added, “He doesn’t expect you to continue acting as Strife? Or become a member of the Turks?”
Cloud frowned. “No,” he admitted slowly. “Just the oath.”
“And you don’t find that strange? He knows that you’ll agree to pretty much any demand as long as he has Zack.”
“But… that doesn’t make sense,” Cloud objected, realization striking hard of just how easily he’d been let off. “Why go to that much effort just for a blood oath? It can’t mean that much to him.”
“On the contrary,” Aeris corrected. “You’ll find that your oath has far more significance than you realize.”
Cloud’s fists clenched. “Why?”
Aeris’ expression was deadly serious. “Because there is a war coming,” she said bluntly. “Between Shinra and Jenova, although it will take very little to draw Wutai or Cetra into the conflict. Rufus knows this and is doing everything in his power to ensure that, when the time comes, he’ll have you and Zack on his side to face the Jenovites.”
“But… what’s so important about that?”
“There is a prophecy,” she told him calmly, her solemn expression practically daring him to contradict. “About the war that will be. And about you and your blood brother.”
“You two will be The Balance,” she continued, as Cloud stared, open mouthed. “Your presence will dictate the course of the war – for either Shinra or Jenova. I’ve seen only a little of what will come, but I can tell you that Shinra will not overcome this threat if you and Zack aren’t there to help.”
“I don’t believe that,” Cloud declared flatly. “How do you know it’s us? It could be somebody else who–”
“Two brothers joined in blood,” Aeris recited crisply. “Foil and compliment in air and earth, wielding arms in which iron and magic combine. These two shall be The Balance, stonehold of war’s wild fortune.”
Cloud stared at her, stunned, and her expression softened into a smile.
“I knew it as soon as I saw you,” she admitted candidly. “There’s no doubt at all. It’s why the Jenovites cursed Zack,” she added, carefully as though she wasn’t sure how it would be received. “I don’t know what exactly that curse was meant to do, but you can be sure it would have kept you and Zack from fighting for Shinra in the war to come.”
A shame really, a voice inside Cloud’s head murmured, cold and insidious. I’d hoped to take care of both of you with one blow.
Cloud shook his head, hard. The whisper faded away into wisps of meaningless sound.
“Why didn’t Rufus do something to fix Zack, then?” Cloud demanded. “And why leave me as Strife for all that time?”
Aeris smiled and shook her head sadly. “I already told you – you’re the only one who can help Zack. And no one can make someone else remember their own past.” She shrugged. “Knowing Rufus, he probably figured he may as well get some use out of you while waiting for you to return to yourself again.”
“So everything’s going according to his plan then,” Cloud said sourly.
“His planning is to your benefit too,” Aeris reminded him primly. “He’s kept Zack safe all this time and he’ll protect him from the Jenovites so you don’t have to.”
“Shouldn’t he have been protecting me too?” Cloud flung his arms up disgustedly. “I’ve been his pet assassin for five years. I’ve been all over the world twice in that time. What was to stop anyone from going after me when I didn’t know to watch out for them?”
Aeris smiled. “Ah, but you’re forgetting something. The Jenovites would have been looking for Cloud and you,” an emphatic finger poking into his chest. “Weren’t him again until just recently.”
Cloud ran through that twice and it still didn’t make any sense. “…Huh?”
“While you were Strife it was like ‘Cloud’ had stopped existing,” Aeris explained. “Your memories, heart and soul, all the things that made you the person you are, they were all absent. And Rufus went to great measures to ensure that Zack wouldn’t be traceable.” She shrugged. “Jenova probably assumed you were both dead.”
“But I’m myself again now,” Cloud pointed out.
Aeris nodded. “And they’ll have realized that by now. It took a massive amount of spiritual energy for you to wake yourself up again – it seems as though Jenova’s men intend to try tracking you through that.”
“So how can I avoid them?”
“Do your best not to use your magic unless you have to,” she advised. “Casting spells will increase your spiritual aura and make it easier for them to find you.” Aeris worried nervously at her lower lip. “I fear they’ll cause some trouble for you somewhere down the road.”
“I’d better keep my eyes open then.” Cloud stood, reaching out to help Aeris up before he’d quite realized it. It felt right though, comfortable and friendly, and Cloud looked into Aeris’ eyes with a feeling of immense regret. “I hope I remember you soon,” he blurted.
Aeris’ smile was warm. “Me too, Cloud. Me too.”
The next day dawned dry and golden. Cloud was sandy-eyed and sore as he staggered into the cockpit, already nauseous from the endless sway of the ship.
“You’re a damn unimpressive sight, you know that?” Cid asked, grinning at Cloud over one shoulder, his hands steady on the wheel. “Not exactly hero material.”
“Don’t want to be a hero,” Cloud mumbled, slumping down into a chair and scrubbing a tired arm across his eyes. “I just want Zack back.”
“Well you’d better wake up some then,” Cid told him, clearly amused. “Because you’re only going to get one chance to make a first impression on these people and it’s not going to be pretty with the way you look right now.”
Cloud cracked open a reluctant eye. “We’re there?”
Cid chuckled and tilted his head towards the window. “See for yourself.”
The mountains were all around them, Cloud saw, their jagged red peaks shouldering up into the clear blue sky. They were a good twenty leagues too far south to be aiming for the mountain pass at Tilfaner, and Cloud hadn’t known there were any other places in the mountains safe enough to try settling in. He looked down, bemused, and blinked at the sight of a small village nestled in a natural crevice between two high cliffs, the red-roofed houses all but invisible amid the towering mountains. A slim twist of river struck through the middle of the clustered houses, glittering in the sun.
“Not many people know of Cosmo village,” Vincent spoke up from where he was leaning against the wall and Cloud suppressed a start of surprise as he realized that the man had been there the whole time. “The mountains keep it well protected.”
Cloud nodded in absent agreement, watching tiny figures of people moving back and forth between the buildings, growing steadily larger as the aeroship swooped lower. Stick-like arms waved and pointed towards them, obviously enthused by their approach.
“It’s been a while since our last trip,” Cid remarked to Vincent, hands tilting and taking the ship into a slow, steady glide towards a wide rock shelf not far from the river. The world outside the window listed sharply to the side and Cloud looked away quickly, his stomach roiling. “Nosy bastards are probably all dying to know what’s brought us here.”
“They’ll find out soon enough.” Vincent flicked an assessing eye Cloud’s way. “Perhaps you ought to retire to your cabin,” he observed. “You may find the landing easier lying down.”
Cloud rose unsteadily to his feet. “Thank you,” he managed, staggering to the door without further prompting. “I’ll do that.”
“Damned defective air affinite,” Cid grumbled behind him and Cloud decided to ignore that as he stumbled back to his cabin to hide under the blankets until the ground stopped moving.
Landing took far longer than Cloud’s stomach approved of and it was with a great sense of relief that he finally felt the surge and bellow of the sails ease and still. Vincent rapped lightly on his door some minutes later, the distinctive ring of metal against wood loud in the silence. Cloud was just grateful for the show of preserving his dignity and did his best to pull himself together before making his way up to the deck.
A crowd of villagers had gathered beside the aeroship, curious and friendly as they shouted greetings up to the deck.
“Bout time,” Cid remarked when Cloud finally drew up to the stern. He squinted at Cloud, ignoring the crowd entirely. “You ready for this?”
“Good,” Cid approved. The gangplank rattled in its supports as he ran it down. “Cause here we go.”
It was hard to resist bolting down the gangplank the moment it touched ground but Cloud held firm, doing his best to remain calm despite the impatience clawing at his insides. At least the floor wasn’t moving any more.
“Cid,” a deep voice greeted, smooth and cultured, and Cloud only gaped a little when a large mountain cat slinked forward out of the crowd, the beads and feathers knotted in its mane a perfect match to the plaits Cloud could see being worn by the people. “And Vincent. It’s been a while.”
“Indeed.” Vincent came forward, something almost warm in his eyes as he inclined his head gravely towards the cat. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“We haven’t done anything yet,” the cat protested, an almost merry twinkle in its single eye. “Don’t thank me until you’ve decided whether our hospitality is worth the effort.”
“Contrary as always Nanaki,” Cid groused, stomping down the gangplank without any attempt at grace. He stopped beside Vincent and bowed as well. “Makes me wonder why I waste my time coming out here.”
The cat Nanaki looked amused. “You say that as if you need an excuse to fly that aeroship of yours, Cid.” His shaggy head turned, inclining towards Cloud even though he was stood on the cat’s blind side. “Who is your friend?”
“Another messed up sap in need of Bugenhagen’s help.” Cid waved Cloud over with a hand, his eyes never leaving Nanaki. “If he can help, of course.”
“Ah,” Nanaki murmured. His mouth stretched into a feline smile as Cloud drew up on Vincent’s other side. “Welcome then, traveler. My name is Nanaki and this is the village of Cosmo. I hope you find what you seek here.”
“Cloud,” Cloud introduced himself gruffly, inclining his head jerkily. “And I hope I do, too.”
It was late fall when Cloud left Midgar that first time, his sword on his back and the memory of Zack’s smile held close to his chest. Tseng hadn’t been able to give him much information to work with but Cloud hadn’t pushed, just said his thanks, collected his meager belongings and sailed off on the first ship he found heading for Wutai.
The trip was tense and uneventful – his reputation preceded him onto the ship, granting him a nervous reception, a bunk to himself and absolutely no one willing to so much as look at him for the duration of the week long voyage. Not that he minded. Strife had always preferred being alone and Cloud was too caught up in his memories to care much for other people. He was pretty sure it would have been different with Zack there – Zack had always been the more sociable of them, hadn’t he? – but Cloud wasn’t sure he wanted to try emulating Zack. He was too unsure of who he was to try being someone else instead.
He wasn’t sure whether it was more of a relief to him or the crew when he disembarked in Dao-Chi, still stoic and more than ready to be back on solid ground again. A night in the city’s only inn took care of most of his lingering sea-sickness, and then it was time to start his search.
His days and nights settled into a predictable pattern of search and failure, of tracking from town to town with only Tseng’s vague clues and the highly suspect words of the locals to spur him onwards. He met with few people who knew anything useful and fewer still who proved willing to help. It was never a good idea to attract the attention of someone who had need of a curse-breaker – not if you were at all attached to the concept of breathing, at any rate. Curse casters, and those who fell victim to them, were not the sort of people to cross lightly, after all.
Cloud had been mostly expecting that, and managed to maintain a sort of grim unsurprise each time his questions got deflected, and doors got slammed in his face as soon as people saw him coming.
He spent six months in Wutai that first trip, traveling every inch of the country in his search for more information. Then he moved on to Cetra and started the whole process over again.
He got used to the traveling after a while. Hard not to, when he spent more time on the road than at inns and more time at inns than in the drab, empty room he rented in Midgar. The gnawing ache of Zack’s absence never really faded but Cloud got used to that too, bearing it with the stoic disregard for his own feelings that had made him such a good assassin.
His memories filtered back in fits and starts over the weeks and months and years that passed, just as Aeris said they would. Cloud never knew what would prompt a memory; a stopover in Junon might bring back the night Zack had chased a target right off the end of the pier and nearly drowned himself, while the sight of the green slate roofs of Lansi brought back thoughts of lying side-by-side atop the town’s biggest inn, the sounds of the common room drifting up through their open window while the wind tossed Zack’s hair in Cloud’s face and made them both laugh.
Sunshine made him think of Zack’s sword, of watching it glint against Zack’s back when they rode through the Shinran countryside. He smiled at thunderstorms, remembering chasing each other through the highlands of Cetra and getting soaked to the skin, before tromping back to their inn, tired, content and absolutely covered in mud. The creaking trundle of heavy wheels echoed their life in the caravan, while campfires in the dark made him shiver, missing the comfort of a warm body pressed fond and close against him. Cloud embraced all these memories eagerly, holding them tight, and those few who knew him soon grew accustomed to his habit of stopping suddenly in the middle of whatever he might be doing, head cocked to the side and a wistful smile lingering on his lips while the wisps of a memory danced behind his eyes.
He made sure to return to Midgar every few months or so, checking in with Tseng for new leads and sitting with Aeris for no reason other than to see her smile and talk together about Zack. His memories of her grew stronger as well, even though Cloud knew they weren’t quite right without the solid presence of Zack at his side on the grass, laughing and teasing both of them equally. Still, it was nice to have someone to talk to who had known him when he’d been himself, and who didn’t mind if he mixed things up more often than not. She also made the best apple pie he’d ever eaten.
He didn’t visit Zack, though. Not after that first time.
It was almost two years to the day since he’d started his search when Cloud found himself standing on the porch of a derelict little cottage in the middle of Jenova’s frost forest, shivering in his boots and wondering what on earth had possessed him to follow a vague rumour all the way out here.
“A curse, you say?” the garrulous old man who owned the cottage said, the smell of loam and ash sharp on the crisp air as he took a lazy drag on the pipe clenched between his teeth. “Dangerous people, curse writers – what’d a nice boy like you do to attract one’s attention, eh?”
Cloud forced himself to shrug. “I wish I knew,” he admitted, more honest than it sounded. “I’m looking for someone who can break it.”
“Hmm…” came the unencouraging response, and Cloud steeled himself not to be too disappointed. As usual.
“Now that you mention it,” the man said instead, and Cloud’s chest ached when he sucked in a sudden, hopeful breath of too-cold air. “I did hear tell once of a man what could see curses.” His pipe tapped thoughtfully against his lips. “That was ages past now, though. Couldn’t rightly say iffin he’d still be kicking around.”
Fingers digging hard into his gloved palms, Cloud did his best to keep calm. “Do you know where I might start looking?” he asked, almost mildly.
“Well now, that’d depend on who’s askin, wouldn’t you say?” The man fixed him with a look, shrewd and thoughtful. Cloud returned the gaze as evenly as he could, hiding nothing.
A satisfied grin broke out suddenly across the man’s weathered face and Cloud staggered as a wide hand clapped him heartily on the shoulder.
“You’re a good lad,” the man declared. “And I hate seein’ bad things happen to good people. Go to Rokert,” he instructed. “In Cetra. There’s an aeronaut there, used to be in the employ of Lord Shinra hisself.”
“And he can see curses?”
The man laughed. “That old coot? Not hardly. But if anyone knows where to find him what can, it’ll be The Highwind.” A friendly wink of one eye, the same icy blue as the trees around them. “You’re going to have a helluva time trying to convince him though, an’ no mistake. Highwind don’t take too well to strangers, y’hear?”
It wasn’t much to go on, but Cloud was learning to be grateful for any snatch of a clue he could find. At least it would be warmer in Cetra.
“Thank you,” he said, ice cracking along the ridges of his cloak as he nodded gratefully.
“My pleasure, sonny.” A casual wave. “Best of luck to ya.”
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