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Title: Seven Days
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Pairing: Zack/Cloud
Rating: NC-17 overall; G this chapter
Warnings: None
Summary: Cloud has a week of leave to get away ShinRa. He had been looking forward to a break away from everything, until his holiday was unceremoniously infringed upon by one particularly over-friendly SOLDIER. But maybe having Zack Fair along with him isn't so bad after all.

| 1 | Day 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |


DAY TWO

The day started off bright and fine, which always made life easier when the day also started with packing down a tent. Cloud hadn't really meant for Zack to sleep outside, but as soon as they had chosen a place to set up camp Zack was off collecting branches and building himself a small lean-to. It was cute, in a way, like a kid building a sandcastle and being immensely proud of the slightly lopsided result. The night had been fine as well, a few clouds but not a drop of rain, so Zack's shelter building skills hadn't been tested.

His idea of breaking camp was to tear down his lean-to and toss all the branches off in random directions.

Cloud ducked, then heaved his pack onto his back.

"Where to, boss man?" Zack asked, grinning. He was one of those people who didn't need coffee in the morning.

They had struck camp in a small clearing amongst the brushy forest that lined the foot of the mountains. Three paths led away; the one to the north-west that they had entered on, one to the east meandering through the forest, and the last to the south, cut steeply across the mountainside. Cloud led them down - or more accurately, up - the south path.

The route was as winding as it was steep, and soon declined into something that was barely discernible as a path at all. Other thin trails left by livestock, or maybe deer, occasionally bisected their own. Zack couldn't tell the difference between them.

"Hey, do you have a map or something?" Zack wondered. He hadn't seen Cloud look at one at any point, but he seemed confident enough about where he was going.

"No."

"So, do you walk this way a lot then?"

Cloud gave Zack a curious glance. "Never been this way before. Why do you ask?"

"I was just wondering how on earth you know where you're going."

He huffed a short laugh. "The trail is marked. Did you not notice?" Cloud pointed at something that seemed to be a dull red blob on a stone. "It's the red arrows."

"I didn't notice those at all," Zack admitted solemnly. "They don't exactly... pop out at you. What happens if we lose the trail?"

Cloud shrugged, with some difficulty given the size of his pack. "Backtrack until we find it? Or just take a guess and keep going in the right sort of direction."

"Huh. I guess you must have a pretty good sense of direction then, to get away with doing that."

Cloud turned to look Zack squarely in the eye. "My sense of direction is terrible."

"Ha, haha. Ha. Y'know, I should introduce you to Sephiroth sometime. I think you two would get along. You have the same sense of humour."

Cloud just looked puzzled by this statement (and mildly alarmed), so Zack elaborated.

"See, Seph's idea of humour is to say something ridiculous, like, completely out there, but he's totally serious while he says it so you can't even tell that's he's joking. And then he just stares at you with this amused little smirk while you flounder around trying to figure out if he's kidding or not. Which is kinda like what you just did. 'Cause you were joking, right?"

Cloud just smiled and carried on walking.

Zack had initially eyed their route with some trepidation, and after several hours felt his wariness had been justified. They didn't seem to be getting very far. Their pace was slow - though to be fair, Cloud was carrying a pack almost the same size as him, going uphill all the way. Zack had offered to take it for him several times, but had been shot down with a glare each time.

"I can carry my own burdens," Cloud had insisted.

He didn't complain and he didn't stop, even though Zack could see that Cloud was sweating and trembling. He just moved more slowly than usual.

After reaching what Cloud informed him was a thousand metres above sea level, even Zack's SOLDIER stamina was feeling the strain.

Along the way up the landscape had changed from forest to low bracken and jutting rock. It was just as well the sun was still out and glaring bright, otherwise the wind would have been uncomfortably chill. As they were though, pink with exertion, it was incredibly refreshing.

"Mountains," Zack groaned, flopping to the ground while Cloud tossed him a protein bar for lunch. "Why did you have to choose a mountain?"

Cloud dug out another protein bar for himself and tucked in ravenously. "You're forgetting where I come from," he answered dryly between bites. "Mountains are kind of a thing in Nibelheim."

"You people are crazy. Did you used to go hiking in the mountains there as well?"

Cloud nodded. "Pretty often, yeah. All the other kids in the village were... well, I didn't get along with them. So I liked to get away from them when I could."

"Kids? How old are we talking here?"

"Nine? Ten?" Cloud guessed, shrugging.

Zack sat up straighter, turning to stare at him. "Wait. You were wandering around the Nibel mountains when you were ten? By yourself?"

Cloud confirmed this.

No wonder he had seemed so bemused by Zack's insistence to follow him for safety reasons. This was a cakewalk comparatively.

Zack winced in retrospective concern. "Don't you guys have, like, dragons in those mountains? And Nibel wolves everywhere?"

"Yeah. I've met both. And stop giving me that look. I'm still alive, aren't I?"

"Sure. I'm just wondering how."

"Oh, come on, like you didn't do stupid shit when you were younger. When I encountered the dragon I just ran and hid anyway. I had to kill a couple of wolves though."

"Please tell me you were armed, at least."

"Of course, moron. I had..." Cloud paused to dig through the top of his pack. He came out with a small bushcraft knife, which he offered to Zack. "Not this one exactly, obviously. But I always take something similar whenever I go walking."

Zack stared for a very long time. "Cloud... you took down a Nibel wolf with a glorified kitchen knife. When you were ten. How the hell are you not in SOLDIER yet?"

Cloud had to turn away, hiding his blush and a too-wide smile at the emphatic compliment.

He ended lunch rather brusquely after that, but the conversation seemed to have opened the floodgates. It was a further hour up to the summit from where they had stopped, and Zack spent the majority of that time confirming that he had, in fact, also done dumb shit as a kid. A lot of dumb shit, most of which seemed to involve Touch Me frogs. Cloud even offered up a tale or two of his own when Zack paused for breath.

Despite his misgivings, Cloud found it was really rather nice to have someone to talk to. Zack made conversation flow easily, even with Cloud's lack of skill in the area. And when silence did fall in only felt natural, not awkward as he had feared.

Cloud let out a small breath of relief when the path evened out to a small plateau. A cairn just a little way south and slightly eastwards marked the summit, and beyond that the ridge dropped away again.

"Woah," Zack announced from behind him. The entire south of the continent lay stretched out in front of them in shades of green and grey. It was a pretty impressive sight. A whole lot nicer than the dead grunge of Midgar and the wastelands that made up the view to the north.

The mountain range was skirted by plains to the south, a wide river meandering through them. To the west lay thick patches of forest, cradled by a curved arm of hills. Beyond that they could just about see the glint of the ocean in the distance. And above the ocean... a huge, looming bank of black storm clouds, steadily being driven in their direction by an insistent wind.

"Shit," they both agreed in unison.

"So... how far have we got to go before we make camp?"

Cloud grimaced. "We don't want to be anywhere on this mountain when that hits."

It was a long way down.

"Shit," Zack repeated.

It was a long way down, and not the most enjoyable journey. Trying to move quickly down the rocky path took a lot of effort, and mostly resulted in a lot of slipping and skidding. Cloud had the advantage of being familiar with mountainous terrain, but also the disadvantage of carrying all his gear. In the end they were pretty evenly matched.

As much as they tried, the rain would not be outrun. It met them head-on, a thick heavy drizzle that didn't feel so terrible but soaked them through in minutes. Distant thunder heralded much worse to come.

Cloud gave up trying to reach the foot of the mountain. They were far enough down, and it wasn't nearly as steep on this side of the slope. There was enough flat ground for a tent. That was all he needed.

The tent made it up in record time, and they both bundled inside the second they could.

"Yeuch," Zack decided.

Cloud nodded in agreement, the movement shaking droplets of water of the ends of his hair. He had at least brought a waterproof for himself and the pack, and though he was still significantly damp, it was nothing compared to Zack, who was soaked to the bone.

"Here." Cloud located a travel towel somewhere in the depths of his pack and passed it over to Zack. "You need this more than me. And, uhm... I don't know if it would fit, but I've got a spare t-shirt if you want something dry to wear."

Zack accepted both. It took an awkward amount of flailing to get changed inside the tiny space, but they managed with only one arm (Zack's) to the face (Cloud's). The t-shirt Cloud had donated was one that was quite large on him and always hung loose and baggy when he wore it. On Zack it was close to being a tight fit, particularly across the shoulders. He had only brought one change of trousers - and those definitely wouldn't fit Zack - so Cloud had dibs on those, as well as a second spare shirt.

Zack shucked his combat trousers off and seemed content to sit around in his boxers. Those were damp as well and clung to him in a way that left very little to the imagination, and Cloud didn't know where to look. He quickly busied himself with sorting out dinner.

He had a portable stove with him, just a fold-out metal box really. Cloud opened up the front of the tent, propping the door up with a set of collapsible walking poles to make a small porch-like area. He sat cross-legged within the shelter of the tent proper, setting the stove up just outside in the tiny area of shelter.

Zack peered curiously over Cloud's shoulder as he mixed a dollop of petroleum jelly into a ball of cotton wool and fluffed the combination together. He dropped in into the stove box and set it alight with the first strike of a very worn fire steel.

"You've done this before," Zack commented. SOLDIERs were issued materia, and a Fire1 spell was his normal method of starting a fire. It was cute, sort of nostalgic to see it done the old fashioned way, and Cloud was impressively efficient at it.

"Pretty often, yeah." Cloud drew out a bag of wooden pieces, little fragments and offcuts. He started feeding them into the fire. "I figured we might need some decent dry fuel in case it decided to piss down with rain at some point," Cloud answered to Zack's unspoken question.

"No wonder you pack is so huge. Is there anything you don't have in there?"

Cloud shrugged. "I like to be prepared."

Dinner was soup, of the powdered just-add-water variety. Cloud heated it in a mess tin, alternating between stirring it and feeding the quick-burning little stove, all the while trying not to think about the SOLDIER shuffling around in the tent behind him. Zack was humming some tune or other that was lost under the echo of rain.

Cloud bit his lip. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy Zack's company. Ever since Modeoheim, Zack had seemed to be there, smiling, offering out a hand in friendship. And Gaia knew Cloud needed a friend. But just a friend. What he did not need was some stupid unrequited crush, and he could already tell that was exactly what he was going to end up with. Zack was so sweet and charismatic, not to mention... very attractive. Cloud knew where his interests lay. But it was stupid. Was he really that pathetically lonely that he'd start crushing on the first person who showed him any kindness?

No. It wasn't happening. Cloud wasn't going to let it happen. It was easy to forget out here, but Zack was still a SOLDIER and a superior officer. Cloud was going to be professional, damnit, and keep a respectful distance in their relationship. Friendly conversation was fine. Getting distracted by the sight of the man in just his underwear and a too-tight t-shirt was definitely, definitely not.

This was going to be a long week.

Cloud poured the first batch of soup into a thermos flask and passed it back to Zack. "Here. Hopefully it will help warm you up a bit too."

Zack seemed amused by this comment. "It takes more than a bit of rain to take down a SOLDIER. I'm not cold." He took the flask gratefully anyway. Cloud could see the goosebumps on his arms.

He set another packet of soup heating for himself while Zack slurped away.

"Delicious," Zack hummed happily.

Cloud snorted. "It's powdered soup. Not exactly a taste sensation."

"Maybe it's just one of those things. Y'know, like how food always tastes better when you have a hot meal on a cold, rainy day, or in the company of a friend," Zack grinned.

"You're so full of bullshit," Cloud commented, though not unkindly.

"...hey, Cloud."

"Mm?"

"We are friends, right?"

Cloud turned to find Zack's eyes on him, open and earnest, and that damn smile on his face that made Cloud's heart feel like it was breaking all over again.

"Yeah... yeah, we're friends."

[ Next Chapter ]

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