Oh well, I'll just toss it out and see what you guys think of it. I may end up rewriting the whole thing, but at the moment, I'm too tired to struggle with it anymore. -_-;;;
Title: Contagion 3/?
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (Feral-verse)
Pairing/Characters: OT4 (Aeris/Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth); Cid/Vincent; Rufus/Turks
Warnings: hints of future (and past) foursomes, m/m, xeno-sex
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: A new and dangerous type of super-predator begins to prowl the Planet as a dark secret about the true Cetra reawakens.
Cross-posted to ffvii_yaoi and acyaoi, eventually.
A/N: If readers are interested in more details on the setup and plot of the Feral-verse, check out the discussion of this particular OT4-plotbunny.
CREDITS: This particular batch of OT4 plot-critters was mainly fed and inspired by:
-- icedark_elf, especially her fics "Confused" and "Ravens";
-- forgottenlover and her fic "Plans of the Dead", which gave me the perfect jumping-off point;
-- mimi_sardinia for her great ideas about Cetra viruses;
-- Princess Artemis and her Cid-centric fics "Venus Gospel" and "The Thief of Hell";
-- ciceqi's "Anthroverse", "Mascotverse" stories, and her lovely Cid/Vincent xeno-fic Wanting";
-- ladynero's Crack!Fic series, especially the stuff about O4 symbolic tattoos and suggestion what could have happened to Aeris' body;
and many others. So many thanks, guys! ^_^
[ Nibelheim ]
"You got better!?" Cloud stared incredulously up at the man sitting on top of him and sputtered, "Dying isn't like catching the common cold, Zack! Death isn't exactly something people just recover from!"
"I guess you have a point," Zack said, looking thoughtful. Then with a slightly woeful expression, he added, "Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Of course I'm glad to see you! Have you got any idea how much I...!? But that's not the point! What the hell are you doing here? Why aren't you with Aeris in the Lifestream!?"
Zack winced guiltily.
"What? What!?" Cloud demanded, instantly looking suspicious.
"It's just that she and.... I mean, Aeris is probably a bit spazzed out at this moment."
"Spazzed out? What did you do, Zack?"
The other man gave him a sheepish grin. "Well, I think I gave her a pretty bad scare when I unexpectedly got jerked out of the Lifestream. I freaked out slightly."
"You freaked out slightly," Cloud repeated carefully. "You, of all people, actually -freaked- out?"
"Uh... yeah. It was a wee bit traumatic and all that. But I'm fine now," he said with blithe assurance.
"Fine? Zack, if you haven't noticed, you're a -werewolf-."
"Not exactly. 'Shapeshifter' would probably be a more accurate term."
Cloud rolled his eyes, and muttered, "Whatever. Turning into a wolf or some other creatures can hardly be considered normal!"
Zack cocked his head slightly and raised an admonishing finger. "Ah-ah-ah. I said I was fine. I never said anything about being normal."
"Ri-iiight." Cloud sighed in exasperation. "For a second, I almost forgot who I was talking to."
Zack planted his hands on the ground beside Cloud's head and leaned over him until their faces were only a few inches apart.
"Do you want me to remind you?" he said softly, with just a hint of a provocative growl in his voice.
Startled, Cloud inhaled sharply, then froze.
Zack's scent, so achingly familiar, had changed. Not so much in nature, but in depth. It was somehow richer, with nuances and undertones that Cloud had never noticed before, even with the hyper-sensitive senses he received from Hojo's experiments. So while the essence of Zack's smell remained the same, distinct and unmistakable, comparing the scents of past and present was like comparing canned grape juice and fine red wine....
....wine? When did he ever learn anything about wine and wine-tasting?
....the aroma of wine, mingled with flowers....
....a field of flowers and a pool of sunshine, inside an old weathered building where neither should be....
....slender fingers dripping with some outrageously expensive, prize-winning vintage that Zack had somehow 'liberated', better not to ask how... those damp fingers lightly running over his lips... soft curly brown hair tickling his nose as he dreamily licked the wine from those fingers and gazed up into laughing green eyes....
His eyes wide, Cloud breathed a single word.
The flare of joy in Zack's eyes, was all the answer Cloud needed.
How could he have possibly forgotten Aeris? Forgotten the faint fragrance of flowers, the aroma of green growing things that always surrounded her? How could he talked to her, travelled with her, fought beside her, and even buried her, all without remembering HER?
But staring up into Zack's face, he could see no hint of blame or censure for that lack of recognition. Instead, there was only warmth and tenderness, love and understanding. Whatever had happened, whatever he had forgotten, it was -okay-.
But it wasn't okay, because some vital element still missing. Because in that same fragment of memory, there had been a warm weight on his stomach and his hands had been full of long, fine silken hair. And it definitely couldn't be Zack, because Zack had shorter hair and had been standing over -there-, chortling like a silly ass with wine bottle in one hand and video camera in the other.
So whose head had he been stroking? Who had been making that contented purr that he felt rather than heard?
....a strong, sword-callused hand capturing his own, their fingers twining... a tongue delicately lapping at the palm of his hand, tasting his skin... Zack did that, too... he tried it himself but never tasted anything special....
....and there was a voice... a voice beckoning Zack to stop being an idiot and join the rest of them....
But the name associated with that voice wouldn't come to Cloud, and the harder he tried, the more his screwed-up mind shied away from it. When he refused to give up, things inside his head started to hurt.
Watching him, the joy in Zack's eyes dimmed slightly, his smile turning wistful, yet understanding.
"Don't push yourself. Not before you're ready," Zack murmured softly.
A startled gasp and the scuff of booted feet shifting uneasily on stone served as a jarring reminder that Cloud and Zack had an audience. It reminded Cloud, anyway. Zack probably had been perfectly aware of the others' presence all along, but simply hadn't cared. The two men both turned their heads to stare at a wide-eyed Tifa, a bemused-looking Cait Sith standing behind her.
To Cait Sith, Cloud looked too dazed to say much of anything. That was no surprise, given what the little robot had just overheard with his electronically enhanced hearing. Cloud was starting to reclaim yet another chunk of his fragmented past.
But what really fascinated Cait was how quickly Cloud had shed his usually taciturn demeanor in Zack's presence. He had always pictured Cloud as the withdrawn loner type even before the disastrous Nibelheim mission, but in Zack's presence, he could see the flashes of a much more lively, spirited, and vibrant personality. After all this time, it appeared that he was finally getting a glimpse of the real Cloud, the one that had existed before Nibelheim, the young man who had loved Aeris, Zack, and Sephiroth, and been deeply loved in return.
With a wry grin, Zack said, "Tifa, you really know how to interrupt a cozy reunion, don't you?"
The other three twitched involuntarily at the word 'reunion'.
Zack sat up and hastily held up his hands and said, "Hey, calm down, Spike! That's 'reunion' with a small 'r', thank you. You know, a gathering of relatives, friends, or associates after a separation? No weird-ass Jenova shit involved, I swear!"
He then grinned down at Cloud and said, "Now I could start making comparisons to a certain notoriously skittish chocobo of our mutual acquaintance, but since I'm a nice guy...."
"Too late. You already did," Cloud muttered, gradually relaxing.
Turning to look at Tifa and Cait, Zack suggested in amiable tones, "How about you guys do us a favor and take a hike up a mountain or something?"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Tifa said curtly, her body tense and her eyes wary.
Zack's grin widened, exposing gleaming white teeth that were a little too sharp to be entirely human. She responded by shifting into a combat-ready stance.
"You're awfully jumpy, aren't you?" Zack commented, amusement evident in his voice.
"Well, sorry for being suspicious, but I think we've got good reason."
"Really? Like what?"
"How about two dead people in Mideel?" she retorted.
"What about them? And if you want to be nitpicky about fatalities, better make it three," Zack casually corrected her.
"Three?" Tifa said, frowning.
"Three dead bodies. Two in Mideel. One in Rocket Town."
"So you're admitting that you've murdered three innocent people!?" Tifa sounded a bit shocked by Zack's complete lack of guilt or remorse.
He snorted in mild exasperation. "No. I admit to killing three people. -You're- the one jumping to the conclusion that they were innocent." He glanced at Cait Sith. "Check their employment histories. And before you say that they were humble, hard-working sanitation engineers, dig deeper."
He glanced down at Cloud, who was frowning up at him, and asked, "You didn't recognize them?"
"No. The pictures I saw didn't show their faces, only the marks you left on the bodies," Cloud said slowly, his brow furrowing.
"Ah, now I see," Zack murmured. "Well, that certainly explains a lot about...."
Cait interrupted to say, "You were right about the fake employment records. They actually worked here at Nibelheim for several years. In the experimental labs," his high-pitched voice decidedly somber.
"Exactly. Hojo's people," Zack purred, his smile developing a decidedly dangerous edge. He reached out and gently ran the back of his fingers along Cloud's cheek.
"They hurt you. A lot. For fun."
Considering the ugly, sordid implications in those simple words, Zack sounded surprisingly calm about the whole thing... until one noticed the not-so-subtle snarling undertone in his voice.
Cloud looked just a little confused, as if it never crossed his mind that those men had died for hurting -him-.
Zack obviously noticed because he reached down and playfully ruffled Cloud's hair, eliciting a distinct sputter of protest.
"You know, we've really got to work some more on that self-image of yours, Spike."
Tifa remained silent as Cait asked, "The one in Rocket Town is the same?"
"They're the first. They won't be the last." And Zack grinned wickedly, white teeth gleaming, as he said that.
"So, is that why you came back? For revenge against the people who hurt Cloud?" Tifa said, sounding almost relieved. And while she didn't go as far as express outright approval of Zack's actions, her expression was somewhat sympathetic.
"Actually, no. Although the chance for revenge is a nice side-perk. I'm here because of Jenova."
"What!?" three voices chorused.
"The space bitch's still alive and up to her old tricks."
"I thought that the water from Aeris' church...," Tifa began.
"Oh, it purged the Jenova cells responsible for causing the Geostigma, all right, but only in the area where the rain fell, which is basically around Midgar. And only in normal humans." He glanced down at Cloud and smiled, a little apologetically. "Yeah, the Jenova cells are still inside you, me, and the other SOLDIERs. Aeris tried, but they're just too deeply embedded in our cellular structure to be removed that way."
"The difference between accidental and deliberate exposure?" Cait said shrewdly.
Zack nodded. "That's right."
"But the water cured my Geostigma," Cloud protested.
"Aeris's explanation was a bit complicated, but I think that the water healed you because it partially suppressed the Jenova cells and makes 'em behave better. Basically, Aeris's little rainshower made the Jenova cells more compatible with our bodies. Don't ask me how she did it, though."
"But what about Kadaj and the other Clones? The water actually seemed to hurt them," Cloud asked, now looking even more puzzled.
"Aeris thinks that their bodies were inherently more sensitive and unstable because they didn't grow up naturally, but were instead forced into physical maturity. When the Lifestream-infused water affected the Jenova cells in their bodies, they reacted badly," Zack replied with a shrug.
"So Aeris's water pretty much cleared out any traces of Jenova from the area around Midgar and Edge, but you're saying that there are still active pockets and pieces of Jenova elsewhere," Cait Sith muttered.
"Yup, scattered here and there around the Planet. And as long as the space bitch is around and kicking, she's a threat." Zack laid a hand on Cloud's chest in a gesture that was unmistakably both protective and possessive. "So, one way or another, Jenova's got to go."
Cait certainly had to admire and respect Zack's combination of confidence and absolute determination. This was a man who, when faced with a problem, was prepared to do whatever it took to solve that problem. That trait made Zack the very best of friends, as Cloud would surely attest to.
It would also make Zack the most dangerous of opponents, if one happened to get in his way.
Tifa frowned and said, "You make it sound so easy. What do you think people have been trying to do over the last two years!?"
Zack chuckled. "That's because you guys are going after Jenova the wrong way. Killing off the occasional pocket of Jenova spawn is all well and good, but you're just dealing with the symptoms, not the disease. We've got to attack the real source of the problem, and that requires something special. Or rather, some-ONE special."
"Aeris, of course," Zack casually replied.
Cloud partially sat up, propping himself up on his elbows.
"Zack, you're not suggesting that...."
"She's the only one who has the right combination of power and abilities to truly harm Jenova. And Jenova knows it. Why do you think she goaded Sephiroth into killing her?"
"Is it because she's the last of the Cetra?" Tifa asked curiously.
"Something like that. Unfortunately, there's only so much she can do from the Lifestream. Right now, she can only manifest her power in a very limited way and in very limited places. That's not good enough to exterminate Jenova."
"But... she's dead!" Cloud pointed out rather sharply.
Zack grinned cheerfully. "So was I, but here I am. All we need to do is retrieve Aeris's body, then we can bring her back," he said in the same casual tone one might use to order takeout food.
"Bring her back? But Aeris is DEAD!" Cloud repeated stubbornly, his expression disbelieving, bordering on angry, as if he was afraid to even contemplate the possibility.
Zack lightly tapped him on the nose, just as if he was trying to get the attention of a stubborn chocobo chick.
"Hel-lo, Spike. I died. I mean, in a clinical sense. And my spirit toddled off to the Lifestream and remained intact, right?"
Cloud nodded slowly. "Uh-huh."
"Now I'm back and alive. How's that for proof of concept? And I guarantee that I'm not an undead specter here to steal your lifeforce, soul, or whatnot." Zack grabbed Cloud's right hand and pressed it against his own chest. "Do I feel like a ghost?"
"But...." Cloud now looked deeply torn between wary skepticism and hope, then silently mouthed a single word.
"No, I'm the original me, not a clone, although I can't prove it." Zack cocked his head slightly. "Would it make a difference to you if I was a clone?"
Cloud slowly shook his head.
No, it wouldn't make any difference if the Zack sitting on him was physically a clone or not, because he knew that the most important part of Zack -- and the only part that really mattered -- was here, talking to him, just as he had known that the Sephiroth he had confronted a month ago amid the ruins of Midgar had been the real Sephiroth.
Zack was up to something, although exactly what, Cloud wasn't entirely sure. His plan for bringing Aeris back to help fight Jenova made plenty of sense. But there were also things Zack was not telling them, and that worried him.
His memory might have more holes than a sieve, but Cloud knew one thing for certain about Zack -- if Zack felt that something had to be done, he could be absolutely ruthless about it. Zack would allow nothing -- and that meant -nothing-, not his own feelings or the feelings of even those closest to him -- to stand in his way.
On the other hand, the temptation to go along with Zack's plan was almost overwhelming. Even ignoring the whole issue of Jenova, Cloud desperately wanted the chance to see Aeris again, to have her back, alive and whole, especially now that he was starting to remember the truth of what she really meant to him. He wanted to not only to see her, but to hold her in his arms and tell her just how sorry he was for forgetting her.
He had never dreamed of the possibility of Aeris's return, of having the chance to see one of his greatest failures undone. Even if he had dared to entertain such a possibility, it would have been nothing more than the hopeless fantasy of a guilty mind.
But with Zack sitting here... to feel not only the warmth of a living body, but to see his spirit gleaming in those violet eyes... Aeris's return was no longer a mere fantasy or even a decent possibility, but almost a near-certainty, given Zack's drive and determination.
Almost as if he could read Cloud's mind -- or because his hunger to see Aeris was too clearly evident in his eyes -- Zack said softly, "We need her."
Cloud knew that Zack was not talking about Aeris's help against Jenova or anything else. He was referring to an entirely different and strictly personal need.
"So you're planning to retrieve Aeris's body from the Forgotten City?" Either by intent or accident, Tifa's voice was just a bit louder than necessary.
However, Zack didn't appreciate this second interruption, although Cloud doubted that either Tifa or Cait noticed. But lying under Zack, he clearly saw the warning signs. He could feel the dangerous tension in Zack's muscles against his own, as well as see the way the violet gaze hardened and narrowed as Zack gave Tifa a steady sideways stare without turning his head, almost as if he was sizing up possible prey.
Without thinking, Cloud lightly placed his hand on Zack's right thigh, out of Tifa's and Cait's sight, in a silent plead for patience and forbearance.
Zack immediately relaxed, sat up and said in his usual amiable way, "That's right. I'm headed up there next. But I needed to talk to Cloud first before I did anything else."
"Why?" Tifa asked, apparently quite unaware of her narrow escape.
Cloud wondered at Zack's uncharacteristic hostility toward Tifa. No, it was more annoyance than outright hostility. Not that it would make a difference if it came down to actual combat. Tifa was damn good. She might have been able put up a good fight with the Zack of the past, Shinra's SOLDIER First Class, but Cloud instinctively knew that she didn't stand a chance against Zack now.
This Zack made Loz seem like a slowpoke, and Cloud was almost certain that he would hit harder. Much harder. And if Zack really went after Tifa, Cloud had the unsettling feeling that even -he- wouldn't be able to stop him.
But while that thought made him worry about Tifa's safety, Cloud wasn't at all worried about his own. Even now, with all the changes he sensed in Zack, something inside Cloud insisted that Zack would not harm him. Even Zack's unusual possessiveness didn't bother him. To be honest, he found it strangely... satisfying.
"Well, since we're talking about Aeris, naturally Cloud should be involved," Zack said reasonably. "He loves her, too."
Cloud watched as Tifa lifted her chin, almost defiantly, as if Zack's use of the present tense was somehow a personal challenge. Perhaps it was, a clear reminder of what the three of them had meant to each other, and the fact that Tifa had no place in that relationship.
Time, trauma, and tragedy had done nothing to weaken Cloud's feelings. If anything, they had grown even stronger. And now that he was starting to recover those precious memories of happier times, the inexplicable intensity of his emotions -- the pain, grief, sorrow that had threatened to drown and bury him -- finally made perfect sense.
"You, Aeris, and Cloud. And who's the fourth?" Tifa said bluntly.
Their fourth. As beloved as Zack and Aeris, Cloud was certain of it. So why couldn't he remember... him?
Zack merely grinned at Tifa, and the smug look on his face sent alarm flags waving in the back of Cloud's mind. A smug Zack usually meant trouble for -someone-, and more often than not, that person had been Cloud....
....Zack, hurry up and lay your cards on the table... I finally manage to get the others to fold and I end up bluffed by two pairs, damn it... why do I always let you talk me into playing poker, and strip poker at that?... between the two of you with your SOLDIER senses and Aeris's knack for 'reading' people, a normal guy really doesn't stand a chance of keeping a single stitch of clothing on... okay, Zack, let me take my damn briefs off and no, I don't need your help... just you wait until I get into SOLDIER myself, payback is going to be so sweet... uh, guys, you're supposed to keep playing until someone wins, not gang up on the first loser... Aeris, don't grab that...!
Oh hell. With his pale skin, Cloud knew that there was no hiding his furious blush at the memory of Aeris's long hair brushing against his groin as she went down and put her warm soft mouth on him....
"Nothing!" he blurted hastily.
It was a futile denial, of course. A slow, lazy, -knowing- grin appeared on Zack's face.
Looking that sexy ought to be illegal. And once his brain started down that decidedly dangerous path, Cloud became acutely aware of the warmth of Zack's leather-clad thighs straddling his body and the tantalizing weight of firm, muscular buttocks just above his groin.
But those sensations were abruptly replaced by others from the past, ones just as pleasant and arousing....
....elegant, sword-callused hands grasping his waist, pulling him back against a strong, muscled chest... those same hands sliding downward, effortlessly lifting and parting his legs, opening him for Zack... long silky hair falling over his face, tenderly blindfolding him in silv....
....and once again, the name of the one who had held him so gently, so lovingly, hovered tantalizingly out of reach.
He must have made an unconscious sound of frustration because the next thing he knew, Zack was holding his face between his hands, thumbs soothingly stroking his cheekbones.
"Easy there. Don't try to force yourself to remember. Take your time. He won't mind. Listen to what your heart is trying to tell you, and trust your instincts. They'll tell you everything you need to know."
Cloud uttered a short harsh laugh that unexpectedly bitter, even to his own ears.
Trust his instincts and his heart? In regard to Aeris and Zack, he definitely did. But other than that, his instincts were pretty much a damn travesty. Even now, after all the pain and suffering Sephiroth had put him through -- to say nothing of what happened to Aeris and Zack -- a part of him remained hopelessly obsessed with Sephiroth, drawn to Jenova's puppet just like some mindless moth to a flame. And how could he believe what his heart told him when it kept torturing him with vague, deluded fantasies of impossible things in the darkest, quietest times of the night?
He hissed furiously at Zack, "You've -got- to be kidding me! Look where listening to my feelings got me! I let Sephiroth manipulate and use me, just because...!" Cloud bit his lip and looked away.
Zack winced in clear dismay, then uttered a quiet sigh. "Oh hell, what a bloody mess," he murmured, raking a hand through his dark spiky hair. Finally, he said, "Cloud, look at me."
When he reluctantly complied, Zack continued in the same quiet, somber voice, "You say that, but you still trust what your instincts are telling you about me?"
"That's totally different! You -saved- me, Zack. You're the only reason that I'm still here, the only reason I survived Nibelheim. If you hadn't been there for me...."
"But I'm not exactly the same person I was back then." Zack held up his hand, transformed it into a furred paw, then back again.
"Don't you think I know that by now? Yes, you've changed. The way you move, even the way you smell.... But the most important part of you hasn't changed. You're still Zack." And he couldn't help smiling a bit when he said that.
He might have said more, but stopped when his phone rang. He automatically reached for it, but Zack put his hand lightly over his. Just as Cloud had silently asked for Zack to hold back moments before, Zack was now asking for the same. And just like Zack, Cloud complied with the unspoken request, making no attempt to answer and allowing his phone to continue ringing. Unless the world was in imminent danger of coming to an end, this conversation with Zack was more important.
As the phone went quiet, Cloud said, "Zack, I...."
The phone went off, again. Obviously, voicemail was not cutting it for this caller. Hell, maybe the world -was- coming to an end.
Zack had evidently come to a similar conclusion, because he rolled his eyes in mild exasperation. Before Cloud could stop him, Zack whipped the phone right out from under Cloud's fingers, and flipped it open.
"Why, hello, Mrs. Gainsborough. It's been a long time, hadn't it? Well, you can't believe everything you hear. Nope. Uh-uh. A message for Cloud? Can't it wait? He's a bit busy at the moment." Zack winced and hastily pulled his head away from the phone, allowing everyone to hear a shrill and panicky girl's voice replacing Elmyra's more mature voice.
"Whoa, Marlene's certainly got a pair of lungs on her, doesn't she?" Zack said, glancing ruefully at Cloud. But before Cloud or any of the others could make sense of Marlene's frantic babble, Zack interrupted with, "Oops, sorry, gotta go! See ya around, Marlene!"
Zack snapped the phone shut and looked down at Cloud, who had again propped himself up on his elbows.
"I understand what you're trying to say, Spike, but...."
This time it was Tifa's phone that rang.
"Well, that girl's certainly persistent. And rather resourceful, too," Zack muttered.
As Tifa started to reach for her own PHS, Zack suddenly tossed Cloud's phone in her direction. Thrown hard and fast, the device whizzed right by Tifa's ear. She instinctively dodged, nearly stepped on Cait Sith in the process.
The near-miss was clearly no accident, because in that brief instant of distraction, a shimmering green curtain of energy encircled Zack and Cloud.
Zack didn't try to stop Cloud from scrambling to his feet, and even gave him a hand up, which Cloud automatically accepted. He gave Zack a confused stare before demanding, "What's going on!?"
"I'm really sorry about this, Spike...."
Cloud instantly recognized that apologetic 'this is really for your own good' look. The last time he had seen it on Zack's face, he had been thrown off a towering cliff into a river.
"Oh no. Now wait a second...!"
But before Cloud could back away, Zack lunged forward in a blur of motion, grabbed hold of Cloud's head with both hands and kissed him fiercely. Caught totally off-guard, Cloud tried to utter a protest, then completely forgot what he was going to say as Zack's tongue slipped into his mouth.
Just like his scent, Zack's taste was both familiar and different. Cloud was vaguely aware of Zack's hands relaxing their grip, but any thought of resistance vanished as he lost himself in the newly discovered complexity of flavor, texture, and warmth that was Zack's mouth. It was absolute bliss....
....until he felt the sharp little sting of unnaturally sharp teeth -- fangs? -- slicing into his tongue. Cloud then tasted blood, and the sublime, intoxicating richness of it made his head spin.
Even as he staggered and jerked his head away, Zack leaned back, licking the bright red blood from his own lips.
"Zack... what the fuck... did you just do!?" Cloud demanded, more startled than angry.
"I'm sorry," Zack repeated earnestly, placing his hands on Cloud's shoulders to steady him. "I know that I'm asking a lot, but please trust me when I tell you that this needs to happen. The Change is the only way I can think of to protect you guys from Jenova."
"The Change? What change? Protect us? What...?"
Zack's grip on Cloud's shoulders tightened perceptibly and when he next spoke, his voice had a ferocious intensity that Cloud had only heard twice before.
"Cloud, I know this is confusing as hell. But no matter what happens, I want you to remember this -- I am going to do whatever it takes to protect you, Aeris, and him. Even if you all hate me for it."
Still a little dizzy, Cloud placed his own hands over Zack's as they rested on his shoulders, then gave him a crooked little smile that was both wry and oddly resigned.
"If I can't manage to hate Sephiroth for all he's done, I don't think you're going to have much to worry about."
For an instant, Zack looked little startled, then slowly started to chuckle. His hands gently cradling Cloud's neck, Zack pulled him close until their foreheads touched.
"That's... really... good to know. A bit scary, actually, but good to know. Hopefully things won't turn out quite -that- bad."
Cloud reached out and clutched a handful of Zack's tanktop.
"Zack. Who was he? Why can I remember you and Aeris, but not him? I can remember how I felt about him, but not -him-. Not his face, not his name, nothing!" Cloud's voice shook slightly.
"It's because you're not ready," came the gentle reply.
"And will I ever be ready?"
"Yes, you will. And sooner than you think. So hang in there, huh?" And with those words, Zack stepped away, leaving Cloud feeling oddly -- or perhaps not so oddly -- bereft.
His uneasiness must have shown, because Zack chuckled and added, "Hey, don't worry. I'm not going to vanish on you. Forgotten City, remember? You just concentrate on taking care of yourself. It'll all start making sense soon enough." He grinned slyly. "Oh, and don't worry about any unwanted people or things poking around Nibelheim any more. I took care of that."
And with a casual wave of Zack's hand, the green barrier surrounded them evaporated.
When the shimmering green wall materialized around Zack and Cloud, Tifa tossed her still ringing phone to Cait, then concentrated her attention on the mysterious barrier. However, none of her magical or physical efforts had any effect. It hung in front of them, almost tauntingly, a nearly opaque curtain which made it impossible to see what was happening to Cloud behind it.
In the meantime, Cait was answering Tifa's phone and receiving quite an earful.
"Hello? Marlene? What? A warning? Hold it! Hold it! Calm down, I can't understand what you're trying to say! Trust me, I'm not going to hang up on you. Take a few breaths. Yes, that's it. Good girl. Okay, now tell me what's going on." The robot cat listened intently. "You had a dream? From who? Aeris!?"
Tifa turned sharply at the sound of Aeris's name.
"A warning for Cloud. Some sort of danger involving Zack." Cait and Tifa exchanged deeply alarmed looks. "Oh, something's -wrong- with Zack, and Cloud needs to know about it." The cat massaged his forehead in very Reeve-like manner. "Do you know exactly what supposed to be wrong with Zack? Not himself? No, no. It's not your fault, Marlene. Dreams can be very vague and confusing. Yes, I promise I'll let Cloud know as soon as I can. You did just fine, Marlene. Can I talk to Mrs. Gainsborough now? Thank you. Mrs. Gainborough? No, no! Don't tell her that Zack's already here! There's no need for her to know that. Yes, he's supposed to be dead. Look, we'll get back to you later. Things are rather complicated here at the moment. Good-bye."
Tifa stared at the phone in Cait Sith's paws, then at the green barrier that hung before them. Without warning, she slammed her right fist against the ground, leaving a gaping crater in the heavy stone paving slabs.
"I should've known something was screwy with this whole setup!" she snapped "'I got better', my ass! It was a trap all along and I let Cloud walk right into it!"
"We don't know that for certain, Tifa."
She glared at the cat. "You heard what Marlene said."
"Yes, she said that Aeris believes something is wrong with Zack. That doesn't necesarily mean that Zack intends to harm Cloud."
"Do you think Aeris would go through all this trouble to warn Cloud if he wasn't in danger? We don't even have any real proof that guy really is Zack! For all we know, he could be a shapeshifter mimicking Zack's appearance for god knows what reason."
"Cloud certainly seems convinced that it's really him."
"Yes, but Cloud... you know how he feels about Zack, Cait. Maybe he's just so desperate to believe that Zack is alive again, he's just... I don't know, deluding himself."
"Maybe, but try to give him a little more credit, okay? Cloud isn't stupidly gullible, Tifa. He knows what it's like to be manipulated, and he absolutely hates it. So I seriously doubt that he'd accept that guy as Zack on physical appearance alone."
She exhaled slowly. "You're probably right. It's just that... I don't know. I've never seen Cloud act like this with anyone, not even as a kid growing up here in Nibelheim."
"You mean you've never seen him so open and honest about his feelings."
Tifa looked uncomfortable. "Cloud's always trying so hard to keep everyone at a distance, to stay uninvolved. Then Zack shows up and it's like those emotional walls don't even exist, at least where Zack's concerned."
Cait rocked back and forth on his heels, but said nothing.
"The three... no, four of them were a lot more than just 'good friends', right?"
"....probably," Cait finally replied.
"That explains a lot."
"Yes, it does."
"With all the horrible things he's been through, I can understand why Cloud might not remember them." She turned sharply toward Cait. "But why didn't Aeris remind him? Why did she let Cloud believe that he and she were strangers who had only just met?"
"Maybe she was afraid to," the cat said in a sad voice. "Maybe silence was the only way she could think of to protect him."
"And now he's remembering."
"If you're right, and that really is Zack.... If he tries to hurt Cloud, do you think that Cloud would do anything to stop him?"
Cait made a noncommital noise.
"I was afraid of that."
Before Cait Sith could reply, the barrier vanished, revealing Zack and Cloud, now both standing. Without so much as a glance in their direction, Zack shifted from human into wolf-form. A single effortless leap took him to the roof of the Shinra Mansion. He paused there for a moment, looking down at Cloud, then uttered a wistful whine, even as a pair of great dark-feathered wings sprouted from furred shoulders.
One sweep of those powerful wings and the wolf was airborne, soaring gracefully toward the craggiest peaks of the Nibel mountain range. The choice of direction was certainly deliberate -- the rocky terrain made any sort of ground pursuit impossible. However, Cloud didn't even try. Instead, he simply stood and watched Zack disappear into the mist-shrouded mountains.
"Are you all right?" Tifa demanded worriedly, grasping Cloud's arm and looking him over for obvious injuries. Seeing the blood seeping from a corner of Cloud's mouth, she gasped, "What did he do to you!?"
"Zack bit me," Cloud murmured. He wiped the blood away with the back of a gloved hand, then stared down at the small reddish smear on the black leather.
"Bit you? On the mouth? How?"
"When he kissed me."
"You let him kiss you!?" Tifa exclaimed.
Cloud gave her a strangely sober look. "I didn't exactly have the chance to say 'no', Tifa." He added, almost absently, "Besides, he apologized."
"Apologized? And that makes it okay?" Tifa asked incredulously.
"Don't worry. It's just a small cut. It's already healing."
"That's not the point!" She took a deep breath, then in a tone of forced calm, she said tersely, "Cloud, he attacked you."
"No, he bit me. That's not the same thing. And I don't think he meant me any real harm."
"You believe that simply because Zack said he was sorry?"
"Tifa, why are you making such a big deal over it?"
"Because that phone call I got was a warning from Marlene. A warning about Zack."
"What?" Cloud turned sharply to stare at her.
"Apparently last night Marlene had a dream about Aeris. And in that dream, Aeris told her to warn you that something was seriously wrong with Zack," Cait Sith explained.
"Aeris sent a warning?" Cloud said, obviously startled. Suddenly looking thoughtful, he added, "He did say something about freaking out and scaring Aeris when he left the Lifestream."
"Well, it must have been quite a show, because from Marlene's description, Aeris seemed pretty darn frantic," Cait muttered. "Something about Zack not being himself."
"That doesn't make any sense," Cloud replied, shaking his head.
"Because Zack was most definitely acting like himself."
"Cloud, are you sure?" Tifa asked, somewhat tentatively.
"Yes, I'm sure. Some things have changed, but...."
"....on the inside, you're certain he's still the Zack you knew and loved," Cait finished. "And you still love him, just as you still love Aeris, right?"
Cloud stared at Cait Sith, then nodded slowly.
"Okay, but now we've got a bit of a problem. We have Zack, who claims to be fine, and Aeris, who claims that Zack's not fine. So how the hell do we find out what's really going on?"
Cloud took a deep breath, then said, "We need to talk to Aeris directly. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to have enough time to figure out a way to do it."
"Why? What's the big rush?" Tifa asked.
"Don't you remember what Zack said? He's headed up to the Forgotten City at this very moment to retrieve Aeris's body from the lake."