After swearing off of fanfiction after spending an inordinate amount of time writing the last one... I'm back, and currently in FF7 hell. The remake destroyed me. Anyway, this story is purely to feed my obsession, and I'm not entirely sure where it will go or where it will end. Time will tell, and I hope you enjoy the ride :)

It was raining. Every drop of rain hit the young infantryman like a knife; like a thousand tiny, icy knives that slid down his chilled skin and soaked into his borrowed SOLDIER's uniform. But he hardly noticed. His limp hand twitched in the mud and his blond eyelashes fluttered, but his expression – or rather, his lack of expression – did not change. If he had not been hidden behind the rocky outcropping, the infantry unit on the other side of the stones could have assumed that he was dying. They wouldn't have even been that wrong.

Gunfire echoed in the distance.

The sounds bounced across the canyon walls and melted into the rain. It created a symphony of sorts, a tragic duet. The haunting melody was punctuated by screams and the sounds of dying men. The hiss of a metal blade. The pop of gunshots. Then faint sighs, like kisses beneath the summer sun, as bodies disintegrated into green fragments and faded back into the Lifestream.

But then the gunshots slowed and eventually came to a stop. The sounds of shouting quieted, until all that could be heard was the steady drumming of rain. The distant crack of thunder. The splash of raindrops hitting the mud. The infantryman shivered as icy water trickled into his black turtleneck and down his bare arms, but if he was aware of the cold, of the damp, then he gave no indication.

Moments later, the sounds of footsteps flickered across his consciousness. The steps were heavy and uneven, as if walking with a limp, before coming to a stop in front of him. There was a pained grunt and rustling fabric, and someone knelt down in front of him. Then a hand was ruffling his hair, a gesture so familiar and comforting that it brought tears to his eyes, though he did not know why.

"H – Hey, Cloud." A finger brushed against his cheek, catching a tear that escaped. "Sorry for... worrying you."

The infantryman – no, Cloud – inhaled a shuddering breath. A memory flashed through his mind; an indistinct face watching him through green-tinged liquid, the metallic taste of mako, the hiss as the pod emptied and he collapsed into a pair of waiting arms...

Cloud's fingers trembled in the mud. "Za… Zack..."

The man, Zack, went still for a moment. So still that he could have passed for a statue, and though he quickly smiled, it was a brittle and broken – almost as if he was about to cry. "Yeah buddy. That's right, that's me." He thickly swallowed. "Let's… let's get out of the rain, okay?"

Cloud gave no indication that he heard. All he knew is that he was safe again, that everything was okay. He felt a tug as his arm was pulled over Zack's shoulder, as well as pressure around his waist as Zack tightened his hold.

"Ready, Spikey?" Zack asked, but didn't seem to be expecting an answer. He simply shrugged a bit, as if pulling Cloud into a more comfortable position, before continuing, "We're almost there." There was a crunch of gravel as he took a shaky step forward, and then another. "We're almost there..."

Ex-SOLIDER First Class, Zackary Fair, could not believe he was alive. He certainly shouldn't be. And as he walked across the Midgar wastes, Cloud limp against him, he couldn't help but run a hand along his chest. At the holes in his uniform. At the bloodstains that were already beginning to dry beneath a suddenly sunny sky.

He shakily inhaled and tried to focus on his footsteps, his breathing. Every jostle sent pain rippling up and down his body, and it wasn't difficult to imagine how many bullets were still embedded in his skin, and how many made it clean through. Which brought him to his original thought: He shouldn't be alive.

Whatever Hojo, that son-of-a-bitch, did to him, did to his body, it made him stronger. Nearly bulletproof. And it terrified him.

"Don't worry, Spikey," he found himself saying. "Almost there. Just a few more miles."

He wasn't sure for whose benefit he was even saying that for anymore; Cloud's, or his own. Maybe a little bit of both.

He still couldn't believe that Cloud had spoken to him. Had said his name. Hell, Cloud had even cried when Zack came back from fighting Shinra's army. Zack spared his best friend – no, his brother now – a quick glance, his mako-laced eyes searching for any sort of change, any sort of awareness. But there was nothing there. The same blank, thousand-mile stare. The same broken expression, as if he didn't want to wake up anymore, that whatever Hojo had done to him was bad enough that he didn't want to be aware of it anymore.

Zack tore his gaze away and forced himself to continue walking. Yeah, he couldn't blame Cloud for that. What Hojo had done them both… sometimes, in his weaker moments, he wished he would go comatose too. Maybe then he would finally get a decent night's sleep.

He shook his head, violently, even as the thought crossed his mind. Stop thinking like that! he ordered himself. He didn't have time, or the excess energy, to throw himself a pity party. He had Cloud to think of now. And Aerith...

A fresh pang of pain through his chest as he recalled his girlfriend, one that had nothing to do with the bullet holes. For a brief moment, he wondered if she was okay. If she was still selling flowers, and that cart of hers was still broken. And if she was still afraid of the sky…

He shook his head, again. Don't think about that either, he told himself. Focus on the mission. I'll see her soon, but first we have to get to Mid...

The sounds of a helicopter blurred out his thoughts. Dread pooled deep in his gut as he turned around, already knowing what he would see. A Shinra helicopter. Flying directly towards them.

No. Zack glanced across the landscape but it was flat, barren, dusty. Oh god, no. There was nowhere to hide Cloud, nowhere they could escape to. Swallowing a shaky breath, Zack slowly stooped to the ground and lifted Cloud's arm off of his shoulder, then gently lowered him to the ground. Cloud slumped against him, boneless. Trusting. It made Zack's chest hurt to look at.

I failed.

We're going back to the lab.

"Sorry, buddy," he murmured. His throat closed, his eyes burned; the helicopter's thundering engine drew closer, and he pulled Cloud into a tight hug. Cloud made a faint noise, but it was drowned out by the pounding propellor blades. "I guess…" He squeezed his eyes shut, and managed to continued, "...this is as far as we go."

"I have eyes on our targets, over."

Cissnei leaned back as she slowed the helicopter to begin her final descent. Before her, slumped against the still-damp either, two figures were hunched against each other. Zack she recognized immediately, and he was pulling the younger blond boy in a tight hug. The blond, Cloud, looked the same as she had last seen him. Dazed. Disoriented. His eyes were open, just a little, but he wasn't seeing anything.

But that was okay. They were alive, both of them, and it was enough to draw a smile on her lips.

"What did we tell you?" Reno said through the radio. His voice was a hiss of static. "No matter our mission, we always finish our jobs because..."

"...We're the Turks," Cissnei finished. She pushed her copper hair out of her eyes as the helicopter landed on the brown earth. It was only then did Zack rise – Cloud remained slumped against Zack's legs, his legs folded beneath him – and draw his Buster Sword, but even Cissnei could tell that the action pained him. The tip of his sword wavered in the air. She could almost hear the metal tremble.

"My coordinates are point 235," Cissnei announced on her com. "Reno, Rude, please contact Tseng and alert him that we have found the targets. And," she added, almost as an afterthought, "to please prepare two hospital rooms. They'll need it."

"Yes, ma'am," came Reno's easy reply.

"Affirmative," Rude quickly followed, and the radio went silent.

Sharply exhaling, Cissnei pulled off the clunky headset and slipped out of the helicopter, her arms lifted as if in surrender. "Zack," she began.

The dark-haired SOLDIER blinked at her, his sword dropping a few centimeters, before he suddenly raised it again. "We're not going back," he announced through gritted teeth. "We won't."

"That's not the purpose of this mission," Cissnei said, only to internally wince at how formal she sounded. How uptight. This was a rescue mission; she needed to be more comforting than cold. Trying again, she said, "Zack… we're here to help you. You and Strife."

"Yeah?" Cissnei could hear the bite in Zack's voice. "Like how the army tried to help us?"

Cissnei's eyes widened a fraction. "Army?" she repeated. It was only then did she notice how damaged Zack's uniform was. The bloodstains. She had initially believed that those were old wounds; they were not bleeding as fresh wounds should, not to mention he was still standing and conscious, but then she noticed the blood pattern against the cloth. How it had been diluted from rain, rain that had passed through this area just a moment ago, and was caked with dirt from the local area.

Just like that, realization slammed through Cissnei. Those were not old wounds. Those were fresh.

"Zack, you need to go to a hospital," she said, as gently as she could manage.

"I'm not going back to the lab."

"I know. You and Strife won't." Zack's speech patterns were beginning to give her concern. The way he repeated sentences, his fixation on going back to the lab… perhaps the blood loss had affecting his frontal lobe, and therefore his rational thought. She would have to simplify things for him. Explain things like she would a child. But how?

Sharply inhaling, she tried an entirely different approach. "Did you know," she began, "that Tseng has been saving letters for you?"

Zack frowned at that. "Letters?"

"Yes." Cissnei managed a small smile. It hurt to speak of the letters, but she had no choice at this point. "There are eight-eight of them, from that girl in Midgar you are so eager to see."

Zack's eyes flew wide. "Aerith?" he managed, only to suddenly stumble. He drove his sword in the ground to keep himself upright, and Cloud – still slouched against his legs – shivered at the sudden sound. "Sorry, Spikey," Zack murmured, but he didn't seem to be aware he had said anything at all. His eyes were downcast, pinned at the ground and the mud caked there, without seeing any of it at all. "She… She's been sending me..."

"For four years," Cissnei repeated. "Tseng has them, and would like to give them to you."

"But – But she's..." Zack shook his head. "She's in Midgar..."

"Tseng reached out to her. It was… against protocol," she admitted. "But at the time, we did not know you were the sample. We had thought – We had wanted to find you, Zack. You had disappeared, presumed dead, even though no one believed it."

"But not Cloud," Zack murmured. "You didn't want to find him."

"We had wanted to find both of you," Cissnei assured. "Please, Zack. Please let us help you. We'll take you to the Turk hospital, Tseng will deliver Aerith's letters, and then will contact Aerith so that she can come see you. See you healthy instead of covered in blood."

Zack had looked like he had been about to refuse, but her last statement made him pause. He frowned at the earth. "A real hospital?"

"Yes," Cissnei promised.

"Cloud can't leave my sight."

"We can arrange that."

"And Aerith can come visit?"


"And Hojo can't know." Zack sounded desperate now. More desperate than wanting to see Aerith. "Please, Cissnei. Hojo can't know. He – He can't, I can't go back there, I -"

"He won't," Cissnei said. Her voice was like immovable, and carried more strength than her petite frame would suggest. "As far as he's concerned, you and Strife passed away after running into the army. He will not be happy, but..." She shrugged, and offered Zack a small smile. "I can live with that, if you can."

After a moment, Zack slowly nodded. "I can," he said, but then his expression went slack. His vision crossed. Cissnei recognized the look, that dazed expression moments before passing out, and was already running forward as Zack pitched forward.

"I got you," she breathed as Zack collapsed into her arms.

He was surprisingly heavy.