Fandom: Final Fantasy VII:OGC AU
Rating: PG this section for glossed m/m
Word count this section: 4686
A/N: Calm before the storm people.
Summary: Irrevocably tied and holding nothing back, two men search the world for what's been lost. This is but a small part of their story.
The blacksmith stared at Zack like he'd grown a second head. "It's a what?"
"A fortifying charm." The medallion glinted faintly in the light from the low-burning forge, small in Zack's outstretched palm. "Got it from a Harper in the wetlands last season. It's supposed to be able to reinforce basic sigils."
"And you mean to say you'd just give it to me?"
Zack offered a one-armed shrug. "Why not? It's not like I'm using it. And you said yourself that the forge won't be any use until you get the spells renewed. Consider it fair payment for putting the edge back on my sword."
Hope and wary skepticism warred in the blacksmith's eyes. "If that little bit of copper can really do what you say it's worth an absolute fortune." He shook his head, flatly incredulous. "I can't believe you'd just give it away."
"Well first off, a sword's a lot more useful than a fortune I can't carry. And secondly," Zack's tone gentled slightly, "it seems like you could use the help a lot more than I could use the money."
"…are you serious?"
Zack's smile was wry but kind. "I'm very rarely serious, friend smith, but I'm usually trustworthy. If this medallion can benefit you, that's more than enough reason to give it a try."
It was no wonder, Cloud thought, leaning unobtrusively against the far wall and watching the scene unfold, that people took to Zack so quickly. Even when he was skirting round the truth with the skill of a lawmonger, his desire to help people shone through so clearly that even the most suspicious souls were hard pressed to find fault with his reasoning.
Not to mention that he'd pulled his 'fortifying charm' routine so many times now that even Cloud almost believed him.
For his part, the blacksmith didn't appear to need much convincing. The man's tone wavered between wariness and needy hope as he spoke, "Well… if you're certain…"
"Great!" Zack's bag hit the floor and he was beside the forge before the blacksmith could blink, sinking down to his haunches in front of the sigil.
Zack's magic swelled in the confined space, confident and brave, as he lifted the medallion. He glanced a grin over one shoulder. "I'm not entirely sure how this works," he admitted cheerily, which was probably the biggest lie he'd told so far, "but I'm sure we'll figure it out."
The blacksmith swallowed, looking nervous. Cloud rolled his eyes.
Cloud could taste the blacksmith's breathless want as copper clicked against the stone forge, streaking like a film across the back of his throat. The man's eyes were fixed on Zack's hand, all his trust and hope and tension aimed at that tiny polished disc. Which was foolish in Cloud's opinion, but he couldn't see what Cloud saw, couldn't know that it wasn't the medallion but the man that he ought to be coveting.
Cloud found himself privately grateful for that.
Nothing happened for a long moment and Cloud watched hope shade into uncertainty across the blacksmith's face, wavering on the edge of anger.
"Ah," the man dissembled eventually, "is there something wrong, friend…"
Light flared and Zack's yelp echoed off the rafters as he jerked his hand away from metal gone suddenly red hot. Sand hissed and crackled around the medallion where it fell and Cloud heard the blacksmith's sharp intake of breath as the metal began to ooze, dull copper turning glistening and slick in the light.
"Sweet Ivahner," the blacksmith swore devoutly. He shifted forward for a better look, completely oblivious to the hand Zack had flattened against the forge, the violet gleam in gray eyes as he fed energy into the worn sigil the way only trained mages were supposed to be able to.
In a matter of moments the little medallion had melted down to nothing and Zack shifted away from the forge just in time to catch the upward roll of the blacksmith's comically round eyes as they dragged away from the puddle of cooling copper on the floor.
"By the Bright Ones, that was…that - did you see… it, it just…" The man trailed off, the hopeful catch in his voice almost painful to hear as he ventured, "Did… did it work?"
Zack shrugged, one hand cradled gingerly against his chest. "I'm not sure." He gave practiced wince. "It certainly did something though."
The blacksmith's eyes sharpened in a rush. "Fates, that light - are you alright, friend traveler?"
"Just a bit tender," Zack promised, curling his conspicuously unburnt fingers safely out of sight. "Nothing to worry about." He canted his head at the forge. "What about your protective? Does it look any better?"
The blacksmith threw a critical eye over the sigil and Cloud was quietly impressed when the man brightened immediately, joy and disbelief chasing each other rapidly across his face.
"A wonder!" he exclaimed, expression rapt as he fell to his knees to trace the now-blazing lines of the sigil. "It's not been this fine since it was first built!"
The smile that softened Zack's face made Cloud's heart clench. "You must care for this shop very much," Zack remarked, something strange moving behind his eyes. Cloud wondered if it was anything he was supposed to remember.
"A thousand thanks to you friend traveler!" The blacksmith rounded again, broad smile taking years off his ruddy face. "This is true magic you've worked and no mistake!"
Zack held his hands up in defense. "Hey, all I did was hold the thing - not much of an accomplishment. Really," he added, when it looked like the blacksmith would protest. "I'm just glad it worked."
The blacksmith's head shook. "You're far too modest. How can I repay you?"
"I really don’t need repaying, but…" Zack's grin went slightly sheepish around the edges. "If you've the time to sharpen my sword I'd be much obliged."
"Done," the blacksmith answered immediately. His gaze shifted towards Cloud. "Yours too, if you have a need. It's not nearly enough in payment, but…"
"It's more than enough," Zack interrupted, unslinging his own sword with a practiced sweep of his arm. "A sharp sword's worth its weight in gold for guys like us, right Cloud?"
Cloud nodded. "Thank you," he said as Zack handed off his sword.
The blacksmith buckled slightly under the weight. "Oof! That would be a lot of gold and no mistake." He chuckled. "This is quite a hefty sword."
Zack smiled easily. "That it is." He gestured absently towards Cloud. "Did you want both now?"
The man paused, the contemplative sweep of his eyes from Cloud to the sword in his own trembling arms terribly easy to read. "Come back around the noon bells tomorrow," he decided after a moment, as Cloud had known he would. "I'll have this one finished and take the other then. Is that agreeable to you, friend travelers?"
"Perfectly," Zack agreed. His head tilted significantly. "Come on, Cloud. I think we've taken up more than enough of the goodman's time."
Cloud levered himself away from the wall with a shrug and followed Zack out into the crisp evening air.
"Ivahner guard you both!" the man called loudly after them as they went and Cloud winced at the curious heads that turned their way on the previously quiet street. So much for anonymity.
They walked side by side down the street, heading for the inn.
Zack was already grinning. "See? Told you it'd be fine."
"This is going to be all over the village come morning," Cloud reminded him quietly.
"Probably," Zack agreed. "But we really do need our swords sharpening. And the fact that he's doing them one at a time means that we're still going to be armed."
"That doesn't make it a good idea to call that much attention to us, Zack. What would you have done if there'd been a mage nearby?"
"Well I probably wouldn't have had to pull out the magic and sparkle in the first place." Zack grinned, leaning in close. "And you would have stopped me if there'd been any real danger, am I right?"
Cloud made a face, unable to deny that. Zack laughed and ruffled his hair.
"Always looking out for me," he smiled, at once teasing and sincere. "You really don't need to worry so much though. No one can expect us to magic any other sigils when our handy dandy charm's been melted down to scrap, now can they? All we have to do is act sorry when people ask about it and we're in the clear."
"And nevermind the half dozen others you've got clinking around in your pack, I suppose."
Zack pulled a sorrowful face. "Hardly - I'm down to my last one now. Remind me to pick up some more when the caravans arrive, okay?"
Despite his best intentions, the ghost of a smile cracked through Cloud's attempt at disapproval. "You're incorrigible," he declared.
A grin. "I try."
The streets were only sparsely peopled at this hour, closed shop fronts and empty stalls flanking their progress through the town. Cloud wondered uncharitably whether it was because all the villagers were already waiting for them in the common room.
"It probably won't be as crazy as last night," Zack said, as if in response to Cloud's unspoken thought. "Though I'd wager the blacksmith's going to be pretty popular for the next fortnight or so once the word goes around."
"I thought I was the one who read minds," Cloud remarked idly. The groan of wood filled the air and he glanced across the nearly empty square to where a handful of soldiers were wrestling with the heavy city gate, their grunting curses a strange counterpoint to the gate's steady shudder.
Zack shrugged. "Yeah, well I've been thinking of branching out." A pause, so brief Cloud barely caught it. "Though I wouldn't object to some backup tonight if you're up to it."
The gate closed with a rumbling boom that Cloud could feel right through the heavy soles of his boots. "The same people you talked to last night?" he asked, eyes tracking automatically to the massive sigils scrawled across the heavy wooden beams.
"Yeah. I figure we may as well get as much information as we can as long as we're here and these guys sure like to talk."
The gate's sigils were stronger than he would have expected, showing no signs of the decay that clung to the weaker protectives within the walls. Cloud supposed that made sense - weak magic wouldn't have been able to keep the forest out and this village wouldn't last long against the kind of monsters that sought old magic without strong defenses. He could feel the pulse of the power burned into the wood, standing against the outside world with the glint of a shield and the warmth of an embrace.
"Probably won't be able to get a word in edgewise," Zack was saying but Cloud barely heard him, attention fixed on that subtle impression of strength and protection and other things he couldn't name. That was… strange, he decided, footsteps slowing unconsciously as he tried to puzzle them out. Sigils usually came clear to him with barely a glance, unspooling like ribbons and stardust before his eyes, but this one knotted itself tighter instead, holding tight to its secrets. Cloud concentrated harder, ignoring the warning whine in his ears as colours whorled and looped back onto themselves, feeding in and around and together. The weight of their magic shimmered silver on the air, threaded through with green so pale it was almost blue, and Cloud strained, fighting to understand…
"-oud, hey Cloud. You in there?"
Jolting back to himself all at once, Cloud blinked owlishly at Zack, wincing at the thinly-veiled worry scrawled across Zack's face.
"Sorry," he apologized automatically, scrubbing a hand across his eyes. He felt very tired all of a sudden. "I just got… distracted."
Zack's expression eased somewhat. "What have I told about staring at strange sigils?" he chided, though gently. His head cocked curiously. "Which one?"
"The gate." Cloud shrugged self-consciously. "I didn't get a good look at it last night - it's a bit different from the ones in the west, isn't it?"
Zack hummed thoughtfully, magic flaring slightly as he considered the towering protectives. "Maybe a little, I guess. It seems to be doing its job, though." Gray eyes slanted back to Cloud. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"No, I… I don't think so." Cloud deflated, resisting the temptation to look again. "It's just strange."
"Well that's good. What about you? Still with me?"
Cloud started to nod, then stopped abruptly when it made the world spin. "A little dizzy," he admitted, hand migrating up towards his temple.
Zack smiled, wryly fond. "I noticed. Anything I can do?"
That made Cloud want to smile in return. "No," he said gently, the same as he always did. "Thanks though."
"Don't mention it."
They started walking again and Cloud was relieved when the world did nothing more worrying than wobble slightly under his feet as they went. "So," he said. "What's the plan now?"
"Now? Dinner, probably. You still up for company?"
"I guess." The inn loomed out of the encroaching dark ahead of them and Cloud wished abruptly that he'd let his energy levels balance out before trying to read the gate protectives. "I'll leave the story-telling to you though."
The warm glow of firelight spilled across the uneven cobblestones through the open inn door, the smells and sounds of dinner following it out of the building. Cloud felt ill just thinking about it.
"It's not story-telling," Zack protested, his hand smoothing warm and reassuring down Cloud's arm as they moved to enter. "It's a creative interpretation of the facts."
Because so many of them weren't safe to tell.
Cloud sighed instead of voicing a truth they both knew. "I hope you know what you're doing."
Zack's answering chuckle was almost equal parts warm and rueful. "Rarely, but you know I've always been good at improvising. Remember your first sword routine?"
Cloud groaned. "If you tell any part of that story tonight I'm going to kill you. Twice."
Really, he'd forgotten so much - so why did all the embarrassing things come back so easily?
"So," Lomas said, somewhere between dinner and heavily into his cups. "Where you boys from anyway?"
Zack leaned idly back in his chair. "Originally you mean? Well, Cloud here's from some freezing backwater north of Tivaner…"
"Explains the hair," Wolan muttered.
"And I was born and bred in a little village on the Trine that you've probably never heard of."
He got a pointed look for that. "Try me," Lomas suggested.
"Gongaga," Zack replied truthfully, and didn't even bother trying to curb his grin as Lomas' brow furrowed.
"I… can't says I have," the man admitted after a moment's thought, as Zack had known he would. It was hard to know about a village that didn't exist anymore, after all.
Zack shrugged carelessly. "Don't worry about it. Most of the neighbouring villages didn't even know we were there." Which was more than a little exaggerated, really, but he wouldn’t actually have to start lying unless they asked him which side of the border it'd been on.
"Small place, huh?" Raaf hummed thoughtfully. "That why you left?"
"Partly," Zack agreed easily. "Though I've always had a bit of wanderlust in me - I doubt any place could have kept my attention forever." He laughed and even he wasn't sure much of the ruefulness in it was honest. "I mean, I've always wanted to make a difference in the world - do great things and meet great people, that sort of thing." He shrugged. "Always figured I'd find out how if I just kept at it long enough."
“Hmm. And did you?”
Zack's answering grin was more self-deprecating than anything. “Well, it didn't take me long to learn that things never really turn out the way you expect them to, and that some adventures aren't nearly so much fun once you've started them. But I’ve definitely met my fair share of great people over the years,” a covert glance at Cloud found the man listening expressionlessly, no hint of colour splashed across his cheeks to suggest that he realized that he ought to count himself on that list, “and I guess I’ll just have to wait and see whether any of the things I’ve done turn out to be great.”
"You're young yet," Raaf told him, almost grandfatherly in his concern. "There's plenty of time for doing great things."
Nods all around and a precariously quiet Cloud answered that. Guessing where Cloud's thoughts had gone, Zack pressed a palm against Cloud's thigh under the table. A wisp of a smile flicked through blue eyes before they dropped back to the table.
"You ever been back to this Gongaga?" Wolan wanted to know then.
"Not recently," Zack said glibly, ignoring the way Cloud was frowning at his plate. "Been pretty busy monster hunting."
"Eh, probably not the best time for visiting anyhow," Raaf said prosaically, signaling for another pint. "Not with the number of press gangs ruining people’s lives around the capital right now."
Zack froze, his drink halfway to his mouth. "What?"
A silver-brushed eyebrow arched. "You haven't heard? The caravans have been abuzz about the conscriptions for half a season at least."
"Conscriptions?" Zack parroted, incredulous.
Raaf nodded soberly. "By order of the King himself. The Royal Forces haven't been so many strong in a hundred years."
"We haven't seen any press gangs," Cloud offered quietly, the first thing he'd said since sitting down at the table.
"You came up from the west though, didn't ya? They're in the southeast right now so you probably missed 'em. But it's only a matter of time before they come up this way too." Wolan sighed. "We're in for a bad harvest next year. Who's going to tend the fields if all the men have to join up?"
Zack didn't like the sound of this at all. "Any idea what the king's planning?" he asked warily.
Lomas snorted. "Yeah, war."
"War?" It came out weakly, like someone had just punched him in the gut. "With Leial?"
Raaf's nod made his heart sink. "Sounds like the king's not holding anything back either. I hear tell they're even enlisting mage troops into the Signet forces to swell their numbers."
"Why now?" Zack demanded, more of himself than anything. After all this time…
He got a shrug in response. “There’s not much else he can do, to be fair. The situation on the border's only getting worse with every passing year. All that waiting's going to do is land him with an invasion - or an insurrection depending on who gets fed up first."
"He can't expect-" Zack started, cutting himself off before he could say something very foolish. He pulled a sheepish face. "Sorry, it's a lot to take in."
"I can't believe you didn't know already," Lomas said, head tilting as he finished off his pint. "Would've thought the press gangs would be falling all over themselves to enlist a pair of massive lads like yourselves."
Zack's grin pasted itself on a little crookedly. "Just lucky so far, I guess." He kept his tone carefully neutral as he added, "Though it might be a good idea for us to think of lying low for the next… er, any word on when they're planning this invasion for?"
Raaf pursed his lips, considering. "With the next spring thaw I'd expect - King Rufus isn't so much of a fool as to start a campaign with the winter coming on."
But he was fool enough to start a war with Leial though, Zack thought bitterly. He caught Cloud's eyes across the table, reading the same worry in them that was surely reflecting in his own.
Half a year. How in Ge's name were they supposed to fix this?
Raaf sighed. "Well, there's no use worrying about what's already in motion." He met Zack's eyes, gruffly serious. "If I was you two, I’d do my level best to stay out of sight unless you feel like a career change. Lomas is right - the press gangs get one look at those monstrosities you call swords and you'll be off to the border before you can blink.”
"Thanks for the warning," Zack said, with a decent amount of his usual flippant charm, even as Wolan's attention sharpen on the single sword leaning against the edge of the table between him and Cloud.
"Hey, one of your swords is missing."
Zack jumped at the chance to change the topic, ignoring Cloud's unhappy sigh. "Funny story about that actually. See, we went down to the smithy…"
They needed time to think. Things were coming to a head, and far sooner than Zack had hoped for. They had to figure out what this changed and what, if anything, they could do to stop this war from happening.
Because there was only one thing Zack knew for certain; if Shinra went to war now, Leial was going to win. And that would be a disaster that there was no coming back from.
The waiting was the worst part.
Cloud woke up sandwiched between the mattress of a vaguely familiar bed and the solid warmth of Zack's broad chest - a position so common after years of living from inn to inn that it took Cloud several deep, shuddering breaths to remind himself where he was this time. A tilt of his head revealed that Zack was still sleeping, his handsome face drawn with the fatigue he didn't show during his waking hours. Cloud wondered if the same anxious worries that had dogged his sleep were slinking through Zack's too.
Restlessly tired, Cloud stared around the room, trying to resign himself to the fact that they were stuck here for Ge only knew how long. At least when they were on the move he could pretend that they were making progress, that they wouldn't always be waiting for information they'd never find. It was harder to convince himself on a day like today though, when he'd be coming back to the same room tonight, frustrated and impatient after spending the whole day trying to find ways to fill the time.
Cloud wound a frustrated hand through his hair, tugging until it made his eyes water. Zack needed him to be patient; time was the one thing they did have on their side and he'd be worse than useless if he let himself panic needlessly. But the threat of danger he felt before was already lurking at the back of his mind, louder than before, making him feel as tired as though he hadn't slept at all. He didn't know what was coming - maybe the press gangs they'd been warned about? - but there was no denying that time was running out on them, in more ways than one.
They wasted so many years already, waiting and watching and searching, and now there was a war coming. Even if they ran they'd never find him now, not with the whole world falling around them and the shadows of a past Cloud couldn't quite remember breathing down their necks. There was no time left.
And there was nothing they could do but wait.
The sound Cloud made then was brittle and lost, tasting like shards of glass when he tried to swallow it down. When Zack's arms tightened around him he didn't even bother being surprised, just turned urgently into the embrace, holding on tight.
Zack didn't say anything - he never did in moments like this - just held him close while Cloud shuddered. He held him until Cloud's heartbeat slowed and the bone-white clench of his hands on Zack's shoulders eased, calm and anchoring. Eventually there was quiet between them and Cloud breathed in Zack's warm, summertime scent, wondering, not for the first time, what good he'd ever done to deserve someone like Zack to watch out for him.
Zack's hands stirred soothingly across Cloud's back, asking for nothing, and it was Cloud who arched up, catching Zack's mouth in a kiss that was as sweet as he knew how to make it with tension still riding high in his veins. And Zack met him halfway, kissing back until Cloud was dizzy and half-wild with wanting. Cloud fell into Zack like he was drowning without him, wordless and hungry.
It wasn't as though there was any particular hurry to get up, for once, though Cloud refused to let himself dwell on that thought.
It was well past the breakfast hour by the time they dragged themselves away from each other and out of bed. Cloud's ears were ringing before they'd even finished eating, his attempts to smile at the young thing that Zack sweet-talked into fixing a plate up for them paltry at best. Cloud only hoped that Zack didn't notice.
The day oozed sluggishly past, as Cloud had known it would. They wandered the market together, Zack chatting with the locals like he'd lived there his whole life. More than a few commented on Zack's missing sword, artfully solicitous, and Cloud was supremely unsurprised at the crowd they found outside the smithy, avid faces jostling for a glimpse at the well-burning force. He left the questions to Zack, gritting his teeth at the chaos of the sweltering, overcrowded smithy.
It was a relief when they finally escaped, though to it took the press of Zack's hand to the small of his back, silently supportive, to convince him to hand his sword over to the red-cheeked blacksmith. His shoulders hunched further with every step they took away from the smithy, his bare back feeling terribly exposed. Zack, who had handled the same challenge with much greater aplomb the day before, just scruffed a fond hand through his hair and asked what they should do next.
They washed laundry. Zack wasn't particularly helpful.
It was early yet by the time they finished hanging clothes and Cloud didn't protest much as Zack dragged him beyond the walls, out onto the flat ground between the village and the caravan pass. They sparred bare-handed, more an exercise in motion than a real match, and Cloud found himself glad for the activity despite the way the world kept blurring around him when he turned. He knew that Zack noticed by the way his expression went quietly thoughtful, but Cloud refused to back down, pushing himself hard in the hopes that he'd sleep that night. Zack simply shook his head and pushed back, saying nothing. Cloud was grateful for that.
His head had started to ache in earnest by the time they called it quits, the thump of his heart turning hollow and erratic in his chest. The urge to run welled up more than once, but Cloud knew they couldn't leave, not while his sheath was empty and the caravan trail remained untrodden. There was no point in running if they went the wrong direction, after all.
So Cloud kept silent, picking at his food despite how dry his mouth was. He excused himself early, fleeing the common room to burrow himself under the bedcovers with sweat on his brow and his scanty attempt at dinner sitting uncomfortably in his stomach.
He hadn't managed much more than a fitful doze before Zack made his way up to the room, moving quietly to keep from disturbing him. Cloud sighed as Zack slid under the covers and Zack cuddled him in tight, pressing a chaste kiss to Cloud's forehead before settling down himself.
"Tomorrow will be better," Zack murmured, a gentle rumble of sound hardly more than a whisper in the stillness. "The caravan will get here soon enough."
"I know," Cloud whispered back, straining for sleep that he knew would be a long time coming. "I just hope…" he trailed off, unable to find the words to fit his fears.
Zack kissed his temple. "Me too, Cloud. Me too."