AN: Entry for GenesisAwards monthly fanfic competition. I didn't win, but I enjoyed entering.
Characters: Zack and Cloud
Warnings: character death, minor violence, angst and cuteness

Zack stumbled through the woods, reaching the top of a ridge. He paused there for a few moments, adjusting the deadweight of his friend.
"Gaia Cloud, I'm putting you on a diet." He wished Cloud had been awake enough to hear that, aware enough to respond. He didn't know how he would cope without his best friend waking up. He wanted to heal him, somehow they would get better, and then they would be back to working. The idea of being a mercenary enthralled him. It was something that came naturally to him, and it would give him a chance to travel to the far edges of the continent.

They'd gone far enough for now. There was no chance of them being tracked, the rivers he had crossed would have ensured that. He sat down, peering out at the huge canyon before him. He pulled Cloud closer, shivering, wrapping a blanket around the smaller boy. The sun would be rising soon, and the air would go from freezing cold to boiling. He searched in his bag, pulling out the water container and taking a sip of it, before opening Cloud's lips with his fingertips, pouring in a little, tilting his head to help him swallow.

The grey sky was beginning to be tinged with orange. He positioned Cloud so that he could watch, stroking the blonde hair. He wanted Cloud to see this, wanted to try and reassure him.
"You see that Cloud... sun's going to be up soon. I don't think we'll be going that far today, I'm a bit worried, you seem to have a bit of a sniffle, so I'll have to try and check that first." Zack frowned slightly. He was losing it, talking to Cloud when Cloud didn't even know he was there. Still, he liked to pretend that it helped, that Cloud could hear him. Maybe he could.

Zack sat at the edge of the ridge, swinging his feet as he looked out over the canyon, beginning to be able to make out the shapes of rock formations in the distance. He stared up at the sky, watching as the orange stain spread over half the sky, chasing away the inky grey and replacing it with veins of gold and red. It was a sight he had missed in their imprisonment.
"Isn't it beautiful Cloud?" He patted the blonde's hair.

It was still a miracle that the two of them had made it this far. He had been trying to escape since they had first been captured, becoming more determined each time he witnessed his friend hurting, or saw some of his strength falling away. He'd had to watch, powerless, from that green liquid as Cloud had been tortured and experimented on. No wonder the boy's mind had snapped. He'd been kept restrained in that tube, or in a cell, feeling agony so constantly that it numbed his own mind. It had only been his SOLDIER training that kept him from snapping as well.

His eyes had always been open in hope of a chance, and one day it arrived. He'd been floating there, wondering what exactly the scientists did when they weren't taking samples and injecting. His mind had drifted onto thinking about the small acts of kindness he had witnessed, which unfortunately led to him remembering the time that one of the cleaners had snuck him a snack. Gaia he was hungry. His musings about whether or not Hojo was secretly a tentacle monster had been cut short by his stomach rumbling. He poked the wall of his glass prison, taking in a mouthful of goo and then spitting it out again. Hungry or not, there was no way that was edible.

Underneath his feet he heard a rumbling. He remembered how the noise had frightened him the first few times, as the liquid drained away. Now he looked forwards to it, because he knew what it signaled. It meant that there would be food. An idea hit him and he feigned unconsciousness, lying limply in the tubes. If they thought he was asleep, then they would walk in, and then attach the more substantial restraints. If not they would knock him unconscious first.

The door opened and Zack punched the scientist who had appeared. Hard. He ignored his hunger and the plate of dropped food, running to Cloud's tube. He'd seen how these were operated, and was able to empty it.

By now he was totally terrified. If he had been caught like this, he'd have been tortured, and Cloud never would have been able to escape. But he was also determined. He had carefully removed the wires that crossed his friend's skin, stroking the blonde hair to try and remove the goo.
"Come on little buddy..." He lifted Cloud up, searching around the labs. He soon found what he was looking for, and dressed Cloud in the SOLDIER uniform, like himself. It would stop Cloud from freezing. It was the first time of many that he realized just how responsible he was for the blonde. Cloud needed him to survive. He grabbed the food from the plate, feeding Cloud and then himself. Then he had run.

He had run from the building, through the ruins and into the woods, never once looking back. He knew that once his absence was noticed, it would be a matter of seconds, not hours, before a search party was sent after them. He had Cloud slung over his shoulder, not quite able to look at him, disturbed by the dead look on his best friend's face. The dead look that was still in place a week later. For that whole week Zack hadn't relaxed, being focused solely on their escape. Now that they were free, he was able to rest. He pulled the blanket tighter around Cloud, shifting him to try and get him more comfortable.
"Well Spike? That okay? It better be, you get treated better than a prince. I carry you and feed you and wash you..." Zack paused, then cuddled him, pulling Cloud onto his lap. He kept stroking the other's hair, offering him another sip of the water. "I really don't mind though Cloud. It's worth it as long as you wake up someday..." Zack was beginning to doubt the other could even hear.

Zack hesitated, whispering to himself.
"You're the only thing keeping me sane Spike..." At least, that had been the case in the labs, where Cloud had provided a focus, a mission. Now he wondered if he was sane, sitting here and talking to an unconscious boy. He shook those thoughts away. He was sane because he had to be. He spoke to Cloud, louder, more cheerful.
"How about I tell you all about a mission I went on with Angeal?"

"Well, you didn't say no, so it means I get to say..." Zack ruffled the blonde hair and began to talk, telling Cloud about one of his missions. He added bits to make it more interesting, peppering his writing with description. Throughout the story he kept pausing, to direct Cloud's attention towards the sunrise. The sky was so beautiful. The thought of sunrise, of nature and fresh air, had helped him in the lab, and they had that now. He held Cloud tighter, giving him another small drink. He had to do everything he could to stop him from dying, and that included making sure he didn't choke or get dehydrated.

All too soon, the sun was fully up in the sky, which blazed a furious red. Zack sighed, heaving Cloud up onto his shoulder, still wrapped in a blanket for warmth.
"We'll get somewhere a bit more hidden, and then I will be able to check your sniffle okay?" As expected, his friend gave no sign of having heard. Zack continued walking, having glanced back to ensure that no one was following. It was amazing to see the sky again. This had been the first time in a week that he had let himself relax, look at the sky, and enjoy his freedom.

He glanced up at the sky, smiling at the way it was still stained red. He shivered slightly as a single line from a nursery rhyme ran through his mind.

Red sky in the morning – death will come calling


Three years had passed since that fateful day. The day that Cloud had began to wake up, to witness his best friend's death. His face had been smeared with Zack's blood as the other had told him that he had to live for them both. It had been so hard to carry on, but he had felt Zack there, guiding him, keeping him alive. He had been glad for that. It had kept him sane. He was only just beginning to remember that journey and the labs before – it was hard to face, so he tried not to think about it if he could avoid it. But now the world had been saved, and he had to examine his most painful memories.

Last night he had excused himself from Tifa's bar, and headed out to the middle of the desert on his bike. The journey had taken all night, but it was far easier with a vehicle, he was still stunned Zack had made it this far carrying him. He found the rusted weapon he was looking for, and sat beside it, head resting on the Buster sword. It felt safe, reminding him of Zack's strong arms. He watched as the sky began to lighten.

He could feel Zack's presence beside him, remembering the way that Zack had held him on his lap, trying to keep him alive. The morning they had stopped by that canyon had been the first time, but Zack had done it regularly. Cloud hadn't been aware at the time, but Zack had always talked to him, trying to reassure and heal him. He could almost feel the way Zack had stroked his hair to try and reassure him. The wind ruffled the soft blonde spikes.

He could hear Zack's voice, the memory whispering against his ear.

"Can you see it Cloud? See the sun? Isn't it gorgeous? I bet a mountain boy like you missed this when we were in the labs, Gaia knows I did..." Zack had held him tighter than before, smiling down at him. "You know what the sun means? It means we are free..." That idea had sunk in, even into Cloud's dazed mind and he was happy, even if he couldn't smile.

One of Cloud's deepest regrets was that Zack had died in a storm, face coated in rain. He knew that Zack would have wanted to die in the sunlight. But he hadn't been able to keep him alive. All he could do was hold onto him and agree to survive for them both. Zack had still managed to smile, even as he had died. That was just how Zack was.

Cloud whimpered as he returned to reality, a soft breeze embracing him. He still missed Zack so much. But he could feel him now. He knew that it was alright. Even though he hadn't saved Zack, Zack forgave him. He clung to himself, speaking softly.

"Thank you Zack...for everything...I remember those was so vivid, it made me happy. Like you said, it was free..." He smiled slightly, feeling the other there more certainly now. "I am alright....thanks to you. I survived, I am free now...I wish you could be with me, but I have lived for both of us." He could hear Zack's voice in his mind. 'I'm glad Spike. Stop panicking, move on...'

Cloud nodded, enjoying the experience of Zack's voice. It had a calming effect on him. He stayed sat in that spot until night fell, and then he stood up, saluting the sword before walking away.
"I can do this thanks to you Zack."

Zack saluted back from the life stream, before also moving away. It was time for both of them to move on.

Red sky at night, ghosts will take flight.