Title: If At First
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Pairing: Zack + Cloud
Word count: 3053
Music: Alice in Chains - 'Down A Hole'
A/N: Yet another example of me doing really weird things with song lyrics. I blame
Summary: Sometimes help comes from entirely unexpected sources. And makes you question your sanity.
"Whoops," Zack said as Cloud stumbled. "Looks like someone's getting tired. Just a little further and then we'll find somewhere to crash for a while, okay?"
Cloud's head lolled onto his shoulder, mako-bright eyes blank and empty. He kept moving though, his heavy boots scuffing in the dirt, and Zack gave the arm slung over his shoulders an encouraging squeeze.
"Yeah, I know. I'm getting tired of the forest too. It beats hitch-hiking on the side of the road though."
The silence was deep enough the Zack could hear the quiet whisper of Cloud's breath against his chest. He forced a chuckle.
"Maybe," he conceded, mentally supplying the words Cloud couldn't say. "But right now I think four-legged forest beasties are the least of our worries. At least the monsters don't carry guns. Ah, here we go."
A copse of trees was standing just off the gnarled swath of growth Zack had been optimistically calling a trail, its foliage thick enough that it ought to block them from the view of anyone passing by.
"Course anyone tracking out this way has to be nearly as crazy as us," Zack remarked, veering off on an oblique angle from the generally eastern direction they'd been walking. Cloud's steps faltered only briefly before turning to follow. Zack grinned at him. "And I don't know about you," he confided, "but I feel like I've got something of a monopoly on crazy right now."
The interior of the copse was small and snug, the grass spread thin but smooth across mostly-flat ground. A handful of red blossoms peeked out around the trunks of the trees, surprisingly full for this early in the season.
"Nice," Zack approved, forcing the both of them through a gap in the close-packed tree trunks. "Not the Midgar Skyview, but it'll do." He lowered Cloud carefully to the ground, then turned to pull the branches back across the opening he'd made.
"We covered a lot of ground today," he said over his shoulder as he worked. "Shouldn't be long before we're out of the forest at this rate." He waited for a moment, from habit more than anything, before adding, "Then it's back onto the plains and down towards the coast." Once the gap was as covered as it was going to get, Zack sprawled out on the grass next to Cloud, feeling the steady ache of overworked muscles slowly uncoiling. "We'll have our hands full then, that's for sure."
Silence was his only response and Zack very carefully didn't sigh as he unslung his Buster sword and stretched out flat, fingers knitted behind his head. The sky overhead was all but invisible beyond the arching tree branches and Zack spared an idle hope that they'd be shelter enough if it started to rain. Then he realized what he'd just thought and rolled his eyes.
"Pretty pathetic, huh Cloud?" he asked, so used to talking to himself by now that the lack of response hardly hurt at all anymore. "All of Shinra's probably out looking for us and I'm worried about getting rained on."
A glance over towards Cloud revealed that the boy - man now, really - had toppled over onto his side, left cheek pressed into the grass and one arm stretched out as if reaching for Zack. Which was probably just wishful thinking on Zack's part, but it made the smile that came to his face feel just that much less jagged around the edges.
"Well no, I guess getting a cold from getting rained on wouldn't be the best idea right now," Zack acknowledged, mind shying violently away from the idea of Cloud getting sick when he was like this, "But to be honest I'm not sure we can anymore. I mean, SOLDIERs are pretty tough to begin with, after all, and a couple years of mako pickling seems to have made us pretty much indestructible."
Except for the fact that Cloud wasn't getting better and Zack didn't have the faintest idea of how to fix him besides the frantic hope that Aeris would be able to do something when they got to Midgar. Provided Zack didn't get them both killed in a dramatic and exceedingly messy fashion before they got there.
Giving into that sigh after all, Zack reached out and took Cloud's slack hand in his own, squeezing tight. "Gods, I wish I could help you kiddo," he murmured thickly.
We can help you help him.
Zack froze, every muscle in his body suddenly tinglingly alert. He eased carefully upright, left hand still holding Cloud's while his other drifted casually towards his sword. "Who's there?"
Us, came the profoundly helpful reply, smooth as the ripple of wind across a quiet stream. We can mend him.
The sudden surge of hope in Zack's chest nearly made up for the fact that he was apparently insane enough to be talking to trees. "What us? How can I trust you?" he demanded, the tips of his fingers ghosting over the familiar ridges of his sword hilt.
Little choice, youngling, if you want to survive the helping. A hushed pause to let that sink in. You seek the Cetra, but she cannot help.
Cetra? Zack wasn't sure he'd ever met an extinct species before, but considering there was only one person he was looking for right now…
"Aeris?" he guessed and was rewarded with the incredibly strange sensation of feeling the world nod in agreement.
She has great power, but you will not reach her.
Zack's fists clenched. "How do you know?" he demanded, ignoring the sudden sick feeling in his stomach.
The voice ignored him. Your time is short, it murmured, jumping from topic to topic like conversation was going out of style. Delay too long and he'll fade, but risk moving too soon and you'll be burnt out. You'll not reach the Cetra. Not together.
He was probably hurting Cloud, Zack realized absently. He eased his white-knuckled grip on slack fingers and set Cloud's hand carefully down on the grass. A moment's consideration and then he stood, leaving his Buster where it lay. "Alright," he said, not about to turn down an offer of help, no matter how insane it sounded. "What do I do?"
One way, the voice said, For both to survive. Give of yourself and he will find his way back. Not whole, but no longer lost. Together he can shoulder better the burden you struggle with alone.
Zack frowned, puzzling out the cryptic phrasing. "What do I need to give?" he asked eventually.
Yourself, it answered simply. Become the part of his self which he lacks.
That didn't sound good. Zack looked down at Cloud's still, slack face, thinking hard. "What does he lack?"
Direction, will, endurance. The voice lingered in his ear, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. He is not the man people will think him to be. Become the strength of heart he will need to face the fate laid out for him.
Glassy blue eyes stared up at Zack's face, though Zack knew that they weren't really seeing him. He could hope all he wanted that Cloud was close to waking, but it didn't change the fact that half the Shinra army was snapping at their heels and they had months to go yet before they'd reach Midgar. He could get there in less than half the time by himself but…
He wasn't leaving Cloud. No matter what. Which would probably give Cloud an apoplexy if he knew it, but Zack wasn't letting him have a vote. Even without mystic talking trees he knew the odds of them both getting into Midgar in one piece were somewhere between slim and abysmal, but that hadn't stopped him yet and he didn't intend on turning into a defeatist at this stage of the game. Let Shinra hurl everything they had at him. It didn't matter. If he had to throw himself in front of bullets to keep Cloud alive, then so be it.
It is your choice, youngling.
Of course, he acknowledged with a crooked not-quite grin, it wouldn't do much good if he got his fool self killed protecting Cloud when the poor kid couldn't even get himself out of range afterwards.
At least this way maybe he'd get a ring-side seat to Cloud finally waking up again.
Zack took a deep breath. "Okay disembodied voice," he decided, pleased at how steady the words were. "You've got yourself a deal." His arms spread wide. "Whatever he needs from me, he's welcome to it. Just leave him the sword okay?" he added as an afterthought. His mouth twisted ruefully. "Seems like he's going to need it."
You are brave, youngling, the voice murmured, the world suddenly far brighter than the weak sunlight could account for.
::Amazing:: Zack thought to himself as the light went blinding, arms still spread. Cloud's eyes flashed in the corner of his vision. ::Four million patches of forest in the world and I manage to pick the magical one::
And then pain exploded beneath his heart and he didn't have time to think of much of anything else.
Cloud came awake in a rush, rolling up to his knees in the middle of a small clearing, poised to attack. Threads of sunlight filtered through the close-packed trees along with the quiet warmth of late spring and the faint sound of the wind. His vision was clear and sharp, free of the cloying green haze that had become as familiar as the thrum of his heartbeat in his chest, inexorable and ruthless.
He was alone.
Feeling distinctly like he'd woken from a nightmare into an even stranger dream, Cloud sank weakly down into the ground, wondering what was going on.
His hand brushed something cold and hard and he started. A feeling of unreality rose in his chest as he stared down at the familiar length of Zack's Buster sword in the grass beside him, the wide edge glinting as though from a recent sharpening.
"Zack?" he murmured, bemused, fear and hope warring for command of his voice. Nothing answered him but the barely-there brush of the wind and Cloud sagged, feeling suddenly lost. He clenched his teeth at the phantom burn of mako in his veins, waiting for the blurring green to swaddle him close again, to pull him out of this dream and back into reality in the labs. Like it always did. Only the air still felt cool on his cheeks, no acrid curl of chemicals assailing his senses, and Cloud cracked a careful eye open to find that the clearing was still there, still and patient. There was no sign of the green.
Panic lanced at Cloud's nerves and he poked experimentally at his leg, a joyous kind of terror buoying up inside him when he felt the rub of fabric against skin, immediate and ordinary and, by the gods, real. "Zack!" he exclaimed in instinctive delight, head jerking up to find him. "Zack, where are you? It's me!"
Shock ebbed, veering into despair and Cloud craned his neck, desperate for a sign of where Zack had gone. The small clearing offered no hints, not even a fading imprint of footsteps in the grass to say that Cloud had ever been anything but alone. Maybe Zack…
"No," he frowned automatically, refusing that thought out of hand. Zack wouldn't have left him. Even when he should have, Zack had never given up on Cloud. And he'd always said that trouble was easier to face with company, right?
"Besides," Cloud told himself, ignoring the uncertain tremble in his voice. "Zack wouldn't have gone far without his sword."
He skimmed a hand lightly over the heavy blade and nearly jumped out of his skin when the metal suddenly blazed white, so bright he could barely stand to look at it.
The offering has been made, a voice whispered in his mind, with the silvery chime of a thousand bells. You are the saved one.
"Zack," Cloud said desperately, whirling for a sight of the speaker. "Where is he?"
Buried youngling, the voice told him.
Cloud's stomach bottomed out. "Is he okay?" he demanded, panic edging his voice. Don't let him be dead, please gods, don't let him be dead…
He lives, the voice said and Cloud breathed a shaky sigh of relief before it added, and yet does not live.
Cloud frowned, squinting into the glare with a look that he hoped was forbidding. "What? Where is he?"
A phantom pressure nudged at Cloud's chest and he jerked reflexively back but there was nothing there.
Here, the voice told him. His strength is now yours.
Cloud's mouth gaped, aghast. "You don't mean what I think you mean," he declared eventually, with all the conviction he could muster.
The voice didn't answer, the silence pregnant and heavy, and Cloud let his head drop to his bent knees, feeling suddenly shaky. "Why in Ifrit's name would he do that?" he demanded.
His will protects you, the voice murmured, which wasn't an answer but it made Cloud scowl anyway.
"He shouldn't have," he whispered into the fabric of his pants, eyes starting to burn. "He should have saved himself."
It was the best way. You are needed, youngling.
"Well I need him!" Cloud burst out, glaring into the blinding light. "How am I supposed to just carry on without him?"
Together and not together, the voice repeated, starting to sound wary. Cloud bared his teeth at it.
"I want him back," he declared, low and deadly earnest. "Undo whatever you did and bring him back."
To its credit, it sounded almost regretful. We cannot, youngling. Not us.
Cloud hugged his knees close to his chest, fighting not to tremble. "Then who?"
The Planet. The voice was in his ear, soft and coaxing. Help her youngling.
Cloud thought about that. "So, if I help the… Planet, it will fix Zack?"
And you, the voice agreed. But do not linger, it cautioned. Even now the sands fall to bury him.
Cloud's hands clenched in time with his heart. "How long do I have?" he demanded.
"You're really not very helpful, you know," Cloud muttered sourly.
The voice was silent.
"Okay," he decided finally, rubbing a hand over his face. "I don't really know how I'm supposed to help, but I'll do my best. I promise."
Your road begins, the voice said, with a hint of satisfaction. It hesitated for a moment, then added, A gift, younglings, for your bravery. Take courage together.
The light flared even brighter and Cloud's eyes winced shut, colours sparking in his vision. Pain scrawled through his veins, sudden and cutting enough to make him gasp. He doubled over, feeling his fingers dig hard into the flesh of his legs. He'd probably have bruises tomorrow.
Then just as suddenly the pain was gone, lifting as the light faded and leaving him crumpled and panting on the grass. It was a good several minutes before he pushed himself shakily upright, supremely unsurprised to see the clearing just as it had been when he'd woken. Zack's sword lay quietly beside him, the metal dull and dark as always.
Cloud sat up slowly, rubbing at his forehead. "What the hell just happened?" he demanded.
::Your guess is as good as mine, kiddo::
Cloud jerked and whirled at the voice, nearly as familiar as his own and twice as welcome. "Zack?" he demanded incredulously.
::Got it in one:: Zack's voice said inside his head and Cloud slumped, wondering if he'd finally gone insane after all.
The warm sound of Zack chuckling made that seem like not as much of a bad thing as Cloud figured it ought to be.
::Hey, if you're nuts, then we both are:: Zack told him, the sound as real as if he was standing right there. ::I started conversing with disembodied voices first, after all. And I gotta say they don't usually cover living inside someone else's head as part of SOLDIER training 101::
"You're… in my head?" Cloud repeated, belatedly realizing that he probably didn’t need to talk aloud if Zack was…yeah.
::As far as I can tell:: Zack agreed cheerfully. ::And yeah, talking to yourself might not be a habit you want to get into. It's funny as hell to watch, don't get me wrong, but it's likely to get you labeled as an actual crazy person, which is not so good for laying low::
:Okay: Cloud thought back, dizzy with relief. :But… how did this happen?:
He got what he figured was the mental equivalent of Zack shrugging. ::Magic talking trees?:: Zack guessed. ::I'm still a little confused myself. Though really, I'm just glad to see you up and about again. You had me worried, kiddo::
Cloud fought the urge to flush. :Sorry:
::Now you're just being silly. Don't you think I know you'd have woken up on your own if you could? Sounds like you've got a hell of a time ahead of you though:: he added, his tone sober.
:Us: Cloud corrected firmly. :You're not getting out of this that easily:
Zack smiled. Cloud thought he could get used to feeling Zack smile. ::Us then:: Zack agreed. ::S'not like you could get rid of me now, anyway::
The sun was nearly gone. :Come on: Cloud declared, climbing carefully to his feet. :Let's get moving before the flowers start reciting poetry to us or something: He reached for Zack's sword and blinked when his hand slung it neatly over his shoulder without warning his brain about it first. :Zack?: he asked, surprised. :Did you do that?:
::Um, maybe?:: Zack answered, sounding sheepish. ::Looks like this being someone else's will thing is going to take some getting used to::
Cloud shook his head. :Come on: he said with a sigh. :Let's go:
::After you, o fearless leader:: Zack grinned and Cloud gave him a mental whack as he moved under his own power to push their way out of the clearing, Zack riding bright and warm and hopeful inside of him.
Behind them the copse of trees was still, red flowers gleaming faintly amid the grass as the sun sank low in the sky and the world resumed its steady march into night.