By- Strange and Intoxicating -rsa-

A/N: This story will contain Homosexual/Heterosexual pairings. If you cannot handle either, than I ask you to please turn around. The main focus of the story will be Zack's life, should he have survived. While this story will be of epic length, I will try my hardest to keep characters in character. Sexuality does not define a character.

Special note: I have been slowly working through and editing the chapters, but I am trying to cut as little as possible. I will be 100% honest with you: I wrote a generous portion of the chapters between the ages of 15 and 18. The first half of the story is rough, and rather than stop to rewrite I just continued. The characterizations do change, and I am currently working on editing them. I had some issues with a few of the characters, mostly due to my young self.

The better, more cut version is on AO3, but I am doing my best to make it so that both versions are readable. Just be warned for those inconsistencies.

If anyone would ever like to help me beta this monster, please feel free to send me a message. I love this story and am dedicated to finishing it, but I don't know if I can do both editing for consistency and writing at the same time.

Re-edited as of 4/27/2017

Disclaimer: I, Strange and Intoxicating -rsa-, do not own, think I own, or will ever own Final Fantasy VII or its compilations. I write this because it's fun and I have no life-the end.

Prologue: Pity

Mako smelled of death.

Blood pooling out of his chest, instruments of torture in the name of science... that blood congealed around his body, sticking to him, smearing across his skin. Switched with mako- overpowering, cruel, lifeless. Zack screamed in the beginning but after a while he stopped. Cloud didn't stop screaming until the end. Were they aliveā€”had they ever been alive? Could one die and come back? Could their very blood boil and burn?

"Keep walking," Zack uttered under his breath, pulling Cloud closer to his heaving chest. Three days of constant walking had taken its toll, but he refused to stop. The first two days were simple, "A piece of cake," he remembered saying when he dragged the limp boy from the truck. That had been eons ago when spirits were high. Not to mention the mako- the overpowering stench- was faint and swept away by the winds. Now, closer to the city, the entire surroundings of Midgar smelled of death.

"This is interesting." Zack ruffled Cloud's hair, the way he had when things had been so much simpler.

The boy groaned in response.

Hojo snickered and folded his hands behind his back. Two experiments, one able to kill the great 'General'; oh, how interesting they were. He touched, he poked, he prodded. The results were so very, veryinteresting. "Too much mako," he mumble, or "not enough." Those were always the worst experiments.

'Z' went quiet early. Before their escape, specimen 'C' silenced too.

Cloud's status hadn't changed. Then again, Zack hadn't expected the guy to be okay. He spent most of his time moaning or screaming if not stuck in a dream world, reaching for nothing and everything. There were stars in his eyes and Zack would only smile and talk, as if his friend understood.

Such lies.

Those tanks in Nibelheim's reactor weren't right. Filled with monsters and beasts-it was a flashback to Shinra Headquarters, where Hojo kept his most prized and valuable experiments. At night, when all of the SOLDIERs went to sleep and the building was quiet, the shrieking started. He grew used to the sounds by the end of his time with Hojo, but as a cadet he would curl in on himself and try to hide from the ghouls. No one took the Lab assignments. No one.

Zack trekked through the barren wasteland towards Midgar. It was the city of rich fools set on world domination, their greedy fingertips stained with Gaia's blood. On the other hand it was the city of poor rich fools, convinced their government was saving the world. Those were the worst-they gladly slipping their coins into Shinra's till. Midgar was the city of never-ending scam-artists and lies. There was no better place in the world.

Suddenly, Cloud whined and gripped his fingers to Zack's uniform. He could hear Cloud's protesting joints popping.

"You okay?" Zack asked, mussing the boy's hair. Groggy, shining eyes looked up with madness. Holy... he still looked sixteen.

"Stop," Cloud gurgled and if anything, his grip tightened. There were holes beginning to unravel under his fingers. If it kept up, Cloud was a goner.

"Specimen 'C' has been crying more as of late. I have injected him with several new strains of 'S', twenty-five milli-liters in each dosage. No change. Tomorrow I shall be upping the dosage to fifty milli-liters. Perhaps that will make the transformation begin."

Zack looked down again, his feet still trudging through bleak, dry dirt. The brown muck clung to his shoes and their skin.

"No way I'm stopping." Zack smiled, his face strained. His feet continued to plow through the rubble and caking dirt; the area around Midgar was a barren landscape. Scientists that Zack knew before his stint in Nibelheim said it was caused by the mako pollution, but they had their doubts. Zack knew it was bullshit. Every place a mako reactor went the land died-it was like the grounds were tended with salt and fire, aching and so bright.

Cloud let go of the shirt. The black material slid smoothly down Zack's stomach as Cloud ran the pads of his fingers against the scar on Zack's face. It was gentle and innocent... yet probing and burning. He stroked the skin for a whisper of a moment before twisting his hand away, pointing up at the sky.

"Stop," he gurgled again.

This time Zack could head the undertones, the sound of another voice joining Cloud's. Zack turned his head sharply as he heard the crackle of an intercom and a speeding propeller. A few hundred feet away one of Shinra's sleek helicopters hovered in the air; the paint on the steel still looked wet. They were going to be abducted again, weren't they? They wouldn't stop until both Cloud and Zack were dead... They would follow them to the ends of the Planet if it assured their destruction. They were a parasitic thing, and if they caught them... it would be over.

"Shit, Cloud," he whispered as he protectively wrapped his arms tighter. His glance darted around the area, analyzing the terrain. Zack swore again; the rocks weren't large enough to hide Cloud and there was no vegetation that he could stash the kid in for protection. He twitched and looked back at the helicopter-he outright refused to put Cloud in danger. The kid didn't do anything wrong... and he wasn't going to let someone drag a half-dead boy back to Shinra.

"Zack, stop!" the voice yelled again. He knew that voice, knew it well. And he ignored it, taking off in a run, hoisting Cloud up to keep him from bouncing out of his hands. No time, there was no time. No place to go.

The helicopter roared by their heads and Zack ducked, avoiding a spray of dirt and rocks. His own body could only shield Cloud from so much of the damage, and when he looked down through strained eyes he noticed that Cloud curled his face into his shirt to breathe.

The wind continued to blow ferociously, howling like a mad Kalm Fang on a full moon. Zack couldn't look up for more than a few seconds at a time. His boots were suctioned to the ground and it took jolting himself to move. The faster he tried, the less his legs cooperated until Zack had to stop and dig his heels into the sand. There was something approaching and the swirling began to die.

Blood red.

"Hey, the name's Reno, and me an' you seem to be stuck in a bit of a tiffy." The red-head swirled the vodka in his glass before lifting in to his lips. "It looks like the big boys upstairs want us ta be partners, and I ain't too happy 'bout that. My normal partner, Rude, managed to blow up some bullshit experiment of Hojo's, and now I ain't got no one to go with me for this damn assignment." He drained the glass and smacked it down to the table with a thud. "Anyway, we gotta go kidnap some guy off the plate. I gotta use you ta get in there. Some assassin from Wutai, or some shit like that."

"Reno," whispered Zack. He needed to get Cloud somewhere, somewhere where Reno wouldn't see, couldn't hurt the kid.

Quickly, Zack hefted Cloud up on his shoulder before he took off toward the eye of the sandstorm, sitting the boy down to rest near a pile of misshapen stone. "You stay here," he whispered into Cloud's spikes. Cloud clung to his shirt again, but he pried the kid's pale fingers away. "It's okay, it'll be okay."

"Daw, ain't this a lovely scene."

Zack pulled his Buster Sword from the magnetic sheath, pointing it at the approaching Turk. "Don't move," Zack growled, voice dropping an octave.

The Turk paid no mind and continued forward. The EMR was poised on his belt-a dangerous weapon. Zack could remember the smell of burning meat and charred flesh with that thing. When Reno went to grab for it, Zack brandished the weapon before him, as though the metal would somehow deflect the electricity. Reno only quirked his eyebrow and tossed the thing to the ground at Zack's feet, hitting into his boot before skidding to a halt in front of Cloud.

"I ain't gunna hurt ya," the Turk said.

Zack tightened his grip on the sword. The helicopter nearby was hovering just above the ground; how much force would it take to bring it down?

"And why would I trust you?" Zack asked, his voice burning holes in his tongue.

Reno smirked. "I owe ya, remember?" There was false mirth in his eyes. If Zack didn't know better, Reno looked like he'd been either sick or not eating right for a while.

"You owe me quite a bit, but that doesn't mean shit."

Reno looked down like a child caught with his hand down his pants. He kicked at the dirt and put his hands in his pockets, languishingly leaning from side to side. "Well, I know that. But look at me, I'm harmless!" Demurely, Reno slumped his shoulders. There was a cat's grin across his mouth, though. Zack knew better than to trust that mouth.

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

Reno shrugged one shoulder and looked to Cloud, who had curled himself into a tight ball, before scratching his nose. "Look. I know you don't trust me, but I'm not gunna hand you over. I'm on my break." While something like that was typical of Reno, Zack couldn't help but take a step back. He dropped the Buster Sword into a offensive position, ready to strike if the Turk so much as sniffled.

Reno coughed (and Zack did not move.) "The kid needs some fuckin' meds. They said you'd be traveling with some pipsqueak, but they didn't say he was sick or nuthin'."

"Specimen 'C', I have deemed, is a complete failure. He has been unresponsive to the 'S' strain. I have decided that beginning tomorrow another set of experiments will occur, to see if 'G' cells may counterbalance the 'S'. Chances of reunion with 'G' cells could be limited, but I am curious as to whether they will cannibalize." Hojo cackled. "Experiment 'Z', on the other hand, is doing well with the 'S' cells, but is not fully taking to them. When the new regimen begins, I will be inserting more mako and more Jenova 'S' and 'A' cells. Perhaps there is hope to this experiment yet."

"He is really sick, and I know who can help him..." Zack looked at Cloud; the hoarse screams would begin soon. They always did. "I would kill you if he wasn't here," Zack scornfully added. "Fucking betrayer."

"That's not important right now. Just get the brat and let's go," Reno said, exaggerating his arm movements. Zack was still skeptical, and looked down at Cloud.

"Look," Reno drawled, "I get it. Fuckin' bitch some other time, or your buddy's gunna croak."

"I know that." Zack searched the Turk's face one more time. Reno looked bored, and was scratching at his palm with his fingernails, but he didn't look like he was lying. Zack knew Reno's liar face. This one seemed honest-as honest as a Turk could be.

"Before you go askin' for some ulterior motive, Tseng doesn't want me to kill ya. He was the one who suggested this, y'know."

Zack nibbled his lip, looking down at Cloud. "If anything happens, I swear to the heavens..." he trailed off.

"Well, then we ain't got nuthin' to worry 'bout. Who ya gunna bring the pipsqueak to anyway? I didn't think there were any good healers that don't have some connections to Shinra."

"The planet thought that I was worthy," the girl mused, running her fingers through her silky brown hair. "I'm going to help save people with my powers. I've been always adept to using the cure materia. Sometimes, when I get hurt or get scared, I don't even need the materia. It's weird, but if it helps it must be a gift from the planet." She bent down, grasping the clipping shears she abandoned moments before. "So, are you going to help me cut these flowers or will I have to do it all on my lonesome?"

"You know who," Zack said as he swung his sword over his head and into its sheath. He looked away from Reno and down at Cloud before kneeling closer. He kissed the boy's temple. "Hey, Cloud, come on, we're going to go on a ride," he whispered in a low voice as he lifted him up.

"I still don't trust you. No Hojo, right?"

The red-head choked. "You know me better; guy gives me the creeps."

"I hope you know," Zack finally said as they walked toward the helicopter, Cloud's weight the only thing making him get into the helicopter. "I'm only doing this for Cloud. I'm not gunna forgive you." Zack would have rather walked through an army, but Cloud's condition was deteriorating...

"Yeah, yeah. The entire Shinra army has been sent to find your ass, and Tseng's always got some reason for what he does. You don't need to forgive me for anything- in ya go!" They made it to the helicopter and Reno pulled out a cigarette. He held out the pack, bouncing it around in his palm.

"No thanks." Zack pulled Cloud up through the open door, sliding between the two pilot seats, Cloud resting in his lap. He knew if CLoud was in his right mind, he would've been protesting. When he got better, Zack would avoid mentioning it. As long as CLoud woke up, it wouldn't matter. He was responsible for Cloud, held his life in the palm of his hands.

"You ain't smoking? Man, that's a first." Reno looked down at the pack for a moment before shaking his head. "Well, your loss."

"What about big boy over there?" Zack roughly pointed his chin at Rude, who stared off into the distance.

Reno snickered. "Dude, we've both known Rude here for how long? Six or seven years? You know he's basically a fuckin' mute, so I wouldn't worry 'bout him." The red-head jumped into the seat, strapping himself down. "Lookie there. We've got company."

Zack traced the horizon: hundreds of SOLDIERs and grunts, tanks and trucks stood against the smoggy line. "I would find this funny if they weren't about to kill me," he snarled, his eyes glaring out at the hundreds of men. "Shut the door!" the SOLDIER suddenly yelled, causing Reno to snap his head up and fumble. The helicopter was already beginning to take off, the wind whipping against Zack's face like a monsoon's breeze.

"Shit!" the red-head yelled, knocking a box out of the helicopter. "Ah, double shit!" he yelled again, throwing his cigarette out of the helicopter. He snapped the helicopter door closed and sat back into his seat, kicking the metal-plated side.

Zack watched with muted fascination as the wind swirled the papers around. "What were those?"

"Tseng gave them to me to give to you." Reno pulled out the pack of cigarettes and took another out. "He said they were from that Ancient."

"I'll write you letters," Aeris giggled, spinning around in the flowers. "And I'll keep writing them, every week- no, day- until you answer them! I'll hide them in your apartment, in the slums, everywhere!" She giggled again, her eyes shining in amusement. "And you promise you'll answer them?"

He was pulled away from his thought when Cloud grunted and snuggled closer, reaching for comfort.

"So, are ya pissed off at me?" Reno asked, lighting his cigarette and taking a drag.

"No, I'm not," Zack answered, running his fingers through Cloud's dirty hair. "I'm not mad." He didn't have it in his body to be angry; he was so tired. Three days of walking and barelya moment of rest.

Zack looked down at his friend and tried to smile, but all the came was a grimace.

I'll keep you safe if it's the last thing I do, Cloud. I promise.

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