[fic] Harrow Children: Part the First [1/4]

Title: Harrow Children
Author: joudama
Fandom: FF7 (Advent Children)
Rating: PG to R, worksafe
Word count: 21,000ish
Status: 2/5
Summary: The line between the quick and the dead is thin and blurred, and some fragments of memories live on past death.
Prompt: Zack lives!Advent Children AU.
A/N: Blame [info]chibirisuchan for this. It's all her fault.

IMPORTANT! This is the revised version--it adds details from Advent Children Complete, and has changes and added scenes based on some reworking I'm doing as I play through FF7 and imagine how it'd have gone with Zack there. :D

Prologue

--Part the First--


Outside, the city was bustling, the sounds of a busy city that was, through it all, still alive. There were the sound of cars, of laughter and of yelling, of people going about their lives. Outside, the city was alive.

Inside, the phone was ringing.

"No one's here now~," Tifa said in a sing-song voice, ignoring the phone ringing as she finished up washing dishes and only half listening to the news broadcast, something about the density of the Lifestream in the atmosphere having dropped.

She ignored both the phone and the news and went about cleaning up. The bar had been hopping all night, and she'd been one set of hands short, thanks to Zack being off on a delivery. For all Zack tended to cause havoc, he also had a way with the patrons, and when he was around business was better, but last night had still been really, really good.

"Our next story is about compensation claims against the ShinRa Company--"

The phone kept on ringing, and she frowned a little--that wasn't the line for the bar, but the delivery business, and if someone was being that persistent, there had to be a reason for it. So she turned off the water and dried her hands, half-hoping the person would just hang up before she got there.

No such luck, she thought as she climbed the stairs and made her way to the phone through the house, pretending not to hear Denzel's quiet pleading for Marlene not to tell Cloud he was worse and Marlene's sad "OK", passing a picture of the five of them--her, Cloud, Zack, and the children; her and Marlene smiling together for the camera, Denzel trying to hide his Geostigma, and Cloud looking like he was doing his best to escape the headlock that Zack, grinning his head off, had put him in to keep him from trying to sidle off to the side when the picture was being taken. The picture had caught Cloud mid-flail, and Denzel was giving Zack a look even as he was smoothing his hair over his Geostigma.

"Strifair Deliveries, how may I help you? Whatever it might be, we can...may I ask who this is?" Suddenly, Tifa broke out into a smile, chuckling as she placed the man on the other side. "Of course I remember you, yeah, y'know?"

--

His PHS was ringing. Zack fumbled for it, not wanting to take his eyes off the barren landscape in front of him because, yeah, there was nothing there now, but Zack knew his luck--the second he took his eyes away, a Zolom or something would show up and try to eat his bike, and Cloud had said if he brought his bike back one more time looking like something big, nasty, and multifanged had been chewing on it, he wasn't fixing it for him anymore.

He managed to get the phone right before it would have gone into voicemail, and gave a cheerful whoop. "A-haHA, got it! And Zack Fair here, delivery man extraordinaire!"

Tifa laughed in his ear. "Congratulations. And here I thought I was going to have to leave a message."

"Aww, you miss me that much, you couldn't wait 'till I got back to hear the melodious sound of my voice?" Zack teased.

Tifa let out a snort. "Keep telling yourself that, Fair, OK?"

"I will, thanks!" Zack said, grinning, and Tifa laughed again.

"Anyway. The real reason I'm calling."

"Aww, it's not to hear the melodious sound of my voice?" he said, pouting even though she couldn't see it.

"No, but you keep talking and the point of this call'll be to run up your PHS bill. You remember how high it was last month?"

Zack deflated. "But I had enough to pay it, so it was fine."

Tifa snorted again. "You barely had enough, Zack. Barely. And anyway. The reason I'm calling. I just got a call from Reno. He's in Healin, and--."

"Wait, don't tell me he wants to hear the melodious sound of my voice!" Zack said, his voice full of mock-horror.

"Actually, he does," Tifa said with a laugh.

Zack groaned.

"He's in Healin, and he says he's got a job for you."

Zack groaned again, with feeling this time. "Aww, man, when someone from ShinRa wants me to do something, you know the planet's gonna try to blow itself inside out again," he said, his voice a whine.

"Phone bill money," Tifa said, sounding like she was holding back a laugh even though her voice was scolding.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll drop by there after I get back. I'm almost back to Midgar, and if I'm going to have to deal with the poster boy for ADHD, I want a food and a shower first."

"You, of all people, should never accuse anyone of being hyper," Tifa said, and Zack would have sworn he could hear her rolling her eyes over the phone. "And I'll see about scrounging something up for you to eat when you get back. And if I can drag Cloud back here, too."

Zack grinned. "All right, food! And don't worry about Cloud--I'll swing by the church and pick him up on my way back."

"Thanks," Tifa said. "See you soon." There was a click as she hung up, and Zack stuck his PHS back in his pocket. All in all, things were looking pretty good--Tifa was a great cook, for all Cloud liked to hide in the church Zack was always able to drag him out, physically if need be, and so far, his bike was still in one piece, meaning he actually would be able to go drag Cloud out instead of hiding from him. And if this was a delivery job for someone from ShinRa, well, if he took it, he'd charge them more than enough to pay his phone bill. For the next year. ShinRa more than owed him, he figured.

All in all, he thought, humming as he made his bike roar and took off faster for home, things were going great.

All of a sudden he flinched, letting out a sharp hiss and one hand clutching reflexively at his stomach, the world flashing and flickering like an electric bolt before righting itself; his own body reminding him that things weren't as all right as they seemed.

--

There was a city, off in the distance, and the three of them slowed their motorcycles on the dusty cliff above it, coming to a halt and looking down. Dust swirled around them, hazing the broken city--and the new city that struggled to rise from its ashes--for a moment.

"Kadaj, is that the city where our brothers are?" Yazoo asked, his deep voice low.

"Yeah," Kadaj said, nodding, the wind blowing his hair as he smiled. They were so close now, close to their traitorous brothers, and, more importantly, close to Mother. She was there, somewhere.

"Do you think they'll come greet us?"

"Not a chance," Kadaj said, still smiling.

"Don't cry, Yazoo," Loz said, his smile a smirk.

"You think Mother might be with them?" Yazoo asked, ignoring Loz.

"Maybe not," Kadaj said, his voice oddly light and noncommittal.

Loz's breath hitched, and Yazoo quickly returned the "Don't cry," his said not with the amusement of Loz's but with an irritation at such a sudden display of emotion, and Loz sniffled, trying to keep his tears in.

Something caught Kadaj's eye and he raised his chin. "Look. It's our big brother," he said, and gestured down below them, to the road beneath the cliff where a motorcycle was speeding by.

The three of them looked at each other, Yazoo smiling and Loz laughing with the anticipation making their mako green eyes shine.

Since their brother had been so kind as to show up, the least they could do was go and greet him properly.

--

Zack had a feeling he was in trouble when two grey-haired men who definitely weren't old enough to have that color hair, on bikes that almost put his to shame, showed up out of nowhere behind him.

Zack knew he was in trouble when they started summoning things.

In a movement without thought, he pulled the Buster sword from the holster on his back, and when the first one jumped for him, he let out a war whoop and struck, his bike turning almost like thought as he twisted to slice the monster in half before it could get him.

He turned again the other way, twisting now fluidly into a backhand slice, taking out another of the quick and uglies that were coming after him.

He had just righted himself when one of the men caught up with him, pulling his bike in tight and close, and Zack had no idea who in Hel's name he was.

But what he did know was the last time he had seen eyes like that, it hadn't been good.

"Where's Mother?" the man asked, and oh, yeah, that wasn't good at all.

"What?!" Zack managed to let out, and not much more before the silver-haired guy with Sephiroth's eyes pulled away just enough to get some leverage, and then did his best to take off Zack's head with the overpowered, Reno'd-have-a-heart-attack-and-die-from-jealousy weapon of his. Zack twisted, turning his bike almost in a circle to avoid it because it looked like it would hurt a lot, and found himself instead face to face with the other one, the bad feeling he'd been nursing only getting worse because this one not only had Sephiroth's eyes but was about halfway to getting his hair the same, too.

This is not good, part of him thought, and the thought got stronger when the Seph-a-like kid pulled out a gunblade that Vincent would have had a heart attack and died of jealousy over.

None of them had swords, though, and he thanked the gods for that small favor.

"You're not hiding her from us, are you, brother?"

"Brother?!" Zack managed to squawk, thoroughly confused. "Do I look like we're related?!" he managed to yell before deciding that maybe he needed to conserve his breath and concentrate on not ending up a big, messy smear in the middle of the desert outside Midgar.

If he died out here, Tifa was never going to let him live it down.

--

Kadaj ignored his brothers fighting below him, concentrating instead on his phone conversation.

"Or could it be that you've tricked us? Mother is there, isn't she?"

Kadaj laughed at the response on the other end, sitting side-straddle on his bike. "Oh, now stop yelling."

His face changed suddenly and his voice grew ice cold. "I don't feel like talking to you." He looked down, watching his brothers chasing around below him, Yazoo and Loz driving circles around their big brother, firing and attacking. "Put the president on."

--

The world spun upside down, and Zack was very glad that he had lost the coin toss this time to see who'd be making the delivery run, him or Cloud.

So the bike was airborne, spinning upside down and flipping right over the one who really looked way too much like the way Sephiroth must have looked like when he was about eighteen, long hair and all.

...The one who had a smile that Zack knew did not bode well on his face and his gunblade aimed straight at Zack's head.

Zack had just enough time to think "Well, shit" before the little Sephiroth-in-training fired at him, and Zack was suddenly very grateful to Tifa--Tifa and her "if you're going to be tearing off in the desert outside Midgar, here. You'll need these, and one word about how they make you look like Reno and I'll hit you" goggles that she had made him take with him. The goggles the little mini-Sephiroth shot off of him.

So he wasn't dead, but fuckall if his face didn't hurt a whole lot and the change in brightness wasn't making his eyes sting, a stinging not aided by the blood dripping into his eyes, and now there were even more of the multifanged monsters beelining for his bike. Plus the big Sephiroth-eyed guy trying his best to leave Zack twitching on the side of the road.

...He hadn't had this much fun in forever.

"That all you got?!" he yelled, grinning like a madman, his entire body thrumming with adrenaline as he took down two more of the monsters. "Yeah, bring it on!"

And just when things were getting interesting, when the monsters decided all at once that leaping for his face was a good idea, they all suddenly just vanished into puffs of black smoke. And the two freakish little Sephiroth copies abruptly turned around and started tearing off in the other direction, and Zack couldn't very well just let them go, not after they'd shot off his goggles and shot his bike full of holes. He was going to get yelled at by both Cloud and Tifa for this, so he owed the little Sephiroth-snots.

Then he pulled his bike up short, some instinct having made him look up, and he didn't like what he was seeing one little bit.

"Oh, shit," he said, jaw hanging open. There was a third one, on the top of the cliff, and he was obviously the one in charge.

And he had a sword. Still in its scabbard, but fuck, it was definitely a sword.

The one on the top of the cliff gave him a smirk that was more like Sephiroth than the other two combined, the pre-crazy Sephiroth, but Zack wasn't making any bets that any little Sephiroth-copies running around now were going to be walking down the sane side of the street. Then he got on his bike and took off, the same direction as the other two, and Zack just sat there, jaw hanging open and blinking in disbelief before his brain kicked into gear.

He turned back around and took off for Midgar as fast as he could, fumbling for his PHS. He'd dealt with copies before, thanks to Genesis, and dealing with copies never ended well. There was no way he was going to talk to anyone from ShinRa now, not until he'd gotten everyone up to speed, because he wasn't going anywhere but home towards his materia until he was equipped.

When he finally managed to get the damned PHS out he hit the first number on speed dial, tucking it between his ear and shoulder so he could steer with one had and wipe the blood out of his face with the other.

"Hey, you done already?" Cloud said by way of greeting, for once actually answering his phone instead of ignoring its existence, and for that, Zack was extraordinarily grateful. "Tifa just called me."

"Hey to you, too, and oh gods, kid, I think we've got a problem," Zack said, blinking blood out of his eyes and giving up on trying to wipe it away. He'd get it fixed up soon enough anyway.

"Quit calling me that, and what kind of problem?" Cloud asked, and Zack could hear Cloud shifting around, and off to the side he said, "Marlene! When did you get here? And hand me the trowel. Thanks."

"You're still at the church?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Good. Go equip yourself, 'cause like I said, I think we got a problem. I just had three guys that looked way too much like Sephiroth-but-not try to put a bunch of holes in me and my bike."

There was a long silence before Cloud, in his way, summed the situation up far better than Zack could have, with a single, fleeting, and emotion-filled "...Fuck."

--

Cloud was waiting for him inside the church, looking grim.

"Where's Marlene?"

"I dropped her off back home. Her and half the materia. I figure if something is going after you, we shouldn't have it all in one place."

"Good idea," Zack said, nodding and noticing that Cloud had an equipped bracer on.

"And what in Hel's sweet name happened to your face?" Cloud said, his eyes locking on the cut on Zack's head, bisecting his eyebrow and sweeping across his temple.

"One of the little Sephiroth-copies shot my goggles off," he said, making a face. "And I liked that pair, too!"

"Didn't you have a Cure on you?" Cloud chided, ignoring Zack's whine. "Or at least a Potion?"

"Yes, Mom," Zack said, grinning and rolling his eyes. "But it's just a scratch!"

"Shut up, asshole," Cloud said, elbowing Zack in the stomach but careful to avoid where he knew the Geostigma was. "And don't move," he said, catching Zack's arm and raising a hand up to brush Zack's eyebrow. Cloud closed his eyes, concentrating, and Zack felt the remaining sting of the cut fading.

"There. Next time be more careful," Cloud said, elbowing Zack again, ignoring Zack's "Oof!" when he did so.

"I've got your number, Strife," Zack said, wincing as he rubbed his stomach. "You're just faking at healing. You're really just making me forget my face hurts by making my stomach hurt more! Faker!"

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "Go look in the mirror and tell me that again," he said smugly.

Zack didn't have to, he already knew, but he wasn't about to say it. You'd be damned hard-pressed, after all, to find a better healer anywhere on the planet now than Cloud Strife.

It had been weird, the first time Cloud had smiled and it hadn't been his smile.

It had been Aerith's.

And it had been weird, the first time Cloud's eyes had gone slightly unfocused as he knelt by flowers--flowers--his head tilting like he was listening to something and his fingers brushing them with a reverence Zack hadn't seen in anyone but...

And things grew around Cloud now, and his smile that wasn't his made something in Zack's chest hurt.

He hadn't had any cause to complain, though...not when Cloud had been able to cast Holy when they'd needed it.

But to this day, he wasn't sure if it was a miracle or a cruelty, whatever had happened when Aerith died. It kept Sephiroth from being able to take Cloud over again, and it meant that Aerith wasn't really gone, but...but Cloud wasn't really there, either. Cloud had somehow rebuilt himself, or maybe Aerith had rebuilt him, Zack didn't know which, and he wasn't quite the same person anymore.

Now Cloud smiled Aerith's smile, and while he wasn't any kind of great shakes at fighting, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone to match him at a healing spell or growing plants.

Cloud had his limits with healing--he couldn't cure Geostigma, but he could make it better, for a while, staving off the effects for a few weeks. Zack didn't ask it of him, though, and would threaten to put Cloud in a headlock if he tried to heal him--trying left Cloud exhausted, like he was fighting the planet itself, and he could always tells when Cloud had gone into Denzel's room at night, when the boy slept, and tried to relieve some of the kid's symptoms--Denzel saw how much it took out of Cloud, poor kid, and had started actually trying to hide how bad things were getting to spare Cloud. Trying to alleviate some of the Geostigma would leave Cloud paler than normal, almost bloodlessly pale and bags like dark bruises under his eyes, the Geostigma mottling his own arm darker and more frightening, weeping down Cloud's arm no matter how many bandages he'd had on. He always shook off Zack and Tifa's concerns, saying he was close, so very, very close to figuring out what to do, and looking dejected, as if he felt that, somehow, if Aerith was there, she'd have already figured out the trick of it.

But the thing of it was, Aerith already was there, far more than Cloud himself knew. So if sometimes Cloud remembered things that he shouldn't have, like Zack falling through the church ceiling, or Zack crying on the floor of the church after Angeal had--...well, Zack figured, things would work out somehow, eventually. But it was hard on Cloud, trying to keep all of it straight; trying to tell which memories were his and which the memories of a woman that he had met, but not when he had been in much shape to know. Cloud had been half-formed, prone to staring off into space if left alone, and unable to remember much of anything if pressed.

Cloud'd...started to come back, a little, as Tifa had tried to talk to him and remind him of their past, even though Zack knew it was killing part of her to do; that it killed part of her to know that he didn't remember her, or anything, at all. He had almost been like a blank slate, waiting for someone to write and imprint something on him. And Sephiroth had tried. Sephiroth had tried really hard.

And then...and then Aerith had died, and somehow she had fused with Cloud, and his memories were things that didn't make sense to anyone including himself. But he took it in stride, just smiling Aerith's smile and keeping his head up when anyone was around--when he was alone was anyone's guess, but Zack had a pretty good idea Cloud didn't keep up the good fight when he was alone. He had seen Cloud, once, in the church, laying in the middle of the flowers with his eyes closed and looking like strain of the duality of what he was now and the conflicting drives and instincts were more than he could take. Zack had slipped away when he saw Cloud like that in the church, feeling like he shouldn't interfere and, more than anything else, feeling helpless...and then he went to chew Tifa out for a good long while, because as much as she got it now, sometimes, early in at least, she just hadn't gotten it, about how Cloud was never going back to whatever she might have remembered him as. Even if Aerith hadn't died, all those years in a tank would change anyone, he knew that far too well, and with the mako poisoning on top of that...

But over the last two years, Cloud had gotten better; better at telling his memories from Aerith's, better at coming to terms with who he had become and everything they had lost--what he had lost to Hojo and Shinra, and what Aerith had lost to help him, to fill in his gaps and insulate him against Sephiroth's attempts to take him over.

Zack had asked Aerith, before she died, if Cloud would ever fully wake up and get better. She'd always looked so sad, and she wouldn't make eye contact, only look away before saying one day he would, "but--". She always stopped at "but--" and wouldn't say anything else, only shook her head and changed the subject.

And now, looking back, he had to wonder how much she had known about what it would take.

Cloud still tended to avoid both Zack and Tifa some days; it was as if some days the two of them pulled him too much in two radically different directions, and they both left him to sort it and himself out, even though it killed them to do so. Zack had seen Tifa sitting in the bar, after the children had gone to sleep and Cloud had slipped out, with her face in her hands and her shoulders shaking. Zack had patted her shoulder, knowing all too well how she felt, knowing there had been days when he wanted to be doing what she was now--they had both lost the person they loved, and then gotten them back in a way that was more of a cruelty than anything else.

Especially now with the Geostigma.

And Cloud wouldn't lean on any of them, because he couldn't, and all they could do was watch his struggle with himself. They couldn't say very much when he would disappear for days or weeks on end and not answer anyone's calls to his PHS, other than to yell at him when he came back. They would yell, and he would shrug in a way that was Cloud, and smile in a way that was Aerith, and their words would die off.

Then came the day they both realized how long Cloud's hair was getting, and how it was beginning to remind them both paradoxically of Aerith and of Sephiroth; far, far too much of a physical reminder that Cloud really wasn't alone in there, not with Aerith and random bits of Sephiroth from the times when Sephiroth had managed to take Cloud over when Cloud was still that blank slate, and neither one of them wanted to give greens to that Fat Chocobo in the room.

Admittedly, Cloud had gamely attempted to get a hair cut. Once. Tifa had insisted and Zack had stayed out of it because he kind of understood where she was coming from, and Cloud had gotten as far as the barber pulling out the scissors and going behind him before he had launched himself out of the chair, doing a kind of tuck and roll thing that was actually pretty impressive, coming up in a crouching fighting stance and from that stance, still low to the ground, spinning to face them and returning to that same crouching fighting stance. Denzel, who'd also been shipped off to get a hair cut, stared at Cloud with huge eyes from his chair, and after the first rush of pride at Cloud having pulled off a really sweet move like that, Zack had felt something sink at the look in Cloud's eyes, because it was pretty obvious why the guy got kind of twitchy about sharp, pointy objects coming up behind him.

But this had come out of nowhere--Cloud didn't any problems at all with Zack's sword coming at him when Zack made him spar with him--and Cloud had to know about Sephiroth stabbing him in Nibelheim thanks to the giant scar he had--nor had he even flinched when Sephiroth himself had been waving Masamune around before they finally killed him.

But then, that time in Nibelheim had only almost killed him and Cloud wasn't the type to get twitchy, but getting stabbed had killed Aerith and maybe she was the type, and then again no one really knew why Sephiroth had insisted on keeping his hair that long even in the middle of a war and that was when Zack's head started hurting.

Cloud'd glared at Zack like he dared him to say something as he pulled himself out of his tense fighting stance, but Zack just kinda scratched the back of his head and said, "OK, no haircuts for you, Twitchy," and laughed, because what else could he do?

"Unless Tifa cuts my hair in my sleep," Cloud had muttered, relaxing and still giving Zack slightly wary looks, as if waiting for Zack to start giving him a hard time or laugh at him.

So Zack'd just patted the Cloud's head, ignoring Cloud's irritated growling, bristly flailing to get Zack off of him. "Nah. She wouldn't...well, OK, but it won't be any spikier than it is now after she's done," he said, thinking better of it, and he grinned again as he gave Cloud's hair one last ruffle, getting an elbow in the ribs for it. "Hey, think you trim the front at least?" he asked the barber, who was by then looking like he really wanted to just ask them to leave. "That way we can say we tried," Zack said wryly to Cloud, who made a face before he looked at the hair in his face and glared at it, then nodded.

The barber managed to trim the front, but he got as far as edging towards behind Cloud before the next thing you knew, there were Cloud finger-shaped gouges in the chair and the barber had tossed the scissors onto the counter and had his hands up where Cloud could see them.

On the way home, Zack had stopped and picked up some of the hair ties like the ones Tseng favored, figuring that way, at least Cloud wouldn't have that weird Sephiroth-hair thing starting to happen, and Cloud had taken the hair ties and then had gotten this look and Zack wanted to smack himself, because he hadn't even thought, and Tifa was going to kill him and he was going to deserve it this time, and Cloud was buying his own hair ties from here on out.

So they went back home with Cloud with shorter spiky bangs than he'd had going out and the rest of his hair pulled back, and Tifa had just sighed.

He'd explained it to her later, and she'd gotten that sad look that always made Zack want to give her a hug or something before she shook her head and said, "Well, I guess it can't be helped, then. And as long as he doesn't show up here in a pink dress and bangles, I guess things will work out," she'd said, smiling gamely.

"And if he does show up in a pink dress," Zack had said with a grin, "I am taking photos. A lot of them."

She'd laughed at that, and Zack vowed never to tell Tifa that sometimes, sometimes Cloud remembered things that he just shouldn't have known. Things that weren't Cloud and weren't Aerith, either. Things that were Sephiroth. He knew Tifa worried because of the times Sephiroth had taken Cloud over and how he hadn't been himself, not even as he was then, afterwards, but Tifa hadn't been there at the very end, when it had been only the three of them, Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth, and Cloud had still not been completely back yet, even with parts of Aerith filling in the blanks--perhaps things resonated too differently, were too incongruous and couldn't fit, and so when Sephiroth had died, vowing that somehow he would live on...and that smile he had given Cloud...

Zack didn't much want to think about that. He was only grateful that the flashes and fragments of things Cloud remembered that he shouldn't have known were things from before Nibelheim.

Zack wanted, sometimes, to ask Cloud if he remembered Nibelheim at all, but he never would--if Cloud had any memory fragments of when Sephiroth had gone crazy, it was better they were left untouched and buried.

Tifa never talked to Cloud about Nibelheim, not anymore, so Zack figured there was no need to rock the boat.

"So what happened out there?" Cloud said, growing serious again and jarring Zack out of his thoughts.

Oh, yeah, Zack thought, that mess--that was a lot more of an immediate concern than who besides Cloud might or might not be camping out inside Cloud's head. "I was riding back here, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, these guys on bikes showed up, attacking me and calling me brother," Zack said, sounding completely perplexed. "And unless there's something my parents didn't tell me, I don't have any brothers. And definitely not three brothers with silver hair and eyes like Sephiroth."

"I thought the clones were all gone," Cloud said, frowning.

"You and me both, kid!" Zack said, throwing his hands in the air and dropping down to sit cross-legged on the wooden floor. "If someone had told me a couple hours ago I'd have three Sephiroth clones coming out of the woodworks and attacking me, I'd have told them to leave the Gongagan moonshine to the Gongagans!"

"Fuck," Cloud said again, shaking his head and sitting down, on the edge of where the flowers were growing--thriving even more than they had with Aerith, because of the sunlight reaching them and Cloud having ripped out some of the floorboards to give them more room.

"You got that right," Zack said, groaning and flinging himself back melodramatically until he was lying sprawled on the church floor, in a patch of colored light from the broken stained glass windows.

"And until we know what's going on, we can't do anything," Cloud said, making a face.

All of a sudden, Zack's expression changed, getting a hopeful and sneaky look all at the same time. "Hey, I know something you can do. Since you fixed me up so well," he said, sitting up and scooting over next to Cloud; slinging an arm around Cloud's shoulder and giving him a big, "I'm so totally innocent, here" smile and making puppy eyes. "My bike kinda took some hits, so you wanna maybe take a look at it?"

"...Oh, sweet Shiva, what did you do to the bike this time?" Cloud said, groaning.

"Nothing! Well, I didn't do anything, but the wackos that attacked me kinda did a number on it..." he said sheepishly.

Cloud shook his head. "Didn't I say that if that bike came back looking like Bahamut had chewed on it again I was making you fix the damn thing?"

"But it doesn't look like Bahamut chewed on it this time!" Zack said pleadingly, and Cloud just gave him one of those "..." looks he was so good at. "OK, maaaaaaybe it looks like he nibbled on it. A little."

"Yeah. The toolbox is over there, Fair," Cloud said, gesturing with his thumb towards the back of the church.

"You're...you're really gonna make me try and fix it?" Zack said, jaw falling open. Cloud shoved Zack's arm off him and got up; brushed himself off and started walking to the back with Zack jumping up and following him, dogging his heels and pleading. "But Cloud, you're so much better at fixing bikes than I am! I can clean her up, yeah, but you've got magic hands! You do the same thing I do but she's humming when you do it! You and bikes are like you and chocobos! And you wouldn't leave me in charge of a chocobo-fixing, and wow that sounded wrong, but whatever, you wouldn't leave that to me when the master is right there, right?"

"Don't you need to breathe?" Cloud said, picking up the toolbox and raising his eyebrow at Zack, giving him a seemingly disbelievingly look at the sheer amount of words Zack had produced without bothering to take a breath. "And here you go," he said, holding the toolbox out to Zack with a little smile. "Have fun."

Zack deflated, shoulders slumping and chin dropping to his chest. "But Cloooooud..."

"Everything you need's in here," Cloud said, his expression flat but Zack could tell there was a smile back there, trying to come out. So Zack just looked at him, eyes pleading and making pathetic "But...but...but..." noises.

The corners of Cloud's lips quirked up slightly. "This is why Angeal always called you a puppy," he said, shaking his head but nothing disapproving in the gesture at all.

Disbelieving, perhaps, but not disapproving.

"Aww, c'mon, why does everyone call me that?" Zack said, mock pouting and giving Cloud the puppy-eyes full blast, hoping looking pathetic would get his bike fixed.

The way Cloud shoved his shoulder reminded him of Aerith, and he saw Cloud blink and shake his head quickly, as if he suddenly was remembering something and was trying to shake it away. The sudden red across Cloud's cheeks reaffirmed things, and Cloud pulled his hand back quickly, almost as if burned. "Idiot," he finally mumbled, and clutched tightly at the toolbox with both hands, not making eye contact. "I'm...I'm gonna go fix your bike," he said, eyes shifting towards the doorway. "It took you three tries just to build a stupid flower cart, so only the gods know what you'd end up doing to your bike if it's really in need of repairs."

Zack grinned and jumped on Cloud, determined to jolt Cloud out of his impending broodiness. "Really? You'll fix it? Cloud, you're the best! I love you! Marry me!"

Cloud almost fell over from Zack's weight hitting him like a freight train, and he let out a squawk Zack personally thought was adorable, then turned even redder--the great thing about Cloud, he thought, was that with as pale as he was, when he blushed, he turned really red and right now his face was red as Ifrit's flame. "Get off of me!" Cloud yelled, biting back laughter, and shoved Zack away. "Sweet Shiva, you really are a puppy. An idiot puppy."

"...but you'll still fix my bike?" Zack said, hopefully. Cloud may have been using fixing the bike as an excuse to get away, but the plain truth was that Cloud was really damned good at bike repairs, way better than Zack thanks to Cloud being more methodical and patient, and whenever Cloud tuned his bike, she purred like a kitten and ran like a hasted chocobo.

"I'll still fix your bike. This time," Cloud said with a grin he tried to bite back, and headed for the door, shaking his head and muttering about idiot puppies that needed a good thwap with a rolled-up newspaper some days.

Better, Zack thought with a grin, watching Cloud go. And 'idiot puppy,' eh? Angeal would have appr--. Zack suddenly, as if someone had doused him with ice water, went cold, the smile sliding off his face so quickly it was as if it had never been there. Cloud...Cloud never met Angeal. How did he know Angeal used to call me a...

He shut that line of thought down and fast. He knew how Cloud knew, because there was only one way Cloud could know, but it wasn't something Zack wanted to think about.

He had a horrible feeling though, that he was going to have to think about it, and sooner rather than later.

Food and that shower could wait. Right now, all Zack wanted to do was get on a bike and ride, ride somewhere far away from all this for a while, so he figured he might as well borrow Cloud's bike and go to Healin to find out just what in Hel's name that Turk wanted from him.

If nothing else, it was bound to be a distraction, and he wanted a distraction very, very much right then.

--

Section two: 'Strifair Delivery, maybe at your service but probably not!'
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Comments

Oh, oh, oh...

Zack thinking the fight was FUN. *smacks Zack around*

Cloud and AERITH. Oh gods.

*off to read more*
*grin* Of course Zack would think it was fun. The boy has no common sense like that. *hearts Zack*

And YES. Cloud and Aerith. THAT is what turned this fic into the monster, when the plotbunny grew that set of fangs.
... ^_____________^ every version of this gets shinier! *goes to reread the next bit*
Yay! It's shiny!

Nomination for Best AU at the Genesis Awards

Finally, a decent entry into the AU section. As soon as I saw your pen name on it, I knew my eyes wouldn't bleed as I read it. ;)
Interesting premise- I don't usually read AU because it's usually so terribly written, but I may actually follow this story.

Re: Nomination for Best AU at the Genesis Awards

Weird, for some reason I didn't get an e-mail notice for this!

I got another Genesis nom? Oh, wow! :D

And I hope you like the story, since I'm trying quite hard to make this not suck. ^^;; That, and I'm having a lot of fun writing it.
I love this. I particularly like the way both Zack and Tifa are tip-toeing around the questions of who Cloud is now - is he Cloud, is he Cloud-and-Aerith, is he Cloud-and-Sephiroth, is he Aerith-and-Sephiroth, is he Cloud-and-Aerith-and-Sephiroth or is he just someone else instead? They don't bother to ask Cloud the logical question, which is "who do you think of yourself as?" but instead they both subtly try to make him into who they think he should be. So I can understand why Cloud would be taking himself off to the church, to the flowers which don't expect him to be anyone in particular, and probably also to Marlene and Denzel, who don't have the "who Cloud was" of the past to clutter their interactions with who Cloud is now. Both Zack and Tifa are so scared of what might be that they're refusing to deal with what is, and this is what's hurting everyone, but most especially Cloud.

Oh, and I've had a wonderful thought about how Cloud happens to know what Angeal used to call Zack. I figure Angeal's one of the ones who picked up some mental real-estate inside Cloud's head. It would fit in with the end of CC, since Zack left Cloud in the care of Lazard!Angeal toward the end there, and it was fairly clear that Lazard!Angeal was degrading something chronic at the time. So along with Aerith (who has one of the bigger holdings there - although I can't quite see her as being as much of a stayer as she is... I think most of it is just Zack wanting to see things that aren't really there, because Aerith always struck me as someone who understood that all things have their time. Let's face it, that was the core of her sacrifice) and maybe Sephiroth, and Cloud himself, there's occasional snatches of Angeal's personality coming out in Cloud, which Zack recognises as familiar, but doesn't know *why*. So he worries about it, which makes him weird which makes Cloud weird which makes everything else weird too.

I have to admit, I'm hoping Vincent will come along with the "well, this is what it feels like trying to integrate four separate personalities" thing to help explain Cloud to himself (just like he does in the original AC); my explanation for why there's only two alternate forms for Vincent in DoC is over the two year gap, the two lesser personalities of Hellmasker and Death Gigas got integrated into the Vincent/Galian/Chaos complex, and as a result they don't manifest themselves separately any more. So once he speaks to someone else with expert and experiential knowledge of what it feels like to have other people inside your head, I figure Cloud will be a lot more confident about who he *is* and less inclined to worry about who he *might* be.

pt 1

The whole Zack-Cloud-Tifa thing in this is one of the most interesting as well as the most frustrating to write. None of them know fully how to interact with each other, and the BIG reason for it is how Tifa and Zack are both pushing Cloud into who they think he is instead of letting him be who he is--and this is a special kind of hell for Cloud, because he doesn't know who he is, he just knows who he's not--and what he's not is what the two of them want him to be. He can't get his own balance back, and figure out who he is, with the two of them.

And the sad thing is, it's hard (for me, at least ^^;; ) to really fault Zack or Tifa. Zack had to take care of Cloud when he was mako-poisoned, and in this 'verse, it lasted longer (the reasons for that are sort of hinted out--Aerith knew what it would take to jar him out of the place he was in, which is why she never finished that "But--"). In his mind, Cloud is someone who still has to be protected. While on some level, he knows what Cloud's made of, because of when they first met, that all got drowned out by the helpless factor that lasted longer, on top of Sephiroth having tried to take over Cloud. Zack has that need to be a hero, plus has lost a lot of people he cares about, and is holding on too tightly and being too protective of what he's got. On top of that, he's lost too many people to going crazy and having to kill them--he had to kill Angeal, he had to kill Seph, and to say nothing of the mess with Genesis, and he had to watch more than once ans Sephiroth tried to get into Cloud's head. His biggest fear is Cloud losing it and him having to kill Cloud one day, which is why he freaks out so much about Tifa trying to remind Cloud of Nibelheim, even innocent things like when they were kids. And to make things worse, he honestly has no idea how much he's holding Cloud back, or that he's even holding Cloud back at all.

As for Tifa--she knows what she wants and she knows the Cloud she remembers, and what she wants in him back. She also was around Cloud when he was mako-poisoned and still out of it and when he was only barely aware of things, but she viewed it, to oversimplify, as more that "he was just sick, and he's getting better." But she sees what Zack's doing far better than Zack does, even if she's missing part of his motives. She doesn't have the full picture, so she's filling in the gaps with what makes sense to her. And while she's right in some places, and in some places righter than she thinks, she's also wrong in others. But she's blaming Zack for a lot of things...but she's also blaming Cloud in a way she barely can make sense of herself. She's confused about a lot of things, Cloud and Zack, and how she feels about both of them, and it's coming out in frustrated anger.

And Cloud is in the middle, pulled in two directions, and figuring, yeah, the flowers don't want anything from him other than him to be there and give them water. >XD

pt 2

Since this was all too long for one comment, gah:

As for the thing with Aerith, and Angeal, and Sephiroth, the way I figure it works is that that Cloud imprints on the people around him more than they invade his head, but it can be stronger or weaker depending on how strong he was against the person/wanted the person there and how much the other person pushed. It's like in the game, how he thought he was Zack and had a lot of Zack's mannerisms--he imprinted. He imprinted more with Aerith than with Zack, because of what Aerith was and how she figured this was the best bet, and when she died, she literally went in and gave him more--more than she might have intended--just so he'd be able to use her mother's materia when they needed it. Sephiroth, though, is a different story entirely, because that was Sephiroth trying to take him over and make Cloud literally into him, and so that means Cloud got a lot of memories, but they're really deeply buried and suppressed because it was by force and he doesn't want them. So the Sephbits coming out are things that are buried deeply in his subconscious, which was the only level Cloud couldn't help but use to imprint with--on some level, after all, he's still that fifteen-year-old kid who wanted to be like General Sephiroth, even though his older self doesn't. If that makes sense; it all makes sense in my head, but trying explain it is fail.

As for Cloud figuring out who he is and what to do with everything in his head...heh. Let's just say I have a lot written already. XD