Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Rating: NC-17 overall; G this chapter
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 | 2 | Day 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |
The worst of the storm passed during the night, leaving only a fine mist of drizzle for the two campers to wake up to. Needless to say, none of their clothes had made any progress in drying. Everything was damp. Zack was left with the always enjoyable task of putting on wet trousers, though the disgusted face he made did cause Cloud to snigger on an otherwise dreary morning.
They set off downhill again with little preamble. The weather alternated between thick cloud cover and drizzling, and Zack mournfully announced that he missed Gongagan summer.
It was as they drew close to the bottom of the slope that Cloud saw a familiar and welcome sight. "Cloudberries," he exclaimed happily.
Cloud nodded, identifying a shrubby bush dotted with little red fruits. He picked a few ripe ones off and tasted them. "Yeah, definitely cloudberries. We have these in Nibelheim. Maybe they're called something different here?"
"Huh. All this time I thought you were named after the fluffy white things in the sky, but maybe you were actually named after a berry all along."
Cloud threw one of said berries at him.
Zack laughed and picked a couple for himself. "They're nice," he concluded.
"Glad you think so. This is breakfast."
The entire section of the trail was lined by a mixture of tall strawlike grass, nettles, and the cloudberry bushes. They ate as they walked along, just reaching out and plucking the berries as they went. In the end they managed a good couple of handfuls each.
Zack licked sticky berry juice off his fingers. "So, what other useful stuff do you have in Nibelheim that I've never heard of?"
Cloud didn't mind the invitation to talk about his hometown; about the mountains, the flora and fauna, the things that didn't always try to kill you. About how there were whole cave systems and mako fountains. In winter the entire place was buried under snow for three months solid.
He only talked about the area itself though, never about what it was like growing up there. A fact that Zack didn't miss. He figured it was kind of a sore subject, from Cloud's brief mention of not getting along with the other kids there, but he wanted to know.
"Did you ever have a girlfriend back in Nibelheim?" Zack asked casually.
Cloud snapped his mouth shut. "Yeah right," was his only answer. He didn't elaborate, so Zack nudged him.
"C'mon, really? There wasn't even anyone you fancied?"
"Nibelheim is a shitty town full of shitty people," Cloud deadpanned. "Except for my mom. And there was one girl about my age who was kind of cool, I guess, but she wanted nothing to do with me, so." Cloud shrugged. "End of story."
Zack hummed thoughtfully. "Well, there's not that many women around our way in ShinRa, but I reckon I could fix you up a date with one of the cute receptionists or something."
Cloud spluttered, and Zack had to laugh at the look of abject horror on his face. "Not interested," Cloud finally managed.
"Aw, c'mon. There must be someone you're interested in. Girl? Boy? You can tell me."
Cloud glowered. He did not want to talk about this. He decided to turn it around; let Zack be the one to talk about relationships and shit. He'd be better at it. "What about you then? I bet you must have someone."
It was only after asking the question that Cloud realised he wasn't sure that he wanted to know the answer. But so what if Zack was taken? It wasn't like Cloud had a crush on him, he'd already decided he didn't.
"Nope. Not at the moment," Zack admitted, not sounding displeased by this fact.
"How is that possible?" Cloud asked, honestly bewildered. "You could have anyone you wanted."
Zack laughed. "I don't want just anyone, though. I wanna find someone special. But... I do have my eye on someone."
Cloud felt himself deflate. "Oh."
They steered clear of matters of the heart after that. The path led them to cut across the plains, but what had looked like grassy fields turned out to be mostly bog. Very wet, expansive bog.
Cloud slipped and cursed as his boot vanished into the watery muck again. He sighed and apologised to Zack, who was in much the same situation, but Zack just shrugged. "Not like I could get any wetter at this point anyway," he noted mildly.
Cloud had soon caught up to Zack in terms of not being able to get any more wet. He didn't even bother trying to keep to the higher, solid ground anymore, opting to squelch grumpily along the shortest route possible. It was a fairly successful - if soggy - tactic, until Cloud found himself suddenly up to his thighs in the bog. Cloud groaned.
"Shit, Cloud! Stay still, I'll grab you."
"I'm fine, Zack." Cloud tested his range of movement, trying to lift one foot at a time. The bog really didn't want to let go.
Zack reached out a hand for Cloud, stepping forward to lean in and grab his wrist, only to have his leg vanish beneath him into the same deep patch of bog as well.
Cloud had to snigger at the absurdity of the situation. Zack had one leg stuck as deep as Cloud was, but the other leg was still up on higher ground, only just above ankle deep. It was quite the awkward position. Zack tried to push himself back up onto the shallow area, but only succeeded in pushing both feet deeper.
"Y'know," he said thoughtfully, "I think I remember seeing a documentary once. These people got trapped and sucked down into a bog, and they turned into really well-preserved mummies when they died."
Cloud closed his eyes. "Wonderful. The archaeologists can all laugh at our stupidity when they dig us up in a few hundred years."
"...you're not sinking, are you?"
"I don't think so."
Zack nodded. "Well, that's a good start."
Cloud just sighed. "I'm sorry. This whole hike was a dumb idea."
"Aww, don't say that. We just need to..." Zack trailed off, all concentration as he reached for a nearby tree, searching for some anchorage to pull himself out with. He crowed in triumph as his fingers closed firmly around a branch, only to have it snap straight off in his hand. Completely dead. "Damn."
It was the only plausible tactic they had, though. Both of them scrabbled for purchase on something solid. The trees around them were either dead and liable to break or too far away, but Cloud managed to grab a root just beneath the water and tangled marsh weed.
Climbing out was even more messing than falling in had been. Cloud was practically on his hands and knees, precariously crawling his way onto more solid ground. The only part of him that had survived without getting soaked, splashed, or otherwise muddy was his pack, safe up and out of the way on his back.
Cloud anchored an arm firmly around a tree (the trunk was solid enough for that, at least) and offered his hand to Zack, who was just behind him but not quite out yet. His boots pulled free with a reluctant squelch.
They each breathed twin sighs of relief, then burst into laughter.
Thankfully, it wasn't more than half an hour of plodding before they reached firmer ground, though even that was half an hour more than they would have liked. They'd turned south-east from the foot of the mountain and now finally met the river. The land seemed to be used for livestock grazing here - there were a few cows pottering about not too far off - and though it was spattered with patches of marsh weed it didn't seem to boggy.
Any kind of discernible trail had vanished in the marshes, but they didn't need on at this point. The goal was just to follow the river eastwards. They paused briefly for a late lunch, but otherwise pressed on, taking advantage of the easier going to make up for time lost in the bog.
The clouds cleared away into dappled sunlight, which went a long way towards drying them out, though their boots still squelched with every step and would for a while. The improvement in weather went a long way towards raising their spirits as well.
It also raised Cloud's inclination for conversation. During the course of the afternoon they learned all sorts of useless trivia. Who each other's favourite bands were, the worst movies they'd ever seen, what sort of books they liked. Zack was horrified to discover that there were no fast food chain restaurants in Nibelheim... though he confessed there weren't any in Gongaga either when Cloud questioned him further. At least they had had greasy, deep-fried chicken though, a statement which promptly led on to further animated discussion on their favourite foods, and what they would kill to eat right then.
They very effectively made themselves hungry, and Cloud decided they'd gone far enough to make camp.
Being a pleasant evening, Zack insisted on making his own shelter again, even though Cloud offered him a space in the tent. This time Zack spent an age painstaking building a tipi-like structure around a tree. Cloud got the distinct feeling that Zack just like playing around at building things with sticks. It was sort of adorable.
While Zack was occupied, Cloud collected as much dry wood as he could find and had soon built them a roaring campfire. He hung up the spare and still-damp clothes nearby for drying purposes and set about preparing to MREs for their dinner. He offered a mess tin of meatballs and marinara sauce to Zack as soon as he was finished with his shelter.
"Mm. ShinRa field rations," Zack said, plonking down beside Cloud and the fire. "Haven't had these in a while."
"Really? We always get this stuff on missions. You guys get something else?"
"Once you get promoted to SOLDER, ShinRa'll usually pay for you to stay in an inn and eat there for longer missions."
"Damn. SOLDIERs get spoiled rotten."
Zack laughed. "You should see some of the stuff Seph gets. But he actually prefers these MREs and things to all the fancy shit. Funny how it works like that."
Cloud had indulged in one luxury for his trip though. Zack grinned from ear to ear when Cloud brought out the marshmellows.
"What, you didn't expect me to have a campfire without marshmellows to toast, did you?"
"I like the way you think, Cloudy."
They stuffed themselves with toasted sugary goodness until they couldn't eat any more, then flopped down onto the ground beside the fire. Darkness had finally fallen, and the cloudless night offered them a brilliant view of the stars.
"It's so clear out here," Cloud breathed. "Like being back at home."
"Yeah... you don't see many stars in Midgar."
Cloud smiled wryly. "Sometimes I look up at the sky when I'm stuck on night guard duty and I think I see a star, but it's usually just a helicopter."
Zack chuckled. He raised an arm up, tracing a picture out of the patterns in the sky.
"Do you know the constellations?" Cloud asked.
"Not really," Zack admitted. He pointed to where he had been drawing. "That looks like an upside-down frying pan though."
"How about you?" Zack returned. "Do you know any of them?"
"No. Upside-down frying pan is about my level of astronomy." Cloud paused to stare at the sky a little more. "Are we talking about the small flat frying pan, or the bigger one over there that's more of a saucepan?"
"It's next to the big triangle."
"I see, like, twenty triangles."
"To the left of the rhombus," Zack tried.
"Oh, I got it. Next to the cuboid pac-man, right?"
Zack hummed thoughtfully, though he was having trouble keeping a straight face. "I dunno. But that - see that, right there? That is definitely a great big dick in the sky."
Cloud cracked up."We must be the worst stargazers ever," he managed to get out between fits of giggling.
Zack just smiled at him. Cloud was so damn cute when he laughed. "We probably are," he agreed, then yawned. "I should probably hit the sack, though, before I start seeing constellations of raging tentacle monsters or something."
Cloud snorted. "Yeah, that would be terrible."
Neither of them actually made any move to get up, though. They slipped into silence, listening to the crackling of the campfire, watching the embers drift lazily upwards as if trying to join the stars.
"I'm really glad you decided to come along after all." Cloud kind of regretted the words as soon as he said them, because, wow, shit, that sounded so dumb and sappy. But then Zack took Cloud's hand and all his thoughts juddered to a halt.
"Me too," Zack said. And Cloud didn't know what to do, because Zack was holding his hand, and wasn't that a romantic sort of gesture? It felt like it, especially given that it was just the two of them, lying together under the stars.
But Cloud couldn't bring himself to draw his hand away, and they stayed like that until Zack finally said goodnight and retreated to his shelter. He brushed his thumb over Cloud's knuckles as he released his hand.
Cloud lifted his hand to his mouth, lips grazing where Zack had touched. Shit. So much for not developing a crush. All it took was one stupid little gesture and Cloud was smitten.
He sat up and went through the motions of stocking up the fire with enough wood to last through the night. Just carry on as normal. He didn't even know what Zack was thinking, and it was stupid to let what was probably just a friendly touch get to him like that. He did not have a crush. He did not have a crush, and if he did, he sure as hell wasn't going to acknowledge it.
Cloud crawled into his tent and settled down to sleep, repeating it like a mantra as he lay awake.
He did not have a crush on Zack Fair.
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