Authors' Note: This is a co-written fic by ServantofSHEVAL and FairWeather and posted on our new joint account! We got in a bored and angsty mood one night and this was the eventual product. Hoping you like, and don't forget to leave a review to encourage new chapter postage!

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So far, yet so close. Midgar stood just before him. His only obstacles were three last infantrymen; all their guns pointed at him. They seemed pretty confident at this point, despite the almost endless number of gunmen he'd knocked senseless. They knew he was weak and exhausted.

His SOLDIER uniform was soaked through with blood and torn in places where he'd been struck by bullets or shrapnel from the missiles while he'd been fighting. With each breath, it felt like sand was tumbling down his throat. It was so tempting to stop here and fall, to give up and just embrace death. He'd gone too long without knowing the comfort of being able to just... stop.

But he couldn't give up. He would not leave behind someone who needed him, who depended on him for survival. And his pride, dreams, and honor. He could not give those up either.

If he could fight off these last three, then maybe they'd finally be free. And even if he died trying, at the very least he'd try and save Cloud. Ancients knew that the poor blonde deserved it, after everything he'd gone through.

The weak grip on the Buster Sword's hilt tightened, and Zack forced his exhausted body to push onward. If he wasn't shot down, he'd lose consciousness very soon. Everything seemed so distant and far away, it was hard to make himself place things into focus…

But he knew that after he was gone, they'd discover Cloud... Zack grew somewhat more alert. The ShinRa grunts had shouldered their weapons. Zack Fair would not fail. The bullets rang off, and Zack exhaled carefully, lifting his weapon and deflecting the oncoming projectiles. The distance between him and his foes was closed quickly, and he swept out one foot and caught one of the man's legs, knocking him down.

The other two, taken off guard, were quickly polished off when he picked up the fallen infantry man's rifle and shot them both neatly in the legs. Zack did the same for the one whom he'd tripped. The gun felt all wrong in his hands. Zack dropped it.

They couldn't stay, he knew. More would be here soon, and they'd definitely be screwed then. Wincing he stood and hobbled off to retrieve Cloud. He could make the distance before passing out, hopefully.

-

Almost there...

The first thing he'd become aware of was the light... blinding, mid-day-in-the-desert type of light, and Zack's distinctive silhouette just walking away... It was all he could have done just to reach for him, forget making a sound or getting up, just lifting his skinny arm took absolutely all the strength he had left in the world.

Since Zack had gone, though, Cloud had consented to just lie there as usual... Zack had left other times before, and had always come back. Each departure sent that dulled bolt of panic shooting out through his broken mind, but in the end it would have been for no reason. His empty eyes were starting to close, he was starting to succumb to the haze he'd only just managed to briefly claw out of, when the noise got his attention.

Gunfire. Lots of it. And suddenly he was awake and almost lucid, aware of it. Cloud toppled over onto his side, a desperate attempt at movement of any kind. He hadn't so much as flinched in days... now, trying to make his unresponsive body do his will was almost impossible. The blonde turned his head up, resting his chin on the sandy ground and squinting out to the horizon, where a dark blob was gathered against a cliff, and one lone figure, far off, was running to meet them.

"Zack..." it was nothing but a questioning whisper pulled from the depths of his dry throat. The crack of the rifles reverberated against the rocky landscape, magnifying the volume of the already terrible sound. Cloud winced and flexed his arms, kicked off with his boots against the rock behind him, inched forward just a little bit. The drag developed into a crawl, all-fours, toward the distance. He didn't know how far he'd have to go, didn't care... he had to get to Zack, somehow, eventually, it didn't matter. He had to get to him.

By now, the last of the gunfire had long since stopped, and the glaring sun had been replaced with sudden, torrential rain. Cloud crawled through the mud and didn't care one bit how much he got on him.

-

Zack didn't make it very far before his knees gave out and he fell forward on his stomach. The ex-SOLDIER let out a pained hiss as he hit the wet dirt. There probably was going to be no moving from this spot, if the unresponsiveness in his arms and legs was anything to attribute to that. His sword lay just inches from his grasp, but Zack didn't even try to make a grab for it…

But there were no words to express his surprise and relief when he saw a spiky blonde head painstakingly making its way towards him. Was... was Cloud finally back? Really back? He could feel his hope beginning to rekindle.

Even with the pains it caused him, Zack awkwardly started moving towards Cloud as well, if only to confirm his suspicions. If he was finally able to see comprehension, recognition in the blonde's eyes again, he had no doubts that they would make it to Midgar.

"Cloud?" he called out softly, his voice strained as he forced himself across the slippery wet ground. Since the rain began, it had only gotten harder... the wet mud gave under his weak limbs, and he wound up making even less progress.

The boy let out little grunts of effort as he pulled himself along, until the familiar voice met his ears. Cloud weakly turned his face up again to see Zack, alive, but leaving a red trail in the mud behind him, an all-too-familiar shade washing into the drag marks, carried by the pooling water.

He tried, but he couldn't coax his voice out to call back. Cloud slumped in his spot, his head lolling to one side in a puddle and he reached out again, just as he'd done before, gloved hand outstretched and yearning to make contact with the other man.

Zack smiled the best he could in his condition. It probably turned out to look forced, but it felt good because he knew that he had a reason to really smile. Seeing the blonde reaching out for him, he did the same, sighing as their fingertips brushed.

He was never one to question feelings, but he knew that his ran deep for Cloud. How deeply, he wasn't sure. Maybe it would be better to not think about it. There were a lot more pressing matters on his mind at the moment, in any case.

"Hey, Spiky. Nice to know you're up and about... How're you feeling?" he asked, trying to make some form of conversation as they lay together in the mud. Zack didn't expect either of them to be going anywhere soon.

There was a moment before he showed any inclination to respond... and then it was a forced "Z... Zack..." he lurched forward yet again, like a caterpillar, it probably would've been funny in a less serious situation. When he fell back to earth, it was with a head on his companion's shoulder and a contented sigh. He could die here like this... felt like he was going to. His worn muscles burned with ache and exertion, and he could smell the metallic tang of blood in the air through the rainwater. Cloud let himself go limp again, let his eyes close. He was with Zack again... and there was nothing left worth fighting for.

"I'll take that as an 'Oh, I'm feeling perfectly fine'." Zack chuckled weakly, tilting his head slightly so theirs touched. It was hard to imagine moving further, but he knew they'd have to be on the move soon before ShinRa sent out more troops to look for them. Maybe this time they might even send SOLDIERs, which pained Zack just to think about. An army of SOLDIERs...They were screwed.

Sighing, he stared hard at the dirt, trying to just focus on breathing and staying awake. It would be a week at best before his body was able to recover from the bullet wounds, and he'd still have to pull out the casings. They had a few hours at best to get moving.

Cloud's breathing evened out as he sunk slowly back into that almost comatose state... they were reunited again, so there was no reason to worry. Subconsciously, perhaps, he picked up on little things... like the way Zack would wheeze, from all the blood in his lungs, or how his warmth was fading slowly... but he didn't worry about them yet. Those striking blue eyes of his were just beginning to glaze again, not so much as blinking as the rain hit them and poured down his face... it tasted like sludge this close to Midgar, and... what was that...? Salt?

Something a little too familiar jarred his attention again and kept him awake, made him blink and tense up... Cloud's fingers closed into a tight fist around a rock in the wet sand. He would explore it further if he tasted it again.

It was getting really chilly. Zack wasn't so worried about himself at the moment than he was about Cloud. What if he got sick? It wasn't hard for anyone to figure out that rain wasn't exactly the best thing for the environment, in Midgar's case, or anyone in it. There were usually funky chemicals in it that killed off plants. Sometimes it was acidic enough to melt paint on buildings.

"Hey...Cloud? We'll be able to run the everything-business together, right? After all this?" Zack asked sleepily.

Zack's voice was normally the most important thing in Cloud's shadowed little world now... but at the moment, his words passed as garbled nonsense in favor of that elusive something. In fact, he didn't need to wait to taste it again, because that awful flavor never really went away... what was it? Copper and salt and just plain slimy wetness.

Cloud pulled back, away from his friend and looked across the void of rainy, greyish space into his distinctive mako-cultured eyes confusedly. His hand unclenched on the rock and reached up to touch Zack's face briefly, then pulling away...

...red. There it was again... there it was all around them, he realized with growing horror. Blood... and the more he looked at it on himself, the more he saw it all over Zack, coating him like a film. "Zack..." he whined, "Zack... y-you..." words came more quickly now, and it was strange... all along he hadn't been able to say a thing, and now... "...wh-wh-...what..."

"..hm?" Zack struggled to keep his eyes open. The veil of sleep was heavily weighted over them, and the ex-SOLDIER's brows furrowed as he tried to see what was wrong with his friend.

Was that...? There was a look of horror on Cloud's face. But why? After several seconds, Zack realized that Cloud was looking at blood. On him. Around him. From him. He cringed. That wasn't the first thing that Zack wanted the blonde to recognize.

"Yeah...I'm not...I'm not exactly feeling my best," Zack said carefully. He didn't want to upset Cloud anymore than he already was. His gaze flickered over to the bangles on his left arm. A mastered Cure materia glowed faintly in it. Maybe if...

"Spiky? Think you can do me a favor and fix me up a little bit? The green materia on my left... Just reach for it and concentrate the best you can. Promise, everything's gonna be okay after you do."

Cloud watched Zack's lips move and form around words, barely managing to string comprehension from what he said. Slowly, the boy's gaze drifted over and fell on the bracelet, the particular materia with the almost golden-green shade that Cure had. A look of determination settled over his scattered features and he reached down, plucking the little orb out of its slot and holding it in his hand - just as tightly as the rock from before, the gritty brown one still lodged in the soil between them.

He looked at Zack with stricken eyes and thought... really thought hard, and wished and hoped and concentrated... and something began to happen. A warm light glittered all around his hand and grew to encompass his body... and finally Zack's too, enveloping him in a shell of dry wind for a brief instant before retracting away, back into the dim jewel. Cloud replaced it and sat back, eyes wide, and waited.

Zack's eyes followed his companion's movements, though it seemed like hours before the blonde finally picked up the Cure materia. He watched patiently as Cloud concentrated on the small green sphere and even held his breath when he saw that familiar green glow.

Wincing, he sat up somewhat to allow the magic to more easily push out the bullet casings lodged in him. The wounds healed, though his skin was tinged a faint pink where it had been recently mended by the spell. His injuries were all healed up, but his energy was something totally different. He still felt worn out, but seeing what Cloud had done gave him more to carry on.

"Cloud, Cloud, thank you!" Zack hugged the blonde tightly. They were going to make it. They'd get to Midgar.

He gave a little sound as he was hugged, but Cloud's body went still again inside Zack's strong arms. "...you're..." the word played lazily across his lips... he meant to say it, a certain phrase, certain response, but it was there and gone in his fading mind. "...Zack." he meekly finished off. That word, at least, he had a firm grasp of.

He slowly moved, arms reaching around to take hold of the other man as well. He could still see the blood, that dark stain on the SOLDIER's clothes, on the ground behind them... but the rain had already washed the smell and the taste of it away, and soon it would all be gone... they'd be alright.

"Yup, that's me. Zack Fair at your service," Zack smiled, slowly pulling back. Things were looking up. The smile still lingering on his lips, the black-haired man stood, pulling Cloud up by his waist as he did so. His other hand grasped the Buster Sword's handle and deftly clipped it onto his back.

He still wasn't sure of the extent of Cloud's condition now that the blonde seemed more aware, but he figured that this would be nothing new for either of them. "Next stop, Midgar!" Zack cheered, airily using the mud to slide down the gently sloping cliff they stood on.

At the sudden action, Cloud clung like he'd never hung onto anything so important in his life. He felt the wind and the continued rain whipping against him as they went sliding down the hillside, and whined, and latched onto Zack even tighter.

Through the haze of low-hanging clouds, he could see the familiar skyline of Midgar rising off into the distance... Midgar, out of which would soon come pouring who knew how many more infantrymen looking for them... and, Shiva, he could have been one of them, sent out to kill Zack. Unhappily, the blonde buried his face into the bullethole-ridden shirt before him again and just waited for it all to stop... for a time when he could sleep again, because even this brief stint of being awake was too much…

Nevertheless, the despair that hung so heavily in the air seemed to all but dissipate. Yes, Zack was aware that Cloud still wasn't quite all here. It hurt to think about it, even after all this time. There was nothing more heartbreaking than that feeling of not being alone and yet being alone at the same time. Sometimes the silence just drove him insane and he talked to Cloud, often hoping that maybe one day, he'd get an answer. Today had been that day.

"First thing I want to do when I get to Midgar is buy a nice big cheeseburger. No more funky mushrooms for us. What do you think, Cloud?"

Though it seemed his talkative streak had run out... the only answer he got was a slight tilt of the head, a bob of those golden spikes as the boy looked up, just peeking beyond the protective cover that was the fabric on Zack's shirt to look up at him. Those big blue eyes locked on for a good long moment before turning back down.

The ground was rushing by under him... and the rain was getting lighter, the sun was coming out... and the looming shadow of Midgar was getting closer... he was content to let it just lull him... his newly revived senses picking up on all the things just swirling around, easily overloaded.

Ah, there wasn't much of a verbose response now. Disappointing, but at least Cloud had heard him, which was a lot more than what he'd received before. Namely, blank stares and some times even no movement at all. Zack smiled and absently patted Cloud's head as they both traveled across the wide expanse of wasteland. Soon enough they would be entering into a new kind of prison - the plated city - and there would be no more sun or wind, just hiding in the dark.