Ukiyoe Painting

BY : MystIc19
Category: Final Fantasy VII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1053
Disclaimer: I do not own FF7 or any of the FF7 characters. I do not make any profit in writing these fanfictions.

 


Disclaimer: I do not own FF7 or any of the FF7 characters and don't make any money from the writing of this story.




Running his fingers through feathery soft blond hair Zack smiled slightly when the smaller one moved closer towards him, burying his face against his chest. He looked so content and peaceful now that Zack didn't want to wake him. But he knew it was for the best if they got an early start. If there were any Samurai around he wanted to get away before they were detected and get as far ahead as possible.


Letting out a sigh he let his hand gently trail down to Cloud's shoulder, his fingers idly caressing his skin. He was glad that Cloud had calmed down the night before after the Samurai sighting, the last thing Zack wanted was to have him even more worried than he was sure he already was. And that was the reason why Zack dismissed the sighting as just something by chance...but the truth was he himself didn't quite believe that. Could it be true? Yes, of course, but his gut was telling him that perhaps they were searching for Cloud. And he also wondered if they knew about his disappearance yet. But more than that, he was beginning to wonder if Reno had indeed kept his promise. More than anything Zack wanted to believe he could trust him, he was one of his closest friends...but with those two Samurai being in the exact same area as them...he had to at least acknowledge it as a possibility.


"Zack?"


Glancing down at the soft voice Zack smiled when sleepy blue eyes blinked open at him.


"Can't sleep?" Cloud asked while curling his arm around the other.


Shaking his head a bit Zack spoke quietly, "No, it's about time for us to be leaving."


"Leaving?" Cloud asked while pulling away slightly to glance over towards the window. The shutters were closed a little but open enough to know that it was still dark outside. "It's still really early."


"Yes," Zack started while leaning forward and pressing a kiss against Cloud's cheek. "But I wanted to head out before sunrise remember? It'll be safer that way."


"Oh yeah," Cloud replied with a sigh before slumping back against the others chest.


Letting out a chuckle Zack ran his hand up and down Cloud's back comfortingly. "Don't worry, you can sleep on the way."


Pulling himself up slightly Cloud shook his head. "Will you be okay though?"


"I'm fine," Zack replied with a grin while sitting up fully.


Nodding Cloud realized that Zack was used to waking up early in the morning to head out on assignments, he did it all the time. Once again Cloud was the one out of his element, he had to remember that.


He found himself watching silently as Zack made his way out of the bed and over to one of their travel bags. It wasn't until Zack started to rifle through it that it actually hit Cloud that they did have to leave. That just the day before they had seen Samurai. That they could potentially be in a bad situation. They were still on the run so to speak. And for a moment he had naively forgotten about all of that. He had fallen into a comforting atmosphere after the night before that he and Zack had shared, and upon waking up he was still partially in that state. But not anymore. One night was all that it took to take his mind off of their current situation, but now in the early darkness of morning it was still all very real.


Walking back towards the bed Zack leaned onto it with a frown. Cloud seemed to have completely blanked out, and although he hadn't said anything his eyes told it at all.


"Hey," Zack started while grasping his chin. He was staring into blue eyes a second later before continuing. "Are you okay?"


"Yeah," Cloud replied with a short nod and a smile.


"Good," Zack said with a smile of his own before placing a kiss on Cloud's forehead. "Come on."


They got ready in a comfortable silence, although Cloud was still somewhat dragging his feet. A part of him just wanted to stay at the inn, at least it was safe there. However that would've been no different than when he was hiding out at Angeal's so he knew they had to trek forward. He had just finished securing his obi when his eyes trailed over to Zack who was now fully dressed and picking up his sheathed sword. With that in place he moved over towards the table that was in the center of the room before glancing up at Cloud and realizing he was being watched. He gave him a warm smile before speaking up.


"Come here," Zack said while reaching out his hand. Walking towards the table with a curious look Cloud took Zack's hand and let him guide him to sit beside him. He found himself staring down at the large map as Zack pointed to a specific area.


"We'll make this our stopping point for today, it'll be far away from here and it's less isolated than if we continued to the other town that was on the planned path."


Looking over the lines and trails of the map Cloud nodded. He could see the dark lines that Angeal had mapped out for them beforehand and could see where Zack had went back and changed things.


"Instead of staying down this path," Zack explained while tracing one of the black lines, "we'll be going up this way. It's more mountainous here so it'll be a little rougher but it's much more obscure."


Cloud liked the sound of that, it would keep them hidden instead of just traveling down a regular open road.


"Once we get to the next town we'll check out the surroundings, if everything is alright then we can continue on the original path. But if I for any reason think that there's a chance of conflict, we'll change back to the mountainous road."


"Why don't we just stay on the mountainous path? It's best just to be safe isn't it?" Cloud asked while looking into blue eyes. Zack held his gaze and nodded.


"It probably would, but it's much more difficult for travel. And we also have to take the weather into consideration, it could start to snow and up in the mountains it wouldn't be easy."


Pausing briefly Cloud let that sink in. "Because of the carriage? Let's just lose that, I can ride on the horse with you."


"I'd thought about that, we'll see how it goes. We would have to be much further away, we'd easily be spotted that way. They're looking for two people, we would stand out."


Cloud hadn't thought about that but he supposed Zack was right, the last thing they wanted to do was to attract attention.


"It'll be fine," Zack reassured the other, "we'll just push through until we make it into the next town."


Hesitating only briefly Cloud gave a nod before Zack was folding up the map and tucking it away. And then they were departing the quiet inn and stepping out into the early morning air. Cloud kept his eyes shifting this way and that. Although the streets were deafening silent at the time, he still wasn't convinced that they were indeed alone...he really hoped they were though.


He jumped a bit when he felt Zack's hand on his back, guiding him towards the carriage before helping him climb up into it.


"I don't think we'll be able to stop anywhere to eat, so we'll just have to eat what we have packed," Zack explained while lowering his sugegasa.


"That's fine," Cloud replied while sliding further back into his seat.


"It'll be a bit of a bumpy ride up ahead so just hang tight okay?" Zack continued while looking into blue eyes. Cloud nodded just before Zack passed him the blanket that he had been using daily since they started out. He reached out for it, his smaller hand brushing against the larger one before he found his fingers grasping tightly around the others. He didn't know why exactly...perhaps just to calm his thoughts, and Zack was always his comfort after all.


Not replying to the touch Zack simply squeezed Cloud's hand tighter. He knew his boyfriend well enough to read him inside and out, whether he said words or not hardly mattered. Zack understood.


Leaning in briefly he placed a soft kiss against the blond's lips. He meant for it to be brief, but when he felt Cloud push more into it he let it linger before reluctantly pulling away.


"Let's get going huh?" Zack asked as he glanced up at the sky and noticed that the first traces of sunlight were starting to making their appearance, changing the dark sky to a faint purple.


"Yeah," Cloud agreed while moving back and pulling the blanket up higher. Zack gave him another smile before turning and making his way over to the horse. He pulled himself up before giving her a few gentle pats and then he was taking the reigns and leading them off into the distance.




Approaching the castle doors the guards on duty gave a nod of acknowledgement to the woman before opening the doors for her. She gave them a smile of thanks while walking into the castle. The heavy doors creaked shut behind her and she shifted the bag of fabric in her arms as she moved down the hall. A few residents passed by her giving her those same sympathetic smiles that they had been giving her for weeks now along with small bows. She returned them politely but in all honesty she didn't know how much longer she could. It was just a constant reminder that her son wasn't there.


Letting out a sigh she hugged the bag closer to her. She had been trying to go about her daily activities as normal but her mind was never really fully occupied at the task at hand. When she made meals at home, she always made more than she should've, being so accustomed to cooking for three people instead of just two. When she woke up in the morning she constantly had to stop herself from knocking on Cloud's door, so used to waking him up for his morning lessons and breakfast. And when she fed Tama just the sight of the little cat reminded her of her son and how happy he was when he received it just before they moved into the castle.


She tried to stay busy, but truth was no matter what she was doing she would never truly be at ease until she knew where her son was. At this point...she was even being realistic. And if something terrible had happened to Cloud...she just needed to know. She desperately needed to know. Even though she hoped with every fiber in her being that that wasn'tthe case, she knew she would eventually need closure. The not knowing was too painful.


The sound of a familiar voice caught her attention and she glanced across the hall to see Angeal along with a few of the council members talking outside one of the conference rooms. She didn't see Saito with them though. Slowing her steps she halted altogether and kept her gaze on the Samurai. She really...wanted to speak to him. If anybody could give her any concrete information it had to be Angeal. Everytime she questioned Saito about what was going on, she always got the same response of "don't worry, they are searching and doing all that they can. Just be patient." And she was tired of receiving that response. She had been patient! And even though she knew she had no real right to intrude into any of the business of the council or anything...she was after all just the wife of the Chamberlain. But she was tired of being dismissed. If they knew something and were just hiding it from her she needed to know. She had a right to didn't she?


Sensing a pair of eyes on him Angeal glanced across the hall to see the blond woman watching him. She gave him a smile when he noticed her and in a second he had turned to the few people he was with and politely excused himself before crossing over to to the other.


"Forgive me," Natsumi said with a brief laugh as she bowed. "I know you're busy, I didn't mean to pull you away so abruptly."


"Not at all," Angeal replied with a smile. "We were just wrapping up some things from an earlier meeting."


"I see," Natsumi spoke softly while shifting her gaze to see the council members begin to walk away. They regarded her with brief bows of their own before continuing. "I don't mean to step out of line," she continued while raising blue eyes back up to the man. "I just wondered... if you had any updates at all."


Pausing only briefly Angeal shook his head. "I'm sorry. I wish I did." He thought back to the letter that Cloud had written for his mom, he wanted her to have it...but he knew it was still entirely too soon for that. He couldn't risk something like that being spotted by anyone else. It would have to be way after they abandoned the search for Cloud.


"Oh," Natsumi started while dropping her gaze momentarily. "I just...if you did know something...even if it was bad news I would still like for you to tell me. Please? Saito doesn't really speak to me about these things."


Giving a nod Angeal frowned slightly. What was Saito telling her then? Then again he supposed the Chamberlain was just as lost on this matter. Even though Angeal inwardly wondered if Saito felt guilt about his actions. Perhaps Saito figured Cloud ran away and he was too ashamed to tell Natsumi the reasons for it?


"You have my word," Angeal replied as the woman shifted the bag in her arms again.


"I did hear however," she continued a bit hesitantly. "That Zack has been gone for awhile...and he's not on assignment?"


Straightening up a bit Angeal let out a sigh. "That is true," he started with a nod, "I gave him some time off for a bit but what he's done since then I don't know."


"I've been hearing...things," Natsumi began while furrowing her eyebrows. Clearly displeased at the bad rumors that had been surfacing.


"I'm sure you have. It's inevitable at this point," Angeal explained. "But things spread around the castle and in town like wildfire. It doesn't always mean it's accurate however."


"Of course not," Natsumi said while looking back to Angeal. "If I go with my gut instinct...I think maybe Zack took the search into his own hands for Cloud. Maybe he...thought he could find him on his own."


"Perhaps," Angeal simply replied.


Natsumi let out a small laugh and shook her head. That thought actually comforted her. If Cloud was out there somewhere and possibly lost...knowing that Zack might've been looking for him...or even maybe had found him, made her happy.


"Did Zack ever tell you about when he and Cloud got lost in the woods as kids?" She asked while shifting the bag to her hip before Angeal tilted his head questioningly.


"I don't think I ever heard about that," he replied before reaching out and taking the bag that Natsumi seemed to be struggling with. She smiled at him in thanks before he was gesturing for her to lead the way and waiting for her to continue on.


"Those boys," Natsumi started while touching her fingertips to her temple in thought. "Sometimes they just didn't listen. We told them time and time again not to go out there but they went anyways. And the sun had gone down and they still hadn't made it home. We were all worried out of our minds...well Zack's mother and I. We went around town and didn't see them anywhere at all."


Then she was smiling and letting out a laugh. "Then when we made it back home and were still out front looking we saw them walking up the road hand in hand. Oh...I don't think I've ever been so angry and completely happy at the same time."


Angeal gave a smile at those words and listened as Natsumi continued on.


"Zack's mom and I yelled at both of them but...before she took Zack inside his house I stopped him and kissed him on top of his head. I told him thank you for bringing Cloud back home safe...I knew it was him that got them out of that mess...Cloud always hated the dark, I'm sure he would've just hid somewhere until morning if he was by himself."


They both shared a laugh before they were stopping at the woman's quarters. Her smile fell a little as she glanced at the door, knowing that on the other side she would only be greeted by silence and that her little boy would not be there.


"Do you think," she started gently, "that I'd be completely naive to believe that...maybe Zack could bring Cloud back home to me again? Just like that time?"


A frown settled on the Samurai's features and he shook his head. "No, I don't think it's naive at all."


Giving a bit of a nod she let her gaze waver. "Zack is just like a second son to me," she explained softly. "I can't...I won't believe the things that they're saying about him now. He wouldn't be responsible for Cloud's disappearance."


So she had indeed heard all the rumors, Angeal thought to himself. Ever since the Shogun had been tipped off about Zack and Cloud possibly being spotted, the man had twisted it to make it seem as if Zack was the guilty one. That he had deserted and was a traitor. Not that Angeal wasn't expecting it, he just thought it would've taken longer. But of course the Shogun couldn't wait to sling dirt on Zack's name.


"Then don't," Angeal replied genuinely. Even though Zack technically was the reason behind Cloud's disapperance, he had no choice. And the real reasons were the Shogun and Saito. If Natsumi knew the real truth, she would understand. And as much as Angeal wanted to tell her, he knew that was something he couldn't do. In time she would know...whatever Cloud revealed to her in that letter, she would know. Whether or not he included the full situation with the Shogun and his father in the letter Angeal wasn't sure. He hadn't read it and he wouldn't. But when the time was right he would show it to Natsumi. "You know Zack...you know his character. Don't let these things you're hearing change any of that. People are just grasping for answers at this point. Eventually the true answers will come to light. I promise you that."




Coming to a stop Zack dismounted the horse before looking up ahead at the rest of the path. Their movement was becoming much more slow and harder to get through, and that was because the snow. He had anticipated it, but he hadn't expected the snow fall to be so heavy and come on so quickly. At least they had made it a good distance so far, traveling well into the night. But they still had a good ways to go.


Letting out a sigh he turned to look at the carriage that Cloud was currently sleeping in. The boy had the blanket pulled up to his nose. He must've been so cold, he had never really been out in weather like this for a long period of time.


Moving over towards the carriage Zack took in the situation. It probably would be best to unhook the carriage. The horse would move quicker without the added weight in the snow, and having Cloud ride with him wouldn't be an issue. At least until they made it past the mountains, in the next town it would probably be best for them to aquire another one though.


"Cloud," Zack spoke softly past the wind that seemed to be picking up just a bit. He was just about to shake the other awake when he heard what sounded like a branch breaking off in the distance. Freezing he shifted his gaze towards the wooded area. To anybody else they probably would've just taken it as twigs and branches breaking because of the wind, or a possible animal. But to Zack who was trained to pay close attention to his surroundings in case of an enemy threat, he took it to be something else. That and he had been hearing these sounds for a while now, hoping that if it was someone following that he could shake them. But it didn't seem as if that was the case.


Placing his hand on the hilt of his sword he kept his eyes scanning the area. He was so focused on locating the sound that he almost didn't realize Cloud stirring beside him in the carriage. Blue eyes blinked opened before Cloud was pulling the blanket more tightly to him. He was just about to drift back off to sleep when he noticed that they weren't moving. Sitting up slightly he glanced around to see Zack standing just a few feet away from him.


"Zack?" Cloud asked a bit confused. The other held up his free hand in a gesture of silence, his other staying firmly secure on the hilt of his sword. Noticing this Cloud sat up fully, letting the blanket drop away from him.


"What's wrong?" Cloud asked softly, now fully awake. When he didn't receive a response he climbed out of the carriage, his feet sinking into the soft snow. He took a few steps until he was standing right behind the other.


"Zack?" He asked gently. Peering up at the other he studied his face. For the moment Zack appeared to be a statue, he remained completely still aside from his eyes moving in different directions. He was intently focused on something, what it was Cloud didn't know but he felt his heartbeat increase and a sinking feeling appeared in his stomach. Without another thought he moved close behind Zack, one of his hands gripping at his back. He saw Zack's arm move out beside him, almost as if to shield Cloud from whoever or whatever it was that was out there.


"Someone's here," Zack finally admitted to him. He didn't want to scare Cloud if he wasn't absolutely sure that they were indeed being followed, but he knew now that it was a fact. "No," Zack corrected quietly, "more than one."


Cloud's eyes widened and he clutched at Zack's back even tighter.


"Stay behind me," Zack explained calmly, keeping his one arm outstretched as he took a few steps back with Cloud closely behind.


Cloud didn't need to be told that, he didn't think he could move away from Zack at all in this moment. He was beyond terrified.


Keeping his gaze fixed before him, he narrowed his eyes a bit when he saw the shadows of three figures emerging. They had been spotted, they knew it. So there was no point in trying to hide any longer. As they walked further into view Zack quickly withdrew his sword before they got any closer.


"Turn back," he warned.


Taking another step closer one of the Samurai shook his head. "That's not in the orders. Only way we'll be going back is when we have the Chamberlains son."


Cloud let out a gasp. So they did see him then? He wanted to look past Zack at them to see if it were the same Samurai from before, but he couldn't bring himself to move at all.


"That won't be happening," Zack replied, still just as calm as before.


"Zack," one of the other Samurai spoke up. Zack shifted his gaze to him and he realized that he knew this one rather well, they had gone on many of the same assignments. "Just let us take the Chamberlains son back. I'm willing to say that you got away from us."


Zack couldn't help but to give an amused smirk at that. He supposed that the Samurai assumed he was throwing him a lifeline with that statement, but Zack had no intention of handing Cloud over in return for his life...and he also didn't intend to lose his life either.


"I'll pass," Zack continued before the third Samurai made a sound of disgust.


"You betrayed the Shogunate and dishonored your name for that boy?" Shaking his head he gave a sneer. "Seems as if he's not only the Shogun's play thing."


Snapping open his eyes Cloud felt his stomach drop at those words. Not only the Shoguns play thing? But that...what...how would he know? He hadn't looked at any of the men since they emerged, but those words...he just needed to see who it was that would know about that. Peering a bit around Zack his eyes only briefly fell onto the Samurai and he quickly moved back behind the other while shutting his eyes tightly. That Samurai...he was one of the Shogun's guards. He was standing guard along with another that night when...yes. Of course he knew what transpired.


A pained whimper escaped from Cloud from the memory of it all as he kept himself glued to the man before him.


It was that pained sound that pushed Zack over the edge. He didn't know exactly who that Samurai was, but Cloud seemed to recognize him. And the fact that he knew about the Shogun and what he had done...and that he had just referred to Cloud in such a way...


Zack was done with talking.


In a move that was almost too fast for Cloud to register Zack had pulled away from him and dashed across the distance to where the Samurai were. Cloud hear a loud cry of pain, followed by the brief sound of metal against metal and then sputtering and coughing. He had barely blinked when the last of the Samurai had fallen onto the ground with a soft thud. The only sound after that was his beating heart and the wind. His eyes widened as he took in the scene before him, three men laid perfectly still on the ground with Zack standing in the middle of them. He hadn't moved since the last one fell and Cloud shakily started to make his way over towards him.


"Zack," he practically squeaked out.


Readying his sword again Zack spoke up. "Stay behind me Cloud," he repeated while keeping his focus ahead of him. Cloud seemed confused but listened obediently, trying to keep his gaze elsewhere instead of the blood spattered snow.


Hearing more footsteps near Zack narrowed his eyes. Of course. It couldn't have been just the three. He watched more of the Samurai emerge from the darkness and he gave a bit of a smirk. He partly wondered if he should be flattered that the Shogun felt it necessary to dispatch so many Samurai for one Ronin.


He heard Cloud gasp, no doubt from seeing the other Samurai appearing before he felt a hand gripping his arm. Not taking his eyes off the men in front of him Zack spoke quietly to the boy behind him.


"I won't let them touch you," Zack started, "just stay back by the carriage."


Glancing back at the horse and carriage they seemed so far away from Zack when in actuality it couldn't have been more than eight feet or so.


"I," he started to protest gently.


"Cloud." Zack snapped quietly. Cloud got the message. Now wasn't the time to be arguing or doubting Zack's lead. Letting go of the others arm Cloud moved away slowly before turning and running to duck behind the carriage. He heard some voices speaking but it was too low for him to make out and then he was once again hearing one of those blood curdling screams. He jumped at the sound and then he was hearing the constant sound of clashing swords and movement. He wanted to close his eyes...he wanted to look to make sure Zack was okay...but instead he stayed behind the carriage grasping onto one of the wheels with his trembling hands while he waited for the comottion to cease. The horse seemed to be getting antsy, and he found himself holding his breath hoping that she wouldn't get scared and take off.


It was when his attention was directed at the horse that he felt a hand grab a hold of his arm. Turning towards the touch he saw one of the Samurai beside him and he and he moved to kick with all of his force. The man briefly reeled back from the kick to his stomach as Cloud scrambled to get up. He had just taken a few steps, finding it extremely difficult to run in the deep snow before the Samurai moved to go after him. He grasped at the back of his kimono and Cloud shook him off before stumbling forward. He was just beginning to crawl away when his ankle was grabbed. Trying to kick the other off again Cloud let out a scream when he felt the man begin to drag him back.


A thud came from the carriage and Cloud looked up just in time to see Zack scale the top of it before coming down onto the Samurai who was holding onto him. The man let out a yell as Zack's sword pierced through his back until the tip came out the front. Cloud looked on in shock as the man's grasp around his ankle fell away limply and then Zack was pulling the sword from out of him, catching the man by the back of his kimono for a moment so that his dead weight wouldn't fall onto Cloud. Quickly getting to his feet Cloud looked around, there was still more of them! He saw two of them quickly approaching just as Zack let go of the dead Samurai. He turned to face one of the others and as they got caught in fighting the other one looked towards Cloud.


Turning Cloud quickly dashed off into the wooded area, he could hear the footsteps behind him but he didn't stop to look back. He just kept going. He turned down a few different paths before continuing on. He felt his chest begin to burn but he just continued to run, still not looking back. But after awhile he only heard the sound of his footsteps and his breathing and so he slowed down a bit. Finally coming to a complete stop he turned and looked out at his surroundings. He could see tall trees and snow under a starlit sky...but that was it. He couldn't hear anymore footsteps, the sound of swords clashing or any terrifying painful screams. It was just...silent.


Moving over towards one of the tall trees he leaned against the trunk before sinking to his knees, trying to catch his breath and calm his heart. He moved behind the tree, sitting silently behind it as he kept his eyes scanning the area. Did he really in fact loose the Samurai who had been following after him? Or was he just trying to trick him? Make him think it was safe so that he could lure him back out only to catch him? But how far had he run from the carriage? That was where Zack was. And just how was he supposed to find his way back anyways?


Leaning forward on all fours Cloud crawled forward a little. He inspected the ground closely and let out a frustrated sigh when he realized that plan wouldn't work. His footsteps were already gone, quickly buried under the fresh snow that had continued to fall. There was no way he could follow those back.


But...he supposed he could find his way back. He hadn't run that far away...had he? Leaning back against the tree he decided to remain there for awhile. He needed to make sure that he was indeed alone before he went off trying to make his way back. He had already almost gotten caught once already, he couldn't do that again.


He wasn't sure how long he had waited there, but it seemed to be awhile and he was freezing now that his adrenaline had worn off. He was just getting ready to start trying to find his way back when he heard something faintly off in the distance. He froze for a moment, not sure what or who it was.


"Cloud!"


Picking himself up from the ground he moved from behind the tree when he heard that familiar voice call out to him.


"I'm here!" Cloud shouted back over the sound of the cold wind that seemed to be picking up. Zack moved towards him and Cloud unsteadily approached as well, his feet sinking into the snow with each step he took.


"Are you okay?" Zack asked out of breath once he was close enough.


"I'm fine," Cloud started while instantly wrapping his arms around Zack's waist and holding him tight. "I'm fine. I'm sorry I ran off like that I just thought-"


Pulling Cloud closer towards him Zack held him there. "Don't apologize, I'm glad you did. I'm glad you got away. It gave me time to catch up to the Samurai who was following after you." Pulling away slowly he continued. "We need to... go."


Cloud was just about to respond before Zack stumbled slightly and grasped his side.


"Zack?" Cloud asked softly while reaching out to help balance him before stopping altogether. Blood...on his hands? But where did that come from? He wasn't hurt and it wasn't there before. Was it from when he touched-


"Zack!?" Cloud cried in shock before the other shook his head.


"It's fine," Zack replied while keeping his hand clutched at his side. "Let's just...get back to the carriage. It's just up this way."


Nodding at the direction he pointed to Cloud was quickly at Zack's side, supporting his larger frame the best he could as he guided them back towards the carriage that seemed so much further off then he remembered it. He guess he must've really ran pretty far after all, either that or he had just gotten disoriented in the midst of all of everything.


"I'll get you in the carriage, let me ride the horse," Cloud explained gently. But he didn't receive a reply and before he knew it he had toppled over back onto the snow with the heavy weight of Zack on top of him.


"Zack!?" Cloud shrieked, his voice seeming to be completely lost in the howling wind. Using all of his strength to sit up he held Zack up against him before pulling back to look into his face.


"Zack wake up!"


Tears welled up in his eyes when he got no response and Zack's eyes remained closed and his body lifeless. No..this...this couldn't be happening.


"Zackary please," Cloud cried before leaning forward and pressing his ear against his chest. He heard a steady thump resounding from within and he let out a shaky breath. Zack was unconscious, but still alive...for the moment. Looking over towards the carriage he mustered up all of his strength before standing to his feet. He placed Zack's arm around his shoulders and lifted him up as much as he could before slowly and unsteadily making his way towards the carriage. He fell about three times before finally reaching his destination and struggling with all his might to get Zack into the carriage. He climbed in next to him before glancing down at the path he had just gone down. All that soft white snow spattered with crimson. So much...


Shifting his gaze back down to Zack he carefully examined his torso, looking at the area that he had seen Zack grasp before. He saw the tear in his clothing and was able to locate the wound, it was very deep and very wide from what he could tell and it was still bleeding.


Pulling at the sleeve of his own kimono he pulled as hard as he could before the fabric started to stretch and tear.


"Come on!" Cloud shouted through gritted teeth. After a bit more pulling and tugging he was able to rip off what was a decent amount of fabric. He reached around Zack and wrapped the fabric tightly around him, over the wounded area and pressed down on it firmly. Once that was secure he quickly climbed out of the carriage before hopping up onto the horse and taking the reigns. He looked at the direction that they were once going but...there was no way they could continue that way. That would only lead deeper into the mountains before they ever got to the other side. He had to turn back and go the other way, hopefully there would be a town or something nearby.


Not second guessing himself he pulled up on the reigns and turned the horse back in the opposite direction before heading off. He wasn't sure how long he had been going but it seemed to be a while, and the fact that they were moving much slower because of the snow only made it worse.


The sound of something loud snapping caught his attention before the horse reared up, nearly throwing him off as it let out a loud cry.


"Easy!" Cloud started in a panic while gently petting her mane. He couldn't chance having the horse getting spooked and running off. He needed her! But what was that sound? Looking back to the carriage he realized that it seemed to be leaning and it was then that he saw the back wheel had come undone.


"No," Cloud said to himself while dismounting the horse. Running to the back of the carriage he assessed the damage. There was no way that he could repair that. Shaking his head he climbed back into the carriage and took Zack's face into his hands.


"Zack? Can you hear me? You have to wake up," he spoke gently before pressing his ear back to his chest once more. With the loud howl of the wind it was almost impossible to be sure, but he heard it. That faint thumping, it was there.


"Zack please," Cloud begged while running his hands through his hair. Looking around at the darkness around them he felt completely lost. What was he supposed to do now? How could he get them anywhere when Zack was unconscious and the carriage was broken? Just how far could he get on foot with Zack's weight before the cold and the snow got to him?


Leaning against Zack Cloud curled his arms around him before letting his eyes drift close, the tears that he had been holding back finally escaping. Maybe...maybe this was what he was supposed to do. Just stay with Zack until the very end. They could go together. Maybe that was their fate after all. After everything they had been through...perhaps it was fate's way of giving them a way out, so that they could be happy in their next lives together.


Blinking open his eyes Cloud placed a kiss on Zack's cheek. He was just getting ready to curl up back next to him and close his eyes and wait for them to be carried off together to the next life when he saw a dim light in the distance. What was it? There seemed to be only darkness and trees around them on this road and he hadn't even thought that they were anywhere nearby a town yet. But it had to be something.


Pulling himself up Cloud stepped out of the carriage before reaching back and struggling to get Zack out as well. He couldn't give up, not just yet. He had to try, if there was even asmall chance he had to try. Zack wouldn't give up on him, not ever. Zack had sacrificed so much for him and he couldn't just throw that all away once things got difficult.


The cold from the snow was biting at his feet and fingertips and Zack's weight seemed as if it were only getting heavier with every step he took. He fell, and got back up and fell and got back up. But when he fell once more...he just didn't have the strength to get up again.


"I'm sorry Zack," Cloud said with deep regret. "I'm so sorry."


'I couldn't do it...I'm not strong enough to protect you. Please forgive me.'


The sound of a door shutting was barely audible in the wind but the footsteps approaching that got louder made Cloud glance up wearily. He saw a dim light that was getting closer and closer and finally the figure of a man came into view as he held a lantern out in front of him.


"What's going on out here?" The man asked as he came closer towards the two.


"Please help," Cloud finally spoke up once he found his voice again.


"What happened?" The man asked as his eyes widened upon taking in the sight of the two. Cloud remained on the ground clutching Zack tightly to him, oblivious to the blood that was on his hands and smeared across his face.


"Please help him, he's hurt," Cloud repeated while shifting slightly. The man looked at them warily for a moment before kneeling down beside Cloud and looking at Zack.


"What happened?" The man asked again while looking directly at Cloud. Now that he was closer Cloud could see that he was an older man, tall and with a muscular frame.


"We were attacked up in the mountains," Cloud explained. "He protected me but he got hurt...and I couldn't...couldn't get him into town because our carriage wrecked and then the horse-"


"Alright," the man cut in while reaching for Zack. "Alright. Let's get inside out of the cold."


Standing up beside the other Cloud held out his hands just in case but the man seemed to be taking Zack's weight just fine on his own. He followed him up the narrow path that now he could see led to a home that was tucked away in the hills.


"Papa?" A voice asked as a girl emerged from the doorway, her eyes darting between the man and Cloud.


"They're travelers that have been injured," the man spoke as he stepped inside the home with the girl following before glancing back to Cloud.


"What's his injury?"


"A stab wound, on his side," Cloud quickly explained as the man set Zack down and the girl appeared at his side. She began to work open his kimono swiftly before locating the wound and then she was off as she disappeared down a hallway.


"You said you had a horse along with you?" The older man asked while heading back to the door.


"Yes," Cloud replied while looking away from Zack briefly. "Just down the road, she was still hitched to the carriage so I don't think she could've gotten away."


"Well, I don't know if your carriage will be salvageable but we can't just leave that horse out in this storm. I'll go bring her up," the man explained before exiting the home. The place was filled with silence after that and Cloud quickly turned his focus back to Zack, not even bothering to take in his new surroundings. He heard footsteps approaching again and looked up to see the auburn haired girl setting down a tray with various items on top of it. She pulled out a rag and dipped it into what looked like hot water before pulling more of Zack's kimono away and pressing the rag against his wound.


"It's pretty deep," she said to herself before reaching over to the tray and picking up another item that Cloud didn't recognize.


Nodding Cloud spoke up softly before looking down to his own hands. "He lost alot of blood."


"Yes," the girl replied before glancing up at Cloud. "But it could've been more. You secured the material around him didn't you? That helped stop alot of it."


"Yeah...it's the only thing I could think of to do then," Cloud explained before reaching out and stroking Zack's hair. "Still I...he needs a doctor, the next town can't be too far away right?"


"It is," the girl started, "not to mention in this weather it would take twice as long to get there. He wouldn't last getting there. You got lucky."


Blinking Cloud shook his head in slight confusion.


"You said he needs a doctor," the girl continued. "Well he's got one."


Letting those words sink in for a moment Cloud's eyes widened slightly. "You're a doctor?"


"Why do you think my father brought you here?" The girl asked with a small smile as she continued to clean Zack's wound.


"Oh I...I don't know I just thought," Cloud started absentmindedly before leaning forward and touching Zack's face. "Will he...will he be okay?"


Glancing up the girl studied the blond's face. She could see the worry and concern on his tear streaked face and she gave a soft sigh.


"What's his name?" She asked gently.


Looking at the other briefly Cloud looked back down at the ex Samurai.


"Zack," Cloud said softly.


Nodding the girl reached back to the tray and took a sharp needle from off of it. "And yours?"


"Cloud."


"Well Cloud," the girl started while threading some material through the needle. "Zack is going to be fine. I've cleaned his wound, and now I'm going to stitch him up. He's lost a lot of blood but with some rest he'll be fine."


Letting out a shaky sigh Cloud nodded before taking Zack's hand into his own.


The girl watched the gesture curiously before tilting her head slightly.


"He must be very close to you," she began carefully. "Is he your brother?"


Cloud shook his head before squeezing Zack's hand tighter. He realized that he probably shouldn't have been so close to Zack around this stranger, but he honestly didn't care. If Zack could sense him somehow he wanted him to know that he was with him.


"He's my...my best friend. Ever since we were kids," Cloud explained while looking back to her. "He's all I have."


"I see," the girl replied as her face softened and another small smile settled on her features. "My father is all I have too. I understand."


Pulling the tray closer beside her she looked up at Cloud before pointing down the hallway that she had went down earlier.


"At the end is the washroom, you should clean up. You've been out in the cold and I'm sure a warm bath would do wonders for you."


Looking down at himself Cloud did agree, he looked terrible. His kimono was torn and tattered and he was stained with blood and freezing. But still that didn't matter.


"Thank you for the offer but I'll wait until you finish here," Cloud replied.


"I'd rather you not," the girl said firmly. "I have to stitch him, it can be a bit gruesome. Not to mention he'll probably wake up in pain. You shouldn't have to see that."


Cloud opened his mouth to protest but the girl simply gestured down the hall again.


"Go on. He'll be all done by the time you finish."


Deciding not to argue anymore Cloud gave a broken nod before rising to his feet. He didn't want to delay the doctor anymore and stand in the way of Zack being treated.


Giving a deep bow Cloud said another thank you before turning to move down the hall. He paused briefly before turning to look back at the doctor who was already getting ready to start the procedure.


"Forgive me, I didn't catch your name doctor."


Glancing up the girl gave a warm smile before speaking. "Cissnei."




Authors Note: Alas here is chapter 22! I apologize for the delay but life crept up on me pretty hardcore and alot of things just had to take a back seat for awhile. But! This is back to regular updates and chaper 23 is already more than halfway finished! Poor Natsumi, so sad for her to be left in the dark. But what will Cloud's letter reveal to her? And when she get's it will Cloud indeed really be safe? And will Zack be okay? It seems as if Cloud's worries have in fact come to life. Was it all because of the Samurai that were in the same town previously? And who in fact tipped off the Shogun about their whereabouts? Hmm, just as many questions are answered a whole slew of new ones come up! Thanks for reading and reviewing, I appreciate it! Until the next chap!



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