Fear

BY : Thorne
Category: Final Fantasy VII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 593
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII, nor any of the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

Summary: Cloudís doubts, worries, and conclusions on himself and Zack. Yaoi.

Warning & Disclaimer: Angst and sap in alarming quantities, made-up details on materia, semi-explicit sex. Square owns all characters.

For Catt, who keeps me sane and made this happen. Thanks, love.



i have so much to lose

here in this lonely place.

tangled up in our embrace

thereís nothing iíd like better than to fall.

but i fear i have nothing to give.

i have so much to lose.

i have nothing to give.

we have so much to loseÖ


~sarah mclachlan, "fear"

 


 


The Soldier tests are in a week and it seems like his days exist of nothing but long lists of materia statistics and attack patterns and endless diagrams of gun components. Some nights, all he can see are writhing trails of blurry text that swim before his eyes when he looks at them too long. He knows that after a while, Zack will simply pull the textbooks from his loosening fingers and push him in the direction of the bed. Itís easier for him to simply stay here to to walk to the barracks, burrowing in sheets that smell comfortingly of Zack. He dreams of his hands slick with gun-oil, working frantically to dismantle and then reassemble a weapon he canít quite hold onto. A clock ticks ominously overhead and the gun keeps falling to the floor and someone in the distance is shouting at him.

He wonders, sometimes, if it is possible to go insane while still fifteen. He canít even read his own notes at this point.

Everything comes in never-ending cycles: study some history, study defensive sword maneuvers. Practice at the firing range, practice with Zack in the apartmentís living room using curtain rods as impromptu swords. Scribble mock-essays on the advantages and disadvantages of elemental materia, read about the levels of spell materia, research rare summon-materia lore, anything, everything.

And all Cloud can do is sit there with mug after mug of black coffee, completely bitter and vile stuff that he inexpertly brews but it keeps him awake long enough each night to cram a little more. He canít do this. He isnít in any way ready. There is no cheat-sheet or book or anything that can tell him the automatic right thing to perform or say, nothing to do except study and train and study more and hope it will be enough.

It must be the unfamiliarity of the caffeine that keeps him so on edge and makes him want to wonder and doubt and try to figure out why, for any reason, Zack lets him stay here. Zack swore that it would help his nerves. Maybe that was it, but he never figured out just whose nerves that was supposed to refer to or how to explain that itís gone far past being just nerves, now.

Itís not even just the tests any more. Heís just so tired and so exhausted that no amount of sleep is going to give him back what he needs, and he worries about his mother and he doesnít know where heíll stay or what heíll do if he doesnít pass. There are a lot of things on that particular list. Maybe itís being in Midgar, a whole new world unto itself, or the trooper uniform that doesnít hang quite right, or even just always being a fucking head shorter than everyone in the application process.

He wonders how long it will be before Zack comes back from whatever First Class SOLDIERs do on duty and if it will be long enough for the red to fade from his eyes. Crying doesnít do any good; he doesnít do it all that often, but itíll only get worse if Zack sees him at it. Maybe some cold water will help.

The words are smearing and the world is grainy and porous. He keeps looking at the page, keeping his eyes open wide, wide enough so that he wonít fall asleep, wide enough so he he canít cry, wide enough so that itís actually hard to see anything at all. Itíll be all right. He keeps that close to himself and wonít think otherwise.

Chapter seven, weapons technology and development. The surprising correlations between the activation of materia and the material composition of the weapon and armor in question have long fascinated the scientific community of Shinra. Without the proper alloy, the materia is useless and will refuse to dispense any reaction or growth. Wutaiian forge-masters were the first to discover how to smelt and refine aurum, a gold-related compound that reacts in the presence of materia.

Heís seen Zackís sword, touched it, tripped over it, even held it once or twice with Zack bracing his wrists, his bare fingers probably feeling Cloudís excited pulse as the stance made the dreams real for a few minutes. The grey-metal of the blade makes a stark contrast to the materia slots, which are rimmed and lined with filaments of gold as subtle and delicate as spider-webs. The gold seems to move and swirl in deepening arcs and curves and spirals if he stares long enough but it hurts his eyes this late at night to try.



While much of the reports are based on old mythology and lore, there have been some incidences of weapon discovery that were coated in a purer form of aurum that labs have been as of yet unable to replicate. These weapons have been said to vary greatly in terms of both growth (see chapter eleven on the exponential level effect) and stre. It. It is generally accepted that these two factors are involved in a negative exponential ratio; that as materia growth rate increases, weapon and armor strength is lowered and vice versa. It is unclear whether the weapons were originally forged this way and the secret has been forgotten or if the weapons were ordinary and changed due to outside influence, i.e. natural mako exposure.

The guns that the troopers use have a much lower level of workmanship and power. The few slots have barely a tracery of aurum, and they tend to jam if highly refined materia is used. He isnít quite sure what heíd do with high level materia, anyway, besides wonder if someone higher up on the chain had made a mistake in distribution. Heís noticed, also, that the whole thing tends to overheat easily; it burns his palms even through gloves.



Whatever the cause of this, the research departments work constantly to aid the enlisted men by arming them in superior weaponry and armor so that they may further glorify the reign of the Shinra through their selfless service.

A hand is edging its way underneath his chin and he canít figure out how heís suddenly gone from sitting ramrod straight in the wooden chair to being slumped face-down on the table top, the edge of the book digging into his cheek.

Zackís voice in his ear is something syrup-slow and far away and rather pleasant, despite the half-exasperated tone. "How late have you been up, kiddo?"

He mumbles something, wondering if itís worth the time to open his eyes and check his watch. Apologies arenít really necessary between them, not this late at night anyway, but it would be nice to offer something besides incoherence.

Zack is half-carrying, half-dragging him up and out of the chair. As heís pulled to his f his his arm hits one of the books and it falls to the floor, disgorging sheets of scrawled notes and several pens and bookmarkers. The mess doesnít bother him as much as he thinks it should, itís more the fact that Zack will probably have to be the one to pick it up; embarrassing to make him clean up Cloudís problems, and besides, heíll stick the papers back in the wrong order.

He watches the carpet pattern smear by with dreamy interest as Zack drags him along, and feels mildly disappointed as he loses sight of it when Zack reaches another room. There is a pause only long enough for Zack to readjust his grip and haul Cloud over one shoulder without much effort, making for the bedroom door.

Cloud can hear the disapproval in the voice float back to him as they move through the apartment. "Shit, Strife, nothingís worth this. Get into the bed and sleep or Iíll damn well tie you to the posts." He must be upset if heís gone back to using Cloudís last name. Never mind the fact heís actively carrying Cloud there and itís impossible to dat hat he says without getting down, anyway.

Thereís a buckle on Zackís shoulder that is digging into his stomach and an eternity of walking and furniture to pass by, but heís asleep before his head hits the pillow. His fingers are trembling in dreams of rushing onwards but thatís nothing new that canít be dealt with. Dreams will disappear when he wakes up; all he has to fear is that all this--- a refuge from the other Shinra troopers, safety, a tentative and cautious happiness, Zack--- will disappear as well.

In the morning, things will get better. Zack will manhandle him out of the bed and into the shower, and afterwards quiz him while the tea (for him) and properly made coffee (for Zack) intermingle light and dark fragrances in the air, translucent amber against a richer mahogany.

Since itís a Tuesday, he has no morning tutorials and enough time to sit and daydream a bit on his watch duty before the top brass comes in. Itís easier to ignore the things that make him want to sit down and press his hands to the back of his head, and to concentrate on the good a lia little while, a little bit like waking up from a bad dream to see morning light pouring in through the window. Things are never quite as bad in the daylight.

***

Training has to do with dispelling myths, really. Or at least, Cloud thinks that, since most of the old things that heís left behind donít really count here any more. Sometimes itís about learning new things, but mostly itís one shocker aer another as he climbs out of childhood and away from what he thought was true.


For example, eyes. Soldier eyes in general, Zackís eyes in particular. Of course, he knew a little about mako treatments before he came and he knows even more now. But what he hadnít known was how much they changed the gaze of a normal person, turning the iris into a blaze of color that somehow keeps shifting and never looks quite the same twice.

It changes things. Heís used to glancing at peopleís faces quickly to gauge their mood and just as quickly glance away before they can notice him looking. It makes it easier to predict things and to get a head start running, if thatís the best and easiest thing to do. But with makoÖ with mako, he can never tell and thatís somewhat frightening. Expressions are too easy to hide. How will he be able to find the warning signs?

The idea that he wonít need them with Zack keeps trying to present itself meekly and he keeps pushing it down.

But to stare into that particular glow that signifies mako infusion is something that ish frh frightening and yet exhilarating; this is what he wants to be, this is what heís striving for but be damned if he can read it or understand it or predict it. It feels like playing with fire when he meets that type of gaze, careful, boy, they can see right through you. He hasnít been burned yet, though.

ÖHe sses ses most of this is sheer imagination from his own mind, adolescent, he would never speak them out loud. But it doesnít change the fact that Zackís eyes are a kind of silvered blue that heís never seen before, ever, and they flash when he grins and he thinks he could sit there and study them all day long without a care in the world, even if Zack was looking back.

Especially if Zack was looking back.

But, myths. Sephiroth is the root of myths. The General makes legends grow up ar him him the same way buildings grow up around Midgar, fast, quiet, towering-impressive. The buildings never seem to be built here as much as to simply burst from the concrete like germinating seeds and shoot up towards the dirty sky--- or, as the case may be, towards the Plate.

He had lived off those myths whil mad made his way here, playing them over and over in his mind and savoring each detail with the same dedication he would have given a then much-needed plate of food. Even on the boat, when the slightest motion or glance at anything made him dizzy and sick, he kept them behind his eyes. And the only burn in his eyes then was from lack of sleep as he crouched breathless and waiting, seizing each new opportunity to scuttle to a new hiding place when the crew did watch-patrol.

ÖHis eyes still have no glow here. And he knows Zack, who isÖ well, Zack is not-myths. Zack goes to bed late, Zack gets shadows under his eyes, Zack comes back tired when he has long missions. Zack curses when the alarm clock rings and throws it across the room. Zack bleeds.

This is all very confusing for him. He isnít sure what he expected to find here, or rather, he isnít sure who he expected to find but heís learning all the time. He supposes that is the best he can do.

The act of training is one of the less confusing things, actually--- someone gives an oan order, he tries to do it as soon as possible. They have punishments but they have to catch you first to administer them and he knows how to run, and to run fast at that.

But things are easier now, though. People give him sidelong looks but something must be rubbing off from Zackís touch because no one does anything or gives him much trouble anymore. Even last week, when he was late for drill, he got away with just a reprimand rather than the full-blown bitching out.>
>

Drills are probably one of his least favorite activities, with firing range practice just beating it out as the worst. This is the kind of sameness that is not comforting at all and that he hates having to take part in, just boring, stupid step-turn-salute-pivot walking that makes them all look like theyíre wind-up dolls.

At least itís easy, though; the firing range is something else completely. He wonders, as he bets countless others have wondered, what would happen if he swung around and pointed his gun not at the target but at the hunched over backs of all the other practicing troopers and Soldiers. Heís afraid thereís a scream waiting in his throat, biding time for escape.

He wishes it was anger, he wishes it was rage, he wishes it was a high-pitched garble of revenge for all those times he had to run, all those times that he eventually cried, even if he was caught or not, because that would be easier to understand. But he thinks it couldÖ and would be panic, raw, simple, and unfettered panic and he wonít ever get away from it, no matter how hard he tries.

He knows he must be messed up somehow, this is an intellectual thing. Heís pretty sure that you canít grow up the way he did or survive the first months of his joining Shinra as he did and not come out of it unscathed. But the problem is, he really has no conception of what the hell normal is, and he still wouldnít recognize it if it walked up to him and offered an introduction.

But Zack did.

Is Zack normal? It doesnít seem like it should be; first classes donít talk to recruits, recruits donít bunk with first classes, neither of them ever walk in the same circles.

Maybe no one thinks of blood and no one has wondered this at all, though. Maybe heís messed up in a different sense. Maybe heís the only one, maybe thatís why he always did end up running. Maybe he is different and deserved it all along. Maybe, maybe, maybe all the time. He doesnít know. He doesnít know a lot of things, really.

But knowing just what is a myth and what is reality is not too hard. Knowing where he draws the line between following his myth of Sephiroth and reality of Zack is something else.

So he doesnít really think about it.

Ignoring things that donít want to be thought about too closely is actually quite easy; most people donít take that into account. They slip away like retiring animals, burrowing deep into the dustier parts of the mind where no one, least of all himself, really goes. Itís actually deciding a thing that's difficult. And after all, there are far too many other things to learn right now.

Unless, maybe there is something about letting go and re-gripping that he hasnít learned yet and should be more careful about ignoring.

***

Things are made up of firsts around here and so thatís how Cloud keeps measure. First time firing a gun (hurts my ears didnít expect it to be so loud), first time wearing a uniform (gods Iím going to have to cut down a uniform having to clothe fucking kids now what are we coming to), first time taking a psychological examination (where are you from what is your age tell me what you see in the picture.)

Failure isnít a first. Neither is wondering how to act when encountering it.

Heís never thought of himself as an actor, even though heís said these lines and played these scenes before, so the options are limited. He isnít going to cry or shout or bang his fist onto the concrete wall where the entrance results are posted. Not reacting is the safest thing, play it cool, shrug it offÖ

His throat is seizing up. His hands are shaking, so he balls them into fists; the uniform pants donít have pockets to bury them deep into. Stupid of the Shinra designers, how could they expect the troopers to carry any of the millions of small necessities or indeed anything? Although, he supposes, itís not as though Shinra cares too much about the state of their troopers or their fashion sense or if one too-small, too-weak, stupid trooper could enter Soldier----

No. No, he will not think about that. He tries to rationalize; only a test after all, and thereíll be other tests, eventually. And it wasnít as though he flunked all the stuff he spent so long over, it was the stupid physical examination and the psychological evaluation, things he couldnít change without lots of time and maybe not even thenÖ

ÖShit. No. Aw, no, he isnít going to cry, and aw, fuck, heís fifteen and incapable of self analysis and he tried so hard and it didnít emattmatter in the end and he tried, he did, he really did---

"Cloud?"

And then, Zack is there and it doesnít matter after all, or maybe it matters too much and he just canít take it in right then so he simplyÖ doesnít. The waiting circle of his arms is something he hadnít expected but is somehow unsurprised by. Itís always the first instinct these days to turn to Zack, there is never any despair without first getting Zackícourcourse and he canít think why this would be any different.

"Itíll be okay, Cloud."

A hand stroking his hair. An arm wrapped around his waist. So tired. He hasnít thought it possible to find another kind of weariness than anything heís already experienced, but here it was, another new first to try on. He leans into Zack and closes his eyes, feeling stupidly unprepared, like managing to struggle through a long, painful, but indecisive illness only to be suddenly informed that death is coming after all.

There is only one type of shock worse than the totally out-of-the-blue and unexpected: the expected that one deliberately refuses to be prepared for.

Zack is saying something. Itís odd to know that someoneís talking without hearing a word that theyíre saying. Zack isnít pausing for him to reply though, so he only makes the vaguest of nods and keep concentrating on the way Zackís hand feels on his hair and the strange curve of Zackís arms around him and the way his shoulders fit into that curve. He isnít wearing his shoulder armor and that makes it easier, he supposes.

He doesnít really want to pay attention to mere words, heíd rather try to understand why he canít tell which is Zackís body and which is his and the curious, melting, here-and-gone sensation it brings.

After a while he begins to listen vagueo Zao Zack and he knows the kind of things Zack must have been saying when he hadnít been listening before and even what he was saying now. "Öand you shouldnít worry so much, you shouldnít beat yourself up over everything."

He doesnít bother to look at Zackís face yet. Zackís hand is still combing throhis his hair, lifting the strands away from his neck and it says more than what Zackís words can. He can see it in his mindís eye; how it would be unruly and bright between the tanned spread of Zackís fingers. Itasieasier to dwell more on Zackís hands though; he knows them fairly well and the one that is stroking his hair feels good. It doesnít stay there all the time, it traces the curve of his skull and strokes down the line of his neck, brushes his cheek, traces his ear, makes circles on his back, never leaving from his skin for too long.

He can even predict the kiss when it comes; he has warned when Zack tilts his chin up and uses the same hand to wrap around tack ack of his head; warm, slow, too kind, too endlessly kind. Zack brings his own head down to Cloudís rather than pulling Cloud up to him and somehow it makes all the difference.

"Címon. Iíll take you home."

Home.



Home.

He still isnít required to reply and thatís good because he doesnít think he can really explain to Zack about home. How would Zack understand that you can grow up somewhere and never call it home? is is where you come back to and they donít want to judge; home is the direction where you point your shoes towards at the end of day. Somewhere you belong, a place where you can be five or fifteen or fifty, child or adult, and they let you without any murmur of surprise and if they donít understand, than they donít mind.

He has lived in places that were not-home before. He had known when he left Nibelheim; it was like walking out of a burnt-over patch of land, dark and dead, towards a smear of green and blue on the horizon, a hint of something alive elsewhere. And he has stood in the even vaster wasteland of Midgar and known there was no home to be found until he found the small center, expected, Zack and his apartment where things grewÖ

But Zack is taking him back to his apartment, not to NibelheimÖ and if that is what he refers toÖ if that is homeÖ then maybe he is right. Maybe words are stronger, maybe he does understand the difference between home and not-home.

And maybe Zack said just the right thing after all.



Home.

***

The bench outside the main training hall is not a very cheerful place at five in the morning; however, Cloud doesnít think any location other than a bed could be considered a hospitable place at five in the morning.

The noises that are usually present here during his usual practiime ime are gone. The quality of light coming in through the windows--- what little light there is--- is also different. His boots feel heavy and his clothing stiff and he wants nothing more than to let himself lie down on the bench and get comfortable.

He could do that, just as he could have stayed in bed this morning. Could have done a lot of things, as matter of fact, if Zack hadnít explained to him in a bright, donít-argue-with-me voice how nothing improves without practice and that he plto tto teach Cloud everything he needs to know and the absolute best time to do this was when no one was around to ask questions.

The wink and smirk and raised eyebrow that had punctuated this statement gave him warning and a fair amount of anticipation about teaching outside the training hall, but not all the early mornings can be spent thus (although a fair amount are) and so--- Here he is. Waiting. For Zack, who is hopefully on his way and will arrive before Cloud decides that the bench can be used to curl up on and close his eyesÖ

He catches himself before his head droops this time.

Lucky, really. Lucky that heís got this, lucky that heíll be training under one of the best people in the entire military, someone who normally wouldne ree required to look twice his way except for maybe an entire division high-level demonstration.

Thatís just the thing about Zack though, the way he never seems to stop looking for something else to fix, something else to make better and try his hand at. He never turns down a mission; Cloudís never seen him turn down a challenge either, be it a one-on-one sparring match or a motorcycle race down the street or to drink five Dragonísrs irs in five minutes.

He has thought that it might bother him, being the next Great Challenge of the Month for Zack to undertake; take an ordinary trooper and turn him into something better. Being someoneís pet project would be too strange and he thinks he has enough pride left not to want to reach that shining goal based solely on someone working on him as though heís a faulty engine that refuses to start.

Or even what they now do in bed--- is that the result of being a challengertaertainly Zack seems to take pleasure in showing himÖ well, lots of things, really. He hadnít even thought most of them possible before he came here. Itís niceÖ better than nice, actually. Pretty damn fantastic is a term that comes to mind.

"Wear you out last night, kiddo? Canít stay awake?"

And speak of the devil.

Zack is leaning in the doorframe, casual in tank-top and workout pants, his hair gathered back in a messy black tail between his shoulder blades, smirking unabashedly. For an instant he looks almost too perfect, posed just right with the pale light seeping behind in a halo, the lines of his shoulder against doorframe, angle of cocked hip, fitting folded arms, barely-tilted head. It looks almost like he has a coat of gilt, thin liquid gold spilling all over and making his skin gleam and the shadows in the creases of his clothing so sharp and defined that they could cut his finger if he touchedÖ

And then Zack ruins it by straightening and changing the play of light, making it possible to see that the creases mean his clothing is more rumpled than usual and he just has good bones and a tan. Well.

Before Cloud can come up with a properly snide reply, Zack turns around and starts entering the code to open the door to the exercise room. They keep things locked around here; itís not uncommon for vandalism to occur. Sometimes that happens, even with Soldiers around.

ÖSometimes that happens especially with Soldiers around.

One wouldnít believe, he thinks, that Zack was who he was in Soldier, if a Soldier at all, seeing him like this with uncombed hair and eyes half-lidded enough to subdue the glow and quietly informing the stubborn keypad that it is a fucking piece of shit. But after a closer look, at the lines of muscles and the low silvered-blue smolder of iris and the callused hands that mark the swordsmen begin to tell a different story andÖ Well, he figures there usually wasnít enough time by then for reflections; he knows how quickly Zack can move.

Thatís the thing though. When they are here, going through the forms and sets in timeless repetitions, after a while neither of them are Soldiers or troopers anymore. After a while, they are just two people in a room. And if Zackís uniform to change into afterwards is different from his own and if he doesnít always get the forms right the first time or even the second and third times Zack shows him, it doesnít matter. There is something in Zack that loves teaching, or maybe just giving rightness and equilibrium in all respects, and there is something in him that loves learning that.

The door opens. "You ready to go?"

Time doesnít stand still, he knows that well. Heís gotten better in some ways and he hasnít changed in others. But a month has come and gone and Zack remains and so does he. He isnít the project or challenge anymore if he ever was in the first place and yet he stays. Itís good to know and realize sometimes, that some things donít change, even in the process of changing everything else. Itís good to feel familiar, better than being the exotic trend.

"Címon. Iíll show you something new."

It has balance to lend. Or it helps him find his own and that is just as good.

***

It may make Zack laugh--- no, heís pretty sure it will make Zack laugh if he ever says whatís been on his mind, about how different it feels and makes him feel. When theyíre together. When they move in ways that he never expected that they--- men, guys, male gender, whatever ---could do.

Itís different from what he ever expected, despite the fact he didnít--- still doesnít know exactly what to expect. His motherís kiss on the forehead, an awkward hug from Tifa the night before he left--- not much to go on. He still remembers the shallow curves of her just-beginning breasts touching briefly against his body, a tentative feather-brush for a fraction of a second before she pulled away and walked back to her home.

But Zack is all long lines and angles and planes of muscle that fit against his own body, sweet and unexpected and not disclosing soft places very often. He has to look for them but the search is always worth the reward.

Sometimes just the act of lying there, still, quiet, sheets tangled around his waist and his head tucked in the hollow between shoulder and neck that fits just soÖ sometimes that is better than the sex itself. And sometimesÖ would Zack laugh to know? The idea of sharing a bed, another warm body to curl against and learn with his eyes and fingers and mouthÖ the feeling of being the protected one rather than having to be the protector, the cherished, the relinquishing of control simply because he wants toÖ All of these things that he has an innate feeling would not belong to him in a different relationship, feel exactly like coming home? you seem to be where i belongÖ

There is a long line the color of watered-down wine on Zackís hip that the restore spell hasnít quite finished healing yet, a practice sword slash that went awry.

JustÖ little things, simple things. How he hasnít lived in his own dorm building for over a month now. How guys feel different from girls, or at least, how Zack feels different than how he imagines a girl to feel.n thn they lie together on the bed and Zack presses him deep into the mattress, heís made into what Zackís weight would define and that is somehow both strange and familiar at the same time, as though this is something that has happened before and forever.

And the way Zack touches him anywhere, everywhere, like heís made of something valuable, one fingertip on the silky spot between his eyes, down the line of his spine, on the instep of his footÖ Or the way his breath comes in slow, rhythmic, shuing ing waves that vibrate against his chest as they press together, counterpoint to Cloudís quicker, shallow pantsÖ So strange and yet soÖ just nice, stupidly, simply, nice to know that someone else is happy and can feel that way when theyíre with him. With him, Cloud Strife, trooper, outsider in Nibelheim and Shinra alike, perpetrator of all possible screw-ups.

Little things like the hollow of Zackís throat, the thing he likes best at the moment. Not to say that any other part of his body is lacking, itís just that one small section is just at his eye level most of the time and so it tends to get a lot of notice. His collarbones curve into it with something so smooth and natural, he could spend all day just touching it, feeling the pulse work below his fingers.

JustÖ different things, varied things. He likes to watch Zack move, whenever, wherever. He always looks soÖ put-together, easy and ready without having to try, whether itís in a sword pattern or sprawled over an armchair.

Or sharing a shower--- a shower built for one person --- with someone else is also different from sharing a vast room filled with steam and soap and exhausted troopers, a place where he regularly feels the need to check afterwards to see if heís got anything similar to trench-foot from washing there.

Thereís not much room to move. Someone has to press against the back of the stall, one hand against the door and the other against the soap-shelf for balance while the other person rinses their hair. And Zack always takes much longer to do this, tilting his face up to feel the spray, making faces and running his fingers through the black strands repeatedly while Cloud tries, mostly futilely, to nudge him out of the way and keep his footing. Whenever itís finally Cloudís turn, he screws his eyes up to keep the soap out and lets Zackís thigh brace him against slipping on the tiles; the shower mat disappeared inexplicably long ago.

Theyíve had to spend more on soap, lately. Itís a nice type, something that has a faint tang of citrus to it. He wonders why soap would make your hands less able to slip easily on another personís body when you help them work up lather over smooth skin, carefully gliding over shoulder and chest and abdomen. To be strictly fair, soap does make it easier to move in the beginning; it feels so nice to just run his hands everywhere and all over, frictionless over wet skin and the only thing better is letting himself be touched in turn. But when the water washes it away, the skin is clean but no longer slippery and harder to run his hands along. So he washes it again. And then Zack has to do it again. And again. And then Cloud wants to have another turn, which prompts Zack to wrestle him up against the slickness of tile and sliding hands going everywhere in a cheerful mess...

ÖAnd so they come out very clean, but very low on soap.

The scent of his body, for another thing. He could recognize it anywhere, having spent the nights breathing it in quietly, burying his face against the other manís chest or just against the pillow he uses. Itís always warm somehow, fresh as newly mown summer grass lying in the sun. Even when he comes in sweat-drenched from a sparring match, he simply smells clean.

His mouth tastes like cinnamon and cloves and laughter, heated and real the way nothing has ever been before.

And thatís the part that counts, anyway. The reality of it. Dreams are different, dreams areÖ dreams are what heís grown up on and he doesnít forget their importance. After all, dreams are what got him here to Midgar and sometimes they were the only thing that kept him from turning around and bolting back to Nibelheim, not a happy place, not home, yes, but a familiar one at least.

But when he and Zack lie in the bed together and move, slow and deep, warm and familiar, it all seems to simplify and he can understand where he is and why this is home. Not bad at all, despite all possible screw-ups.

Just things. And if they would make Zack laugh if he said them, thenÖ well, he likes to hear his laughter, too.

***

He has a different sort of dream one night. Not a nightmare exactly, not something so spectacular, justÖ a new dream, just something that is itself and no other thing.

In his dream, they are lying on a concrete surface that is hard against his back and probably getting grit on his clothes. They are outside, his head is pillowed on Zackís arm and of all things to do, theyíre star-gazing, and Zack is making up more and more ridiculous names for the constellations as he goes. Cloud can smell the promise of rain in the air. He normally canít tell this in Midgar--- after all, no one wants to take a deep breath of the polluted air. But there is a tinge of unusual freshness in the damp of the humidity, something he can almost taste.

He knows he dreams as he does so and that is probably the most remarkable part of the dream-which-is-just-a-dream, not a nightmare. Itís easy to tell because no one can see stars in Midgar, not even with mako eyes, and yet here they stand out in brilliant clarity against a deep black.

ÖAnd besides, he has had a cold lately and wouldnít be able to smell anything, and yet here, his whole awareness is flooded with the coolness of not-yet rain. So he knows it is not real, but it serves its purpose here.

About rain, though. Itís not just knowing the rain will come; in the dream, he knows how much there will be and how hard it will fall and how long it will last. In the dream, he is able to find water of most kinds wherever he goes, he knows when he needs to take his rain slicker with him or if hail will rattle on the roof or if the clouds above hold snow that will melt long before it hits the Plate.

He might just know these things in the dream. Perhaps none of it is part of the waking life he chooses to define as Ďrealí.

Whatever it is, whichever it is, he doesnít say anything to Zack as they lie there; heís become used to not talking about it since his mother didnít like it when he did. He knows that she had wanted him to be good and that meant being quiet and for the most part he had always acquiesced to this. At an early age, he had learned that if he upset her or said something that reminded her of someone she once knew, she was apt to be distant.

He thinks this had to do with his father, he thinks this had to do with the names the children had hissed under their breath. But his mother has never discussed this with him, and the subject of fathers remains just as unspoken as that of water. Maybe they go together. Maybe not.

It doesnít really matter anymore, where he is. But he has been left alone often enough to know what will cause it and he was unwilling then and he is unwilling now to risk the little companionship that he had and has. In dreams, he just knows these things.

Zack gestures upward at a point of light. "And thatís the Running Bandersnatch. See, that big star is his tail and that cluster of little stars are his body and those three big ones in a line are his teeth."

Cloud points as well and notices that his hand seems different somehow, maybe in degree of tan or protrusion of knuckle. "What about that star right next to his teeth?"

"Thatís the hapless villager getting eaten by the bandersnatch." The grin he flashes makes his own teeth gleam briefly in the dark. He pushes something towards Cloud, a thermos. "Drink up. You asked for it, you have to finish it."

When he tastes what is inside, he knows further that he is dreaming; he would never want to drink coffee again, much less, coffee laced with whiskey. That has always been Zackís drink. They have always been. Separate, together--- whatever.

There are shadows on Zackís face as soft as moth-wings, as soft as rose petals and they blur his features and make him someone else who Cloud doesnít know for a moment. When he blinks, this doesnít help; rather it only makes things stranger. The movement of shadows across his face becomes walking, the bite of liquor and coffee becomes acrid in his mouth, and the dreaming remains a dreaming all over and around him.

Now, they are no longer in Midgar. Instead, they stand somewhere that he has not been before. Or rather, Zack stands, and he is leaning on Zack and they are walking somewhere. He notes, absently, that he seems to have lost the ability to see.

He knows that it is Zack heís leaning on, though. Not only wouldnít it maknse nse if it was someone else, (when have dreams ever made sense to you? when have they played by the rules?) but it has to do with the familiar uniform beneath his hands. He knows the material of the shirt that always leaves ridges imprinted on his face when he falls asleep against Zackís chest, he knows the feel of the chest beneath the shirt whis his fingers just as well as with his eyes.

The ground feels strange beneath his boots and they are going up, up, up, like people who are courting a very long fall, or vertigo at least. Stairs, his mind supplies, youíre climbing stairs. He feels inordinately pleased for having solved at least part of the mystery.

Climbing, climbing, never to stop climbing... His feet feel heavy, these boots are unfamiliar. His arms are cold, where are his sleeves? He doesnít mind too much, he can feel Zackís skin against his skin this way but did they rip off or fall apart or... well, what the hell else can happen to sleeves? Does it even matter?



This is not your shirt, his mind volunteers again, something small and meek. I donít know whose it is but it is not yours. Except he does know now, he can tell by the faint smell and the similar feel that itís Zackís, or one of them, anyway. Zackís shirt. Another small piece of the vast puzzle falls into place and he feels better.

Dreams shouldnít be this vivid. His senses feel odd, as though half of them are far too acute and the other half donít work at all. He canít see (whyÖ?), but his skin is excruciatingly sensitive, tingling with every air current that drifts over it. He canít really move right but every single sound echoes around him (whereÖ?) and remains in his ears long after each one ends. Heíd be fascinated if he wasnít so preoccupied with reminding himself that he is dreaming.



higher, higherÖ



Itís a spiral; they keep going around and around, Zackís arm around his waist the entire way. Maybe theyíre climbing into the sky and they can stand on the moon when they get to the top. Or are they supposed to ever get there? No sooner then he thinks this, they stop and he cannot believe it. There is fresh air against his face and it feels as sweet and restoring as the green energy of a restore spell.


Zack has said nothing at all. Or maybe he has and Cloud hasnít heard him; he did notice that things arenít quite right and itís quite possible that heís missed something along the way.

When air stirs against his face again, he is hardly surprised to find them now somewhere else and himself able to see again. It would be strange if they hadnít gone elsewhere.

Different stuff under his boots now, grass and rocks and hard-packed dirt. Itís nice to stand still and not climb anymore. When he looks down, he realizes that theyíre a lot higher up than he thought; maybe they climbed to the end of the world after all. Everything is an endless stretch of sky and wind and clouds beneath them.

"You shouldnít worry, you know?" Zack sounds the same as always, a little out of breath, but still himself. Itís good to hear him talk.

"I donít," he replies and is mildly surprised by how his voice is able to work now. He hasnít tried to speak before though, and perhaps he has been able to all along. Possible, anyway.

Zack looks mildly affronted. "Youíre lying. I can always tell." He lays a finger on Cloudís lips and silences him before he can make an indignant reply. "Donít you like the view?"

He does, so he nods reluctantly. Having his sight back is somewhat of a mixed blessing; it is beautiful but it is, after all, very high, and the edge of the cliff is very closeÖ

But Zack doesnít seem to care, Zack is at home on the uncertain footing as a mountain creature while Cloud carefully checks each step before he undertakes it. Funny that it should be that way, his home is in the mountains, Zackís is in Gongaga, it should be the other way aroundÖ He doesnít begrudge him the ability to dance so lightly on the edge but it makes him nervous and his hands want to snatch Zack back and hold as tight as they can until heís positive no one is going anywhere.

Above him the clouds are blowing in, like dark, tattered shrouds of more solemn things and the motion of the sky begins to swirl. Zackís hands are on his, Zackís grip pulls him closer and they begin to turn as well, in deepening circles and spirals although he stumbles all the way.

"You shouldnít worry so much."

"I donít."

Itís all he can repeat. I donít want to worry, I donít want to do anything that makes you fall. I donít want to fall.

"Youíre not telling me the truth."



I donít want, I donít, I donít, I donít, I just want you and I think, the edge, the edge, where is itÖ?



"You shouldnít worry about it."

The motion is going too fast and he feels dizzy now, clinging on for dear life with no time to worry about where the edge is. And the rain he sensed earlier is finally coming down from the sky and taking his breath away, hot beneath his hands. But rain isnít hot, rain is cold and rain is not red and rain may patter but it doesnít carry that sharp report or stink of gunpowderÖ The sky is crying, someone is crying, heís so confused and he canít hear Zack anymore, the dance is over and the motion of the body close to his is just a jittering reaction to impact of something else---

And then he wakes up.

Tangled in sheets, he stays utterly still, his heart banging beneath his ribcage, so hard that he thinks it will shatter or break free or just seize up and cease to work. He hears something loud and thinks it might be himself breaking but it is only thunder, probably what woke him in the first place.

Outside, it is raining, but this is just rain, nothing else. Like his dream, it doesnít hold any hint of being special. He tells himself that, over and over. If there is a keening, a stutter of gunfire, a whisper of something hot and red swirling away under the streaming on the window and roof and streets outside, they are overruled and born away by the scream of wind and water long before they reach Cloudís ears.

Just a dream. Nothing special.

All he sees is the quiet glow of the alarm clockís numbers and one of Zackís arms, draped over his waist. They are familiar things, things that have no place in or relation to night-fear. His dream begins to fade soon enough, as he concentrates very hard on forgetting.

Take it simple. Easy does it. Finally, everything he dreamed is tiny now, like images from the wrong end of a telescope. Zackís breath whistles in his ears the way it didnít in the dream. But that part of the dream fades too, after a while.

The rain makes the room humid and their skin unpleasantly clinging and sticky but he pushes closer to Zack anyway. He closes his eyes, afraid to measure his own sense of loss.

***

He doesnít know her name and he probably wouldnít be able to recognize her on the street if he fell over her. For some reason, Cloud imagines she looks a little like the flowers that used to sit on the windowsill. Fanciful, yes, but if someone is able to coax flowers out of the cement wasteland of Midgar, he canít help but imagine that that person would also be able to take on the characteristics of what she tended. He isnít sure if he could like her or not, or if he is almost-bitter over her.

Maybe he is overreacting. Maybe heís reading into things that arenít there.

But heís seen the way the vase on the window still stays in the same place. The flowers died a long time ago and Zack had been the one who tossed them into the garbage can, sweeping up the wilted leaves with his hand, but the vase is still there, waiting to fill its purpose. It catches the light in the morning and sends a fragile spatter of reflections onto the opposite wall, dancing, elusive.

He wonders what her name was, how tall she was, the color of her eyes, if she ever held Zackís hand, if she still looks for him automatically in the crowds. He wonders if she cried when the visits ceased. Probably not. To survive in Midgar you had to be able to hold yourself steady in its constant wash of humanity who didnít give a damn about you.

Zack didnít tell him when he had done the necessary and he hadnít needed to ask. The flowers on the sill had just gotten older, becoming blowsy and dropping petals and then becoming completely bare. They had been early flowers, seasonal from the beginning of summer; he thinks they might have been roses but heís not sure. When they were fresh, they were the color of the Nibelheim clouds in the rising dawn, all creamy white with a tinge of rose.

He has a vague suspicion that Zack might not have given her any definitosurosure by dint of simply not going back to see her at all. He canít figure out whether this makes him feel betteróZack would rather be with him altogether--- or worse--- if he can stop seeing her so easily, will he be able to stop seeing Cloud so easilyÖ?

ÖAnd, well, some of it is guilt. He can afford to feel sorry for her when he has what he has and what she used to have. And he has Zack, now. And she does not. He thinks so.

It doesnít matter, all these tentative cobweb stories and things he doesnít know for sure. Timeís wasting on his day-leave and he wouldnít want to make his way back to the base on these streets alone and after dark.

Two rights, a left, another right, down one more streetÖThe difficulty didnít lie in finding a place where they sell his goal, or even finding a way to get there. Saving the gil for the object of his excursion was the worst part. He thinks uncomfortably of his mother, far away in Nibelheim getting by on what she can. Hopefully, his being out of the house has lowered the problems but he wouldíve liked to send her more than he can.

At any rate, the gil lies in his pocket as a single slip of paper, an entire paycheckís worth anrelyrely enough for the cost of what heís looking for. A familiar street name leaps out at him from a sign; the store should be at the end. He starts to run, arms tucked against his side to slip in and out of the people, avoiding who he can and muttering apologies to those who he jars. The mingled queries and curses and admonitions fall behind in the slipstream of his passing wake; he knows what to ignore.

Brick wall directly ahead, he skids to a stop and looks up. The shop isnít where it should be.

He stands there, not feeling afraid or lost yet, more like irritated. He went to all this damn trouble to save the gil and get a day off, both without Zack knowing of them, and the least fate could do would be to make the stupid shop be where itís supposed to.

Fine. Should he head toward the center of the city or awayÖ? He wishes he had remembered to bring the map that he looked this place up on in the first place. He remembers from one trip here before that the closest reactor to here is the fifth one and if you stood with your back to the fifth reactor, you could see the center office building of Midgar and that was facing eastÖ So if he walks that wayÖ No, that wonít work. Holy, he hates directions.

As he goes down the street, the panic that feels like shivering bird-wings begins to stir in his stomach. He wraps his arms around his midsection and keeps walking, feeling like he stands out for miles in his civilian clothes, some rustic hick wandering in by mistake. Crowds, especially those in which he catches glimpses of Shinra uniforms, always make him uneasy. It feels like someone standing behind him pressing unrelenting on his shoulders and neck and head, harder and harder like a gravity spell until he finally wants to just lie on the ground with his hands pressed over the back of his neck, trying to breath in quick, shallow pants.

And then, just like that, the sign with a faded, painted bouquet on it appears and he nearly sags in relief. He hurries up and Planet be praised, the sign is turned to "OPEN" and he can dimly see someone tending the counter through the dirty glass doors.

Finally here. He closes his eyes for a moment and leans against the building. Not too long, people have to keep moving in Midgar or they get noticed, but it gives him enough time to force his anxiety to some small corner of his mind where it can be dealt with later. The brick feels cool against his heated forehead.


Opening his eyes, he touches the paper slip in his pocket one more time for reassurance and then pushes the door open.

The smell of green and growing things hits him immediately in the face and for a moment, it is early spring again and he is still leaving Nibelheim and he can taste the dust of the road that he waited beside, looking for a ride. This is like some bit of an outside world--- exotic, alien, not belonging in Midgar in the least.

As his eyes adjust to the dimness of the shop, he can take in other details, like the cracked tiles on the floor and the dusty shelves and the carelessly swept-aside trimmings of leaves and wilted blossoms and cut stems. This is not some hidden Elysium; this is only a tiny floristís shop and a poorly maintained one, at that.

The old man who is tending shop gives him a flat, disinterested gaze and goes back to his perusal of a magazine that has the word "Honeybee" as part of it, the rest is covered by the manís hand. The girl on the cover is winking salaciously over her shoulder with one leg on a chair as she adjusts her garters with an already short skirt hiked high. The same issue is in the lounge of the trooper barracks, only considerably more rumpled, along with scrawled commentary, frequently lewd, on the margins of the pages.

His heart begins to sink as he scans the vases and bouquets; not only is everything much more expensive than he expected, they donít look right. Cold, stiff, and impersonal, nothing like the flowers that used to decorate the windowsill. He canít help but bite back a wince when he fishes the gil from his pocket and does some calculations.

"Not much call for flowers these days, boy."

The voice sounds rusty, like a door that hasnít been used for a long time. He almost jumps and steels himself when a hand rests on his shoulder, less out of surprise than out of squeamish wondering as to where the handís been. The magazineís clue enough.

A dry chuckle. "Going to impress your sweetheart? Let me see what youíre in the market range for." Fingers tweeze the gil from his hand with an expert flick and he has to bite back a swift retort and a hurried snatch; bad for Shinra PR to be found accosting elderly florists in broad daylight. The old manís eyes narrow and he starts to laugh, wheezing and then degenerating into a sort of gasping inhale-exhale. "With this?"

Fuck it, he doesnít need this. The whole plan was doomed from the beginning, anyway. But before he can snatch his pay back and stalk out with as much dignity as he can retain with burning ears and cheeks, the manís hand clamps on his wrist. "No, no, not so fast. Thereís something for everyone, just let me see what I can set you up withÖ"

Unsure of just how he gets himself pulled through a curtain covering a backroom, he stumbles along after the man who seems to be getting into the stride of talking, like a dammed-up riverallyally let loose. "ÖHavenít seen a customer in days, no appreciation for finer parts of life, I tell you. Iíve been here over fifty years since I came from Mideel and Iím waiting to move back. They say the springsíll take at least twenty years off your bones, now I could use thatÖ"

The hand lets go briefly as the old man stoops and drags him into a room flooded with light and the air is so damp and heavy, it feels like heís underwater, the tinted-green translucence of the walls adding to the illusion. The old man grabs his shoulder, tugging him down with a surprising amount of strength. "See hereÖ!"

Color, riotous splashes of red, white, bronze and yellow-gold is his first impression and the second is that these flowers are oddlyÖ flat.

Cloud looks closer and understands, not really flowers, rather, the stripped-away petals of them, no steams, sometimes without centers, all lying in tumbled heaps. With slow fascination, he touches one and then another and then lets his hands swim through the warm, damp-velvet softness of them.

Above him, the old man chatters on with no retop top for punctuation or breath in his words. "And I can take the dayís sweeping and put Ďem in here. I always go out for at least one excursion into the flatlands and get a few of the wilder ones, not too many requests for Ďem but we can always dry Ďem for potpourri or decoration. Easier to bring back these than the whole plant, they donít take too well to transplanting, apparentlyÖ"

Soft, so soft and they leave little streaks of pollen on his skin when he brings his hands up, as well as slight color-smears from the leaking pigments when he accidentally crushes a few. There isnít as much scent as there would be for the whole flower but thereís enough and theyíre all tangled up in each other, ghosts of scents.

"ÖDianthus and dendranthema. Then we got the trichomanes and a bit of Ďsythia. I always liked the way it comes out in fall, because you can fool Ďem into thinking itís any season as long as youíve got the right conditionsÖ"

The feeling of rightness as much as the lowered price is what seals it. The wooden flat is long and shallow and light when he hoists it up and walkck tck through the room to the cash register and main shop. The old man follows, still jabbering on cheerfully, more so now that he knows he has a sale. "I knew you were a smart boy, I could see it right off the bat. This should make her heart swoon, eh? I like you, son, so few boys around here that know what romance is. Let me see, letís tote up the bill hereÖ"

Cloud notes that the old man apparently doesnít like him enough to discount his sale; all the gil goes into the cash register and none comes back in change. Doesnít matter, he has something to show for it, even if itís not at all what he expected.

The florist tilts the petals into a paper bag and they fall in a flame-colored tumble. When Cloud peers inside he sees that they only fill up about half the bag, will they be enough? He takes it and prepares to go but feels the hand on his shoulder once more. "Wait, boy."

He goes back into the other room and Cloud can hear him rummaging. When he comesk, hk, he has a small pot in his hands and the plantís tiny flowers are bright blue, as pure and cool a shade as the sky outside the city and away from the reactors is. He thrusts it at Cloud and gives him a surprisingly genuine gap-toothed smile. "Itís an extra. Blooms in spring but this one was a surprise. Canít sell it, you might as well take it."

Before he can say "Thank you, " the old man retreats behind the counter and picks up the magazine in a clear dismissal. "HnnÖ giving away things for freeÖ"

Thinking it better not to push his luck, he backs carefully out the door with the pot tucked securely in the crook of his arm. He makes his way back quickly, surprised at how little time has really passed.

The trip back to the base is shorter, most likely because heís too busy concentrating on not dropping the pot or the bag to pay attention to the street signs. And while it makes no sense, for some reason, letting his feet carry him to where he needs to go without his mind interfering works far better than he would have thought.

ÖAnd now, as he sits nervously in the chair across from the bed, he wonders if it is not too late to get a garbage bag and call the whole thing off.

The heap looks so much smaller, sifted out on the bedspread, and nearly all of them are beginning to wilt and crumple, not quite as brilliant as they looked in the greenhouse sunlight. Itís not romantic or meaningful or even just interesting. It looks likeÖ trash, discarded clippings that werenít good enough to go into the arrangements. Stupid idea, fucking ridiculous more like it and there goes his monthís pay that he could have sent home and if Zack saw it, he probably would have just laughed anyway---

There is a key turning in the lock. Zack is home; the mission must be over and the more palpable signs of anxiety kick in, as his mouth is flooded with the almost-bitter taste and his palms dampen. He jumps to his feet, indecisively looking from the door to the flowers to under the bed where he might be able to hide if heís quick enough and stops standing here, thinking about it and---

Too late.

"Hey, CloudÖ" His face shifts from surprise to something unreadable as he stands in the doorway of the bedroom, keys still dangling from one hand.

He can hear everything very clearly, from the clink of the keys as Zackís grhifthifts slightly to the gasping rattle of the just-recently working heater to the beating of his own heart. He is surprised Zack canít hear that, it seems to be so loud. And now, he can hear Zackís footsteps as he walks across the room, his eyes flicking from Cloud to the bed. "YouÖ?"

He nods, his heart in his throat, wondering what question heís answering and if he even knows the answer.

"ThatísÖ" Zackís eyes donít seem to be able to rest, moving from bed to Cloud to the small pot of flowers on the table, since he didnít dare move the vase, and back to Cloud. "This what you were doing today?"


Another nod, at least he knows this questionís answer, even he didnít--- still doesnít--- know why he did it at all. Trying to fix things that probably arenít even wrong, or at least, donít want his touch. Jumping at shadowsÖ not very smart at all.

Zackís advance is something that frightens him, bringing greater anxiety than the idea of standing before any of the mutated creatures the textbooks illustrate, but he thinks that he would fear Zackís retreat even more. So he stands his ground and concentrates very intently on the carpet.

"I think this one is chrysanthemum. And this looks a little like marigold." The bed dips under Zackís weight and a hand tugs him down to the bed as well. "The oneís in the potÖ I donít know their real name. But theyíre called forget-me-nots most of the time."

He starts to sweep them aside to clear a place for him beside Zack. The first ones in his fingers are bright yellow and almost bell-shaped, ragged and gay. They look like tiny crosses and he drops them in Zackís hair, where they stand out as vividly as stars against the black. "He said this was sythia."

"Forsythia," Zack corrects, stretching out and eyeing the flowers in his hair with some bemusement.

"Forsythia," he agrees, and solemnly kisses Zackís shoulder simply because it is the most convenient thing at hand.

Zack pauses and then sits up to remove his shirt before lying down again. The next ones Cloud stops to look at while clearing have a strong smell still clinging to them, almost pungent, and they look like little crinkled bits of flame. The fan-shapes come in every shade of orange and red and gold around the edge and some of them still have black seeds clinging to the root of the petal. They go in a little trail down Zackís chest before he decides they donít look right and brushes them all off again in a flurry like sparks. There are a few petals that form faces, broad velvety ones and they go flutng dng down as well.

Zack is idly sifting through what Cloud fastidiously brushes aside, and he finds a few white ones, long and narrow. When he drops them they look like snow falling. They had some strange name, long and convoluted and it began with a "c" but Cloud wants to hurry on. He kisses the hand that held them and pushes them aside, too. The swatch of cleared blanket is widening and he could lie down now but he has the feeling that it needs to be done right.

Balance is important; balance needs to be maintained. Zack taught him that. He stops to tug his own shirt off as well. Of course, it still isnít right and everything else has to come off as well but there must be order. Boots, socks, pants, boxers, first Zackís and then his own, although he was barefoot in the first place. Everything is methodical, neat, and entirely unlike how they normally undress. Finding comfort in something alien should feel wrong or at least odd, but it does not. He thinks, perhaps, that this is why he can be comforted by it in the first place.

With clothes relegated to their own part of the floor and nakedness relegated to its own part of his awareness, he returns to clearing the last few stray petals from his place. The last ones he pauses with are more familiar. "Roses." He picks up one pale gold petal--- this one is more like a shell or a cup, round top tapering gently to a soft point at the bottom. His thumb fits perfectly inside and it feels almost the way Zackís nipple does before it tightens into an aroused point, pliable and somehow softer or smoother in a different way than the rest of the skin on his body.

He drops it again and the bed is almost completely clear. He lies down, flat on his back next to Zack and touches the corner of Zackís mouth, picking the forsythia out of Zackís hair. "I couldnít find the right ones."



I couldnít find the ones she gave you.



Zack has sat up as Cloud lies down, and he pauses to consider. "I like these." If he was thinking of different hands tending the flowers while Cloudís own hands brushed them from the bed, he hides it well and Cloud canít tell.

The floral scent was faint before but now it seems cloying. He tugs at Zack to lie down again and edges under him, moving into the hollow on the bed that holds Zack's warmth. It feels good to lie that way for a while, with Zack's weight pressing him into the mattress and breathing in the smell of his skin and hair. Nothing fancy about it, just the clean simplicity of it pushing past the flowers.

He finally wiggles his way out, with Zack doing nothing to hinder or help the process. Shifting, he flips to his stomach, head resting on hands and decides he doesnít like it enough to stay that way. He rolls up against Zack, who is still content in allowing Cloud to do all adjustments, so that his own back is against Zack's chest and he can still pull one of Zack's arms over him. The crook of elbow fits right over where his neck and shoulder join, and he places the hand he has hold of against his own throat. Tucked up in Zackís armpit, he thinks about places on the body where they fit together.

Against the skin of his throat, Zack finally moves, uncurling his fingers and letting them stroke almost absently. He can't see Zack's face this way and he has no way of telling if his eyes are distantly stroking over memories of the past or dwelling in this moment.

Zack pulls him closer and he wonders if it matters.

It bothers him when he thinks of Sephiroth still, as though heís being unfaithful, even just in his mind. He has so much already and he canít let this one thing go and itís fucking selfish, bu can canít help it. He knows, in a part of him that is unchangeable in all this adaptation to training and learning, that thereíll always be that unconditional love for the General, or at least for the image and idea of Sephiroth that he carries behind his eyes. So, if Zack does choose to carry her around behind his eyes, should he even care? He doesn't have a right to feel jealous at all.

Being newly sixteen is far too complicated for his taste. He thinks that this is the age they should legally allow people to get drunk at, just knock themselves out and not wake up until the world is a less puzzling thing.

Whatever. He turns to lie face to face with Zack, was has hold of his hands and who pulls them forwards, letting one rest at his waist and the other on his shoulder. But he doesn't demand anything, just lets them stay there while he dips his head and nuzzles at the side of Cloud's neck, where it always tickles and makes him squirm.

So, he starts to touch Zack's chest, letting his hands find the best spots. He stops when Zack makes a small sound in his throat, not quite a purr, not quite a gasp or a sigh; his hands poised. New places today; one hand is wrapped around the same shoulder he kissed with the thumb smoothing along the line of collarbone, and the other is flat against the area under breastbone and above where the center of gravity would be. He inquisitively moves one finger into the hollow of navel and gets another one of those small sounds, although this one was more like a laugh.

He explores both places thoroughly with his fingers as he watches and feels almost detached, as though they were someone else's hands on Zack, gestures that are not quite sexual yet. It's almost fascinating to trace the path of blood flushing just under the skin as he drags his fingers along, making faint trails that disappear almost immediately. The give and resistance of skin is something he's familiar with on himself but it's more interesting on Zack. When he kisses where each finger touched, the skin tastes the same as it always does.

Beside him, Zack is moving almost contemplatively, stroking and petting with the curious touch of someone experimenting on that particular body plane for the first time, even if this is something heís done time and time again. Itís comforting to be touched that way, and he brs ons one hand down Cloud's side. Before it can continue down to touch his hip and thigh, Cloud shifts deliberately so that it strays to the curve of backside. "PleaseÖ"

Too early? Zack's hand leaves for a minute and tilts Cloud's face up. This should be the time to ask if this was what Cloud wanted, what Zack wanted, whether it was all right or if something was wrong. He has always waited for Zack's inquiry before.

But Zack finds whatever he needs from Cloudís face and nods, slowly, still wearing that considering look on his face. Zack sits up a little and leans back, pulling Cloud to lie on top of him, Cloud's back to his chest. But that isn't right, he needs to see Zack's face and he wants that familiar weight, so he resists and lies flat on his back, tugging Zack to lie over him instead and lifting his legs to make room, hooking them over the other man's shoulders and hitching closer.

There's a pillow that hasn't been knocked to the floor yet and Zack fits that under the small of Cloud's back so he's supported a little better. The cool dampness that eases inside him reminds him of dew, the wet that slides off all plants, not just flowers, in the morning. Or just like simple rain, like the type that falls at all times of the day. Or maybe just wetness, nothing special. Some things are just ordinary, after all.

A twinge of pain accompanies the first tentative probing. The first one is almost always the worst, provoking the opposite effect and making him want to clench down rather than loosen into acceptance. This is always the point where he has to measure his breaths and try to find a rhythm. Odd, how actually thinking about breathing or other natural motions causes him to lose the familiar pattern. Odd, how he can think about random things in the middle of this act.

But soon Zack's other hand goes just where he wants it to go, just where he needs it and that is enough distraction as his hips lift into a rocking. One hand is cool and the other hand is warm, both are finding a rhythm to suit. Balance.

When Zack withdraws, it feels wrong and he frowns, biting down on his lip. Zackís motions still completely and he realizes that the frown was being taken for one of negation in the different sense and he shakes his head. He reaches up and touches Zackís hand before lying down and waiting expectantly.

It burns at first, no matter how slow and careful they go. But it yields slowly enough, the burn shifting into a different sort of warmth that makes his breath quicken and his body shudder. Zack leans over him, and the press of his chest and grip of his hand is welcome pressure.

His own hands slide over Zack's back and buttocks; this is always the moment of danger. Zack has to stop and breathe deeply a few times before continuing, careful not to lose control right there. Once Zack starts again, Cloud makes another pass with his hands over Zack's back, more to feel the working of muscle than to maintain balance or grip.

Zack stops again and carefully gathers Cloud up in one arm, leaning back a little so that Cloud can lean into him. It seems important to keep watching Zack, but maintaining eye contact seems a little odd and so he looks at everything on Zackís face but his eyes, at first. Eventually, the temptation is too much and he does stare at the way the iris glows a deeper, hotter blue, like the area around the very center of a candle, with that same small inward blackness. But in Zackís eyes, the black is dilating, swallowing up the color in its expansion.

Giving in to sensation is always easy and he can never quite pinpoint the passage. Everything becomes simple sensory information--- the sound of Zackís breath and his own, the feel of Zack inside him, slow and hot and slick, the smell of Zackís hair, the taste of his mouthÖ

Zack murmurs something indistinguishable. It might be a word of comfort, it might be simple pleasure. It might be a name.

That idea no sooner enters his mind than it gets under his skin, hot and almost itching, and he is suddenly impatient. Never mind pain, never mind subtlety, he needs tow. ow. When he deliberately pushes back to Zackís forward press, he is gratified by another hiss of breath but it is just breath, not a word, and it makes his own mind shaky and distracted by pleasure for a minute.

Reaching up, he locks his hands around Zackís neck and buries his face there as well as he can, twisting his neck awkwardly, no longer wanting to see Zackís eyes. Hair slides over his fingers and tickles; all he wants now is for things to be quiet and sweet again, the type of stillness where he can lie in the crook of Zackís arm and not have to care about things. But he still feels that itch, hot and greedy, and confusion is seeping in to ruin the sensations. His legs ache from their position but that is only a small pain in the midst of greater pleasure.

Just donít think.

When he raises his legs to invite a deeper contact, he realizes firstly that their breath is going in tandem and secondly, that they've reached the point where it's impossible to stop, with every thrust and stroke as completely irresistible as the next breath to a drowning man. This is where he always closes his eyes. He wonders, as he does so, if Zack closes his at the same time or right after or if they always stay open.

And then he has no room in his mind for anything other than every sensation pouring through his body, pushing for the climax in a long, shuddery ride upwards. Briefly, hn won wonder if he is making noise or pulling Zack's hair where he's clutching Zack around the neck, but then everything is one long outpouring that is as natural and impossible to stop as steam rising or rain falling; everything is wet and warm in a soundless, sightless world, both inside and outside him.

He canít help but lift his hips sharply and arch his back, giving in to pleasure but not quite giving in to writhing--- more because his position leaves him unable.

He does not think.

Above him, Zack is still moving, although his rhythm is erratic now, as is his breath. His hands shift from locked around Cloudís back to grasp his hips. One thrust, two, shallow, then deepÖ and then---


The feelings slow down just long enough to let Cloud hear his own name being hissed out through Zack's teeth as he presses close for one last time, and startled delight pushes the incoherence aside, like the sun coming up and drying out the dew on the grass. He had feared it would be the name of someone who wasn't in this room.

Relaxation comes slowly; itís always a surprise how taut he is--- they both are. Anyone would think, from their shaking breath, that they're tired past moving or caring. But it feels good to lie still now. It's one of the little things that he forgets every time, so it's good to rediscover it again and again.

He shifts away from the dampness and hopes he doesnít have flower petals stuck to any especially embarrassing parts of his body. If he cranes his neck, he can just see a scatter of color on the floor where most of them reside. He hopes that they didn't crush any when removing them and if they did, he hopes that they are not staining the floor.

Zack pulls him back, not letting him off the bed and he bites back a wince as he maneuvers his way gingerly around the damp part of the mattress so they can both be reasonably comfortable. It's not quite successful, though. Sex is good and sex is wonderful but there aren't too many parts of it that can completely make up for a bed with clean, dry sheets. Of course, this is a post-coital reflection and thus open for value assessment at another time--- say, actually during the act.

Well, if love is anything, it might as well be this, being willing to completely embarrass himself for the one he does love, messily, terribly, wonderfully. So, love isnít flowers and perfection and dreams; love is one big sprawling mess, full of complications and imperfections. But that's okay with him.

Maybe he did waste his gil on something that wasn't even needed. But he thinks of his conclusions gained and thisÖ and they are both pretty good compensation.

"I'll have to get up eventually, you know." The statement is addressed to his hair, in which Zack's face is currently buried.

He shakes his head, reaches with his hand to hold Zack there, and grins, forgetting Zack can't see it. "No. You donít have to."

Zack makes that same little noise in the back of his throat and pulls him closer. "I didnít think Iíd forgotten anything. I mean, itís not your birthday or mine or anything." He sounds slightly puzzled. "Was this---" one arm is freed to make a vague wave at the room, "---for something special?"

Doubts are stupid, most of the time. He forgets that even though they can do just as good a job of dreams and memories as looking real, they aren't always.

"Maybe." And he feels like laughing and crying at the same time and maybe they would both feel good. When he thinks about it, 'maybe' isn't always real, either, or something to be feared. Itís just a possibility.

"Then what?"

Instead of answering, he lifts his head and kisses Zack again, and on impulse he crushes a handful of petals against Zackís chest, and they release an almost-bitter--- but not really bitter at all, after all, these are flowers--- autumnal smell.

He doesn't think he ever really hated her, whoever she was. He probably would've liked her.

Zack pulls the blankets up and they go to sleep on an early-autumn late afternoon, lazy gold light still coming in through the window to make the petals briefly beautiful, and then to wilt them away quietly into faded scraps of color.

The next day, Zack puts the vase away when heís at drills, and the pot of flowers sits on the windowsill. He waters it every day.

***

Silence spells feel like drowning.

Literally, he isnít too far from the truth. To work magic depends on several conditions, one of which is the audible activation spell. A voice is needed. Silence spells kill magic ability by going to the root of the problem and paralyzing the voice and thus, the necessary words. It feels like a sudden rush of warm water filling mouth and nose and lungs, it always makes him want to spit afterwards but nothing comes out.

SometimesÖ sometimes heís afraid that the same thing will happen to him in life and that theyíll run out of words, be paralyzed from completion. Everything that comes out of their mouths is stupid-simple, trying to fill a silence that shouldnít be there, trying to spit out what wonít come. Would you bang on the pipes in the shower; theyíve been acting funny? Have you learned this pattern drill yet? Can you use an esuna on a hangover? No? You tried? Really? Oh.

Stupid. He doesnít expect everything to be profound or anything but itís odd and a little frightening to be talking back and forth and suddenly just peter out slowly, like a failed materia-casting. And then theyíre left with nothing to do except smile back and forth uneasily and make a hasty departure to guard duty or a meeting or just the next room.

It follows them into the bedroom, though. And it wouldnít be so bad if he could shake that feeling that he needs to be constantly reinforcing his presence here, to prove over and over again that thereís a reason Zack needs him or can use him.

He wouldnít have thought before, that words played a role in bed. In bed, there are words, of course--- yes, donít stop, right there, yes --- and not always particularly coherent ones. And there are slow, easy conversations in the late night afterwards and sometimes in the late morning, no luxury greater than getting to sleep late with a lover on an off-day.

It shouldnít matter that much. Itís just that words have always been part of the Soldier duty: the casual inflected tone, the careful linger on a certain syllable, the glibness, the ability to rattle off strings of profanities that his mother wouldíve slapped him for saying--- everything that manages to give the air of attitude to die for and worldliness that no one can touch. Words mean a lot to him, theyíve never come easily and one of the first reasons he never ran from Zack was that they actually could talk. Conversation making has never been his strong point; no one was more surprised than he was when the formerly cautious replies started to come easily and as naturally as breathing.

And when there are no words, he is afraid that Zack has too much time to consider and weigh him and find the measure wanting.

Itís not just lack of words; itís a silence that stills everything. Zack moves in his sleep. He tosses, turns, shifts, and finds just that right spot, a process which generally involves stealing a vast majority of the bed space, pillows, blankets, and evenly, ly, Cloudís mobility. Itís not bad to fall asleep pinned tight against the mattress or warmsarms slung heavy around his waist or with his face tucked up so heís just on eye level with the hollow of Zackís throat. Hot, a little cramped occasionally but most definitely not bad. Thereís been a few times when the pins-and-needles sensation of blood-deprived limbs has woken him up; all that takes is a sleepy shove and a slight squirm to a more comfortable position.

So the worst nights are when Zack comes in late from a mission or some high-level meeting, slipping between the sheets still smelling of gun-smoke and raw steel. He never moves then, just falls into bed and stays on his side in a dead slumber, never turning or shifting until morning. Cloud has to make his own warmth on those nights; it doesnít seem right to twine around him and steal his heat while he lies there so still and tired.

Sometimes, he canít stop himself from wondering if that is what Zack would look like if he was dead.

Eventually though, he starts to move again and when Cloud wakes up in the middle of the night to feel a hand going low to places previously untraveled, clear intent in every gleeful finger, the shape of a smile pressed against his shoulderÖ he knows things are back to normal and itís even better somehow. With the contrast of before, anyway.

Itís frightening to want to be with someone this much. Itís frightening to know how badly it will hurt if it ends. Itís frightening to give up this much for one person.

But he wonders if it frightens Zack more, if it scares the person whoís in control to know he has that much power over someone else. He wonders if Zack ever gets tired of being the stronger one and if thatís what his stillness is all about on those nights.

ÖHe wonders if Zack is ever frightened. His hands, with their broken nails and larger knuckles never falter and they never shake, no matter what.

Saying the right things isnít always simple. It isnít even possible, sometimes. But the silences that come and go always depart eventually and if that creates pauses to consider and weigh things, well, then, sometimes you just need the time to think and find the right combinations of syllables and their meanings, implied or open.

And Zack stays and lets him stay and he thinks--- he knows that he will find the right things to say.


Some things just work out that way.

***

There is a brief moment of déjà vu when he moves into Zackís arms on the dance floor, of the same motion into the same embrace and the memory of lists that has his name written in angry red ink on the wrong side of the column. But it passes and nowÖ this. Everyone must be looking at them and he closes his eyes so he wonít see the wrongng ong or expression and spoil this moment.

Outside this building, autumn is finally properly here. The winds taste a little like the faded air from a long-shut spice cabinet, like someone crushed dry and crumbly handfuls of mint, nutmeg, cinnamon and something like woodsmoke onto the winds that blow into Midgar, shadowy and elusive undertones that lay buried under the smell of chemicals and mako. The same winds swirl madly in the streets, blowing all the garbage into scitterscatter patterns as they wage weatherwar. On these certain streets at night, he can almost imagine Midgar as it must seem to so many, the City of Lights, the Worldís Center.

I

Inside this building, the heat is stifling because the pipes have broken and thereíre too many people too close together. The only lights here flicker madly and in alarming color combinations, skirling red-blue-violet-yellow-green over his face and hands and Zack asks him to slow-dance, in front of the gods and everyone, for the first time ever. He could remember this building of brick and wild color and too-loud music for that alone.

This isnít one of the places Zack normally brings him to and he can vaguely hear Zack telling him to get a good look as he tries to gape at everything with some semblance of intelligence. They simply call it Ďthe Dení and itís not quite a brothel, not quite a club, but something infinitely more sordid and elegant somehow. The incongruous lights and music only make it more surreal.

There are high-ranking officials from both the Shinra military and government out slumming tonight and the bought womangianging on the arms of these men and sitting on their laps are sharp and glittering, with exquisite faces and jaded eyes, only the best for our boys, of course. The officials have their ties loosened, sleeves rolled up, and wallets out; the officers and Soldiers flaunt their scars, let their medals glint, and show pistol-holsters rather than sword handles tonight. Everyone gleams with double-meanings and perspiration.

Heís never asked after the origin of the name. Heís never really needed to, notorious as it is for officersí only, admittance for guests depending on persuasiveness of accompanying officer and the amount of the bribery. But nowÖ Well. He still isnít sure how Zack pulled him past the bouncer with a grin and a wave, much less how Zack talked him into this.

Probably just because it was Zack and because it was what Zack wanted to do on a Saturday night, he admits to himself. Not much else involved, certainly not any expressed desire of his own.

The noise swells and the entire celebration presses close around him and Zack presses close to him. The air is thick with the smell of sweat and alcohol and cigarette smoke; it stings his eyes and he is fairly sure that it isnít even necessary to light one, all that would be needed is to breathe deeply.

He can feel eyes on them, questioning, raking across his face and back like fingernails and he does not care.

He gives in to the temptation and glances upward out of curiosity on how they must look to others. Zack catches the glance and holds it for a heartbeat, smiling in a way that makes him need to close his eyes again so he wonít grin back like a fool and feel tempted to mimic on the dance floor what they only do in the privacy of the bedroom.

There is a flash, a remembrance of something that was almost but not a dance on an unknown cliff, a feeling of dreams deferred.

For some reasonÖ somehowÖ this dance twinges at him just a little, the way it not-quite hurts when he bumps a bruise that hasnít quite finished healing, algh tgh the discoloration is gone. Because he can never, ever see the General doing this, just like he canít even begin to imagine what it must be like to stand by his side in battle or to receive his kiss.

It all has to do with the reality of things, the dispelling of myths and waking up from dreams.

Maybe it was the desire of his that they come here, something picked up by Zack that he didnít even know he was giving off, Zack quietly fixinmethmething that Cloud didnít even know was broken or wrong. This isnít the same as dancing with Zack at some anonymous hole-in-the-wall where the faces have no names and no one really gives a damn about whoís holding whose hand and the gender involved anyway. Here is different, here they can find half of Shinra on a slow night and almost all of it on the weekend.

ÖAnd all of it right now is looking at them.

And thereís a good chance that all those eyes moving across his back are taking consideration of the fact heís obviously not a Soldier or officer or official or even female, noting it in their mental cache of news to pass on; First Class Soldier Zackary Donovan with a boy in his arms. Oh, not just any kid, didnít you hear? Heís one of the batch that failed this year, heís been living in Donovanís apartments forÖshit, it must be months now. I didnít think it was true but, well, here they are.

Yes, so, here they are. Well, whatever. Let them talk. If Zackís willing, then heís willing. He can be passed on in rumors, stared at, and stare back at the insinuations and flat-out words that will be present, come Monday with the return to duty. It doesnít matter, anyway.

He can be brave for this and for Zack. He can beÖ the way Zack is now, not minding, not caring, doing something simply because itís the right thing to do and because he knows it will make Cloud feel better.

And in those first five minutes of dancing (simple, very simple because the music is slow and neither of them feels like doing more than holding on and moving very slightly side to side), nothing else matters. And he loves the world completely and wholly with no reservations simply because he has something of his own so fine, so wonderful, that he can only feel sorry for everyone else because they donít have it. The world could end, the Plate could collapse and he wouldnít care at all.

They both drink enough to feel like everything is worth laughing about and to make getting home slightly more challenging than usual, familiar streets curving left when heís sure they went straight before, and signposts on the entirely wrong corners. Even getting lost and passing the same building three times isnít so bad--- itís downright funny when Zack is looking just as befuddled as he is and staring at the building as though he can force it to disappear with sheer mind power, while simultaneously threatening to do excruciatingly embarrassing things to one Cloud Strife if he wonít stop snickering and let him concentrate.

Eventually though, Zack finds the right street and they reach home with no more misadventures, tumbling in through the door to the blessedly stationary bed with barely a stop to strip off clothing and use the bathroom. And even though the night is finally over, glamour and atmosp gon gone, the sky is tinged with dawn and the promise of being completely brain-dead tomorrow, he wouldnít have any part of the night any other way. OrÖ any other person.

And he guesses thatís why he loves Zack. He always knows--- says--- does--- is the right thing.

***

Everything seems to be working out. He thinks.



Step, lunge, turn, thrust, parry.



This would be a lot easier if they actually taught the stupid drill in person instead of having a mat--a mat for godís sake, with neat numbered black footprints painted on it in an incomprehensible puzzle of steps to follow. He can see it now, every trooper and Soldier in Shinraís ranks having to pause in the heat of battle and stare at their tangled feet, trying to figure out which number they took a wrong turn on--- was it number 5 with the left-foot-square or number 9 with the reverse switch? Maybe Shinra will issue each of them a mini-mat to carry around for reference.



Step, lunge, turn, thrust, parry.



He packed his duffel several hours ago and heís been in the gym since. Probably a bad move on his part; the showers are closed by now and by the time he finishes walking home to the apartment, heíll be tired and sweat-drenched and in no way able to enjoy this last night on base.



Step, step, turn, leap, slash, stumble.



Going to Nibelheim. GoingÖ home? He doesnít think so; heís been through that argument before.



Retreat, square away, slide into defensive stance.



The sword isnít quite comfortable in his hands. Thereís a small line of blisters cropping up on the ridge of his hands where the fingers meet the palm and the ones that have burst are stinging from the sweat. His gun is back at the apartment also, carefully cleaned, oiled, and ready to be loaded at a momentís notice.



As ths the situation. Devise a strategy. Determine advantages of offense or defense.



All there is to do now is to wait.



Execute your action.



Step, lunge, turn, thrust, parry, aw, shit---

---The sword spins out of his hands and hits the wall in a discordant crash of steel>
>

He wishes he could laugh it off or hit something or just simply howl in frustration but heís never been able to do things like that, or never been good at them, anyway. So he stands and stares at the wall without really seeing it, twisting his empty hands against each other and feeling the sting of broken blisters.

The door opens behind him and he can feel the situation being taken in with a long slow look; Zackís sword lying on the ground, he himself hunched over, gasping for breath and rubbing his hands. Stupid. Just---stupid.

Zack as as though nothing is unusual about this or wrong, walking in quietly and kicking the rumpled mat aside. He comes up behind him, taking care to pick up the pilfered sword first and prop it against the wall before he wraps his arms around Cloudís waist and fits his chin just above Cloudís head, ignoring his heavy breathing and his shaking. "Hey," he says. "Hey. Something wrong?"

Yes, he wants to say, of course thereís something wrong, because everything is too right. I fell in love with you and you actually went and chose me when you could have had anyone else and nothing is ever this good or this easy, ever. Youíre the realest thing Iíve ever been near in my life, you stand out like a guidepost in all this strangeness of uniforms and weapons and life, youíre my reference point for every single thing and if I lost you, I donít know how Iíd find my bearings. And I donít even know if you can fall in love when youíre sixteen and Iím afraid of your trust in me and I donít know what to do.

He doesnít say any of that, though.

"Iím going to mess up in front of everyone. Everyoneís going to see..." He trails off. Everyone from Nibelheim, everyone in SoldierÖ In front of Sephiroth. In front of Zack.

He can feel the shape Zackís mouth makes against the back of his neck and he doesnít know if itís a smile or not; odd, he could always tell in bed. He doesnít know if he wants it to be a smile or not either, for Zack to tell him itís nothing, donít worry, just empty fears--- or for him to offer real advice to combat a real problem.

"You will?" Zack sounds honestly curious, as though the thought has never occurred to him.

If only he wasnít so kind all the timeÖ itís always harder. He shrugs. "Iím not a SoldierÖ" His hands hurt, reminding him of that fact.

Zack shrugs back in reply, he can feel the working of muscle. "No. Youíre not." He reaches forward and lifts one of Cloudís hands with his own, examining it carefully. "Does it matter?"

He closes the fingers, carefully flexing and winces a little. Zackís hand closes over his own, warm, he must have kept them in his pockets all the way over. He exhales a breath he doesnít even know he has been holding, trying to make it clear, not just to Zack but for himself. "I told themÖ I told them I would." Zackís thumbnail is ragged as always; he chews it when heís distracted and he can feel the edge scrape lightly on his skin as it moves back and forth, absently. Naturally. "I have to proveÖ I have to do something."

It is a smile against his neck. And then, Zack swings him around so that they face each other and he can see the curve of lips, forehead to forehead as they are. "You do things with me."

And the smile feels like sunshine against his face and everything is somehowÖ lighter. Itís okay to give a friendly shove at the arms wrapped around his waist and to lean into them at the same time, in the position where he fits and is at home. "Not like that, you idiot," he mumbles but he canít keep from smiling in return.

He can feel breath washing across his temple, Zackís heartbeat against his cheek, and his own breath calming to match that tempo. Some nights in bed, he thinks they arenít really separate people, some nights they are wrapped so close and holding so tight that they only seem one person after all.

"You donít need," Zack says, tapping one finger against Cloudís temple, "to do anything. To prove anything." And then, as an afterthought, "To me, either."

"ThatísÖ" He trails off, still not being able to keep from smiling. "ÖYeah. Thanks."

And it makes him feel like--- for some reason, somehow, somewhere inside himself, he feels a little like--- dancing.

He is still talking, Zack is listening, and he hace tce thought how odd it was to know Zack was saying something and not know what he was saying, itís odder still to hear something he himself has been trying to say all along and never heard. "I would. For you."

Right before the kiss descends--- "Just me?"

One more smile. "Yeah."

And he realizes, after he does it, finallyÖ that the right thing is not so difficult after all.

~Owari~

***

End Notes:

Firstly, yes, you are correct in noticing that this bears several blatant similarities to "A Taste of Cinnamon" by Sora no Kumo, also known as Catt. Written roughly around the same time as her story as a sort of parallel, several sessions of idea swapping resulted in such.

SecondlyÖ erh, flower symbolism? Sorry. Those florists are a crafty bunch. Just look at Weiss Kreuz.

Chrysanthemum, Dendranthema: Cheerfulness. Loveliness. White signifies Truth.


Roses: Yellow signifies Joy and Happiness but it can also mean Jealousy.


Forsythia: Anticipation


Forget-Me-Not, part of the trichomanes: Memories. True Love.


Pansy: Thoughtful reflection


Marigold, Dianthus: Grief. Sacred Affection. Marigolds are the flowers for the dead.




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