Wanting, Not Having



It's raining.

I should be wet, maybe cold, but I can't feel that.  I can't feel much of anything, physical or otherwise.  And yet, despite the pounding rain and my body noisily scraping across rocky ground, inch by inch, I can clearly hear the drops of blood as they patter into pools of dirty water.  I can hear Zack's life dripping away.

"Zack," I say once I reach the fallen Soldier, my voice sounding childlike, as if I were waking a sleeping friend and not the man who did everything in his power to save me.  To save us.

He struggles in that moment, putting a worrisome amount of effort into simply speaking.  "On my behalf..."

"On your behalf?" I repeat, my words heavy and slow.

"That's right. You will..."

"'You will...'?"

His arm lifts with clear effort and Zack grabs my head to pull me down to his chest.  "... Continue living.  You are proof that I existed."  He takes a breath and I can hear the blood in his lungs, slowly drowning him as easily as it gave him life.

Already exhausted, his arm falls to the side and I'm free to sit up, to look into pained eyes again.  The blood at my face grows too cold too quickly, but I leave it untouched.  It's a part of Zack, not dirt to wipe away.

From the pool of water and blood at his side, Zack finds the strength to lift his buster blade.  "My dreams and pride..." he says, offering the hilt of his weapon to me, an offer that I don't want to accept.  To accept would mean he can pass on, that he doesn't have to fight anymore.  Seeing my hesitation, Zack frowns lightly and finishes, "...I give it all to you."

I want to refuse.

Instead, with my hand unsteady, I slowly grab onto the hilt and instantly regret it.  It's not my blade, but Zack shoves both the weapon and me backward, proving that it's too late.  Too late for me to pull back my hand, too late to take away his injuries, too late to change any of this.

With both of my hands wrapped around the long hilt, I pledge, "I am proof that you existed."

Zack smiles, pleased and sad in one simple curl of lips, and then he closes his eyes, resting, sleeping, and gone.

My body shakes, subconscious awareness coming seconds before I recognize the truth.  This isn't right.  I'm the worthless one, nothing like Zack in his honor, strength, and charisma.  Why did he fight for my life?  To prove his existence?  No, he was wrong.  I'm not proof of anything, not even of my own existence.  Then why... Why fight until past the point that magic could have saved him?  Past the point that I could have died for him?  Why did he do this to me?

I should have died for his continued existence.

I should have never lived if it would have saved him.

I should have...

I should have...

~ > < ~

My eyes snap open to darkness and I mindlessly struggle against tangled sheets until I'm able to lift bare hands to my face and wipe the blood from my skin.  When my fingers touch nothing more than flesh and cold sweat, I sluggishly realize that I had been dreaming yet again, witnessing the death that I have relived for too many nights.  I take several long, controlled breaths to calm myself, all the while trying to ignore the phantom smells of blood and rain.

Once steady, I pull up into a seated position and lean against the wall that frames two sides of my bed.  My mind numb, I stare down at my hands that still hold a sheen of sweat and I abruptly realize what I've done - I tried to wipe Zack's blood from my skin.  Damn it, I've never, never done that before and it makes me sick to my stomach that I did something so (sacrilegious) stupid.

The shakiness returns, but I promptly lower my hands before I can focus on that.  The fact is, I don't want to focus on anything right now and that means only one thing - I need to see Leon.

I grab whatever clothes are available on the ground, which is limited to a shirt that is still dusty from a Heartless battle and pants that have a large tear down the right leg.  After I jerk on heavy boots, I grab my (Zack's) buster blade out of mindless reflex, not necessity, and step outside into reviving cool air.  With it being well after midnight, a bright half-moon shines on empty streets and chases away some of the night.  The pale light doesn't matter much, though.  Even in darkness, I would be able to find Leon's place without hesitation or thought.  For a lost soul like mine, his apartment is a sanctuary that drives away unforgiving shadows.

My boots drum quietly on cobbled streets, the only sound in the sleeping town.  Not able to focus on any other thought while my feet move by their own will, my mind drifts to memories of Twilight Town and the sorceress making her claim on the reborn Soldier.  It hurt to see him like that, alive but chained in the way he feared the most.  Zack wanted freedom, for both of us, but without warning or choice, his mind was shackled and his spirit tortured by the sorceress' every command.  I had him (my light) in reach, but I was suddenly faced with the harsh reality that, to save his soul, I had the responsibility to take his life in the event Leon failed.

I was prepared to stand over Zack's dead body for a second time.

I stumble on a loose stone and slow down until stopping under the shadow of a tall building.  I press a hand to my face and automatically feel for the dried blood of my dreams and my past.  It's confusing to know that I wasn't the one to live through that day, and yet all of the feelings are there.  The awe, the fear, the desperation... I thought I understood myself when I pledged to do whatever it took to rid this world of Sephiroth and his madness.  It turns out that I knew nothing and I didn't even recognize that a large part of my soul was missing for all of these years.

I'm like Sephiroth in more ways than I want to imagine.

With a shake of my head, I free myself of unpleasant thoughts and continue down the street toward Leon's place.  The building is nothing special, mostly made of brick and questionable craftsmanship, but it suits the stoic brunet with it being located in the quietest part of town and with most of the available apartments empty.  I move up the few steps to the waiting doorway, but before lifting my hand, I become aware of the telltale noises that would imply that I'm not wanted.

It's an odd experience to know the parties involved and hear the muffled sounds of sex, and yet it's not what it should be.  I've been with Leon many times, and though I wasn't the person he wanted, there was no question of satisfaction during our trysts.  The man in there isn't Leon.  His quiet chuckle ('have you had enough, young Knight?') and his complete lack of restraint ('I need you') are unfamiliar to me.  Only Seifer has been able to draw 'Squall' from the shell of 'Leon', and as I glance at the old scar across my palm (blood brothers forever), I know I'm jealous of the kid for that.  Jealous, but relieved, too.

Though my sanctuary has been barred from me, I don't feel any anger about the matter.  I wanted this to happen.  This was my gift to Leon, for all of the times he saved me from the darkness, and while he'll never know it, I also wanted to protect him from the shadows I saw building within his soul.  Always the leader, always the one to depend on... It's not a role that can be endured without some kind of purpose and relief, both of which existing in a punk kid who didn't ask for any of this, but found everything he wanted and more.

I turn my back to the door and climb down the narrow steps.  With no desire to return to my bed and unwanted dreams, I decide on the old stable of practicing swordplay until I'm too tired to think.  If I can't solve my issue with Zack, I can at least stop obsessing over it, if only for a few hours.  And hopefully by then, Leon will be less occupied.

The walk to the training area is much like the one to Leon's place - too quiet and full of difficult memories.  Unfortunately, reaching the open area of level brick does nothing to soothe my psyche since apparently one other person couldn't sleep tonight.  Under pale moonlight, the dark-haired pirate uses his heavy blade in a series of attacks that doesn't hold the same refinement of the Soldier I've watched in my dreams.  But even with the rougher edge to his swings and stances, there's a type of crude power in this man that the Soldier was afraid to touch.  This man knows how to fight dirty when the occasion calls for it.

Unable to walk away, I watch Zack for a time, entranced by the arches of his blade and the swaying tail of the dark blue bandana he still wears, though the rest of his clothing has changed to the local attire.  My eyes follow his every movement, but I realize that I'm not actually paying attention when I nearly miss the flash of metal that flies out during one of his spinning attacks.  Fortunately, trained muscles don't require the awareness of the mind.  My hand darts up to snatch the throwing knife by its handle, and without hesitation, I fling it back at the smirking pirate.  His wide blade swings forward in an impossibly fast move and knocks the knife perfectly such that it spins up in the air before falling down onto his open palm.

"Nice trick there, mate," Zack says with an interested smile and a light accent that is still strange from the dark-haired fighter.

My body goes rigid at the taunting curl of his lips, but I don't dare act upon it.  It'll only motivate him further to get under my skin and I know all too well that he would love the challenge.  To save myself, I turn and debate the feasibility of waiting on the steps of Leon's apartment until he's done with his toy, or any other option that wouldn't include staying here.

His tone low, Zack demands, "Is this how it's goin' to be?  That you'll run the moment our eyes meet?"

"I'm not running," I state coolly, even though my back is still held to the pirate... probably not the wisest plan I've had.

His steps are slow and soft when he approaches, much like a hunter approaching a wild animal before the kill.  "What do you have against me?  Is it because of our fight?  Because I injured you?  That wasn't my desire, not in the least.  And I thought... Aerith told me that you all understood that it wasn't my choice to take sides with the siren witch."

I don't answer, knowing that my voice will reveal too much if I do.  Damn it, why does he have to mention Aerith every time we meet?

A heated hand rests on my shoulder, and though I want to resist, Zack always seems to be stronger than me; not by much, but enough to force me into any situation of his design.  His eyes are darker than I recall, a deep blue that entices people to lower their defenses and allow him in.  But there is also an inner glow to his eyes, a mako shine that makes him deadly and inhuman... that makes him like me.

Zack searches my face for something, maybe an answer, but he eventually huffs in defeat.  "You're a hard man, Cloud Strife.  People like to speak their minds around me, but you're different."

I look away, not overly comfortable with the idea that I've become a man resistant to Zack's innate charisma.  The only other person I remember who could resist Zack was Sephiroth, and I already know his same darkness lurks inside of me.

"... What're you thinkin' about?"

Startled by the question, I glance at the pirate, but I don't have an answer for him.

His concerned expression lasts a moment longer before he offers a small smile.  "Perhaps I o'erlooked the obvious tonight.  It's after midnight and we seem to be the only people awake in this fine city.  Since neither of us feel like sleepin', how about a spar to work off the extra energy?  Completely friendly, o' course."

My mind warns that it would be a poor choice to fall into Zack's pace, but when swordplay was my original reason to come here, it's difficult to think of an excuse to refuse the pirate's suggestion.  Recognizing my hesitation, Zack backs off several paces and lowers his buster blade into an inviting position, but I don't move due to my indecision.  Unfortunately, the taunting lift of a dark eyebrow severs my last restraint and I answer his challenge by casually removing my blade from its sheath.

Zack smirks with a satisfactory curl to his lips, an expression that is as irritating as much as it excites a forgotten part of me.

My buster blade cuts toward that smirking face, but Zack is quick with a sideways dodge that keeps him out of range.  The hard arch of my blade leaves my side partially open, an opportunity that Zack immediately abuses, but I'm able to jerk my arm back such that the hilt of my weapon knocks his blade aside.  Unbalanced by the block, the pirate steps too close and I throw a heavy kick at his knee that lands him to the ground.  Though in pain and kneeling, Zack cleanly blocks my blade as I attempt an overhead attack, and with his blue eyes shining bright, the man abruptly rolls backward such that his booted feet nearly kick my weapon out of my hands.  He gets back to his feet before I can readjust my hold on the hilt.

Our spar continues with a similar exchange of hard hits and little tricks to test each other's limits.  It should have been strange, maybe worrisome to fight Zack like this when our battle two weeks ago had a deadly purpose to it, but something about his rhythm is different and fairly playful.  That aside, his entire style is wholly different to what I've witnessed in my dreams.  His stance is relaxed and each movement has its own sense of freedom, and while any Soldier instructor would have been horrified, I quickly learn to respect the new speed and flexibility gained with his odd form.

The fight continues without sense of time, and it's an offhanded observation when I realize that the sky had lightened to the pale blue of pre-dawn.  That split second of diverted attention, however, nearly results in me gaining a set of broken ribs.  Zack smiles hungrily at my stupid mistake, and then maintains the smug expression despite my string of attacks that are intended to remove his head.  When nothing lands, I know that my exhaustion is catching up to me, but no matter what, I can't let Zack win this fight.  If he wins this first time, I'll lose all power in this game of his.

I continue the barrage of attacks, purposefully leading the pirate into a series of defensive moves that has an easy rhythm to fall into.  As such, when I abruptly abandon my offensive attack and leap backward, Zack nearly falls forward when his automatic block goes untouched.  The moment I land several paces away, I do the unthinkable - I throw my buster blade at the unprepared pirate.  Instead of treating it like a spear, I make certain the blade leaves my hand such that it spins in a wide circle, making it impossible for the unbalanced man to simply sidestep the heavy weapon.

Zack gets his blade up in time to defend himself, but the force of my thrown sword knocks his weapon to the side and bruises his arm... not to mention providing an excellent distraction for my approach.  I'm nearly face-to-face with the pirate before he realizes that I had moved, but I don't give him the opportunity to react.  My bare hands punch his face and throat in three rapid strikes, and when he blocks the forth punch, I spin around and drop into a low stance to sweep the disoriented man off his feet.  He falls hard to the ground and loses his blade such that it clangs against brick, the weapon falling within inches of my own sword.

I stand slowly while eyeing Zack, his fallen pose causing my breaths to come a little faster as I think about the dream that started all of this.  It doesn't help that one of my punches had split the skin above his right eye and the blood was already coloring the tanned skin of his face.

In my distracted moment, I don't notice the movement of his leg before the pirate hooks his foot behind one of my ankles and promptly kicks my other shin, causing me to fall forward and drop directly on top of the larger man.  We both groan at the force of my fall and I curse at my stupidity to assume the man was defeated simply because I had disarmed him.

Zack chuckles breathily, the shake of his body causing inconvenient sensations for me.  "Hell's damnin' fire, you're heavier than you look."

Winded, I ask hoarsely, "And what exactly were you thinking by doing that move?"

"It seemed rather logical at the time," is his excuse as he continues to lie there, unbothered with me lying on top of him.

Once my breath returns from the fall, I try to push up from the pirate, but he immediately places a hand at the back of my head and thick fingers grab hold of my hair.  The action sends me back to the dream when Zack had forced me to his chest and made me swear that I would continue to live, that I would prove his existence.  Refusing to lower my head to his chest, I can't move while staring down at him (don't give me your sword, I can't handle the weight anymore) and I watch as the blood at his cheek gradually gains a strange glow from the rising sun.

The hand at my head moves to my face, and with his thumb wiping something from the corner of my eye, Zack mutters, "This is familiar."

Jerking out from my frozen state, I scramble until standing, and though Zack tries to grab me, I manage to move out of his long reach.  Already prepared to (run away) leave this whole thing behind me, I make it ten steps before Zack says probably the only thing that could stop me:

"You forgot your blade."

I turn around and my chest constricts when I see the seated pirate holding the hilt of my weapon.  "Put it down."

Dark eyebrows furrow at the command.  "Don't you--"

"Put it down," I insist, even though I realize how childish I must sound.

His deep blue eyes focused on me, Zack carefully lowers my (his) buster blade and lifts his open hand to show that he didn't want to cause any trouble.  My steps heavy, I move to retrieve the sword.  Oddly enough, I don't feel any relief when Zack does nothing to stop me, but I accept the concession for what it is.  I sheath the blade as I walk away from the pirate and promise myself that I won't repeat this mistake again.  No matter what I think I want, I have to save myself... or what is left of myself.

I can't let Zack take my soul a second time.

Standing in shadows and casually leaning against the wall of a rather purple building, I try to pretend that I'm not watching the construction crew working down the street, and certainly not the black-haired man amongst them.  As of last week, the clean up of the fallen building had wrapped up with Cid's return, and just a few days ago, reconstruction began with use of salvaged materials and newly delivered ones.  In all honesty, I don't usually take note of the construction efforts in the city, mostly because it doesn't concern me and it's incredibly boring compared to chasing down Heartless and Nobodies.

And then Zack joined the construction crew the other day, only hours after our nightlong fight.

It doesn't make sense, really.  Zack isn't of this world and shouldn't have any interest in rebuilding Radiant Garden to its former glory.  In fact, the pirate should have demanded weeks ago to be returned to his own world, but he has remained here instead, stubbornly existing within my sight.  More than Sephiroth's presence ever did, Zack living and breathing within my precious space makes me itch.

"Cid hates it when you hang around like that."

I glance over my shoulder and set my eyes on the kid who has unfortunately learned to walk with a silent step.  I'm fairly certain it wasn't anything Leon intended to teach, but Seifer has always been a quick student, even for the things he isn't supposed to pick up.  While it seems to frustrate Leon, his pale eyes aren't very good at hiding the deep pride he feels every time his young lover figures out a new trick.

With a green apple in hand, Seifer leans heavily against the railing of the steps that lead up to the entrance of the building.  His smile smug and eyes sharp, he comments with amusement, "They're terrified of you, y'know.  Half of those idiots think you're out for their blood, and the other half started a pool to guess who you'll end up killing.  Either way, they aren't getting much work done and Cid has been muttering about kicking your ass back to Traverse Town."

I scoff at the information.  "I haven't done anything."

"Right, you haven't done anything except for the minor detail of glaring at the crew for the past few days," Seifer mocks before taking a bite into his apple.  Maneuvering around that mouthful, he amends, "Well, I guess I shouldn't say the whole crew, should I?  After all, your eyes only seem to follow one particular person."

As if reminding me with the statement, my gaze shifts to the construction crew and the sight of Zack setting an empty wheelbarrow next to a pile of bricks.  The pirate straightens with a backward stretch, and while joking with a nearby worker, he wipes the sweat and dust from the part of his brow not covered by a dark brown bandana.

Seifer sighs dramatically at my diverted attention.  "Why haven't you bothered to tell the guy anything?  You're obviously interested--"

"He doesn't need to remember it."

Momentarily silenced by my reasoning, the kid loses his smile and stares at the half-eaten fruit in his hand.  "Do you think that because your memories are so damn hard?"  When I don't answer, Seifer scoffs bitterly.  "Sorry to be the one to tell you this, Strife, but that's a load of bullshit.  Leon thought the same thing about hiding his past, but I still convinced him to tell me what happened to separate us.  I know he didn't like doing it, but..."  A strange light enters green eyes when Seifer says, "It helped me to understand."

Despite myself, I ask him, "Understand what, exactly?"

The kid shrugs and supposes, "Him, me, and something more," before biting deeply into his apple.

Not certain how much I care for the non-answer, I return my attention to the construction area, but Zack has already disappeared to some corner of the half-done structure.  I shouldn't care, but...

"He asks about you," Seifer comments lightly.  "It's rather pathetic since nobody except Aerith and Yuffie have anything of worth to say about your past, but he keeps trying."

I frown as my mind offers various suggestions of what Yuffie may consider as 'worthwhile' information to share with Zack.

"So what about you?  Don't you want to know about him?"

With a glare at the kid, I remind him dully that I knew Zack long before anyone else in this town.

Accustomed to being threatened on a daily basis, Seifer grins fearlessly.  "You may know the guy he was, Strife, but you haven't a clue about the guy he is."

It's strange to be lectured by this kid who stepped on this world a several months back with wide eyes and an innocent mind, but it doesn't make him wrong.  I have been so focused on my dreams and hazy memories that I forgot about Zack having a different life compared to what I know.  'Pirate' was just a term, as if Zack had been wearing a costume and nothing more since our first meeting.  I've even considered his light accent to be more of an act and not a true reflection of who he is.

Stupid.  I never expected that I would fall for the same trap Leon had originally feared when it came to his recaptured light.  He knew this kid wasn't his lost husband and he didn't want to love the shadow he saw in young eyes.  If he loved, he wanted to love Seifer for everything he is now.  While Leon refused to be fooled by the smoke and mirrors of Fate, I had willfully surrendered to my weakness and made Zack into the revived version of the dead man in my dreams.

"What do you know?" I demand, needing to separate the two versions of Zack in my mind.

At my blunt question, Seifer smiles with a fleeting curl of lips, a brief victory that is lost to something else when he gazes at the unfinished building down the street.  "I actually haven't heard much about him.  Zack prefers getting others to talk about their lives, and he's damned good at hiding the details of his own life.  But I did find out that he never wanted to be a pirate.  He was a slave of some sort on a ship that got raided by pirates and he was given the choice to join their crew or be killed.  I think he said he was thirteen at the time.  He never learned to do anything else, so he stayed being a pirate.

"Ironically enough, Ultimecia pretty much rescued him from that world," Seifer continues with a hard glint to green eyes.  "Zack wouldn't go into the details, but some kind of mutiny happened against the captain of his ship.  The problem was that Zack is a good guy and a deadly fighter, and that's not to mention how almost everyone on that ship owed their lives to Zack in some way.  Knowing he'd do something to stop the mutiny, they drugged his food, tossed him into a funeral box, and chucked him overboard."

"They should have just killed him," I mutter, my training as a soldier coming before all other thought.

Seifer snorts at the comment.  "Yeah, I kinda wondered about that, too, but Zack just smiled and said that his ghost would've cursed them, and I have a feeling that the pricks on that ship actually feared the possibility."

I grunt in understanding of their superstition.  After all, I've been haunted by Zack for years - I know what it means to live with his ghost.

"Anyway, that's how Ultimecia found him, trapped in a wooden box and half-drowned.  I don't know why a big guy like him couldn't get out, but she kept him in there until he was desperate enough to promise anything to anyone.  Unfortunately, he didn't know that Ultimecia could chain his soul with a pledge to be her Knight."

Closing my eyes, I can visualize the situation all too clearly.  On the surface, Zack is a skilled fighter and a ridiculously strong man, but we all have our weaknesses.  It's a shame, although somewhat predictable, that he happens to share mine.  Since a child, I have reacted poorly to small, enclosed spaces.  My first experience was playing hide-and-go-seek and letting Yuffie drag me into a closet.  My body went cold, my limbs refused to move, and my mind simply shut down with thoughts that I'd never escape.

Back then, my severe reaction scared everyone around me.  These days, things make more sense with my dreams of being trapped in glass, drowning in mako green fluid, and screaming in undeserved agony... and Zack was right beside me, sharing every moment of that torture.

"So, what are you going to do?" Seifer eventually asks.

"... Nothing."

My reply makes Seifer smirk with disbelief.  "Fucking stubborn, just like Leon.  But hey, I'm not too surprised.  The two of you only seem to listen to each other when it comes to crap like this."  Before I can argue that assumption, the kid hops down from the steps and chucks the remaining core of his apple into a trash bin.  "Since I've been in the way lately, Leon wants make it up to you.  He'll be at the bar after his guard shift tonight, and Leon said that you can come whenever - he'll be waiting for you."

"That isn't necessary," I say despite my unsatisfied need to speak with the gunblader about my more frequent dreams.  Leon isn't responsible for my life or my choices, and I've already abused his patience beyond reasonable limits.

"Say whatever you want," Seifer states with fond smile, "but Leon will be there, even if you never show."

Before I can think of a response, someone yells for Seifer from the construction site, something about an ending lunch, and the kid runs off with a vague parting and a half-hearted wave.  Thrown off guard by the entire discussion, I watch without thought as Seifer reaches the rest of the crew and jokes about something or other, probably about barely escaping me with his life.  Unsurprisingly, Zack joins that particular discussion, but when his eyes lift and focus in my direction, I don't look away fast enough before I'm trapped by his gaze.  The staring match lasts several seconds before Zack smiles that charming grin of his and I know that I've lost something.  What, I don't know, but I've lost, and judging by the predatory gleam to deep blue eyes, I'm not going to like this.

And then he looks away, his smile softening into a show of friendliness toward the others around him.  Freed of his hold, I turn around and walk down the alleyway that hadn't hidden me from anyone.  I itch again, and though the weight of my buster blade provides some hope of comfort, I know the itch won't go away.  No, this type of itch will stay under my skin until I solve this problem of wanting what I can't have...

Damn it, why hasn't my heart figured out yet that wanting Zack has never led to anything good?

~ > < ~

About an hour after sunset, I find myself standing in front of the bar where Leon should be waiting.  The bar doesn't have a name and it doesn't really need one - it's the only place in town for those who prefer a hit of alcohol instead of the children drinks served in the rest of Radiant Garden.  In sharp contrast to most of the bars I have visited, the front has a refined, old-style appearance that better suits wealthy gentlemen and not the mixed lot of customers it actually serves.  The rumors say that Cid funded and owns this place, but the bar master is the one who is the face of the business and the reason for the bar's success in a town like this.

With an exhaled breath, I push open the door and step inside to the faint smell of tobacco smoke.  The place is basically empty except for four patrons:  an amorous couple hidden in the back corner, a regular customer filling out a crossword while sipping at brandy, and of course, Leon sitting at the counter.  There is also the bar master, an anthropomorphic raven by the predictable name of Edgar, who studiously cleans a wine glass at the corner opposite of Leon, giving him plenty of privacy.

It's a tempting thought to believe that Leon hasn't noticed me yet and that I can abandon this discussion before it starts, but the gunblader turns subtly, only the shift of his dark hair suggesting that he was watching and waiting for me to make my choice.  From the moment I opened the door, this wasn't a battle I could win.  Hiding my reluctance, I step to the counter and take the stool that places me between Leon and the door, leaving an escape route open for when I'm done with this talk.

"I thought you wouldn't show up for another few hours," Leon comments in his soft manner, proving that he knows all about my irritation over this meeting.

"I can leave if you want."

Leon smirks, but doesn't allow me that escape.  Instead, he motions at the bar master, who then pulls out a dark bottle from beneath the counter.  Two short glasses are placed in front of Leon, and Edgar skillfully pours the deep red liquid without missing a drop.  After setting the bottle onto the counter, Edgar bows his head and returns to his corner of the bar to politely ignore the conversation he isn't meant to hear.  Leon picks up one of the glasses and hands it my way, and though I accept the offering, I frown at the blood-colored liquid.

"It's an off world concoction," Leon comments given my expression.  "It doesn't have the bite of most hard liquors, but plenty of the alcohol."

I watch as Leon takes the first sip from his glass, and when the flavor makes him smile faintly, I decide to trust his choice in drinks for the night.  An experimental sniff of the blood red alcohol speaks volumes of its strength, and without further hesitation, I take a deep drink of the liquor.  The initial burn is nothing surprising, but it fades quickly to be replaced by a pleasant taste of spice and some kind of fruit, which I imagine is the source of the red color.  While I haven't tried many varieties of rum in the past, this is certainly a good one.

"We need to talk about Zack."

"That didn't take long," I mutter and take another drink, the burn hardly felt this time.

"I doubt it's what you think."  Instead of getting to the matter, Leon pours more liquor into our glasses with slow purpose, his eyes distant in thought for that drawn out moment.  Once setting the bottle back down, he stares at his glass and finally asks, "Why are there so many similarities between you and Zack?"

My mind stalls at the unexpected question, but that doesn't stop unwanted images (Zack's cold body, my fingers coated in dirt, a pile of rain-soaked rocks) from clouding my vision and making it hard to breathe.  "What... do you mean?"

"I could name the obvious, but it doesn't matter to me that you both favor buster blades or that you both have an odd light to your eyes.  No, the little things worry me more.  The slight tilt to your stance when you're judging a situation, the way you wrap the hilt of your blade, the stride of your walk... Zack shares all of those things with you.  But no matter how much I think about it, I can't figure out if Zack imitating you, or if you're imitating him."

I breathe a laugh, impressed that something as simple as walking had caught Leon's attention, especially when there are more important things to distract him.  It goes to show that the silent ones are also the dangerous ones.

"Have I made the wrong assumption?"

I shake my head and say in a voice that barely sounds, "Zack isn't the imitator."

Leon glances at me, the sharp light of his eyes demanding for answers.

After a long drink of the spiced rum, I begin, "When you created the timeline for my other life, you told me that several years were missing from what you could tell.  We both decided that it must have been an uneventful period of me training to be a Soldier... but we were wrong."

Leon scowls at the information.  "Do you mean... Were those were the years you knew Zack?"

Disbelief and maybe a touch of disgust sound in his voice, which isn't surprising from a man who has never forgotten his one real love.  For me to block out the memories of the man I claim to be my light, of course it would be unacceptable to him.  "My memories are still hazy, but Zack was my mentor of sorts.  Rather, he was what I wanted to be - a Soldier First Class.  We fought a couple times together, but then... There was an incident with Sephiroth."

The gunblader straightens at the name, and with some understanding of my conflict with Sephiroth, he refills my empty glass and waits for me to continue.

"It was the first time Sephiroth met with Jenova, his supposed mother.  He went crazy and destroyed my village in fire..."  I close my eyes briefly, trying to darken the vision of devouring flames and bright green eyes.  "Zack chased Sephiroth to the nearby mako reactor, but Sephiroth was too strong.  Everything from that fight is blurry and strange... but I tried to get revenge against Sephiroth.  It was pointless if Zack couldn't beat him, and ultimately, Sephiroth ran his sword through me.  I should've died there and then, but somehow, I found the strength to grab his sword and throw Sephiroth into the depths of the reactor."

After a moment of silence to consider the information, Leon says, "I know you and Sephiroth survived.  Should I assume Zack didn't?"

A weird laugh leaves me at the question.  "Fate would have been kinder to let Zack die there, but that wasn't in her plans."  My mouth dry, I drain more than half of my glass in one go.  "Zack and I, we were found by an insane doctor by the name of Hojo.  He was impressed that we were still alive, and with neither of us able to refuse, Hojo 'rewarded' our determination by making us his new guinea pigs.  For years, Zack and I were put through hell."

Leon's eyes widen in shock, the man not expecting that part of my past.

"I still don't remember much of what happened, and truthfully, I don't want to.  All I know is that Zack got us out of there, and just when we were on the edge of freedom, Hojo's men found us.  Zack fought them, killed every one of those bastards, but at the cost of his life.  He gave me his blade and I watched him die."

Rare sympathy glows softly in blue-gray eyes, but Leon doesn't linger on the matter.  Instead, he asks carefully, "How does any of this relate to my question?"

"When Zack died,... I wasn't right in the head, partly because of mako poisoning and partly because of my guilt.  All I could think was that I should've been the one to die, not him.  While I dug his grave with my bare hands, that thought repeated endlessly in my head, and that was when my mind began to break.  Days later, after dragging Zack's buster blade all the way to Midgar, I had transformed myself into a version of him - a former Soldier First Class, a mercenary for hire."

Leon says nothing for a time, but eventually nods and comments, "That makes sense."

I almost laugh at the statement, as if the greater problem was Leon's confusion about the issue and not the terrible details of my past life.  But I know Leon.  He isn't the type to pity another person, especially when the words would be meaningless at the end of the day.  Instead, he'll quietly offer his unfaltering support and patiently endure the weight of that burden until he isn't needed anymore... even if that weight is too much for his narrow shoulders.

"Why haven't you gone to him yet?"

The question is unsurprising, but I still flinch at the spoken words.  "When I think about it, I was a stupid kid, really.  During those years, Zack was the only source of comfort I had.  When he touched me, it wasn't to inject some poison.  When he talked to me, he convinced me that we would survive.  When he looked at me...."  I swirl the remaining blood-red liquid in my glass and watch the play of light against the surface.  "Zack always loved Aerith.  She was his source of strength, not me.  I shouldn't have fallen in love with him."

Leon huffs.  "He doesn't want Aerith."

"In the past, he always talked about her.  The bastard would be bleeding from his ears and talking about her flowers, and that once we were free, he was going to find more flowers for her to grow."  Tugging on the collar of my shirt that feels too hot, I begin to wonder if the alcohol is finally getting to me and helping to loosen my tongue.  "Even now, every time I see Zack, he mentions Aerith's name."

"Because she's the one who knows you the best," Leon says with a near smile.

"You're wrong.  You know far more about me."

"I know your secrets, but Aerith knows who you are."

Not exactly comfortable with that notion, though unable to argue against it, I move onto the bigger issue.  "What do you care, anyway?  Other people meddle in my affairs, but not you."

"Just returning the favor."

I close my eyes at the suggestion, not expecting that this would come back to haunt me so soon.  "You needed the kid."

"And you need Zack."

I shake my head.  "How many times do I have to tell you--"

"He said your name," Leon says in a tone that is deep with meaning.  When I don't understand his reference, the gunblader explains, "The moment his mind was freed from Ultimecia's hold, Zack looked at you and said your name."

My heart throbs a heavy beat.  "You can't know... You weren't there."

With a mysterious smile, Leon sips at his drink before asking, "Am I wrong?"

I stare at the unbelievable man, my non-reply suggesting everything that he needs to know.  I would blame Cid or Yuffie for this, but Zack had spoken in a voice that no one else could have heard, forget the fact that Cid and Yuffie were too injured to notice something so insignificant.  No, that moment was mine, a guilty pleasure that partly satisfied my corrupt desires that can never be fulfilled... and somehow Leon knows of it.

"Did I ever tell you that I met Seifer's ghost, once?" Leon asks lightly, as if it were a normal question.  At my disbelieving stare, he continues, "It was the first time I lived my life... Well, the first time as far as I remember.  I loved Seifer, but I couldn't burden him with my feelings.  And then, I killed him with the blade he taught me to use."

"It was war," I try to offer.

"It was a mistake," he corrects.  "Later, in the Time Compression, I saw Seifer's ghost.  Of all the things he should have said, Seifer told me that he was sorry and that he had always loved me.  I couldn't accept those words, not when he never knew my own feelings, and I think that is what made me go back in time.  Back to Seifer."

I glance over at his gloved hand which hides the golden ring that serves as proof of Leon's pure will and determination.  "It's not the same between me and Zack."

Leon agrees with a soft hum.  "But do you really want to wait until his ghost tells you that you've been blind?"

The question makes my heart do more funny things, something that I would normally attribute to emotions alone, but then I notice a ticklish feeling at my forehead.  Wiping my skin, I stare at the moisture of sweat at my fingertips.  When did it get so hot in here that I started to sweat?  I look over at Leon to vocalize the thought, but I'm silenced when his eyelids drift close and I realize that I know that expression.  It has been months, but I know when he's been aroused beyond his limits.

My eyes snap to the nearly empty bottle of red liquor and I try to reason that it's impossible.  Whatever I'm thinking, it's impossible.

"Figured it out yet, Strife?"

I turn sharply to find Seifer standing close by, his entrance completely unnoticed either due to my intoxicated state, or because...

"How do you like the taste of your own poison?" Seifer asks with a leering smirk.

Looking to Leon, I demand in shock, "What did you do?"

The gunblader drags his stormy eyes from Seifer's form and meets my gaze.  "As I already said, I'm returning the favor."

A low burn of betrayal clashes against my knowledge that I probably deserve this.  I messed with his toy for my own interests and I did so knowing full well that Leon wouldn't easily forgive me.  It doesn't matter that I needed Seifer to finally make a claim on Leon and remove the brunet as an option whenever I instinctively search for comfort.  I'm not Leon's light... and he's not mine.

My body shivers lightly at the thought, but I hide that reaction from watching eyes.  "And what now?  You expect me to crawl into Zack's bed like a tomcat in heat?"

Seifer snickers at the analogy, but Leon is the one who responds, "At times, people need an excuse to do the thing they fear the most."

I shake my head at the ridiculous point, but a small part of me knows that he's right.  I've fought in enough battles to know that fear can either freeze a soldier in place or serve as a merciless motivator.  Until the first time escape wasn't an option, I had no clue what it meant to fight with all of my strength.  It's pathetic, though - I thought I had left my days of becoming immobile from fear behind me.

A rush of heat flows through my body, and recognizing the symptom for what it is, I glance at the dark bottle that seemed so innocent minutes ago.  "I can't believe you drank it, too."

"You would have been suspicious if I didn't," Leon replies as he stands up from his chair, not entirely steady on his feet.  "By the way, when you see Zack, you should thank him for recommending this type of rum.  I was having a hard time finding something that would disguise the taste of the potion."

With that the information, I scowl at the idea Zack decided to play along with this little scheme.

"He didn't know," Seifer scoffs as he wraps a supporting arm at Leon's waist.  At my unbelieving look, Seifer clarifies, "It's obvious what you're thinking, and you're wrong.  Zack gets really weird when you're involved, like he's your guardian or something.  If he knew we were planning this, he would've warned you."

Though somewhat relieved by the explanation, a new sense of anxiousness builds in my chest with the knowledge that Zack has reverted to old habits to watch over me, even when he has no conscious reason to do so.

Leon abruptly curses under his breath, at the same time pressing closer to the blond teen who edges him in height.  "We need to go."

Though lust shines in green eyes, Seifer's smile is soft and filled with a fondness reserved for dumbstruck lovers.  "Whatever you say, but I hope you remember your promise."

"Why would I forget?" Leon replies in a purring voice that is subtly different compared to the tone I've heard in the past.  Feverish eyes then glance at me and the gunblader smirks lightly.  "Don't hold back tonight, Strife.  From what I've heard of this potion, it can do some real damage if you don't dispel the magic by the next morning."

"I think I'm aware of that," I mutter in return, my voice taking on a slight growl.

Showing no fear, Leon simply nods in answer to my anger, and then nudges Seifer forward when the kid stands stiffly at my tone.  The odd pair walks toward the bar entrance, Seifer saying something in a low voice while his hand inches downward.  Leon eventually punches the blond in the stomach, a painful strike judging by Seifer's hunched position, but the kid manages to keep his breath, and then says something undoubtedly lewd to Leon.  Cid has been a terrible influence on that one.

Left alone, the bar suddenly seems a touch too quiet.  The only real sound amounts to the couple in the back corner who laugh and make the occasional obscene groan.  Normally, I wouldn't care or even notice their play at being in love, but tonight, my body takes note of every whisper and every wet kiss between them.  The bar master seems to smirk at my dilemma, and just for that, I don't bother leaving any munny on the counter for his service.

Stepping outside, I'm a little surprised that the cooler air does nothing to help my situation.  Instead, it makes the heat that much more dramatic as I try to ignore the building fire in my veins.  Frustrated, I glance across the street and my eyes settle directly on the inn conveniently within view.  I had completely forgotten that the two establishments were right next to each other, and stupidly, I had underestimated Leon's ability to plan every mission to the micro-fine details that everyone else tends to miss.

I take a step into the street, my foot angling in the direction of the inn, but I make certain my left foot doesn't make the same mistake.  It hurts, physically hurts to place my back to the place where I know Zack is staying, but I've dealt with worse pains in my dual pasts.  And like that, I walk forward with the stubborn objective to reach my apartment without surrendering to the poison in my blood.  That single-minded focus is the strength that gets me home, but by that point, I'm near ready to tear my clothing apart at the stitches.

I open the door and jerk the belt of my shoulder guard free in the same moment, and in the time it takes for the piece of armor to fall and clatter against the floor, I dully realize that the light of my apartment shouldn't be on.

Looking up, I find Zack seated in a ratty sofa chair, the only piece of furniture aside from a nearby dresser and my bed in the opposite corner of the small room.  Though his eyes are a touch wider than usual, the pirate does a good job of looking casual, which is odd enough - I don't particularly recall Zack being much of an actor in any of my memories.

"The door was open," Zack comments without a hint of shame in his voice.  "Almasy told me that I should jus' come in and wait for you."

"Wait... for me?" I repeat with renewed suspicion that Zack was involved from the beginning.

"Yeah, the boy said that..."  His words trailing off, the pirate eyes my expression and slowly figures out, "You... weren't expectin' me, were you?"

I shake my head in reply, impressed that Leon knew to plan things this far ahead.  With morbid curiosity, I wonder what would have been in store for me if I had done the unthinkable and walked toward the inn instead.  I may need to warn Zack about a possible trap lying in wait in his room.

Groaning as he stands, Zack wraps a hand behind his neck in a frustrated pose.  "Damn and Hell, this isn't how I planned to talk to you.  The boy had me thinkin' that you were ready and wanted..."

There's nothing I can tell him, and with the poison still coursing through my body, it's hard enough to simply stand still.  Even so, I use the last of my will power to turn around and grab for the doorknob, ready to leave and find another place to solve my bodily problems.

"Don't you dare," Zack orders harshly.  "Two weeks ago, you sing the song that you've been lookin' for me, and yet you keep runnin' like I've got the black death or somethin'.  I gotta say, you're not makin' much sense."

Frozen in place, I stare at my hand on the doorknob and force the lie, "I was mistaken."

Zack grabs my shoulder, and in a rough move, he turns me around and shoves me against the door.  "Don't start lyin', mate.  I know truth when I hear it."

Pinned by the larger man, it's hard to focus on anything more than the heat of his hands, which is somehow stronger than the burning in my blood.  Spirits, I've been assaulted by more fire spells than I can count - why is this so much more painful?

"Hey, you alright?" Zack asks with sudden concern, though the strength of his restraining hold doesn't lessen.  "You're flush, like you've got the fever."

Gritting my teeth, I reply, "It's nothing."

"Nothin'?" he repeats in disbelief, and then moves his hand to my chin for the purpose of better examining my face, but the moment his skin touches mine, a quiet groan escapes me.  Zack jerks his hand back in surprise, but stubbornly keeps me pinned against the door while eyeing me closely.  "That wasn't nothin'."

With it no longer possible to hide the truth, I decide to rely on Zack's nobler side, that he wouldn't take advantage of a situation at the cost of another.  "It's an aphrodisiac... I accidentally drank some."

"A love potion?" Zack asks in shock, but then his lips curl into a slow smile.  "How does a person 'accidentally' drink somethin' like that, eh?"

"Because it was slipped into my drink."

The humor in his expression instantly evaporates and a dark light enters his eyes.  "Who?"

My chest constricts at the deadly tone, and I don't know what to think about the pirate being willing to kill for me.  "It's nothing serious.  Leon was just trying to make a point."

Relaxing at the name he trusts, Zack's expression quickly changes to one of deep thought.  "What kind of point was the man makin' to use a dangerous drug like that?"

"It's none of your business," I bite out, wishing that the damned pirate would hurry up and leave me to the obvious task I have ahead of me.

Zack hums at my sharp response, but instead of being offended, he steps back to sit on the armrest of the chair he had abandoned earlier.  "I was fed a love potion once.  We had ported at Del Marco and this wench with the face of a horse and the personality of a bulldog thought she could lure me into her bed with somethin' she got from a witch doctor."  Deep blue eyes focusing on me, he says, "Unfortunate for her, that was the night I learned a man can be as pleasurable as a woman.  Maybe more so."

I stare at the black-haired pirate, not certain what to do with the implied offer.  I want him more than I can stand, but not like this.  Not when he doesn't know me as I have known him in my constant dreams.  He may be a different man in this universe, but many of the things that made me love him are all the same.  I wouldn't survive a single empty night of sex with Zack, no matter how much my body may desire it.

"You shouldn't think so hard about it, spike.  I know the potion must be makin' you burn under your skin."

"No..." I say in little more than a whisper, my breaths becoming harder with each minute wasted.  "I can't... not with you."

Zack doesn't immediately react to my refusal, but after a few moments of thought, he smiles faintly and asks, "Can't you take pity on me?"

I glare at him for the ridiculous request.

Dejected, he tries once more, "You must think little of me, bein' a pirate and a criminal, but... Do you believe in other lives?"

The question startles me, more than it should given some of his recent actions.

Buoyed by my unschooled expression, Zack says, "At the end of our fight back then, somethin' happened to me.  When the spell of that siren witch broke, I felt like I was goin' to shatter like fine glass.  And then, an angel touched me, or so I think.  The pain was gone, and you were there... and I knew your name.  No reason why, but your name was in my head and I knew I had found someone I was suppose to meet."  His dark blue eyes take on an interesting light when he adds, "That's when you spoke your first words and said you've been lookin' for me.  No other voice has e'er been finer."

At his words, bothersome shivers rack throughout my body, as if encouraging me that I need Zack to hold me together before I fall apart.  "Is that it?" I ask, my tone cold and sharp.

Zack straightens into a rigid pose, and then slowly stands up from the chair.  "You know what I'm talkin' about."

"I never said that."

"Your face did," he argues in wonderment.  "Blessed above, you know... Do you have the dreams, too?"

With the shakes reaching my knees such that I need the door for support, I decide to end this here and now.  "Then you know that you should be after Aerith, not me."

"Aerith?" Zack repeats with a slight tilt of his head.  "Well, she's a nice lass, but nothin' I haven't seen--"

"You loved her."

Though initially startled by my outburst, Zack steps close until he places a supporting hand at the door and leans in such that only a few terrible inches separate us.  "I think you're wrong."

"No, I knew you.  Better than anyone else, I knew you.  Every damned detail."

Instead of my argument pushing him away, Zack seems intrigued by the claim.  "I don't know what you saw as the truth, but I know my mind from those dreams.  I was ready to give my life for you."

A breath leaves me, a little too close to a sob.  "You did give your life."

Deep blue eyes widen at the information, but then he grins with a sad curl of lips.  "A-ah, that explains why more pleasant dreams don't exist with you."

"No... you talked about Aerith..."

"If I did, it was because I wanted nicer things to speak about."  His eyes searching, he comments, "We weren't exactly in an agreeable situation."

Despite his light accent, I can imagine his voice talking throughout the night, trying to get me to sleep and escape the pain of experiments and the desperation of hopelessness.  His voice is probably the strongest spell that can be used against me.  "You kept me alive," I eventually admit in a hoarse whisper.

"As did you," Zack returns in an equally muted voice.

Closing the bare distance between us, Zack brushes his lips against mine in a testing kiss.  It hurts to be touched like that after weeks and years of believing, of knowing this was impossible.  A part of me questions if I'm still in the depth of Hell, if this is nothing more than another experiment by Hojo and his techs.  They could break me with this, easily, and I tried so hard to not let them see it.  They weren't supposed to see...

"Where are you?" Zack whispers against my skin.

Warily, I open my eyes and stare into deep blue, calm and free of pain.  "In our past, I couldn't have this," I confess, implying the risk involved with anyone discovering how much I needed Zack.

A mix of confusion and partial understanding shows in Zack's expression.  "It appears you've seen far more than what has been revealed to me."

It's hard to breathe at the thought of just how much I've seen, but then strong arms wrap around my waist and the taller man draws me against his solid warmth.  More than words, this physical connection to Zack drives away the darker memories and I can somewhat relax while taking in his living scent that doesn't have a hint of blood.  Unfortunately, the aphrodisiac makes itself known again with his added heat and I groan when Zack's hand brushes against a healing bruise at my side.  Pain has always done funny things to me, but this poison is making it worse.

"Let me help you," Zack pleads none too innocently.  "Love potions are notorious for drivin' a man insane if not 'treated' properly."

It would be simple to say 'yes' and have this done with, but I can't do that.  Not until I know... "Will you stay?"

"There's nowhere else I want to be," the pirate says with a silver tongue, and I know that I'm lost.  I can't continue to refuse him when I trust Zack to abide by his word and stay... at least until I'm strong enough to realize that this is a terrible idea.

Sensing my surrender, Zack drags me toward my bed, and with a guiding touch, he encourages me to sit on the edge of the thin mattress.  His smile smug with victory, the pirate pulls on the zipper of my shirt in a drawn out manner, taunting me with cool air that is little relief against my heated skin.  Instead of moving to more important areas, rough fingers push aside the opened shirt as a ruse for the clearer purpose of caressing my sensitized skin.  I manage to suppress any reflexive reaction at his touch, much to Zack's amusement, but then he rediscovers the bruise at my side and my body goes taut into a wanton arch.

Though fleeting, Zack frowns at discovering what had caused my shameless reaction, but he doesn't vocalize his undoubtedly troubled thoughts.  Instead, the pirate kneels to the ground and gently kisses the healing injury he had caused days ago.  The light touch doesn't cause the same overwhelming response as before, but it's enough to make me grab the dark spikes of his hair and pull him back.

"Be more productive," I demand, pleased that my voice comes out steady and firm.

"And how shall I serve you, m'lord?" Zack asks without any mind to my tone.

Refusing to be thrown off my guard, I counter, "Haven't you been with another man before?"

"Aye, I have," Zack says, and to prove his experience, his hands obediently work at the belts of my stylized jacket and pants.

When he undoes the zipper of my pants, I hiss at the released pressure against my sore erection, a condition that had started during my walk here.  That relief, however, is torturously short-lived as Zack's large hand brushes the underside of my penis and his rough thumb wipes the precum from the swollen head.  Impossibly so, Zack's touch makes the burn of my body that much more intense and I barely stifle a whimper when the man licks his lips in readiness.

I feel the heat of his breath in the moment before the tip of his tongue teases the slit of my penis, and though it's little more than a child's taste of something new and different, it's apparently more than enough for the poison coursing within my veins.  Though I do try to pull Zack aside by his hair, the pirate chooses the wrong moment to be stubborn, and for that, I don't feel overly guilty at the splattering of cum that covers his left cheek and nearly enters the corner of his eye.

Rightly stunned, Zack stares dumbly as he wipes the fluid from his face.  Fingering the cum, he eventually smiles and comments, "I'm not too certain if I should be feelin' insulted or praised by that."

"Two miles," I form as an excuse between a panting breaths.  "Two fucking miles... between here... and the bar."

A dark eyebrow lifts at the information.  "After that torture, it was enough to get a cat's lick from me?"

I leave the question unanswered as I see no gain in being honest.  Instead, I remove my unzipped shirt, and with a rough touch, I wipe Zack's cheek clean of my soiling.  Zack grabs my wrist in surprise, but he doesn't stop me from the task that takes a few quick movements.  Even so, my hand is still trapped when I'm done, and so I release my hold on the shirt and let it fall where it falls.

"We're not done yet," I say when Zack does nothing more than gaze up at me, the deep blue of his eyes failing to hide the attentive light within.  "The magic requires a series of three to break its hold.  It might be a long night."

Zack breathes a quiet laugh.  "What're you doin'?  Actin' formal and proud when there's nothin' to hide from me?"

"... There's plenty to hide."

With a scolding hum, Zack argues, "What you're hidin' is no use to either of us."

Reluctantly, I understand what he's trying to say, but the pirate doesn't have a clue what he is asking from me.  "Can't I protect you for a change?"

"But what do you desire to protect me from?" Zack asks as he turns my arm and kisses the underside of my wrist.  "From an ugly past or from you?"

Suppressing any reaction to his doting touch, I reply coldly, "From both, if necessary."

Zack smiles a strange smile before he stands up and releases my hand in the process.  In a panicked moment, I think that he's about to leave despite his promise otherwise, but the black-haired man doesn't step away.  After a meaningful glance at me, Zack grabs the bottom of his shirt and pulls the piece of clothing over his head to remove it.  His body has the same deep, weathered tan of his face and arms, though the edge of his low-riding pants reveals a paler color of skin.  Before I'm given the proper time to study the subtle differences between this man and the man I knew, Zack turns around to show his bared back... and I suddenly find it very hard to breathe.

"You can't shelter me from the past," Zack says over his shoulder.  "And I'm not fond at the notion of bein' kept from you."

I stand up from the bed and take a small step to be closer to the larger man.  The skin of his back is a cloak of scars, most created from the wrong end of a whip, but there are a variety of jagged shapes that suggest more than one weapon had been used against him for the purpose of punishment.  My hand lifts to an old, but terrible burn at the slope of his neck and shoulder, and Zack shudders at the first contact of skin upon skin.  It's not until I pull aside dark hair that I see how the scar travels up the side of his neck.

"I moved," Zack says hoarsely.  "Capt'n Levebre swore to free me and let me be an honest man if I endured the flames of Hell.  He put a burnin' coal at my back, and I couldn't..."

"No one could," I say as I continue to examine the burn, noting that it must be years old.  Maybe over a decade... "How old were you?"

"Thirteen, I like to say.  Truth is, there's no way to be certain, but it was less than a month after the Capt'n destroyed the merchant ship that bought me as a slave."  With a harsher tone, he says, "I hated them from the start.  I learned their 'trade' and their fightin' skills, but I ne'er wanted to be them.  I tried to speak properly, even used shore time to learn writin' and readin' when able.  But I was branded as a criminal when young," he says while pulling the shirt from his arms and revealing the dark 'P' on his right forearm.  "There weren't any other option for me."

I let my hand drift downward from the burn and my fingers follow the overlapping lines of cruel scars.  "You weren't an obedient follower."

Zack chuckles at that.  "Not when it didn't risk a life but my own."

Something of his tone reminds me of the time he warned me that Soldiers are like monsters.  It makes me wonder if he rebelled against the Soldier organization and Hojo's lab was his punishment for gaining a conscious.  It wouldn't surprise me much.  But here and now, I feel a low burning desire to visit this pirate world and severely maim any person who had harmed Zack like this.  Not murder, though.  That would be too kind of a punishment.  Fortunately, a buster blade may not be an elegant weapon, but it smashes bones in a deeply satisfying manner.

"Does it sicken you?"

Realizing that I had been staring for too long, I frown at the uncharacteristically worried tone and I know that there aren't any words that could completely relieve his mind.  Not allowing deeper thought, I lean forward and brush my lips along the edge of the scar that had started and almost ended everything for the unwilling pirate.  Zack instinctively pulls away, but I hook my fingers at the waistline of his pants to keep him in place.  Once he relents and allows my exploration, I drag a heavy tongue over the old burn and slowly slide my hands forward until my fingers reach the lacing of his pants.

"Weren't you goin' to keep me safe?" Zack jokes as his hands wrap at my forearms, but not in a restrictive manner.

"Protect you," I correct in a murmur against his rough skin.  "Never said anything about you being safe."

Loosening the laces of his pants, I slip a hand beneath the material and find a surprisingly solid warmth ready for me.  Zack sighs when I finger his waiting erection, curious of the feel of something I've seen before, but never dared to touch.  He's thick in his aroused state, but not much longer than what I imagined, which could potentially make things interesting if we continue.  As it is, each stroke of my hand along Zack's dick seems to revive the aphrodisiac waiting in my blood and it becomes increasingly hard to control my body.

With my first impulse to grind against the pirate, Zack abruptly pulls my hands aside and turns around with such speed that he makes me dizzy with the move.  He then lifts a hand to my neck, and using his thumb, Zack props my chin to part my lips and guide me into a rough kiss that nearly knocks me off balance.  It's a demanding kiss that seems out of character for the aloof man, but I have my own reasons to engage with the connection that leads to a cut lip and bitten tongues.

Eventually breaking the joining he had instigated, Zack licks the blood from the corner of his mouth.  "Now that's a fine kiss."

I touch my thumb to the slice at my lower lip.  "What brought that on?"

Lightly massaging my neck, Zack considers giving me an answer, but changes his mind.  "It's nothin' for you to worry 'bout, love.  Instead, where're you hidin' the oil in this place?"

Distracted by his casual use of the unexpected endearment, I point toward the battered dresser across the room that holds a variety of items including sword cleaning supplies, a few journals for recording my dreams, and even a small sewing kit.  By the time Zack riffles through the drawers and finds the bottles of healing ointments, I decide that 'love' is nothing more than an informal term used on his world.  Sora mentioned something along those lines, that he didn't know what to do with the pirate version of 'friendly'.

Zack tosses a small glass vial into the air and snatches it when he turns around, his eyes bright with conquest.  I want to argue that I'm not the one who lost anything here, but it seems our war is never ending, one victory traded for a more recent defeat.  And watching the swagger to Zack's approach, I realize that I need to do something to regain this battlefield.  Unfortunately, seduction has never been a strong skill of mine, not that it was ever necessary.  Of my partners, Leon is the only one I searched out, and that was an act of reason, not lust.  I'm clearly out of my element, but...

"I like it when your eyes follow my every move," Zack comments hungrily.  "It makes me feel wanted."

I almost question how a man like him could ever feel unwanted, but in a sudden flash of realization, I see, truly see the person in front of me - a child sold into slavery, a young man thrown into a world of treachery, and a man chained by dark magic.  Zack tilts his head in a curious pose at whatever expression I'm showing, and all I can think is that he's stronger than me.  How he can smile after everything he has endured is beyond my understanding.  My hand moves on its own accord and I brush my fingers along the side of his face.  Zack's eyes flutter close at the caressing touch, but reopen again to watch me closely.

"I've been searching for you," I confess as my fingers reach the corner of his lips.  "For years, I looked everywhere, even though I didn't know your face or name."

"Why'd you lie about it?"

I shrug, uncertain how to answer.  "I thought... A part of me knew you were dead.  I looked for you in the Underworld, and went as far as to make a deal with Hades to figure out who you even were, but he couldn't fulfill his part of the agreement because your soul wasn't in his control.  Then in Twilight Town, out of nowhere, you were standing in front of me, alive and strong... and I had the responsibility to kill you.  Frankly, I still don't know how to handle that."

"You didn't--"

"I was prepared to," I argue before Zack finishes his thought.  "I couldn't let Ultimecia have you."

The dark-haired pirate grins foolishly at the statement.  "Aye, because I didn't belong to that siren witch."

"You don't belong to anyone," I say further, my mind's eye turning to the memory of Zack fighting against Hojo's men, a beautiful and deadly dance inspired by the desire to be free.  It saddens me to think that he unfairly died for freedom, and yet was reborn into a life three times as cruel.  He didn't deserve it, and I was never given the chance to protect him.

"Well, I wouldn't say that," Zack purrs, and in a tripping move, he slides his foot between mine and angles his leg sharply.  I land hard on the thin mattress of my bed, uncomfortably so, but Zack follows to loom over me and steals away my attention from the bedsprings at my back.  "We've unfulfilled business."

His mouth covers mine in a hurried act to smother my words, not that I exactly had enough time to come up with proper questions about his sudden actions.  Further submerging me into the control of the aphrodisiac, Zack doesn't hesitate to place his full hand against the bruise at my side.  My body reacts before my mind can prevent my arms from embracing scarred shoulders and my hand from burying deep into black hair.  The cut at my lip splits deeper, the sharp pain and taste of blood adding a different level to our kiss.  I try to make it meaner, but Zack skillfully avoids my teeth with one hand positioned at my face and his other hand teasing a bruise I hadn't noticed at my lower back.

A curse muffled by a deep groan is the only warning before Zack abruptly jerks backward and pushes off the bed.  His scramble to remove boots and pants would be move amusing if my mind were clearer.  Instead, my aching body demands for one thing and I try to satisfy that need by slipping my hand down my opened pants.  Zack spouts a physically impossible insult at me, one that I would have probably ignored if it weren't for the sudden appearance of a small knife.  He slices through the laces of my boots for easy access, and then tosses his knife to the floor where my boots and pants soon join the rest of our discarded clothing.

"You're buying me new laces," I comment, my voice dulled with lust.

"I'll make you some proper ones," Zack bargains as he swats my hand away from its task, and then crawls into his previous position above me.  "Right, where were we?"

Without vocal answer, I pick up the glass vial that had been dropped onto the bed at some point and dangle it in front of the pirate.

"Isn't it a bit early for that?" Zack questions, torn between making this right and surrendering to his bodily desires.

"You've already passed your chance to be noble."

His grin wide at my permission, Zack steals the ointment from my hand and thumbs open the cork stopper.  A calming scent of herbs enters the air before Zack draws backward to kneel between my legs.  He positions my body as suits his purpose, but he chooses to be ridiculously careful about not touching my strained erection.  I bite my already cut lip when careful fingers place the first touch of cold ointment at my anus, the contrast of temperature brutal against my flushed body.  I don't let that expression last, however, knowing that Zack will become overly chivalrous if he thought for a moment that I was in pain.

After a deep breath, I manage to relax and look up, unsurprised to find blue eyes attentive on my reactions.  Zack smirks at my annoyed glance, and then bends down to kiss the inside of my thigh in a mocking display of tenderness.  Rough fingers abruptly enter my hole, and with patient experience, Zack prepares me for his thick arousal.  It has been longer than I realized since the last time Leon and I have done this, especially with the gunblader on top.  I can only hope that Seifer is as ready as he thinks to handle Leon in a drugged state tonight.

"What're you thinkin' about?" Zack asks with playful curiosity.

"The last time I did this," I taunt, amused by the slight narrowing of his eyes.

The desire to question me further is plain in his expression, but Zack chooses wisely to avoid the answers that I would freely give him.  I'm not too certain what Zack would think about Leon being my previous partner.  Confusion would probably be a large part of that, but of anyone I know, Zack should understand the need to have something more than friendship when everything else is falling apart and you'll do anything to stay in one piece.

Tonight, however, has nothing to do with holding myself together.  If anything, it may tear me apart to surrender to Zack, but I can't refuse him.  Not anymore.

A rough hand slides down my thigh and curls underneath my knee to lift my leg to his shoulder.  He kisses my thigh, this time with a flash of teeth that leaves a mark along my skin.  I smirk at the idea that Zack isn't going to share me anytime soon.  And like that, he enters me.

After that initial push, I pant out a relieved breath at the feel of the solid heat that has nothing to do with false flames created by the aphrodisiac.  Reopening my eyes, I gaze up at Zack and hold back a groan at the sight of him with pleasure narrowed eyes and the contrast of dark lashes against deep blue.  Sweat teases his brow along with overhanging strands of black hair, and when he takes a shaky breath, his lips form a silent 'o'.

"More..." I demand when Zack takes too long to adjust, I assume for my benefit.

The pirate chuckles.  "Aye, that's the plan."

With that statement, Zack pulls back and drives in deeper, encouraging me to grab at the sheets of my bed and hold on tight.  Even with the ointment, it hurts as he thrusts with slow, but heavy strokes, and Zack would probably throttle me if he knew how much I appreciate the pain.  My confused sense of pleasure aside, the pain keeps me solidly planted in the moment and aware of the larger man with every thrust and brush against my prostrate.  And of course, there's something to be said for the way that sharp pain makes my nerves stand on end and perfectly prepared for the next spike of ecstasy.

It doesn't take long before Zack speeds up his rhythm to a brutal beat, which then leads to fistfuls of torn sheets in my hands.  My blood hums with heated magic and the mantra of 'not yet, not yet' echoes within my head.  I don't want this to end, not when I have exactly what I have desired in two lifetimes.  I can't lose this, not now... not again...

A strong hand abruptly wraps around mine and my eyes open when I don't remember closing them.  Still moving, Zack grins down at me and squeezes harder around my fisted hand.  A silent promise, an unspoken pledge... and I trust him as I shouldn't.

Red light blurs my vision in the moment release hits me.  The heat in my blood seems to flow out of me in a matter of seconds, causing goosebumps across my skin at the same time as my groin burns with my climax.  A quiet scream escapes me, nothing that most people would actually call a scream, but it's unusual enough from a man like me.  And yet, through it all, I feel Zack's hand wrapped around mine and holding with an iron grip.

It takes too long for my body to calm down, maybe a minute, probably longer.  By the time I open my eyes, Zack is hovering above me, resting on his forearms while looking down at my face.  His body is heavy and warm against mine, a comforting position until I shift slightly and realize that, despite the wetness of his release, the idiot is still buried deep within me, and apparently, not about to move anytime soon.

"You alright, there?" Zack asks in a quiet voice, as if he could shatter me if he spoke too loudly.

I don't answer him, and instead glance at my hand covered by his.  It takes some effort, but I manage to uncurl my fingers and release the ripped sheets.  In exchange, I turn my hand and thread my fingers between Zack's, interested in the way our sword-born calluses rub against each other.

"That was..." Zack begins, but doesn't finish the thought.  Pressing his forehead against mine, he takes a deep breath and says, "You're not gettin' away from me again."

I close my eyes at the pledge and savor it for everything it is worth at this moment.  I have suffered too many disappointments in my life to easily trust in 'forever' and 'never', but for the length of this night, I'll believe in his word.  I may even stay long enough in the morning to watch him wake and see how he'll look upon me in those first unguarded moments of the day.  But as of right now, I can still feel the heat of magic in my blood and nothing else really matters.

I move my free hand to the damp spikes of black hair and claw my fingernails against his scalp.  "I'm not done with you yet."

With a purring hum, Zack comments, "I can count, too, love, but I'm thinkin' that mornin' is a long time off."

My chest stirs at the suggestion of a full night with the pirate, but I quickly calm that bothersome emotion.  "First things first."

"Do you not trust me?" he questions while bending down, his teeth making easy work of my surprisingly sensitive ear.

"I do," is my answer, though I think to myself, 'more than you can imagine.'

"Then give yourself to me."

I bite back a groan when Zack locates the spot behind my ear that would have me surrender my soul to him if I'm not careful enough.  But even recognizing that possibility, I feel my willpower weaken as the pirate continues to assault the pressure point.  To save myself, I bargain, "Until the morning."

Zack laughs lightly, his breath teasing my neck and hair.  "We shall see about that."

I should be on my guard, most certainly within reach of a useable weapon, but I relax beneath the larger man and allow myself to feel everything of his skilled touch, his overwhelming heat, and his passionate soul.  I may regret this come light of day, but as I glance at our hands intertwined, I know that the ghost of my past and the shade of my present need this.  If only for a handful of hours, I can have what I've wanted for so long... and that will have to be enough.

A quiet drumming enters my dreams, transforming into a vision of soldiers chasing me through the endless hallways of the manor where I had been trapped for years.  Door after door is locked to me, driving me to fearful tears as the sound of boots on concrete follow close behind.  My abused body screams in pain with every burst of speed to the next door, and eventually, I've asked too much of bruised and battered legs.  I collapse between doors into a clumsy heap, which further aggravates my injuries.  I struggle to push myself up and off the cold ground, but I feel defeated and without hope, without reason to hope...

Suddenly, a heavy hand grabs my arm, and before I understand what is happening, I'm lifted into the air and cradled in strong arms.  I see Zack's determined expression before I close my eyes and tiredly bury my face against his neck, trusting him to save me, trusting him to take me to the sunlight, trusting him to--

My eyes snap open to a harsh rap that I first believe to be gunfire, but after a few long moments of recognizing the ceiling above me and the other sights of my apartment, I identify the knocking sound for what it is.  Blearily, I try to move off the bed to answer the door, but the weight at my midsection prevents any proper movement.  I push up onto my elbows and stare down at the hopeless pirate draped over my stomach, his arms wrapped lazily around my waist and his legs entangled with mine.  Noting the thin trail of drool next to my bellybutton, I scratch the back of my head and wonder why I hold everlasting respect for this shameless man.

With no reason to be gentle, I remove myself from Zack's hold by kicking my legs free and shoving his head to the side.  The pirate groans at the rough treatment, but obediently flops to the side and out of my path to the door.  Stiffly, I bend down to retrieve my lost pants, but Zack's are in closer reach and prove far easier to slip on, though they hang low on my hips.  With each step, a different and sharp sensation of soreness assaults me, which isn't incredibly new in itself, though I don't remember a time when I've experienced all of these sex-induced pains at once.

Reaching my goal, I open the door far enough to see outside, and with some surprise at the identity of my visitor, I open the door fully and lean tiredly against the frame.  "I should shoot you where you stand."

Undaunted, Leon smiles in his stoic way and comments, "That would require you owning a gun."  He then holds up a brown paper bag and a large thermos undoubtedly filled with freshly brewed coffee from Aerith's cafe.  "I thought you and Zack could use some breakfast."

My eyes narrow on the brunet.  "You're assuming things."

Leon huffs and motions toward the borrowed pants that are clearly not mine.

"You're still assuming," I argue while accepting his offer, the action of reaching for the thermos reminding me of my sore side.  Eyeing the brunet, I ask with interest, "It's not like you to take a healing potion outside of a battle"

"Why would I need a potion?"

Not expecting that answer, I stare at Leon for a distracted second.  "You have certain... preferences."

He shrugs in a useless reply, but his eyes hold an edge of shrewdness to them.

"Then, what did you promise the kid last night?"

"Cid was showing off his 'photo book' collection and Seifer got some ideas about other uses for my belts.  I couldn't exactly refuse him in a drugged state, so I went along with it."

Despite my lingering anger at the brunet, a breath of laughter leaves me at the mental picture of Seifer regretting his choice to put bondage into the equation with a master like Leon.  It'll be amusing to see if the kid wears something to cover up his inconvenient bruises, or perhaps he'll decide to show those identifiable marks with pride.

At my laugh, Leon hums with satisfaction.  "You needed this."

"I haven't decided that yet."

"Sorry, Strife, but we both know that this isn't something we're allowed to 'decide'," Leon comments as he turns and steps toward the street.  "Enjoy your morning.  Yuffie is covering your security duty for the day.  You'll owe her one."

I groan at his inclusion of the thief.  Even if Leon didn't explain why I needed a substitute, Yuffie is a bright girl with an imaginative mind - she knew Seifer belonged to Leon without missing a beat, so it shouldn't take her long to figure out what Zack means to me.

"What did the man bring us?"

I glance over my shoulder at Zack, the pirate sitting with his back against the wall and his lower body covered by rumpled sheets.  "Breakfast, apparently."

Fighting back a yawn, Zack rakes a hand back through his messed hair and motions with his other hand for me to return to the bed.  While I have the instinct to rebel against his order, I carefully close the door and pad in bare feet toward the waiting pirate.  Zack reaches out when I'm near enough, but instead of grabbing for the bag of food, he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me close.

"How'd you know about Leon's 'preferences'?"

I snort at the question that has an obvious answer, one I don't feel like vocalizing.

With a refreshing amount of thought after the storm of emotions last night, Zack considers my response and eventually asks, "He's with Almasy now, yes?"

I nod at the unexpected question.  "They knew each other from before... Like us."

Surprise highlights his eyes.  "Our same world?"

"No, but they understand what it means to find each other again."

Zack straightens at the implications behind my statement, but instead of pushing me too far, he grins with infuriating smugness and taps the bag still in my hand.  "So, anythin' good in there?"

I hand him the thermos before opening the paper bag.  My stomach turns hungrily when I set eyes on a pair of Aerith's breakfast burritos, but a part of me still bristles at the idea of Aerith being involved whatsoever with Zack, even if it amounts to a pile of cooked eggs wrapped in a large tortilla.

"Hey," Zack begins with a tug of the pants loose on my hips.  "If you're not hungry, we can continue where we left off."

And somehow, more than sweet words of 'trust me', his lustful desire for my body over Aerith's cooking is enough.  For now, at least.  I reach into the bag and hand Zack one of the burritos, much to his visible disappointment.  Even so, he surrenders graciously and pats the mattress for me to sit next to him.  I let the bag drop to the floor and sit with my leg bent up close to my chest, positioning it so that my arm can rest on top of my knee while I bite into breakfast.

Zack falls back to rest against the wall, relaxed and comfortable next me.  "Have to say, I didn't think you'd be around this mornin'."

"You were on top of me," I grumble around my mouthful.

"With a purpose," he insists, his grin suggesting that he's pleased that it worked.  "Did it bother your sleep?"

Focusing on breakfast, I don't bother answering with the inconvenient reality that his weight probably saved me from my nightmares.  I can't remember a time I've dreamt of my time under Hojo's watch and was allowed to escape.  More often than not, my screams are the reason I wake from those nightmares.

Zack chuckles at my stubbornness, but then grows somewhat serious when glancing at his uneaten food.  "My jealousies aside, I think you have a good friend in Leon."

"He poisoned me."

"He's out for your interests," Zack argues with a vague smile.  "It's refreshin' to see good folk lookin' out for each other."

"... We all do."

"So I've seen, but you trust Leon."

I shrug at the implication.  "Leon is honest and straightforward.  It's easy to trust him."

"Then, is it because I'm not honest enough that it's hard for you to trust me?"

I glance back at Zack for the question which he has already asked several times now in some variation.  It begins to dawn on me that the experienced pirate must view something like 'love' as a fanciful notion reserved for ladies and young children, but 'trust' in a world of treachery and criminals... A relationship built on trust must be the highest form of love for a man like him.  But while I would like to think I want nothing more, I'm more honest than that.

I meet Zack's waiting gaze and say, "Leon didn't want Seifer, this kid version of him, when they first met.  He told me that he couldn't betray Seifer with a love he held for a man he knew in another time.  It didn't matter to Leon that the soul was the same - he wanted to be certain that he loved for honest reasons and not for faded memories."

Zack considers my words before concluding, "You want to be as strong as him."

"If I can."

The pirate smiles knowingly at my reply, and with his hand cupping my cheek, he says in a low rumble, "I'll accept your answer, love, but I'll be damned if I make it easy on you."

I don't move away when Zack leans in close, his intent clear and fairly expected given the line of discussion.  However, unlike the harsh kisses throughout the night, Zack chooses a simpler press of lips that somehow feels more demanding than anything we had done when my body was poisoned.  Doubts try to invade my mind, questioning what will happen if Zack gets bored in another week or another month.  I couldn't have what I wanted in my other life, so why should I be blessed now? ... But then his large hand moves to my neck and massages down the length of my spine, driving those doubts away.

Feeling protected and safe, I realize that to hold my light and have him close means the shadows can't touch me.  Not anymore.

My lips curl into a disbelieving smile and I know that I won't be able to run away from Zack after this, not when I know what it means to be touched by his light.  I can keep it from him as long as possible, but the truth will exist every time we touch and our eyes meet, and Zack isn't a stupid man.  He'll figure it out in time, but I can keep this a guarded secret for now.  I can have what I've wanted since Zack first held my hand, and no one can take this away from me.  No one and nothing... and I've waited for so long.




Author's Whining -- And that's Cloud and Zack, and Leon revenge. ;)  This was hard for me to write, partly because I love my boys so much and it feels like I'm cheating on them whenever I write other pairings.  I hope they can forgive me and not make things worse for me when I start back into those requests. ^^;  Anywho, hope you enjoyed this last bit for GR:NP.  I don't have anything else particularly planned for the story, so I'm happily considering it done. *does a happy dance*